Sunday, March 17, 2013

Three Invitations

I have had a really awesome opportunity to experience Bhutanese hospitality and culture in the past week.
Bhutanese gather to show support to each other at times of sickness as well as celebrate the special moments in life.
The first invitation was to a teacher's home to show support for his wife who has been ill. A notice went round school through the day that we would all meet after last class to go together. As the family home was too far to walk, the teachers with cars took the rest of us for the drive. It was a welcome opportunity for me to see a bit beyond the main street of Chumey. As we drove we passed a little temple on a hill that we can see from our lounge room window. It is deceptively far away, but I know the way to get there now.
We gathered at the home and waited until all the teachers had arrived before climbing the stairs, taking off our shoes and entering the large farmhouse. Women were ushered to the altar room, lavishly painted and decorated with buddhist motifs. We sat on traditional woollen rugs on the floor in a circle and conversation began in earnest in Dzongkha.
Pretty mugs of sweet milky tea were brought out for us (nearly 20 women), and biscuits and savoury crisps (a bit like cornflakes). A couple of toddlers were the centre of attention and were passed around the circle and their every move cooed over just as it would be at home.
I was surprised that when the tea was finished bottles of the ubiquitous Druk 11,000 were brought out. As is the custom a bit of gentle refusal went on until finally the first glass was poured for me, the honoured guest. Only three other women joined in, apparently it would not have been appropriate for the married women to drink, but the single women were unrestrained. I felt a bit strange to be a married women and drinking but assured them my husband wouldn't mind.
Soon enough we filed out of the room and greeted the woman briefly in the kitchen who has been unwell, everybody offering our best wishes for her recovery.
As we exited we passed the room where the male teachers were entertained and I believe I saw quite a few more bottles of opened Druk in there!!
I travelled home with the young single teachers, and we had loosened up enough with the beer to make conversation interesting! Highlights of the Dzongkha conversation at the house were translated and we talked about Katy Perry, the ever present phallic symbols painted on houses, dating in Bhutan and other girl stuff!! It was lovely to have some girls to talk to!!
Invitation two was for a baby shower of a family from school who are also our landlords and run the biggest shop in Chumey. After having two daughters the family are pleased to welcome a baby son. Each teacher contributed some money for a gift and again we met outside the house until everyone arrived. I was unsure what to wear: at home I know the unspoken general dress code for most social occasions, but here I feel a bit lost. This time surprisingly I seemed to get it right, I wore western pants and jumper and other teachers were dressed casually in either western clothes or the kiras they had worn to school.
Again we were welcomed into the family altar room and sat on benches around the room covered in yathra woven wool rugs that are the Bumthang specialty handicraft.
Tea and snacks were offered and I love the way Bhutanese women tuck in, enjoying the treats and are seemingly not worried about sugar and calories like women at home who exercise restraint by just having one biscuit from the plate.
I was surprised that after the tea cups were cleared a big pot of chang ke was brought in to be served in dainty glass bowls. This soupy concoction of sweet and sour flavoured fermented rice soup with chunky bits of egg had a hit of ara, the local home made spirit. What a mixture!!
I tried my best to finish my bowl and refused politely many attempts for a refill. We were served ezay, a chilli, onion, coriander salad to be eaten from the hand to accompany the chang ke. I loved the ezay but it was so spicy I could only have a couple of spoonfuls until I reached my limit. I looked on with fascination as the Bhutanese women refilled their bowls and ate with gusto, revelling in the spiciness.
Conversation was hilarious!! Mostly everyone spoke in Dzongkha, but I followed along with interest, taking in the hand gestures and listening for the odd English word to help understanding. My friend Miss Chimi was my official translator so when things got really raucous she stopped and translated for me.
No topic was off limits and everyone was roaring with laughter as buddhist techniques for 'making' a boy or girl baby were shared,  secrets of what men wear or don't wear under their ghos were graphically demonstrated and rude jokes told that maybe lost a bit in translation. I almost didn't need translation for the story about what a couple got up to at the hot springs - the hand gestures and reenactment of technique crossed all language barriers!! Bhutanese women certainly are not as demure as women are expected to be in other countries in the region, and it is so refreshing!!
It is hard to believe we could top that afternoon, but the following day we were invited to a teacher's nephew's birthday party. We didn't know what to expect, and thought it would probably be very different to a children' s party in Australia. We bought a simple gift from the local shop, not a lot of choice, but when we arrived all the guests had impressively large wrapped gifts.
Just as at home guests gathered to sing happy birthday to the birthday boy in what I was told was a new custom. He lit a butter lamp instead of candles and his enormous decorated sponge cake was cut up for us all to share.
Again women were entertained in the main room around the bukhari and men in another room, although at times I joined Bob and the men and it didn't seem to matter. We enjoyed tea and biscuits before a range of alcohol was offerred including the top shelf K5 whiskey brewed in honour of the fifth King, Spanish red wine and of course Druk beer.
Spicy ezay was again the accompaniment for the drinks and just when I thought it must be time to leave after many hours of hospitality, a huge buffet meal was served to the guests. Rice, vegetables, meat, fried cheese and fried bread were in abundance and had kept the host and her family busy during the party.
The main point of difference in all these celebrations is that in Bhutan the host does not sit down to enjoy the celebration with guests but works tirelessly to ensure that the guests' every need is met. If the kids merely mentioned they were thirsty a drink magically appeared moments later.
It will be a tough act for us to follow when it is our turn to reciprocate.
We have been so warmly and openly invited into these celebrations and have thoroughly enjoyed the chance to get to know our new community. Thank you Chumey, and we look forward to share many more happy celebrations with you as the year continues!!

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