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.