Sunday, 24 February 2013

Chillip meet Chamgang; Chamgang, Chillip

It’s a thirty minute taxi ride (costing about one dollar) from the capital, Thimphu, to our new house in the village of Chamgang. The outskirts of Thimphu themselves are fairly unlovely - a ramshackle network of construction sites and plumbing stores, open drains littered with chip packets and lolly wrappers, our esteemed leader's 'least favourite part of Bhutan'.  But once the road leaves the expressway and starts climbing into forests of blue pine, the dramatic peaks, views of the river below and narrow winding roads leave the feel of the city completely behind. 

The view from school

The first thing you see when you reach the village is Chamgang prison – Bhutan’s largest – and the feature for which the village is unfortunately best known. As the road sweeps up a series of switchbacks, you reach a clearing where the school and our house sits on a rocky ridge looking out over the valley. The house itself has great views over the mountains that make up the Western side of the Thimphu Valley including the giant Sakyamuni Buddha statue – one of the largest in the world – that sits elegant and serene on a ridge high above the suburbs of Thimphu. From our house, the prison is out of sight and it’s a short walk to the edge of a forest - juniper, rhododendron, spruce and pine and plenty of wild animals, including the eponymous Yak – stretching up towards the alpine plains that dominate the horizon behind the village. Last night, I watched the sun set over the mountains and there was a sweet stillness in the air and beautiful majesty to the mountains which reminded me of the time I spent living in a village in Nepal and all the reasons I love the Himalayas.

The library and science labs, Thimphu valley in the background

This morning we ventured into the forest and were surprised with how quiet and flat (!) the road is and how untouched the environment. The trees have a wonderful old world feel about them, in part due to the Bhutanese people’s respect for nature and the villagers’ practice of taking sparingly from the forest for firewood. We encountered several beautiful birds - pheasants, woodpeckers, cuckoos and robins and then stumbled upon some very handsome yaks munching on the undergrowth. Leopards, tigers, deer and Himalayan black bears also inhabit the forest, though we have yet to wrestle with any them in this snow bound winter season – although stories in the village of this happening do exist.

We've met the school principal and vice principal (aka 'VP') who are both down to earth and hospitable - and VP has even taken several afternoons out of this holidays to help us buy a bed and Bukhari (wood stove) for our house. We've had lots of interesting discussions with him about Bhutan’s rapid development over the last fifty years and the effects this has had on its society, culture and education system.

VP addressing the school for HM birthday celebrartions

Tshering Lopen, Sonam Lopen and Lucy Lec-Chu-Wa

He strikes me as a very dedicated and heartfelt man - with a bit of ambition in there as well. A while ago he became aware that due to its proximity to the jail, the school suffered from an image problem - and students (some of whom have moved to the village to be closer to their fathers who are in the prison) were being teased at inter school events for being the kids of jail birds. So he petitioned the ministry of education to have the school name changed from Chamgang LSS to Yangchen Gatshel LSS a name given to the school by a high lama which roughly translates as 'blessed land of the Goddess of Wisdom' - a name which surely arms its students with plenty of street cred on the football field.

What's a King's birthday without a few cultural items?
Despite my most ardent romantic whims, our house is not a beautiful Bhutanese farmhouse built of rammed earth and native hardwood (the villagers have a special song they sing when ramming the earth – just to imbue each brick with good vibrations). We have no titulary dieties or enormous hairy penises painted on our exterior walls (worst luck).  Instead we are living in a small concrete bungalow with two bedrooms and a kitchen, bathroom and toilet. Its walls have all the thermal properties of a sheet of glass and the carpenter had obviously drunk a few too many bowls of homebrewed arra when making the doors (probably during a long and boozy session with his mate the painter who seems to have done most of the painting blindfolded and using a mop).

Casa de Lurve...our digs..

But it’s a hell of a lot nicer than many places in Bhutan and despite my shameless first world whingeings we’re very lucky and have been making ourselves very comfortable. Our neighbours helped us dismantle and reassemble our malfunctioning bukhari, patching all the holes in the flue with mud so that we don’t die of smoke inhalation or drown in a sea of molten pine resin. Their down-to-earth generosity and willingness to help was amazing. I’ve also been banging nails into walls and doors all over the place to make wall hangings and storage spaces and am actually feel pretty competent as resident handyman compared the initial standards of construction – something that would NEVER happen back home. Lula has been making the most of Bhutan’s fantastic fabrics in getting curtains and doona covers made to order and last night a bunch of class five boys carried over two science benches for us to use in our kitchen which had previously had no furniture or benches to speak of. Score!

Firing up the Bukhari!

The neighbours

Our neighbours are friendly, loud and completely unabashed. The first one I met was the nextdoor neighbour’s two year old daughter who when I first arrived was standing outside her wooden house, pants around her knees and bum in the air, grinning like a maniac with her broken piano tooth smile, holding a twelve-inch machete in both hands and happily whacking a notch in her parent’s front porch. It was a golden village moment and made me glad to be here. So in conclusion,  it’s a pleasure to go to bed to the sounds of our neighbours chatting, arguing, watching WWF wrestling or laughing uproariously about something and to feel like we’re part of the (sometimes dysfunctional but always unfailingly inspiring) village. 

Resident adorable puppy - and food disposal unit

Next door neighbour and landlady's house (replete with giant phallus)


1 comment:

  1. That phallus on wheels isn't bad! And Casa de Lurve has it's no charm. I've certainly seen worse-looking concrete blocks here. I'm going to enjoy reading your posts.