Saturday, February 26, 2011

Upwards, ever upwards, Bidung and back!!

Our starting point was the river just near our home at an elevation of around 1,000 metres.

The second day of the King’s birthday holiday dawned bright and beautiful. Our two house guests had slept well in our spare room and at Vicky’s suggestion we all decided to head ‘up the hill’ to see Jean Daniel and Bidung.
We did a walk around Rangjung first and gladly accepted my Principal’s kind offer of tea before we left the grounds of my school after a quick look. We continued around Rangjung, down to the bridge and around Vicky’s school before loading up on momos at our now favourite momo shop. We also picked up a few veggies to take up to JD as Julian said that JD
has to walk 2 hours to Bartsham just to get veggies!!
We set off from here at 12.15 and arrived at Bidung at 2.45. The trip up was a real workout. It was quite hot in the sun and we were soon panting and sweating. Julian has an easygoing lope and the whole walk didn’t seem to strain him in the slightest and Shauna was similarly untroubled. We were certainly feeling the heat and strain and were more than happy to plonk down for a rest as soon as we could.

It was two and a half hours of pretty solid going. The last half hour was nearly too much for the pair of us and we pulled into Bidung a good 5 minutes behind the more capable Canadians. We two were the slowest but we felt good to have made the distance and altitude. My phone GPS said we were at 1770 metres, so we had climbed a good 700 metres to get there.

We refreshed ourselves with a mango juice from one of the shops and then went to the school where JD spends most of his waking hours. He was there and a football match was just about to start, the monks vs the teachers/students. The teachers won, largely thanks to JD’s friend and football coach, LD. We seriously wanted to get back down to Rangjung before dark and we had a deadline of 4pm to leave. After the game Julian and Shauna walked off toward Bartsham and we checked out JD’s place briefly before ourselves heading back downhill. 

Looking down...

On the way up we took a bit of a wrong turn, which meant that we were sort of clambering over rice fields with no defined track in sight as we tried to go up toward the town. We wanted to take the right path down from Bidung and JD started us off. We soon needed the assistance of a friendly local however, and she waved us onto the right track, the one in the ever darkening pine forest echoing with crow calls… A little bit scary but we carried on regardless rejoicing every time we saw a familiar sight and as we were basically just heading downhill, we couldn’t go wrong could we? 

Vicky heading down the steep path.

We did find the spot we had made the mistake on the way up and resolved to remember to go with the prayer flags as they seemed to mark significant points on the trail.

Prayer flags marking the trail.

We were able to see our house for much of the descent which also helped. We met a couple of locals when we were getting pretty close and they were the same group we had seen on our way up and that Julian and Shauna had seen the day before- those gals sure must have strong legs!!! We also saw two kids from my grade 4 class, one girl with a big bundle of firewood on her back and the other with some kind of sack! The loads looked way too heavy for 9 year olds. We got home just about sunset which is a pretty magical time of the day here. A great end to a wonderful day.

Amazing terraces line the mountainsides.

Sunset back at river level.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

School begins in earnest

Sorry about the long silence but we have been without internet for several days......

The first week of school has come and gone and in my case although ¾ of the student body were there no real lessons took place. Instead, we cleaned classrooms, laboratories, administration buildings and the assembly area as well as yards. We also weeded and tidied up garden beds, whitewashed necessary zones and thoroughly scrubbed ceilings, fans, window ledges and the floor of the Multipurpose Hall (MPH). All this in preparation for the celebration of the King’s 31st birth Anniversary cum Education Day and the up coming Mid-Term Review (MTR) which will involve the entire district and take place on our campus. Various sections were allocated tasks and almost without exception they miraculously produced brooms, buckets and sickles or improvised with bamboo, sacks and sticks and diligently set about the task they had been given no matter how onerous.  I cannot imagine any high school aged student in Australia participating in such and activity, with even a tenth of the commitment that these students did. The results were immediately obvious and the whole school took on a much more welcoming and well-maintained look.

I did have a brief opportunity to meet my home class and get in some introduction time before we had to go through the horrors of distributing very tired and dilapidated textbooks and they good naturedly accepted the offerings and tried to swap where possible but settled for what was available. They seem a very responsible and civil minded group who are mostly happy to buckle down and do what is required of them. I have accomplished finding the required furniture for our room and setting it up, writing up an attendance register, electing class captains and establishing who would represent our class in the essay writing component of the celebrations on Monday. I am still desperately trying to get a grasp of their names and wonder how I will ever manage that task when all 4 of my classes are up and running.

Ian was in much the same situation but his home class is a class IV group with whom he has now spent a considerable amount of time. He too had to find furniture, set up his room, distribute books and even record if they were new or old, as well as ensure that his class were on target with preparing their presentation of “Happy Birthday” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Monarch” for their school celebration.

A great deal of fun seems to have been had with the discovery that there are pictures of Australia on his phone and that they can see themselves in the digital camera’s display screen. “Sir…,” “Sir…, “and more “Sir…” seems to be the order of the day with their need to let him know who is saying bad words, or not working or kissing girls even! Like me he still has one grade level to meet so at least Class IV are now a familiar bunch and the Class VIIIs are still to come.

The school day begins with an assembly and the first item is always prayers. Although I cannot understand a word of the Dzongkha they sing / chant it is very moving to listen to and I find it both calming and meditative. After the Teacher of the Day has announced the various daily notices in English, the assembly ends with the national anthem, which sounds as solemn as a hymn to me but is generally delivered with both commitment and pride by all the student body. I am amazed at how lovely it sounds and impressed that they all participate so well compared to the half-hearted attempts at our school in Thailand. It is always a relief and a surprise to hear the notices and realise that I must lead my class in the responsibilities being outlined though I have little idea what they involve.

On Monday Feb 21st the preparations were complete and the celebrations went off without a hitch. Our MPH was clean and set up with elaborately carved, decorated and painted furniture and all the staff and students filled the hall. Having taken the advice of another volunteer teacher not to set up the expectation of wearing it everyday if that was not what I intended to do, I had chosen this day to wear my kira for the first time and was somewhat dismayed at the giggles it inspired in the female students as I walked through the school grounds. 2 colleagues quickly informed me that the folds of the skirt need to be on the right not the left and rectified that problem immediately. After that it was received with warmth and many compliments were offered.

The celebration itself was quite formal and I was invited by the vice principal sir to come up on the stage and light one of the butter lamps. I am convinced that was to ensure that all the students could see I had worn kira! We had speeches, dance performances, a video clip presentation, a debate and the winners of the essay competition in Dzongkha and English were called out to read their winning entries before refreshments were served and the half day was over.

Me with my kira on the right way around! At least I was contributing to GNH with my earlier mistake.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Photo essay; our new hometown Rangjung

The steps leading up to our front door and the upper right side apartment we now live in. The building is very new but very traditional and we love it.

Ian in the living room and even connected to the internet! All of the furniture was donated by my school and we are very glad to have it and not be eating cross-legged on the floor as we are told many Bhutanese do. My knees would not like that at all.

The monastery we can see from our front door. This is the landmark of the town and the one thing that enabled us to locate Rangjung on google maps before we began this adventure.

The view from our bedroom window. We can hear the river flowing and wonder just how loud it will get by the time the monsoon begins.

Shopping for vegetables in the main street. One of the many "general store cum bars" that sell largely the same items and have school aged children behind the counters. No doubt many of them will turn up in our classes over the next couple of weeks.

Locals shopping on Saturday afternoon.

 Some of the family of monkeys we saw playing and grooming each other in the Rangjung Higher Secondary School grounds. The younger mother and her baby were quick to escape the camera lens.

Rangjung Lower Secondary School where Ian is taking Class IV and Class VIII English classes starting this week. It caters for PP to Grade VIII and is a small but beautifully positioned with a playing field and a family of Common Kestrels that we have observed from our balcony and the school grounds.

Our new home viewed from Ian's school. It is perfectly placed between the 2 schools and close to the main streets despite the apparent isolation. We hear the roar of the river and witness the comings and goings of the monks and nuns from the monastery on a daily basis.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Day one at school

Well I survived my first day at school and a lot of what we were taught at orientation came in very handy. 

Unlike Ian I had not met any of my colleagues or principal, so I walked in the gates 30 minutes early to see not a soul in sight and have no idea where I should head. The school is gorgeous though with quotations posted all over the walls and traditional buildings and paintings on all of the eaves and lintels. I soon saw a couple of people who turned out to be English speaking colleagues, and was taken to an office and given a desk quite promptly. Everyone was keen to make me feel welcome and to engage in conversation too. As the time ticked by, more teachers arrived and there was a contingent from India as well as the Bhutanese teachers who had made it back from their hometowns far and wide, and many who were absent due to road blocks in Bhutan and strikes in India. It seems that many of those who want to travel from the west to the east in Bhutan find it easier to exit and travel through India and then re-enter, than to risk the passes and uncertain roads that we have just travelled. That however is not an option for us as we don't have the visas required to go in and out of India.

In no time at all the vice principal arrived and took me into his office and welcomed me personally and gave me a brief outline of the school. While we were talking another new teacher who was straight out of the college in Paro arrived and we discovered that the newly appointed principal had not arrived and therefore things were somewhat chaotic. From his office we headed into a meeting room where the usual first day procedures of forming committees, subject allocation, selection of class teachers and house masters, allocation of other essential responsibilities and extra-curriucular duties were distributed, by a process of volunteering, being volunteered or "by default".  I was not a sure what any of these actually involved and was one of the few who volunteered for anything: in my case the role of class teacher for a class 9 group that I knew I was already teaching English to. I have also landed myself the task of assistant to the co-ordinator of the Literary Club and look forward to discovering exactly what that might involve. I did suggest that I wouldn't be capable of leading it until I at least knew what was involved but I am sure that I will be taking over as soon as is perceived to be possible. There are so many jobs to be done and relatively few staff to do them.

I was only able to understand a quarter or less of what was going on in the meetings, which took up almost all of the entire day as although they usually start in English, they quickly revert to Dzongkha and only key words in English give any meaning to the discussion in my case. Still, I was able to follow enough of what was happening to feel OK about it. I had taken my lunch with me and was glad that I had, when everyone disappeared home for the lunch break. It seems most of the teachers and staff live on campus and that I am the exception in that respect. One very friendly teacher invited me to to her place to eat and that was a relief, as I envisioned myself eating alone in the abandoned staffroom.

I guess that more time will be given to subject planning and groups will be formed for that tomorrow but only time will tell. I must say that everyone seems very relaxed about the responsibilities they have been allocated and the fact that there will be a lot of time given over to organising the celebrating the King's birthday at the beginning of term. It seems unlikely that real classes will start until after then and that there may well be a great deal more reshuffling of roles, as the rest of the teachers and the principal himself arrives.

All in all it was an interesting day and I am trying to learn from the locals and take it as it comes.

Photo essay of the road trip

The load out was accomplished with the minimum of fuss which just goes to show that many hands do indeed make light work.

Dorji was our driver and a fantastic one he was too...

He had to be to drive safely over this road...

And other roads that looked like this....
And navigate this kind of drop...

To enable us to see sights like this.....

And this.

To get us to our lovely new home in Rangjung.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The road trip to our new home

The road trip is behind us now but what a trip it was! Day one saw us pass over Dochula at    more than 3,000 metres. Off in the distance were the snow covered jagged peaks we had imagined Bhutan would look like. The pass itself was a Monastery and there were thousands of chortens ringing the peak, an amazing and inspiring sight. Later that day we were treated to a tour of the Punakha Dzong which is more than 600 years old.  We saw monks chanting together in a large room ornately decorated in traditional Bhutanese style. Our last sight of the day was the temple dedicated to the phallus and originated by the 'Mad Monk'. It is famous as the place people who are experiencing difficulty starting a family,can go. The route up to the temple took us past both a dart ground and an archery ground and we were treated to the sights and sounds of opposing teams of archers and dart throwers alternately congratulating their team mates and doing their best to put off the opposition players. It was a lively sight and a highlight of many Bhutanese for the Losar (Lunar New Year) vacation.
Our first night was spent in Punakha and we all enjoyed the hospitality of the hotelier and slept soundly after our first day on the road.
Day two ended in Jokar in Bumthang, a pretty cold plateau. The town of Jokar suffered a catastrophic fire in the bazar area no too long ago and the rebuilding effort is ongoing. Our host that night was a retired teacher of 30 years service and he was gracious enough to charge us all the same rates as any other civil servant who stays there. The rooms were cozy and warm complete with small wood burning stoves and plenty of hot water for showers. The food was up to the usual standard and we all ate heartily.
I haven't mentioned the roads yet...
Our driver, Dorji, from Rangjung Higher Secondary School, deserves a mention about now. He guided us safely over mountain passes, around innumerable blind corners, past oncoming traffic big and small, wheeled and four legged, into and out of the tightest hotel driveways imaginable, down crowded main streets of the regional towns and villages all the while maintaining his good humour and willingness to help. Well done Dorji!!!!  He and his counterpart, from Tashitse School, both did an excellent job of getting us all to our destinations safely and with as much comfort as was possible. In general the road conditions were pretty good considering they were all carved into the sides of mountains. Rock slides are unavoidable but we had luck on our side as all our enforced stops were brief. The vertiginous drops had us all grasping our seats a little tighter at times and the overhanging rocks caused us to sit a little lower in our seats at other times! 
We passed through many types of vegetation, the most memorable of which was the almost tropical rain forest as we neared Mongar from Bumthang. It was all the more surprising and welcome having been through the highest pass on snowy roads with frozen waterfalls looming above us that same day. We saw broad leafed evergreens and deciduous trees but the most magnificent were the giant conifers with 'old man's beard' streaming out in the wind. It was a magical and ancient landscape uncluttered by civilization and home to a host of animals and birds. We saw 2 types of monkeys and yaks and finally moments after we entered Trashigang District a vulture, which is considered very lucky in these parts.
We were sorry to say goodbye to our colleagues on the way but at the same time we were all eager to get to our new homes.

Our final night on the road was spent in Mongar, a thriving and typically bustling former capital of Eastern Bhutan. From there it was a fairly relaxed 80 odd kilometers to Trashigang and then here to Rangjung. We did a whirlwind tour of Trashigang and it was a head spinning place with sights and sounds in every direction. We shall return to investigate further in the future.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Heading out east.

We have now finished orientation and today we head out east to our postings. We have been warmly welcomed and treated to some incredible experiences over the past 2 weeks. We have been given lectures introducing the education system, the special aspects of democracy and the basics of Buddhism and now feel that many aspects of Bhutanese culture are now much more familiar to us. Both the Minister for Home and Cultural Affairs and the Education Minister made the time to receive us and spoke eloquently about their visions for Bhutan and their passions for developing the education system. Their deep concern for the youth of the country and their clear perspective on the role we will all play was both impressive and inspirational. Many other topics have also been presented to us and we have been able to pose questions and discuss our ideas and concerns with experts. Now we are eager to see the reality and get to the teaching aspect of our time here.
We have had a couple of introductory language lessons in both Dzongkha and Sharchop as well as cooking lessons to help prepare us for our new lives.
On a more personal level we have bought everything we imagine we will need for our new homes and a great deal more. By far the most exciting purchases being the national dress that we are both proud and honoured to wear. Now we begin the adventure of travelling across the country to get to our postings.