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Tashi Dorji (left) and Tshering Wangmo at a bread baking workshop

Back home to pick buckthorn berries by Tang Chu

Two educated farmers from Tang return home from Austria buoyed and hopeful 

Feature: For some Bhutanese staying in Europe for a short while, nothing can be missed more sorely than the traditional three square rice meals a day. Tshering Wangmo, 29, and Tashi Dorji, 22, from Tang in Bumthang recently flew back home from a two-month stay in Austria salivating at the thought of a heavy rice-and-curry meal.

Tshering and Tashi had been to Austria from August to October as part of The Bhutan-Network’s Organic Farmers’ Exchange Programme (OFEP). Their sojourn in the Alps was memorably pleasant, refreshing, and enriching but at the cost of a rumbling stomach that kept aching for the Bhutanese food. Tashi, who tends a herd of cattle in Nyimlung village, said the Austrian breakfast of bread and jam ‘put his mood off’ early in the morning but a heavier lunch of pasta revived it. Lunch was more filling, Tshering agreed.

Tshering Wangmo and Tashi Dorji, a Class X graduate and a Class XII graduate respectively, were the fourth batch of Bhutanese farmers The Bhutan-Network’s OFEP sent to Austria to learn about and practise organic farming. OFEP has sent young, educated Bhutanese farmers to Austria since 2013.

The Bhutan-Network is an Austria-based, non-profit organisation seeking to connect the Bhutanese and Austrian people with varied skills at different levels to strengthen intangible and tangible cultural heritage in Bhutan and Europe.

Tshering and Tashi lived on different farms in Salzburg, Western Austria, working with different organic farming families. They learnt milking cows and sheep, processing cow milk and sheep milk, and making traditional Austrian bread. Austrian families warmly welcomed them and took them along as they went about their farming activities.

They were surprised by the pride of place organic products occupy in Austria and how organic products are truly organic. The vegetables and crops are organic because the manure is organic, and the mature is organic because the cows are fed organic. They said going 100 percent organic was difficult but the Austrian organic farmers made it look easy and bountiful.

Tshering cleaned stalls and walked the scenic Alpine meadows collecting different kinds of herbs that Austrians mix with different kinds of cheese they produce. “The Bhutanese pick packaged soup straight from a shop but the Austrians pick herbs from their gardens to make soup,” Tshering said, adding that her garden in Bumthang can have the same abundance of herbs to prepare organic soup.

Except for the Bhutanese and Austrian landscapes that bear striking similarities, the pair finds it irresistible to compare Bhutan with Austria in a number of ways. As they share their experience in their smooth Dzongkha lightly bestrewn with English words and phrases, they keep returning to the refrain “they do it this way whereas we don’t” or “we do it this way whereas they don’t”.

They describe the Austrians as warmer and more amiable than the Bhutanese. The Austrians, they say, are liberal with greetings and pleasantries with strangers while the Bhutanese would typically react to strangers with tight-lipped coldness.

Therefore, they could easily melt into the Salzburg farming community until the local TV channel noticed them and followed them into a potato field. Facing the camera of the German language TV channel more comfortably than many senior public servants in Bhutan, otherwise shy Tshering explained in her crisp English how the Austrian method of growing potatoes along with other crops was an alternative she could explore in Bhutan.

However, while Tshering and Tashi have come back home as wiser and prouder farmers, they do not have misconceptions about the local limitations and challenges. They say not all farming practices they have learnt in Austria can be adopted in Tang owing to technological limitations. “If we had all the machines they have, we can translate all our ideas into practice,” Tashi says in a tone tinged with a sense of longing. “But we are planning to apply whatever Austrian ideas we can on our farms.”

Among the things they have learnt in Austria that they wish to do in Bhutan is bake bread in a traditional Austrian oven in Bumthang. This wish may not be difficult to fulfil for Austrian ovens are coming near their villages by the year. Last year, a team from Austria built an oven in Chumay. Around June and July next year, another team will build an oven in Ura.

In the meantime, Tashi and Tshering are back on their farms. Tashi is packing potatoes to be trucked to Phuntsholing while Tshering is picking wild sea buckthorn berries by the banks of Tang Chu to make jam, a skill she picked up in Austria. She hopes to sell the jam to guesthouses in Bumthang where people enjoy bread and jam even as she herself enjoys three rice meals a day.

Needrup Zangpo is the editor of Druk Loter, a writing, editing, translation consulting firm. He can be contacted at 

needrup@gmail.com

Contributed by Needrup Zangpo

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