Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sick day

 Wednesday March 21st.
Today I am at home having a sickie.
I've got the ubiquitous 'cough and cold' that is plaguing so many other people at the moment. I think it has something to do with the change of seasons. People here cannot have a cough or a cold; no it must be the full cough and cold. It always reminds me of when people say ‘pants and shirt’ to mean clothes other than Gho and Kira! People cannot just be said to be wearing pants, no it is always described as pants and shirt, anyhow…

My voice was almost completely gone yesterday and I rasped through two lessons before throwing in the towel. Chador Tenzin, in my home class, said in his gruff little voice, "we will pray for you sir."

Chador, on the left enjoying a special lunch at school.

Now I am seriously hoping I don't need divine intervention to overcome my malady.
In class I pretended to search Leki Dorji's bag looking for my lost voice and was disappointed when it didn't come to light, he was protesting his innocence throughout!

Leki, "I didn't do it Sir," Dorji.

I taught using a lot of mime yesterday, which was pretty amusing, I am sure. I decided to approach the Principal at morning interval and he OK’d me taking the rest of the day off and he also reminded me that it was about the same time last year I was suffering the same lack of voice- he has a very good memory!

Many of the boys had chunks cut out of their hair on Monday morning as a salutary reminder to get it all cut. There had been many, many reminders about hair length and style requirements but a lot of the boys were still sporting their ‘hedgehog’ hairstyles.

The 'look' and the 'style'

On Monday the TOD simply announced, "Today is a god day for........ cutting......"
A collective groan rose from the raggedy and spiky headed boys.
Then and there teachers gathered chunks of their fringes and neatly snipped them off with paper scissors before depositing the severed follicles into the boys' outstretched hands.
The boys accepted their fate silently with the resignation born of experience.
The girls had some fair scrutiny but I think managed to avoid the shame of having their hair 'styled' by any of the Sirs or Madams.

Some close scrutiny there for the girls.

Yesterday most of the boys were sporting new short haircuts including two or three from my class. The haircuts were definitely 'home made' and done with the most basic of implements! One boy in my class was still sporting his 'chunk out look' and it didn't seem to worry him at all! Most probably the sharpest thing at home was an agricultural implement more suited to slash and burn than cut and style!

The look, the style and the pose!

I will try to get up the road to pay our Internet bill today. Due to continual outages of the net I have now dubbed it the Intermittent-net to describe the on again, off again nature of the service here. Vicky and I actually have two Internet options, one is Mobile Broadband, a data card they call it here, a USB thingy and the other, Broadband at home using a fixed phone line and modem router that plugs in and requires electricity.
The term 'Broadband' must not be taken in an absolute context however; it is most decidedly a small 'b' Broadband as speeds are woefully slow and even to use the word speed is something of a misnomer!
At least they have the Internet here, it is a great achievement for a country so geographically challenged to have sufficient poles, towers, exchanges, knowhow and kilometers and kilometers of cable installed and working most of the time.
Fortunately for us if either one of our Internet options isn’t working or we are without electricity we can usually get the other one to connect so we can at least check emails and Facebook or get the news headlines and stuff.
For the Broadband at home one we use recharge cards just like for our mobile phones to 'refresh' our account. They cost Nu399 for 2.5 GB of data that lasts for a month. Good oh, only problem being you can't buy said recharge cards here in our town, of course not. You can only get them from the Telecom office in Trashigang or any other regional capital on a working day, during business hours when we are, guess where, that's right, at school!!!
Now that we have finally been paid I will try and buy a stack of them next chance I get. People get 'friends' to do that kind of stuff for them very often, if someone is going to Trashigang from here they will be inundated with requests for anything from money from the ATM, to cakes from the bakery, to a gas bottle for the kitchen, to veggies from the (great but somewhat distant) veggie market to who knows what!

The bill I can pay at the Telecom office here is for our data card and I can pay it in cash and even get a nice hand written receipt on the bright pink paper from the big old receipt book, if the Telecom Officer isn't out of station that is…

I was lucky, he wasn't out of station today.

Oh the joys of Bhutan.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

“Legs Paining”

We cringe every time we hear “paining” and I have lost count of how many times I have tried to explain that it is a noun and cannot be used like that. BUT at 5pm today when Ian told our neighbour “Legs paining, Sir,” it did seem exactly the right phrase.

Having made 2 trips to Trashigang recently we managed to purchase a few of the items we were not able to find there when Becky and Martha were with us, so a flurry of phone calls to them from the very shops that had been closed on our earlier visit together, resulted in a few purchases for them too. This inspired us to book a taxi to take us up to Phongmey today to meet up with the girls again. The plan to walk back seemed like the perfect way to go.

We planned the a long walk back when we actually bought the goods and even checked that today would suit the girls then, while we were deciding on what to buy in the shops. Since it was Ian’s school rimdro last night and as we were sitting on the basketball court eating dinner and drinking warm beer at 9pm, we were glad that we hadn’t booked for an early start. Spot on 9am we took off from Rangjung and we earned ourselves some merit along the way by collecting two nuns, who were standing on the roadside with their goods and chattels just outside of Rangjung and we dropped them off at the gates to the nunnery just passed Rahdi and about half way to our destination.

We planned to spend half the day there and knew that we would have to take off before 2pm to get back before dark.

As mentioned when we drove up once before, there is a tricky section of road where Becky and Martha and everyone else too for that matter, basically had to wade through water to get past, so we checked out that section of road very carefully as we drove through on the way up. Armed with the girls’ advice and a strategy from their trip down we carried plastic shoes for that.  We were also dying to photograph it this time. There is also a funny little flying fox box-car arrangement which they use when that section of the road washes out in the monsoon. I would NOT like to have to try that!!

Not for me that's for sure

Spring has definitely sprung here and the blossom decorating the sparse trees standing in the barren, dry fields is gorgeous. 

The flashes of colour added by the birds, attracted to the blossom and other creatures coming to life as well as the blossom itself certainly contributed to the stark beauty of the landscape and lifted my spirits. We are pretty certain we saw a juvenile White-rumped Vulture today while walking back (though it may have been Himalayan Griffin) It was gigantic. There were also some very colourful and active smaller finch type birds who just would not remain stationary long enough for me to capture them so we could identify them later. They were enjoying the sun and whistling their beaks off in the trees near Phongmey, while the Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, which was very well camouflaged in the dry grass at the roadside scratched around for a while before taking flight. Just getting away even for a few hours is a definite tonic for the spirit, I think but the sightings of these amazing birds, does your soul good.

juvenile White-rumped Vulture

Check out that long tail.

We are trying to do at least one decent walk month in preparation for a serious hike in the summer. We want to go to the remote region, which adjoins Tibet and has 2 major towns (Merak and Sakteng) and is only accessible on foot. We didn’t join the adventure with last year's BCFers thinking our fitness and skils weren’t up to it so we are now determined to make sure we are up for it this year.

Though today we did see the new Sakteng highway, as our driver called it, there is strenuous hiking involved even from that newer road junction when it is complete. Highway it is not. It is a dirt road like the one we were on, but on the opposite side of the river and it is still being carved and blasted out of the cliff-face! It will go only half way there but that will reduce the hiking time and give us a better chance of making it.

I teach several kids from that region and would love to see the pristine hamlets in which they live; most of which still don't have electricity I am told. They are great students and incredibly hard workers as well as looking so totally robust and healthy. They actually remind me of the Amish community we saw in a market in Philadelphia. They are known as highlanders here, and they are very unique and turning into a real tourist attraction as the trails open up and the road access improves.  

I couldn’t resist photographing those we saw in Phongmey today, though my favourite images are of them performing in the Dzong at Tchechu last year. I love to see them and we often do but never in the numbers we saw today. They walk into towns to trade or get supplies and I guess that Phongmey must be one of the closest points for them. Even if it is not the best supplied, it certainly has all the basics. They use oxen, cows, horses, mules and even yaks to cart the supplies back up to their homes and though we didn’t see any yaks today we saw all manner of other animals being put the good use as pack mules while wandering or I should say “roaming” around with Becky before lunch!

Today’s walk was supposed to be a nice easy one going down on the dirt farm road and not even attempting shortcuts. I was not looking forward to swallowing dust with every car that passed but as it turned out in 4 hours, only 13 vehicles passed us heading up and only 6 were going down or in our direction. The great majority of those were in the last 30 minutes when Rangjung was clearly in sight and we weren’t giving up on our mission for anything at that point. They included huge Tata trucks and a backhoe but were all travelling very slowly and some of the taxis even slowed to see if we wanted a ride. Downhill it might have been but 17kms is still a fair haul and a lot of pressure on the knees on those rough uneven surfaces with the dust flying. We were definitely “paining” in both the feet and leg departments by the time we stumbled back to Rangjung.

I have been too sick to do much walking for the past 2 weeks. Along with about half of RHSS, I have been coughing and spluttering with that oh so common ailment in these parts at this time of year, “cough and cold.” The unseasonably cold and dry weather has about half my classes suffering and most of the boarders just keep coming to class so eventually we all have it! I am just about 100% now and I was delighted to be out breathing the fresh air, getting in some training for the summer expedition we have our hearts set on doing and taking in the glorious springing to life of nature.

Highlanders at Tschechu

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Butter lamps and blessings

In the past week school has been cancelled 3 times for very different reasons.

Last Saturday the whole teaching staff had to do the Teachers Need Assessment (TNA) questionnaire and general test. Well almost the whole staff anyway 9 lucky individuals, myself included were exempt and we were left to supervise nearly 500 students. That day was also my first Study Duty for the year, so the irony of having to head off to school in the dark at 5.40am when there would be no classes for the rest of the day was not lost on me. In fact on my arrival at school, I mistakenly thought that I had the time wrong as in the dim morning light and absolute silence, it seemed that no-one was awake and nothing was stirring. Before I could check my watch however, the study bells sounded and the twenty odd stray dogs that inhabit the campus and were decorating the car park frozen in comatose poses, leapt to life and sleepy-eyed students began to shuffle towards their respective study rooms.

An alternative programme was devised for the morning school hours and only those interested were actually asked to attend. Since it was the final day of the commemoration of the death of an eminent Rimpoche, who is closely associated with Rangjung, prayers were called and it was proposed that the student cohort and any other interested members of staff walk up to the monastery (founded by his son Garab Rimopche) and pay our respect and light butter lamps. This was the first opportunity I had to wear my new “rachu” (ceremonial scarf worn by females) and I was certainly not going to let it slip by so I eagerly volunteered to paticipate.  I had been looking for an excuse to don my new “rachu” since I had purchased it on our road trip out east and it was commented on by many of the girls and staff that morning.

After morning assembly the entire student body gathered in the MPH and many non-teaching staff and a few teachers including myself joined them. I absolutely love the chanting and mass effect of the voices but actually loathe sitting cross-legged on the floor, primarily because after a knee operation several years ago now, I simply cannot sit like that, at all, any more. It is always required for prayers and in addition to not knowing the prayers or being able to read them, I feel both awkward and embarrassed to be placed at the front on the raised stage when I am sitting incorrectly. My favourite thing is always lighting the butter lamps and I never tire of seeing them or photographing their magical displays of light, so it was with great delight that I accepted the invitation to join in this aspect of the ceremony not 10 minutes after prayers began. It gave me the excuse I needed to get up off the floor of the stage and allowed me to freely roam the hall and balcony photographing too.

I felt quite liberated being able to wander about among the seemingly disciplined and orderly behavior, and it struck me as odd that I had never before noticed that the students are exactly the same in prayers as they are in the classroom. Now that I know many of them by name and have taught at least a quarter of those present it was obvious to me how concealing those mass assemblies really are. In the past I have been mesmerised by quality of their voices and their harmonious appearance and the effortlessness with which they participate. This time I was able to spot the incessant talkers, those who fidget and wiggle, those who endlessly adjust their “kabney” (ceremonial scarf the males wear), those who engage in conversations in low whispers, those who hang their heads and pretend to chant while actually only turning the pages and mumbling and to my surprise those who hiss “One photo madam” as I pass nearby, even at such an inappropriate time- at least to my way of thinking. I was relieved to see that the character of the students’ remains constant.

The walk to monastery and the circumambulations at the top were punctuated with that same cry, “One photo Madam.” As usual I was happy to oblige and so the process of photographing, preparing, printing and purchasing begins again.

By evening study on Sunday, Ian’s school had already cancelled classes on Monday and I hadn’t yet seen the writing on the wall for that to happen at my school too. A much discussed, eminent Lama from Bumthang had arrived that afternoon in our local area. The student counsellors had apparently petitioned for the entire school to be given the opportunity to go to Changmey, where he would be officiating at the inauguration of a recently completed, statue of the Guru Rimpoche. This was a major disruption to study on Sunday evening, which I was again supervising, as was the arrival of the class XI students that very afternoon but everyone finally settled into their rooms and I was asked by each successive class as I did the rounds to check attendance,  did I think we would be going tomorrow. They were certainly asking the wrong person as I couldn’t even hazard a guess. But go we did.

Our neighbour with her grandchild spotted in the crowd

This was yet another perfect opportunity to don my beautiful new “rachu” and witness another formal Buddhist gathering, to say nothing of seeing a new place. Despite the 8-kilometer walk up a dusty farm track, all the students delighted in having the day out of class and suffered the steep climb up and being bathed in dust as the many vehicles heading for the same destination, passed them. I felt privileged indeed to be offered a ride from one of Ian’s colleagues and willingly joined him and his family. The higher the road climbed the more frequently RHSS students would emerge from the verges of the roadside having taken some near vertical shortcut. Justifiably they were all trying to shorten the walk and avoid the traffic on the narrow and treacherous farm road.  At the same time as we climbed, the profusion of flowering Rhododendron trees increased in density. I didn’t dare to try to photograph them as it was taking all my effort and will not to vomit in the car from the bumming, hairpin turns and speed.

A flowering Rhododendron taken from the top -thank goodness for telephoto lenses

As usual for me the crowd was more captivating than the address, of which I could understand not a single word but I did my best to follow the correct etiquette and once again cursed my inability to sit cross-legged. After avoiding the blazing sun for hours, once the official ceremony began, we all sat in meditative, silence while the monks chanted and dignitaries were individually blessed. Bags of grain and other offerings were brought forward for official blessing and consecration too and finally once they had been suitably blessed they were distributed through the crowd by an efficient team of RHSS senior boys who seem to instinctively know what is required of them in these situations. Finally the Lama himself accompanied by an entourage of monks walked through the crowd in dignified silence and touched us each on the head to ensure our long and fruitful lives.

Almost immediately the blessing was complete, the crowd rose and began circumambulating the statues and then making their way back down the steep and now extremely congested road towards Rangjung and the many smaller hamlets and villages, from which they had emerged earlier that morning.  

Again I was grateful for the lift and it was certainly dark when many of our weary walkers finally returned to their hostels and dinner.

Yesterday, the whole school underwent the blessing / school purification ritual know as Rimdro and which I wrote extensively about last year. Since this is now something of an epic I will say only that it too incorporated the beautiful and moving spectacle of a display of butter lamps, which I was once again invited to participate in lighting. I also once again got to wear my now not so new ‘Rachu” and I hope the pictures say it all.

 “One photo Madam.”

Thursday, March 1, 2012

What a difference the weather can make.

Since returning to Rangjung we have had only one clear day and a smoky haze has clouded our views. Several times we have commented that we don’t remember it being like this last year, but memory does have a way of deleting the less favorable and retaining the best so we were not really sure!

I was convinced that the winter was over for us. In my mind the ingrained idea that winter brings the rain persists, despite the knowledge that here it is the monsoon that blesses the farmers and the crops, and that happens in summer. Even though the morning and evenings have still been cold, most of the days have been moderate and very comfortable. That was until yesterday.

We had decided that forest fires must have been causing the haze we were experiencing and maybe that is true, but suddenly late yesterday the haze turned to gloomy, grey skies, it was freezing cold and the expectation of rain hung heavily in the air before it actually happened. Fortunately I dodged the showers and managed to get home without getting wet. I had mistakenly taken to wearing lighter clothes as the afternoons have been so hot but yesterday I left school shaking and actually said to one of my students that it was so cold I thought it might snow. It has never snowed in Rangjung in all our time here but it really felt like it might.  Within an hour of getting home the rain settled in for the evening and it loudly continued all night long with spectacular results.

This morning we woke up to our incredible views reinstated. The haze had evaporated and the clouds were sailing along in the valley, hovering and concealing the lower reaches of the ranges. A fine green mist of new growth had appeared in the paddy fields overnight. The peaks of the saw-toothed mountains in the far distance, on 3 sides all had a thin film of fresh snow, enhancing the already fairytale-like scenery of the ranges that surround us. Weak patches of morning sunshine spotlit tiny hamlets on the ridges, adding a magical quality to the scene. Towards the eastern horizon, a fresh, light coating of snow on a single jagged peak was glistening, bathed in bright sunshine. Behind us equally rugged mountains all have white-topped summits. The dusty trails we had stromped along only last week, on these same ranges are clearly slippery and muddy again but best of all there was crystal clear quality to the air. We could see for miles in all directions and the views were breathtaking.

WOW! This view presents itself with stunning regularity but we hadn’t realized that we had been missing it until it reappeared this morning. We were so taken aback that I didn’t even get the camera to photograph the splendor.

This is a reminder to appreciate these views and I am vowing to take a moment every morning to savor their evolving beauty. Whether they are bathed in soft morning light, sharply defined in crystal clarity or only dimly visible through thick fog, they are magnificent. In these parts, there may not be many roses to smell but the views are enchanting and so very different from home. By this afternoon the haze had returned and our fleeting glimpse of paradise was gone.