Thursday, October 31, 2013

October Photo-A-Day

Today is a holiday in Bhutan to commemorate the Coronation of His Majesty the 5th King of Bhutan. It's the 1st of November! It means the year is really coming to an end, and that means this dreamlike existence in the Himalayas is swiftly ending too.

After ten months, this life feels like home for us.  It is so familiar and we're comfortable. What felt so strange to begin with is just normal now. We have friends and in particular this month have found ourselves invited to a number of events that make us feel a real part of the community.

I don't even want to think about how few days I have left with the little children who have been my reason to dress up in my kira each day and head into our little classroom. My heart is breaking at the thought of leaving them behind. If there was a way to take them with me I would. But Bhutan is their home, so I think I'll have to find ways of visiting them here in the future to see where life takes them.

November promises a number of exciting adventures and I look forward to documenting them in my next group of photos. But for now, here are the October photos-a-day...

1. Something Colourful
Handwoven 'yathra' wares at the shop in Zugney near here.

2. Light
Every morning incense is burned at the school assembly to purify the place.

3. You today
Taken by Yeshi, one of my students. I'll really miss wearing these bright colours when I come home.

4 - In Motion
Cows are always on the move, grazing by the side of the road.

5 - Afternoon
An afternoon walk turned into quite an adventure with Xavier and Bob's mum. We were caught in a downpour and walked through this wet field ankle deep in mud. We had to find our way through forest where the path disappeared and when the path was there it was narrow and there was a big drop to the river below. What was I thinking?! Finally we had to cross a fast flowing waterfall to make it to the bridge to get home. Luckily we didn't see any bears!

6 - 8 O'Clock
Leaving home and walking to school with the kids.

7 - What you saw today
An after school walk to Umsang village - magnificent views.

8 - Corner
Sad news today made me realise we do not know what lies around the corner.

9 - Pink
These pink beads sent by an FMS friend are treasured by girls at school.

10 - Hands
You have to trust the hands of your friends. Trimming the trees at school.

11 - M is for
Money! Four different currencies in my purse. Won't be long til the Baht and Ringgit come in handy!

12 - Below
Looking down the steep ladder at the front door of a village house at Umsang.
13 - Watching
We (and everyone else) are watching the tshechu at Jakar Dzong.

14 - Favourite Space
We chose a favourite space to hang prayer flags to honour the life of our friend's partner. RIP Billa.

15 - Secret
Everyone in Chumey knew a secret about the special event to be held at Domkhar Palace.

16 - Leafy
A favourite stretch of the road home - so leafy at this time of year.
17 - First World Problem
How lucky are we to not be bothered with first world problems here! But this clock at school, with four clocks all stuck and telling the wrong time really gets to me. In Bhutan though it doesn't seem to bother anyone else!
18 - Still
This basket of vibrant mandarins reminded me of a still life painting. Maybe I can get out the oils when we go home?

19 - A good day
Another day to enjoy a tshechu at Jampey Lhakang. I love these celebrations of Bhutanese culture.

20 - Open
This time at Prakhar tshechu - a monk leans far out the open window while banging a drum!
21 - Then and Now
I was offered a number of beverages at Prakhar tshechu. Here is my beer - it is very hard to empty a cup here to get the empty photo - everyone tries their hardest to keep refilling!

22 - Change
This is the change I came to Bhutan for. Writing sample on the left from the first week of school, and sample on the right from the same girl last week. She's come a long way!

23 - Your mood today

24 - Dark
These turnips were harvested today - after months in the dark they see the light of day.

25 - Welcome
A welcome gate for special visitors.

26 - Depth of Field
Looking through a fence to Numbor Lhakang in the distance.

27 - Peaceful
We live so close to peaceful nature - this raging river is a minute from home.

28 - Just for you
Bob bought my return plane ticket for the trip I'll take by myself next weekend to Paro. A trip just for me.

29 - Hair
All students in Bhutan abide by strict rules regarding hair length (shoulders for girls and 1 inch for boys) and style (no trendy Korean styles for boys or coloured hair ties for girls).

30 - Wet
The boys love to play with the spring water that comes from this pipe and an empty bottle - so simple.

31 - Treat
No signs of Halloween around here, but I still bought the boys a treat on the way home - a jalebi.

Do you have a favourite?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tips for Travellers to Bhutan

Bhutan is not an easy place to come to for a holiday. First you get the idea in your head that you want to come. Then you find out that it is going to cost you $250 - $300 per day to travel here, and you start to wonder if you can afford it and will it be worth it.

If you're like me, Bhutan takes a hold of your dreams and imagination and you know that you must come, whatever the cost! If you've got the skills to share, a big heart and a year or more of your life to give, you could do what we did and contact the Bhutan Canada Foundation and apply to be a volunteer teacher or college lecturer (or look into other volunteer opportunities in the country for other professions).

If a shorter trip will suit you more, there are still ways to go a little bit deeper in your time here and I wanted to share a couple of ideas that I have.

All students in Bhutan study English. It is so important that they develop their English skills before they begin their highschool years of study so that they can understand what is being taught - as most subjects are taught in English-medium and all text books are in English.Even primary school maths, science and social studies are all taught in English.

As you travel through Bhutan you will  see many little school children in towns and villages and it may be surprising but all of them will have a command of English to some degree and I encourage you to strike up conversation with them. It is so useful for them to build confidence in their ability to communicate and by engaging in conversation with you they will get to learn a little more about the world (wherever you come from) and you will also get a warm fuzzy feeling inside because they are such lovely kids!

My boys asked me to take their photo on the way to their football game.

Taking this a step further, if you have a little bit of spare space in your luggage coming to Bhutan, squeeze in some fancy pencils, stickers, postcards or picture books or a souvenir pin (brooch) to give as you travel around. Some of my students have been given these by passing tourists and they are treasured so much! They will always remember the German tourist who gave them the green pencil (honest!).

If you are willing to go a step further, you could ask your guide to see if he or she can take you into a school to have a chat with students - in most cases this would be welcomed by English teachers. I have brought many foreign visitors into my class this year and we really enjoy a 'Question and Answer' session. The students can ask you questions (be prepared for them asking how old you are and guessing you are 40 years older than you think you look!), and similarly you can ask them questions. It is excellent real life language practise, and all the different accents of English are part of the experience. Hopefully their English teacher can act as an intermediary.

Miss Kimi, a Japanese friend living in Thimphu came for Q & A last week.

Visitors have been especially welcome on Thursday afternoon reading time. Thanks Lekkie!

Another idea is to consider buying learning supplies in Thimphu (particularly reading books which are available at many good book shops in Thimphu) to give to school libraries on your way. Although schools all have a library, many are limited and only receive funding to buy books once a year. Books for early readers through to teen novels would be greatly appreciated. Pens, paints, stickers, glue sticks, scissors and other stationery would also be valuable as the further you get from the capital the less easy it is to access these items for teachers and students.

I have recently been preparing my Class 2 students for continuing to improve their English next year when I'm gone - and I have been encouraging them to particularly approach tourists at tshechus (festivals) to have a chat. What I often see is tourists at the tsechus with big fancy cameras taking photos of my dear students as if they are monkeys in a zoo! I must say it really makes me feel sad. We would never go up to a child we didn't know in a western country and put a camera in their face without their (or their parent's) permission. I think it is not ok to do it here either.

BCF teacher Colin's dad Dennis right in amongst it with us for the walk to Umsang.

Vera listened to children read up at Umsang.

To turn this situation into a positive, you could say to a little girl 'You look so pretty in your kira. What a beautiful necklace/hairband/brooch! Can I take a photo?'  - I can almost guarantee they will say yes. To a boy, a similar comment on how smart they look in their gho would be well received. Then you can have a little chat and everyone is a winner - you get the great photo, and they are valued as a little person, and have built confidence in themselves.

Give some of these ideas a try - and your holiday will be full of rich and wonderful experiences, much more than just looking out the window of the bus and taking pictures of unknown people.

We met a Swiss family last weekend and invited them down to school for a look around. Their son had such a good time, he didn't want to leave.

All the best and have a wonderful time in this unique and special country. Tashi Delek!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lhabab Duechen

Bhutan has many public holidays, and when they fall on a Saturday like this week we are rewarded with a real two day weekend. The public holiday was to celebrate the Descending Day of Lord Buddha, or Lhabab Duchen in Dzongkha.

Bhutanese believe that by making a pilgrimage and performing prayers and other rituals on a sacred day like this they will gain 10 million times the usual merit, so a number of hikes to temples were planned by school staff. I was invited to join some teachers on a pilgrimage to a temple in Tang that involved meeting at 2.30am for an early start. They lost me there: it is freezing cold here and the thought of leaving my bed so early in the morning was out of the question. May they accumulate vast merit for their willingness to brave the cold!

Bob received an invitation from Mr Lhabab the home teacher for class 4 to their class picnic. It so happened that Mr Lhabab was celebrating his birthday: he was named after the auspicious day of his birth! They planned to walk to the village of Hurjee 15 minutes from here and then hike beyond to Numbor Lhakang high on a hill. Bob had done some off road biking in that area and knew where the temple was, and thought it would be achievable for us and the boys. The fact is that Remy and Xavier have developed a wonderful ability to hike now and rarely complain, even after walking for hours. They love going for hikes with local kids who hold their hand and entertain them on the way.

So we met Mr Lhabab, his family (including daughter Kuenzang who is in my class) and students at 8.30am and set off for Hurjee. It was an amazingly beautiful morning. Now the monsoon is over, the days are bright and clear and warm. It only takes a little walking to need to strip off the outer layers. The sunshine really accentuated all the colours of nature around us: the vivid blue sky, lush green grass, red stalks remaining after the buckwheat harvest - we marvelled at the beauty in all directions.

Xavier and his buddy Tshewang.

Yeshi holds hands and walks with Remy.


What remains of the buckwheat crop after the harvest.

To celebrate in true Aussie style I made an orange spice cake with icing and had candles to light -  birthday cake, singing and blowing out candles is an uncommon ritual here in Bhutan. Mr Lhabab seemed to enjoy it all immensely and the cake was quickly gobbled up by eager mouths! One student's grandmother had sent along a bottle of home-brewed singchang and we were offered a taste (a bit sour and rustic for my liking I'm sorry) before Mr Lhabab and his mother-in-law polished off the rest.

Happy Birthday!
How's that Singchang Mr Bob?
Sonam had a very pretty shiny taego (blouse).

The girls made beautiful headbands from wildflowers.

The boys made more avant-garde headwear from fragrant wild herbs!



Onwards through forest on a steep narrow path which reminded me of walking in the Australian bush, and we finally arrived at the temple. We were immediately greeted by Kuenzang from class 6 offering suja (butter tea) and zhow (crispy rice mixed with butter and sugar). Familiar horns, cymbals and the sound of prayers emanated from inside. Bob commented on how these sounds are now comforting and make him feel relaxed and calm. A number of my class 2 boys were there, climbing trees, breakdancing and wrestling, but took a break to show us around the temple.

If it wasn't for the girls wearing kiras, walking in the hot sun here felt like walking in the bush at home.

Remy and Mr Lhabab's son Ugyen.

I have a very soft spot in my heart for this little fella, Ugyen Tobgay. How will we say goodbye?

Boys being boys.

Be careful up there!

What a cutie! Love his colourful gho and shoes and socks!

Before leaving Numbor Lhakang Bob and I were ushered into a ground floor room of the temple for a cup of ara (rice wine). Woah! It was strong and I must say I left there feeling quite light headed in the midday sun. These Bhutanese don't muck around with  their drinks - a standard beer is 8% and I don't want to know what percentage alcohol ara is!

Tashi Delek!

It was time for lunch so we returned to the field where we had our cake before and sat in a circle to share around the curries. I love this style of picnicing in Bhutan - so friendly and always so tasty. Today the offerings were all vegetarian, and there was some particularly fiery ema-datsi going around. Its amazing that even young children are obsessed with hot chilli!

Mr Lhabab's wife Yangchen serves tea to thirsty trekkers.

Lots of smiles and laughs and games after lunch.


It is not a lie to say Kuenzang did not stop talking all day!
Remy loves days like these in the great outdoors.


On the walk home we heard that the Chumey Pong tshechu that we've been hearing rumours about was scheduled to begin at 3pm, just giving us time to pop in at home to put on some warmer clothes for the evening. Chumey Pong is the temple about a fifteen minute climb straight up the hill behind our house.

It turns out this was a short version of a tsechu, lasting only a couple of hours. I snapped a few pics before we were asked not to take photos. Due to the very short notice, only a small crowd was gathered. Mr Lhabab said the whole tshechu was to honour the 5th King of Bhutan.

The boys enjoyed throwing sticks and branches on the purification fire.

The tshechu begins.

Monks in a haze of smoke and late afternoon sunshine.

Monks in warrior costume at the front of the very impressive Chumey Pong monastery.

Monks dressed in warrior costumes performed a modern and theatrical series of dances unlike any other tshechu we've seen. In the centre of the circle of dancers was a mound of grass with black flags that represents 'the demons' which I think represent the defilements of our mind. In turn the monks used bows and arrows, swords and spears to 'kill' the demons. Finally they danced a victory dance with modern sounding Bhutanese music. It was a really fascinating show that was easy to understand. As the monks left the courtyard, other monks came with large boxes filled with tsog (blessed offerings). Children lined up with plastic bags and monks came and filled them with handfuls of rice crackers, cornflakes, and packaged sweets, chocolates and chips. Just like a Bhutanese halloween!

In the last minutes of light we ran down the hill to the warmth of home - as Bob said, we couldn't have fitted more into this day if we'd tried. And by watching tshechus, making prostrations and spinning prayer wheels we hopefully accumulated much merit (not sure what the singchang and ara will do to our tally though ;))