Lessons at the Riverside

Once or twice a week throughout the semester, I have been collecting water samples from the Wang Chu (chu means river) in Thimphu for Professor Matt Evans of the Chemistry department back at Wheaton. He armed me with bottles, syringes, and filters before the end of the fall semester, with the hope that I could take these samples and cart them back across the world to give to him when the school year starts up again at the end of August. Angus did this in fall 2012, and Annie and I have been keeping up the collections for spring 2013. The idea behind Prof. Evans’ experiment as I understand it is to investigate the connection between the tectonic plate movements and erosion forces happening at rapid rates in these lower Himalaya. By looking into the dissolved minerals in the water samples from the river, we hope to learn about what is being eroded and carried by the river, and how this impacts the geography here. The relationship between these rising mountains and the rivers that cut them down may also be the reason for the many hot springs in Bhutan, even though there is next to no volcanic activity.

So, on one sunny Tuesday, I made my usual walk down from the bus station to the Centennial Vegetable Market, crossed the prayer-flag covered cantilever foot bridge to the Crafts Market on the opposite bank, and walked down to the rocky riverside, past the Artemisia and Marijuana bushes that grow along the river. I had to avoid stepping on the hundreds of army worms that had emerged that week and which covered the path with their inching squishy bodies. I’m sure I must have stepped on at least a few, and I hope that doesn’t send me into the lower realms of the Karmic Wheel of Life if I am reincarnated.

Ana had joined me for this trip into town, and we set down our backpacks on the dry tops of the rounded boulders and stones that make up the river bed. I got out my water collection tools and rolled up my pants to enter the cold water so that I could get a sample where the water was running, rather than where it formed eddies on the river’s edge. Ana set to work collecting small tumbled-smooth rocks which she hoped to turn into jewelry. We reminded each other not to pick up any of the lumpy striped naga stones, as doing so could make the river deity angry.

As we were walking down to this spot, we had noticed three young boys, probably brothers ages five, eight, and eleven, playing on the rocks closer to the foot bridge. They must have just gotten out of school, as two were still in their matching school uniform ghos. While Ana and I were getting settled, the boys walked over to us to see what we were up to. The oldest of them, whose name I learned was Ugyen, spoke very good English, and was especially curious about what I was doing with the water. I asked him, “Do you study science in school?” He nodded vigorously and I explained that I was taking some water to do a science experiment, and like him, I was a student too. I then asked if we wanted to help me take the sample. He beamed, nodding again; I think I was equally excited. It’s always fun to see people eager for science, and I know that at least for me, doing work hands-on in the field, is the best and most memorable part.

While he and I collected the water, his brothers continued to play and help Ana pick out her rocks. When the task was all finished, I thanked Ugyen for his help and said it was time for us to go. This little gentleman offered to carry my backpack, and I smiled and was really impressed by his curiosity and kindness. As Ana and I walked back up toward the empty Crafts Market (vendors are there only Thursday through Sunday), the boys followed us, and the littlest of the boys jogged around us saying, “Give me some money? Give me some money?” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ugyen smiling and shaking his head, a little embarrassed at his brother. I didn’t mind though, as usually when one passes groups of kids walking together in Thimphu, at least one kid will grin broadly, put up a flash of a waving hand and shout, “Hi!” and then as soon as you reply, “Bye!” before turning back to their friends and giggling. If they are feeling particularly brave, they’ll ask for some money, or try to sell you a ticket. They won’t tell you what the ticket is for, so I assume it’s for nothing except scrap paper.

All in all, though it felt really special to be able to share some science and fun with these boys, and I hope it planted the idea with Ugyen that what you learn in school (and outside of school) really can matter, and can even provide you with near-unbelievable opportunities, like being able to stand in the middle of a roaring river on the opposite side of the world from your home, look up at the mountains where that river begins, and share a moment with someone who unintentionally reminds you just how incredible and ripe with potential the world can be, even if that means you get army-worm guts on your shoes.
– Carrie Decker

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