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Diary from Bhutan: Journey to the centre of Bhutan

Type: Article

In her fourth diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw tells us all about her recent adventures involving insects, pigeons, an earthquake and punctured tyres. Also, a trip to Bumthang where she witnessed a fire festival and sampled some interesting food and drink.

Girl at Thimphu Tsechu

These days I wake up every morning to the sound of cicadas singing outside my window. From Monday to Friday the cicadas sing, all day long, at over 100 decibels (I know that's true because I looked it up). On Saturday and Sunday mornings it feels more like screeching than singing.

They may be noisy but I like cicadas because they stay in their trees and don't bite, unlike the mosquitoes which feast on me nightly or the crickets which are currently invading my classroom at school. Last week one cheeky blighter hopped onto a piece of work I was correcting. I pushed it tentatively to encourage it to move away. It didn't move. I tried again more forcefully. It hopped off and then immediately sprang back. Luckily one of the children deftly scooped it up and deposited it outside, giving me a reproachful look.

Other squatters I've noticed in the classroom recently are the pigeons. They live in the roof and spend the whole day running around like maniacs, scratching frantically on the other side of the thin chipboard ceiling. All that pigeon guano up in the roof is probably a health hazard, too. Lots of the students have been wearing face masks to school recently but I think that's more for fear of swine flu, which there is a bit of a hysteria about at the moment. Still, I'm not complaining, face masks hide little children's runny noses.

Speaking of health hazards, I experienced my first earthquake this week. I've watched the kids at school do safety drills for earthquakes but I never really believed they happened. This one was on a public holiday so I was at home. When the flat started rumbling my first thought was that the neighbours must be doing some kind of extreme DIY. Then came a sliding, rocking feeling and a sound like a roof full of corrugated iron being rattled. I jumped up, panicked a bit and looked outside to see if everyone was evacuating but saw they were just standing in the street chatting. In Thimphu, at least, the earthquake had been minor. I later heard that in the south it was much more severe (6.1 on the Richter scale) with some fatalities.

My university students have been preparing for exams so most are too busy revising to be rebellious. One or two of them still roll in to lessons 20 minutes late, smelling suspiciously smoky, and then sit in a daze at the back of the classroom next to the damp patch where no one else will sit because the toilet's leaked into the wall. But I suppose the exams will sort them out, even if the toilet water won't.

Thimphu Tsechu

The real excitement in Bhutan at the moment is the Tsechus (festivals) that are happening all over the country. Now that the rainy season has finished and the days are hot and sunny, it's perfect for festivals which usually last the whole day and revolve around constant singing and dancing interspersed with blessings or a trip to the temple to pray and see the mandalas (intricate religious drawings) the monks have painstakingly designed in coloured sand. Festivals are usually held in the courtyard of a temple or monastery but they can take place in any open space. And, of course, festival season means no school so the kids love it.

Last weekend we decided to take the bus for twelve hours to Jakar, a small town in the central dzongkhag (region) of Bumthang. Bumthang is considered 'the real Bhutan' and it's certainly much quieter than the capital. In Thimphu the buildings are sometimes up to five stories high and the shops sell items as exotic as olives and French wine. In Jakar the shops are one-storey wooden affairs and a bar of Cadbury's chocolate is exotic. We walked up mountains to remote monasteries and witnessed a fire festival, where people run through a burning gate in the middle of the night to cleanse their sins for the year. We savoured local specialities: buckwheat pancakes with honey, buckwheat noodle soup, rock hard dried cheese (suck it before you bite it or you'll lose your teeth) and some spectacular home brewed 'brandy' made from fermented maize 'with special chemicals added to make it go'. It certainly made us go.

Fire festival, Bumthang

The journey back was extra long because of three punctured tyres. But everyone had fun nonetheless, some typical bus activities including: feeding and playing with the babies on the bus, shouting at pedestrians on the road to make them jump, praying, chatting and, at night, laughing at the cat's eyes in the road (I think these might be a new thing here and the older passengers found them hilarious). People also chewed doma sharing around their newspaper twists full of this Bhutanese delicacy and spitting the red juice out of the window.

Doma, or betel nut, is a Bhutanese speciality that is common (in slighty different forms) in many Asian countries. In Bhutan, betel leaf and areca nut are chewed together with lime (calcium hydroxide, not the fruit). I've yet to try it but I've been told that it cures bad breath, gives you energy and is addictive. Doma is traditional here and so most people chew it. You can see the evidence in the red spots of spat-out juice all over the streets (and down the sides of the buses) and the red-toothed grins of the chewers. Not to mention the sound of people ‘hocking back’ their betel infused saliva, a sound which punctuates the day. I've heard it's becoming less popular with the younger generation – I haven't seen the students at the university do it – for them it's much cooler to smoke since smoking is illegal in Bhutan. Plus, they all want white teeth like in the movies.

So, with exams, natural disasters, national holidays, noise pollution, punctured tyres and the possibility of a swine flu epidemic, this month hasn't been very productive at school or at university. I haven't even seen the monks as they've been too busy preparing for, and conducting, pujas (religious ceremonies). There are more festivals in Thimphu this week, and the season will continue until early December but unfortunately for me, work starts again tomorrow and I still have 80 essays left to mark. Perhaps some of that maize brandy would help or maybe some doma ...

Bumthang valley


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