Sunday, 30 November 2014

Spot the Dog

Mouse Count: 107, today was the first 'double mouse day' in months.

Now, I’ve often talked about the animals in Bhutan but the exotic ones tend to stay pretty well hidden, except for the monkeys which are often at the side of the road regarding us with curiosity as we cruise past on the bus. But don’t be disappointed dear reader, the more common ones provide plenty of story material some funny, some sad:

One of my colleagues recently bought a new car and so all of the school staff were invited to his house for a meal to celebrate the blessing of the car. I noticed that there were loads of cute, young puppies running around trying to suckle from their harassed mother. My colleague told me matter-of-factly that they would all die in the winter when there would be hardly any food around. That is typical of the attitude to animals here: they don’t hunt or slaughter animals but they rarely feel the need to intervene on their behalf either. I’m told that there is a charity that tries to neuter some of the street dogs, but clearly (as anyone who has visited Thimphu knows) there is still a long way to go with this initiative.

Judging by the expressions, this dog STANK!

Where I live in a small block of flats, there are 4 dogs with a clear pecking order. I’d always felt sorry for the 3rd and 4th dogs because 1 and 2 were so dominant.  But the other day I noticed that no.2 dog ‘Chalky’ is pregnant, so now I try and give her my food scraps, and yes, she love to gobble down mice as much as Fido. So I sincerely hope that she and her pups make it through the bitter winter.

Let sleeping dogs lie - a typical assembly scene

Now, something that continually amuses me here is the way that dogs just seem to be everywhere, particularly during school assembly. My favourite doggy memory is when the Principal was talking sternly to the students about their attitude to learning whilst a couple of dogs were mating loudly behind him. Once the act was over, the hapless couple were somehow stuck together and it took a good ten minutes of howling and carrying-on before they finally separated. I’m sorry to report that I didn’t have a camera with me that day.

However, I thought I’d illustrate this blog with photo-bombing pooches who weren’t necessarily the subject of the photos but nonetheless felt that the picture would be improved considerably by their presence. Now of course, it’s not just dogs that wander into places they oughtn’t. Please also look out for the cow that crashed the school awards ceremony.

A cow literally crashes the end-of-year awards ceremony
Photo-bombing dog, appeared in about 30 similar photos
Fleas glorious fleas

What's in a Name?

Mouse tally:104

When you first begin teaching in Bhutan, one of the biggest challenges is the names. Some students use one, others two and nowadays many students have three names. Now, if a student has 3 names e.g. Sonam Choki Dorji – you are supposed to use all 3. You can’t just call her Sonam.  Also, there are no ‘family names’ and so there are no clues as to who is related. It took weeks before I learned that 2 of the kids in my class are children of teachers at the school.

Moreover, the pool of names is quite a small one. Most people you meet simply have a different mix of the same few names. E.g. in my small class of 19 I have a Sonam Dorji, Ugyen Dorji, Pema Lhamo, Yeshi Lhamo (it goes on.) I actually have (by first name) 5 Sonams, 2 Pemas, 2 Kuenzangs. They are all a mixture of boys and girls too. It’s not easy to tell by someone’s name alone whether they are male or female but someone explained that the order of the names gives you a clue. Thus , Choki Dorji is always a boy, Pema Choki is always a girl and Pema Yangzom always a boy.

The only Lois and Amelie in the school, surrounded by Pema and Sonam
Another strange thing is that siblings often have the same first name. E.g. I teach Kinley (boy) and his sister (also Kinley) is in Year 10. I also teach a boy called Karma with a sister called Karma in class 2 and I teach a girl Sonam who has a sister also called Sonam in Class 5 and her Dad’s name is Sonam as well. Now, a child may have 3 names but surely Mum or Dad just shortens it to one when they want their child to come quickly. Maybe when Mum yells, ‘Sonam’ they all come running.

Pema Choki, Yeshi Lhamo and Amelie Jade

In Australia I’ve usually learnt most names after one day and all of them by the second. In Bhutan it took me almost 2 weeks to stop mixing everyone up.
Now, I’m told that parents don’t pick the names themselves – they take the newborn bub to a lama and he chooses. I asked my hostess Pema Choki (see High Society blog) how the lama chooses the names but she confessed that she didn’t know. She did tell me that some babies are named ‘on the spot’ whereas others have to return to discover their nomenclature. No one can explain why some people have only one name whilst others have 3 but I’m told that 3 names is becoming increasingly fashionable. This leaves the ‘single-namers’ such as Dawa, Tashi and Tenzhin appearing a little ‘under named’ and possibly feeling a tad old-fashioned.

Still, trends come and go and Tashi might once again be the height of fashion. Someone might even write a book about him! (or her).

My class of Pemas, Sonams, Kuenzangs and Ugyens.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Naked Dancing

Mouse count: 102, things definitely slowed down in recent months but I’m expecting a bit of an upturn now that it’s cooling down again.

Naked Dancing!!!!
Well, I bet that got your attention. (I wonder how many hits this post will get). It’s a nice time to be in Bhutan right now. The monsoon rains finished a few weeks ago and it won’t rain now until next summer. We’re left with deep blue skies and some of the most amazingly fluffy clouds I’ve ever seen. Now that the rain has stopped, the festivals have started up again and of course the tourists have returned. Curiously, most of the tourists I’ve met seem to come from Switzerland – I guess they’re here just to see if Bhutan really does look like their home country; by all accounts it does.

Well I thought you might enjoy some of the pictures I took at the local tsechus (festivals). Some are from Jakar which is our local big town and the administrative capital of Bumthang. This tsechu took place inside the dzong. The dzongs are ancient fortresses renovated and rebuilt throughout the ages having survived wars and earthquakes. They are still used for local government and also as monasteries. This tsechu was very crowded and there was little room for manoeuvre, so I’m quite pleased with the photos I took. They just seem to me to be a riot of colour, and the audience (all wearing ghos and kiras) is as colourful as the performers.

The other set of pictures are from our local tsetchu at Thakkar. This was a much more leisurely affair and we were able to sit and have a picnic whilst watching the masked dancing. Masked dancing is a mainstay of Bhutanese tsechus. There’s always a ‘joker’ character called Atsara who amuses the crowd brandishing a wooden phallus. They seem to take great delight in embarrassing female foreigners who almost invariably shriek and cower as he waves his wooden willy. I’m told that the phallus symbolises the accomplishment of wisdom by the dubthops (saintly beings) who once roamed the universe banishing evil by mocking worldly things.
Well, as the photos show, when Atsara started pointing Percy at Amelie and Lois; far from being intimidated, they just stood there having a right old giggle. I was very proud of them as I watched from a distance and I couldn’t help wondering if poor old Atsara felt he had met his match.

A festival for the monks...
...the ladies...
...the young...
...and the old!
Atsara failing to frighten Amelie and Lois


So what about the naked dancing? (I hear you ask). Well, last Wednesday (it was a full moon) Justine, Sarah (a Canadian teacher based in Trongsa) and yours truly headed off to Jambay Lakhang which you may remember from an earlier blog is one of the 107 monasteries built in one day to subdue a huge demoness. 

Now, here I must disappoint a few readers. Firstly, the naked dancers were all male and secondly, cameras were strictly forbidden. Having secured the services of a couple of baby sitters, the Divers were all set to paint the town red. This is a famous and very popular tsechu. Upon our arrival, the first thing we saw was a huge fire suspended on a frame. Brave members of the crowd were encouraged to walk underneath to receive a blessing. We were warned to avoid wearing any nylon type fabrics that may be flammable. We sensibly (though perhaps boringly) waited until the burning bushes had fallen to the ground and we could walk under the frame in relative safety.

That was about 9pm and the naked dancing wasn’t until 1am. It was also by far the coldest night so far of autumn; the ice on car windows clearly indicated that the temperature had dropped below zero. We wisely headed off in search of a warm tent and found a very pleasant ‘soft drink’ tent with a bukari (wooden stove) to keep us all nice and warm. Of course they also served beer but asked us to hide the bottles underneath the table in case a police officer came by. By and by, a police officer did come by and happily sat down close to the bukari and didn’t seem to care one jot about the fact that everyone inside was drinking beer.  It was only us chillips (foreigners) who were still bothering to try and hide our bottles.
As usual, we met loads of fun, friendly people and a small crowd of Bhutanese were soon buying us drinks. When we bought them some beer in return, they promptly heated it up to boiling  point on the bukari and insisted we try it (it was as awful as it sounds) and we politely declined their further offers of hot beer.

When 1am approached, we headed over to the site of the naked dancing. There was a large bonfire (well you’d want a bit of heat if you were dancing naked in sub-zero temperatures) and a very large crowd. The dancers appeared with their heads covered (but nothing else). Now, anyone expecting a cleverly choreographed, highly rehearsed routine would have been very disappointed. To my (admittedly untrained) eye, it looked like a bunch of naked guys who had just met, were jumping around a fire in a bid to keep warm; but hey what do I know!  I’m told that it is a deeply religious dance that dates back centuries. My principal told me that when one year they didn’t perform the naked dance, the village had all sorts of bad luck and harvests were very poor. 

Once the dancing commenced, the crowd surged forward and security had to brandish burning logs to get the crowd to behave in a more orderly manner. Once everyone had calmed down the dancing resumed and everyone seemed to be satisfied with the performance. Our friend and colleague Sarah, who had travelled all the way from the other side of Trongsa seemed very pleased with the performance but kept talking about hair for some reason. I’ve no idea why, I mean, their heads were completely covered!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

High Society

Mouse count still 100 - must put some more peanut butter in the traps.

A few weeks ago the nearby primary school – Zungye, had a picnic and they invited the teachers from Chumey School. No sooner had I arrived than I was introduced to a kindergarten boy named Jigme. I was really struck by his confidence and excellent English. He told me that his father was a lama (senior monk). I was surprised as I thought all Buddhist monks took a vow of celibacy (apart from lay monks). Well, it turns out that most do but a rare few are allowed to marry. I’m not sure how they are granted this privilege but I’m told that the monk can only marry every second re-incarnation, thus in his next life he’ll lead a more traditional monk’s life.

Children playing 'Up the Mountain'

Queuing for a blessing from the Rimpoche

It was only when Jigme’s father arrived and everyone queued up for a blessing that I realised how important the lama (known as a Rimpoche) must be. I was pleased to note that he wore a wide brimmed hat like us foreigners – most Bhutanese rarely wear hats except for a few farmers who still wear the traditional woven conical hat which is quite different to the ones worn by Chinese or Vietnamese farmers.

Enjoying the ambience

I was particularly impressed by the teachers at Zungye who took the time to entertain the children with vast ‘ring-o-roses’ type games, rather than just sit and leave the students to their own devices. It was a great day and the food was very tasty indeed. Just before we left one of the teachers (Pema Choki) came up to us and warmly thanked us for coming.
A couple of weeks later, we received an invitation to dinner at Pema Choki’s house along with a fellow Chumey teacher whose husband also teaches at Zungye. It was only then that we heard that the Rimpoche is the uncle of Her Majesty The Queen. We were understandably a little nervous and wondered what sort of protocol we would have to follow. Would I have to wear a gho? Bow, prostrate? As it turned out, the Rimpoche was travelling and we were told that our casual clothes would be just fine.

Big bird
Picnic food Bhutanese style

Boys being boys

Our hostess Pema Choki was just one of those people who makes you feel so incredibly relaxed in their beautiful home and was just so warm and friendly. Once again the food was delicious and in addition to the regular Bhutanese beer, there were several cans of German Beer (Bittburger). I was astonished to see such nice beer, I’d never seen it in any of the shops and Pema Choki kept urging me to have another one telling me that they were left over from the Royal Wedding.

Wow. I really did feel privileged. That is one of the wonderful things about Bhutan. You often meet people quite high up the social ladder and they are always very friendly and charming. In my time here, I’ve met several senior politicians including the Speaker of the House and they are always delightful. I recall that (shortly after my father died) I was having dinner with Nancy and friends. After the guests had left, I turned on the news and one of them was there being interviewed. 

Now, of course the Diver’s can’t go to a fancy shin-dig like that without embarrassing ourselves just a little. Lois (usually the last to crash at a party) seemed a bit out of sorts and to cut a long story short, ended up vomiting on the floor. Thankfully, she missed the rugs and it wasn’t such a job for me to wipe up the mess with paper napkins. It was a fantastic night and a memory the Divers (Lois excepted) shall treasure.