Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bumthang Part III.

Prayer Wheels

We returned to Jakar from the Choekar Valley along the bumpy but just-passable road, and went straight to our work site at the Koenchog Sum Lhakhang, where we were to volunteer for three days. I wrote about this experience for our group blog here, but there are a few more details I'd like to share with you. The Lhakhang (Lhakhang translates to 'house of god,' but that isn't exactly what it means) burned down a few years ago when a curtain blew into the flame of a lit butter lamp and caught fire. Reconstruction is expected to be finished in 2018.

moving rocks to the upper level of the Lhakhang
We were tasked with either transporting rocks to the upper level of the construction to be used for the walls, pounding dirt to be used for mortar, or moving rocks into the lower level to be used to make the courtyard floor. I was really excited to do some manual labor, because I was eager to contribute to this project, and also because I wanted to prove myself as a hard worker and one tough woman.

a monk standing at the source of the mortar
I was dressed in my work clothes-pants, t-shirt, bandana, gloves, cap, and so attired, felt ready to get into action. According to one of my friends, I really "bro-ed out," as in, I looked like a boy. Oddly enough, I was pretty flattered by this comment, but it also made me acutely aware of how much my appearance seemed to confuse the regular workers. It is possible that the mere presence of women on site, and the fact that we were doing the same heavy-duty tasks as the men, with the same level of ability, was a new experience for them. I would venture to say that I met less outright sexism on this site than I might predict at such a place elsewhere in the world, but there was a definite atmosphere of wariness about gender during our time at the worksite.

I'm really fascinated by the gender roles of Bhutan, and have yet to solidify any observations. Excitingly, one of my classmates is doing his research paper on this topic, with particular focus on views of homosexuality in Bhutan. The gender roles do seem pretty rigid, for example in the commitment to the traditional national dress. Yes-both boys and girls do both partake in t-shirts and pants when they wear Western clothes, and yes-what it means to be 'manly' or 'womanly' is defined differently here. For example, it is very normal for men to hug, sit on each others' laps, and share beds here, while these wouldn't be seen as normative 'manly' behaviors back home. Yet, on some level, I think it was very confusing for the men of the construction site (I didn't meet any women outside our group there) to engage with us. I think, because we were pushing the gender roles, and especially since I wasn't dressed particularly 'like a woman,' many of them couldn't gender me, and this earned me quite a few stares.

"Rock Stars"
photo by Bruce Owens

I admit, I took some satisfaction in this, and it motivated me even more to keep truckin the rocks along the rickety scaffolding, and working my muscles to the furthest extent I could. A few of the other women in our group experienced some snide comments about becoming the workers' girlfriends, and I was proud at how cleverly they deflected these remarks. My favorite, an exchange that took place entirely in Dzongkha between Sara and a male worker, in which he asked if she wanted to be with him, she hauled up a rock onto her shoulder, looked him dead in the eye, smiled and said simply, "Mitup." It translates somewhat to  "no thanks," but has a pretty wry connotation.

a building next to the construction site
Social trickiness of the work aside, it really was rewarding to contribute to a building that will hopefully exist for many centuries. The Lama and the Master Mason were incredibly appreciative of our help, and I was glad that we had been able to be a part of it. It occured to me that in the States, it probably would've been impossible for us to volunteer like we did (especially in the somewhat safety-lax conditions we did) because of liability or other restrictions. I like the attitude here that if you can and want to help, you can go right ahead and help. This is not to say though that Bhutanese life is restriction-light; quite the opposite in fact. At least in my opinion, many GNH policies and other government work are WAY too centralized and regulated, but perhaps that is a topic for another time.

in front of the construction site at the end of the work days
Photo by Bruce Owens

After the three days, and many rocks moved and many cartloads of mortar made, we took the long road back to RTC campus. Surprisingly, the 11 hour bus ride went by very easily. I still don't understand the rules of driving here: I think people use blinkers to signal each other when it is safe to pass, and I still do double takes when I see an empty seat, or a kid sitting in what I think is the driver's seat. No, Carrie, they drive on the other side here. Get it in your head.

So, many hair pin turns and several eco-zones later, we made it back to our temporary home in Ngabiphu. I do miss my real home, though. Many adventures lie ahead of me before I return there, however, and I am looking forward to them.

Bis bald,

P.S. I forgot to mention: I was in the newspaper! Check it out here.

1 comment:

  1. So proud of you and Sara, being womanly beasts like you do. SO MANY gender role discussions we need to have about our respective continents, chica. So. Many.


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