Snowman Trek Bhutan – Serendipity and School Lunch

Sep 21, 2019 | Bhutan

The afternoon rains were typically light and late, but one day the skies opened early, the wind blew, and a heavy rain came down almost sideways. With good raingear, it’s not a big problem to hike in the rain, but eating in the rain is a different story. When we passed through a small village, our staff led us to lunch at small tin-roofed shelter with no walls, and the rain blowing in from the side. I knew immediately we were going to need a different option, so I started looking around at the houses and wondering who might allow the 11 of us (not including Norbu the horse, who carries lunch) to come in for a while. It’s a pretty big request, and I could tell our slightly shy assistant guide was not excited about asking. Instead of heading towards the houses, he and I took off towards the primary school a little farther away, found the office, and knocked. Less shy, I immediately called out, “Hello?” and a voice answered in English, “Hello? Hello, yes! Come in!” I knew right away we’d found a solution—and that I didn’t have to put my assistant guide on the spot. I walked into the office to meet the friendly and welcoming School Principal, who spoke excellent English. I explained the situation, and he welcomed us to the school cafeteria for lunch.

The cafeteria was a large empty room, with a wooden floor and peeling paint, two narrow benches that wobbled, and pictures of the current and former kings on the wall. It was somewhat barren but nonetheless perfect as an escape from the rain—it had a roof and walls. We hiked back to gather the group, and all returned together to gratefully settle in for lunch. Moments later, 46 children in red and blue plaid school uniforms arrived to join us.

The students filed in to the cafeteria quietly, picked up stainless steel plates, and lined up in orderly fashion. Three of the older children came into the front of the room with buckets of rice, soup, and vegetables. A teacher guided all the students through reciting a blessing for the food, and then they filed past the servers, filled their plates, and sat cross-legged in neat lines on the floor to eat with their hands and occasionally whisper to their neighbors. The contrast with any school cafeteria in America was not lost on us, and we watched with a mixture of appreciation and fascination.

The principal shared some of the school soup and vegetables with us (spicy!). I asked one of our staff to take the oranges intended for our group and cut them into 50 small pieces, which he happily did. (Did I mention how great our staff are about all my strange requests?!) Then I fished a pile of almonds out of my backpack, offering both fruit and nuts to the clients who found more snacks in their own bags and went down the lines serving the children one-by-one. Shy smiles, receiving hands outstretched, and more animated whispering ensued as the children received these rare treats.

After lunch, the principal offered to have the children sing a song for us, which we eagerly agreed to. They sang one, then another…and then of course, it was our turn! It’s not the first time one of my groups has been on the spot to sing—and it’s always revealing how few songs a group of 8-10 Americans all know the words for. Imagine you suddenly have 1 minute to come up with a song you can sing straight through, that 8 other people (who aren’t your friends from high school) also know all the words and tune for, and that is going to sound okay without any instrumental backup. Not so easy. Over the years, Christmas carols, 50’s tunes, and Beatles songs have all been recourse in the pressure of the moment.

At the school on this rainy day, we sang This Land Is Your Land (presented as one of our national songs because The Star Spangled Banner is so hard to sing) and Take Me Home Country Road. The children loved it and were more excited when they sang another song or two, so we responded with Jingle Bells and many lively Ho, Ho, Ho’s. The children’s next song included a series of animated arm movements and foot stomping, which we picked up and performed with them. They had upped the ante, and I knew what I needed to do next.

Although I’m fairly reserved in the US and would never subject someone to my singing (so off-key!), when I’m guiding I will do almost anything in the name of awesome cultural exchange and fun with locals. So I summoned up a big voice, organized the 60 of us into a circle, and led the Hokey Pokey as loud as I could. The kids cracked up watching us begin, and then they joined in, following us through shaking arms-legs-heads-bodies, spinning around, and clapping, round after round. It was great fun for everyone!

The day was fading, the students needed to get back to learning, and we needed to get back to trekking. The rain had abated, and we still had a few hours hiking to reach our campsite. Our group walked with renewed spirit, energized by the unexpected connection this grey day. It was a perfect example of serendipity brought by the rain, and we were grateful for the afternoon downpour that drove us inside. In Thimphu after the trek, we bought children’s books and colorful pens to send back out to the kids who had stolen our hearts that afternoon.

Our campsite is still at the far end of this valley–time to start hiking.