A rope of hope

A family’s link to the world can be as fragile as a handmade ropeway

For the last two decades, 57-year-old Pema, a farmer and his family who live in Yangkana village in Goenshari, Punakha along with other settlements on the banks of the Mo Chhu have been using the rope bridge that includes rope loops attached to pulleys and a cart in which to ride, to make it across the river for the daily rituals of living.

It is the only lifeline between the village comprising two households of 12 people and the rest of the country.

Pema wakes up his 12-year-old son, Phurba Tshering, and asks him to get ready for school while his wife prepares breakfast. After taking breakfast, the father and son duo walk up to the Mo Chhu bank.

Phurba gets into a small box hanging from a chain while Pema releases the thick yellow plastic rope that positions the box. He lets the rope slide from his hand as he breathes: “It’s easier down, I can just let it slide, but the pull exhausts my energy.” He keeps a light grip on the rope to let it slide slowly. Once Phurba descends, crosses the river and walks uphill, his father gazes at him for a while before walking back home.

Pema settled with his family in Yangkana village 20 years ago. He is originally from Bumthang. He had come to Punakha in search of a contract job and met the owner of the property where he is currently settled. The landowner suggested that Pema take his land on lease in Yangkana. Pema immediately grabbed the opportunity.

“The land was a jungle when we first moved in,” says Pema looking around at what once was a wild habitat now tilled to grow rice. The family has just harvested the grain for the season and will soon have an abundant supply of rice.

The first time Pema visited Yangkana he had to walk for two hours from the nearest bridge. The path was narrow and by the edge of a hill.

Hence, the landowner and Pema decided to build the ropeway. “Since I am a blacksmith, I had an idea of how to go about it”, said Pema.

However, moving in was difficult because his daughters faced the risk of a dangerous journey. Pema along with his wife, their two daughters and in-laws moved to Yangkana in 2000.

They first helped the animals cross through the river and transferred their luggage with the help of an existing rope bridge. This took almost a day.

Pema’s wife, Pema Lhamo, 44, gave birth to three more children while they were living in Yangkana. Pema Lhamo could reach the hospital on time to give birth to her two sons, but she had to deliver her youngest daughter at home because she could not sit in the cart.

Fearing the same thing would happen to her second daughter Choki in 2019 when she got married and pregnant, they went to the hospital before the delivery date.

According to Choki, it was her first child, and she did not want to take any risks so they went to the hospital early where they stayed for two days.

These days, whenever she climbs into the cart with her son, she remembers these incidences fearfully. She stays with her husband, Sangay Tenzin, and son at Yangkana with her parents.

Sangay Tenzin moved into Yangkana after marrying Choki. He helps his father-in-law pull the rope and maintain the ropeway.

Choki and her siblings went to school crossing river with the help of the ropeway which her father had made when he first settled in the village. The eldest daughter Ugyen Lhadon and Choki have completed their high school and Passang Om, and Phurba Tshering are in Kabisa High school. They stay in hostel while Dawa, his middle son is a monk who has joined a monastery.

“It is a good thing that they are away because I always worry that the rope might break and the kids will fall into the river,” said Pema. The rope broke three times in the past.

Pema is the only one who can maintain the ropeway. His son-in-law is learning from him but he has only two years’ experience at the task, says Choki. “I don’t know if he can take my father’s place.”

Sangay is now also a farmer at the village. Sangay wants to go live somewhere else, but he does not want to leave his wife and son behind and Choki refuses to part with her parents. Yangkana is the only home known to Choki though they are living on leased land. “I don’t know where I will go, this is home,” says Choki.

Therefore, Sangay is learning from his father-in-law everything about the ropeway including maintenance and repairing. He will have to pull the rope after father, says Choki.

Pema’s sister-in-law, Leki’s daughter had also come to stay with her after she gave birth, but the metallic rope broke while they were still inside the cart. Her son-in-law was able to hold on to the other rope, and they managed to stay afloat. He hurt his hand, but they were grateful that they did not fall into the river.

The ropeway has crushed seven people’s fingers so far. Pema’s mother-in-law crushed her index finger while commuting via the ropeway. “I was hospitalized for five nights,” said Pema’s mother-in-law. Her index finger is bent at the tip.

Maintaining the ropeway costs Pema Nu 6,000-7,000 every six months.

The four corners of the cart are tied to the two sides of the metallic rope and a pulley is fixed on it. The thick yellow plastic rope is tied to the middle metallic rope and it is used to make the movements. There are three metallic rods stretched across the Mo Chhu. On the left bank of the Mo Chhu, the metallic rope is tied to a tree and the one on the right bank is tied to a big block of wood. Every six months, with the help of hired labor, Pema has to tighten the metallic rope and change the wooden blocks if they need to be changed. If the rope is not maintained every six months, there is a high risk of the metallic rod breaking or the wood crumbling into half.

“It is difficult,” says Pema. He forges knives and garden tools to make money for a living.

The family used to sell vegetables but getting their vegetables to the market without a good bridge is a challenge for them.

“But I am not afraid while riding the ropeway, I am concerned about my community,” says Phurba. He says that having a bridge would make life easier for the residents of Yangkana.

Phurba wants to become a teacher after he completes his studies and build a proper bridge for his father. “I feel sorry for my father. My earliest memories have always been of my father pulling the ropeway for us. He used to do it for my sisters while they were studying, and he is still doing it,” he says, more than a little sadly, as he looks at his father working on the ropeway after returning from school.

This story was funded by JAB’s Rural Reporting Grant supported by the UNDEF.

Sonam Yangzom from Punakha