Sunday, 21 December 2014

Kitchu and Punakha

After Phobjikha we headed off for some Western luxury at the Kichu Resort. We’d stayed there at the start of the year with all the BCF teachers as we were being deployed from Thimphu. It certainly gave me a sense of having come full-circle and made me ponder on the year that has been.

It also vividly illustrates just how altitude affects climate. At 2900m, Chumey, Bumthang is already quite cold and you certainly need to rug-up in the evening. Kichu was warm and sunny and a t-shirt would suffice for most of the day.
Now Kichu resort is very close to the village of Nobding which is famous for its er.......(how can I say this politely) pictures of nobs! The phallus is a good-luck symbol in many Buddhist countries and particularly so in Bhutan. There was a Tibetan Monk called Drukpa Kinley (also known as the Divine Madman) who visited Bhutan centuries ago. He was famed for his particular brand of anarchic wisdom.  He was able to perform all sorts of miracles and spent much of his time bedding women, drinking chang (wine) and subduing demons with his ‘thunderbolt’. One theory for the popularity of the phallus in Bhutanese culture is that Drukpa Kinley used his thunderbolt to perform miracles. Thus many people paint phalluses on their houses or have wooden phallus sculptures adorning their homes to ward off evil.

Kichu Resort is very close to Samtengang where Vicky and Ian (fellow BCF teachers from Australia) live. We have visited them before and they always overwhelm us with their generous hospitality and great home cooking. I’ve blogged before about the village of rammed earth houses near their home and it was great to be able to visit once again – this time with the in-laws. A particular highlight of this visit was when a bunch of women who were ‘ramming’ the wall of a house under construction invited Justine’s stepfather (also Ian) to come and join them. He happily joined in – much to their delight. You get the impression that life may be tough in the village, but everyone seems to be busy and there is a tremendous community spirit that seems to make it a very special place indeed.

Justine poses before a rammed earth house under construction

Ian joins the ladies for some ramming

another lady in need of a wheelbarrow

Samtengang - boys having fun with simple home-made toys

Drying rice in Samtengang

Workers at Samtengang ready to begin fertilising

On Friday 12 December we headed off again for a one hour journey to the Meri Pusan Resort near Punakha. Our fellow BCF teacher Mackenzie, the youngest and tallest of our group met up with us for the day and it was great to spend some time again with him before he jetted off back to Alberta, Canada. He was a particular favourite with our kids and they always seemed to want to climb all over him – all three at the same time. Thanks to BCF, we now know several very nice Canadians dotted all over the country and Justine and I are already thinking how pleasant it would be to one day do a grand tour of Canada visiting our friends and colleagues along the way.

Justine and Mackenzie at the Yak Herders Camp

Robyn, Punakha Dzong
We had to visit Punakha Dzong one last time and of course it was the first time for Justine’s mum and stepfather. It is generally accepted to be Bhutan’s most beautiful dzong and it is a truly spectacular building. The main altar room is stunningly beautiful and one cannot help but be in awe of its tranquil grandeur. Mackenzie made me chuckle by bursting into a rendition of ‘Let Me See Your Dzong’. This prompted us to try and think of a few more western songs with a Bhutanese twist. We managed to come up with: ‘You’ve Gotta Gho Now’; Wake Me Up Before You Momo; and (my favourite) ‘Come On Baby Light My Bukari’.

The Divers at Punakha Dzong

The Divers and Robyn at Punakha Dzong

No interesting stories to tell about our accommodation at the Meri Pusan. It is a very nice resort and it was good to finally see a place with quite a few guests (so many hotels and resorts seem to be almost empty). I’d happily recommend the place to anyone travelling this way but again I make the point that such resorts are very pleasant and clean and the food is good but what you don’t get is an authentic feel and you don’t come away with any quirky, special memories. We have one more homestay booked in Haa. By then Justine’s brother Brendan will have arrived and we thought that he ought to experience a bit of genuine Bhutanese hospitality too.

Amelie on the bridge at Punakha Dzong

One story I forgot to mention earlier was that at our second homestay in Phobjikha, Justine told our kids to go and wash their hands once she saw dinner was being served. Our hostess quickly interjected that they didn’t need to wash their hands because she had spoons for us to use.

Now once again, I’d had a mild bout of tummy trouble and perhaps this is what so inspired my daughters to add to that illustrious body of work – the diarrhoea poem. You may remember from your younger days: “Some people think it’s funny, but it’s really brown and runny – Diarrhoea! Diarrhoea!

Well, Amelie in particular has been inspired to add to the genre and I end this blog post now with a few poems from her growing anthology. There was a little bit of help from Mum and Dad admittedly and I accept full responsibility for any crudity or slightly inappropriate language.

Once again I issue a warning:
Some adults will find the below poetry offensive but just about all kids will find it hilarious.

When you’ve been on the toilet all day
And all your friends have run away
Diarrhoea! Diarrhoea!

When you’re at the school dance
And there’s something smelly in your pants
Diarrhoea! Diarrhoea!

When you’re sitting on the bog
And it’s liquid not a log
Diarrhoea! Diarrhoea!

Is it solid? Is it gas?
No it’s liquid out your ass!
Diarrhoea! Diarrhoea!

Phobjikha Valley

On Monday 8 December, we headed off for the Phobjikha Valley. This is famous in Bhutan as the winter home of the Black Necked Cranes which migrate from Tibet. Justine (tour guide) organised a Bolero which is an Indian made 8 seater, off-road vehicle. Justine’s step-father Ian was particularly keen to see the cranes having recently watched a documentary on their awesome and perilous migration over the Himalayas to their winter feeding ground in Bhutan.

The Black Necked Cranes
Justine had arranged a farm stay for a little bit of an authentic feel and we were not to be disappointed. It’s hard to guess the age of Bhutanese architecture but the 4 storey house that we stayed in was at least 100 years old. Downstairs was for storage only (potatoes) and I suspect the risk of flooding would be one reason for this. We climbed up to the living quarters via a perilous (that word again) cross between a flight of stairs and a ladder.

Our taxi took us to a rendezvous point and our host farmer met us with a tractor and trailer to carry all our bags to his home which does not even have a dirt road serving it. Of course, this was all part of the adventure for us and we enjoyed the short walk in the chilly beauty as we arrived just before dusk.

Taking our luggage from the car to the trailer
The Farm Stay

Steps or ladder?

Our hosts couldn’t have been more attentive as they plied us with Arra (local moonshine) and tea. Their living room was warmed by a bukari but the windows had no glass only shutters. We could easily see the black necked cranes from the living room and their calls (like some sort of alien from Star Trek) were incredibly loud and continued on into the wee small hours.

Receiving a warm welcome around the bukari (no glass in the windows)
The valley is at about 3000metres and so is a little chilly. Our host’s nephew a delightful boy called Jigme told me that it is home to thousands of bears - and leopards ate all of their chickens! There are also barking deer sambar deer, serrow (a cross between a goat and an antelope) red panda, otters and wild boar.

Justine rugs up for the atmospheric shot

The entrance to Farm Stay No.1

Thomas leaps a mighty river in a single bound

Jigme helps Thomas improve his kuru (darts) technique

Amelie gets her feet wet

Amelie has lots of fun sliding down a hill on a wooden plank

I love photographing monks!

Lois gets on her bike

Amelie, Choki Wangmo and the chook

The kids and the bags set off to meet our taxi

Check out the target on the OTHER side of the road

Thomas and cat keeping warm

In the morning we were greeted by the loud distinctive calls of the Black Necked Cranes. Our host told us that this year there were little over 300 but in previous years there were more. One theory they posited is that leopards are taking them – the cranes are large birds that spends much of their time on the ground. So what is good news for the leopards may be bad news for the cranes. The Bhutanese tend to leave wildlife alone to sort out its own balance and the leopard is certainly not a common animal – I have met few people who claim to have seen one; so for once I will not give my two cent opinion.

What cannot be denied is the outstanding beauty of area which is a huge bowl-shaped glacial valley. I would strongly urge any visitor to Bhutan to visit the valley (crane season or not) as it is simply one of the most beautiful inland places I have ever visited. It called to mind documentaries I’ve seen on the Rift Valley in Africa and if I’d seen a zebra or a giraffe through my camera lens, I don’t think I would have been shocked.

Our farm stay already had a booking for the next night, and so we had to move to another farm stay for our second night. I was deeply moved when I learnt that the mother's first son was recognised as a reincarnation of a lama and taken away at the age of three years. This would be considered a tremendous honour but to effectively have one's child taken away from you would be unbearable.I recently read a book called ‘Tibet Tibet’ by Patrick French in which I learnt that lamas often make prophecies about where their next incarnation will be found. When a child is thought to be a possible reincarnation, monks visit the child with belongings of the deceased lama plus a few red herrings. They then see if the child recognises the items and can recall using them in his former life. If he does, then they consider the evidence before declaring him to be the true reincarnation. 

Now, not surprisingly this can lead to disputes, and in the past there have often been rival claims to the reincarnation of a particularly eminent lama. This has led to the acceptance of up to 3 reincarnations of one lama (mind, skin and spirit). I’m not sure if this is a genuine belief or a clever compromise but from what I have seen, Buddhism is a truly tolerant and peaceful religion/philosophy, and so I admire it for adapting rather than being mired in outdated dogma, unlike some other religions I shan’t mention.

The next morning we awoke to a frosty, winter wonderland. It had dropped to minus 4 degrees Celsius overnight – nothing too extreme but enough to make the valley look a very different place for a few hours until, by 9am, the frost had almost all disappeared.

After two days of farm stay we were ready to stay in a resort for a night, if nothing else than to have a hot shower. As a volunteer living in Bhutan for a year I know that I was involved in the lives of local people and altered them in some way – hopefully for the better. I regularly saw tourist vehicles whizzing past my school and I couldn’t help but wonder if they got a sense of the true Bhutan or just lived in a tourist bubble for 2 weeks. If anyone reading this is considering visiting Bhutan, I would strongly urge you to do some farm stay rather than simply stay at western style resorts for the entire duration. It may take you out of your comfort zone for a day or two but I am certain that they will be the memories that will endure.

Back on the road again

Sunday, 7 December 2014

A Year Teaching in Bhutan – my thoughts on some simple improvements

So what are my observations on teaching in Bhutan after a year? Well, I am conscious that this blog may be read by staff at the Bhutanese Ministry of Education so I hope you will take my comments positively.
1. Windows are not a luxury! I have taught for a year in a classroom with no heating and with several missing windows. I don’t think that even in a developing country such as Bhutan, children should have to put up with such conditions - in winter the snow blows in through the holes where the glass ought to be. This is not conducive to learning.

2. Please re-examine the policy on making students repeat a grade if they fail an exam. A teacher should be able to cope with a mixed ability class and young children shouldn’t have to suffer the stress and indignity of seeing their classmates move on whilst they stay behind. Children with learning difficulties need to be helped not punished.

3. There is a chronic problem with teacher laziness and absenteeism. Teachers routinely arrive late, leave early, play on their mobile phones instead of teaching, or simply don’t turn up to class at all. In the last few weeks of term, a very large number of my colleagues simply sat outside in the sun chatting away instead of teaching. Several told me that they had ‘finished teaching the curriculum’ and now it was down to the students to study by themselves. 

I’m not saying that this was only in the last few weeks of term; teacher absenteeism was a problem throughout the year and I simply despaired at the number of times classes were left unattended.  So please, give principals some real power to deal with this problem and give the teachers some in-service training to boost their enthusiasm and encourage them to see that they have incredibly important jobs and should do them to the best of their ability. If help and training doesn’t work then commence dismissal proceedings – don’t transfer them to another school where other students will suffer the same fate.

4. Working on Saturdays! We all have to go to school on a Saturday morning for maximum two teaching periods – I only taught one period on a Saturday. But, by the time we have had assembly and a possible meeting, half the day has gone. Please consider abolishing lessons on a Saturday; you could easily make up those 2 periods throughout Monday to Friday or by commencing the school year a few days earlier. The benefits to me are obvious. Everyone is fresher and more enthusiastic having had a full two-day weekend. Also, there is less need for teachers to go absent if they can get things done in town on a Saturday.

5. Put some creative arts into the curriculum. At present there are no creative arts in the curriculum. I used to teach art on a Saturday instead of English and my students loved it. (I was of course teaching Art in English so I don’t think they suffered too unduly). Students need creative arts to express themselves and explore their creativity. For many students, art is their one opportunity to shine and boost their self-esteem, without it they simply never experience success.

6. Focus on improving reading skills. From what I have seen, reading isn’t taught (in my school at least) in a very efficient way. Quite simply, PP (kindergarten) aren’t taught letter sound relationships. Instead they are taught to read each word by spelling it. If a typical young Australian sees the word ‘carpet’ for the first time, s/he would probably break it down and say ‘car-pet’. The same Bhutanese reader would probably get stuck and later be taught to say ‘c-a-r-p-e-t  - carpet.’  This is a highly inefficient way to teach reading and doesn’t equip young readers with the phonetic skills to cope with unfamiliar words.
Reading is the foundation of all learning and this situation must not be allowed to continue. I strongly urge that reading be made the number one focus for teacher training and that external reading specialists be consulted to design and implement a major reading in-service program. 

This needs to be ongoing training to teachers who are in a classroom setting so that they can implement their new ‘teaching reading techniques’ immediately and discuss their effectiveness when they go to their next training session. If you simply send teachers away for training and then send them back to school, there is the danger that they will quickly lapse back into their old, inefficient ways. 

The Bhutan government currently pays for many teachers to go to India and study for their Masters degrees. I would suggest this scheme has far less benefit to Bhutanese students than the training I am suggesting. 

Incidentally, I didn’t receive as much as one hour of teacher training during my year in Bhutan. Teacher training not only equips teachers with new skills; it also makes them more enthusiastic about their profession. Without ongoing training, teachers simply stagnate.
If anyone at the Ministry does read this, I hope you will take my suggestions positively and note that I have made suggestions that are not dependent on large sums of cash. I know that many of my volunteer colleagues echo many of my views.