Bhutan

Thursday 10/12/07 - Shelmakha Festival Day 2, HIV Awareness Show, Overnight in a Farmhouse

We woke up at 5:30 am and packed up all of our stuff so that it could be transported to the farmhouse at some point today while we'd be at the festival. We had breakfast at around 7:15. Gem Tshering had said he and his wife and daughters would be leaving this morning, and we hoped to catch them to be able to say goodbye. They had been great hosts. On the walk over at 7:45, we passed some kids at a water well, one of whom was Sonam Tshering. He said that he would be going over to the festival grounds soon and would see us there. Apparently the festivities started a little bit later this morning, perhaps because of last night's carousing. The only people at the monastery were the Lama and the workers. We said good morning to the Lama and were immediately shown to our seats and served tea out of a metal teapot. The tea seemed particularly milky, but it was warm and delicious. (Dasho later commented that the cooks had been so overzealous and excited about their festival duties that they had forgotten to put tea into the milk tea! We got a good laugh out of this.) The thongdrel (tapestry) was not on display today; yesterday had truly been its only display of the year.

Children started to arrive first, and Sonam Tshering and some other boys came over and chatted with us. We showed them our photos from home and they were quite interested, crowding around us to see. Other people started to arrive, and gave us a warm reception. One man had a toddler with him. She was wearing a denim jacket and a frilly pink hat. He kept trying to get her to wave but she was shy. Eventually he got her to come over to our tent so that I could take a photo. Our friend "Apple" was dressed in a gorgeous light green kira and was carrying leaves for wrapping betelnut. She is such a sweetheart!

The atsaras (clowns) and dancing started at 8:30. The Angel Dance, which we had seen yesterday, was performed, and it seemed comforting and familiar to us. It was still my favorite dance; the costumes were so beautiful, the music was mesmerizing, and the dancers were very acrobatic. We showed our photos from home to "the millionaire" and the Lama, who were sitting next to us under the tent.

A group of tourists from Turkey arrived a bit later. The atsaras immediately descended upon the women and pulled them into dances. They made much more of a stir than we had. They tended to try to get right up close to the dancers for photos, which is considered a no-no. The millionaire seemed worried that I might feel left out with the attention this group was getting from the atsaras, so he grabbed me and pulled me into the dance area with the traditional female dancers in orange kiras. Dasho then came over and told me that I didn't have to dance just because the millionaire told me to, and I took my seat back in the safety of our tent, where I made less of a spectacle of myself. Craig and I were glad that we were spending a considerable amount of time here so that the people could warm up to us at their own pace. This group of tourists, because of their schedule, quickly descended upon the festival for a couple of hours and would then leave just as abruptly. It is a consequence of their itinerary, and on many of our trips we are guilty of the same thing. You have little time in a place and you try to get the most out of it. But you need to spend a little more time if you truly want to get to know the people. It was obvious by their body language that the villagers were not as comfortable with the whirlwind tourists, and the villagers seemed to feel more on display. But as this was now our third day in Shelmakha, everyone was getting comfortable in our presence and they were more loosened up.

We didn't see too much of Dorji this morning, as he knew we were in capable hands, leaving him free to enjoy the festival himself. Dasho came and went, telling us of his plans to improve the festival grounds, with a cement courtyard (so that mud wouldn't be a problem), bleacher-style seating, and other upgrades. It sounds like a great plan, and we hope that they are able to raise enough funding to be able to complete it. All the while, dances were continuing. There were masked dances, including one where a dancer was dressed in an elaborate mask of a stag complete with antlers. Then there were demon dancers, who wore bright red masks topped by a crown of skulls.

The festivities were getting ready to break for lunch at 11:50, and there was no sign of Dorji. We weren't worried, but Dasho kicked into host mode and asked us what we were doing for lunch. We said we didn't know, but we were sure Dorji would be back to tell us the plan. Dasho wanted to make sure that we were taken care of, and, after talking to the Turkish tourists' guide, he sent us over to where the Turks were eating a box lunch. We were led over a short stone wall to an area behind the courtyard. We sat in the shade (it was another gorgeous day, and the sun was quite hot) while we started eating our box lunch of mango juice, cheese sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, and a baked potato. Dorji then showed up with a hot lunch prepared by Yeshey (we should have known), and he led us back to the festival tent to eat. Dorji removed the stacked metal containers from a thermos, and presented us with a delicious lunch of chicken, rice, and chilis and cheese. Dorji told us to eat quickly, as he was afraid that dust kicked up by dancers would get into our food when the festivities resumed.

I walked around with my camera and the Shelmakhans seemed much more comfortable with me than with the other tourists, who were more in their face and didn't ask permission before taking photos. Apple, who smiled and waved at us at every opportunity, would frown and not look directly into their camera. In contrast, people would ask me to take photos of them and their babies, and they all smiled. One dad seated his toddler on the Lama's ornate chair, and it was very cute.

We showed Apple and her friends our photos from home as well. The dancing resumed with a reprise of the Angel Dance. The other tourists were now seated in chairs, and one was poistioned directly in front of the Lama, who was seated next to me. The Lama couldn't see and didn't speak English, so he gestured to me and I asked the woman if she could move over a bit so that the Lama could see. I was glad to be able to help him. We felt a good bond with the Lama.

After the Angel Dance, the other tourists left, and the villagers seemed to relax a little. Today was less formal than yesterday, and the dancing continued. A group of young girls took the stage and danced to a modern song. It was really cute as they shimmied to the ground to the music. Then there was the traditional "Pholay Molay" or The Dance of the Noblemen and Ladies. This dance re-enacts the tale of two princes who leave their wives in the care of an elderly couple while they go off to war. In the interim, the old woman and the princesses are 'corrupted" by atsaras. When the princes return, they are very angry and punish the women.

Apple brought us some walnuts and presented them in the traditional way, offering them with both hands. We held out our hands to receive them. I took a photo of her and a friend. I asked them to write down their names, and Apple wrote "Phub Lham (15)" I don't know whether that is her age (though we estimated that she was a little younger than that) or her id number, but with such a finite number of names, I'm sure it was some way of distinguishing her from the myriad of other Phub Lhams in Shelmakha. Her friend in a blue kira was called Tshering Zam.

The toddler Dasho had referred to as Michael Jackson was dancing away non-stop for a second straight day. This kid had energy! He and a couple of little girls came over to our tent. They were acting shy and stood behind our couch and peeked out at us and then crouched down to hide. I said "Peekaboo" and the girl in the light blue jacket repeated it and it became our little game. Even Michael Jackson himself said it. He is such a cheerful cute kid! We started to refer to them as the "Peekaboo Crew." Dasho said that Michael Jackson's mother sings beautifully, and that she and her husband own a record company in Thimpu. Michael Jackson's grandmother brought over a sack of walnuts and presented them to Dasho to share with us. Dasho kept cracking them open, and handing me choice pieces. After a while, Dasho suggested that we stop eating them, as ingesting too much of the oil might give us headaches. Dasho was always looking out for us!

The Lama got all suited up in his costume with the black hat and the demon face on his torso. He spun around and ceremonially spilled liquid on the ground from a metal chalice. After this, people started to clean up and break things down. Farewell dances were performed, and Dasho asked us to participate. Several dances were performed in the circle (and I tried to tone down my "active" dancing style). Young children (including the Peekaboo Crew) swarmed around Craig and I while we were dancing. They were smiling and laughing, until they were shooed away by adults for interfering. The finale was the beautiful "Wishing Dance". Choden, the singer from Thimpu and mother of Michael Jackson, sang a gorgeous solo. She does have an incredibly ethereal voice.

At some point during all of this, Apple and her father disappeared. We were sad that we were unable to say goodbye, but we still had one more day in town, so hopefully we would run into her again. The dancers were paid for their efforts over the past two days. We got our photo taken with Dasho and then with the Lama. Dasho's uncle was a monk who had been in solitary meditation for 37 years. He looked incredibly young for his age. He passed out a powdery brown medicine which had been blessed and would ward off sickness for the coming year. We each tried some and it tasted a bit bitter.

As we were preparing to leave, we were officially introduced to Choden, Michael Jackson's mother. I took a photo of her with her kids. We met Mr. Karma in whose farmhouse we would be spending the night. He had a small van in which he drove us, his wife, and two little girls back to their house, which was quite near the school and teahouse. As we drove, some children ran excitedly after the van, using shortcuts to keep up with us, and we all arrived at the house together. It turned out that one of the boys was Mr. Karma's son. The family consisted of Karma, his wife Deki Pem, sons Passang Dorji (age 17), Phub Dorji (age 11), and daughters Phub Lham (age 8) and Phub Zam (age 6). Those are a lot of Phub's! In fact, Phub Lham was also Apple's name! It turned out that Phub Zam had been one of the Peekaboo Crew, but we didn't realize it until we got home and saw the photos, since we hadn't met her yet at that time! She, however, must have known that we were spending the night at her house, and was probably trying to get to know us a bit, unbeknownst to us. Dorji caught a ride with another villager, and arrived within minutes of us.

As we pulled into their driveway, we recognized the house from having passed it two days ago when we first got into town. It was a two-story white farmhouse with a green metal roof. The ground floor was a storage area and the second floor contained the living quarters. There was an open area just below the roof where grain was stored. Mr. Karma pushed aside a couple of wooden planks in the fence so that we could enter the property. Yeshey was waiting for us. We climbed a steep wooden ladder-like staircase to the second floor deck. We entered a door into a small hallway. We removed our shoes and deposited them here. There were rooms on either side of the hallway, and we entered the kitchen, the first door on the right. Yeshey had set up his propane stoves here, and there was a wood stove in the center of the room. In one corner there was a cement basin on the floor with an opening that drained to the outside. There were tapestries hung over the doorways, and we passed through the kitchen to the guest room, a bare room with the typically elaborately painted walls. A series of seemingly contradictory posters hung together on one wall. Buddhist posters depicting doves and infants with messages such as "Love one another" were juxtaposed with provocative posters of Indian film and singing stars. It seemed to be a microcosm of the challenges that young Bhutanese face when trying to reconcile their traditional beliefs with newly accessible mass media. We had a grogeous view of farmland and some ruins of old farmhouses.

Karma and Deki Pem didn't speak English, and seemed a little shy and standoffish, almost as though they were embarrassed that they couldn't communicate with us. The kids peeked in the doorway to our room and smiled, but they soon ran off, a bit shy. They changed out of their fancy festival clothes as we arranged our sleeping bags and sleeping pads. Dorji seemed worried about the bathroom situation. "Do you mind using the family's outhouse? Because we can dig you a separate latrine..." We said that we'd be happy to use the family's outhouse, as long as they didn't mind. Dorji said that they didn't mind at all, and that they had just "freshened it up." We walked down a path to the outhouse, near the fields, and Dorji showed us how to get in. I went inside and it was very clean and fresh. I laughed when I realized that the "freshener" was wild-growing marijuana, with which they lined the pit. That's something you don't see at home.

Dorji told us that there was an "HIV program" taking place at the school tonight, and he thought that it would be interesting for us to see. This sounded good to us, and we were expecting an informational lecture. We thought that it would be interesting to see how they educate the youth about the dangers of HIV, and said we would be happy to go. Yeshey set up the collapsible table in a little nook in the kitchen and served us a quick tea. We then walked over to the school. On the way, we met Choden and her kids. She seemed more comfortable with us now, and started speaking fluent English. You could never really tell which Bhutanese know English, because they are shy and are self-conscious that they might make mistakes with the language. People whom you are certain don't know English suddenly start speaking to you and it really takes you aback. She said that our hostess, Deki Pem, is her elder sister. Choden and her kids would be leaving tomorrow for their home in Thimpu, but tonight they were joining the town for the HIV program. We saw more and more people walking toward the school. We had expected the audience to be teenagers, but people from all walks of life, from infants to the elderly, were making their way there.

We were a bit early, and we all congregated in the schoolyard. One young man came over to me and said that he spent the night in our camp last night. He had been the friend that had shared Dorji's tent in the hopes that Dorji would finally get a good night's sleep. I hadn't recognized him, as he had been so bundled up in warm clothes the previous night. Dorji had been able to sleep, but this friend had not, as the yak blanket he had brought had fleas which kept biting him. He laughed and said that he was ready to leave this morning before Dorji awoke, but he had never slept in a tent before and hadn't known how to get out!

Some boys came over to me and said "Ma'am! You taught me to dance last night!" The boys asked for an impromptu Electric Slide lesson, which I gave them. The Electric Slide to the rescue again (I never thought I would ever use those words together!) Everyone was so nice. People seemed surprised and delighted that we were still in town and that we were attending this program. It seemed that the few tourists who do come to the festival don't stick around very long, like today's Turkish tourists, and they seemed happy that we were spending some additional time there. We chatted with various villagers until it was time to go into the school auditorium.

We were told that we needed to purchase a ticket, so we paid 60 Nu each ($1.50) and were handed a ticket that said "Comedy and Musical Live Show by Gaedo Toe-Ten Detshen". We were beginning to think that we weren't in for the "lecture" we had (from our pre-conceived American notions) expected. We entered a large room with a dirt floor and a stage at one end. People were sitting on pieces of wood and small benches. We were perfectly happy to take a seat on the floor, but they would not have it. As soon as we entered people went scurrying to find plastic chairs for us to sit on.

Everyone smiled and waved at us. Choden and her mother and children were sitting on a bench on front of us, and while we wer ewaiting for the chairs they shooed the kids off the bench and offered us their seats instead. We thanked them but told them that we had chairs coming. Everyone was chatting. It was nice to see the comeraderie and touchy-feely-ness of the Bhutanese. Even teenaged boys would sit with their arms around one another's shoulders. People were preparing betelnut and sharing walnuts, etc. It was a great atmospehere; like tailgating before a concert or sports event.

The program began and it was totally not what we expected. There was singing and dancing, comedy sketches, electric guitar, etc. Although it was all in the Dzongkha language, we got the gist of most of the acts. They did spoofs of traditional dances where one man went absolutely wild and danced very enthusiastically. This got a lot of hysterical laughter. It made me think that my "active" dancing probably would have elicited the same response, had they not been so polite. People sang with the accomanpiment of electric guitar. People danced to modern Indian and Bhutanese songs, including the ubiquitous "Shake your body" which always gets a hearty response from the younger audience members. One woman did a sort of belly dance to Indian music. The comic male dancer also sang, using a falsetto for comic effect. The audience responded with laughter, cheers, and whistles as appropriate. There was stand-up comedy as well as a sketch about the dangers of drunkenness. There were obvious condom jokes and some of the HIV message was more subtle. But it was hardly preachy. It was entertainment with something for everyone, and hopefully people went home with a little more HIV awareness.

Craig and I were tired and kept thinking that this must be about to end soon, but it was a marathon! It ran from 6:45 until 9:30!! Quite a bargain for $1.50 (obviously, ClearChannel has yet to gain a foothold in Bhutan!) At the end of the program, there was a raffle. It cost 20 Nu for a ticket, and the prizes were cassettes, DVDs, etc. They asked Dorji to pick the winning tickets. It was total chaos and we couldn't really tell what was going on, but we learned after the fact that our hostess Deki Pem was one of the winners and received some music cassette tapes (The format of choice in Bhutan).

Exhausted but happy, we walked back to the farmhouse. Yeshey served us dinner and we went to sleep at 11:15. It was nice to sleep out of the damp and the cold. There were sliding panels which covered the windows to keep the cold air out. My cough was still an issue, and my nose was running a lot. I had to steal from our supply of toilet paper since I hadnít brought enough tissues. I got up in the night, having to go to the bathroom. The exterior door of the house was barred with a large beam. The door was thick and heavy; the kind you might expect to find in a medieval castle. It seemed a bit excessive. I opened the door and headed outside to the outhouse. I saw a shooting star while I was out there. When I came back, I was unable to replace the beam to lock the door. I kept trying, but it wouldn't budge. It was making a lot of noise, and I was afraid I would wake the whole house. I woke Craig to get his help, and unfortunately he was in a deep sleep and never really fell back asleep again, though he did teach me the proper way of closing and locking the door, so hopefully i'd be able to do it myself next time.



Shelmakha Festival Day 2 and HIV Awareness Show: Video

Steph shows Sonam Tshering photos from home

Steph shows Sonam Tshering photos from home

Little girl

Little girl

Masked Dance

Masked Dance

Apple (Phub Lham) and friend

Apple (Phub Lham) and friend Angel Dance

Angel Dance

Pholay Molay Dance - Princesses and Old Couple

Pholay Molay Dance - Princesses and Old Couple

Dorji with Michael Jackson

Dorji with Michael Jackson

Peekaboo Crew - Phub Zam (left) and friends

Peekaboo Crew - Phub Zam (left) and friends

Lama

Lama

Craig, Dancer, Dasho Karma Dorjee, Steph

Craig, Dancer, Dasho Karma Dorjee, Steph

Craig, Lama, Steph

Craig, Lama, Steph

Our host family's house

Our host family's house

The 'Phubs' of our host family - Phub Dorji, Phub Lham, Phub Zam

The 'Phubs' of our host family - Phub Dorji, Phub Lham, Phub Zam

Steph's schoolyard entourage

Steph's schoolyard entourage

HIV Program

HIV Awareness Show

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