Distance Education arrives in Bhutan

When I first arrived in Bhutan, I was invited to help the government’s Department of Information demonstrate the power of technology in an effort to get more government funding. We mocked up a distance education system using the two Polycom systems that were in the country at the time. The teacher stood in one room and drew on the blackboard as he spoke. The students sat in an adjacent room taking notes and asking questions through the VC.

The idea was extremely ambitious because at the time, Bhutan had virtually no wide area network. The mountainous terrain and the shear distances ruled out wired connections. The villages that most needed distance education were days walk from any road and had no electricity. That changed while I was there, with phone lines and solar powered e-centres being installed in a few places, and full data links for the ten major government offices, but they were still a long way from having the bandwidth to schools.

Today, I see that Ericsson have begun work with Bhutan’s education department to install videoconferencing into five remote schools so their students can take lessons from a central group of specialists. I’m excited to see that Bhutan has overcome the geographical problems and is now in a position to make this work. Instead of getting the lowest skilled teachers, who couldn’t get better placements, these students will now have access to the same quality teachers as the students in the capital. I’m looking forward to seeing this rolled out to the rest of the country in coming years.

WIRES Wildlife Support

A thud at the living room window drew my attention from my book. Not three feet from my head, the impact had left a smear, and there on the table where it had landed after rebounding was a small bird lying on its side. A closer look revealed a long Kingfisher beak, brown feathers tinged with blue, a white collar and a white chest that appeared to be moving. Behind it, an Indian Myna hopped around curiously.

I recalled a holiday to Wilson’s Promontory in my childhood, when a Rainbow Lorikeet flew into the rangers hut, then threw itself against the windows trying to get out. After four or five attempts, my father held an open magazine in its way, and managed to catch it. The rangers took it outside, but its fellow Rainbow Lorrikeets flocked in to bully the dizzy bird, so they took it back in to care for it until it was ready to join society again.

With this in mind, I kept an eye on my new neighbour, ready to send any cannibals packing. Google showed that it was a Collared Kingfisher, a native to Australia, but not one you’d expect to see in the heart of Sydney. Its normal habitat is the mangroves of North and North Eastern Australia. While I was googling, my friend had managed to sit up. He remained there for an hour, looking morose.

Eventually, I began to worry that he would need help, so I called W.I.R.E.S. This free service provides support and advice regarding native animals. The friendly woman who answered quickly suggested I throw a towel over the bird and take it to a local vet who offers free care for injured native birds. Although […]

By |March 18th, 2014|Australia|0 Comments

Hummingbirds and Hiccups

We all have our cures for hiccups that work with varying reliability. Some drink a cup of water upside down. Others swear that a fright works. I usually try holding my breath until the hiccups stop. Patrick, our guide, told us that Mexicans have the only guaranteed cure, and we saw it work when we went to his house for lunch one day.

It was my favourite day of the trip, because Patrick was in his own environment and utterly relaxed. His girlfriend, Gabi, made lunch for us while we sat on the balcony of his bushland home. Patrick spends his spare time coaxing birds to his property and talking at schools, trying to encourage kids to enjoy birds rather than using them for slingshot practice. He was particularly proud of a rare variety of hummingbird that frequented his feeders and wanted me to get a photo with my camera.

He named each breed that appeared, including various types of hummingbirds, a Bluejay family and some magpie-like pests. I spent a couple of hours with my camera trained on the target bird’s favourite haunts, trying to get the perfect shot. While I don’t share Patrick’s fascination passion for ornothology, I really enjoyed being part of his world for a time and I did get some great amateur shots.

Lunch was served in a room with windows on three sides. Gabi explained that the habanero sauce for the chicken and corn soup was extremely hot, then stirred two teaspoonsful into her bowl. The corn must have been a variety we hadn’t tried yet because the kernels were more like chic peas. The soup was delicious, but as I wondered if I should add a little more chilli sauce […]

By |July 12th, 2013|Mexico|0 Comments

Mexican birthday

Our Mexico trip was a way for Fiona to avoid her 40th birthday. By being in a time zone 15 hours ahead of our own, she could pretend that local well-wishers were too early, and when she got messages from Sydney they were too late. She never really had a birthday at all.
I think that logic was spoiled by the fact that she had such a great day. While we were eating breakfast, the hotel staff put on some Mexican music and brought out a heart-shaped muffin with a candle. Then they sang La Mananitas, which is traditionally sung to wake up a loved one on their birthday. This is the first time I’ve heard a birthday song that wasn’t just a translation of the English ‘Happy Birthday’, and I love that they maintain this expression of their own culture.

We spent the morning learning to cook a number of Mexican dishes, including a corn chowder, a sweet potato salad, papadzules ‘food of the gods’ and a dessert made from squash. Our teacher, Kippy Nigh, was an American who has lived in Mexico for 40 years, has her own vegetarian restaurant in San Cristobal and writes Mexican cookbooks. She was the perfect person to introduce us to the art of cooking real Mexican food.

When we were so full that we thought we’d struggle to get back into the car, Kippy brought out a Polish apple cheesecake and she, her local assistant Rosy and Patrick sang the same Mexican birthday song while Fiona sat beaming.

Before we left Australia, we booked a special restaurant for Fiona’s now unnecessary birthday dinner, which turned out to be a short walk from where we were staying. It was in another […]

By |July 11th, 2013|Mexico|0 Comments

Zinacantan Weaving Workshop

Zinacantan men specialise in growing flowers and the women specialise in weaving. We visited a weaving workshop with a number of rooms covered wall-to-wall in bright coloured shawls and table runners and the women delighted in dressing us up in their traditional garments. Fiona wore a skirt, belt and a vibrant blouse that was soon covered beneath a bridal shawl. I was given a simple woollen shirt and a hat, beneath which my western clothes were clearly visible so that I felt half dressed.

One of the older women demonstrated how they weave using a hammock-like loom attached to the wall and looped behind her back. To my eye, it was exactly the same method that Bhutanese women use, though the patterns were different.

The walls of one room, in the middle of the workshop, were bare of displays. This room alone showed that the building was a real living space in the traditional style. Here, a younger worker was making tortillas over a fire pit, set up so the smoke could escape through holes in the roof. Rather than being made with government endorsed genetically modified corn, these tortillas were made with freshly grown high-quality local corn and we could taste the difference. We were offered a piece each, hot off the fire, and the bread was tasty enough that we didn’t need a filling to enjoy them.

By |July 3rd, 2013|Mexico|0 Comments

Mixing Religious Traditions with the Mayans

The Mayan sun adorns the front of the church in San Juan Chamula, sharing space with Christian symbols. This mixing of religious symbols is common in Chiapas. When the missionaries arrived with the Spanish, they were surprised to see a cross as a religious symbol among the Mayans, assuming that Jesus had appeared in the Americas as well. They soon learnt that the Mayan cross represented the sacred Sabre tree with its long straight trunk and horizontal branches.

Clever missionaries realised that they could use the Mayan symbols to convert the people to Christianity, so they merged the two crosses in the locals’ minds and incorporated other local symbols in churches. Patrick, our guide, points out the mirrors on each of the representations of saints. They reflect the evil of the darker of the twin brother gods (who are compared to Cane and Abel). A few saints, who miraculously survived a fire that burnt down their church, are without mirrors as punishment for (in the locals’ minds) failing to do their duty.

Locals prostrate themselves to the saints, afixing red, white, yellow and black candles to the floor in front. The candles represent the four main varieties of corn (food for the gods) and the four cardinal points of the compass.

Patrick points out a man waving a chicken in front of a sobbing woman. He’s a shaman, trying to exorcise the spirit that’s causing her grief, and to capture it in the chicken, which will then be killed and buried so that it can’t affect anyone else. The whole process can take hours, but as we watch, the shaman grabs the chicken’s neck and twists. I’m not sure that I feel lucky to have seen it.

By |June 30th, 2013|Mexico|0 Comments

Chamula Costumes

Hundreds of people cross the town square at San Juan Chamula while I drink my Mexican tangerine soft drink and Patrick explains about the church on the other side. Most of the people going about their business are Chamula, one of the ethnic groups descended from the Tzotzil Maya. Even we can identify the Chamula women by the black woollen skirts they wear under woven tunics. The indigenous people have great pride in their traditional clothes that are unique to each community and we have been introduced to a massive collection in the Santo Domingo convent and in Sergio Cantro’s burns centre.

Sergio, who has built contacts with the indigenous community as he volunteered his time to treat burn victims, told us that each ethnic group has their own business speciality and the square is surrounded by shops selling fruit and vegetables. Patrick, our guide, assures us that no Mexican would buy imported groceries when they had access to fresher, tastier and cheaper Chamula products, so this is one place where corporate farming is struggling.

As we watch, two groups of men cross the square from opposite sides, one in black coats and one in white. Both are made from wool in the same way as the skirts, but the coats signify authority. Civil leaders wear white and religious leaders wear black. Unfortunately, we were unable to take our own pictures because most indigenous Mexicans believe that they lose part of their soul in the process.

By |June 21st, 2013|Mexico|0 Comments

one by one

The streets of San Christobal are quite narrow and traffic typically flows in one direction. This doesn’t eliminate the problem of jams at intersections, but the traffic lights have been removed due to increased congestion. Instead, the rule of one has been implemented. This rule means that cars at the two inbound roads at any intersection take turns. One from the north, one from the west, then one from the north again. It worked so well that they’ve been able to convert some streets to pedestrian-only malls.

By |June 15th, 2013|Mexico|0 Comments

Streets like rivers

The Mexican rainy season is imminent and we got a taste on our first night in San Cristobal. Fiona and I both got dressed up to go out to dinner with our guide Patrick, only to have the skies open up as soon as we left our room. We thought we’d be fine under our umbrellas, but the real problem was underfoot. The cobbled streets were ankle deep in running water.

Apparently it was worse fifteen years ago. The two rivers that run through town disappear into a hole just after they join up on the far side of town. With the increase of plastic being discarded, the hole blocked quickly during rains and the downhill houses would be entirely submerged. The authorities resolved the problem by digging a 100m tunnel to lead the water away, but the streets still take time to drain properly.

Thankfully, our room has a gas fireplace and we were able to make great headway towards dry shoes and warm bodies in the couple of hours before we turned in.

By |June 14th, 2013|Mexico|0 Comments

Sumidero canyon

The Chiapas region of Mexico is in the west, near Guatemala, and was once occupied by the Mayan people. The name, which comes from the Chia seed growing in the Sumidero valley was first taken on by the local warriors who even the Aztecs avoided for their fierceness. The Spanish eventually defeated the Chiapas through modern weaponry and allying with nearby enemies. More recently, the valley has been dammed for hydro-power and is 150m deep in places. One village was relocated in the process, which isn’t too bad in comparison to the displacement occurring in other places like India. Chiapas provides a third of Mexico’s power needs and is rich in other resources, but the people are among the poorest in the country.

We learnt all this within hours of landing in Mexico. Patrick, our guide, has degrees in both history and anthropology and my head has been swimming with stories since we arrived. Fiona and I chose this trip with CultureXplorers as a compromise between my preference for a few genuine intimate interaction with local people and Fiona’s preference for filling up every moment of the trip with relevant experiences and so far it’s been a success.

Patrick hired a boat and driver to take us out on the river where we saw an eagle searching for food, a kingfisher winging across the valley, cormorants peering into the water, vultures drying themselves on rocks, a black pelican turning its head from side to side, spider monkeys playing in trees and crocodiles sliding into the water to protect their tiny babies from humans. I was amazed to see a diving board near the boat house, but apparently the crocs have learnt to fear humans and it’s […]

By |June 12th, 2013|Mexico|0 Comments