Friday, April 27, 2012

The greatest gift is a smile

This week has had me once again trying to firmly fix my focus on my students and let the rest slide.

In a perhaps futile attempt to prevent them from spending their limited cash on me, I started some time ago to write a poem to them. It is still not a masterpiece by any means but I have distributed it with the latest of our class photos to each of them. They received both the photo and the poem under one condition, to which they agreed. It was that they grant me the wish of not buying a gift but only offering their smiles to me on Teachers' Day. It will be celebrated on May 2nd across the nation. I am not sure that I can trust them on this promise but I have given it my best shot and am hoping for the best. As they would say "It goes like this...."

The greatest gift is a smile 

Pema Yeshi’s smile appears often and effortlessly, radiating on his lips and in his eyes,
Ugyen Rinchen’s rare smile conceals a question lying within that is dying to be asked,

Dupchu’s private smile doesn’t show its face unless something exceptional has occurred,
Yeshi Lhaden laughs and smiles with gay abandon knowing the joy it brings,

Thinley Dorji has a heart that wants to smile but concerted effort seldom lets it,
Yeshi Dorji readily smiles and exudes genuine goodwill and concern for others,

Kinzang Gyeltshen smiles with his heart on his sleeve and his apprehension disappears,
Wangda Gyeltshen’s quiet, confident smile tells us all he is secure and trustworthy,

Lhendup Gyeltshen smiles with his whole heart exposing his own vulnerability,
Thinley Yangzom smiles more than almost anyone and projects optimism and joy,

Tshering Choki’s smile dances briefly on her lips: it is fleeting, joyful and shared with reservation,
Tshering Gelytshen has the confident smile of someone who knows how charming it makes him look,

Kinzang Choden’s shy, silent smile almost never stays for long but it comes from deep within,
Yeshi Choden doesn’t even realize the delight others take in her contented, tranquil smile,

Kinga Chophel has a generous, giving smile that publicizes his hard work,
Cheki Yangden has the bright childish smile of a well-loved newcomer and family favorite,

Sampa Dendup’s rare smile shines with serene spirituality and inner peace,
Tshoda Wangchuk has a cheeky smile and a sense of defiance to match,

Jinpa Lhamo’s mature smile appears when unexpectedly recognised or complimented,
Karma Dema surprises herself with radiant smiles and light heartedness, amid adversity,

Cheki Gyeltshen has the thoughtful and contemplative smile of a philosopher,
Rinchen Dorji’s smiles flicker without warning and embody true happiness and a sense fun,

Ugyen Lhamo laughs and smiles quickly and easily, infecting others with her delight,
Kinzang Pelmo smiles and accepts every challenge with determination and good cheer,

Karma Tenzin’s smile has that “up to no good” look but there’s more behind it than that,
Passang Dorji knows his smile will melt hearts and win people over but it evaporates quickly,

Sangay Dema’s smile is graceful and reflects her undaunted spirit of adventure,
Tashi’s all round good guy sincerity and commitment are exposed in his easy smile,

Sonam Dema smiles with every part of her being and shares her joy with others,
Ugyen Dema smiles with heart breaking beauty and playful innocence,

Pema Yangzom has a smile of acceptance and perseverance motivating us to try our best,
Yangjay Dema’s smiles hide her doubts and lift our spirits,

Dawa Dorji smiles bashfully to himself and allows us only glimpses of his joy,
Choki Dorji smiles tranquilly and accepts the responsibilities entrusted to him,

Tshewang Jurmey’s smile sends us messages of calm confidence and capability,
Sangay has the reliable and gentle smile of the quietly accomplished.

(to XC formerly known as IXC, 
with thanks to you all for the many smiles you have given me!)               
by Vicky Chartres

Friday, April 20, 2012

The 5th Annual Book Fair

A couple of weeks ago we got wind of the fact that the Fifth Annual Book Fair was soon to take place in Mongar, a short hour and a half from here. This inspired a round of negotiation and co-ordination among some of us BCFers out east. With BCFer Reidi located so close to Mongar, visiting her and spending some time together “downloading” seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. I so clearly remember how totally overwhelmed I felt at about this time last year and so acutely feel exactly the same way again this year. There is currently the notion that we know what’s going on just because we were here last year and added to that there is substantially more documentation this year. The supposedly easier ride I had expected to occur this year simply hasn’t happened, and we feel almost as lost and more inundated with work now than then. Reidi was completely taken with our idea of meeting up in Mongar and she set to finding us all accommodation with zeal. A flurry of calls and messages made this get together happen!

We BCFers in Trashigang District from 4 different schools each lobbied our principals with the idea of attending and purchasing books for our school. We were keen to attend at the very beginning of the fair so that we could spend the preceding weekend together in Mongar. Much to my surprise my principal was completely on side and instantly agreed that I could attend. Not so surprisingly so did Ian’s. Martha however met with not just opposition but absolute denial that the event was already scheduled. Becky too seemed to be facing a brick wall and strong opposition, but we were not going to be deterred. Bhutan is not exactly known for its advance warning and organizational practices, which meant that no-one could tell us exactly when this event was to be held. Given the usual scenario of informing us at the eleventh hour, we took matters into our own hands.  Armed with a couple of catalogues, Ian was able to contact one of the book suppliers and get the exact dates from him. We were pretty sure that this information was correct but there was no way to confirm it. 

Still, certain principals denied any knowledge of the dates and refused to grant permission but we pressed on with the task of all getting the required permits to slip across Chazam Bridge and into the neighbouring district of Mongar. Once again this was a daunting task as the timing matched perfectly with the auspicious visit of none other than the Je Kempo (spelling unknown sorry!) As the leader of the entire monastic body of Bhutan, receiving a blessing from such a venerated lama is a rare and tremendous honour, so most of the administrative staff of our local Dzong along with almost every other local adult capable of getting there, were off participating in the rituals and receiving blessings.

Once again Ian to the rescue, and we all managed to write the appropriate office orders and movement notification papers and present them on our various school letterheads, so that we could produce them at the immigration post at Chazam. The essential information and formatting was circulated between the four of us via email and was only completed on the day before our departure.

We all got different information about what was required and there were rumours that just the order forms for books would suffice and that we only needed principals’ approval and no paperwork, but we simply did everything we were told to and hoped that it would allow us to cross the infamous bridge. We were all still hoping but still not sure we could attend until the official notice arrived on Friday when the fair started on the following Monday.

Luckily we had banked on it coming together and by that Friday afternoon we all had approval and a taxi booked. We still had to be able to meet up, with no way of knowing when we would each leave school but we knew we would all get together. Miraculously Becky arrived in Rangjung shortly after I returned from school. I was hopping mad about another bureaucratic blunder and even more sure that I needed a break. In no time we were rushing about in Trashigang, lodging photos for printing, looking for treats to take with us and finding some lunch, while we waited expectantly to hear that Martha was on her way. She took longer than expected to escape Phongmey but lucked out in Rangjung almost instantly locating a ride to T/gang.

Once we were all on the road our spirits lifted and when the immigration officer in Chazam disappeared into his office with all our forms and work permits and returned with the pink slips we would have to show him on our return, we were positively jubilant and felt rewarded for all the effort that had gone into getting that red tape sorted. We kept in phone contact with Scott throughout the afternoon, and collected him in Yadi on our way through. Just as night fell in Mongar we located the hotel that Reidi had booked for us all and met Sheal briefly before she returned to her cosy little place in nearby Kidheyhhar. We would see her several more times over the following few days.

The next 36 hours were a delight of socializing and drinking and sharing. Over meals, which extended for hours, we all revelled in being able to speak to native speakers and compare and discuss our situations, woes and joys. Shopping was a high priority too, as for us, Mongar seemed well stocked and almost cosmopolitan with book stores, pharmacies and real restaurants, in addition to the bakeries. I do believe Martha was singing “New York New York” when she first saw the size of the town and the 3-storey buildings but by then after a half-day of teaching and a long journey we were all close to hysteria!

On Monday when morning the real madness of the book fair began, we were all refreshed and excited to see how it would pan out. A huge tent stood on some open flat ground, (a rare commodity here) in Mongar Lower Secondary School. Inside the tent, various retailers had set up small stalls. Books were certainly in plentiful supply and stacked into selves and piled up in the floor space. The atmosphere was one of urgency. It seemed that the team of shoppers from each school was convinced that the supply would run dry and that they would miss out. Therefore frantic and frenzied purchasing was the order of the day. As the number of buyers grew so did the number of cardboard boxes littering every stall and the small amount of free space in the centre aisle. Soon the tent was something of an obstacle course, with uneven ground below the plastic drop sheets and cardboard, trying to prevent the dust and mud from polluting the stacks of fresh off the press reading matter.

We were among the first to arrive and before my school bus materialized with staff from both Ian’s and my school, we had already begun the process of selecting books and placing them in cardboard boxes to wait for the approval of librarians. Within 30 minutes of the starting time, staff from all our schools was present and the mad scramble to spend the money allocated, was in full swing. The process was somewhat daunting to say the least. Books had to be chosen and approved and then the hand written invoice was complied by the sales staff. This last step often took 20 to 30 minutes as literally hundreds of titles had to be copied down in triplicate; at least there was carbon paper available. Once that was done the invoice had to be registered with the officials from the government, who were standing by laptops at the ready to record who had spent how much with which sellers.

While this paper war was going on, off we went to the next vendor and repeated the process, sometimes punctuating it with personal purchases too. Cash purchases were speedier as no receipts were produced. We certainly all bought several books and over spent our personal budgets. Having never lived in places without bookstores before, we all no doubt, bought more than we can possibly read in the next 9 months but we were happy to do so.  Each of our schools had a budget and no money changed hands for school orders, as only invoices needed to be collected. The district education office will pay the bills once the appropriate amount of documenting by stallholders, officials and school librarians has taken place. If the money had not been spent then and there, it would have been lost, as there would not be another opportunity to buy books for the school until the fair next year! What a system!

Our staff had left at 6am and was still hard at it selecting titles well after 5pm with a road journey of more than 4 hours still ahead of them, before the day was over. I felt very fortunate to have received permission from my principal to remain for one more day and not be part of that expedition home.

Not surprisingly the next day when we were still there and Martha was finalizing her school’s orders, we got phone calls about the boxes of books not put on the bus, but left behind in the rush to leave the previous day. We could easily justify having remained when we collected one invoice not finalized and 2 boxes for my school and another box for Ian’s. These were added to the already well-loaded bus and we climbed in and crept back towards Trashigang. A long slow ride lay ahead. We made a brief stop at Yadi for lunch and there was an equally short break in Trashigang, where even more supplies were added to the over burdened bus. I had just enough time to collect my Photography Club photos and some fresh fruit.

Just as it was getting dark we unloaded our boxes of books, fresh vegies and other supplies as well as our luggage and set about organizing ourselves for the teaching commitments of the next day. I didn’t envy Martha and Becky their additional hour or more on the bus but I am sure they wouldn’t have wanted to spend another 3 hours sorting photos for distribution as I did either!!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

When the going gets tough the tough get cooking!

Spring is still with us but it is getting hot now

Let me begin by saying that my idea of a perfect day is to wake up with nothing but a guest list for dinner on my mind and then to walk to Adelaide Central Market. I buy what looks fresh and takes my fancy as I wander around and then after a coffee to contemplate the menu and any forgotten items, I head home and spend the whole day pottering around in the kitchen and finally while I am cooking I plan the table setting. With everything ready to roll, I hopefully create an original setting to match the food and delight in having a glass of wine before the guests walk through the door!

a huge pot of dhal with veggies 

Today was not like that but we started with vegemite and tomatoes on toast, which is a rare treat in these parts and real coffee, of which thankfully we have a supply. Ian prepared a huge pot of dhal with veggies (wholesome veggo food, we would have called it in Adelaide!) This is all the week’s packed lunches, and a survival must for us. While he did so, I cleaned and did the washing of sheets and towels by hand. Then I got a spin in the kitchen and turned out some Japanese onigiri for a picnic lunch!

Japanese onigiri for a picnic lunch!

My school and the monastery from the climb

The last week was nearly as hectic and a lot more frustrating than the previous one which I last blogged about so not wanting to sound like a constant complainer I will not go into detail. Let me simply say that the bureaucracy of education is remarkably similar in all 4 of the countries, where I have taught, with Bhutan coming in an amazing first place on the hierarchical, superiority front.

Our house and Becky's mountain

When I came to Rangjung, I never imagined that I would be so totally insulted by a toe-cutting official, that I would find myself shouting at him that his judgment and comments question the professional integrity of all the teaching staff and for me were motivation to simply leave Bhutan! The teacher sitting next to me began the 4 and a half hour meeting by encouraging me to be silent and patient and remain seated. By the end she was telling me, “Go on Madam, you are our spokesman” I am not sure if the “our” in that statement referred to the female staff, the expatriate teachers or in fact the whole teaching staff but if I hadn’t spoken up and taken to defending our school and teachers, I fear I would have exploded. The irony of being questioned and rebuked for the quality of our daily lesson plans, while we were being detained and not teaching up to 4 classes that we had planned, because we were in an “ad hoc” meeting with a VIP was not lost on me. Neither was the unsettling information that we would be graded lower as we had not met important deadlines when the person involved had also not made it our school before the end of March and kept us for 4 classes and over half of lunchtime when this meeting was only going to take two periods. What actually incensed me and many other teachers present, the most was that we were losing valuable class time with students who will be taking board exams and can ill afford the loss of instructional hours to be berated and demotivated! I inquired about what his name was, when we were finally allowed to leave, as “in the interest of transparency and accountability” – a phrase often bandied about here- I certainly want to remember it.

Enough said! I hiccupped my way through the afternoon classes having devoured my lunch in 10 minutes flat, knowing I had a double period and voting supervision before the Photography Club meeting that afternoon and therefore no hope of escaping before 5pm, when evening study starts. 

Photography Club cameras almost always requiring batteries to be charged-sometimes 3 a night!

Lhendup Gyeltshen playing for XC

During after school hours this week there were the usual round of sporting events held most nights and a surprise visit by a politician already on the campaign trail for the election next year I suspect; not that I attended that one. As well as the regular club activities, there was a staff meeting in preparation for the official visit about which I fear I have already said too much, but I might say this initial eye-opener was almost as infuriating, as the already mentioned debacle.

Sam Blyth and Dasho

I didn’t actually get to hear the political speech, as I was fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner with the founder of BCF Sam Blyth and his wife and several of the significant donors, who are currently travelling in Bhutan. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, as I recall last year when it was the first real opportunity any of us teachers had to catch up with each other and hear the news about everyone’s placements, schools, homes and woes! This year was no different except the number of us teachers in T/gang is lower and there were only 6 of us in total: Becky and Martha from Phongmey, Ashley from Kanglung, J-D from Bidung and Ian and myself representing Rangjung. (Wamrong, where Simon is placed, is still too far for him to make the party. Maureen and John were similarly absent last time.) With important guests from the district including the governor (Dasho) himself and a good 6 other high-ranking officials, including our toe-cutter from the previous morning’s meeting, and the BCF Canadian contingent, it was a lively and entertaining evening. We did our usual all get into separate groups and chat initially but then when we had all had some down time we were able to mingle more and made an effort to circulate and speak to more people. I am grateful that yet again the principals were all invited and they too seemed to enjoy catching up, as without them none of us would ever have been able to get there. Once again it was a late night with an early morning to come and also one of the few night drives back from T/gang that we have experienced. We fell into bed after midnight that night and we were a lot closer to home than most others.


This weekend there has also been a Science Exhibition for each class, with some really incredible display models, held in our MPH as well as both girls and boys inter-house football finals on Saturday. Today was a whole day Bhutanese darts (Khuru) game for the boys and I made two perfectly timed visits. The first was this morning when I really wanted to see my own home class boys playing. With 27 teams and no-one able to tell me the time they would be playing yesterday, that was a stroke of pure luck. As it turned out, we happened to arrive just 20 minutes before they finished their game and won!! Photos all round and then we headed up the mountain hiking again.

Power generation model

Hiking again

Yes, despite the fact that we have not had an opportunity since walking our legs off a couple of weeks ago, Sakteng is firmly in our sights. We even mentioned it to the Dasho who will have to approve our permits, on Friday night and he too wants to go this year at about the same time, so we might yet get to see the festival that only happens up there every 3 years! (naked dance festival, no less) Wishful dreaming perhaps as it is in term time we think but ….. Today our target was much closer and we ventured up the track towards Bidung, but did not do the full 2 and half hour climb this time. I had my sights set on seeing “Joyce’s Chorten” so named for a dear friend’s mother who passed away and for whom we flew prayer flags there last year. We have no way of knowing the real names of these places, so we decide our own. Becky's mountain is another as we can both see the same mountain but from completely different perspectives

“Joyce’s Chorten”

Having achieved that goal we pressed on and I remembered a little shelter that my class had told me was for travellers last year, when we all walked up together, so I hoped to get that far. As luck had it Ian recommended stopping for our prepared “omisubis” (Japanese rice triangles) with that landmark in sight so that was a perfect picnic spot and chance to cool off and catch our breaths. Even in this mild weather it is a steep climb straight up and I was red-faced yet again!

Traveller's shelter

The second visit to Khuru was after clambering back down the mountain, which interestingly enough took the same time as the heart thumping climbing.  Firstly we returned home and whipped up a frittata for dinner. Then we slipped back to school and the playing field was left with only 3 teams playing it out for game honours. We saw the last 20 minutes of the finals and snapped the finalists much to their delight. Even though there was no more dancing at every bull’s eye hit, they all did one final dance for the camera, “Video Madam” at the end of the tournament. Unfortunately our Internet will not allow me to post that!  XC will be disappointed to tell me tomorrow that they did not make it but all round excellent experience for players and spectators from what we saw. Dare I say why can’t the girls play too, when we have seen women playing in the villages this year?

The winning team

Dinner was delicious and yet again food and cooking has returned my good humour and spirits just in time for another week at the chalkface.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

A pound of Flesh!!

An average week in a boarding school can contain a lot of commitments and extra curricular activities. Such was the week that was. 

Monday I wasn’t actually required to be at school beyond the regular teaching hours but I was still the first one in the office and very diligently going about trying to complete the 98 essays I had collected almost a week earlier. I pride myself in Australia on getting essays back to my students the next time I teach them but this clearly is not a possibility here. I aim for a week but adopt the BST- Bhutanese Stretchable Time clause when necessary. With that in mind I was fighting against time to get these essays back to them by Wednesday. Every free moment including half of the lunch break, and for a half an hour before and after school I sat glued to my desk and marked, from the day I collected them. I had poured over plans and drafts and got those exercise books back to their owners the following lesson as per the Aussie plan, as they need these working books on a daily basis. It is because of this time issue that I insist that final copies of essays get written on paper and not in exercise books. At this early stage in the year there were a few who missed that instruction and 6 books were returned with comments about the requirements for paper copies and the essays corrected. This bothered me, as it is almost a reward for doing the wrong thing when the others have not yet got their work back. Monday afternoon when the curtains were drawn, the lights switched off and the national flag furled after being removed from the flag pole, I took the hint and responded to the glaring of the non-teaching staff member who was standing arms folded in the doorway of the staff work area, hoping I would soon get the hint and pack up and go home! I often experience this kind of reminder to leave now. I took my bundles of essays and headed home for another 2 and a half hours of determined marking. I am lucky to have a husband who loves to cook and allows me to be this obsessive about marking! That was a 12-hour day!!

My marking zone in the staff room- it is a great space and many teachers from other schools are jealous when they visit us!!

By Tuesday afternoon most of the marking was complete. I had re-sorted all the marked essays in rank order searching for one I had seen before and then I remembered that it was in a returned book. Off to the classroom I went and politely asked for the exercise book that I was pretty sure contained the essay that had been copied by another student!! I was impressed that it was one of the first 6 books I marked and with only 4 essays left, I could still clearly remember having read this exact essay before, except this latest version was miraculously error free!! Needless to say each of the 3 sections got a lecture on “PLAGIARISM” to start their English class that day and the deed was done! Essays were completely corrected with positive comments, areas of weakness and advice on how to improve them hand written on them in my class colour coded style. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah! Just in time to attend the “Return Show” immediately after period 7.

This was a delightful if somewhat long, staged performance of dances, including traditional Bhutanese style and some modern copies of "Jabberwocky” and “Michael Jackson” by aspiring youngsters. The newbie Class IX and Class XI students performed as a response to the welcome show performed by the old timers a couple of weeks ago. This was a mere 10.5-hour day.

Wednesday, armed with photos and videos of the previous day’s stunning new stars, I began the process of spending the second half of each lunch break showing the students involved themselves performing, on my computer “classwise.” This is still incomplete but I will continue this week. Ever seen 40 students trying to see a 13inch screen held at arm’s length above the teacher’s desk and all determinedly squatting at the front, standing on desks at the back and leaning all over each other laughing? I love to spend my lunchtimes with them and it sure beats marking.  It is a real treat to see their faces light up and know that they are seeing themselves on video for the first time.

Performing her "level best"

There are also plenty of photos of this event and that means prints are required. I am once again taking orders. This means getting folders of shots prepared to be printed whilst simultaneously transferring videos onto every man and his dog’s thumb-drive.

"Madam can I tell you something personal- this colour is good for you"

Wednesday is also club day and that means that each class and break in the day is reduced by 5 minutes, so that we can have an hour session with the members of our clubs at the end of period 7. I run the small and cohesive Table Tennis Club at this time and we manage to share the one wobbly-legged table as fairly and equally as we can between the 5 male and 5 female members. The new table I ordered and promised to pay for last October, will arrive sometime in May, I was told today! WOW that’s is a long delivery time for a table that was in stock when ordered. The boys are talented and eager and girls are still acquiring basic skills and easily beaten but do not give up and respond well to the coaching and advice which has now begun to flow. I have introduced the requirement for mixed doubles to motivate them all. By revolving partners and making them play in mixed pairs after the initial single sex games the boys have taken an interest in improving the girl’s skill levels. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah! That was the shortest day of the week at only 9 hours!

On Thursday, the day started at 6am with morning study. I had an hour of wandering around the rooms counting heads and sitting in the room with groups who were clearly not studying. Then I rushed home for coffee and breakfast and threw Ian into his gho and voila I was back turning the prayer wheel on my way to the office by 7.45am.  After a full day of teaching and the classroom “see yourself performing in the return show” lunch break, there was an inter-house soccer match immediately after period 7 but I had begged off with the principal. I had permission to meet with all the Photography Club members who were not involved in the football so we could learn how to download from the new club cameras into the school computer in our newly established secure file for the club.  That session was expertly run by my new assistant and fellow teacher Mr Namgay Sir. He walked them through the process, got a few of them to download the gazillion photos they have taken and then was happy to leave me with the bedlam of 20 odd budding photographers all wanting to use the 4 cameras, and download and view their shots, at once. He left the key to lock up with one of the students and it was 15 minute before evening study when I started warning boarders to get organized and pack up! I went straight from the IT room back to head counting and another hour of wandering in and out of classrooms watching hungry and overly tired kids pretend to be studying hard. The football players all dribbled back into their study rooms over the first 30 minutes, so several recounts and checks took me to 6pm and the chance of an hour and a half respite. That was just enough time for a thunderstorm to brew and by 7.30pm, I was walking back to school in the dark with and umbrella and sheet lightening lighting my way when the batteries in the torch died. Another round of head counting and checking and signing the attendance books and I was done for the day. Not exactly what I had in mind, but done and dusted. By the time we settled in for the evening at home and some dinner, I had put in an incredible and exhausting 14.5-hour day!

You can just image how thrilled I was to see a notice on the board, saying that the disaster management team, to which I belong had a meeting on Friday after school….. Not to mention that when the meeting was over, I could hardly walk away from the girl’s soccer match that was still in progress. Hardly anyone watches the girls play and the spectators were disappearing fast, as study was again about to start- thought not with me supervising on this particular day, so I just stayed and watched. Why not after the week that was. A few more hours just can’t make that much difference.

And Saturday, mornings at least, are also teaching time. Only one student wanted to see videos and photographs at the end of the day so I got away just after 1pm when the lunch bells rang for the boarders 

Bring on the weekend!!! 

We 5 BCfers, who managed to meet up in the small smoke today, from 3 different countries, 3 different local locations and 2 Dzongkhags! That's an achievement for a mid-term Sunday.