Saturday, 24 May 2014

Tsetchu Sir!

The mouse tally currently stands at 52! The last two little fellows led me on a merry dance; they were skilled at eating the peanut butter without setting off the trap. So I had to revert to my “track ‘em and whack ‘em,” strategy. They died in a blaze of glory behind the bin in our living room – like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Someone should write a song about them.

This post comes a few weeks after the event but the day has played on my mind and I thought that it deserved to be recorded on the blog.

As mentioned in my bus blog, I struck up a friendship with a chap called Tenzin (there are quite a few of those in Bhutan). I got talking with him because he was talking in English to another Bhutanese man on the bus – something that I found curious to say the least.

Well, Tenzin turned out to be a very friendly chap and to cut a long story short (something I rarely do) he invited me and the rest of the Diver clan to his village (Zangme) for the local tsetchu (festival) which was held to celebrate the end of the crop sewing.

A spot of meditation.

Clear your mind....

.....and close your eyes!

Now, the Bhutanese certainly love their festivals, these aren’t kitch shows put on for the tourists, they are by the Bhutanese for the Bhutanese, but if you’re a chillip (foreigner) you’re certainly very welcome. A holiday is often declared to allow the locals to go to the festival without bunking off school. But for Tenzin’s village festival they didn’t declare a holiday and so I couldn’t attend the main event. Instead, the Divers turned up at Zangme about 40minutes walk away from our village on the Saturday when most of the jolly japes had finished. I have to say, it is a much more beautiful village than ours and we were immediately struck by the beauty of the village temple which I’m told dates back to the 8th century.

We found Tenzin celebrating the last day of the festival with an archery match. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan and the archery field is typically 110m long. That’s a long way to fire an arrow on target and I’m always amazed when anyone gets even remotely close. I’m told that in the Olympics they only fire their arrows a distance of 50metres (wimps!) Just to add to the fun, the opponents like to dance around close to the target to try and intimidate the hapless archer; it is also very common for home made hooch (known as arra) to be consumed. All in all – it’s quite dangerous and I was glad to be able to watch from a relatively safe vantage point.

We sat with the villagers, most of whom spoke no English but they were incredibly generous and shared their food (and salty tea) with us. One rather merry (totally drunk) older lady, took quite a shine to Thomas and was very keen for him to marry her teenage daughter. Thomas who is only 9 wasn’t quite so keen and seemed more interested in having a go with a bow and arrow.

Winner of the archery match with all his winning ribbons.

After the archery match we all proceeded to that temple that we’d been admiring earlier. These temples are places of community gathering as well as worship and so we all sat down together on the floor. Again we were plied with food and drink and I was pleased to be offered Druk beer instead of salty tea or that dodgy home-brew - arra.

Now after a good meal and a few beers, there’s nothing like a bit of dancing. Luckily, Bhutanese dancing tends to be quite slow and simple. Justine and I both have 2 left feet but we were able to pick up the dances fairly easily (at least we thought we did, although I heard the kids say something about me looking like a robot) and we had a lot of fun joining in.

Of course, no day in Bhutan would be complete without a few power black outs and the gods certainly did not disappoint us on that day. If the lights went out, nobody complained, candles were lit and we carried on regardless.

We really felt honoured to be included in such a small village festival and these are the days we will cherish when we look back on our time in Bhutan. The villagers made us so welcome and when it was time to leave, people came from all directions to shake our hands and thank us for coming. It was truly a magical day and I’m so grateful to my friend Tenzin and his brother for organising it and inviting us along.

Dinner by candlelight.

The Joy of Bhutanese Buses

Well, after an initial frenzy, things became very quiet indeed, but today we have finally reached our mouse half-century and appropriately enough a cricket bat was used!. Yes the mouse tally stands at 50 but the traps are no longer the happy hunting grounds they once were. In fact 3 out of the most recent mice weren’t killed in the traps at all. (Reader, this blog post comes with a PG rating, you may want to screen it before sharing it with your children.)

So let me explain, Bhutanese houses just aren’t very well built and despite our humble abode being only 2 years old it is full of mouse bolt holes where the floorboards simply don’t meet up with the walls properly. If I ever encountered a mouse in a room and tried chasing it, it would always escape through one of dozens of conveniently located hidey-holes. Well, I’ve wised-up! In one room with relatively few hidey-holes, the mice always escaped under the door, so now if I ever see one there, I get a few pieces of wood and block their escape. It is then a farcical chase around the room, upending boxes and suitcases (with Amelie’s cricket bat in hand) trying to catch the little blighter. The end result is not pretty but my blood-thirsty children consider this sport high entertainment indeed. (You have to make your own entertainment in the countryside). And of course - Fido is always happy for any little morsels that come his way.

Anyone who has used public transport in the West knows the etiquette – don’t make eye contact with fellow passengers and don’t try and start a conversation – they’ll think you’re some kind of nutter.

Happily things are still a little old-fashioned on Bhutanese buses and passengers still know how to talk to one-another. I have an ongoing problem with my right-eye which makes it necessary for me to travel to the capital Thimphu now and again. Although it is only 270km away, it takes at least 11 hours to make the trip. As the road is being widened it often takes even longer as the bus pulls over for an hour to let the road crew work in peace. The reason of course for the long journey time is the steep and winding Himalayan roads. If they could afford to build bridges and tunnels the capital would only be a hop, skip and a jump away.

Are you sure that's just carry on Madam?
What’s for lunch?
The first time I took the bus to the capital I had no idea what I was in for. Throughout the journey, the driver played high-energy Dzongkha pop loudly over the bus’s tinny speakers. (On subsequent trips I have learnt that all Bhutanese bus drivers enjoy this type of music). When the bus pulled in at a roadside cafe for lunch I sat alone waiting for someone to ask me what I wanted to eat. Bhutanese restaurants never have menus of any kind and one must always ask what is available. Luckily a group of young women from my bus took pity on me, invited me over to their table and told me what food to order.

On another bus trip, I noticed that two Bhutanese men were talking to each other in English. I inquired as to why and one of them told me that they were talking about politics and it was simply easier to use English for some topics as the words were more nuanced. We then struck up a conversation and became quite pally. He (Tenzhin) then invited me and my family to visit him in his nearby village for their forthcoming tsetchu (festival). (I will write a separate post about that day.)

One hour delay for road widening.

Just nuts
The last time I was on a bus I was sat behind a monk with long hair and a beard. Bhutan is teeming with monks but most of them have very short hair and definitely no beards. I asked him why he was different and his fellow passenger explained that he couldn’t speak English but he was a different type of monk. Just as in Christianity, there are many different types of Buddhist. After a bit of an exchange, the monk then relayed to me (via his interpreter) that he had just recently completed his 3 year solitary meditation! He then told me that he wanted to adopt me as a brother. I was flattered of course but I did feel that before adopting a monk as my brother, I should at least know his name. I felt slightly awkward and tried to avoid the request by sharing my packet of peanuts. The monk happily accepted the nuts and I hoped I hadn’t caused too much offence by my failure to accept his kind offer.

Road widening stop, roadside breakfast.

Another great thing about the buses is that they will stop anywhere along the road and so when a fellow teacher asked me to buy her some ‘real coffee’ in Thimphu, I simply asked the driver to stop at her house while I went in and delivered the package. Nobody on the bus complained or looked at me with daggers – everyone does it. People often just stop the bus and put on a bag of vegetables and explain that someone further along the road will collect it. Frankly, I think that’s wonderful. It will be a sad day indeed when the Bhutanese become slaves to timetables and sit alone on the bus playing with their phones.

Bus convoy on the long and winding road.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

I can make you a millionaire!

The mouse count currently stands at 41 which is only 2 more since I last wrote. I think the mice are becoming wise to the peanut butter. Also, the peanut butter in the trap is quite old now and may not be very tasty any more. You may ask why don’t I just buy some more, but the peanut butter shop is a 45 minute taxi ride away and I haven’t been paid yet. Yes, I am a volunteer but they do pay me the local pay rate (approx 12 Dollars a day). There are huge costs in coming to Bhutan with a family of 5 (flights, visas, insurance, vaccinations, setting up home for a year) – 12 dollars a day would not even pay for the vaccinations (approx 1000 dollars per person). But, as usual – I digress. Today’s blog is all about food.

Yes, the diet industry is worth billions and we all know that most diets simply don’t work. Its human nature, we’re good for a few days and then we walk past the kebab shop, take one whiff of that greasy goodness and suddenly we’re munching on God-knows-what, and all our self-sacrifice has come to nought.

So, I’m going to share my 100% guaranteed to work diet with you. You can write an (admittedly short) book all about it and become rich beyond your dreams. So what is the secret to guaranteed, exercise and drug-free weight loss?

Simple – move to Bhutan. I was approx 85 kilos when I arrived here. When I recently returned to England, I was 78kilos. I haven’t been that weight since my early 20’s. So, what exactly is the secret? Well, it’s quite simple; there are no burger bars, chip shops or KFCs. In fact, there aren’t any chain stores in all of Bhutan. There aren’t really any supermarkets here either. The capital has a couple of slightly larger shops but they are far from being supermarkets. So the reason for my weight loss is really very simple, there is hardly any junk food to eat.

Our diet
In Australia, I ate meat almost every day. In Bhutan we only eat meat at the weekends and that tends to be a very small portion. I imagine many westerners living in Bhutan would quickly become vegetarians after their first visit to the butcher’s shop. There is very little thought given to hygiene, the premises looks more like an abattoir than a shop. You can’t buy a particular cut of beef, you simply buy ‘beef’. This beef is very fatty chuck steak that must be stewed for a long time before it is tender enough to eat.

Mmmm...... on second thoughts, lentils aren't so bad after all.
Though I love pork, I simply wouldn’t risk buying it in such unhygienic conditions and again it is extremely fatty. Bhutanese people have a very different taste to most westerners. In the West, we have been told that fat is the devil and it should be avoided at all costs. Here, I think the traditional view of fat as ‘a good source of energy’ or ‘a good way of keeping the cold out’ still holds sway. Interestingly, I’m told that all the meat comes from India, as Bhutan is predominantly a Buddhist country they don’t ‘really’ approve of taking the life of an animal. Of course, people (including monks) can eat the animals once butchered but that’s a different story.

As for chicken, you can buy a whole chicken that’s it. There are no breast fillets to stick in the stir fry. In fact, meat is routinely served with all the bones still in it and you must chew carefully and try to dispose of the bones in as polite a manner as possible.

Friday nights are homemade pizza night.
As in many parts of India, it is very common for Bhutanese people to eat with their fingers. When cutlery is provided it is usually a spoon or a fork. When I recently asked for a knife to tackle a large piece of gristly meat at a friend’s house, there was much discussion before someone disappeared and eventually came back with said instrument. When we discussed it, my host said, we just use our teeth to chew through it – we never bother with knives.

Sweet versus salty
Bhutanese people delight in telling me that western food is very sweet whereas Bhutanese food is very salty. I agree with them to a point, I think a lot of western savoury food does contain unnecessary sugar and sweet things are often too sweet. However, they become very defensive when I point out that Bhutanese bread is incredibly sweet – you cannot get it without loads of sugar. Also, as a tea lover, Bhutan is a very challenging country for me. There are 2 sorts of tea: the first is ready made with milk and sugar. When I ask for black tea with no sugar they say, “Coffee?”
I say, “No, tea with no milk or sugar.” This is so strange that they always whisper something about coffee to someone in the kitchen and moments later I am presented with a cup of instant. The other type of tea is known as ‘suja’ or ‘butter tea’. It is often drunk at religious occasions and many Bhutanese like to drink it for breakfast. As the name suggests, it is tea which contains milk, butter and salt. They have been drinking it for centuries and it is very much part of the culture. I was recently at a formal meeting to congratulate the local education officer on his promotion to ‘dasho’.
He asked me, “What do you think of Bhutanese food?”
“Well Sir,” I replied. “I don’t really enjoy Suja.”
Seconds later an attendant silently proffered me a cup which I could not refuse. The Dasho laughed heartily and commented that a chillip (foreign) friend of his told him that Suja was by far the worst tea in the world. I’m glad he wasn’t offended, many people are though and I’ve found that it is often easier to take a small cup and try and pour it away discreetly rather than simply refusing it.

Fresh milk from the dairy next door.

BYO bottle.

In season
In the west, we are used to eating our favourite fruits and vegetables throughout the year. In Australia an apple hardly seems like a seasonal fruit at all. Shortly after arriving in Bhutan, I purchased a few apples and realised that I had paid $5 for a kilo. They later went up to $6 a kilo. That may not sound too excessive but that is half a day’s pay. Imagine working all day for only 2 kilos of apples! I cannot imagine who in Bhutan can afford them at that price.

Suitcase of food supplies from the capital.

Some like it hot
Of course, I cannot write a post about Bhutanese food without mentioning chilli. I don’t know when the chilli arrived in Bhutan but it is very much part of the culture. They are eaten as a vegetable rather than as a condiment and so most dishes are best described as ‘fiery’. I like a bit of chilli myself but I literally could not stomach the amount of chillies a typical Bhutanese eats. Our kids would always complain if I put the slightest hint of chilli in our food back in Australia. Now they are so used to it that they even sprinkle it on popcorn.

Rice, Rice and more rice
The Bhutanese love their rice and a typical meal contains about 3 times the amount of rice I would normally eat. Many eat rice with just about every meal - it makes sense, it is cheap, it grows locally and it fills you up. I’m not sure how healthy the diet is and I feel so sorry for the boarding students at the school who are served almost identical meals day after day.

Many teachers complain about the growing popularity of junk food with the students. The boarders often sneak over to one of the local general shops and buy Coke or packet noodles (eaten dry). Frankly, the teachers have barely seen the tip of the ice-berg and I think they would be shocked to see the abundance of junk food in the West. Very few students in Bhutan are overweight – sadly the same can no longer be said about their western counterparts.

My first attempt at making roti
Justine came across these photos recently on another blog and they really do make you stop and think. Just compare the American diet with the Bhutanese one. It may be a bit ‘samey’ but how much healthier is it? Also, Bhutanese farmers rarely use pesticides so the typical Bhutanese diet is also organic and of course uses a lot less packaging.

This Bhutanese family spends about $5 a week on food (they must grow a lot of their own produce).

This American family spends $365 a week on food

I have virtually no will power when it comes to food and I love all the stuff that is bad for me. But I hope when I return to the west that I bring some of my Bhutanese ways with me – I think I’ll feel a lot healthier if I do.

My bread made with local buckwheat flour.