Monday, September 30, 2013

oNe PhOtO a DaY fOr SePtEmBeR


1.    TOGETHER: few things go together quite as well as this four pack on a hot summer day!


3. LINES: of prayer flags from the display erected by the Class XII students of Rangjung Higher Secondary School in 2012- this was just outside my classroom last year and my thoughts are more and more turning to Bhutan at the moment as we will be there in just 2 days

4. ALONE: to an avid swimmer being all-alone in the pool is bliss even if it isn’t a full size pool. Thanks to Ian for the photo yet again. Like everything else for the past 30 years we seem to be doing this challenge together, so I am never really alone!

5. HERE FOREVER: traditional clothing in Bhutan is here forever given the number of these beautiful textile and clothing stores and the fact that wearing the national dress in certain places and at certain times is written into the law

6. GETTING READY: to travel across Bhutan with the appropriate clothing for school visits

7. WHITE: prayer flags releasing their blessings in the wind from the covered bridge in Thimphu

8. MADE BY ME: this trail mix was made by me from ingredients available in Thimphu, in preparation for the road trip east across Bhutan, the upcoming hikes and as a snack to share with friends along the way

9. ON THE WALL: of a general store in Nobding where we stopped for lunch on our way to Trongsa. That just has to be in Bhutan.

10. SWEET: the sweet treats we bought locally to take up to my former students, who are now studying at Taktse Higher Secondary School. Boarding students who survive on a diet of potato or radish curry, rice and dahl deserve a sweet treat every now and again I think.

11. WHAT YOU DID TODAY: I got to meet the fabulous the Chisholm family and we all shared dinner and many lovely conversations. After months of anticipation we are all in the same location in Chumey rural Bhutan

12. SHADOW: my own Shadow coming down the steps at the Lakhang (monastery) in Chumey today

13. UNEXPECTED: even preschoolers can be unexpectedly quiet when it is time for lunch. At the daycare centre in Chumey with Bob and Remy Chisholm

14. LIQUID: quite a few liquid refreshments were shared when we finally reached Trashigang and met up with old friends and colleagues as well as a few new BCF arrivals

15. SEASON: It is currently archery season in Bhutan and we have seen tournaments in progress in almost every town we have visited. This morning we woke to whooping of the victorious archers in Trashigang.

16. FRAME: an elaborately carved and painted window frame typical of traditional Bhutanese architecture.

17. IN FRONT OF ME: for the last few days many of my former students have been in front of me and like boarders all over Bhutan they are all eager for any entertainment or distraction from the mundane monotony of school routine

18. VINTAGE: I’m not sure if these Tata trucks are vintage but they certainly are classics and the lifeblood of the transport system here in Bhutan

19. WHAT IS THIS? -3 traditional hand held drums stacked on top of each other after the monks finished playing them for the blessings of the Throngdrel at the Phongmey Tschechu

20. IN THE MORNING: two eager little primary school students running to school in the morning in Trashiyangtse far eastern Bhutan

21. RULE OF THIRDS: Chorten on the roadside in Trashiyangtse

22. MADE ME SMILE: being back in Rangjung Higher Secondary School with those students, from my former home class XC, who qualified for class XI studies, this week made me smile for days. Photo credit to Ian

23. FROM MY CHILDHOOD: I think my sense of adventure came from my childhood and today’s 9 ½ hours on the lateral road in Bhutan tested it to the limit.

24. SPACE: there is almost no air space in Bhutan in which prayer flags do not fly- I love it!

25. H IS FOR: the Himalayan mountain houses and the Himalayan landscapes of central Bhutan

26. CURVE: The wheel of Dharma is a common Buddhist symbol found on doors, temples, walls and ceilings it represents the basic principles of the cosmos and is drawn with highly stylized curves.

27. WTF: What’s The Flesh – it might be beef or yak but meat air drying in public places is a common sight in Bhutan even here in the capital!

28. 10 O’CLOCK: 10 am at the traffic circle in Thimphu- possibly the world’s only capital without any traffic lights. When lights were installed people complained that it was too impersonal and the traffic policeman in his box was reinstated

29. GOLD: finial on the Haa Dzong (ancient fortress building containing the local government administration and a body of practising monks)

30. FOUND: the local Rangjung taxi driver with whom we have spent the last 7 days crossing Bhutan, with a car load of locals making the most of the time we spent hiking in Haa

Friday, September 27, 2013

On a wing and a prayer flag

Our 3-day trip to Trashiyangtse was great. We had been there about 4 times previously and had always enjoyed ourselves greatly. After we arrived we called the local BCF teacher, Lee, based at the Lower Secondary School to arrange a meeting. As it was a long weekend- to celebrate Blessed Rainy Day, Lee was hightailing it to the big smoke of Trashigang to surround himself with all that regional capital has to offer.

Trashiyangtse, or simply Yangtse as the locals call it is the gateway to a National Park where the endangered Black Necked Cranes spend their winter months. While it was way too early to see them, the natural beauty and unspoilt wilderness of the place was quite enough for us.

We were lucky enough to return to the Traditional College of the Arts- the Zorig Chuusum, where school was in and we could visit classrooms and see the students practicing in their chosen fields. We saw students sewing and making ghos, the national dress for men and cloth decorations for temples, offices, school rooms and homes. Others were in the painting class and they were busy trying to perfect the scene their teacher had presented them with. We also saw some woodcarving and metal smithing. The mask making was a real highlight. Seeing the familiar mask faces emerging from an inanimate block of wood was quite something. The skill of the sculptors was apparent as they moulded and coaxed their clay into something beautiful and significant.

The college in Yangtse is part of the nationwide set of Technical Training Institutes and like the College of Natural Resources, seems to be such an excellent way of looking to the future while respecting the past and providing a definite pathway to employment, fantastic.

Displaying creativity beyond the bounds of their artistic pursuits - when IT turns to TT

Bumthang was also a real treat. We were able to take a day off from the treacherous roads and just kick back and relax. Visiting the historic monasteries and strolling along the riverside paths gave us the time out we needed and set our minds pondering. It impresses us every time we go there, as it is the heartland of Bhutan. Although we have no say in our posting for 2014, if indeed it happens at all, we would be over the moon to be placed in this central location with so much to offer. 

In Lobesa we caught up with some more of the RHSS students who are now scattered around the country either finishing high school or embarking on tertiary studies. The student we met up with there has always been a go-getter even as a boarding student in class XI. She, and a few of her friends are now students of the College of Natural Resources in Lobesa, central western Bhutan. She is studying Animal Husbandry with a view to becoming an 'expert in the field' in a few years time. She will study at the college for 2 years, give 5 years service, then return to the college for another 2 years to complete her degree course. Some of her friends are studying the Agriculture course that has a similar structure to hers. One 'highlight' will come next year when they have a pig project. They will borrow money from the college to buy a piglet, take care of it, house and feed it and make sure it stays healthy until the day comes when, in their groups they have to complete the circle of pig rearing by dispatching it and preparing the meat for sale. One of her friends, interestingly an Agriculture student, told us the Animal Husbandry students would have to murder a pig next year, by their very own hands!!!!

Agriculture and animal husbandry are so very important here in Bhutan. If they are to be able to feed themselves in the years ahead given their dearth of arable land and maintain and improve nutrition across the board, they need modern techniques, new knowledge and experts with the motivation and energy to bring about change, to add to the wisdom passed down from generation to generation. It seems to be an excellent, vocationally focused course that the girls are already beginning to really appreciate. Whilst she once wanted to be a doctor, she is now relishing the opportunity she has and is looking forward very much to the Veterinary side of her training.

We met the girls this morning after their morning classes were over. Together we took a taxi to Chime Lhakhang, a major tourist destination as well as a deeply holy site for the locals. Drukpa Kinley, also known as the Divine Madman, founded the Lakhang. While I am not a historian in any way I do think that perhaps it was he who has made the image of the phallus so conspicuous and ubiquitous here in Bhutan.

This Lhakhang is the place couples go to in order to receive special blessings to help them start a family. While none of us was in the position of wanting to start a family, stories abound of formerly barren couples now 'blessed' with children. We took heart, especially for the two girls that, fortunately you cannot get pregnant by being tapped on the head by a wooden phallus no matter how devout the Monk's intention. Vicky said something to the girls on the subject of pregnancy and she was told that to achieve that end, a totally different visit was required, good.They are both overwhelmed with the freedom their college life affords them. 

While boarding in high school their lives were totally controlled by school rules, regulations and arbitrary decisions by Matron or the Warden. Often, as high school students, they were confined to the girl's hostel area only being allowed out for meals, study, prayers and other essential engagements. Imagine their shock at college where there is no clear delineation between male and female hostels, where boys and girls are equally free to go and do as they please. "They treat us as adults here," she told us. It was really gratifying to see how all that hard work at high school had paid handsome dividends for these students.    

Hi tech surveyors in Lobesa

Their college was also a feast for the eyes with its traditional architecture, beautiful grounds and spectacular views over the river and beyond to the newly established town of Bajo. 

"Just like a Dzong" we were told.

Yet again interaction with former students made for an informative and fun day and broadened our perspective on the pathways available at the end of secondary education.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Returning to Rangjung

Our return to what was our hometown for 2 years began with the very familiar journey from Trashigang to Rangjung. Every bend, stand of towering prayer flags, village, chorten and sheer drop on that road is burned into our memories and I found myself grinning from ear to ear the whole way.

The driver, who we recognized and contracted to take us drove down the main street calling out the window “Lopen” - the Dzongkha word for teachers and the traders and old friends in the many general stores responded by waving and grinning as much as us.

As soon as we had deposited our luggage in the guesthouse I donned my kira to walk back down to school. After enjoying cool and sunny conditions across most of the country, the humidity and heat of Rangjung was a shock and I was bathed in sweat by the time we entered the school gates. As luck would have it we arrived in the middle of the lunch break so it was perfect timing, allowing us to speak to students without impacting on their classes. The school grounds now contain a newly consecrated chorten and a half completed clock tower commemorating 100 years of education in Bhutan but little else had changed.

Bush telegraph ensured that students were instantly aware of our presence and they appeared from every direction, to greet us or to simply stand and stare. My original home class came running and within no time 12 of the 13 XC students who qualified for class XI studies, were standing before me. They couldn’t quite believe that I had kept that final promise that I would return and I could hardly comprehend it myself. We were all thrilled to be back in each other’s company. It took me a while to realize that there were only boys in the rapidly expanding crowd of former students. Then 2012’s female class captain now school counselor was immediately summoned and the XC group was complete. Questions flowed and conversations about the current locations of other classmates and the achievements and events of the last 9 months were shared. When classes began we had already established that I would return for each lunch break and after school for the next few days to maximize our time together.

Our colleagues and the community were equally welcoming, inviting us for tea, and enquiring about experiences since leaving and expressing their desire for us to return to Rangjung to teach again. Word was out that we had reapplied to teach in Bhutan and over the next few days we repeatedly tried to explain that we have no say in our possible placement for 2014 but to no avail.

We alternated visiting each of our schools in the mornings and afternoons and the time spent in the lower secondary school was no less intense. Students rushed up shouting, “Sir is back, Sir,” and  “Sir is teaching us English, Sir?” as we entered the school grounds. Some children approached shyly and stood mouths gaping in awe, while others confidently resumed conversations as though we had been chatting just a few moments earlier. We attended a few classes and Ian addressed the morning assembly, in addition to answering the many questions enquiring little minds proposed.  On our final day in Rangjung one pair of vivacious twins with whom we had frequently interacted, informed us that they had visited our house the previous evening. They were perplexed that we no longer resided there. In their minds everything had obviously returned to 9 months ago when we left.  

The reunions and casual catch ups continued over the 3 days we were in town and it was an absolute delight to be on familiar territory and to be welcomed back so warmly. In fact we took to taking the back streets between our schools for fear of offending people by refusing their hospitality. There is in fact a limit to the number of mango juices, cups of tea and momos, 2 people can consume. The overwhelming number of invitations we received from colleagues and friends immediately allayed our initial concerns about the guesthouse not providing meals.  In fact it felt odd to be treated as celebrities when we had once been ordinary members of this Rangjung community.

The only non-school activity we engaged in was to hike up to an old chorten we long ago named Joyce’s Chorten, in the relative cool of the early morning. We had promised ourselves we would return to that much loved and tranquil place and once again hang a string of prayer flags there and that is exactly what we did.

Before arriving, news had reached us about our good friend, local guide, horse trader and taxi driver, Lobzang. He had acquired a new, secondhand vehicle and was eager to take us for at least part of the return journey. Perfect! We said our goodbyes with light hearts thinking we will be back in the Land of the Thunder Dragon again soon and it will once again be possible to visit dear friends and former students and colleagues.