Saturday, October 18, 2014

Wangduephodrang District Tshechu.

“Tshechu” is the annual event of the year in every district and though it is billed as a religious festival it is very much more than that.

I, myself have advised people travelling to Bhutan to make sure that a tshechu is included in their itinerary so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so many tourists in guided groups at the recent Wangduephodrang District Tshechu.

In fact we had made a hotel booking a month in advance expecting an influx of tourists and not wanting to spend 2 hours each day travelling back and forth between Samtengang and Bajo. We had been anticipating this grand event for some time and so it was something of a disappointment to have the day finally arrive and know that Ian would miss out since he was still in Thimphu receiving physiotherapy treatment twice daily.

Somehow by the time I got there on Wednesday morning after a 5am start in the village and dressed in the best of my traditional clothes, which I was later to discover was on inside out, I was focused on the local audience and hoping to see many of my own students with their families and I had completely forgotten the tourist draw card that a tshechu this close to the capital would obviously be. Wangdue is only 3 to 4 hours from the capital, if you play the road conditions right.

I was more than a little curious to see how it would be staged in the army barracks. Given that I have only ever attended 2 before and both were inside the magnificent Trashigang Dzong, I was skeptical about the location and setting but intrigued about how an outdoor performance would compare to the shade and intimacy of the inner courtyard and sacred, ancient space of a dzong.

As I suspected the lack of shade was an issue, despite the covered areas that had been set up especially for the local audience and I felt very fortunate to be invited into the part of the “grandstand” set aside for tourists because it contained seats and was shaded for most of the mornings at least.

In the afternoon I returned to the covered zone, siting on the ground with the locals where I belong. It was there, via gestures that a kind, local woman alerted me to the fact that my kira needed to be reversed! She even intimated that her daughter would go with me to help. When I returned properly attired without the daughter’s assistance, she was as pleased as punch and invited me to sit with her family group.

Shops and stalls selling everything from fresh vegetables to plastic toys or cheap, imported, synthetic clothes and exquisite hand-woven traditional clothing and handicrafts were interspersed among a proliferation of small snack shops, makeshift bars and restaurants. Old-fashioned sideshow stalls were by far the most popular with the young people and there were the usual prizes of enormous stuffed toys and plastic junk in abundance.

I loved that the tradition sport of darts, known as khuru had been adapted into a test your skills funfair game with monks being the most interested and successful of the competitors. An absolute cacophony was created by spruikers shouting into megaphones to attract customers to play quoits tossed over prizes, or bingo or wheel of fortune or to knock down stainless steel beakers with tennis balls. Set up in tents and plying their trade at the perimeter of the actual performance area in their own enclosed zone, these businesses thrive on everyone having a little extra to spend and the novelty of being available only once a year.

Tshechu is the time to don your finery. Exquisite kira and gho, elaborate hairstyles, carefully applied makeup, brand name accessories and flashy jewelry and sunglasses are all de rigueur for the young singles strutting their stuff and feigning interest in only the religious lessons of the performance. People- watching is a major part of the spectacle. This is certainly the time for young people to meet potential partners and they are afforded more freedom than usual. Many a romance has begun at a tshechu, if class XI short stories are to be believed. Promiscuity is rampant and huge posters promoting contraception and educating about sexually transmitted diseases are prominently displayed on the tarpaulins separating the funfair from the amphitheater. Condoms were actually available from a help yourself for free box at the last tshechu we attended in Trashigang

Without doubt business opportunities, romance, fashion shows and sideshows aside, it is the masked dances, religious morality plays, comic relief of the apsaras and storytelling that are the main events. This is what draws the huge crowds and certainly what keeps them captivated throughout the 3 days of performance. I guess I too am more taken with that traditional aspects of tshechu as of the hundreds of photos I took, none depict anything except the performance, the ‘stage’ or the audience.

At certain points blessings are bestowed and just being in attendance and making a donation earn merit.

I decided to stay for only the first 2 days as I wanted to spend part of my 5-day break in Thimphu with Ian, but nonetheless I enjoyed every minute and never tired of the spectacle. It was an exhausting but event-filled couple of days and I was delighted to see so many people young and old, immersed in their culture, dressed to the nines and obviously enjoying themselves immensely.

I am looking forward to being able to attend Trongsa Tshechu in one of the most impressively located dzongs in the country, with Ian and a visiting friend at the end of December. I never seem to tire of watching and I understand more and more each time despite my complete lack of language skills.

Just for the record to do prefer the dzong as a venue and I am sure I am not alone.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

oNe PhOtO a DaY SePtEmBeR


1.  IN MY CUP: strong black coffee is the way to start everyday for me and here it is a real treat knowing that it is no mean feat to maintain a regular supply

2. STRIPES: The major choice in patterns for kira and gho is stripes or checks. I love that the stripes are always horizontal on the girls and vertical on the boys. This shot from the Annual Variety Show held on Sunday shows both, with young class VIII girl Samten looking extremely sophisticated, poised and graceful

3. BUTTON: although we call them badges in Oz I am pretty sure that they are buttons in the USA and this one of His Majesty the King is an old one but a favourite. It is worn by many of the students on their school uniform. I have also taken to giving this one and one of the royal couple out as prizes in my classes. They are much more coveted than kangaroo pins from Australia!

4. DYI: When the sun comes out and catches you unprepared just about every Bhutanese can DYI a sun hat from whatever is growing nearby. These 2 buddies whipped their sun protection up as we strolled back to school from our Saturday morning reading activity with the primary students a couple of weeks ago

5. UPSIDEDOWN: when my boots started going mouldy due to the monsoon weather, they needed to scrubbed and cleaned and air-dried and Ian took on the task. When I went out on the balcony to see how it was going they were creatively displayed upsidedown for drying

6. I NEED: I guess it is a legacy from our time in China but sometimes I need (or more rightly – we need..) to make dumplings) Born no doubt from the need to eat them!

7. FATHER: At the very first Teacher parent meeting of the year this father was the only dad in a sea of mums for my class and one of only 7 parents who were literate and able to sign the necessary forms and not just apply their finger print as evidence of having attended. I am sorry to have lost this girl from my class due to illness but glad that her father is such a positive influence in her life and we do get to see him on occasion, as he is a local taxi driver.

8. BROKEN: 3 months down the track and this broken heel bone is just about to be removed from its cast. Fingers crossed for a much better scenario than when the first cast came off 2 months ago and the break was still undiagnosed! I am just so glad to see the smile and know that the spirit is not broken though it easily could have been

9. ORANGE: My favourite colour and at 6am this morning while waiting to begin study duty supervision I remembered this prompt and noticed that not only was I wearing my favourite orange ‘kira’ but everything in my hands was also orange

10. REPETITION: Prayer flags are only ever in 5 colours and they repeat always that is part of the point but this repetition never grows tired for me

11. HOW I FEEL TODAY: apprehensive – today the plaster comes off and we hope to see evidence of healing. My mood is a bit like the sky: not sure if that small patch of blue is expanding to eradicate those dark clouds or being consumed by them

12. SPRING / FALL: Here in Thimphu there is just the slightest hint of autumn in the maple tree near the clock tower. We are patiently waiting to see it in all its flaming red glory and hope that we will have another opportunity to be in the capital later in the season

13. OUT OF PLACE: Chillies are never out of place in Bhutan but I love the way they must all be in groups of near identical types. Oops what’s that greenie doing in with the dried reds.

14. HEALTHY: This is what I call a healthy student- teacher relationship. Class V boy, Phub Thinley B sitting in the centre and his 2 brothers came to visit sir, bearing a cucumber and asking to watch “Jungle Book” on the iPad. Phub had already seen it in class and just knew his brothers had to as well.

15. REMEMBER: I remember when hiking and picnicking were our favourite free time activities in Bhutan. This was the last such adventure and the best in Samtengang, taken just 5 days before Ian’s fall. Since then it has been hobbling rather than hiking but we are hopeful that we will both be back to the fun times soon

16. I DON’T LIKE: hospitals and I have been fortunate enough not to have to spent very much time in any for most of my life, but the last 3 months have been the exception and I have seen more of the Jime Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital than I ever imagined I would

17. KEY: This is the key to the room in which we have spent the last week and will leave today. It is our favourite ‘hotel’ in Thimphu with the loveliest couple as managers and although we only came for 3 nights it looks like the road to recovery is going to be slow and require a lot more time in the capital. Luckily we have the house of BCF executive director for the next few days for me, and about 2 weeks for Ian, while she is back in Canada

18. PERSON: This is one of very few female taxi drivers in Thimphu. With the move to a new location came the need to be collected twice a day for physio treatment from an impossible to describe location and the lovely Leki has stepped in and is Ian’s driver for the duration

19. EVEN: though I cannot read the script in which this prayer book is written, I am assuming it is Dzongkha and think it is both artistic and aesthetically appealing

20. BEGINNING: This is the very first photo I ever took of Bhutan as we flew into Paro Valley in January 2011. It was the beginning of a huge adventure, a steep learning curve, a journey of self-discovery, a love affair with the kingdom of happiness and a first step into understanding unique and beautiful culture. The awe I felt is captured in this breathtaking view and the wonder lives on.

21. FAVE WORD: Sunday September 21st International Day of Peace

22. CRISP: A cool, crisp autumn morning, after 3 consecutive days of almost non-stop rain, the garden at Nancy’s house is looking glorious but it is clear that winter is just around the corner now.

23. TRIANGLE: Warning on an excavator on the lateral road

24. LOUD: Earlier in the year as a part of the Rimdro or School Purification Ritual the entire student body assembled in the hall and at strategic moments were required to whistle, cheer and hoot as loud as possible. The cacophony actually made my already cold ears ache and those who had experienced it before knew to cover their ears

25. ANGLE: The sharp angles of the switchbacks on the farm roads are even more obvious when viewed from across the valley

26. BEST: The best fresh mushrooms I have ever been able to buy in Bhutan. They are my favourite vegetable and rarely available in anything but dry form here in the kingdom. Eaten in a delicious tomato sauce with pasta tonight

27. CELEBRATION: The celebration of the chilli is in full swing here in Samtengang.  Now that the harvest is in, all the rooftops are being covered with chillies to dry before the winter sets in. Rice in the fields and chillies on the rooves the season of plenty Bhutanese style!

28. GAME: These boys in my home group should have been doing SUPW (Socially Useful and Productive Work) but with just a ladder they created a great game and I didn’t have the heart to tell them to stop

29. WISH: I wish to live in Thimphu and make this view part of my everyday landscape in 2015. There I’ve said it out loud and published it to boot!

30. WHERE I’M FROM: I’m proud to be from Adelaide: a great little city with an affordable lifestyle and a fabulous small town feel – so why don’t I live there anymore?? Out adventuring but sure planning to come back one day if Tony Abbot doesn’t destroy all the blessings we once had.