20 August 2017

The Sound of Slingshot

It wasn’t until I visited 2017 Haa Summer Festival that I knew there was a sound of slingshot that played a significant role. My understanding of slingshot was limited to its stone throwing function. Even the art of weaving one was new to me; I thought it was just plain leather going by the type of slingshot we used to play during our childhood.

Attending my hometown festival for the first time I was exploring the stalls for hoentay, tongba and rainbow trout delicacies, and there was no way a piece of rope woven from yak hair could draw my attention. But somehow while passing by a tent I couldn’t help notice the slingshot hanging among yak tail, bells and other yak products.
A typical slingshot from Haa (Of course they declared it wasn't done well)
I took it in my hands and started playing with it without a stone. It wasn’t long before a yak herder came and began naming the parts of it to me; what seemed like a piece of rope has four parts to it with names. The man told me that it wasn’t done well. There were flaws in two areas of slingshot we were looking at. I was intrigued. He was particularly not happy that the tip was made from nylon material and not yak hair. He said it wouldn’t sound good.

Sound good? What has slingshot got to do with sound? Isn’t it a weapon to propel stone across the distance? That’s the beginning of my understanding of the sound of the slingshot.

The man distanced himself from me into the open space, made a loop on one end to hold on to and sent it swinging over his head and after certain round made a sudden twist. Out of nowhere, an explosive sound was produced, completely unexpected from a piece of rope. It was physics of breaking the sound barrier.

The man did it several times, each one louder than the previous. The sound drew a lot of attention and among the people drawn by the sound were few hardcore yak herders. Looking at the reaction the man was enjoying the fellow yak herders started saying, “That’s nothing. Come on let me show you.” 
The next man to try!
 Soon, everyone rushed to take his turn. It became a battle. Each produced a different sound and it was hard to judge but nonetheless, I gave verdicts, which infuriated the battle further. Among them was an 11-year-old boy named Kinley Wangdi who pushed his grandfather into the competition, insisting that the old man was the best.
That's me failing big time and hurting my shoulder 

The old man came forth with so much pride but the sound didn’t come so well to uphold the reputation his grandson gave him. Clearly frustrated, he inspected the slingshot and declared that it was not a good one. His little supporter jumped in to inspect and much to my surprise even he declared that it wasn’t the real one. He said his grandfather could make the real ones. Everyone agreed.

The discussion then moved on to the components of a real slingshot and I was awestruck by the details of weaving a slingshot. What really made me raise my brows was when they pointed at the pattern on a section of slingshot and said that it could ward off evil forces and that the injuries from such sling would never heal. The passion with which the guys said it warranted no denying. Believe it or not, they mean it with their lives.

My curiosity and their passion for the subject matched perfectly. I was not done yet. I asked, what was the purpose of the sound they produced with the slingshot. They explained that it was the sound that could make the bravest of yak shit in their fur. When the animals go haywire the herder would make that explosive sound once and even the naughtiest bull would fall in line like a good boy. It’s like the command of a military general. 

The sound of the blank slingshot frightening the yaks can be associated directly with Pavlov’s Dog experiment on classical conditioning. Most yaks have experienced the horrific pain of getting hit by a stone shot from a slingshot, and they remember that pain and the sound together. The next time even a blank shot could achieve the same result without actually having to hurt their beloved animals.

Dasho Dzongda of Haa, Kinzang Dorji joined the passionate group and listen to their stories with utmost keenness, it was then that I proposed Dasho randomly about coming up with a competition among the yak herders to see who can produce the deadliest sound. The idea went very well with the crowd and even with Dasho. He agreed that it could be a special component of the Haa Summer Festival.
Dasho Dzongda studying the pattern of a slingshot
The men proposed that each man bring their own slingshot and that there be competition to see the best slingshot. I could hear them talking about working on their own slingshot right way. 12-year-old Kinley Wangdi was definite that none could beat his grandfather. He validated his grandfather’s worth by bringing along a beautiful piece the very next day just to show to me.
Kinley Wangdi with his Grandfather's Slingshot
I went straight to my Japanese friend Akane Matsuo and inquired about the possibility of her bringing in a sound measuring device from Japan the next time she went home. Because I realized that we couldn’t possibly trust human ear to pass judgment on that sort of sound. She Googled it right away and agreed to bring one. After all, it was in her best interest to do any little thing for her second home- Haa. It was her project in RSPN to develop community-based sustainable tourism in Haa, and the slingshot that sparked all the interest was actually hung in her team’s stall that fateful day.


07 August 2017

Toilet for my Mother

My life is all about toilets now. It used to be about blogging once but it took me too far into being the change I was seeking that I could never really come back to full time blogging. If blogging and toilet were two friends I had, 'blogging' would be happy to know that I left him for 'toilet', which is what he wanted. On the contrary, 'toilet' is a jealous guy, he won't let me go back to blogging. He wants all my time and attention for himself.

Having been full time with toilet for more than two years; cleaning, managing, designing, building, lobbying, auditing, campaigning... leaving no shit unturned for the sake of the toilet, one day when Health Minister, Lyonpo Tandin offered Bhutan Toilet Org. to take up a part of project Health Ministry is doing with rural sanitation, I remembered my own village. It's like that carpenter not having a good home. Classic.

Of course, I personally laboured the construction of a modern toilet at home when I was in college and back then mine was among a very few homes in the village with flush toilet attached to the body of the house. But when I look at it now, with my mother aged beyond sixty and her son having become the toilet man, I wonder why I had built it on the ground floor.

Because when we venture into rural toilet project I want people to literally embrace toilet; bring it closer to them and not make it a shabby little room on the ground floor or worse take it far off beyond the kitchen garden. A toilet should be, something I always urge, so close to you that it's the easiest option so that even the oldest member of the family can use it anytime. Remember we too are going to be old someday. At the end, a toilet that is closer will always receive better attention and therefore remain cleaner.

But first I must have it myself in my own village home before I can even think of talking about it. It's about credibility and self-confidence; for people to have trust in my work, and more importantly for me to have trust in myself to take the leap without an ounce of guilt. After all these years I don't want to be another someone who preaches from a book for the sake of a project.

Therefore, this summer break all my siblings came together to gift our mother a toilet that is attached to the first-floor of the house and has all the modern features. Our earlier experience with the stone wall wasn't good; it gave us bulky and ugly walls, therefore, we decided to do the new toilet with bricks. My youngest brother, Tenzin Choda went ahead and started producing concrete bricks. By the time we reached he has produced a staggering 700 pieces. It was enough more than enough for a toilet, and two kitchen sinks.

Toilet for my mother

Our neighbours came around to watch us work and were impressed by the ease of working with bricks and beautiful finish we could achieve with it. I hope they will emulate our way of building a toilet and come up with sexy toilets for themselves.

Three brothers with helping hand from two village friends complete the toilet in five days along side two kitchen sink. Labour charge in my village is high but the two helpers worked over time to deserve the wage, probably motivated by our dedication. One motivation for them was to learn plumbing skill from me. Yes!

There were many new skills I acquired in Bhutan Toilet Org. and one among them is plumbing. The two guys had done many toilet works but they said they could never perfectly connect the sewer lines after putting the rubber washers. They would then seal the joints with a load of concrete plaster. Bad idea. It would leak very soon. I showed them the hack of lubricating the washer with soap to get the perfect joint and they were baffled.

Then, I took over the water connection using CPVC pipes, something I love doing. I gave water connection to the new toilet, the old toilet, kitchen on both floors with a system to control the water pressure (elsewhere it's about low pressure but in my village, the water pressure could blow up a brass bibcock.) When we released the water and it came splashing down into the kitchen sink I could see the joy on my mother's face. My plumbing was perfect; not a leak to be found.
The functional Interior. Final touches waiting for another holiday
The vacation was over from my brother Tenzin and I had to get back to the office but there was one last thing to do, to give our toilet a door. It was going to take one day more, so my brother Samtey stayed back to complete it. But as the Chablop it was my privilege to inaugurate the toilet and I did the honour without the door when no one was around.

I could see the pride in my mother's eyes when she showed our neighbours around the new toilet and I could hear remarks like, 'Pa, it's like a tourist hotel!' and my mother would modestly say, 'It's not quite done yet. They are going to put tiles and geyser later.'

God, it took me half my life to give this practical joy to my mother but now I am at peace. Now I am ready to work with Ministry of Health on the rural sanitation project, where I will use my own example to drive the change.

22 May 2017

Toilet at Drakarpo

In April I visited Drakarpo to choose a loo-cation, I mean location for a toilet. So many people reported to Bhutan Toilet Org about the need for a toilet there and therefore I went there to understand the need to come up with an appropriate design. It was my first visit and I was mesmerised by the whole idea of the pilgrimage on the beautiful alpine hill. I decided to build the same toilet I had designed, in my head, for Chelela Pass.

In my last blog Drakarpo Kora in Paro, I tried to express my love-at-first-sight experience at Drakparo and it was widely read and shared. The article was picked up by a travel magazine as well. Among the many readers, a man from Haa paid special attention to the last one sentence I wrote about the toilet and dropped a short message enquiring about the cost of constructing the toilet. since I had the rough costing done already for Chelela Pass I wrote back to him.

The next thing he asked was our account number where he transferred Nu.50,345, which is exactly half the cost of the project. Because it was two unit toilet he wanted to sponsor one unit. If he had asked me to write a proposal it would have taken forever but he was a practical man. He wanted the toilet and not a proposal.
Putting the pieces of jigsaw together 
I didn't have to wait for the other half of the cost because I already had the solid commitment from my friend Kuenga Lhendup to support me with timber. It was from an old home he had demolished and therefore the most seasoned timber we could ever ask for. To make the design more authentic we needed wooden shingles but who would have thought we could get the old shingles from historic Gangtey Palace. Dasho Tobgye Sonam Dorji didn't even think twice before offering to give us 250 shingles. Now the key element to the design was 'bakal' (still didn't get the English name for it) that my friend Kezang Lhamo Dorji had stocked up for me. In fact, she took care of all the administrative matters that I didn't have the slightest clue about.

Five of us at Bhutan Toilet Org office spent exactly 12 days to bring everything together and convert the design on the paper into real toilet near our office. Looking at the final result people would wonder how in the world five people took twelve days for a small toilet like that but we must admit that we were a bunch of amateurs and therefore our 12 days were actually longer because we stayed up late into the nights and forfeited our weekends. We are improving though.

Besides, we had to hire single-cabin Bolero pickups over a dozen times to collect materials from all over and to finally deliver the toilet to Drakarpo. We have a page full of names and numbers of drivers that someday I am going to develop a mobile phone app out of the data.

BTO Finance Officer/ Zowpoen Dorji with Toilet Base
Last Wednesday when the toilet was completed, I took my wife on a date and visited Drakarpo to demarcate the spot for digging the trench with approval from the stakeholders there. Then we sent the GPRS of the spot to our Paro Ambassador and by Thursday evening his team had begun digging. Saturday morning, before we arrived they were done with 6 feet deep trench before and were waiting for us.
Paro Ambassador Druksel with the Toilet Base

There were twenty of us that day including two children. It was just enough people to complete the job in over four hours. It was a miracle that it didn't rain a bit on the day, otherwise, there was no way the pickup could climb the slippery road. From the road point it was only a few minutes walk down to the toilet site but with heavy pieces of materials to carry it was quite a task. In between, we lost a single piece of a baton and it was a challenge to complete the jigsaw without that piece.

By 5 pm we were looking at the toilet with admiration and taking selfies with it. It was as if the toilet has mushroomed out of the ground organically. And then we had our lunch and beer. By then everyone was like a bear.

Interior with Sawdust box
This toilet was our pet project; we have paid attention to every detail of the design- the natural exterior finish, traditional architectural elements like bho phana and door latches, decked potty and sawdust box inside with playboard finish... it's a prototype we thought of for all the pristine locations where water is a problem. The next place we want to make the home for this design is the Chelela Pass and if it impresses our Prime Minister then we want to have it across the national highway.

All of us minus the children who were having fun elsewhere! 

Out pet at the sunset!

13 April 2017

Drakarpo Kora in Paro

The Drakarpo Kora in Paro has become one of the most happening Buddhist pilgrimage in these few years. I have heard of hundreds of people taking what is considered the toughest spiritual journey one could possibly venture on. It's the circumambulation of the intriguing rocky hill that is considered sacred. What makes it the extreme endurance test is the number of times you have to walk around the hill- 108! It takes four long days to accomplish the journey on healthy legs. There is also a lighter version of doing 13 round if you don't have four days to spare. I just did one round that day and it took me about 25 minutes on my fresh legs.


When I was there I have seen people of different ages inching along the hill in peaceful silence- they were all perhaps seeking different things through the same journey. There was no rush whatsoever, and each one has kept their own pile of pebbles to keep count of the number of rounds they made. From the hundreds of piles of pebbles I could make out how many people had already done the arduous journey. Some have built little stupas from the 108 pebbles using red mud as holder. There were also other who marked their count on the ground or rock face using scratch marks.

Piles of Pebble counter
A signboard at the starting point reads:
"This place is considered very holy and sacred. The 8th Century revered saint, Guru Padmasambhava accompanied by his consort Dakini Yeshey Tshogay and Many other Yogis and great masters down the ages have blessed and sanctified this particular place.
If you carefully observe the rocks along the path as you walk along the mountain, you can see foot and hand prints and many other auspicious sings and symbols believed to have manifested by themselves through some supernatural forces. It is also believed that if one circumambulate the mountain 108 times, even sins so great as killing one's own parents can merit redemption."

It's quite a proclamation to say that circumambulating the mountain 108 times could merit redemption of sins so great as killing one's own parents but doing it could very much bring about the highest level of satisfaction no matter what type of believer you are;

If you are a hardcore religious person then this journey is for you because it promises you the highest level of reward- accumulation of greatest merits and redemption of your worst sins. It's your stairway to heaven. Every round shall make you feel closer to the heaven.

If you are a spiritual person seeking inner peace then this journey is for you because four days of quiet time on the beautiful alpine hill with spellbinding view of Paro valley will give you all the time and ambience to reflect on your life and make peace with yourself. With life getting busier by the day we must make such deliberate choices to be with ourselves.

If you are not a believer of that sort and you consider yourself a practical person who knows that life is what we make of it, still this journey is for you because when was the last time you tested your endurance? It's such beautiful a way to give priority to your physical health. You have no idea how every stretch of you muscle will be put to task, and you will bathe in your own sweat. It's the mountain gym you will love. After four days you would have added fews years more to your life and you will realise how truly life is what you make of it.

I particularly love the idea of walking around that beautiful hill 108 times because I like challenges, I am thinking of doing it in three days. My mother completed it in four days, so i have to prove that I am her son. I will time every round and beat my own time and set record. In doing it I want to have conversation with myself and try to find inner peace. I also want break my habits of lazing around and improve blood flow in my heart. I am going to do this very soon. I need to look for a good team to camp up there with me.

Map of the Journey I traced 
The entire path is well paved with stone slabs. I remember my friend Karma Tenzin doing it as a social project with his students when he in Yeozerling School. There is water scarcity and once I was told that a bucket of water was sold for Nu.200. Bhutan Trust Fund has funded a project to bring water there. There is no toilet facility. One private toilet that was there was locked and I am told that it's inaccessible. It's intriguing to find people who won't even share their toilet. But don't worry I was there particularly to look for a spot to build a toilet. We hope to do it very soon.

If you have any questions, leave it in the comment section. I will answer you promptly.

18 March 2017

Ap Phub's Bridge to Laya

It has been over six months since I took that memorable journey to Laya. I found treasure house of stories to blog about. I have put them all in chapters in my head, chronologically. So much water has flowed under the bridge since and I am still stranded in Laya as a blogger. I couldn't move on without having done telling the stories I held so dearly inside me. Perhaps, it's time I let go and set myself free with this last story. If I ever regain the right kind of emotion I might come back to continue from where I left.

Among the many stories I heard on my way to Laya and back, my Oscar goes to this story about Ap Phub and his bridge. I was lucky to be in the company of local boy Dasho Sangay Khandu while passing through the setting of this story. A decade later this story will be told as a legend or even a fairy tale but I was lucky to have met the man himself right after I heard the story from Dasho. It was like meeting the actor at the end of the movie.

Eight years ago Ap Phub, known in Laya as Khadhip Phub, won the contract to build a wooden bridge over river Mo Chu on the way to Laya. It was perhaps a mistake on his part to dare the project at all, because that section of the river was wide and the temporary winter bridges never survived to see the summer.

Therefore, for ages people have been taking 
an additional hour of detour over the mountain in the absence of the bridge during the summers. Ap Khadhip wasn't so clever to understand why people weren't competing against him. The old man began the construction and invested so much in labour and resources. He did it. He completed the difficult bridge.

With Khadhip Phub
But before the Dzongkhag officials could come to assess his work his bridge was washed away by the river. It wasn't anything to be surprised about. It happened each year. However, because it was a contracted project he couldn't receive his money without a bridge to show to the officials. He only had witnesses to validate that he had done the job but without a visible bridge over the river the officials had no basis to pay him.

Any other man would have fought for the money differently, most probably in the court but this old man went back to the bridge site and began working again. Putting in his own money. Only to watch his new bridge wash away before the completion. 

Many travellers who passed through this route had seen him working on the bridge, year after year, sometime with some help but mostly alone. He began living in the cave near his worksite. It became his home. 
The setting of the legend

In last eight years, government has changed, Dzongda has changed and perhaps most of the official in the Dzongkhag must have changed but he couldn't yet handover his bridge and claim his bills. Perhaps even if he did complete his work now, there won't be anyone to take it over and pay him his bills. Yet he is there, forever working on the bridge. 

It's said that his story even got Royal attention and he was granted soelray by His Majesty the King. He was asked to go back home and take rest. He went back home for a while, only to return to his cave and work on his bridge. There seemed to be reasons beyond money for him.

Across the Bridge built by RBA
When we were travelling to Laya there was a bridge over the river constructed by Royal Bhutan Army for the festival. Close to the new bridge we could see the remains of his fallen bridge. His cave was empty that day, because he has gone ahead of us to be at the Highland Festival. We met him eventually at the next camp. 

Perhaps he must have seen the soldiers built the new bridge; what must have gone through his mind? Would he have finally found peace having seen a bridge over the river? Because I feel that it's no more about the money, it's about seeking inner peace and nursing his wounded pride. It's about honour. I would love to know if he ever came back to his cave after that.

I am sure there must be a term for this special condition but I would love to call this the Khadhip syndrome. I wish we all had this syndrome, especially those people in important positions, entrusted with important national tasks to become obsessed for honour than recognition or money. 

Disclaimer: If there are some factual errors or missing information, it's because of the 6 months that has come between me and the story. If friends who know about him find any mistakes kindly let me know.

07 February 2017

Setting up Toilet in Laya

- 15th October 2016

Last night we slept with the horses. Someone should have told us to close the garden gate to keep away horses. Sleeping in a tent for the first time in ages was already an exciting experience to fully be at peace and on top of that I could feel the horses strolling by my head, inches away with just a thin layer of tent between their hard hooves and my skull. I had always heard that horses won’t miss a step and I gambled on that knowledge.

Only in the morning we learned that they did miss a lot of steps last night and removed most of the pegs that we had used to hold our tents. The kitchen team reported that they had to wake up in the middle of the night and re-pitch their tent, which the horses sent crashing down on them.

The moment you came out of the tent, in every direction you could see the kind of sceneries you would see in the postcards where you had often shamelessly fantasized yourself in. Laya in reality was far more glorious than that in my imagination.

From the picture Dasho Dzongda had shown to us in Thimphu I knew Laya was not yet done amazing us. The festival ground was yet to be seen. We saw convoy of people climbing the hill to the ground and I grew restless. The size of our team made it obviously difficult to keep to the schedule and moreover we realized our actual campsite was further up in a green patch of land, for which we had to undo everything and look for horses.

To my team’s credit they let me and my two staff go ahead of them while the took care of setting up the new camp because we had toilets to set up for the event.

Chimi and Menda helping us in carrying our materials 

The event ground was further up the hill on a spellbinding flatland among hills. The ticket to seeing the stunning view up there was the hard uphill climb from the village, literally crossing the tree line. For locals it was a walk in the park but I could see everyone else catching their breadth between every two steps and looking back at the village as if to see how far they had climbed. Imagine having to do this hard little trek every morning for the rest of our days in Laya! Of course I took it as a daily practice for my journey back to Gasa.

The ground was a shallow depression on the slope of the gigantic hill that could easily adjust two football fields. From my little geography knowledge I could assumed that there must had been a lake here once upon a long time. The highland grass gave the ground a flawless finish. With over 60 bja pitched around the ground the place looked like an ancient battlefield.

At over 12,000 feet it was going to be the highest point we had ever setup toilets at. Now we had to look for the someone who could tell us where we were allotted the space to pitch our toilets. We brought eight camping toilets that were most suitable for the festival considering all the factors. The toilets had to be imported from Bangkok and without the office of the Gyalpoi Zimpon we would have never gotten them. We didn’t even have a solid backup plan incase the toilet didn’t make it on time.

When we finally found the person who was overlooking the management of the event. He didn’t look quite pleased to see us. He said he was expecting us earlier. Well I thought I should narrate our horse story but he wasn’t so friendly to spend my time telling stories. He pointed at a spot with his walkie-talkie quite a distance uphill. I straightaway told him it was too far but he defended saying it was decided thus. He threw quite a few names before he left in hurry holding the handset high.

My team walked up to the spot to inspect the location but halfway up we were exhausted. Imagine having to scale this distance with an upset tummy! No, not possible. We went back to negotiate the location but the guy wouldn’t listen. He said the location I was proposing was too close for toilets. I asked why. He said it would be an eyesore and the wind would blow the foul smell right into the event ground. That’s when I asked him, “Who told you my toilets are ugly? Who told you my toilets will stink? I haven’t come all the way to make an ugly-stinky toilet.”

In the following days I would see this man rushing to our toilet from time to time and I at time felt like stopping him and pointing to the location he had given me.

This wasn’t the first time something like this happened. At every event we had been to we had suffered this kicking-the-toilet-away issue. I would call it our achievement the day this prejudice stops.

I nagged to Dasho Sangay Khandu and told him that I was not going to put my toilets where no one would reach. Poor Dasho who was himself a guest there with no role in the management of event nonetheless managed to fish in someone who hesitantly decided to accept my offer.

Gasa engineering team along with some friends from media helped us dig up the ground. Over the holes we placed the prefab floorboards and pitched the foldable tents over them. In less than an hour our toilets were ready. And before we left we gave our magic touch- a bucketful of sawdust inside each toilet to conceal the bad sight and bad smell at all times. We nearly brought sawdust all the way from Thimphu, not knowing that we could get it right here in Laya.

After my stage was set I went around shanking countless hands because everyone I knew in Thimphu was here in Laya. Towards evening we headed to the royal guesthouse to assess the toilet there. It was located below the event ground on a similar flatland across the village. It was further than it looked but climbing down was not much of an issue. I told the security guards about my purpose of visit and they reported that to the officer over the set.

“Dasho, Bhutan Toilet Org has come to inspect the toilet.”
“Ok, let them in.” Came the reply that made me feel like a real toilet professional. Once inside I removed my shoes and went straight to royal shangchab. The carpet was damp so I instructed the guards to dry them right away. I had a replacement in my bag but the one there was of better color. I put the seat warmer, placed the hand sanitizer, air freshener, and hand towel and wiped every part of the toilet dry. The security guard looked convinced and that made me proud.

It was a busy first day in Laya and I was yet to interact with locals and explore their way of life. Returning to the village I was lost again, I couldn’t locate my new camp. In a distance I saw a man walking with his huge solar flashlight that could play loud music from pen drive. I called out to him,

“Could you help us find our camp?”

“There is one right up there with some five tent.”

“Oh, that must be our camp. Could you show us the way.”

“Wait right there, I will come there.”

And thus he came to fetch us and guided us to our new camp. It was quite a distance uphill from where we were and the stranger didn’t mind walking all the way away from where he was headed. He was the first Layap I came in touch with and the first impression was remarkable.