Friday, February 17, 2012

Feel Like a Stranger


“He will eat dried buffalo meat and frijoles with chili, and he will be glad to drink water when he can get it. He will have no easy life, your eminence. That country will drink up his youth and strength as it does the rain. He will be called upon to make every sacrifice, quite possibly for martyrdom.” Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop.

It is a nice warm winter day here. I went to my rock and started a book Morgan gave me on the eve of my departure which is eerily appropriate for this place (see above caption.) After reading the first few pages I ventured down the slope through a wispy stand of evergreen and some tall dry bushes which hid the path. At the foot there was a stupa which looked old as the ruins and maybe part of the ancient complex. Another path untaken blazed ahead to a settlement of farmhouses. From the crumbling artifact I gazed into the valley trying to determine if the river was flowing into or out of India. It’s hard to determine such detail with my poor vision. But today I am blessed to be able to see at all. This sparse landscape has vapid mountains the color of earth rolling and folding into tighter and tighter valleys. I don’t know why I find this view so alluring. It doesn’t have the snowy grandeur of the Pacific Crest Trail or the gapping chasm of “The Grand Canyon” But it is where mountains and desert coalesce. Its not fair to call it a desert but it hints of the eastern slope of the Sierras descending into Reno, except completely different. This place defies categorization and seems to exist in “the bardo” which is the space between death and rebirth or one thought and another. It is an open place but not in a threatening or scornful way. Where pockets of vegetation lace certain mountains while others are completely bare. The demarcation between Bhutan and India is a dog nosed ridge that traces from the clouds all the way to the valley floor before meeting a knotted hump of a plateau above the river. The color of the water is aqua -green with white veins of rushing liquid. It flows fast even in this dry season of winter. We are situated on the west end of a sprawling valley that becomes blocked by massifs to the east. The river forms a magnificent swooping s curve almost doubling back on itself. On the Bhutan side of the border are larger mountains with one flat crowned peak that is the jewel of this vast natural Mandela. Below this summit rests a patch of snow. You can hear the river whispering from 20 km below. Far beyond the faded smoky horizon I imagine the filthy bustling cities of India. My door is open and students wander in to say hello rifling through my belongings which is culturally acceptable. And even from my keyboard I can see this magnetic view and hear the BOOM of dynamite from a hydro project somewhere below. The sound reminds me of powder days with ski patrol blowing off the cornices from Estelle Bowl and Granite Chief.

I got my books today and broke into a cold sweat at the sight of my grammar books, time for the teacher to become the student. I wandered into a classroom of primary students and read aloud from a Bhutanese children’s book written in English. I knew it was Bhutanese since it had chilies in it. My house is still UN scrubbed and being the scrapper dog that I am I sniffed out a delicious free meal at Karlos’s house. He moved in next to my sick room today. He occupies the larger part of the duplex having three or four rooms. Barefoot students, some as old as 20 were scrubbing his floors and polishing every surface, where are my servants? I desperately need to get to Yangtse to open my bank, buy a kitchen knife, and other goods. I’m working on spending the last $100 of the $1,500 I brought from home. It seems each and every donation has been essential in delivering me here. And if my posts strike you as negative it is only my Russian soul. The truth is I feel very happy to be here and use this blog as a vehicle for complaining which unfortunately is one of my pastimes. Much like this landscape that initially perturbed my ignorant senses I hope to slowly awaken to the astounding calmness of reality. For now my specialty is calamity. I have a friend from Oregon who I advised into solitude in the year of the iron rabbit. I hope she is released from her vow. Now it is my turn to take on this burden and bliss of solitude.

Back at the canteen last night I met a kindly woman who spoke delightful and humorous English calling her younger sister, “a little freaky” describing her footloose behavior. The younger sister who is 17 (who always prepared my noodles) left for boarding school yesterday. They are the daughters of the proprietor who does not speak any English and the whole family is very nice. It’s great to see the next generation learning English. Anyway, they lost their father and husband respectively in a terrorist attack by an Indian insurgent group in the 80’s that left the mother a widow and the five daughters without a father. Karma Om, the oldest still has memories of this event as she recounted the tragedy as her five year old boy slept in my lap. I like the canteen since I can “be frank” as the Bhutanese like to say. I can be myself without constant worry of offending Bhutanese society and sensibilities. The language barrier is real especially with the students, some of which seem unwilling or unable to communicate in English. I have discovered in ESL teaching, humor and lightness is the best way to get them talking and am often pleasantly surprised at how much they know.
His majesties birthday is next week which means a celebration and holiday for us. Then classes will begin in earnest. This slow build up has been quite different than in Korea where I was in a classroom two days after arrival. I am ready to get down to it and see exactly what I’m up against. Some students in my 7th and 8th class are as old as 15 but their English is at a lower level than anything I’ve seen before. My main goal is to make it fun and encourage them to speak, read, and write with confidence. Although its illegal its common place to use corporal punishment (beating) in Bhutanese classes. I haven’t witnessed this yet and realize its part of the culture here. As foreign teachers we must remember things are different here and the same way of punishment existed in America until recently. Judging by the bare bones classrooms with green boards and wooden chairs things are not as modern here. Obviously I will have my own non violent means of light which drives me crazy. I will also try to maintain my vow of sobriety as I haven’t touched alcohol since Tequila night in Korea. But the beer and chung seem to be a way out of boredom here. A clear head is my ally and I’m surprised the drinking is not as rampant as advertised in the West. In fact I saw much sloppier behavior in Thimphu. Thank god they have Coca-Cola; it’s the real thing…In another boon I just scored a cabinet for clothes and dishes. I hope to strike out to a small village two hours away this weekend and maybe visit the town of Trashiyangtse. One of these days I will entertain the locals to return the favor of generosity. Wouldn’t that be something hosting a tea party and cooking Bhutanese food for a few friends.  

After five hours of scrutiny and assembly Samgay and two class ten students have fixed my filter. Today was a very good day. It seems that in E. Bhutan when one challenge is conquered another arises. Good old Ganesh at work. I have also been informed that I will have a total of 120 students, OMG! In Bhutan knowing names is not essential according to the native teachers. This is inconceivable in the West. How to discipline and recognize my students let alone decode their aptitude and learning styles? Along with lack of resources, indiscriminate dress, multi-gender names, and six day work weeks, it’s going to be a wild year! Buckle up kids! Hopefully in the end it will make me a more adept teacher.

A haiku for you

filtered sunlight shines
on Arunachal Pradesh
rugged mountain pass

Friday, “A Hard Rains gonna fall”

“And I’ll tell it and speak it, and I’ll think it and breathe it
and reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it”
Bob Dylan

Today we had another painfully long meeting regarding the “timetable” and distribution of classes for teachers. The meeting ran about four hours and my ADD was flaring like an angry dragon. I mingled informally with my 7 and 8 classes. They are very shy but it was nice to talk with them. I began just by having them say their names with confidence. For example “my name is Pema Soma!” Sometimes I wonder how much they understand. I had a great conversation with one student who is a relative of a colleague in my 8 class. She is a lovely girl with neatly pressed kiera (girl’s national dress.) She was initially very shy when I met her yesterday but today was speaking freely, which gives me hope for my other 119 students. After the meeting I went next door to Karlos’s only to stumble into a quant engagement lunch which I unknowingly crashed. His fiancée is a kindhearted young woman of 23 and a great cook. I even got some chunks of pork which my body readily and thankfully devoured. Now a crisp rain pelts my hut. Thankfully I am done for the day. Hopefully this rain will clear the smoky valley and bring the stars back. The dipper is upside down here, pouring out its secrets onto the treetops. I’ve been invited by Karma Om and Karlos’s fiancée (who are somehow related) to Losar which is the Asian New Year. I am twice blessed with auspicious celebrations, first with Bobby and the Thunder Dragon and now a trek to a small village with no cars about two hours walk. The real, “Real Bhutan” That dinner is after his majesty’s celebration this weekend. The students have been working hard rehearsing their traditional songs and dances. Should be a kick! I’ll leave you with some words from his majesty, “In Bhutan the key word is merit.” Happy New Year!!! The official “Year of The Thunder Dragon!”

The rain has stopped revealing partly cloudy skies and a dusting of snow on the upper peaks. I can see farther into Arunachal Pradesh India then ever before. Seeking inspiration I took my constitutional up to the ruins which were awash in remarkable light. Sun beams filtered through the clouds in shafts of light playing on the pastel mountains. Then on to the temple with was unoccupied. I sat awhile in the main chamber on the cold marble patch on the wood floor watching a lone candle burn on the alter. The main room is covered in Buddhist paintings and statues more vivid and beautiful then anything I’ve ever seen before in a museum or church. Descending the vertical stairs to the second floor where the tantric images of man and woman reside. These sexual images are so pure that they elicit only thoughts of the diamond being or the perfect unity of male and female forces. Another steep staircase leads out of the second floor to the attic as I call it. This is my sanctuary. Here there are no female images only depictions of holy men deep in meditation with silver and blue clouds behind them. The images are three dimensional popping out of the walls onto the simple wood floor. Here I lit some incense and tried to meditate but my mind led me back home. Not to be a critic anyway as the magic of this place was not lost on me. It is the most silent holy place I have ever been, broken only by the chime of the prayer wheel and the AH of a raven. From the attic window you can see the ruins and the river flowing in the valley below. The paintings and artifacts are everywhere from the floor boards to the ceiling with its psychedelic breathing paintings. After awhile a mantra appeared on the screen of my mind, beauty is truth, truth is beauty.

“Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile
nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile” He’s Gone

After my walk I headed out the gate thirty yards into the village of Tshenkharla with my neighbor Karlos. (I was touched he invited me to his wedding on Sunday) On the way we saw a sparrow that had been bitten by a dog. Karlos picked up the twitching bird cupping it in his palm. Within ten minutes the little sparrow had died and I was glad since he didn’t have to suffer anymore and he died in a warm hand. I began to think of my parents and how afraid I am to lose them, and how we all must die someday. How can I live without my loved ones with me? I’ve often felt religion or worship in any form, sprouts from a deep seeded fear of death. Ever since the first burials and cave paintings homo sapiens has used this mechanism to cope with that unfathomable truth and joke of existence. And in a sense all actions including love, our born out of this egotistical desire for immortality. That’s why nature and the animal kingdom have always provided some perspective separate to human’s clingy consciousness. Willie said it best when he wrote it for Bobby, “Everything crawl creep or fly, just live until they die.” (Eternity) We roamed down the road a ways to a village shop where Karlos had a beer and we discussed corporeal punishment in Bhutan and the education system in America. Sometimes I tire of being the authority on all things North American. Like Becky said on the phone before our conversation got dropped, “Everyone here thinks I’m an expert on everything, they’ll learn soon enough I guess.” Right on sis and I hope your in your new digs. I am also disappointing the locals when I constantly forget their names. My eyes only see blurry dark faces, my ears only hear strange names, and my mind is preoccupied with ten thousand worries. I go out for company but get left behind in the drunken conversations in Sharshop. There are no women or dance clubs here so I (night crawl) back into my hermit shell. I wonder if my family realizes how lonesome it is to return to my dirty little hut with dogs barking all around my door. It was classic at orientation when alumni teacher Scott remarked “I hate those dogs I wish I could kill them all.” Today was Bhutan in a nutshell, supreme joy and deep sorrow. I try not to judge this place as backwards because it’s just different. And I am different from everyone here. I will try to find a Coke before bed. I’m down to two a day yet somehow have bought out the village supply. Sadly there are ample jugs of Pepsi, yuck! Oh well, tomorrow is a brand new day full of challenges and perhaps delight. I need to start “bone stimulating” my arm, it’s hurting a lot these days. It’s just to damn cold to do it or to take a bucket bath for that matter. I aim to buy a giant bucket to sit in for warm baths. I laughed at alumni teacher Kendra for saying she gave up bathing, well it seems I never started. Good thing I’m a dirty hippie. Mare if you’re reading this atrociously written piece of unholy babble with countless grammatical mistakes; I want to thank you for your sound advice. “Get rid of the distractions!” Like Ed Volker said to me outside 19 Broadway while discussing tranquility, “If it were only that easy, well maybe it is?”

Good night and may god bless all weary travelers. I hope my fellow BCF teachers are adapting to their placements. I hope Reidi is finally healthy and rid of her “Bhutan Belly” and Sabrina is at peace with the local k-9 population. I genuinely miss you all… For all those reading this blog, thanks for indulging my rants and raves. I give mad props for the teachers of yesteryear in Bhutan (like BCF Matriarch) Nancy Strickland for living here before electricity. And yes Nancy you were right in correcting me, this definitely isn’t a town.

Timothy Kristopher Grossman, Somewhere Over The Rainbow

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