“Sometimes we must lose in order to gain” Morgan Morning
Part 1: Perfect Strangers
Today was brisk and hazy with magic swirling in the breeze. I sat by a cooking fire while Rinchen Wangmo made corn feed for the cows. She has two bulky female cows who she grooms and whips. Bhutanese and cows have a symbiotic relationship where people get milk, cheese, and butter. Rinchen braided her lustrous raven hair displaying her classic Bhutanese features in front of the decaying orchard. Rinchen spends her life humbly serving the temple, lama, husband, and children. She seems peaceful and content going about her daily chores with a babe strapped to her back in colorful striped fabric. We had a pleasant conversation even though she has never been to school. The forest above the temple was quiet except for the wind whooshing through the cypress. Pine cones cover the ground and thistles cling to brown stems. At 4:20 a smoky haze permeated the cerulean sky making the contours of the mountains appear soft like a Chinese masterpiece hung with a tawny Tawang moon. I communicate with a raven in an interspecies dialogue; she took notice of my position gliding overhead. Maybe Nancy was right when commenting, “Why would you need to go anywhere?” Yet coming home is my favorite part memorizing the endless twists and turns of the road from Doksom to my doorstep. The barren brown landscape that depressed me upon arrival now soothes my soul. Watching the earth return to slumber is a beautiful phenomenon and I love this time of year on the mountain. I have never lived in a place where I have appreciated the seasons this much. The pristine river runs a course of liquid emeralds and pearls and the canyon between Chasm and Gom Kora is rough as a Boise cowgirl at a midnight rodeo. Above Doksom thin pines disperse into sweeping amber grass and roadside plots adorned with bamboo, orange, banana, and poinsettia. The farms are a tiny oasis etched into the rocky slopes where grandmothers herd cattle and goats chew grass. This aspect of village life resonates deeply with teachers in rural placements. Living here is reclamation of something lost in the western psyche. This is Shangri-La, a hard and immensely beautiful place. A fantastic mosaic of Himalayan peaks, verdant valleys, and steamy jungles. There is more beauty here then the senses can absorb but slowly I rub the sleep from my third eye and start to see clearly. I can finally feel my feet on the dusty trail like Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar service.
Part 2: Fake Out Endings
My class 7 and 8 kids have left campus for the year. They will return on results day where I will see them one final time. The end of the year fades out like stars in the fog. Next year I will surely have a party enabling better closure. The class 10 students keep a skeleton crew at the hostiles as they prepare for their exams. It’s a mixed bag since I miss my students but enjoy the quiet respite.
I like getting together with other BCF teachers to discuss our experiences in the field. We can address culture clash and student rights in the privacy of the KC Hotel or on the phone. We all love Bhutan dearly but also are advocates for student rights. Issues include corporal punishment (beating) and gender equality. Most schools favor boys in athletics and school life. Some schools lock the girls up in their hostiles for “their own protection.” I have talked with most of my colleagues and we all care deeply for the welfare of the students. This should not be seen as slanderous towards the Kingdom in any way, but merely observations from educators outside the culture. Culture is Bhutan’s greatest asset but also entrenches the population in patterned behaviors prescribed primarily by religion. I enjoyed talking to a lovely national teacher at Phuntso’s shop in T-Gang. She was from Punakha and had traveled outside Bhutan to neighboring countries. This enamoring lady engaged me in a lengthy conversation on a variety of topics. It was so refreshing to have an earnest chat with a Bhutanese. As a teacher we can only change the system by positively interacting with our students. I support my kids pride in Bhutan but also challenge them to think independently and draw their own conclusions. In a culture where Buddhism is so engrained it is easy to understand the fervent nature of Bhutanese faith. Elaborate ritual is the lifeblood of the local brand of religion mixing Himalayan Buddhism with aspects of animistic bon, and a generous serving of Ara. As an outsider such a mysterious faith is both attractive and appealing. Although one BCF teacher remarked the country couldn’t move forward until they left their religion behind. Out in the east the villagers toe the cultural line wearing gho and kira and living a relatively simple life. It will be interesting to return to the capital and see the teens with dyed hair and leather jackets. I most enjoy my solitary hikes among remote farmhouses with families tending the fields and animals like they have done for centuries. I can’t imagine a world without rural Bhutan. This place will always throb in my heart and run through my veins like the waters of the Kulongchu.
As I mark the pile of exams I am pleased at my student’s progress in writing and their retention of the stories. I extensively reviewed for the test since they will see a similar format on their board exams in a few years. Obviously there is a range in scores but overall I have seen vast improvement. I have a lot of work to do this week but hopefully should have all my ducks in a row soon. I don’t favor the administrative aspect of teaching and prefer the classroom activities. But I am giving the exams my full concentration on behalf of the students.
Winter approaches and the days get shorter and the nights colder. I go to bed earlier tiring of huddling around my heater watching reruns of Curb. I like my life here but still get lonely and crazy. One experiences extreme highs and lows while in Bhutan. It is a physically and mentally demanding place that takes a toll. I am actually missing my routine as the fall has been an unsettling stage. But it all hinges on attitude. A classmate of mine at Dominican called it PMA or positive Mental Attitude. It’s the same for everyone on earth, from a paraplegic veteran, to Tony Robbins. Sometimes a rich man is miserable when an ascetic monk is enlightened. Whoever we are and whatever we believe, we all have a diverse lot in life. But attitude is a personal choice and one of my personal challenges. I have a knack for recognition of beauty in everything but myself. Deep down it is hard to love yourself and if we did there would be no strife in this world. Blah Blah Blah you would probably get sounder advice at Lucy’s Dime Psychology Booth. But on a freezing East Bhutan night your author has ample opportunity to pontificate on such matters and let it all spring forth in a torrent of consciousness. Bottoms Up!
Here’s a fun fact. I am actually the third foreign teacher at Tsenkharla. The first was a Canadian named Vera followed by Catherine. Then Mr. Tim arrived twenty years later. Nancy told me this at the picnic by Tsangma’s ruin. I feel embroidered into the historical fabric of East Bhutan. But the brocade is grander than that patch. We all play our part in the history of the world and may rewind back through the slime and meteors to the antediluvian techno colored cube; located in an undisclosed location through a black hole at the center of the pre-universe. It’s fun at night to lie awake and consider such quandaries as god and the nature of the universe. Perhaps god was blasted from the nucleus of that cube contained in the very same stardust that created us, which would mean our gods are imperfect as their children. And if there was no divine force (which we will name god) would that be any less astounding. Perhaps the ONE we call god is merely another boundary imposed on the unknowable universe by man’s imagination. I caught a whiff of IT in the fragrant opaque mountain air, an aroma distinctly Bhutanese or Brokpa in essence. The scent of burning wood and horse manure makes the soul howl eternal YES!
As I sit here Jerry picks a nonfictional banjo tune singing in a raspy voice, “I truly understand you love another man and your heart shall no longer be mine” Fuckin’ Jerry! Goodnight y’all from the LOT…
Part 3: Too Much of Nothing
Outside the entrance to Zongtopelri is a fifteen foot high cactus spire. Rinchen Wangmo says her uncle brought it from Arrunachal Pradesh. The haze in the atmosphere made it as if we were talking inside a snow globe waiting to be shaken by a child’s hand. I lingered deep into grey twilight finally taking the familiar path home, descending through the forest passed Tsangma’s ruin and into Tsenkharla Village. I felt heavy upon awaking. I did three hours of marking then slid into the cold woods. I noticed the swirling lines on the surface of bark and a plethora of pinecones hanging from one of my favorite pines. Under the tree is a huge flat rock atop the ridge that is a great platform for sunsets over the mountains and Kulongchu. If you spin your bum around you can glimpse India through the branches. The forest on top of Tsenkharla Mountain is not tightly packed but thick with rhododendron and other shrubs. This wedge of earth is the head of the pin in a wilderness spanning two countries. Rocks of all sizes are scattered about the glades and meadows over the ridgeline. A few farmhouses fall off the trail in either direction and tucked in the folds of the mountain are small villages. The people get what they need from the land or so it appears. I always find myself on that particular trail at sunset feeling my way home in the gathering dusk. To live on the fringe is difficult. One must be at peace with the voices in their head. They must let go of all that is familiar jumping into a brave new world. The first step isn’t always the hardest either. Eventually life here becomes a glorious grind where survival is the key. If you can carve out a life here more power to you. I feel like a nomad wandering out of my hut. I have my ties to the students who keep my feet planted on the ground.
I finished marking my exams now comes the tedious part of entering them into spreadsheets and collecting and entering marks for my home class. I have been working in the morning and roaming in the afternoon. Then I report back to you the day’s philosophical blatherskite. Up at the temple I held Rinchen Wangmo’s baby girl who is Paige’s age. I miss my niece and nephew and family for the holidays. I am very fortunate to see my mom and bro for Christmas in Bhutan! (What would Jesus think of that?) So much of our perceived identity is wrapped up in context. For example your author identifies himself as the hard rock kid, the victim, the teacher. But down deep I might be something more and yet to be discovered. This first year has been an exercise in letting go. I am still reluctantly shedding my skin, a painfully slow process. Early on in life, I was fortunate to bind to a love bigger than the universe, and form some unique relationships with my heroes. Only now do I realize the “blessed” nature of my formative years on earth. On the surface nights of dancing and love made ripples of ecstasy spreading outward forever, while the pebble plummeted to the murky bottom to rest. Your author worked that metaphor for ten minutes and it still doesn’t convey the sentiment properly. Oh well, I won’t quit my day job but in the metaphor I was the pebble. Your author appreciates talent, but unlike Zeke I am not a genius. There is no shame in mediocrity as we can’t all be the tallest tree or have a ten inch phallus. I would settle for the gnarled oak above Shakshang with dead ferns spawning from its forked branches. This twisted tree radiates dark energy in the eerily silent grove. Shakshang has a powerful deity lurking around its crumbling temple and chortens. But the tree might be as old as that unnamable force. The road up there has disturbed the old growth forest slashing a z up the mountain. Shakshang used to seem a thousand miles from nowhere until I saw a tractor munching the mountainside. I have taken familiar trails only to be stuck in a landslides swath of destruction. Leaving a leaning dusty oak surrounded in a sea of death. Is it worth it for a few cars a day? Tsenkharla used to be the end of the road but now the Shakshang road snakes above campus from a different origin. Like the cell tower at Zongtopelri it’s all part of progress. Zongtopelri itself is only twenty five years old. But progress in Bhutan seems threatening or dubious, obviously a narrow minded and western outlook since I am only an employee of Bhutan.
I Hitchhiked to Yangtse and back today. I can’t get enough of the jungle and ravines along the way. The farms subside to undisturbed forest cut with gleaming waterfalls. Ivy chokes humongous oak, bamboo, and pine. The scene is a panda’s wet dream. Bumdeling has the elusive red panda which belongs to the raccoon family. I sloughed to the bridge at the mouth of the park before reversing course passed CK to Tsenkharla. Your author is left to go mad with his lovely students dispersed across the kingdom. What comes after losing the plot? Losing the book? My monkey thoughts rattle around my skull, and how long have I been wearing these socks anyway? I have a strange allergy and am addicted to “crazy cheese balls.” Perhaps the two are related? Your disoriented author concludes that one year is a long time in Bhutan and if it wasn’t for the T.V at the K.C Hotel he wouldn’t be sure the world outside the Kingdom exists. Thank God for Julia Roberts and Pretty Woman. Which reminds me, I had a dream I snuck into India for some KFC. Pathetic!
In Yangtse today I lunched with Cricket who was Kendra’s former student. She wished me a “Merry Christmas” and told me about the “room” in Yangtse where nine families congregate for worship. She is Southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin. Trashiyangtse seems a long way from Bethlehem although in mileage its closer than San Francisco. But for both Jesus and Mr. Tim East Bhutan is the frontier. I last saw our savior taking a sun bath along the banks of perdition. That was August and I was parched to the point of hallucinations so that report might not be accurate. But if Jesus lives in the heart of a bright eyed Bhutanese girl then he is alright by me.
Part 4: The Deep End/ The Power of Wow!
We have had so much fun with the losing the plot reference, isn’t it? Thanks to Vicky for handing that one down from last year. But I have driven it into the ground so for the rest of this year we will say “off the deep end” Is it? This resonates with the author who was terrified of the deep end at his first swimming lesson. And still feels uneasy in Lake Tahoe watching sunlight filter down into a cobalt abyss. Your author currently ONLY craves a French Dip…
This tiger winds down for hibernation or winds up for takeoff. I will be heading for Thimphu to meet my family and a grand adventure beyond the gates of the Kingdom. But as per my duty I will keep you updated on the goings on until departure. But the golden days of 2012 are a rank purple haze, a year that began by kissing a dragon. My mantra for 2013 is diversifying and intensifying!
On a recent visit to Yangtse I sat on a park bench like Eckhart Tolle staring at the mesmerizing white dome of Chorten kora. The spell of this edifice unravels with each visit. The whitewashed kora is adorned with several points and the geometry of the structure connects the divine to human. The crags of the Himalayas tower overhead as rainbow prayer flags whistle along the emerald river. I hooked up with a lama for lunch then watched a man carve wooden bowls. The craftsman was the primary source for these famous bowls known throughout Bhutan. He operated out of a shed overflowing with sawdust and burls. Watching him Make the bowls was an intricate and intriguing process.
Nowadays the forest looks like the skin of an apple, all golden and red. There is richness and texture to each organism as Tsenkharla reveals her true beauty only at the end. The deep blue sky is pierced by prayer flags and pine tops. Ravens soar overhead making the run from Tsenkharla to Shakshang effortlessly. The mountains rock and roll in infinite contours but there is equal exquisiteness in the closer details. For example the endless variety of lichen on rocks with undersea colors of green, grey, and mauve. Or the splattering of a December sun on cypress needles. Or the babies rattle of the breeze in the oak leaves by the ancient ruin. Wispy whirly clouds twirl and curl around the peaks in a simper and the air is full of natural rhythms older than TIME. Where do I fit in? By the ruin I lay in the rocks as leaves fall over my body. I leave a trace of my DNA behind as I pick through the shrubs finding the overgrown trail. The sun sets in the west on its daily journey to California. (The author associates the sun with his home state) Two ravens fly as one over Tsangma’s ruin in the fading daylight.
In this late hour your author is in rough shape. He misses his students, is thirsty, and struggles to complete his work. I had a breakdown today since I couldn’t locate my spreadsheet and no one was around to help me. The system here remains confusing and I have a hard time visually with the computer work. It involves entering other teacher’s marks for my home class. So I said FUCK IT and headed up the mountain to Zongtopelri and my bonpo shrine. Once in the forest my troubles washed away in the TIMELESS vista. In the woods the power of wow pulls the weary protagonist into the present moment. Its moments like these that I traded my life for. I hope to gain something from the sacrifice. All the things that brought me pain actually delivered me to this moment. Love lost, wrong turns, missed opportunities all led me to this greatest adventure. But the dragon is a fierce and fickle mistress who can eat you up at any point. I remind myself why I’m here and that is to serve. I must take care of myself so I can effectively inspire others. So perhaps this is a good place to end my words for this year of the Male Water Dragon. Now we are playing in the realm of odds and ends so I am sure I will have a few more parting shots for the reader. But if we get cut off before saying goodbye I would like to say thanks to all you out there in internet land who have visited this blog. I am eternally grateful to all my donors and well wishers around the globe. (If you dig a hole in the Santa Barbara sand you end up in Bhutan not China) When I feel alone and like an alien I draw strength from those who have supported and believed in me. Folks look to god or the heavens for inspiration when it can be found in humanity right here on earth. It took a village to deliver me to “my village” at the edge of East Bhutan. Although it is not a fairytale ending I look forward to completing my first year as a certified teacher. Perhaps if I knew what it takes to be a good teacher I would have given up before I started. But you have to take one step at a time and fake it until you make it. The kids make it all worthwhile in a profession that challenges my weaknesses. This mad dog typically runs amuck in an unstructured universe and this must be balanced against the responsibilities of being a teacher. GROW UP! If I had a dime for every time a loved one uttered that statement I would be able to pay them back. 2013 will be a hardnosed year at the grinding stone of Rangthangwoon. Everything I need to be content is here and it’s only a matter of attitude (or altitude) While deep inside the mountain the clockworks tick, a pendulum swinging forth the big shift in humanity. (Make sure to pack fresh undies!)
I can still remember believing in Santa and tossing and turning awaiting his arrival toting presents. One joy of being a teacher is recapturing the spark and innocence of wide eyed youth. I miss teaching the younglings but also enjoy influencing the burgeoning adolescent mind. Meanwhile I attempt to find my voice as a teacher with my first year behind and a career ahead. Yesterday at Zongtopelri Butterfly introduced me to some visiting Indians as a “new teacher” I liked this label and found it liberating in essence. My skills as an educator are raw and only beginning to develop and I can go up from here. The fact that I am writing these words to you is proof that dreams come true…
HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Love Mr. Tim