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

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