Monday, May 28, 2007

Visiting Schools

Last Friday, I had finally the chance to go out to Bhutanese schools and get a first-hand impression. As Samtse is a restricted area and my movement is restricted to the town of Samtse, we had to get an official permit to get out to the schools that are maybe 40 km and 10 km from Samtse. Getting this permit was a non-trivial process and Karma - the lecturer that organize the visits - was struggling hard to get those permits. In the end it worked out, I got the official paper, and we were ready to go.

The first school we went to is one of the largest schools in the country and has 1600 students. 50 teachers help kids from grade 1 to 10 to move forward and develop. We were received in a friendly atmosphere and were allowed to give a talk to the teachers and the principal. It turned out that in the beginning of May 07, the teachers received a total of six computers. Most of the teachers are not IT literate but a recent graduate from the Paro College of Education with specialization in IT has joined the school in the beginning of this year. During our meeting with the teachers, we presented a few ways of how ICT could be used in the school setting and gave them as well a short introduction of what could be available on the net. This was a bit of a futuristic presentation as the school has two computers with an Internet connection; one in the principals office and one for the students.

Right before lunch, we had a session with the grade 10 students. Out of maybe 80 students, about 5 got basic experiences with computers. None of them has ever written an email and probably not too many of them have ever used Google. As a motivation, I put up my email address and asked them to write me an email in case they are able to get an email account and time. We gave a similar talk to the students as to the lecturers - this time a bit more focused on how they could use the computers on their own.

I'm not quite sure how well the teachers and the students could connect to whatever we were doing - it must have been quite futuristic. I knew that people wouldn't have gotten a lot of exposure to ICT before but still, I couldn't really put myself into place and understand this thoroughly as in Switzerland, it is probably hard to find a young person that has never touched a computer. All in all, it was a good experience but I'm not quite sure how well we have done.

Luckily, we were not attacked by wild elephants as this schools is about 100 meter from really thick forest (rain forest?). There are stories of elephants coming to the tiny village and the local people are quite scared of them. There was military around during our entire visit and the villagers have put an electric fence around the forest.

In the afternoon, we went to the second school. This school had about 300-400 students in grade 1 to 6 and seven teachers. The school got three computers and no Internet connection. We gave a similar presentation to the teachers as in the first school. It was fascinating for me to see the enthusiasm of those teachers. One of them was running to the library to get a book with a CDROM that he wanted to try but that he couldn't get to work so far. So we helped him to get that CD running.

It turned out that one of the computers was rather noisy - the fan was running at full speed all the time. I opened the computer and it turned out that one of the cables disturbed the flow of the air. It doesn't come as a surprise that the fan is running at maximum speed as we had 27 degrees Celcius in the room - and actually, this is quite cold for this place as a couple of weeks ago, the temperature reached 39 degrees Celcius.

Further, there was a problem with the printer. The printer was connected to one computer and the other two computers could print using a switch that connected all three computers. The teachers tried to print from one computer and didn't realize that the switch and the computer that is connected to the printer have to be turned on. All in all, there was nothing wrong with the setup but there was a lack in education. I tried to educate them what exactly they have to do to be able to print and hope that this problem is now solved.

In the end, I was standing in front of about 200 Bhutanese kids - some of them looking into the classroom through windows. We gave them some ideas but it was probably pretty advanced. But all in all, it was a fun experience.

I haven't taken any pictures in the schools but on our way to the schools - they will follow later on. I took my GPS with me but unfortunately forgot it in my Gho during part of the way and it didn't record our location. But you can follow at least part of our trip and you can as well see the thick forest with the wild elephants next to a place called Kumai.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


A few week ago, the power pack of one of the computers in the men's hostel broke down. We were not quite sure what happened as there were no power cuts or heavy lightnings. Today, somebody took the pain to open the power pack. It turns out that there was a lizard in the power pack - completely burned. You see, we have rather strange culprits - rats and lizards :-).

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Satellite Router

A couple of weeks ago, we got finally an AC for the server room. Before, all the electronic equipment was in the normal surrounding - sometimes really hot, sometimes really humid. Not exactly the way it is supposed to be. The AC was ordered more than a year ago and has arrived only now. Things tend to take longer around here and this is sometimes difficult to accept - but it is the reality.

Installing the AC was not a trivial task as there needed to be a hole in the wall. No appliances that will do the work for you but rather your hands will do the job. After the installation of the AC, the entire server room was covered in dust and we had to clean up quite a bit before we could start the infrastructure again.

While cleaning up, we realized that our satellite router still didn't have a nice spot. It was lying on one of the servers. As we have rats around and they tend to do their things in the worst possible places, this setup was definitely not perfect. We have a server rack - but unfortunately nothing to mount additional devices into that rack. You might say - just buy whatever you need. Not that easy in this context as the market for server racks in this place might not be huge - so going to the Sunday market won't help. Instead, we have come up with a creative solution of our own; have a look at the pics and smile!

Thursday, May 17, 2007


I'm doing ok although I'm a little bit busy right now. Instead of writing a long story, I post a poem by an Indian poet. We had a poetry day this Wednesday and that's when I came in contact with this poem.

by Nirendranath Chakrabarthi, translated from Bengali by Sujit Mukherjee and Meenakshi Mukherjee
Amalkanti is a friend of mine,
we were together at school.
He often came late to class
and never new his lessons.
When asked to conjugate a verb,
he looked out of the window
in such puzzlement
that we all felt sorry for him.

Some of us wanted to be teachers,
some doctors, some lawyers.
Almalkanti didn’t want to be any of these.
He wanted to be sunlight-
the timid sunlight of late afternoon,
and the crows call again,
the sunlight that clings like a smile
to the leaves of the jam and the jaamrul.

Some of us have become teachers,
some doctors, some lawyers.
Amalkanti couldn’t become sunlight.
He works in a poorly lit room
for a printer.

He drops in now and then to see me,
chats about this and that
over a cup of tea, then gets up to go.
I see him off at the door.

The one among us who’s a teacher
could easily have become a doctor.
If the one who’d wanted to be a doctor
had become a lawyer,
it wouldn’t have made much difference to him.

All of us got more or less what we wanted,
all except Amalkanti -
who used to think so much about sunlight
that he wanted to become sunlight.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Today was an absolutely gorgeous day. Blue sky, almost no clouds, good view, and not even too warm. After having gone to the market early in the morning, I decided to give the mountain next to Samtse a try. It's a good chance to have a glance at the local environment and to get a bit of exercise.

Together with Karma, a friend of mine, we left the Samtse College of Education at around 10am to climb this mountain. From Samtse it doesn't look like this is a huge mountain and our destination seems to be quite close but it took us a bit of time to get up that mountain and my GPS confirmed my feeling - it is a climb of about 600 meters.

On the way up, we met many locals that either went down to the Samtse market or returned from the market. Karma insisted on carrying my backpack and I wasn't allowed to carry it during the whole trip. I felt a bit stupid but Bhutanese people are very serious about that and independent of how hard you try, they will carry things for you.

As Karma had to be back by 3pm, we were staying only for a few minutes at our destination and then returned. Running down the hill, we enjoyed the scenery that was now in front of us.

It was a really fun day although my legs are a bit tired now. This comes to no surprise as I haven't been eating a lot during the last couple of days due to my stomach disorder :-). And while talking about eating: running up and down the mountain, I imagined how much fun it would be to be able to go to a ColdStone. Or to the ice cream shop in Mountain View. Or any ice cream shop for that matter. Well, it's going to take another couple of months until I get my next ice cream...

Pics and gps log (kml, Google Maps) from today's trip are available.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Stomach Disorder

During the last ten days, my stomach decided to become independent and started producing problems. It is more or less normal to have stomach problems at least now and then during your stay in Bhutan although this time, it seems to be a bit long and it doesn't really stop. I could run down to the hospital and try to figure out what exactly I have. But instead, I'm making use of a thing called email-consultation. I'm writing emails back home to my doctor and she is kind enough to advice me. Sure, if it is more serious, email-consultation doesn't really work and we both know that. But for things such as stomach disorder, it is extremely nice to have somebody back home that you trust and that advices you when to take the antibiotics, when to wait for a couple of days, and when to stop the malaria medication. And when to go to the hospital.
If you ever go to a subtropical or tropical place, I can highly recommend Have a great time and enjoy a properly working stomach!

Thursday, May 10, 2007


Yesterday afternoon, it started raining heavily and as a consequence, the air cooled down. Today, it's unfortunately hot again and all my fans are running at full speed.

Rain does not only cool down the air but helps as well to clear it. The air towards India is really foggy or smoggy and you can see only a few kilometers even though the land is completely flat. I have never seen a real sunset down here as the sun always disappears in the smog. For a Swiss person, this is a bit special as we are used to get a good sunset at least now and then.

Still no running water in my apartment. It seems like there is a problem with the water pipe as most people around us get water. We try to locate a plumber although this is not a trivial task. Well, meanwhile I'm quite experienced taking cold showers with the help of buckets :-).

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Boiling Water

As I have written before, lecturers from the Samtse College of Education have been involved with the mock election. Some of them had to walk for hours or days to reach the remote villages they were assigned to. One of the lecturers that went to a remote village told me the following story:

We were walking for a long time, had to cross the river many times, and in the end it even started raining. By the time we reached the village, we were completely wet and shivering. The local people in the village had arranged a fire and we were gathering around that fire. We were served tea to help us warm up a little bit. The Ghos were put next to the fire to make sure that they would dry fast.

On the fire, there was a pot with water. The local elder responsible for the community asked one of the village folks whether the water in the pot was already boiled. By health awareness campaigns, they must have learned that water should be boiled before drinking. The man touched the pot and told his elder that it was hot and therefore the water was boiled.

Upon discovering this, we realized that the tea that we were drinking consisted of water that was boiled this way. We told the elder how to properly recognize when water has boiled. He apologized several times and told us that he didn't know how to detect when water is properly boiled. The next morning, we were getting properly boiled water and again many apologies.

Let me add two comments to this story.

First, the story gives you a feeling for how remote certain places still are. Some knowledge is out and available although sometimes not the entire knowledge. Please understand me right; I have the deepest respect for people out in the villages. They have not an easy life and try to adopt knowledge from the outside as fast as only possible. But as the communities are remote and access to communication technology and the power grid is not available, there is a long way to go on getting knowledge out to those communities. Keeping in mind that those people are used to live in a kingdom, it might give you an idea that it won't be easy to establish a democracy - a system in which you can actually choose your representation.

My second comment is a more personal one. Right now, it is pretty hot down here in Samtse. Normally, I don't have problems dealing with heat but it must be more than 37 degrees Celsius right now - and that's not too bad. Due to the heat and the missing rain, I'm not getting any reliable water supply in my room. Water comes and goes. The water tap in the toilet gives me access to water now and then. All the other taps - they are mounted higher up - are not getting any water. With a bit of knowledge about the local water system, I know how much water is remaining in the water tank; an outlook that is not exactly fun...
To those circumstances, add a stomach that decided to get its own life. I haven't eaten a lot during the last couple of days and don't really feel like doing so. Not quite sure what caused the problems; it might have been bad food or - and this brings me back to boiling water - unboiled water. Sure, I'm boiling my water but it might be that my water boiler is damaged and gives me a wrong status about the water. For the time being, I started boiling my water the old way with gas and will see whether this will solve the problem.

My - or better my stomach's - conclusion for today: even if technology is doing simple things such as boiling water for you, it might make sense to distrust it now and then :-).

Friday, May 04, 2007


Samtse is a border town and the institute is only about 800 meters from India. That means that it is an easy walk to go down to New Chamargi (not quite sure how to spell that) - or Checkpost as it is called by the Bhutanese. Checkpost is a small trading town next to the border between India and Bhutan. Because it is really close to the Bhutanese border, I don't have to make a proper entry to India and can therefore go to Checkpost whenever I like. Well, this is not entirely true as I should not go on my own. In case questions are asked, it might make sense to have a Bhutanese friend with you that can help to communicate.

I bought my Gho from Checkpost a couple of weeks ago but haven't paid so far. As a guy that has grown up in Switzerland, I felt really bad about that. I tried to pay several times but the shop owner was never in. Together with Tashi Wangchuk, I went down to Checkpost today and luckily, the owner was in. I paid my Gho and felt relieved. Tashi had as well to pay a few debts. After he was done, we went to a nice food shop. I have been to this food shop last year and the owner could instantly tell me what I have eaten last year. This might give you an impression of how difficult it is to hide down here - it's just impossible...

In the food shop, we had a long talk about what we should be getting. I'm never quite sure what I should get and I normally ask people what I should get. The problem is that often they don't feel like telling me because I'm higher up in the hierarchical system and it would be strange for them to tell me what I have to get.

In the end, we got Lassi and Piri. Lassi is boiled milk that is cooled down and that has a consistency somewhere between a yogurth and milk. Piri is fried bread with white beans and hot pickles. I enjoyed both of them although I had problems finishing my meal because my stomach was telling me that it was more than satisfied. I haven't eaten a lot during the last couple of days and lost some weight - it's probably the hot weather.

Tashi insisted that he wanted to pay and I felt bad about it. But it is hard to argue with somebody in a shop; you are never quite sure when the point approaches where you embarrass folks. Next, Tashi got his haircut. A tiny shop close to the street served the purpose. While he got his hair cut, I was waiting outside and looking around. People came up to me and started talking. It's always fun to talk to people and not difficult with the Bhutanese folks as their English is just really good. A young mother came up to me and told me that she was from the eastern part of Bhutan and has stayed down here for the last seven years. A couple of teens next to me very waiting for a friend that got his haircut and used the opportunity for a short flirt.

It was amazing for me to realize how comfortable I felt in this environment even though it is so different from whatever I'm used to. Chickens were running around, cows resting in the middle of the street, street vendors, cloth shops with one fat guy sitting on a carpet and guarding the money while there are about four other guys around that actually do the work, and taxis that need to be pushed by a couple of men before they can take off. It's hard to describe this setting and I don't feel like taking my camera down there because this will put me back into the position of the tourist - and I was fighting really hard to get rid of that position.

In the end, Tashi bought a fresh water melon, I insisted on paying, and we were walking up again. End of the day :-)! Enjoy life!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Teacher's Day

Bhutan celebrated today Teacher's Day and the birthday of the third King. As a consequence, we got a day off. In the morning, there was a celebration with a few speeches. The student that was organizing this celebration asked me on Tuesday whether I'd like to say something. I said 'Well, we'll see' - meaning that I probably won't be saying anything. This morning, he came up to me and told me that I was on the list of speakers... I had to improvise a little bit and delivered a short speech. It worked out ok :-).

In the evening, there was another celebration going on. Students performed dances, teacher's were honored, and lecturers were singing. A few of the students threatened me to ask me to sing a song. As a precautionary measure, I practiced one song - Ewigi Liebi by a Swiss group call Mash. At least if they'd asked me to perform a song, I wouldn't look like a complete fool up there on stage. After about 90 minutes of the show, the power went off. 500 people in an auditorium without light and fans. Tashi Wangchuck (the same guy as I have written about before - he is organizing all the events - not sure when he is sleeping!) was a little bit lost on stage and tried to keep the people entertained. I decided to jump in, went up to stage, and started singing that song. Hey - it was fun; it probably helped that it was pretty dark :-). After I was done with my song, other lecturers jumped in and we managed to get through the blackout with entertainment.

At the end of the show, the lecturers were asked to come up to the stage and to perform a traditional Bhutanese dance. Well, I had as well to go up to the stage and made a complete fool out of myself. The steps are not that difficult but as you might know, I'm not a gifted dancer. I tried to do my best although it was hard. Just keep on smiling and the students will smile back to you!

Staying in a place such as Samtse and closely interacting with the local people requires you to sometimes make a fool out of yourself. All the things that they have learned as small kids, you are learning in public. But in the end it is the only way to learn. It took me a long, long time to wear a Gho properly but by now, I feel pretty comfortable in that piece of cloth. It is not always easy to make a fool out of yourself and to learn in public. Sometimes, you get tired and would prefer to be a normal person. But being a normal person would mean not to learn about their culture and that would be a shame. All in all, it is a good lesson that will help me in the time to come.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

No Rain Season yet

A couple of posts ago I announced that the rain season has already started. Well, I was pretty wrong about that one. Rain stopped more than a week ago and it has been very hot and humid today. No rain around that could help to cool down - I guess we'll have to keep the fans running. Or I might as well find an excuse to work in the server room as we have installed an AC in there last Friday!
In general, it is almost impossible to predict weather down here. Neither in the long nor in the short run. I gave up looking outside to figure out whether there will be rain or not. I simply take my umbrella with me all the time. It looks silly but at least I'm able to deal with rapidely changing circumstances. If I'm not taking an umbrella with me and it's raining, one of the students will run - and get completely wet - and fetch an umbrella for me. I don't really want them to do this - so I just take my umbrella with me all the time :-).

Gewang Cultural Show

Last Saturday, the Gewang cultural show took place. Kids were again performing amazing dances from different cultures and most of the music was produced by them. As all the shows, I loved as well this one. It's a good way to learn more about a culture by seeing the kids up on the stage getting in touch with their heritage.

Before the show started, I bought Momos from a group of students. There were meat momos, vegetable momos, and cheese momos. Basically, it's a thing made out of dough that is steamed and that contains either meat, vegetable, or cheese. The momos were then put into a piece of paper - probably the last math exam - and I went happily back into the auditorium. Inside the auditorium, I tried to offer the momos to folks around me. But nobody wanted to accept momos from me even though I insistently asked every person at least three times as you are supposed to be doing in Bhutan. Well, in the end I was eating all the momos myself. They were excellent, no question about that, but sharing would as well be nice.

Impression of the show can be found here.