Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Next year is an auspicious year to tear down houses."

I heard a loud knock on the door. It was 6:30 am on a school day last October. I had woken up a mere 5 minutes before. My hair was a bird’s nest of fun. My Bhutanese housemate was passed out on her stomach in bed as I crept through her room to get to the door.

I opened the door to see my landlord standing in our garden.

“Good mooooorning Miss Sarah!” he was almost singing.

“Goood mooooorning Sir!! Great to see you!”

(Who was I kidding?)

“Next year is an auspicious year to tear down houses. If I get bank loan I think we must tear this house down.”

“And where should I live?” I asked. Is next year also an auspicious year to be homeless?
My new bathroom!
Bedroom in my new house.
Houses in my area dotted the mountainous landscape but were few in number and already housed a combination of shop owners, schoolteachers, and staff employed in the national park directly across from my school. I could look out my window and see almost all of the houses. And could name all of the people who occupied them.

“Do not worry Miss! I will build you a temporary shack to live in.”

“So don’t worry Sarah,” I thought. I reflected on the last 8 months I had spent scraping mold off the ceiling of this house in monsoon season, mopping up the floor every time it rained because half of our roof was merely a pile of thin wood planks, and going to sleep to rat concerts every night. I would do laundry every Sunday to find almost all of my clothes eaten by rats so later tightly sealed buckets filled our house, protecting our clothes from those sneaky little rodents. We only had indoor plumbing in our bathroom, so all kitchen chores were completed outside in our outdoor tap. During monsoon season, we filled up buckets to bring inside or used the small tap in the bathroom and listened to the rain pound on the makeshift tin roof that was added so our toilet would be "inside." In fact I distinctly remember walking into my grade 5 class in March and the boy in front row piping up, “Oh miss! You moved into my house from last year! We moved because our roof blew off!”

I smiled and continued with the lesson.

My toilet!
For whatever reason, I actually began to find this place really quite endearing in the spring and summer. It was peaceful, my bedroom looked right out onto a picturesque Himalayan valley, and my newly adopted grandmother, or angay, would drop off fresh vegetables to my door every now and then. Would “a temporary shack” be better or worse?

I lived with a Bhutanese girl last year who kept me more sane and became a very close companion. We would spend our evenings huddled around our heater laughing our guts out, reflecting on the day, and talking of cultural differences between Canada and Bhutan, with Hindi or Dzongkha music crooning in the background. She was a couple years younger than I and was used to a slightly more luxurious life in the Bhutanese capital. When the rat concerts became less thrilling for her, she would bring her mattress into my room and sleep right by my bed for protection. I didn't mind her company.

Cow food! Yumm yumm

After picturing what my “temporary shack” could look like, I “shifted” houses on my final weekend last year in December. Four cooks from school showed up at my door, strapped my bed to their back with rope, picked up my few belongings and marched down the road to a concrete house directly across from my school. I’m now living on the ground floor of a big house in a small two-bedroom apartment surrounded by teachers, their families, park staff, and a tiger chaser next door. “Tap tap” the cooks knocked on my bedroom window that faced the valley below, “boys come visit at night sarah. Tap tap.” I chuckled it off, slightly questioning if the historical act of “night hunting,” a terrifying way of finding a spouse, still existed here in my community.

My hot water source. Used for instant coffee,
laundry, showers, and everything in between.

I usually get home from school at about 4:00 after making the three minute hike down the mountain from the staffroom. I wash dishes piled up from breakfast and lunch quickly then either make some tea or head to my friend’s to have tea with her family upstairs. Any remaining food scraps I put into a bowl and stand outside screaming “Kaaarma.” Karma, my old student, runs up the mountain, takes the vegetables, and gives them to his mother who magically turns it into mush for her cows. (my brilliant way of keeping the cows full so they don’t wake me up with their, “moooooo!!” at midnight from hunger.) Now I am ready to go for a walk with teachers at school. We walk or run about 3 km to a local holy water well on the side of the mountain. “If you drink from here, your voice will be the most beautiful,” said my friend. If you drink from here, you will get stomach pains for the rest of the week, I thought, gulping down the water.

Look at that cute little kitchen!
Around 6pm I light my gas stove, chop veggies, wash rice to put in my cute little rice cooker, and prepare a vegetable curry. If I happen to be out of vegetables, I put on my gumboots, grab my flashlight, and steal some spinach from tiger chaser’s garden.  I usually eat dinner by about 730 either alone or with my friend who lives upstairs. I’ll bring my rice and we’ll share curries. Due to my heavy course load this year, I tend to be up until about ten planning and in bed to read or watch my guilty addiction to Gilmore Girls until eleven.

Gas stove. "You should not light.
You will explode the house," said a teacher when he moved me in.

My refrigerator! Yumm yumm
I wake up naturally with the sun around 6 but doze in my bed until 6:50 am at which point an electronic british lady exclaims, “it is 6:50, it is now 6:50 tiiiiime to get up.” I have successfully mastered multi-tasking, a skill that has taken me at least a decade to accomplish. Here goes my morning routine. I dash to my bathroom, fill my 3L water heater, and plug it in. If we do not have electricity, I fill a big pot of water and put it on the stove. While the water is boiling, I wash one cup of rice with my indoor plumbing and kitchen sink, and put on the rice cooker. I chop one tomato, onion, spinach, and fry two eggs. After the rice goes “ding!” I add it to the veggies for my fried rice breakfast and wait for my water to boil to make my instant Nescafe, praying every morning, for Starbucks coffee.  I strip down, pour the remaining boiled water in my bucket and mix with cold water for my bucket (fucket) shower. Water takes about half an hour to boil, so I usually have enough for about half a bucket of water for my morning shower. I alternate mornings of soaping my body, or shampooing and conditioning my hair every morning. On Sundays I can take a full body and hair shower when I have an hour to heat up water. I get out of my shower, hear the school bell ring, signifying the start of yard cleaning for the students, giving me exactly twenty minutes to dress and run out the door, up the mountain, to school.
The bucket shower. 

The school week runs from Monday to Saturday at lunch. The closest vegetable and fruit market is in the nearest town a 45 minute drive away. So, after lunch on Saturdays, usually consisting of leftover fried rice from breakfast, I will wait patiently and charmingly on the side of the east-west high way outside my house for a nice driver to pick me up and drop me off in town. It can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 1 hour. Sometimes I try to look desperate and starving, so drivers will be more likely to pick up this foreigner in desperate need of apples and cauliflower. Because I do not have a fridge, I have to go about once a week for produce. For my sanity, I pick up a little chocolate and disgustingly sweet Indian wine in town too.

Living room in my new house.
Sundays are usually spent enjoying sleeping in. I really like coffee. In Bhutan, I mostly enjoy the act of drinking the coffee, versus the actual coffee itself. I like taking my time to sip my coffee. Sunday mornings give me the time to do this and enjoy fresh French toast, with the bread I get from town the day before. A plate of French toast has also proven to be a good bribery method for my neighbour to burn all my garbage, since I tend to light the garbage, and then get distracted. It would be just terrible if the foreign teacher caused a massive forest fire wouldn’t it? By noon I usually complete my laundry for the week. I soak it in soap in my bucket for about an hour, rub it to bits on the rock outside my house, squuuuueeeeze out the soap, and hang to dry as I contemplate that wool was the stupidest material I could have possibly brought to Bhutan.

Cooking curry most likely. 
My  one heat source. If there's no power, you freeze.

Laundry day!
There’s something ever so satisfying about putting effort into everyday basic activities that I take for absolute granted back home. I love that I make my shower and literally wash my laundry. I love that I know which garden everything in my kitchen comes from. I go to sleep on Sundays feeling satisfied. Thinking back to my life I know all too well and that I left back home, and how I’ve adapted to this completely foreign simplistic new life in ways I never thought imaginable, bring a smile to my face. Some days I do long for my fancy espressos and hot showers, but this is how I have chosen to live. I strongly believe that anyone can live anywhere. And that’s pretty cool to be able to slide right into another life just like that last piece of a puzzle. And so here I sit on my mat outside my house, gazing out into the himalayas, watching my bucket laundry dry, as I slip into this alternate, beautifully seductive world. 


  1. Good morning, how are you?

    My name is Emilio, I am a Spanish boy and I live in a town near to Madrid. I am a very interested person in knowing things so different as the culture, the way of life of the inhabitants of our planet, the fauna, the flora, and the landscapes of all the countries of the world etc. in summary, I am a person that enjoys traveling, learning and respecting people's diversity from all over the world.

    I would love to travel and meet in person all the aspects above mentioned, but unfortunately as this is very expensive and my purchasing power is quite small, so I devised a way to travel with the imagination in every corner of our planet. A few years ago I started a collection of used stamps because trough them, you can see pictures about fauna, flora, monuments, landscapes etc. from all the countries. As every day is more and more difficult to get stamps, some years ago I started a new collection in order to get traditional letters addressed to me in which my goal was to get at least 1 letter from each country in the world. This modest goal is feasible to reach in the most part of countries, but unfortunately, it is impossible to achieve in other various territories for several reasons, either because they are very small countries with very few population, either because they are countries at war, either because they are countries with extreme poverty or because for whatever reason the postal system is not functioning properly.

    For all this, I would ask you one small favor:
    Would you be so kind as to send me a letter by traditional mail from Bhutan? I understand perfectly that you think that your blog is not the appropriate place to ask this, and even, is very probably that you ignore my letter, but I would call your attention to the difficulty involved in getting a letter from that country, and also I don’t know anyone neither where to write in Bhutan in order to increase my collection. a letter for me is like a little souvenir, like if I have had visited that territory with my imagination and at same time, the arrival of the letters from a country is a sign of peace and normality and an original way to promote a country in the world. My postal address is the following one:

    Emilio Fernandez Esteban
    Calle Valencia, 39
    28903 Getafe (Madrid)

    If you wish, you can visit my blog where you can see the pictures of all the letters that I have received from whole World.

    Finally, I would like to thank the attention given to this letter, and whether you can help me or not, I send my best wishes for peace, health and happiness for you, your family and all your dear beings.

    Yours Sincerely

    Emilio Fernandez

  2. Thank you for your interesting is 'an auspicious year to tear down houses." the physical and literal sense. Our friends the Diver family are in Bhutan = their blog is Bhutan Clan. I find everything you both write so very interesting , hectic but calming ..if that makes any sense. I will continue to enjoy your future blogs. regards Margy and family

  3. Thanks for the note Margy! Very glad to hear you are enjoying hearing about this, often, "rollercoaster" of a life we're living out here. I'll be sure to pass along a good hello from you to the Divers- they're only about 2 hours by car from me! :)

  4. Hi!
    Your blog is very fun and interesting to read =) I am thinking of coming to Bhutan next year but I had one major concern: is it easy meeting people or do you tend to do things on your own. I can cope with the life style ;) but I am a little scared of being lonely... would you mind telling me your experience with that so far? Thank you so much!
    Best, Charlotte