Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Guest Post: " The Rice Incident"

This is a guest post by Carolyn Barnes who lived in eastern Bhutan with her husband, Jacob  during the 2010/2011 school year. This wonderful story originally appeared on her own blog and she very kindly agreed to reboot it so I could share it here. For more of Carolyn's funny and smart observations you can follow her on twitter at @CBarnesAnthro
The cartoon was created by the multi-talented Bhutanese artist Pema Tshering who works in a large variety of mediums and styles including water color, film and most recently animations. You can follow his work on facebook

Living and Learning

In the summer of 2010, just after marrying, my husband Jacob and I set off for Eastern Bhutan.  I took a position as a lecturer at Sherubtse College in Kanglung, while Jacob became a house-husband or, as he likes to joke, a “home minister.”  After the initial elation of realizing that we were in Bhutan to stay, we of course had quite a serious bout of nervousness and homesickness.   Arriving in the thick of the monsoon exacerbated our despair.

What was even worse about the monsoon rains was that they socially isolated us at the time when we needed to be out-and-about the most.  We felt trapped inside our wet home and, when we were able to get out, we found that many of our neighbors were still on vacation and some of the shops were closed until students returned.  Although we did what nesting we could and tried to get out and show our face around town, we were bitterly lonely...and damp.

Shopping was the real way we began to feel more established in the community, especially before I began working.  Shopkeepers asked who we were, introduced themselves, and helped us find goods.  They quite often were the ones who explained the ‘obvious things’ to us; the local knowledge about daily living that Bhutanese take for granted but that we remained clueless about.  One of the ladies often explained to us how to prepare and cook produce we’d never seen before:  how to trim and fry olo choto or make datse with fiddlehead ferns.  Another explained the differences in the eggs imported from India and those produced in a big farm down in the valley.  Yet another showed us how to charge our cell phone with credit and how to pick out the best passion fruits (yum!).

While very instructive, these first interactions were often awkward and uncomfortable for quite some time.  I really worried we were bothering these people or that they’d think we were wasting their time with tedious questions.  While this may have been the case, these early dealings were essential in introducing us to life in Kanglung.  In particular, one humorous shop interaction from our first week in the village became quite the legend amongst our local friends.

The Rice Incident

One day the rains decided to subside for a bit, so we went shopping about 15 minutes up the highway in “Upper Market.”  Having decided that we needed to buy rice to cook in our new rice cooker, we went into a shop and surveyed a small room of half-empty bags of grains sitting on the ground.  The young shop-girl directed us to what was probably the most expensive and fancy rice in the store, saying that it would be “good for you.”  Jacob examined it, rolling some of the grains in his hand before we confirmed that we’d take it.  The price we paid seemed quite expensive, but we were newcomers and eager-to-please.  As the shopkeeper girl hollered something at her mother in the next room, Jacob continued to examine the bag of rice, which was about 1/3 full, lifting it up and down to gauge its weight.  I asked how heavy it was and if he thought we’d have a problem carrying it home.

As he was making this calculation, I noticed that a woman from the next room was in the process of hauling a HUGE, unopened bag of rice out to the front of the shop, at least 30 kgs with a big label that read “Rice Queen.”  I quickly realized this was the bag of rice we had just purchased.  While attempted to explain what I thought was happening to Jacob, and the young girl asked where the car was be taking the rice home in.  We froze, absolutely flabbergasted.  We just bought an inordinate amount of rice.  How the hell were we ever going to eat it all?  And, more importantly in that moment, how were we going to get it home?

I couldn’t even lift the bag off the ground.  Poor Jacob hoisted the bag up on his shoulders, with the help of one incredibly strong lady and myself, hunched over and strained.  He started waddling down the hill like a pack mule; sweat soon completely drenched his shirt and dripped off his bright red face.  The old woman from the shop stood outside on the hill and watched for some time, giggling and shouting in Sharchop as we begin our descent (thank goodness it was a descent!).  We had to stop every few minutes so Jacob could catch his breath, resting the rice on the concrete blocks to keep cars from flying off the steep sides of the road.  People giggled as we slowly passed by.  Jacob was focused on balancing the bag’s weight as he moved.  I worthlessly fidgeted about him, tugging the bag one direction or another if he looked like he needed help.  He ever so slowly stomped down the hill, his feet slamming on the pavement with the weight.  At one point a few students who were back in town early came along and insisted on carrying it a little ways, also becoming drenched in sweat, before they had to go back up to their dorm (bless them!).  Eventually we made it home with the ridiculous bag of rice. 

This became a story we tell people over and over again, to which many a Bhutanese friends have slapped their knee and giggled, “You didn’t know you were buying the full bag?!”  It has also become a way for us to explain how clueless we were in the beginning about the daily operations of just living life there; how much help and explanation we needed for what seemed to locals like the most basic task.  One perplexed Bhutanese friend once asked, “Well, how do you buy rice at home?” perhaps assuming that we also consume huge quantities of rice at every meal.  I then had to explain that we rarely ate rice at home and, if we wanted to buy it, it would be in much, much smaller quantities.  He then said, in a soft and concerned tone, “Then, what do you eat?”

Much to our dismay, we finished that bag of rice before our year was over in Kanglung.  But when we needed to purchase more, we only bought a few KGs at a time.

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