Megan Haskin: A South African teacher in Bhutan
Georgette: Tell us about where you are staying right now.
Megan Haskin: My husband Dylan and I are currently living in a rural village in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. We live on the eastern side, in a village called Rangjung where I am going to be teaching English for at least a year.
Our village has a population of about 1000 people which means everyone knows everyone else. I can walk down the street and greet almost everyone by name and everyone is really friendly.
When our fellow foreign teachers come to visit Rangjung, they always comment on how warm the climate is and how jealous they are about our placement, so I feel really lucky to be living in such a wonderful place!
Rangjung has a tropical climate and you can find papayas, bananas and figs growing everywhere. All the fruits and vegetables are grown locally and everything is organic and fresh. Almost every house has a vegetable garden so very few people buy vegetables at the market. We have a good variety of food available in our village. Many of the teachers living in other areas have to drive into a main town to get their groceries, but we simply walk down the road to our "well stocked" shops. The food items are very basic but we can survive - no luxuries like bread, chocolate or meat.
We live in a well-educated village which means most of the people living here are able to speak a little English. The culture also becomes more authentic if you travel further east and we are about as far east as you can go, so all of the Bhutanese people say we are experiencing “the real Bhutan”.
Right now I am sitting on a school chair inside my bright yellow house (the inside of my house is bright pink!) having just cooked a hearty Bhutanese dinner. The living conditions here are very basic and at the moment our house has little to no furniture besides the two tables and chairs we borrowed from my school. My husband and I enjoy the simple life we have here and it is amazing to see what we are able to do without. We are lucky enough to be the only placement that has wi-fi at home and this is a big deal. It has made life so much more comfortable and I am really, really grateful for it.
G: Why did you decide to move to Bhutan?
MH: It feels like Bhutan chose us rather than the other way around. Dylan’s father works in Laos - the country bordering Thailand - as a nature conservationist and we went to visit him a few years ago. Laos is a very rural place and Dylan’s father was able to show us places that tourists often don't get to see. After traveling through rural villages and experiencing life with the local people in Laos it became clear that we wanted to live in a similar situation but for a longer period of time. I researched and looked for teaching jobs in rural Asia for two years without any luck. Many of the schools that were hiring expat teachers were situated in big cities or private international schools and that was the opposite of what we wanted. This two year battle was really demotivating and I felt defeated. I struggled so much during my first year of teaching (Teaching is hard!) but as the months went by I grew more accustomed to it and eventually I became more comfortable. I also became unhappy. After teaching for a year in South Africa I was given the option to renew my teaching contract at a really good school. Dylan and I talked it over extensively and knew that if we stayed in our current jobs we knew exactly what life was going to be like for the next year - it would be exactly the same as the year before, probably even more comfortable and definitely less exciting. We decided that the life we were living simply wasn't good enough and that we needed a change. I resigned at the beginning of the third term with the intention of selling all our earthly possessions and to travel until I found a teaching job I was satisfied with. On that very same day, while browsing on Facebook, I came across an advertisement to teach in Bhutan. I read over the details, looked up where Bhutan was, and filled in the application form without even mentioning it to Dylan. That night I received an email requesting a Skype interview and then I broke the news to Dylan. After a lot of paper work, interviews and basically selling our entire life in South Africa, we made our way to our new home. And we could not be happier!
G: Judging from your Instagram photos, Bhutan looks like a beautiful place.
MH: It’s really hard to put the beauty of Bhutan into words. Even photographs don't do it justice. The distance from one side of the country to the other is, at most, 600 kilometers, but you experience so many different terrains within this small space. One thing that’s forever constant are the Himalayan mountains which tower over everything. They are so great and so magnificent that they make you feel small and insignificant. It is a truly humbling experience.
I also love the fact that everything is so open. There are no boundary walls surrounding the houses and you are allowed to walk through vegetable gardens and rice fields without being told off for being on someone else’s property. I love that nature and animals are everywhere and we are all seen as one. The animals are allowed to roam freely and eat wherever they choose. I often find a cow outside my window or puppies running around our house. There is a lot of freedom in Bhutan.
G: Bhutanese culture seems fascinating, how would you describe it?
MH: I would describe the Bhutanese culture as “together”. They are always together, always helping one another, always celebrating together, always eating together! I really enjoy this aspect of their culture. It was difficult to adjust to it in the beginning because when we lived in South Africa we didn't even know our neighbours. In Bhutan you can be walking by a house and a random stranger will invite you in for tea or a meal. It’s been difficult to accept all the generosity. The Bhutanese are also very honest and very forward - they will tell you if you are fat (I am so happy that I am not considered fat!) or ask me why I’m not black because I’m from Africa. They don't mean this in an offensive way at all, they are simply stating a fact and I find it very real.
Eastern Bhutan is also known for its heavy drinking. They want all of their guests to have a good time and so they want you to drink a lot too. The Bhutanese will pour you a full glass of alcohol and place it in your hand even if you’ve said, “no, thank you”, twenty times. (And I’m not exaggerating the amount of times I’ve said no, I’ve literally counted.)
In Bhutan the men and women are usually separate. They eat separately and when there is a function the women are always together and the men are somewhere else. The men aren't offended if I sometimes tag along with Dylan somewhere, but I will be the only woman there, so this is really different from our culture.
I think their culture is helping me learn how to let go of control. They literally just go with the flow. If something happens, they don't need to know why or how long it’s going to take or even what’s going on. They are patient and accepting and I am learning so much about life. I am learning to trust the process.
G: Describe a typical Bhutanese meal.
MH: In South Africa I really loved to eat, a lot! But I can’t keep up with the Bhutanese - they eat so much rice and even after I’ve had enough to eat they want me to eat more! A typical Bhutanese meal begins with naja (milk tea) and a platter of biscuits. This is served to you and the hosts do not drink with you. Once your tea is finished, you are expected to drink alcohol (a lot of alcohol) and it is literally impossible to refuse. Once the drinks are finished you are served a feast of curry and rice. Ema Datsi is the most popular Bhutanese curry and when directly translated it means “chilli cheese” which is exactly what it is. They fry a lot of spicy chillies with onion and tomato and then cook it in a watery cheese sauce. My favourite is Kewa Datsi which is a potato cheese curry and Dylan and I make this every day for lunch and dinner. At first the idea of eating these meals wasn't very appetizing but they are honestly really delicious. I crave my curry and rice every day! Dal, an Indian type of lentil soup, can also be served with the meal. Because we are foreigners and people treat us so well here we are usually also served an egg omelet with our meal. Eggs are really precious and expensive in Bhutan, so being served it isn't taken lightly. Dylan and I never cooked with chilli back in South Africa and we ate very little carbohydrates - our meals consisted mainly of chicken and vegetables. In Bhutan we are vegetarians, as are most of the Bhutanese. It is illegal to kill an animal in Bhutan, so any meat comes from India. I have not eaten any meat since I’ve been here and I eat rice every single day. My body is responding well to this diet and I really enjoy the curry.
G: Tell me about the challenges you've faced so far since relocating to Bhutan.
MH: Many of the other teachers who come to teach in Bhutan have known about the country for years and it has been their dream to come here for a long time. Dylan and I honestly didn't have a clue about what Bhutan would be like and therefore we had no expectations besides the little research we were able to do before we arrived. I think this has made a big difference because we haven’t been disappointed at all. We cherish every experience we have in Bhutan and treat everything as a lesson. We are learning about ourselves and about life every single day. I thought that adjusting to the basic living conditions was going to be very challenging but I haven't once longed for my home back in South Africa. I love that everything is a process here and that you have to mindfully go about your daily life instead of pushing buttons to quickly get things done. I love my bucket bath, I love peeling and chopping my vegetables, I love taking my peas out of their pods to eat, I love scrubbing my clothes by hand.
Typhoid is an illness which is passed on through contaminated water. Most of the Bhutanese have been exposed to this disease from a young age and they are immune to it, but us Westerners have to be extra cautious. We need to boil and filter our water and make sure we don't eat raw fruits and vegetables where the skin can’t be peeled off - the risk is too great. This is probably the only adjustment which has taken a long time to get used to and it is the only thing I miss about home. I used to regularly drink green juices and fruit smoothies and although I am able to eat bananas and watermelon, I crave the raw spinach and berries I had in South Africa.
G: Regardless of the challenges, it seems as though you're having a fantastic time teaching in Bhutan and are well acquainted with the children and staff at your school.
MH: Everyone who teaches in Bhutan comments on how wonderful the children are and this is true. I don't know what it is about them but they slowly creep into your heart. I am absolutely in love with them. The children seem really attached to me already because I am completely different to everyone else they have ever known: I look different, I speak differently, I act differently and I definitely teach differently. The children are very independent, they sometimes walk for hours to school alone and are expected to use pick axes and shovels at school every day to maintain their gardens. I got such a fright the first time I saw this - I ran out of the classroom demanding to know where they had gotten these dangerous objects from!
The children clean their own classrooms and toilets and cook their own lunches of curry and rice - nothing is done for them. I have so much respect for them and wish some of the parents in South Africa could see what children are capable of, and that they don’t need to be sheltered from everything and anything. They come to school to “study” and this often means that learning is a task rather than an enjoyable experience - no singing, dancing, art or drawing. I love teaching through all of these creative outlets and so the children have grown to love my subject.
My father is a really kind and generous person and he will always go out of his way to help anyone in need. I have always admired him for this and always wondered why more people weren't like him. In Bhutan, everyone is exactly like my father in this way. The first time Dylan and I tried to cook rice in our rice cooker the entire thing exploded because we added too much water. After simply asking a fellow teacher how much water we should add, she arrived at my house that afternoon ready to cook my rice and curry, and invited us over for lunch so that we could eat the food she had prepared for dinner. If I don't know something at school, all I need to do is ask and the teacher will stop whatever they are doing to help me. I have only been in Bhutan for a few months and I already consider my fellow teachers as good friends. I spend time with them after school and on weekends and it already feels like I have my own little family here in Bhutan.
G: Describe a typical day in the life of Megan Haskin.
MH: Life in Bhutan is very different to the western world. Everything takes time and the pace of life is slow which is really refreshing for me. I wake up between 5:00am and 6:00am. I switch on the electric coil which is placed in a bucket of water and it heats the water within 20 minutes. While the water heats up I stretch and do a few yoga sun salutations. I am constantly walking and have recently started working out again so my legs get really tight. I then put the rice cooker on and chop vegetables to cook my vegetarian cheese curry which is taken to school as a “packed lunch”. I used to cook this the night before but because it is getting warmer, the cheese curry goes sour overnight. All of the teachers bring rice and a curry to school for lunch and we share it out, each eating from the variety of curries. While the rice and curry cook I wake Dylan up. He makes breakfast (oatmeal) while I take a bucket bath. I scoop water from the big bucket of hot water into a smaller one and use it to wash myself. The water goes all over the floor and squat toilet but this is something you get used to - and everything stays clean this way. I then get dressed into my Kira (traditional Bhutanese dress) or normal clothes which I have been wearing more frequently. I walk to school every day and it is much more comfortable in pants and a shirt than a wrap-around skirt and jacket. The weather has also been too hot to wear my Kira.
It takes me ten minutes to walk to school through the rice paddies. I need to cross streams and maneuver through the mud that forms due to the rain. If it is raining too hard I take the school bus with the rest of the children.
The first bell rings at 8:00am and the children head off to their garden area where they work for twenty minutes every morning. They are in charge of planting and maintaining the flower gardens as well as cleaning up the area of litter and washing out the drains. The children also take turns to clean the classroom and the school toilets. They have to wash and sweep them every day and I walk around supervising (although they really know what they are doing so not much supervision is needed). It feels like they know so much more than I do when it comes to the morning social work. The other day a big fence fell down and I looked around trying to figure out what to do while my boys had already begun collecting stones to anchor the pole. I honestly felt very inferior.
We then have morning assembly and after that the periods begin. I teach four out of seven periods every day and the rest is spent planning, making resources and researching. I teach six days a week and get home from work at 4:00pm.
I usually have a snack when I get home to get my energy up for my run at 5:00pm. Children from various classes wait outside my house and we run together every afternoon. We only run for about three kilometers and half way the children splash and play in a small stream. I think playing in water is the highlight for many of them and for some maybe the only reason they join us. They all wear open sandals as they are easy to take off when they get to the water. No matter how many times I’ve suggested that proper running shoes would be better, they always arrive in their sandals. We stretch together after our run and once the children have left, Dylan and I begin our proper training. I am currently completing the Kayla Itsines Bikini Body Guide which is a really intense workout programme - perfect for Bhutan where there are no gyms or exercise equipment (Dylan collected rocks for me to use as weights). After our home gym session we cook dinner, have a bucket bath, work and relax.
G: What would be your most memorable experience in Bhutan so far?
MH: Driving from the capital city to the East was a four-day journey. A school bus arrived and all of the teachers had to load their household items into and on top of it. We dropped teachers off along the way and got to see so many beautiful places in Bhutan because Dylan and I were one of the last to be dropped off. I have never experienced snow before and while driving through the Himalayan Mountains we saw small patches of ice along the way - I was way too excited about this! When we reached the highest pass of our journey, the Thrumshing La Pass, there was thick snow covering the mountain. We stopped and walked through it, built snowmen, made snow angels and it was the first time in a long time that I felt like a child again. I can’t believe it had taken me so long to see snow and it was odd to experience something for the first time again. It is definitely something I will never forget.
G: Would you ever be able to go back to a “normal” life again?
MH: I don’t think I could ever go back to South Africa permanently. I miss my family and friends and I would definitely want to visit them but I am in love with this type of life. It is free and adventurous and all I want to do is this. I am satisfied and content and I can’t remember ever feeling this way before.
Photographs by Dylan Haskin