Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Carnival is Over

Mouse Tally: 85 (sorry, make that 86) I’m not kidding, as I write this post, a mouse has been running around our living room and into our bedroom (why does it go in there? We don’t eat in there, there aren’t any tasty crumbs). (I use the word ‘there’ a lot don’t I!)

I felt it was mocking me with its constant forays back and forth ignoring my trap. But, the aroma of peanut butter must have become too beguiling for the little critter and it finally stuck its tiny head in the trap. When my rodent friends die at night, I leave them out on the balcony railing ready to feed to Fido in the morning. But the last time it happened I awoke to find that a creature of the night had spirited poor Mickey away. I wonder if this one will be there when I check tomorrow.

Interesting fact: This one isn’t from a guide book; it’s from my own experience. Astrology is a big deal in this country and people regularly consult astrologists before making any major decisions. Thomas has a friend called Galley. His astrologer told his mother that he must avoid travel in 2014. So, for the whole year, Galley cannot travel more than one kilometre in any direction from the school. Imagine having such a restricted life for a whole year. He told me that the same thing will happen in 2018. I told him to make sure he is living somewhere very interesting before the travel restrictions apply again.

My school Chumey MSS has just played host to a three-day ‘sports meet’. It wasn’t athletics but sports such as basketball, volleyball, badminton and – the toughest sport of all...... chess.

The tournament involved 7 schools from the Dzonkhag (region) and of course Chumey, as host, had lots of preparations to sort out. At a meeting to discuss what needed to be done, I said, “How about we dig up some of those large rocks in the football field as they are rather dangerous.” I was greeted by looks of bemusement but for once my crazy suggestion was accepted and a huge group of students and teachers were dispatched to the football field to remove the aforementioned rocks. Now I’m not talking little pebbles, I’m talking rocks so big that you can’t pick them up single-handedly. For some reason, this heavy-lifting was mostly left to the girl students who cleverly rolled the rocks onto sturdy sacks and carted them off with a girl at each corner. 
One of the smaller rocks being removed

Now, I really think that the school would benefit from investing in a wheel-barrow. In fact, despite this being an agricultural area, I have not seen one wheel-barrow yet. As usual, I digress but I’ve seen loads of workers doing back-breaking work carrying sack after sack of stones or soil on their backs and I think – why don’t they have a wheel-barrow? To be fair, I’ve seen a couple of home-made attempts and they honestly look like something from med-evil days.

On a lack of equipment note, the school has only one working pick to dig out the rocks, so progress was very slow. To cut the grass on the football field, they get the school kids to bring in sickles – another back-breaking job. I suggested that the school try to get hold of a push-lawnmower but I don’t think that will happen any time soon.
Marking the muddy field with sawdust

Anyway, back to the carnival. The students began arriving on the Thursday evening. Their accommodation was empty classrooms. And the escort teachers had to bunk down with the kids. Bathing was available at the ‘hostel’, 10 minutes walk away up a steep hill, I wonder if anyone bothered.

Right now it is monsoon season. It doesn’t rain all of the time – just a lot of the time. Basically, if it is sunny in the morning, it will rain in the afternoon. If it is raining in the morning, it will be sunny in the afternoon. We were lucky for most of the carnival, the rain tended to come after the close of play..... but not always. When it did rain, (and it rained heavily) the umpires carried on because who knows how long the rain will last for. If you stop and wait for it to finish, you might never get through the schedule of events.

Basketball game in action

One of my other crazy suggestions was that we put on some sort of entertainment for the athletes in the evenings, a quiz or a movie night. That idea was shot down in flames. I was told that such an activity would only lead to trouble. I tried to retort but their reasoning was so far removed from logic and common sense that I was speechless.

Moving on. I, as an all-round athlete, still in my prime was put in charge of chess. I ran a chess club every evening and lunchtime for a few weeks to select the players and give them a chance to practise. I can’t say I coached the players because they were high-school kids and they often beat me, so I didn’t really feel in any position to give them advice. It was quite a nice club to run because if there was ever a spare player, I’d have a game against them myself. Having played a few games now for the first time in a long time, I think the secret of chess is not making any dumb moves. Obviously a good player will always beat a poor player but so many times I have lost because I simply didn’t notice that someone could take my queen with their pawn or something else equally dumb.

Boys junior chess, a boy spectates through broken window

You’d think chess would be quite a sedate affair but when a certain pair of girls had to play one another in a high-stakes game, the insults flew. I of course intervened and told them to zip it but after a few minutes it would start up again. In the end I had to sit with them the entire time simply to keep the peace. Of course, I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying to each other but I could tell it wasn’t pretty.

Amelie making an extra chess board

As I’m sure you know, one of the great joys of sports carnivals is the food. Of course, there were no sausage sizzles at this event. One of the most popular snacks was chilli chops. It is simply a large chilli dipped in a flour batter and deep fried. I wasn’t very keen to try one but after a bit of gentle coaxing I relented. Actually they weren’t bad at all. By the end of the carnival I’d eaten about half a dozen. 

A truckload of chillies....
Made into 'Chilli Chops'

Mmmm, spicy

Justine did her bit by cooking a truck load of biscuits for the school canteen which I’m happy to say sold out quickly. We’re actually very privileged to own a small electric oven and guests always comment on it when they visit. Needless to say, we have had many people offering to buy the oven from us when we leave.

The three days seemed to fly by and there was a palpable rise in the general level of happiness at the school. Apparently there will be a ‘Monsoon Football Tournament’ at the school in a few weeks time. That should be fun.
Chess champion takes a well earned rest

My certificate for services to chess!

Oh my God, I really am telling the truth, another mouse has just met its maker in the same trap only 30 minutes after the last little fellah. The tally is now officially 87. Time for bed.

Monday, 11 August 2014

No Telly Again

Mouse tally 85.

I’m in a bad mood!
But Paul, you’re living in Shangri-la, how could anything every upset you?
Well, nothing major has happened, we’re all well, apart from Justine’s infected flea bites. No, it’s simply an accumulation of small things that are getting on my wick.

Firstly, when the Divers first arrived in Thimphu, we bought 6 footballs and 6 basketballs for the school as we were told that the schools are poorly equipped. I decided that the kids could win a basketball in an easy competition – all they have to do is read the school newspaper (that my UNESCO Club writes) and then answer a few simple questions. I expected to be inundated with entries but thus far I have received five. I honestly felt like taking the basketball out in front of the whole school at assembly and sticking a nail in it to show my frustration. Thankfully, I decided that would be highly inappropriate and people might regard me as a bit mad if I did that – so I’ll issue the prize to one of the lucky five and that will be the end of it.

The other thing that’s annoying me is my lack of T.V. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a T.V. addict. I hardly miss telly at all. I’d just like to be able to watch the news now and again as I haven’t a clue what is going on in the world. We’d always had a rather fuzzy picture on the T.V and I just thought that was how it was for everyone. Thus I dutifully paid my monthly cable subscription even though the only channel I ever watched was CNN and that was often so bad that I could only listen to it.

Anyway, as regular readers will recall. Our T.V. got fried in a lightning storm and it cost me 2 weeks wages to get it fixed down in the capital Thimphu. When I got the T.V. back to Bumthang, CNN had disappeared and I only had about 9 channels – most of which are in Hindi. Needless to say I wasn’t impressed. Interestingly a new channel had appeared, it was the Chinese, English language news channel. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d love to visit China one day but I’m not sure I’m getting the most impartial news from a one-party-state. I assumed that this Chinese channel had replaced CNN; that was until I visited a friend down the road and saw her crystal clear telly picture. Then, when her husband flicked channels to CNN I got really curious. I asked her if she had satellite T.V and she said, ‘no’; she has the same basic cable package that I have. She offered to ring the ‘cable guy’ and ask him to look at my T.V. He said he would come the next day – but he never came. She rang again and got the same broken promise. I tried ringing him but he doesn’t speak English. Nonetheless, I tried ringing again but he kept rejecting my calls.

Then, last Sunday. I was at the same friend’s house and the cable guy came to collect his monthly fee. I of course asked my friend to ask him to come and fix my T.V. He said he had a few more calls to make and that he would be at my house within the hour. I of course raced home expectantly....... but he didn’t come. I tried ringing..... but he rejected my calls.

When I tell my colleagues about this – they tell me that I mustn’t pay my monthly fee until it’s fixed. I point out that I’m not worried about the monthly fee – I just want to be able to watch the news now and again. I mean, it’s embarrassing. One colleague engaged me in conversation about the Malaysian Airlines plane that was shot down.... and I hadn’t a clue what he was on about.

Anyway, there’s nothing like a good vent...... I feel better already.

Totally random photo, had to be taken. It was on a toilet door in a restaurant in Thimphu!

Holiday in the East - Part II

Mouse tally 82 - no good stories I’m afraid. It’s creatures of a smaller variety that are giving us trouble at the moment - fleas! Yes, our house is made of untreated pine and the fleas just love it. For some reason, they much prefer biting Justine to Yours Truly and she’s been on a bit of a mission to get rid of them. She began by spraying Mortein around but that had little or no effect and we weren’t too happy about repeatedly breathing in those fumes. Having consulted the internet, we’ve found that the best approach is to vacuum every 2 days to suck up the eggs and stop the breeding cycle. Justine also mops the floors with disinfectant and has water traps around the house to try to capture the blighters at night. It helps to control them but it does not eradicate them. We suspect that birds in the roof may bring a constant supply of new fleas to replace the ones we kill. Oh well, at least when it starts to get really cold again we should be ok. Ho Hum.

This post is (the long overdue) part 2 of my recount of our holiday travels.
It was sad to bid farewell to my fellow teachers with whom we had spent the last 5 days and also trekked together to the monastery. They were heading off to Lhuentse to visit a fellow teacher named Keith, then on to do a trek in Tang, Bumthang. The Diver’s decided that poor Keith would have enough trouble contending with his car load of visitors without having to deal with the stress of 3 noisy kids plus mum and dad in the house. 

A fellow teacher, Ash very kindly invited us to stay at her place in Trashiyangtse. Although the East of Bhutan is generally even hillier than the West, Trashiyangste is a delightful village; it has a proper centre with several residential streets that radiate out from it. The village is also home to Chortern Kora which is a very large chortern (stupa). Built in 1740, it is an imperfect copy of the Bodhnath Chortern in Kathmandu that many Bhutanese used to make the long and arduous pilgrimage to. The story is that a lama named Ngawang wanted to make a copy of the Kathmandu chortern to save the Bhutanese the difficulty of travelling such a long distance, he also needed a chortern to subdue the local spirits. He got someone to make a copy of Bodhnath Chortern by carving it into a radish. Sadly, by the time Ngawang had travelled back from Kathmandu to Trashiyangste, the radish had shrivelled somewhat and that is why it is not an exact replica. On a more sinister note, when the chortern was built, a girl from India was sacrificed (buried alive) inside it to appease a local demon. 

The chortern is in a beautiful location, very close to the centre of Trashiyangste and people come from far and wide to pray, turn the prayer wheels or simply walk around it. Buddhists believe that such acts build up merit that will help them to have success and happiness when they are re-born. Reincarnation is a firm belief in Bhutan and people talk of it as fact rather than faith.

Students fighting crime on the mean streets of Trashiyangtse!

On one trip to the chortern I saw loads of fire-flies. Everyone I was with had seen them many times before and couldn’t quite understand why I was so excited to see these little creatures with glowing bottoms – but for me it felt like I could cross that simple sight off my bucket list.

After 3 nights it was time to bid farewell to Ash and head back to Trashigang. Trashigang is a very pretty town but we had difficulty finding a good place to eat. Seriously Bhutan, isn’t it time you started putting a menu outside your restaurants so that passers-by know what food you serve! Every time you want to eat a meal you have to go inside and ask what they have. A restaurant may serve something fantastic and we foreigners wouldn’t know about it because we don’t know what to ask for. Hey, at least they served food (unlike the restaurants in Chumey) so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.

Staying at the hotel in Trashigang, I felt I was in that movie – The Shining. We were the only people staying at this very large hotel. At night, all the staff left and we had the whole hotel to ourselves – luckily Johnny never showed up. There were no other guests because it is the monsoon season but we were quite fortunate with the weather most of the time. 

We took a day trip to Ranjung to visit fellow Aussie teacher, Travis. Travis took us on a botanical tour before the kids enjoyed an icy dip in the river.

After 2 nights it was time to head back on the long journey home. We were incredibly fortunate to get 5 seats on the bus because we were initially told that there would be no seats available for the next 4 days. The ticket seller very kindly phoned someone who had bought tickets and asked him if he would postpone his journey – and he very kindly let us have his tickets. How many other countries would something like that happen in?

The journey back was long and hot, and the bus had about double the legal number of passengers. We were all cramped like sardines with luggage and vegetables covering every square inch of the bus – but whenever someone tried to flag the bus down, he would let them onboard and we would all squeeze up even more.  Needless to say I was very pleased to finally arrive back in Bumthang.

We needed to do some food shopping, so we stayed at a hotel in Chamkar. We had arranged to meet our fellow teachers that we had trekked with to the monastery and it was great to see them again. They were all enjoying a very tasty pizza when we found them and after days of fried rice it was great to finally eat something a little more Western.

At the hotel I got talking to a fellow Englishman (Mark). He has a maths degree from Cambridge University and he was just about to begin teaching English at a nearby monastery. He was a little anxious about his teaching conditions and told me that he didn’t think his classroom even had a blackboard.

The following day the whole gang of teachers came to stay at our house and our washing machine was much in demand. Listening to the teachers talk about their living conditions, I realised how lucky we are with our ‘Western luxuries.’ One teacher – Mack – doesn’t even have running water and has to fill buckets from a tap 10 minutes walk away. Mack is able to do the Rubik’s cube (something I have never been able to do) – hey, he teaches maths, of course he can do the Rubik’s cube! He began coaching me and by the time he left I could do two layers. I really wish he could have stayed another day to show me how to do the whole cube but maybe I could find out from You Tube or something.

All too soon it was time to bid our fond farewells to our fellow teachers. I didn’t envy them the long journey back east to places beyond Trashigang. It was nice to finally be back ‘home’ and simply lounge around and read books. I really have been reading a lot of books in Bhutan. I guess that it the upside of having a T.V. with such a poor signal that it is almost unwatchable – but that’s another story.