Thursday, 8 August 2013

Celebrating a Birthday Bhutanese Style

My first Bhutanese birthday began the day before my official birth anniversary with the best gift of all - Lula returning from two weeks in Thailand. I took a day off work and went to surprise her at the airport in Paro and then we spent a nice afternoon in Thimphu together including a great impromptu birthday lunch with friends Rick and Phyllis who are always full of interesting stories of their global adventures.

The actual morning of my birthday began with an amazing breakfast of Australian avocado on toast - my first avo in 6 months - via Thailand (thanks Lu). this was followed by the hilarity of having every other student I met on the way to school fold themselves in half and shouting: "Good Morning, Sir! Happy Birthday, Sir!" in a charmingly almost militaristic fashion. I'm not sure how they all knew it was my birthday, Bhutanese osmosis I suspect...


This was followed by hastily scrawled but nonetheless charming messages on the blackboards in all of my classes: "Long life, sir!", "Ever lasting life, sir!". My Class VII's proudly declared: "Sir, the value for the week is 'Love'! And we love you, sir!" (How many Grade 7 classes would say that to you and actually mean it?). This was followed by entreaties from them that surely, on my birthday, I wouldn't want to do any REAL teaching...To which I replied that as I too, loved them, I would love them well by giving them a spelling test, (which I did to much collective, good-natured groaning).  

Proper festivities were scheduled to start at 3:30pm with all of the school staff (around 30 people) invited to our place for a typical Bhutanese afternoon tea-cum-booze up-cum-dinner party. Our friend and Dzongkha teacher Sonam Yuden - now also known as Chamgang's Patron Saint of Self Catering - selflessly threw herself into helping our preparations, providing much needed consultation on the use of pressure cookers, preparation of kewa datsi (potato and cheese) and making of traditional hot ara (rice, wheat or millet wine) with butter and egg.

Somehow we managed to get all the tea, hot ara, red and white rice, Mama Stretton's chow mein, kewa datsi, tomato dal, Lula's tasty carrot ezay (including many carrots from our veggie garden), beef and cheese momos and Indian samosas prepared and ready in the two periods after lunch.

People crowded into our ample but relatively small lounge room and the strict Bhutanese order of serving tea, then ara, then other miscellaneous booze then food began.

Unwrapping the goodness
This was all done with much merriment and lewd innuendo (as per Bhutanese custom) and was only interrupted when everyone stopped to give me a present - something I protested against vehemently but had already been told by the teachers that buying a collective gift is 'part of the culture out here' and that their 'minds would not be peace' if they didn't get me something. Turns out my gift was this snappy new gho which my buddy Sonam helped me put on with local adroitness. I then performed a mini fashion show to everyone's delight and we settled into the serious business of stuffing our faces. Good times for all!

Sonam Wangdi - gho fitter extraordinaire

It was actually a real pleasure for both of us to be able to really go to great lengths in serving everyone a tasty meal. All of the staff, from Janitors to Principal have been so gracious and generous in inviting us to their houses for tea, ara, meals and ceremonies. We've had a few closer friends over for meals but it was nice to be able to say a big thank you to everyone and repay our gratitude with fermented rice wine cooked through with local butter and beaten egg.

Thank you Speech
Fashion show...

After everyone left the excellent Sonam Yuden again stayed and helped us get psyched up about washing up - a task that our little kitchen was almost overwhelmed by.

Madam Sonam - Patron Saint of Home Catering

I finally had a moment to check my emails and Facebook and felt so lucky to have so many amazing friends and relatives who were all so generous, loving and hilarious in sending their wishes. Teachers frommy school in Canberra said that my birthday was remembered in the staff room there - a rare privilege if ever I've heard of one!

Contemplating Washing Up

We were almost at then end of what had been a very joyous birthday when Lula pulled out one more surprise - some obscenely good chocolate cake from a Japanese cake maker in Thimphu with my very own candle to boot. Zaiiiiiii!

Choccie Cake!

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