Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mongar's Earthquake 2009

There will be a gap in my Bhutan postings, as I am going on holiday in Canada. I am leaving Mongar tomorrow and won't return until early August. I will spend about half that time on the road, in airports, in the air, or recuperating.

My students wrote about the earthquake they experienced last year. Here are three of their reports:

“On the 29th of September, 2009, the Minister of education was visiting our school and the students above class six were called at the multi-purpose hall for meeting. We were in class five, so we were left alone in the class without the teacher which means we were shouting as much as we like. We didn’t listen to captains and the captains were shouting at us.
About 1:10 o’clock, suddenly the earthquake came and the buildings were moving. We shouted. The students came out of the classes crying, but I didn’t cry. I ran out carrying my bags. Choney Zangmo and other friend were also crying. I was afraid that the earthquake would come again. The buildings has crack little bit, but not more.
The earthquake came strong between Mongar and Trashigang. The houses in between had a great damage and people had died. The king visited all the dzongkhags, gewogs, and villages. He gave clothes, tents and money to build new houses.” ~Chimi Yuden

“On September 29, 2009, we had a strongly earthquake. On that day peoples were frightened of it. Many houses were damaged and peoples were staying outside for a week or two. On that day earthquake damaged 15 schools, 1000 houses, 75 lakhangs and chortens, and 3 dzongs in eastern Bhutan.
That time I was in class five, controlling the class members. When it happened it felt like walls were on me and I was so shocked that I can’t ran or shout. And also some of my friend cried, that I felt to cry too.
I felt very scared because it was the first time I felt the earthquake and it was also very strong.” ~Kinley Wangmo

“On September 29th there was an earthquake in Bhutan very suddenly when we were in the class. We hid under our tables and some of the students were even crying. I also felt like crying but I didn’t cry because I try to be a brave girl but inside my heart was beating very fast. Then the earthquake came again and one teacher told us to get out of the class and went to the ground. My heart was still beating as if it was going to burst.
I was very horrified and worried that it was the end of my life. I remembered of mother, father and sister who was at home. Then suddenly the earthquake stopped and I was happy but I though “What if my parents are no more?” This was my repeated question and I thought I would have burst my heart that few minutes.
So lastly, I always pray that this earthquake will never visit this world and whenever there is a little noise, I always jump and ran out of the house thinking that it is earthquake.” ~Karma Lhazin


Sunday, June 13: This was one of my favourite days in Bhutan. I went for a hike and picnic with my class, three hours uphill to a temple at Pongchula.

We decided just yesterday to do this outing, after I had informed my class that I would soon be going home to Canada for a few weeks. One boy suggested a picnic, and everyone liked the idea. Two possible suggestions were made: the Pongchula hike, or a shorter hike downhill to a place called Gongula, on the river. We had a vote, and I was surprised at how few kids voted for the river trip. I thought, “What kid wouldn’t want to go to play in a river on a hot summer day?” When I expressed my surprise, I was told that Gongula is haunted, and their parents wouldn’t let them go there. So Pongchula was chosen.

I asked what time we should meet. 7 a.m. was suggested, but one girl said that many of them have to do chores at their homes in the morning, so we decided on 8 a.m. Someone asked what we would do if it was raining in the morning, and a boy quickly responded, “We will cry.” We agreed that we would do the hike rain or shine, because the rain doesn’t usually last for long.

The kids said we should all take a “pack lunch” or a bunch of junk food. I went to town last night to buy samosas, but there were none left. I also tried to buy eggs for the picnic, but they weren’t available either. I ended up taking peanuts, carrots (which suddenly appeared in the market again yesterday), crackers and a huge bag of plums to share with the kids.

26 of 42 kids turned up for the hike. The weather was perfect. Sunny, with just a few billowy clouds. Hot, but with a pleasant breeze from time to time.

We hiked mostly along a farm road, and saw a few people out working in the fields. Most were digging up potatoes. They stopped long enough to wave to us and exchange pleasantries. We saw a man guiding a plough pulled by two oxen. He shouted for me to take his photo. I’ll add photos to this blog posting when I’m back on my own computer.

All along the way the kids would point out their homes off in the distance. Some of the kids walk two hours to school and two hours home each day.

I had taken a compass along, which was a big hit. When I asked the kids which way they thought north was, one of the girls pointed straight up in the air. Once they got an idea of north, south, east and west, they liked checking our direction each time we went around a bend in the road.

The kids insisted on taking turns to carry my knapsack, and to hold an umbrella over my head to shield me from the sun. I said that was quite unnecessary, but they could not be dissuaded. A boy also made me a crown of greenery to make me “queen of the forest”. As we walked, from time to time I would feel a hand rubbing or squeezing my upper arm, where there is the memory of a tricep muscle. I asked if they were making fun of my flab, but they said, “It is so soft, madam!” Yes, I know it is soft.

We saw a snake, a baby woodpecker, the biggest oak tree I have ever seen, and lots of wonderful flowers. The kids enjoyed picking berries along the way for me to sample. There were strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and golden berries, which were segmented like a raspberry. They were the ripest and tastiest.

We had to pick some small branches to add to a pile as we started the final ascent. I was told to make a wish as I added mine to the pile. Many of the kids wished for good results on their exams, which start next week.

At the top, we were greeted by two old men who live up there. The monks were away for the day, so the old men were our hosts. They didn’t speak a word of English, but they seemed delighted to have the kids there. We had our picnic, and shared with them. The kids had lots of fun playing simple games. I had taken a frisbee, which quickly landed on the roof. One of the men got a ladder so that Kinley Rabgay could climb up to retrieve it.

Another group of kids sat in a circle and played a very old game in which one kid walks around and drops a hanky behind someone. They have to jump up and race the other kid back to the empty spot.

A few girls were also playing their version of “jumpsie” or “yogi” with an elastic band rope. They are very skilful at this game.

After a couple of hours, we headed back down the hill. The only vehicle we saw was a truck, which stopped for us to hop in the back. We got a ride partway down, which added to the fun. We hopped off at Kadam, which is another temple. The kids wanted to visit there to turn the prayer wheels. While we were there, we were served juice and tea and biscuits. We were also given a huge bag of plums to take back with us.

It was a perfect day. We all agreed that when I return in August, we will do more hikes.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nick's Blog

For another perspective on the Bhutan experience, check out Nick's blog. His early April postings describe well some of the experiences early in the trip, which I didn't describe at all.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Village Life

Friday is my favourite day. It’s the day my Class 6 students write their journals. I have learned more about Bhutan from their writing than from any other source.

Today I asked my students to write about their plans for the mid-term break. Here are excerpts from a few journals:

“In mid-term break I am planning to go to my village because village is my favourite place. I will go to meet my friends, neighbours and my family. Then I will help my parents to do work in the field. I am planning to go picnic with my group of friends. When I reach to village I will go to lakhang and pray to god that I get pass on my exams. Then I want to go to my uncle’s house to meet grandmother and grandfather. Then I will help my family to cook food and clean house. I will play with my dogs and I will go with my cow to forest. Then I will cut grass from forest and I will give to cow.”
~Tshering Choki

“During mid-term break I want to go to Lungmethang with my cousin, uncle and aunt and I will weave kira with my aunt. When I come back I will go to Wengkhar with my brother and sister. I will bring back some apples, pears and things to my family.”
~Kinzang Wangmo

“I will go to my village and play with my friends in forest. Sometimes I drink milk and eat cheese of cow. Every day I will go to forest with my friends and cow. When I go to forest I play Tarzan like television.”
~Namgay Wangchuk

“My family is planning to go in mother’s village to meet grandparents. If I go to my mother’s village, my grandmother really loves me and she will give milk to drink and cheese to eat. There are many orange trees and I climb like a monkey and pluck oranges and eat. I will go to forest to collect firewood with my grandmother and when I go with her to collect firewood, she sings and I listen very carefully to learn song and also to look after cow with sister.”
~Pabi Maya

“My plan is to go to visit my parents in Paro, but my brother’s plan is to go to Samdrup Jongkar to visit his friend. As I am looking at you Madam Ann, I will remember my mother’s face, so that is why I want to say to you, will you want to be my second mother? I was saying that because I want one mother from Canada. Will you be Madam, please? If you don’t want me as your child, Yes or No, please don’t be angry with me Madam. So lastly, will you give me your photo please?”
~Phub Dem

Similar sweet, innocent, gentle hopes were expressed in most of the journals. I wish life here could stay like this, but I fear that change is coming quickly. The vast majority of young people want to do well at school, and get good jobs. They will settle in towns and send money to support their families who are still in villages. They will visit once or twice a year when they have a holiday. Who will manage the farms in the next generation? What will be left of village life?

*I am afraid to deal with photos on this borrowed computer, but when I am back on my own computer, I will catch up.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Sorry about the gap in communication. My laptop was badly damaged in a lightning storm on May 19th, and now I am on a desktop lent to me by a very kind colleague named Karma. (Definitely Good Karma)

I am just going to do a short entry this evening to check if I can manage on a different computer. Also, the power went off a few minutes ago, for no apparent reason, and I lost what I had started.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons lately, none as serious as the lightning storm lesson though. First I left something cooking while skyping, and returned to the kitchen to find the room full of smoke and my dinner charred to a crisp. And it was the first time I had invested in a can of curried chicken! A couple of days later I forgot my big brother's advice to “never mix, never worry”. My neighbours had a good-bye party for a friend who was moving to Thimpu. The party started with beer next door. Then we went to a restaurant for tequila shots and dinner. At that point, life was still good. Then we returned next door and chugged arra, the local brew. That was a big mistake. I was so sick, all night and all the next day. I wasted my only day off in bed. I am still blaming that incident for killing enough brain cells for me to overlook the importance of unplugging my computer in that lightning storm.

I always wear flat sandals to and from school and change into prettier ones at school, leaving the scruffy ones under my desk. I returned to my room after a meeting, and noticed a lot of stray dogs gathered around my open door, looking quite happy. Then I noticed my sandals nearby. One of the straps had been chewed right off, and nowhere to be found. I still wore the sandals home that afternoon, but I had to tie them on using the strap of a surgical mask.

I mentioned the story to some of my students and they said it happens all the time at their homes. The family leaves their shoes outside the door, and in the morning someone’s shoes are gone, or half-gone. I asked if their parents get upset, but they said no, they just laugh.

The flies in my room were really bothering me, so my mum and dad sent me some fly papers (at a cost of $34 in postage, which did include a bar of dark chocolate. I’m savouring that, one square each day, just like my dad always has). I have the flypaper suspended above my desk, with dozens of flies stuck to it. Staff and students who come to my room have various reactions: horror, awe, amusement, shock. Good Karma tells me that if I kill flies I will probably come back in another life as a fly. Later she said that since I am doing it to prevent the spread of sickness, perhaps I’ll be okay. She also pushes me quickly out of the way if I am about to step on an ant.

We had our bi-annual worm pill last month. Each of the students are given one, and I had been told that it is not a bad idea to take one as well. I mentioned to Karma that I was surprised that we were allowed to kill worms, but she assured me that the medicine does not kill the worms. Apparently it just creates an inhospitable atmosphere which causes the worms to leave your body. I guess I didn’t have any worms, because I didn’t see any with their bags packed, heading out.

There is a lot of superstition here. Much of it is interwoven with religion and much of it involves demons. There are many, many dos and don’ts to follow if you want to avoid bad things happening.

I was wondering why my cheerful whistling seemed to elicit frowns. Well, apparently whistling indoors invites ghosts to visit. Who knew?

Walking home from school with Good Karma one afternoon, we crossed over a creek in a ravine. I mentioned to her that I would like to take a group of students there to clean up the rubbish. She said that wouldn’t be a good idea because the ravine is haunted. If any of the students became sick after that, I would be blamed for taking them to the haunted ravine. So much for that idea!

I’ve been hearing quite a bit lately about the “headhunters”. I first heard these stories from Keira in Lhuentse, but now the stories are circulating here as well. Apparently there are men out there who kidnap people, especially women and children, and then chop their heads off to bury in the foundation of new structures. Word has it that the heads they are after now are for the next hydroelectric dam. No one actually knows anyone who has disappeared, but there is definitely fear. One of the women teachers at school told me that when her husband was away last week she nailed all of her shutters closed and then pushed a couch up against the door so that the headhunters couldn’t get her. A girl in my class wrote in her journal that she didn’t go to the temple to pray last week. “I just prostrated at home because I am afraid of man who cut down our head and sell.”

It’s funny that in a place where I have never felt safer, there are these stories. Possibly they serve a purpose in keeping women and children close to home, especially at night.

I’ll see if I can post this now.