Sunday, July 24, 2011


Here we are approaching week 4 of the second semester and it is probably about time to say something about teaching again. Given that it is really the whole purpose for being here and that it occupies almost every waking minute of 5 and a half days a week, a lot has been going on in that domain for both of us.

Having begun the new semester with an extensive analysis of the very disappointing exam results and a one week blanket extension on the summer break assignment no-one attempted, with the class XI students I decided to follow up with the first ever text I have not taken from their course book. There is an innate fear and loathing of poetry and it was almost without exception the section of the exam in which everyone scored the worst. With this in mind, I chose what I though would appeal to their sense of respect and responsibility nurtured by the Buddhist doctrine of the country and what I believe to be an inspirational piece of writing by a young American poet. If you don’t already know it check out Jonathon Reed’s “Lost Generation” on youtube;

It is palandromic and as such presents a very grim view of the current generation of young people and their future when read in one direction. This totally pessimistic perspective however is completely spun on its head after the palindrome is exposed. We discussed the bleak outlook and the views of the poet and set to trying to discover the “trick” in it. I left this conundrum with 3 separate classes and was delighted that 2 of them found it. The true joy came when it was then re-read with the optimistic perspective taking the stage. As the lights went on for those who had at first not seen it smiles broke out all around the classroom. Spontaneous discussions erupted and questions flew. Isn’t this what teaching is meant to be about?

The oral presentations that followed were an eye-opener for me. Now armed with 2 diametrically opposed views of youth and their future they needed to form groups to present the poem and follow up with some analysis of what they understood it to mean and how it related to them and Bhutan. In all 3 classes there was an even spit between those who presented the optimistic perspective and those who painted it black. I was surprised that all that exuberance and commitment to GNH and responsibilities their country and king have placed on their shoulders that emerges with monotonous regularity, didn’t translate into an overwhelmingly optimistic outlook on the future!
My naïveté perhaps.

Nevertheless they did some outstanding presentations and many spoke with more confidence and self-assurance than I would have dreamed possible just 5 short months ago.  They shocked themselves by having fun with poetry and surprised me with some very insightful responses. For those who were really game I filmed them and they got to see themselves speaking in front of their peers for the first time. Not everyone was up for this final display of confidence and I left each group to decide for themselves but for those who gave it a shot it was a really worthwhile exercise. They certainly never tire of watching themselves and pointing out their own mistakes and weaknesses.

Just 2 short days later it was back to the textbook and another poem to keep the ball rolling! The response of “This one is easy Mam,” speaks volumes to me. Maybe we should set the text aside a bit more often….

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Trashigang and back

Yesterday was something of a red-letter day in transport terms so having blogged about an earlier disaster I think I should set the record straight with a much more positive tale.

At about 12.30pm, after our half-day of teaching we headed out for what is now the usual transport waiting game when we want to make our way to Trashigang. On this occasion it was for long over due haircuts. We walked down to the gates of my school and waited for about 10 minutes without any vehicles coming by and then a half-loaded truck came along. Ian flagged it down and sure enough it stopped and after a brief chat with the driver, we climbed up into the cabin and his off-sider climbed back in on the passenger’s side and away we went. It was a smooth run into T/gang and the driver happily chatted away with Ian about our jobs and his job and the state of the roads, all the time apologizing for his poor English. We were impressed and reassured him that it was much better than our Dzongkha or Sharchopka. The view and perspective from high up in the cabin was quite different to the one we usually get and we are now familiar enough with that 16kms of windy mountain road to know when we are approaching the few sights we pass along the way. Ian called Deepak the famous barber just as we were passing the Dzong (Administrative and Government centre) to book in for cuts. Once we were in the bustling metropolis of T/gang, it took a little convincing before the driver finally accepted our offer of the usual fare the 4-wheel drive taxis charge but he did so at the mention of it paying for some of his meals for the rest of the journey, as he was continuing on to Mongar.

The impressive structure and location of Trashigang Dzong

Soon enough the main business of haircuts and in my case another dye too was done and dusted. The charming and well spoken Deepak, was very impressed with the "new technology" of my Australian made hair dye and mixed up a bit more than was required. He called to see if I was happy with it last night as I have to wash it out at home. How’s that for customer service! On the phone he said that he and his young employee and the woman in the shop next door all tried the bit that was left and liked the results. Of course the colour is only visible on the grey hairs in their jet black hair. He is such a nice man.

After he had finished both our haircuts he asked us to have a coffee with him. We were both amazed that there is even somewhere where you can get coffee in T/gang and of course we agreed. We headed off to a hotel and restaurant that we have eaten at several times before and sure enough 3 coffees and éclairs from the bakery next door arrived at the table. Now they looked like real cappuccinos but were actually instant coffee with frothed milk. Still very nice of him and when we tried to pay he wouldn't have a bar of it. I think he probably spent all that we had paid him for our haircuts on the coffee and cakes but he was happy to do so.

The executive director of BCF Nancy was his teacher in 1989 when he was in class 2 and he remembers her fondly and is very impressed with the work she does now. He has also cut His Majesty the King's hair and his father’s before him! Another famous customer is  Garab Rimpoche, who is the founder of the local monastery in Rangjung and many other community based serices and is an esteemed and honoured local identity. Deepak had great tales to tell about both of them and has amazing English. As a barber he has quite the reputation and yet he is a really lovely down to earth guy working out of a box of a salon smaller that the average bathroom.

One of the shopping streets in T/ Gang-did I say metropolis!

I spent another 2 hours wandering around T/gang with the dye still in my hair and didn't even care. I guess we foreigners are considered so odd that most people didn't even notice and there was certainly no surprise or staring!! I don't think that would be the case in Adelaide if one went out shopping with hair dye plastered to one’s head!  

We got ourselves an armload of supplies and treats and a few unexpected items including spinach, which we were thrilled about. At the moment the vegetable supplies are very limited. Most of the time the only things we can get locally are potatoes, chillies (of course) tomatoes, onions, garlic and eggplants with the occasional bunch of asparagus appearing. So the spinach was the find of the day though gin and tonic water would have to come a close second!

T/gang the town built into the cliff face!

We wandered back down to the bus station where the local taxis all hang out and as luck would have it, a driver who has taken us before and speaks some English too, instantly spotted us. He called out “Rangjung Rangjung,” and there were already 2 other passengers waiting and as often happens another just materialized out of thin air at the very mention of the vehicle leaving, so we got into the cab and were on our way home in five minutes flat. 2 of the passengers were graduates from Rangjung HSS and were happy to chat about their time there about 5 years ago. No waiting and no delays on the transport front this time round. That is an absolute first and now I have my fingers crossed that Kuenzang Gyeltshen, our driver and native of nearby Changmay, will often be right there when we are searching for a lift.

Only this morning did it occur to me that I should have asked that driver for his number so we could actually call him when we want to book the whole vehicle to go further afield. Oh well, hopefully we will see him again and be able to do that before we implement our plans to visit some of the other BCFers out here in the east during this term.

Every shop front needs a prayer wheel doesn't it?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Some of the things we enjoy about living in Rangjung.

Falling asleep and waking up to the roar of the river that flows downstream just below our house.

Being greeted by tiny, traditionally clad, primary students who stop and bow while shouting,"Good morning Madam, " between 5 and 20 times on my way to school each morning.

Seeing the huge "OM" painted on a boulder, half way up the mountain on the other side of the river, over the heads of the students in the assembly ground during morning assemblies.

Never knowing just how hot these chillies will be.

Turning every prayer wheel I pass whether or not I have done it before.

Watching the fog dissipate to reveal the majestic mountains that surround the town.

Hearing bird calls daily and knowing some of the calls, without ever having spotted the birds that make them.

Being surrounded by paddy fields in which the rice seems to grow as you watch.

Knowing that I am "making a difference" or perhaps that should be, thinking that I am making a difference, most of the time! 

Watching old women's faces light up when they see us wearing Bhutanese national dress.

Seeing kids take a bath in the street at a public tap gigging and playing with the water.

Observing ancient farming implements being used as they have been for millennia.

Learning just a little more about the people, the culture and the myths everyday.

Delighting in adding even more cane-ware to my already extensive collection.

Knowing that any effort we make to participate in this culture will be appreciated and rewarded with smiles.

Hearing songs and laughter coming from the fields while women are doing back breaking work in the scorching sun.

Never being quite sure when the power will go out or the water supply stop flowing but feeling secure in the fact that we have candles and a garbage bin full of water in stock at all times.

Hearing long horns, cymbals, drums, trumpets and conch shell music emanating from the monastery and other local places when rituals are being held.

Coming across unexpected wildlife in any location you can name at the most unsuspecting moments.

Feeling blessed to be here doing this most of the time.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Trashiyangtse trip

We left in a very leisurely fashion on Tuesday morning and it was only as we approached the Trashigang Dzong that any of us thought about whether the road would be open or closed as they are widening it. Our driver and friend Samdrup, who is also Ian's colleague and Dzongkha teacher at Rangjung LSS, is one of those unruffleable guys and sure enough we got a tank of juice and trucked on through just before the road was closed behind us. 

This trip was really about getting out of Rangjung for a break and celebrating Ian's birthday in the manner that we always have, ie by going somewhere we have never been before.

The birthday boy wearing Julian's Brokpa hat from Merak - Sakteng; that is somewhere we would really like to go next chance we get, given the tales we have heard from those who braved it this time round.

We also got to the police checkpoint and got our official paperwork to travel out of the Trashigang district quite efficiently. They checked their files and found Ian's application to the DEO and the Dzong's approval and then checked our work permits and issued us with the required pink slip of paper. We had to state, then and there, when we would come back and then return the pink slip to them at that time, which of course we did. A hassle but not too onerous. 

We stopped at Gom Kora, a place Samdrup had taken us to before and I was glad to get out of the car as the road was just getting steep and windy and it was making me ill. We had a quick look around and then headed off again. It really is a lovely temple but we were hot and bothered and keen to be heading into new territory now that the holiday had really begun.

From there it was only just over an hour all up hill to Trashiyangtse and the views were spectacular. We even saw a family of langurs on the side of the road but we weren't quick enough to photograph them. We pulled into town and stumbled upon the very hotel that we thought looked the best choice from the Lonely Planet write up and sure enough as we checked in we were asked if we knew Kendra (who is a BCFer and lives there) and told that 2 other BCfers had already checked in. 

 The service was great because the staff were more than helpful and the rooms more luxury than most of us usually experience but it was really the views and the company that proved to make the occasion the celebration it was intended to be. 

We literally bumped into the other BCF folk.

By dinner that night we had 10 of us on site and 6 of us in the hotel we selected and 3 in another. They had already ordered a meal so we were instantly in good spirits and happy to be out exploring new places. 

Although Trashiyangtse is a capital of a district it is not as big as Trashigang, but it has a lot of character and a really lovely atmosphere. That first afternoon I found a handicraft store and bought a couple if trinkets and we walked down the road to a prayer flag covered bridge where Ian became obsessed with capturing the movement in that fast flowing water.


We had already had a good look around the town, which is just lovely and took several dozen photos of the amazing Chorten Kora. It is a copy of one in Kathmandu which we saw years ago and very spectacularly situated right on the river front. Over the next 3 days we couldn't resist the urge to keep photographing it. 

The next day we all went out to a handicraft school "Zorig Chosum" a brief walk out of town and uphill all the way of course. I started the buying there with a gorgeous thanka or Buddhist scroll. Others also bought scrolls and wood carvings and paintings and Ian bought some brass items and a offering bowl. Though there were any number of lovely items available and choosing was a difficult task.

It was Ian's birthday so he chose which thanka, he wanted but of course it is really for both of us and it looks lovely hanging on the wall in our house here in Rangjung. We put it up yesterday almost as soon as we got home. Maureen even asked about how to correctly tie the yellow protective cloth layer correctly. When the scroll is on display it needs to be decoratively folded at the top of the scroll. She got a demonstration from the salesperson cum artisan in the centre and I watched too. I didn't try it myself until we got home yesterday but did OK for a first timer I think.

BCFers at dinner that night were in a jovial mood!

That view from the hotel window as we saw it on the final morning.

All in all a great time with some fun people and a chance to really unwind.

Maybe it is a universal that we all wish the holidays were longer!!!! But Rangjung is still home and we aren't sorry to be here.