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.