Saturday, 15 June 2013

A Sunday Outing To Talakha Goempa

After a few incidences of bad behaviour on the part of the local hostel boys (read: pot smoking, stealing and organised 'gang' fights!), I decided that a bit of diversionary therapy might be in order for a group of 11-17 year old boys who spend 24/7 within the confines of the school grounds (except when they nick out to illegally by tobacco or watch WWE wrestling). (See last post).  Lu decided that the planned Sunday-afternoon outing - a hike to Talakha Goempa - a beautiful monastery perched high on the crest of a ridge above Chamgang - sounded so appealing that she was going to come along to dole out the diversions as well.

 The boys looked fantastic in their ghos of various patterns and colours and were buyant and gracious hosts as we walked down through the village and up towards the forest road that leads to the monastery.


They insisted on carrying my backpack, offering their umbrellas for shade from the summer sun and telling any interesting information about who lived where and what unsettled land in the village was about to be divided up to be given to landless farmers as gifts from His Majesty, the Fifth King. After stopping for a few customary photo shoots and for me to gaze like a dork at the luminescent outlines of the gathering cumulonimbus clouds coming over the mountains, we entered the forest and started to climb.  

Much excitement followed when the boys found this snake sunning itself by the side of the road. "Sir, sir! Have to kill it, sir!" they shouted, rocks poised to throw. "It will kill our animals, sir! Has seen us, sir, will know us and find us and kill us!" Really?! After calmly explaining to them that there was NO WAY they would be killing a snake on one of my excursions, we sat and watched the beautiful thing for several minutes as it slowly wound its way back into its hole.  

It was a beautiful day and the boys took us on some beautiful singly trail short cuts up through the chir pines, oaks and cypress. 

We reached the goempa where some of the most spectacular trees sit atop the ridge line. I wish my botany was better as there are so many beautiful species here - including this one, replete with local Class VI monkey.

Lula, looking like a film star
The monastery itself was as beautiful as ever.  One of the monks came and gave cups of soft drink to the boys and then lead us into the main altar room. After doing prostrations and giving some small offerings to the Shakyamuni statues, I told the boys that I would like to meditate for a few minutes if that was alright with the monk and that if they wanted they could wait for me downstairs. The monk nodded his assent, and I sat down, expecting everyone to leave the chillip to do his thing in an empty altar room. Instead, all the boys immediately sat down next to and around me, crossing their legs and bowing their heads as they too began to meditate.

Talakha Goempa

Lula told me later what an unexpected and beautiful thing this was for her to witness, standing as she was at the back of the room and expecting the boys to leave just as I had. Of course, being teenage boys, after about five minutes the giggling and farts started again and we all opened our eyes and slowly made our way back downstairs. The boys asked the monk to roll dice for them to indicate whether they would have good or bad luck in their exams (they basically keep rolling until the luck comes good).

View of Thimphu Valley from the Goempa

Checking out the View

Lookin' well 'ard
We then all battled the mud on the road on the way down, except for a few cheeky boys who jumped in the monastery jeep for a free ride down with the monks.

Nima and Tandin Tshering Stopping for Photo Shot

To our surprise, the boys found our friend the snake, still sunning herself outside her hole. On the subject of corporal punishment,  I have to admit that I did give one of the boys a playful cuff over the head when he decided that he would go against my strict instructions and toss a rock at the snake to see if he could get her to move. At least one of the benefits of working in a system where corporal punishment is tolerated is that I can be more physically playful with boys, a far change from the 'hand off' only policies in other countries.

Corporal and non-corporal punishment in Bhutan

Over the last month or so there have been a few illicit-substance-related incidents at school involving the Class VII boys from the boarding hostel.  Most of the teachers are saying that the school has never faced these kinds of problems before and some are frustrated, seeing it as the influence of a few overly-worldly, ‘very naughty’ students who've been kicked out of schools in Thimphu and been sent to our naive little village school for 'second chance'. 

In my under-slept, over-worked frame of mind, I also reacted to these incidents with frustration. Frustration that the students perpetrating them should be bringing their negative influences to bear on the sweet, kind and (in the best way) innocent students and school that I have grown very quickly to love.

The Bhutan education system is currently in the process of transitioning from a corporal punishment model of behaviour management to a model in which 'beating' is now against the law. Corporal punishment still goes on in most (if not all) schools and definitely still occurs at our school. In my limited experience, it seems that many schools are struggling to come up with more appropriate approaches to behaviour management and seem a bit confused as to how to set and reinforce boundaries without resorting to giving children a good ole’ clip over the ear.

And whilst there will be those out there who believe that all corporal punishment is wrong and others who believe that it should only be used in very extreme circumstance and when all other strategies have failed, I've noticed that there is a big difference between those teachers who beat the children because it's their only behaviour management strategy and the only way they have of 'motivating' the kids and those who will give a kid a whack for a specific misdemeanor such as bringing drugs onto school property, stealing from other students or deliberately inviting outsiders to the school for a 'gang fight'.   

Needless to say I found the school's disciplinary response to these incidents to be very different to how they might be handled at home. Despite the unfamiliarity of this, I eventually felt like I could understand where the school staff were coming from and what they were trying to achieve even if I might have chosen to do things differently. The irony for me is that whilst physically punishing the students (in this case a group of about 10 boys) in front of the whole school might seem like an outwardly stronger form of discipline, the students themselves receive little more than a quick swipe across the butt with a bamboo cane, cushioned by thick layers of gho material that has the reputation amongst Bhutanese of being strong enough to deflect flying arrows. Very little more than this is done. These 'naughty' students retain the same privileges as other students, are sheltered from the real legal consequences they would face in the real world, get to enjoy the popular notoriety that comes with being the 'celebrity' bad-boy and in a final bizarre unintended irony also get to live out their subconscious psychological desire to be part of a group initiation activity through which they form closer bonds with their peers and get to test out the limits of their nascent adolescent masculinity.

In this particular case, the students in questions weren’t feeling remorseful for what they had done, nor were they feeling inconvenienced or even uncomfortable about the consequences they faced. Every student is different and for some students it is enough to simply talk with them to see that they regret the choices they have made and will try to do differently next time and no further ‘consequences’ are needed. But in this particular case, the students in question were laughing and grinning at each during their punishments and repeated similar behaviours in the weeks that followed.

I think it would have been much more effective and relevant for the future development of the students if they were forced to write and then read out in front of the whole school a sincere and well thought-out apology explicitly detailing what they had done, the consequences of their actions for the school community, how they would compensate the community for their actions and how they would change their behaviour if found in similar circumstances in the future. This kind of apology could be carefully and explicitly scaffolded by teachers and would help to make students accountable to their school community for their actions and future behaviour.

The students would have also benefitted, in my humble opinion, from missing out on some of their normal privileges – for example, a boarding student who steals from his fellow roommates could lose the privilege of sharing the camaraderie of the shared hostel room and instead be made to sleep in one of the empty hostel rooms all by himself. Similar arrangements could also be made during leisure and study times. Surely this a reasonable reflection of what happens socially to someone who continues to steal from his friends and colleagues in real life.

Such students could also be made to miss out on inter house sports, weekend movies and outings and should also lose their free time during interval and lunch times, during which they should do community service (SUPW) to make up for the time and energy the community has had to direct towards them in breaking up their fights, meeting with their parents and running investigations to recover their stolen goods. Students involved in explicitly illegal activities, such as entering the hostel and stealing others property or bringing drugs onto school property could also benefit from a frank and open discussion with a couple of members of the local police force as to what might be the consequences of any repeat infringements of this nature given that they are almost adults and will soon face the full force of the law without the protection of their parents and school to shield them.

But of course all of this meting out of punishment, whilst important, also misses many of the essential reasons why these boys were wanting to use drugs, engage in gang fights and steal from each other in the first place.

A quick search on google reveals that some of the key psychological motivations for drug taking in teenagers are:

·      an intense need for novelty and new experience driven by the hyper-activity of the limbic system during adolescence.
·      an overwhelming desire experienced by most teenages to feel like they fit in with their peers – a desire that is often so strong that it will often easily outstrip any more rational or moral imperatives a teenager may have for chosing how to behave amongst friends.
·      the sense of social confidence and togetherness that shared drug taking can provide – a motivation that is particularly relevant for those teenagers stuggling to find alternative strategies for making new friends, expressing themselves and dealing with awkward social situations.
·      the pleasant physiological sensations that many drug taking experiences can provide is also attractive to teenagers – especially those who experience limited positive emotions in other dimensions of their lives. This makes those teenagers who are disconnected from their families, who experience frustration or confusion in their studies, who are socially isolated or who feel disengaged with the extra-curricula activities presented to them particularly vulnerable to developing a dependence on drug taking.
·      a sense of boredom or meaninglessness is another reason why teenagers, who are often characterised as looking to push the boundaries and have new experiences, will turn to drugs to counteract their ennui.

Apart from the boys’ various individual histories and psychological predispositions which of course will contribute significantly to their likelihood of engaging in ‘very naughty’ activities, the boys spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week on school premises. Their structured activities, apart from evening and night time study for two hours, end at 3:15 and at 12:40pm on Saturdays and there are precious few ‘carrots’ that can be withheld as alternatives to using ‘the stick’. They receive very little pastoral care outside of school hours and are not allowed to leave the school grounds or receive visitors. Many come from loving, devoted families, but many do not. Some struggle with their studies and are already behind their cohorts at school, whilst others cope admirably with the pressures of studying in a foreign language even though they have to work extremely hard to do so. Like most teenagers they are stuggling to find their place socially and it’s no surprise to see that a few of the ‘overly-worldly’ older students from Thimphu have assumed alpha roles in the group and seem to be dictating the social agenda – effortlessly determining the parameters of what’s cool and what’s not. Passing through campus on a weekend, I often find both the girls and the boys hanging around the school gate looking listless and complaining to me that they are ‘feeling so boring, Sir.’  

When I first began visiting the boys during their non-study time so that we could all play a game of Uno together, most of the boys were beside themselves with excitement. (Cards are banned in the hostel due to prevent arguments).  They jostle and wrangle, falling over themselves to make me feel welcome, bringing me pillows or plastic carpets to sit on so that I am comfortable. In their enthusiasm they holler random phrases in Dzonglish: “I! I! I! Fifteenth graduate!” (read: “I’ve finished my bachelor’s degree! I’m a genius! I also don’t smell badly of musty adolescent B.O.! In fact, I have excellent personal hygeine and lady-killing social skill to boot!”) This is a nice thing for me, because I get to feel like a post modern combination of Santa Claus and Mary Poppins (picture if you will, a transgender Disney character with a white beard, carpet bag and cherry-red lipstick) just for popping around (pun intended) for a game of cards with a group of students who are almost uniformly polite, funny and full of youthful enthusiasm.

Lu and I decided to continue this kind of fun and activity based engagement by organising to go on a Sunday afternoon outing with half of the boys, up to the local monastery – Talakha Goempa – perched high on the crest of a ridge, one and a half hour’s walk from Chamgang - the subject of the next blog post! 

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Week 17 in Bhutan

Teacher's Day

Photo: So today is Bhutanese Teacher's Day and I was greeted at the school gate by students waving cards and pens wrapped in cellophane at me. The sentiments in this card just about sum up the insights: 'Teacher is a candle which burns them self' - Ha! And let's not forget the post script: 'we will never try to kill thire heart'. Classic.

Reason for teaching # 471

At 6:30pm this Friday afternoon after an epic week of teaching and three and a half hours of drama rehearsals with three separate classes of Bhutanese teenagers, I'm walking home through the village accompanied by some of my year seven students - who INSIST on carrying my bags for me even though I protest - when suddenly they all start singing, belting out all the songs I've taught them in our English classes with the kind of selfless abandon that I remember only from my days as a ten year old with my ear plastered to Top 40 hits breaking domestic decibel limits with my atonal singing. 

They sing for no other reason than because it's fun, they're happy and it feels good and the moment is so spontaneous, so unselfconscious and so full of joy that despite its Hallmark flavour I can't help but just love it and love them: they're such a motley, grammatically wayward bunch but they're so cheeky and lively, so thoughtful and genuinely respectful that every day is a pleasure to teach and I'm consistently grateful to have teenage students who appreciate my efforts, are keen to help in any way possible and even take the time to ask me how I am if I'm unwell. Thanks Bhutan! All the bucket showers, stomach pains and chewed up sneakers are totally worth it.

A visit to the Dzongkhag Administration Office

I love going to the district administration office.  No errand is too small for me not to jump at the opportunity. I love the traditional temple-style building, the hushed corridors,  the sound of rain water dripping from broken gutters into the cobblestoned courtyard. I love the extra offices that have been haphazardly added to the main building, the plywood floorboards that creaking and groan underfoot.

On this particular occasion I visit the payroll officer who has lost my account details by mistake. “So, sorry la,” she says, looking up from her Facebook screen of family snaps of her friend’s uncle’s cousins. “I guess I should write it down, la.” She takes out a pen and slowly inscribes the number on the wall of her cubicle, where it sits proudly alongside another hundred or so numbers. “Sir Matt” is written neatly beside it.

At least I know that when I return to Australia and my short-lived eminence is forgotten by all, my legacy will live on in an office cubicle wall above some creaking plywood floorboards in the accounts section of the district administration office.

On the first visit to our new village

On the first visit
to our new village,
half eaten buildings
like concrete puzzle pieces
strew the road
outside the capital.

There is some hope there
on my part
of being shown to the top floor
of an eighteenth century
farm house
with giant cedar beams
and delicate wooden shutters
red chillis drying
in the roof cavity
the woodstove charred
and blackened with soot.

But I have become an expert
in keeping expectations low
and prepare myself
to enter a desolate village
clinging to the side of a
built around the jail
for which the village
is so well known.

This is, I think,
my least favourite part of Bhutan
says our knowledgeable guide

and I count my breaths.

As the road leaves the city
it winds up a ridge
past a monastery
nestled amongst the pines.

Built in 1673
it is known
as the country’s oldest
and its faded burgundy roof
provides me with
something like relief.

Ice appears beside the road
a clear and frigid stream
in the gully.
In these quiet woodlands of
juniper, spruce and birch
I am in the territory
of leopards
demons and bears
and the city seems a distant memory.

Sweeping around each bend
we stumble upon jaunty
timber houses
messy piles
of split pine
stacked against the walls.

Children fling stones
at unseen targets
and stare
without waving.

The prison sits low
against the ridgeline
under Talakha’s
snow peppered peak
rising like a thunderhead
into the sky.

The yak herders
graze their animals

in the meadows
behind that peak

says our guide

and my mind slips
into images
of alpine lakes
bursting with trout,
alpine flowers
colouring the hillsides
an ancient
reverent space
still enough
that I can hear it
In the village
shit-streaked cows
stand in the streets
eyeing our car.

The silhouettes
of village men
drinking 11,000
by the longneck
fill the windows
of Gyeltsen’s
General Store Cum Bar
and we climb
past the prison
and towards the school. 

rammed earth houses
for space with smaller
blue pine constructions

says our guide

and I can feel
the mountain wind
slipping in
through the glaring cracks
in their bark.

Timber piles
back onto cow pens
that flank outhouses
and border
vegetable patches
frozen in translucent layers
of mud and ice.
Stripped, naked
branches of walnut
and peach point
like fingers into the
soggy, clouded sky.

Our landlady greets us
with a mixture
of grace and embarrassment

shifting today?
she says, eyes wide

and sends her neice
to sweep out
our house and quickly
mop all the floors.

She brings us
steaming milk tea
thick with sugar
and orders in Dzongkha
for our neighbour
to connect us to his
electricity supply.

Today, I didn’t know
that you were coming.
she says and smiles shyly.  

The concrete house
has been painted
the inside walls
with erratic green paint
the colour fading
near the top of the walls
where the painter
has seemingly not
been able to reach.

The concrete floors
are cold and bare
the sink and drain
nowhere to be seen.
I run my hand
over an exclamation mark
of paint
and sand falls away in my hand
leaving me coughing
in a small cloud of dust.
The doors refuse to close
and cold winds blow puffs of dust 
through the gaps below the windows.

There are no delicate
wooden shutters
or giant cedar beams
no thick walls of rammed earth
to warm against the cold.

No ancient shrine room
housing golden effigies
of Guru Rinpoche,
no window in the hay loft
where I can look out towards
the mountains and dream
cloud encrusted dreams.

No stone landing 
sweeping down
towards verdant
rice paddies and fields
of billowing wheat.

But soon five boys
come bustling in
Good evening, sir! How are you, sir!
They fold themselves in half
bowing almost violently
enormous grins
plastered on their faces
carrying a huge iron bed
that they hustle and wrangle
through our too-small-doorway.

They jump and bang
and hammer and cajole
until each slat is firmly in place
every fibre of their bodies
brimming with energy
and helpfulness.

Can we clean for you, sir?!

Too embarrassed
I accompany them outside.

We walk towards the school
on the edge of a ridgetop
high above the Thimphu Valley
which glitters and hums

Snow covered peaks peer
through the clouds
looking back,
I see an endless forest
of rhododendron, oak and pine
stretching from behind our house
towards the Dargala mountains

and the valleys beyond.

The boys throw stones
and wrestle
their silhouettes
framed against the setting sun.

And I know
that I will be very happy here.