Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lonesome SF Cowboy

“When all the shows are over honey tell me, where do you think I go?” Lonesome LA Cowboy

Well another day in East Bhutan. Classes were dragging a bit today. In Bhutan scolding and beating are acceptable but I avoid these methods. Obviously I won’t beat and after Korea I vowed not to yell at my students. But I was tempted to raise my voice since they were not listening today. It is said that a teacher must answer over a thousand requests in one day and this takes a lot of patience from those in our profession. I got a headache today and my limited patience was wearing so thin. Sometimes I seriously contemplate my decision to teach. Loving children is not always enough to be a successful educator.  I have to improve in so many areas as a teacher that it can be daunting. I tend to be overly critical but how can one not be in a profession with no ceiling of performance. After classes I handed over another 500 NU donation for staff parties and then went to visit a teacher’s home because their baby was ill. I sat around sipping tea listening to the staff chatter in Sharshop and Dzonka. Isolation can make a body edgy. Having an easy even temperament can serve you well here. Those who know me realize these are not my attributes. There is no doubt that the unsurpassed beauty of Bhutan bolsters my spirit. I do have a few friends here including BCF teachers, Karlos and Sonam, and Butterfly. But these are new untested friendships of convenience and with the nationals there is a language barrier. It’s different for everyone as I know Sheal and Sabrina have formed deep relationships at their postings. For my part I met one of my all time compatriots in Rebecca, a relationship that will endure past the year. One day we hope to meet on the other side of this life and maybe get a pizza. Or perhaps reunite on “The Wookie Farm”

I abandoned the lesson plan for the last moments of class and informally chatted with my 8B students out in the compound. It was nice that they expressed interest in my life and commented how “old” I was especially not to be married. They sincerely wanted to know who would take care of me when I was dying. Tandin even inquired who would be responsible for my corpse. In Bhutanese culture the family unit is intact. Someone always takes care of you when you’re old. This aspect makes America’s values seem monstrously selfish. Just as in Bhutan my tendencies towards privacy is odd. People are rarely alone here except the ascetics in their caves and temples. This lifestyle appeals to me more by the day.

(Big Buddha Interlude)   

During disorientation the group climbed up to a giant golden Buddha statue that was being constructed on the rim of a gorgeous valley overlooking Thimphu. I struggled in the crisp winter air with my Bhutan belly and dehydration. On the way down I found myself wayward with Becky lost in the thick pines. We couldn’t find our way out and were hysterical. I remember a row of blue prayer flags, and a local cutting the thicket with a machete and laughing at us. This was a formative moment in our fledgling friendship. No doubt I was complaining and she was compassionately listening. Well we haven’t made it out of that patch just yet.  

“It’s a Marathon not a sprint” Camile 

Right now I feel a bit flat and tired. It is an effort to rise each morning and rarely do I shine. I want to at least remain cheery for my student’s sake. I know this is the place for me now but that doesn’t mean it is always easy. I assume other teachers come here in part to sort out their issues and get to know themselves better. This is part of the experience but self evaluation can be a harry endeavor especially for those who have a shadowy core. There is always a little magic in each day and that carries me onward. I know I seem a malcontent and complainer and that’s because these are my bad habits. Also I have turned to this blog as a confessional and confidant. My negative patterns are entrenched and I hope to divert the flow into more positive channels. A sage once told me that is what your thirties are all about. Bhutan does not hand out enlightenment and it is an arduous process to gleam insight into this confusing life anywhere. I recall my first glimpse of the Kingdom leaning across Sabrina’s lap to look out the window. As the plane descended I saw dwarfed pines scattered on rolling brown mountains. It was sunny and cold as we immerged like babes from the womb. I felt as uneasy and anxious as the day I was born. Where Reidi cried tears of joy I cried tears of fright. Now all the BCF krewe is scattered across the mountainous kingdom. As time goes on I speak less frequently to my colleagues but wish them all the best in their adventures. I am also enjoying other BCF blogs regularly. Reidi Smith just posted a lovely entry about her midterm break and travels in Bumthang. (I was the only no show at the retreat.) Tonight I keep the company of Jerry’s pickin’ banjo and wait for water. One thing’s for certain this is the adventure of a lifetime.  As my absentee friend Karma Om said it’s “Man vs. Wild”

(Garcia Interlude)

“Shake it Sugaree, I’ll meet you at the jubilee, and if that jubilee don’t come, maybe I’ll meet you on the run” Hunter/ Garcia

We all have our heroes and gurus. I vividly recall August 9 1995 when I heard the news Jerry died. He passed near my home in Marin County and my father woke me up with the news which was being broadcast on AM radio. After the announcement the station played “Casey Jones.” I locked myself in my room and bawled. Public memorials sprang up in Central Park and Golden Gate Park. It was a devastating day for millions of Dead Heads from all walks around the globe. Stalk brokers and Wookies cried together in the streets. I went to Tahoe with my pal John and we climbed Eagle Rock watching a scarlet sunset over the lake. We knew the world would never be the same. It’s hard to believe that was 17 years ago. I was fortunate to catch Jerry 19 times before his cosmic exit and there is nothing like a Grateful Dead show. Of course the culture he creates lives on with Bobby and the rest of the boys and the entire jam band scene. He was a real life Santa Claus influencing generations of people by touching individual hearts and building community through peace, tolerance, and music. He simply changed the world through his love. RIP JERRY! WE LOVE YOU!!! At this time last year I was seeing the torchbearers Phish on the South Shore of Tahoe. I had just interviewed with BCF and was waiting for the decision. Trey was crooning about Alaska while the sun set and a plump moon rose over Heavenly. At that moment Bhutan was on my mind.


The monsoon mists keep Avalon hidden in the clouds. This is Avalon and I know when I leave I can never return except in my memories. Like Arthur our young and handsome king must protect his people while embracing change. As Christianity consumed Paganism Buddhism consumed Bon but we must search for reconciliation in our hearts. Like John Paul Ziller in “Another Roadside Attraction” we must all seek the source, even if it means commandeering a hot air balloon with a baboon and flying into the sun. I try to explain to my students that Bhutan’s natural wonders are singular in this world, a refuge for wild tigers, which have climbed to 13,000 feet in their last getaway. This tiny sphere of pure wilderness exists on our fractured ball of blue which faithfully spins on its axis. When I can take a breath and step back I realize how remarkable this land is, enduring a world of madness sheltered by its sacred mountains. When I see the litter I fear that they don’t realize what’s at stake.

 I have started a fabulous book on loan from Vicky via Becky about the vanishing Himalayan Kingdom’s. This no nonsense account is called “So Close To Heaven” by the brilliant Barbara Crossette. This is a must read if you are interested in this region. The Buddhist kingdoms and tantric culture used to thrive from Mongolia to Afghanistan. Now the region is splintered in a political, cultural, and religious mosaic. One cannot officially travel from Trashiyangtse to Tawang or from Paro to Lhasa. Guru Rimpoche was born in the Swat valley on the Pakistan Afghan border and migrated a long way east to reach Bhutan. After the invasion and absorption of Sikkim and Tibet to India and China, Bhutan remains the last Himalayan monarchy. Facing pressure from without and within and now the kingdom is in peril. I can’t imagine a country with a more ambiguous and fascinating history entwined with legend and myth. How I became a part of that history is equally intriguing and mysterious. Even my presence here is a dichotomy. I am charged to help the students develop their English but I also represent a lifestyle that could be detrimental to the Kingdom. When Butterfly an Indian teacher quips “Don’t destroy the culture” he is raising a valid concern. Although my students are curious and open to my new ideas they remain patriotic and faithful to their traditional values. This balance is the only hope for survival for this peaceful monarchy.    
Easy Answers

“Ain’t no easy answers, what I’m trying to say”

I am actually the third foreign teacher at Tsenkharla. Catherine and Sharon taught almost twenty years ago here when the school was much smaller and called Rangthangwoon. They changed the name to honor the Tsenkharla Dzong and my sanctuary.  I’m not sure who came first but When Catherine was here there was no electricity. Madam Dechen was close friends with Catherine and said they went on long daily walks because, “they were both spinsters at the time.” Madam Dechen looks in her fifties now. I don’t know anything about Sharon but I know Catherine stayed about five years in the time of Zeppa. Jamie came to see her with Leon AKA Mr. Mark and chronicles the visit in her novel. I would love to speak to Catherine about her time here. At that time there were many Canadians teaching in East Bhutan. Back then the contracts were for two year. I think about 70 total educators were in the country. We have only 20 BCF teachers today since restarting the program in 2010. Since Catherine’s era the school has doubled in size and we have acquired a paved road and electricity. But I imagine a lot remains the same, the lack of water and veggies, and the unobstructed view into India. From my door looking east there are very few settlements and the river remains unfettered by man. I’m sure Catherine would be pleased. Although I don’t know her, I feel a special kinship. The current allotment of BCF teachers is not far removed from Catherine, Jamie Zeppa, Nancy Strickland, and Father Mackey. Nancy taught at Becky’s school in Phongmay. Ashleigh teaches at an L.S.S in the locality of Jamie Zeppa’s placement at Sharubse collage which was established by the late Father Mackey. Before coming to Bhutan the Jesuit missionary pulled out all his teeth in preparation to live in a place with no dental care. Our VP remembers Father Mackay taking out his false teeth, smacking his gums and scaring the children. One thing he never did was attempt to convert Bhutanese citizens. I have also run into administrators who were taught by Mr. Mark AKA Leon who currently works for the World Bank helping Bhutan build schools including Reidi’s beautiful campus at Autsho. And as we all know our fearless leader Nancy is practically royalty in Bhutan. You realize the profound impact former Canadian teachers had on their students who grew up to lead the country. Being a teacher in the Kingdom is continuing a special mission started by the volunteers of yore and continued with the vision of folks like Sam Blyth.
I love this passage from Barbara’s book about foreigners living in Bhutan, “The few foreigners allowed to live in the Dragon Kingdom, ostensibly to help develop it, soon learn that the Bhutanese always do things their own way and in their own time.” And why shouldn’t they.

I just got home from Social Service Club where about half of the 60 members showed up. Almost all the boys were bunking. I don’t care to chase them down and am only interested in those who truly want to do the work. In hindsight I should only have accepted 20 students in the club, members like Pema Tshomo who come to enthusiastically pick trash. I swear my neighbor Deki hasn’t picked one piece of rubbish all year. Today we focused on a problematic spot at the front gate of the school and the pathway to the shops. (The gates of heaven, hell, or purgatory depending on which Tim you ask) Right now it is raining and boys are dashing off to prayer with their white scarves and prayer books. A typical day immersed in Bhutan.  Although I find the behavior in my classes frustrating sometimes I have to laugh when the rambunctious boys make paper hats, or beat their chests like King Kong. I have given up making them put their shoes on since life’s too short. We do have fun in Mr. Tim’s class and sometimes learn something too, and that’s a fact! I am actually right on track in the syllabus and my yearly plan but am constantly trying to iron out the kinks. Being a teacher is like being a magician performing tricks to engage a restless audience. When it works it feels so right and when it doesn’t...      

Standing on the Moon

“Standing on the moon, with nothing left to do, a lovely view of heaven but I’d rather be with you”

So we had another meeting today. Let me set the stage. All the teachers congregate in the undersized staff room with stiff benches and a sheet hung up for a projection screen. It’s humid, the curtains are drawn, and the content is always in Dzonka. Today’s topic was how much money should be donated for what event and which occurrences mandate compulsory gatherings. Birth and death fell into that category. It was a rare sunny and stellar afternoon that went to waste. It was a hot day so I held my last class outside where we read the story of Charles Wayo, a young boy who walked from Ghana to Turkey. These are fun kids but controlling every aspect of the lesson and monitoring their behavior can be challenging. Especially when one student is reading aloud, and 30 are listening. What to do I’m a teacher, that’s my job. I am still having trouble recognizing all my students. My poor vision is not helping, along with their national dress, and similar names. I vow to know all 120 by the end of my contract.

This morning a crystal moon partied late into the bluest sky. I had to wonder if it was smiling down on San Francisco too. Only the moon could pull off being two places on the opposite side of the globe. I felt as alone and isolated as Luna up there who rarely glimpses her paramour the sun. They are destined to be apart. I am lucky to have Karlos and Sonam since I am suffering from invisibility again. That is to say I used to tell Morgan I felt invisible when I studied in Ashland Oregon. Sometimes I think if I was at a smaller school it would be easier to interact. When I get upset or confused I stare at the endless mountains from endless angles. It’s so open here as we are the center of the compass, with vistas into eternity. Sometimes the space seems to swallow me whole. I wish to be one with it, to disengage from my tortured ego and disseminate into the landscape. Or splash and run in the river. My diluted consciousness struggles against the omnipotence of the scenery as god howls at me, “Why?”

I was reading The Raven Crown by Michael Aris and it had a tidbit about Prince Tsangma. He was a monk who fled Tibet seeking refuge in East Bhutan. He was escaping political and family strife as his brother had a bounty on him. Tsangma had two sons while in exile. From these two sons descended the rulers of East Bhutan for centuries. Before unification in the 1700’s all the separate rulers of the east traced their lineage back to Tsangma. The ruined Dzong must have been the epicenter in the region before power shifted to Trashigang. I didn’t realize the significance of my sanctum. Now I am the only one left to oversee the compound which remains sturdy after 1,100 years. Less than half the edifice remains but the lead stone wall I perch on is twenty feet tall and in excellent shape. A total of three lichen coveted walls remain and within the structure is an ecosystem of grasses, shrubs, and bushes. The ruin sits on a cliff and is surrounded by a grove of pine and eucalyptus and affords a stunning view of Zongdopelri and a prominent panorama of the western valley and the Kulongchu. From the interior you also have a partial outlook into India through the trees. Ravens frequent the hollow, blackbirds that represent the protector deity of Bhutan, and the pinnacle of my totem. At times I can feel Tsangma’s presence while listening to the breeze rustle the treetops and the river whooshing through the steep ravine towards Doksom. My soul will one day return to rest among the stones that will surely outlast me. I decree that Reed and Paige can scatter half of my ashes inside the exposed fortress, and half in Wheeler Grove on the Lost Coast.

Around and Around

“No they never stopped rockin’ till the moon went down”

Teaching grammar gives me nightmares. If Mare audited my class she would cringe. Firstly the grammar book is convoluted and to difficult for their level. It seems like a high school text not appropriate for beginning ESL, or Mr. Tim. From now on I will adapt the lesson to suit all of our needs. For today I abandoned the text and taught plural and singular, making fun sentences. Today we are enveloped in a humid grey cloud, a classic monsoon pattern. My morning was uplifted by an E- mail from Morgan. I haven’t heard a peep from anyone at home in weeks so it was nice to be remembered. Her words helped reaffirm my mission which at times is unclear. It motivates me when my loved ones acknowledge the importance of my work. My earache has cleared thanks to my antibiotics. Martin’s wife Tara just got over a serious illness in Jakar. Health is paramount here as Ashleigh, Reidi, Sarah, and others can attest. I have been reasonably fit since my first two weeks in Thimphu. We are very susceptible to illness in Bhutan. They thought Tara had typhoid but it was something else. It sounds as if she is out of the woods now, thank goodness!  I am hopeful that my diet of chilies and Coca Cola will keep me alive for the year. I am looking forward to my 1.5 day weekend at home. I will be cleaning, washing, prepping, reading, roaming, and sleeping.  It’s hard to stay on the stick here and it requires constant vigilance. Most of my free time this weekend will be filled watching student soccer matches and doing social work. Karma got his TV charged and I watched three hours of pole vault yesterday. It’s been a spotty viewing for my 2012 Olympics but I am grateful for any television at all. I have been bone stimulating every day in hopes of mending my arm and am waiting for news from mom about her surgery and recovery. I spun the prayer wheel for the health and happiness of all sentient beings, even the ones I don’t care for that much. 

Treat a Stranger Right

“Everybody Ought to treat a stranger right, long way from home”

Today I moderated a speech tournament, and was given about twenty minutes notice to prepare. Only in Bhutan would there be tiny bird’s dive bombing the speakers in the MP hall. After that we had a baby shower for Kesang and Leki. There baby was adorable and only two days old, Bhutan’s new hope. The community turned out and shared a delicious feast of emadatsi, chicken, beef, egg, dal, and veggies. I heeded Tara’s warning but did sneak a carrot or two. I sat next to Butterfly and we cheerily talked with the drunken nationals. The Bhutanese do love their ara. When I stop being a sourpuss I realize that the community is friendlier when I am more open to them. The women are still shy but the men will banter a bit. I have Karma Om, Phuntso, and Manu as platonic female friends but none of them live at Tsenkharla. I guess I miss intimate female companionship in my life. Boohoo! The rain swept into the village just as I was jogging home in the dark. Tomorrow we have classes then a full program of events. Principal La in his nice way encouraged me to stay put this weekend which was my plan anyhow. It was a long day of classes and events today which is the way it ought to be. Teachers like J.D have created their lives here by delving into the school community, which is all we have. My resistance is futile and I must compromise some of my overly cherished privacy. It’s a tight rope act at times. I will admit it is endearing to see an intact community working and playing together. There are certainly internal disputes but it is holistic. It is what I have been searching for all my life in the USA. I won’t go as far to say I have found my place. Rather I will marvel at the Bhutanese and observe and absorb the way they live. I am fortunate to see a world that exists on a completely different scale compared to Western Civilization. Even in Korea Western ways had a toehold and consumerism was rampant. Bhutan still retains its identity even with the introduction of money, cars, and gadgets in the last fifty years. I said a prayer that Kesang’s baby would grow up to find Bhutan the way it is now. These are not noble savages/ primitives to be criticized or romanticized, but a sincere culture that still has a value system in place. It is important to marry, have kids, so the children will then look after the parents in old age. No convalescent homes around here. There is a sacrifice willingly made for the family. This inspires me to be a better son, bro, and uncle when I return! When people ask me questions after the requisite “How do you find Bhutan?” Next is always “how many people in your family?” My family picture on my table-desk is quite popular with the students and teachers who happen upon my hut.      

Welcome to the World

“Just shinning pieces of a dream, almost could have been, and still might yet come true”

It’s Saturday and I spent the day watching extracurricular activities. My stomach was “paining” as they say in local vernacular.  But I didn’t have “shooting diarrhea” another popular phrase. In the afternoon I read on my rock taking a sun bath. Thunder rumpled in the west as a rainbow straddled the border. Three pieces of rainbow immerged around the valley while I boned up on the three different schools of Buddhism. In Bhutan they practice tantric Buddhism which is the most mystical and newest branch coming about in the 7th century. The Drukpa lineage brought the Bhutanese brand of Buddhism from Tibet; this is the lineage of the Divine Madman that settled in the west. Tantric Buddhism stresses the teacher/ disciple relationship which reminds me of my connection with Bobby. This branch also has secret sexual rites and supernatural lamas. “So Close to Heaven” illustrates points on religion and Bhutan’s political issues. The Kingdom is no Shangri-La as it has some very real problems to contend with. Southern Bhutan has always been the hotbed of contention. The Bhutanese repelled the British only to have a serious wave of “illegal” immigration from Nepali’s in the 20th century.  It’s a complex issue as all immigration is and many “legitimate” Nepali contribute to society today. My dreamland Manas also harbored Assamese terrorist who had to be expelled by Bhutanese forces led by the fourth king himself. (The fourth king has four lovely wives, sisters all named Ashi.) A Terrorist bomb killed two Bhutanese and injured twenty others in Gelaphu in 2002. I try my best to avoid political discussions since it was forbidden by Nancy but I truly sympathize with the monarch in their endless struggle to protect and propagate the precious Bhutanese culture. And I am still waiting for the beloved fifth king to come visit us. After reading I strolled up to the temple at sunset to pray my respects. The caretaker’s young wife was kind enough to let me in after hours and gave me some delicious pears from the orchard. I feel most at home at Tsangma’s ruin and Zongdopelri but I still recoil at the newly formed dirt road and cell tower. The widening has irradiated some nice grassy knolls but it is still my paradise on earth. I returned to Tsenkharla at dusk through the cypress grove with the distant lights of Trashigang shinning through silhouetted branches like a golden constellation.

It’s Sunday and I tried to sleep in. Of course with students banging on my window this is impossible. Despite waking at 8 I still missed water and now I have a pile of dirty dishes and laundry that I cannot wash. The students and locals are better at survival skills then me. Sometimes I feel very frustrated and tired of the grind. I will turn my attention to planning lessons for the week ahead. I will never take water for granted again, like the sign in Thimphu near Nancy’s compound states “water is life”   

To Be Continued...

The blind leading the blind, Kaling blind school

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