Friday, August 30, 2013

August Photo-a-day

As I've compiled these photos, some seem like they are from long ago - much longer than from just this month. I wonder why that is? August has been a very busy month, and intense in some ways. I've been working really hard five and a half days a week at school, and unlike most months of the year, August is known for having no public holidays and we've had no local tsechus to attend.

Meanwhile the Monsoon Football Tournament has been on which has meant Chumey has been a busy place in the afternoons as people from the region flock to watch the games. For me though, I have found it distressing to see that in many cases education has taken a back seat while the preparations for the football take precendence. I've learnt a lot about myself in this time - what I can and can't tolerate, that I am willing to put myself on the line to try to make improvements, and that it can be lonely when you are a lone voice of dissent. It has been surprising that this late in the year when you would think we'd settled into life here, that big challenges are still arising. The life of an expatriate walking the fine line of accepting local culture and ways while staying true to yourself and your own values is not always easy.

With seven months down and less than four months remaining we can't help but start counting down til we return home. Xavier found a Countdown to Christmas app on my phone and facebook which keeps us up to date. By Christmas we'll be sunning ourselves in Penang, Malaysia. Meanwhile though, there are so many exciting things coming up before then that I feel very positive about our remaining time in Bhutan - lots of visitors coming our way very soon, four local Tsechus to enjoy and a couple of other surprises in store that I'm looking forward to share.

So here are the FMS photos of August:

1 - N is for
Noodles! I found this a challenging prompt!

2- Incomplete
The house being built next door is incomplete.

3- Skyline
I struggled to find a photo of the real skyline on this cloudy day - but this truck has a beautiful skyline image.

 4 - Fresh
I loved this window of a shop at Chamkar with its simple offering of fresh cucumbers and spinach.

5 - Early
These peaches were picked early but after a few days ripened and were delicious.

6 - This means a lot to me
Xavier and I walk hand in hand to school every day.

7 - A sign
The Monsoon Football is about to begin.

8. Peekaboo
We often have kids peeking through the broken windows to see what we're up to.

9 - 2O'Clock
Two O'Clock on Friday afternoons is art time. We drew monsters after reading 'The Gruffalo'.

 10 - Beverage
Saturday afternoon - time to crack open a cold Druk.

11 - I love doing this
I spent Sunday at school helping the ladies prepare snacks for the football and learning the secret recipes to all our favourite Bhutanese food.

12 - Macro
Close up of chillies drying on the way to school.

13 - Fast
The men were running fast and then I had to move fast as the ball came straight at me a moment later!

14 - Trash
These brightly coloured bins go all down the main street of Chumey and are a step in the right direction.

15 - The Best
Thursday afternoon is the best time of the week, and it is the best feeling watching kids love reading.

16 - Cooking
A photo from the massive cooking day I did at school - momos ready to steam.

17 - Exercise
With a big group of students we hiked up to Umsang Village to deliver books (and a bookshelf!) for their new library.

18 - Someone I spoke to today
This friendly gentleman always helps me speak with other sellers at the markets. He sells the most humongous caulis and brocolli!

19 - Lost
As soon as I buy new shuttlecocks, they seem to get 'lost'.

20 - Stairs
Boys climbing the stairs to leave school for the regional sports tournament.

21 - Slow
Baking fresh wholemeal fruit buns is slow - watching the dough rise, then knead, then rise again, then bake. But they were delicious.

22 - A room
We all share a large bedroom with huge windows looking down on the village and to the mountains.

23 - Yellow
Hard to go past all the yellow sunflowers in bloom, but this yellow taxi light caught my eye.

24 - In the background
The girls leaving our house with armfuls of balloons and packages of cake they helped bake after a fun afternoon.

25 - Culture
We attended the Matsutake Mushroom Festival and watched different types of Bhutanese folk dancing.

26 - Entrance
At first this entrance to the school seemed so unusual, but we're used to it now. It's a delicate balance when its wet and I'm wearing a long kira!

27 - Ten Minutes from Home
At first I felt like the boys were disadvantaged missing out on all the exciting entertainments at home for children, but now I feel like they have had a precious opportunity to get close and familiar with nature. This river is our playground.

28 - Corridor
The verandah at school is a type of corridor.


 29 - Lucky
We have been lucky (and careful) that no one has fallen down the three flights of stairs in the past 7 months. Finally we have the beginnings of handrails!
30 - Cluttered
Our general shop with cluttered with all sorts of things to buy.

31 - Dangerous
This massive wasp/bee hive has attached to our eaves and is swarming with insects. I fear that one day I'll walk underneath and it will drop on my head!
All I can say at the end of this month is bring on September! I'm looking forward to my little daily photo challenge that keeps me present to all the interesting and good things that happen day by day.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The highlight of the week

Early in the year I was asked to join a meeting of the English committee to brainstorm ways the whole-school English program could be improved. Some ideas had been suggested in the areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening and I added a few more. I was grateful for the opportunity to contribute as I could see lots of need for improvement. All the suggested changes were simple and required no money or extra resources but had the potential to improve the teaching and learning of English across the whole school.

Why is this important? Well, after the students get through the first few years, all subjects are taught in English (except obviously Dzongkha). Can you imagine learning physics or chemistry or economics in a language you are not proficient in? Sadly I see this is a serious problem and the main reason behind why students perform so poorly on the big end of term tests. If you can't read a question, or have adequate writing skills, how can you answer the questions? Not to mention, if you can't comprehend spoken English, or read well, how can you even learn the content in the first place? I saw all this first hand as I was called on to help mark highschool tests across all disciplines and was saddened by the poor results.

Anyway, some simple suggestions I have taken on board in my class are having good results. Most Mondays we begin with writing a simple recount of the weekend. At the beginning of the year students could not independently write a thing in my class. I started by putting sentence starter cards on the wall and a poster of likely places the kids go on the weekend. At first they wrote one or two basic sentences but now I've got some students who write a page or two of writing and it is of a standard similar to what I'd see in Australia. I've always felt that for young students who are learning to write this chance to regularly write about what they know best - themselves - is very valuable. Breaking away from the local habit of copying off the board which of course does not teach the skill of writing or demand the student think and 'have a go' is important and can be done with the youngest students.

A recent worksample from one of my 'good average' students.

And this (and the one that follows) is from one of my high-fliers.

We also have 'show and tell' on Mondays. I have a roster of 4 students per week which means all students will have two turns this term. They need to remember to bring in an item (a toy, a photo, a book etc) that they can speak about for a minute or two. I mark them out of 10 (out of 4 for speaking, out of 3 for non-verbals and out of 3 for preparation). This mark is part of their Cumulative Assessment mark. The students love it and I'm impressed by the ones who go to the effort of thinking of what they want to say at home - it is evident in their confidence. They feel very proud to get in front of the class and speak and at the age I'm working with, no one is shy. Children also learn to be part of an audience and show good listening manners.

Handwriting was another suggestion at the English committee meeting and I try to fit one handwriting lesson in a week. I use this as an opportunity not just to focus on handwriting skills but also an aspect of spelling or grammar. For example we looked at the different type of words that need capital letters, we have brainstormed words with long vowel sounds like ee/ea/ow/oa etc or contractions. The slow pace and quiet atmosphere of handwriting time is the perfect opportunity to concentrate on these skills. Again, the students (just like those in Australia) get excited when it is handwriting time!

I'm leaving the best for last though - for me and the students in my class the highlight of our week is after school on Thursday. I believe the school had some type of a reading period last year and I've added a few ideas to it. After school Thursday all the classes stay back for an extra 40 minutes and have a reading period in their classrooms. So that they would all have books to read I put together a box of 40 books each week for every class. At first I was unsure that the older students (up to 18 years old) would enjoy the type of books I have in my primary school library - mainly children's picture books. But I have been proven wrong. When the highschool students were younger there was no primary library, and nor would most have had story books at home. So for many this is the first opportunity to engage with these colouful fun stories. I keep hearing from them how much they enjoy coming to the primary library to read the books.

Another factor in this is that for many, their English reading and comprehension is not up to the level required to read a novel, and yet their curriculum is based on reading the great novels of western literature. Many of these are complex for native English speakers to fully comprehend, and it must be so discouraging for a poor reader. No wonder they love to read a simple picture book and actually grasp the story.

The best part of the reading period for class 2 and 3 is that I have organised for a class 9 and 10 class to join us for the session. I had no idea how well it would go!
All day class 2 is excited for the afternoon and seeing their 'azhim' or 'acho' - big sister or brother. They fret if their partner arrives a couple of minutes late. The younger students choose a book and find a spot at the low tables in the library, or on the floor or out on the verandah and snuggle up close to their partner.

With no direction the older students seem to know just what to do. They are expert tutors and I get tears in my eyes every week seeing the positive, caring way they interact. The younger students read and their buddy gently corrects any mistakes or helps them read new words. The best part is that when new words come up I hear them translating and explaining the new vocabulary in the local language - try as I might this is one skill I do not have to offer my students. The love flows freely - it is such a pleasure to watch as week by week the friendships are deepening and it is not just the little ones who value this time, but the older students seem to gain so much from it too. When you consider that most of my students do not have parents at home who can help with listening to their reading, this time is of immense value.

I bought a few bigbooks at the book fair and they are the big hit at reading time.


Kids snuggle up so close together!


Kinley (who wants to be the King of Australia when he grows up) gets the royal treatment with two adoring buddies!


I love seeing the cuddles - this is what reading is all about.

It is the only time I have to freely move among my students, listening discreetly over their shoulder, watching them attempt new and more difficult books and really impressing me with how far they've come.

 I have no doubt this weekly reading boost is an important component of my class 2s success in reading, and I hope the school will find a way to continue the program next year. I would love to think that I have given my students enough this year which will help propel them forward through the rest of their schooling with a good foundation of English to build upon.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Matsutake Mushroom Festival

I was feeling so excited leading up to last weekend - the long awaited Matsutake Mushroom festival at Ura was nearly here! I think my excitement was due to living in a sleepy village and longing for some culture and possibly even some foreign food. I'd seized on a write-up online of the festival from last year which mentioned 'Japanese chef' and I was very happy to travel hours on rocky roads to satisfy my cravings for Japanese food.

Alas, the festival didn't really live up to all the expectations I had in my mind, and yet, we still had a really enjoyable day, albeit very much Bhutanese in flavour. The festival is held to celebrate the start of the wild mushroom season - the matsutake mushroom is prized in Japan and worth hundreds of dollars a kilo! Here, the mushrooms are known locally as sangay shamu (Buddha mushrooms) and I've seen them selling for 300nu for a half kg ($12/kg).

Displays of mushrooms available locally were fascinating and informative.


We hired the van again from a man a few kms down the road. Negotiations were lengthy and involved a lot of third parties and hangers-on who helped translate. A lot of debate went on about whether the new road to Ura was motorable - some saying yes, some saying maybe, and the owner of the vehicle saying 'no'. That meant rather than a 1 hour drive we were looking at a 2.5 hour drive. But what to do la?!

Looking down to Ura village.

Rustic fence and house.

Wildflowers are in bloom all along the side of the road.

The festival is held at a community centre a few kilometres before you reach Ura village. A courtyard for dancing was surrounded by wooden booths selling local foods. As it was nearly lunch time, we surveyed the offerings and tried some cheese momos and a new delicacy - a chapatti rolled up and filled with super spicy and salty ezay made all the more mouth-tingling with lots of szechuan pepper. We drank tea while sitting on wooden stumps placed around the courtyard.

Can't resist a photo of roses in recycled pots.

This guy had a huge basket full of mushrooms and a whopper on the top right.

Mushrooms drying in the sun.

The MCs for the event announced that due to power failure all morning, the entertainment program was just about to begin. Lucky for us! We enjoyed watching local dancers from the community and the nearby school perform traditional folk dances and 'rigsar' dancing to Bhutanese pop music.

A Bhutanese festival is not complete without the presence of phallus weilding atsaras and Xavier (who thinks these masked dancers are the same at every festival we go to) confidently teased them.

A ranger from Thrumsing-la National Park came to interview us as one of only two groups of foreigners present. Apparently the day before had seen about 50 tourists attending. He was very interested to hear our story of living in Bhutan and our impressions, and then invited us to sit in the shaded VIP shelter which had a great view of the dancing from the comfort of lounges. Tea and coffee were served and shortly after we were invited to join the VIP buffet lunch. Too good to refuse! A selection of Bhutanese meat and vegetable dishes including a shimeji mushroom broth were on offer.

Afterwards the MCs announced that anyone wishing to take a traditional hot-stone bath, or go mushroom hunting should put their name on a list. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to have a hot-stone bath - perhaps our only one in Bhutan. As it turned out though, our interest was not communicated to the man who had to heat the hot stones (which takes an hour), and by the time we were ready, the bath preparations hadn't been started. However, we have his number and the contact details for a homestay in Ura so we're thinking it will be nice to return there later when one of our visitors comes to stay.

We picked up some organic vegetables for sale: the first cherry tomatoes and capsicums I've seen in Bhutan, some lovely long eggplants, and of course some mushrooms and then decided to move on. Not before Xavier and Remy took advantage of the typical festival stalls selling plastic toys. We enjoyed handfuls of fresh wild raspberries growing near where we'd parked the van and then headed off.

Market stalls selling all sorts of plastic junk!

A Ben-ten glowing sword for Remy and a toy camera for Xavier.

Bhutanese kids love playing with guns!

Bob was able to reach all the raspberries at the top of the bush that local kids can't reach!
The wild raspberries look just like the ones in Australia, except they're orange and taste a bit sweeter.
Playing around with macro setting - was very happy with this photo.

Bob had an alternative plan for driving home - trying the farm-road 'shortcut' through Shingyer village that connects with the new road back to Chumey.

Well, the experience leaves me in no doubt that when it comes to driving and road conditions, Bob is an eternal optimist and I am a pessimist who envisages all worse case scenarios!

The road was made of big sharp rocks and at low places was mushy, slippery and just terrible. Driving over the rocky parts was like the vibrations of a jackhammer. Bob kept saying things like 'oh we're nearly there', 'we're past the worst' 'I don't know what all the fuss was about', while I kept reminding him we were far from the paved road we were trying to reach and I was far from certain we'd make it. I have no idea why the tyres of the car which are bald did not sustain a puncture on those sharp rocks - a miracle! No RACQ to call out this neck of the woods!

Mr Bob at the wheel!

As we climbed out of Ura a beautiful rainbow appeared.
By no means the worse stretch of road, we stopped to let the old barefoot woman pass.

But I'm happy to report Bob got us through, and we were able to cruise most of the rest of the way on the new smooth road. Even this was not without its perils. Rock fall of varying sizes littered the road and at one point the road goes in under high cliffs of rough rock that looks like it will fall at any moment on the road. We approached a narrow new bridge crossing the gorge - and found that the brand new (unopened) road has actually collapsed on both sides of the approach. Very hairy and we were glad to be through there and if we return to Ura we'll definitely be taking the long road!

This stretch was particularly scary, the rocks did not look stable.


I think the future success of the Matsutake Mushroom Festival relies on greater patronage by foreign tourists. It is a wonderful opportunity to be one of the few outsiders to participate in a local festival (unlike some of the big Tshechus). Everyone we spoke to was friendly, welcoming and made us feel like honoured guests. Hopefully it will grow year by year to become more popular and a good source of revenue for locals. And I think a little food stall selling some tempura mushrooms, or mushroom okonomiyaki would be a wonderful addition!