Monday, November 18, 2013

Broken Tooth

All of us, BCF teachers that is, here in Bhutan this year agree that the ever changing schedule is simply part of the flow of life. Given a choice I suspect most Bhutanese would use schedules as rough guides, certainly not something to be followed directly. The westernization that has accompanied much modernization here brings with it a society of schedules, school schedules, work schedules, business hours, etc. During the year I have come to anticipate changes and surprises in the school schedule by planning very loosely so that there can easily be extra days either of class or no class. The grand finale for scheduling surprises came one recent Thursday when at midday it became apparent that it was going to be my last day in the class room. How can a teacher be surprised about the last day of classes for the year? We were given a schedule for the school year which had been followed as a set of guidelines, the major holidays, national occasions shown on every calendar in the country, were reliable and provided a framework for the school schedule. The mid-year break had moved around quite a bit before it was nailed down, many school events were shifted to accommodate this or that, so I was prepared for surprises. Originally our final exam period was to begin November 16, it was then preponed, yes isn’t that such a practical term, to Wednesday, November 13. I have mentioned Bhutan’s small size and homogenous culture several times, one result is that many things are not discussed because everyone knows already, often everyone but me. Everyone knows, for example, that the day before the final exam period begins is spent arranging the school for exams. Every student is assigned a seat for the exam period. The rooms are set up with two students at each table who are not the same grade level so will never be taking similar exams. This takes a good bit of planning and arranging of tables and chairs. The rooms are then cleaned of all educational materials and locked. Although I had experienced this process at mid term I had forgotten about it. So that took care of Tuesday. Monday was a national holiday, no surprise there. This is one of the holidays where the students do not have classes but we did have the final awards program and lunch that day so everyone was at school for part of the day. Sunday is never a class day. Saturday had been scheduled for the school picnic. Remember, Saturday is a school day in Bhutan. This is one of the events that happens every year, it appears on the school calendar but perhaps only as a reminder to reschedule it where it might fit as the time draws near. This had been discussed during a faculty meeting and I was, for once, aware of the plans. Then on Thursday an emissary from MOE (Ministry of Education) arrived at school with a set of assessment exams to be administered to all Class X  (grade 10) students on Friday. Several teachers were needed to invigilate and I was asked. I teach no Class X but it was important for me to do as I was asked. So, around noon on Thursday I discovered I had just had my last classes as a class room teacher a full eight days ahead of what I had originally had in mind based on my interpretation of the school calendar. For my Class VII and XI students the last day of class was November 8, school is “in session” until December 15. Prior to exams the whole school has many days dedicated to “revision,” or review. All in all a full two months of the school year is dedicated to the annual exam period. At mid term a bit more than one month was dedicated to exams. In the end more than 30% of the school year is given to exams, in my mind this is a disservice to the students who are investing a large part of their lives in the pursuit of an education. Much more time could be spent learning and much less time dedicated to exams, but my year here is meant to broaden the perspectives of my students, not to change the system.

One result of all the exam time is a lot of time for teachers. The National Board Exams taken by all Class X and XII students are administered by a visiting team of invigilators drawn from other schools. Some of our teachers travelled to other schools to administer exams. The teachers are paid extra for this and many enjoy the chance to travel a bit and to see and do some different things. For those of us who stay at school the schedule is pretty loose. Last week I ended up with a broken tooth and I found that I must travel to Thimphu for dental care. A bit of medical leave and presto I had a four day weekend and missed no duties at school. I visited friends in Thimphu, did the city thing, had the broken portion of my tooth removed, after looking at an x-ray the doctor told me I needed a root canal. He prescribed a course of antibiotics and made an appointment for the following Friday. The doctor is Indian, spoke English well, explained the situation to me, I will see how it all goes. It will mean a lot of trips over Dochu La, the high pass between here and Thimphu. This time of years bodes clear skies and spectacular views accompanied by 2-3hrs of bumpy, crowded time in cars.

Friday night was spent in Punakha with a fellow BCF teacher. The following midmorning we left for Sewala Buddhist Institute, something around 9 miles and many thousand feet above Punakha. The trail led up onto a ridge which we followed most of the way. The hiking was spectacular, the
views amazing in all directions and the terrain amenable to wonderful walking, the cool fall air was a bonus as well. Part way up we came upon a small ridge top temple, Jili Lakhan, or “cat temple.” And old monk showed us around, his paintings adorned the walls, worn spots on the floor spoke of countless prostrations. It was an enchanting place indeed and we spent a wonderful hour. As the hours passed we began to glimpse our goal which always looked to be quite far away. But steady walking covers distance and we arrived at Sewala around 4:00 in the afternoon. We sat on a bench with high
peaks on two sides and an overview of our entire hike, monks met us with glasses of chilled fruit juice, an auspicious arrival for us to say the least. These places, perched on high ridges all over Bhutan, can be surprisingly large. Most now have access via very rough, rudimentary roads. Here at Sewala there are four temples, the oldest established almost 300 years ago. The monks number 108 which includes 30 younger monks in the Lobdra or lower school and 50 in the upper classes. We were visiting on a weekend and many monks were playing kuru, watching TV (only on weekends), and looking forward to Sunday volleyball.

The hike had been long and the destination was to be cherished, perhaps this place called for more than a brief stop. I suggested that sunrise might be a worthwhile experience. That idea carried and we inquired, a rather
plush guest house was available, several monks showed us around, kept us company, cooked for us, and prepared two very cushy beds heaped with blankets and quilts. The sun set in a clear sky, as the alpenglow on the peaks shone against the darkening deep blue sky a full moon lit the night sky. My night’s sleep was everything one might expect at a serene Buddhist learning center tucked high in the Himalayan foothills. We rose before dawn to walk to the Temple at the top of the hill to see the sun clear the ridge of mountains in front of us. The dawn light was enchanting and
included views into the Po Chu and Mo Chu valleys as they merged to become the Punatshang Chu. Low clouds were scattered along the bottoms of the valleys accentuating the shape and flow of the terrain. Just enough cloud on the eastern horizon to give a vivid layer of sunrise color highlighting the mountainous skyline.

After enjoying the sunrise we returned to breakfast and a bit more conversation. Shortly after eating we visited the temple to make a donation to honor our good fortune and headed
down the trail. We made a stop at one point to clean up a beautiful overlook, add some prayer flags, and discover a garden of beautiful pink orchids on the trunk of the tree we tied flags to. The descent was as beautiful as the climb, lunch at Jili Lakhan, and a return to Punakha around 1:00pm. I headed to Bajo to do my usual Sunday shopping, ran into a fellow teacher from Gaselo, and ended up at a kuru match next to the river we had looked down upon over breakfast. The evening sky was a myriad of cotton balls turning dark on one side and sunset reds on the other. As usual, some
waiting around in Bajo while rides sorted themselves out, but finally as a snug four in the backseat we wound our way toward Gaselo drowsing along the way. My groceries had ended up in another car, but that driver is my neighbor and delivered them and said he had dinner waiting for him and that I should join him. It is saag (leafy greens like spinach) season and I enjoyed the 4th saag curry in three days. All were fresh, tasty, and a little different. Eating fresh and seasonally is something that is so easy to lose touch with in the mega supermarkets of the west.

So, the extended exam period and the proclivity for things to work out in ways that are both unforeseen and unplanned, have enabled me to have a wonderful excursion prompted by a broken tooth.

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