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

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Betel nut chewers and a high altitude weight-loss program in Bhutan

We sat in the MPH (big concrete assembly hall that is chilly right now, so must be unbearable in winter) this afternoon for 'Literary session', all the students were in rows of wooden seats, no backs, and the teachers had plastic chairs up the back (some of them snuck out their phones). It went on for ever, first the Junior story competition (8 readers) where you could hear not a word because the speakers were warping the sound in the huge echo-y room. Then there was a debate (four on each team) on 'Students should be allowed to use mobile phones and electronic gadgets at school'. The woman who brings tea in the mornings brought all the teachers a piping hot cup of sweet milky tea part way through and little cakes were handed out. I didn't eat the cake because my stomach is a bit sulky right now about things like food, and usually I don't drink tea after 2pm because it keeps me up, but I gratefully drank the whole thing (slowly - sulky stomach).

It is so important to do have competitions like that and to show that you value public speaking and debate, and it is such a great experience for the students competing, but an hour in all the students in the audience were fidgeting, some of the teachers had slipped out and words like 'interminable' and 'bilious' and 'Atreyu' and 'please no fart' started intruding on my thoughts while I fought to appear attentive on the outside.

I felt a strong bond of fellow feeling with the other teachers, and for a few moments forgot if I was here or at home. If any of my past students are reading this, of course I and all my fellow teachers were all always super attentive and appreciative at all competitions and presentations.

A couple of the teachers chew betel nut. I am not sure of the process, but it involves sprinkling lime on the betel nut to activate it and maybe wrapping it in some sort of leaf before you chew it. I caught wafts of it from time to time yesterday, but today at least three people near me partook during the speeches.

It is a strong smell that I find a bit stomach turning, even when my stomach is not already turning. The first smell is of lime, which I am familiar with mainly from when we used it to clean horse wee in the stables at school. I now appreciate why the other boarders found us so disgusting when we came up straight to dinner without changing. Then there is a sweet smell I can't identify, but in my mind it smells like 'red', specifically the orange red of betel nut chewers' teeth. Then after a while you get another dose of lime, but the lime that has been thrown in the muck heap and left for a few days. There are probably other subtleties that I am missing, but I am sure you can appreciate why.

I think it is the altitude, but I have no appetite. I have to make myself eat at mealtimes, but the only thing that goes down easily is water.

Two winters ago, after I got back into my kitchen, I was cooking cakes each weekend and inviting people over to eat them, but of course there were always left overs and it would be rude not to finish, right? My point is, I put on some extra weight and I have been trying to get it off again ever since, but it has been so hard because everything tastes so delicious and food is amazing and I pretty much always feel hungry. Whelp, I think that weight has gone already. And it is truly weird to not have that underlying nagging (maybe a little snack? maybe some cheese? you know what's going to happen if you don't eat right now? you are probably going to die, that's how you feel) and to instead have to remember to eat.

The things that people here comment on the most about me: I am very tall. I should be married already.

Monday, 11 April 2016

First day of school in Phobjika, Bhutan

Whenever I go to a new country and learn a new language, I feel like a child. People are so patient, and not condescending at all, but it feels like they are the adults teaching me and I am a little kid. That feeling is intensified here in Bhutan because I needed help getting dressed this morning and, several times during the day, teachers would adjust my shirt and jacket.

I took half a Diamox with breakfast and it improved my outlook on life immeasurably. Karma drove us up to the school and we met with the principal and we talked about what we would be doing.

Mondays start with a whole school assembly, where we were introduced, then Karma took us up to the teachers' room. They made two desks available for us and the IT teacher was just fixing the school's wifi. Their receiver had been struck by lightning and someone had come up to fix it over the weekend. The school has wifi. Teachers are not supposed to use wifi on their phones during the school day, but they are allowed to use their laptops.

We watched the principal teach 6B (12yo) in the morning. He was really good, did all the 'elicit prior knowledge', 'connect what they are learning to what they know', and he taught with gusto.

I was pretty fired up after that and came up with a number of ideas about what and how to teach.

The male teachers sit around the enclosed fire in the teachers' room, I think the female teachers mostly hang out down stairs in the stationary storeroom. We sat up stairs too and made polite conversation. One of the teachers sitting opposite me had his feet up on the guard around the fire, which meant I had full view of his pinstripe yellow boxers.

The school has become a 'central' school, which means it is fully funded by the government. All stationary supplies and books are paid for, and the students' uniforms and shoes and books are paid for and every student gets lunch for free and, based on today, it is hot and delicious. (Incidentally, none of the food has been particularly hot since that first day). If they are eligible to attend the boarding house (which has to do with a combination of age (they have to be at least 9 or 10) and how far away they live. The school has around 500 students from age 6-16 and 100 or so boy boarders and 150 or so girl boarders.

In the afternoon I went to see 'Life Skills' taught to 4B. Their level of English was much lower than 6B, so I rapidly revised my ideas about what and how to teach. I am also super impressed about the amount of improvement between the two years. The teachers here are doing amazing work. They are worried about the level of technology they have, but I think they should also really value the fact that they are teaching really well. From what I have observed so far, they are all excellent teachers doing all the things good teachers are supposed to do (supporting their students' learning, giving them solutions for what to do when they are having problems, building good relationships with the students, doing pre-reading activities)

After school there was a meeting with the English teachers to assign classes to my travelling companion and I. They gave us one class from each 'section' from level 2 to level 9, which comes to 8 classes each over the week, plus we will take some substitute classes, plus after school everyday for 30 minutes. Which is a lot less than I was expecting, but I'm worried how to make this a worthwhile experience for the students and teachers here.

I got a local sim for my phone, but we are so far out of the way up here, that the reception is very poor. I am trying to look at fb, but the blue bar is going only halfway across, no matter how hard I stare at it.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Leaving Punakha for Phobjika

5.40am
I got up this morning to watch the sun rise over the mountains in Punakha Valley. I took some photos, but you know how phone cameras can be with misty sunrises.

So first you are going to have to imagine the valley slowly waking up, the smoke rising up from the white farm houses with rusted corrugated roofs.

There are frogs down in the rice paddies that sound a bit like our pobblebonk frogs. Smooth black birds with forked tails catching little insects, little brown birds with jaunty triangular caps of feathers and little red tufts on their under carriage drinking nectar rom the coral tree flowers right across from the balcony.

I have chilly legs because I didn't want to disturb my travel companion by changing out of my Tardis nighty. One of the hotel workers is hawking and spitting and chatting with someone off the the left. Below I can see the farmers washing their dishes under the pump in their front yard.

As the sun comes over the mountain it hits the monastery opposite and it's all lit up shiny gold and white. My toes are freezing, but I can hear my travelling companion thumping around inside, and I want to stay out here a little longer.


Later
I told my brother about all the marijuana that grows wild in Bhutan and he suggested I bring some home. I suggested no, seeing as I'm flying home to Australia through Nepal and Thailand, and none of those countries are super keen on the drugs.

We agreed that I'd bring him back a photo. Only, I discover that I don't know what it looks like. I saw some plants with those iconic leaves, but they were taller than me, the leaves were bigger than my head and a rich purple green and the buds were bigger than my fist. They look nothing like the anaemic rows of hydroponics you see in the movies. I managed to get half a shot of a little one, once I worked out what I was looking at, and I'll keep an eye out for more.


At the hotel
Summary: Head hurts from bumpy travel and altitude. Worried about what teaching will entail. Beautiful descent into the valley with all the rhododendrons in flower and one picturesque yak.

Punakha, Bhutan

I wasn't that fussed about coming to Punakha tonight. I heard 'blah blah blah 5 degrees hotter than Thimphu' but we are stopping here on the way to the school because the road is quite bad at the moment, makes it tough to get all the way to the school in one day.

I also wasn't that fussed about the golden bhudda this morning either, but it was pretty spectacular. You've got to hand it to religion for getting impressive edifices built.
Me taking a picture of Nema taking a picture of my travelling companion




















And also, I got to see a little kid in a gho (traditional dress) which pretty much exploded my head with the cute.














It was a bit slow and bumpy on the road to Punakha because of all the road works (they are widening the east-west road [there is only the one] from one lane to two by carving the second lane out of the cliff). We stopped at the pass, I can't remember what it was called because I hadn't had lunch and I am no good for anything if I skip meals, but there were 108 of those white things (something to do with religion) and the queen mother had it made in 2000 and something after a war to drive (Indian militia?) out of Bhutan.















There were magnolia trees for a while at that altitude (really high), and I thought of grandma because they were her favourite.



















Karma (one of the organisers) was driving us and he taught me how to count and praised me for my language efforts thus far (hello, thank you, good luck, delicious, rhododendron) and taught me how to say 'very delicious'.

I took this picture of a tractor because I like tractors and it gives you a bit of an idea of how the road is. I didn't even take a picture of the holy spring we stopped at and all the people selling vegetables around it or the man having a wash under it because I was so 'whatever' with hunger, but I took a picture of the tractor. That is how much I like tractors.



















And then we arrived at Punakha (Lobsa Hotel) and I damn near lost my mind when we got in the hotel room. I feel like my whole life has been leading up to the moment when I walk into a room and there is a swan made out of towels on the end of the bed and teddy is sitting on the pillow. Respect, Bhutan.



















And the valley is stunning.














And the toilet has a view.



















And I carefully unfolded the towels and took photos to work out how to do it so that from now on all of my towels for ever will look like swans.



















Dinner was a buffet and I got to try momo (dumplings) with chili paste (delicious, I started to eat one before I took the photo, I was pretty hungry) and red rice and chilis in cheese (not that hot actually). Then there were a range of crunchy seasonal vegetables and pumpkin and fiddle head ferns (they don't taste as exciting as they look, but they're still good).



















I didn't get to take any photos of the phalluses painted on the walls (there were hairy ones and anatomically improbable ones and stylised ones), but I there are carved wooden ones about the hotel. I'll put them in a separate post so that no one gets any surprise penis photos.

We will be coming through 'Fertility Village' on the way back so I'll 'be able to take as many pictures of them as I want'.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Dogs in the Himalays give zero f@$ks

This dog at the Kathmandu airport doesn't care about your baggage trolleys

This dog in Thimphu doesn't care about your cars

First day photo dump, Thimphu Bhutan

Bhutan Air carry on baggage tag

Bhutan Air snack and snack bag

Coming in to Paro. Very spectacular introduction to Bhutan

The mall.

A cat in a yarn and fabric shop. I pretty much wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon right there.

No traffic lights, only traffic police.
A little girl at a sweet shop.

A game called cannon ball. You use the orange token to knock the other tokens into the holes

Hairwax with garlic

Textiles shop. I wanted to buy all the things

The man in the crossing sign is wearing traditional dress. The man crossing is not.
The food is hot, damn hot! (but delicious)

Friday, 8 April 2016

Bhutan musings

I feel like we have been in Thimphu for three or four days, rather than 24hours. I've just been back to the Ambient cafe for some lunch (delicious) and a break from my travelling companion. Lunch was a salad of raw carrot, cucumber and red cabbage with sharp vinegar, a peppery mini omelette with red onion and herbs on a mound of broken rice and a bowl of black bean dal (I added chili, so good!).

The flight was delayed out of Kathmandu, so I settled in to the 'wait' mode that I found when I spent 12 hours in a bus full of fish (dried) in Madagascar. There was also one chicken. No toilet stops, no food breaks (though I did lean out the side of the bus and buy three bok bok (fluffy balls of fried dough covered in sugar) from some children at some point.

The flight was delightful (they gave us two bags of snacks), and the descent into Paro airport was spectacular. Then coming in through the airport was the fastest, cleanest, politest air travel process I've experienced. And then my bag was right there waiting after immigration.

Karma came to pick us up and the drive to Thimphu was a delight. He saw my ukulele and asked me if I could sing and said that the children would expect me to play for them, so I might get a crash course in getting comfortable playing in front of people.

He left us at our hotel, Kham Sum Inn, which is lovely. And we went straight out for a walk.

There is one main street in Thimphu, so I figured we couldn't get lost and we went for a wander. We saw the traffic police and and all the shops and some men playing a came called 'Cannonball' which is a bit like pool, but with flat discs instead of balls.

The air here is soft and clear. Out of town it smelt sweet and sometimes incense-y, in town there are open drains, so you get the pong of rotting refuse, but unlike everywhere I've been with drains like this, you also get overpowering top notes of chili. There are lots of cars, so you also get wafts of exhaust and petrol fumes. Apparently there were hardly any cars five years ago, but that has changed.

On the way home, we got lost.

Dinner was the first chance to try Bhutanese food and I ordered 'Beans Po' and was told it was quite mild. It nearly blew my head off.

Today we were being picked up to meet the program organiser at 9.30, so we headed down into town to 'Ambient cafe', which is bloody lovely. I admit that I had the granola - I struggle to be adventurous at breakfast time.

We met the organiser who is fabulous. She told us about how upset some foreigners get when they get here and everyone isn’t super happy (GNH misconceptions) and that it is not shangri la here. It sounds like the Bhutanese feel about those two things the way Australians feel about ‘oh, do you ride a kangaroo to school?’ She pointed out that even if they are bhuddist, everywhere you go people are people, most are nice, some are okay and a couple are horrible.

Then the driver came to take us Kira shopping. We need to wear formal dress at the school, we are not required to wear the Kira (national dress) because we are volunteers, not government employees like the rest of the teachers, but I decided it would be easier and cheaper than trying to get stuff at home. (I was right). Our driver helped pick colours and he has a very good eye. Every time I pointed at something he said 'no, I think this will be better.' So I think I will be far more stylish than usual.

My travelling companion was able to buy her outfits pre-made in the fabric shop, but I am too tall so we had to take uncut fabric to the tailor to have them made up. All together it will be about $50AUD for the two outfits. I'll be sure to model them for the blog once they're done.

When I write it out like this, it doesn't seem like so much, but everything I do is full of unexpected sights and sounds and the mountains are huge around us and the altitude makes even the short walk up from town hard work, I puff and carry on like little fat pony who has been out in the paddock for a month.

I don't know if they have any more planned for us today, but tomorrow we are going to go and see a bhudda (it is large and golden) then start the drive to the valley the school is in.

Now I am going to eat this ginger cookie on the bed and no one can stop me.


Karma for coins

A priest stopped me in the street yesterday and sprinkled marigold petals on my hair, put a burgundy tika on my forehead, put his hand on my head and blessed me. He told me he was giving me very good karma and was helping me on my path to nirvana.

Then he asked me for money.

And I felt like I should give him some.

Another man came up and praised me for giving money to the priest because it was very good karma and the priest would help the street children and it was a very good thing to do.

He asked me what I was doing in Nepal and when I said I was going to Bhutan to teach as a volunteer, he was even more effusive and almost couldn't express how much karma I was going to receive and what a great thing it was that I was doing.

And it made me feel better.

I have been thinking a lot about just why I'm doing this and what good it's really going to do and why couldn't I just have gone overlanding in Africa like I planned to do. I have deep reservations about what it is going to be like at the school, that have only got worse with information that has come to light in the last few days. And some how the whole karma thing has made me feel better.

Skeptical about nirvana, not about being nice to people
Nepali humus is happy humus

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Kathmandu

I hadn't really thought about the fact that I would be in Kathmandu. It was just a stopping point because the flights wouldn't match up to get to Bhutan. So I didn't think about whether I needed a visa (I did, it cost $25USD [$42AUD - I should have paid in USD]) or whether I'd need rupees (not really, the hotel (Encounter) came and picked me up, and, if I wanted to eat all of my meals here, I could charge them to my room and pay all of it at the end with credit card.

It is hot, the drive from the airport was past fallen down buildings and slums and the traffic was horrendous and beggar children banged on the windows of the car trying to get me to give them money. I was pretty unhappy, but it is wonderful what dinner and a good night's sleep will do to my sense of humour and I woke up this morning in a much better frame of mind.

I went for a wander around Kathmandu today, but I can't seem to integrate photos with text, so they are all below.

We changed money at Google money exchange, but we didn't eat at Big Belly restaurant

There are lots of sparkly things strung across the streets.

The wiring is astonishing, I had to stop myself from taking pictures of just the wiring

There are temples everywhere, was this the Anapurna temple? I don't remember. Lots of them are damaged from the earthquake last April

Durbar Square.


It is super hot and I am wearing all the clothing and this dog looks how I feel


Pigeon temple?
A street scene


I'm pretty sure that is an elephant tea cosy. If I have room and the inclination on my way back from Bhutan, I'm coming back for it


This is one of the many tattoo shops. Mum will be pleased to know that I didn't stop in

I warned you about the wiring photos, right?

I don't want to bring a mask home, and I don't know that customs would let me, but I do like them