Friday, October 12, 2012

Teaching in Lhomon

“Some come to laugh the past away, some come to make it just one more day, whichever way your pleasure tells, you plant ice you’re gonna harvest wind”
Happy Anniversary Tyler and Beth and Happy Birthday Bobby!  October 16

Part 1: October Ramble

Outside my door a gold star wobbles in orbit and the air is crisp. Yesterday in Yangtse I picked up some Bomdeling chilies for Karlos. They are beautiful specimens, a devilish assortment of red and green. Somehow I have grown to love the chili almost as much as kimchi. Like kimchi, chilies come in multiple varieties and vary by region. But kimchi is mild on the tongue compared to a Bhutanese chili. East Bhutan is famous for its local chilies and ara, a lethal combo. Sonam’s emadatsi is particularly delicious and Karlos made a raw chili salad that was a sensory delight. Wangmo and Zangmo carry them around drinking their firewater. Chilies come in all shapes and sizes and degrees of spiciness. My first night in Bhutan I almost slipped and cracked my head running for the toilet after my first emadatsi. The hottest emadatsi I’ve consumed was at Manu’s house in Kumdang prepared by her roommate Pema. That dish melted my face.
Today rain returned. Bhutan is the wettest place I have ever lived. The monsoon begins in spring and stays until winter. This accounts for the enormous cucumbers and marigolds. One traditional name for Bhutan was Lhomon, or land of Southern Darkness. This name is apt for the climate. The fun continues in the classroom as I slowly get to know the students as individual learners and people. They are very funny especially when they jabber at each other in Sharshop. Sharshop is hilarious sounding to the laymen with all sorts of animated gestures to accompany the loud words. I honestly can say they have improved in their writing which was a primary goal for the second term. They obviously make tons of mistakes but they can express themselves well which is paramount for an ESL learner. Working with large classes adds to the challenge of assessment and individual tutorials. I try to identify the common mistakes and engage the students with small group activities and individual participation. I still fall into the habit of talking too much and on occasion I can see their eyes glaze over. At these times I interject some humor too lively up the lesson. Each class has some real characters and staying on track is challenging. Overall the students are goodhearted which goes a long way in my book. Exams are zooming nearer and this will be a busy month. I have basically completed the syllabus and am gearing up for review. We will play some trivia games involving the material in small groups. Students have a gap in age and skills and I try to nurture the struggling student while challenging the toppers. It is difficult to differentiate for each learner. It’s been a remarkable experience educating these particular students. Since most of Bhutan’s population is under fifteen, this generation will make or break the nation. HM is depending on education to guide the Kingdom into modern times while preserving the culture and environment. Boarding schools are the paramount institution responsible for producing well rounded students.
I am only one of eighteen BCF teachers in the Kingdom. The only other Western teachers are scattered volunteers like Linda who teaches monks. Australia is placing a volunteer in Yangtse next year but the totality of teachers in Bhutan is scarce. All the English spoken in Bhutan has been filtered through India via the UK. My students generally have a thirst for conversational English but few have a hunger for reading. The library conundrum is a major obstacle. I never leveled off my learners and the selection of books are jumbled in the library. All I have to work with is the curriculum that is prescribed to me by the ministry. Some of the content is good and some is too difficult or irrelevant. When they connect content to their own real life experiences they write well. For instance when asked to write about their village life they produce positive results. But with lack of books and availability of T.V the youth is faced with streamlined language acquisition instead of interacting with their own imagination. My objective is to instill in my pupils the ability to think critically, independently, and work effectively in groups. Limited resources force the teacher to be creative. I am grateful for crayons for art projects and chart paper for KWL’s. Having kids perform and sing in class is great. Each student does have a textbook, notebook, and pen. At this point many of their notebooks are falling apart which make them a headache to correct. But these are all good lessons for a novice teacher who must rely on ingenuity and the student’s abilities to obtain success. In the classroom as in life, “there ain’t no easy answers, that’s all I’m trying to say”  

I had a nice day on campus but still seek the balance of classroom management.  My students feel relaxed but certain boys are prone to outbursts. Ironically most of my report cards remarked that I was talking out of turn in class. Generally the behavior is acceptable and moreover I like to have fun in class, striking the right mix is challenging. Social service club has dwindled to a few dedicated members and bunking is a problem. Usually less than half show up on any given week. I don’t have the inclination to chase bunkers down but rather work with the ones who care. It’s frustrating to purge an area and find it ruined a week later. We are left with a fairy tale landscape scattered with rubbish, and the characters don’t really care. The problem remains lack of trash cans but mostly just cultural attitude. Children emulate their parent’s behavior and are never properly educated. No one thinks twice of littering as an observer would notice strolling on the picturesque village drag. The natural beauty marred by trash present a strange paradox.  I have to step up my efforts and be more diligent in my methods to make any change.  This problem will surely outlast my short time in Bhutan. In the meantime living on the Tsenkharla ridge reminds me of Guru Rinpoche’s copper mountain heaven, except I don’t have two beautiful consorts from India and Tibet. Imagine a bachelor Guru Rinpoche or a descendent of Prince Tsangma coming back to the castle. I remain healthy even though my classroom resembles a Czars clinic with half the students in masks. My diet is simple and unhealthy and then there is my Coca Cola addiction. I know what you’re thinking this would be the right time to quit. I need to learn more dishes but am faced with different ingredients or lack of ingredients. However, one cool thing in Bhutan is the ceiling for improvement is unlimited. 
I wandered into the cypress grove where the ferns are burnt brown. The trail was overgrown with flowering bushes, cobwebs and fallen trees. I stopped at one of my favorite rocks overlooking the valley and inspected its pink lichen letting my mind drift to other groves on other Octobers.

Part 2: Thursday Night Circus

“You must really consider the circus, well it just might be your kind of zoo, I can’t think of a place that’s more perfect, for a person as perfect as you”

At interval my brother calls to give me play by play of the A’s game. I know the Yanks are locked in a battle with Baltimore. Andy lost his game 3-2. From the box score I recreate the drama in my head but it’s not the same. I miss the rapture of post season baseball, the images of players pacing the dugout and the worried look of anxious fans in the stands. I miss America! My life has taken an odd turn as I toil at my craft in the Orient. What am I doing here? Fulfilling a dream or running away from reality?  Sometimes I feel out of context like a ghost rattling his chains. The mountains turn an olive tone somewhere between green and brown. Earthy hues sprawl in a limitless horizon radiating out from my position atop Tsenkharla ridge. I wish I had someone to share it with. But we are all alone on our own ridges and mountaintops. We build bridges between one another stretching over the dark abyss, trying to reconcile with existence. One thing is for certain, life is tentative and fleeting. On my walks in the woods I contemplate my attachments. I love my family and those who helped me arrive at this moment, watching ravens glide and listening to the din of the bell on the prayer wheel.  The faces of those I love blur into the gaping landscape and fond memories scatter like threads of a prayer flag carried into the atmosphere, until I am only left with here and now. 

Today’s hike featured a one hundred and eight ring circus of clouds, starring Puff the Magic Dragon. The ridges popped, sharply defined like boulders under Sand Harbor water. In Bhutan the people live in harmony with the land where Americans wash themselves in blood stained rivers. Our enormous cities built on Native American graveyards. In the Eastern Himalaya Its hard living, do not tempt the dragon or it will eat you. What are the effects of isolation on the psyche? Some grow stronger or assimilate where others go mad. It’s itchy dirty and scary! Listening to the student’s drone of prayers I wonder where I am and how different I am. My gut sends longing messages to my brain requesting a steak burrito with guacamole. It settles for a coke while cockroaches encroach on my turf and poor Becky shares her dwelling with a rat. WTDL in the LOT/TOL! BLAH BLAH BLAH…My soul is wrapped in natural wonderment but my ambiguous tribe is far away. They are anonymous freaks assembled at a dancehall in anywhere USA, a coterie of fair maidens with sumptuous braids, fuzzy boots, and stirrups. There perspiration reeks of forbidden pie as they squeal for the womp in the wee hours, an orgy of Americana and unsurpassed beauty. Chrome spiked bunnies with tramp stamps, drunk on ecstasy flitter their pierced tongues in flickering light; their Sexy cochlea’s diddled by the bass.  Presently the Thursday Night Circus rolls in my hut with your dear author playing air guitar on his broomstick.

Part 3: Keep Your Nose to the Grindstone

“Let’s drink to the hard working people, let’s drink to the salt of the earth” Zeke

On campus marigolds shelter the grinding stone, the iconic rock of old Rangthangwoon. These days I forget about the huge stone and what it means to me. When I first arrived I would touch the stone every morning to remind myself of my responsibility. I never forget to notice the row of gigantic cypress lining the main pathway. They are the treasure of Tsenkharla. From above our campus appears immerged in a forest.  It’s a heavenly compound and my favorite place on earth. If the tiger hibernates it is due to his workload. The next month will be a whirlwind of exams and marking. Exam time in Bhutan is a grind for teachers. Another bluebird day made for a stellar hike. Tsenkharla is at its peak of beauty. Amazing flowers adorn the grasslands and cows graze near golden rice patties clinging to the slopes. I roamed to the second ruin and watched the most amazing mountain sunset. A Meme sat in a field in tattered gho and barefoot bundling grasses. Evening rays turn the mountaintops copper. Sitting on a fat rock under the dilapidated ruin in dirty shirt and worn boots, I think “this is the life.”
 I have completed the syllabus and am reviewing essay writing. I am about to enter the county of procrastination regarding making the exams. I was pleased at Kesang’s improvement from the beginning of the year. She has been locked into the lessons and participating in class. Kesang was so shy at first all she did is stick her tongue out at me.

My pal Becky loves to fall into the lama jams at pujas with elongated horns and robust drums. Phongmay is prime puja country you see. I get off on the singing of prayers by the boarders. There is something about hundreds of voices in tune that is incomparable. They are transported to another place with faces reflecting the creator. In the last section I rambled on the unsurpassed beauty of a trance dance party. The worshipful harmony in the MP hall is equally beautiful. The boys sit on one side of the hall and the girls on the other all dressed in religious attire with butter lamps glowing. Their collective voices rise to heaven in the sweetest sound ever heard. This is when you feel Buddhism in the air intertwined with the cedar smoke burning in the outdoor hearth. The chanting overcomes the observer with an emotive power. Standing outside in the darkness under a starry sky I am happy to be a part of the community and appreciate a culture I will never truly be a part of. I can appreciate a fraction of what it means to be Bhutanese.  As a volunteer in the secretive Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, one must never forget how fortunate we are to be here.        

Part 4: Eastern Exposure

“…I may be obliged to defend every love every ending, or maybe there’s no obligations now” Graceland

One of my favorite T.V shows of all time was “Northern Exposure.” The plotline is a Jewish Doctor from Queens is sent to a small Alaskan town to work off his loans. This neurotic protagonist has to assimilate in a rural setting, surrounded by quirky townsfolk. Obviously I can relate to Dr. Fleischman’s predicament. But I can also relate to Buck in “Call of the Wild.” As for you, thanks for tuning into another episode of “tiger.” I hope you are able to follow the plot as it plunges deeper into the woods. Interaction with students is where a teacher gets grounded. I find them far easier to communicate with then the adults. The youthful heart is universal. Time funnels into a heavy workload as we BCF’ers dig in to finish our year. It’s not time for summarizing yet but I can conclude it has been an interesting learning experience. The other night on the mobile phone I remarked to Becky that I wasn’t sure I have changed in Bhutan. But upon reflection I realize I have changed incrementally, like Blue Mountains walking to the sea.  Where has the time gone? In the blink of the eye I went from silver spoon to mid life crisis. But once you leave the path the world is your Chili. No rules or accountability except to my students. The name of the game is stay healthy, enjoy the moment. Offer your service to an amazing group of kids. Not a bad way to spend a day. Now if only the author can control his pendulum like mood swings he might be alright. Buddha’s middle path is out there somewhere. It is a trail with no pot of gold lurking at the end of the rainbow. But it reveals infinite moments and beauty along the way. Just watch out for the cobras and sooner or later we all coil at the source.   

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