Play: To Bhutan and back

Juneau family's time in Asia inspires writing of play

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2003

A family visit to Bhutan, a small kingdom in the Himalayas, has inspired a local eighth-grader to write a play about friendship.

"The Four Friends" by Libby Parker, 13, is Auke Bay Elementary's fifth-grade spring musical, to be performed for the public at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the school gym. The suggested donation is $3 a person or $10 a family.

"I never really planned to write it," Libby said at a recent rehearsal. "But when I found out we were going to Bhutan, it all evolved."

Libby, her father Steve Parker, an anesthesiologist; her mother, Suzanne Malter, a nurse; and brothers Nick, 11, and Tom, 9, lived in Bhutan for six months last year as part of a year-long trip in Asia.

While Steve helped the kingdom improve its anesthesiology capability, Suzanne was busy with the daily chores of living in an undeveloped land, and the children attended Bhutanese schools.

Steve and Suzanne had done volunteer work in Nepal in the mid-1980s and wanted to return to the Himalayas, but they waited for their children to be old enough to enjoy the experience, Steve said.

"That's not an easy thing to set up, to go there," Steve said. "They let very few people come into their country. They're very protective of their culture."

Most Bhutanese live by subsistence agriculture, Steve said. Many children don't attend school and there are few roads or modern conveniences. Villages are separated by high mountains.

"It's like stepping back 200 to 300 years," he said.

The family lived in the capital, Thimphu, but they didn't have a refrigerator and shopped at weekend open-air markets. They cooked on a small wood-burning stove.

"It takes a lot of energy just keeping things going," Steve said. "You have to boil all the water you use and store it. We had to carry water for part of the year."

"You can also call it fly heaven," Tom added. "They can get anywhere without being swatted because no one would kill them."

About three-quarters of the Bhutanese are Buddhist, and the others Hindu.

School children are taught in English, by teachers from India, so the Juneau children were able to follow lessons. But it was hard socially to be the only non-Asian children in their schools.

"It was life-changing," Libby said of her experience in Bhutan. "It was hard. It was really hard going to school, but it was good because it stretched me."

Libby said she feels closer to her friends in Juneau now. Her play ties a Bhutan legend to a story of students quarreling with each other.

"This calls for some serious measures," a school official tells the fighting students. "I'm going to have to call in the monks," which is a line you don't hear every day.

Two monks lead the children to the legendary four friends - an elephant, hare, monkey and peacock - and they learn about friendship on their journey. The actors speak some lines in Dzongkha, one of the languages of Bhutan.

The play includes dances from Nepal and India that Libby videotaped in Bhutan.

"I try to keep it as close to the original version as possible," said Pam Curé, a teacher who choreographed the dances.

Twenty-seven students dance in the spring play, which involves all 85 or so Auke Bay fifth-graders in the school.

"It's nice to have the boys be in the dances because it stretches some of them. They really get motivated when they get the costumes on," Curé said.

The costumes are mostly authentic, Libby said.

"It's kind of tight, but after a while you get used to it," Libby's brother Nick said of his monk's costume.

"I feel like a leprechaun," said brother Tom, wearing a monk's flared dancing costume.

Daniel Melville, whose earful headgear and tail clearly marked him as the hare, said he wanted to be one the actors playing students.

"Most of the acting is just jumping around. Instead of walking and running, I just jump," he said.

Andrew Gregovich, chief of the play's black-hooded creatures, said it was a cool role.

"We're slave-drivers of four little animals we enslave," he said.

Previous Auke Bay spring plays have been set in other cultures, such as Brazil or the Philippines, said teacher and director Ann Boochever.

"My idea was to expose kids to other cultures this way," she said. "But this is by far the most exciting because no one knows much about Bhutan."

While the Juneau family was in Bhutan members befriended a young Buddhist monk, Pema, who visited Juneau this winter and spoke to Auke Bay students.

"Their national product is gross national happiness," Libby said. "They're not so much focused on output. They're really focused on their families."

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