Monday, April 1, 2013

Life in Ngabiphu

The moon is starting to wane back toward a crescent, marking just over a month that I have been in Bhutan! I am getting used to daily life here, but it is still much to adjust to; either way I would like to share some of these details with you.

Looking up campus toward the Gym and the Mess and mountains behind.
RTC is located in Ngabiphu in the district of Thimphu, about a 25 minute bus ride from the city center. We are up on a big hill which just leads up to bigger hills and mountains all around. The campus is surrounded by forest, with a rocky stream leading along one side. During the day it gets quite warm, but nights are cold, and I am grateful that my roommates have a space heater in our room. Buildings don't typically have heat, and classes are often requested to be held outside in the sunshine where it is significantly warmer. There are a bunch of quirks about ordinary things like doors and bathrooms. For instance: there are no doorknobs, anywhere. Everything is closed with latches, making it extremely possible to be locked into your room via the inaccessible padlock latched on the other side. Luckily for me, I am on the first floor, but it's really just a matter of knowing if your roommates are in the room or nearby. I have two roommates: Kunzang and Tiger. My first impression of them was that they were far too cool for me, but we get along really well and they are always very generous with food and cookies and help me out when I need help with my kira. I try to be generous too. Sharing is somewhat inherent in the lifestyle here, while saving stuff for later is not.

wild Primula blooming in the forest near campus

The set-up of the Wheaton in Bhutan program is that I am enrolled in three courses at the Royal Thimphu College (RTC) and participate in an internship/practicum in addition. Two of the courses are taught by our Professor Owens, the director of the program this semester who is our teacher and group leader; these are the classes I take with the ten other Wheaton students in this program. These courses are called Contemporary Bhutanese Society (CBS), and Bhutanese Language and Culture (BLC). The third course is one which I take with my Bhutanese peers under Professor Sharma. This one is called Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). For my internship, I have successfully been accepted to work at the National Biodiversity Centre in Serbithang, which is about a half-hour walk from campus. I started working there today, in fact, so I will have more details to share on that soon.

A vegetable stand in the marketplace
Prof. Owens explained the logic behind the layout of this program as: with CBS, Bhutan comes to us--on Wednesdays there is usually a lecturer in the school's auditorium who gives a talk to whomever in the student body attends, and our weekly reading assignments reflect different topics relevant to that lecturer, which we write papers about and discuss in class. For BLC: we go out to Bhutan--we have an instructor, Wangchuk, who teaches us Dzongkha on Fridays, and usually the next week there is an activity where we go into Thimphu and are asked to practice what we've learned, as we did in a trip to the vegetable market. Usually, our field trips, such as this past week where we went to the Paro Tsechu festival and the hot-springs in Ghasa (which I'll write about next time!) are also relevant to what we're learning about in these two classes. We've delved into topics such as the changes in the systems of education, Bhutanese history, and the recent process of democratization. This week we're doing more formal readings on Buddhism in Bhutan. Within the respective courses we take with our Bhutanese peers, we are experiencing Bhutanese education in the same respects that they do, though it does seem like a sort-of watered-down experience, since it's just the one course. And, with our internships, we are able to engage with more experiential, non-academic learning in Bhutan beyond campus. Some of the other Wheaties are interning at places such as the Center for Media and Democracy, which encourages public education and involvement in the democratic process; the Zorig Chusam School of Traditional Arts where Sara is learning embroidery; the Jigme Losel Primary School; a Buddhist nunnery; and the Thimphu City Corp., which promotes environmental practices like recycling and reducing pollution in the city.

My EIA class meets every day Monday through Friday for an hour at varying times of day. It's usually lecture style with PowerPoint slides and a pretty typical classroom set up. There are about 20 students in my class. They are all in their sixth and final semester of RTC in either the Environmental Studies/English track or the Environmental Studies/Economics track. The way that "majors'' are set up at RTC is that students select a certain program to follow such as the two I just listed or others such as English/Dzongkha, Business, Political Science and so on, and then they take a pre-determined course load each semester for the three years that they are pursuing their degrees here. For RTC students, classes typically run from 9-5, with an hour off for lunch. Sometimes it isn't a full 9-5 schedule, but it certainly isn't the type of American-style college schedule in which students select their very personalized course loads and classes meet two or three times a week at various times of day.

While the CBS and BLC classes are the familiar student-teacher dynamic of seminar-style courses back home, the classroom setting is very different in EIA. The main topic of the class is the evaluation process that development projects go through in order to protect the environment before, during, and after construction. We are covering a fair amount of material, but frankly, even though the lectures are interesting, they are fairly repetitious, and don't really engage the students. RTC is challenging the traditional learning-by-rote style of education in Bhutan, in which students are just supposed to absorb and memorize what their teacher tells them, but the students almost never ask questions, and at least so far, aren't really required to process the information--just to take it in. One class, when we were instructed to get in small groups and discuss part of the chapter in the textbook, I asked my groupmates what they thought of a certain passage. I said something like: why do you think the author is saying it's so important to have public participation in the review process of these projects? My groupmate answered me by pointing to a line in the textbook and said "well...because they say this" and then read me back the passage.

Classrooms and various campus buildings
So, as much as critical thinking skills are desired by the goals of the curriculum, it's really hard to build them. I really hope this doesn't sound patronizing and 'oh ho, look at me with my western education' because I'm still working on these skills too, but encouraging analytical thinking and creativity is a major goal here, as I've been told. In another instance, we had a group presentation to do (worth 10% of our semester grade) where we were to take an assigned section of the reading and teach the rest of the class about it. The easiest thing to do, and perhaps the most obvious was just for us to summarize the main points and regurgitate the information. I made a point about insisting we had to put it in our own words, which felt pushy, but I think it was the right call. Apparently, plagiarism is a big issue, and one I have been warned to expect frequently when I help out at the Learning Resource Center (I volunteered to help out here since I'm a writing tutor back home). The desire to plagiarize is partly cultural, according to the director of the LRC. There's a mentality that ‘if an expert can say it best, why should I rephrase it? That's more work, and it might not be as good.’ In the traditional monastic education, copying texts verbatim is exactly how one learns and reports. The traditional art of thankas are judged by how closely they reproduce the iconic image they depict. Copying is as aspect of respect for one's teachers and forbears. A lot of teachers don't enforce the rules about plagiarism, and I've heard that students are often afraid they'll lose friends if they don't let them copy.

A happy discovery while exploring the forest road
Yet, for all this talk about respect for teachers, to the point of reverence, the most common thing said in class nearly every day is: pleeease Sir, can't we skip these slides; let's wait until Monday, Sir; Sir, can't we go early today, please Sir. Yes, every sentence contains a ‘Sir’, but holy crap do most students not want to be in class. Usually the professor takes it in stride and makes a joke about laziness or gives a little life-lesson on the value of hard work, and we return to our quiet note-taking. I think a lot of feeling surprised and unsure in class here is still just being a bit of an outsider, and not knowing what is expected, and what is ok, and geezus everyone is looking at me and I have no clue what they're thinking or if they like me or if my kira is on wrong or if I'm being weird or privileged or annoying and I just want to curl up into a ball and roll into the woods and be alone. Bah.

I know I shouldn't feel such a strong impulse to go be an introvert on a rock under a log, and I'm working on it, and I’m trying to make real friends beyond the Wheatie group. It's tough, and I haven't thought so much about what other people think of me since braces and really frizzy hair were the most prominent things on my mind. BUT! Let me talk about things outside class, because they are much more interesting.

OH Man do Bhutanese kids like to party. Whaaat? Well, actually, this shouldn't have been such a surprise, but given the pretty strong rules on campus, I was pretty shocked, though glad for all the wicked fun times we have had so far. There are very strict laws about tobacco in Bhutan (more so than cannabis--though I'm not sure what the laws are about that--it grows on the roadside) but cigarettes are really popular. Hash is more popular than grass as far as weed goes. Drinking age is 18, though I was told that as long as you don't look like a little kid, you can pretty easily buy alcohol. The two local beers are Red Panda and Druk 11000, and the Druk is much better, and less expensive. The beer comes in liter bottles (similar to a forty back home) and a Druk is usually 55 ngu at the Eight-Eleven supermarket, though about 150 ngu at bars. There are all your regular kinds of liquor for sale too, but the special drink of Bhutan, which is often mandatory at some rituals, like funerals, is ara. It can be brewed from all kinds of grains: rice, buckwheat, you name it, but it is a clear, very strong alcohol served either cold or hot, apparently sometimes with bits of egg in it. It tastes similar to vodka, though maybe a touch sweeter.

Tonight's dinner: maggie noodles, dahl,
kewadatse (like emadatse but with taters) and fried rice
About food: meals are only served during select hours in the "mess" and every meal is rice. I mean it. You could write a really easy mnemonic to remember it (rice thrice is nice) if only it weren't such a constant reminder that you are eating the same thing every day for every meal. As my friend Ben says: "Rice is really great when you're hungry and want ten-thousand of something." But it's not so bad. It's filling and fuels me up. Either white or fried rice is served, usually with a lentil broth dish called dahl, some boiled vegetable like cauliflower or green beans in a spicy sauce, and of course emadatse (em-ah-dot-see): the very hot spicy cheese and chili dish that one mixes into the rice. Meals now feel incomplete without emadatse. There are some other variations--toast as a side during breakfast, watermelon with dinner, but it’s generally the same deal. My roommate Kunzang says the food here is terrible compared to home-cooking. When we eat in town, there's more variety, and we've found a few good spots.

In addition to the three square meals in the mess there is also tea-time in the afternoon where either butter tea or a really sweet milky black tea is served with crackers (biscuits). There's also the canteen, which has other options during the day like momos which are cheesy, cabbage-y dumplings (sooo yummy) or chow mein, or sandwiches. There are a bunch of feral dogs that live on campus, most of whom are very friendly and have assorted names. They hang out near the mess most of the time and beg for food, and though we aren't really supposed to, I oblige when the meat has too many bones for me to eat most of it.

My Hostel, Chhukhar Res Hall, at RTC

My room, and me! Kunzang let me borrow her kira on this day.
One of the most challenging rules to accept is that boys and girls are not allowed in each other's dorms (hostels). There isn't much common space to hang out in that is indoors, and since it's often too cold to just hang out comfortably outside, that has been a tough strain. About the hostels though: they are built sort of like motels in that they have outdoor corridors, so the room door opens up onto the outside. The buildings are four stories with the top part being a small common room (which seems to always be locked, but I guess some girls watch TV up there--mostly Indian soap operas) and the space to wash and hang laundry. There is one washing machine, but it doesn't really work, so I just use my bucket. My clothes don't exactly get clean, but they're washed as thoroughly as I can manage, and they usually at least smell better. Each floor has a bathroom with two showers and three cubicles for toilets. Two are western toilets and one is a sloped porcelain hole in the ground. I think I've gotten used to the hole, though we make jokes about it a lot. Toilet paper is never provided, though there is always a little faucet about a foot off the ground that some people use instead. Thus, the bathroom floor is always wet. Hot water is limited to certain hours of the day, and I have found that bringing my bucket to the shower makes for a better time than relying on the steady flow of how water from the shower-head. In our bedroom, we each have a desk and a bed and a big cupboard/closet to put stuff in. We aren't allowed to hang stuff on the walls, which is a big bummer, and sleeping with all the lights on is pretty common if one roommate is still out and about. I miss my big armchair and non-fluorescent lights.

I am worried that so much of this sounds like complaints. I hope it doesn't seem that way, and please know that most of these things make me laugh, and that I am surrounded by so much beauty and new and exciting things that any unpleasantries are really not a big deal. Nonetheless, I miss you and always love hearing from you. I am thrilled to answer your emails, so please write with your own stories or with any questions you would like me to try and answer. Much love to you from me!

Here's the wind horse I mentioned in a previous post.
May he or she carry many good thoughts your way!

P.S. I neglected to mention it on the day, but March 20th was Happiness Day in Bhutan, and the streets in Thimphu were full of people milling about, checking out the street food stands, and celebrating the day off. I hope it was a happy day for you too!

Crowds gathering for Happiness Day in Thimphu on March 20, 2013

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