Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Marijuana in Bhutan

This morning seems like a good time to write my last Bhutan post. Here in Melbourne the weather is fine - it is April weather, all the weather I was sad to be missing while I was in Phobjikha is right here, right now in May. And out one side of the flat is the gentle sound of construction and out the other side is the soothing melody of someone playing the bagpipe. For real. It is not a recording, it is a genuine damn bagpipe being played with skill and the occasional halt for breathing. I think it is a new neighbour, standing there in his black adidas trackies and white tshirt. I would take a picture for proof, but the leaves on the loquat tree are too thick for a clear shot. He has a goatee.

This is a post for my brother who wanted a picture of the marijuana that grows wild in Bhutan, right there in amongst the other roadside weeds.

There wasn't any in Phobjikha (that I saw - too high, too cold?). I think I saw some along the roadsides as we were driving back (my marijuana spotting skills are not great, so I'd never be sure of what I was seeing until we were past), but there was some right by the last hotel we stayed at.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Bhutan's national dress for men - the gho

The last few days have been like late summer here in Melbourne. The sky is high and blue, the wind is soft and warm and all the hipsters are out in their tailored shorts. I appreciate the tailored shorts because I am a great admirer of the lower leg.

Which is a big part of why I like the gho. I mean, there's the pocket. What a splendid idea! If I could work out how to have a pocket like this in all my clothing, life would be complete.

But mostly, it's the legs. All those beautiful, black clad calves. It seems improbable that so many Bhutanese men should have shapely calves, but the evidence is right there for the looking. Maybe it is all the walking up and down the hills.

And sometimes you'd see a little bit of knee, and sometimes that triangle of skin just beside the knee. I live in Australia! The sight of a knee shouldn't make me blush, and yet...

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Final days in Bhutan

We had Wednesday morning in Thimphu and went up to see the last day of the festival at Buddha point. There were men doing a traditional dance with drums. Their costumes were scanty and it was cold and they were dancing, leaping and twirling in bare feet, right on the concrete. They all wore masks, but there were two dressed differently, one with a red mask and one with a black mask. They were the jokers. They were there to help the dancers and fix any costumes that came adrift during the vigorous dancing, but they were also there as disruptive elements, I think. The one with the red mask had a giant red phallus on a white scarf. Some times he would dance along with the other dancers mockingly, or swing the phallus around and around on the end of the scarf, or hit them with it, or let it dangle amusingly from his belt next to his own John Thomas.

I'd been thinking about our own presence at the school, we were there for twenty two days and I wondered whether we were more of a disruption than a help (it would be interesting to hear from the teachers' point of view). But watching the dancing, I wondered if we weren't a bit like the clowns. Coming in to the orderly running of the school, helping a bit, disrupting a bit, but still a part of the dance. But with no swinging, um, thingy.

Then there was a debrief at the Ministry of Education in the afternoon. We are to write a report about our experience.

Our hotel in Paro is dreamy. There is an extensive flower garden full of every imaginable thing, foxgloves, gerberas, lupines that would make you cry, roses, tiger lillies, pansies, everything. At the moment I am sitting in our sunroom that looks out on fruit trees and the back hill and it is peaceful.

We climbed to Taktsang, this morning. Some of the tourists ride horses up the first part of the climb, so I followed the hoof marks and pretended that I was my childhood pony who was willing and game and sturdy and went slowly, but never stopped. The smell of horsepoo made me stronger. Karma had suggested we leave the hotel at 6.30am and it was a brilliant idea, we were the first tourists up there and it was still cool on the walk up. It smelled of dust and pine trees. Occasionally one of those horns that the monks use would ring out from above us. I don't remember what they are called, but they sound like a joyous fart.

We were blessed by the monks at the top with saffron water.

At lunch I ate the most in one go since I arrived here. I still wasn't exactly hungry, but it was like my stomach didn't notice for longer that I was eating before it shut down. Then I went for a walk and found some marijuana to take photos of for my brother.

And now I've just re packed and everything is set to go. I have one set of clean clothes left to wear tomorrow on the plane. I spoke to Karma about the fact I have a very short turn around in Kathmandu (1 hour and 40 mins) and he says he can fix it. I don't know what he will do, but he is very resourceful. And if I make that flight in Kathmandu, I'll be home in Melbourne at midday on Saturday. If the internet will let me, I'll download a few episodes of this West Wing Weekly I've been hearing about to listen to on the plane. I think there is also a Gilmore Girls one, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

I feel sad and exhausted and glad that I'll see everyone in Melbourne again (and dance!). And I think this is the longest I've been without talking to my mum. 


Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Love letter to Phobjikha

We have returned to Thimphu. The weather is dreary, cloudy, grey and I am cross with everything. I'm cross with the men wearing ghos because they are not my men wearing ghos. I'm cross with the women wearing kira, because they are not my women wearing kira. And I'm cross with all the students in their uniforms, because they are not mine.

I miss Phobjikha. It defies all sense. I was sick the whole time I was there, walking up the hill to school everyday got easier by the end, but it was still a tough slog. It was cold for all of a handful of minutes. I spent a lot of time wondering if I was behaving appropriately. And I could only have eaten another mouthful of potato stew if my life had depended on it. But the air was sweet and good (if flavoured with the aromas of mud and pine and cow poo - smells I have no problem with and prefer to exhaust and sewers [I'm looking at you Thimphu]). And the water had a touch of the divine. It burned cold in your throat and lit up your stomach. Aqua vitae indeed. On the final morning I got up early to see someone quickly before we left and there was a fine coating of frost on everything the sun hadn't touched yet. It felt like Phobjikha was showing me secrets.

And I miss the staff at the hotel. I wish I had taken more pictures. We left in such a rush that there was no time. I'll start to forget faces soon, but they were a little like a family. (Only a little, because I was still a customer at the hotel.) Their work is tough - everything has to be carried up and down the hill. Laundry, supplies, firewood, guests' bags. Some times guests yell and carry on (the old man who had forgotten that he had eaten something and refused to pay for it, the man who got mad about the water [a tap was dripping? it was hard to tell, he was yelling so loud], the man who got mad about the electricity [they say in the guide books that the electricity goes out in Phobjikha a lot, right?]). By the third week I was starting to see behind the screen, people would mention if they were feeling stressed, Nitup would cross her eyes at me if someone had been rude to her.

And I miss the staff at the school. As an aside, if someone invites you for a 'simple Bhutanese meal', don't eat that day. There will be so much delicious food and you won't want to stop eating. Make sure you eat the cheese one! I miss sitting around the wood stove, trying to keep warm, chatting to the other teachers or just sitting, letting the sounds of the language sooth and float by as they talk and tease and poke fun. I miss being reminded to take a cup of sweet tea at interval. Heading up for lunch - rice and dal and potato stew. Sitting around under the high blue sky. Once there was butter and if you mix butter, rice and dal it tastes just like hot buttered french bread stick. True.

Here, too, I was allowed to look into peoples' lives. The complaints and the quibbles as well as the delights and joys. The UTIs and the concerns for their kids, the pride and the hopes for the future. The teachers who held themselves aloof, the teachers who worked hard to communicate and be kind even if English wasn't their most best thing. The outrageous flirting, (which I wasn't sure how to take until someone did it in front of his wife and she basically called him a randy old goat). The curiousity about life and the great skill they brought to the classroom.

And, O! the students. Naughty, cheeky, quiet, brash, serious, brilliant, studious. The littlest ones full of beans and devotion, the oldest ones full of hormones and attitude (but still just babies).

The girls who walked home with me and practiced their English or asked questions through a designated spokesperson. The girl who told me English was hard for her, but she was smart in Dzongkha. The girls who avoided my eye when I called on people in class, but chatted happily to me outside during Cobblers Club.

The boys full of whimsey and the urge to belt the crap out of every flower that dared grow near the path to school. Who wrote about their fears and consistently wrote about being bitten (beaten) by bigger boys. (The girls feared exclusion).

Some hated school, some loved it. And I miss them.

The coolest boy in school was also the best dancer (I was informed of both these facts in hushed whispers when I attended the students' final rehearsal for the Teachers' Day dancing).

I miss all the classes. I played the clown a lot to make them feel more comfortable with talking. I miss them.

So, Phobjikha, goodbye. I've left you part of my heart. Tama che gey!

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Disconnected Bhutan thoughts

The water at the school comes from a spring in the mountain up behind. You can drink it straight from the tap without ill effect. It is delicious. 

Sometimes when I write on the chalk board I wonder if my bum is wiggling. 

Yesterday I watched as a girl up the back of the class turned over every page of her note book with her tongue. She was so absorbed in her task she didn't notice me staring in astonishment. 

The crows here make a wide variety of sounds beyond 'caw caw' including 'cat with a hairball', 'gargling listerine', 'old man with a tracheotomy', 'half turkey/half rat', 'I have a frog and I'm not afraid to use it'. 

My temperature spikes randomly through the day. The only time this is a problem is in class when I start jumping at things that aren't there and writing the letters in the wrong order. 

Ways students are different here than at home:
They have different types of responsibilities. Here a teacher explains and shows them how to do something, makes sure they've got it right, then says 'Be mindful, use your common sense, here's a machete, be careful of your fingers.' Or it's an awl or a hammer and anvil or a pick axe. 

Ways students are the same here as at home:
Boys with whacking sticks endangering flowers and ferns along the path to school.
Kids piffing things at each other during class.
Swinging on chairs.
The attention span of an eight year old.
Students drawing designs on themselves (and each other) in pen. 
Love of games. 

I'll miss the high, sweet bell of the prayer wheel ringing out through the day as people enter and leave the school. 

I do remember thinking I wasn't going to make it through three weeks, but I hardly remember how that felt. 

I saw a picture of someone's food yesterday on facebook and felt hungry for the first time in three weeks. A big change from wishing I didn't have to bother with eating. 

The year tens asked me to sing at the end of my final class with them yesterday. They knew I'd sung for the year nines. When I'm teaching I forget that I'm there. Being in class is an out of body feeling. So much of my focus is on the students, are they struggling, are they getting it, can I explain better, I forget that they might notice me too. It astonishes me every time. 

All the ferns, which were little furry golden-brown thumbs when we arrived, have unfurled into pale green glory. 

Last night I met a Norwegian pair who have been here to hike at much higher altitudes than I'm at and to make an interactive art project. They've done something similar in the Orkneys. We talked until we were nearly asleep at the table. I feel like they are kindred spirits. 

This morning I was sitting in the sun for Cobblers' Club. I took out my hair and gloried in feeling warm. Then I sensed little people coming up behind me, edging closer. When they were close enough to make cool shadows on my back, a little hand reached out and gently touched my hair. I grinned over my shoulder at them and all four started patting and lifting my hair. 

The photo with this post is how my heart feels. 

Friday, 29 April 2016

The kindness of others

Wednesday night I forgot to take the altitude medication (Diamox) and Thursday was rough as guts. I did work out one of the side effects of the Diamox, though. I have had mad pins and needles the whole time I've been here. Yesterday they stopped. Today they are back. It's fine, though, I'd much rather pins and needles than all the stuff the Diamox is keeping at bay.

Last night Dema and Tashi invited us over for 'a simple Bhutanese dinner'. Simple, my butt. There were dishes and dishes of food and appetisers and afters and drinks. I wished there were three of me with my regular low-altitude-appetite so that I could keep eating. There was a beef and chilis dish, palak paneer, egg and cheese (so delicious, I'm still thinking about it), dal, a dried fish dish and the most delightful local rice. Dema's mum did most of the cooking and she was worried we didn't like it because we didn't eat enough. I tried to tell her namay samay zhimbay(sp?) it was delicious beyond earth and heaven, but I don't know if she believed me. I wished my friend Bev was there, she would have been able to eat enough to convince her.

My nose keeps running. Partly because of the cold, partly because chilis, partly because I keep thinking about leaving all the people here and little tears sneak up behind my eyes.

My heart is so full of love, words keep bubbling out as poetry (all hidden in a never-to-see-the-internet notebook - it's like high school all over again in there).

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

(First?) hacky sack in Phobjikha

As I walked up to the stile on the lower boundary of the school, and the morning sun (third day in a row, people!) reflected off the green rooves (spell check says that is wrong. It's not roofs, is it? Is spell check drunk? Help me out here, I'm supposed to be teaching this language) of the school buildings, I realised I will be leaving. I got the tearies and had to give myself a stiff upper lip, suck it up, think happy thorts, puppies! talking to. It wouldn't do for the teachers or students to find out I'm am not a tough lady.

Then in grade 4 the students gave me farewell cards they had made and I lost my shit. Cried right there in class, had to take my glasses off and everything. They think I am tall and smart and beautiful and they like my hair.

On our walk on Saturday, Madam Choni's daughters were playing with the primula blossoms like they were hacky sacks. I have some pink yarn, left over from socks, that I planned to make into a scarf for my little mate Nina, but it is now the first of several hacky sacks. (Sorry Neens, I'll find you some more pink yarn that you'll covet just as much). The second one is for Dawa sir's son. The rest will depend on if I can source more beans for the filling.

Please someone find me a way to slow down time and stop the days from racing off. (Tears again? No, it's, ummm, dust. Or pollen, which ever sounds more convincing).

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Sunday in Phobjika - a crane, a fleeting love affair and a football friendly

After breakfast I sat in the window of my room, soaking in the sunshine, playing the ukulele, missing home and friends and family.

Then I gave the mopeys a good kicking and roused myself to go visit the injured black-necked crane that got left behind when the rest returned to the Tibetan plateau.

I ran into a two couples from Singapore who spent last night at the hotel and their charismatic (naughty) guide. O! He held my hand to get over a stile and told rude jokes and told me he was leaving his heart with me. And I adored him, too!

But they had to go on to their next stop and I returned to the hotel, filled with giggles and love (shush, it was too love!)

I got to the road and people passing in a car stopped and offered me a lift. I said no thanks, but then they said they were teachers heading up to Phobjika Central School for a friendly with my teachers, so I decided to go watch and jumped in.

It took another two hours for the game to start because we were running on Bhutan time, and I made friends with two of the teachers. We sat and watched the match together as a freezing wind howled up the valley. You make friends much faster when you're huddled together for warmth. We spent more time gossiping than watching the game, they told me enough in English that I could follow the rest pretty well from tone and expression. They also taught me some more Dzonkha (although later I tried to tell one of my teachers I'd see him tomorrow and it came out 'I'll thump you tomorrow').

After the match we went up to the school's canteen (that I didn't even know was there) for refreshments. It was a low, dark, wooden building with creaking floors, a giant TV in the corner playing an Indian comedy show, plastic chairs and a wood stove in the middle for warmth. It reminded me so much of the epi bars in Andavadoaka, but bitingly cold instead of sweatingly hot.

And my heart feels so full of the relaxed kindness of the people here. There is no fuss, they just included me and made me feel cared for and loved and accepted.

I want to aspire to be more Bhutanese, but I'm wary of travel resolutions. People in Phobjika have been consistently kind, and I hope I am being a good example for people from Australia.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

I thought it was canola, but apparently - turnips

We went to visit the Gangtey monastery after school today. I was excited, because I thought I'd finally found some canola to take a picture of for my uncle Rob, it had seedpods and everything, but I'm told it's turnips.

We walked back to the school past a village through the forest. It was lovely beyond the telling. If the internet and the electricity ever co-incide, I'll post photos. But for now you'll have to imagine walking through a green cathedral of pine trees with little streams and plank bridges, the hill sides freckled with purple primulas and a freezing cold wind whipping in from the east.

When we got down into the valley we stopped and huddled in the lee of the car and drank hot milky tea and ate crackers and crispy rice.

This morning at school there was a long assembly. The sun was out for the first time in a week. Just before the end one of the year nine girls fainted. She was super embarrassed, but I wanted to tell her I knew where she was at and the only reason I hadn't fainted myself was because I'd felt it coming and had started (as surreptitiously as possible) shifting from foot to foot to keep the blood moving.

I joined the shoe mending club after that. Several of the teachers were showing the students how to use an awl and thread to mend their shoes.

Then the teachers filled out a survey from the new education minister about work loads (they do a bunch of extra stuff on top of teaching).

The students were set to planting hazelnut trees along the school boundary and I helped the Beautification Club teachers make pots out of empty cooking oil containers and fill them with dirt. They didn't want to let me help because I'd get my hands dirty, but after I explained I do the same thing at home, they said okay.

It has been a full interesting day.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Hoopoe bird

Yesterday I saw a real live Hoopoe bird for the first time. It gave me such a thrill. I tried to take a photo of it, but I freaked it out and it nicked off before I could get a good shot.

It has been bitterly cold today. It is supposed to be getting warmer, but it has been raining for more than a week now.

The first day we walked up the hill to the school, I was dust to the knees. Now you have to pick your way carefully to avoid pratfalls and thick clay mud.

We got the internet back at the school today after it got hit by lightning a second time (in the two weeks we've been here). Then there was a giant rain storm this afternoon and the power is out (for the third time in two weeks).

We are pretty lucky at the hotel, because they run the generator for a few hours at night which means we can recharge everything. And I am so grateful for the local sim I bought (thanks for the tip, Smathi!), because it just keeps trucking (like a slow truck negotiating a rocky, muddy, pot-holed road up a hill in Bhutan, it gets there eventually).

The students in grade 6 wrote about their goals today and there was the full range of things from police officer, doctor and teacher, to guitar player and scientist who designs more durable vehicles.

I'm longing for Melbourne and wishing I could stay here.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Observations on living in Bhutan and a photo of how we amuse ourselves when the electricity is out

The most common smell when walking to school is cow poo which is deeply comforting on account of growing up surrounded by dairy farms.

It is much easier to use a squat toilet in a kira than in jeans.

I can never be a teacher in Bhutan because when something funny happens I giggle, then the students giggle because I am giggling, then I giggle because the students are giggling, then- well, you can see how it ends.

My kira smells like a horse blanket. I think the smell is a combination of the material it is made of and chalk dust. This smell is also comforting. (I do not smell like a horse.)

We eat lunch outside.

This morning at assembly (outside) I was watching the sparrows fly overhead wondering how often people get pooped on.

Today at lunch a sparrow pooped on me and the teacher I have a crush on was the one who pointed it out.

I am developing new waist definition from how tight the kiras are tied. I've learned to blow my stomach out like a horse being girthed when someone tightens it for me, but it doesn't help much.

I really like the ghos that are traditional dress for the men in Bhutan. I've waited my whole life for a pocket that big. One of the teachers was joking that I could try one on once before I leave, but then we realised that no one would have one big enough for me.

I am content.

Feeling better

Oh the glory of feeling well. Last week was tough. I briefly entertained the thought of arranging a flight back to Australia immediately and price be damned. I had constant nausea that rose and fell with meal times. Everything hurt. Moving place to place felt impossible. With the slightest incline my muscles were weak, my lungs burned. I imagine I now know what asthma feels like. It took an hour and a half to recover from the 45 min walk to school.

I barely made it through Friday, I must have taught at least three classes (but it's a haze), and I started showing the girls the Shim Sham after school (which made me feel better - dancing always helps and we giggled a lot). I spent the first half of Saturday sleeping off a fever and the second half holding in tears and wishing I had never come to this country.

Then Sunday I upped the dosage of my altitude medication at breakfast. I made myself go for a walk after breakfast in preference to moping or sleeping. And an hour later felt better, taking delight in my surroundings, meeting Bhutanese people and learning more about life here in the valley and in the country at large. I wandered slowly across the floor of the valley, accompanied part way by a kitten. I thought I had found my spirit animal (though of course I wouldn't have brought it back to Australia, Quarantine Officials). But then we passed a group of labourers who had food and the kitten ditched me. I went a little way up the other side to the first stupa, then sat at the foot of the stupa in the thin mountain sunshine, looked out over the valley and revelled in the fact nothing hurt, and I felt no urge to cast up my crumpets.

Monday was a breeze. I still get puffed walking up hills and have no appetite, but O to not feel sick! In one of my free sessions I was sitting around the fire in the teachers' room (it was bitterly cold Monday) chatting with some teachers and the principal and the principal said he wished I'd quit my job in Melbourne and stay here to teach. I felt enormously flattered, a tiny bit tempted and a strong urge to return to friends and dancing and the ease of living in Melbourne.

Today was a sort of relaxed chaos. There are two timetables, 'Regular' (7 x 50 minute periods) and 'Zero period' which takes ten minutes out of each period to give an hour at the end of the day for the students to do certain activities. Also, the timetable was changed last week by taking a ten minute activity from the end of the day and adding it to the start, but only half the teachers knew about it. So today started as the regular timetable (but ten minutes later) and then in 2nd period it was changed to 'Zero period' timetable (but still ten minutes later than last week's zero period timetable) because it was discovered that wild boar had got into the potato field and eaten all the potatoes. So the students had to replant all the potatoes and rebuild the fence at the end of the day.

There has also been a problem with the internet, the receiver keeps getting struck by lightning. So they have been working to re-ground it. Yesterday that involved the year 10 boys digging a big ditch next to the receiver and today the year 9 and 10 girls were sent to dig topsoil and carry it back in sacks to fill the hole. I thought about suggesting they put something taller and metal near the receiver so the lightning would hit that instead, but I know butt-all about that sort of stuff and kept out of it.

After that, the Shim Sham, which we will perform on May 2nd - Teachers' Day.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The difference a day

The weekend was a low point. The week before mentally and physically tough. The I went for a long walk across the valley in the half hearted sunshine, met lovely people and felt much better.

This morning I took a whole altitude tablet instead of half and today was easier. Still no appetite, but I don't feel barfalicious when I eat.

No pain, less trouble breathing.

Now I am sitting on a rock on the path home, but I better keep moving. I don't want to get drenched again like last week's hailstorm incident