Friday, December 10, 2010

Lamas at Pizza Hut

Dec. 10

Muko weaving

This past week has been a blur of goodbye luncheons and dinners.

Muko invited me to have a last pizza dinner at her “Pizza Hut” this evening. Instead of eating downstairs in the restaurant, I was invited upstairs to her home. Muko already had guests –three lamas and a monk. Two of the lamas spoke some English, but one was too shy to say much. The lama from Autsho, who is 30 years old, was happy to answer my questions about his life.

He had become a monk at the age of three. His choice, he said. He went to school in Thimphu with other monks, and that is when he became friends with the lama from Tashiyangtse, who is now twenty-nine. They continued through school together, eight years of elementary school, and nine years of college doing Buddhist studies, also in Thimphu. Then they did three years of meditation in silence and seclusion, at a retreat near Dochula. During the three years, they have a servant who goes to buy vegetables, and deals with the outside world. Communication with even their servant is by writing only, because they must maintain silence. I asked if they were ever lonely, or scared, or wanted to give up. He said they didn’t have time for those thoughts. They were too busy meditating. They were awoken at 2:00 a.m. to start meditation, and meditated until 9:00 p.m., with breaks for preparing and eating meals. He said they were very tired by the end of the day and slept well.

The lamas were all facing the television, and were watching a changing array of programs from wrestling to Bollywood films. The Autsho lama was in charge of the remote control, while the lama from Tashiyangtse was listening to something on his mobile phone, while the third lama drank large quantities of ara. Muko’s little niece and nephew were cruising through, doing cute things. At one point, the little boy was chanting “Lama, lama, ???” which caused lots of laughter from Muko and the lamas. Apparently he was spelling the word for penis.

Muko served an enormous meal of pizza and all the traditional basics: red rice, ema datse, kewa datse, dahl and ezay. There was also chicken curry, dried beef and plain dumplings. The lamas ate huge quantities of food, including meat, which surprised me.

After dinner, I was offered a ride home by the lamas. I hesitated when I was being escorted to the vehicle of the lama who had drunk lots of ara, and instead went with the other guys. I do not want to end my days going over a cliff with a drunk lama at the wheel.


Dec 7

Picture this: You’re a nervous grade 6 kid, about to write the Class Six, two hour, English board exam (the same exam is written by Class Sixes all across the country). You’ve studied hard, and you are really hoping to do well. These are the instructions on the front of the exam booklet:


[I’ll skip direction 1 and 2]…

3. In this paper there are three sections: A, B and C. All questions in Section A and B are compulsory.

4. Section C has three genres: Short Stories, Essay and Poetry. Each genre has two sets of questions, Set I and Set II. Set l comprises of Question nos. 1a and 1b and Set ll corresponds to Question no. 2 across all genres. You must attempt one set of questions from each genre.

5. In Section C, you must attempt three sets of questions in all. Your choice must include one Set ll question (Question no. 2) from any genre.

6. In Section C, do not attempt questions from two different sets. Your choice is strictly between the two sets of questions provided for each genre.

[The instructions continue to 10]

To me this sounds like a complicated math problem and an instructional nightmare. If I had been faced with those instructions I think I might have just cried. And I’m good at math, and English is my first language!

Surprisingly, most of the students did follow the instructions correctly. About 15% of the kids missed sections or did extra sections which, therefore, do not get marked. In most of those cases, that meant they got a failing grade.

The questions themselves were not too difficult (for me!), but they were too difficult for many of the students. They particularly bombed on the language section, which is mostly grammar. It also seemed that they did not understand the essay, which was about ants, or the poetry selection, about a hippopotamus opening gifts.

The students had to write a letter as part of the exam, and many chose to write a letter to their mothers about their preparations, hopes and fears concerning their exams. Most of the letters talked about their desire to get a position (for first, second or third they receive a prize) and how ashamed they will be if they don’t pass. Virtually all of them asked their mother to pray for their success.

This is one of the best responses to an essay question about the upcoming holiday. I love what it teaches us about Bhutan -the blend of the old and the new. Looking after the cows and sending messages on the mobile phone. Playing khuru (traditional dart game) and watching television. Beloved grandma.

“My topic is about my holidays after my school ends.
After the end of my school I decided to go to the village with my cousin brother. His name is Yeshi Gyeltshen and he said to me that he will come on 19th December. I will go to the village and look after the cows same like what I did last winter break. I will give the foods to the cattle and play some khuru. There is one very special day that is happy new year. On that day I will write some message in mobile and send to my few friends. I will stay about 25 days and come back home. My grandma is very interested to listen my songs and story and I will sing a song for my beloved grandma.

I and my cousin brother will go to the forest to cut down the trees because our village is at the top of the mountain. It is called Chali Gompa. In the forest I will play the monkey bars (Tarzan). And at night I will come back and I will go to my friend’s house to watch television.

After 25 days I will come back to Mongar and I will bring many fruits to my brother. I am sure my grandma will give me many fruits to take to Mongar because my grandma loves me very much.

So lastly I think my winter break holiday would be more interesting vacation.
Cheki Dorji”

For more on exam issues, check Nick’s most recent blog posting. Lots of interesting observations.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Dog Blog

Nov. 28

Dogs. They’re everywhere. All the time. I don’t even notice them barking at night any more.

I haven’t done a complete study, but it seems that even dogs have schedules, or at least routines. I often see the same dogs, in the same spot, at the same time of day, looking like they have an appointment to keep. They walk briskly with a definite focus.

Most of the strays here are medium-sized, similar-looking mutts, although there are a few unique ones. Most are in surprisingly good condition. Although I’ve seen a few with mange, a few with a limp, and a few skinny ones, overall they look pretty good.

The only time I’ve seen the aggressive side of these dogs is when one of them has some food. Unlike their human countrymen, the dogs are definitely not into sharing. A few teachers share their snacks with the dogs, or bring something to give them. The food tends to be just starch, but so is most of the Bhutanese human diet.

In late October, early November, many, many litters of pups were born all over Mongar. We have at least five litters of puppies on the school campus alone, and each litter seems to be about five puppies. They are so cute, as are puppies all over the world. I can watch their antics for ages. The mothers don’t have much patience with their pups, and I often see the pups chasing after their mums, trying to nurse while their mum keeps walking away. A few days ago, during morning prayer at the assembly ground, a little puppy took shelter under my friend’s kira. Very cute.

There is an open concrete drain, about eight inches deep, all around the school, and the littlest puppies have trouble jumping over it. Luckily, at this time of year, it is usually dry. When the puppies fall in, they are not quite big enough or strong enough to get themselves out. From my classroom, I often hear them whimpering. When I go out to check, they look so helpless, standing on their hind legs with their front paws on the edge, trying and trying to pull themselves out. I’ve lifted the same little runt out many times.

A few months ago, before I was deaf to the barking, the dogs were particularly noisy one night. It seemed that every dog in town was on a rant. I mentioned it at school in the morning, and a few people said that dogs bark when they sense death. There had been a terrible accident that night, just outside Mongar, in which a vehicle had gone off a cliff, and the six passengers, who were monks and lamas, had all been killed.The bodies had been brought to Mongar hospital during the night.

I’ve heard of different methods they’ve tried to limit the number of dogs in Mongar. One method I read about was to pay someone to collect as many strays as possible, and drop them off in another community. But then that community paid the same guy to bring them back here.
The second method was a mass sterilization of strays a couple of years ago. Apparently they docked the tails of the dogs which were done. One still sees a few of these “curtailed” dogs around town.
Last month, a third method was tried. All shopkeepers in the bazaar were responsible for catching and taking in one stray to the vet for sterilization. The shopkeepers were not happy that they were being forced to do this, so most passed the job on to kids. I don’t know how many dogs were done, but it is bound to help.

By the way, Tashi, a.k.a. Appy, the dog that I befriended when I first arrived, finally got spayed during last month’s blitz. My neighbour took her in. The vet had warned against spaying her months ago, because apparently there is a much greater chance of infection during the monsoon season. Appy got pregnant in the meantime, so the surgery was actually an abortion and sterilization. Poor thing. She looks very sad. But at least she won’t be increasing the puppulation.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Travelling Further East

Friday,October 29 was a national holiday for Buddha’s Descending Day, and Monday, November 1 was a holiday for Coronation Day, so I asked for a half day leave on Saturday to make a four day weekend. I persuaded Keira to do the same so that we could go exploring further east together, and also visit a couple of our Canadian buddies. We had to write our official leave letters for approval, and then have road permits issued since we were going to different dzongkhags. At one point it seemed like we weren’t going to get our road permits in time, and then we ended up getting duplicates, as well as a promise from the local Officer in Charge to help us if needed. So, no problem.
Our travel plans changed from moment to moment. First we were going to get a ride to Tashi Yangtse with Keira’s DEO (District Education Officer), but then he changed his plans. So Keira hopped on a bus in Lhuentse Friday morning, and by the time she arrived in Mongar at 11:00 a.m., there was a new plan. Luckily, my friend T.P., a nurse at the Mongar hospital, was on his way to Gelephu for a conference, and offered to drop us at Tashigang, three hours east of here.
Keira and I bought some momos to eat in the car en route, and it seems that was a big mistake. I’ve had moments of car sickness here before, but nothing too serious. On this drive T.P. had to pull over for me twice, but the nauseous feeling past. The third time, I didn’t have enough warning, and puked out the window. We stopped at the next stream to wash the mess off the side of the car. Motion sickness is very common here, even with the locals, so no one thought much of it, except me.
We said goodbye to T.P. at the Chazam bridge, and then sat by the side of the road, hoping to catch a ride. Within a short time, we were offered a ride as far as Gom Kora, a temple we wanted to stop at anyhow. The road followed the Drangme Chhu (river). The temple is built in a lovely spot beside the river, in the midst of a field of grain. The monks were celebrating Descending Day with amplified ceremonial music. We checked it out.
Gom Kora

Gom Kora is a spot where it is said that Guru Rinpoche meditated and left a body impression in the rock. There is a holy spot where if you squeeze yourself through a narrow tunnel in the rock, it proves you are pure. It looked scary and dirty, so I didn’t try. Keira started but backed out because she was afraid she would be like Winnie-the-Pooh, stuck without honey until he slimmed down.
From there we got a ride in the back of a truck to Duksum. The young men insisted that we sit in the cab, but it was much more fun riding in the back.

For the last section to Tashi Yangtse, we paid for a taxi, arriving at dusk. Keira and I stayed in a very simple hotel where it would have been cheaper to have separate rooms (why?) than to share one. In any case, we chose to share a room.
Our young taxi driver, Karma, was very excited because he had never driven foreigners before, so we arranged to meet him the next day to drive us to Tashigang. In the morning he drove Keira to the hospital for her second of three rabies shots. She had received a tiny dog bite in Lhuentse, and was following the doctor’s advice to get the shots at specific intervals.
Karma wanted to practice his English, which needed a little polishing. He usually made himself understood, but often in a rather blunt way. When we met him in the morning, he inquired of me, “Have you washed your face Madam?” I jokingly said, “Yes, why does it look dirty?” To which he replied, “Yes.” Then he asked Keira if she had brushed her hair. She said she had. He said, “You are looking scruffy, but if you are make-upping you will look beautiful. When I look at your body I am feeling very comfortable.” Keira was not swept off her feet, but we did have a good laugh at that and many other things Karma said.
in Tashiyangtse
While Keira was waiting at the hospital, I walked around Chorten Kora, another beautiful chorten. This one was built in 1740 and modeled after Bodhnath Stupa in Nepal. The chorten, with the river rushing past, the pretty town beyond, snow-capped peaks in the distance, all worked together to make this a magical spot.
Chorten Kora

Behind the chorten, right beside the river was a small, empty house. I could picture myself living there, teaching at the local school.

Keira and I both purchased a couple of the gorgeous wooden bowls which this area is famous for. Each is carved from a burl of (I think) an avocado tree. The bowls vary in price depending on the patterning and colouration of the burl. We admired, but didn’t buy, the most expensive ones, about $1000 each!! It is said that whatever you eat from one of these bowls is purified. Karma said that even if you were served poison in one, you’d be fine.

Karma dropped us safely in Tashigang, mid-afternoon.
centre of Trashigang

In the meantime, Nick had called to say that if we could make it to Khaling that night, we were invited to hike four hours to the Holy Lake above Khaling, starting at 3:00 a.m. A group of Nick’s students were going up, and it was a rare opportunity when it would be okay with the local deity. A few years ago, some young people upset her by throwing something in the lake, and only one of them returned to tell the story. The others were never found. Since then, people only go up at times which are deemed to be acceptable to the deity.
I wasn’t sure if I could keep up with a bunch of teenagers, so I opted out, but Keira was really keen to go. We spent ages in Tashigang trying to find a lift for her to Khaling, but it just didn’t happen. Keira was very upset about that.
We followed through with our original plan to go to Sherubtse College, in Kanglung to meet Sonam Wangmo, a friend of Nancy’s. Even for that ride, we had to wait a couple of hours while the driver and his wife went shopping. We ended up becoming great buddies with that couple, drinking rum and port in the taxi, and taking turns singing songs. When we arrived at Sonam’s place, they wouldn’t accept any money from us. They insisted that they were just returning home to Kanglung anyway.
We were greeted by Caroline, a young American woman at Sonam’s place. She is a sociology lecturer at Sherubtse, and a good friend of Sonam’s. The four of us had a blast. Keira was imitating Caroline’s Kentucky accent, and we were all making fun of Keira’s Bhutanese English. By then Keira was well over her crankiness. Sonam and Caroline fed us very well, a delicious dinner and breakfast.
Sonam had to lecture in the morning, so Caroline gave us a tour of the campus. It is supposed to be an alcohol-free campus! Also the students get locked into their dorms at 8:30 p.m. As you can imagine, college students aren’t too thrilled about going there, especially if they have experienced life in the big city of Thimphu.
From there, we caught the bus to Khaling, just an hour or so down the road. Nick met us in “town” and took us up to his place. What a fabulous set-up he has! He lives next door to his best friend, U.K., in a very comfortable building of traditional style. Although I prefer my washroom(s) and balcony view, his place has so much more character.

Nick gave us a tour of his school, and introduced us to his buddies and some students.
Many of the students from the school for the blind are integrated into classes at Nick’s school. One of them read a Braille text for us. I think that is such an amazing skill, to decipher those tiny dots with fingertips.

Natalie joined us from Wamrong in the afternoon, and we hung out by the river for awhile. I was very excited to see a Brokpa couple in town. The Brokpa are semi-nomadic yak herders who come south for the winter.

Back at Nick’s, he and Keira played guitar and sang a few songs - their own, and covers. They are both very talented musicians. Keira adds a lot to Nick’s music with her gorgeous voice, and Nick adds a lot to Keira’s music with his intricate guitar work.
Keira also sang a traditional Bhutanese song for U.K.’s grandma. Grandma was delighted and she and Keira became inseparable buddies for the evening. Keira has learned enough dzongkha, that she can carry on a simple conversation. I am so impressed.

Nick arranged for U.K.’s aunt to make us ba thup for a dinner. It is a delicious thick beef/noodle stew, sort of a cross between Hungarian goulash and beef stroganoff. Everyone else had changkay to drink…but not me. I still can’t face it after my over-indulgence a few months ago.
Nick managed to borrow mattresses, bedding and pillows for us, so we all stayed at his place. In the morning I wanted to cook buckwheat pancakes and bacon for us, and since Nick had no gas, we went next door to U.K.’s place to use his stove. Nick is not a breakfast-eater, but the rest of us enjoyed it, including Grandma while U.K. entertained us with some Michael Jackson moves.
We headed into “town” at noon. Natalie caught a lift with someone back to Wamrong, and Keira and I waited for the bus. The shopkeepers insisted that we hadn’t missed it, although others said it might have gone early to get through the road construction zone before it closed for a couple of hours. That’s the way they often do it here. They post the hours the road will be open, and since there are no alternative routes, people plan their schedules accordingly.
The bus eventually came, and since there were no seats available, Keira and I perched on bags in the aisle. It seemed that we might have quite a wait at the road construction, but the dozer pushed a path through for the bus, right at the cliff edge. Travelling at the edge of a precipice doesn’t bother me any more. I used to hold my breath and lean away from the drop-off, but now I have more faith.

It was a long slow drive, but we arrived safely in Mongar at about 8:00 p.m. We were starving, so we went straight to the Lotus Pond for dinner before hiking up the hill to my place. Earlier in the trip, Keira had complained that lots of her staff call her “motay” (fatso, chubby), and she was beginning to believe it. She is slim and shapely, and not at all motay. In the restaurant, a young guy who had met Keira before, came over to chat her up. He was quite drunk, and the first thing he said to her was, “You are looking quite plumpy.” Keira turned to me with a laugh and said, “See what I mean?” I indicated to the guy that he had made a poor choice of words, and he then made it worse by explaining that he only meant that she was looking bigger. I think he somehow meant it as a compliment! I advised him that if he is trying to impress a woman, he should avoid words like “plumpy” and “bigger”.
Keira stayed at my place and took the bus back to Lhuentse the next day. She did some shopping in Mongar, including replacing a student’s confiscated cell phone which had been swiped from her desk drawer after. She managed to get it on credit because the bank wasn’t handing out money that day. Technical difficulties.
Keira sent the money, hidden in a book, a few days later on the bus. The address was “Tam Kumar, Madam Ann”, and with just that it was delivered to my door. Tam Kumar is the local traffic cop. Everyone knows him and he knows everyone. I knew the parcel would arrive safely with his name on it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Teacher Stuff

kids at my door
It’s getting more and more difficult to think about leaving.

When I first arrived at Mongar Lower Secondary School, it was a strange feeling. I wasn’t given any direction, and I felt quite lost. School had been closed for two weeks for the special puja, and when we did start, we were in a transition between principals. A new principal had been assigned to our school, but the previous principal had not been given her new posting. Although, theoretically we had two principals, neither was taking command, so the job fell to the VP. He was also new to the job and new to the school, so it took him awhile to take full charge.

That first week, I didn’t have any assigned responsibilities, or even a desk or chair to call my own. I knew I was expected to get a Special Ed program started, but with absolutely no guidance, I didn’t know where to start. This was the stage when I didn’t even know the procedure to get a pencil or a piece of paper. I also didn’t know who were teachers and who were various other assistants, and remembering names was impossible. There are about 35 teachers, and I still don’t know all of their names.

Having a place to work was my top priority, so I explored the school buildings, looking for a spot to call my own. I discovered that the “health room” was really only a place to store first aid supplies. This small room has its own door outside, but is connected to the science lab, which is also rarely used. There were two desks in there, one for Devika, the “health –in-charge”, and one for Pem, the lab assistant. Devika is also a teacher, so she has her main desk in one of the staff rooms, and Pem spends most of his time upstairs in the office. I asked Devika if I could use the room and she kindly cleared out the desk for me. The health supplies were still in a cabinet there, which meant that she needed to pop in from time to time, but no big deal.

It has been a slow process, but little by little I have made the room a pleasant place to work. I was very excited the day I got a clock and a stapler. Later I got an old computer. I have put up an alphabet frieze and lots of charts of poems and song lyrics. I have potted plants on the windowsills. I added mesh to the windows to keep out the wasps which are always working on a nest there. I did that after a wasp got stuck under my kira and stung me three times!

The old principal left in July, and the new principal took over on October. Things have really been happening since he took over. Teachers were moved to new spots, and my Special Ed colleague, Yeshey, moved in to share the room with me. I almost instantly got the greenboard I’ve been asking for since the beginning. We got a better computer and printer! Recently we had a telephone line strung to our room, so we now have broadband internet!! I have purchased a license for Reading A-Z for a year, so we are able to access and download all kinds of great teaching materials.

Yeshey and I are planning our second workshop for the parents of students with special needs. We were given a budget of $2500 to provide two of these workshops. We did the first one back in the spring, and I was shocked at how much money was used to provide tea, snacks and lunch for the participants. Yeshey insisted that it is expected, and is always factored in as the main expense.

I was adamant that we wouldn’t use the money that way for the second workshop. The money could be used much more wisely for materials to benefit the kids. Consequently, this workshop is being held on Saturday morning, and we will only be providing tea and snacks. We have printed off booklets for every student from Reading A-Z, and we are making lots of games and activities for parents to do with their children during the long winter break. My hope is that these students will be able to keep up their skills during the holiday, rather than fall further behind.

A very interesting aspect of conducting parent workshops here, is that one must plan two versions, one for the “English literate” group, which makes up about one third of the parents, and another for the non-English speaking illiterate group. All of the parents sign-in upon arrival, and the latter group signs in with their thumbprints. It was amazing to hear Yeshey’s observations about this group. After the spring workshop, she walked home with a few of the women who live in her village, and they were flushed with excitement. They said it was the first time they had ever held a pencil!! A couple of the women were inspired to learn more, and said they would get their children to teach them to read and write.

By the way, every morning I am greeted by an increasing number of young students who like to start their morning by coming to my room to look at books or listen to a story. Some of them meet me at the top of the 108 steps, and one little boy always proudly carries my schoolbag down for me. At my door, everyone is eager to be the first inside, but after many reminders, they now come in without pushing. They are learning to handle books carefully, and to be good listeners when I am reading to them. When the bell rings, they all say, “Thank-you Madam”, and head outside for morning assembly. It is a lovely way to start the school day.

This week I am working with many of my students for the last time, because next week is tsechu, the week after is exams, then marking and the wind down, and then I will be leaving. It has been very difficult to tell the kids that I won’t be back next year, except perhaps for a visit. I have really loved my time here, but I feel it is time to return to Canada to work on new dreams.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

October 24th: Dewormed, etc

So Friday was deworming day. All of the students received their biannual worm pill and once again I thought, “Better safe than wormy.”

Yesterday I invited two of my friends/colleagues, Yeshey and Karma, for dinner. I think they enjoyed the food, (potato soup, pasta, cole slaw, banana cake) although I don’t really know if they were just being polite. They did add quite a bit of salt to my dishes, and Karma seemed disappointed that I hadn’t put oil in anything. We had an enjoyable evening, with lots of laughing.

Yeshey shared some funny stories about the Bhutanese social network called “Druknet”. It seems that the site is now blocked for civil servants because they were spending ridiculous amounts of office time chatting on-line. Apparently it is very common to use a fake identity, posing as a foreigner, a person of the opposite sex, and often a different age. I guess those things happen on all social networks, but it seems more common here.

I know that Yeshey and Karma are vegetarians, and take their Buddhism quite seriously. I didn’t know that they don’t use honey. They said that since the bees work so hard to prepare the honey, they wouldn’t like to take it away from them. I apologized for being so cruel, but to make me feel better, Yeshey said that even her father, who is a respected rinpoche, uses honey.

Today, after cleaning my house thoroughly, I felt like going for an exploratory walk by myself. I wanted to check out a road which I pass every day to and from school. The road goes steeply downhill from the main road, and looked as if it would go down to the river and up the other side of the valley. I thought it would be fun to get to the other side and look back at Mongar from a different perspective.

I started down the road, past some simple wooden huts. I heard a few voices inside announcing that Madam Ann was walking by, so I knew it wouldn’t be long before I had company. When I came to a fork in the road, I took the smaller, rougher choice, but soon ended up looking down on the municipal landfill site. Back up the hill, and this time I took the newer, wider tine of the fork. It was actually the best road I have seen in Bhutan, outside of Thimphu. It is brand new, and still being worked on. One thing I noticed is that the road slopes away from the cliff drop-off, which makes it look a little safer. When it is complete, it will be a new route to Lhuentse in the north.

Two girls joined me for the walk. One is Tshering Choeki from Class 6a, and the other was Jamyang from the same village. Tshering is 12, Jamyang is 16, and together with Jamyang’s 12 year old brother, Sonam Norbu, the three of them live in one of the wooden huts I had walked past. They have been living together and looking after themselves for the past four years. I spoke to Yeshey about it, and she says this is quite common for children from remote villages, so they can live near a good school.

my walking buddies

We walked for two hours, over three streams. Despite the fact that it was Sunday, there was a lot of road work going on. The work crews were a mix of Indian and Bhutanese labourers, mostly men, although I did see one Bhutanese woman. There was gravel being loaded, moved and dumped. There were mesh cages being filled with rocks to stabilize the stream banks. Concrete was being mixed for the sides of bridges. Quite an amazing process to put a road in the side of a mountain.


After two hours we turned around and walked back. The girls were great company, and we talked about lots of things. They identified many trees and plants along the way, and told me various uses for them. One of the plants is good for treating "demon scratches" the red marks which some people wake up with in the morning. The girls also described how much the route had changed in the four years they have been going back and forth to visit home. It used to be just a footpath, and at times the streams were raging currents for them to cross.

view of distant village

Jamyang would like to be a journalist one day, because she loves to write, and would like to have the opportunity to travel. Tshering doesn’t know what she wants to do. I mentioned that she might use her cooking skills. She had done a great job as head cook for our “Wet Picnic”, the one when I didn’t get sick.

The girls told me stories about growing up in their village. It sounded quite idyllic. They described many different fruits and vegetables which grow there. Jamyang was teasing Tshering about how she used to drink milk straight from the cow’s teats when she was a little girl.

They would like me to go to their village with them the weekend after next. It is another two hours further along that same road. They said that one of their dads might be able to pick us up, but I suggested that we could walk there, and perhaps get a ride back. We’ll see what happens.


As we returned to their hut, they asked if I would like to come in, so of course I accepted the invitation. The whole hut is built of wooden planks, with rather large gaps between them. There is no glass is the windows, nor even wooden shutters. The floor slopes at quite an angle. They have two rooms. You enter the kitchen, where there were a few vegetables on the floor in one corner, and a fire pit for cooking in another corner. I think there was just a piece of metal to protect the floor from the fire, but it was hard to see. The smoke just goes out through the cracks in the wood.

Through a doorway is their bedroom, with three narrow wooden beds, very close together. I was invited to sit on the bed and look at their photo albums. Much to my surprise, at least half of the photos were of Korean celebrities. The fellow at the photo shop downloads them from the internet, prints them and sells them for Nu10 (about 20 cents). Korean culture is a huge influence on young Bhutanese –more so than Indian pop culture or Western pop culture. They are keen to copy the fashion and hairstyles from the singers and actors they see on television.

Jamyang and Tshering Choeki

It was an enjoyable walk, even if it wasn’t by myself, as planned. We did go for enough to look back at Mongar from the other side of the valley.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Good Eats at Ann's

This might not seem very exciting to those of you who have access to any kind of food you might desire. Well, that is certainly not the case here in Mongar. I quickly tired of the typical Bhutanese fare of rice and ema datse, so I keep expanding on what is actually possible. Banana cake, pizza, and pasta with homegrown basil have all been done. I needed to try something new.

I’ve been doing some mighty fine cookin' the last few days. First there were the pumpkin pies. I managed to get all of the ingredients that I needed. I bought a beautiful purplish-skinned pumpkin at the market and cooked it until it was soft. Cream was of the tinned variety. The cinnamon sticks and cloves had to be ground up, and the ginger was fresh gingerroot, but it worked out fine. In fact, it was delicious. The teachers and my neighbours all enjoyed their first ever pumpkin pie, and even Nancy had a piece when she was passing through Mongar.

pumpkin pie

Chimi,Chundu,friend enjoying pie

Sunday morning I made buckwheat pancakes, with flour which Karma provides from her village of Ura. I do that every Sunday, but these pancakes were even better, because I had them with maple syrup which Lynda’s mum brought from Canada.

I was on a roll. I’ve been gradually improving my bread, and I made the best ever whole wheat bread yesterday. Saturday was a rare occasion at the vegetable market when I had been able to get fresh lettuce and tomatoes. With some shrink-wrapped bacon from Canada (what a fantastic idea!), Hellman’s mayonnaise from Nancy, black pepper from Richard...guess what I made? Yup, a BLT, and it was scrumptious!

Today I made some delicious potato soup. In fact it was basically kewa datse (local dish made of potatoes, chillies and cheese), but I added more water and used a hand blender to make it relatively smooth. Now that the evenings are getting cooler, it is nice to have a bowl of homemade soup. Now I’ve got plenty for lots of cool evenings.

soup and sandwich

I think my next project will be an apple cake. I’ve got a bag of apples from Bumthang, and since I’ve already made a couple of apple pies, I think it is time for an apple cake. All of this baking happens in the flying saucer electric oven which I borrow from Chundu on a regular basis.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Picnic at Yakpogang

Class 6A invited me to join them for a picnic last Sunday, organized by their class teacher. I was delighted. Our destination was Wengkhar, which is an agricultural research centre I’d been hoping to visit for some time, and this seemed like a great opportunity.
Luckily it was one of the few dry days we’ve had. We started off at 8:00 a.m. in a mix of sun and cloud, which kept the temperature quite comfortable for the hike. I walked with the kids, but the other teachers all drove. (Young wimps) It was about 8 km there, mostly uphill. Our route involved a shortcut into a subtropical ravine, across a stream, and up the other side. Down there it sounded like the jungle, with all kinds of very loud bird and insect sounds.

typical house

I was looking forward to reaching our destination and having a snack and a drink, and mostly, a rest! Just before we got there, we encountered students already retracing their steps, and reporting that it wasn’t a good place for a picnic. They were heading back a couple of kilometres to a better spot. I needed a break, and I wanted to see Wengkhar, so I kept going on my own.


At Wengkhar, there were lots of greenhouses, and terraced gardens built on the side of the hill, and a very pretty view, but unfortunately, since it was Sunday, there was no one to give me a tour. I did meet up with the class teacher though, and we got a ride with a lama back to the new picnic spot in Yakpogang.

It was definitely a better spot, with wood to gather for the fires, water in the stream for cooking, and room to play. As usual, everyone pitched in to get things ready for lunch.
Each of the 42 kids brought a bag of rice, which amounted to a lot of rice!


It was quite an elaborate lunch with rice, ema datse(chillies and cheese), dahl, potato curry, boiled eggs, papadams, ezay (more chillies) and to my surprise, disgustingly huge chunks of butter!! It was all very tasty ( I didn’t have any butter), but I ended up with my first case of Bhutanese diarrhea, what they call “shooting diarrhea”. I’ll spare you the details, but I will tell you that the walk home was quite uncomfortable, and I just made it to the toilet!

“Respected Madam,
It was truly an amazing day. Before picnic, our class teacher collected Nu. 50 from each student. Then my class teacher and class captain, that would be me, went for shopping on Saturday.
The total money collected was about Nu. 2000 and we bought vegetables, eggs, snakes(sic), juice and some spices to add in curry. Me and Karma Lhazin, the other class captain invited teachers and of course, Madam…
…We also made tea and it was sufficient for all of the students. Then at the time of 3:00 p.m. we ate our lunch, and it was really tasty. Then my friends and I played gymnastics and had lots of fun. I hope madam had also enjoyed a lot.” ~Thinley Lhendup

chopping onions

“It was a very hard journey because we walked to Wengkhar and to Tongsang and again back to Yakpogang. We invited some other teachers but they came in vehicle later. We made oven and cooked food using firewood. I cried while cutting onions and ma’am clicked our photo while I was crying.
While I was walking home I was lifted by vice principal.” ~Chimi Yuden

chopping chillies

“…When we reached at Yakpogang we swam in the stream. We made many delicious foods. We ate and ate and we were very tired and lazy. I went to pick up litter with Madam Ann and then we played the badminton.” ~Cheki Dorji

writing diaries (note the cell phone)

playing chess

“…After finished ating the lunch we wash pots and our plates. I saw old man sitting near river. Then I told my class teacher I want to gave the food to old man. Then I put rice on the plate with different curry. Old man was about to go. Then I sent one of my friends to wait him. Then he sit on the grass and I gave him food. This man was very please to me. He said me that thankyou a lots. This man was telling to me that study hard. I will pray god for you. I was very happy that he was telling nicely to me. ~Tshering Choki

By the way, badminton was played in the middle of the trans-Bhutan highway. Whenever a vehicle was sighted coming around the bend, someone would shout, “Car!” or the Dzongkha equivalent, and everyone would get out of the way. Just like road hockey.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Bikram the Bullied

Bikram is one of my special education students, and is, well, special. He comes to my room for two periods a week, and is always prompt and eager to be there. We usually work on his articulation skills and reading, both areas in which he is very weak.
Bikram is 15 years old and in grade 7, which is not unusual. He has cerebral palsy which has damaged his left side. He walks with a limp, and his left arm is usually bent, his hand twisted, and his fingers gnarled. He is known as a bully at school, and a fighter, but I have never seen this. When I have asked him about his reputation, he always tells me that the other kids tease him, and yes, he strikes out at them. This results in a fight, and he usually gets blamed.
Last week, Bikram came to my room a bit late, and sobbing. It made me very sad to see him so upset. At first he couldn’t speak, because he was crying so hard, but then he explained that it was the usual: he was being teased, he hit someone, but this time two grade 8 boys beat him. I asked if he was hurt, but it seemed that it was his feelings that were more hurt. I offered to go and speak to the other boys, but he was afraid that he would get in trouble if I did. I have spoken to the staff on several occasions about Bikram being bullied, but the staff seems to think he is to blame.
Bikram was too upset to focus on reading, so it was a good opportunity to do some dictated writing instead. I acted as his secretary (his writing skills are very poor) and told him to tell me again the story of what had happened. Although he didn’t touch on the events of the day at all, I think perhaps it shows the depth of his sadness –that he had been so happy when he first came to our school, and now he didn’t feel like he had a friend. This is the story he told me:

Picnic with My Friends

When I was coming for the first time in this school I was very happy because I made many friends. One day my friend told to us, “We have to go to picnic.” When we finished eating the picnic we went to our own house. Next time friend told to go to Gangola to swim. When we are reached at Gangola we were very happy and we had to undress and swim. After we finished the swimming we ate the lunch and friend told to go home. When we were walking to the home suddenly we saw a snake and my friend killed it.
~Bikram Rai

I have a computer in my room now, so I taught Bikram how to use it to type his story. He caught on very quickly, and with some practice even managed to hit the shift key with one finger of his gnarled hand to make capital letters. I told him he looked like a “dasho” working in his office, and he was very pleased. When I printed out his story, he was very proud, and eager to do more next time.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Long and Winding Road

I had the opportunity this week to do something new. I was invited to another community, called Drametse, to do a workshop on English language instruction for a group of 30 teachers from k to 10. The workshop was for a “cluster” of schools, which meant that some teachers walked four hours from neighbouring villages to come to the workshop! That’s dedication.

Sherab, the young principal of the school came to Mongar to pick me up on Tuesday. We left here at 4:00 p.m., and with one brief stop to have a snack overlooking a beautiful river valley, we arrived at his house at 7:30. The last hour was constant zigzagging on a dirt road to the top of the mountain. I didn’t count, but apparently there are about 40 switchbacks in the 18 km climb. I didn’t get sick, but I was feeling a little woozy by the time we got there.

I was welcomed into Sherab’s home by his young wife, and their two young children. We had a late dinner of rice, curried vegetables, and fresh fish. No one is ever very clear about where the fish comes from, because it is illegal to fish in Bhutan. Maybe from India. Any way, it was tasty, and I am still alive.

The kids watched television for awhile, and I was very amused to see “Power Rangers” dubbed in Hindi. How old is that show?

The kids had been moved into their parents’ bedroom, so I had my own room. I’d like to say I was comfortable, but I wasn’t. The bed was a two-inch thick (thin) mattress on wooden boards, which is rather hard for me. It was very peaceful though. Not even any barking dogs.

Wednesday was a very full day. First I was asked to speak at the morning assembly to the 500+ kids in PP(K) to grade 10. I read them “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein, because it can be appreciated at different levels. It was a big hit.

The workshop went very well. We divided the day into three hour and a half sessions with tea and lunch in between. The teachers were keenly involved in various games, activities, and group presentations. There was lots of good-natured laughter, and they seemed to learn a lot.

After school there was an “Inter-Cluster School Quiz” in the Multi-Purpose Hall. The four teachers who had walked from other villages had each brought two students with them, so with Drametse’s two there were ten competitors in all. I was amazed with the amount of preparation which had gone into this quiz. It was very professionally done, using a computer, projector, and sound system. The five teams each had a buzzer and coloured light bulb for responding to questions. There were six categories: English, Maths, Science, Social Studies, Current Affairs, and General Knowledge. I was very impressed with the knowledge of the students. I think the only category in which I would have beaten them was in math. That was not their forte.

The ADEO (Assistant District Education Officer) was there for the competition too. He had spent a couple of days walking to visit these remote schools which can only be reached on foot. He was a very chatty guy, and quite a colourful speaker. I think he had probably had a fair bit of arra during his day of trekking from community to community. He said something about our main goal as “senior educators” being to “spread our educational experience, much like spreading HIV Aids”. Mmm-hmm. Anyway, he said that he hopes I will go to other communities to do other workshops. I said I would love to.

The vice-principal, a young woman named Tenzin Wangmo (an ex-student of Nancy’s), joined us back at the house for arra and dinner. This was the hot version with egg fried in butter. I had a bit to be polite, but after my previous very bad experience with arra, I couldn’t enjoy it. Tenzin could really put back the arra though! I was a little concerned because I knew she would be driving me home the next day.

In the morning, Sherab walked with me to the Drametse monastery which is the biggest in eastern Bhutan. It is famous for the Nga Cham drum dance, which was proclaimed a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage” by UNESCO in 2005. I was hoping to see a rehearsal, but it wasn’t the right time. I will have chance to see the dance at the Mongar tsechu in November.

Tenzin was in fine shape, and reached me safely home by noon. The ride back was harder on my system, and by the time we got here I had to lie down for a couple of hours until the world stopped spinning. As I lay there, I wasn’t so sure that I would like to go to other communities to do workshops. But that is forgotten now, and only the fond memories of the experience remain.

VP Tenzin Wangmo, viewpoint on the drive home