Saturday, June 30, 2012

Nothing spoils the fun of school like exam period!

With acknowledgement to Clark Gesner for his “Nothing Spoils the Taste of Peanut Butter Like Unrequited Love”

Vicky Chartres: I think exam time is about the worst time of year for me. The whole reason for being here- being in the classroom with students, unceremoniously ends when the exam period commences. Waking up and wondering if any students will actually speak to me today or whether it will just be more standing around watching and distributing and collecting papers. Knowing there will be no daily classroom interaction and an endless rounds of supervision and relieving with ever mounting bundles of exam papers to mark appearing on my desk is almost enough to make me want to give up teaching! The thing I most dislike is the exam marking.

Well, nothing to do but start. I can sort them all into essay topics and start with all sections and essays. (She unties the bundles and sorts through the papers dividing them into topics, turning the pages to the essay question) What topic is this? Why don’t they write the question? Well that’s disappointing almost everyone has chosen the Meditation and Mind training topic… That was the only one we didn’t even discuss in class. Where are the criteria? Let’s just see how they go. OK this is not bad.. Yes intro… 3 arguments and conclusion.. Structure down, good job! Yes ...Yes… Good job and this… Well. OK the grammar’s not too bad. How can you even think that? What no evidence, no examples …No, No, No. Choose one and write. Don’t sit on the fence! Was anyone even listening when we did expository essays?…Meditation is enlightenment! Answer the question! GNH?? It doesn’t answer the question. We should have written a joint construction perhaps… Where does the question say “important” or “international”?  Do they even know what “evolving” means? Oh please. Give me a break! Yes 4 out of 5 for the structure and even the spelling is not bad. Good. More like that please. OK 2 more papers and I will have a coffee. Who is this? (She flips the pages to the front page) Oh right, index numbers! No idea who this is? What were you thinking? Were you even thinking?  OK! You’ve got it, whoever you are. Maybe 5 more and I will take a 15 minute break and have a cup of coffee. How many more in this section? (She starts counting papers) OK almost half way. Didn’t I read this before? How can they all have the same arguments? Yes well done! Who are you? Right index numbers! When I finished this section, then I will check who is who against their scores. What why can’t you just copy the correct spelling from the question? 3 to go and I will stop. Where is that list with their index numbers on it? Maybe it is at school? What will it matter now the scores are done. Just get a coffee and …. God was that 4 hours. That’s enough for tonight. We need to have some dinner! I wonder which exam they have tomorrow. Arrrrgggg exams are the worst time of the year for me.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The singing tree

Grey Treepie

We are in the depths of exam mode, meaning I have spent more that 42 hours marking papers, since last Monday.  In addition to exam supervision that is a heap of work in anyone’s book and I am sorry to say the task is less than half over. With meetings still happening, students still seeking clarification before they take exams and wanting immediate gratification about the answers they have written once they exit the exam hall, there has been little time for anything else but exam fever for the last 7 days. Another 4 days and the long awaited summer break will be here but before then ….

Common Hoopoe

The weekend has come to a close and the blog I had intended to post sometime Friday is now well overdue….. Enough complaining….

Red-vented Bulbul

One of the greatest joys here is waking up to birdsong almost every morning. We are blessed with a raging river and paddy fields just outside our windows and the amount of birdlife that transits through this zone is amazing.

Blue-throated Barbet

Directly outside our bedroom window is a barren tree branch that affords birds a clear view over the steep cliff face and the river below and it is therefore a favourite resting place for a wide variety of species. We have taken to calling it the singing tree. We are fortunate to wake up to birdsong most mornings. Even when cloud cover and thick fog conceal the beauty of the mountains the birds entertain us with their antics and musicality.

Crested Bunting

A beautiful Common Kestrel 

Of course it is not the only clear view we get of the bird life but it is certainly the most convenient and many a morning I am distracted by the calls and activities of vocal and endearing species, seemingly singing for the sheer pleasure it brings them.

Black Bulbul singing its beak off!

 Earlier this week I lamented that the one power tiller that plies the fields here in this frantic planting season would scare away our morning serenade, and just to prove me wrong our friend the White-throated Kingfisher made an instant appearance, the moment the machine was turned off.

White-throated Kingfisher

Our regular walks also provide us with ample bird watching opportunities and the method we employ to identify the species we have spotted is to photograph them so we can look up our book or the net on our return home.

Himalayan Bulbul

We are now able to identify the calls of several local species and there are still an elusive few that we hear but never see. 

Cattle Egrets

These days we don't seem to get too much time to smell the flowers but we do find a few moments almost every day to appreciate the melodies.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

1 chorten, 2 chorten, 3 chortens 4!

The two most calming and enigmatic visuals in all of Bhutan are the chortens and prayer flags in my humble opinion. I never tire of photographing them and at any point in time one is never very far from one or both. They are addictive and they come in an incredible range of simplistic styles, each with its own allure.

Last Sunday we finally decided to take a walk up behind the mini hydro electricity plant in Rangjung. From the road on the opposite ridge you can see 3 chortens marking a path up the mountain and it looks very enticing. We have been promising ourselves to go up there and explore for a while now so this was our chance.

From our balcony we can see a picturesque little settlement that is often bathed in very intense narrow beams of light when the surrounding area and Rangjung itself is looking rather gloomy. Try as I might to photograph it, I cannot capture its charming allure. For this reason I think of it as a kind of enchanted place and Ian refers to it as the “country club” as there is large cleared area that is always intensely green between the few scattered houses. We suspected that our chorten route would take us up to this hobbit like hamlet and were looking forward to seeing it up close and personal.

We set off earlyish but not in the cool, quiet, still of the morning as we had originally planned. It is hard to not have at least a brief sleep-in on Sunday morning when it’s the only day of the week one is not heading for the chalkface!

We more or less followed our noses to the hydro plant and then set off on the first narrow foot trail we spotted.

This was always gong to be a relatively easy walk but we were surprised at how quickly we fell upon the first of the chortens. I was climbing and panting and thinking that if we were Julian and Shauna, or Lisa and Scott or even Maureen and John, all BCFers from our intake and all in different and far flung places now, we would have been doing this in our first month or so in Rangjung. BUT seasoned hikers from mountainous environs we are not and we are still finding our climbing legs and building our stamina. For a couple of plains dwellers we are doing OK. Nonetheless most of our students can bolt up these kind of inclines without raising a sweat and wearing traditional dress and thongs! (flip-flops or slippers as they like to call them here)

Anyway sweating but undeterred we continued on our way and felt truly blessed that at this point, the unrelenting sun decided to take cover in the clouds. The second chorten afforded us a great view of the monastery but not our house but then a little farther up the trail, even it became visible. Now I just don’t get how we cannot see the chortens from our house but we can see our house from the chortens? It doesn’t add up but I have now spent a week staring meaningfully up at that same cliff face and they just can’t be seen!

On we plodded and within moments, we arrived at the third but as it turns out not final chorten. It also manifests as a group of chortens not the single entity. The area around it was littered with what looks like cotton wool and the pods, seed and membranes from the pods were also strewn about the place. The locals call this tree a cotton tree and I can certainly see why but I wonder if it is really kapok or if indeed that is even a natural substance. If anyone reading this knows I would love to be enlightened. (feel free to comment)

This collection of chorten, chedi, or stupa (depending on which Buddhist culture you are residing in) came with the accompanying “corral” of prayer flags. This too is Ian’s term as we don’t know why some of these stands of prayer flags are fenced in and others are standing like giant sentinels on the bends of roads. 

However this group of chortens was preceded by a cluster of prayer flags. The Standard group of three chortens was very well established with huge concrete bases and cleared areas and steps!! As is often the case it is clear that there are frequent visitors, who tend the site even if they are never present when we are. Nearby we were dumbfounded to see a huge water pipe and concrete tunnel (the Morgan Whyalla pipeline Ian joked) How anyone could get machinery to that point was a mystery to us and we pondered if it was possible to have done it all by hand while we hung out there and caught our breath.

Eventually we decided to keep on trucking upwards.

We were now not exactly sure where this trail would lead us but with the monastery, our house and my school disappearing and reappearing from view as we climbed we were in no danger of getting lost. 

Before we knew it we were facing a previously unexpected 4th chorten, which just happened to be on a farm road, that looked set to return us known territory and Rangjung in particular. Maybe that is how machinery got to the lower point, as this was definitely a vehicle friendly road.

Unsatisfied with having not yet sighted the “country club” we continued up a narrow trail on the opposite side of the road. This goat track was only spotted because a man out collecting pine needles, for reasons best known to himself, darted up it after stopping to stare in awe at us for a while. 

We were equally amused by each other’s presence and exchanged the Dzongkha greeting “Kuzuzang pola!” This being the most useful of the less than 10 phrases I can now say! On this track we found ourselves finally looking sideways at the small collection of houses we see daily from the balcony. 

When the track petered out a few metres later and left us on a bit of a clearing with a bird’s eye view we figured that would do us on the upward ever upward front for the day.  We sat ourselves down listened to the birdlife, watched the red-bodied dragonflies, spotted beds of rice seedlings patiently awaiting replanting and wild figs and wondered why we had taken so long to get to this little haven so close to town!

As usual we spotted a great collection of birds only some of whom we were able to photograph so that we could look them up in the bird books once we got home. We heard several cuckoos but they were as elusive as ever.

Luckily, the road to which we returned, allowed us to make the walk a loop and I find that so much more satisfying than up and back on the same path. We took one steep shortcut and managed to keep our feet and cut off kilometres of winding dirt road by navigating the steep, slippery, near vertical descent. We made a mental note that this would not be the path of choice after heavy rain as much of it was obviously a waterway!

As we came back into known territory I had to take photos of the chortens, which mark the entrance to Rangjung and the one located in the centre of town as these are the mainstays of our chorten life.

I can’t help but be reminded of the chedi which was the only tourist attraction in Nakhon Pathom and which we could see from the Foreign Language teacher's office in a school we would rather forget in Thailand!! 

Friday, June 8, 2012

a typical day

I got up this morning promising myself that I would wear western clothing today. I can remember waking up in Australia promising myself that I would go to sleep as soon as I got home from school. It is not that I am not exhausted here, I am, but sometimes the heat and lack of electricity meaning lack of overhead fans combine to make me think that I will simply melt into a puddle in front of my class. “Madam is too active.” Students in their dedication to learn ask to have the fans switched off so that they can hear! The staffroom windows have not been opened in living memory and in the interest of saving electricity, when it is on, the fans almost never are.

Those who think that we are on some kind of extended vacation here constantly surprise us. Just to set the record straight I would like to outline a typical day.

This morning when my eyes first opened at about 4.30am I was relieved that it was pouring rain and therefore much cooler. I allowed myself to go back to sleep and awoke shocked some time just before 6am and battled the erratic water supply to have shower that alternated between scaldingly hot and ice cold as the water pressure varied. I was still able to fully appreciate that most BCFers don’t get a shower at home, and that Tashi Namgay’s dad was already in the paddies outside ploughing.

The internet connection is almost always most reliable early in the morning so as I had been yet again lulled into the misconception that today would not be sweltering, I yet again donned traditional dress and checked out emails and Facebook, sending birthday greetings to a day scholar here in Rangjung and commenting on friends and family’s postings too.

Ian had breakfast on the table in no time having been up a good half hour before me as is usually the case. And we fell into the routine of getting him into gho, getting our packed lunches ready, bringing in yesterday’s washing still drying on the balcony and organizing ourselves for the day ahead, whilst taking turns on the computer. We do have 2 laptops but one is usually enough in the mornings. Soon enough, it was time to shutdown and walk to school with the charming and talkative class 3 son of our downstairs neighbours.

On arrival at school, I signed in, and set to completing the remaining 5 exercise books of marking on my desk, before the morning assembly started. That involves prayers, followed by 2 morning speeches one in Dzongkha and one in English before the TOD takes the stand and announces essential messages and observations from breakfast and morning SUPW (Socially Useful and Productive Work) as well as general advice and then the national anthem is sung and off we all scurry to class, hoping to arrive before the whistle is blown for 2 minutes of Mindful Concentration. If you happen to be outside when that whistle blows then you must freeze where you are and meditate. It is a great way to start the day as students really do focus and settle so that period 1 begins on a positive and studious note, but it is best to be in the classroom for it, in my opinion.

Back to back lessons launch the morning forward to ‘interval’ when I am inundated with more notebooks, dutifully delivered by the class captain who keeps all of us on our toes. I begin immediately on the task of checking them and that “free’ period evaporates and again I am melting in the classroom as I squeeze between rows of desks to answer the calls of ‘Madam, Madam,’ during frantic group work.

Exams are now less than a week away and not a second is to be lost!  Music announces the arrival of lunch break but not a student will leave the room until I have and then the stampede to the dinning hall for boarders, and to the shade of the nature area with packed lunches for day scholars, is on. Like them I head to my desk and consume my packed lunch in silence and savouring the empty workroom and breathing space.

A quick exchange of SMS messages with Ian lets me know how his day is progressing and then it is back to those exercise books in earnest as they must be returned before evening study. As I wade through the pile, teachers who have returned home for lunch drift back in and photography club members return cameras, come to charge batteries and contribute collected funds to our ever growing account. Once again music announces the imminent commencement of classes and the second round of Mindful Concentration to get the afternoon session off to a productive start. Off I scurry to be in the room for the quietude.

After sweating through 3 more classes, one of them a free, which disappears in a frenzy of exercise books, last lesson Friday is over and there is a queue at the staffroom door hoping to retrieve those same books, to review in evening study. I stick it out marking for another 45 minutes and then the office-in-charge closes all the curtains, switches off the lights and fans, which have somehow managed to be on, just to let the 3 of us teachers still at our desk know that he is going to lock the office now so we need to vacate the premises.

I pack up and walk across the campus to a chorus of ”Going home Madam?” from boarders who would like to be doing just that.

As soon as I get home, I peel off the sweat soaked traditional clothes and bucket wash them hoping that the wind, which has now picked up will dry them on the line before the inevitable showers begin. The moment I get my computer turned on the power goes off but I persist with writing up review questions for my class X home group, who are daily looking more overwhelmed by the prospect of the exams. Somehow they have convinced me to take an extra class on Saturday afternoon between 2 and 4pm, this week!

About 20 minutes later one of my home class boys, Tshering Gyeltshen arrives with the huge pocket of his gho full of plums that his parents have delivered to him today. When I try to tell him that he needs to share them with other classmates, he assures me that he has a sack full and these are for me. Tshering of the winning smile, has charmed me yet again.  He by the way is looking more alert and engaged than he has all week. Parental visits do make a big difference.

Back to the review questions for me and before I know it is almost 8pm and Ian has yet again prepared dinner and a rare treat of pasta no less!!! I am sure I would not eat if I had to cook in addition to keeping on top of the demands of school and students who genuinely want to learn!!

Thank God tomorrow is Saturday… except that I will have an additional afternoon session with XC after the usual morning’s teaching! Maybe tomorrow I really will wear western (read much cooler) clothing.

It is 10.30pm now and I am writing this I really must be mad