Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Blue Goddess of Tshenkharla Dzong

 “You were only waiting for this moment to arrive” Blackbird

Don’t go up there at night! The people say with fear and reverence painted on their face. It’s a haunted castle. Ever since I arrived I’ve been enamored and inexplicably drawn to the ruins. On a clear and mild winter’s night I sit in Karlos’s living room discussing the late Prince Tsangma who arrived here in the late ninth century after the assassination of his brother by his other eldest brother before he himself was banished from Tibet. He arrived in Bhutan in exile. Entering in the west he passed Paro moving east to fulfill his destiny. One might wonder why anyone would press on past Bumthang and its splendid valleys all the way to Trashigang. And why then make the trip from that lush region all the way to the arid spot of Rangthangwoon mere steps up the path from our modern day school. But the proof of his fate is the ruined gate and wall of his fortress. The place he lived as a benevolent figure holding great influence over Eastern Bhutan for many years before passing away on this mountain. I feel strangely connected to this Prince from 1,100 years ago who left his home and settled in this dry landscape with a view in all directions. But the place is reportedly haunted as one man met a demon serpent in the daytime, fell ill, and died that night. And the cook from our school who used to work on the water lines near the ruin heard voices and crying in the darkness. This man is quite quirky, the village madman, intoxicated by arra.

Tonight I was apprehensive as I told Karlos and Sonam my plan to hike up to the ruin to view the stars. I read the history of the prince from a Bhutanese book sitting in a carved wooden chair, the spirit of the man fell upon me. The banished prince was an avid advocate of Buddhism while his evil brother was extinguishing the faith from the Tibetan plateau. For some reason tonight seemed an auspicious occasion as the moon hung eerily in an inky sky, a deep pumpkin orange dripping on misty clouds. It was a plump oblong shape waxing towards fullness. But had been hiding for weeks in layers of clouds. Golden stars were peppered around the phosphoric orb that changed dimensions and color from orange hues to a more sinister red before changing back again. “To hell with ghost stories I’m going!” I remarked leaving their comfortable sitting room and breezing out the door. Sonam called out, “Latch the door behind you!”

 I have always wanted to go up there after dark. But after the ghost stories, which Bhutanese firmly believe, fear gripped me tight as I timidly walked the familiar path out of the school grounds. I lurched through the Iron Gate with its flickering fluorescent light over head, passed the locked shops and up the steep hill glancing at my watch which read two passed midnight in indigo letters. I turned around the steep bend leaving the tiny village behind. The prehistoric trees that delighted me in the day looked twisted at night and I could here the gurgle of water passing through a black snaky pipe that runs along the trail. This could be the serpent I thought, waiting to spring to life and devour me. I scrunch my eyes tight and continue onward ignoring the awful hissing noise. With my torch in hand I scan the bushes for signs of life. With the light on, I can feel the darkness close in around my skull giving me the perception of tunnel vision. Moths flutter in and out of the beam of light. I feel an uncomfortable lightness like the world is humming in my ears, a feeling I had experienced once before while camping at a remote spot on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. There I became acutely aware of a presence before something large moved through the brush at the edge of our campsite. Now something brushed passed my cheek but this was not an animal, rather an invisible force suddenly leaping out of my way. I freeze in terror clicking off the light. I here whisper’s from the blackness asking “What are you doing here?” I move on through a stand of trees which I had purged of trash on my second day after arrival. It is not the voice of Tsangma I hear, and it is not threatening me so I got to move on. The moon hangs in wispy branches peering through cypress and oak limbs, hanging over the far off peaks. Lights from distant villages twinkle seemingly reflecting the starlight, one for every star. A dozen form a cluster, then a few straggling ones off towards India and a few more down the Western slope towards Doksom. There is only the sound of the river hushing miles below and I wonder how the vibrations of flowing water can carry this far.

Now wandering in total darkness my eyes acclimate as the wall and gate appear before me. I begin to sing “Twilight Time” a love song as an offering to the Prince calling him to me. But I can’t see him and only feel his imprint. But there is a supernatural light show taking place. The gold explosion of my own protector Sylvie and other green, purple, and blue lights dashing around the gate bolting in and out of the house that Tsangma built. The gate is actually a white square edifice with orange trim that one can walk through. In the darkness it looks like a gaping mouth with no other side. Within are faded red and violet paintings of serene Buddha’s but I don’t’ study them as I pass through quickly singing my song which reverberates off the cold walls. I never feel alone inside this structure always accompanied by a multitude of entities. After passing through the gate I rest by the wall keeping my light off, settling into deep thick silence. I talk aloud to Tsangma praising him for his house and vowing to keep it clean. “I will not forget you.” I muse. A single light shines above the temple perched just beneath the highest ruined wall. His crumbling stone castle is immersed in the forest where I heard the voices, overgrown with weeds and nestled in a stand of bizarre trees, a holdover from a Pre-Cambrian world.

I lay my head upon the grey and white stones and at that instant a petite blue figure appears before me. I’ve seen her likeness painted on our schools prayer wheel. She is not of this realm and is wearing snakeskin pants with her bare chest exposed and her hair tied up in a cloth bundle. She is ancient and nubile at once, the embodiment of love without attachment or desire. Speaking inside my mind she says, “This is my home” then suddenly vanishes. She is telling me that I do belong here. Was she real? My heart says yes!

I linger for a while before descending back down the hill unafraid in the purified darkness crooning Blackbird. I stagger on the trail reinjuring my ankle. “If you go there you will have bad luck!” Sonam’s voice echoes in my head. Clomping down the hill I turn on my light on the outskirts of Rangthangwoon, founded by the great Prince Tsangma and named after the grinding stone. I startle a stray dog who alerts the hell hounds setting of a cacophonous chorus all the way to Arranuchal Pradesh and back. From one pack to the next as the moon laughs with me. I climb the stone stairs entering our campus from the backside, passing my classroom, descending to the basketball court and prayer wheel. I spin the wheel, one chime walking, two chimes walking, three chimes walking, on and on like this for several hundred yards as I can still hear its soothing clang long after I shut my door and turn out the light.  


The next morning I eagerly scan the prayer wheel during the assembly reviewing several female figures of yellow and blue. My heart jolts as I see her blue face clear as a bell, in immaculate detail her serene slanted eyes staring back at me. It was her. I inquire to some teachers what the figures on the wheel represent and the best translation seems to be they are goddesses. In the light of day I want to convince myself it was a fantasy, after all I’ve briefly seen that figure on the prayer wheel before. But I had only glanced at her. Yet when she appeared in 3D form it was in vivid detail. This divine vision was magnified since I am an agnostic and a skeptic. I have encountered ghosts before, once in a seedy motel at Kings Beach Lake Tahoe on the Fourth of July. I had just seen the Rads at the Crown Room and returned to the motel to meet Morgan. We had already broken up and were going through a very contentious time due to my unreasonable anger towards her. Just as I settled into a fitful sleep I could feel several hands pulling me down through the dank mattress. I tried to scream but no sound came out for several seconds until the grip was released. I finally let out a terrifying shriek and began to cry.

My rational side wants to dismiss these events but I know they are real. I feel like the peasant Juan Diego encountering The Virgin of Guadalupe on a hill in Mexico. He too dismissed his vision allowing a priest to explain it away until the Holy Mother appeared to him again performing the miracle of the roses. But for me it was a Blue Goddess who transcended reality. Her translucent radiance inches in front of me she seemed to levitate at the ruin of Prince Tsangma.

Part 2 My Precious

“Hey in the afterglow of day, we keep our rendezvous beneath the blue” Twilight Time  

Tonight was Fresher’s Nite which I misheard all week as “Precious Night.”  The vibe was electric for this Bhutanese variety show. There was singing, dancing, and skits put on by class 7, 8, and 9. I milled about backstage soaking in the frantic pace as students made last minute adjustments for their performances. It was awesome to see them in their element as they are often shy in my class. Bhutanese girls running around sticking out their tongues like iguanas. They do this when they are bashful or coy. Some of the older boys were terrific hams arousing boisterous cheers from the crowd. The coed dance routines featured both traditional numbers with the kids decked in national dress and the modern numbers which featured kids in cool western threads. The outfits included multicolored converse, jewelry and scarves as they pulled out all the stops plundering their collective wardrobes. The level of creativity was astounding and I was blown away by their cleverness and humor and dance chorography. The multi purpose room was packed with at least 500 people with more peering through windows, stuffed on the sides, or standing on tables outside the front door. I really enjoy Bhutanese songs with soothing melodies, danceable beats, and pop sensibility.

My class 8 captain Namkith, requested I do a song when I saw her before the show. So late in the program, two and a half hours after the event began I stepped on stage to sing. I chose the song “Twilight Time” which I believe is an old Coasters tune but I know it through Bobby of course. It’s essentially a lover’s ballad and I selected it since it’s a good occapella number. I thankfully did not forget the words perhaps since I’d rehearsed it for Tsangma the night before at the ruin. The crowd gave me a rousing reception and for a brief moment I felt every bit the rock star. It was a fun night for all in Tshenkharla, featuring the best kind of fun. Clean and wholesome!       

Part 3 Trash-i-Yangtse or 30, 000 Pounds of Bananas 

“Yes we have no bananas, we have no bananas today, yes we have no bananas, bananas in Scranton PA” 30,000 pounds of bananas, Harry Chapin

I just went shopping scoring bananas. This is a rare commodity here as is any fruit. The bananas here are small tropical looking and quite sweet and delicious. They look like plantains and are pesticide free. I ate a whole bundle like a crack head smoking a whole bindle! My body got high on the natural sugar, hence the idea for the title of this entry. 30,000 LBS of bananas is a hilarious country anthem by Harry Chapin. (You can listen to the live version on you tube.) I used to listen to it on an 8 track with my dad in his office as a kid and rediscovered it last year. The silly song is a true life story of a tragic accident on a steep grade outside Scranton PA. The truck driver was killed, spilling 30,000 pounds of bananas on the roadway. The song has several hilarious endings and is mostly an instrumental narrative like Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. Ironically Chapin died in an auto crash if I’m not mistaken. Anyway, the song reminds me of my dad as we used to jam out to that track and “Cats in the Cradle” Chapin’s most notable hit and a great father/son ballad. Our shop keeper just got back from Samdrop Johnkar on the Indian border with fresh bananas, chilies, and potatoes. Also big boy Cokes! At the store I chatted with fellow teacher Namguy about the trash situation in Bhutan. Apparently the litter coincided with the introduction of modernization in 1961 with the building of roads. With the roads came importation of goods from India and elsewhere, the packaged goods that litter the villages all over Bhutan. I had thought the problem began more recently. Of course the importing of these goods is on the rise as Bhutan is made up of mostly young people who are ripe consumers. Most of the offenders come from illiterate and uneducated families and were never instilled with the value of responsible trash disposal. I love my campus more each day but you can’t go two feet without seeing trash stuffed in every crevasse, resting in every flower bed, discarded in the forest. The worst were the empty beer bottles placed on Prince Tsangmas ruin. (I removed them) The culture will be hard to change. I begin my club tomorrow and have divided the campus into zones for pick up. I have about 55 students so we should have a positive impact. But the real challenge will be changing the habits of the 500 plus students and teachers. It breaks my heart to see trash in such a lovely place.

The rain was back today and it’s still cold. We had another three hour meeting today with no more than two words in English. I was trapped between two teachers chewing dolma which omits a potent and unpleasant minty odor while staining the teeth red. By the end of the meeting it resembled a gathering of vampires after supper. There is talk of changing the timetable for a third time. Some say that all the schools in Yangtse are conducting seven fifty minute periods a day. Others contest saying its six 55 minute periods while others still insist we keep our eight forty minute periods a day. I sit dazed and confused getting occasional updates and translations from Karlos. I stare out the window marveling at the cypress trees dancing in the rain watching kids in kiras and ghos running for cover. 

I have corrected 60 of the 120 essays I collected. I feel overwhelmed with so many students and much of the writing is in broken sentences. However there are some bright spots including students who are putting tremendous effort into their work. It’s very humbling to read about my student’s background. Most come from poor farming families and many want to become doctors or teachers to help support their families and live together happily ever after. Countless essays begin with, “I am a poor girl from…” No one seems to be starving here but they come from simple villages and many have never been as far as Trashigang. It breaks my heart to realize that many will not realize their ambition of traveling to their “dreamland” like USA or Australia but maybe a few will succeed. I hope I can make any difference for them in life. For now the problem for me is managing each student as an individual. I’m looking to identify common errors to go over in class. Even with my limited grammar I will be able to help. Common mistakes are plural vs. singular and is vs. are. They also struggle with tenses and spelling, all my weak points LOL. I have a lot of work to do this year including surviving. Like my forgone friend Karma Om said, “Man vs. Wild”

“Good things come to those who wait, Oh don’t be late” Zeke

Three good things:

1.     Bananas, Bananas, Bananas.
2.     Taking a rare bucket bath this morning.
3.     Going over essays with students yesterday with a few voluntarily revising them for today.           

1 comment:

  1. Fond Harry Chapin memories! I haven't heard those songs in years. I will buy the CD on Amazon this week!

    Fine writing Tim. I enjoy reading about your new life experiences. Doing my Final 4 Dance Picks today! North Carolina to win.

    I sent an e-mail to Nancy Strickland this past Friday trying to get some information on the lost packages! She has not responded yet. I would hope she would? nancybhutan@yahoo.com is the address Bhutan Canada gave me.

    Hope you are feeling better?

    Love, Dad