Monday, September 24, 2012

Remembering A Friend

Remembering Martha

On September 20 Martha Ham passed away at Mongor Hospital. Becky called me while I was praying at Zongdopelri. My head was flooded with Martha memories as I collapsed at the prayer wheel. Martha was in her fifties and full of life experience. What stands out for me was her sense of humor. She would often make up catch phrases and sound effects on the spot to suit any situation. But underneath was a heart of gold. She was a superb teacher. I happened to meet one of her students in Phongmay and her eyes lit up at the mention of Martha’s name. On certain occasions when the Eastern Krewe was getting together Martha stayed at her school and put in extra Saturday hours, she was absolutely dedicated to her students. I sat next to Martha during our seminars and meetings in The Dragon Roots conference Room. My confidence was low as I struggled to acclimate to my new surroundings and I was sitting in the front so I could see the text on the projector screen. Martha was so impressed and supportive of my eye problem and she praised me for adapting in the world and having hootspa.  So far from the familiar her words inspired me to carry on in an uncertain time. My favorite memory was a beautiful Sunday morning on the road to Radi. Martha was talking with an old abi with tattered kira and bare feet. From a distance they looked like village shamans cracking the riddles of the universe.  Martha had a robust personality and a gentle soul. During her time in Bhutan she encouraged and educated the next generation of Bhutanese citizens and will be missed sorely by all she touched with her unique spirit. 

A ceremony took place at a beautiful spot on the Gamri Chu where the road branches off to Bartsham. There were hundreds in attendance including Martha’s students, several BCF teachers, and Dzongkhag officials from Mongar and Trashigang. Martha’s brothers were listening in on a mobile phone as the monk’s chanted scripture. The most heart wrenching moment was when Vicky read a eulogy from her brothers. 

I spent one night in Rangjoon having dinner at Ian and Vicky’s with Reidi, Ashleigh, Iman, Martin, and Becky. It was good to grieve as a group and reconnect. The next day I went to Mongor and on the return trip lost my camera punctuating a horrible week.

Martha was a seeker of truth and studied Buddhism. Hopefully she would have approved of the ceremony which was the most cathartic and poignant funeral I have attended.  She was a mentor to her students who had a chance to say goodbye and played an important role in the service. She lived an admirable life concerned for others and became a teacher to help children. We will all miss her deeply and Bhutan isn’t the same without her. While Becky was closing up Martha’s estate she found this quote tacked to the wall. It says a lot about who Martha was and why we identified with her so much.

“I have lived on the lip of insanity wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens; I’ve been knocking from the inside” Rumi

Blessed Rainy Days 

On the front page of Kunsel was a picture of a beautiful snow leopard who was hunting Tonkin. This rare species of cat lives in the upper regions of Bhutan and sneaks down into the alpine valleys to hunt. Bhutan is home to a third of the big cat species in the world including tigers. And speaking of tigers this blog turns one today. The author would like to thank his readers for their interest and support. School takes most of my attention and lately I have been concerned about our disorganized library. There is absolutely no system for categorizing books and students are frisked before leaving the building by the frosty librarian. The library would benefit from more English books and some sort of categorization of the materials. There are just piles of books on the floor and tables and upstairs is a nice study area with no chairs. The library closes immediately after school and at lunch so students are barely able to browse. I have my hands full just preparing my lessons and assessing my 120 students and not much knowledge of library skills. When I enter the library I can only mutter “What a shame.” If anyone reading this has suggestions on how to obtain and ship cheap books to Bhutan let me know. I also want to get a class set of a novel to read together. This would be something I could pursuit only if I was brave enough to extend my contract. Teachers must inform BCF of their intent by mid October. Now the clock ticks on an interesting summer which saw tons of rain a little sunshine and trials and triumphs. I will always recall this as the summer I fulfilled my dream of reaching Sakteng.

Last night I went to Cheki Choden’s third b-day party in the village. I was the first to arrive which was awkward sitting in a room taking tea with meme and a group of snotty kids. By snotty I mean they had mucus running from their nostrils. Every kid in the village was their including Hatchet Boy, Sangay Dema, et al. seeing all those toddlers made my heart ache for Reed. I fell into an interesting conversation with Namsa who is the BHU Dr. He studied for seven years in Sri Lanka and told an interesting story about Mt. Adams, a peak where there is one footprint which is claimed to be the imprint of Adam, Buddha, and Mohammed. Pilgrims peacefully intermingle and pray at the summit. We also rapped about the Tashi Tower and new road at Zongdopelri and how the company paid off the lama to construct on the land. Namsay cautioned that Bhutanese are attracted to money nowadays. Back in the classroom I was proud of my class 8 students for their terrific oral summaries of “Hectors Great Escape.” When they are focused the students are capable of great things. It is my job as a teacher to facilitate the path to greatness but how did I fall into the most important profession on earth? Seems like only yesterday I was a bagger or was it a beggar?  Paper and plastic was my game and in my dreams I still see the conveyer belt stuffed with porterhouse steaks, salsa, apples, and mint chip ice cream, an endless parade of treats from the developed world. The belt was a mechanical river of gluttony and temptation. “Would you like help out Sir?” I pushed carts for an eternity and never dreamt I would make it out of that San Rafael parking lot landing in East Bhutan. 

Teaching in Bhutan is an interesting assignment. The curriculum prescribed by the government is beyond the grasp of most students. I have to spend a lot of time relating stories to the student’s lives and explaining vocabulary. Another issue is the English stories are not relatable to a Bhutanese student life. For instance Bhutanese kids don’t drink lattes. But the most challenging aspect is improving student writing. For instance in “Hector’s Great Escape” the students write “the Hector” instead of Hector. I try to revue common mistakes as they occur without diminishing the enthusiasm of the learner. Each day is full of surprises like when Namkith put an enormous cockroach on my plan book making me scream! Or when we all crowed like roosters cock-a-doodle-doo when reading about a rural village. At its heart Bhutan is still an assembly of villages that are just now connecting to society via roads. Each village has a distinct flavor and cultural variation. Some minority groups practice animism and wear distinct regalia. In actuality Bhutan is a salad bowl of ethnicities including the Brokpa, Lhops, and Lepcha’s. Indian road workers add another dimension to the mix. Like Mexicans in California the Indians do excruciating labor for little pay. They live in shanty camps along the road. These sinewy men and women hang out in groups in Trashigang in ragged clothes. The Indo-Bhutan dynamic is complex and multifaceted. The relationship is symbiotic as Bhutan needs India for protection against China and India utilizes Bhutan’s hydropower. Indians have been instrumental in Bhutanese education especially before the kingdom trained its own educators. Many Indian teachers remain throughout the country and Bhutanese engineers and doctors train on the subcontinent. The two nationalities can travel freely in one another’s country and the rupee is accepted as currency in Bhutan. The rupee crunch has affected the Bhutanese economy. The secluded and secretive Kingdom of Bhutan is a crossroads of the Eastern Himalaya’s. It is imperative to keep the Buddhist majority which may have something to do with the expulsion of Nepali Hindus twenty years ago. Both Bhutan’s northern and southern borders are porous and trade between Tibetans, Bhutanese, and Indians still exists. Trashiyangtse people still trade with Tawang and the old Dzong sits on the ancient route between Tibet and Bumthang. Despite our advantageous location there are no Chinese or Indian restaurants in the Dzongkhag. Ah shucks!

(Zongdopelri Interlude)

When I enter Zongdopelri I step into a separate universe and the outside world vanishes like mountains in the mist. The thick heavy air seeps into my spirit and calls me back to the source. It smells like the grey wool sweater I exchanged with Morgan for a decade. The main chamber is a treasure chest of statues, paintings, feathered banners, bells, and conch shells. Sitting on the ladder I survey the placid scene melting in the reflection of the butter lamp. Before the main alter adorned with geometric designs and peacock feathers is a cream and emerald marble patch on the tiled floor. The prominent feature on the second floor is the tantric painting of a male and female deity embraced in love. The blue male is sitting in lotus position with the naked female straddling his manhood, her erect nipples pointing to the sky. Surrounding the figures are musicians and meditating yogis. The rest of the room has carnal half tigress deities fornicating with thousand eyed demons. Off the second story is the dark room where the beast resides. The attic houses a Buddha statue and peaceful meditating figures painted on the walls. This cozy room is only ten by ten feet with tiny wood carved portals opening to the Dagme Chu valley and the unfolding ridges of Arrunachal Pradesh. Here, times stops and I send out my prayers to the universe to the soundtrack of Ravens cawing, the chime of prayer wheels, and the murmuring of prayers from the old man in the courtyard below. Perched on my gold pagoda throne with the wind blowing in my face, I am the King of nothingness, the reincarnation of Buddha, and the incarnation of the Thunder Dragon.

Kori La Misadventure or The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Blah             

Mongar was a bust, losing my camera and incessant rain. It was Blessed Rainy Day or Losar part two. All the shops were closed and I scoured the streets like a stray dog looking for a discarded bone. Finally I invited myself into a closed hotel and begged the girl there to fix me something to eat. She made me some ramen noodles with vegetables and refused to take my money. The next day I hit the road.
Between Mongar and Yadi is an enchanted section of “highway” through primitive jungle. Tree ferns nestle in moist gullies and vines and ivy hang off the bushy trees. The canopy is dripping with gigantic ferns intertwined with purple blossoms. Mist shrouds the huge trees and birdsong fills the dewy air, this sumptuous biome is above 8,000 feet. I hitched through the twisted switchbacks on the bumper of an antiquated tractor. Twenty minutes later on the other side of Yadi the landscape turns to bone dry pine forest. Passed Chasm through Doksom is the driest region in East Bhutan with grasses and scattered trees clinging to rough canyon walls. Back at home the storm fell two large Cypress blocking the trail. I managed to crawl around and underneath to continue. Below ones gaze is a dry wilderness and the slithering Dagme Chu in stark contrast to Kori La. But the spacious expanse envelops my soul and bellows, WELCOME HOME! 

Martha and Villager


  1. My Son is neither a bagger nor a begger anymore--He is a MAN. He is Mr. Tim, THE EDUCATOR!

  2. Timmers! I am missing you SO SO much this morning! My heart bleeds for your loss of Martha. Know that she is sailing to her next incarnation and look for her spirit in the world around you. Your writing is getting fantastic, despite your mental ramblings and lousy spelling.

    Need you to know that yesterday morning I saw a deer yearling in the front yard and went out to shoo him away from the flower gardens. He came DIRECTLY right up to me, totally fearless, and let me pick the briars off his forehead and stroke him for many minutes. Put his soft wet nose right onto mine and sniffed to his satisfaction. What a treat on a day I was feeling particularly lonely. God is good. So many times I have and do wish I could teletransport you right into the livingroom and we could stay up all night ruminating and solving the world’s problems—and our own—listening to Dylan’s new “Tempest” album.

    You’re doing great work, Timmers, hard as it is. And the reason Spirit sent you to such a remote and foreign place becomes evident. You are struggling with your soul, the only work there is to do down here on Planet Earth. I couldn’t be more proud of you. And in those dark moments of the soul when you wonder if you’ve been forgotten, remember that I miss you like EVERYTHING, and love you to the depths of my soul. Please come home at the end of this year. We have a trip to Glacier to take. The sacredness of Yellowstone was only a beginning. For God’s sake, STAY HEALTHY, my Beloved Nephew.

  3. This is very sad to know. I would on this verge thank Martha for her dedicated service to the Bhutanese students. Thank you on behalf of all her students for giving light.

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