Monday, March 29, 2010

Sunday Trip to Lhuentse

Saturday after school and shopping, I returned home to no water, no hydro, no internet. I wanted to go for a walk, but it was pouring with rain. I was feeling rather lonely and sorry for myself. I phoned my buddy Sonam, who came and picked me up to take me to her friend Chimi's place. Both of them are young women in their mid-twenties, but I seem to share more in common with them than any one else so far. Sonam is a reporter for BBS and Chimi is a high school teacher.

Chimi's mum, Dema, was also visiting from Bhumtang, as well as "Auntie" and her little daughter. Dema is the widow of a Rinpoche, and very religious. She wanted to make a trip to Lhuentse too see a statue of Guru Rinpoche which is being constructed. They invited me along for the trip. I was thrilled to be able to see more of the country.

I was rather nervous as we set off Sunday morning, because it had rained a lot, and the road between Mongar and Lhuentse is famous for landslides. Also, Dema and Chimi would be driving, and I had no idea about their skills. I prefer to put my life in the hands of a professional driver.

The scenery was beautiful. The road follows the Kuru Chu (river) all the way. At times we were down beside the river, while at other times we were high above the river, zigzagging along the side of the mountain. The river has some real whitewater canoeing possibilities, but there are no boats here. They also don't fish, because that do not kill animals. I think I already explained that any meat comes from India.

We drove through a couple of small villages, with a slolum course of animals to dodge: dogs (lots), cows, goats, donkeys, and chickens were hanging around in the middle of the road.

Then we encountered signs which warned us to watch for "shooting stones". Sure enough, there were quite a few boulders to dodge. The we came to this one, which was holding up traffic:

There are so many road problems in that area, they keep a bulldozer nearby. It was there within 15 minutes, and took seconds to push the boulder off the edge. Then we were on our way again. I've realized that one must always carry food, drink, toilet paper and a cellphone in case of a lengthy road blockage.

Further down the road, we stopped for a picnic. I had contributed pancakes, boiled eggs, clementines and juice. They had brought rice, cooked seaweed (gross), curried eggs and tea. I particularly appreciated the tea.

Here is Sonam, Dema, Chimi, a cute little girl whose name I don't remember, and Auntie (who looks for Mayan to me).

While we were in Lhuentse, we dropped in to visit Keira, and had tea with her. She was very happy to see us, because she had been having the same kind of sad day that I had had. Keira lives in teacher housing on the school property and shares her place with two young Bhutanese women. They are very shy, but they really look after Keira, dressing her in the morning, and cooking for her.

We drove an hour on a muddy sideroad to see the progress of the giant statue of Guru Rinpoche. There was no work going on at that time, but a man let us inside the pyramid-like base to see the model they are copying. While we were in there, all dark and spooky with no electricity, there was a huge clap of thunder which added immensely to the atmosphere.

We only almost died twice on the trip: Once when another vehicle came around a hairpin turn straight at us, and we almost went over the edge, and a second time when we skidded in the mud, and almost went careening over the edge sideways. No one else in the vehicle seemed concerned, and thought it was funny that I was scared. We did the last two hours in the dark, which was also a bit nerve-racking.

Despite that, it was a very enjoyable day. I didn't feel sad or lonely any more.

Hey, I think I've got this photo thing worked out!

Mongar Photos

Winnowing rice. Note wall art.

View from my balcony. My school is in the centre foreground. "Downtown" is beyond that. The dzong is about halfway up and to the left. It is the religious and administrative centre of the whole area (dzongkhag).

Muko and Keira before our evening of beer and pizza.

My school on a Saturday morning just before the bell to begin "social work". The kids don't wear uniforms on Saturday, to give a day for them to get washed. You can see the brooms are being put to good use.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Snakes, Spiders and Other Stories

When my landlord was here on the weekend, he mentioned that the reason there are heavy screens on the downstairs windows is because last summer they found a cobra in the kitchen. With the screens, and a strip at the bottom of the door, there shouldn’t be any more cobras in the kitchen. Apparently they are out there though.

The very next day, a student spoke at morning assembly about what to do in case of a snake bite. There were five tips, including “Don’t drink alcohol”, but the main one was “Go to hospital”. Luckily we have a hospital just down the hill.

Then today at “interval” (recess), suddenly there were a lot of screaming kids. A snake had been seen. One of the little girls said it was long and green. I didn’t see it, and no one seemed concerned afterwards.

Then just now I saw a small cockroach in the kitchen. I didn’t know we had those here. That didn’t worry me much, but then a few seconds later, I saw a spider with about a six inch leg span, climbing up the kitchen wall. It looked kind of nasty, but I tried to do the Buddhist thing of just escorting it outside. I also couldn’t bare the thought of all those guts on my kitchen wall if I squashed it. I opened a window (one without a screen), and tried to lure the spider onto a broom to toss it out the window. I was afraid, because I don’t know the habits of these spiders. It looked like it might be the type that could lunge straight for my jugular. Anyway, it didn’t go for the broom lure, and instead scurried off somewhere in my kitchen. It is lurking there now, waiting for me.

Actually, perhaps I should welcome that spider, because flies are becoming somewhat of an issue with the warmer weather here. Fly strips and fly swatters are unheard of here. UnBuddhist you know. On further reflection, perhaps I should welcome the cobra, to eat the spider!

Some mornings I see an unusual vehicle taking people to work outside of town. The people sit in a wooden cart which is pulled by what looks to me like a rototiller. A man sits at the front of the cart, holding the handles of the rototiller, as if he was holding the reins of a horse. Its one wheel pulls the cart along. I also saw these contraptions in other places as we drove across the country, so it’s not unique to this town.

When I first moved into my house here, I was amused to see a treadmill on my neighbours’ balcony. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would need a treadmill when they live on the side of a mountain in the Himalayas, with beautiful trails leading up and down. Well, I heard a funny noise yesterday evening, and sure enough it was my neighbour on the treadmill. He commented that he is getting too fat and as a special police officer he is supposed to stay in shape. I do know that his favourite activity is drinking and gambling. There seems to be a group there most evenings to play cards. I noticed that he only lasted about five minutes on the treadmill before he gave up, sweating and panting.

I opened up a Bhutanese bank account this week, because apparently my pay will get deposited directly. That went more smoothly than cashing a traveller’s cheque, although it required two passport sized photos, proof of employment, and a reference from a local. While I was waiting, a man approached me, and first asked if I was the Canadian teacher working at Mongar Lower SS, and living in Chador’s house. When I said, “Yes”, he explained that he was from the local health department and needed to complete my file. Could I please tell him my name, age and marital status so he could complete his records? I gave him that information, and he seemed quite pleased. If I’d been in Canada, I would have just thought he had a really bad pickup line, but being in Bhutan, I actually believed him.

School Days

I’ve been at school for two weeks now, and I’d better write about my first impressions before they become old hat.

Every morning I get dressed in my half kira (skirt), onju (blouse) and tego(jacket) before heading off to school. As a foreigner, I don’t actually have to wear traditional clothing, but it feels right, and I get a better reception when I’m dressed that way. I don’t know how I will manage in the hot weather though, because even now there are days when it is awfully sticky inside those layers of fabric. I’m hoping to find some lightweight cotton to have a couple of summer versions made.

The students wear uniforms to school. The girls wear a full kira (like a jumper) which is an orange and black check, with a red onju and black jacket. The boys wear a gho in the same check, with a white traditional shirt underneath, and black or navy socks. The colour combination makes it look even hotter, but no one seems to mind. They certainly don’t complain. The students also wear black shoes, carefully polished.

The girls are very excited because the principal just announced that they may grow their hair long if it is kept neat and clean. They may only wear black hair barrettes and black elastics. No jewellery. She reminded the boys that they may not wear their hair long, and they are not to use hair gel. She said that some of them look scruffy, like cow herders.

I meet many children each morning during the walk to school. They all greet me by smiling, and bowing at the waist as they say, “Good morning, Madam!” This continues with every child I meet as I cross the schoolyard. Many children actually come running to greet me. If they are sitting, they stand to bow. (Mr. Dorsey, you would be thrilled!) Other teachers don’t seem to notice the greetings, and rarely even respond, but I am delighted, and say good morning with a head nod and smile for every kid.

At 8:10 a.m. it is time for “Social Work”. The students all have designated areas which they are in charge of cleaning. This involves picking up litter, and lots of sweeping with those wonderful brooms I have told you about. They also have to sweep the open drains to clear them of water and debris. Some kids are in charge of getting buckets of water for the toilets. This I haven’t quite figured out. There seems to be a tap at the edge of the property where they can get water, but only for a short period of time in the morning, and not every day. Even the staff toilets are not very pleasant. They are porcelain “squatty potties”, which may or may not have the benefit of a bit of water in the morning. One morning, we had a speech and demonstration about proper hand washing technique. You would think we were all going to do open heart surgery with the thoroughness involved. I had to laugh because there is never any water for hand washing.

8:25 is morning assembly on the schoolyard. The students (almost 800 of them!) line up by class, from PP (preprimary) to grade 8. They look very impressive, and the little ones very sweet, all carefully groomed, standing straight, without fidgeting. They do a prayer and song in the Dzongkha language. Then one boy and one girl do a short speech, one in Dzongkha and one in English. They are usually quite flowery, but very well presented. Then there are various announcements, some quite lengthy. Finally they finish with the national anthem in Dzongkha as the flag is raised. It is a beautiful flag of a dragon on an orange and yellow background.

One morning there was a lengthy presentation about World Water Day. Most of the kids managed to stay focused, but I did notice a few making faces and poking each other. The funniest was one young boy who grabbed the ears of the boy in front of him. He was pulling them and twisting them in different directions as if he was driving a motorbike. The poor victim was trying hard to stay focused on the presentation, which made the scene even funnier.

First period is supposed to begin at 8:45, but the lengthy announcements and special presentations often cut into first period. The periods are 40 minutes each, with a 15 minute break after period 3, and a one hour lunch break after period 5.

At lunchtime, only the kids who live quite close walk home. I go home for lunch, partly so I can use a clean toilet!! The rest of the kids have picnics on the grass. Some have brought their lunch with them, but many parents also come at lunchtime to have a picnic with their children.

By the way, the school is made up of five very attractive, two-storey concrete buildings, with traditional windows and painted details. (No phalluses on the walls at school though). They are set around a concrete playground, with lots of steps up to each building. The primary building is up the highest, with about 30 steep steps to get up there. I’m getting very fit with all of the walking up and downhill every day. There are also lots of flower beds, which the students take care of, and a huge grassy soccer field. It is quite beautiful, with trees at the edge of the property, and a great view of the mountains disappearing into the distance.

I mustn’t forget to mention the dogs. There are about a dozen dogs living on the school property, and two of them have litters of puppies as well. The puppies are very cute, but a couple of the dogs are horribly mangy, bad enough to almost make me sick. The dogs just sleep most of the time. The kids are very good at ignoring them if they come sniffing around when they are at morning assembly.

Unfortunately, the town hasn’t really got the whole garbage disposal thing figured out, and people tend to burn their own garbage. This goes for the school as well. There are teacher residences around the periphery of the property, and most days there are garbage fires, sending horrible fumes wafting over the school grounds. Even the school burns its garbage, although I am making an effort to put an end to this practice.

Wednesday at the end of the day is time for school clubs. Another teacher and I have the Nature Club, which I have renamed the “Green Team.” I’m hoping we can make a few changes, especially concerning waste disposal. It is surprising how much litter there is along every road and path.

Looking after the environment is one of the four pillars of GNH. (Gross National Happiness) They love acronyms here. GNH is a favourite, which gets used as an adjective as well, such as, “Is that a GNH way of handling the problem?” I read Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” to the Green Team yesterday. We all agreed that the tree was a very GNH kind of a tree.

Back to school: The English curriculum was recently revised for all grades, and it is excellent. A number of Canadians and Bhutanese were involved in the writing, and it is all about balanced literacy and using a wide range of strategies to teach. This approach is quite new to the teachers, but they are doing their best. Part of my role is to model some of these new ideas, and support the teachers as they gain confidence.

Canadian teachers, listen up! You know how many kids we have in each class here? In the forties!!! I have 42 in my grade 6 English class. Marking books takes forever!!! Also, the available resources are abysmal. The kids supply their own notebooks and other materials. There are no math materials or art materials or computers for students.

There are two staff computers, but the first time I used one and tried to save a file on a memory stick, I got a “Trojan”. There is only one printer which is in the office. If you want something printed, you take it to the office clerk and she will print it. That is if there is paper, and toner. One or the other is usually missing.

If we want anything from the supply room, (although I haven’t figured out where that is, or what is actually in there), we have to fill out a requisition, addressed to the principal. It begins with “Dear Madam” and ends with, “Thanking you, Faithfully yours, signed…” I did manage to get three pencils and some newsprint which was ripped out of old notebooks.

They do have a decent library though, and it has many books in English and Dzongkha. Each class goes there once a week to sign out books. As the kids are leaving, the librarian frisks each kid to make sure they aren’t hiding extra books in their kiras and ghos. Everyone seems so honest, I can’t imagine them stealing.

School is Monday to Friday 8 until 4, and Saturday 8 until 12:20. Teachers are supposed to teach a minimum of 32 periods a week, which means they typically get 12 periods of preparation time. BUT, if someone is absent (and they often are) there are no supply teachers. Instead the other teachers fill in for the missing teacher. Even when teachers are on maternity leave, for which they are allowed three months, they still don’t get a supply teacher. Others fill in.

The students’ English skills are really quite remarkable. For most Bhutanese, English is at least their third language, after their local language (of which there are many) and Dzongkha. Many also speak Nepali and Hindi as well. Amazing. Despite that, the English curriculum is on par with the Ontario curriculum, if not more advanced. I’m still not sure how deep their understanding is, but they seem to have the vocabulary down pat.

Until recently, most teaching was of the rote learning type. Consequently, students have difficulty with open ended or opinion questions. That’s where I see my greatest challenge, in getting students to take risks, and express their own ideas. They are great at echoing, and they also seem to have incredible memories, but they have trouble with original thinking.

I think I’ll post this now, but check back in a few days when I hope to have added some photos.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

End of Puja

The puja ended today with the Rinpoche giving a blessing to all present. People came for miles around to be blessed. Starting this morning, there were many extended families walking into town. Then the vehicles started arriving. When I walked in at noon, there were lots of families along the edge of the road, cooking over fires, and sharing picnics.

Late in the afternoon, people started the long trek home. Those in vehicles are tooting their horns as they head out of town, and there is quite a bit of happy hooting and hollering.

Tomorrow will be my first day of school, at last. Since I will be a lot busier after this, I thought I’d better finally fill in (briefly) the three week gap at the beginning of the trip.

We thought we were off to an auspicious beginning when the prime minister of Bhutan was on our Drukair flight from Delhi to Paro. He walked by as we were lined up to get on the plane, and nodded and said hello to me.

The flight was incredible. We were lucky to have perfect visibility to view the Himalayas. They were even more spectacular than I’d imagined. Layers of jagged snowcapped peaks extended as far as the eye could see. The Canadians were all gobsmacked. It was apparently old hat to the rest of the passengers who barely even acknowledged the view. The local beside me was playing on his mp3 the whole time.

The plane’s wings almost clipped the mountains as we entered Paro Valley. The plane basically drops from the sky to the short landing strip. When we arrived we almost got the red carpet treatment, but they rolled up the carpet before we were allowed off the plane.

I’ll be honest about a few misconceptions I had about Bhutan. First of all, I foolishly thought that we would be virtually the only foreign non-tourists. I honestly thought that we would probably be welcomed by the king. Yes, I’m blushing as I’m making this admission. And, no, we haven’t met the king (yet).

As it turns out, there are a few dozen ex-pats in Bhutan, in a wide range of positions: educators, doctors, scientists, researchers, youth workers, and a yoga teacher. Some have been here many years.

The drive from Paro to Thimpu was an exciting twisting, turning, up and downhill rollercoaster ride. It was a test for some of our group, who realized that Gravol will need to be their friend for these drives. Lots of beautiful sights- prayer wheels of all sizes, from handheld, to enormous; row upon row of prayer flags flapping in the wind; ornate carved and painted traditional houses and covered bridges. We passed work crews of Bhutanese women building houses using the traditional method of rammed earth construction. We also saw the remains of deserted homes, roofs gone, wooden embellishments also gone. Only the earth walls remain, making them look like adobe forts. Apparently it is unlucky to move into a deserted house, so they remain empty.

Thimpu is a small city with a lot of Bhutanese character. The buildings are mostly built in traditional style, with the distinctive carved window frames, and other ornamentation. There are no traffic lights – the busiest corner has a traffic cop. None of that surprised me. What did surprise me was the number of cars! Many of the middle class own a small car, such as a Suzuki Alto or a Hyundai Santo.

I was also shocked to see many people in “western” clothing in Thimpu. Many of the young people wear jeans, and you see young guys with chains hanging out of their pockets. I thought it was a law that the Bhutanese must wear the traditional gho for men, or kira for women. It is one of the laws which doesn’t seem to be enforced. Despite that, most people do wear the traditional clothing.

There were also people smoking! When I read that the sale of tobacco was illegal here, I thought that was a great decision on the part of the government. Well, it is another law which is not enforced. Many people smoke, but they have to buy their cigarettes on the black market. It is not a big deal at all.

A bigger problem than smoking is the chewing of pan, or doma as it is called here. I’ve already described that, and the red splotches everywhere. It amazes me that even people in public positions chew the stuff.

I was also surprised to see many masked people in Thimpu, and to a lesser extent here in Mongar. They wear a simple, brightly-coloured cloth mask which hooks over the ears. I asked whether they are worn to prevent sickness, or to prevent spreading sickness, but the answer was not clear. It seems that most people who wear them feel they are protecting themselves.

Our lodging for the two weeks in Thimpu was at the Yeedzin Guest House. It was very quaint, cosey and comfortable. The staff were all very sweet. They went beyond the call of duty to do things like helping us to get dressed in our kiras and ghos.

We had a delicious variety of fooding (they really do use the word ‘fooding’), from traditional Bhutanese fare, such ema datse (chillies and cheese), to Thai and Indian food, to yak burgers, and even pizza! I’m really missing the food choices. I don’t have those options available here in Mongar, only Bhutanese food, with perhaps a bit of an Indian influence.

Our orientation involved sessions on Bhutanese history and government structure, education policy, curriculum, Canadian connections, Dzongka lessons, basics of Buddhism and etiquette in the choesham (altar room). There was also time devoted to signing documents, banking and buying local phones.

We also had a lot of shopping to do. We had to buy most of the things to set up our new homes. This was tricky because none of us knew what to expect in our lodging, or what would be available where we were headed (apparently not much). Our lists included two element gas stove, huge gas cylinder, mattress, pillow, sheets, towels, dishes, cutlery, pots, etc. It was even suggested that we buy some food, because many things would not be available outside Thimpu.

As it turned out, my place was almost fully furnished, which I found out just before we left Thimpu. I was able to resell the gas stove and cylinder, and I hadn’t bought a mattress yet. Most of the other stuff has come in handy.

We also did a few short hikes while we were around Thimpu. We visited a few chortens, dzongs, goembas and lhakangs (religious buildings). The most spectacular was Taktsang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest. This is the goemba which is built into the side of a cliff at an altitude of more than 3000 metres. Hiking up there was a challenge, especially when we were still getting used to the altitude. It was worth it though. We did the hike the day before the king’s birthday, and when we got to the top, the monks told us that the king would be hiking up later to spend the night there. We were instructed on how to greet the king (eyes lowered and mouth covered), but we only encountered his entourage, lugging up food and bedding. We missed him by only an hour or two.

I want to post this before I go to bed, so I shall leave it at that for now.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Of Brooms, Drains and Plugs

So apart from not being able to find a can opener, I can also not find a decent broom. There seem to be three types: there is a bundle of “broom” which creates a soft, whispy implement, only suitable for dusting; there is a bundle of stiff stalks, which at least you can put a bit of force behind, but you can’t really direct where the dirt is going; and there is a broom made of rubbery strands, intended for sweeping the water towards a drain. None of these brooms is longer than a foot and a half, so of course one is doubled over to do any sweeping. I wonder if locals would appreciate the merits of a long-handled broom, or if they would find it as awkward as I find theirs?

Which leads me to a comment about drains: Most washrooms have a drain in the corner, where water is directed after a shower. That is after the whole washroom, toilet, sink and anything else in the way, gets soaked. In my washroom, I have to remember to remove the toilet roll and my towel before I shower. One benefit is that everything gets a good wash every day. Afterwards I squeegy all the water towards the drain, or the floor would never dry.

My downstairs washroom (the pristine pink-tiled one) has a washing machine in it. The first time I used it, I noted that the drainpipe was just directed onto the floor in the opposite direction to the drain. I thought that was silly, since I really don’t want to have a flood to clear every time I do my laundry. I moved the washing machine so that the pipe goes directly down the drain, and “voila,” no flood. Some solutions are so simple.

Not surprisingly, none of the sinks have plugs. I’ve encountered this in many countries, so I always carry a universal rubber sink stopper. It has come in handy many times. This time, I wanted to be able to put a plug in my kitchen sink to do the dishes, but the rubber stopper isn’t designed for that. I went to the local “hardware” stores, but they don’t sell any such thing. Instead I bought a stainless steel basin to use in the sink. Again, it is a good solution. I think local people just wash dishes under a running tap.

Monday, March 8, 2010

To Market, To Market

Preparing pan

I went into town the other day, with the main goal of buying a can opener to open some tuna I had bought in Thimpu.

On the way into town, I passed two teenaged girls sitting on the side of the road. We exchanged greetings, and I continued on my way. When I returned about two hours later, they were still there. When I looked inquisitive, they explained that they were waiting for a car, bus or truck to Trashigang, (92 km or about a 3½ hour drive on these windy mountain roads) and none had come yet. I wonder how much longer they waited?

Waiting is never a big deal here. No one gets impatient, or fidgety or flustered. They just wait. Things happen when they happen. Or not.

So I proceeded into town. I passed the butcher shop, which will stay closed until the first month of the Bhutanese new year has passed. I think that will be about March 14th. I took a photo of the shop and of the signboard showing what they sell. The list is impressive, but the look of the shop makes me think I will continue my new vegetarian habit.

Apart from the small vegetable market, shopping consists of a choice of many small, dimly lit, shops. There must be 15 or 20 of them, but they all have virtually the same stuff! There is always a countertop with many jars of small wrapped candies and gum. The proprietor is usually behind the counter, and behind him or her, the wares are displayed on shelves lining the walls. Typically there are some food items, (never much choice), a few house wares, and a couple of clothing items.

Most shops also sell pan, a leaf which is smeared with white paste (lime?), and sprinkled with chopped betel nut and a variety of fragrant extras, such as cardamom. The leaf is folded up into a little bundle, which enthusiasts shove into their mouths, and chew and chew and spit and chew and spit some more. Consequently there are nasty red splotches all over the roads and pathways, making it look as if someone has been hemorrhaging. Not only that, but often when someone smiles, their teeth, lips, gums and tongue are all horribly stained, and their teeth are quite rotten. Apparently it gives a bit of a buzz, and it must be addictive.

I had one short pan experience. When I was with our driver on one stretch of road, he stopped to buy some packets of pan, called WIZ. He said he uses them to help him focus on the tricky roads. He offered me one, so I bravely dumped the whole little packet into my mouth as he had done. It was bitter, and gritty and disgusting!! I wanted to spit it straight out, but I thought that would seem unappreciative, so I kept chewing for a few minutes. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and spat the whole lot out the window. It was really gross and I didn’t even get a buzz! The car had remnants of pan stuck to the door for the rest of the trip.

Back to Mission Can Opener: I went into shop after shop after shop, but no one had a can opener. I pointed out that they sell cans, and asked one woman how they open them. She said, “We are using nail cutters. This is working well madam.” I’m not going to use my nail clippers for that purpose, but I guess I’ll use the can opener on my Leatherman multitool. *Postscript: I had tuna with my salad today, and lo and behold, it had a pulltab!

For those of you who were asking about the significance of the phallus, this is what I have found out. I thought they were fertility symbols, but not so. Apparently, the reverence for phalluses (phalli?) began with Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529) who is one of Bhutan’s favourite lamas, and an example of “crazy wisdom”. I know that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder, Colorado was also known for a similar “style”. There are many anecdotes about Drukpa Kunley, and his sexual exploits are legendary. The phalluses which adorn houses are supposed to be his, and are said to ward off evil.

By the way, if you haven’t seen the Bhutanese film, “Travellers and Magicians”, I highly recommend it. You’ll see quite a bit of typical life in Bhutan, as well as some gorgeous scenery. I watched it on youtube in 11 ten minute segments.

Some of you have asked what we did for our first two weeks in Bhutan, during our orientation period. I will try to fill in that gap soon!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Simple Pleasures

I’ve always enjoyed simple pleasures. Today I enjoyed many.

This morning I used my washing machine for the first time –very exciting. It worked perfectly. I hung my clothes on a line above the line of prayer flags. They flapped in the breeze together. I don’t think my socks and underwear have quite the same power to send prayers into the beyond, but who really knows?

I went for a walk up the road from my place. I started off along the main road, which is the road which crosses Bhutan. Although it is cloudy this afternoon, each new bend in the road provided an exciting new view. I can only imagine how beautiful it will be when it is clear. The hillsides are quite lush with early spring growth. I don’t know many of the plants, although Mindu kindly gave me a guide to the plants of Bhutan. I’ll take that with me next time. There are small fruit trees covered in pink and white blossoms. Lots of ferns of a few different varieties. I had noticed fiddleheads for sale at the market, and I see them growing on the slopes. The first rhododendrons are starting to bloom, bright red.

The road has a sheer drop off one side, to the valley below. The other side is mostly a shale wall, with interesting nooks and crannies. Many of the rocks are embellished with Bhutanese “graffiti”, Sanskrit letters with the mantra om mani peme hum. Many of the nooks have heaps of mini chorten-like sculptures made of clay.
When the traffic got too heavy (I think 10 cars passed me in half an hour) I headed up a path through the woods. It wasn’t unlike hiking the Bruce Trail. I wandered along a damp creek bed, and along a ridge. A simple outhouse was the first indication that I was near a home. Next I saw a couple of cows in a wood and thatch enclosure. As I reached the top of the hill I could see a home with a woman working outside. I didn’t want to alarm her, appearing from nowhere, and then not be able to explain myself, (my few words to name vegetables would not have been very helpful), so I turned around before I was noticed.

On the way home I heard a couple of new birds. I couldn’t see them, but they sounded big. They were speaking a language I don’t understand, definitely not chirping or tweeting. There are lots of small, pretty birds, which do speak a language I am more familiar with. I think I need a bird book too to identify them.

When I got home, Tashi was here to greet me. It turns out she was a stray dog who my neighbour almost ran over when she was a tiny puppy. Sonam brought her home to add to her family of four dogs. She said I can adopt her if I like. Yesterday I wasn’t sure, but today I am getting quite attached to her. She is so sweet. We shared some peanuts today, and I let her come into my house. If I do adopt her I will get her spayed, because we really don’t need any more dogs around here.

My neighbours are very kind. The women speak excellent English, so we are able to talk about all kinds of things. I think we’ll become good friends. Sonam is a reporter for BBS (Bhutan Broadcasting) and covers eastern Bhutan. Chundun is a stay-at-home wife and mother. I’m getting tips from her about how to do basic things like keep a carpet clean when there only seem to be soft, short-handled brooms. She said I can either use a damp rag, or a ball of dough to roll over the carpet to pick up dust.

Chundun also said that she thinks the ban on killing animals for the first month each year is ridiculous. She said that she just ends up stocking up on meat ahead of time and putting it in the freezer. She pointed out that instead of saving animal lives, this actually shortens their lives by an additional month.

I noticed that among the plants on the hill below me, there are lots of nasturtiums (which I nibbled), lilies and geraniums. I will ask Chundun if she thinks it would be okay for me to dig some up to have on my balcony.

Chundun’s cousin checked out my tv and determined that the cable wasn’t connected. He tapped into Chundun’s line, so now I get lots of channels. Perhaps I’ll check it out this evening.

Time for dinner. I’m going to warm up the delicious rice and vegetable dahl I made for dinner last night. I can’t really cook big quantities of anything because of the lack of refrigeration.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Where Are You Going Ma’m?

As usual I'm having trouble getting the photos where I want them. Sorry about that.

Welcoming Lama Namkhai Ningpo Rinpoche
to Mongar for the puja.

Keira, Lynda, me and Andrea

Typical house decoration

Inthu, Lynda, Keira, Nick, Andrea, Natalie

me, Grant

View of Himalayas from plane

Monday, March 1, 2010

I am finally in my new home in Mongar, Bhutan, and it feels great. I’m sitting on my bed, typing on my laptop, listening to James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, and hoping that I will get online to post this within the next day or two. I spent almost an hour at Bhutan Telecom today trying to get broadband internet set up. The men at the office were all very kind and helpful, but it seems they need to speak to my landlord regarding whether to have the phone line in my name or his. I know he is in a meeting today because I had spoken to him earlier. Perhaps tomorrow.

It is pouring with rain. This is my third day in Mongar, and it has rained each evening. I don’t know if this is typical or not. During the day it has been mild, with varying amounts of sunshine. Yesterday was particularly sunny and warm. The weather varies hugely from valley to valley. Mongar is known for its moderate winters and warm summers. Perfect! The altitude is 1600 metres (one mile), similar to Antigua, Guatemala, which has a similar climate.

The town of Mongar is built at various levels on either side of the main trans-Bhutan road as it zigzags up the side of the mountain. My school is a couple of zigs below me, and the main part of town a couple of zags below that. I should become very fit just walking to and from town.

I have a comfortable house, fully furnished. It isn’t as quaint as the traditional wooden houses with shutters and beautiful carved details. Their outside walls are usually painted with interesting designs of lotus blossoms, dragons, lions and most commonly, penises. The penises are often very realistic, with pubic hair, and semen spurting. Ribbons often adorn the penises. At other times they are like cartoons, with a face, and sometimes a mustache, glasses, fangs or horns.

My house is a two storey concrete house, with a concrete patio to one side. One of the advantages of a concrete house is that there are no cracks for wind, rain, rats or other critters to come in. Downstairs there is a living room with lots of wooden furniture and cushions. There is a tv which is not yet hooked up. Next to that is my kitchen and dining area. The kitchen is very simple. There is a counter with a sink and hot water “geezer” above. On the counter is a two element gas stove. There are wooden cabinets for food and dishes. No fridge, but my landlord promised he will get one before the weather gets too warm. Off the patio is a pristine pink-tiled washroom, with western toilet and sink. There is even a washing machine!!!

Upstairs there is a large bed/sitting room with a wooden floor, a nice big carpet, lots of wooden furniture, and a second tv. This one works, but at the moment I only get a Chinese channel which was broadcasting in English when I checked it out last night. I have a double bed, a single guest bed, desk, couch, cabinets and “vanity”. There is a simple washroom off my bedroom, with western toilet, and hot water shower, but no sink.

The house is built on a slope with many plants and trees. There is a banana tree with a huge bunch of nearly ripe bananas. There are also lots of rose vines, rhoeodendrons and many other plants which are not yet in bloom. Spring is just starting here. From my balcony, the patio, and any of my windows there is a gorgeous view of distant mountains and valleys. Often these are shrouded in clouds, but I do get the occasional glimpse.

Continued March 2, 2010

Chador, my landlord, has phoned to say that Bhutan Telecom should be coming soon to hook me up, so I’ll sit tight for now.

There are lots of birds chirping in the trees around my house. That is always a lovely sound. I also have a little dog friend, who often greets me when I come home. I don’t know if she is a stray or if she belongs to my neighbour, but she looks to be in good shape. I have named her Tashi. She is a small, gold-coloured mutt, with a very sweet face. She makes me think fondly of Penny. (Hi Penny!) I offered her some leftover rice today, but she wasn’t interested. It seems she just wants affection and to play.

There are lots of stray dogs wandering around. Most look quite healthy, but there are some with a limp or nasty mangy spots. They are quiet during the day, but they do a fair amount of barking at night. I think I am already able to tune that out.

I spent a half an hour at the Bank of Bhutan this morning, trying to cash a travellers’ cheque. I dealt with four different clerks, and finally, after copies of my passport and identity card were taken, along with my double-signed cheque, all the clerks disappeared for lunch. I was told to come back in one hour. When I complained to the only remaining clerk that now my cheque was gone, but I had no money, he kindly opened his wallet and offered me 1000 ngultrums to help me out until the bank reopened. I declined, because it wasn’t an emergency. Presumably I will return this afternoon and get my money. While I was at that bank, a smiley old guy came to do a transaction. He looked like a farmer, judging by his weathered face and worn clothing. He signed for his transaction with a fingerprint.

I’m held up at home now, because the phone line hook-up is taking much longer than expected. First one young man came on a scooter, but after ascertaining that there is no actual line, he went away and returned with another young guy on the scooter. We’ll see what transpires.

When I visited my school three days ago, I was greeted with the news that our school will be closed for the next two weeks for a very important puja (ceremony). The school is being used to house students who are visiting from other areas. A lama from the district of Bhumthang has come to lead eleven days of chanting. He has provided a special mantra to help the community heal from last year’s earthquake, as well as to prevent further earthquakes. The goal is for the community to collectively repeat the mantra one billion times during the eleven days. They have set up a pavilion on the archery grounds so that people can sit, sheltered from the sun and rain. There is straw on the ground, or some people bring with them a piece of cardboard or foam matting to sit on.

It was interesting to be there for the arrival of the lama. Quite a procession of monks accompanying the lama. Lots of colourful banners and robes, and loud horns and drums.

So I am on holiday, again. It is a great opportunity to get settled. Apart from getting my house organized, I also have time now to study the curriculum guides which I borrowed. I don’t yet know what grades I will be teaching, although I do know that the school would like me to focus on special needs students. We will have a new principal when we start in two weeks, so nothing will be settled until after that.

“I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravl’d world, whose margin
Fades for ever and for ever when I move.”
-“Ulysses”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Continued March 3, 2010

I did get hooked up to the internet late yesterday afternoon. It seems to work fine. By then it was too late to return to the bank, but I returned this morning to get my money. The clerk had it sitting on his desk, waiting for me to return.

While I was “downtown”, I bought a few more groceries. The veggies here are delicious, as if they were just picked, which they probably were. I’ve made salads of tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce and cilantro, with an oil and vinegar dressing. I’ve got salt, but still haven’t been able to find pepper. I’ve made stirfries of garlic, onion, cabbage and carrot. I’ve got my rice cooker, so rice has been on the menu for dinner, and then leftover as rice pudding the next morning. I can’t buy meat because no animals are to be killed the first month of the year, which started in mid-February. I also can’t buy eggs because there is avian flu in the south of the country. Today I also brought bread at the one little bakery. Although it is white bread it is actually quite tasty. I bought butter too, so I was able to make a tomato sandwich for lunch. Little by little the food possibilities are increasing.

Yesterday I had a phone call from Mindu, a young Bhutanese guide who is driving an Irish woman named Aileen, across the country and then to Sikkim. Our group met them along the route from Thimpu. Now they are on their way back west, but stopped in Mongar for the night, and suggested a get-together. They popped over for tea (my first guests!), and then we met after dinner at a cozy guesthouse for drinks. We had a very interesting discussion about government policies regarding tourism. In a recent government meeting, a decision was made to raise the daily tourist tariff to $265 per day, starting in 2011.

An interesting aside: Since I had been unsuccessful at the bank yesterday, I was unable to pay for my dinner at the guesthouse. They weren’t concerned at all, and seemed surprised when I turned up today to pay.

Time to turn to the books.