Sunday, November 25, 2012

Not Quite a Year in Review

At moments it seems I have been here a lifetime. In manmade time it has been ten months since I stepped off the plane in Paro. Phew, it has been a wild ride. A terrifying rollercoaster that has made me sick but I rush through the turnstile to jump in the coaster again! The task at hand is correcting exams and filling out paperwork and computer spreadsheets. Brief encounters with students are a delight. I see the girls on the way back from the woods and the boys around the hut. One of my class seven girls was chewing dolma in the village her pursed lips stained red like a pro. I wonder how the mild stimulant was affecting her hyperactive and jovial personality. But the year grinds on towards completion in a most uninspiring way. I shouldn’t complain too much since teaching is easy here. Not that it isn’t hard work but the perks are plenty and the students a delight. Plus you are not dealing with North American hypocrisy rather Bhutanese hypocrisy.

The journey began at disorientation in Thimphu where I was fortunate to make connections with 14 other interesting folks. It was a mixed bag of cordial meetings, tea, and more meetings. I won’t miss the interior of the Dragon Roots conference Room. But get used to it, formalities are part of the charm of this unique culture. But on one hand the first two weeks in the capital were some of the best in Bhutan. Those fortunate enough to be heading east enjoyed a long sightseeing sojourn across the lateral road AKA The National Highway. I was mighty sick pretty much upon arrival, in fact I spent the first night in the bathroom doubled over. Of course the real fun begins when you reach your destination, most likely a backwoods village up a dusty road or in Becky’s case across two rivers.

After indoctrination the author doesn’t remember much but the reader can comb the blog for some of the details. I recall my first glimpse of Sakteng like a baby’s first breath, driving the eastern roads with Becky and Dorji, and one hellish excursion to the plains and back. At the end I feel a bit crispy like a deep fried insect from a Bangkok street stall, or a frickle (fried pickle) FYI, if you’re looking for this missing person, don’t bother, Bhutan has him now…  

On my last trip to T-Gang I had dinner with Becky, Ian and Vicky at the bakery. After supper we ambled out to the lookout where the Dzong glowed like Guru Rinpoche’s golden crown. We stood as “The four friends” in the heart of East Bhutan. It was sad to say goodbye to Ian and Vicky, the Aussie couple who were so gracious in arranging the Sakteng Trek and opening their riverside home on numerous occasions. These two intrepid teachers and travelers will remain a source of inspiration for years to come and I wish them Tashi Delek in Tanzania.

This has been the most challenging and rewarding year of my life but my journey off the trail and on the path has only begun. Thank you for taking the time to track the tiger in a trance. I hope you are enjoying your own grand adventures around the world. Happy Holidays from Shangri La…

God Bless You or whatever you believe in.  

Tawny Moon 

The four winds blow
on an erect white flag
carrying a scrap of Sanskrit
through tawny oak
over harvested terraces
to the Kulongchu,
where the Guru’s hinterland
reveals a velvet lotus
with sensuous folds
pulling on the surface  
of the moon

Friday, November 23, 2012

Fear and Loathing in East Bhutan

Part 17: Dog Fight and Hot Pursuit, Introducing Bhutan Trek “The Next Generation”

Once in awhile a BCF teacher will have a bad day, where challenges seem daunting and overwhelming. Mine was a recent Saturday. I had a productive morning marking my class seven exams and was pining for the woods. I went for a hike but students were on my tail. It was awkward since they were bunking from school grounds and in hot pursuit. I love my students but living at a boarding school provides an overdose of exposure. Every time I step out of the hut I am bombarded with formulaic inquires like “where are you going sir?” or “for what purpose?” Usually I enjoy these small interactions with the kids but on this day everything grinded my nerves. PATIENCE. Back in the village two women quarreled fiercely. One throwing a wad of dolma at the other. The fight climaxed with some pushing and shoving while my student Pema translated the dialogue. One woman (Dooktoe) calls the other a D-O-G! Dog.  I felt strung out and called Becky who absorbed my neurotic rant. With no power I gazed at the stars before retiring into some peculiar dream that bounced between America and Bhutan. I awoke to another sunny Sunday. Strolling through the village I happened upon Karma Om and her family getting into a taxi for Yangtse. I jumped in giving Karma a squeeze and we were off. The roadside gleamed with bamboo, dazzling crimson poinsettias, mixed with orange and banana trees. Spliced by a splash of pink, from a blossoming tree, tangled ivy and bruiting jungle abound beyond the waterfall. A Diamond Tierra peak with icy jewels overlooks the hamlet of Trashiyangtse. The town is punctuated by Chorten Kora a fantastic whitewashed stupa with extreme mojo. And of course the darling Kulongchu River with its headwaters in Tibet (or was it India?)  I trekked out of town to the entrance of Boomdeling National Park, where the first pair of monogamous black necked cranes has arrived. There is a sign, a mighty cypress, and a bridge draped in hundreds of streaming rainbow prayer flags. A swift breeze blows and the river whooshes. The forest breathes in lush mountain air. It’s an idyllic setting and even your pessimistic author is transported by a raven to an emerald and silver palatial dimension. I scamper down passed wilting purple buds to the banks of the swift river, lined with giant boulders that I hop on. I try to wash my face in a rivulet running from the forest, but fall ass backward into a pool. Fortunately only my pride is injured. I find a path passed some chicken shacks and retreated towards CK.

Legend has it that an eight year old girl from Arrunachal Pradesh is enshrined in the roomy domed edifice that wears a golden hat and is painted with the compassionate eyes of Buddha. Rumor has it she was put there to appease the local deities. It is an extremely holy place. A beautiful young woman circumambulates reciting prayers as we pass in orbit again and again, rotating like earth and moon around the sun. Finally I interrupt her faithful turning of the greasy handheld wheels. (Each one inscribed with Sanskrit and encased in an embroidered geometric row. Four lengths around the stupas whose interior sanctum is kept locked under key, although I did enter it once in a dream) Marigolds cling to life on the cobblestones pathways encircling the shrine, and all to the dreamy lullaby of the Kulongchu. The woman is from Paro and wears western clothes and a turquoise scarf. It is her first visit to CK and she is devout in her prayer and exploration of the landmark, even diverging into less trotted areas of the sanctuary, spinning wheels as she flies. She pauses as if in a drive in movie and gives a sweet wave goodbye before vanishing around the corner. Exiting I spin a heavy bronze wheel in the entranceway praying to meet in the next generation.             

Today was another long day of grading, exam duty, and a three hour meeting in Dzonka. After school golden light rose up the cracks of purple crystal faces finally illuminating the distant glaciered peaks of Tawang. A crescent moon tattooed the sky like a Hindu Goddess’s brow at a snake dance, while a blue orb circumambulated the Matterhorn peak. Across the valley a trucks headlights crept up a lonely Indian road and in the village the toddler that used to throw mud at me is blowing me kisses. The colors are syrupy and rich, a decadent dessert lovingly prepared by the hands of Mother Earth. Prayer flags sweep, sway, and snap and the sacred river loops through rugged country. Cabin Fever has set in around the kingdom and every BCF teacher has a touch of it. We miss teaching our kids and are instead cooped up in cold rooms marking papers. Not that we mind the work but we prefer to be in the classroom. By now the hardships get a little harder and the cravings get a little deeper. (My Kingdom for a cheeseburger) Overall the quality of life is good in immeasurable and infinite ways. Don’t ask me to explain because I don’t know. Yesterday on the banks of the Kulongchu I was certain I had found the nexus of the Eastern Himalaya. Situated in a verdant valley at 6,000 feet with waters from Tibet (or was it India?) caressing my bare feet. I perched like a troll under the bridge that connects Yangtse to Bomdeling, the final frontier of Northeastern wilderness. Beyond the impenetrable peaks and prowling leopards are Tibet, Arrunachal Pradesh, Burma, and the sweltering jungles of Northern Thailand, where a mountain maiden has reputedly been seen.

Triple Gem

The universe is a black diamond  
shined by an emerald river
And love is a turquoise stone
smoothed by many lifetimes

Part 18: The end of the rope and Gross National Hysteria for the hard rock kid

I have been a box boy, busboy, towel boy and salad boy, but now I am a teacher and it means something to have found a meaningful career. I remember having dinner at the Crescent Mills Hotel with Morgan and an intense discussion about my choice in pursuing an English degree. Now that future has become the past. We all have stories to tell and I hope you have enjoyed this serial but the author has run out of rope for this tale of loathing. Did he bestow on you the proper degree of fear that the story appropriates. All the events that have been reported are non fictional except one. Can you guess? Oh I never did tell you about that flying tigress! Or that unfortunate encounter in the attic. But we have no time for that nonsense now. THE WORLD IS ENDING? Or isn’t that what the Mayans calculated (those little jungle mathematicians.) What? Is STS9 gonna break out the crystals again? Is the mother ship gonna abduct Bobby and the chosen people as prophesized? Sometime in December around the winter solstice is when it will all go down or up. I’m not sure how people in this dimension will be affected. I tried to leave once through the Dragon Gate but ended up reentering through some tranquil tea plantation. Like a bowling ball draining into the gutter, traveling through an unseen mechanical world before being regurgitated by that greasy wheel. If only that marbled three eyed ball could talk, the stories it would tell about the clockworks deep inside a Himalayan Labyrinth. As for your humbled and frightened author, he just worships the dark and complex mysteries that obscure the truth and the ultimate order of disorder in a world where everything flies apart. A blue poppy spends its whole life growing for one spectacular bloom before reproducing and dying. The shortness and rarity of life gives it purpose, gives us purpose. But the landscape remains denigrated but intact. Prayer wheels in a high monastery will spin after I expire and hopefully the wilderness of Tsenkharla will remain untouched for eternity. But our hobbled protagonist still has unfinished business so let’s pick up the tattered thread of this yarn somewhere in the rolling blue mountains of East Bhutan, where a dragon terrorizes the countryside. Bhutan is a dangerous place with tigers, snow lions, Yetis, dragons, and demons. I can only confirm two of the aforementioned creatures. I can in addition report blue lights, fireballs, vortexes, portals, a Buddha, a Blue Goddess, and a pixie. It’s a supernatural battleground for the spirits, a triangular corridor connecting Tsenkharla, Tawang, and Phongmay. On Becky’s side is the powerful Brokpa magic of ancient Tibet. (Although my kids say they smell!) On a recent trek Becky happened upon a mystical pasture where she encountered Brokpa laying with their cows and I encountered a raging thunder dragon thrashing through the highlands of Sakteng. I never saw the Migoi but perhaps that’s because the Bhutanese Yeti can become invisible, a helpful trait for the rare primate. In fact that was Big Foot’s tragedy in the woods of Northern California. Unlike his cousin she hadn’t acquired invisibility and presumably became extinct. There was that Yeti at a Ratdog show in Eugene an anomaly who had probably crossed the land bridge from Siberia and taken refuge in the Oregon Cascades surviving for millenniums.

Open up the dusty pages of this rustic fairytale, scribed with gold Sanskrit our students take their grub on the ground in national dress seated in neat rows, girls on one side and boys on the other. After dinner they stampede across the campus splitting in two streams like buffalo being pursued by a pride of lions. Some scenes never become stale and retain their intrinsic essence. Things reveal themselves in textured layers, complex as an embroidered silk kira on a rural Ashi. Weaving itself binds together a cultural fabric rich in tradition. Handed down from mothers to daughters, this is the real GNH behind the gimmicky tag phrase. For a wayward foreigner it can seem a “weird” culture but they have an identity and our stewards of Shangri La. Both Captain Picard and Butterfly follow the Prime Directive that emphatically states, “Don’t destroy the culture!” I hope “Fear and Loathing” won’t be used as evidence to the contrary. I am like Captain Kirk who always ran into sticky situations easily seduced by alien strange. Ahem, there’s a moral in there somewhere.

It’s interesting how BCF teachers refer to their village as “My village” It says a lot about the journey of assimilation. Some have adopted fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunties, cousins or pets. And we all have tons of adopted children. We all leave something behind and take something with us when we go. We all struggle and grow from this experience. We are better.

So back to the sorted chronicles of your Hard Rock Kid in Tibet (or was it India) NO! BHUTAN! Yes Bhutan, The land of The Thunder Dragon, The Land of Southern Darkness, The Land of Medicinal Herbs, The Land of GNH, The Land of Terror, and Etcetera. This story has an ending you know, as all stories do. God Damn the author hopes the protagonist outruns that flying tigress before the leather bound cover snaps shut on his ass. Buckle up Kids!

I have finished more than half my marking but have a long way to go. The worst for me is entering the grades in the data base due to visual issues and all the subsequent paperwork. A teacher’s work anywhere in the world involves a ton of housekeeping and organizational demands. My interaction with students has dwindled to bumping into them near the miniature cracked clock tower on campus. The boys still come over to chill out but I have barred them during exams. Principal La has already scolded me for giving them extra time on their tests and I might be banned from Samdrup Jhonkhar permanently. Walking through the village I am one thousand feet tall. I want to leap over the sumptuous mountains to Phongmay or Drametse. Every pine cone, rock, blade of grass and bamboo stalk speaks my name. My mountain is diverse in its expressions from lush forest to vapid grassland. I watch the sunset with Pema Tshomo the girl with the heart condition from class seven. She is happy since she spoke to her mom in Thimphu on a mobile phone. She asks if she can be my adopted sister. Why not! I remember how fortunate I am to have a loving family and an opportunity to teach abroad. I have lunch with some class ten boys who frequent Karlos’s house. They are hip teens who will spend their winter holiday working construction jobs to help supplement their family’s income for the year. I feel a bit guilty when I tell them I am going to Thailand for break. It’s a basic life here for most and television, cars, and computers are new luxuries items. In rural areas the kids are often dirty and living in basic conditions but everyone has food to eat and there is more panhandling in American than Bhutan. While meditating on a rock in a pine grove I came face to face with a dragon. He was long and black and wanted something from me, but before I could ask he slithered away towards Doksom.    

Part 19: An American Beggar in Bhutan , Off the trail on the path, goodnight rinchen wangmo…

I was sitting around with some teachers on the grass when I asked for some tea. Tashi remarked that I was an American beggar. I thought my family might appreciate the reference. It was a rare opportunity of bonding with the nationals who were speaking English since the Indian teachers were there. It was a hysterical scene with the crazy senior Indian expounding on Darwin’s theory suggesting aliens mated with animals to make gods. The author had tears in his eyes from today’s Loony Toones episode. When things get too vivid he focuses on the nature channel airing 24/7.  At this point your deranged author merely wants to finish the race. The year has taken a toll on your handsome protagonist. Any woman seeking a hard six pack would laugh at my Buddha belly and baby love handles. I am at that awkward age, no longer a sex symbol in Asia and not quite a mentor figure. I’m not sure I ever was the former and will ever be the latter. As time goes by housework becomes more consuming and the water issue remains frustrating.  After nine months challenges accumulate and I am exhausted. My energy level has not recovered since being sick in October. I chalk it up to wear and tear. It seems I am not alone and other BCF teachers are facing their own struggles near the end. Maybe we have such awesome experiences because it’s not easy. (Oh and Bernie, if you’re reading this: Bartsham is a rocking placement! Arguably the most beautiful spot in the East) New ones coming as the old ones go. And after Disorientation in the capital we are all on our own. The idea being that we ought to assimilate and not be codependent on each other. I’d be crawling without my crutches, Becky and Trashigang.  It was a difficult arrival into Bhutan and an unnerving entry through the rusty gates of Tsenkharla. Today I was emotional collecting exams from students I won’t teach again.  Students like Namgay Zangmo who is moving to Punakha. I wonder what difference I made for her as she disappeared into the noonday sun. I am an alien on another planet in brief contact with these special kids but maybe if I live a good life I will be reborn as a Bhutanese! The former frustrations of the classroom melt away in fondness for the students, especially the rebellious ones. They have a hard life as I watch them napping in trees or helping a sick boarder to the BHU.  Most Marin kids would consider the boarder life as Juvenile Hall.

My goals as a teacher have shifted. This first year I have been concerned with my professional development and student learning outcomes. These are important things but now my mission is to be a friendly guide to them. I want to support them and illuminate their worth as individuals. I also want my students to be confident in speaking English even if they are tentative in reading or writing. I want them to be able to converse freely without doubt or hesitation. I also hope to show them that there are other people in this world who are different from Bhutanese. I want my students to be independent thinkers and cooperative teammates able to incorporate their values into every moment. In the end they have taught me more then I taught them.
I took supper at Dooktoe’s, the fierce Brokpa looking villager who banters with me regularly.  She speaks very little English but we enjoy an easy humorous relationship marked by staged spats, and mock fisticuffs. Next to me on the floor Sangay Dema shovels rice and chili in her small mouth in front of a woodstove. There is connectivity to my life in this remarkable locality. I haven’t found my adopted my family like many BCF teachers, but I do enjoy the relations in my everyday life. I am an odd bird in a peculiar aviary. The village runs on its own accord unaffected by the next village or the political situation in the Middle East (which is dire) 2012 in Tsenkharla might be different then 2012 in your town.  So before the author/ reporter signs off he has one more goal, to reach the Namkhar Tsechu. I recently donated 500 to the lama atop the mountain for his intimate Tsechu. Karlos and Sonam have some connection to the temple and encouraged me to contribute. This Tsechu is in the hamlet where I met Manu in May. I haven’t returned since as it’s up passed Shakshang through an enchanted oak forest. As with every friendly brown skinned native, I had thought Manu was my next love. But we have remained phone friends nonetheless. However I am not attending this event for the local chicken. My cause might be boredom or a peaceful warrior’s weekend quest. But either way the conclusion of this beleaguered manuscript is at the end of the trail at a remote mountain temple.

It’s Thanksgiving and somewhere in the world kid’s tug wishbones for sibling supremacy. As I get older the meaning of the holiday stretches beyond turkey, gravy, and pumpkin pie. (all good things) As a kid we always shared a feast at our communal cabin on Donner Lake. We even played a football game before dinner called the “Turkey Bowl” In more recent years I shared an intimate supper of Tofurley with Mare in Oregon and since Korea I have spent some lonely thanksgivings. Family is precious anywhere in the world and it’s important to cherish shared time together. Happy Holidays to all my readers around the world! I am thankful for my students, my family, and my donors.  

I made it to Nangkhar riding to Shakshang on the monstrosity of a dirt road teetering off a cliff. The car was full of students and a teenage driver and I felt like I was out on a joyride with my kids. The line between teacher and student is often blurred in Bhutan. The Nangkhar temple is tucked in a secret nook above Sonam’s village overlooking the rugged border. The Tsechu offered the standard cultural fare including some masked dance and toddlers snapping cap guns. I had lunch with Sonam and then bunked. On the way home through the oak grove I left the trail at three impressive chortens and a row of white prayer flags. Traversing the crest of the ridge under pine and oak interspersed with autumn light. I plunked down listening to the breeze knock tawny leaves off the branches. I lingered for several hours until the landscape consumed me and I couldn’t imagine ever being anywhere else. It’s an amazing descent through rusty tinged oak to Zongtopelri. I arrived at my temple to the old man wrapped in blankets dutifully at his prayer wheel and a bashful Rinchen Wangmo who invited me in for some tang. After the juice I gave her a kiss on her velvety cheek which sent her running out to fetch the cow. Before exiting I circumambulated the holy structure tipping my hat to a five foot wooden phallic. By the shed Rinchen Wangmo tended her cow in the fading silver light, a perfect vision of Guru Rinpoche’s paradise.    
                                      THE END          

Friday, November 16, 2012

Stories From the Field: Visiting the blind school

When BCF asked me to share an anecdote about my time in Bhutan I drew a blank. How could I sum up of an experience like this one? At first I wanted to share about my students but it was impossible to abstract one or two moments in the daily magic of teaching here. After a time my mind drifted back to a perfect spring day. My friend Becky and I had been on a tour of the east and decided to ride out to Khaling. I had it in my mind to visit the school for the blind there. I was born with a rare eye condition called Congenital Nastagmus which severely affects my vision. I yearned to meet with kids less fortunate then myself. We marveled at the undulating landscape and lush mountain passes on the way to our destination. Upon arrival I felt nervous ambushing these “disabled” children. But mostly I was excited to be fulfilling my ambition of visiting the school. I happened upon the students as they were eating lunch in the dining hall. At one table were students with low vision like me and at another table were kids who were completely blind. Some of the low vision kids were albino which is associated with Congenital Nastagmus and other chronic eye conditions. Immediately I struck up a conversation with Dorji a blind boy in a purple plaid gho who also happened to be a famous Bhutanese singer. Dorji adeptly led me around the nooks and crannies of campus swiftly using his cane for navigation. At one point he collided with another boy giving us all a good laugh. I spent several hours talking to the boys in their neatly arranged hostel. I also met the girls in the courtyard where one blind girl demonstrated Bhutanese brail by poking holes through carbon paper with an ear syringe device. I went on to visit the classrooms where I met a mentally challenged boy who had no eyes who groped my thumb with his little fingers. What struck me about these students was how they supported and assisted each other and enjoyed themselves like any kids would. Unfortunately we had to depart before the blind ball game scheduled for that afternoon. I left feeling inspired to be the best teacher I can be.      

Students of the blind school

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fear and Loathing in East Bhutan

Part 16: Red Hot Leather in Old Rangthangwoon, Total Exasperation, “You gotta flip that shit!”

“People don’t know, people don’t care, that a man could be as poor as me”

One funny thing in the classroom is that the kids use the word shit. This is an acceptable substitute for darn or oops. I try to explain it’s a profane word and not to be uttered but it’s rather hilarious especially when mixed with animated Sharshop. All part of this dream cartoon. I spent the day marking essays that all proclaimed Bhutan as Shangri La. My favorite was the student who wrote all tourists visiting Bhutan pray to be reborn as a Bhutanese in their next life. Patriotism is rampant here as it was in Korea and is in the U.S.A. But In Bhutan nationalism is born out of fearful necessity. The outside world has historically been a threat to Bhutan with China looming over the northern Himalayan peaks and big brother India lying to the South. All Bhutan has to protect itself is its unique culture, which the kids wholeheartedly buy into. So why am I here? Good question. I don’t always feel appreciated by the administration and was reminded several times today not to roam next year, and that I was carelessly wasting my money. I rebutted that if I was concerned with money I wouldn’t have chosen Bhutan. It is frustrating to feel that my movement is restricted as principal even suspiciously inquired where I go in the forest with my pack in the evenings, and “joked” that if I didn’t spend my cash roaming I could replace my tattered boots. Many BCF teachers bump up against this stifling mentality and until Scotty complained we could barely get across Chasm. BCF needs to be a better advocate for us teachers here on the frontier. As volunteers we need to have freedom to connect with one another and see the countryside. Your author is feeling cynical tonight and laughs remembering Kendra’s warning over E Chat last year. Now I am the malcontent, tradeoffs. I love Bhutan but it can be frustrating on many levels. Today walking up the road as the breeze rustled through banana trees and poinsettia flowers my affection for this land was again reaffirmed. I will never lust for a country in the same way. It’s like making love to a goddess. We all have one lover who surpasses the rest, fitting together like the pieces of a puzzle. But the culture which I often appreciate sometimes oppresses me. Being immersed can make a body crazy. Assimilation can be a bumpy awkward ride, much like the lover we try to forget. At the center marking circus I ate a tiny red chili that sent me gasping for air to the amusement of the Bhutanese staff. At the four hour staff dinner I gnawed on peppery cow skin called “leather” while defending my monetary habits and motivations to the group. On the way home through a pine scented forest the stars twinkled far away as if viewed from the interior of a black hole. I sang El Paso which seemed an appropriate choice for the moment. The character in that song was suffering a bout of culture clash and paid with his life. In some sense I have hit a wall at the end of the twilight zone. I question my choice to renew but can’t imagine leaving these dear kids just yet. I have all but abandoned my travel aspirations in the kingdom and will spend my vacation outside the dragon gates. I came for one thing but am staying for another. Life is tricky that way, isn’t it? At least I will be imprisoned on my mountain of paradise, following in Tsangma’s ancient footprints. The village headman vanished with my flimsy tent but I will order one stateside. As if you all haven’t given me enough! I figure eventually I will move into the forest fulltime. My door is brightened by boys a lot these days asking questions, seeking test results, or company. They are my salvation but those who know me know I cherish my privacy, Tradeoffs. Tonight my stomach is in knots and I miss the comfort of my mom’s house and the salty air of the San Francisco Bay. It all comes down to attitude. Your lost sailor has to flip his perspective according to the Mare doctrine. Shift his perception five degrees starboard or port navigating by the spiral light of Venus.