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.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

oNe PhOtO a DaY OcToBeR

Some time ago I decided it would be fun to do a blog that was an ABC of the everyday and ever present aspects of Bhutanese life. Now it seems that FMS Photo a Day has stolen my thunder. Given the complexities of living where we do and surviving apart for the longest period of time in the last 31 years a lot of these photos are archive shots but I still like the idea of sharing seeing Bhutan through a foreigner’s eyes. So as they like to say here……. “Here it goes!”


1. A is for…. Archery. Even students who use traditional, handmade, bamboo bows not the compound bows of the truly committed are totally absorbed in this traditional, national sport and compete fiercely.

2. B is for… Buddhism. All the colourful majesty of Buddhism is manifest in ‘Tshechu’ the annual 3-day festival, which is happening right now in Wangduephodrang District where we live!

3. C is for ….. Chorten. The stunning chortens marking Dochula: the pass nearest to Thimphu

4. D is for …. Dzong. Basically a Dzong is translated as a fortress and they do have an almost fairytale castle look about them. Most are ancient structures built in imposing locations high on ridges, overlooking valleys and dominating the surrounding landscape. They house both a body of practicing monks and the administrators of the district government

5. E is for …. Endless Knot. The endless knot is a geometric diagram that symbolizes interrelationships and how everything exists as part of a web of karma and its effect. Having no beginning or end, some believe the knot also represents the infinite wisdom of the Buddha, and the cycle of death and rebirth. All 8 auspicious Buddhist symbols are associated with a part of the Buddha’s body and the endless knot is Buddha’s heart

6. F is for …. finial. The ornaments on the tops of the rooves of chortens, temples, monasteries and dzongs are always a combination of several Buddhist symbols, gold, eye-catching and intricate. This example is from the main hall of the Trongsa Dzong and it contains 2 pedestals of open lotus flowers and the familiar bell shape of many of the chortens. They fascinate me.

7. G s for ….gho. The unique, traditional, robe-like garment that all Bhutanese males wear can be plain and simple or elaborately woven in brilliant colours and worn with traditional boots and the ceremonial scarf, which shows respect. It is famed for the huge pocket formed in the front when it is belted. For special occasions this formal attire really is very showy. Pictured above is the head of the Dzongkha language department in my school performing one of the many rituals that his role requires. He also happens to be our landlord and a hell of a nice guy.

8. H is for…. Himalayas. There may well be places in Bhutan where you cannot see the Himalayan Range but I have neither lived in nor travelled through any. The breathtaking views change hourly in some seasons, where we live and the clouds frequently obscure the depth of the unfolding range but now just weeks before the rice is harvested, those once brown slopes are lush and this is the current visa from our balcony. This rainbow blessed my arrival home from the capital a few days ago

9. I is for …. instant noodles.  Bhutan’s favourite snack for people of all ages is instant noodles and most people don’t even cook them. You just crush them up inside the pack, sprinkle on the chemical seasoning and viola: munch away. I have a complete aversion to the whole concept, which combines with a long term boycott of all things “Nestle” and have therefore managed to avoid that taste abomination but that just makes me more of an oddity in the locals’ eyes! BTW they are better known here by the brand name Maggi

10. J is for … Jampelyang. This yellow coloured Buddha of wisdom and knowledge is also known as the “princely lord of wisdom”. He is always rendered with a sword in his right hand, which symbolically destroys the darkness of ignorance. As the patron of learning and the arts every school has one or aims to do so and he is the embodiment of my 2 greatest passions

11. K is for …. kira. The beautiful hand-woven, traditional, national dress of Bhutanese women is both modest and elegant.   Like “gho” they can be simple or elaborate and while once they were always full length now many are half ‘kira’, meaning they fall from the waist not shoulders. All however are belted tightly at the waist and worn with a shirt known as a ‘wonju’ and a jacket called a ‘tego’ and on formal occasions the ceremonial scarf known as a ‘rachu’. Pictured above are my class VIIIC girls (and just a couple of the boys) in all their finery for the annual variety show

12 L is for …. Lhakhang. In Bhutan you are never very far from a temple or monastery and this is the first one we discovered in the area near where we live. It is old but well loved and frequently visited despite its seemingly remote location. It really comes to life at festivals and religious holidays but today there was just the caretaker on site when I hiked up there inspired by the prompt. I was nonetheless welcomed in and thrilled to see the gate in the ancient rammed earth walls surrounding it had recently been replaced in the traditional style of the original

13. M is for …. Monks. Although the monk tax (paid by one son compulsorily joining the monastery) has long been abandoned in Bhutan, it is still not unusual to see young boys receiving their education in the monasteries and in turn becoming monks. The festivals and rituals are highlights of their otherwise strict routines and solemn schedules and training. These young monks thoroughly enjoyed their position in the front row at the recent annual “Tshechu” in Wangduephodrang District where we live. I kept wondering if they were imagining themselves in those daring roles as they watched with rapt attention to the masked dances performed by their superiors.

14. N is for …. nuns. Seems appropriate somehow following immediately after the monks like that. Nuns too, though less visible than the monks, adhere to strict protocols and undergo rigorous training. The few we have had the opportunity to speak with are highly articulate and devoted to the path they have almost always chosen for themselves, rather than been given to, after some years of formal education. The nunneries are certainly not as prolific as the monasteries but still striking and situated in spectacular locations. 

15. O is for …. Om! “Om mani peme hom”. The most commonly heard chant or Buddhist prayer for the wellbeing of all sentient beings: often translated as "the jewel in the heart of the lotus". It also happens to be the one word I can recognize in Dzongkha script and I am amazed how often I spot it. This one on a rock in the cliff face above my school in Rangjung was clearly visible from the assembly ground and other staff frequently lamented that one of the strokes in the writing is missing.

16. P is for…. prayer flags. I had a hard time deciding between prayer flags, prayer wheels and prayer books for this one as all of them are ubiquitous here in Bhutan. The flags won out because they are so much more accessible and in my time I have given away and flown so many for dearly departed friends and family, the celebration of new life, the joy of travel and as a call to the universe to grant blessings. This collection was captured during our summer break this year on the highest road pass in the kingdom, the windy but impressively otherworldly Chelela. Those in the foreground I had just put up myself.

17. Q is for…. Queen Mother. In a kingdom with royalty, queen is the obvious choice but I have only been in her presence once and that was before the wedding in 2011, when she was officially the royal bride. In any case photos of the royal couple are strictly forbidden as only the royal photographer has that privilege. At the tshechu that same year however the guest of honour was none other that Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo and she too bears the title queen so I think it qualifies. Just for the record, she is one of the 4 sisters the previous king married and therefore there are 4 queen mothers, though none of them are the mother of the queen and one of them is in fact the mother of the king.

18. R is for …. rice. Red rice the delicious Bhutanese specialty and the rice now in the paddies is so close to harvest it looks spectacular

19. S is for …. shell. Conch shells, which are regularly played as a part of the Buddhist ceremonies across the country, always seem so out of place in a land locked kingdom to me. I guess that is what makes them so precious.

20. T is for Taktshang or Tigers Nest. It is probably the most visited attraction in all of Bhutan. Every tourist has it on his or her itinerary and every local who hasn’t already wants to go there. The climb to get there is a challenge, which makes the location that much more spectacular. Both times we have been there thick clouds concealed the actual temple clinging to the rock face and we weren’t sure that we would actually get to see it and then mysteriously it appeared in full view in all its reconstructed majesty.

21. U is for umbrella. This one may in fact be a parasol but it’s an integral part of the Parinavarna Procession and the students involved felt honoured to be given the responsibility of assisting the monks by carrying this colourful, ceremonial umbrella over the head of Buddha as it was paraded through the school and community

22. V is for vehicles. At any one time a huge variety of vehicles ply the route along the lateral road in Bhutan. It often seems that there just isn’t enough space to accommodate them especially with road widening projects, blasting, landslides and rock falls consuming the already limited verges. With sheer drops on one side and not so solid cliff faces on the other, it always impresses me how polite and accommodating the heavy vehicle drivers are and somehow everyone always get through in the end

23. W is for weaving. The weavers in Bhutan mostly use the traditional back strap looms that can be dismantled and reassembled anywhere. Women are proficient weavers and can produce from memory an incredible array of intricate designs for traditional clothing, household items, baby carriers, bags and scarves as well as increasing numbers of items crafted from traditional fabrics for the tourist market

24. X is for ….class X at a X-roads. These students are in class X, which is represented by the Roman numeral “X” in this country. They are also at a X-road. (Crossroad) The all-important Bhutan Board Exams will determine if they are able to continue their free education in the government system in 2015 or if it is all over.  If their parents can afford it and pay they may get a second chance in the private system. Otherwise school and childhood are over and real life begins. The class X students in my school are currently undergoing trial exams as preparation, as are students all over the country

25. Y is for Yaks. There are occasionally yaks on the roadside as one drives by in Bhutan and I can clearly recall one stunned driver’s expression as I vocalized “Yak, Yak, Yak, yakkerty yak” as we passed them. He was astute enough to repeat the phrase to me once we arrived in Thimphu some hours later! These yaks in Phobjikha however are in their element. They were right at home feeding on their favourite food the stunted, blue bamboo and being carefully overseen by a very vigilant herder. These beautiful beasts are brought down to lower pastures from the highlands, they prefer for the bitterly cold winters and they are prized possessions. There is money in this pastoral activity and the herders’ camp was clearly visible from this spot

26. Z is for ….zee. This highly prized black stone with white circular and stripe patterns, is worn around the neck of many Bhutanese women and often passed from generation to generation in families. I have had my eye out for someone wearing one from the beginning of the month when I failed to take one at the tshechu celebration where so many people were wearing them.  However I didn’t manage to get a shot, so yesterday I tried going in to jewelers and feigning interest in buying one to take some photos but my heart wasn’t in the scam and at Ngultrum 100,000 (AUD 1,800) for authentic ones I was so overwhelmed, I couldn’t even get a decent photo of them in their glass cases and locked cabinets. Today I slipped into the handicraft museum and was assured that this broken piece is authentic but at a mere Nu 475 I don’t think so. Nonetheless it was the motivation I needed to buy myself a little treat. The things we do for Photo a Day eh! 

27. ONE: One traffic circle, one police officer in attendance, one major intersection in the whole city…. It just has to be Thimphu Bhutan where traffic lights are too impersonal and the traffic is still able to be controlled in this way.

28. TWO: Two Buddhist eyes. The eyes of Bhuddha often appear on the top of chortens in Bhutan. These two are on Chorten Kora in Trashiyangste and are hands down the most easily identified in the country, as this chorten is a copy of the famous one in Kathmandu and has an incredible tale of love and devotion attached to its construction.

29: THREE: The three images above the intricately painted, traditional gates to the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu. These three images are only visible as one is leaving the compound and to my knowledge they are the Divine Madman also known as Drukpa Kunley who is holding his flaming thunderbolt of wisdom, on the left, Buddha in the centre and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal- meaning “the precious jewel at whose feet one submits” on the right

30. Four: I have used this idea before but the quintessential four of Bhutan is “Four Friends.” It is depicted on almost every monastery, dzong or temple and many private houses as well.  It is the well known fable of how the strong and mighty elephant, needs a monkey’s agility to get the fruit from a tree but the tree itself would not exist without the seed carried and deposited by the bird and the nurturing of the roots underground by the hare. 
These 4 creatures also represent the four terrestrial habitats: underground, ground, the air and the sky.  It is a story of the connectivity of the all creatures in the natural cycle of life and it extols the virtues of co-operation 

31. FIVE: The five kings of Bhutan. All revered and often displayed in offices, schools and public places. This shot is from the celebration of 100 years of education in Bhutan when students walked, some for 4 days, to the district capital in Trashigang for a spectacular district celebration and cultural display. Several schools appointed students to carry all 5 portraits for the length of the walk and those selected did so with pride and respect.