Monday, 22 September 2014

The long and the short of it

Just a quick one. Long hair is extremely frowned upon at our school; frankly it isn’t tolerated in the least. The Principal regularly talks at assembly on the evils of trendy haircuts and mocks the current trend to try and emulate the Korean singers and actors that are extremely popular with young Bhutanese.

Any student deemed to be getting a little on the long side is quickly sent to the designated teacher or a trusted student to be shorn back into uniformity. I took this photograph on the deck outside my classroom. Although it’s not greatly lit, I just love the expressions on everyone’s faces – it really was a funny five minutes and I think this picture captures those fleeting moments.

The following day the students were getting their own back. Justine walked closer, thinking they must have been picking out head lice. Only to discover, they were plucking the grey hairs out of their teacher's hair! 

Book, Book, Book! (What did the chicken say when he went into the library?)

Mouse tally: 94, the peanut butter (bait) was a bit old and so I was surprised to find a furry friend when we returned from our trip (see below). We’ve stocked up on peanut butter again and I expect to reach the century in the next few weeks.

The Divers have just returned from one of our regular trips to Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Regular readers will know, I have to go now and again to get my eye examined (a slight improvement on last time). The other reason for going was to buy some much needed books for the junior school library. There was no budget for books at all this year and many of the books are falling apart from repeated use.

We were very lucky because my friend and former colleague Elizabeth Turrell from Cudgen School in NSW offered to do a fund raiser in Australia to help Chumey School in Bhutan. Liz organised a school pancake day with strawberries and chocolate as toppings and very generously bought all the ingredients herself. This initiative alone raised around $280. Also, Justine was given $500 from one of her many schemes and she kindly donated the money to the library giving us $780 to buy books. That money goes a long way in Bhutan as books are specially priced here. In total we bought 280 books – that will really make a huge difference to the students here and it is nice to again have some new books that they will be really keen to read.

In October, we are going to organise a Chumey Reading Challenge in which students will be encouraged to read books at their level – we’ve kept a few books aside as prizes plus some games of Uno and Chess.

This has got to be a Dutch person's car

Just to go off at a tangent. We love going to Thimphu now and again as it gives us the opportunity to go out for dinner (the restaurants there really do serve food – unlike the ones in our village) and personally, I was desperate to buy another bottle of the extremely pricey (but oh so yummy) Kikkoman soy sauce (equivalent to about two thirds of a day’s pay for one bottle). What I find very strange about Thimphu (the nation’s capital) is that there doesn’t seem to be many street names. Directions are given in the form of e.g. “Walk past the Ambient Cafe, turn right at the policeman who directs traffic and the shop is on the left hand side. That’s fine as long as you’re near to the centre but it gets tricky once you go further afield. A Japanese friend invited us to dinner at her house and the taxi driver didn’t have a clue how to get there. We had to call her from the taxi and she somehow managed to explain to our confused driver. 

Country bumpkins enjoying dinner out and city lights
Incidentally, our hostess (Kimi) recently cycled from Bumthang to Thimphu in 16 hours in the Tour of the Dragon race. It’s about 270km and needless to say it’s a bit hilly. Unfortunately, the worst stretch is very close to the end so I would just like to publicly acknowledge what a star Kimi is for finishing in such a good time.

Only in Bhutan would you find a shop dedicated to monk wear

Only in Bhutan would you find chillies drying on every street corner

Did I ever mention before that Bhutan has no traffic lights? At the one big intersection in Thimphu they put some in but nobody liked them so they removed them and re-instated the traffic policeman and he has become quite a tourist attraction.
Another great thing to do in Thimphu is go to the post office and buy some stamps with your own photograph on them. You can either bring your own photo or they will take one of you. We chose to have them photograph us in a family shot and now we have a highly exclusive set of stamps that we are a little reluctant to use on postcards. Justine doesn’t like to admit it but she is a closet stamp collector and I think she wants to put all the stamps into her album.

Our family stamp

Memorial Chorten in Thimphu
Of course, any trip to Thimphu involves a very long bus journey – it usually takes about 11 hours as you usually get caught by at least one road block and have to wait while they work on road widening or clearing the road after a landslide caused by heavy rainfall. The monsoon season has just about finished (next Tuesday is known as Blessed Rainy Day) and officially marks the end of the rainy season. So it’s a great time for just looking out of the bus window as you drive slowly along the winding roads. Most people consider Autumn to be the best time in Bhutan as it’s not too cold and the views are at their most spectacular with verdant fields, vivid blue skies and lots of fluffy white clouds.

Loading up the bus
Another great thing that we did was buy a nice loaf of brown bread at a Seasons pizza restaurant in Thimphu. It’s funny how you can take bread for granted in the West but the only bread we can buy in Chumey is sugary white stuff that doesn’t taste nice at all. I felt like Charlie Bucket staring at that loaf of bread and it was such a treat to finally get home and eat it toasted with butter, Marmite (specially imported from England) and eggs on top. Happy Days! 

Drying meat out the front of our bus lunch stop, we all ordered the vegetarian option and really appreciated eggs on toast for dinner!

Chamkar, Jakar, Chakhar

Mouse tally: 93, another one bit the dust

Chamkar, Jakar, Chakhar
This is our nearest town and confusingly is known by any of the above names. After our day in Ura we spent the night at a hotel in Chamkar, and in the morning decided to go and explore some of the sights on foot. Bumthang is the cultural heart of Bhutan and there are loads of historic temples and monasteries to visit.

There is a famous story you often hear in Bhutan about the Tibetan king Songsten Gampo who was about to marry a Chinese princess called Wencheng in 641. Her dowry included a priceless Buddha statue. As the statue was being moved it became stuck in the mud and nobody could move it. The princess claimed that the problem was caused by a huge demoness lying on her back (by huge I mean when she lay down she was spread across Tibet and Bhutan).

In 659 the King decided to build 108 temples in one day to subdue the demoness and at the same time convert the Tibetans to Buddhism. This raises a few questions of course:
1) Did he ever doubt his fiancée, even for a minute?
2) Why did he wait 18 years to start building the temples? 
3) How did he manage to build them all in one day?
4) Is that statue still stuck in the mud?
Amelie, Justine, Lois and our Japanese friend Mami
Jampey Lhakhang
There are so many temples in Bhutan that you can start to mix them up in your memory, but this one really stands out. It is one of only a few in Bhutan that was built in that one day in 659. The temple was also visited by Guru Rinpoche (the reincarnation of Buddha) and it is said that he hid treasures in a lake beneath the temple.

In October Jampey Lhakhang plays host to a famous ‘treasure dance’ better known as the naked dance – the dancers are men only I’m afraid. It starts at midnight and (sorry ladies) no cameras are allowed.
Look out for the little old man climbing the steps

The view from Jampey Lakhang across to Kurjey Lakhang
Kurjey Lhakhang
Just a short walk from Jampey is Kurjey Lhakhang – of course it too has its own story – and it’s a good one!  In 746 the King of Bumthang was at war with a rival king called Naochhe (Big Nose). When Big Nose killed the King’s son, the King became so upset that he (curiously) desecrated the abode of the chief deity of Bumthang who took revenge by sapping the King’s life force, nearly killing him. Guru Rinpoche was invited to fix the problem and he turned himself into a Garuda to subdue the deity who had earlier turned himself into a snow lion. Not only did Guru Rinpoche save the king but he also converted all the rival kings to Buddhism and restored the country to peace. Not a bad day’s work.

With monsoon season, we were dodging puddles and cows

The walk to Kurjey Lakhang
 That’s quite a lot of history in a relatively small space and you can easily walk from one Lhakhang to the other. Sadly, you aren’t allowed to take photographs inside the most holy parts of monasteries and temples but I was allowed to take these few shots.

Kurjey is also home to Bhutan’s holiest water and pilgrims come from far and wide to fill up their containers.

Friday, 19 September 2014

There’s a bat in mi kitchin!

Mouse Tally: 92, It’s been that way for ages now. To be fair, I haven’t seen any mice scurrying around. I’m sure they’ll be back once the weather turns cold again.

Yes, it’s curious what you find in your kitchen in Bhutan. A few days ago I went into the kitchen at about 8.30pm to make a cup of tea, there was a bat flying around. It hadn’t come in through an open door or window – none were open. No, it had come in through one of the many holes in the roof/ceiling. I thought it was quite funny but then Justine pointed out that bats carry all sorts of deadly diseases – rabies being the most well known – so we opened the front door and thankfully out it flew.

A couple of days later, I was in the kitchen again and the kids had gone out and the front door was closed but not bolted. Anyway, I heart soft footsteps and looked around and saw two monks had walked into my house. I asked, “Can I help you?” but they didn’t answer. Instead, they had a bit more of a look around, one went to open the living-room door but then seemed to change his mind. Then they simply walked out of my house. They didn’t say a word to me; in fact they didn’t seem to register my presence at all. They certainly didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed.

Incidentally, the reason the front door wasn’t locked is because in Bhutanese houses they don’t use ‘Yale’ type door locks that slam shut. Instead every door has a bracket for a bolt and a padlock on both sides. So if one person leaves the house, someone else inside has to bolt the door behind them. A bit inconvenient if you are getting up early but nobody else wants to. Also, if someone felt like it, they could simply bolt the door from the outside while you are inside your house. I’ve not heard of it happening, so that just shows what a nice bunch of people the Bhutanese are.

Staying with monks – they are everywhere in Bhutan. Our landlady who owns the block of apartments that our flat is in, just had the building blessed. It was quite a big deal, apparently 200 people came on the day of the blessing and they all had to be fed. On the night before the main blessing ceremony I had just tucked the kids up in bed when there was a knock on the door. Our neighbour told us that monks wearing scary masks and carrying burning torches wanted to come in and chase away the demons from our house. Now, luckily the kids were still awake and I was able to explain to them what was about to happen. Imagine if you were woken from your slumber to see some monstrous figure waving a burning torch in your bedroom – well, they could end up in therapy for months!

Monks chasing away any lurking demons in our building

There's a lhama in my living room

Not so scary after all

Celebrations the following day

Justine gets into the traditional groove

Watch and learn

Our building brightly festooned

Flags guide the path

One last dance

A Fungi to be with

Mouse tally:  92
I’ve not seen too many of our furry friends lately but I’m still confident I’ll reach my century before Christmas.

I’ve mentioned before my regular walks through the woods every now and again to try to find the blockage in the pipe that supplies our house with water from the mountain stream. It’s one of life’s little ironies that when it rains heavily we end up with no water. Anyway, on my mountain treks I have been taking plastic containers with me and I collect berries as I go. First there were wild strawberries and then when they finished the raspberries kicked in. Now, there is also an abundance of mushrooms.  I’ve trekked with locals who cheerfully pick them and I happily pick some for them, but I’ve never been game to try eating any myself on account of not wishing to die a horrible and painful death. I do feel a bit sad about it though, I happily remember picking field mushrooms in Ireland at my cousins’ house and frying them up for breakfast. And let’s be honest, our diet is a bit limited here, some wild mushrooms could really liven things up a bit.

So, when a friend mentioned the mushroom festival in Ura we jumped at the chance. Ura is about 90minutes drive from our place and we’d heard it is very beautiful but even colder than chilly Chumey as it is in the highest of Bumthang’s inhabited valleys at an altitude of 3400metres.

When we got there, the first thing I noticed (apart from the chillier temperature) was the abundance of berries. There is a type of orange raspberry that grows on bushes round these parts. They’re immediately picked clean in Chumey but in Ura they were in great supply. I wished I had brought one of my plastic tubs with me.
Raspberry picking
We had been told the festival was very popular with Japanese because you can buy the Matsutake mushrooms there which are highly prized and ridiculously over-priced in Japan. Before we went inside the main festival area we took a stroll along the road to check out the toy stalls. These are a mainstay of all Bhutanese festivals and feature lots of cheap, fragile toys that might just last for a day. There always seems to be loads of boys running around with plastic guns that fire little yellow bullets.

Worshiping at the temple of cheap toys

The main drag
Once inside I saw that the stalls were arranged on 3 sides of a square with the fourth side being reserved for VIPs who could watch the proceedings in comfort. Justine and the girls went ahead while I was waylaid by a Japanese TV crew who wanted to film Thomas and my friend Mark eating mushrooms. Once that was done, I found the girls had been invited into the VIP area and were happily tucking into the food that had been prepared for the honoured guests. A very distinguished looking gentleman invited me to join the gang and help myself to some food – who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch!

Amelie and 'the sword'
I took my place next to Amelie who was seated next to a fine sword that I presume belonged to the afore-mentioned distinguished gentleman. All high-ranking officials in Bhutan carry a sword as a symbol of their authority and are expected to wear it on all official business. You can also tell just how important a person is by the colour of their ‘kepney’ (scarf).  Us ordinary folk wear a white one on official occasions, if you reach a certain status (through promotion) you get one that’s white with red stripes and it goes on. Top officials wear orange whilst yellow kepneys are reserved for royalty only.

Was that one or two fungi??
Interestingly at a mushroom festival, the lunch did not feature mushrooms. Not to worry I thought because my friend Mark told me that he’d just bumped into the landlord of the hotel we would be staying at, and he told Mark that he’d bought a big bag of mushrooms and we’d be eating them for dinner that night. The mushrooms were pretty expensive at the festival so I thought that there would be no need to buy them if I’d be eating them for dinner. Mark – who is teaching at a monastery bought some for the monks and paid Nu1000 for a kilogram. Now that’s about $20 which doesn’t sound too bad but that’s about one and a half days wages for a teacher. When my Japanese friend Mami told me that in Japan people pay up to $200 per kilo for the same mushrooms it all seemed rather relative.

Dance performance by local school girls

Thomas with the local MP, check out the boots!
 Now, Ura festival isn’t in the village itself but up on the hill above. We took the opportunity to head into the village for a snoop around but unsurprisingly we discovered a ghost town as all the locals were at the festival. Even the monastery was locked up and deserted – not even a caretaker. I respectfully waited outside but my unruly children climbed over the wall and had great fun ringing the monastery bell.

The purple tree climbers

Thomas spins the prayer wheels

Are you going the right way Lois?

Amelie in Ura village

All too soon it was time to head back to Chamkhar for our night at a hotel with exotic mushrooms for dinner. But alas when we sat down for dinner we were served local river fish; there wasn’t a fungi insight. Still, the fish was delicious and they even served a few chips to go with them. A great end to another great day in Bhutan!

Lois tries to tempt Yasu with some plastic poo!

Thomas looks a little more interested but he decides to wait for the fish.