Thursday, September 29, 2011

Royal Visit

September has been an odd month in terms of the activities that have fallen in our laps and events that have occurred! I was supposed to go to the district sports meet but eventually didn’t due to the phaffing about of the authorities! It was cancelled once too often for me. This week, along with other teachers of English in the district, we have attended a fabulous and very useful “Writing Workshop” conducted by Nicole Pluss, an Australian novelist who writes for young adults and whom I am very interested to read now. 3 parcels from Australia have arrived in 2 days with all kinds of treats and education resources. We took ourselves on another taxi ride adventure and got to visit Julia and Charly in Mongar, for a very relaxing and fun weekend. But without a doubt, for me meeting the king has been the highlight of the year thus far in Bhutan!!!

Rangjung LSS even prepared a special publication for the occasion
We were first told that the Royal Bride was going to visit our town, about a month ago and a frenzy of activity was inspired by this news. Banner making was at the top of the list. Then the day before the much-anticipated visit, we were told that maybe the king would come too. Suddenly breaking news was that the king himself was actually coming and on the day before we thought. We had already planned to spend the afternoon in a massive clean-up routine and that was accomplished in record time with sickles flying and the sweeping up of everything in sight. In fact it is the first time that I have ever seen the verges trimmed and the road swept!!

We all trooped out to line both sides of the road in front of the school at the end of the school day in an atmosphere of excited expectation. Our task was to wave as they drove by but after 2 hours of waiting we were then told, no it wouldn’t be happening and that maybe it would tomorrow!

That meant that I had to be at school at 6am for the royal drive by and Ian had to be at the monastery at 5.30am with his entire school cohort. Of course Bhutanese stretchable time told most staff that it wasn’t necessary to meet that deadline but I was there and had even had my breakfast and got myself into the most presentable of my kiras for the big occasion.

By 8.30am I was predicting that we would be lucky to see him before midday but the MPH was all set up for an actual audience not just a drive by. The interior was festooned with our banners and they are still on display, so the effort that went into making them did not go to waste. We did nothing but stand around in the sun and try to find shade and wait until 10.15am.

At one stage we were escorted into the MPH and told where we would be sitting in the unlikely event that we would be able to stay and hear His Royal Highness speak to the students. At that point it seemed obvious that the audience would most probably be students only as that is what had happened elsewhere. I was also singled out and informed that he might speak to me as he had spoken to some other other BCFers, but not all. Despite my optimistic nature I took this information to mean that I would be one of the ones that he would choose not to engage with and thus felt quite calm. We staff were told that our role was to be the reception and see-off committee only.

Once again we were assigned the task of standing in the car park in a line, and bowing at the right moment and then watching a dignitary walk by. I was happy to have the opportunity to be that close to this enigmatic figure and as we have done the same now for heaps of dignitaries, I was confident about the procedure and it was nothing new!! Just moments before the official cars arrived those around me stared practicing the step forward bow with ‘rachu’ touching the ground and then step back routine that was required and my calm evaporated! Lead with the right, no left! Even the Bhutanese were confused so I then started practising too and ruing the day that I bought such a short ‘rachu’!

I was thrilled that on the way into the hall the much loved and benevolent 5th King of the Kingdom of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namyel Wangchuk, stopped and shook my hand and spoke to me. Although it was a simple conversation beginning with, “Are you one of Nancy’s people?” I answered his volley of direct questions and don’t think I remembered to step forward or back leading with either foot and he didn’t appear to be in the slightest bit worried about protocol. He spoke to me again on the way out but stopped and addressed several of the Indian teachers first. He informed us how important he thought the work we are doing is and how thrilled he was with the progress made in education. I was in shock that I actually got to shake his hand and speak to him twice. When he was about to depart, I finally remembered to stammer, “ It is an honour and a privilege to meet you,” and I will remember forever the charm of his response. “The pleasure is entirely mine.”  Before his arrival it had been clearly explained that there could be “Absolutely no photographs”, but I didn’t need evidence. What a thrill.

great banner
His bride, Jetsun Pema said nothing to either the kids or us but I guess she is overwhelmed by all the attention she is receiving right now, with the wedding just a few weeks away. I have to agree that she is stunning but like so many others I wanted to hear her views. The king also is a striking individual. He is much taller and broader shouldered than I had imagined. Though his handsome appearance and uncanny resemblance to Elvis is legendry, his physical presence came as a complete surprise as his intellect, charm and charisma are constantly promoted.

the official royal couple poster 
The whole event certainly put us all into a spin. Just as the hand-holding royal couple were about to get into their vehicle to leave, the king suggested that we all have a photograph taken together and the royal photographers both started snapping furiously. We must have looked a motley crew as it all happened so quickly but it was great that one of our Indian teachers was dragged from the back to stand next to His Majesty. I suspect that we will never see these shots but we were still all wowed that they were taken. Before making good their escape, he insisted that we have a school picnic for the students and that it needed to be on a weekday as that would be so much better than a weekend for the students and promptly handed over 60,000 ngultrums to fund it and away he went.

The kids have still not come back down to earth, even though many of them have met him before.

Those pesky kupneys worn by the boys
The biggest shock of all was that just moments later the principal announced to the entire school cohort, who were still sitting quietly and savouring the experience in the hall, that the picnic would be held at some later date, and then he uncharacteristically decided that since the teachers hadn't even had breakfast, that there would be no more classes on that day either. It gave me the extra time I needed to get on top of all my short story marking and just escaping at 1pm seemed a treat after the 6am start.

Kupneys at the ready
Ian had quite a different experience waiting at the monastery with his students and finally glimpsing the king through the crowd. His school’s beautifully crafted banners only saw light of day once, the day before the actual visit and were not displayed for the king and Ian himself was hiding at the back as his kupney was in no fit state to be seen by royalty! The vagaries of how to get a kupney in the right position and how to make it stay there have not yet made themselves apparent to us. At least the pictures he took are some evidence of the occasion, as I didn’t take a single shot.

RLSS displaying their banners

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