“It froze clear down to China it froze the stars above, at a gazillion degrees below zero it froze her logger love” The Frozen Logger
The last few days I succumbed to a nasty flu which had the same symptoms as last Octobers strain. Overall I have been blessed by fair health but crud prevails in my body this year. As I compose these words its 5:30 Am and the students are at their dirge in the M.P hall as ravens pronounce another day on the border. All is seemingly calm after last night’s epic electrical storm with a scourge of lightning and thunder. Usually thunder dominates the stage but lightning hosted this memorable tempest tearing the sky with thick white coils personifying the dragon. Bolts shot up from the river and sideways across the valley as flashes furrowed in a purple banner of light illuminating Tawang. The lightning was incessant occurring numerous times per second and I was transported to when this valley was uninhabited much like it is today. 2,000 years ago when Jesus anguished in Nazareth this landscape looked virtually the same untamed by civilization the rough riverbed superseding the will of man. Like then thunder drums, crinkles, rumbles, and rolls endlessly through the corridors and bottomless valleys shaking the earth to its core and vibrating my cot.
For all its development in recent years Eastern Bhutan remains largely unchanged. For example people can watch the Big Bang Theory in a mud thatched hovel and may have a dirt road to their village but they still farm the same terraces they have for generations. There is only so much development the land will yield. There are only two narrow roads leading into the region from Thimphu and Samdrup Jongkhar and both are prone to landslide closures. The domestic airport above the college has recently reopened but flights are limited and it’s a harrowing approach. Roads cannot be widened and now feeder dirt roads are the order of the day. For instance my buddy Becky is currently trekking/ teaching in Merak and Sakteng which have both started constructing roads to the Phongmay area. These roads will connect the Brokpa people with the rest of their countrymen and make their life considerably more viable. On my own sojourn to Sakteng I marvelled at the strength of the Brokpa who carried everything 30 miles up the trail to their community and I was surprised to see electrical poles dotting the pristine valley. But it seems the changes will soon plateau as the narrow gorge like valleys of the East keep development at bay. Part of the reason the west is the best (according to most Bhutanese) is the wide valleys of Thimphu, Paro, and Bumthang which afford easier cultivation and settlement. I was shocked to learn that almost all my students were born in their homes and not hospitals. Many of their villages were not connected to roads and some still aren’t. Nowadays most babies are born in Mongar. In certain ways Bhutan is centuries behind much of the world and likely to remain that way. Of course they have quickly fallen in love with their mobile phones and like westerners stare constantly into the viewers of their knock off I-phones. And unlike the U.S it is not impolite to receive a call during a meeting. There is also a distinct generation gap and all one has to do is amble a mile down the trail and encounter barefoot (sometimes drunken) grandparents in dusty gho’s or teenagers pitching rock who never went to school and don’t speak a word of English. While in Thimphu issues like drugs, gangs, and television addiction are popping up. Bhutan is a country in transition and this trend towards modernization and westernization will undoubtedly continue. Overall the culture is strong especially in the rural east but one might occasionally spy a cover girl in T-Gang or observe the trendy students of Sharubse. In my village tradition rules and I love that about the kids here. The seasons rule life out here and spring brings planting and sprouting of seeds. It must be a sacrifice to send kids off to school thus losing farmhands in the fields. It goes to show how dedicated HM is to educating the youth and Bhutan is one of the few countries that provide free education and healthcare to its citizens. Now how is it that the richest country in the world (USA) can’t do the same? When I leave Bhutan I will carry with me the sense of community and the smiles of the children that warm my heart on this cold spring morning.
This time of year in the East is notoriously hazy due to smoke from wood fires and burning of fields but a hard rain breathes color back into the landscape and days as this one pull a body through. Suddenly I can see down the gullet of mountains into the open mouth of Tawang and I trace a raven’s flight across the abyss. Clouds cast dreamy shadows on the green-brown patchwork below. The cypress and pine grove beneath Zangtopelri sparkles in radiant dimension and tumours of deciduous growth cluster along the ridge above Shakshang. The naked earth near the Dagme Chu begins to cover herself with a modest olive sheet and the cream river bounds from Tawang towards Doksom. The rivers here slope down causing torrents that increase with the rain. One can imagine stalks of fish shooting the rapids unbothered by the reel.
In class we discussed mothers and fathers and their traditional roles in Bhutan. Poop Gem an adorable girl in class seven almost broke my heart when she told me her father had run off and she missed him so desperately. I tried my best to assure she was loved but I wept when I got home for lunch. These kids face difficult obstacles and challenges despite living in the land of GNH. Families are flexible and kids are sent away to aunts and uncles with a better station and means to take care of their younger relatives. Divorce is not uncommon nor is having a death of a parent. Some of my favorite students come from difficult situations. Furthermore as I’ve mentioned a gazillion time’s life at a boarding school is rough and being a day scholar is no picnic either. Imagine walking home for two hours in a deluge in the mud AKA the Grumpy Old Man skit from SNL (When I was a boy we walked six miles in the snow with no shoes, and that’s the way it was and we liked it!) In my second turn I cherish these lessons that I can learn from the students that I teach. They have strong constitutions and never complain. On the other hand your author’s constitution is flimsy and he complains to beat the band. I never could have anticipated the strength of character in my students before I arrived and the more I shut my mouth and open my heart the more impressed I am. But alas I am living on borrowed time now and it is imperative to cherish all the moments that remain (Okay maybe not the bouts of shooting diarrhoea but you get the idea) as my fever breaks I find myself reflective about my experience thus far for all its ups and downs. At my lowest points I might curse Bhutan but these outbursts are only a reaction to sickness, loneliness, or frustration. Perhaps even Christ (son of man) had these doubts on his own journey at the crossroads of east and west being tormented by the talons of god. Like the Messiah this way has chosen me and all I can do is enjoy the ride!
In class 7 flies swarm around Karma Sonam who desperately fans herself with her text book. It smells ripe and I think of turning the hose on them and myself. Some kids have the swastika an ancient Buddhist symbol scrolled on their hands a profound indication of how far removed this world is from western civilization. This ancient symbol that causes my blood to chill has a harmonious meaning to them. Most of them have never heard of the Holocaust until they read Anne Frank in class eight. They line up in front of me like penguins in their checkered gho and kira and they bow and say “thank you sir” with authentically innocent smiles. Class nine are obedient and polite for teenagers who are searching for identity and discovering sexuality. There are accounts of pregnancies at other schools but not at Tsenkharla to my knowledge. Last year I stumbled on a boy and girl in the forest but they appeared to be only talking and the girl ran in shame. There must be occasional drinking or marijuana use but outwardly they are well behaved and self governing. I pray there is not too much bullying and they genuinely seem to support one another the older ones mentoring the younger ones. I try my best to lend a hand yet strive to do more even if it’s just chatting or playing Frisbee. For all its challenges, water shortages, close proximity to the boy’s hostel, and limited privacy I feel blessed to be at a boarding school as they are the pulse of the Bhutanese education system. I have even become accustomed to shouting boys sweeping my stoop at 5:30 A.M and roll over back to sleep listening to the birdsong as they evacuate to prayer.
The Boundless Love that Makes Up the World
“Come together right now, over me”
On days I don’t roam I astro- travel across the valley to the whit dot temple set upon an adjacent ridge. Or I simply watch my beloved blackbirds soar, swoop, and beat their wings on the wind which makes a strange metallic sound. Ravens are adept communicators and extremely intelligent in fact as I write this one is cawing in accordance. From my own perch on my rock I meditate on the love that delivered me to these far reaches and the boundless support of my family and friends back home. The simple effort of “you” the reader also adds to this current of merit that envelops me. I often think of my donors and those friends from years gone by. I don’t know if I believe in god although my agnosticism fades as I mature and I tend to embrace the possibility of a divine spring from which our collective waters derive. But I can feel the love of humanity either unto itself or as a reflection of God. But humans have their own way and even Great Spirit must marvel at our kindness and the love that binds us and makes the world turn. That love counterweights the madness that many men favor.
In my last post you heard me bitch about my lack of romantic love. So be it! It is abundantly clear that this is not my time and that’s okay. Much like Jesus craved Magdalene and Arthur craved Morgaine, I also have ONE I crave but like my King and Saviour I’m destined to be alone...And for what I lack in carnal love I make up for by having a lot of sisters around the globe. Being a glass “half empty” kind of dude it wasn’t until recently that this epiphany struck.
My stint with influenza left me stranded in my hut for a whole day which I had to call in sick. The next day after classes, despite fatigue the splendid conditions beckoned me out onto the trail. Walking through the village which means a hard packed stone mud road a climber has three options for roaming. Following the road will take one to Zangtopelri via Tsangma’s ruin where a trail leads another hour uphill to Shakshang (know a road intersects the trail briefly) Above Shakshang is the outer rim of Darchin and the pasture lands of the high country that I have not yet entered. From Shakshang one can also find the trail through some heady deciduous to Namkhar temple and the lamas house where I met Manu. There in a secret amulet valley that is reminiscent of the space between Bartsham and Bidung the trail peters. The next option is to veer left following the drainage canal to the west towards the thick forests approaching Yangtse. I have followed this route several hours past power lines, chortens, and a new road that led me to Shali. If you stay on the channel you lurk into vegetation that nears jungle with lush deciduous full of birdsong. A few solitary cypress and spindly pine eke out a living in the thick multicoloured plumage. It somehow feels like a Chinese painting with waterfalls splashing into ravines, secret hideaways, and the Kulongchu far below. Winter finds this direction spooky and barren with late summer being the pinnacle of beauty. Several cow trails lead off into various stands of vegetation where ferns grow from the branches of trees. The third route is the channel heading east arcs around the valley affording glorious views of the Dagme Chu (the Kulongchu lover as they are actually birds) as it bounds into Bhutan from India. Out in the distance is a triangular pinnacle where I want to hermit with only a sack of slim Jim’s and cokes. This is the point between the two countries and since there’s no sign of human life, it is a no-man’s-land. This trail winds through a scented pine forest beneath the cypress grove tucked under Tsenkharla ridge ending at a sacred Chorten which after today will be referred to the Grandfather Chorten. This is due to meeting a boy singing in the forest who proclaimed that his grandfather constructed the stupa. It is a slender but regal shrine standing fifteen feet tall with faded white washed exterior surrounded by ferns and rocks. Somehow my cleaning efforts from last November have remained and the site remains litter free! As I kicked it at the Chorten trying hopelessly to stop the world a little thing named Sangay rolled up and placed a red rhododendron bloom perfunctory into a stone crease before giggling, pointing out her village, and gliding away. Shortly after the Chorten the trail is broken by a new road that leads to Sonam Choden’s village and karma Om’s school about an hour away. At the Chorten i gazed out on my territory and imagined Bunks over the next range fulfilling my wettest dream wading in a sea of blue poppies and strange foliage in the wilderness between Merak and Sakteng.
(The Name Game Interlude)
Names in Bhutan have important meanings and our given by lamas not parents. To name a few Sangay means Buddha, Dawa is moon, Pema is Lotus, Nima is sun, and karma is star. I might of gotten one wrong but anyway it speaks to the interconnectedness of Bhutanese culture as these celestial objects relate in the Buddhist pantheon. Dechen Tshomo an impish class nine girl wrote her poem on wanting to see a lotus which made me recall the many lotus blossoms floating in the vast reflection pool at Angkor. In a flash the myth of Guru Rinpoche made perfect sense. As the lotus appears from nothing floating in the lake so was the miraculous conception of the eight year old prince in Afghanistan (Or was it Pakistan?) But I digress if nothing else the names themselves are poetic and magical as the setting they encompass.
Boundless Love Reprise
“...one and one and one is three, got to be good looking cause he’s so hard to see”
So returning through the woods I caught a fresh wind and sailed it up to Zangtopelri where I completed three circumambulatory rotations and spun the big prayer wheel with silver Sanskrit lettering (or was it Dzonkha?) In another flash I couldn’t help grasp a certain alignment with this spinning wheel and the earth’s rotation around the sun, the moons rotation around the earth, and the gazillion other circular rotations in the universe. It must have been an auspicious evening as Rinchen Wangmo invited me in for tea and porridge. She nursed one babe while I entertained the other kids as Tom and Jerry blared on the T.V. The porridge was traditional but made with care and quite delicious accompanied by fragrant lemon tea. On the way out I gave Amadamma a pat rubbed the wooden phallus for luck and headed down through the blustery gloaming pausing to view the stage of my final dance a circular area of dirt and grass. At that moment an omen flew high over my left shoulder. At Aunty Kesang’s shop we chatted about Catherine who was posted here twenty years ago when Tsenkharla was a primary school with fruit orchards growing on campus and had no electricity but did have a regular Saturday transport to T-Gang (but with no KC Hotel what would be the point!) On the way home I heard the evening dirge from the MP hall as cedar smoke perfumed the air. The whole day had the fortuitous timing of an acid trip as I slipped inside my hut and curled up with Dawa the dog stroking her velvet ears as she slept.
That night I dreamed I was standing behind Jerry, Bobby, and Phil on an elevated platform on Treasure Island on a glorious day. I could see the crowd a hundred miles below and the slumbering emerald peak of Tamalpais to the West across the bay, and a snow clad pyramid resembling Shasta (out of place) to the Southeast. The band was merrily tuning up and I should have checked my hands as Don Juan says to hold the lucidity because the scene shifted and I was writhing in a cuddle puddle with a bevy of Sector Nine beauties who caressed every inch of my body, next a nightmare where my teeth were rotting like mush and I was pulling them out of my gums in horror. I woke up tired and homesick.
It was an emotional day in the classroom with Poop Gem crying about missing her father and a class nine girl crying for unknown reasons. The other students seemed unaware of the tears or stoical towards the sufferers. At lunch Dechen Choden a reticent and intelligent girl asked me to revise her essay. It’s great working one on one with students and I don’t get to do it enough. I like holding informal sessions with the boys in my hovel or working with students in the classroom at lunch and find it profoundly rewarding. After school Karlos delivered a three hour presentation speaking very well and I returned home to delve into the “The Last Temptation of Christ” Becky called from Sakteng with news of her journey over the high pass and stories of the Brokpa kids. She also gave a prophetic account of an encounter with another Dawa that set my heart on fire. The embers of desire burn hot and melt away my equanimity plunging me onto the coals of longing. That old battle of spirit and flesh that rages inside us all, will it ever end? Will I ever find my mate, or god, will I ever be whole again? Is your author being to cryptic? Does the reader furrow her brow? Does it matter anyway? Two plus two is four. The other night I called my mom missing her tremendously. I am 99.9% sure that I will return to California at the end of the year but when I hinted at renewing my contract my mom didn’t bristle. Playing the victim I asked wouldn’t you miss me if I stayed and she said that a year ago she would have been sad but after visiting Bhutan and seeing the beauty of the place and “what Bhutan has done for me” she wholeheartedly supported my being here. She also hopes to return to visit the east if she gets an opportunity. The comment alleviated much of my guilt for leaving my family to come here and shed new light on my purpose. I asked about my niece and nephew and revelled in the news from home. Everyone is healthy and that is all I can ask for. My mission here has not yet solidified but daily events keep me from worrying about that.
My mind wanders back to the capital where in the flat light I met a migoi (yeti) who spoke of mountain worship before he receded back into the mountains. There are many oddballs, levitating lamas, and sorcerers hidden in this land and as my aunt Mare would say “I’d better hide and watch” I’ve never been much adept at that instead I blather on and on even in the form of this self indulgent blog. What the reader might glean from these rants I don’t know? Perhaps it’s merely verbal masturbation and I remember at Farewell Bend in Eastern Oregon aunt Mare gently telling me that every story doesn’t have to revolve around me. Of course I recoiled like a defensive snake and here I am three years later still talking about myself. Shit I’ve burned a hole in Saint Becky’s ears I’m sure and my friend Liora once told me that I need to learn how to listen which I haven’t yet learned how to do. Ironically I implore my kids to be good listeners, a lacking quality in many humans. I’ve actually intended to change the format of this blog for some time but fall back on this egotistic confessional prose like a morbid shadow of Sylvia Plath. Ah shucks, thanks for staying put and indulging your maniacal author as I try to work it out, lighten up, and let it go. Let’s pause and take an opportunity to ponder the bioluminescent creatures in the deepest trenches of the furthest planets.
I think Jesus was a hep cat because he loved all creatures but he still revered the white bearded archetype as god. But all life comes from the womb so wouldn’t Great Spirit be feminine. A patriarch would retort that a seed must be planted to grow life and then a fierce chicken and egg debate would ensue. Does that mean god is transgender like the creatures walking the neon avenue outside Uncle Veto’s Pizzeria? Or like one of those asexual aliens I encountered in the Missouri bush? God is infinite and god is good and lavishes decay on all matter equally while karma keeps a ledger tallying our deeds for the next life. Hey Deadheads did you know Tennessee Jed is a song about living in exile, dig it! How’s that for a discombobulated thought?