Sunday, July 29, 2012

Life in the Slow Lane

Act 1: Daily Affirmations, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it people like me.”

“Ride captain ride upon your mystery ship, be amazed at the friends you have their on your trip, ride captain ride upon your mystery ship, on your way to a world that others might have missed”

                                           My Home is on the Border

I enjoy reading other BCF blogs to get a fresh perspective from others experiences. Dave Green is a talented published writer and his Bhutanical Adventures is a great window into his Bhutan. He made a particularly insightful comment that I felt was a universal for us teaching here. To crudely paraphrase he said that we are not on an adventure set to return to our former life. Rather this is our life here and now. I might have gotten that wrong but the message was loud and clear. It was high time for us to accept the terms of our new existence whatever that may be. Some struggle with mold where some wrestle with loneliness. We all have our trials and triumphs in our realities throughout Bhutan. I hope that future teachers coming here are aware of the joy the kingdom has to offer. My tiger prowls across the divide to the darkness too often, but the light shines brightest in this part of the world. I was also happy to read Sabrina’s account of her voyage into East Bhutan. I had to chuckle at her description of my area with its sad little trees spaced out with bare earth in between. As she mentioned, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If she thinks it’s parched now, she ought to see it out here in the winter.
In my green and barren neck of the woods Sonam in her enterprising spirit has opened a makeshift fast food joint in her home. Fast food in Bhutan means momo’s and magi. Momo’s are similar to Korea’s mondu or the Chinese pot sticker (except boiled not fried) Maggi is simply ramen noodles with some veg thrown in. Her primary customers are students and me. I think we’ll call it Hotel Sonam where we often banter in the kitchen where she proudly proclaims “money is everything!” I am actively negotiating recharging their T.V voucher to catch a glimpse of the Summer Olympics. I pine to wile my nights away watching the games, if they are shown here at all. I miss viewing Shawn Johnson fly through the air or cheering Michael Phelps on to gold with my mom in the cozy confines of our living room, while enjoying a pepperoni pizza from West Brooklyn.

Everywhere progress is pressing on in Bhutan. Examples of this are the monstrous cell tower right above my beloved temple which appeared a month after my arrival. Even my presence here could be construed as a push for development. Today I hiked on a new road between my temple and the next temple. It looks hastily constructed exposing root systems and leaving pines leaning at 90 degree angles off the hill. Usually numerous landslides accompany the construction. Mountains are scared with improbable zigzag strips leading up the face of the massifs. The idea is to connect the remote villages to services which seems logical. On the valley floor a hydro project tunnels into a mountain near a sacred meditation spot of the Guru. Wonder if any subjugated demons who have been famously banished into rocks are being accidently set free? An ill fated road across Meme’s kneecaps has released some demonic waves in Far East Phongmay. (Last I heard Becky was trudging across a muddy river up to her waste trying to escape.) So for now I do my daily affirmations to keep my morale afloat and keep any drifting demons at bay…You know the one, Stuart Smalley’s “I’m good enough I’m smart enough and gosh darn it people like me.”

On the whole Bhutan’s culture is intact and attractive. I still wince at the beatings. I stopped to chat with Pema Tshomo and some of her classmates. They told me the Dzonka teacher beat them all for getting the answers wrong in class. I can’t imagine a grown man beating little Leiki and Dechen on the head. Even Karma Om admitted to occasionally wrapping her students ironically as punishment for them hitting one another. I am not here to change the culture except the trash problem, but I don’t like the physical abuse towards students. Perhaps my classes are not the best behaved in the school since my students know I won’t harm them. Beating students seems counteractive to the Buddhist dharma. As Mare always says “hide and watch.” There are lessons to be learned here that take time in unfolding. Meanwhile as butterfly says, “Don’t destroy the culture” Or IS IT as the Bhutanese teachers quip “When in Bhutan act Bhutanese.”
Act Two: Field Trip (Class 8 Hike)

“Snafu you in roses, snake eyes on the dice” Zeke

When Chogi and Sangay woke me up at 5:30 AM it was pouring rain outside. “Are we still going sir?” they eagerly inquired. “If you all want to” I replied, secretly hoping they might back out. But at 7:00 Am 35 of my 48 students including several day scholars were ready to roll. So I set out with 35 students with no other teachers to supervise. But as it turned out the students seemed to supervise me on this epic and long hike up an endlessly steep mountain. The trails were a muddy quagmire but the student’s enthusiasm was infectious. I consider myself an average hiker but every one of my students most in gho and kira kicked my ass up that mountain.  It took us under one hour to reach the second temple which usually takes me two hours. The trail traverses pastures and forests as the rain pelted our merry band. Sangay Tobgay must have talked in continuum the entire trek. He is a likable lad with exuberant energy. He is a king sponsored student who lost his father (to a demon) and comes from a poor family. He told me about every rock and plant on the hike all the while picking fruits and berries for me to eat. We reached Darchen the third and final temple at noon. The last section of trail was ankle deep mud as students held hands and clung to vines scampering through the mud. Little Dechen Tshomo was bare foot covered in mud yet somehow managed to keep her silk kira immaculately clean. These kids are super human in so many ways and a pleasure to be around. Outside of the classroom we share an easy rapport.
The temple was perched atop a mountain in rolling pastures which resembled the highlands above Sakteng. We had crossed over one mountain towards Yangtse. This quant temple was the home to one disheveled looking monk who was the real McCoy. He was about 80, rail thin with long flanks of white hair. This monk was an ascetic and pure. Not like the flashy lamas and rimpoche’s I have encountered. This man was not out for fame or glory. I wonder what he thought being bombarded by 30 kids and their white teacher. These kids are sincere in their spirituality. They filed in for a blessing and offered butter lamps. Part of the blessing was rolling three dice. I rolled a 15 and the ancient monk laughed and remarked that I passed. Seems like an odd number to me. Captain Namkith rolled a nine. I prostrated to the statues of the Guru and Sangay Dempa in the old solemn temple. I have discovered I gravitate towards small simple temples over the more flashy ornate ones. After our blessing we moved into the pastures for our pack lunch. Samten from 8B offered me some delicious hot curry which she touted in silver containers. We merrily ate and then the students frolicked in the rolling green hills like characters in the “Sound of Music.” My duty was photographer as they pleaded “one photo sir!” Karma Eden must be the biggest ham this side of Shanghai. It was nice to see the students bonding which was the real objective of the hike. They also took good care of me sheltering me with umbrellas, fanning, and feeding me. Sangay who never stopped talking never left my side.
After about an hour we started our slippery descent down the mountain. I must have fallen 20 times sliding on my ass down the hill. It was a long way down and I had my hands full keeping track of all the kids. They are more capable then me but as a teacher, field trips can be stressful worrying about the safety of the group. But eight hours after departing we reached Zongdopelri (my temple) and circumambulated three times before heading for home. The kids never cease to amaze me. They are the hardiest and most sincere in the world even if communication remains difficult. The girls still are shy and the boys loud and boisterous but I managed to form deeper bonds with the class and individuals. On the last section of trail Tandin (my class topper) noted that the Bhutanese teachers seemed to ignore me and inquired about my first love. These kids know everything about my private life including all my power spots. They all wanted to know how long I “meditated” at Tsangma’s ruin every day.       

It was an exhausting but satisfying day and everyone reached home safely. I hope the boarders appreciated their furlough for a day and that the two sections of class 8 enjoyed interacting. I was blessed to be a part of such an event visiting a place that perhaps no Westerner but Catherine had seen before, a remote temple far off any itinerary route in the far east of Bhutan. It was also humbling to get whooped up and down the mountain by a bunch of teenyboppers in kiras.     

                                                             Class 8 with class teacher

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Back to the Grinding Stone

Back to the Grinding Stone

Part 1: Go the Distance

“Well looked outside my window, fog came up today, that grey outside is around my head, looks like it’s here to stay”  Jorma

As attentive readers will recall, at the center of Tsenkharla campus is an ancient grinding stone. This large boulder rests about chest high with a concave impression of sand grinded by a smaller jagged stone. It has thick moss growing on its Northern side. The town (I’m sorry Nancy) the village was once named Rangthangwoon which translates to the grinding stone. It’s one of many treasures in this auspicious locality. A young teacher told me as a matter of fact that Tsenkharla was smack in the middle of the highway of the local protector deities. Which also means it’s a transit way for demons too. It makes sense with its two wide valleys spinning off in opposite directions. From here at 1,900 meters or 6,500 feet you can see hundreds of miles in each direction. One valley stretches from Arrunachal Pradesh and the region of Tawang all the way west to Trashigang. Another valley view gauges the distance between T-Gang and Yangtse, a drive of over two hours. We also boast the ancient ruin of Tsangma and the sacred temple which is my spiritual core. From the temple one can see two rivers the Dawang Chu and the kulong Chu flowing in opposite valleys towards Doksom. Doksom is over three thousand feet below and only 14 KM away. These rivers share a source near Tawang and separate for hundreds of kilometers before rejoining. Eventually they flow into the Manas River and then the mighty Brahmaputra in India. The land around Tsenkharla is temperate forests intermixed with terraced farmland. The mountains of East Bhutan are steeper and more intense than any I’ve seen before. People live on cliff edges and the valleys resemble gorges with raging rivers. What few people there are cram into rocky slopes or hug the narrow band of water on the valley floor. Right now maize stalks (similar to corn) tower over my head. While walking in fields of maize I felt like Kevin Kosner (Ray) in “Field of Dreams.” I thought id run into Shoeless Joe Jackson and James Earl Jones while searching for Manu’s house. It’s lush and green now with terraced fields of grazed grass with stands of pine, oak, fruit trees, abundant flower gardens, ferns, and tangled undergrowth. It is different up here to anywhere else I have seen in Bhutan thus far. But isn’t that always the way in this wildlife playground. Well the monsoon is having its way too. Last night according to my bucket we received 3 inches of rain. The campus is mud soaked. Being up high the temperatures are quite cooler than in T-Gang or Rangjoon. Microclimates abound in Bhutan.

“My sight was poor but I was sure the sirens sang there song for me” Bouncing Around The Room

Life here has posed more ups and downs. Over holiday my hut was broken into by some kids who fortunately only took my beach ball, and mini soccer ball. They were merely after toys. I assume the perpetrators were little since they squeezed through the bars in my window which hadn’t been properly secured. I also lost my trusty Kimock cap in Trashigang; not having a hat in Bhutan is problematic. Beyond that I have a touch of the monsoon blues. Last weekend I met Ian, Vicky, and Bunks and we headed to Bartsham. We stayed in a rustic guesthouse above the monastery. Linda, a British volunteer is teaching English to the resident monks. She has been here three years and has spent her entire adult life roaming primarily in Asia. She swapped China stories with Vicky and Ian while Becky and I looked on wide eyed like grandkids at the thanksgiving table. And a fine thanksgiving it was with vegetarian delights. Bartsham was windy and in a cloud of mist. I sat in a nice leather chair and took tea. You can’t imagine the joy of sitting in a proper chair. The following morning the group continued on a hike to Rangjoon via Bidung but I hailed a taxi riding the four hours home. The road from Bartsham to T-gang is only a bumpy dirt track descending thousands of feet. When I reached Tsenkharla I went up to my temple to pay my respects to Lord Buddha on the day of his first sermon. The temple was empty with flickering butter lamps gracing the alter dancing in the thick air. (Alert Bobby I have found the sound of thick air he was looking for on “Born Cross Eyed”) I rang some tantric bells which split my consciousness in a warm wave. On the way home a raven whooshed centimeters above my head, bestowing on me my own invisible Raven Crown. My principal La and others don’t seem to like all my roaming but what to do La. They made some comments about my “safety” at lunch the other day.  As a volunteer working for minimal salary I feel compelled to absorb as much of this country on my limited time off as possible. It is also soothing to see other BCF’ers on occasion. But I am preaching to the choir here.

Staying healthy and clean is a top priority nowadays with the monsoon turning the water a muddy brown and clothes staying damp after washing. Most of the day the peaks are obscured by clouds, with some clearing in the lower regions. It is as if I have stepped into another world. Perhaps it happened last fall, in the purgatory of the Bhutanese approval draft when wandering around in the void at the Hang town Halloween Ball in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Part of ambiance was a spooky gothic gateway below a sentinel oak. A portal between the living world and afterlife. After RRE’s final set I strolled back towards the stage and “the afterlife” bumping into one of my musical consorts under the archway. We exchanged farewells and encouraging words. From there I was on my way into the dark abyss of unknown uncertainty crossing through the bardo into Bhutan.

Here we pick up the threaded tale again if you can follow it, because I sure cannot. But nonetheless here we go again as getting back to work is always a drag. Although I am glad to see my students again. They are the best company here. I concur with many of my BCF colleagues that many of the students writing is abysmal. (I know throwing stones in glass houses) It’s an uphill battle as they love to copy and make countless errors. Oh my, let me tell you about wrapping up the first semester which felt much like subjugating a pesky demon in a mud wrestling match. Entering hundreds of marks into a complex spreadsheet presented specific visual challenges for me. My CN was causing my eyeballs to twitch and I made several errors that I had to go back and correct. Can you believe the administration gives cash prizes to top students in each section. And the student’s rankings with names are posted on the wall for all classmates to see. It’s sad that most of these kids will be educated farmers and never leave their villages. I suppose Bhutan needs its farmers. Only a few will have an opportunity at higher education at the Sharubse College. What will happen to the affable Dawa Dema or the hapless Norbu who ranked at the bottom of their 7A class? I must teach to the bottom pupils knowing their time is nearly up. Boy man is life different here as was evident tonight. One of our class 9 students died over break in Mongar from some undisclosed sickness. Tonight the students prayed chanting in the assembly hall in their white and red scarves for several hours. Their devotion and communal spirit was moving. What’s unmoving are their filthy trash habits. I can’t comprehend how they can devote hours to prayer but refuse to tuck plastic rubbish into their gho or kira. Yet Bhutan is more special then I realize. This is the last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom. No more Tibet or Sikkim gobbled, up by China and India. No more chortens in Afghanistan near the Swat Valley where the precious teacher (Guru Rimpoche) was born. This is the pure vision of The Buddha slipping away with each television set and piece of plastic. This is one of the few pockets of wilderness remaining with lush jungles supporting elephants, tigers, and unicorn rhinos and unclimbed unnamed snowbound peaks among the worlds highest. The throne of the gods. Perhaps the last refuge of humans and deities alike at least in the Buddhist realm. I often forget how privileged I am to be here. It’s a hard scrabble life for a tenderfoot like me with visions of cheeseburgers dancing in my head. I am not sure what will be gained or hopefully what will be lost. I am still Tim with all my flaws at the end of the world. But here the hope of individual metamorphism lies in Trashiyangtse, “The Land of Spiritual Awakening.” Goodnight from no man’s land.    
Part Two: Hazelnuts

“Broken ground open and beckoning, to the spring, black dirt live again” Let It Grow

Today I had an unexpected visit from some felincpa’s (foreigners) they were here to check on newly planted hazelnut trees. This is an ambitious project started by a British man named Shawn. Shawn has rugged movie star looks and a personality to match. He had Nicole and Yon a Polish-American couple with him on his team. The couple lived in San Jose and Nicole was a Stanford graduate. Go Cardinal! Shawn also had an entourage of Bhutanese and Indian surveyors. Of course Shawn had dined with Nancy on a few occasions. Anybody who is anybody in Bhutan knows Nancy! In the evening the students tended the trees and made some adjustments to the seedlings such as adding soil or digging trenches for drainage. This project intends to help subsidize farmers in East Bhutan with supplemental income. There are 2 million hazelnut trees planned in the region with low impact on the environment. The trees utilize constructed terraces. The trees thrive over 1,600 meters at high altitude. I had read about the project so it was gratifying to see we are taking part. The trees will not yield nuts for almost five years but when they do the school will turn a profit. The nuts end up in some big names companies but it will be a symbiotic relationship for the Bhutanese. Shawn remarked it would be cheaper to grow in Nepal or China but the company has interest in helping Bhutanese farmers. I don’t know the whole story but it seems an intriguing meeting of big business and grass roots. How many big businesses for better or worse have their root in third world countries? (Thankfully you can get a Coke in any hut in the world.) I will do my best to aid the hazelnut projects efforts anyway I can as several trees are planted right by my rock below Deki’s farm.  
As for school I turned in my consolidated grade sheet and am officially done with my first semester! Phew! I am reviewing five paragraph essays with my students and spent the day correcting the majority of 120 essays. This is a tedious process I am undertaking to help them prepare for their final. Essays will be on every exam until class ten. It takes up valuable time to individually meet with each student and I wish I could do it more often. One advantage of reading the essays is it provides an invaluable look into the life of a Bhutanese teenager. These kids are amazing. They all go home and slave away in the field helping their parents. Tasks include herding cows, working in the fields, gathering firewood, cooking, and cleaning. Some kids even work construction jobs earning up to 4,000 NU which they hand over to their folks. Can you imagine USA teens taking on these responsibilities? Yeah right!  It inspires me to work harder as a teacher when I read their accounts. At school they live on a simple diet of rice, potato, and dal every day and sleep thirty to a hostel the size of my hut, sometimes sleeping two to a bed. To summarize these are some gritty kids.

Dogs are dying all over campus. It’s a grizzly sight with pussy soars, emaciated torsos, and carcasses surrounded by flies as we wait for them to die. Meanwhile the kids cut the grass looking like little reapers in ghos and kiras. I went up to my temple but it was uncharacteristically locked. So I found a new trail into the lush cypress grove. The cypress trees are similar to Redwoods but not as tall. Their needles cascade off the branches like a forest goddess’s wispy green hair. In the grove things are cool and fresh and only here can my mind relax a spell. The sounds of the forest fill my soul as day washes into night, six months after arrival in Bhutan.
But Wait There’s More!

“It rained and rained for fourteen long lonely days, they don’t care how you feel, they say it ain’t no big deal” Rainbow, Zeke

My day began with the students standing in their gho and kira for assembly. A girl scout marched up to the flag pole and saluted before they sang two prayers and the national anthem. The students appear as an unarmed army in purple patterned attire. It is a beautiful sight. My day closes with the tinkling of cow bells and a half rainbow over the borderline. The land here has remained unchanged for millennium. We had a whole hour of water so I filled my H2O filter did a wash and the dishes. Oh heaven! Now I am making emadatsi with potatoes, chilies, onions, and tomato. I’d rather be at Chilies having a double bacon cheeseburger and artichoke dip. These damn chilies are so hot they burn my skin if I don’t wash properly. The rain has started again as I rushed to get my clothes off the line. I finished prepping for tomorrow and I am puttering around the hut burning incense and sipping Coca Cola from my favorite blue mug. Nothing more to report here now. By the way, how are things in your town?

Here’s an acronym for Miss Train Wreck…XOXO      

The vapors of love linger
A rainbow cloud over an abyss
While in electric forest
A tantric monkey’s
Nocturnal dance
Goes on swinging

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Tim's Travelogue II


Silver globes of sound
bounced off Red Barn walls
where you danced at 3 AM!
with viral vibrations
rippling off Murph’s bass
a transcontinental root
rumbling down the Feather River Canyon
its flaming glow balls
gliding in Pacific
rolling up the Duars
and the slope of Eastern Himalaya
on the Brokpa trail

TIM’S TRAVELOGUE PART 2: a dream within a dream
Sakteng Trek

“Dreams are lies, it’s the dreaming that’s real” Two Djinn
In the wee hours of my birthday (December 28th 2010) I was riding shotgun in my friend Lisa’s car between Boulder and Longmont Colorado. We glanced out the frosty window and saw a shooting star streak across the horizon. I wished on it to go to Bhutan.
“Team tenacious” set out from Phongmay on a beautiful clear day. Morning dew shimmered off every blade and needle. My companions Ian and Vicky from Australia were gracious enough to arrange and acquire the permit for the trip. Our guide was a driver from Sakteng named Lobzang. Before breaking trail I saw two ravens flying east. The first section of the trek took about 4 hours to reach the beautiful valley town of Jongkhar. This settlement is a transit town on the Brokpa trail with one shop and one guesthouse. It is a shire with terraced fields of maize, bamboo fences, and cattle scattered among farmhouses. About twenty minutes out of town is a shady spot by the river with several wooden shelters where we stopped for our pack lunch including some bomb burritos courtesy of Ian. The next section meandered along the raging river through warm broadleaf oak forests where dappled light descended onto the steamy path. After a few suspension bridges stretching high above the river the trail climbs steeply for several hours through thick forest. The Brokpa easily stride into Sakteng in one day, but we are not Brokpa and had to stop short. We pretty much invited ourselves into a farmhouse perched atop a hillock in the last village before the ascent over the pass into Sakteng. Just after we arrived and refreshed ourselves with black tea the rain began to pound the tiny village. I retired to the makeshift shop cum bar to have a coke. A village woman a few years my senior began to put on an impromptu cultural show singing and dancing to the amusement of me and the others gathered. I countered by teaching her some “biyou” disco-trance moves and before long we had a dance party going with the little kids.
The next day we headed out early climbing the steep trail for about five hours through primal mossy oak and pine with vibrant mushrooms, and gushing waterfalls that washed over the narrow switchbacks. At the top of the pass at about 10,500 feet we encountered a row of prayer flags and a wall of small prayer wheels. Suddenly Sakteng appears, the most enchanting green valley of middle earth. A view that makes warm butter melt  inside your chest, frogs leap in your throat, and Cuckoo birds and stars swirl around your head. One almost drops to their knees in reverence to the sparkling pastures of the high plateau. A landscape of rolling green mountains and a blue gray river, a postcard addressed from the goddess and delivered by a guruda to the edge of the earth. This is as east as one can travel in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
The Brokpa people are Tibetan refugees who were granted this abundant parcel by the third king after the Chinese invasion of their homeland in the Sixties. Everything in the settlement has been carried in from Trashigang and Phongmay over twenty miles walk up several thousand feet. The Brokpa have even managed electricity recently. It’s astounding to comprehend the effort involved in lugging in endless bags of rice, building materials, school desks and so on. They are a people constantly on the move and Sakteng felt deserted as many of the tribe was in the “highlands” grazing yak or making supply runs moving their herds and horses up and down the trail. And as it turned out we had only missed the naked dances by two days.
We descended into the magical valley and set up our camp at the guesthouse, a basic complex at the outskirts of the village. My injured arm was in acute pain from the weight of the pack so to loosen up I went for a walk along the river. By the time I broke into “Easy to Slip” the rain clobbered me soaking every piece of clothing I had on. Did I mention it was all the clothes I brought for the trek. I sprinted and dashed through soppy mud in a torrent to the guesthouse. Upon arrival I disrobed and crawled into my sleeping bag.  A relentless rain fell throughout the night. The next day Vicky lent me a shirt while my clothes dried in the morning sun. We headed to the local schoolhouse that was still in session and met some students. Ian and I were happy to stumble into a class eight. We talked with them about the “Magic Brocade” a story we both taught. The students wore colorful traditional regalia. The boys dawned a red tunic and blue pants while the girls displayed more colorful tunics. Some of the classes were held in a UNICEF tent while others in stone structures. The students appeared well fed and happy. Our guide led us up the pastured mountainside to a magnificent temple. We stepped inside to view the statues of the Guru and Sangay Dempa and lit butter lamps for long life. The building contained several monks and two gleaming conch shells. Ian and Vicky split down the mountain and Lobzang led me to another temple on an adjacent ridge.  The trail was treacherously muddy and I slipped several times. During the monsoon the rains come in the afternoon so we gathered around a campfire, ate noodles, and talked. At sunset there is little to do but climb into sleeping bags for the duration of the long dark night. On our second morning in Sakteng we packed up and made the arduous climb out of the valley into the dense forests. On the way out I got a hitchhiker on my ankle in the form of a leech. The wound bled incessantly for the next eight hours as we wound our way back along the river. The original plan was Sakteng only so I did not get a chance to search for the Blue Poppy which is located on the high passage between Sakteng and Merak. On this day we pressed hard passing groups of cheery Brokpa herding their animals on rocky trails. They slapped their cow’s hides with switches while whistling and making a shushing noise. The scent of manure baked in the sun and the clank of cowbells punctuate their music of movement in harmony with the river. The Brokpa themselves have a strong aroma of yak butter and smoke as this trek employed all the senses. The wind rushed through narrow ravines blowing over countless wooden bridges. We decided to push on all the way through Jhonkhar and into Phongmay. After twelve hours of walking we spotted the back of Meme (Becky’s Mountain) crossed the last suspension bridge over a swift muddy river and climbed back to the road.
Sakteng proved to be a wild place and a playground for nature’s deities, demons, and goddesses. A place most unchanged in millennium where people can only survive without intent to conquer the elements. My mind flipped through its pages remembering that Drukpa Kunley had never tamed the demons of the East as he had turned back at Bumthang. Hence forth, the demons retreated deep into the cover and open pastures of this unparallel region. I never saw the Yeti but assume he lingers in the pastures over the high peaks with the blue poppy, or dwells in the impenetrable forests alongside the leopard and red panda.
We immerged into a humid twilight with fireflies chased by laughing children and drove across the two rivers that threatened to flood out Becky’s road back to Rangjoon.
Ian and Vicky, thank you for helping make my dream come true and planning all the important details for this trek. I am forever grateful to you both. It is inspiring to spend time with a couple so in love after many years together. My own dream is to find someone to share my life with in that same way.

Trashigang Rendezvous
“The floorboard creaks and out come the freaks” Zeke
I met Becky and Norrine on a Wacky Wednesday in Trashigang. They had been traveling together since the retreat and relayed their wild eastbound tales on a gloaming glide to the T-Gang Dzong. Norrine led us inside where she chatted up and photographed a group of inquisitive monks. I snuck up into the bowels of the Dzong into a maze of chutes, ladders, and secluded chambers. The rich wood reeked of history. I was caught red handed by some red robes while spinning a row of prayer wheels and escorted out into the courtyard. Norrine was still holding court with the growing crowd of monks. On the way to town we saw Igor circumnavigating his chorten before we adjourned to the garden for dinner. Norrine observed it was a “haven” The spot has indeed been an important gathering area for good food and camaraderie. Set among tropical flowers and vines we ate chow mien and headed back to the KC where we munched on homemade cookies for desert and commenced in a bull session that endured past midnight. Norrine wore her alpaca shawl and spoke like an oracle, a divine light cast on her dark impish complexion. I had forgotten the swords of truth that she wielded back at the Dragon Roots in Thimphu carving fillets of wisdom. At dawn Norrine bunked out to Thimphu and I boarded a bus to Sandrup Jhonkhar while Becky remained snoozing at the hotel, dreaming of her own unfolding story.  

“This town is like a circus around the clock, tiger’s roam the streets, the doors ain’t got no locks” My Home is on the Border
The bus ride to Sandrup Jhonkhar takes all day and this Thursday was not an auspicious day for travel. We encountered several road blocks as a drizzle graduated to a steady downpour. I had hoped to view the scenery on the last unexplored road in my beloved region but the bus spent the day driving in a cloud. The road passed steamy high altitude forests with sprawling ferns and towering rhododendron filling deep valleys. After several passes the sloppy road funneled out of the Himalayas through disheveled broken foothills. Suddenly you hit the valley floor with a thud under a painted rock carving of the Guru. Through a misty haze a fine view of the Indian plains of Assam. After registering at an immigration checkpoint I sauntered into the sweltering border town of Sandrup Jhonkhar. I immediately located the walled demarcation between Bhutan and India following the concrete wall with barbed wire on top into a boggy marsh. I saw a rusty iron gate where a group of Indian kids ran, sticking their limbs through the bars and greeting me friendly. A Bhutanese immigration officer came down from his tower and told me I was in a restricted area. I backtracked into town and followed the cement wall to the Indo- Bhutan gate and the official crossing. I pleaded with the immigration police who surprisingly allowed me to cross into the Assamese town of Darranga. I had finally made it to India! I walked unaccompanied for ten minutes into the outskirts of Darranga taking in the dark faces and dilapidated structures on the frontier of the subcontinent. I chatted with some street children and evening walkers before realizing suddenly, I wasn’t in Bhutan anymore. I knew I needed to return HOME. I walked out of the bazaar and down the wide wet lane under swaying palms past rigshaws, tata’s, and buggies towards the exquisite broad gate that welcomed me back for the first time. I thanked the guard who snapped a photo of me in India before returning to Bhutan’s Sandrup Jhonkhar.
On the Bhutan side Indian’s, Nepali, and Bhutanese lolled around the bazaar. I picked up a pot, bucket, and floor mats before checking into a hotel and eating dinner. The town also contained a massive ornate golden prayer wheel whose bell tolled the humid air. I had reached the Southeast of the kingdom at an elevation of less than 500 feet. The next morning I saw a taxi full of passengers headed back to T-Gang Dzongkhag and piled in. We beat our way back through the roadblocks and pouring rain. I got out to pee near the Pema Gatshel junction and had five leaches on me when I climbed back in the vehicle. A class twelve Bayling girl peeled them off my clothes and bleeding fingers laughing. We rode the 150 twisty miles back on cliffs past sinewy Indian road workers, rainbow clouds, and tuffs of fogs that gobbled the mountains.
The ride took me back to Tsenkharla by 10:00 PM where on my doorstep my favorite dog was convulsing from starvation and disease. Apparently several k-9s have died since I left. Another reminder of how brutal this place can be. It bothers me to have a smelly dying animal on my stoop especially my pal “Red” who bounded after me across campus and now cannot stand. Flies circle his emaciated body and he won’t eat. The students are due to arrive tomorrow and classes begin in two days. I have to complete my assessments and close up the books from the first semester. I also need to track down a paycheck for June. It was a satisfying break that took me all over the “land of terror” I was fortunate to see some of my BCF colleagues and even squeezed in a bit of time with Becky. I will not forget the smiles of the Brokpa children and enthusiastic Kuzuzongbola greeting from Brokpa elders. Or the stunning sight of the Lhuntse Dzong. I covered hundreds of miles on foot or in vehicles and met some fascinating folks along the way. Thank you too for sharing in the adventure! Oh by the way if you are reading this HM, please come to Tsenkharla!
P.S Unfortunately the dog died this afternoon and we buried it near the boy’s hostel.  This poem is a work in progress based on the Sakteng trek.

The Brokpa Trail

Two ravens fly east
as a frog leaps
along  the muddy path
where a scarlet UFO  
leaches onto a mossy oak
whose disfigured limbs
clutch earthly mist,
its serpent roots
grasp a cliff,
as waterfalls dash
over boulders
under temple of doom bridges
while lost dappled rays
inside silver raindrops,
falling through a broadleaf canopy
on black and yellow butterflies
dancing in the pads of yeti tracks  
searching for
cosmic shushes and whistles
chirped from Brokpa lips,
 up a stone staircase
reaching hardcore source,
an on time arrival
in goddess’s rocky pasture
where the blue poppy
opens to birth
a mountain maiden

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Kissed By Mist
“Gone are the days we stopped to decide, where we should go, we just ride” Crazy Fingers
Last night I encountered a scorpion the size of a shoe approaching my bed. After a fierce battle with my broom I banished the sinister creature from my abode. Today school was cancelled due to the inauspicious burning of the Wangduephodrang Dzong. This important fortress was built in 1638 and had survived a previous fire and the great 1897 earthquake. But now is completely destroyed. Exams were cancelled and students were sent immediately into prayer. This meant losing a precious day of Exams. I grimace at the prospect of four days of center marking, progress reports, assessments, and invigilation. Center marking consists of sitting in a room with 40 Bhutanese teachers all chattering away and playing Hindi music while grading hundreds of other peoples exams with no names on them. This might delay the beginning of break. I am hoping to trek to Sakteng in pursuit of a Yeti, which is somewhat bonkers in the rainy season due to mud and leaches. But Vicky and Ian are planning the route and their knowledge is indispensible. I am most likely forgoing the retreat in Bumthang over the “Big La” pass at 13,000 feet. It’s all a crap shoot with uncertain road conditions and weather. As Becky says, “It depends on the day!” The monsoon has pulled its humid silver curtain over the land. Only a few minutes will the sun burn through on any given day. I nestled myself into my perch within the crumbling walls of Tsangma’s ruin and watched the mist swallow ridges while revealing a patch of river below. Found a big gnarled pine with several trunks and numerous branches rising from a thick comforter of duff decorated with fern patterns. I took a nap. Coming home I fell on the slippery trail several times, so many ways to die in Bhutan. But I live on in the beauty way!  
Odds and Ends
“I don’t know but I’ve been told, if the horse don’t pull you got to carry the load, I don’t know whose backs that strong, maybe find out before too long”
I know I signed off for break but I must E vent my reservations regarding Center Marking. I just spent six hours speed marking my class 7 and 8 exams under direct pressure to “go quicker” I would prefer to stay up all night marking my student’s papers giving them constructive feedback instead of scanning their papers and giving a timely score. This system cheats the students and teachers. The students don’t get the attention they deserve while the teacher looses out on valuable assessment. Students are only allowed to put ID numbers and not names on their test. You would think it’s the bar exam for Christ’s sake. Not to mention the cocktail party mentality of the grading room. These are things one must put up with here. Changing the system is futile. I am finding this out with my trash crusade. In the classroom I remain relatively free to teach the way I want. Overall I am pleased with my student’s development. According to their results (which I at least rechecked the other teachers mark) the students are doing well in comprehension but need work on grammar. Both teacher and student can learn together next term. I still have 120 progress reports to complete on a database which is quite confounding. After the dust settles a well deserved repose is in order. It’s hard to line your ducks in a row when you have an odd goose in the formation. On a lighter note the sun blasted out for an hour turning East Bhutan into a steam room. I paused against a mighty Cypress tree and reflected on all the money and effort it took to deposit me here, a sum of $5,000 of yours and mine along with copious effort from family and friends. The point is its time to enjoy the ride a bit more. This type experience only rolls along once in a lifetime. So reap it!  Tsenkharla is a bucolic mosaic of moments, petting a horse, bantering with class 8, or getting stabbed by a rusty nail while passing out exams. It felt good to see my students pouring their hearts out on the exams after a hard semester of work. The truth is I only put so much faith in their scores. Especially since my Bhutanese colleague encourages me to give students low scores and even scolds me for my own marking, as Chef would say “piss off!”
The blood of an alligator, papaya, Local Green chilies, Crawfish Heads, Mushrooms, Morning Dew, Mango, Guano, Hemp Oil, a spittoon of Beetle Nut Juice and a dash of Remilard! Serves ONE GOOD OL FASHIONED FREAK OUT CAMP!
 Back in the USA the Yanks are in first and my darling Shawn John retires. (You will always be pure gold in my heart kiddo!) The tribe gathers along LEE RD. and in front of the old Relay Station conspiring on prime real estate in Shady Grove while somewhere in New Orleans Zeke plays piano in the dark. Now I AM also a ghost of High Sierra past.             
The present here is as strange as the old dude riding his bike on Late Night Avenue in only a banana hammock. Ringing his tiny silver bell and flicking his tassels while reciting a perverse mantra. Why is it that Sunday is always exhibitionist day at the Festival? It seems three days of greasy music loosens the screws of the most ardent freak, until you are left with a posse of misfits. A bevy of girls with fury tails, feathered hair, and stars for nipples that lead their sleep deprived boyfriends on rabid night-hunts. The animals pile in the barn for one more spin in Noah’s day-glow arc chalked and stalked with Pigs, Peacocks, gorillas, goats, leopards, lunatics, unicorns, and a squirrel. You might be asking what this antidote has to do with Bhutan. IS IT? Well I have no idea but I am sure it’s all interconnected somehow. In heaven Guru Rimpoche and Jesus laugh about it, rolling snake eyes, while waiting on Lucifer and his potent hell brew.
“Everybody had a hard year, everybody had a goodtime, everybody pulled their socks up, everybody put their book down, oh yeah!” I’ve Got a Feeling
Honoring the value of cherishing community I have decided to make the run to Bumthang for the freaky fourth to celebrate Interdependence Day. Hopefully I can return in time to embark on the trek to Brokpa Land, “The happiest place on earth.” The festival will begin with a Friday stopover to celebrate Sir Ian’s 54th. Then off to BootyTang with Bunky, Martha et al.  
One more shout out to the HSMF krewe! Have a ball y’all, and give my love to the Feather River. And to TWG, enjoy your Bucket List road trip! Poor mom gets to look after Reed and Paige. Hers is indeed an altruistic path of sacrifice and service. I am the living proof of this, traipsing round Bhutan on her goodwill. That’s why Camile said, “You have a cool mom!” Yeah your right!    
Down The Road I Go
“You used to be sweet but you ain’t sweet no more”
It’s been a trying few weeks. A few vignettes include an Indian teacher walking into my classroom and whacking the hell out of my student for eating a plumb right in front of me.  And my hot water heater shorting out the fuse whenever I plug it in, resulting in cold baths or no baths. And center marking. This last session lasted over six hours of marking the same three class ten questions. One practical reason for the fiasco of CM is the upper grades have over 200 students. Center marking employs the support staff to chip in. It’s a meat market or butcher house mentality. Or in restaurant ease, “turn and burn” I will hope to wrap everything up by tomorrow afternoon and then go celebrate Ian’s birthday and the end of my first semester in Bhutan. Ian and Vicky are so real and civilized it will be an oasis of humanity to bask in their company, hospitality, and wit. It’s been an interesting first half in Bhutan, the score Bhutan U 24 Whatsthematter U 14.  
The roads are OPEN to B-Tang. A slide has closed the road between Kaling and Wamrong which could leave my mate Simon marooned a few days. But if I know Simonite he is out helping the road crew clearing the slide as he did between Thimphu and Dochela, can’t keep a good man down and all that shit. Today the sun poured milky gold light over the land enveloping me in Sangay Dempa light. Tranquility! As Ed said when I gave him the stone with the tiny Chinese Character for tranquility carved into it, “If only it were that easy, maybe it is”     
Timothy Gross National Happiness 
Day 1 Disembark
The Lion at Chasm had been destroyed by a careening ambulance that obliterated the stone beast before rolling into the river. The driver’s body was not found. The first day of my break was spent in Rangjoon at Vicky and Ian’s pad. It was a very auspicious day as it was Guru Rimpoche and Ian’s b-day. Becky made a cake to help celebrate. After afternoon cake and tea, Becky and I went up to the picturesque temple on the hill to circumnavigate under partly cloudy skies. Inside the temple are glorious depictions of the Guru and several carnal deities nibbling on man flesh. My favorite was a women being devoured by a tiger. The shrine was lit up in green Christmas lights. The outside of the temple was also lit at night in pumpkin lights. I found Becky in a trance listening to the frogs and staring up at the light. JD came down to join the group and we had an exceptional dinner. The theme of Vicky and Ian’s dishes was “No Curry” They made spring rolls, sushi, and several other delicious items. They are world class hosts and make all feel welcome. We all were in hysterics chatting past midnight!
Day 2 “There Once Was A Man Named Scotty”
The next day we splashed in the river near Rangjoon. There were several kids swinging on jungle vines like Tarzan. The rushing water refreshed our spirits and a good time was had by all. After saying goodbye Becky and I hitched out of town eventually finding a taxi all the way to Mongor town. The ride takes you into a lost world of ferns and giant oaks. En Route we discussed the merit of “St. Of Circumstance” and “Maze.” We spotted Scotty walking towards Yadi on the National Highway. We hopped out to talk before moving on. We reached Mongor in darkness and immediately checked into The Dolma Hotel the epicenter of my inequity for the next few nights. Becky showed me the Space Bar Restaurant lit with blue and red neon. The food was yummy served up by an equally yummy waitress named Zam. I would eat there the following three nights.

Day 3 “The Split”
I got to the line of scrimmage and called an audible. At the last minute I decided to retreat from the retreat. Instead I said my goodbye to Becky and Martha who moved west. It was disheartening to separate from my BFF (Bhutan Friend Forever) I spent the day doing nothing in Mongor. Mongor is a nice town with regal traditional buildings set on a plateau amongst huge mountains. At night I watched the very first episode of the Simpsons and Two and a Half Men on TV.

Day 4 “The Wild East”
I got up early and hired a driver (another more stoic Dorji) and headed off towards Bumthang. Actually my destination was the steamy valley floor before the grueling ascent up “Big La.” Just west of Limithang is the sweltering jungle and the ruined Shonkhar Dzong. Today my driver was also my guide as he hacked a trail through a thicket of vines, ferns, nettle, thorns, and towering cannabis bushes. Despite wearing long pants my arms were stung by nettle and scraped by thorns. The Dzong was established around 1100 and abandoned after a fire in 1899. The locals stay away in fear of the giant serpent demon who resides in the ruined fortress. The ruin sits perched atop a gnarled slope overlooking the overgrown valley. The fortress is similar to Tsangma in design but much larger. It also has several buried walls and stone stairs entwined in the roots and vines. The whole spot is powerful and dark. You wait for the serpent to uncoil and devour you, slowly digesting your flesh over a thousand years. We explored the complex for over an hour before descending through the tropical foliage.

After the ruins we were back on the road towards Limithang and a quant farmhouse “resort” where HM has stopped for tea. I had a Pepsi (No Coke available) before heading towards Lhuntse. The drive shadows an amazing river, through rugged country. Reidi Smith is placed in Autsho but was at the retreat ahead of me. Her village has tall pines with dragon scaled bark. I remember the haunted Chorten and the tall trees as they rushed by. Autsho is in a marvelous canyon with a wondrous river running through it. I could almost feel Reidi’s august presence in the air. The road to Lhuntse proper is very narrow and curvaceous. Lhuntse has its own mystique separate from anything else in the Kingdom. In fact the district is the ancestral home of the Royal Family. After several hours on the road we wound up at Lhuntse and the remarkable Dzong. This realm is a page from Lord of the Rings with the castle resting on a sheer cliff. Several giant cypress trees adorn the high mountain slopes. From here one feels close to Tibet which exists over a few more peaks. This was indeed a place of ending or beginning. I hiked up alone to the Dzong which is crumbling after over 350 years. This is a special place where you can feel the confluence of heaven and earth. Beautiful flowers and red robbed monks palisade the stone walkway. Once inside the fortress I explored several hallowed and hollowed chambers and viewed the old shrine with a faded painting of the Guru and a splendid tantric image of a blue man and an Asian beauty making love. After salivating at the blessed union I made my way back absorbing the dramatic view of the river carving through rough mountains. I intended to spend the night in Lhuntse but no bed was available so I rode back with Dorji all the way to Mongor. Ten hours and 6,000 NU after commencing I was relaxing at the Dolma, an epic day exploring Mongor and Lhuntse districts.      

 Day 5 “Transit Day”
 It was time to leave the fabled land of Mongor and return back to my own territory. The trip from Mongor to Trashigang takes about three hours. The segment between Mongor and Yadi is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in Bhutan. The oak, fern, and rhododendron intermingled with drifty mist creating a dreamy state. This forest has grassy fields interspersing the trees and ferns creating a playground for pixies in the backyard of Avalon. As quickly as that, it changes to dry pine forests on the descent from Yadi to Chasm. Once in Trashigang I bought momos for Phuntso and her father and walked to the Dzong. There is no place like Trashigang Dzong at twilight. One feels a part of Bhutanese history here as I shared the breeze with the assembled monks in the courtyard.

As I write these words its 11:59 ON THE fourth OF July. I am listening to the crickets in the peace of an abandoned Tsenkharla. The students have all been sent away. The fourth has always been an important day for me. As a child it meant fireworks from inside “Idle Ours” at Donner Lake. Then the Rainbow Gatherings and the orgiastic drum circles featuring a jam with thousands of instruments and naked dancers that snaked through space for hours.  Most recently I’ve entertained the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy. Two years ago I said farewell to Morgan, the Rad’s, and Big Meadow. But today I found myself alone at Gom Kora exploring the river. It was a fine day for me as I meditated in the cave where Guru Rimpoche subdued the demoness. Gom Kora is a spiritually charged vortex and nowhere do I feel closer to the Guru. My Jesus never set foot in North America unless you subscribe to the Mormon account. But in Bhutan we walk in the footsteps of gods and lamas each day. Sitting on the rock I was enveloped by the roaring river, the soft breeze, and the crow of a rooster. After that, I walked passed Doksom baptizing my nude body in the Dawang Chu and crossing at a suspension bridge that would make Indy squeamish. I caught a ride with a Kesang a colleague of Becky to Zongposo before hitching up to Tsenkharla arriving just before the rain. I set about cleaning my hut and organizing my materials for school. HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY! Below is a poem inspired by the ruined Shonkhar Dzong near Limithang.
                             Reclamation of Imagination
reclamation of nature
forced on mans abandoned pillars
and crumbling walls
where overgrown steps lead
to the battle of east and west
and under the snarled canopy
of thorny green vines
a demoness serpent nests
coiled in the tower of man’s imagination
while ferns, nettle, and cannabis
devour stones, digesting them
in steamy jungle juices,
a lost world of pure brutality

Day 7 Rest Day

So today I am resting my blister and praying that my foot feels well for Sakteng. I also have to manage a way to lug my sleeping bag out to Sakteng since I left my big pack at home. (Damn fake weight regulations.) Sakteng is notorious for three things. It is home to the Brokpa people, the Yeti, and the elusive blue poppy. The blue poppy hides on the steep slopes above Merak so I probably won’t see one. I will probably only reach Sakteng proper. My dream is to see the blue poppy. But like the yeti just knowing they exist is enough. My friend Heather and I saw a Yeti in Eugene in 2002 at a Ratdog show. It omitted a strong musty odor and had pale white skin and was covered in thick brown fur. The monsoon rains pelted my tin roof all day but know a swirly mist tickles the sunlight. Or maybe the sunlight tickles the mist. It’s a tickle fight you dig? So I will rest up and head out rain or shine for Rangjoon tomorrow. So see you all after Sakteng. Until then fire up the colortinies and watch the pictures as they go flying through the air.