Sunday, February 26, 2012


When we discovered that we had a 2-day break for Losar and that it was attached to the birth anniversary celebrations for HRH and Education Day, we immediately hatched a party plan. Class of 2012 BCFers, Becky and Martha are a mere 16kms from us, in Phongmey, so the obvious thing to do was to invite them down for a night and a catch up. Radhi is conveniently placed at the exact midpoint between us, so we thought that we should walk up and they should walk down and we could all meet there. Everyone was delighted with the idea and after a couple of phone calls and emails confirming plans, we set an ETA of 11am in Radhi and we all took off from our respective homes at approximately the same time on Wednesday morning. Just the day before we had received the very welcome news that the break had been extended to include Friday and that meant we could all spend a couple of nights together.

Recently a new road heading up to Radhi from Rangjung has been carved into the mountain face and since our previous attempt at a shortcut didn’t really pan out that well, we tried that for the upward leg. We did deviate a few times and cut across the now dry and barren looking rice paddies to cut off a few hairpin bends but mostly we stayed on our dusty and almost completely vehicle-free farm road. We kept a sharp eye out for arrows and darts as there were Archery and Khuru tournaments going on everywhere. Children, men and even women were making the most of the holiday break to try out their hands at the national games. Seeing women playing khuru was a first and a very positive sign.

At almost the exact meeting time, we strolled into the remote but picturesque town of Radhi. We located a perfect picnic spot and even bumped into a former teacher from RHSS who informed us that he thought Phongmey was 13kms from Radhi. Sitting in the sun at the prayer wheel at Radhi Middle Secondary School we decided to give them a bit more time and then call and by the time we did they were actually sitting at the prayer wheel directly above us having just arrived. We soon realized that we could see each other and were united in no time. Luckily our original estimation of the distance was correct and they hadn’t had to walk 13 kms. They had however had to navigate their way across a particularly treacherous part of the road where the swiftly flowing river cuts directly over it. The pulley system with a precarious basket in which goods and maybe people too navigate this sector when the monsoon makes it impossible to ford the river, looked none too inviting when we saw it.

We all enjoyed our picnic lunch and the spectacular views before heading back down. Our own home and schools are both clearly visible from that vantage point and it always astounds me how close they look when it has taken us 2 hours to climb the 500 metres and 8 kms to get there. On the return leg we made good time as we chatted and caught up with the beginning of term activities and compared our 4 schools’ processes. We opted for the more travelled and older road and not the newer one we had taken up, once we reached the junction of the 2, as there is something so much more gratifying about doing a circuit rather than a vertical up and down. This also afforded us views of the monastery, both our schools and our own home for most of the homeward journey.

Food, laughter, drinks and nonstop conversation filled the next 2 days and nights and JD a returned BCFer from the class of 2011, like us, was a welcome inclusion by Thursday evening. He was more animated then I have ever seen him be and it now seems that we have formed our own group or as the Bhutanese like to say, “cluster. ”Although we didn’t do much in our hometown it was a great opportunity to get to know each other better and share our experiences.

Our favourite local driver was contracted to get us to Trashigang and then back to Phongmey and as usual he was resourceful and co-operative. Due to the public holidays, finding the essential items required to complete the set up of their new homes was a bit of a challenge, but we gave the shopping expedition our best shot even with the 2 best stocked stores in T/gang still closed when we arrived there on Friday morning.  After scurrying all over town locating various goods at different stores, the order of the day was getting some momos for lunch.

On the way to Phongmey the driver received a call requesting that he collect some primary school children who needed to return to their boarding school in Bikhar that afternoon, which meant that we really had no time to spend at either Martha or Becky’s new homes though we could assist with the delivery of the purchases and take a quick look around before jumping back in the vehicle.

We had wrongly assumed that the driver would collect them after dropping us back in Rangjung, but 4kms from home and about 4 anxious phone calls later we turned off the main road and up an even steeper, dustier, bumpier farm road toward Chaling. It is the highest point that the road reaches above us and we had certainly never been up there before. This is one of the points where you can begin the trek to Merak and Sakteng and as we approached the top we realised that the calls had been from highland women and it was their children who were about to join us.

 They were crammed in with 4 in each of the 2 back bench seats and 3 more “monkeys”, as our good natured driver called them, were positioned on the roof while Ian and I and the driver retained the front bench seat.  He too is a highlander and took it all in his stride even though the 8 he had been told he was to collect, had now expanded to 11. We were reluctant to get out in Rangjung. We simply didn’t want the adventure to end and were sorely tempted to continue on to Bikhar with the kids, who had been singing along with the music in the car and competing with the boys on the roof to out sing each other. 

No one ever wants the holidays to end and this break was certainly no exception.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Holidays already

HRH King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk turned 32 the day before yesterday. This auspicious day is also Education Day in Bhutan and that is so very fitting considering His Majesty’s support and sponsorship of educational initiatives in Bhutan. Along with every other school in the country we celebrated. This year’s event was described as “small” to me and I guess that compared to hosting the celebration for the region as we did last year it was smaller but is was also very much more moving and intimate. I loved it.

The students set up the hall the evening before and as we all sat around consuming a dinner to mark the marriage of 2 young, popular and very competent Bhutanese teachers, I could see young men from the class XII group standing on stacks of plastic chairs, in order to reach the ceiling of the balcony area to hang the colourful cloth fringes and thankas either side of the altar of butter lamps they had previously arranged. With just a friend standing by and reaching only up to their ankles, I was very concerned about their acrobatics but they were as nimble and confident of a troupe of monkeys and the balcony was soon prepared.

The next morning the sun was shining and the stage set for a celebration and a show of affection for their benevolent and revered king. After the students were assembled we teachers were all invited into the hall and requested to light the butter lamps along with the senior student counsellors. It was by far the most beautiful part of the celebration. The whole school faced the back of the hall and the balcony and chanted prayers while we filed past and lit the lamps. No matter how many times I hear this chanting of prayers and I do every morning, it still moves me. Once we had all returned to our places in the hall and the mature voices of the Bhutanese staff joined the chanting it was truly enchanting.

The rest of the morning was spent with class groups all performing cultural items and delivering speeches in both English and Dzongkha on the topic of education. Of course I was a member of the judging committee for the English extempore speeches and was also called upon to join the staff and teachers in several dances. The first of which was enough to have all the students in stiches. We had not practised at all and despite being assured that we would perform the same steps we had the previous night at the wedding celebration, we did a piece I have never seen before and I spent the entire time fixated in the feet of the person next to me trying to copy their moves. When I had almost mastered it without warning they would all turn and I would find myself face to face with the principal being the only “dancer” who didn’t know which way the turn. As they alternated sides so did I always finding myself going in the wrong direction!! I guess it was amusing for the students and just like last year when I wore my kira backward to this celebration, I can truly confirm that on that day I contributed the GNH of the entire school population!

After the beauty of the expertly performed final dance by the class XII dancers, our enthusiastic principal once again summoned us to the stage. This time we did perform the same piece as the previous evening and even I looked like I knew what I was doing.

There were huge smiles on the faces of my home class, in particular and the student cohort as a whole, when we broke for a special lunch provided in honour of His Royal Highness. I guess the icing on the cake for all of us was that not only was the rest of the day free, but the government had extended the 2-day holiday to mark Losar (Tibetan New Year), to 3 days. We had big plans for that but that is another story……….

Monday, February 13, 2012

School begins..... "Not with a bang but a whimper"

Sitting in the back row of benches nestled among several female staff with whom I am quite friendly and with the advantage of having a wall to lean against, was where I found myself in the principal's office for the first meeting of the school year. For most of the day my thoughts kept flashing back to the same time last year. At that time I was directed to one of the few western style armchairs in this same office and before very long I realized that I was in the exalted  company of the privileged few. The staff secretary, the vice principal and the senior most staff sat in these comfy chairs and I felt like something of an imposter. None the less the protocol of remaining in the same seats was upheld and there I sat for the 3 days of meetings, blissfully unaware that these meetings would decide so much of what would happen at school in the rest of the year.  This time around I was aware enough to avoid those seats of privilege and to head for the back row where the comfort of a wall to lean on would be a blessing when the meeting continued for over 3 hours. I also knew to volunteer for what I wanted to take responsibility for and to speak up if I wanted to escape from onerous (to me at least) duties.

This year we began by standing on the road in front of the school to honour the coffin bearing the body of the Garab Rimopche's beloved father, as it drove by.  The day began casually with all the staff standing around in the sun chatting despite the solemnity of the occasion. This time when the meeting commenced, our principal was in place behind his desk and not still making his way to Rangjung as a newly appointed leader and this gave a air of organized formality to the proceedings as well as providing us with an agenda for the next few days. I was also much more familiar with the consensus style decision-making and secret ballot voting that would determine who took what responsibilities in the school. Even those not particularly keen to take on burdensome roles were nominated and graciously accepted when they were voted in.

When we broke for lunch the entire staff seemed to disappear into the woodwork in seconds and I was yet again the only one with a packed lunch prepared and the expectation that I would consume it at school. Last year this made me feel lost and confused being left alone in very unfamiliar surroundings but this time I realized the extended lunch break gave me time to walk home and share the break and the breaking news of the morning with Ian who was already done for the day. I also fondly recalled the many lunchtimes during term time that I have spent at school marking, assisting students with "doubts" and catching up on the paperwork I needed to, in the solitude of the empty office. I look forward to adopting the same approach again this year as it affords me the opportunity to mix with students with whom I don't have classroom contact and to expand my knowledge of the student cohort and influence.

By the late afternoon I was happily reminiscing about the new level of understanding I had, despite thinking that I had learned very little about the system in my first year when I left in December. Sitting at the back I was unconcerned about the lapses into Dzongkha that inevitable occur when the discussion gets heated. Actually I was grateful for the opportunity to allow my thoughts to wander and to reflect on the way the school has evolved and my knowledge of procedure grown. Last year these lapses had me stressing about what vital information I was now missing and how I could possibly know what to do for the first few weeks of school. There were some important decisions made, but the priority for me was the allocation of teaching classes and by the end of the day that had still not been decided. I had however happily avoided being Literary-In-Charge opting instead to continue my responsibilities with photography club and table tennis club. Perhaps I will come to regret that decision since I am once again the only staff member with responsibility for 2 clubs and photography club consumed a great deal of my scant free time last year. This year at least I will have an assistant and I intend to become better at delegating to both him and the students.

By the time we were dismissed for day one it was clear that there is an expectation that we will document more of what we do both academically and in terms of extra curricular commitments this year. I cannot say that this surprises me as I was somewhat surprised at the lack of record keeping in 2011, after the very strict requirements of Australian schools. Without a teaching load allocated I felt free to enjoy the evening with the magazines which arrived from Australia that day, and not have to immediately launch into the teaching preparation which will come soon enough.

Day two, which was a saturday by the way, also began in a very businesslike manner and much to my relief allocating teaching duties was the first agenda item. Faculty groups were left to split their loads and report their decisions to the newly appointed Timetable-In-Charge and the English teachers easily came to a consensus about who would get what. I argued for spreading my influence and affording students who had not had a native English teacher (namely me) last year that chance, which allowed me to continue to teach class XI but ultimately meant meant that I would change my home class. On the up side class XI curriculum is familiar to me and I like it for the most part. On the down side I will have 4 new sections of names to learn and I was disappointed about the loss of my original home class with whom I have developed a very close relationship. Since the board exams are the real bugbear of the system and teachers' lives, I figured with one year of experience under my belt it was best to volunteer for at least one such class and face my demons over the coming year. I therefore requested one section of class X English and am relived that there will be 3 of us teaching that course, so we can hopefully share resources and support each other. Inevitably to balance the loads and responsibilities not everyone got exactly what they wanted but I believe that the compromises were fair and a balance was achieved. By far the most pressing business of the day was the meeting of the Admissions Committee and they were locked in discussion and hard at the decision making process long after we mere teachers had resolved our class allocation issues. While staff were milling about and chatting I was able to distribute the chocolates from Bangkok and hard cheese from Bumthang that I had purchased as souvenirs. That process had me marveling about how I could now address all of the staff with at least one name and felt confident about which titles applied to whom. At tea breaks last year I was battling with trying to put names to all the faces.

As a saying goes, "Well begun is half finished" so it now looks like we are well on the way to a successful 2012 academic session!

 Breaking news: At the end of the Monday morning session I had my original home class back. I will once again be their English teacher and home class teacher. Yay!! Yay!! I remind myself that things are still very fluid and more changes and more revisions and even revoking decisions already made are likely to occur. But for the moment at least I am very happy.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Slow Road Back East; A Photo Essay


The view from Dragon Roots Hotel the morning we left Thimphu.

Dochula, the first pass east of Thimphu.

The amazing view at Dochula.

 The black necked cranes we specifically went to Phobjikha Valley to see. 

The Farm House Hotel in Phobjikha.

 Love those traditional interiors even if it is freezing.

"Over the mountains down in the valley lived a........"


Climbing out of the valley. 

 Yak herder and yaks among the stunted bamboo on which they feed.

A couple of desert dwellers in the snow!

Kezang and the Prado that afforded us such luxury.

The maze of winding corridors that is Trongsa Dzong.

The watchtower which has been turned into a contemporary museum. It is the best museum we have seen in Bhutan in fact.

Detail of the stunning architecture. 


Traffic jam on the lateral road.

Yotongla and the evidence of windy Bumthang


Devotee at Yamshing Goemba.

Palace / Museum.

The stark rural landscape of the Tang Valley in Winter.

Another valley and another view beyond compare.


The pristine waters of the Tang Valley.


Scott photographing the Burning Lake.

Crossing the bridge to see the lake.

Spinning a prayer wheel and circumambulating Jampey Lhakang.

More circumambulations.

The colour and light of Bumthang Dzong.

Just one of the many doorways.

Future Mr Bhutan?


Heading to Thrumsingla and making good time on the longest haul of the trip.

The view...

The road sign that you don't want to see at 9.10am!!!

Just some of the hardware required to actually make the roads, yes they are explosives out there 'drying' in the sun!

Scott facilitating the move out when we got the go ahead 1 hour earlier than expected.

At 3,740m, Thrumsingla is the pass to end all passes.

Locals hanging out in one of the prettiest towns we saw: Autsho.

Newly arrived BCF teacher Reidi on day 2 in her new home with an old timer.

The gorgeous river valley in Autsho.

Of course we were happy to get home to Rangjung.

The monastery is all lit up to commemorate the recent passing of Garab Rimpoche's father, a great Lama.