Saturday, April 26, 2014


Make no mistake about it, it has been a struggle to settle into life in Samtengang. The mere physical inconveniences of often having the power go out or the water simply not flowing to say nothing of never being able to connect our computers to the Internet, coupled with the total lack of fresh vegetables or any local produce are challenges enough, but the apathy of the staff and the ad hoc and arbitrary nature of the decisions made by the admin of the school accompanied by the random timing of deadlines, which are invariably declared with little or no notice just hours before they expire, has been and continues to be what does my head in.

I have regularly felt that I am being punished for planning and being organized as schedules change, programs are abandoned and new activities announced with no concern for those meant to implement the action required and no prior warning. My main sanity saver is to focus on the students and try to roll with the punches in other respects. This is not always possible and at least once a week, every week some issue or other has left me reeling in shock and stunned by what is expected and therefore acceptable.

Our escape is to go to Bajo. A modern town built to emulate the spectacular traditionally constructed towns of Bhutan. The old town of Wangdue clung precariously to the cliff edge along the roadside and was dismantled or demolished and relocated to this new zone about 2 years ago.  Those same old roadside locations still contain a few remnant traders, the odd hotel and the offices for some of the utilities. Both the main road and several back streets in this old sector are lined with overgrown prickly pears that form a natural barrier and act as protection against thieves.

We first saw this new development as it was being constructed, from the lateral road heading back to Thimphu in the winter of 2011. At that time it was a series of gray concrete towers rising from the dust, much as the new hospital is now. Nowadays it is complete, lived in and tired looking. As Ian likes to joke, “it is only half built but already three quarters worn out.” It gives the impression of having been hastily thrown up to accommodate a newly mobile middle class and to supply an ever growing number of itinerate workers employed in the hydro-electric project not far away.

In 2012 a tragic fire burnt down most of the 17th century Dzong, which was once dramatically located overlooking the settlement on a ridge. Today only a sad remnant of that historic building remains. 

The new administrative headquarters is an unimposing but functional building slightly above the new town of Bajo. As the gateway above suggests it is doing its best to represent the proud traditions of Dzongs across the country, despite its humble construction. In the immediate vicinity there are a couple of walls of prayer wheels and 2 gigantic wheels that are kept in virtually constant motion by ever vigilant and devoted, senior citizens often with young toddlers in their care.  This is by far the most attractive part of the town.

Inside the grid pattern of streets lined with brightly painted “traditional” style buildings, below the new Dzong, the footpaths are often little more than a collection of rubble, groaning with stock from the stores that occupy the lower storey, the back alleys are stacked with lumber, worn out appliances and refuse and the open drains run with foul smelling water.  

The streets themselves are more rock and dust than any sealed surface, though they are punctuated with roundabouts that were being shored up with stones and cement on our last visit. There are median strips that run through the middle of most streets and it takes an effort to clamber up and over them to get across the road, due to their considerable height. Perhaps the monsoon rains will confirm the necessity of both them and the equally high curbs. 

Vacant lots are littered with all manner of garbage and over run with weeds, with the occasional clearing in which a volleyball net has been hastily strung up and games are often in progress. From a distance, Bajo gives the impression of being an orderly collection of newly erected 3 storey building blocks but up close it is something of an eyesore.

All that aside, the town is well endowed with a range of hotels and lodgings, restaurants, cafes and bakeries, many of which we are happy to patronize. The range of goods available is enormous and the variety of suppliers exceeds any other place we have seen outside the capital. There are hardware stores, tailors, electrical repairers, barbers and hairdressers, a pharmacy and even an optician in addition to the usual range of clothing specialists, general stores cum bars and dry goods suppliers. Goods from India, China and Thailand are readily available and business is thriving. Internet cafes, discos, bars and even a pool hall exist so unlike many other towns, villages and hamlets there is actually some entertainment for young people.

The Sunday market is an absolute joy with long lines of local vendors selling locally grown produce and some cottage industry offerings of local delicacies supplemented by an unusually diverse rang of Indian produce.  

All this is something of a marvel compared to where we live, but the dusty streets and windswept alleys come across as unloved and soulless. It was while protecting my eyes from the swirling dust as we walked up from the Book Fair, held in the middle school, that I first heard the expression ‘Windy-Phodrang’ (as opposed to Wangdue Phrodrang, which is actually the district’s name) and it did seem rather apt. 

Many of the weekend population, like us, are stopping by on supply missions from other places, many with spectacularly beautiful mountain backdrops, sheer cliff faces, ravines with fast flowing, crystal clear, icy water and charming natural environments, which are currently coming to colourful life as spring blesses the land.  I am sure the irony of the ugliness is not lost on any of Bajo’s weekend visitors any more than it is on us.

Is it the consumer driven motives, of we who live in the hinterland that have created, what is to me at least, a rare urban ugliness in Bhutan? The remains of the once bustling roadside stalls and older settlement seem so much more physically attractive and environmentally friendly, even if they are located in a more dangerous traffic zone, inconvenient for parking and hazardous to the traffic which is bound for places much farther afield.

PS After 3 attempts to get to Bajo yesterday afternoon, we arrived to find the electricity off here too! The first driver we had pre-booked got a better offer to go to Thimphu and Ian luckily spotted him in the morning before school and found out that he was no longer available. He told us that his friend would drive us but when we were waiting next to that vehicle, always parked above our house, at 2pm, concerned neighbours and primary school colleagues phoned around and told us, “He has some work,” and later, “He is playing archery.” A quick call to another driver who happened to be in Bajo already and a mere hour and a half wait and we were on our way to a lost weekend. We did do our circumambulations at the prayer wheels almost immediately after arriving, however.

Afternoon is never a good time to be looking for a lift but when you work half days on Saturday there is really little choice. Now that the power has returned we have few downloads and updates to attend to using our 3G powered phone connections, before our dash to the Sunday market, photo print run drop off and the final round of shopping. The trip back to Samtengang is usually not an issue in terms of finding a ride but ……… as I well know, one has to be flexible.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

oNe PhOtO a DaY fOr MaRcH


1.YELLOW: a yellow prayer flag flying at the perimeter of the National Stadium in Thimphu. I think I am going to try to find a way to match a prayer flag shot to one prompt every month for this whole year in Bhutan

2. SOMETHING BORROWED: we have been in the capital for the Losar long weekend, primarily to buy library books for Samtengang Primary School but we could not resist buying a few treats for ourselves at the same time. Luckily we are able to borrow some space in the refrigerator at the hotel where we stay to keep our tofu, cheese and yoghurt fresh until we depart tomorrow. 

3. MY NAME IS: Dzongkha is the national language of Bhutan and it is alphabetic, so I asked my home class to write my name using the Dzongkha script expecting them all to write the same thing, however quite a few variations came up and I have to confess that I didn’t even know which way up they went without seeking assistance.

4. ON MY MIND: The cold that we weren’t expecting and are desperately hoping will give way to warmth and spring soon, has often been on my mind in this first month in Samtengang. Just when we convinced ourselves it was actually getting warmer we woke up to thick fog and rain and when that veil lifted it revealed – SNOW! 

5. SOMETHING BEGINNING WITH I: The love of my life – Ian in a shot taken last year in Trongsa not so very far from where we are now living but in slightly better weather conditions.

6. CHAIR: This is where you will find me every evening after school: in my chair in the living room of our home in Samtengang

7. FLY: although I do not know the exact name for one of these, there is almost always one that flies at the top of the highest post in a stand of vertical prayer flags. (perhaps it is a type of finial)

8. IN THE CORNER: today for our Peer Learning Support Club I had Samtengang Middle Secondary School students in the corner and in every other available space in our living room labeling and sorting books, posters and flashcards so that we can start using them with the grade IV class they will be paired with for reading on Saturdays

9. 10AM: Taking a walk with friends visiting for the weekend. We spotted lots of trees in blossom a sure sign that spring is on its way.

10. FAR AWAY: The moon always seems so very far away, even when captured in a telephoto lens. This shot is from archives and taken in Tanzania, which is also very far away from us here in Bhutan.

11. SOMETHING GOOD: for those class IV students in Ian’s class who know only letters, cannot read and always spell words out, these phonics cards and a few magnets to play learning games with them on the board might be more than something good. They could just be the start to literacy and a whole new set of opportunities in life. Thanks again to Paul and Robyn Brown

12. PARTIAL: this is one of the many partially compete rammed earth homes in our immediate vicinity in Lekokha. The family who own it and are still building it currently reside in the bottom right hand room

13. FRESH: living in a very tiny village where I have never seen a fresh vegetable for sale has its challenges, especially as a vegetarian but today perhaps inspired by this prompt for the first time a colleague gave me fresh coriander, which just happens to be a herb I really love.

14. CARE: my home class VIIIC demonstrating their ability to take care of the plants in the garden bed they have been allocated within the school campus

15. EVENING: I was watching my students’ dance performances for most of this evening

16. BEAUTIFULLY ORDINARY: a very beautifully ordinary sight in Bhutan is a spinning wall of prayer wheels. These are in Bajo and extremely popular at all times of the day with the elderly citizens of the town who keep them constantly spinning

17. TODAY’S WEATHER: It really seems that spring is on the way at last. We felt the warmth of the spring weather on the ride back home this afternoon. This small enclave of greenery always catches my attention as we bump our way up the 9 kilometres of rough dirt road to get back to Samtengang and today I asked the driver to stop to get a shot of the terraces greening up with the season. 

18. FIVE YEARS AGO: We might have been dressed for work at 7.30am but we wouldn’t have been dressed like this and we weren’t living here. 5 years ago we were living in our own home in Adelaide

19. CROPPED: those without the regulation haircut required at Samtengang Primary School today had the Beauty Club ready willing and able to help them get cropped! Photo thanks to Ian

20. LETTER: not only our first letter since arriving in Samtengang but it came inside a box of ever so welcome books and with a thoughtful birthday gift of organic herbal tea and real ground coffee. Such a joy to receive and just 2 days before my birthday despite being mailed Feb 12th!!

21. FULL: apparently our school is full of demons. The Gangtey ceremony to expel all demons was performed tonight as a precursor to the Rimdro or purification ritual, which will take place tomorrow. Masked fire dancing performed by monks while students all shouted and threw stones were the major methods deployed but with the power out and masked monks and boys running through every room in the school in the pitch black wielding flaming torches, I began to wonder if living with the demons wouldn’t be a less dangerous option than expelling them.

22.MORNING: the scene in the Multi-Purpose Hall this morning as all the Class X students joined the monks chanting prayers for the school Rimdro or Purification Ritual

23. I’M LOVING….: having an oven and being able to bake this time in Bhutan- this spicy carrot, coconut and raisin cake was today’s experiment and just the thing for a cold and wintery afternoon.

24. ONE OF A KIND: when your shoppers are nowhere near tall enough to see through the sales window you need a one of a kind solution to the problem. This is the shop directly below our house in Samtengang. It is adjacent to the primary school whose students are certainly a large proportion of its customers

25. SOFT: the soft green glow of the potato crop planted long ago, finally emerging as the spring weather blesses the fields directly in front of our house in Samtengang

26. I AM HERE: standing on the road between the primary school and the middle school in Samtengang as I do every morning, making sure I stop and admire the view before trudging uphill to school and a busy day.

27. SOMETHING I MADE: tonight’s dinner of fried noodles with vegetables

28. NOSTALGIA: now that we have set up our new home and are busy establishing ourselves in this new Bhutanese community, it is with nostalgia that I recall how we once lived in this lovely little heritage cottage in Adelaide filled with many of our treasures from overseas sojourns – perhaps we will again one day

29. STICKY: eating with one’s hand is the norm here in Bhutan but it does often result in sticky fingers- which by the way I can’t even think without immediately thinking of the Rolling Stone

30. FAST: we bought these hoola hoops in Thimphu because they had been so popular with the primary students in Rangjung and only gave them to the school this week. Although most kids had never seen one before they sure learn fast and even came up with some original games of their own. This is Phub Thinley surprising the girls who had the same game in mind but with their little girlfriend who was being relieved as the holder.

31. FAUX: as a driver it is compulsory to wear national dress in Bhutan but this driver has faux gho- it is simply a wrap around “skirt” which resembles a gho when it is worn with the arms tied at the waist. This shot is from our road trip across Bhutan last September

PS It has taken 12 days to post this and only a few of them ever got posted on the day! Our Internet in Samtengang is woeful and even the Community Centre couldn't sustain a connection. As I write this we are in Bajo for the night availing not only of Internet but also electricity to charge our many devices and water for a shower. The next one might be a long while coming.  Power has been out in Samtengang for over 30 hours now and there was another day when it was out for 17 hours earlier in the week. We are told that yesterday's forest fire destroyed the transformer so it could be a week before we are back in business. Looks like we are in for interesting times.