Note from Ashley: After a month and a half of living in and falling in love with Nangkor, Mike has returned to the capital, Thimphu, to try a new adventure. He will be substitute teaching for about the next two months for a fellow BCF teacher that is on leave. I, of course, am still in Nangkor teaching at the higher secondary school. This marks the first time that we have spent more than a week apart in the 11 years we've been together.
I've now traveled to and from Thimphu in the west and our village, Nangkor, in the east. Looking at numbers, it would appear to be no big deal. As the crow flies, we are only talking about 400 km, with a grand total of only 600 and some kilometres if you take into account all the curves in the road.
But, it is a bit of a big deal. The highway is a partially paved, cliff-skirting, mountain climbing, twisting, single lane roadway. There are no speed limit postings but, in a way, that makes sense. There's just no need for them. I've heard tales of drivers who have gone as fast as 50km/hr, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime top speed, reached for mere seconds. The majority of traffic seems to move somewhere between the speed of walking and about 30 km/hr - not including stops for road construction, of course (the road is being widened so this post stands the chance of becoming an outdated relic in the near future).
With that perspective, I can now tell you that our trip from Thimphu to Nangkor took us a total of five days. In fairness, we were making a lot of stops, as we had 16 new teachers, not including ourselves, to drop off along the way. I'm also happy to report that I've just beat my previous record in the reverse direction. Only four days this time!
Truth be told, I don't do much hitchhiking. I'm usually happy enough to take a bus (except in Canada where it's cheaper to drive a rental car). But, Bhutan is special. It's unlike any other country I've visited, in a very good way. For one, there's virtually no violent crime. Second, people are friendly and helpful. Nearly every passerby stops to ask where I'm going even when I'm not trying to hitch a ride, and there's nearly a 100% chance that any car passing will stop to pick me up if they have the space to squeeze me in. Third, I have those 16 teachers scattered along the road who can give me a place to spend the night. Considering this, hitchhiking seemed like the best possible mode of travel available to me.
First Stop - Khaling
Easy as pi. I started out at 8:30AM. Before I had taken my 100th step along the road I was comfortably seated inside a vehicle. The driver took me up the hill to Pemagatshel Dzong. From there I waited only 10 minutes before a gypsum truck pulled over and took me to the highway junction. I'd already come a good distance considering it was just time for lunch. I sat by the road and consumed some of my travel snacks. Like magic, just as I finished my last bite of cracker, I had my next ride. It was the blood truck headed to Mongar Hospital with fresh donations. The driver spoke incredibly good English. We chatted about Canada, Bhutan, Sharshopka, the hospital, the guy who got an arrow in the eye during Losar, trekking, and Buddhism all the way to Khaling. I could have kept going all the way to Mongar, but I had already planned to visit my friends Brett and Angie for the night. Here's what's crazy though. None of the drivers would accept a single cent from me despite the fact that I offered. Even more, the driver headed to Mongar exchanged phone numbers with me and bought me tea and lunch before saying goodbye.
It was great catching up with Brett and Angie. Brett the chef, cooked a nice meal and shared some of his private scotch reserve with me. Not to mention the rare gift of brewed coffee. A resounding success for the first day.
Second Stop - Kilkhar, Mongar
Mongar is not that far from Khaling, so I had a leisurely morning and started a little later than the day before. It was nearly 10:30 by the time I hiked up to the highway. I was a little eager to stretch my legs, so I started walking. I had made it less than 1km before a mechanical engineer picked me up. He works for the Bhutan Power Corporation and was on his way home. We had a lot to talk about, as I'm also an engineer, and I too used to work for a power corporation. The time flew by, and before I knew it I was standing right outside Paul's house, where I spent the night.
I was rather lucky to arrive the day that I did. Paul was invited out to a birthday party, and I was asked to come with. I got to meet a good portion of the staff that Paul works with - who, of course, ensured that I was well-fed and watered. We sang and danced until the middle of the night to a mix of traditional Bhutanese songs, western dance songs, and the chicken dance (which was a smash hit amongst both children and adults)!
At the party, I was told that hitching a ride between Mongar and Bumtang would be nearly impossible. Partly because I wanted to leave Sunday morning, and there would be little to no traffic, and partly because I'd be going up the mountain. Assuming that I could only find a ride part way, I'd have to be prepared for the cold. Which I wasn't.
It turns out the bus is reasonably cheep 615Nu ($12CAD), so I didn't fight the advice. I had to get up early, which was a bit of a feat after the wild night before, but I managed to get there in time to purchase the last ticket to Thimphu.
Day 3 - Chumey
It took 9 hours on the bus to reach Jakar in Bumtang. During the day, I met a wood carver from Mongar who is planning to start work on a monastery alter in Pemagatshel soon. We exchanged phone numbers so that I could see his work once he got started. His English was very good and he helped me to communicate with the driver. My intention was not to spend the night at the hotel where the bus had stopped, but to press on to Chumey and visit the Diver family for the night. This entailed a morning pickup on the highway from the bus driver.
As luck had it, the Divers were in Jakar shopping, so it was easy enough to meet up with them and share a cab back to their house. Again, it was nice to share a good meal and conversation. In the morning, I received some homemade bread for the road, which I found a real treat, and the bus picked me up as planned.
Day 4 - Thimphu
My friend the wood carver wasn't on the bus today, He wasn't planning to go past Bumthang. I was a little worried that I wouldn't have anyone to talk to the whole day, but I needn't have been. The lady who I had been sitting beside all 9 hours the day before greeted me with a few simple words in English when I was picked up in the morning and it didn't take long before we were conversing in a mix of Sharshopska and English. She taught me some new words, and we were able to tell each other about our families and their various jobs.
During a lunch stop, I randomly met an agriculture officer who is working on a project near Chamgang, the village that I'm relocating to. Again we exchanged phone numbers and promises of meeting again.
There was a little excitement on the bus when a taxi driver passed us, stopped on the middle of the road in front of us, then got out and began yelling at our bus driver. I have no idea what it was about, but it did escalate to fisticuffs. At one point, the taxi driver jumped into the bus seat and let go of the brake. There was a moment of panic while everyone scrambled to get off the bus, and the men outside manhandled the taxi driver to the ground.
Shortly after, the whole ordeal just kind of ended. The taxi driver got back into his taxi and sped off into the sunset. I'm still baffled as to what it was all about. I don't think I've witnessed someone raise their voice in this country, let alone fight. It's hard to describe how out of place the whole thing seemed.
Anyway, I had a pretty good time hitching and bussing my way around Bhutan. On my way back towards Nangkor, I intend to do it again. Perhaps with more hitching and less bussing. I'd share some photos, but my internet just isn't good enough to do it right now. Stay tuned for when I find a free wifi connection.
Starting the Day with MeaningI have never been more awed than when I first took in the daily assembly at my school. Students were reporting for the first time that morning, and they lined up in perfectly straight rows by class and section with seemingly no instruction. As the assembly began, they fell silent. Student captains led the student body in their morning chanting. Perfectly in unison, the deep baritone of the older boys and the soft, melodic tones of the girls blended together in perfect harmony and filled the space between us and the mountains. I found myself listening from a place deep within. It was surreal, listening to their melodic chants and peering out over their heads at the peaks across the valley as the sun rose in the sky. The students did not appear to be bored or restless with the routine - they remained dedicated and engrossed in the task. It was a deeply spiritual, perfectly beautiful moment that has become one of my favourite parts of each day.
Mandatory Staff PartiesAttendance at staff parties is required of all staff. I'm not kidding... for the first party I was invited to, I had to sign in duplicate that I would attend. As I would find out, attendance was not the only mandatory part of a Bhutanese party... a strong liver, huge appetite, legs that can take hours of sitting on the floor, the ability to say no when you mean yes, acceptance that even when you mean no you will be ignored and served more, a fondness for chilies (or at least the ability to grin and bear them as the tears roll down your cheek and mingle with the snot that drips ceaselessly from your nose), coordinated group dancing, and singing in Dzongkha. All mandatory. Oh, and for the fellas - the ability to open a beer bottle with your teeth. Of course, attendance doesn't need to be mandatory. Everyone wants to go anyways. Spouses and children are welcome to join. Community, celebration, and togetherness are the name of the game here.
Smiles.Everywhere I go, people laugh and smile at me. I am the first white person that most of my students have EVER met. When I say "hi" to the shyer ones on a village path, they turn and run. But first, they giggle and smile. I have had a few rather excited and animated conversations with the elderly woman that lives in the next abode. I have no idea what she was trying to say, but she smiled when she did it. All these smiles are contagious... I find myself grinning like a fool all day. Honestly, I can't remember a time where I've felt so much joy so often. The only time I have a hard time finding smiles is when I pull a camera out. Most of my students get really serious when they pose for photos. We've been working on breaking that habit, so that their beauty and spirit can shine in the photos.
CommunityEverything in Bhutan comes down to community and togetherness. In Canada, I can spend an entire day teaching without interacting with another adult in the building. Here, my desk is in a room with half the other staff. I am never alone in the staff room, and there is almost always a conversation to be had. People work hard, but they value their time off. If teachers have a free period and don't need to be planning or marking, they're not. I still use my free time to create work for myself. They use their free time to tell stories until they are crying from laughing so hard.... you tell me which one is a better use of time. After work or school, students and teachers alike can be found playing football (or soccer, for all you North Americans), basketball, volleyball, khuru (darts), archery, a table game not unlike airless air hockey, and a game with rocks that I have yet to figure out. And it's always together. I have yet to see someone go practice archery by themselves, or go for a walk by themselves, or shoot hoops by themselves... when the sun is up, people are outside and together.
Perpetual KindnessWe live 10 km down the mountain from the nearest "town." It takes 30 minutes by car or maybe 90 minutes of walking to reach Pemagatshel. I have yet to find out the exact length of time required to walk, however, because I can't make the trek without being invited in for tea (by someone I've never met), being offered a ride (whether I'm hitching or not), or stopping to watch the monkeys and langurs playing in the trees. The other day, Mike and I went up to town to visit the ATM since we were literally down to our last dollar (no big deal... everyone at the shops will let us buy on credit). On our walk back down, a car stopped and offered us a ride back to Nangkor. The young man inside (whom we'd never met or even seen before) knew we had been to the ATM and were on our way back home. In any other country, I would be concerned about his intentions in picking us up. Here, the thought of malicious intent didn't even cross my mind. At least not until much later when a friend mentioned it on Facebook.
My StudentsI am just starting to get to know my students, but they are such beautiful people. Their respect, kindness, and curiosity make me smile everyday. In Canada, it was a rare moment to get a thank you from my students. Here, the class thanks me each and every day as I leave their room. I am so lucky to be here doing what I am doing. As promised, this post didn't do Bhutan much justice... but, unless you came yourself, I don't think you could ever truly understand. Maybe that's why I can't seem to explain it... it needs to be experienced.
How did we get here?Note: It was a bit of a long journey to get here through the BCF. If you want to read all the details, great. If not, don't miss out on the photos at the end! It all starts back in 2010 when we first decided to quit our jobs, sell our possessions and explore the world... March 2010 - We decide to take a one-year leave of absence and travel the world. November 2010 - I apply for a leave of absence. It is denied within minutes. I put in my resignation the next day. Our one-year timeline has been blown wide open. December 2010 - While flipping through an "Off The Beaten Path" travel guide, I read about Bhutan for the first time (offered as an alternative to trekking in Nepal). I immediately showed Mike, but when we discover the visa costs ($200-$250 per person per day) we put it on the "we'd love to, but it will never happen" list. I can't shake the feeling that our frugality is creating a missed opportunity. Somehow, I am already in love with this country. July 6, 2011 - We leave home for our RTW with no itinerary and no return date. This begins an amazing journey of personal discovery. Over the course of 21 months on the road, we began to turn our thoughts towards home again. February 2, 2013 - We try to explain to a nomadic friend of ours that we are ready to move home, get jobs, and settle down for a while. He isn't sold. More telling, however, is that neither are we. February 3, 2013 - We decide we are ready to settle down and get jobs, but maybe Canada isn't what we're looking for right now. We start researching ESL jobs online, with the intention of both of us teaching English for a year. Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Mongolia top our list. February 5, 2013 - Still searching for that perfect job, I come across a listing for a volunteer teaching position in Bhutan. It requires a Bachelor of Education, three years teaching experience, or a teaching certificate. I have all three. Mike does not. We dismiss it. February 10, 2013 - Still dreaming of the possibility, I check out the Bhutan teaching opportunity again. Buried on the BCF's website, I find that non-teaching spouses are able to accompany teachers. It doesn't take long for this to trump all other options. We decided then and there that we need to make this happen. March 23, 2013 - We return to Canada. When anyone asks if we're back for good, we tell them we want to teach in Bhutan for a year. We haven't even applied yet, but we're not going to let that stop us. Meanwhile, I start substitute teaching. Subbing allows me to reaffirm that teaching is what I'm meant to do... but I crave connections with students that subbing doesn't allow for. May 1, 2013 - Applications for the 2014 BCF school year open. I spend a good chunk of my day updating my resume, filling out the lengthy application and going over it again and again. I submit it that very afternoon. May 14, 2013 - I am offered a permanent contract with my former school division. These aren't always quick to come by, so I have to at least consider it. Although the BCF timeline is a little vague, I know the first round of interviews happen sometime in June and applications don't even close until July. I contact the BCF foundation to see if I'm even a potential candidate. They assure me that my teaching experience + my specialty (a Bachelor's of Mathematics) make me "a VERY strong candidate." I turn down the contract. Meanwhile, I accept a temporary contract that will have me teaching accounting (had to learn it over a long weekend!) and math until the end of June. May 28, 2013 - I receive an email requesting a first interview with BCF. I am so excited! June 14, 2013 - My first interview with the BCF takes place via Skype. It is with Jenna and Kristen of the BCF office in Toronto. I have my choice of time slots... but they are all during school hours. Fortunately, one falls on the afternoon of my first final exam, so I don't have any students. I am told it will last about 45 minutes. It only lasts 20. I think this is a good sign. Most of the interview questions were about my credentials and how I would deal with some of the basic living and working conditions in Bhutan. I share my experiences living in my house in Bulgaria for a month with no power, no running water, and no working toilet. They are convinced I'll be okay. June 20, 2013 - I find out I've earned a second interview. June 27, 2013 - My second interview with BCF. This one is over Skype with a BCF representative in Bhutan, three Bhutanese math teachers, and a government official. I am sent the Grade 9 and 11 math curriculums to prepare. I expect to be quizzed on long-range plans, classroom management, project-based and inquiry learning, and questions like "What would you do if half your class fails a test?". I am right. For the first 10 minutes. Then begins 40 minutes of firing round questions from the math teachers on how I would teach everything from logarithms to continuity to stocks and bonds to digraphs. I don't even know what digraphs are. I am familiar with their other questions, but having never taught the senior maths (thus far, my experience was with Grade 9, 10, and some 11 math) I have not considered how to teach these concepts. Or even looked at them in the seven years since university. Did I mention that it is a 6 am interview? Good thing they can only see my neck up, because I am sweating profusely. I don't even know how to answer half the questions, but I spit some feeble words out hoping they will let up. They don't. I am decimated. And it's still only 7 am. I feel sick to my stomach and feel the dream slipping away. I refuse to answer anyone's questions about it, except to say it could have gone better. I find a few minutes that afternoon to meditate, as it is the only way to clear the feeling of dread that consumed me. June 28, 2013 - Once the tiredness wears off, I look at my situation logically. I didn't answer the questions to my personal standard, but did I really do that bad? And if I did, perhaps I could beg a second chance and spend some time preparing for it. I decide to just deal with whatever outcome there is and stop losing sleep over it. July 7, 2013 - Nearly two years after we left for our RTW trip, we leave home for a two-month eastern Canada tour. We carry all our Bhutan documents with us in physical and digital form... just in case. July 10, 2013 - It turns out all the worry and panic were for naught. The BCF contacts me to tell me that they want to move forward with my application. I start organizing the documentation. August , 2013 - While getting a strange noise in our car investigated at a dealership in Sault-Sainte Marie, I take advantage of the free wifi to discover that my name is officially being put forward by the BCF for government approval. Mike and I do our happy dance. September 13, 2013 - I submit all documentation, including a complete medical. We also return home from our Eastern Canada trip. October 13, 2013 - I am offered a replacement contract at my old school in Regina until the end of first semester. I double check the Bhutan timeline. I would have to be Bhutan the day students would start their semester one finals. The school accommodates me, and I start a full-time teaching gig that keeps me insanely busy for the next three months. October 26, 2013 - I FINALLY hear that the Bhutan Ministry of Education has approved my application. It's almost official. Just need the rubber stamp from the Royal Cival Service Commission. November 14, 2013 - The RCSC has rubber-stamped my application. Five and a half months after submitting my documentation, I AM OFFICIALLY GOING TO BHUTAN. November 27, 2013 - We find our our placement. Nangkhor, Pemagatshel in southeastern Bhutan. That's really all we know and can find out... the name. November 30, 2013 - We submit our final documents and BCF contract. December 14, 2013 - We pay the BCF for our Druk Air flights from Bangkok to Bhutan and the required medical insurance. December 21 to January 5, 2013 - We try to get in as many last hurrahs with friends and family as we can during Christmas break. Unfortunately, this leaves little time or energy to think about packing. January 9 & 10, 2013 - I give three math classes their final exams in class (and mark them!), plus mark my Computer Science 20/30 final projects. This is a marathon no teacher should ever have to do. January 11, 2013 - We start packing. And by packing, I mean throwing things we think we want to take in a pile in the middle of Mike's parents living room. Luckily, they tolerated our pile for 4 days. January 13, 2013 - I finish my last day of work. Now to fully turn my attention to Bhutan. January 14, 2013 - At 3:30 pm, the first item gets packed in a backpack. We're due at my mom's at 6pm, where we will spend the night and get an early morning ride to the airport. We also receive a little more information about our placement location, school, and accommodation. January 15, 2013 - We leave home, flying from Regina to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Bangkok. Luckily we have 4 days to recover from jet lag and general exhaustion in BKK. January 16, 2013 - Somewhere in Tokyo, we find our DrukAir eTickets in our inboxes. We were relieved and happy to have them. January 17, 2013 - After arriving in Bangkok, we finally receive our Bhutan visa clearances. Whew! January 21, 2013 - Despite the lack of airport shuttles running, we have no problems flagging a taxi at 3:30 in the morning and arrive at the airport with lots of time to spare. After an amazing descent in Paro valley, we land in Bhutan and are instantly blown away. The BCF had approximately 250 applicants this year. Eighty were granted a first-round interview, 60 were granted a second-round one, and I am one of the lucky 18 that made it to this point. As you can see, it was a loooong process from the date of application to the official confirmation that we were accepted. But it was 100% worth the wait. I'm sure you're all dying to know the nitty gritty details about my placement and what's to come, but now you're going to have to wait. Because right now, we're on BST (Bhutan Stretchable Time). And, more importantly, I have an incredible city to explore. Until next time... (whenever that will be - we have no idea what the internet situation is going to look like from this point forward).
A quote from Ashley's personal facebook page: Two days before we left home, my netbook gave up the ghost. When we got home from replacing it, one of the USB ports in Mike's laptop went kaput. And a flash drive called it quits. Since arriving in Bangkok, my purse strap gave way and Mike's favourite (and most expensive) SLR camera lens conked out. This must be the universe's way of telling us we don't need so much stuff. I sure hope it's done, because I'm out of idioms that mean broken.Last night, my wide angle camera lens bit the bullet. It seems to have suffered some sort of electrical malfunction. This is my favourite lens. The producer of such photos as these: been playing host to a protest site since the 13th of January. It's also nearby the Hua Chang Bridge where a shooting incident left two injured in the early hours of the 15th of January. I also found this map which identifies the protest sites and violent clashes which may be of interest to you if you are currently in Bangkok, or arriving soon. View Protest Sites during Bangkok Shutdown in January 2014 in a larger map So, like the good idiot I am, I dragged Ashley through the barricades, bag searches, vendors, news vans, and into the mall. I got a good story, some poor photos, a new camera lense, and a brief period of racing heart syndrome. Gladly, I can report that we made it in and out completely unscathed. I feel just like one of the fence hoppers I mentioned above. I sure hope that they all made it out unscathed too. P.S. Don't tell my mom.