Monday, August 29, 2011

What we do when we are NOT teaching.

Although we are at week 9 of a 5-month semester and the holidays seem a very long way off, this semester is less stressful than the last since we now have some idea of how things work. 

Rangjung LSS, Monastery and Rangjung HSS from Bidung side.

I guess the really big news is that we have lodged our paperwork to extend our contracts here for another year. We have always had the view that 2 years is the minimum with these kind of postings as it is not until you are into the second year and able to predict the upcoming school events, social calendar and other related commitments that you really get a clear picture of the place. Thailand proved to be the exception to the rule and we know that we have never had to work this hard before but we still feel that the settling in period and adjustments to a new culture and environment are now largely over. We actually didn’t have to deliberate very long about the decision. Although we toyed with the idea of trying for a posting in a different town, we finally decided that having visited several friends in other locations, we have always returned to Rangjung thinking that we had been blessed with our location and climate so staying put was probably the best decision. Well done to BCF for placing us in the most Aussie friendly zone in the country.

Here we experience many kinds of commitments that go well beyond our teaching schedules and since it has been a while since I last recorded what we have been up to, I will outline to last few weeks in terms of non- teaching activities.

Two weeks ago we had the Chairwoman of the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) come and speak to the whole school and her team showed a Power Point Presentation on the work they do reducing and addressing corruption. I was personally impressed that the whole session was conducted in English and so the students also participated in English. Teaching staff were required to stay afterwards and chat with her over momos and tea. Despite the fact that she did try to get everyone involved, it ended up almost like a second lecture. As one of the few women here in a position of power, she was happy to express delight that so many of our girls were vocal in the question and answer session that followed the presentation and that was a feather in our cap as a school.

A week later the Opposition Leader, Tshering Tobgay appeared for a similar session and expressed the exact same sentiments, so Rangjung girls must be something of an exception. His presentation was in Dzongkha but it was interspersed with English and he also commented on the girls preferring to use their English language skills. He gave out his Facebook account details, Blog address and several other Web pages to all the students inviting them to engage in political debate and even wrote on his wall about their participation the very night that he had addressed them. For me however it was another 12-hour day that had included a long period of standing around in the school car park waiting for his arrival.

MPH with the students in full swing.

On the Friday following our ACC visit, at lunchtime a notice went up that the Garab Rimpoche (read much adored local religious leader) was back in town so were all required to meet at the school gates at 3.30pm and go up to his residence, just out of Rangjung. He raises funds abroad and sponsors many local community projects as well as providing retreats. This visit required obtaining a white scarf like I am sure you have seen the Dali Lama being offered, and then presenting ourselves with said scarf to him for the blessing and nullification of our bad karma. We have been through this before and had some idea of what to expect and a dread of how long we it might take as it was for several hours last time. I was in traditional clothes but without the "rachu" that is required at these formal occasions as I had no way to go home and get mine so there was a bit of a stir until a female staff member with a spare was found. Luckily Ian's school and mine both went together and there was an important meeting that evening, so we were able to make a quick get away this time.

Car park routine

Then the very next day (Saturday night no less) I was required to meet in the MPH (Multi Purpose Hall) of my school for a dinner to welcome a new baby! On this occasion the mother and baby weren't even present so it seemed even odder than usual. One of the SSO's wives had had a bay girl earlier in the month so we all needed to assemble and pay respects. We have also been through this a few times before so I knew the routine. Meet at appointed time and wait for up to an hour for those who proudly claim to be on BFT (Bhutanese Flexible Time). Then tea and biscuits and a round of awkward sitting around before the principal announces how happy we are to be there and then gift of a carton beers, which are mostly consumed there and then and a baby outfit and nutritious food for the mum are handed over. A round of the hideous local brew called ara that smells like dry cleaning fluid is then served. I do know other BCFers have taken to this noxious drink but I have a total aversion to it, and despite saying I don't want it I am forced to accept some every time.
When it comes time to eat, everyone defers to everyone else about getting up to serve themselves with the meal provided on tables out the front, until someone decides that I should go first and we all stampede forward and form a queue. As usual there was pork, and dried, deep-fried fish, which I was happy to have a legitimate excuse to avoid, as it looks totally unappetising. Since both fish and meat are rare in this cuisine, it is popular. Then there was the usual cheese and chillies, (national dish emadatse) which is unbelievably hot but the only thing I could add to my rice. The other dish was also fried cheese and red chillies and the oil slick on top indicates that it is a cholesterol nightmare to be avoided at all cost. Luckily, like the Chinese, once the meal is over the Bhutanese just flee, so after our 6.30pm start I was home again by 9pm!! 
During that week we were also delighted to host Charly, who was doing the rounds of BCF teachers out east to escape the monotony and boredom of being in Mongar without much to do as the partner of Julia the special Ed teacher there. He timed his arrival perfectly between visiting dignitaries and public meetings to avoid both and enable us to spend the maximum amount of time with him. He amused himself well enough and spent a bit of time in each of our schools but decided to head off with a Bhutanese friend wanting to utilize his carpentry skills on Saturday morning, just before our next pressing community event.

Rimpoche arriving for football on a previous occasion.

After the first round of VIP visits and social obligations, we were once again summoned to the MPH the following Saturday night. Ian had to attend the meeting with Rimpoche and all the local residents on the topic of “double purity”, which was held at my school but my principal only insisted that the national (Bhutanese) teachers attend from the beginning (2pm after finishing school at 12.30pm) and we non-nationals, meaning the Indian teachers and I, didn't have to be there until the dinner at 6pm. The hall was packed when I arrived and every local business was closed for the day for that reason. Although we had been told there would be a meeting we had no details about the time, until the notice went up at about 10am on the day.

The whole meeting was in the local language Sharchopka not Dzongkha so Ian was at a complete loss. Not that either of us would have understood any more had it been in the national language. By the time I got there he had been sitting in the very overcrowded and overheated hall for over 3 hours and the proceedings went on for another 2 and half hours before dinner was served. The Rimpoche himself called us up to his honored position at the front of the gathering for a chat immediately after he spotted us. We have now met him several times and he has excellent English as he is out of the country fund raising a lot of the time: in America and Taiwan mostly. 

Some of the RLSS kids did a short skit which was a highlight of the afternoon session according to Ian and my school's dance group performed a few pieces at the end and while we were eating dinner. After that, the finalists from our Rangjung star (Idol type competition) all got up and sang. We were keen to escape before it turned into a fund raiser, not that we weren't prepared to donate but....... Ian's friend Samdrup explained that you could nominate anyone to sing and pay a fee (200 ngultrums) so they then had to sing, as the money would go to the monastery. We could both guess that we would be nominated despite not being able to sing and therefore fled. 

Rimpoche deep in conversation.

Last Monday the Royal Wedding Cup began with an opening ceremony conducted by the Rimpoche and the first of the games. It has been one game after school every night and 2 games on Saturday and Sunday ever since but I can honestly say that I have witnessed only 5 of the 9 games that have been played thus far. Before arriving in Bhutan I had never seen a single game so this in itself is an achievement for me.

Football heroes Principal Sir and Chogyel Sir.

For us as the hosts this means that we get to see a whole lot of BCFers who come to see their team play or the manage them. Nick from Khaling was the first to arrive with his team last Thursday, Natalie appeared just before the storm on Saturday accompanying the Sherubste Collage non-teaching staff team, and John and Maureen materialized to report the hail that they had driven through about an hour and half later. We snatched a quick conversation with Nick before he and his team departed for their 3 hour drive back to school after a 6pm finish and we hope to see him again as his team won.  Luckily we managed to spend part of the afternoon with Natalie and more of it with the Wamrongers (John and Maureen) who stayed overnight, after their team narrowly beat our Rangjung HSS team in the second of Saturday’s games. Unfortunately for the boys one of their players was badly injured and removed from the field on a stretcher. He is now waiting in Mongar Hospital for surgery, as his leg is fractured in 2 places. The RHSS staff team’s victory on Sunday lifted the spirits and cheered up the students no end after that unwelcome mishap.

My home class IXC in all their glory (this is one photo I didn't take).

In my spare time I have been taking all the class, staff and ancillary staff photos for the school magazine!

Rice swaying in the breeze.

Finally a weather report: We are getting the odd day that is cooler and have had more rain in the last week than the whole rest of the monsoon season. Of course, because the football is in full swing, there have been some incredible storms. Not the least of which was last Saturday when thunder, lightening and even hail didn’t even disrupt the game schedule. Just when I thought that it was almost over, I discover what the monsoon season is really like. Still it is nothing compared to the nightly, torrential downpours of Thailand. The zone directly above the rice fields is full of dragonflies in the mornings, the rice sways under the influence of strong and welcome winds, cooling us off after sweltering afternoon sessions and we have seen 3 spectacular rainbows in the last week.

View from our living room window!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Youth Day

Friday August 12th was a big day for us at the Lower Secondary School. It was United Nations Youth Day and we all saluted the young people who will inherit our earth. 
It was a lesson free day but that did not mean no work.
The theme of the day at our school was ‘Youth Volunteerism’. 
To this end all students from Class IV and up were allocated different areas of Rangjung Town that they could set to with gusto and clean up!
My class IVs were tasked with cleaning the rather long road from the junction just below the Monastery all the way down to our house, a distance of several hundred metres.

There are paved roads with gutters and footpaths here but often there is no further development so the jungle/bush is slowly reclaiming what it can. Through every crack and fissure in the surface, plants take hold and the longer they are left undisturbed, the harder they are to remove.

Undeterred and undaunted our team attacked the triffid like growth with a vengance wielding their sickles like people possessed!

Swinging sickles with our house in the background.

 Those weeds didn't stand a chance!

Sonam Dorji attacking those weeds.

 Suitable protective clothing was, of course donned for the occasion.

The main man, Tshering Tashi, nice glove fella!

Best of friends, Dendup Tashi and Pema Sangay.

The indomitable Leki Dorji!!

 It was a pretty hot day and some of us were even being sun-smart!

Nice sun hat Choki!!

The Municipal Garbage truck came by and we eagerly loaded the piles of garbage we had collected from the side of the road into it and waved it goodbye.

The sign on the front of the garbage truck was hand made by two of the UN Club teachers.

Once the clean up was completed and coincidentally right about lunchtime, we all trooped back to school for lunch.
There is no such thing as a free lunch and the the students earned every grain of rice and every piece of potato they were served.

Some class V boys looking pretty pleased with themselves, Principal Sir is behind them.

There were some pretty happy campers there I can tell you!

All the food was prepared by our school’s resident Mr Fixit, Atta Singay and a select band of helpers. He makes a mean potato curry, rice and dahl I can assure you.

But is that enough chilli????

The kids enjoyed sitting around and eating their lunch without the time constrains of a regular lunchtime.

Mmmmm this tastes gooood!

 After lunch there were some games and things. We all enjoyed youth day immensely.

Friday, August 12, 2011

E and me and the leeches makes 3

It was great to get away for a weekend and feel that we had been somewhere new and seen a little more of this magical kingdom. As always the adventure of getting there seems to be a major part of the experience and I marvel at the ease with which locals overcome the travel obstacles on a regular basis.

Although we thought we were totally prepared for a quick get away after school on Saturday, there were still a few surprises in store. We had both planned to escape from school earlier than the usual finish time but after our teaching commitments and our bags were packed and ready to go by the time we left for school at 7.30am on Saturday. I got away with only a small hiccup, which was that, my principal called a meeting for all English and Dzongkha teachers in the final lesson, which I had already asked permission to escape. Luckily I was in his office when this information came to light and I asked to be excused and agreed to be a part of the school magazine committee, which was what the meeting was about.

Ian however ended up with duties supervising the SUPW (Social Useful and Productive Work) for his class 4 home group and didn't leave until the exact time that our pre-booked taxi was due to pick us up at our house. Just like real taxis!!!

I bolted home as one of the photography club kids had given me the camera with shots still in it and he wanted them included in the print run for that day!! I got the photos into the computer and onto my USB stick which was already set up to pass over to the photography shop in T/gang on our way through and then checked my phone to find 4 missed calls from our reliable and trusted taxi driver. Luckily he was just running late and arrived at almost exactly the same time as Ian and away we went.

We managed a brief stop in T/gang and were able to pass on the photos files to the shop, buy a few treats for Maureen and John, and fill up on momos for lunch while Kinzang Gyeltshen cooled his heels in the bus station and touted for any other passengers heading our way. That was not to be, so we were off with just the 3 of us in less than 40 minutes. Just out of town the road construction, which we have now passed through several times, caused our first delay. We were sweltering in the car as we had heeded the good advice of Maureen and John and dressed for the supposed cooler climes of Wamrong. In no time at all we were regretting our choice of attire as the blazing sun and stifling atmosphere in the car ensured that we both overheated. Our man behind the wheel went off to see what the hold up was and returned saying that it would be about 6 hours when Ian asked him. We chose to ignore that assuming that he had misunderstood the question and about 10 minutes later we were on our way again.  He remained completely unflustered activated his relining seat and when we got out of the car to breathe, he put his head down to sleep for however long it might take.

When we reached Kanglung we again requested a stop and I went off to buy the fresh greens I had spotted while Ian got samosas and pakoras from a small shop that we had stopped at on the way through on our only other trip this far east. The ever resourceful Kinzang found 2 more passengers while we were shopping and so we were all pleased with ourselves. Just to add to our already very positive opinion of Kanglung, on our way out of town we spotted Lisa and Scott who work there, walking along the road. It was quite strange actually as they spotted us when they were cruising through Rangjung on their way to see Julian and Shauna in Bartsam some months ago. We BCFers seem to attract each other like magnets.

Another 2 hours down the road and we dropped the 2 passengers off and were within an hour of Wamrong. We had been climbing for most of the journey and the last 20 kms or so were completely in the clouds. Having sweltered in the car at the first delay, we were actually cold by the time we got out. There were only rare glimpses of the view and then the clouds obscured everything including the road again. Almost exactly as predicted it took 4 hours to cover about 85~90 kms, travelling at around 30 km maximum speed. The condition of the road with pot holes, no surface in places and swimming in water in others, the bogged cars, mudslides, sheer drops, restricted visibility and hairpin bends made even that speed seem excessive at times!!

Once we were inside the grounds of Tashiste Higher Secondary School and were grateful that John had mentioned to give the school address to the driver, as it is about a kilometre out of town and more than one km up a very muddy and steep road that is currently being widened. John came to meet us on the campus and we were glad that we didn't have to haul our things and shopping up the access road. 

It was already approaching dark by that time so we went directly to their staff quarters and were happy to sit around chatting. They must have one of the best-appointed places of all of us teachers. It is so nice and with real functioning bathrooms, wooden floors, spacious rooms and views when the clouds lift. Despite being right on campus it is also very quiet and private. That night disappeared in no time, eating, drinking and chatting. It is always great to meet up with the other BCFers and compare our experiences and though M & J had stayed with us just the weekend before there was still plenty to discuss.

Throughout the day on Sunday the ever-present clouds dissipated for a while to give us a view, but then regrouped in reoccurring cycles but the rain held off so we felt quite fortunate. Tashiste has magical views but the dampness, cloud cover, and mud would wear me down if I had to live there. Before heading off hiking, we wandered around the campus and I particularly enjoyed the large prayer wheel just inside the gates. An easy hike for us non-mountain people was the order of the day and it gave us a bird's eye view over the whole town and community. We stropmed over the ridge to a couple of small temples and after a brief encounter with leeches, we decided to stick to the main road instead of the trails through the mountains to get back into town. The leeches freaked me out as I have never been bitten before. Whilst not exactly painful, they are so creepy and we were all constantly checking for them for several hours afterwards. The first of them I spotted in my pants but the next 2 discoveries were definitely attached to me and they left a nice bloodstain on my pants. I was lucky enough to be the victim of not just any old leech but a tiger leech according to John who was able to identify it.

We saw an amazing archery game being played, at attitude and right across the only road. All the local big wigs were there and sporting very high tech compound bows and a good appetite for the abundant alcohol supply. After that distraction, we stopped in town to chat with many locals and colleagues of M & J, so the day disappeared rather quickly. I also met the very vivacious sister of one of the boys in my home class. She works with Maureen. Bhutan is smaller than Adelaide and everyone knows everyone or is related to them it seems. 

We discovered after arriving in Wamrong that there is no real way out! Well, like everywhere else in Bhutan the transport is what it is. In this case it means that the buses come through at around 11.30am and it is really a lunch / truck stop, so if you want to leave before that, you just have to take your chances. We needed to depart in the morning on Monday to ensure that we arrived in T/gang in time to pay the rent and get other business sorted. That meant we had to cross our fingers and hope that a lift would materialize. Just when we were wondering if we would be having lunch with Maureen, whose school is near the bazaar and close to the ‘highway’, a beat up old Suzuki stopped and the two muscle men inside agreed to take us with them as far as T/gang even though they were going to Bumthang.

After climbing aboard, we wondered if would have to walk from the turn off but were prepared to risk it rather than sit tight for another hour. I am glad we survived that journey, as they seemed to be in one hell of a hurry and therefore drove like they were in a rally. The wet conditions and mud coated roads were just another point scoring obstacle! For the first time I can recall in the last 7months I saw the speedo hit 50kms and it scared me half to death. There were a few gasps from me in the back seat as we stalled and rolled backwards towards the edge in mud caked conditions after our first delay. They were repeated with increased volume when we rounded corners and slammed on the brakes facing trucks and thanking god that this section of road had some "black top". Luckily we only skidded and didn't just slide over the edge. When the final road block was just metres from our beloved barber, Deepak we offered them compensation much greater than what the bus fare would have been and walked around the 2 trucks wedged together and blocking the road, glad to be on terra firma. We thought bailing like that would give them the opportunity to make a U-turn and get back on the road to Bumthang without another delay, so it was something of a surprise to see them walking into the restaurant in T/gang, 30 minutes later, when we were having lunch.

From there, after photos were collected, rent paid, banking attended to and a little shopping done, we took the local bus home and felt glad to be back on home turf. It was great to get away and fabulous to see other BCFers but Wamrong would be hard yakker for us and Rangjung really is home. Cockroaches and field mice encroach on our living space and that can get you down but there are no leeches at this low attitude!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Day trip with class IXC

We climbed up to Bidung in the heat but luckily not the sunshine on Wednesday as it was a public holiday for the  anniversary of the Lord Buddha’s first sermon. We were with my class IXC home group who had taken great interest and great delight in the planning and preparation stages of their big day out. A couple of ring-ins who were essential for the soccer game and were day scholars accompanied us.  If we had agreed to take extra boarders  I think we would have had more that half the school cohort with us! The meeting place was the front gate of the school and despite having permission to wear hiking clothes many of them still opted for traditional dress, which I have to admit surprised me.

Class photo before the adventure began

It took more than 2 and a half hours to reach the top and I was hurting at the end of it as I slipped and hurt my knee just metres from the school gate, just after we set off. It wasn't a serious fall but I slammed down on the knee cap and grazed around it, so it was tender and climbing wasn't that much fun.  I didn't actually even want to look at it while the kids were aware, so it wasn't until we got to the top and we were inside at J-D's, that I could see the damage.

Perfect hiking attire

am sure that the students could have bolted up that mountain in no time without us and many of them had done exactly that many times before when they were scholars of the Bidung Lower Secondary School. Even 3 of the resident school dogs took the opportunity to accompany us and were rewarded with plenty of food and affection.

Well loved campus stray "Sexy" as captured by Photography Club member and IXC class member Tshering Gyeltshen

We set off after a bit of a late start and delayed meeting at the front gates of my school. The girls all stayed with me initially but then took off up the mountain at more speed than I could muster. They seemed to have discussed the idea of walking with me and chatting so groups did that, at various stages and they all felt very virtuous as they were practising their English to. God knows some of them need too but some who rarely speak in class had a really good go as the day progressed so that is really the value of this kind of excursions.

Those taking the lead in the early stages
By the end the boys all waited and climbed with Ian and I and declared themselves my body guards!! Just minutes into the climb down again they were planning our next outing, they were so thrilled with their day out!!

The body guards 

We met up with J-D and had lunch with him and the boys all played soccer against his school while the girls caught up with old friends and "cousin sisters", after the picnic lunch they had carried up. 


The cooks provided the boarders with ample food, which was fabulous and I bought 50 eggs and the cooks boiled them and added it to what the rest of the boarders were getting for lunch on that day as well. For the most part they were really happy to have the eggs, as it is a real treat for boarders!! At 7ng each when the school gets 21ng at day to feed each of them all 3 meals it is no wonder. They get potato curry and rice or chillies and rice, 90% of the time for both lunch and dinner and they usually only have rice and pickles or rice and chickpeas for breakfast. I am surprised how healthy most of them are given their limited diets. Those who have been boarders before in other schools all say the food is good at our school so I hate to think what it must be like elsewhere.

RHSS, the monastery and the town viewed from above

Even the more onerous clean up tasks were willingly taken on board.

 They lost the football but they had won 3 games out of 4 last weekend and that put them in 2 place among the class IX groups (sections) and gave them a prize of 400 ngultrum, which they were keen to have to spend on refreshments on their special day. A couple of the boys were miles ahead of me with the “body guards” and as we arrived they all handed the other students and us, soft drinks that were bought with that money but the last shot on the photos I downloaded on our return caused me a few concerns.

Tshering Gyeltshen giving it his best shot

They were great in my books. They were good sports about being beaten by younger kids and friends as so many of them went to that school, and after climbing up there and playing for over an hour they were still prepared to race back down the mountain to be sure to be in time for evening study which was the principal's condition on taking them!! They stopped a vehicle and insisted that Ian and I get in and another 8 kids, who were also hurting, piled into the flat tray back on the way down.

 Hopefuls attempting to climb aboard 

The driver was the headmaster of a community school that we have spoken to before and his wife runs a shop in the main street here so that was very nice of him and we are now thinking we might try to go to his school and spend a day with his kids as it is only a 4 km walk from Rangjung and that would return the favour. As an added bonus we got to see our place and the monastery from the opposite perspective to usual in the vehicle coming down on one of the worst roads we have experienced thus far in Bhutan.

No wonder we love the views

We would have made the climb but I am sure that we would have held them up too.

We waited at the gates and saw them over the line before the evening study deadline so all is well that ends well. There were some great sights to been seen within the grounds from that vantage point too. It was a great day and they were not only a lot of fun but also so co-operative and helpful with each other and us that we would be happy to go again.

Nature lovers study position on a lazy public holiday 

                                             Home safe and sound