Younten Tshedup | Panbang

Children participating in a winter youth camp run around as they play hide-and-seek in Panbang, Zhemgang.

At a distance, Jigme Wangmo and her six friends sell snacks and tea by the roadside below Panbang town.

“Why should they have all the fun? We are having fun, too, in our own ways,” mutters Jigme Wangmo, 12, while returning change to a customer.

Every winter for the past two years, the seven students of Sonamthang Central School in Panbang have been doing this to while away time during vacation.

The grade VII student said, “I would prefer selling tea and momo over any other activity. This is our fun thing to do during vacation. We enjoy doing this.”

Braving the chilly winter mornings, the group arrives at their spot near 152m Panbang bridge over Drangmechhu every day.

Individually, the group earns about Nu 1,000 each day. While the rest of the vendors hand over the full earning to their parents, Jigme Wangmo said that her mother allows her to keep half of the earnings.

“I buy things and cloths that I like with the money I save. My mother helps me with the stationery items when the school opens,” she said. “I don’t like staying home doing nothing during the vacation, which is why I prefer coming here.”

Of the seven vendors, the lone male seller, Kelzang Jigme, however, feels otherwise.

“My mother wants me to be here because she has other works at home,” said the 14-year-old. “Given the opportunity I would stay at home or go out to play with my friends. But since I’m the eldest son, I need to help my mother.”

Kelzang Jigme said that many of his friends ask him if he was ashamed of doing such business while the rest of them freely spent their holidays.

“There is no shame in making money legally. I’m not begging or stealing from anyone,” he said. “But sometimes it makes me sad because I don’t get to go to other places like some of my friends.”

He said that his father, a truck driver is mostly away with work and his mother faces a difficult time doing all the chores at home. “My two younger sisters are too small to do this, which is why I have to come.”

He said that some of his teachers who visit their stalls are pleased to see them do the work. “It encourages us to do more when teachers use us as a good example during the lessons in school.”

One of the parents, Tharzom, said that it was important to engage children in such activities because children were simply lazing around at homes without any other recreational activities in the area.

“It was an opportunity for them to make some money when they returned to school and also taught them how to socialise with people,” she said. “Moreover, when children are left idle for too long, they indulge in anti-social activities.”

The youth from Mongar 

Away from the bustling stalls, a few kilometres from the fuel depot in Panbang are a group of young men engaged in a futsal game. Using crudely rolled plastics as a ball, the game is being played to celebrate Nyilo, Winter Solstice, which is also observed as the new year in the western parts of the country.

Empty pots and plates lie scattered outside their blue tarpaulin makeshift cabin beside the dusty Tingtibi-Panbang highway. They had just finished their Nyilo meal – rice with Masala pork curry.

The boys from Thangrong in Mongar are here to ferry materials to erect a tower for TashiCell.

Every winter, led by the two seniors, Namgay Lhendup and Neten, students in Thangrong village go to work in different places across the country.

Kezang Dorji, 18, said that he had worked in numerous construction sites over the years during his winter holidays. “I want to become an engineer. The reason I work at construction sites is to acquire experience on the field,” he said. “Besides, I make some money from the work which helps me when school restarts.”

With almost half the work at the present location completed, the group has another similar project near Goshing.

“Sometimes we get lots of contract work at the same time and it becomes difficult to find time and workers,” said Namgay Lhendup. “I try to involve all the youth in our village whenever I get a contract. Besides the individuals, it helps the community.”