Friday, 16 August 2013

Football in Chamgang

After banging on about my impressions of football in Bhutan in general, I wanted to share a few stories and photos from football in Chamgang and the wonderful educational institution that is Yangchen Gatshel Lower Secondary School. 

The new pitch

Chamgang (and YGLSS) has only recently opened its first football field. It is surrounded by beautiful forests and mountains and is (unsurprisingly) carved out of the side of steep hillside. Sadly, there was not enough money in the Dzonghag budget to build a retaining wall below the field so I'm sure most of the field will have washed away in three years time. 

We've already lost a couple of metres of sideline in the last six weeks
But for the time being it is setting football-loving hearts aflame across the village and providing a welcome regular distraction from work for me and the other teachers. I've been enjoying remembering all my Year 5 soccer skills and getting to know the students and other villagers better by chasing a leather ball around a field like a crazy person.

School footballers and our resident ara-brewer/dancing referee

The field at this stage consists mostly of dirt, now turned mostlyinto mud. Lots of mud. But the Bhutanese football mantra of ‘we must play on!’rings out in even the most torrential rainstorms.I've finally learned how to play in the mud - but still find mud in my ears three days after my latest game.

These boots are made for wallowing

The teacher team
Nothing beats finishing a tough game of swamp-soccer like a plate of momos and a cuppa tea. (That's an official Bhutanese football jersey by the way: a good way to set yourself up for failure by looking like a pro but playing like a jackass). 

Official diet of the Bhutanese National Team
 Here's a story of one of my epic failures in the footballing arena, originally posted on stalkbook.

Moment of Village Footballing Glory Number 487

So it's the big football match of the month: teachers and students versus police and villagers and I'm playing on the left wing. I'm wearing my fancy new Bhutanese Football jersey and because I'm playing in a country that is officially ranked last (207th) on the FIFA world rankings, I'm feeling pretty(foolishly) good about the fact that I'm actually able to score a few goals over here.

The game begins and a nice through ball comes from the Dzongkha lopen and suddenly it's just me with 30 metres to go and the keeper to beat. I charge ahead, already picturing the ball sliding into the top corner of the net.

Then, a total foreigners mistake: complete failure to factor in the pond of 30cm deep mud standing somewhere on the edge of the box. The ball stops dead in the muck, I shoot past it, try to recollect it with my left foot,end up collecting mud instead and perform the most spectacular face plant in the short history of Chamgang village football.

 There is an audible hush from the other players as I lie gargling mud and wondering how I ended up in Kokoda. Normally the Bhutanese Ihave met have such a developed sense of slapstick that there would raucous laughter and merciless teasing at such a spectacular stack but being a chilip,people are too respectful to laugh outright at my theatrics.

There is a loud slurping sound as I haul myself out of the mud, a large Matt-shaped imprint slowly filling with water below me. Play resumes and we end up winning by a margin of six goals. Once I reenact the faceplant myself, the teasing becomes open-slather. "Sir has best luck!""Best swimming all game!" "Sir has left a xerox copy in the mud!" are common lines, along with a lot of re-miming of the incident.

Ego in check I do manage to slide at least one past the keeper doubling my goal tally for the last 13 years, but I realize that I do still have a lot to learn about playing football Bhutan styles.

The magical disappearing pitch...
Volleyball: the only substantial rival for the beautiful game

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Streakers, stretchers and documentaries: a brief look at football inBhutan

According to current FIFA world-rankings, Bhutan currentlyrates 207th in the world amongst footballing nations – tied lastwith countries such as the 61km2  independent Republic of San Marino and the tiny BritishOverseas Territories of Turks and Caicos Islands in the Carribean. Djibouti,Somalia, Anguilla and the Cook Islands all rank ahead of Bhutan in terms ofFIFA world-rankings. But despite its low official ranking, Bhutan must rank pretty highly on a global scale in terms of fervent passion for the game and willingness to tramp through inches of man-eating sludge in the hope thumping a flat ball into the back of hole-ridden net. 

The standing Buddha gets to watch all matches for free
Our introduction to Bhuanese soccer came when we first met Pema, a likeable, down to earth character who also happens to be captain of the national football team. Turns Pema is a bit of national stalwart having first begun playing for the national team in 2002. He's invited us to many matches at Thimphu's Changlimithang Stadium which also happens to built on the site of a famous 19th century Bhutanese routing of the Tibetans in which many a leather-booted horseman ran many a rusty sword through his whiskered Buddhist neighbour. victory of the in.

Monks waiting for the game to start

Changlimithang Stadium

 At the first match we attended, a visiting opposition player from Sikkim was injured badly enough to require a stretcher. None being available, players broke the frame off an advertising sideboard and used the sideboard instead. Genius! Such resourcefulness and wonderful disregard for the advertising industry! In another recent game, the match had to be interrupted three separate times while a streaker was escorted from the pitch. But instead of a fat, balding man, smothered in canola oil flashing his jangly bits around the pitch for a bit of media attention and drinking money from his mates (as would be the case back home), the streaker on the Bhutanese football field looked like this: 

A Thimphu stray just heading out for a stroll.

Pema's also told us some great stories about what it was like to play in The Other Final - an international friendly match organised by FIFA and played on June 30 2002, at the same time as the FIFA World Cupgrand final between Germany and Brazil was being played in Japan.

I've been a bit obsessed with this match because it was played between the two lowest ranked teams in the world, Bhutan and the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat and being a sucker for an underdog, I love the idea of a match between the two biggest 'losers' in world football at the time

The match was actually the focus of a doco made by a Dutch film director who follows the journeys of the players in the lead up to the game and actually creates a fascinating insight into how two such small and underdeveloped countries (in terms of sheer footballing muscle) could have the creativity, good humour and chutzpah to pull together such a unique social and sporting occasion.

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!