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!!

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