Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fear and Loathing in East Bhutan

 Happy B-day Paige and Tom Grossman

R.I.P Hunter S Thompson

Part 7: I’d rather be a Ratdog with a mouth full of scraps then to be a Fat Cat that never tasted a rat.  

“Thank you for a real good time”

There is nothing a teacher appreciates more than a student thanking them for their effort. Deki Wangmo did just that in homeroom. She is an average student but a pleasure to teach. Like many of my students she is moving to a different school next year. Now that the syllabus is complete we have been reviewing in class which allows for some informal time with the kids. It is enjoyable to get to know the students as individuals as the year progresses. Today I am moderating my exams and by next week they will be sent to press. The process has been slightly easier thus far due to familiarity with the method. It’s been a remarkable year full up trials and triumphs and humor. For instance In class 8B we are doing Arsinio’s “dog pound” whoop whoop’s  instead of clapping. The students constitute a teachers existence in Bhutan. Fortunately they are full of energy and enthusiasm which makes a teacher’s job enjoyable. I have found it easier to communicate with them the second term and now they never “shut up.” A far cry from the tentative first days in the classroom. My thoughts go with other BCF teachers some of which I might not see again. This intrepid group inspired me and I was proud to serve with them. Movers and shakers like UK Dave who implemented a music program at his school that will last beyond his stay. Or Vicky who had the task of preparing students for rigorous board exams. Sabrina who was hugely supportive stateside before arriving in the Kingdom. And especially Martha Ham who dedicated every fiber of her being to her students. Every teacher taught me something either personally or professionally during our brief time together. Life is so fleeting and every moment counts, like reaching the summit of Tigers Nest wide eyed with Tara. Or having Sarah holding my hand shopping for last minute supplies in the capital. And then there’s Becky…

The weather remains clear and its seems strange to have no rain but the respite affords views of the snow clad Indian Himalayas. I can hardly reach Tsangma’s ruin with the overgrown grasses obstructing the way. But I make my rounds prowling my territory endlessly. Somehow this far flung post begins to feel like home. It’s a ramshackle existence with ample upkeep and challenges. Tonight a full moon floods the river with golden light that illuminates mountain passes in two countries. The kids achieve lift off fervently chanting prayers but the Guru has already packed and gone.   

Part 8: Exiled on Tsenkharla A Celestial Paradise on a Clear Night

“Was it hope of freedom or panic born of fear that sent you climbing up this rope into the stratosphere”   

Prince Tsangma came to Bhutan from Tibet after being banished in 841 by his brother. That’s when he established Tsenkharla Dzong, the ruin that I frequent 1,200 years later. Thankfully I have a great big brother but certain forces drove me into exile nonetheless. It’s funny how interconnected life is when you get down to IT. This connection is certainly apparent in a diminutive village where everyone knows each other. The community of Tsenkharla radiates out from the school with traditional farmhouses and shacks sprawling over the hillsides. Most of the plots farm maize (corn), potato, rice, cabbage, chilies, and of course the world’s largest cucumbers. Unfortunately most of the good veggies are not sold and are traded between families. The main village drag consists of a dirt road lined on one side with a half dozen wooden shops. October has afforded stunning panoramic views, from the snowcapped peaks of Tawang to the east, the humped massifs of Kanglung to the South and the verdant valley approaching Trashiyangtse to the Northwest. All viewed from the vantage point of my position on the deity superhighway. No wonder Tsangma chose to build his fortress on this spot. Just over the border in Arrunachal Pradesh is the Tawang Monastery which is one of the largest Buddhist Monasteries in Asia. Until 1914 Tawang was part of Tibet and the Monastery was overtaken by the Chinese army briefly during the war in 1962. Trashiyangtse occupies a remote corner where Bhutan, China, and India meet. The area remains politically sensitive and foreigners cannot cross into India or China from Yangtse. There is cross border trade between Bhutanese and Indians over mountain trails. The Brokpa actively travel to Tawang trading dairy products. The name of the Tawang monastery translates to “Celestial paradise on a clear night.” The lamas must be raging on this full moon!    

Classes are wrapping up and I am desperately trying to prepare the students feeding them as much information as possible for the exam. The worst part is that I will only mark certain sections for each student. I will also have to share the load marking other teacher’s papers. Hell! I won’t repeat my complaining but if you want the gory details check the June back-blogs. (Editor’s Note: Boy the author complains too much.)  There are certain things a teacher must put up with in Bhutan and objections are always overruled by the venerable administration. WTDL. I am also still feeling crappy but gaining a bit of strength each day. But I am left fatigued and sore from the rollercoaster of illness. Water has been scarcer then usual which still frustrates me. I don’t think it will be fixed by the end of the year as “promised” WTDL!  So I fill my days talking with students and watching spectacular mountain sunsets. Many of the kids and teachers wear masks or smother their faces in handkerchiefs to protect against spreading illnesses, there’s always something going around up here. Part of the charm of residing at a boarding school is being a stone’s throw from the boy’s latrine. But it has its upside too. I had my homeroom students over today so they could choose photos from the class hike to be washed (printed.) Most of them won’t pay but I am glad to spend my money on the kids, especially when I see their faces light up when they get their prints. We make a limited salary and small things like donations to school parties add up. Not to mention Coca Cola and trips to T-Gang. This is why I pretty much spend what I make here.  Bhutan is not the place to save to pay off my enormous student loan debt. But the landscape and students more than compensate. 
I make sure to enjoy the final days with my students including the ones that will be leaving the area after exams. That’s the reality of a teacher’s life, students move on and new ones take their place. This was an unforgettable batch and my first group as a certified teacher. I may teach many of the class seven kids next year depending on which grade I am assigned. I also spend quality time with the sun which had all but vanished this summer. It washes over my body with loving rays that treat each living creature with equal affection, like god himself. Somehow we orbit on our axis at full tilt boogie at the perfect distance from this ball of fire, as we rape our earth in a competitive race towards destruction.

For the Celestial Rider

Mountain Maiden

The goddess rides in a saddle of pearls
her gleaming thighs bounce
on a ridged phallus
as she wails an orgasmic wind
cumming a silver stream
gushing over two smooth stones
while her breasts bound
into an indigo gown of stars

Part 9: Land Beyond the Mountains, Stuck Inside of Samdrup with the Mongar Blues again and Knocking on the Dragons Door

“When his teeth rip in my flesh feel I’m knocking on the dragon’s door”

East Bhutan doesn’t boast the kingdom’s largest mountains. I am yet to see any of the 20,000 foot giants of the North. But our landscape is one of intricate contours with deep lush valleys cut by snaking rivers. My introduction to East Bhutan was descending 12,000 feet over the BIG LA between Jakar and Mongor.  We squealed in delight at a troop of monkeys scampering into the flowering poinsettia bushes near subtropical Lingmethang. Soon we were on our way up again to drop off Reidi in Autsho where I spent my first night in East Bhutan. I haven’t left the region since. Tsenkharla is located in a band of wilderness called the inner Himalaya Range. The topography of Bhutan is unbelievable with an elevation span ranging from a few hundred feet to over 25,000. Tsenkharla is perched at 6,000 feet with mountains rising above and valleys far below. On campus we have cypress, oak, pine, bamboo, and banana trees. Tonight is Halloween and I absorbed a poignant moonrise. The golden orb swiftly rose up the vast gully over a distant Tawang ridge, streaking the Dagme Chu with naked moonlight. Watching the show I missed “special curry” at the mess. So I got my trick but not my treat.

On a penny bright Thursday I got a taxi to Trashigang only to find the town overrun with tourists. The K.C Hotel was booked and I had to seek shelter at the Green Valley.  When I say overrun by tourists this means a couple dozen in number but Trashigang has limited facilities to handle these tour groups. All tourists in Bhutan must pay $250 a day and must have a Bhutanese guide. After checking in I went to the photo store to wash 200 student photos. At the bakery Becky and I stumbled into Rooty a seasoned mountaineer and tour operator from the Czech Republic. He insisted that we board his bus for the border run to Samdrup Jhonkhar. There group was looping around to Tawang and the bus was full of Czech folks who were being led by this doppelganger of Mick Jagger. Yangpozo afforded a breathtaking vista of the entire region including Tsenkharla and my first glimpse of the glaciered massifs of Tibet beyond Bomdeling. I couldn’t believe that such mountains could exist in proximity to my home, a row of snow-coned peaks wrapping from China to India. Somewhere passed the junction to Pema Gatshel we encountered a humongous roadblock, in actuality the entire mountain had collapsed. We sat on the road for several hours among Bhutanese, tourists, and Indian road workers while two tractors removed dirt from the unstable slope. Eventually with the help of two police escorts Becky and I scrambled over an avalanche of rock and loose dirt in the pitch dark. At one point Becky slid back into me and the policeman and luckily we stabilized her. We traversed our way up the landslide as chunks of mountain cascaded around us crashing into a deep chasm. It was a hardcore endeavor and we were relieved to reach a makeshift campfire on the other side. After another hour we stuffed ourselves into a taxi and headed for the lowlands as the passengers passed around a bottle of whisky.  Finally we bottomed out and rolled to the border Gate, the asshole of the dragon. A hazy moon hung in the palms that straddled the dividing fence. It had been a torturous twelve hour drive.  We said ado to Rooty and sauntered along the borderline through a turnstile that read “May peace prevail” to a giant prayer wheel. The first two hotels had “No Vacancy” and we ended up at the seedy TLT where again we were denied. I had a hissy fit and finally before the tears flew we were given the “last room” The room had bodily fluids on the walls and a cockroach charged me in the bathroom which I promptly stomped to death in a most un-Buddhist fashion.

The next day we shuffled over to the Mountain Hotel and commandeered another better “last room.” We found a nice Indian restaurant called Shambala and ate delicious curry and French Fries. Of course I was spotted by the DEO of Yangtse as I sipped tea in my tye dye.  After the cup of Masala we headed over to the Dragon Gate. We produced our work permits and used a Jedi mind trick to cross under the archway portal decorated with a guruda and tiger. We immerged into the town of Daranga India where immediately there were old bicycles lining the sidewalk and odd little tuk tuk buggies. We saw a Muslim man, a household Pentecostal Church, and dark women in colorful saris. Over the crumbled jungle we also spied strange fireballs which we speculated were alien invaders from another world. We hopped into a buggy with an old Indian dude and zoomed over the Assamese plains to the Daranga bazaar. This quaint Indian border town had rows of ramshackle shops selling food, furniture, and fabric. It also had a Hindi Princess working in an electronics shack with a pierced nose, and the most radiant smile on earth. There would be few moments as that on the doomed trip. But briefly we rode on the back of Ganesh into a wondrous tea garden.  Here we walked the tree lined and flat pathway in a fathomless sea of tea bushes. This was a serene space as the foothills of the Himalayas rose through the branches of twisted trees. And if not for an obstinate earache it was a perfect moment. But alas we could feel the dragons breathe on our necks and we turned back.

Humidity Blues

When you hit the valley floor
with a thud
your soul is a silver trumpet
playing a sultry lullaby
for Venus and her lover,
a hazy tropical moon.
Slip through the Dragon Gate
into vast plains
seeking sanctuary
in Assamese tea garden
shaded by twisted trees and
kissed by humidity

Part 10: Shanghaied in Shangri-La, Farewell to Samdrup Jhonkhar and a Dreadful Return to The Land of Dawn Lit Mountains

“Don’t look back something might be gaining on you” Satchel Paige           

The road was being reconstructed and we remained in SJ for three long confusing days. I’m not sure if it was laced sugar cubes in the tea but I was haunted by the ghosts of my past and visited by demons going insane walking the streets. Bhutanese, Nepali, and Indians mixed amicably working and selling their wares at a snail’s pace. In the neon bar of the “Friends Hotel” Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, and Guru Rinpoche drank beer over spicy curry. Shadows moved like panthers on the wall as I spilled rice on the table. The poor waiter stood patiently as it took me ten minutes to spit out an order of mutton masala. The staff was relieved when we are gone leaving the messiahs and profits laughing joyfully at their corner table. The next day we are evicted and banished back to the TLT where we sulk on the balcony watching a dusty sunset over the land of Coca Cola. It is the end of tour and we are wrecked licking our wounds while plotting our escape. In the evening we search for a taxi and fall into a scam. The driver wants 6,000 which we can’t afford so we walk out of town meeting Indian day laborers returning home. Our destination is the bus station where the woman behind the counter pronounces “no seats” The taxi man follows us and says he has a “shared taxi” the next day. The scam continues as he tracks us to dinner and wakes me up in my hotel room at 5 AM. I shoe him in disgust slamming the door to watch the sunrise. In the morning we find an honest faced driver and he takes us to T-Gang for 3,500. Along the way we see Yongla Goemba perched on a dagger spire. Beyond which the forbidden Pema Gatshel the “Land of the Blissful Lotus” AKA “The land of the blissful vagina” Along the curvaceous road my ear clogs and I suffer numerous bouts of “giddiness.” I sneak into the K.C at sunset and collapse into a soft bed. The next day I say goodbye to Becky and find a reserved vehicle back to Tsenkharla. The sparse mountain explodes with crimson poinsettia blossoms under an azure sky, and the river croons a cowboy polka. I am strung out and crispy as an onion ring and I wonder why I ever left my favorite place. With little money remaining, and salary owed, it seems I will stay put for awhile. The driver tells me a story about a disagreement between Arrunachal Pradesh villagers and a Shakshang lama as I fall into a MOLDY nightmare about animal sacrifice. Upon arriving home I climb up to Zongdopelri and sink to the floor of the attic with a heart full of penance as the Buddha descends from a cloudless sky.

Part 11: Facing the music in The Land of the Vengeful Dragon on an Un-Wacky Wednesday, Plus FORWARD Momentum 

“Remember that there is a time for work and a time for play” Misty Morgan, Serendipity    

The universe has been imparting some difficult lessons these days. Everything has seemed hard lately. But most of these occurrences have been caused by my own ways. Karma can act immediately or it can take many lifetimes. (If the reader subscribes to such theories.) Some of these obstacles placed by Ganeshy take place at my core and are not for the reader’s consumption. As Phuntsho says, “Habitual in Bhutan” But what are the authors habits and entrenched patterns? The list includes negativity, restlessness, and HD colortini. Fear of loss is the protagonist’s mantra and his own brain is the antagonist of his personal tale. We all must make peace with the dark spaces inside, or make war with ourselves and others. This brings us back to the author’s own humble saga that has veered hopelessly from the plot. It made sense for a second under the milky way shivering with Becky on a high pass after cheating death. But it fell apart somewhere near the rock painting of Guru Rinpoche in the tangled vines. 
Wednesday I rejoined the Tsenkharla family but principal was concerned for my safety regarding my trip to SJ. The administration doesn’t like when I roam far from campus. I spent the day on exam duty for class ten who has already started. At lunch I went to Butterfly’s hut and watched Obama’s victory speech. I almost cried to see Americans celebrating after electing a good man. It was an eloquent speech which mentioned teachers and those who sacrifice abroad. As a peaceful diplomat of my country I feel a sense of responsibility and duty. Working abroad instills a deep sense of patriotism in my gut. I was impressed to hear Obama’s call for unity including immigrants, gays, disabled, and minorities. He didn’t mention the environment and hope he does a better job fighting for it this go round. It’s crisp and cold now and dark by five O’clock, and there is work to be done in the Land of Terror! On this frigid night I wish I had a warm body to curl up with, perhaps a nubile gymnast in a leopard leotard or a simple farm girl in silky kira. However there are advantages to being alone, especially here. As a bachelor I can focus on my students and my hungry heart is reserved for the muse. Plus I am haggard and ragged and can’t imagine a woman embracing me in this decrepit state. My mind drifts back to the ten thousand comely maidens I have cut a rug with under the big top. Brief encounters that faded quick as a firefly in the dawn. But other guys and gals continue the dance this evening and I can’t help but wonder who boogies with Morgan at the Great American Music Hall? I hope she is happy! As for me I dive into the deep end breaking through the landslide to icy reality. The wheel cranks around its axis and I am furthur then ever from home.   

Part 12: Banged up in Bhutan, Still Asleep in The Land of Spiritual Awakening, Don’t get all worked up about it    

“Don’t wake me up, unless you wake up to, my soul is yours lovely you”

Consciousness is like that carnival game with the creatures that pop out of holes which you aim to smash with a foam hammer. Unfortunately due to poor vision and reflexes I was never much good at that game. Guru Rinpoche was the master of subduing demons and I imagine this skill came from taming his own ravaged soul. That western wonder Drukpa Kunley let himself go insane shaking his wang at everyone. Pema Chodron wrote that your curses are actually your blessings. Go figure. Well Pema Chodron would be happy to know that your author has lost his marbles as my universe disintegrates around me. It’s not that dramatic but I am sailing in tumultuous waters yet I don’t feel too bad about it since I am living the dream. Tonight some class 8 boys came over to watch a Bhutanese flick and I had a nice dinner at Karlos and Sonam’s house. I hope to be more involved in the community from now on. The students really appreciate hanging out at the hut and they deserve the extra attention. Part of the challenge of being a teacher here is forgoing my cherished privacy for the sake of students. I have both selfish and selfless reasons for being in Bhutan. But the altruistic incentives are the most rewarding. Any trekker can scale sublime peaks but very few people can make an impact in a Bhutanese kid’s life. Like a sage said to Becky at Dochela, “the village is where it’s at” That’s a blunt paraphrasing of an eloquent comment but I only heard it second hand since my head was in the ether nearby. The polished wooden interior of Dochela is the most elegant room I have stepped into so far in the kingdom. Built by one of the four queens it features opulent chandeliers. It also contains a miraculous mural featuring a lifelike tiger and a depiction of the Fourth King and his army expelling Assamese terrorist from the jungle with assault rifles. At Dochela we said goodbye to Sarah and Dave who retreated west. It seems like yesterday but a thousand years ago under the umbrella of “Bhutan Stretchable Time.” Today the marigolds are on fire burning their own stems and the Tawang peaks gleam like dragon fangs. The splattered stars are golden orbs on a celestial mobile, twinkling incubators for aliens.

Part 13: Shangri- Blah, Last Call in Lhomon (The land of Southern Darkness) And More Travails at the End of the Earth

“Bide my time by the dark of the moon”        

On Saturday I was visited by my boss Nancy Strickland and a mother and son from Vancouver. Sangay and Thinley came over at dawn and helped me scrub the house clean in anticipation of my distinguished guests. At high noon they arrived and after touring the school we had a picnic up at Tsangma’s ruin. It was strange to have principal La and the VP standing in my fortress of solitude. Cameron, the son, was a photographer with nice gear that I’m sure my cousin Larry would appreciate. He was near my age and a cool dude who travels. It was nice to rap with someone with things in common and that didn’t speak broken English.  It was also enlightening to spend quality time with Nancy who is an iconic figure in Bhutan. She told many great stories while sipping Ara on a blanket. She seemed content to be at Tsenkharla and remarked on the beauty of the day. I even wore my gho for the special event and felt every bit the prince at the ruined castle.

The next day I headed out with Karlos to Sonam’s village tucked in a secret valley high above Kinney. From here the mountain that demarcates the border loomed above with sheer rock faces and a hidden waterfall. Unfortunately Drunk Lopen was behind the wheel, his breath toxic with local brew at 10 AM. He whizzed and jerked careening over the side- winding road that hugged the sheer cliff as the mountains shimmered like gold nuggets in the autumn sunshine. Our intoxicated driver cackled as he pursued a frightened cow that almost lumbered over the shoulder and into the void. Arriving we lugged some staples up the slope to Sonam’s parent’s house and took lunch. Everything on the plate was grown in the village except the dried fish. While taking tea in the sitting room a brown cat gnawed on a decapitated rat, dragging it into the alter room to finish its meal. At the borderlands snotty kids in miniature gho and kira looked at me with big curious eyes. The terraced fields were mostly barren with only lingering cucumbers rotting on the vine. Across a bottomless gorge was an Indian dirt road linking a barren wilderness to one of the most populous countries on earth. Scampering over scree with a burlap sack stuffed with chilies my heart was filled with madness.        

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