Saturday, June 1, 2013

Village Incognito

Village Incognito

 For the copycat that ate the rat

“Down with disease and I’m up before the dawn, a thousand barefoot children outside dancing on my lawn”

Reading Rainbow

Today we started our reading program and as it turns out Bhutanese kids love to read as any others do. All you need to do is give them a pleasant environment to read in and some books. It is a pleasure for me to catch up with old students and give individual help in an intimate setting. The only drawback was watching the other English teacher bonking Sangay Dema on the head ironically for reading when she was asked to arrange furniture. The students were excited and asking questions on vocabulary. Now we must furnish the library and make the environment more conducive to learning.
Exam preparation time has begun and I have tons of information left to cover in class nine, this will be the busiest part of my year. From now until midterm will be a blur of activity and questions from the students. My gas cylinder is exhausted so I have been taking meals at the mess. Mealtime is an interesting affair as the kids shuffle through the serving line in a merry stream taking rice, dal, and curry. Once a week the students get beef but around half the students are vegetarians adhering to an important Buddhist value. It is interesting to observe which students take beef and which abstain. Before dinner I often eavesdrop on the dirge of prayers that is actually a combo of singing and chanting. In song their voices rise up to the gloaming like a tidal wave the girls on one side of the MP Hall and the boys on the other. They seem in a trance as if guided by spirit and it’s very moving to observe. But I feel bashful and try not to be noticed tucked around the corner listening in awe.

Life continues on in this fashion sometimes becoming hard as stone. My health has dipped as my gums hurt and as the Bhutanese would say I am suffering from cough and cold. Tooth pain is always a source of concern since there is nary a dentist within a hundred miles. Somewhere a pipe burst and no water is flowing into my hut at all. Although it’s nice to have electricity in reality water is more important. The girls were scolded by principal for the state of their toilets and one shudders at the reality of no TP or water for washing. The kids wipe with the same hand that touches the notebooks I collect and keyboard I scribe on. To make matters worse flies are prolific using my face as a landing pad. I wouldn’t trade my post for all the toilet paper in China but I think you get the picture of the sanitation on this mountaintop. My hovel has been quite active and last night I had seventeen boys watching Toy Story. It’s nice hanging out but it’s that fine line as the boys get upset when I refuse admittance. I want to be available to them but after nine o’clock they are supposed to be in bed. Furthermore I am constantly chasing them from my window sill and outing the light that they are using to study until two A.M. These scenes constitute life at a boarding school, the good the bad and the dysentery. Thanks for obliging the author in his need to vent but complaining will only carry you so far in the LOT.  In reality everything is peachy at Village Incognito to wit.

Come to Village Incognito
Bring canned Coca Cola if you dare
Cause at village incognito
There’s no clean underwear

Weekend with Bunky

I spent the weekend with Becky and since Saturday was Lord Buddha’s anniversary of enlightenment we met at Gom Kora on that hot morning. Puffy dragon clouds billowed from the crags and a scorching sun filtered through a powdered blue sky. The scene at Gom Kora was exquisite as worshipful circumabulated in colorful national dress some uttering prayers while spinning the greasy hand wheels which made a squeaking sound similar to someone pulling a child’s wagon. And on that day the child’s wagon was hitched to the Buddha’s star. What appeals to me about Buddhism is that it deals with the here and now and the human condition known as samsara. How can we break the cycle of rebirth to attain nirvana? But if you take out the mystical the doctrine deals with the real possibilities that an acute mind can manifest on earth. Through mind training and prayer one can have a hand in destructing the ego which leads to ALL suffering in this world.  At Gom Kora I beamed at Becky pontificating how fortunate I was to find a person who understands me all the way out in East Bhutan. I don’t count my friends as many but I have a few true ones nonetheless. But salvation is an individual process and friends can only support the seeker in their path. After Gom Kora we wound up in Doksom eating peanut butter and biscuits on a discarded bed frame on the main drag. The conversation centered on certain students that we found particularly entertaining or vexing and ended up being an exercise in hysterics.  We peeled ourselves off the sticky wood and climbed into a bolero for a ride to Yangtse town, destination Chorten Kora. The drive was spectacular with crystalline sunshine glistening off of those Puff the magic dragon clouds. The river engorged in mammoth oaks with crawlers creeping and climbing on every limb. The trees in this portion of the jungle are personified into this realm and if one ventured into the gorge they would be sure to be entangled by the monsters of the forest.

We breezed into Trashiyangtse as clouds gathered around the fresh green salad bowl of a town. Chorten Kora was bustling with worshipers who circumabulated the holy whitewashed dome. This time the squeaky wheels sounded like chair 13 approaching tower 9 on the Lakeview line while the serene eyes of Buddha looked on with special reverence observing the singular fate of mankind thrusting ever onward in a cyclical comedy of tragic proportions. The omnipotent wind rose from the rapids of the Kulongchu blowing the bangs of a little one playing in the fresh cut grass. We met up with fellow teachers Lee, Collin, and Jonathan and committed ourselves to a night of libation at Leland’s abode. While shopping in town for the cocktail party two noteworthy things occurred: I ran into Pema G the kid who helped me out with chores last year and gave him a bear hug, and the other was a shopkeeper sporting a T-shirt with Jerry Garcia’s face made out of pot leaves. Since his quarters were full Lee recommended the top floor of the Karmaling which was superior in every way to the dungeon and there Becky and I dreamed of dragons and home. I left out so much monkey business that occurred on this day where our collective consciousness poured out onto the pavement between gulps of laughter, tears, and one exasperated belch from your uncouth author. You can take the hippie out of the LOT but you can’t take the LOT out of the hippie.  

Bhutanese in their element

Just meet me down in Doksom, babe
Where the cosmic rivers flow
You’ll find me incognito
The more you let it go

Weekend at Baghi’s

On the weekend prior to the visit to the two Kora’s I went trekking to the Indo Bhutan border with Baghi the VP from Kinney School. Baghi is not your typical Bhutanese administrator although he does possess fine qualities for that position. Baghi is of Southern descent which means he is of Nepali ancestry. (The reader might not know that certain Nepali’s are descendent from Greeks mixing with Indus peoples) This is just one factoid that Baghi shared with me on our long amble through the forest. Baghi is a fascinating and kind human being who is a natural politician, taking a keen interest in everyone he meets. I met Baghi last fall after Tsechu and talked of my fascination of Tawang. Being an insensitive cad I forgot Baghi altogether until I bumped into him one night at Sonam’s shop and he reminded me of his existence and the details of the aforementioned conversation. He was intent on taking me as far as the border so on a cloudy Saturday he drove up from Kinney to retrieve me. We left Kinney at four in the afternoon trekking through terraced fields of potato promptly leaving the parched village passing through a patch of fragrant hemp before entering a dense forest. At a bridge we paused for three quarters of an hour talking about Guru Rinpoche’s escapades in the region. It was Baghi’s contention that the Guru came into East Bhutan via Tawang where he was wrestling with a demoness serpent. He wrangled with the demoness at Omba before chasing her to the Dagme Chu and the large rock at Gom Kora before finally subduing the pesky demoness at another cave near Chasm. We also debated the merits of myth verses reality in the Gurus Saga and concluded that the truth of such matters is irrelevant since the Guru exists in each and every moment. We traversed a series of impossibly steep switchbacks and arrived at the village of Omba where Baghi had arranged a home stay. Omba is a prime example of a traditional Bhutanese village with no road access and newly installed electricity. (About 85% of villages in Bhutan are now plugged in) The village sits in a fertile glade under an unusual cliff formation. The gardens are plush with maize, potato, cabbage, chilli, and banana trees and bamboo adorn this rural paradise. Our hosts made us a first rate meal of various beef and veggie curries before we retired to our comfortable blankets.

The next morning we began our ascent to Omba a sacred temple perched halfway up a cliff. It is referred to as the Tiger’s Nest of the East but in no way approaches the grandeur of Bhutan’s most famous temple. But this Lhakang has its own magic and uniqueness tucked away above a pouring waterfall in the easternmost nook of Bhutan. Below the temple is a large rock face which when you pour water displays the symbol of Om. (Hence the name of the temple) Om represents the vibration frequency of the universe, the pulse of the divine. I first encountered the Om as a prayer at National Rainbow Gatherings as thousands of family members held hands making the Om sound together. The magnitude of such a prayer has never been equalled except by the student’s dirge which I’m unable to participate in. A scant trail traversed the rock face to the temple on the cliff. Inside the quant Lhakang we met a euphoric acetic who resembled David Nelson or a dirty lepricon with natty dreads. He gave us a tour of a cave on a precarious path dangling over a chasm.  The view was astounding overlooking Tsenkharla, Darchin, and Trashigang. Over the other shoulder loomed Shampula. Above the temple is an impressive statue of Guru Rinpoche and his two consorts, Yeshi and the lesser known Indian.

From Omba we descended into thick oaks stands past a gushing rivulet on a trail that snaked the dragon’s tail towards the border. In the last Druk village we met one of Baghi’s mates a principal at the small primary school and took lunch amongst the flies. Two more locals joined the party as we set out for the border through a healthy forest resplendent with ferns, mosses, and duff. After several minutes we encountered a Bhutanese police checkpoint which appeared abandoned save one cheery old man who waved us on towards Arrunachal Pradesh. Along the trail we met some Tawang herders who spoke their local dialect in no way related to Sharshop. According to the group the real border is an unmarked ravine in the forest where the trail loops past an outcropping of boulders and as the traveller moves through the horseshoe gully they pass into the territory of India. From that gulley the trail peters into scree which leads to a massive dirt road built by the Indian government. According to Baghi the purpose of this road is to connect Tawang to Guwahati via East Bhutan but the Bhutanese refuse to connect the dots. So like a ghost waiting for its phantom date the road waits for its connection. So many times I gazed at this road and subsequent landslide from my doorstep and now my footsteps were impressing on it. Remarkably it was two more miles on the dusty road until we reached the official border checkpoint within Arrunachal Pradesh. The checkpoint consisted of several dilapidated shelters overlooking the roadway. In the hovels were a few military personal dressed in camoflough fatigues. We took tea with the soldiers and met a teacher from a tiny village who had twelve students. The conversation took place in rudimentary English, Hindi, and Nepali. Further up the road we were afforded a hazy view into Arrunachal Pradesh the landscape breaking into coned peaks as my beloved Dagme Chu revealed another fork meandering around a triangular massif. Across the valley the humped ridged tail of the dragon, on the far side of which is Bartsham. From our position Tawang town at 10,000 feet was not visible, four hours away by vehicle. On the Indian side several dirt roads cut the landscape and many villages dotted the steep slopes. On the way back we stopped at a blue house with an enormous satellite dish to debrief with two intelligence officers dressed in track suits who would not discuss the nature of their work. We also stumbled into an encampment of Assamese road workers who were busy hot boxing their canvas tent, which smelled like the inside of Spicole’s van.

Gratified and satisfied we made our way back down the road over the scree slope and into the fertile gulch that demarcates the actual border.  By the singing of the bird’s one might not ascertain that that patch of wilderness is simultaneously claimed by three countries, Bhutan, India, and China. But for all its sensitivity I have never encountered a more lax border and before the lines were drawn the cultures of Tawang and East Bhutan were intermingled. Marriages and religious activities were commonplace and even now bonds remain through pilgrimages and trade. Back on the Bhutan side we said farewell to our companions and Baghi and I headed down the slope of Shampula to Kinney completing our trek on a loose rock trail in the darkness.  I am forever grateful to Baghi for making my dream come true of expanding this tiger’s territory into the upper reaches of the subcontinent.

Guru Rinpoche

 The End of the Show       

As I write this a boy is pressed against my window pane and I have that familiar feeling of a lion in a cage. BCF alumni J.D used to leave his curtains open in an all access credo but alas I’m too private a creature to endure that method. I am fighting off the strains of sickness in my body while outside the kids are working the fields. How natural and adept they are at a skill few of my readers possess. While western kids are window shopping at the mall these kids are toiling in the fields. Don’t ask me which seem happier since you already know the answer. Often I have wished to be more like the Bhutanese to bridge the gap that can be insufferable. Those who make the effort in learning sharshop or Dzonkha have a head start. The simplicity of life in rural Bhutan is wonderful reminding me of my days at Farm Camp in Booneville as a fledgling. But my anxieties and neurosis are more powerful than they were back then and I struggle to fall in line with a simpler existence. Adulthood can be a drag as I lament my class nine students who seem so self aware compared to the class seven kids who still climb poles like monkeys in class. My challenge as always is to stop grasping at life and let it run through me like a river through sand, to forget about yesterday and tomorrow and live for today. The novelty of each moment!

The next few weeks promise to be hectic as I will have my plugged nose to that old Rangthangwoon grindstone. But before I hang it up for the term I wanted to share some more things with you. Did you know the Bhutanese habit of Dolma is a holdover from cannibalism? According to legend Guru Rinpoche forbad the act and gave the Bhutanese warriors beetle nut to chew instead of flesh. The nut represents the skull and the red paste human brains. Bhutan hasn’t always been a peaceful country united under the Druk banner. The Bhutanese are badass and that’s why they repelled the Tibetans time and time again. My final thought revolves around the exiled prince Tsangma,

“Before the unification of Bhutan in the 17th century a medley of clans claiming direct descendent from a refugee Tibetan prince held sway in east of the country among the Tshangla speaking people of those parts. Prince Tsangma is known to have been the elder son of King Tride of Tibet. The Tibetan sources claim he was expelled to Bhutan by his younger brother who brought about an end to the empire. Bhutanese sources written in 1728 holds that Prince Tsangma settled and produced two sons from who all the clans latter descended. The chronicle slides from legend to reality in dealing with their later history which is firmly rooted in historical fact” Michael Aris, The Raven Crown

Furthermore Baghi told me that Tsangma came into Bhutan from Paro and travelled east and was met at Rangthangwoon by a messenger who told him he was not welcome back in Tibet. So for that reason Tsangma settled in the early 800’s in what is now Tsenkharla village. I have always felt inexplicably connected to this ancient man who built his fortress now in ruin atop the hillock above campus. Although forced out of his homeland this peace loving Buddhist left an indelible mark on the region with his descendents spreading through East Bhutan and Tawang. I also hope to leave such an imprint on the hearts and minds of the children I have the charge of teaching.


Your Excellence in exile at Tsangma's house

Meet me incognito
We’ll dance the pagan shuffle
Cause up in incognito
Ain’t no feathers getting ruffled

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