Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tashi Delek!

I am once again struggling to believe that the end of the year is nigh and it is time to wish all our family and friends a wonderful holiday and break. 2014 has been a tough year for many of us and now that the worst does indeed seem to be over, even if everything is not yet resolved, we can only hope that 2015 will bring more laughter, more joy and more fulfillment. We value the times we have been able to share in the past and hope that you all continue to keep us up to date with your lives. Perhaps our paths will once again cross in the not too distant future. Wherever the upcoming year takes you may you be blessed with good food, good friends and adventure, achievement and success as well as the ability to recognize the blessings you have been bestowed. 

Our time in Samtengang is coming to an end. Exams have been and gone. Papers have been checked and graded by the communal marking system that seems to be officially sanctioned despite its huge drawbacks for both students and teachers. All the students I taught in the middle school have returned to their villages and families and Ian’s little friends make periodic appearances at school for National Day rehearsals and Socially Useful and Productive Work (SUPW) in addition to the younger ones, who live nearby popping in to visit Sir at home. They invariably go away with skipping ropes or paints or something that will keep them amused and no doubt inspire them to return again soon. Mine are more prone to Facebook and SMS messages just to chat once they have ascertained that they passed and will be promoted to the next level next year.

As usual we are wondering why it is that we must remain at school making only brief and often purposeless visits until after National Day on December 17th, more especially as we are now receiving a constant stream of BCF colleagues and their family too in some cases as guests and day visitors. Others seem to have easily escaped their schools and are taking time out to travel and see some of Bhutan as they make their way back to the capital. On December 18th those students, who live near enough, will attend result declaration and I personally will be very glad to see them one last time before we too make a beeline for Thimphu that very afternoon. I guess we could have argued for being allowed to leave but it seems unfair to expect this privilege when it is not possible for national teachers. Although there is little left to do at school, having time to just relax, take slow strolls through the local environs to savour the views and familiar landscapes, cook in a frantic attempt to empty the pantry and just unwind is certainly welcome. 

There is no doubt that this has been a difficult year in terms of the relative isolation and poor access of this location and the often-antagonistic management style in my school in particular. It was certainly complicated by Ian’s injury and subsequent frequent visits to Thimphu to receive treatment but I have already blogged about our final reflections on our schools and lives in Wangdue Phodrang District so I will not repeat myself and instead assume anyone who is genuinely interested will have already read the details or still can at http://intheshadowofthemountains.blogspot.com/.

We are ploughing ahead with plans to work in Thimphu in 2015 and though the paperwork has still not materialised, being old hands at the slow pace of Bhutanese bureaucracy, we are assuming it will eventually happen and we must simply remain positive and move forward with our own plans. Ian was approached by Deki School and met the husband and wife founders, builders and directors as well as the principal and staff just after the summer break. It proved to be less of a job interview and more a formal invitation to join the team as he was immediately offered a position and wheels set in motion for acquiring approval and visas. I hesitated to apply anywhere for a long time and toyed with the idea of having a year off on a spouse visa, before finally seeing an advertisement for the Early Learning Centre. The reputation of this establishment is legendary and I had been advised to apply to them by several friends and colleagues as they are expanding to include junior high school and high school grade students next year. It is a completely new, private, purpose-built school as is the one in which Ian will be employed. I was wary about whether they would accept me or not but my fears were quickly allayed after a brief phone conversation with the director, which ended in my paperwork being forward and the approval process launched the following day. Now yet again everything is in the hands of the powers that be and we are playing the waiting game.

Time is ticking on and we are eagerly awaiting the arrival on Saturday of a dear British friend, Katja, who we met in Monduli, Tanzania. She will spend a fortnight travelling with us in the kingdom and we are looking forward to having some time on our hands, the road ahead and the wind at our backs, after the long hours and hard work that has been required to complete this academic session.

Our brief spell in Thimphu is timed to allow us to attend the final wind up session with BCF colleagues and staff and the Ministry of Education, (Perhaps a personal plea to speed up that approval process for our applications and visas for 2015 is in order), make one more trip out to the orthotic manufacturer in Gidakhom, see the American physiotherapist in the capital before his imminent return to Boston, view a possible apartment in which to reside next year and hopefully sign a lease, as well as obtaining the necessary road permit for Katja and us to travel. A busy 3 days there and we will be off on our much anticipated road trip and adventure.

All that remains is to wish you all a safe, healthy and fun-filled silly season and every happiness in the year to come. Tashi Delek!

Peace and love always,
Vicky and Ian xxxxxx

Saturday, December 6, 2014

oNe PhOtO a DaY NoVeMbEr


1.           SOMETHING BLUE: This is the location of the staff picnic held today. The Mochu (or River Mo) is certainly something blue blessing Punakha district and the mountains in the background seem to have taken on a blue hue too

2. I SAW THIS: Just after breakfast this morning, I saw this little long tailed minivet when it came to perch just outside our window on a neighbour’s tree

3. WEATHER: With crisp cool mornings and evenings that are becoming colder and colder, the sunny blue skies of the middle of the day are delightful but late afternoon the dramatic skyscapes herald the sudden changes that mark the transition from autumn to winter and it is apparent that the full brunt of the winter weather is just around the corner

4. CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT: Ian is what immediately came to mind. I can’t think of another thing I couldn’t live without and I often tell him “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” and his response its usually “Ditto Maxine!”

5. 8 O’CLOCK: The deadline for being inside the school gates and a couple of my day scholar boys only just made it this morning. I do love that with exams about 10 days away they are still smiling and looking carefree and relaxed.

6. MADE ME SMILE TODAY: The irony of boldly and confidently painting on the academic block a slogan that is grammatically incorrect when any number of teachers might have been able to set them straight. This is a class nine group working at 8am before the assembly to complete their class project by the deadline in 2 days. The brief was to beautify the school campus ….. maybe they missed the mark, but it is a nice sentiment

7. ON THE FLOOR: This is the kitchen that feeds over 400 students 3 meals a day at my school and a lot of the preparation and cleaning takes place on the floor due to lack of space. Note the wood fired cookers in the background!

8. A PLACE: This is a place, very near our school.  My class and I adopted it along with 2 others in our clean up Samtengang campaign. It was also the place where our annual school picnic was held today. Our newly installed bins got a thorough workout and we were assigned the task of keeping the area clean as our class task for the day.  Easy as, given the practice we have had all year!

9. HECK YES! : Am I going to miss these views next year, when we no longer live in Samtengang - Heck Yes!

10. I DO THIS EVERY DAY: Well 6 days a week anyway! I wear national dress and stand with a piece of chalk in hand, in front of a green board, in a classroom heavily decorated with images of Bhutanese royalty, trying to impart some of the basics of English grammar to my students.

11. A SET: of passport photos for each student in my home class to use on all the official documents they require for school purposes just arrived today and I currently have the whole set for my class

12. NORMAL: In my school and many others across Bhutan this is normal procedure for testing students and to stop the cheating or copying. I have even resorted to it myself.

13. LETTERS: We used all but 2 of the letters in our game this afternoon. I have always loved this game and I couldn’t resist buying it when I saw it in a local store recently

14. FOR ME: Unfortunately exam papers to mark are what are currently waiting for me. At this time of year it is best to get them done as soon as possible as in total the English Department will have 24 class sets of papers to grade in just 11 days and only 4 of us participating in the communal marking process which follows every exam.

15. HOT + COLD: Our hot water system, known locally as a geyser, decided to stop functioning without warning just as the cold winter weather took hold. These days we have an immersion heater in one bucket and after an hour and a half wait we combine one hot and one cold bucket in a tub to bathe. Luckily we bought the immersion heater not knowing if we would have a geyser or not at the beginning of the year. Even this is pampering when boarding students and most locals just bathe in cold water all year round.

16. AFTER: Five months after the terrible accident that has impacted on Ian’s mobility since June, we are hoping that this orthotic will help correct the ‘valgus deformity’ which has plagued him ever since the plaster was removed. It was created from a mold taken 3 weeks ago at the Gidakom Hospital by the only 2 medical technicians with the skills to make orthotics and prostheses in all of Bhutan.

17. COOKING: Whilst these may only be the raw ingredients, on our final medical mission in Thimphu we have loaded up with enough supplies to hopefully see us through the next few weeks and allow us to get cooking again once we are home tomorrow.

18. I LOVE THIS: I have always loved a good market and I love this outdoor, Sunday market in Bajo as much as any I have ever seen. With its fresh supplies of locally grown produce and carnival atmosphere it is a place where the community gathers and socializes.

19. WHOLE: After a whole day invigilating and checking exam papers and knowing there is more than a whole week of it to come, there is nothing quite like vegetarian comfort food for dinner!

20. BRIGHT: This class IX boy is as bright as they get and articulate, polite, charming and engaged with it. He is a joy to teach and his score for the final exams brought a smile to my face.

21. SHOES: school shoes in the styles that are compulsory for students here in Bhutan and my foot in a boot just for good measure.

22. A FAVOURITE THING: The favourite snack of many of the students and mine too- samosas. These are made at the school canteen and sell for Nu 5 or just under10 Aussie cents each and at exam time you have to be quick to get a share.

23. I MADE THIS: set of teaching and learning resources for my students this year.

24. I NEED TO DO THIS! : In fact I have needed to this since March when we bought about 80 books, 12 posters and flash cards with the money Paul and Robyn Brown donated to supply much needed resources for the Samtengang Primary School library. Finally on the last day of final exams for the year I actually remembered to do it

25. TIME: Sometimes it seems that time has stood still in these parts. When I saw this team of packhorses loaded to transport goods locally, I thought it was perfect for this prompt. I saw this team on my way to work and saw them again at exactly the same point relieved of their loads, on my way home.

26. WALL: This ancient wall containing sacred objects is near Bidung in Trashigang District but they are a common sight all across Bhutan and like chortens they need to be circumambulated in clockwise direction an odd number of times, if you are of the faith

27. I’M THANKFUL FOR THIS ….. : beautiful family who have been our landlords, friends and neighbours. They embody the true Buddhist spirit of compassion and have always offered assistance unasked and been kind and generous. We shall miss them and the sense of community they offered us in Samtengang

28 BLACK: In “Tshechu” this character personifies evil and it is he who leads you to hell after those sitting behind have made their judgment on the merits of your existence after death.

29. SO, THIS HAPPENED: The national exams for classes VI, X and XII started today and since Ian is in a primary school and the class VI papers are marked in house (unlike classes X & XII) so, this happened immediately the students had finished writing their papers- communal marking in the sunshine overseen by the principal

30. I BOUGHT THIS: This scarf, hand woven and sold by the women’s co-operative Sabah, is the last thing I bought myself and that was back in early October, lucky winter break is coming up and there will be plenty of shopping opportunities then

Friday, November 28, 2014

REFLECTIONS ON THE SCHOOL YEAR THAT IS ALMOST OVER: Rangjung and Samtengang a comparison.

As I look back on the almost one year I have spent in Samtengang I can’t help but wonder what it was that made this place such a struggle for us. We were surely among the best prepared for this second stint in Bhutan with a wealth of previous experience, a real understanding of what it takes to succeed in a small Bhutanese community and hands on knowledge of how to bring life to the curriculum. So what went wrong?

Immediately, the school administration and the isolation of this community, come to mind. From the start we found the challenges of the location much more demanding than we expected and like many other BCFers I found the severity and incidence of corporal punishment in my school to be alarming. The lack of professionalism and management style, were also confronting but not unexpected. Certainly Ian’s terrible accident that was incorrectly diagnosed as a severely sprained ankle and therefore inappropriately treated for 2 months did not help either. 6 months later his recovery continues to be “under process” as a local expression would have it.

Just one day after most of the students have departed, it is glaringly obvious to me that it was my students who kept me grounded and provided me with the motivation to hang on here. My loyalty to BCF also ensured that I never really contemplated breaking my contract though I was sorely tempted. It has been the students and their love of learning, their quirky characters, their open and honest communication and their heartfelt comments that make me feel so bereft now that they are gone and I am here alone in the staffroom typing, while no-one else is anywhere to be seen, despite the strict instruction that no-one was to leave before lunch issued not 30 minutes ago!

At the moment only class X students, who are about to commence their board exams, remain on campus and I have never taught them and have had little contact with them this year, Though one or 2 pop up to check on some grammar issue or as they like to say ”clarify some doubt” as I sit here in the upper staffroom.  I have always made the students I teach, the focus of my professional career and here more than ever it has been necessary to look at school through their eyes and not fall into the trap of sympathizing with colleagues or taking their evaluation of situations as the absolute truth. I have been in tears more times than I care to recall and the most upsetting event for me was when students asked me why I was so upset about having seen them being kicked publically in assembly. It occurred to me then, for the first time, that this is so normal to them that they do not even understand that it is not right. I note with a heavy heart that this is the exact reason why BCF colleague Kevin felt obliged to resign and depart early from his placement in Bidung.

When I considered our new placement back in January, long before we wound our way up that now familiar unsealed farm road, I thought that there were similarities between Samtengang and Rangjung. Both are about 45 minutes from their respective district capitals, both are classified “semi-urban” and both consist mainly of farming communities who support themselves on the crops that they grow and are largely self sufficient. We were soon to discover that the erratic supply of water and occasional lack of electricity were also similarities.

Now I marvel at how 2 such totally different places could be given the same descriptor.

Rangjung is an easy drive from Trashigang on a ‘black topped’ road. Samtengang follows the lateral road to the Chuzumsa turnoff where it turns into a rough and bumpy ride up in the dry winter months and a slippery and treacherous track in the monsoon.

The row of neat, little, traditional general stores in Rangjung selling largely the same dry goods, an odd assortment of clothes, stationery, household appliances and religious items as well as week old vegetables trucked in from India, has no equivalent here in Samtengang. In Rangung these stores lined both sides of the short, main street with a small chorten on a traffic island in the centre of town. There is a road in Samtengang but it is not the centre of any business community. Instead dirt tracks and shortcuts lead up to or down to small enterprises. There are a few scattered shops selling basic supplies, stationery and snacks but no vegetables, rice or any other fresh food is available. These shops are in little clusters and often in the front room of a home or a makeshift hut hastily constructed and as we saw on our first few days, equally hastily deconstructed and relocated when the local authorities deem it necessary. These establishments cater mostly to primary school students’ before school and post school shopping requirements, though the odd local does buy beer or sugar too. I can honestly say that we have been grateful for the supply of both over the last few months. The implication of this is that travelling back and forth, on the previously mentioned road is a necessity and for us a tendency to stock up big and hoard basic consumables has evolved. The paved footpaths of Rangjung are an oddity for any Bhutanese village and we never expected them replicated here and they certainly aren’t.

The sense of community created by the ever-visible lhakhang and the host of religious rituals, festivities and celebrations, it inspired in Rangjung were certainly a highlight of our time there.  There are temples and monasteries dotted all over the hillsides surrounding Samtengang and we did stumble onto one, on one of the last hikes we did before Ian’s accident but there have been few religious rituals performed here, except our school purification rituals earlier in the year. I am sure each local community is engaged in the activities based in their local temple but we have never participated or been drawn by the crowds to attend as we were in Rangjung. Our days have not been punctuated by the sounds of the longhorns though the rhythmic tinkling of the bell that rings as the primary school prayer wheel is fervently turned, has been a welcome auditory constant.

Don’t even get me started on the Internet connectivity. What we once referred to as the Intermittent-net in Rangjung, would be a joy here. Finally, our slow and often erratic Internet gave way to a broadband connection, which was far from state of the art or fast but vaguely reliable, out east. Here, 3 or 4 hours from the capital, my phone sometimes connects in the morning, from my desk on the second floor but rarely at home and attempting to use the hotspot to connect any other device will only result in the ever dreaded popup “Could not activate cellular data network – You are not subscribed to a cellular data service.” Ian’s is marginally better but that’s not saying much. We have become accustomed to accessing what little we can, when we can or availing when we reach Bajo town on one of our fortnightly shopping runs.

The school situations in which we have found ourselves could really not have been more disparate. Ian’s convivial and ever-understanding principal has been more than helpful at both a personal level and a professional one. My school on the other hand has issued commands, complaints and criticisms to almost all staff in never ending meetings that are called on an ad hoc basis. Decisions made are regularly overturned soon after and policies passed and documented after long discussions seem to be implemented only if there is a fear of being caught for not doing so by higher authorities. The usual issues of rarely knowing what is planned or programmed that come with high context cultures have maddeningly plagued us both and I am sure that they are simply unavoidable in the Bhutanese system. Flexibility is the euphemism for ‘do as instructed without questioning’ and it sometimes seems that requests for information are viewed as conspiratorial.

I am well aware that my own need to address issues that I perceive as unjust, inappropriate and simply unlawful and to do so directly, bluntly and immediately, has not endeared me to my administration and whilst I do see this as a serious shortcoming, I also feel deeply that in this society where underlings rarely if ever express their dissatisfaction and inefficiency is accepted, change will be impossible unless someone speaks out. In both schools where I have worked I have had the experience of silently berating myself for this behaviour as I walked home, only to be approached by a staff member who was present, who then confided in me that they were glad I spoke up at the meeting, as they do not feel that they can without ramifications.

So…… why do we want to stay and work in Thimphu next year you may well ask! Well the bottom line is I am a teacher. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else and the rich and rewarding experience of sharing the teaching and learning process with these students daily, is magical. I am indebted to them for the sheer joy they have brought me and the way they have motivated me to be a better person, to do my job better and become better at what I do. Also without a doubt, I am addicted to Bhutan, the people, the incredible culture and the sense of playful innocence and competent, resourceful, independence each of these very diverse students brings to the classroom. Quite simply we couldn’t just walk away without giving this one more shot.