Seasons Greetings from the Himalayas for perhaps the last time.
Once again it seems impossible that the end of the year and the silly season is almost upon us. I think this year has dragged its feet and flown by at a rapid rate in equal proportions.
We began celebrating New Year in Thimphu and delaying our departure for winter vacation so as to be able to enjoy some of the beauty and nature of the local area. Even after living in the capital for a year, with five and a half day working weeks there never seems time to do more than domestics and an occasional quick hike on weekends, so instead of rushing off we did some local exploring with friends returning from postings in the east and alone, while the sunny daylight hours afforded us the opportunity.
Mid January we departed for a well deserved break and chose to return to Vietnam via Bangkok of course. This time we planned to really have a holiday. Rather than explore new zones and there are still plenty we would like to, we chose to return to our favourite spots in Ho Chi Min City, Hoi An and Hanoi. Taking our time and really allowing ourselves time to unwind and relax was the main agenda. Hanoi is still a favourite even though we could hardly believe how cold it was in winter and had to avail of new jackets to survive the hours of walking on the streets. Jackets are certainly a welcome resource here in Thimphu so no real worries there especially with the market flooded with North Face knockoffs.
To be honest it was with trepidation that we returned to work in the same schools as we had taught the previous year. At the eleventh hour I discovered my much revered and highly respected principal was not returning and many of the colleagues, for whom I had the highest regard had been retrenched at the end of December and I was nervous about the new regime and how that would affect the atmosphere and functioning of what had been the best teaching experience of my career. I was wise to be cautious and I can honestly say that is has been a troubling and challenging year with many a conflict and growing sense of unease for me personally and among the teaching staff generally speaking. Ian's school has continued with a somewhat haphazard and ad hoc style of management and has also been the cause of angst for him. Being smaller in size and also dealing with much younger students has made it less of a battleground than mine but none-the-less we both decided that this would be the final year in Bhutan quite early in the year. Our sense of loyalty ensured that we never really contemplated breaking our contracts but we were sorely tempted at times.
Of course there have been many happy events and joyous experiences too. We made the brave decision to head out to the east in the summer break. Monsoon rains were heavier than usual and the east west road which is being widened at almost very point and a constant source of roadblocks was doubly treacherous at that time. Perhaps unwisely we opted for the bus to Bumthang and after a gruelling 17 hours - a great deal of which was spent waiting for blocks and landslides to be cleared, we were more than happy to alight and enjoy the comfort and hospitality of Chamkhar. Having learnt our lesson on the transport front, we ventured on to Trashigang and Trashiyangtse in a small but sturdy mini taxi and collected 2 good mates along the way.
The warm welcome of locals and former students in our old base of Rangjung more than compensated for the horrendous road conditions and cramped quarters of the vehicles. In Trashigang we felt right at home and instantly understood why that initial experience in the east started our love affair with the kingdom. Trashiyangtse has always been a favourite place to hike and while away some free time and it did not disappoint. No trip to the east would be complete for us without these old favourites and having mates in tow only made it that much better. Our favourite driver from when we were residents of the region just happened to have a brand new vehicle and a need to visit the capital so we returned to Thimphu in the relative luxury of a Bolero and in the capable hands of Lobzang.
The students are for me always a great source of satisfaction and the motivation to do my best. Teaching English to the class X group with a mixed bag of ability and a lot of pressure to perform well was the impetus I needed to focus all my energy and effort on them. Right from the beginning of first term I made them my priority and they also proved to be my saving grace. I really feel that like my first ever home group in Rangjung, I have bonded with this diverse and dynamic group in a profound way. I sincerely hope that we will remain in touch and I look forward to following their progress, development and achievements. I can only wish them all the very best for successful, satisfying and bright futures.
Ian had a tiny 5-student class of third graders as his home class, and he taught them both English and Science all year as well as having miscellaneous other responsibilities and activities with them. Although he had his doubts as to how so much contact time would pan out, they too have stolen his heart and a strong and fun-loving relationship has formed between them. I am occasionally able to join their school activities and delight in seeing the way they hang on very word sir says and the easy confidence they have conversing with him and each other. They are a bubbly and boisterous group who has blossomed with all the individual attention.
The long and somewhat tedious second term was beginning to take its toll when we began to make plans for the Tshechu Break. We hoped to change our perspectives and take a long overdue spin through the Bhutanese heartland.
The holiday was enhanced and lengthened by the arrival of McKenny from LA. He was unable to match his vacation to the break we were allocated so a few additional days gave us the wonderful extension of time, which enabled us to visit Haa in the west as well as making a quick hit on Punakha and Paro, in addition to spending time in Thimphu. As departure plans were also underway at this point we decided to return to Bumthang in central Bhutan after his departure. Seeing the kingdom through the eyes of a complete novice did wonders to restore our faith in its spectacular beauty and wonderfully unique cultural practices. Not enough to try to rescind our resignations but certainly enough to make sure the final few months have been spent in appreciation.
Our ambitious plans to fly in and bus back from Jakar came badly unstuck when whole sections of road washed away and we spent 3 full days trying to return to the capital via bus and taxis and finally returned to our starting point. The twenty-minute flight affords incredible views across the mountains and valleys and an almost surreal time-lapse style changes in landscape. We treated ourselves to this quick route in and by the skin of our teeth managed to get seats on a charter flight back. It was especially commissioned as so many tourists were stranded just like us. It turned out to be a beautiful final departure that enabled us to make it back in time for school the next day even if the 3 days of relaxation in home territory was lost.
In any case, though we missed the Thimphu Tshechu, we once again saw a couple of days of Tamshing Tshechu. It seemed sweet and fitting that our final view of this magnificent colourful festival was at the very location where it was first performed in the kingdom. We also spent cool but sunny days walking in the valley and catching up with our dear friend, from our time out east, Becky.
Since then it has been ever escalating workloads and more and more exam oriented teaching. Only now that the paper checking and correction is over can I really take time out to reflect on the rollercoaster ride that has been this final year.
We are also sure that having a Japanese friend visit for our final 6 days will once again inspire us to focus on the many positives and delightful memories that have punctuated and permeated our five year stint in this Himalayan hotspot of natural diversity and spell binding charm.
In the end there is no escaping that leaving will be bitter sweet. We will not miss the five and a half day working weeks but there are too many things that we will miss to spend too long pondering them right now. We are availing of every opportunity to revisit favourite places and rekindle the love of this beautiful kingdom, which inspired us to return. We continue to marvel at the majesty of the mountains and the ever evolving but bound in tradition, mystery of this Buddhist enclave.
We trust you will be happy and in the company of family and friends at this celebratory time. Take care and be sure to take the time to appreciate all that you have.
With love and best wishes,
Vicky and Ian