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Diary from Bhutan: Too cold to learn

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School closes for the winter in Bhutan as it gets too cold in the buildings to teach and learn. In her seventh diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw talks about the celebrations at the end of term and her visit to Nalanda monastery. After sleeping in a room full of puppies, she enjoys a picnic with the monks, who surprise her by playing competitive sports and cheating at Chinese whispers.

It's the school holidays in Bhutan now – it's far too cold to work in the unheated and draughty school buildings. Exams are over for the students and even the teachers have finished marking and gone back to their villages for the winter. School won't start again until February.

To mark the end of term there was a prize-giving ceremony, with awards for students scoring 100% in tests or coming first in their class – all the students are ranked against each other and given a position in the class.

School lunch, Bhutan
Plate spinning, Bhutan

We also had some guest entertainers in from India, who showed everyone how to spin plates on sticks, make balloon animals, do face painting and play games like Hokey Cokey and What's the time, Mr Wolf? It was a fun way to end the term and to top it off everyone also got a free lunch, served up in the playground. The rice was cooked by the teachers in huge pots over bonfires, so it had the feel of a barbecue, if slightly less warm.

I've been back to Nalanda monastery this month to teach the monks. It's been a while since I saw them but the monks and their Lebeh (teacher) all remembered me. I taught intermediate level classes of about 40 monks. The range in level is huge with this group, as is the age range. The little ones (who are about ten) sat giggling and fidgeting at the front while the older ones (ranging in age from teens to late twenties) sat at the back, diligently taking notes and frowning at the little ones.

We did a lesson on future tenses in preparation for a film I wanted to show them later, and finished off with an amusing and fiercely competitive game of Chinese whispers. It shocked me to see monks cheating but they seemed to find it hilarious.

I stayed over at the monastery that night, and for fun in the evening all 112 monks and Lebeh, packed into the modest TV room to watch Wall.E. At first there was a lot of fiddling around with the computer (the film was on a memory stick) whilst the monks directed me where to position the speakers and passed various computer parts across a sea of expectant heads. Happily, once the film started they loved it. As one monk told me 'We are young, we want a love story!'

Wall.E is the story of Wall.E the robot, left alone on Earth to clean up man-made mountains of rubbish while all the people have evacuated to a distant space ship. He meets the robot Eve (or Eeve-ah' as he calls her) when she is sent to Earth to find signs of plant life. The rest is romance, adventure and intergalactic space travel. As the film ended and the monks drifted off to bed, I could hear several red-robed figures giggling 'Waaall.Eee' and 'Eeve-ah' in impressively accurate robot voices.

Monk at Nalanda monastery, Bhutan

I slept on the floor of the guest room where, in the day time, visitors are normally served milky, sweet Bhutanese tea. I shared with the six monastery puppies, who are plump and healthy compared to most Bhutanese puppies I've met – the benefits of being looked after by monks. There used to be ten puppies but, as Lebeh explained, they are so irresistible that visitors seem to come for blessings and leave with puppies. When I woke up at 5.30 the next morning to get ready for the monks' picnic, the puppies had left several smelly dollops all around the room. Including one right next to my pillow.

Picnic near Nalanda monastery, Bhutan

The next day we spent an idyllic morning picnicking by the river. The young monks all changed into their jeans and T-shirts and played volleyball, football and kuru (Bhutanese darts with 10cm points, thrown as hard as possible at a tiny target 50 meters away – terrifying.) They also swam in the river and played cards while talking on their mobile phones, which are normally forbidden by Lebeh but were allowed on this special occasion.

Kuru, Bhutan

Although I may find it odd to see monks cheating at Chinese whispers, playing highly competitive football and throwing huge darts with violent accuracy, Lebeh explained that most of the boys at his monastery will not go on to be monks. Most of them are sent only to get an education, by parents who can't afford to keep them at home. The monasteries of Bhutan have recently started to receive funding from the government. Previously they relied on donations. Lebeh hopes this will mean access to a better curriculum, since many students finish monastic school with a good religious education but poor maths and English.

Back in Thimphu, I have been getting to know the neighbouring children. Little Sonam, who greets me every morning on my way to work, has been coming to my flat with her four cousins to do art. She doesn't go to school because her parents live in a remote village and don't want her to, so we also practise reading and writing. Sonam's writing is definitely improving, mainly with the help of her cousins. I still hope she will go to school next year.

Art by Sonam, Bhutan

The five children live with their parents and their big sister, Chimi, in a one-room house. Last week they invited me round for tea and their mum gave me two beautiful carvings of cows their grandad had made. Apparently he makes them all the time for the children to play with but I think they are very special.

There's only one bed in Sonam's house, which the kids use. The parents sleep on the floor. Traditional Bhutanese houses, and most schools, have outdoor squat toilets. The toilets in my flat are western-style, and last time the children came round at least one of them left a little puddle on the toilet floor – a little surprise I discovered only once they had left!

Cows carved by Bhutanese grandad

 

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