Talking Statues and Biting Chillies: Month Two in Bhutan
As I’m sitting here in my room at Royal Thimphu College listening to Dzongkha music and trying to catch as many words as possible, I remember the blog I started on my last day before leaving for Bhutan. Wait…only one post? Did Nurit get eaten by the infamous yeti while in the Himalayas? Although I haven’t been eaten by a yeti, I have been so absorbed in the experience here in Bhutan that I haven’t taken the time to write another blog post.So in an attempt to catch up on the events I missed I will write about a few highlights of the past two months.
First, 10 of the discoveries I have made since arriving in Bhutan:
1. I introduced myself as “breast-milk” to the Prime Minister. Apparently my nickname, Nunu, has a different meaning here in Bhutan than it does in the country where it originates (Burma) where it means “gentle.”
2. It’s a very bad idea to put an entire dried chili pepper in one’s mouth…especially in front of distinguished hosts. I learned in practice a few important Buddhist lessons from the experience: that of restraint (although my tears slipped out of my control, I thankfully kept myself from screaming out loud), generosity (the other two expensive chilies ended up underneath a leaf of lettuce for the deities to consume—I’m sure that they are more capable of handling such delicacies), suffering (I didn’t know that food could cause physical pain!),and impermanence (the pain of the chilies faded after the longest twenty minutes of my life.)
3. Bad karma can follow you even in to your Buddhism and Social Theory class: the seat of the chairs at RTC do not attach to the frame. The entire class laughed for a solid minute after I fell off my chair in heels and full traditional dress. Closely followed by…
4. Being inconspicuous as a pchilip or foreigner in Bhutan is absolutely impossible. Although the other day I was mistaken for a Bhutanese and someone asked me “sister, what happened to your hair?” (I have very curly hair.) Of course it’s become much funnier now that I can understand a little of what people say when they talk to each other about me!
5.Finding parallels between the two Tibeto-Burman languages of Burmese and Dzongkha isn’t something you should attempt. After accidentally throwing out a dirty swear to my new friends while saying the word “chicken” in Burmese, I save my linguistic endeavors as comic relief instead.
6.It’s time to drop the habit of cutting my nails at the end of the day. Apparently it shortens the life of your parents (sorry mom and dad!)
7.Practice language only on close friends: in my attempt to practice Dzongkha pronunciation I ran through most of my Dzongkha Commission phrase book with my roommate. Unfortunately my interpretation of the phonetic spelling was unintelligible until I came across the phrase Choe gi awa na le bup thoen me ga? “Do you have worms in your stools?” which apparently came out crystal clear.
8. The 50 Ngultrum note looks a lot like the 500 note in a dark taxi (or in a well-lit café for that matter.)
9. When riding a city bus, prepare to use your full lung capacity to combat the compression from your neighbors on either side of you.
10.Chewing a piece of dried yak cheese is a serious commitment. It took me two and a half hours to finish the eraser sized lump. When I asked if most people take so long to eat the cheese, my friend responded “My (toothless) grandmother takes a little longer.”
While studying here at Royal Thimphu College (RTC) I have had the opportunity to take several classes, both through the college itself and Wheaton College. I take Buddhism and Social Theory, Dzongkha language class, Contemporary Bhutanese Society, Political History of Bhutan, as well as participating in an internship for 6-8 hours per week. I intern for the office of the Prime Minister (Lonchen Jigme Thinley) for a project involving a Gross National Happiness center called “Bayul Dewaling” in Bumthang. I have been involved in conducting brainstorming sessions with various stakeholder groups and have had the unique opportunity to sit in on a meeting with the PM. I am looking forward to another session with him in a couple of months.
The other place where I spent time as an intern is at the Drak Tsho vocational school for disabled children and youth. The Drak Tsho school is an incredible NGO that started 10 years ago with the aim of empowering disabled (deaf, mute, autistic etc.) children and youth. The students at the school make traditional arts and crafts and sell them to earn money for themselves and the center. Spending a number of days per week at the center has been an extremely rewarding experience. I am learning Dzongkha sign language and making friends I hope to visit again upon returning to Bhutan. A few weeks ago I visited the Jigme Losel Primary School, a government pilot school for GNH and had the opportunity to sit in on a social studies class (they were studying origination myths) as well as teaching two classes on Buddhism. I was amazed to see the fifth-grade students sit still for a full five minutes in meditation before participating in class discussion about the noble eight fold path. I was very impressed by the students…although I felt old for the first time (at the ripe age of 19) being called “madam.”
While we spend most of our time here at RTC, we also go out on adventures every few weeks. We traveled around Paro after first arriving and climbed to Taktshang (Tiger’s Nest) and visited monasteries and temples in the area. When I first arrived I was surprised by a loud shouting sound that echoed across the valley—how relieved I was to find that it was nothing more than a victorious archery team! When a player hits the target, the members of that team cry out and sing in Choeyki (Tibetan traditional language) while step dancing.
The next trip we took was to Pajoding to trek. The mountains are considered sacred. The hike was beautiful albeit strenuous…and my breath was so taken away (although not just by the view!) that I developed rather severe altitude sickness. When I started to become hypothermic and fall in and out of consciousness, I was half-carried down the mountain for three hours to the hospital. Thankfully the descent was enough to revive me, but I was in bed for a while and was instructed to stay away from trekking for the next few trips, unfortunately. Although rather uncomfortable, it was quite an exciting adventure making our way down the mountain with only little flashlights and our fists to defend ourselves against the slippery mud slides and the bears!
Last weekend we took a trip to a village in rural Haa to stay with our tour guide’s in-laws. While the rest of the group went hiking, I stayed behind in the house and spent time with the family. As it was my birthday on Saturday, I had the unique opportunity to celebrate my birthday in the Bhutanese tradition. Bhutanese will usually go to the hla-gang or temple, to light a butter lamp. I went with one of the family members up to the nearby hla-gang and lit a lamp and listened to the stories that the lama told about that monastery. One of the stories I found most intriguing was one about the local diety of Haa (Eup Chundu): A short time ago some robbers came to steal some sacred relics from the shrine room of the temple. The caretaker, who was away that night, found them the next day tied by invisible ropes by the prayer flags. The robbers could only be unbound when they returned the relics and were given permission from the caretaker to leave. The lama also said that the Buddha statue in that shrine was predicted to speak in the future. Another statue had already spoken.
In Haa there are many stories of their powerful protective deity. It is understood that the reason the last horse in a group will always be tired because the deity has chosen to travel on it. When arriving in Haa (or any new place where one has arrived) it is expected that offerings be made to the local deity. Although this custom has become less commonly practiced, I never fail to see at least one person at the dining table throwing a bit of their food or drink on the ground or table for the deities. Perhaps if I had thrown a bit more rice for the deities when I was in Pajoding I might not have needed to descend!
I spent the rest of my time in Haa learning Dzongkha from the family—the son in law of the family translated for me as the Agay and Angay (grandfather and grandmother) didn’t speak any English. I found the most useful phrase of the weekend to be Nga dong mahp ya si! “My face has become red!” used in response to Agay whose flattery made me blush! (It’s been so long since I’ve seen such a beautiful girl I forgot to say my Om Mane Padme Hum!) (Compassion mantra repeated many times over prayer beads.)
The day of my birthday the cook spent all day baking a cornbread and writing “Happy Birthday Nunu” on it. He even placed a butter lamp on top! This year I didn’t blow out my candles, instead I put the lamp on the family alter and made my wishes to the Buddha image and protective deities that this year bring happiness and good health for myself and all beings. This birthday I learned that there is more than one kind of family with whom to share special moments.
Despite my having been here for nearly two months, I still feel enchanted by the magic of Bhutan. Although I’ve learned that thunder dragons and talking statues aren’t the only kind of magic found here—the greatest magic I’ve experienced is the relationships I have made—from the deaf students teaching me sign language at Drak Tsho to my sister-roommates here at RTC.
I will try to update this blog more often. The link to my photo blog, which I update with pictures more often, is http://nurit.tumblr.com/.
Until next post…
(Top photo-Taksang or Tiger’s Nest, Paro.)
With my host grandparents and their son in Haa.
Near our base camp, Pajoding.