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

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