Thursday, December 12, 2013

What I Will Miss, Part I: Morning

The stairs that lead from the girls' hostel to the canteen and the Academic Block beyond are carved into a steep slope, as is nearly everything else in this country. Below the stairs is where the school cows are fed and milked, and where the Agriculture Club keeps a small garden, now, in December, greening up with saag and radish, the chile, maize and bean crops long gone. The location of this miniature farm means that the view from the stairs above is unusually unobstructed as most of the Chirr pines, pomegranates, guavas, and jacarandas were long ago removed. Thus, every day as I walk from my flat to the Academic Block I stop halfway down those stairs to look at the Po Chhu valley and the mountains beyond to gauge the progress of the seasons.

The View from the Stairs, October
The valley is almost entirely terraced rice paddy with the glacier-blue river braiding through it and hills of conifers and broad-leaved forests rising on either side. One can see, here and there, clusters of traditional Bhutanese houses that make up the villages that students refer to when one asks them where they are from. A village can be as small as two or three houses that share an outside water tap and a pitted, rocky farm road; or it can be several houses that have a community kitchen, also outdoors, to use during festivals, and its own small lakhang tended by one or two monks.

When I arrived last January, the paddies were sand-colored and the mountains hidden in cold clouds. The colorful tarp tents of the Layap, the nomadic people from north of Punakha, gumdropped the landscape. Their small, sturdy horses grazed lazily on spent rice stalks. The river was slow and shallow, posing no threat. 

Po Chhu Valley, January
 By March, the labyrinthine irrigation channels that only rice farmers understand and control were flooding some of the paddies; a shadow of green appeared. Oxen and cattle, wearing wooden yokes as in Chaucer's day, pulled plows through the mud, steered by sun-browned men with stick arms and legs. Soon after, whole families could be seen transplanting rice seedlings into the turned terraces, the tender stalks a stunning pistachio green. The peaks of the mountains to the northeast that border Tibet and Lunana began to appear through the diminishing cloud cover, some capped with ice, others simply sheer vertical rock faces of granite. 

Late February

Then, in August, as the river thrashed with the power of the melting snows from the glaciers above, the rice was tall, a vital, blinding green, and the mountains stood black and clear and tantalizing. Cattle roamed and fed; the Layap were long gone.

Rice in August

Half-harvested paddy

Rice drying in the paddy

In late September and October, the harvests began. From early morning until the sun sank everyone, from old women to four year old children, were out in the paddies. Each would grab a stave of rice and then, with a handmade sickle, cut the stalks at their base and lay the stave flat in the sun to dry. Gradually, the valley became a green and tan puzzle, each piece a paddy. Still, the mountains razored the sky. 

Rice Puzzle
Family harvesting


By late November, as the temperature dropped into the 40s, the valley became sere and dry; cold winds came down from the mountains stirring up the red dust. The ruddy shelducks arrived in honking squads, skidding across the river. The sheaves of rice were collected and threshed by hand, the kernels bagged, the chaff mixed with whey left over from homemade cheese and fed to the cattle. The remaining stalks were expertly stacked into the Bhutanese version of a hayrick, topped with a thatched hat to keep out moisture. The cattle will feed on these all winter.

Rice stalks stacked for winter fodder
A young man carries rice stalks to his cattle, December

Now, in December, the sunrise, announced loudly by the yellow-billed choughs, is late and sunset early. The river is again quiet and shallow and the morning mountains have pulled a thick grey quilt of clouds over their heads, clouds that fade as the sun climbs.  I will miss this view. 



  1. All beautiful pictures, depicting the true and raw Bhutan's peasantry life.

  2. I like the fact that everyone helps with the harvest. From the very young to the very old. Somehow in the U.S. we have lost that work ethic. Every able bodied person should do some kind of work here, instead of relying on food stamps for several generations.

    The next time I eat rice, I will have a new appreciation of the hard work that it takes to get it from the field to my plate.

    Ms. Sarah, you should really consider writing a book of your experiences. Your command of the English language is far and above most mere mortals.