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.