Goodbye Bhutan Daze

I wrote this on New Years Eve. It has taken me a while to publish it mainly due to being busy transitioning between this and that and all the other things…

Reflective Daze

We usually take the end of a year to reflect on what we have done. 2015 was so big that I am finding it easier to put my year of experiences into compartments. There is Bhutan, travel, visiting home, my professional accomplishments, love and lust, living in Sri Lanka and general self development. Many of these things over lap, this forms the whole of the experiences that have developed into my 2015.

I left Bhutan in February just a few days short of being there a year. Bhutan was an experienced that mostly changed me for the better and for a short time for the worst. At the conclusion of this year I find myself at a different place to where I was when the year commenced. I am ready to put my Bhutan experience away, I am ready to only bring it out in certain conversations and situations. It doesn’t take over my mind like it did when I returned home to Australia straight after the experience, a month before I set off on another gig. Then it took over normal conversations with family and friends who were so patient and understanding with me. They knew I needed to discuss things, sometimes over and over to get them out of my head, so my life could return to a somewhat sense of my “normality”.

Leaving Bhutan wasn’t the end of my Bhutan experience, it was just a step. I now feel with the closing of the year I am able to say my journey in Bhutan is over. There could be many more chapters in my Bhutanese files, but for now I am ready to let it rest.

The perception of Bhutan and the country’s image changed over my year there. From a clear haze of mountain top blue to a haze of valley full of fog. While each is very beautiful in it’s own right understanding what really goes on in the country is an obstacle and challenge as well as a privileged journey of awakening.

When seeing the opportunity to volunteer as a special education teacher for a year in a small Bhutan community via Facebook, all my dreams had come true. There was a dream to get to Bhutan, the almost unreachable, exotic and unknown destination on a travellers itinerary. My skills matched perfectly, I was actually over qualified for the job. But I knew this and kept it in my mind that I would have to sit back and hone in on my teaching skills rather than my executive leadership skills to make this job work. This opportunity also meant I had an opportunity to escape the clockwork capitalist and corporate work world that had taken over my life over the five years I was back in Australia. The kind of life style that kills you slowly and drills your health into an irreversible deranged system of mainstream societies norms dictated by consumerism culture and mind controlling media.

Landing into Bhutan was one of the dreamiest moments in my life. Firstly the picture of the king and queen with a background of wisteria (beautiful purple flowering vine) on a giant billboard at the entrance to the airport terminal. The thrilling landing through the mountains that hugged the airstrip added to the excitement for the twelve of us who were embarking on this journey of giving our skills while evoking ourselves in a culture largely unknown. The narrow and harrowing route to touch down amongst the river and traditional houses were what first painted a picture of privilege to be in the country, they are also the last. This is the face of Bhutan that most visitors see as they embark on their experience in the “last Shangrila”.

We were whisked away to the capital for two weeks of Bhutan 101, we probably took in around 40% of it, like school children stuck in a classroom when we knew there was more to the world outside the four walls and wanted to explore. Some things like being extra polite, leaving our Australian forwardness and sarcasm behind and obeying the hierarchy system were things we should have taken more notice of. Physically we had to allow our bodies to get use to the altitude, not push ourselves at 2500 meters above sea level, walking around the block or up a set of stairs was tiring and put stress on our bodies at first.

I was outside the capital unlike my fellow country people. Being single and being one of one two foreigners in the village was hard, but also a blessing. I got to become great friends with actual Bhutanese who will always remain in my heart: Sonam and her family next door who were my surrogate family, Gyme and her three boys like my sister and nephews, and Kunzang Sir La like a wise but fun Uncle who would give me advice in the most grounded and loving way. Most of my friends in the capital weren’t so privileged, their friendships with locals were harder to come by.

The Bhutanese have an image of whom and what foreigners are through the stories and gossip they spread. Like the instructions in the tourist guides manual these are narrow minded and are prone to generalizations that do not lead to people looking for individual characteristics. In and out of my job I felt I had to defend nearly everything I did: Where you go, what you doing, what did you buy, why you do this and the ultimate block “That is not the Bhutanese way!”. Even at work I had issues dealing with peoples egos, when decisions had been made in meetings with executive and donating Ngo’s. There was always someone who would twist and change things to satisfy their intrinsic worth, even when they looked like a fool doing it.

I had to decide between who the genuine people were and who weren’t. Who were the people that wanted to be friends because they thought I had money, a way to get them to Australia or that I may leave all my belongings to them upon my departure, and those who knew the true hand of friendship. Gossip helped me with this, when I was told strange untrue stories about myself or even when I overheard people talking in front of me (with mix of Dzongkha and  English) it was possible to understand simple conversations. Most days wouldn’t go without a indecent proposal from a passerby, taxi driver or other. Most men were married but lied or made up a “I am separated” story which was tripe.  Thank goodness I only fell into something short with one man, which was heart breaking at one point, only because of my loneliness and need for some love.

My job, like most capacity building roles in the aid world was not what I expected. My counterpart unavailable even though she was keen. I watched other volunteers leave their roles in the country early because of this frustration. Thoughts always ran through my mind about leaving and how much money I could be earning elsewhere, but in the end I was having an experience that money could never buy, even if it was like a rollercoaster ride most days. I was lucky I had some kids I knew I was helping. Through my knowledge of disabilities and education I could see how the programs I was implementing were helping them to develop and grow. Some of these programs I knew wouldn’t be continued when I left, but they were great for the students in the meantime.

There is a huge divide in the perception of what a volunteer can do or will do. As mentioned it is suppose to be capacity building role, but many host organisations either ignore this or the concept is not explained well enough to them. Instead the volunteer is placed in a job filling in for a staff member that isn’t there. This was the case for many of us, each of us took it differently. I was lucky enough to approach the issue with an open and patient frame of mind (most of the time, ok ok well I had no choice!!!) and would find the teachers that wanted to develop their skills and work with them. Some people thought this meant that they could leave me their class while they did other work, aka drinking tea or gossiping, but through time this was squashed and people stopped taking the privilege for a ride. Some of these I worked with even for a few periods were so grateful, as were some parents that I still receive messages of thanks now nearly a year on. The principal at the school was so “generous” to release my actual counterpart for the last six days of my one year assignment and told me to “teach her everything I know”… If only I could pass on a two degrees worth of  knowledge and 15 years of experience like that!

I have taken away some lifelong changes that were set in the valley where I lived. I still laugh at my changed natural rhythm of sleep, so different from the burning the candle at both ends rhythm I had in Sydney. Now, I wake up with the sun and usually go to bed about 9pm-ish now. I thank the morning bird that would land on my window will every morning and sing me its song as an alarm. There is also the satisfaction of spending time by myself instead of going out regularly like I did in Australia. This wasn’t a forced change but one that I had no choice of. The bars in the village were dominated by drunk gambling men and even though I tried to infiltrate them, it wasn’t cool to hang out in them.

Long walks seem to be a part of my everyday now. Bhutan had many places to walk to even if it was the just the local pristine river bend. Now I find myself keeping up my fitness by going the extra few kilometres nearly every day.

I quickly transitioned into another volunteer aid role after Bhutan, I now have a greater understanding that the world isn’t going to change unless the people who seem to need the change want to change this themselves and take a lead in this change. So much aid time, energy and money is thrown into development without much monitoring and evaluation, many times I have seen this happen when donating organisations pull out to let things develop for themselves for short period before coming back to check on progress. I have seen documents or success stories forged, to prove things have been working when they haven’t. It all seems to be about telling people what they want to know so they keep donating.

Recently another job, more in my field of advising came up in Bhutan. I looked at it but now I know it is time for me to have a break from development, especially volunteer roles. If I had the opportunity I would go back to visit the people I call friends, the valley where I watched the seasons change and my dogs who gave me unconditional love through the thick and thin.

At times I may seem negative about my experience in Bhutan, but in all honesty it was a life changing experience. One that is a part of the essence of my soul and one that I will carry with me forever.

Of course I couldn’t have done it without many people in the country like my Bhutan friends, fellow volunteers and other expats. They are the ones that helped me get through day to day experiences of cultural misunderstanding and other general briefing. They were there for random and not so random adventures in the cities, country side or even neighbouring countries for trips away. There was an overseas or Australian based support crew that skyed when I needed it, even if they had to listen to banter or watch tears roll down my face. The other expatriates educators in the country were amazing at putting the pieces together, together we established an understanding that it wasn’t us but the Bhutan system that was holding development back, together we were able to see through the hypocrisy, laugh and regain our focus on the kids who we educated. And of course there were the visitors who brought a piece of the real world to Bhutan, who quite literally shook my world up and made me come back to earth.

Oh and last not least, Gross National Happiness (GNH)? Well if you believe that you are gullible. It is a cleaver marketing tool. And if you ever go to Bhutan and have a tour guide be wary of the stories they tell you. Most of the stuff is learnt in guide school from a thoughtless manual and is a manufactured version of real life Bhutan. Most Bhutanese are like everyone else, they are just trying to live in a country of varying economic statues in an ever developing consumerism world. Do you really think the everyday person thinks about GNH and how it fits into their lives? Even the academics who made up that stuff find it all confusing, so yeah… GNH whatever! And don’t even ask me about the government and corruption and puppets and the monarchy….

So with the turning of the calendar year I say goodbye Bhutan Daze. I am sure I may want to write more at another point but for now my experiences are going into the memory bank where they belong. It is time to live in the now and enjoy present and future second as it passes.

 

Continue reading Goodbye Bhutan Daze

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Seasons of my Daze

I tried to take a photo graph from the same window each month of my 12 month stay in Bhutan. 

Enjoy.

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March 2014. The end of winter and beginning of Spring
April 2014 Spring has arrived!
April 2014
Spring has arrived!
May 2014  The rain starts to appear
May 2014
The rain starts to appear
June
June. Summer has set in. The rain has nourished the earth and she is green!
July. THe monsoon rain is still coming and going mainly in the afternoon.
July. THe monsoon rain is still coming and going mainly in the afternoon.

 

August. A time teh crops are nearly fully grown. People will harvest their fruits and vegetables throughout this green time.
August. A time teh crops are nearly fully grown. People will harvest their fruits and vegetables throughout this green time.

 

September the skies start to clear and the sun is making more of a comeback. Mount Jomolhari can be seen more and more.
September the skies start to clear and the sun is making more of a comeback. Mount Jomolhari can be seen more and more.

 

October. The rains have mostly gone, the harvest are finishing and the earth is starting to dry up.
October. The rains have mostly gone, the harvest are finishing and the earth is starting to dry up.
Clear days are here and the temperature is dropping. Snow is seen on the mountain tops and sometimes comes close, but no on the ground.  THis photo taken 0.5 kms up the valley.  Sorry I didn't get a nov pic from home.
November: Clear days are here and the temperature is dropping. People are frying their chillis on the roof as there is no more rain. Snow is seen on the mountain tops and sometimes comes close, but no on the ground.
THis photo taken 0.5 kms up the valley. Sorry I didn’t get a nov pic from home.

 

December. It is cold. Thermals are worn under Ghos and Kiras. Kids are on holidays till February so many families move south to the lowlands to get the warmer weather.
December. It is cold. Thermals are worn under Ghos and Kiras. Kids are on holidays till February so many families move south to the lowlands to get the warmer weather.
January. The village didn't have many people left as it's cold. Your lips are always cracking fingernails splitting. Humidity is the air is almost zero.
January. The village didn’t have many people left as it’s cold. Your lips are always cracking fingernails splitting. Humidity is the air is almost zero.
The snow came to the village just after the kids had returned to school. It is still deadly cold but the snow doesn't stay for long. IT's gone by the end of the day.
The snow came to the village just after the kids had returned to school. It is still deadly cold but the snow doesn’t stay for long. IT’s gone by the end of the day.

 

I loved looking through this window, where almost all the photos were taken. The energy this magical valley had was euphoric. I would stare out at Mount Jomolari when the skies were clear and watch as the storm clouds came in during the monsoon.

Looking out I could see my work, the gardens of villagers and the ruins of Drukgyel Dzong a few kilometers along the way towards Giwisawa.

This window was one I would always direct visitors too as soon as they arrived at my house. It definitely was my favourite part of the house.  My last night in Drukgyel I poured myself a glass of wine and sat as the full moon sailed down the valley. I shed a few tears as I had come a full circle of the seasons.

Every day was different and the seasons changed slowly, but as you can see from the photos the changes were quite dramatic. From the dry earth of winder to the lush green of summer.

People tell me that the weather has changed over the last 30 years. Apparently when my Bhutanese friends were kids there use to be snow covering the ground for an extended period of time. During y time there it only snowed properly once and the snow was melted by afternoon. They tell me it use to come up to their knees and sometimes hips in extreme times.  Ahh climate change, something that is passionately argued about. I just wish the skeptics would come and hear some of the stories about how the seasons are changing.

I was thankful for my year cycle of the seasons. I learnt how to live in such a cold dry environment and watched how the people lived with the cycles. I loved seeing the monsoon coming and the rice fields boom. I even laughed at mother natures tricky surprise of the marijuana growing wild on the side of the roads.

I hope you enjoyed the photos of the Bhutanese season.

Gay Daze

I have just spent a month in Australia, visiting family and friends before heading off overseas again for a year. The first weekend I was back marked the Sydney Mardi Gras. This is when the streets of Sydney come alive with colour and excitement as the city celebrates diversity in sexuality and gender. The LGTBQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexed) are out and proSyd Mardi Gras 2015ud. There are drag queens and kings, dykes on bikes, people in leather, amazing and flamboyant costumes and others in hardly anything. There are many themed floats that go past tens of thousands of spectators who are cheering and clapping. the parade originally starting as a rights protest parade around 30 years ago the parade has turned into nothing more than a fantastic celebration of diversity. Mardi Gras brings so many people from around the world that the city’s pockets are lined with tourist dollars.

But not all countries are as open and proud of people who identify as a different sexuality than heterosexual. Bhutan is one of them.

It was a shock when we were at pre-departure training and our country manager mentioned that “homosexuality is illegal in Bhutan”. I think there was a moment of silence amongst us. She asked if that would affect any of us, and of course no one piped up the courage to say yes.

After that phone call we went out of the room and one of our crew said it would affect them. They don’t identify as straight and this was a confronting to know that they could be discriminated against when in Bhutan.

This was my first eye opener to the world of sexuality and what the Bhutanese feel is right, proper, morally wrong, natural and or even just.

I do not identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi or transsexual) however I do believe that we are attracted to kindred souls and it takes a special connection to have a sexual relationship with someone no matter how short or long that relationship maybe. I support gay rights and peoples choices to fall in love with whomever they want to no matter what sexual orientation, race or religion they are.

So  hearing the words that “Homosexuality is illegal in Bhutan” really arouse an awakening and curiosity to what is/was really happening for the LGTBQI people in the land of “Happiness”.

I didn’t look for answers around this topic, instead certain instances came to me. The first one was rather spooky: I was in a shop in Paro and two customers were talking. Well, one was mainly bragging. I was quite shocked at the conversation which went something like this:

Man 1: Yes he was caught having an affair and his wife left him.

Man 2: Oh really

Man 1: It was with a young monk. But we taught that monk a lesson, we threw him in jail.

Ummm GULP. What the F%#@? Did I just hear that correctly??

This conversation got me thinking. Firstly, what is happening in the monasteries? And also, what is really happening in the way of gay rights and the freedom to be in love with anyone you want to be in love with.

Throughout my time in Bhutan I had heard a few other stories of monks having sex with other monks. Naturally they are young men who like to explore their sexuality. It is known to happen in monasteries but it is not spoken about. There have been some reports about monks having a higher than average (compared to the general public) occurrence of STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections).  This is due to lack of access to health services, education about STIs and condoms, though I have read that condoms are now being distributed to monasteries, which is great news.

Watching my fellow volunteer’s journey into life in Bhutan was interesting. As I said above, they were shocked when they found out that homosexuality is illegal in Bhutan. We had many talks about whether or not they should unveil their sexuality to their Bhutanese friends and colleagues or just leave it be. They choose to only reveal their sexuality to friends they considered close, because it avoided questions and generalisations from people who have not had a wider view of how how queer people are just like any other! This is what many LGTBQI foreigners end up doing in Bhutan.

I was on a walk one time with a Bhutanese lady. We are both in our thirties and single. To the Bhutanese this is a strange phenonomen, i.e being in your 30s and single, so she was asking me why I hadn’t gotten married yet. I explained that it isn’t expected as much in our society and at the moment I was happy being single and free to do what I want. I asked her, in a joking way “So what about you, do you not like men, haven’t found the right one, or are just happy being single for a while?” To which she answered “The first one, but we won’t tell our friends because they won’t understand.” So much respect flew from my soul to this lady. She knew she wasn’t into men, happy in her life and was just happy to have a close group of friends and live with her relatives.

I met other women like this. One was my landlord’s daughter who would sneak up to my house to have cigarettes when she was in the village to hide from her father and mother. She was glad I came into the village. She felt that because we were the same age and single she had someone similar to her who would understand why she wasn’t married. Towards the end of my time I asked her if she had had a boyfriend. She said she had one in university but really didn’t care to have another. When I asked her if she had thought about being with a woman she said “We don’t do that in Bhutan.”

And this was a common thing I heard from the Bhutanese. “We don’t have gay people.” “That (homosexuality) doesn’t happen in Bhutan.”  “We don’t talk about that.”  And predominantly they don’t talk about it as they see same sex sexual relationships as “abnormal”.

An expert in the field (a doctor) has told me told that in situations like in Bhutan it is important to change the language of how we speak about being gay or gay sex. We should use the words “Men having Sex with Men” or MSM.

There are some MSM that I know. They don’t identify as homosexual or being gay. Instead they are married with children and are living a double life. One man I know is always seen walking around with his ‘best friend’. They stay out every night returning to their homes very late. Obviously they are in love, but they have to hide their love. I always feel for their families and wives. One of the man’s wives is always looking for his attention and love, but she is left alone at home most of the time waiting for him to return. The other guy lives away from his wife and child for “work purposes”. This is a common thing in Bhutan, as families are sometimes not able to stay together due to limited work opportunities.

These men cannot even think about being able to have an open love. They have never seen an example of it in their community or country. How do they even start to come out and face the challenges they would if they were to be open about their sexuality and love? They love their kids like any father, I have spoken to one of them who is afraid of losing his child if his wife finds out.

This is the fear of most gay men in Bhutan. If they come out they will loose their family and friends (check out this great article).

There are just over 400 known cases of H.I.V in Bhutan, no-one has ever said they have contracted it from anal sex. They say through prostitution in different countries, injecting drugs and vaginal sex. Anal sex is the easiest way to contract the disease. It can be passed through vaginal sex, or blood but the easiest way is analy. When I have spoken to some of these MSM they have little knowledge about the of risks of H.I.V. They have the old fashioned thinking that they don’t need to use protection as they are not going to get their partner pregnant. So obviously this message needs to be stronger and firmer. There are ongoing education sessions going on through local hospitals etc but it doesn’t seem like the message is getting out there to the general public. The centre who is doing H.I.V tests are targeting places such as mechanic workshops but aren’t focusing on places where other MSM could be, which as we know in the west is EVERYWHERE else!

A student's understanding of the risks of contracting HIV.
A student’s understanding of the risks of contracting HIV.

The posters that are used for H.I.V awareness across the nation are very old fashioned they are not specific about how H.I.V is passed on and what it is. As is the education programs in schools. This is a photo of a an poster by a student. They understand that H.I.V can be passed on from sharing needles and scissors (to cut hair??!!) but sex is not spoken about!

I think Bhutan needs to be more open and specific when talking about gender and sexuality. For instance I have been told that there are some people in Bhutan who are trans and have undergone a sex change in other countries. They come to get their vital drugs from the hospital under the guise of being a cancer patient. It is great that they are treated but why does their life and needs need to be hidden?

I am not sure what the next steps forward for the Bhutanese LGTBQI community are. As I left Bhutan for Australia I came via Thailand. I love Thailand because as one of my Thai friends says “Anything goes” in relation to sexuality. They embrace difference and people are allowed to be openly free to choose to be in love with whoever they want. This is at the extreme end of the sexuality spectrum that Bhutan is at.

I just hope that the Bhutanese people realise that we don’t need to discriminate against or hide differing sexualities and genders. WE ARE ONE: one people, one blood and one communal heart beat that share this earth. We all have to need and the desire to love who we want to love and we should all be free to do so. We Are One

Learning Daze

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Learning through GNH

I work in a school in Bhutan. There are many similarities to the schools I have worked in Scotland and Australia, there are also many differences.

Firstly I must point out how respectful and polite the students are. In and out of the school grounds they will always bow slightly and greet a teacher with a good morning, afternoon or evening. Compared to the behavior problems that we face in our classes in schools across Australia there is hardly an issue at all. The kids are not that defiant and the major problems I hear about are that the kids are wearing the wrong shoes or have got a bit of creative with their hair.

There are a few reasons I think that contribute to this uniformality or obedience. One is that corporal punishment has been a part of the education system for a long time. The ministry is trying to get teachers to not hit the kids but it is still evident. Insert link to paper article.

When I have had a discussion with teachers about corporal punishment they believe that they are not hurting the students they are actually assisting them to do the right thing. I have been told by one of most ‘powerful’ teachers at my school that she is not hitting them, she is just ‘patting’ them. And let me tell you, I wouldn’t want to be patted by this woman. Some teachers believe that they grew up with this punishment so therefore the present generation of students can do too. But then there are the teachers who were traumatized by teachers when they were younger and refuse to hit the kids. One of my colleagues has told me a story about when he was at school a teacher put a live electric wire to the back of his neck to punish him. It burnt his neck in numerous places, he is scarred physically and emotionally. He doesn’t believe that corporal punishment has a place in schools.

Another reason I believe some teachers use corporal punishment is that they do not know simple psychology and alternatives to control student’s behaviour. I have presented many sessions on classroom management, functional behaviour analysis and positive behavior interventions. Some teachers have run with this information and have changed the way they reward and punish behaviour in their classes with positive and negative consequences, while other teachers think that what I speak of is not relevant to the Bhutanese school system and revert back to what they call “the Bhutanese way”, i./e hitting the kids.

The other reason I think the students are so well behaved, and this may be left field to you, is because the school curriculum is taught basically through rote learning.

Gasp!

When I first saw this I thought that this brought the education system back into my parents generation (1940-50s) with some of the classrooms which are shabby rooms with blackboards, it definitely looked like it.

In her book Married To Bhutan Linda insert link and quote perfectly explains what this looks like:

Married to Bhutan Quote

In Australia we teach in a multifaceted way. We incorporate many different technologies and strategies to enhance learning. We believe that we should be facilitating the students to discover and learn from each other through group work, hands on activities and open ended discussion on topics covered in the curriculum. For instance in a Kindergarten class we would have students playing with shapes so they can touch and feel them and discover the properties of the shapes, where are here in Bhutan a teacher would hold the shape up in front of the class:

Teacher: This is a Square

Students: This is a square

Teacher: It has four equal sides

Students: It has four equal sides

Teacher What is this?

Students; This is a square

Teacher: How many sides does it have?

Students: It has four equal sides.

To be honest the classrooms do not have enough resources to allow the students to play with individual shapes, in fact teachers are usually found in the staffroom scrounging for resources or making them themselves. However using one way of teaching is stifling for students who may have learning difficulties or different ways of learning.

Part of the reason GNH is around is to maintain the culture and make sure that people are preserving the traditions and ways of the Bhutanese culture. The whole idea of GNH is to emphasise that culture is a living thing and a part of each citizens everyday life. The Fourth Kind once said  ”I am saddened that our people would want to copy the culture of other countries despite the existence of our distinct culture and etiquette. If we do not think now we cannot show our religion and culture to the world in the future. This, as you know will affect our sovereignty.”

In my opinion rote learning enhances this preservation as it is not teaching the students to think creatively. It is teaching them to do as they are taught. Even at the art schools that teach traditional crafts such as Tankha painting, wood carving and embroidery, they student follow a strict curriculum of traditional ways of doing things and are not taught to put their own creative ideas into their crafts.

There is a few fusion or nontraditional art galleries around Bhutan, however most art work that is made and sold is the traditional type.

Mwa Weaving
Mwa Weaving

Recently I joined a weaving class. The one thing I wanted to take away from Bhutan was the ability to weave. Weaving is a big part of the Bhutanese culture. Both sexes wear gorgeous fabrics that are hand woven with an inspiring array of colors, textures and patterns. In this weaving course I experienced the rote learning system first hand and I must say that I found it somewhat challenging.  Firstly I struggled because unlike most Bhutanese I didn’t grow up around a loom. Most children will have a mother or aunty who weaves. They would have learnt what everything was called and have seen the weaving take shape on a daily basis. In the course I wasn’t told what the parts were called and things were not explained at all. Infact it was more of a watch me do it, now you do it routine. Some of the ladies thought it was funny that I would want to try to do things at first while they were showing me. For instance when the ladies were making my equipment from bamboo with a knife I got out my pocket knife thinking I would copy what they were doing. This was incredibly funny for the ladies making my things. They just shook their head and did made everything for me.

My teacher Aum Leki is an incredible teacher. She has gone to many weaving conventions around the world to teach Bhutanese weaving to fellow weavers so she is an experience teacher too. I eventually got into the swing of things and found the weaving easy. I had to ask questions to find out the whys and the hows as in my mind I need to know these things. Where are the Bhutanese ladies who were learning were just happy to take everything as is and didn’t need to know these things. Things just worked so why question them or need to know more?

A friend of mine is currently teaching Salsa to a group of people. The other day we were talking about ROTE learning and the effects it has. While we both feel it is not THE way to do things she pointed out a very pertinent point as a dance teacher. Her Bhutanese students were picking up the dance routine a lot faster than the foreign teachers as they are use to memorizing a set of facts or steps when it comes to learning something new. She found that her foreigner students weren’t catching onto routine so well as their memory wasn’t so developed.

With hidden memory prompts to keep us flowing
With hidden memory prompts to keep us flowing

I must say, I totally understand this, when a group of foreigners, me included learnt a Traditional Bhutanese dance, we had to have one of us calling out our next moves as we couldn’t for the life of us remember what came next in the sequence… pretty lame hey?!

So how does this go back to student’s behaviour? Well I think that the rote learning system is enforcing that there is one way to do things. For a student to question a teachers teachings is seen as impolite and rude. Unlike myself growing up the students aren’t going to be thinking creatively. They may have small influences that may encourage them to rebel, but all in all the Bhutan’s culture has a way of being. There is a way of life and most people follow it. If a student is seen as having a behaviour issue they may be encouraged to find alternatives to schooling, for instance like one student who has transitioned to the army, or they may just drop out of school all together.

My mum has always praised me for thinking differently. I have put labels on myself in the past as alternative. I am naturally a creative person. I don’t think I would even be here in Bhutan for a year if I hadn’t been able to question a different way of life and explore alternative ways of doing things. For me rote learning doesn’t work I have learnt that. I have always tried to be different. But for the Bhutanese students thinking creatively and ‘outside the square’ isn’t encouraged through a rote schooling system.

AS a special education teacher I know that rote learning also doesn’t work for many students. With the academic emphasis on many students and the rigid way of teaching many students are forced to leave school. I know in time Bhutan will catch up and start to learn how to teach their future generations through different teaching styles, but for now they are in the middle of that change. It will happen slowly and I do believe that culture will be maintained to a certain extent mainly because of the pride and love the people have for their country and King.

Wasted Daze

Moments of silence and reflection of what this path was and still is behind the paro valley.
Moments of silence and reflection of what this path was and still is behind the paro valley.

Today I went for a walk along the old road between the village I live in and the river. I love walking along this road. It leads to the Drukgyel Dzong ruins. It is a dirt path that cars can go along for some of the way, the rest is only accessible by foot or horses. This is a path where illegal trade is carried from China. Things like plastic products and sandalwood. Apparently there is a trade through the night. Horses can be seen carrying wood, endangered Sandalwood which is brought in by trucks from India, usually disguised as a load of sand for the village, then loaded onto horse.

I love walking along this road. I like to imagine the people who have been walking on this track for hundreds of years. I like to imagine what they would have been doing, carrying about their daily chores or perhaps marching to the Dzong to face their death during one of the many wars with the Tibetans.

The road is mostly clean. There is a little bit of rubbish here and there but it is clean. However, this morning my path from my house to the track wasn’t so clean.

The village where I live is 12 kms out of Paro. Paro is the second biggest town in Bhutan. My village doesn’t have a garbage collection. I have asked the locals why and they all tell me that the local Dzongkag (council/county area) says it is too far to come to collect the rubbish. So instead residents either collect their garbage and take it to Paro, burn it or dump it.

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Everyday waste in nature.  Nappies (huggies / diapers) food wrappers and plastics. A sight to almost make you cry.
Everyday waste in nature.
Nappies (huggies / diapers) food wrappers and plastics. A sight to almost make you cry.

This morning as I was starting my walk I saw a girl about 12 throwing two large buckets of rubbish over the wall that divides the road from the High School Grounds. I asked her why she was doing this, she told me everyone else does it. She shrugged her shoulders when I asked her if there was a better way of getting rid of the rubbish. I don’t blame her, she has lived her whole life in the village and she knows of no other alternatives.

When I peered over the fence where she threw the rubbish there was a stream of rubbish along the ground, when the wind picks up it is littered all around the fruit trees that grow around that area. It is not a pretty sight.

Village waste disposal.
The Taxi stand. Where rubbish is also burn due to a lack of organised rubbish collection.

Near where I get a taxi to town there is always the scars of a fire where people have burnt rubbish. Individuals will light a small fire at night and burn their rubbish. Usually others will join in the same disposal methods if they see the firelight from their homes. In the remnants you will find things like cans and glass bottles that have not burnt. And if you walk past you can smell the fumes of the rubbish. You can smell and see the smoke from similar fires spotted over the valley as you walk or cycle through. There is usually cows or dogs going through the remnants trying to find food

There is quite a large area where 500-1000 Indian and Bhutanese army men come every year for six months when they do joint training. While I don’t mix with them socially I love how they take care of the area surrounding their camp.  The locals dump their rubbish in the small waterways and gullies in the area. When the men come in spring they clean up the area and it is back to a pristine natural state. It is sad after their departure to see the rubbish pile up and carried along the streams and earth again.

The rubbish situation isn’t just isolated to my village. Walking trails are littered with rubbish. Popular walking trails which attract a high rate of tourists are dotted with garbage / dust bins. These have usually been put there by schools who are also responsible for collecting the rubbish too. It is a great way for the schools to show initiative and show that they care for their natural environment. It also encourages locals and visitors alike to be responsible for their rubbish. But what happens when there are no bins?

I have been told by many locals that it isn’t the Bhutanese who rubbish trails, it is the foreigners. “The Bhutanese love their environment and would never do such a thing”. Just over a week ago I went on a taxing walk up to 4370mts above sea level. This walk is not known by many foreigners, in fact, it really isn’t a popular walk with the locals either. There wasn’t much rubbish on this track, but there was the odd packet  from a snack or a drink container. As I collected our parties rubbish and stuffed in my backpack I wondered what made people so lazy when it comes to cleaning up after themselves? 20140608_115457

Within the first three months of me being in Bhutan I went on a walk with the school Scouts. We walked 12 kms along the beautiful Paro Valley. I noticed that after the Scouts snacked on their noodles or sweets they would just drop the waste on the ground. I cranked into my teacher mode and did what I would do in Australia: I asked them to pick it up. The kids looked at me weirdly, some picked up their rubbish while others just ignored me. I felt I needed a reinforcement and called on the Vice Principal who was nearby and discussed the issue with her. She told me it was ok as on the way home we would clean up the area as we followed our tracks.  While this is a nice idea I felt it was rather counter-productive. Why didn’t the kids just put their rubbish in their bags or pockets where it came from and then carry it out? I saw the papers blowing around in even the slightest breeze. It appeared I was the only one that was concerned with this.

As I walked through the gorgeous valley and looked up to the lush mountains towards the destination spot I held back if I saw a kid tossing their rubbish, some Scouts were responsible and others carried on with their bad habit. I trusted what this woman said… and believed her word that the Scouts would clean up their rubbish and more the next day. But that didn’t happen. When we stopped at one spot I started collecting the noodle wrappers from the day before, a couple students helped me, some through decency and some through guilt . There was a lot more papers that were left behind as we went along the trail. The Scouts didn’t do a full clean up as I had been told they would by the V.P and she wasn’t at all encouraging them to do it either. In fact she thought it was amusing that a chillip (foreigner i.e me) would care so much. With her and the practice teacher who threw his wrapper in a field as we walked along, I wondered: What hope was there when the kids didn’t really have responsible role models to look to?

Pillar 2 of 4 of the Gross National Happiness states:

The natural environment has become an important economic asset to the country, particularly in the field of energy and tourism. The ethics of conservation must now go beyond the natural environment to cover emerging new areas such as waste management, pollution, recycling, and related areas, which will increasingly impact the quality of life in the future.

Clean Bhutan is a great organisation that, in my opinion, is the most proactive group of people who clean up Bhutan. They have a great reporting system on Facebook which promotes the work they do I have seen them enlist dozens of people to clean up walking trails and areas in villages, cities and the country side. Before, during and after events they are usually there with a bunch of  enthusiastic volunteers cleaning the area. This can be religious events, sporting events or ticketek like parades for foreign prime ministers etc. They are usually trying to spread the word to the public that they need to clean up after themselves, but even though Clean Bhutan has the backing of the 4th king, it still isn’t enough to get through to the majority of the public.

Many schools stop on renowned days such as World Environment Day. My school didn’t have lessons that day, instead the classes were split us and given designated areas to clean. The older classes walked around the community picking up rubbish from the side of the road. I walked and cleaned with one class. The students all brought a rice sack (about 20kg of rice would fit in) and filled them up quickly. It was a great success. After enthusiastically cleaning up we put our collections on the side of the road and the Dzongkag (council / county) area workers came to pick them up.

But like most management in Bhutan I found this quite a reactive way of managing waste rather than pro-active. The next day, I spotted students in the village throwing their food wrappers but the side of the road. If we had employed a more pro-active approach to World Environment Day we could cut down the bad habits. Along with the rubbish collection we could have had a formal lesson with all the students stating the obvious about throwing rubbish away. We could teach them about what materials break down or don’t, talk about how long it takes for these things to break down. We could educate them about leeching and the effects on rubbish on the environment and the crops that surround the area. We could teach them about recycling and even have some lessons where they make waste into useful products. But we didn’t.

“What to do?”

“What to do?” is a saying I hear so much in Bhutan. It is similar to “So be it” or someone just throwing one’s hands in the air and giving up.

“What to do?”

Eerie beautiful polluted water found by the side of the road in the village.
Eerie beautiful polluted water found by the side of the road in the village.

Along with this attitude is also the dangerous attitude of pretending that these things do not happen. The other day I was on facebook and saw a post from the “Bhutan GNH Youth” page. Pictures of pollution in China had been posted with the words: “I m speechless… You got to see it to believe it!!..” and a link to 20+ shocking photos. I posted the photos of the fire pit I have put above and this picture of the polluted yet beautiful water I had taken that day with a caption “Sadly found this in Bhutan today”. The photos were instantly taken off. I posted them again in the comment section. Again deleted straight away. I then asked why they were deleting my comments. No answer.

Like a case of head in the sand, someone who is under the pretence of GNH is making judgements on Bhutan’s powerful and at times hated neighbour, yet they are denying that there are similar issues here in the land of GNH.

I know why people dump rubbish in the village. They fee powerless and helpless. they feel there are no options except that. They don’t feel they can approach the Dzongkag and ask them to organise a rubbish collection. Maybe it is the Bhutanese way of thinking. That is why they are always asking for  foreign sponsorship and help.

Recently Japan has been very generous and donated 4 rubbish trucks to the city of Thimphu. This has revolutionised the rubbish collection. The truck arrives and sounds it’s ‘alarm’, people bring their rubbish to the truck and it compacts the waste and takes it away. It is wonderful and I hope that soon the Bhutan government implements a similar system in other areas of the country. I hope they don’t wait for countries to donate the trucks, I hope that they make such an initiative a priority to save the environment. If you are thinking the country cannot afford such initiatives, trust me there is a lot of cash floating around, it is just getting put into the wrong pockets!

Back to grassroots village daze. At some point people are going to have to empower themselves. They can combine together. Start by writing a letter and collecting signatures (or thumb print for those that cannot write) and show that the people of my village have had enough of the garbage in the area. They should state the damage that is being done to the environment and how GNH principles are not being upheld.

Programs like mine could send volunteers to write and implement education programs about the catastrophic effects rubbish has on the environment and life… not just human but all life. This could be a program for world environment day. But something tells me perhaps this has been done before but isn’t being implemented consistently or like a lot of things a policy has been shelved???

We are one.

We are one with all other living things. It is time that the whole global community works on this principle. Not just as a policy or a charter of GNH or anything else. Actions have to take action, not just be an idea that isn’t implemented consistently.

It is time we stopped saying  “What to do?” and took action!

Down by the river. With my dog and my friend's kids. Beauty in nature and only a few hidden bits of rubbish.  So peaceful and so beautiful. How it is suppose to be.
Down by the river. With my dog and my friend’s kids. Beauty in nature and only a few hidden bits of rubbish.
So peaceful and so beautiful. How it is suppose to be.

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Wealthy Daze

The hardest thing about doing work in a country where they are still developing is the gross generalizations towards you as you come from the “west”. I have heard many rumors and ‘facts’ about me and it gets tiring but then after a while I have learnt to forget about them and just put it down to peoples lack of knowledge and perhaps a hint of arrogance.

The hardest thing that I struggle with every day is people’s perception of my wealth. Being in Bhutan is not the first time I have experienced such an issue. I have travelled to many countries and early on in my travel days I knew about peoples issue and struggles with money and the perception they hold towards us foreigners. It is true that even as a back packer we have more money than most locals in developing countries, after all, we were able to buy a plane ticket to get to our destination and spend weeks if not months  travelling around not working.

The tourist in Bhutan are not backpackers. They are most likely upper middle class to upper class. After all they have to spend $250 a day to get a visa to visit. So the generalization that all foreigners have money is a crude yet realistic one. So where does that place me as an AID worker.

I get a small allowance to pay for my food and accommodation here in Bhutan. This is paid by my government as part of the Aust AID program. It covers my needs and wants and if I am scrupulous enough I can save a little bit for travel. As for my savings, I don’t have much. I like to say that I have enough for a plane trip back and that is about it.

Some of us workers have been asked for money. People will tell us a story about their relative who is sick (even though health care is free in the country) or how they cannot repay a loan. Unfortunately for them we are unable to help. However this is strange for the Bhutanese because for many years they have been use to people “sponsoring” them.

I met a local recently who has an attitude of being sponsor the whole way. He every now and again will take a tour group and earn 30-40 thousand ngultrum in a fortnight. This is plenty to live on for a few months, but when tour groups do not come regularly then you can be stuck. I know that this young man however would like to open a cycling shop in Paro, but he is unable to do it as he “has not found a sponsor”. When I spoke to him about getting a full time job and saving like the rest of us do, he giggled and said he will find a sponsor.

This guy has made many friends from tour groups. He has many “mothers” and “girlfriends” who he believes will send him tools and funds for the shop. They will even invite him to their country and pay for all his expenses apparently. Sadly for him, this is all but a dream.

The dream of overseas sponsorship does happen for some people, but more often than not the promises that the Bhutanese hear about sponsorship are false. At times the Bhutanese have put the idea out there themselves and the tourist have not promised anything, they just don’t feel comfortable enough to say “No”. Little things like old mobile phones and jackets can be sent to the people and often are. I even gave my old iphone to my neighbor when I first arrived. She was so happy as she was a student and was unable to pay for such luxuries. Me on the other hand, well I had a new phone as the iphone was old and slow. She was able to fix it cheaply at a store and is still as happy as Larry with the phone.

The work I do is one that is more of a service. I am trying to build the capacity of the people in relation to Special Education. However when material possessions and money come into factor the knowledge and skills that I have passed on are forgotten quickly. The volunteer before me applied for a small grant and was able to fund the school enough to but things like a computer, scanner, printer and laminator. These things were suppose to be given to the special education teachers but have been siphoned into the mainstream (aka staff office) as the school didn’t have these items. This, mind you, is great but the needs of the special education children are not being met still. I am frequently asked by the principal when I am going to apply for the grant and how much I can get. The sad thing for him is that the grant may not be available and for me I feel like I don’t want to apply as it would just be another computer for the office staff and not for the students.

Just last week I was told that the Vice Principal had told the Queen’s office how lucky the school is to have me as… I was able to source a computer for a child with Cerebral Palsy. The V.P had neglected to tell them about how I have spent hundreds of hours working with the teachers and pupils, the perception of my work was over shadowed by a material item. Which is such a shame.

You can tell from my tone that this has somewhat made me annoyed and upset. I have so many skills that can be taught to the teachers. I feel that it will be a shame when I leave because the staff really won’t remember what I passed on in the way of knowledge, skills and values, instead they will look at a computer or a laminator and remember that it was donated through my organization.

From what I have witnessed, the laptops sit in a cupboard and the laminators get ruined quickly. Even though people love technology, they are still like we were in the early 90s. Just the other day our principal told the teachers that they shouldn’t take their laptops and the schools projector to the classrooms, instead they are to use the chalk boards. Now how is that for progress? While almost all classrooms in Australia have interactive white boards, the Bhutanese teachers who want to move on are being told not to!

So you may be able to work out a vicious circle here. People want things like computers, but they don’t have the know how to use them, then when the people with the knowledge come into the situation to enhance their skills and knowledge they are not utilized accordingly, instead, they are asked for more equipment so the school.

I am not knocking aid programs like mine; in fact I think they are really powerful on the road to development. People’s knowledge and skills should go hand in hand with equipment. Equipment especially technology breaks, money gets spent but the things we can learn from each other can last for generations to come.

Green Daze

Vegetarian food for everyone
Vegetarian food for everyone

Once a month we have “Green Day” at school. This means that the children have to bring their lunch to school . This lunch has to be a vegetarian meal.

What usually happens at schools in Bhutan is that students will go to their homes where their parents or care minders will have rice and curries (Emma Datsi for instance) prepared for them. Lunch time is around 50mins so there is plenty of time to walk home and eat and return to school for a little bit of play with friends.

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Sak (Spinach) Curry along with Kewa (potato) datsi (chilli).

I am lucky enough to live next door to a great family. The mother of the Family, Sonam, cooks lunch for the three children in her care and me every day. There is always Emma Datsi and another plate of food on the table as well as an abundance of rice. She will make the usual chili and cheese curries with whatever vegetable is in season, such as cauliflower, spinach or potato. She usually has a pork, beef or chicken dish too. I am not keen on the meat here in Bhutan. It is from India as the Bhutanese feel that it against their religion to kill anything, but they will eat it if someone else has killed it. So the meat travels along way and it is usually full of bones and grisaille.

On Green Days, Sonam and many other parents will bring tiffans to school and wait on the oval for their children to finish their lesson. The children will sit in the class together with their teachers and have their vegetarian meal. It is a nice communal activity and the children will usually share their different curries with one another and the teachers.

Some children live far away from school. I know of one20140514_123616 boy who walks around 6kms each way, everyday to school. He leaves home at 6:30am every morning. Of course he is unable to go home for lunch, so instead he will bring a packed lunch. Packed lunches come in little plastic tiffins. In the old days tiffins were made of metal, now they are insulated and plastic to keep the food warm. So for the children that eat their packed lunch at school, Green day will not be too different from the usual thing they do, except there will be no meat.

If you are a boarder at a school, like the students in the Deaf Education Unit or the some in the Higher Secondary school, you will go to the dining hall. Here you will all eat together. On Green Days these boarding children will still go to the dining hall but they will be served a vegetarian meal.

I really appreciate Green Days. The Bhutanese have a very narrow taste in food and they do love their meat, even if they cannot bring themselves to kill it.  I appreciate the sense of community it brings the school. The children enjoy eating together. The P.P (Kindergarten) kids are lively and funny and are learning great social skills. The older students go to a great effort to make a great meal to share. The day also shows students that eating meat is not necessary all the time. It is rare to find an vegetarian Buddhist, so Green Day brings in at least one day a month the need to not eat meat and have a pure diet that has not caused any killing of fellow earthly spirits.

 The parents wait to hand over the tiffins.
The parents wait to hand over the tiffins.
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Parents on the lawn waiting to give their kids lunch for Green Day.
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20141023_13105120141023_125010 A senior classes beatiful shared lunch. Creating a great sense of community and togetherness.
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Senior Boys getting into their Green Day feast.