Thursday, April 18, 2013

Break from Routine

As much as I love my Class Two students, and seeing their happy smiles six days a week, I welcome the fairly frequent changes to school routine here.

Last week, in the middle of unit test week Chumey MSS welcomed an eminent Buddhist monk from Taiwan: Hai Tao Master. He came with an entourage of 80 or so followers from countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia who were accompanying him on a tour of Bhutanese holy sites and also donating to his social and religious projects. Excitement was in the air the morning of his arrival - after assembly we waited patiently for the word that they were on their way. The teachers lined up at the gate to welcome the visitors and when they finally arrived it was interesting to be on the receiving end of 80 cameras flashing at us. Of course their eyes widened in wonder when they came to the end of the receiving line and there were Xavier and I in our kira and gho, blending in... almost!

Xavier and I wait for Hai Tao Master to arrive.

Teachers were dressed in their kiras with rachu (scarves) and ghos with kabneys (shawls).

Waiting with the two Mrs Pemas.

I was hoping that since the Lama has international devotees that he would speak in English, but unfortunately for us he spoke in Chinese which was translated to Dzongkha - on this occasion we didn't have the karma to receive his message. He spoke for an hour or so, and it was a freak hot day - the warmest we've had, and the students and teachers sat in the boiling sun. Xavier and I sought out the shade and enjoyed chatting with the pilgrims who were intrigued to find an Australian family in a Bhutanese village. They showered the boys (Bob and Remy came down to join in the fun) with foreign lollies and chocolates (Xavier's first Ferrero Rocher!) and had their photos taken with us.

The Principal gave a welcome speech to Hai Tao Master and his followers.

Hai Tao Master is seated in the saffron robes. He had a serene, but jolly demeanor.

 It was a big event for the school in our assembly area.

I'd love to tell you the sage message imparted that day, but only heard later that it was generally about making sure to do good things in this life to have a happy life, now and in the future.
The group gave a notebook, pen and eraser to each student as well as sweets and juice. It was very exciting for the students! One member of the group also made a generous cash donation to the school of $1000 US which is a huge sum of money here. I am hoping we can spend some of it on books, although the prevailing attitude is to put it towards another Buddhist altar for the school.

When the students came back to class it was a little hard to settle down after all the excitement, lollies and fruit juice!

And today at assembly my ears and brain were straining to make sense of the Principal's address in Dzongkha to the students. I heard a couple of familiar words which helped me understand he was speaking of the rumoured upcoming holiday, and finally he finished in English with those magic words "You all have a loooong weekend". Afterwards we had a meeting with the teachers, again in Dzongkha of which I understood the basic message, but again wanted to be absolutely clear - 'So what day exactly do we need to be back at school? 'Thursday!' - music to my ears - a 6 day holiday!!!

And then in the way I'm getting accustomed to - mid morning a teacher came round with a notice for teachers. Usually this is ominous and tells us to meet after school for a short meeting - which means a meeting that goes for 3-4 hours in Dzongkha! But this time, I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to lunch with all the teachers at Dhomkhar (a few kms up the road) to honour a Rinpoche (reincarnated Lama) who passed away a year ago. I was happy to sign my name to that notice to say I would attend!

Curious to my western-mind and values - all the teachers and Principal boarded the school bus and headed off to the lunch - leaving all the students behind at the school unattended for the next hour or two. In Australia it would be unheard of for this to happen - here in Bhutan no one bats an eye-lid. A few weeks ago I probably would have been uneasy, but this time I just went along with it. We did drop Xavier home on the way though - he asked if they would have vegemite sandwiches for lunch at the Rinpoche's house and I thought he would have more chance of that at home!

I felt like a kid on a school bus - all the teachers were in high-spirits (must have had something to do with an afternoon off work and a 6 day holiday coming up!) and it is just so nice to escape from the 100m stretch of road of Chumey that is my existence 6 days a week!
I thought we must be going to the Dhomkar Lhakang (monastery) which is holding a tsechu this weekend, but it turned out to be a large private home of the late Rinpoche.

Upon arrival we saw that anyone who is anyone in Chumey was there - hundreds of people gathering for the lunch that was offered. We were invited into the large home where we were entertained in a small room with tea and biscuits and snacks. There is an unspoken rule here in Bhutan about who sits where, and of course I forgot and went straight for the most comfortable looking seat in the room. All the teachers who followed sat on the floor first before some banter went on and they eventually took up the chairs. It was curious that although an air of reverence was in the room, and of course we were gathered to show our respects to the late Rinpoche, a television in the corner of the room was playing a sci-fi martial arts type movie with all sorts of violent images, dubbed in Tibetan! These inconsistencies always make me smile!

At the front of the Rinpoche's house.

 Lining up to receive lunch in the special tent.

People sat around outside and enjoyed the festive atmosphere.

 Couldn't resist a photo of these ladies in kiras with their woven baskets and that beautiful blossom tree.

After that we went to the altar room where an enormous mountain of food: packets of biscuits and snacks and fruit were piled high on a table. The chair of the Rinpoche was decorated with large framed photos of him and all the teachers prostrated to it and other images in the room. We then walked around the mountain of offerings and made a small cash donation to the altar and then left to allow the next group of teachers to enter.

It seemed like we were the last group in Chumey to line up for the buffet lunch, and yet the food was still plentiful. Red rice, pork with daikon radish, beef with red chillies, ema-datse with eggplant, vegetable curry, puta (Bumthang specialty buckwheat noodles) and a glass of warm milk were served. It was a delicious meal and they must have made so much food to cater to the enormous crowd. After lunch beer and ara (rice wine) were offered but I couldn't possibly have had either and headed back to school - I would have probably fallen asleep (or sung our class favourite 'Country Roads' Bhutanese style in a loud voice straining for the high notes - hang on I do that anyway without the ara and beer!)

As is Bhutanese custom, as soon as the food was eaten, plates were cleared and we were ready to board the bus back to school. We still had two classes left for the day, and amazingly all the students were happy and well-behaved in their classrooms awaiting the teachers!

Now as I write this I feel that great feeling knowing six days stretch ahead for a break from school. Tomorrow is the start of the Dhomkar festival which begins with an interesting fire ceremony at night. On Saturday our friend Kyle, an American BCF teacher in Trongsa about 2 hours away is coming to visit and stay - I'm sure he knows he is going to be smothered by two little boys when he arrives, they both love him!

He has heard there is a Tsechu on at Ura on Sunday so if we can find out more information about that it looks like we might be heading back to Ura sooner that we would have thought. Tuesday is the first of three national elections - although we won't be participating, it will be interesting to see what goes on. I'm sure there will be many experiences worthy of a blog update over the weekend, so stay tuned to hear how it goes!


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