Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Man Without A Country

Part 1 Wacky Wednesday

“What if fire come raining on the hills, and mountains made of rusting coup de villes, and all gods children find themselves alone, and all the poets took to throwing stones.” Ashes and Glass

Winter is hanging on tight to the landscape in Tsenkharla. Today I awoke to an amazing cloud formation that seemed to form around the campus rising from the valley below and billowing ten thousand feet above the assembly. It’s always a great start to the day hearing the chorus of voices singing the haunting National Anthem in the courtyard. I had a very successful day of teaching. In class 8 we examined the story “Which Way” which dealt with decisions and different outcomes. In class 7 the students made a “coat of arms” which they really enjoyed. We had five boxes of colored pencils for 30 students and no one complained or fought over supplies. I had to haggle for paper, colored pencils, and tape from the school store which is poorly organized by the charge and resembles a rat’s nest. As a teacher in Bhutan you realize that all you need is a piece of chalk and your imagination. Each child is issued a text book, pencils and notebook from the government. Ironically for a male dominated culture the girls have superior writing skills and work ethic but are painfully shy doing their best impression of an iguana, sticking their tongues out at me.

Today was my first Social Service club meeting and sadly only 15/55 appeared. We did some cleaning by the hostels which are filthy. The boy’s hostel resembles a dump with bottles and plastic and junk of every kind strewn down the mountainside spilling onto the property below the barbed wire fence. It seems to be just about everywhere except the designated trash pits. It breaks my heart to see this in a country so beautiful. After club I picked up trash for another hour around the basketball court where a game was taking place. A few students added some trash to my bag. I stuck my hands in a stone wall crevasses pulling out trash like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I couldn’t help thinking about my own hypocrisy as I consume cokes and other packaged goods. But I don’t litter. Changing the culture here will be a daunting task but I will persist. I am getting paint and empty oil tins to make trash bins for the campus and have ten so far. I will also apply for a BCF grant to help subsidize buying trashcans for my school. I hope to place one in every hostel, classroom, and all around campus. We need to make it easy for students to make a good choice. We will make signs with slogans like “Keep Bhutan Clean and Green!” I hope to organize a campus cleaning day involving all students and then spread the word to other schools in Yangtse. Eventually I hope to write political officials to address the problem on the National level, but for now one piece of trash at a time. We will collect the trash in burlap sacks then burn it in the pits. I hate burning trash but it is the only solution. We are separating the plastic and storing it behind the generator. Any BCF teacher reading this please encourage your students to keep our happy home clean.

This place is stark, the blue and silver of the sky washing over the brown mountains. I watched a group of schoolgirls descend down the dirt steps to Deki’s farmhouse below my hut. The line of girls in black and red kieras silhouetted against an endless vista of rolling mountains. It looked as if they were walking on the moon. I live on a ledge at the top of the world, and even in my most sour mood I can’t help marvel this fact. But today was sweet as I made grilled cheese sandwiches with bread baked in Trashigang and my block of Bumthang’s finest gourmet cheese, fried in a dollop of farm fresh butter that I bummed from Sonam. Now I’m munching on the last of my popcorn which I popped in the pressure cooker and seasoned with salt.

Today I was chased by a mean black dog from the campus all the way to my hut. I stumbled over a drop while in retreat almost falling. We heard some sad news from headquarters about 3rd year teacher Andrea from Punacha taking a bad fall and breaking her hip. She will be evacuated to Bangkok and is expected to be okay. If you’re reading this say a small prayer for her or spin the wheel. I’ve never met her but know she is our most veteran teacher and loves Bhutan very much.

Hope all is well for everyone reading this in Bhutan and around the world. Remember love is the answer.

Part 2 Another Thursday

Caledonia calling big foot on the line”

I gave a scathing speech at assembly today about the trash situation and my truant club members. I told both teachers and students alike that they were disrespecting god and his majesty by littering. Even if I offended the masses I stand by this position. Today was a gorgeous spring day that began mild and windy and concluded with a blackout and electrical storm. It’s cool to see no lights at night as it feels like the real Bhutan. Today I went for a day hike on my extended break from class. I went up to the ruins and the temple. The sky was clear and the wind was blowing. The old monk was steadily at his prayers murmuring while turning the wheel. The tin of the bell sounds like the clang of the cable car at the convergence of Bush and Powell in San Francisco. I fondly remember lying in the closet in Morgan’s apartment on foggy afternoons listening to the trolley without a care. In those days the outside world seemed a trillion miles away. Love flowing easily as a mountain stream. But life isn’t so bad anyway. The temple is an amazing balance of ornate and simplistic. The first level has a plethora of statues including Buddha’s, tigers, and a fierce multi headed deity subduing a naked woman with his big clawed foot. The naked woman is a fleshy doll with intricate detail including her bare shaved privates. On the third level, the attic was rattling in the wind as I sat inhaling the sweet incense smoke staring at Buddha. The paintings here are the most amazing art I have ever seen. They seem to play like a movie on the wall in every possible color. I wonder if any man could paint such images or if they came from god? I will never find a place more holy then this secluded ten by ten room. From the small window you can see a hundred miles into India. I wonder if there is a better view in this universe? Nature is my only true friend here. Outside the temple, cows linger in the cobblestoned courtyard not a human to be seen except for the Omni present man at his wheel. Perhaps he’s a figment of my own imagination. Observing the coming of spring I can’t help but wonder if there is something to this reincarnation belief. A plant dies in winter but is reborn in spring. According to the laws of nature this theory is given credence.   

Slowly I settle into a routine realizing that my work has just begun. The students are wonderful even if I don’t know many names yet. I’m not sure the impact I can make, but this is the reality of being a teacher. You give them your heart and knowledge turning them loose into the world. I feel my attitude and aptitude as a teacher has improved since Korea and Sun Valley. I come to class prepared each day with a sunny disposition. I have not lost my temper with the kids. Reacting calmly is always the best way to deal with any behavioral issues. There are consequences for student’s poor behavior, but I must always maintain a level head. The trick is to embrace each moment and have fun! These kids are very well behaved and easily controlled with gentle reminders of our classroom regulations, included in our joint contract which is taped on the wall. Teaching has been the highlight for me in Bhutan. The days pass quickly as I deliberately slow down my lessons obtaining a better result. I focus on my health and planning and controlling my restless mind. And each day brings wonderment, challenges, surprises, and heaps of rice.  

I miss my family and friends but realize that I am fulfilling my dream. I am deeply grateful to all my donors and well wishers who made this all possible. I keep you in my heart and actions each day!


“The days are bright and filled with pain
enclose me in your gentle rain” Jim Morrison

Black rain pelts a tin roof
as I dance with my shadow
by candlelight, a voyager
on The Crystal Ship
as thunder rumbles
through narrow canyons
rolling back again,
waves carrying away the past             

Part 3 The Terror! The Terror!

“Nothing shaking on
Shakedown Street
, used to be the heart of town, don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart, you just gotta poke around” Hunter/Garcia

I couldn’t help thinking today if the population of this village was greater in the ninth century then it is today, when Tsangma’s temple was in full swing. Today I feel a bit woozy and wobbly. I hope it not rabies from Red my pet dog who follows me around campus and licks me, or the cat who I’m domesticating who scratched my leg. I can vividly here Scott’s warning in my head. “If you display symptoms of rabies you will die!” More likely I am just coming down with something, perhaps suffering from lack of meat. Meat is rare here with scrappy portions at best. However this month it is banned for religious purposes. I did see a shopkeeper hacking up some large chunks of beef but she sternly remarked it wasn’t for sale. I could have picked it up and devoured it raw. (IT’S RAW!) I might just set some traps in the forest and see what I can catch. I haven’t felt entirely healthy for one day in Bhutan. I haven’t been sickly since Thimphu but I have had aches, pains, scratchy throat, a touch of Bhutan belly and more. It’s a hard adjustment for both mind and body. I mean how much rice can one man eat? I need to drink more water and less coke and sugary tea.

I had an Interesting and long day of classes. The highlight was making the boys and girls work in groups. They were very reluctant and I had to teach them to sit in a circle and make eye contact. After class my prodigy Namkith stayed behind to chat. She is living with her aunt and uncle in Tsenkharla but is originally from Phuntseling on the opposite side of the country on the Indian border near the Duars. This area is the only flat area in Bhutan at almost sea level. In her own words “She is here to pursue education and roaming.” She is the only girl or boy who is not shy in conversing one on one, and her aspiration is to be a teacher. I’m pretty sure she can achieve this. There are other bright ones to, and a lot of struggling students, but I care for them all.

Talked to Becky today and she told me she stumbled across a children’s book written by Nancy Strickland which is part of the grade 2 curriculum. It is illustrated by a Bhutanese and according to Becky well written. Apparently it is the story of students crossing rivers to get to school. It is probably written about Becky’s school since Nancy worked there about twenty years ago and there are infamous rivers near by. One river tragically killed some students washing away part of the school several years back.  She also said a local Bhutanese teacher wrote an ode to Nancy. He had met her last year and was inspired by the encounter, more proof of Strickland’s legendary status in the kingdom.    

We got some water today and I took a rare bucket bath. That’s about my seventh bath in over a month. But I am keeping my face and house clean. I feel blessed to have a house made of concrete and not mud. So far no rats have visited. I do have a crack in my window and just had my latch on the front door replaced.

Oh by the way dad. Meena from the BCF office alerted me to my packages arrival. She also congratulated me for surviving in a third world country. This made me feel good since a Bhutanese woman refers to this place as third world. She said they will send it out with someone headed to Trahigang or Yangtse. The people in the west definitely regard the east as underdeveloped and don’t want to come here. Hence the sage I met on the street in Thimphu who stopped to adjust my gho. He referred to the east in dead pan fashion as the “Terror of Life!” Amen brother. Despite the hardships both Rebecca and I are glad we are posted on the frontier at the end of our respective roads. From her posting she has interaction with the Brokpa people of Merak and Sakteng who are semi nomadic and indigenous. Sakteng is also the home of the Migoi or Bhutanese yeti, a white relative of the Northwestern bigfoot. They trek three days into Phonmey to trade. We both took awhile to embrace the beauty of our environments. But as she says, “It’s like no place she’s ever seen and could just stare at the mountains for two years.” Couldn’t have said it better myself sis and thanks for your loyal readership!

My student helper Pema is helping me cook and clean a bit. He is a boy from class 10. I feel guilty getting to much assistance and often send him away. I think he likes helping and getting better meals then the school mess which he cooks and I provide. I will try to learn some dishes from him. This is perfectly acceptable etiquette here but as a western teacher I can’t help feel the need to have clear boundaries with students. Sonam isn’t inviting me to dinner anymore, implementing the two week cut off. Apparently after two weeks they stop assisting foreigners. People are very nice here but I haven’t been to many houses for dinner. Most teachers are preoccupied in their social groups and marriages. 

Three Good Things

1.     Talking with Namkith after class.
2.     Serving tea to Karma Om’s mom (auntie) and Sonam while they weaved a gho outside.
3.     Breaking into a dance when I got water.

Part 4 Jesus in Bhutan

“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her” Wordsworth

Today we are having a puja for the school. Many teachers and tourist come to Bhutan to immerse themselves in the traditional culture. I am here to teach and immerse myself in nature. There is no denying that Bhutanese culture is unique but often at cultural events I feel very out of place. I had help getting dressed in my Gho which resembles a tablecloth wrapped around the body with two cloth napkins as cuffs. Where the kira is intrinsically elegant the gho is floppy and awkward. I found out today that wearing a gho in school or office settings only became compulsory in the 90’s coinciding with the expulsion of many Nepalese. There is a need to preserve the culture that I can never fully understand. But national pride is paramount here. Of course Americans and Koreans feel the same about there respective countries but do not have the same emphasis on preserving culture. Another funny cultural aspect is eating with hands. Today we had rice and spicy slaw which is not conducive to eating with your hands and no napkin. I have not mastered the ability to roll my rice into a sticky ball either. I also might have chipped my tooth on a pebble in my rice. We had meat today but it was so tough that I threw it to the dogs. I imagine horse meat to have a similar flavor. Even cow stomach seemed like filet minion compared to today’s offering.

I had a lengthy conversation with Namkith’s cousin who is a teacher here. He told me that there is underground Christian worship in Bhutan. This was surprising to me. Officially freedom of religion exists in Bhutan but no churches are allowed to be constructed. Buddhism permeates every day life. Today many students are locked in a room reciting prayers. The teacher I was talking with compared them to parrots since they don’t know the meaning of the sand script they are reciting. It was a great analogy since so much of religion is parroting. He tended to gravitate towards Christianity but kept this on the down low. The village in the South where he was born was traditionally Bon which is the worship of nature which has priestesses and priests held in equal regard. He couldn’t understand the worship of nature since he felt god created nature and worshiping spirits was silly. He questioned the belief in Buddha as a god since he never proclaimed to be a god or spoke of the divine. He argued that Lord Krishna and Jesus were both born enlightened. I find that aspect of Buddhism attractive; one must obtain his own enlightenment. His arguments were convincing and for a second I considered if these antiquated pagan traditions like Bon have been replaced by a more civilized monotheistic belief. But for me nature is my only alibi especially in this foreign place where I feel like a man without a country. As a sign posted on a cypress tree reads,

“On your death bed you will receive total consciousness, so I got that going for me, which is nice.” Bill Murray, Caddyshack
I had many other conversations with staff throughout the day as the event resembled a picnic. Learning things like life expectancy is only 60 in the kingdom. One challenge here is a poor diet with little meat, greens, fruit, or bread. Another is a developing medical system. I also found out His Majesty visited Tshenkharla twice in the past. Inside the MP monks under the supervision of a Lama, chatter away at prayers intermittently blowing horns. We all were given cornels of corn to throw at shrines with white arrows sticking out of them. The cornels represent our sins which we cast away. Girls in the front row were being pelted and it reminded me of the marshmallow war at The Silver Bowl in Vegas 95’ at The Grateful Dead. Most lamas are reincarnated from other Lamas. There was even a second Buddha who meditated at Gom Kora (one of my favorite spots) There is so much I don’t understand here and often feel isolated which is part of the adventure. The day’s events culminated in a twilight blessing by the lama. He walked through the crowd tapping each attendee on the head with a wand. Several of his attendants followed with holy water and a monk holding a sack, collecting money. (That old collection plate) Today was full of color and sound. Like little kids playing hacky sack with balls of grass (grassy sack) holy cedar smoke wafting through the air, tapestries of red blue and gold. The male teachers asking me if I liked local chicken, when I told them I haven’t tried any they laughed hysterically. Apparently this is regional slang for lady parts.

I walked away feeling more agnostic then ever on a day full of religious ceremony and tradition. Two blue stars rose on the hill as the last raven flew back to her nest. I felt quite the spectacle today as so many folks asked “How you feeling?” that I thought I was at a Michael Franti concert. I recall complaining to Morgan that I felt invisible but I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t such a bad thing? I am quite content when invisible reappearing for my students like a genie then disappearing into my bottle. Despite being sick, lonely, hungry, and confused I am content. I do not crave a girlfriend, television, or a show. Okay maybe a coke, but just simply living seems quite extraordinary.

“Well I don’t know where I’m going, don’t know what I’m doing, but I know I’m not going back” Radio On, Todd Scheaffer AKA The Squirrel

But as night descended I felt legitimately homesick for the first time. Another lackluster dinner as my fear before coming here has been realized. This is not a culinary hot spot. Visions of Chef Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares unfolded in my head. After dinner some student’s performed traditional dances for the lama. One young girl in a gold kira caught my eye as she lurched and waved her hands in reptilian fashion like Raby slithering through the barn, deep in the trance pocket. Perhaps a premonition since the boys are back this year (get your tickets early Rabes, Bra, and Kron) I solemnly watched the lama and his congregation file out of the MP room surrounded by women with babies strapped to their backs by woven cloth. The irrie sound of the monks elongated horns buzzed in my weary ears like giant insects. They loaded there gear into a jeep and drove away under a starlit sky. Watching the taillights disappear down the road I never felt further from HOME.   

 I am glad I am teaching since education transcends boundaries and all students are virtually the same anywhere in the world. Of course Bhutanese student’s backgrounds couldn’t be more different than U.S students, but when we are all laughing together that detail seems trivial. They really go for the physical comedy here as I channel Jim Carrey while teaching vocabulary. The truth is without teaching my days would be vapid as the landscape. At least a teacher’s work is never done.

3 NOT so good things

1.     Salty dried fish with many bones
2.     tough cartilage disguised as meet
3.     my soar throat       



  1. Timmers, I'm going to make a suggestion. "Brevity is the soul of wit." I would keep your postings a bit shorter, and keep a separate JOURNAL for yourself as to your daily activities and impressions. It's daunting to see such long blogs every time we check in on you. Don't take it the wrong way, but do think about it. The most important blog is the one you write for yourself. Also: SANSCRIT, not "sand script." Also "their" not "there." :) LOVE you....

  2. I love to read your blogs of any length. I understand you write and accumulate data throughout the week and then post on Sunday.
    With your computer upload speed, one line takes a minute so don't feel the need to reduce the size of your blog. If some people feel it is too long, they don't need to read it all!

    Just my opinion.