Tuesday, February 26, 2013

School Begins!

It is amazing how things can change in a week or two. Bit by bit our apartment that was still a construction site 3 weeks ago is taking shape as our home. We feel settled here in Chumey and have new routines to adapt to the different ways of life.

School has started for Xavier and I, and life as a house-husband has begun for Bob. After nearly 2 months of travel we are ready to get back to ordinary life, and yet I would hardly describe our new routines as ordinary.

We wake early to get the fire going and if we are lucky to have both water and electricity we can get started on tea and breakfasts. Without power or water this takes a little more time, but we can handle it.

I get dressed in my kira which is still a tricky manouvre, and move on to dressing Xavier in his gho. I know I need to improve my technique as the teachers swoop on him when we arrive at school to fix him up.

Walking to school is a complete pleasure, a contrast to strapping kids in the car for the 40 minute peak traffic commute at home. Here Xavier and I have a leisurely five minute walk down the national highway, which is as quiet as a country road. We pass peaceful cows and villagers going about their morning chores of washing hair and dishes in the sunshine.

Yesterday I had two arms full of things to take to school and a lovely year 9 student immediately offered to help. We walked all the way to school with her and learned she hopes to become a doctor. She seemed mature, intelligent and with impeccable manners and I wish her all the best to achieve her goal.

All along the way students from class pp (prep) to 10 make way for us to pass by standing aside, bowing and saying 'Good morning, Madam!' with not a parent in sight to give them a nudge. It feels like the full royal treatment and shows how much teachers are respected in Bhutan.

School begins with a Buddhist prayer in Dzongkha, all students standing reverentially in rows, many with eyes closed in concentration. Next comes the national anthem, again in Dzongkha. I need to get my hands on a version in roman writing and a translation to get the best of the experience, although I find myself humming the tune through the day.

My students in class 2 range in age from 6 to 9 years old and I have 27 in total, all squeezed into a tiny room on little wobbly stools, three to a desk. Like students anywhere, those at the front are eager and bright, the ones at the back more reluctant and rowdy.

Lunch time is interesting too: children run from classrooms to find a place in the sun as mothers, grandmothers and younger siblings scale the interesting ladder over the fence laden with rice cookers and picnic baskets. Extended family and friendship groups sit together for a picnic in the sun, and all is quiet as everyone tucks in. Xavier and I have our own picnic lunch that Bob packs for us (Xavier has vegemite sandwiches and watermelon just as he would at home) and we catch up on the morning. I know even if we were both at the same school at home, we wouldn't have this lovely time together.

Lucky for us, after just two full days of school we have a two day holiday! We took the opportunity today to attend the tsechu (local festival) at a nearby village called Buli. Yet another sun-drenched day greeted us, the skies vivid blue. We took a taxi to the monastery off the main road, up on top of a hill with awesome views of the valley. I can't get enough of these himalayan views, with snowy peaks in the distance, colorful prayer wheels and flags in the foreground.

We spent most of the day being entertained in the monastery courtyard by a succession of ritual dances performed by monks wearing elaborate costumes and masks. Between these performances a group of women in vibrant handwoven kiras performed traditional dances and sang haunting melodies. Their ages ranged from twenties to perhaps seventies or eighties, and the oldest lady seemed to have the most spring in her step even as the day got late.

The audience was relatively small, everyone had a' front row' seat, and the mood was casual and fun. A team of monks dressed as 'atsaras' ran around to amuse the crowd, a bit like bawdy clowns. Carrying large wooden phalluses, they behaved in a surprisingly lewd manner, which didn't seem to bother the locals at all. They enjoyed hamming it up for our cameras and at one stage Xavier joined in with them, performing his ninja moves.

It was an awesome day and we still have tomorrow off from school and work for more local exploring, hopefully checking out the nearby Chumey Nature Resort for lunch.

I'd like to add I have written this blog using the blogger app on my phone as we don't have internet access on our computer yet. As far as I can tell I can only load photos at the end of the post and can't caption them, so use your imagination!

Bhutan, tsechu, Chumey, Bumthang, school, volunteer teacher, Buli, children, local festival, atsara, Dzongkha

Friday, February 22, 2013


Change can be hard! In our new home in Chumey we are learning new ways to do just about everything such as cooking, bathing, heating our home, shopping, communicating, purifying water etc. At times it can feel a bit overwhelming, but fortunately we are not alone in this experience and it has helped to have friends amongst our BCF crew to talk with and realise these ‘growing pains’ are normal.
Lunch with Kyle and Sarah in our lounge room - we still have no furniture!

Having our new friends visit and stay at our home has been a highlight and our dear friend Thubten Senge-la, a Buddhist monk and teacher from the UK posted here in Kabesa came to stay for a few days and in amongst ballet dancing with the boys and rapping ‘The Gruffalo’, had a few moments to help me connect with the reasons why we chose to come for this ‘life changing experience’ of living in Bhutan for a year.

Remy looks pretty cute having his bath by the fire - we don't have hot running water so we heat water on top of the wood heater and then bathe by the fire as its too cold in the bathroom. You wouldn't want to see the photo of what I look like squashed in that tub!!!!

Looking at things with a fresh approach helped me see that all these experiences that are pushing my buttons are exactly what I wanted – an opportunity to live life at that edge where personal growth is possible. I’m sure it is not going to be easy or comfortable, but I can already feel some positive transformations in my mind – that come from finding strength to overcome obstacles. So far the challenges have really been quite small, nothing much more than physical discomforts, and I hope that the rest of the year reveals the type of challenges that we can face and overcome and still have a smile on our face at the end!

Below are some photos of the many highlights of the past two weeks:
Learning how to skim rocks at the creek in Chumey.

The river flowing through Chumey is so beautiful and clear although icy cold!
Celebrating Losar (Bhutanese New Year) with Principal and family - lunch in the sun.
Vegetable shopping, Chumey-style: we've had beans, tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, onions and of course, chillies!
Bob, Remy and I in the snow with our house in the background (we live on the left half of the top floor).

View down the main street of Chumey (also the National Highway).

 Bob, Remy and Thubten Senge-la in the snow.

 Visiting Membartso - The Flaming Lake - a famous historical Buddhist site and one that we have learned about by reading Kunzang Choden's children's book called 'Membartso'. The kids were excited to see it in real life.

We seem to be accompanied by monks wherever we go - our taxi driver Mrs Jampel - a very gutsy driver, brought her friend along for the ride through the Tang Valley - just in case we needed some help to push the car up the rocky roads (and we did!).

Tang Rinpochen Lhakang Monastery in the Tang Valley is built up against a big rock, so it is a bit unusual to walk around the back between the tall rock and wall towards the prayer wheels.

Steep and tall ladders inside the Ugyen Choling Museum.

The picture probably doesn't do it justice, but we thought this might be the most beautiful spot in the world for a picnic - the views of the Tang Valley were amazing and a must see for all visitors to Bhutan - at Ugyen Choling.

How about this amazing view, from Ugyen Choling!

Xavier on top of the world!

Icecreams at the Nomad Festival yesterday - these kids can spy a 'special treat' from a mile away, even somewhere as remote as this - I have no idea how the freezer was brought in!

Trying the local buckwheat noodles with our new Japanese friends, fellow volunteers in Bhutan.

Xavier having a go at the local Javelin at festival.

Traditional mask dancing at the Nomad Festival.
 I've finished this blog in quite a rush in amongst internet dropouts and power failures at the River Lodge in Jakar where we've stayed for the weekend to enjoy a hot shower, good food and a break from the hard work of life in Chumey. We still don't have internet in Chumey and aren't likely to for a while so unfortunately I can't blog as much as I'd like, still I am encouraged by the emails and messages I've received and thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Journey East

I'm sitting on the front step of my hotel room in Jakar to write some memories of the past couple of days travel to our new home in Bumthang (boom-tung). I'm looking over a flat broad valley, the river dividing plots of farming land where cows graze peacefully. Simple farmhouses made from grey stone and decorated in ornate Bhutanese fashion are spaced out along the riverside. High hills covered with blue pine circle us in all directions. It's chilly, but not too cold and so quiet. The only sound is the cawing of ravens, the Bhutanese National bird that fly in high loops overhead. I'm finding that Bhutanese are quiet people, they speak with each other in hushed tones, us Australians and particularly the boys, seem loud and brash in comparison.

So, on Tuesday the big group of us BCF teachers piled into two school buses and a ute to start the journey east. I found it hard to fathom how all our belongings would fit on top of the transport, but Karma who is a very able organiser coordinated the arrangement of all the things we'd bought inside and on the roof of the buses, and it seemed in no time at all we were on the road. The teachers who have placements near the capital or south of Thimphu came along for the ride as school doesn't start til the 13th (for teachers, students begin later) and the possibility of one more night together and seeing Punakha appealed to all.

Buses packed for the journey.

We travelled for only about 3 hours, the highlight being reaching the Dochu-la Pass at approximately 3100m. As we arrived at the top, our eyes literally widened and we murmured to each other about how awesome the views were. There's something about the sight of a ridge of Himalayan mountains that is so enchanting. We had plenty of time to climb up the nearby hills to take photos of the mountains, prayer flags and the 108 chortens that adorn the pass built by the eldest Queen Mother Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk.  We were fortunate to have clear blue skies and a perfect view of the mountain range.

Prayer flags at the Dochu-La.

After the pass we travelled on to Wangdue (Wangdi) and settled into our hotel, Dragon 's Nest, and enjoyed another legendary buffet lunch - the cold weather has fueled my appetite for these buffet meals served three times a day throughout orientation - a tasty mix of Indian and Bhutanese cuisine, always accompanied by ema-datse (chillies and cheese - the national favourite) that I am growing very fond of. Wangdue was surprisingly warm (some of the teachers were wearing t-shirts but it wasn't t-shirt weather for Queenslanders!) and the river flowing past our hotel was clear and aqua in colour, enticing a couple of brave teachers to go for a dip after dark.

We were taken to visit Punakha Dzong in the afternoon, the image of which was very familiar as it is on many tourist brochures and websites.  The monks from Thimphu come here for the cool winter months and return to Thimphu in the summer. The vast size of the Dzong was not immediately obvious to me until I saw maroon-robed monks walking around the base of the Dzong, looking tiny in comparison. We entered the Dzong over an old covered wooden bridge spanning the river, and then climbed the steep ladder up to the main entrance. Inside a large courtyard built around a Bodhi tree is where all the main administration offices of the region are housed. Residents visiting these offices must come dressed in their national dress and in addition men wear a kabney (a white shawl) and women wear a rachu (a red scarf with beautiful embroidery) which shows respect.

Entrance to Punakha Dzong.

Karma in his Gho and Kabney.

 Remy and I at Dzong.

Moving further inside the Dzong we came to the monastery where important preparations are underway for the upcoming Tsechu (religious festival) held in mid February. By climbing       
up more steep steps we came to a viewing area over the main temple area where monks were mediating and occasional drums were sounded, while local mums with children looked.  on (the kids were running around with packs of chips in hand). Remy didn't have
 the patience to watch for long, so we left only to find out later that ritual masked dancers arrived and performed to the sound of chanting, horns and percussion. Hopefully at some point this  year we will have the chance to see a Tsechu at one of our local monasteries.

The second day of travel started with some very sad farewells to the teachers living and travelling in the Punakha area. The realisation that we all had to part ways hit me suddenly and after becoming friends with these teachers over the orientation time in Thimphu, it was hard to say goodbye. I hope that some will take us up on the offer to come and stay and enjoy cake, pizza and warm Bumthang hospitality with us in Chumey (can't wait for visitors!).

I had chatted with one of the teachers after the first day's drive that it was a little surprising ( and I admit disappointing)  that the scenery and small villages we had passed enroute to Punakha were so similar to Nepal and India. At times I even thought the green hills and the warmer climate reminded me of driving in the Gold Coast hinterland! Coming all the way to far away Bhutan I had expectations of something different. The second day's travel revealed the Bhutan I had been longing for : steep densely forested mountains, the road precariously winding around and around, we peered down deep below to a chilly and at times icy river far below. Where the mountain was protected from the sun, snow and ice remained, even waterfalls frozen in motion and then just around the next corner, the hillside could be bathed in sunshine with no sign of snow. Sometimes we came to wide open valleys, cleared for farming and scattered with traditional homes, the ground golden brown, the rice already harvested.      

We stopped for lunch at Chazam and said more goodbyes to our friends who would be  travelling to nearby Trongsa for their placements. Our bus merely passed through Trongsa   allowing us a quick glimpse of the Dzong and bustling town area. It looks like an interesting  place to explore so hopefully we will return to visit Kyle and Sarah sometime.

Lunch at Chazam included amazing shiitake mushrooms, spicy boiled eggs, red rice and of course ezay
(chilli salsa).

By the time we had got to the last leg of the journey we were all a bit weary from the travel. Luckily the kids were asleep on our laps so we could just watch the scenery pass by in silence. After another couple of hours we came to a sign welcoming us to Bumthang region and soon after a broad valley opened out. It was so beautiful as everyone had promised with simple wooden farm houses close to the road, many with signs out the front offering a bar or general shop. We were on the outskirts of Chumey, and soon rounded a corner to  see a familiar house -our house that former teacher Sabrina had photographed for us!

We had a quick look around (Sabrina, if you are reading we will now have the top left hand apartment, not the one you were shown). The other teachers on the bus helped us carry all our stuff up to the third floor, and we were told that our place was nicer than any they had seen a teacher stay in in Bhutan. We are very lucky to have a large new apartment with two bathrooms and a kitchen. When we visited,  the owner and his workers were busy completing the unit for us to move in: putting glass in the windows, and generally cleaning up. The grandmother has curtains to hang and after Losar (Bhutanese New Year which starts this weekend) a hot water system will be fitted to the bathroom and railings fitted to the stair well. Today we also bought a bukhari (wood heater) and this will make our home warm and cosy. 

So that brings us to here, The River Lodge in Jakar. The remaining teachers enjoyed what  was one of the last communal dinners with a glass of Australian red wine by the bukhari.   The pine timber panelled room decorated with all sorts of interesting artefacts is reminiscent of a European ski lodge (I think, not that I've ever been to one!). We had a sumptuous  dinner (the best we've had in Bhutan which is saying a lot!) featuring Bumthang specialty   buckwheat noodles.

A glass of Penfolds by the bukhari!

I can't finish without sharing our explorations of Jakar today. We began with more Bumthang specialities for breakfast: buckwheat pancakes with local organic strawberry and plum jam, honey and Swiss cheese from the nearby factory. We lingered over this breakfast, our first alone in Bhutan. The friendly hotel owner Mr Pema joined us and offered to take us for a drive to see the sights which was very kind. We piled into his landcruiser and headed out to see the new airport of which locals are proud. Now in 25 minutes you can reach Paro by air which takes two full days of driving to achieve. Already it is crossing our mind that this might be a good way to depart from Bumthang at the end of the year.
View from the River Lodge, Jakar.

We were also taken to a monastery dating from the 15th century, established by the saint Pema Lingpa. The monastery looks weathered with age, and we could hear chanting and horns coming from inside the temple, but weren't permitted to enter. We chatted with a young monk who spoke good English and learned about his life in the monastery. Mr Pema took us to the factory where bukharis are manufactured and we were lucky that one meeting our needs was available. He loaded it in the back of his car along with cheese we also bought from the Swiss cheese factory next door (Emmenthal and Gouda). He dropped us in Jakar town for a look around and only left us once he had bought chocolate bars for the  boys! What amazing hospitality!! We enjoyed looking around town and finding out what is available in the shops: pretty much anything we could need. I took the boys to a nice cafe for a piece of cake, and then we looked for a place for lunch. 

A chocolate doughnut for Remy.

Shopping in Jakar.

At the cross roads in Jakar.

In the afternoon Mr Pema again invited us to go sightseeing in town again. Mr Pema was an accomplished high school history teacher, principal and district education officer before retiring. He relished the opportunity to shower us in dates and enthralling stories of the history of the Bhutanese royal family. We visited two more monasteries, one dating back to the 7th century - Jam Lhakang - founded by the saint Padma Sambhava.

What a great day, and an amazing opportunity to sightsee in our new big town where we will visit often through the year for shopping, banking and other administrative tasks. I can't recommend a stay at the River Lodge highly enough! To finish up, I just wanted to add that we are super excited to move to our new house tomorrow, and perhaps welcome our first visitors the next day as we all have holidays for Losar. We may not have Internet for a while which is a bit hard to take, so I'm sure this wont be the last loooong post!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Pedestrian Day

Today is Pedestrian Day in Thimphu, which means in the heart of this capital city, vehicles are banned (with exceptions for buses, emergency vehicles etc) from 8am to 5pm. The city, while never loud by international standards, is so quiet and peaceful today. People are walking down the main streets as if they are like pedestrian malls at home. For once, walking around town with the boys today wasn't such a concern - we could easily cross the road, and I wasn't worried that they'd be hit by car.

The idea of Pedestrian Day has been controversial in Thimphu, and while we were hanging out at Ambient Cafe after lunch, and the boys were being entertained by some of our other BCF teachers, I had time to flick through a back issue (actually the inaugural issue) of The Raven magazine, a monthly Thimphu current affairs magazine. The cover article happened to be on this particular topic. It dated back to October 2012 when a survey was done among locals that showed many were unhappy that Pedestrian Day was a weekly event every Tuesday. The inconvenience caused to business, families, schools and particularly those from the lower-socio economic part of society was reported to be huge, and although most Bhutanese support the environmental ideas underlying the initiative, for many the cost was too high on a weekly basis. In consultation with the public, starting from December 2012 the Pedestrian Day has reverted to once a month, and on a Sunday, which may have less negative impact.

Norzin Lam, the main street in Thimphu at midday today - quiet, peaceful and traffic free.

As an outsider all I can do is applaud Bhutan for being bold enough to try this initiative, and also for responding to the needs of local people when a change was needed. There is no doubt that cars pollute the city environment with their noise and emissions, and any level of awareness that can be raised can only be positive. I wonder how Thimphu residents feel about the change to once per month Pedestrial Days?

I wanted to show you what else we got up to this morning in our walk around Thimphu. Our days in the big city are coming to an end as we prepare for our big trip east on Tuesday to our new home in Chumey village, Bumthang. Here are some photos:

Changlimithang Stadium - the National Stadium. We stopped to watch a soccer game.

Getting a bit closer to the action.

Visiting the large Buddha down by the riverside.

The riverside is bare in winter, but I'm guessing comes back to life in summer.

Thimphu has a fun children's playground down by the river.

One of Xavier's favourite places in Thimphu!

We really enjoyed watching these men enjoy their Sunday morning archery competition.

Archery target, with a few successful shots, but we didn't see anyone hit the 'bullseye'.

Our next stop was a long-anticipated icecream at Willy's, opposite the stadium.

Strawberry and sprinkles for Remy and White Chocolate for Xavier with crushed Oreos!

 Tashi (which is Xavier's middle name) is a very popular name in Bhutan.

En route to the 8 Eleven supermarket, we saw this meat hanging out to dry.

What better place to end up for a warm tasty lunch than Ambient Cafe (AKA BCF Headquarters).