Sunday, 5 May 2013

A concert, a car ride, a conversation (part 3)

Wangditse Goempa

After reaching town and saying goodbye to Penpa and Ugyen, I head to one of my favourite momo dens for a plate of the tasty, steamed dumplings before catching a cab to the base of a small mountain rising half way up the ridge line on the western side of the Thimphu Valley. I’ve heard that there’s a nice walk from the telecommunications tower at the top of the mountain to a small goempa located in the pine forests overlooking the Trashi Chhoe Dzong and Samtenling Palace (home of Bhutan’s fifth and current King). And the walk is indeed beautiful – an undulating single trail hugging the ridge line through thick forest that makes you feel as if you could be miles from any civilisation, let alone the capital city. A few mountainbikers zip past and I promise myself to return with my bike for a bit of single trail fun.

Reaching the goempa I am greeted by a friendly elderly dog who sniffs my hand and rolls over for a pat on the belly. He trots after me as I walk down past an enormous prayer wheel towards the goempa perched on the edge of a cliff. The views of the valley are beautiful and the goempa is deserted except for a couple of elderly pilgrims spinning handheld prayer wheels and reciting mantras. It feels so good to have actually done some exercise and to not be thinking about teaching that I enter the goempa brimming with happiness and good will. I am greeted by three carpenters and a policeman – the goempa is under going renovations for damages sustained in an earthquake.

The policeman, Sangay Dorji, greets me with a two-handed handshake, welcoming me like a guest of honour. He asks me where I’m from, we chat and he tells me that although he is in his mid-thirties he is still a bachelor (something almost unheard of in Bhutan) and that he is using his energies to try and pass his Class XII exams. As a youth he didn’t pass Class X and has spent the last three years studying part time around his full time work as a policeman. He loves Buddhist scriptures and culture and is studying Choeki (ancient Tibetan) and Bhutanese culture. He failed his Class XII exam last year but is trying again this year. He is so earnest and hopeful in his aspirations and honest about the difficulties of his struggles that I can't help but warm to him and he is wonderfully generous in teaching me about the history of the goempa. Such a different experience from visiting temples in India where every second person tries to force you into accepting them as their guide and then tries to extort ridiculous amounts of money out of you afterwards. Sangay takes me into the temple to see the two story high Sakyamuni statue which he tells me was built by Bhutan’s eighth Desi (secular ruler of Bhutan predating the monarchy) in 1751 to atone for the sins of murdering two of his rivals.

Sangay Dorji the policeman-cum-cultural expert
On the walk back to the BBS tower, I meet two Thimphu locals – a retired Dzongkha teacher who taught for thirty-four years and his son-in-law who works for the Bhutan Power Corporation. The son-in-law, also called Penpa, completed his masters degree in Newcastle and is happy to talk about Australia and the cultural differences that separate the two countries and their education systems. 
 “I would arrive at a barbecue after being asked to bring a plate," he tells me, "And in Bhutan if you go to someone’s house for a Rimdro (cleansing ritual) you always take an empty plate to eat your food off. So I would turn up with an empty plate and then be so embarrassed when I realised that my plate was supposed to have food on it!

I tell him the story I have heard of some of the first Bhutanese students to study in Australia – mostly mature aged students some of whom had never been on a plane before, let alone outside of the subcontinent. When they arrived, the Vice-Chancellor of their Queensland university came down to welcome them.

“Have you come here to die?” he asked them.

The Bhutanese students were shocked.

“Oh no, sir. We came here to study!”

“No, no, I mean did you come here to die?”

Again they protested: “No, no sir, we came here to study!”

Some confusion and consternation ensued until the students eventually realised that the VC has been asking them whether they had arrived within the last 24 hours.

Penpa and I shared many more interesting conversations on the one hour walk back down to the outer suburbs of Thimphu, talking about the upcoming primary elections, the merits of democracy versus a benevolent monarchy (he believes the monarch worked better) and the challenges of raising children in a digital age. He invited me to his house for tea and then drove me across town and up to a hotel high on the opposite ridge of the Thimphu Valley where I was meeting Lucy and her RTC colleagues for a work dinner.

His relaxed and uncomplicated companionship and Sangay Dorji’s sweet openness and determination to make the most of his opportunities in life, coupled with the beautiful walk and uplifting goempa were such beautiful reminders of all the reasons I love being here in Bhutan and what a special and unique place this is – the perfect cure to a body and mind full of end-of-week stress and frustrations.

A concert, a car ride and a conversation (part 2)

The Drive to Thimphu

To blow out the cobwebs of this mild dance embarrassement and a whole week of minimal exercise and excessive marking (115 book reviews and 115 letters to pen pals), I came down to Thimphu with my friend and school librarian-cum-office-assistant-cum-general-procuror-cum-taxi driver, Penpa, who drives us down to Thimphu every Saturday after school, often along with the Games and PE instructor, Ugyen. Ugyen is a twenty-four year old Thimphu native who, in his inimitably good natured and absent-minded style, has been playing the field a bit on his weekend outings and Penpa often delights in telling me of Ugyen’s latest romantic adventures. Ugyen’s obvious embarrassment and vagueness on this topic only adds to the humour of the situation.

“Any plans this weekend, Ugyen?” I will typically ask on these journeys down to town.
“Ah, some work helping my parents, I think,” will be his typical vague answer.
“Helping his attractice, young, female, single parents!” Penpa will interject with glee.
“Ah ha! So that’s what you’re up to! Who’s the special lady, Ugyen?” I will ask.
“Special ladies!” Penpa jumps in with a smile.
“No, no.” Ugyen will protest.
Ladies! Ugyen! You dawg!”
“Yes! Yes!” Penpa will continue, “One girl is not enough for Ugyen Wangchuk! He has so many girls messaging him that he can’t decide which one to see!”

This kind of banter continues all the way to town, with Penpa stopping from time to time to pick up or drop off extra passengers. On one occasion, a female college-aged student was waiting by the side of the road and gestured for the taxi to stop. Penpa pulled over but for some reason when the girl looked in the cab, she waved it on, indicating that she didn’t want a ride after all.

“Maybe she was frightened of us chillips (foreigners),” Lucy offered.
“No no!” said Penpa, “She was frightened of Ugyen Wangchuk! She knows his reputation!”
We all erupt into fits of laughter – even Ugyen cracking a big smile.

A concert, a car-ride and a conversation (in three parts)

  Cultural concert madness is upon us. All classes from PP to VII have been busy preparing three items for next Saturday night's concert: one Boedar (traditional folk songs and dances originally derived from Tibetan court songs), one rigsar (contemporary Bhutanese music that blends modern instruments like synthesisers and drum machines with more traditional instruments) and one ‘special item’. My Class VIIA class begged me to teach them some Western dance moves for their ‘special item’ and because they’re so sweet and charming I foolishly agreed – instantly picturing in my mind a polka-dotted fantasty of perfectly coordinated lindy-hop swing dancing wowing the audience and opening the students up to the wonderful world of swing dancing.

(By the way, this is a perfect example of why people with over-active imaginations are destined for a few epic failures when they go into teaching.)

So yesterday morning – a Saturday morning I might remind you – all the teachers and students filed down to the Multi Purpose Hall (MPH for short), students carrying their chairs from class, for a full dress rehearsal of all 29 items to be performed in next Saturday’s concert.

PP students carrying their chairs down to the MP Hall
The performances were cute, they were charming, they were skillful , spirited and fun. Almost all students here are capable dancers, coordinating steps, singing and performance with relative ease – it’s obvious they’ve been practicing since PP – and not just in school either.

Our first weekend in Chamgang fell on Bhutanese New Year – Losar – and some girls from Class VIII invited us to come down to the archery field to watch them dance for the archers and audience. A group of about ten local women and girls danced and sang traditional songs – as the archers came and bought them sweets and mango juice and joined in the dancing. Just one example of how dancing is very much a part of traditional life here, much more so than it ever was a part of my life growing up in lovely leafy suburban Canberra!

Lopen Thinley's Class VI Boys: Dancers Extraordinaire
One of the stand out dances of the concert practice was from Lopen Thinley’s Class VI boys who for their special item danced an old Bhutanese folk dance traditionally performed by the King’s body guards. The boys in Class VI are a naughty, good natured and easily distracted bunch – but they were absolutely loving the physicality, pageantry and machismo of the ancient call to arms. With wreaths of leaves wrapped around their heads as camouflage, long patangs (traditional machetes) strapped to their belts and drums and cymbals in their hands to ward away evil spirits they spun and clapped and banged and sang  - a beautiful joyous celebration of a proud and ancient cultural tradition being revived through the exuberance of youth.

I found this performance particularly pleasing considering that many of these boys are boarders and I often bust them sneaking out of the hostel to come and watch WWF wrestling in the tshongkhang (shop-cum-bar) outside our house. (Warning: righteous rant imminent…) It’s slightly disconcerting that many of the worst aspects of Western and Asian culture (in my humble opinion) are often far too seductive for young Bhutanese here – just as they are at home. And while a few hours a month of watching The Rock and The Undertaken triple pile-drive their opposition into the siding boards of a wrestling ring might very well amount to harmless fun – mindless viewing on a nightly basis is only going to erode any child’s intelligence and cultural sensitivity in my old-fashioned opinion.

So it was a true joy, on many levels, to see Lopen Thinley’s boys strutting their stuff – and a credit to his dedication to Bhutanese culture and Dzongkha language preservation. It was also in stark relief to the next performance – my Class VII A students doing their version of a Lindy Hop Charleston to Sy Oliver’s Yes Indeed. They hadn’t really mastered the steps and were used to having me lead – so were completely lost up on stage. I had also been reluctant to teach them to partner dance – thinking that they would be too shy or awkward to dance with members of the opposite sex – so their stand-alone, badly executed triple-steps looked painfully simple compared to elaborate partner dancing they were doing in their other dances.

So next week – I’ll be enforcing partner dancing at all levels and being a total lindy hop Nazi every evening after school so that they’re ready for next Saturday. Bring it on, I say!