Saturday, September 20, 2014

Martha, Martha, Martha

I still struggle to believe that it is 2 years since Martha died. We had big plans for today and were hoping to be in Trashigang (her old stomping ground) with the wherewithal to do another makeover of the beautiful prayer flag area near the old chorten below Dungtse Middle Secondary School, where her school posted those majestic, tall, white flags that memorialize not just a single life but also the impermanence of life and the cycle of rebirth, but that was not to be…

Ever since our arrival back in the kingdom this has been on my agenda. In fact, my desire to honour this departed soul just as we had done last year, and head east to do it was one of the first conversations I had with my current principal. Nonetheless it was not meant to eventuate.

Ian’s health issues required that we stay in Thimphu and avail of the best possible intensive physiotherapy treatment, involving ultrasound, TENS and retrograde massage, so here we are in the capital.

However, I am not one to give up or give in so first thing this morning while Ian was receiving treatment I hot-footed it into town to buy a set of prayer flags, to attempt to have them blessed and find out the most auspicious day to fly them. Matt and Lucy had already agreed to participate in our amended ritual and I was hoping that today would be an auspicious day despite the weather. Or maybe that should be because of it. I often forget rain is a good omen here.

This was an ambitious plan even for me as I have always left the blessing of flags to those, who have more intimate knowledge of the procedures. On this occasion, however it wasn’t possible, as I do not know any Dzongkha Lopens in Thimphu. I therefore simply decided I could manage it myself and set about doing so.

Having always lived in much more remote districts and towns in Bhutan, it didn’t occur to me that the capital would still be locked up tight at 9am on a Saturday. Only the tardiest of traders would open after 7am in the rural areas. As soon as I spotted the roller door security screens going up, I dashed into a traditional shop on Norzin Lam: the main street in Thimphu. No sooner had I made my purchase than my phone rang and alerted me to the fact that Ian’s session was already over and he was waiting in our prearranged meeting place near the ‘lakhang’ I thought most likely to be able to perform the necessary blessings: Zangdo Pelri Lakhang.

Once again, I found myself staring at a locked door but the presence of devoted locals spinning the prayer wheels made me think that I would be able to accomplish my mission and that the main hall would indeed open. Whilst circumambulating the compound I asked anyone I came across if they spoke English and within a very short space of time a kindly monk materialized and assured me that it would be no problem to get the required blessing. I also asked him about auspicious days and although he was quick to point out that the Rinpoche would inform me, he ventured that in his own opinion Tuesday, which happens to be Blessed Rainy Day and a significant holiday in eastern Bhutan or Friday would probably be most appropriate. Since the holiday coincides with the day Martha was cremated I thought that it seemed appropriate although I was a little disappointed.

After waiting quietly inside the hall, which was especially unlocked for me, my new monk friend deposited the flags and my donation at the bench in front of the seat of the Rinpoche, disappeared and then returned with a cup of tea for me and the news that the Rinpoche was just finishing breakfast and would arrive shortly. He indicated where I could sit to wait and I did exactly that. I was somewhat surprised and I am not sure if it was the expression on my face when he mentioned breakfast at 10.15am, that then prompted him to say that 5 hours of morning prayers had preceded breakfast, but I was actually delighted that it was going to be possible to get the blessing.

In the next 10 minutes monks began to appear and position themselves at the long line of benches to the left of the platform where the Rinpoche would sit.  One of them turned out to be the brother-in-law of the warden from my school and he knew all about Ian’s injury and me much to my astonishment. Several of them had a little English and greeted me as they passed and finally without any real fanfare 2 clarinets, 2 long horns and a drum sounded and the blessing was underway.

The flags were unrolled and prayers were murmured while the Rinpoche himself blew puffs of breath into them. He also sprinkled the flags with rice and the perfumed water that is often poured into the hands of devotees in lakhangs. Much to my amusement the peacock feather that is used to deliver this ‘holy water’ was also tapped on the head of the monk closest to the Rinpoche when he seemed to be nodding off. I have always enjoyed the way that elaborate rituals and celebrations can be punctuated with mundane daily acts and what seems to be tomfoolery. On this occasion I imagined that Martha would have got a kick out of that and could almost hear her chortle.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if this might take all day, having no real idea of the correct protocol, Rinpoche rolled up the flags returned them to the carry bag I had delivered them in and I was quietly escorted out. When I was leaving the monk who had graciously organized all this on my behalf informed me that today was a very auspicious day according to Rinpoche. Perfect!  I had to do at least one complete lap of the compound turning all the prayer wheels in gratitude before departing and felt that flowers in bloom despite the wintery, rainy weather was another good omen for us.

The choice of places in which to fly the flags was a bit bewildering given that Thimphu seems like such an urban environment compared to places I would otherwise have chosen. My immediate thought was Dochula but the roadblocks and weather didn’t auger well for that choice. Next to come to mind was the covered bridge leading to the weekend market but it did seem very commercial. After consultation with the resident lama in Ambient CafĂ© and confirmation with Lucy it was off to the BBS Tower, we headed. An odd choice in my mind but the requisite windy conditions, sounds of flowing water and mountain backdrop are all present so why not.

In the cold and wet conditions it was Matt who did the clambering and climbing to get the flags in position as well as having driven us all there and I am very grateful for the assistance and company. Maybe later in the year we will still be able to visit the east and drop by Phongmey to pay our respects and remember an eccentric and much missed old friend.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

oNe PhOtO a DaY fOr AuGuSt


1 LANDSCAPE: The city-scape in Thimphu featuring the unique structures of Bhutan but there is never a view without mountains in it here

2. LUNCH: not just today’s lunch but lunch and dinner for the week to come. When you live in a place without a vegetable market and visit the capital with the most impressive market in the country, it is impossible not to load up on supplies and find a way to keep them fresh in a hotel room until it is time to depart tomorrow

3. “S” IS FOR: SHELLS – the conch shell in particular plays such an essential role in Buddhist ceremonies

4. IN THE MIDDLE: I guess because I was the last class teacher to arrive I got the only classroom in the whole school with a post in the middle. There is actually only one spot in the room where you can stand and see the entire class and many of the students can’t see each other but we work around it

5. PILE: This pile of firewood is actually to cook the World Food Program subsidised meals for the students at the primary school. Both breakfast and lunch are provided at low cost to about half the school which is almost 150 students. However there are similar woodpiles all over the village reminding us that winter will be extremely cold and long here in Samtengang.

6. GRATEFUL FOR: the lovely students I teach who alerted me to this phenomenon in the sky today. I believe it is a sun halo and it is the first time in my life I have seen one. It was only after I enquired with other staff that I realized that very few teachers actually saw it even though most of the students did. It made me all the more glad that they had told me and I had interrupted my home class’ lesson to ask the teacher to let them out to see it too. Both their Math teacher and my home class were also grateful for being told

7. SPOT: who is sleeping in morning prayers. Not that I can blame them at 6 am with another hour of study and a good hour and half before breakfast will be served, it’s a tough call for a 13 year old

8. PET PEEVE: I love teaching: the classroom interaction, the curriculum challenges, the creative approaches, the light-bulb moments, the sheer joy and wonder of learning BUT marking 103 exercise books before the next lesson with the 3 sections in class VIII –well all kinds of marking actually, it’s my pet peeve in this job

9. MIX: Just as I was about to mix this raw vegetable salad for dinner I remembered todays’ prompt. My version of a Bondi Beetroot Salad making a welcome appearance on the menu in Bhutan

10. ART: Whilst there isn’t a lot of framed art hanging in Bhutanese homes from my experience, the paintwork on the exterior of buildings is in itself a work of art. This example comes from Haa where the Buddhist motifs on the exterior walls were also extremely impressive

11. MIRROR: I love this old mirror and the memories in the house that it hangs in but not half as much as I love the man who took this selfie and gave me permission to use it for today’s prompt. Taken last New Year’s Eve, which will definitely be our last at Leith

12. GATHER: For the first time ever I had my students gather in the quadrangle to do their writing under test conditions today. This is commonplace in Bhutan but I have never before felt tempted. The cheating, copying and chatting got the better of me and I employed the local solution

13. INSIDE:  For most of the morning we felt like we were living inside the clouds here in Samtengang. This was the courtyard where assembly is usually held at 8am this morning. You can just make out the teaching building in the distance but everything else is obscured

14. GIVE: It gave me a huge thrill to instigate the hanging of these prayer flags and 2 more sets with my class VIII students. They were delighted to do it and I know it will continue to give us all a big kick when we see them fluttering in the breeze daily.

15. CLOUDS: We have had another day of living in the clouds and 24 hours of continuous rain: just when I thought the monsoon was over. This one was taken last week. When the air clears and the mountains are revealed it really can be breath taking

16. CLEAN: students were trying their best to keep clean walking back to school in the mud and still falling rain, after our Peer Learning Support Club on what little remains of the farm road after 48 hours of continuous monsoon rain. Look at those white shoes!! Compulsory part of the uniform! I have to say they did a much better job of staying clean then I did. My black shoes and tights were covered in mud by the time I got home, after 4 treks up and down that road

17. DINNER: Tonight’s mushroom, cherry tomato and garlic chive frittata with potato salad and chilli salsa. No wonder I love Bajo Sunday Market and returning with fresh supplies

18. ARROW: Archery is a traditional sport in Bhutan and whenever there are public holidays tournaments are arranged. This is a shot from archives but it is immediately what I thought of when I saw the prompt. Those compound bows are really incredibly powerful – no traditional bamboo bow could have fired that arrow through the target

19. TO-DO: The piles of things littering my desk at 7.45am indicate exactly what I have to-do today: corrected books to return, poetry presentations to video, lessons to plan, printed photographs to distribute, attendance to check, water to drink and lunch to eat (hidden out of shot), reading challenge students to quiz, photograph money to collect, photos and videos to download, lessons to teach, and one mandala to give to the Dzongkha teacher

20. BEFORE BEDTIME: we usually make sure everything is plugged in because when the power goes out here it might be for 10 minutes or 3 days and it helps to know we are charged up!

 21. DECORATE: we like to decorate our home with simple objects that remind us of the places we have travelled, the culture here in Bhutan and the things we love from home. In this shot a small contemporary Buddha designed by a Japanese in Vietnam and seashells from Glenelg Beach South Australia on a piece of silk from Lao

22. WORDS: those vocabulary items that needed to be introduced and understood before our text about Gandhi and the Salt March could be studied today. Sometimes it is very obvious that the textbooks are not at a suitable level for the students. 26 words in just one and half pages and that wasn’t all of them!

 23. STYLE: Samtengang sisters with style

24. FRAGRANT: I’m guessing this is wild ginger and I am sure it would be fragrant. It is just that it was growing in a temple compound and at the top of the chorten and I couldn’t get close enough to check

25. MAIL: There is in fact no mail service where we live and we have received only a few copies of a magazine to which we subscribe and a 2 care parcels, which all have been collected by any individual who is in the Dzong at the time and notices that they are there.  Then they mysteriously materialize on one of our desks at school or even at the front door. I was once a real advocate of snail mail and still can’t resist the beautiful cards made of hand made paper and hand painted with Buddhist images. I do occasionally mail them out of the country but our mail these days even with very poor Internet is mostly emails on the phone

26. BREAKFAST: Not today’s breakfast but my favourite breakfast and one that we only have about once a month. We refer to it as “The Full Monty” and it always includes eggs on toast, tomatoes and potatoes and occasionally has the added bonus of mushrooms or spinach like this one.

27. DULL: With all the beautiful bright colours and patterns that are so much a part of Bhutanese culture I really don’t get why someone would select dull and boring, gunmetal grey as the colour for a school uniform in Bhutan but that is it in Samtengang Primary School

28. TRAVEL: There are plenty of weird and wonderful ways to travel in Bhutan and many of them are quite dangerous and totally illegal in other parts of the world but the method of crossing the gorge just before Phongmey in Trashigang when the monsoon rains wipe out the road really was the most astounding to me. Both people and goods travelled via this contraption until it was swept away in a particularly bad storm

29. DESSERT: Bengali Kheer with a twist: fresh coconut, sultana and cinnamon rice pudding with toasted coconut and grated chocolate topping! One of the easiest and most delicious stove top desserts one can make especially after a busy working week that will be followed by all weekend at school for the Annual Variety Show!

30. NEARBY: When the all important Annual Variety Show is about to happen tomorrow and everyone’s parents will be there, it is a real blessing that the nearby primary school wants to pay to see the dress rehearsal and boost everyone’s confidence with their rapt attention

31. 10AM: Preparing for the really important Annual Variety Show due to commence at 10:30am- makeup by teachers and girls in their finery in the lower staff room. This time the parents would all be watching