Thursday, December 31, 2015

oNe PhOtO a DaY: DeCeMbEr

wEeK oNe DeCeMbEr 2015


MONDAY 7th LANDSCAPE: This is a landscape I know well but I have never before seen from above. Taken on the 25-minute flight from Thimphu to Bumthang

TUESDAY 8TH ORGANISED: Our librarians are so organised. Now that the students aren't at school, all available bench space in the library is covered in the beautifully presented book prizes for Award Day on Sunday. They have been doing this since last week and it's not finished yet. So many books in this the Reading Year in Bhutan

WEDNESDAY 9TH FAMILY: My family are so far away (10,000+ kms) but these are some of the most precious and most dear to my heart members of it Some are missing but this is a memorable shot in my favourite market in the  whole world

THURSDAY 10TH TOY: Although there aren't any children in our house, we do have a few simple toys and I have always been a big fan of the kind of toy you have to operate manually and requires imagination not electronics

FRIDAY 11TH FREE CHOICE: Free choice. Although these will definitely taste better after they have aged a little. It was our choice to taste test the mini muffin size traditional Xmas cakes we baked last night as afternoon tea. Verdict - Delicious!!!

SATURDAY 12TH EXERCISE: We try to walk 10 kms every day add 72 of these stairs up to our apartment here in Thimphu, sometimes several times a day and that about sums up the exercise routine

SUNDAY 13TH NOON: I was official photographer at our school Annual Award Day today and had no control over what shot I would be taking at noon. However it seems at about noon the General Manager of Galingkha Group of Companies was awarding Kinley with a 2-year scholarship for classes IX & X at the Druk School in 2016 and 2017 based on her academic achievement and contribution to the culture and ethos of the school.
wEeK tWo DeCeMbEr 2015


MONDAY 14th TIME: Having worked almost all day yesterday we got a reprieve and I didn't have to start until 1pm today so unusually this morning I had time in my hands

TUESDAY 15TH ACCESORY: Accessory: my favourite accessory and the one I wear most often - my Pandora bracelet

WEDNESDAY 16TH CUDDLY: Not too many cuddly items in our house but I do like to have a few cuddly koala clips on hand if kids turn up

THURSDAY 17TH YELLOW: National Day in Bhutan today! The tempting yellow pack of a new product on the market here and a delicious one is the yellow that came to mind

FRIDAY 18TH STEPS: These traditional steps leading to our upstairs apartment in a beautiful rammed earth house were always a hazard and my husband is still recovering from the accident which saw him fall from the top step to the concrete below 18 months ago!! Lovely to look at but be cautious climbing

SATURDAY 19TH WRITING Class 8 annual plan for 2016 written and colour coded. Only a skeleton of class 10 done but today being the first day of the holidays I've got plenty of time before I need it so I didn't do any writing at all.

SUNDAY 20TH I LOVE DOING THIS: travelling to new places and experiencing a different way of life. Today we travelled south to Tsholingkhar in Tsirang for the first time

wEeK tHrEe DeCeMbEr 2015


MONDAY 21st JOY: Such a joy to meet with our old neighbours from Rangjung days today. Over a year and a half since we last saw each other. Thanks and photo credit to Anjana for capturing us all together

TUESDAY 22nd TREE: Made it to the southern border town of Gelephu and what do we find but Australian Eucalyptus trees. Now it really feels like Xmas

WEDNESDAY 23rd DECORATION: These intricately painted forward-facing dragons are commonplace decorations on supporting pillars all across Bhutan and this particular one is on a simple hotel in Gelephu

THURSDAY 24th LIGHTS: An improvised attempt with at Christmas candle lights for the table on Xmas Day

FRIDAY 25th MAKES ME FEEL MERRY: Cooking up a storm and inviting friends to dinner always makes me merry. The rare treat of red wine also added to the merriment

SATURDAY 26TH BEST BIT OF MY WEEK: has been meeting new friends and old for social gatherings over food.  Not once in the past week have we eaten alone. This is what holidays are all about. The time to stop and enjoy the simple things

SUNDAY 27th WHERE I ATE A MEAL TODAY: Where I ate a meal today is less remarkable than with whom. So many new and old friends are in the capital right now and so there are many opportunities to catch up with events from the past year before we all go our separate ways for the winter break. I also love that I only remembered to take the shot when the plates are almost empty

wEeK fOuR DeCeMbEr 2015


MONDAY 28TH SOMETHING AWESOME: The hike up to Tango Monastery and the beautiful, blue, winter skies and sunshine with time to appreciate and excellent company was something pretty awesome today

TUESDAY 29TH SPARKLY: This is an archive shot of the cyclo drivers who ply their trade in Melaka Malaysia. Their bikes are the sparkliest things I have ever seen

WEDNESDAY 30TH THE WEATHER TODAY: was clear, sunny and windy enough to flap the prayer flags in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park, where we went hiking

THURSDAY 31ST CELEBRATIONS: Our celebration began a little early but it is hard to resist the rare treat of red wine. Happy New Year We hope that you are blessed with happiness, hope and adventure in the coming year. Tashi Delek!

Seems that the last week has been nothing but food and wine but it's the time of year for it. Twice I mentioned the  rare treat of red wine and then it is in 3 photos in one week! Just for the record that is three of the six bottles we have had all year!

Friday, December 25, 2015

On the road with a local- Tsirang, Sarpang and Gelephu in a whirlwind tour with a family feel.

Travel in Bhutan is almost always a road trip with very few exceptions. Having made my way from east to west and back along the trunk road several times over the years, I had the feeling I knew Bhutan pretty well. However the recent road trip through Tsirang, Sarpang and Gelephu showed me that that was a great misconception. There is so much more to Bhutan than the trunk road and this trip has whetted my appetite for more adventurous trips in the coming year.

To be honest I had trepidations about travelling with a friend and not knowing exactly where we would stay or how it would pan out. I am a planner, an organizer and a lover of independent travel, but I grasped this opportunity solely because it was Anjana who invited us and I have never met a more caring, socially aware or gregarious individual anywhere in the world. She exudes confidence and amicability and with those traits how could travelling with her be anything but fun.

Staying with family members and visiting less touristed areas with someone, who has a plethora of family members at every turn and a deep love of the environment, was sheer joy. The journey started from the freezing climes of Thimphu and progressed though the familiar territory of Wangdi :our stomping ground in 2014. It was a delight to see the progress made on reconstructing the dzong and be able to point out sights that Anjana had not seen before but it soon gave way the new vistas and an adventure with local knowledge and sheer enthusiasm adding to our experience.

As we passed through ever more tropical scenery the familiar cry of “this is my ………..’s village” or “my uncle / aunt lives there” became ever more frequent. Cups of tea delicious lunches and hospitality of the kind only rural folk know how to offer, persisted throughout out the trip.

The first overnight halt in Tsholingkha village in Tsirang was like stepping back a few decades and then adding the best of modern development to the mix. The smokless stove was an instant draw card and perfect place to gather and warm up, though as for that the temperatures were already much higher than in Thimphu. However there is ample electricity and water in the village and access to services is also readily available.

The two separate families residing in this village were more than happy to share their life experiences and family history in the area and not for the first time, I thought about the wealth of oral history, which resides in so many elderly and even middle-aged Bhutanese rural residents. It must somehow be recorded before it is lost or forgotten. It seems to me the perfect history assignment for urban youth is awaiting the clever and innovative teacher, who makes that happen.

After receiving an overwhelming welcome, incredible hospitality spanning 2 households and about twice as much food as we would normally consume we left Tsirang, making a brief stop in the lovely main town of the district Damphu. There we were blessed to be able to meet our neighbours from Rangjung days in a brief roadside gathering. Just as I exited the vehicle another car flew by and the driving shouted, “Hello Madam Vicky!”  Only in Bhutan in a relatively remote and completely new surrounding would that seem totally normal.

Soon after entering Sarpang the scenery turns remarkably tropical. Palms and huge ferns line the road and the heat was a delight. At some points the road ventures so close to India that it is possible to have one’s body in the car and still put one’s arms in India through the window- not that we actually tried that little gambit. With that comes increased security and more immigration check posts, but our journey was hassle free, due to the road permits we had previously acquired.

The jolly family of 3 generations, with whom we spent our second night in Ranibagan in Sarpang, were even more determined to overfeed us and it seemed that we had in fact spent the greater part of the first 2 days drinking tea and eating. Is it possible to have eaten 6 meals in one day!! The evening was much cooler than the tropical daytime and we enjoyed our second bonfire in the expansive front yard of this lovely, rambling, renovated family home. The views on all sides made me think that I was in Thailand and as soon as we set off walking we had the distinct feeling we were enroute to the beach. Even though knowledge of local geography told us that that was impossible.

After a leisurely start to the third day of road travel, the morning began with a tea stop at the home of grandparents of a dear friend in Thimphu and yet again a precious oral history, which needs to be recorded, revealed itself.  Without a single word of common language we were able to enjoy each other’s company and with the assistance of both Anjana and her relative, cousin-brother- our driver Indra, we heard many an incredible tale of bygone eras.
Just down the road, the compulsory purchase of oranges from insistent roadside vendors, was transacted while Indra negotiated our easy passage through the immigration check point. In no time we were all happily basking in the winter warmth again.

After a special lunch provided by the driver’s family in another small village along the road, we reached our next night stopover. Not surprisingly at the lunch stop we again ran into relatives and even one of our friends from the Bhutan Canada Foundation Office in Thimphu. This prosperous area produces an abundance of food and groves of fruit trees abound. No wonder it is becoming the preferred retirement area of Bhutan. Self-sufficiency and glorious weather are definitely an instant draw card for the ever-resourceful Bhutanese.

Feeling warm, content and relaxed we again set off for Gelephu. This border town has all the hustle and bustle of a frontier trading post and it seems that everybody is engaged in some kind of business activity. Anjana was more that thrilled to be reunited with her husband, who is overseeing a family construction in the centre of town and we were happy to be staying in an apartment for the next 2 night so there was time to explore on foot and wander at large to get a feel for this decidedly different town. Her father-in-law was another wealth of local and family history and the town abounds with cheap, fast eateries churning out delicious fresh food.  It was instantly apparent that Ashok Hotel was the popular favourite. We did our best to consume as many of its offerings as possible and even left town with a packed lunch to eat on the roadside when it came time for our departure.

It was a rare treat to be able to travel with a dear friend and colleague, meet her extended family and old acquaintances of our own and gain much more intimate knowledge of the locals on this trip. All those initial fears and concerns I had, gave way to gratitude and appreciation by the time we began our homeward journey to Thimphu on day 5.

We even got to make a brief stop at our former-neighbour's house for tea and a catch up with all the family members on our return through Damphu. It is these family and friends moments that make travelling so much more enjoyable. In addition we stopped for an open air lunch at the very place I wished I had asked to stop on our way in, gave me the opportunity I missed to photograph my all-time favourite subject in Bhutan: prayer flags flapping in the wind! Perfect final journey.

It was surprisingly uneventful in terms of road conditions with only one brief stop at a roadblock due to the road widening in that familiar homeward stretch just before Dochula and within sight of Thimphu. The vehicle, the companionship and the spectacular scenery and totally different lifestyle of these regions has now initiated a real need to explore more in Bhutan in the coming year.

For now we are in freezing Thimphu, having arrived just in time to celebrate Xmas and are making the most of the warm sunny conditions in the middle of the day while rugging up and cocooning ourselves in the early evening and morning.

There is nothing quiet like a holiday to renew your energy levels and make you appreciative for all that you have.

 Thanks go to Anjana and all her extended family for their hospitality.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Happy Holidays and enjoy the silly season

Once again the end of the year is here and it hardly seems possible that another 12 months have flown by. Let me begin by wishing you all a very happy, healthy and personally satisfying year in 2016. Merry Xmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. As always I will share our year with you and hope to hear back from you with the details of the year you have lived.

As far as our work is concerned we are approaching the final two weeks at school before the winter break. That, as usual means the exams have wrought their havoc, marking and correction of papers in the hotpot of common and communal faculty based paper checking is complete and the grades all tabulated. Only the final step of actually writing the comments on the report cards remains to be done. The final two weeks will be a flurry of meetings planning, preparing, and organizing next year’s start of the school year and including Award Day and Result Declaration, which means 13 consecutive days at school. So often I wonder at the beginning of the year why this or that wasn’t already arranged. Now, I remember as I do every end of year, it’s because we are exhausted beyond belief and in desperate need of some brain space and free time.

What a roller coaster ride this year has been. It seems to have been the year of paperwork, permits and documentation making the decisions for us.

The year began brilliantly with a celebration very near our old stomping ground in Samtengang, at a lovely little riverside resort. We were on the final leg of our whirlwind tour of central and western Bhutan, with our invited guest and good friend Katja and another mate escorting her friend around the kingdom, also joined us.  It must have been a grand celebration and drink fest as in the morning when we departed at 4 am to avoid the roadblocks, we spotted the empty bottles. All of us were hung over and much in need of breakfast by the time we reached Dochu La and thankfully the driver was patient and obliging. However, we did recover enough to get to Paro and climb to the lookout point of Tiger’s Nest before Katja departed. Ian was still using his elbow crutch at the time so that was the limit of the climb.

Summer in Australia was the usual mad rush to meet up with as many people as possible while also preparing for our new situation in Bhutan and cramming in medical appointments. Happily this was when Ian was fitted with a fabulous new orthotic and could finally throw away the crutches, but not before we availed of them as a means to acquire priority boarding for the flights back to the kingdom.

We love those mid summer breaks, after the biting cold of the Himalayan winter but this year at the back of our minds was the fact that we were still waiting for our visas to be issued. We had felt confident enough to have already leased an apartment in Thimphu and moved all our possessions from Samtengang there in the week before we departed. However as the weeks dragged on we grew increasingly concerned. Although it came down to the wire, Ian’s visa was issued just days before we commenced our journey back to the kingdom and mine took another 12 days most of which we spent twiddling our thumbs, with a growing sense of uncertainty in Bangkok. There was an anxiety-inducing run to the Australian Embassy on Friday afternoon, to get all my qualifications notarized with only 30 minutes to spare to get the visa issued in Bhutan and to us in Thailand the same day, but it happened. By the time we arrived in Thimphu both of our schools had already begun the teacher orientation process and students were just days away from arriving.

Thus the academic session of 2015 began with steep learning curves and surprising grade allocations. Ian was assigned PP (Pre Primary) and I had classes 6 and 7 in addition to the very familiar class 9s, with whom I have worked on numerous occasions. Both of us just accepted the challenges of new curricula and grade levels with which we are totally unfamiliar and set about preparing year plans and teaching materials as well as acquainting ourselves with our new school environments. I can honestly say those class sixes who I feared the most turned out to be the greatest joy of my classroom experience this year.

We were fortunate to be treated to a 2-day break early in the term so that we could attend one of the most auspicious and significant tshechus in Bhutan in nearby Paro. My generous principal put us up and insisted that we take leave to be able to appreciate the splendor and grandeur of it all. After hitting the ground running in terms of school this was very welcome and we once again had time to contemplate the unique culture and long standing traditions so embedded in the everyday lives of Bhutanese people.

Our beautiful new apartment, which is astoundingly well-appointed compared to all our previous homes in the kingdom was a delight, in those early months. We were at first sharing with another BCF mate who, like us, had traded rural isolation for a position in a private school in the capital, but he eventually moved on and we found ourselves happily back to only sharing our very spacious new home, with spectacular views with each other. 

Since then the demolition of 2 lovely old houses adjacent and the removal of more than 20 trees on the property has occurred. We have endeavoured to make a point of daily savouring the views down Thimphu Valley and the nightlights of Changgangkha Temple and the Memorial Chorten, which are clearly visible from 3 rooms currently. Knowing that our views will soon disappear due to the ongoing construction of a huge building right outside our door or balcony in this case, we are trying to be both mindful and in the present.  

Early in term one it became apparent that we would need to return to Australia in the summer break as I needed a new passport and it couldn’t be replaced earlier in the year as the paperwork we were sweating on was all tied to the soon to expire passport number. It was not our original plan but it turned out to be an excellent time to see winter in Adelaide; something we had not done for a long time. It was also a great excuse to start the rounds of social gatherings and catch-ups.  Funnily enough we found the winter quite mild and not dissimilar to summer in Thimphu. Thankfully the passport and accompany new visa for Bhutan were both issued in a timely fashion and the return a pleasant journey rather than a nail-biting experience.

By the time the Tshechu break of just over a week rolled around in September we were firmly committed to some internal travel that wasn’t in pursuit of paperwork and elected to avoid the nightmare of spending over 12 hours on horrendous roads. Though we did get the road permits to get there first, we finally decided to instead treat ourselves to the 25-minute flight to Bumthang.  It was the perfect time to be in central Bhutan and despite missing the Tshechu in Thimphu, we got to see an excellent one in a small village near Jakar, as a bonus. This district is one of the most historic in all Bhutan so there was ample opportunity to hike to temples and monasteries and explore the dzong and surroundings. Coupled with catching up with Becky who was our nearest neighbour and good mate from Rangjung days, this turned out to be just the battery- recharging we needed before the final month of teaching.

With only days of teaching remaining before the exam period commenced, we were given a 4-day break to celebrate and commemorate the Fourth King’s Sixtieth Birth Anniversary. Rather than attend the many formal events hosted in the capital, we took ourselves on daily walks in the vast nature zones that surround Thimphu. We cooked-up a storm, packed picnic lunches and hiked off into both known and unknown areas. With only one or one and a half-day weekends we are often so immersed in domestic tasks and ongoing school activities that we don’t take enough time to appreciate the here and now and this was a very pleasant reminder to ‘smell the roses’ more often in the future.

It would be impossible to close without mentioning that all the fear and trepidation I experienced about joining a private school, teaching younger kids and living in the capital has well and truly evaporated. This has been the best year yet in Bhutan and though not entirely due to, but surely largely as a result of, being in Druk School and working with our principal Madam Tshewang Choden Wangdi. She has been an inspiration, and is such a dedicated and visionary leader that I am thrilled to be coming back next year. She put such faith in me and not only encouraged me to meet her high expectations but also ensured I grew and developed into the resource person she and the school needed.

I think Ian has grown even more given the demands, challenges and obligations of teaching children with enormous differences in their competency in the English language and also in that all important first ever experience of school. It speaks volumes for him that he was recently approached by the most prestigious private primary school here in Thimphu and still chose to remain in his current one.

Therefore for the time being I’m at Druk and Ian is at Deki and we are so looking forward to the arrival of our visas for 2016 so we can get on with the all important task of planning a great break and a holiday without paperwork hassles come December 19th

All that remains is to wish you all a safe, healthy and fun-filled silly season and every happiness in the year to come.

Peace and love always,
Vicky and Ian xxxxxx

PS. Since this was written, and emailed a week ago, we have both received our visas and renewed our work permits, report comments have been written and in my case the results declared on Awards Day yesterday. I also realised that National Day is coming up on Thursday this week, which  means we won't actually work 13 days in a row - a small and inadvertent element of exaggeration. I have also unfortunately learned that my principal will not be with Druk School next year so a new experience awaits. We are certain that we will get to take a much needed break both travelling in Bhutan with a dear colleague and heading out for some warmth and sunshine. 

Tashi Delek!!