Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Drive with the Thapa Family

Sunday March 27th
It is a cold and rainy evening in Rangjung.

I am thankfully just coming off a nearly two week ‘gout like experience’ in my right big toe ball joint. Very, very painful but fortunately largely history now. I am also feeling a little under the weather at the moment, not sure why, perhaps a beer will help!

We had a wonderful outing today with the Thapa family, Rena from my homeclass IV and her brother, Rohit, from class VI along with mum and dad and us. Dad is the ‘Mess in Charge’ at Vicky’s school. It was a full little Hyundai i 20 I can tell you. We motored through to Tashigang alright en route to Kanglung where Mr Thapa wanted to go to a particular canteen with attached shop. They had tried to go there several times in the past only to find it closed or undergoing stocktake or empty or in some other way incapacitated.

The roads were the typical windy hairpins with short and very bumpy bits in between them.  Mr Thapa wanted to get to the mess before they broke for lunch, which, really could start at any time and last as long as the proverbial piece of string! Vicky was getting queasier and queasier as the little car lurched round each successive bend until, after one look at her, I called for a halt and shooed young Rohit out of the way so Vicky could head for the verge and lose what remained of her Sunday breakfast. As usual she came good after that purging of her system and she ‘enjoyed’ the rest of the ride untroubled by motion sicknes. Mr Thapa also slowed down to a mere crawl for the sake of Vicky's stomach which helped a lot.

As it turns out, the shop is attached to an Indian Army base just outside Kanglung and is a kind of commissiary or PX as the Americans would say. Regular folk may shop there (sometimes) and the prices are way below MRP, 10 or 20% for some things. We got some Pears soap, Tide washing powder, shaving cream, lavender scented talc powder and some other stuff for just over 700 ngultrums. The Thapas were a little disappointed as they couldn’t get the insulated lunchboxes that the kids wanted, but they did very well, spending around 1500 I think.

We stopped on the way back to Kanglung and ate the delicious picnic lunch that Mrs Thapa had whipped up that morning. The rain spoilt it a little as did the fact that I was freezing! I should have listened to Vicky after all and taken a jacket with me...

Anyhow, we opted to give Sherubtse college a miss in Kanlung. We had seen Lisa and Scott the previous day as they were forced to take a diversion through Rangjung on their way to see Julian and Shauna at Bartsham. We were just heading back into Rangjung after a head clearing walk up to the Chorten we had stopped at on the way up to Bidung all those weeks ago. We chatted with them for a short while and then they were on their way. They were forced to take the diversion as there was a forest fire burning out of control on the Bartsham Road which was duly closed to traffic.

We did stop at the famous Shangrila restaurant in Kanlung- made famous by Jamie Zeppa’s novel, “Beyond the Sky and the Earth” which we have both recently finished reading. We all bought some delicious looking Indian food which we will have for dinner along with some beany dahl and rice.

The rain continued in fits and starts until Tashigang where it was pretty dry really. We two did a mad cry of “carrots!!! as we passed the first veggie shop there. That had the family at first alarmed and then surprised. They have perhaps never seen anyone so pleased to see carots. We swiftly made our way back there and bought a kilo and a half of the orange rareties. We got some other supplies too but had to be a bit careful as the money we brought with us from Thimphu is all but spent and we haven’t received any salaries as yet...
The Trashigang powers that be told me they had been “very busy...” when I last called them to enquire why.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Rimdro: school purification ritual

Once again last week was a busy week.

I thought it was going to be the first full week of teaching without any interruptions but I was wrong. The staff meeting on Tues revealed that we were having “Rimdro” on Saturday. I had no idea what that was and even after a 2 hour meeting after school I knew very little, as so much was discussed in Dzongkha. I got the allocation of duties and that was about it. It wasn’t until I started asking questions that I learnt any of the logistics but it is always difficult to know what questions to ask to get to the bottom of these things! I discovered that there would be no lessons on Saturday but that we were all expected at school all day, which didn’t really turn me on but after a 12-hour stint when I thought back over the day, I can say that it was pretty amazing.

It is actually a purification ritual and all schools have them. At first Ian’s school was supposed to hold theirs on Sunday but as Saturday was such an auspicious day they changed to Saturday too.

A big advantage for me was that there was no morning study on that day and I was on study duty last weekend. That meant that I didn’t have to be at school at 6am for the morning session so that was a huge bonus. I did evening and night study as usual on the Sunday but anyone who knows me will know that I am not a morning person so that was good omen for me. (FYI Everyone takes a turn once a month at this duty as we are a boarding school and usually you do all 3 on one day except if it falls on Saturday when we do the morning that day and then the evening and night on Sunday.)

I got to school early to see the big event and when I arrived at 8 am, the monks were already in place chanting and playing their cymbals, drums, trumpets, conch shell, and long horns at specific points. I knew that the purification ritual had begun as soon as I stepped onto our balcony in the morning actually, as there were clouds of smoke coming from both our schools. Huge branches of pine trees with the needles still attached are burned and offerings are added to the fire all through the day and the smoke was the evidence that it had obviously begun.

I took photos, observed the students and the ritual that was in full swing in our Multi-Purpose Hall, chatted with other staff and students and helped with the preparing of food for most of the morning. All students, teachers, and guests are provided with snacks and meals as the day progresses and given tea both “suja” the Tibetan style butter tea and sweet milky black tea. Both were served in copious quantities all day.

I was told early on, that I should feel my stomach full all day and it did feel like the typical over indulgence of an extravagant Xmas by the time things wound up. I got rice porridge, which was salty and spicy and contained cheese, as soon as I arrived at school and I had already had breakfast and then about an hour and a half later we were given breakfast. Throughout the day snacks including a delicious yellow rice dish cooked with sultanas, cardamom and butter were served and tea and soft drinks flowed freely. Next a lunch of curries and rice and papadams appeared. The food was prepared and served by an incredibly efficient group of female staff and mostly class XII students and my efforts to help in simple tasks like peeling boiled eggs and cardamom or slicing mushrooms or beans only seemed to slow down the other wise efficient functioning of the group but I felt more comfortable helping than being served.  Since the monks were included in this feast it was all vegetarian too.

Then a delegation of staff from our school, which of course, I had to be part of, went off to Ian's school to be guests. We had to hike down a mountain in the rain as they are constructing a new road into the school and it was incredibly slippery. Our school bus dropped us at a point above the school and making our way down the slope was the best way in. I was the only woman in the group and I was wearing my best kira and tego so that was a real treat but I survived and didn’t end up in the mud.

Ian's school event was smaller than ours but very similar in most respects. We were all treated as honoured guests and served tea and biscuits and then other drinks and snacks. I went off to see the monks performing their rituals and even got to add to their sacred fire with some of the blessed offerings as all the Rangjung LSS staff had done already. An hour or so later we made our muddy way back to the bus and returned to our own ritual.

Ian’s own account of his school’s event sheds more light on their preparations and festivities.

“Preparations began towards the end of the week and were at fever pitch by Friday afternoon. A group of class 6 boys was responsible for setting up the platform on which the offerings would be burnt. Another group of boys had already been dispatched to gather a quantity of pine branches. This involved sending one lithe young man up a suitable pine tree so he could hack off a good few branches which were duly dragged or carried back to school where further processing took place. Yet another party had been sent out to bring back some giant bamboos, these were to be used as poles for the new prayer flags.

Digging and constructing seems to come naturally to these boys as they set about their tasks enthusiastically and with little guidance or supervision.
Once the actual platform was constructed, layers of grass slabs, rocks, sand and concrete were laid on it to form a protective layer to stop the platform itself from burning while the offerings were being burnt. The pine needles gave off plenty of spicy smelling smoke and provided enough heat to burn the other offerings which included blessed grain, buiscuits, butter from butter lamps and dough which had been formed into significant shapes by the monks. Lots of smoke! ‘Pollution with a purpose’ one of the teachers quipped to me during the day.

One of the high points of the day was seeing the students recieve the lunch preapred for them in the outdoor kitchen at school. Many hands were employed to produce a meal much enjoyed by the masses.”

Back at the high school things were winding up but more chanting and offerings were required before the huge tower that was in our hall was dragged outdoors. We all had to throw a mixture of grains at a model of a tiger, which miraculously appeared and was especially constructed to bear the weight of our bad deeds. Then all the students had to do the same, to the tower once it was outside. This is symbolic of destroying all your misdeeds for the year and ensuring a prosperous and successful year to come.

2 girls from Ian’s class returned to my school where they live and attached themselves to me for most of the afternoon. I can see how their incessant questioning and constant need for attention could drive one crazy in the classroom. I finally had to take photos of them before they would stop pestering me to go to their homes or give them my camera. They loved telling tales about their mums, their classmates and Ian’s classes.

Ian's group arrived at our school and were served dinner to reciprocate our earlier visit and they were followed by the staff from the local Vocational Training Institute, main street traders, parents, spouses, children and ex-students all keen to participate in the celebration and show respect. 

By 8 pm, when I departed the hall was still buzzing with conversation, the students were relaxing in their dormitories more at ease and well fed than any ordinary day and the monks having performed all their duties were finally able to unwind.

Perhaps for me the best part of the day was participating in lighting this beautiful display of butter lamps!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Photo essay; district celebration of International Women's Day in Rangjung HSS

For the second time in a week Rangjung HSS was decorated with colourful flags, tents were erected, pine needles scattered and a red carpet laid out. 

The dignitaries arrived embedded in an amazingly costumed parade of flag and banner bearing Buddhist musicians and dancers and student performers from all over the district.

A cacophony of sounds heralded the arrival of our most distinguished guest the Minister of Education.

All eyes and cameras were focused on the incredible dance performance that formally opened the celebration.

And the rituals that followed

The inspirational speeches delivered highlighted the status of women in the world and in Bhutan, while focusing specifically on the achievements of the past decade in creating gender balance, providing access to education and promoting equality of opportunity as well as pointing out the hard tasks that still lay ahead.

Once the formalities were complete, the morning was dedicated to the various cultural performances that had been prepared by many of the schools within the district.

The Minister made a point of speaking to as many of the guests and students as possible and was engaging and personable in the brief exchange that I had with him. 

Gifts from the royal family were distributed to the students by him and several other dignitaries including Nancy Strickland the executive director of Bhutan Canada Foundation

The staff of RHSS did a great job logistically and on the day hosting the event.

The students all participated with enthusiasm and took on the task of serving several hundred guests with efficiency and charm and hygiene was taken seriously.

I found the sights of the day to be many and varied.

The audience most of whom were women, seemed thrilled that they had made the effort to be there.

What a day it was!!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

An amazing week

What a week it has been. 

What with the mid term review at school and house guests for 2 nights, then visiting the most eminent religious figure in the local area after school on Friday and another "baby shower" last night. We have hardly had time to stop and collect our thoughts.

The review was a spectacular affair and as it involved the Prime Minister a great deal of preparation by both the school and the dzongkhag went into pulling it off. There were special gates set up in various areas of the school, and all elaborately decorated. Flags were strung from the entrance to the school all along the paths leading to the multi-purpose hall and out to the lunch area and playing fields as well as into the school assembly area. A red carpet was laid along the entire path and as I arrived at school on Wednesday morning the monks from the nearby Woesaal Choeling Monastery (which is the one we can see from our front door) were costumed up and waiting to perform for the dignitaries. 

At the time that the usual morning assembly would occur the quadrangle filled with government officials and ministers and their secretaries and representatives from all over the district, including the hills tribe people from Sakteng and Merak, who wear gorgeous maroon handmade felt tunics and long shorts with knee high boots. Their clothes are quite distinctive and in my opinion gorgeous. Speaking of boots there were many of the officials also wearing their leather and cloth boots and I only wish I was privy to the meaning and rank displayed in the colours and designs. The respective ranks of high ranking government officials is declared in the colours and stripes of the kubneys that they wear over their ghos and this was explained to me again by one of my colleagues. Though I am still not exactly clear as to who is who. 

I watched from the staff room as the assembly of dignitaries grew to over a hundred, regretting that I hadn't brought my camera to school but one of the Dzongkha teachers told me that I should not "snap," when I expressed that idea so I guess it was for the best. Before the whole ceremony began and the Prime Minister himself arrived, we were summoned off to classes to ensure that the students remained quiet and orderly, so I didn't see anything but like the students I was sorely tempted to stick my head out of the window to catch a glimpse of the proceedings when the long horns, cymbals and drums of the monks all started up, marking the beginning of their performance. Needless to say we all resisted.

That afternoon we did get an audience with the Prime Minister and although most of his speech was delivered in Dzongkha he did lapse into English on occasion and he was both eloquent and inspirational in his visions and advice to students. He asked and answered questions from the floor and even directly asked Ian who was sitting in the front row one question. At that point I was glad I had elected to join the students and was the only teacher from our school at the balcony level with 120 very well behaved and attentive students. All our hard work presenting the school in the best possible light seemed to be totally worthwhile in the light of the success it was later declared.

On Friday at school we were both told that the whole staff would be required to visit his eminence Dungse Garab Rinpoche, who is an adored local religious leader. Pictures of him adorn many walls, teachers’ work spaces, the school bus and local businesses. He is also is responsible for building the monastery and other training institutes for monks and lamas here in Rangjung, as well as making many generous donations to the schools in the district. He travels extensively and when he comes back here all the locals pay him a visit and are blessed. Without knowing exactly what it involved I tagged along with the rest of my school staff and was instructed as to what to do when by them. We arrived by bus, as his residence is part way up the mountain leading to Radi and I was trhrilled to see that Ian was already there with his staff.

The procedure was quite simple and although I was not obliged to, I decided to participate by prostrating 3 times as we arrived in front of him, and then lining up to walk towards him with a white ceremonial scarf carefully pleated in my hand and thrown out to cover both outstretched arms as we approached. He took the scarf presented and blessed each person and then returned it to them, around their necks. Several of the babies present had their first lock of haircut by him as it is considered to be auspicious. He actually spoke to me and wished me well with my teaching and thanked me for coming to Bhutan, after Lopen Sherab explained why I was there, so that was nice. Once these simple formalities were over we were served tea and given a small booklet about his teachings, which is in Dzongkha, English and Chinese. Then most of the men disappeared and it wasn’t until much later when Ian returned home, that I discovered that they were all completing against the monks in several rounds of Bhutanese darts.

This morning we woke up to an archery contest going on right outside our front door. There is loud whooping and cheering and dancing and singing that accompanies every arrow that hits the target so it is quite the spectacle and we are enjoying the sounds and the prformances. The distance that they shoot is huge and they use both compound and bamboo bows but the lot outside are all using bamboo so it is the more traditional and cheaper form of the national sport. Never a dull moment in Rangjung!!