Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Blessed Rainy Day

Blessed Rainy Day is a national holiday in Bhutan. Until today, I thought the name was a joke. We have had way more rain than I want or need, so I had renamed the day something quite different.

But my feelings changed today. I asked my grade six class to write about this special day, and it seems to be very important to them. It certainly isn’t a joke. The specific details seem to vary from person to person, but then so do our beliefs and traditions regarding Christmas.

Here are some excerpts:

“Respected Madam,
I guess in your country there is no such day as Blessed Rainy Day. In dzongkha we say ‘Thrue-bub’. Tomorrow at 7:05a.m., if we wash our face or take a bath it is believed that the bad deeds we have done until now will all be cleared up. Our illness will be also healed. Also when we drink water, it tastes sweet and fresh. I don’t know how, but it is unbelievable! Every river, sea, oceans becomes like medicine, but people may not realize, only Buddhist people does as we believe in god.”
~Thinley Lhendup

“On Blessed rainy Day we believe that when we keep the water outside in the rain at night we get blessed from our god Lord Buddha, so most of us does what we believe and we wash our head or body with that water facing the north side, and it will clear up all the bad deeds and bad luck we have.” ~Kinley Wangmo

“In Blessed Rainy Day, we have to keep one bucket with flowers outside the house where rain can fall. At the night, rain will fall and no one will see the rain, but when it became day your bucket will be full of water. We have to wash our body with that water without soap. All our selfish and bad things we have done will be purified and we will not get sick and god will also bless us.” ~Pema Rinzin

“After washing our body we will be together with family and friends and eat the porridge. We will play and eat different kinds of food. After eating we will sing and dance for thank-you.” ~Thinley Wangmo

“Also when we go to the school, we will feel more comfortable and it will be easier to read or write better than before. It will make our brain clear and better. It will scent nicely on our body.” ~Tshering Penjor

“If we do good things on this day, it is like doing 100 times good things. If we do bad things, it is like doing 100 times bad things.” ~Sonam Choden

“In that time we also eat the delicious food in the morning, afternoon and night. Some people drink the alcohol and beer. Many people have to fight when they drink alcohol. Many people go to picnic on that time and they sing and dance a lot.” ~Dhendup Tshewang

After prayers at the end of the school day, many students came to wish me a happy Blessed Rainy Day. If I still had any doubts about there being something magical about the day, the last remnants were washed away then. There was the most beautiful sun shower, and a double rainbow extended from the top of the mountain down into the valley. We all just stood in the rain and admired the sight for about twenty minutes.

I have put my bucket of flowers and water outside to be blessed overnight. It sort of feels like hanging up a Christmas stocking. Tomorrow morning I will use the water to wash, while facing north and thinking positive thoughts. I will visit a few friends who have invited me to their homes. I will share the special biscuits, called khabzey which I was given today. They are pieces of fried dough in the shape of intricate leaves and flowers. I will try to do only good things all day.

Sorry about the wires

Sunday, September 19, 2010


View from my balcony. It's always changing


My hennaed hair

Mongar vegetable market

The milkman

Selling buttermilk and yoghurt

The cobbler who fixed my sandals

My favourite lunchspot for samosas and tea

Daughter and mother, who is exactly the same age as I am


Changkay (homebrew served at baby showers)

Class 6A students cleaning up the creek

Rimdro held to settle the spirit of my neighbour's sister

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Fairly Typical Saturday Afternoon

I just returned from a very pleasant walk into town. I walk into town almost every evening, but Saturday afternoons are so much more relaxed. The week’s work is done and I have a whole day and a half off!

Today is particularly nice, because it is sunny, and not too hot. I took my small backpack and some plastic bags, to be prepared to buy some groceries, if there happened to be anything good available today. As I walked into town, I met many locals along the way. Most had the usual greeting, “Where are you going ma’m?” I met some kids from my school and was given “a chewing gum”. Further on, more kids, another chewing gum.

I had to pass by above my school, hoping not to be noticed. There is a football (soccer) tournament going on, and I had been asked to be the “Chief Guest” today and tomorrow. This would have meant sitting through hours of soccer, occasionally making an announcement, and at the end congratulating the winning team. No thank-you. You know what an ardent sports fan I am. I apologized, using “other plans” as an excuse. Passing by unnoticed was not easy. With my bright red hair, and being the only woman in Mongar over 5 foot 2, I am easy to spot. Some people have said they can always see me because I look like a torch.

Further on, more kids, but this time I was given a little packet of Churapi, a snack I enjoy. It is a little foil pack of tiny pieces of very hard dried cheese. You can chew on one piece, about .5 cm cubed, and it lasts about a half an hour. I like it. I’ve tried the bigger more rustic version, which is about an inch cubed, but it is like having a rock in your mouth. Your cheek bulges way out and you can’t talk properly. I spat that out after a minute or two.

In town I first went to the vegetable market. Slim pickins today. I got some brinjal (eggplant), a small cabbage, some plum tomatoes and a ball of local cheese. I am making a pasta dish for a picnic tomorrow with my buddies, “The Bhutaniacs”. They asked me how I would normally make pasta, so I’ll see what I can do with the ingredients I have. I have lots of garlic and onions, and I have basil which I grew from seeds sent from Canada. It should be tasty I think.

I bought a few grocery items at my favourite shop, known as “The Tibetan Shop” because it is run by a Tibetan family. I keep hoping they will get a new shipment of butter from India. The butter on the shelf has been there since the beginning of the summer, and the cardboard packages are almost transparent from the melted fat. Yuck. I could buy local butter, which is wrapped in a banana leaf and sold at the vegetable market, but it tastes more like cheese than butter.

The main reason I want butter, is that I am in the midst of making my third loaf of whole wheat bread, using Chundu’s flying saucer shaped oven. The first loaf was weird because Chundu and I used what she thought was atta (whole wheat flour), but was actually tsampa, roasted barley flour. I don’t think it had any gluten, so it didn’t rise at all.

My second attempt was last weekend, and it was much better. It still didn’t rise as much as I would like, but it was tasty. I gave two thirds of the loaf to Chundu’s family, and they enjoyed it. I had a little each day, with real Swiss cheese from Bumthang. What a treat!

This third loaf is doing its final rise, and it looks promising. It is the first loaf-shaped loaf, because Chundu lent me a real loaf pan.

As I wandered around town, I saw quite a few vehicles still decorated with ribbons, bows and flowers. Yesterday there was a special puja for vehicles to protect against accidents. If I had a vehicle, I would probably do it too. Better safe than sorry. On these roads, one needs any protection one can get. We are still getting major rain, so there are landslides, accidents and road closures. The sunny days are becoming more frequent, so I hope the roads improve too.

On the walk home, instead of just crossing over the creek which is on my route, I walked up the creek to gather some watercress. I was careful to avoid touching the stinging nettles, because I’ve made that mistake before. The water felt very nice on my feet, and my sandals needed a wash. I had noticed the watercress last week when I was there with Class 6A, cleaning up. In English class we had read a story about a bunch of kids saving a creek, and they were inspired to do the same. That day they worked for about an hour and a half collecting plastic, metal and cardboard from the creek, and then they repositioned some stones so that the creek now flows unobstructed. As I said to them, the creek even sounds happy. They were very proud of their work, and many say they are inspired to clean up other areas.

I can hear shouts and cheers wafting up the hill from the soccer pitch. Time to go and put my bread in the oven.

I promise I will add photos in the next couple of days.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Red-eye and Other Health Issues

Conjunctivitis, pink-eye, or what the Bhutanese call "red-eye" has been making the rounds for the past few weeks. Most locals consider it a sort of “evil eye” which can be passed on by looking at someone who has it. When I wear sunglasses, people sometimes ask me if I have red-eye or if I am trying to avoid catching it. One of the teachers commented that it is more prevalent in the younger classes, because they sit in groups facing each other, whereas the older students have their desks all facing the front of the room. When I realized that even the staff didn’t seem to realize that it is passed on directly by germs, and that it is highly contagious, I decided to address the issue at morning assembly. I hope it helped.

When there are health issues, small or large, people do go to the hospital, but they also have a contingency plan. People either go to the temple for prayers and advice from the lama, or they go to a local healer for treatment. Some of the local treatments are quite severe. For example, my neighbour had been suffering from flu-like symptoms, which were not going away, so she agreed to have a local healer come to the house. She says she didn’t actually agree, but she was too weak to argue with her family about having him come. She said he stunk of alcohol, and made her feel even sicker as he hovered near. The main treatment was to suck the bad blood out of her body through her forehead. She said that he sucked very hard for some time and then spat black blood into a bowl. She says she felt better soon after the treatment. Consequently, when she recently had similar symptoms, she was more willing to have the healer do the same treatment again. Apparently, it didn’t work as effectively this time.

There was a case in the paper recently of a young girl who was brought to the Mongar hospital after undergoing treatment from a local healer. She had stomach problems, so he had made an incision in her abdomen and sucked out the bad blood. Unfortunately the wound got terribly infected, and by the time she was taken to the hospital, it was too late. Sadly, she died.

One of the traffic policeman in Mongar recently had a diabetic seizure. Since he is in a position of power in town, some people believe that he has been stricken by the “evil eye” of those who are unhappy with his power to tell them where to park or not park. A ceremony is being done to avert the “evil eye” which caused this problem.

According to a doctor from Germany who is volunteering at the hospital for a few months, the two biggest health issues in the wards are diabetes and liver damage. I had thought that the high incidence of diabetes would be due to the high sugar consumption here. The main milk is powdered milk which is 19% sugar, according to the package. On top of that, almost everyone adds quite a bit of sugar to their tea. Sweets are very common snacks. I assumed the liver damage would be due to the rather heavy alcohol consumption in eastern Bhutan.

But I learned something interesting which might be a factor in both types of illness. I am aware that there is a lot of MSG in packaged foods everywhere, including some of the most popular snack foods here. Some research on MSG, a.k.a. hydrolyzed vegetable protein, says that its consumption results in overproduction of insulin leading to hunger very soon after eating, and also eventually leading to obesity, diabetes and liver damage. Time for another health talk at morning assembly I think. People eat a lot of waiwai for snacks. This is like Mr. Noodle, but it comes already crushed and seasoned. It is supposed to be banned at my school, but it is eaten “hidingly” by staff and students.

By the way, I have been saving the tiny plastic containers of salt and “tasting powder” which come with the little packets of peanuts which I consume on a regular basis. Apparently I have eaten 65 packets of peanuts since I’ve been here. I’m really craving protein, and peanuts are one of the few sources I trust. I have always reacted very badly to MSG, so I’m not using any of that tasting powder.

Is television good for Bhutan?

I asked my Class 6 students to write on this topic. Most are very aware of the negative impact of television on the Bhutanese culture. They did point out some positives as well.

“Today I would like to tell is television important to Bhutan. Television is important for Bhutan because they give us news, knowledge, etc. For example in my village there was lots of fruit like plum, peach(zargong)and in the television they will show there are coming lots of fruits.

I would like to tell about television is not good for Bhutan. Television is not good because students will watch serial like cartoon network, fighting, abusing drugs, etc. They will do like their hero and some students are there in early morning and wake up and watch television and they left their homework to do, and their work to do. If they eat food and curry they will continue to watch television and parents scold. So I think television is not good for Bhutan.” ~Thinley Wangmo

“Today I am going to write is the television good for us. Television is bad for us because watching the wrong channel we will copy what is shown on the television, e.g. smoking, drinking alcohol and making gangs and fighting, and watching wrestling and fighting like them. Nowadays we can hear about the gang fight and in our school some boys are also making gang.

Now I will also say television is good for us because we can hear news as well as see. We can also know about the ancient time in channel called ‘Fox History’. We can also know different kinds of animals and can watch the television when we feel bored.

So lastly I say that television is good and together bad for us.”
~Kinley Wangmo

Today I would like to tell you if television is good for Bhutan I think it is good in different ways and bad in different ways. The bad is that if we watch too much television, it affects us and as a students we won’t study hard and when we can’t eat food also. We can’t eat because we are more concerned about television. We get bad knowledge like abusing drugs and some also begin to act as hero/boss.

I told you that there is also advantages about television that we should know limit of watching television and study hard. We get different types of good knowledge like messages and information about our world. We could know about other countries’ news. If we watch geography channel we get information about creatures/living beings. Do you watch television?” ~Chimi Yuden

“I would like to give my opinion on how television is good and bad for Bhutan. In some ways I think television is good for the citizens who know how to watch television. He or she can get news, advertisement and information such as what we should do if the earthquake comes. We can also know different kinds of animals.

Unfortunately but those who don’t know how to watch television properly are punished. Not punished by hands but some children are watching wrestling and do gang fights and they had to stay in the bar of metal as the prisoners in the hell…meaning prison.

So lastly, if we watch television, we should know how to watch it. What do you think?” ~Karma Lhazin

“I guess television is not good for Bhutan especially for children. It just distracts our mind. In television there are many channels, but only four to five channels are good for people. Even if people use that channel, sooner they will feel bored and watch other unwanted channels. There are about 30 channels that are not good for people.

For children they watch the characters doing stunts, fighting and many more. The children get attracted with those and they also copy from television, and it effects children a lot. They forget about studies. They try to do bad things and they want to be like hero doing stunts or whatever. The important thing is children are misusing the television and I am afraid we may lose our culture. As our country is developing, the population is increasing and more people may misuse the television. And today onwards people use computers where they pick up bad things from the internet. I say television or other computerized things are not good for our country. ~Thinley Lhendup

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Marital Relationships

It seems that most Bhutanese women accept that husbands will have other lovers, and that a good wife should “forgive” her husband. There was an interesting discussion in the staff room today about one of our colleagues who is going against that social norm. Her husband had another woman while his wife was pregnant, and now that the baby has been born, she has asked her husband to leave. The women in the staff room all feel that this is wrong. They made comments like, “She should forgive him.” “It’s what men do.” “He isn’t seeing the other woman anymore because she is engaged, so there is no more problem.” Apparently even the wife’s mother feels this way.

One of my buddies here, who in other ways is a “modern” Bhutanese woman, also says she thinks it is fine for men to have lovers other than their wives. She points out that the men usually feel guilty, so they are extra nice to their wives. The way she sees it is that everyone benefits.

It is still legal here to have more than one husband or wife. The fourth king has four wives, all sisters. This is becoming uncommon in the younger generation, but it still happens. Everyone knows someone in a village, who has more than one husband or wife.

Add to that tradition, the current trend for civil servants to be transferred to new communities every few years. This often splits up couples because they don’t want to uproot the whole family. I think I’ve mentioned before that kids often live with extended family, usually for proximity to good schooling. Although it is wonderful to see the support that the extended family provides, it is also not ideal. My students certainly express a lot of feelings about missing their mum and/or dad.

So it seems that tradition, current opinion, and frequent moves all make it easy to have more than one partner. It seems that only the men are making the most of the situation.