Friday, March 22, 2013

Holy Days and Lonely Nights

Dedicated to the Spring Equinox

Like That Only

“Stuck here on my own now, digging down deep, I don’t understand it, but I ain’t losing sleep” Alaska, Trey

Bhutanese are at their best when preparing or participating in religious ceremonies. They just seem in their element seeking donations, making butter lamps or crunchy cakes for holy events. (They just can’t help themselves) You can’t separate religion from life in Bhutan; it is the glue that holds together the collective. Unlike the states, you don’t see any open rebellion or questioning of the religious order and to do so would be thoroughly Un- Bhutanese. Currently a warm breeze brushes the parched terraces on our copper mountain with fires raging below filling the valleys with smoke. Students scramble around lugging tables and cooking for tomorrows blessing. They were preparing the treats in oil and the smoke filled my windowless classroom forcing us to evacuate outside for the remainder of the period but I had a blast teaching poetry on the basketball court.

I am focussed on life in the classroom, assessing my new students who have transferred in from schools as far as Thimphu or as near as Kinney. I notice a contrast in demeanour between my students from last year and the newcomers. I expect students to speak in class but often the newcomers are reticent and shy about speaking, this is a challenge that all BCF teachers face. There are genuine cultural gaps and some of these differences manifest themselves in education philosophy. At a meeting the principal told us we were to correct any and all mistakes the students make no matter how small. This was a direct recommendation from the ministry at the national level. In my class I encourage mistakes that is to say I encourage my students to take chances. Although embarrassing, it’s a compliment when students correct an error in my spelling since I want them to speak freely. I believe that correcting minutia mistakes can close down a student’s willingness to participate. Of course there is a time for correction but in my opinion ESL learners must express themselves openly and without fear. Likewise administration has repeatedly told me to be more “stingy” in my marking. They felt my students scored to high on exams last year. I rebutted that the students earned their marks and certainly not all my pupils scored high marks.

Writing is an area that I am focussing extra attention on this year but this proves a difficult task. Their tenses are all confused and often the samples are a jumble of clichés. Phrases include, “like that only” and “we being as Bhutanese” In the end it helps to remember how incredibly diverse and talented the learners actually are, speaking up to five languages each. For my part grammar (as my readers can attest) is not my strong point and is difficult to teach. Overall teaching Bhutanese learners is a delight and their sincerity makes up for any strategic challenges. I am starting to teach the younger siblings of students which is interesting, and most of the kids are eager to please. I have found a new calm in class and am resolute to be firm but kind. This is a direct result of losing my cool on occasions last year. I realize that the atmosphere in my class is more engaging than certain national teachers who hammer the kids with information. I actually have to encourage my 9C class to move around and smile! I collected portfolios and am diligently marking them, students will be asked to rewrite their drafts correcting any mistakes I’ve indicated. My biggest regret is not having enough face time with individuals and that will always be true with 120 pupils. Boys must take the initiative to come to my house or the girls can ask questions at interval, and I try my best to isolate common errors and discuss them as a class. Teaching in a rural environment revitalizes me although my body is lacking in nutrients or perhaps I have a worm since I feel flat. Even Becky remarked she was craving a rare juicy burger and she is not carnivorous by nature, but Tigers are not vegetarians!

Wrestling with the Angel

“Suddenly I was taken away from all I know, wrestling with the angel, in the danger zone” Zeke

I believe BCF teacher Heather’s blog topic was “one day at a time” a good slogan for alcoholics, bodhichitta warriors in training, or anyone serving in Bhutan. In life we can’t expect applause or constants, like a sailor on a disintegrating ship in the middle of the ocean. Ah sweet scary impermanence. We oscillate between hope and fear, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, good and bad. Living in entrenched patterns of duality that separate us from the whole. Heck I’ve based my whole identity on the illusion of being special and unique when I’m not at all any different from you. (I’ve been reading Pema Chodron, excuse the digression) But living in Bhutan will lead one to question one’s ego and purpose. The real challenge is staying open to change in difficult situations instead of imagining a chopper descending with your loved ones bearing a fruit basket to rescue you. Late last night I wrote on my walls in color chalk, “Be Grateful to Everyone” and “Practice Compassion” to remind me what down deep I already know. In ways I find Buddhist ideals depressing and repulsive since I know they are truth. Clinging inevitably leads to disappointment and despair, a person close to me suffers from what he calls FOMO (Fear of missing out) When in actuality there is nothing to miss. It all looks good on paper but practicing this training is excruciating and takes a lifetime. The truth is probably none of us will shed our skins like Buddha to become enlightened, relinquishing our immediate ties to embrace the larger unifying force. My epiphany is there are no epiphanies, but the struggle itself will lead to a more substantial satisfaction and slice of compassion realizing that our fates are bound as one. As my heroine Julia Butterfly says, “Life is a never ending process of learning to let go” In Bhutan there is ample opportunity to embrace Buddha’s teachings. As a teacher we have a chance to act compassionately throughout the day. Admittedly I fall short of the mark and beat myself up which isn’t helpful, I guess compassion for self is most difficult for some of us. My reasons for coming here were more selfish than altruistic but my true mission unfolds the more I interact with the community and students. I have my hang ups relating to Bhutanese, but overall they are a community based culture which westerners stand to inherit valuable lessons from. There is no Shangri-la where people are involved but that imperfection is our common bond, and as a selfish individual these insights are grist for the mill. But as the Squirrel would sing, “I still have a long way to go”

My immediate challenge comes from Don Juan who hails from the lineage of the ancient shamans of Mexico. To crudely paraphrase he states perform each act as if it were your last. He advises to keep death in your pocket which will remind you how to live. I practiced that way on the rail with Bobby knowing each song was my last dance. So fleeting is life like the red rhododendron blooms that appear here for two weeks each year before wilting off the bush. (It’s funny how the most beautiful flower blossoms in the dead of winter) But that’s the splendour of Tsenkharla, an ever revolving parade of natural wonders.


“Behind me is a tiger and a killer with a knife, one wants me for supper and the other wants my life” Banyan Tree

Some tasty treats awaited me on today’s constitutional. My class nine girls were hard at work preparing finger crisp cakes and other religious/snack food for the school rimdo. As soon as students are out of the classroom they work fluidly and skilfully having tremendous life skills. Leaving campus the back way I ran into some boys on the trail collecting pine needles which will be a natural carpet inside the tent where the lamas and other dignitaries are seated. To the west storm clouds began to envelop the hazy blue afternoon. I caught up with the shakshang girls, a group of half dozen primary students who trek hours to and from school each day. These tiny kids trek up a sheer mountain in any kind of weather to get their education. They say it is tiring but always seem to be making the most of it as only kids can. I was on a mission to take a photo of a rhododendron bloom before they decay. The brown muted forest was occasionally interrupted by an explosion of red. In parts of the Himalaya these plants display a myriad of colors and some bushes tower to forty feet. At our place they are dwarf bushes no more taller than myself and the only color that manifests is a ruby red. These blooms are a real treat in the dryness of the winter season when the land is most barren. But this parched land has more life than I noticed last year. After some short rain spells a few fern shoots poke up among their dead brethren. White blossoms perfume the air near Tsangma’s castle and falling away to the east is the tanned ground and rock cut by the thread of the river as it loops around a phallic chunk of earth. The small cypress forest on top of Tsenkharla ridge is evergreen and soon the wheel of color will crank back around covering the land with luscious greens. But I enjoy the purity and honesty of the sallow shades and will always have a fondness for winter here, the season I initially arrived.

The Weirdest Shit in the World

“Proud walking jingle in the midnight sun” China Cat Sunflower

I have seen some trippy action in my day and the other night will be loaded into the techno color cannon. On the eve of our school rimdo was a hysterical mass puja featuring masked dancers and llama chasing out the demons from Tsenkharla. The event centred on two dancers carrying blazing torches and wearing robes and terrifying masks. The dancers were followed by lama who was gliding in a spell wearing a puffy crown. As the tornado of energy advanced students and teachers followed screaming and shrieking at the top of their lungs in a cacophony louder than anything I’ve ever heard. Principal La was encouraging me to yell as students dived on me howling in my ear. When the party reached my house the dancers whirled fire around my concrete cage excavating the demons that lived there, while lama threw ash and rocks on the floor. A novice tossed water on the scene before they moved on to the next house. They systematically preformed this ritual under the cover of night moving to each classroom, hostile, and home in the village, all the while people shrieking wildly. The glow of fire reflected in lama’s trancelike eyes and a couple of times I almost ignited as the dancers strode by in grotesque masks. The air was electric and the ceremony woke the Thunder Dragon which spit heavy drops of liquid on the crowd. The event lasted two hours and when it was over lama retired to Karlos’s house to watch T.V.
On Saturday we had our school Rhimdo which was essentially a picnic with a blessing for dessert. I read under a big cypress tree and chatted amicably with teachers and students. Truthfully I enjoy the students company most and tossed the Frisbee with some boys to pass the time. In the evening was a cultural program with singing, dancing and dinner. As outsiders we are fortunate to be privy to such an exquisite culture but still I felt lonely. That’s part of the experience here living in exile away from the familiar but I am lucky enough to have phone access to Becky who shoulders my complaints gracefully.  I woke up with a tummy ache from all the delicious food I ate. Probably the meat upset my stomach since I haven’t partaken in weeks. Karlos informed me to know my limit as some people struggle with drinking, I struggle with meat.

Weather Report

“Darkness falls and seasons change, same old friends the wind and rain”

Winter recedes to spring and Gom Kora Festival is on the horizon. It’s interesting to relive annual events and I can still vividly recall walking with Becky near Doksom last year with two voluptuous Tawang babes who gave us oranges. Somewhere in Tawang right now villagers prepare their loads to trek into Bhutan for the Tsechu. The event draws locals, Indians, and Brokpa to the sacred pagoda along the riverside. And we all have a share in Guru Rinpoche legacy of each moment. At night the energy is raw with guys grabbing gals and pulling them in orbit around the temple. I even tried my hand roping in a young lady in the carnal round up for a few turns before she slipped away.
Last night pellets of rain pounded my tin roof and I had forgotten how much I enjoy lying in my cot and falling asleep to that sound. My insomnia has lifted and I have been sleeping well as usual. Rain will be a frequent companion in the next six months refreshing the land. We don’t give enough gratitude to these patterns that sustain us only noticing when there’s a flood or drought. As filthy humans we even do our best to muck up the rhythms of the earth, but somehow the mother gives without judgement.
The other day I observed my 7B student Tashi playing football (soccer) He was in a tiny pair of shorts with no shirt dripping with sweat and enthusiasm. In class Tashi is lethargic and distracted but on the dusty field he is a superstar. As a teacher it is important to recognize the talents of students wherever they lie. I will try to build on his passion for sport to inspire that same passion in his studies. I am really enjoying this batch of class seven and have a better grasp on how to teach the stories this time around. It’s a fun time getting to know new students and building trust. Shy ones are beginning to open up as they gather around me wanting to hear about life in “My village” of San Rafael California.

I made some hut improvements as Karlos helped me hang the peace tapestry Tyler gave me and the Buddha lampshade I purchased from Nepal. The tapestry acts as a partisan between the main room and bathroom area. We had a nice school dinner with edible hunks of meat and delicious curry and I have been pausing to absorb the wind that sweeps our mountain. I had never noticed how perfectly round the hill that Zongtopelri sits on is. One shoulder is the cypress grove and the other mixed vegetation. From Tsenkharla campus the mountains ascend in circles to Darchin, the pasture lands high above creating a rhythmic topography that in my estimation has no equal. Eastbound a maze of mountains are cut by corridors and valleys that disappear from these shaky eyes. Somewhere out there the land rises up to Tawang in the region of Arrunachal Pradesh then bows down to the foothills of the Himalaya crumbling into Burma. Such a vastness and emptiness is contained in between each racing thought or in the veins of a leaf but I can only trace my beloved Dagme Chu to its secret source somewhere in the unoccupied and disputed area between Tawang and Tibet. The best view of all might be from my stoop more than a hundred miles east to an Indian ridge similar to our own, in between not a trace of humanity just a gaping wasteland. When I’m not feeling so open I stroll to the west where the white ribbon of the Kalong Chu threads a narrow valley towards Yangtse. From the Westside we also see the rolling mountains of the Trashigang region, so it seems everywhere you look there is something to see.

Around and Around

“They never stopped rockin’ going round and round” Chuck Berry

In class 9A I had one of those rare glimpses into the possibilities of my students. Critical thinking is not often witnessed but today was different. We were discussing the poem “I know why the caged bird sings” I asked the students to compare themselves to either the caged bird or the free bird in the poem. They truthfully spoke up about their feelings of being confined to campus like caged birds. Despite the gems of brilliance the challenges of ESL teaching is always lurking and a teacher must go to great lengths to elucidate vocabulary and offer clear and concise directions. They want the answers and I tell them that I want them to try thinking critically for themselves. 
March 20th was international Happiness Day, did you here? In the morning I took Sangay and Tsewang up to a mani wall above Zongtopelri. On the way we stopped at Tsangma’s ruin where the air was permeated with the lovely fragrance of lemon grass. The GNH (Gross National Happiness) Club was whitewashing the five hundred year old wall. The government had funded a company to install some spook shit up near the Tashi Cell tower and the installers had left heaps of trash including Styrofoam, plastic sheets, and other packing materials. It took an hour and ten sacks worth but we purged the area and burned it. I stayed and joined the GNH Club for a delicious picnic and it was satisfying eating ema datsi that was prepared over an open fire with my hands.
In the afternoon I caught a ride with some younger teachers down to Gom Kora for the opening ceremony of the Tsechu. I hadn’t left the rock in over a month so it was good to see dusty Doksom again. Doksom is a forsaken village sits at the bottom of the mountain at the confluence of the Dagme and Kulong Chu. The street is lined with wooden shacks and automobile parts and the patrons of Doksom have done a fine job in littering the banks of the rushing river. From Doksom one must drive or walk two kilometres over a bridge strewn with prayer flags under huge cliffs towering over the road making it seem as if one is travelling through a cave. The earth here is exposed with golden clumps of grass and brush. The gorge, cut by the river, is a fantasia of colors not yet named by man, Not quite tan, red, mauve, russet, rather pastel hues that a painter might spend her life mixing and matching. These colors are expressed in the layers of rock above and below the watermark on an earthen canvas of fine grained crimson sands, and flowing liquid; pyrite, lilac, olive, and auburn all the colors lost between our primary world. The banks consists of enormous boulders and sandy inlets. This is a place of power, contemplation, presence, and renewal, and not often enough do I wander there.

The shoreline is peppered with tents and makeshift tarps, shelters from pilgrims from all over Bhutan and Arrunachal Pradesh. The opening night of the festival featured a mix of Brokpa (a group of Tibetan refugees with distinct regalia accentuated by spider legged hats that repel water) Indians from Tawang, and good old fashioned Bhutanese in gho and kira. I am particularly fascinated by the Indians who wear mainly western clothes and look similar to Eastern Bhutanese except more chocolate in tone and with a different glint in the eye. They are also Buddhist and some of them are thought to stem from Tsangma’s clan. From my spot on the river I watched young Tawang girls washing pots and pans in the river that were painfully shy at first but eventually smiled and laughed at my attempts to communicate. Unlike Bhutanese kids they spoke practically no English. The Indian contingent had trekked for three days to reach the Tsechu. From the Indo Bhutan border seen from my hut, it is a one day hump to Gom Kora. No road exists on the Bhutanese side since the area is sensitive and susceptible to Chinese invasion (Yangtse forms a political trinity where Bhutan, India, and Tibet intersect) China has covertly built roads in Northern Bhutan and Tawang is still technically a disputed territory, less than fifty years ago China had even occupied Tawang Monastery an iconic Buddhist edifice. Every month or so we hear a chopper overhead which acts as an Indian border patrol and westerners are not permitted to cross the border from Trashigang or Yangtse Dzonkhag’s. So I consider it a treat to have Brokpa and Indian pilgrims visiting our beloved Kora.

On the premises a tented bazaar selling clothes, religious wares, and food occupies the terraced fields around the temple. The three tiered golden pagoda of Gom Kora holds a special space in my heart and everything about the place is sacred. Who knows if I will get another chance to write about this enchanted shrine so I feel it is my obligation to show you around the grounds. Long before Gom Kora was erected Guru Rinpoche stopped into the area to wrangle with a serpent demon that lived inside a massive rock now at the heart of the complex. I’ve always wondered if the Guru approached the spot from the East or West but I know it is of no matter. While he was meditating in the cool cave (which I have been fortunate enough to do) a serpentine startled him causing him to curse. He subdued the demoness and banished her back into the rock until the end of time and around that rock and adjacent bodi tree the temple was constructed. The whitewashed walls are surrounded by a cobblestone promenade lined with hundreds of hand held wooden prayer wheels. Volumes could be written on the intricate carvings inscribed onto plates tucked in nooks and crannies of the pagoda and in the last few months the outer wall has been inscribed with carvings of the eight auspicious symbols. There are prayer flags, chortens, and larger wheels well placed around the property which is beautifully landscaped with flowers and shrubs, roosters add a rural flare roaming free. The place has the feel of an oasis as Jamie Zeppa noted in her novel, and both Jamie and I feel an inexplicable pull to spend eternity at Gom Kora where at night white lights give the building a Buddhist spaceship theme. (Jamie this might be a new addition to your version) I was fortunate to visit temple inside containing a myriad of relics and sacred stones and received a blessing from a monk who poured water on my hand from a genie lamp. The ideal peace of Gom Kora is transcended during the Tsechu when thousands of circumambulators descend upon the holy estate. But not all are faithful, some come for gambling and night -hunting. The teachers I rode with as it turns out were avid drinkers and gamblers. So it came to pass that I walked alone in circles at two A.M while my colleagues played Bhutanese roulette and cards down in the fields turned carnival casino. Luckily I rose from my stupor on a rock and went to the parking lot above just in time to catch the vehicle of revealers leaving without me. Three hours later I was assisting students at dawn in morning study feeling flat.  
Tsenkharla is currently being baptized by a smattering of showers with a soundtrack of thunder penetrated sporadically by an orange ball of fire at the centre of our galaxy. The U.S.A might as well be on the other side of the solar system and it is said that if a toddler digs a hole in his sandbox he will end up in China when actually she would immerge somewhere in Bumdeling. Kids don’t try that at home!  

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