Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Time to leave!

Classes are over and home exams are done and dusted. I felt a sense of loss yesterday when I knew the class IX and XI students would be leaving for home. The boarding students were of course, over the moon about finally returning to their families and I couldn’t bring myself to watch them depart. It is so final seeing those bedrolls and suitcases walk out through the school gates. I took my remaining exam papers home and buried myself in marking for several hours rather than watch them go. Even so I left the campus to calls of
“ Safe journey Madam.”

The Board Exams loom large on the horizon starting with English on the first 2 days. I am having a really tough time, as they like to say here. Hours upon hours of marking papers and even though mostly the scores are higher than I expected it is not the same as teaching. For me it is tedious surviving the complete lack of contact with students: my only reason for being here. Luckily for me my home class has requested an extra grammar class tomorrow and I willingly agreed. We still have some time together and I am careful not to infect them with the gloom I am feeling.

Though it has not been announced here before I suspect that most people are aware we have decided to accept the challenge and adventure of new teaching positions in Tanzania next year. For BCF blog readers Tim rather spilled the beans on that one some time ago!!

Right now I am full of mixed emotions about leaving Bhutan. I feel so connected to my class and every everyday sight is being burned into my memory because we won't get to see this for much longer but at the same time I want to claw my eyes out after marking for 8 hours in a day. I am sad to be leaving whilst simultaneously counting down the days. It is never easy to walk away and currently there is so much left to do and so very little time remaining, that the anxiety grows daily.

To change this mournful tune let me focus on one of the most unique and visually awesome experiences of Bhutan.

The biggest and best celebration of the year happened last weekend in T/gang: TSHECHU.

It afforded us some well overdue time out. I promised myself that I would finish all 3-class sets of English Paper I before going. This is a reward system I have employed for years to get me through the most onerous of tasks. Make the reward so great that you will apply yourself diligently to the task, in order to be rewarded. (I actually think that is how I made it through college!)

This time it meant missing the first day but by the time we did get there it was possible to relax and enjoy it. What a welcome break. Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday was the big event.

We booked into a hotel in T/gang and treated ourselves to lazy nights in front of a TV, hot showers and daytime sojourns to the activity at the Dzong as well as taking time out for long last looks at the spectacular scenery from the lookout, for 2 full days. We had Becky in tow when we left Ranging and she embraced the festivities and time out with the same gusto we did. Ashley called announcing her presence not long after we arrived in town and once it was officially the weekend Tim from Yangste fronted up too, so it was a bit of a break and catch up too even though at no point were all 5 of us in the same place at the same time.

This year quite unexpectedly we even got to spend the afternoon in the "box seats" with VIP and dignitaries of all sorts. This was entirely due to Ashley’s charm and influence but we were glad to go along for the ride. 

We positioned ourselves at the first level up in the “Dzong” administration area, not up in the gods where the lamas and later royalty were, but it was still a great vantage point and I remember looking longingly up to that zone last year when we were watching our first ever Tshechu. I am not so comfortable in exalted company and felt like an impostor despite loving the perspective from a photographic point of view

The final day that space was definitely off limits as Her Majesty the  Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo was present and it was impossible to get anywhere near that sacred territory.

We were happy to spot her from a distance in the crush of the crowd of commoners. If the truth be known we were happier back where we belong with the crowd of fascinated onlookers at ground level. 

In actual fact we were grateful to be inside the Dzong at all, as we had lazed around in the morning adopting a holiday mentality and not long after we entered the performance area, it was declared too full to allow entry to any more spectators.

There were a few new masked dances performed on that final day this year. I believe that they were commemorating the visit and honouring the heroism of the 7-day war fought in 2003. I may be entirely wrong on that front but it was the way they came across.  Though very militaristic, the brand new costumes and masks were very impressive.  

Right now we have to focus on the tasks and responsibilities at hand. Exams…packing…. posting and leaving are all high on the list but one at a time.

Australia is also a welcome thought and I definitely need the brain space before we start our new adventure in Tz. Unbelievably it has been 2 years since we were home. We will arrive in February after a short vacation in the US that was planned and booked when we had no idea where we would be in 2013. I am so looking forward to great cups of coffee, chilled Sauvignon Blanc, long chats, fun bike rides and raw beetroot salads!!! 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sherig Century Walk

Right now I am up to my neck in exam paper correction but since I have whined long and loud about this time consuming process before I will return to the less commonplace activities of last week before I forget them completely. 

It was an exceptional week for us. We were only at school on alternating days and each non-school day was long, demanding and filled with activities. The XC class picnic on Tuesday, Martha’s 49th day ceremony on Thursday and by Saturday morning the long anticipated and much discussed Sherig Century Walk was on.

When I first got wind of the walk, it was the beginning of the term and Ian and I had just hiked up to Sakteng and back so I felt very confident that a walk on a paved surface to Trashigang would be an easy task. Therefore I was quick to volunteer to participate, even though I was wary of sleeping on the floor in classrooms with the students. From our school 10 male and 10 female students were selected in way that ensured each class had at least one representative and the 5 staff simply volunteered.

We BCFers got talking about it and it seemed that all of us in the Trashigang District had volunteered to take part. It was an interesting way to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of education in Bhutan and an incredible opportunity for the students to interact with each other. All the schools in the district participated and that meant a 3-day walk for some.

Months disappeared quickly and just a month out from the start date rumors started spreading that the walk was now going to be to Yongphula. In the usual Bhutanese way it was difficult to have this confirmed but it did seem to be the case. Suddenly the parameters had changed and our easy 17 km stroll was to be followed by 2 more days of steep uphill climbing with the task getting more and more difficult and the distances increasing each day. At that point 3 days on the floor with students after walking all day looked like a big ask to me but there was no way to back out.

I had my doubts that I had the stamina to make the distance but I was also worried about the primary students starting from Merak and Sakteng. Robust and fit as they are, they were still looking at 5 consecutive days of walking!!

Ian and I did an few evening walks of 8kms or so and even decided that a 16km practice run would be a good idea the week before. As Becky was staying with us Saturday night, we packed a picnic lunch and set off for a picturesque little village almost at the halfway point between Rangjung and T/gang, planning to turn around and walk back after lunch, but enthusiasm took over and we walked all the way into Trashigang, after our picnic.

That boosted my morale, as, although we were tired on arrival we were fine the next day. We were all set to give it our best shot when the parameters changed again and we were back to the original plan with celebrations relocating to T/gang. Good! Confidence was high and we were relieved that it would be a relatively easy task and thrilled that we would be able to attend the memorial service for Martha as well.

Added to our joy was the fact that Becky’s principal had suggested that she stay in a hotel not at the school in Trashigang and with us in Rangjung, as space was going to be at a premium in the classrooms. That motivated us to enquire if we could also opt for a night in a hotel and permission was instantly granted.

Mid afternoon the schools above Rangjung started pouring into town. They were warmly welcomed and after a few formalities everyone was housed in classrooms for the night and Becky came back to our place with us.

The next morning the parade left looking like crusaders with the traditionally clad Merak students leading the student contingent out through the school gates. 

The roadside was lined with well wishers from both Rangjung schools ensuring we all got a grand send off.

All along the way the students kept up the singing of the song especially written for the event and spirits were high.

Local business people and residents came out onto the street to wave and encourage the walkers as we passed through villages and snacks, and refreshments were offered at intervals throughout the day.

Students had been enquiring about lunch almost from the time we left Rangjung so there was great excitement when the cooks from RHSS passed us on the road in a van laden with steaming pots of rice and curry. We all knew that we would soon see those pots set up in the fields and a good feed was coming our way.

The logistics of getting so many students feed and housed, let alone keeping them moving and having them arrive at the correct places at exactly the right time seemed nightmarish but in the usual Bhutanese fashion it all just happened and even appeared effortless.

Our long snake of walkers increased all day as schools from mountainous areas higher up waited for our arrival and joined us on the “blacktop” road. 

Cars and trucks slowed as they passed through the ranks and some even made donations.

The final contingent from Bartsham and Bidung met up with us just 4kms from Trashigang. JD was among them and they had already covered 20km on dirt roads by then. The younger primary school students in the ranks were beginning to flag and it was a final uphill slog for those little legs and tired feet but there was not one mishap or injury and no-one dropped out along the way.  

As our lines of students from the east arrived in T/gang those arriving from the west merged with them for the final uphill haul to the Trashigang Middle Secondary School campus.  

Among the walkers from the western schools it was not difficult to spot Ashley who had done the 22kms from Kanglung, with her students and Simon who had been on the road for 3 days. When the locations changed from Yongphula to T/gang our win became his loss and he had walked all the way from Wamrong. 

Rehearsals for the grand ceremonies, dances, songs and presentations that would take place on Sunday were underway within 30 minutes of arriving at the school and not a word of complaint came from the lines of around 1000 students assembled from over 60 schools. By then they were all cooling off as the cool night air descended and the wind picked up. Reunions of old classmates now studying in different schools added to the excitement levels.

Amassed were students from primary, community, lower secondary and higher secondary schools and even Sherubste College to say nothing of the powerful and important. They had come from remote communities, small hamlets, villages and larger towns and there was certainly and air of festivity.

The following day saw the arrival of distinguished guests including Nancy Strickland representing BCF. There were the usual rounds of speeches, and the launching of the Rangjung HSS website as well as the Bidung LSS Silver Jubilee School Magazine and many cultural performances by the participating schools.

For me the highlight was certainly seeing the Brokpa students of Sakteng perform a traditional song and dance.

The few schools that had buses were ferrying students back to their respective schools and returning for those without their own transport, by early afternoon. Seats in those buses and DCMs were at a premium and hoards of singing students were seen hanging out of the windows as they headed home. We jumped at the chance to get a ride with Nancy in the Landcruiser and even kidnapped Simon and brought him back to Rangjung for the night when he heard that his school was not leaving until Monday.

All in all, the walk was really a grand celebration and great fun.

Now 4 days into exams, I am trying my level best to get the first paper marked before the Trashigang Tshechu begins next Thursday. Though I would like to attend all 3 days as we did last year, we will settle for 2 as a reward for having reached the halfway point with the marking.

The end is nigh and emotions are running high.

Friday, November 16, 2012

49th Day Prayers

Last week was eventful and exhausting with a high number of diverse events taking place.


I was deeply concerned that Martha’s brothers, John and Robert and a dear friend, Sigrid were in Bhutan and travelling east to be a part of the 49th day ceremony and that all of us who live in this zone of the country would not be able to attend due to a prior commitment. Months ago we signed up to participate in the Sherig Century Walk and the 2 events clashed. In what can only be described as Bhutanese fashion a reprieve at the 11th hour meant that it would be possible to be present at the ceremonies in Dungste Middle Secondary School and still do the walk.

This welcome news also set me thinking about what exactly we could say that would assist these people to make sense of what happened. I am not sure that I have managed to do that for myself yet. I have to admit that I had trepidations about actually meeting face to face. What did I really know? I wasn’t even there at the time!

Nonetheless I jumped at the opportunity to interact, which is my nature and after a long day at school on Wednesday November 7th Ian and I stromped up the “hill” to the monastery guesthouse to meet them and Karma over dinner.

For us the prospect eating out in Bhutan is always somewhat daunting, as we are veggo and endless meals of chillies and cheese and rice is not our idea of a balanced diet. However we were surprised at the excellent meal that we shared and the affable and non-confronting exchanges that took place over that meal.

Having already sought leave from our respective schools the next day we were back up at the guesthouse well before we would ordinarily have arrived at school. I had volunteered to help Sigrid get into kira for the occasion and as it turned out also helped Karma dress the brothers.

It is no mean feat for someone unused to this clothing to get it on and persist with wearing it all day and I was impressed that they had all decided to take up that challenge on that particular day, given the emotional and unknown nature of what lay ahead.

I have been up to Phongmey several times now but this was a very sunny, blue-sky morning and the views, which are truly breath taking were even more so in the soft light of a spectacular Autumn morning. The harvest long finished in Rangjung was still underway and the fields were glowing gold with the ripened rice crop. This time of year is a photographer’s dream with the cool crisp clarity of the atmosphere. The cloudy and foggy scenes we arrived to in winter and the ever-darkening skies of summer have totally different light qualities but this is the season of stunning beauty.

The rituals and ceremonies of the day were reasonably familiar to me, though there were few unique touches. At this point in time, the tent erected on the school grounds, the chanting monks in the MPH, the offering of butter lamps, the constant supply of food and tea, the endless rounds of introductions and polite conversations punctuated with official duties, all seem exactly the way to honour the occasion but I was constantly wondering what the 3 chief guests were making of the whole scenario. There was a sudden realization that now I understand and can predict this culture so much better.

There were plenty of staff and friends gathered as well as the students and I felt that John, Robert and Sigrid were given the time they needed and wanted to ask questions and resolve concerns. I truly hope they felt the same way.

My heart soared when I discovered that we were really going to consecrate some of the huge white vertical prayer flags that fly from the upright poles. We see them everywhere. I love the majesty of these memorials and I have never seen the ritual of consecration before.

From the beginning of this tragedy I had hoped that a stand would be erected for Martha and they were. I can’t say I enjoyed stumbling through the undergrowth to get to the spot that was chosen or climbing back through the barbed wire fence in my best kira was very much fun. But I can say that the area with its wide vistas and ancient chorten, which is the exact view Martha would have had from her quarters, was clearly visible to the students from their hostels and tranquil and fitting. Now I want to go back and visit them one more time before we depart.

The day turned out to be so much longer than I expected as it included a second breakfast, lunch and dinner but it ended much like a wake with lots of friends, colleagues and dignitaries gathered together chatting and even laughing .

The long drive back to Rangjung in the dark gave me ample time to contemplate on the proceedings and feel a sense of closure.

Bless you Martha. Tashi Delek!