Monday, October 8, 2012

Loving a country is like loving a person

Parchment Farm

“I’m sitting around here on Parchment Farm, place is loaded with rustic charm”

Autumn is a beautiful season in Bhutan. The forest is blooming with pink, purple, and white flowers. The sloping fields are turning chartreuse and a crisp breeze rattles the brittle maize stalks. Tsenkharla was buzzing today with swarms of honey bees and multiple unkind of raven. I have never seen so many at once as they are roosting in the row of mighty cypress on campus and taking to the skies in impressive aeronautic formations by the hundreds. My favorite sound is the sharp whooshing of air beating beneath black wings. The stately eagle might soar but the flight of a raven is paramount. The temperature is dropping at night and rain is always part of the forecast. Today I went roaming to the west and met some interesting characters on the trail. One young woman lost her shit laughing at me, rolling around in the canal with her friend. She didn’t speak a word of English but thought I was hilarious. In the middle of the forest it’s not uncommon to see “Day Scholars” on their way home. Today the sun warmed my face and I let my soul absorb every scrap of light. I never tire of these valleys and the 360 degree horizon. If loving a country is like loving a person, I am falling head over heels for this landscape. The kids aren’t so bad either. I am getting to know my students in and out of the academic setting better each day. This is making the job more rewarding and enjoyable. Bhutan has changed the way I see the world. My heart home is Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Just in the last two years my geographical soul has manifested tenfold. I discovered Yellowstone and Bhutan. I realize that the earth is one astounding beautiful ball, most of which I will never see. For me this is why I love to travel even though I got a late start in life. But finding Bhutan is like coming home to a past life. I am still on the fringe of the culture but walking in the forest I have never been so at home.

To thrive in Bhutan you must embrace challenges and difficult situations. This is something I am not great at, which is one of the many reasons I landed here. Bhutan challenges all of my “issues.” This is no place for sloth, or self loathing. As a teacher I must be upbeat and diligent. Obviously I have a Masters in complaining and PHD in neurosis, but the author hopes to change his habits. The focus in Bhutan is simple, stay healthy and help the students. Most of my goals are wrapped up in facilitating the learning process and exploring the area. Despite hardships like lack of water or vegetables it is easy to make do. I make it harder than it needs to be and attitude dictates reality in this place. As one student told me “life is full of ups and downs” but they are easier to stomach in the wildness of East Bhutan. Observing the students fortitude and adaptability is inspirational. They are a special breed of children. Tough, tender, hilarious, and community minded. They don’t complain about walking in the rain three hours to and from school. They will not grow up to bitch like your author. Boarding School is a demanding and regimented institution. The bell rings at 5 AM to wake them up and their day is spent in a 16 hour routine. Prayer, cutting grass, eating, sleeping, studying, classes, and playing are all regulated by the chime of the bell. I can hear it ringing in the forest as I escape but they remain locked into the groove. They get homesick and bunk in refugee like quarters, as the government goes to tremendous effort to educate and shelter the young multitudes. The future leaders of Bhutan are sacked out in hostels around the kingdom tonight, (some two to a bed). The students love to laugh, draw, dance, and sing and have earned my respect. My class is a place for them to blow off steam on occasion. The students have earned my respect and I hope I have earned theirs.

Although I get frustrated with the process I realize that overall their English skills are good for ESL learners who speak several languages a piece. Since all subjects are taught in English it is important to bolster their skills in the four sacred domains of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Since these students parents from are often illiterate, the future is promising. Each generation should improve exponentially in English. The third King brought Bhutan into the modern world partly by introducing English in schools. English is a powerful tool in Bhutan and I feel a heady responsibility teaching here. I am grateful that I don’t have more than 31 in my classes or it would be impossible to maintain assessment. It is already very difficult but with ingenuity can be done. Teaching is a noble profession anywhere in the world but I feel a particular charge at my post. At BCF I am humbled to be placed amongst dynamic and dedicated teachers. Some have been teaching in North America and around the world for years. Others are new and hungry to change the world. We hope to do this one pupil at a time. It’s a demanding and chaotic profession but the kids keep it eternally fresh and relevant. Even on a morning where I feel anxious and don’t want to slog up to assembly. It doesn’t take long before a smiling face or a student’s goofy antics snap me to attention. In the classroom we discover our sameness and differences but always bridge the gap with humor and hard work. Sometimes a lesson might bomb but each day brings new opportunity and the students are mostly willing to go along for the ride.
I hope that one day my students revere me like the former students of Nancy, Jamie, and Mark. Of course I am not here for accolades but the reason the aforementioned people are revered is because they influenced their students improving their lives. There is one man at Becky’s school who worships Nancy and she never even taught him. He is BCF’s #1 fan! BCF is reviving a long tradition of Canadian teachers in Bhutan. Now we have 18 Canadians, English, Australian, and American educators in the Kingdom.  WUSC, the original company lost funding twenty years ago leaving a gap of foreign volunteers in Bhutan. In 2010 the Bhutan Canada Foundation began placing certified teachers in the Kingdom. The 2013 group will be the fourth installment. Maybe some of these folks are tuned in to “tiger” waiting for final approval and placement. The approval process takes a long time and is good training for the real thing. Four hour meetings, landslides, cancelled classes, mandatory tea parties, and confusion. Many of these occurrences blossom into warm memories or memorable moments. And some are just an exercise in futility. Slowly we adapt and assimilate into the community, finding the people and pets that make us happy. For me it’s my students, neighbors, and Booty. Booty looks like a little leopard and keeps his coat impeccably clean and shiny. I dream of giving him a home at my mom’s someday. He even sat on my lap for twenty minutes tonight and deserves an easier life then his stray existence. There are likely more stray dogs then people in Bhutan. It’s a hard life for these cats and dogs.
The mountains dominate life in Bhutan. Even keeping the roads open is a constant upkeep. If one had a bird’s eye view of Bhutan it would seem an unbroken chain of mountains. West and South of Tsenkharla the ridges overlap towards Yangtse and T-Gang. To the East the massifs reveal a deep valley threaded by the Dagme Chu flowing from Arrunachal Pradesh. Tawang town is a few hours from the border at 10,000 feet the same elevation as Sakteng. The valley below me is at about 3,000 feet and my hut is around 6,000 feet. In Northern Yangtse the mountains tower on the border with Tibet but the highest peaks are in North and Central Bhutan, exceeding 25,000 feet.

Today I took my class seven out for some trash picking. We stuffed several bags full of trash and I am waiting to see how long before the village street is messy again. My student flung a plastic bottle into the forest right in front of me. It is an issue of engrained bad habits which I am trying to change. We are getting down to the wire to complete the syllabus before exams. I will be in the weeds soon frantically struggling to make the exam and crank them out on the archaic press. These exams must constitute 80% of their grade and must follow a prescribed format. And then there is the promise of Central Marking. The reader can refer to a June edition of “tiger” for those excruciating details. It’s hard not to get swept away in an ideal landscape of farmhouses, rushing rivers, boulders, forests, and clouds. Throw in some chortens and prayer flags and there you have it. Slowly the true magic spins out like the spider web in my doorway . It is paradise!        

Last Getaway

“Leaves are gonna bloom smelling sweet perfume, birds are gonna sing through the whole damn thing” Dave Malone

I hitched down to Doksom and crossed the river on a quarter mile Indiana Jones suspension bridge draped in rainbow prayer flags over the Dagme Chu. It was a scorching October morning as the trail wound through grasslands and chartreuse rice patties butted against a steep range. The clamshell peak had several vertical chutes covered in deciduous vegetation. After my jaunt into the wilderness I returned to Gom Kora to spin some wheels. On the road I was almost blown away by a dust devil before I commandeered a taxi and headed into Trashigang where I met Becky, Ashleigh, Vicky and Ian for tea and talk at the bakery. That night me and Becky visited the Dzong as usual and returned to the veranda for a fine meal. I had the chicken curry. After dinner we took tea with Phuntso and a man she simply called Engineer. I harassed our server Tswering who stuck her tongue out at me like an iguana.  The next day Becky and I set out on an adventure. We had once again abandoned our plan to reach Pema Gatshel instead hiring a taxi and heading into my neck of the woods. Our first stop was Gom Kora . The sky was powder blue with cotton clouds billowing over the ridges. The Kora was open and we slipped inside passed two fogies from Denmark. The interior boasted glossy wood floors and relics from Guru Rinpoche including an astounding collection of huge rocks. One rock resembled the testical of a stone giant. We even got souvenir tour posters that were sold by the monks that Stanley Mouse himself would have been impressed by. It was going to be an auspicious day in god’s furry pocket. We bolted through sleepy Doksom past the junction and into the jungle towards Yangtse. Each leaf and blade sparkled in an ostentatious display of photosynthesis. We rushed through pine forest and into primordial oaks wrapped in serpentine vines and climbing ivy watered by waterfalls. The foliage resembled tree monsters that were dancing together in celebration of the season.  
We reached Yangtse town and lunched at Crickets place. She was adorable as ever in her cropped haircut. After that Becky went to work by circumambulating Chorten Kora 21 times as I joined her for a few then rested on a bench amongst the overgrown sunflowers, and marigolds. The whitewashed Chorten was splattered against an electric blue sky as a mild breeze was carried by the Kulongchu. Even a postcard could not capture the perfection of the scene as it was a day torn right out of the guide book with the serene eyes of Buddha watching over the scene. In the golden afternoon light we moved on to the old Yangtse Dzong where things took a turn for the magical. The old Dzong was constructed by Pema Lingpa and company at the same time as Trashigang. The Dzong had no written plans and no nails were used in the miraculous architectural feat. The original Trashiyangtse Dzong is perched on a hillock at the nexus of an endless wilderness. Below the Dzong is a mighty Cypress that overlooks the river and verdant valley tucked into a smothering forest. This is the old trade route between Tibet and Bhutan and the Rodung La trek which connects Yangtse to Bumthang via Lhuntse. There are said to be many ghost in this remote part of Bhutan.  We breezed through the regal courtyard and into the ancient edifice. The cherry wood floors were exquisite and we ascended steep ladder stairs up several levels reaching an interior alter room. In that room we bumped into a group of monks accompanying the Trashigang governor and his compatriots. On display was a rare statue of the god of compassion with its thousand arms. We got a blessing of holy water from a chalice before leaving the sanctum. Once in the courtyard we preceded to the main Lhakang an eloquent room where we lit butter lamps. A young monk frantically searched for reserve lamps for the governor who was on our heels. The butter lamps we lit were earmarked for the distinguished guests but in this temple we all were treated with equal compassion, dignity, and grace. The sun plunged beneath the pine crest ridge illuminating a northern pinnacle in glittering gold. We hopped back in the taxi and made the run back to Trashigang in about two hours flat. That night we found a stairway to heaven and climbed into the upper reaches of the horseshoe valley above the town. A rare appearance of stars twinkled above the silhouetted trees and the Milky Way stretched across the Himalayan sky. But these stars seemed far away and out of reach. They vibrated in tiny frequencies from another universe or dimension like T.V’s flickering in roadside motel windows.  We couldn’t help ask ourselves if they really existed at all, or for that matter did we?  

Afterschool on Monday I wandered up to Zongdopelri where Rinchen Wangmo was harvesting rice in a bamboo sifter. It was the clearest day in Bhutan revealing two glacial peaks beyond Tawang. I have only glimpsed them twice before and couldn’t believe what I was seeing, two Himalayan toppers like diamonds eclipsed by my thumb. But there they were the throne of the gods, the far eastern link in the chain that stretches from Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, to Arrunachal Pradesh. From my bonpo meadow the inner Himalaya sprawled in each direction with countless peaks, ridges, and slopes with every conceivable contour, the crown jewel, the dragon tail, the honeycomb and everything between. Flocks of ravens soared in the four directions in esoteric formations while prayer flags flapped in a crystal sky. It is god’s country if there is such a thing. 

Monk at Trashiyangtse Dzong, May

Meme AKA Becky's Mountain

1 comment:

  1. When you finally discover if there is such a thing let us know dear author. Love you bra. Great post and descriptions of the intricate temples and countryside you explore. Can't wait to come do some with you in a few months!!!!

    Love, Bra La