Thursday, April 17, 2014
“No matter how rough it gets, never let your fire go out” Zeke
Last night’s rain cleared the atmosphere revealing a labyrinth of mountains with lurid definition yet as I write these meek words the omnipotent raindrops plunk on my tin roof as a misty curtain draws over Shampula which fades to dismal grey. The aroma of sweet moisture satiates my nostrils along with the parched landscape and thirsty crops, this is spring in the last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan. The rainfall soaks the moldering leaves on the groves soggy bottom, sinking into the roots of the potato plants in the fields, pouring over the sinuous road, dripping down the ancient stones of Tsangma’s ruined fortress. Like the mountains I am also emerging from my muzzy state into a moderate degree of lucidity. By midafternoon the showers have ceased and smoke has filtered into the valley limiting visibility to Blithing and the landslide under the road. In the morning one could see the seven mirrored ridges interlocking towards the eastern horizon and now only two remain. Sometimes I feel like an interloper in a strange land but at least I’m a grateful interloper and know I add something here. The real test of ones mettle is in the classroom where the most paramount contributions are made. Afterschool was Social Service Club and I am thankful to have Ashish AKA Butterfly co-coordinating with me. Today the students filled in an old latrine that had become a de-facto trash pit. Usually I am picking trash alongside the members but today I supervised the more labor intensive project. Nearby hair club barbered their primary volunteers with locks scattering in the breeze. The little ones tie handkerchiefs onto their miniature gho or kira to dab their runny noses and at assembly one can hear a lot of phlegmy coughs. I’m feeling better every day realizing my last posts were melancholy. Those melancholies are a part of my soul but fortunately a zestful exuberance burns at my core so you never have to worry about me. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so privy to the darkness but some of us have that gift. But joy is the foundation for existence even if that makes me a hedonist. Of course one has responsibilities and duties so in these areas one must be the most mindful of joy, like a pixy romping in primordial forest one can approach the dishes. Attitude is everything in life and it can be a battle to stay positive. We all admire those people who seem fortified and at peace, that was my impression of J.D a teacher who served in Bidung who I only met on a few occasions. I am not cool like the other side of the pillow possessing a restive spirit, that’s why I love the kinetic rhythm of dance though ironically I can’t learn the Bhutanese steps to save ‘my life. The students borrowed my portable speaker for dance practice as cultural activities are perpetually burning like everlasting butter lamps in the Kingdom. OH BHUTAN NEVER LET YOUR FIRE GO OUT! Those who serve here must realize the promise of this blessed nation, there is possibility for balance, growth, preservation, and sanity. We observe the workings around us and want to reflect that spirit imbibing Bhutan. Resistance is detrimental to one’s experience as Julia Butterfly says “Life is a never ending lesson of letting go” For me that means my fears, my past which consumes me, and pointless expectations of the future, also known as the present which doesn’t exist at all. Are you with me or am I speaking jibber jabber. My point is human’s waste a lot of life lost in futile thoughts. Damn Consciousness! More evolved seekers pursue the raw moment found only at the brink, my apologies La I always set out to avoid philosophical ravings but my mind wanders like the Madman of Tsenkharla. I wonder what affect these jewel encrusted mountains have on my temperament? They certainly have their hook in me like a Garuda’s talon. Let’s pause for the cause since I have another school dinner, like a meeting with grub. I’ll take it as admittedly I like to load up when possible. Before labeling the author Mr. Mooch remember we contribute into the coffers for such events.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
About half the staff suffered from diarrhea after Saturday night’s dinner including myself. There is nothing worse than teaching a class with uncertain bowels. The good news is if you have to leave class for shooting diarrhea the student’s barely bat an eyelash. Let’s hope we all fare better at tonight’s school dinner, a birth anniversary for Surgit an Indian teacher whose wife and new babe are in Kerala. Today was a good day in the classroom especially with class six who are enthusiastic learners. Then there is 8B a great group of individuals who form a vexing dynamic. Of course I love both sections of eight since I know all the students from teaching them last year. My success story is Kezang a boy who used to disdain shoes and have a dripping nose and dusty gho hailing from a remote village in the hills. As a boarder he has blossomed physically and emotionally into a remarkable student and class leader who speaks more than anyone. Today he raised his hand and asked, “How did this poem make me feel?” Now this might not sound like much but Bhutanese students refuse to ask questions without prodding them. This is because most native teachers don’t encourage queries preferring to exclusively lecture (even beating for wrong answers) I’m pressing on speaking but there are some girls in class 8 that cannot overcome their shyness for even an utterance. In certain ways teaching Bhutanese students is a cake walk and in certain ways it’s like moving mountains. The student’s attitudes are great but they are not keen on critical thinking or participation since Bhutan is a place where uniformity and conformity are wrapped up in one’s duty to God and Country. Since I’m not sure what if any god the Bhutanese Buddhist adhere to it’s more a duty to culture and Buddhism. That’s what’s so cool I’m still not exactly sure what binds them so tightly together but I guess the family that prays together stays together. And nowhere is it tighter wound than a boarding school but there are far less acts of rebellion as one might think. Minor statements like hair gel or bracelets are more common than displays of anger, alcohol abuse, or fighting. The most extreme display are homemade tattoos (done with cactus needles) which are prevalent but mostly these kids have their heads on their shoulders as you can observe while they’re planting or dancing together. Their attitudes and love of culture is genuine and about the only thing they don’t enjoy doing together is speaking English. As a teacher it is my duty to devise plans that will encourage them to speak. They have to speak so you must put them in situations to do so without “forcing” them. This is the challenge especially when the students furtively crave by the book rote learning since that’s what they are accustomed to. If you think by my third year I have it figured out you’d be wrong but I am growing as a teacher here and am more effective now than before. I have vastly improved as a Literature teacher but need vast improvement in grammar. One thing I am doing more of this year is marking even though it consumes copious amounts of time, especially since I am stressing revision and therefore and marking multiple drafts. With Over a hundred students you can imagine this can be a daunting task.
Dinner was a feast of Indian chicken curry with sumptuous sauce, pork on the bone, and requisite emadatsi. Butterfly was fluttering about busing tables and serving drinks on behalf of his friend, there is a precise order to these events starting with tea working up to alcohol and then food and a quick dispersal, overall the events run two to three hours. I got tired making small talk and listening to an endless stream of Sharchop this can be a downside of living here, but if you live in your imagination and groove to the beat of your own percussion than that’s also an upshot, you can mentally check out until needed. But the advantage of working in Bhutan is the people you interact with on a daily basis all have the ability to communicate in English. The Bhutanese are Dorji’s of all languages meaning they know up to five languages apiece. Before dinner I spun the wheel watching a plump red moon rise over the dragon’s tail with the twinkling orange lights of Lumla as a backdrop to the celestial show, meanwhile the students were at their dirge in the MP which careened into spooky spaces unfamiliar to this alien ear. Their drones resemble an angry hive of wasps before reemerging into a zenith of male and female voices rising to the Guru’s heavenly throne. Its powerful stuff knowing many of the voices inside undistinguishable in the chorus, for me a mitzvah just being here to witness it. Now trying to find a routine to establish more order and healthiness into life, as Camile would say “remember it’s a marathon not a sprint”
|Gazebo and Cypress|
Sunday, April 13, 2014
“It was getting early so I rushed away from there with ancient dirt beneath my feet and moon dust in my hair” Early Bird Café
I saw my neighbor the assistant librarian and asked her how she was doing, “I’m always fine” she replied. “How do you do that?” I retorted. The Bhutanese are good like that and truly are usually fine. This particular woman is the wife of the boy’s warden and was friends with a BCF volunteer in Lhuntse that served for two years before my arrival. I admire women serving here because they can set a tremendous example for the students showing them that women are indeed equals and capable of anything. I still am battling off bacteria and am weak and wondering if a demon didn’t get me and if so how to find the antidote. But I have to remain positive glad to be back in class and grateful for a breathtaking Gom Kora Tsechu but rattled nonetheless. A tad too primal right now for this savage grinding through a challenging period. In class speaking is the biggest challenge for students, it was rough going in class seven when I assessed student’s ability to explain the coat of arms they had constructed. I got a lot of one word answers and very few sputtered sentences. I have little knowledge of these kids’ backgrounds and what went on at their primary school at the foot of the jungle in Chakademi or the fields of Shali.
Today is Saturday and I felt too weak to roam so I did laundry and straightened up delving into Under the Holy Lake on the grass outside on a ledge overlooking hundreds of miles of wilderness half of which was filtered through a sepia haze. Two vehicles are now parked outside my door which is slightly annoying but the view is still better than the moon’s. Many things have changed since Ken’s time but much remains exactly the same. Electricity and junk food now dominate the scene and on blackout nights I get a taste of the old school Bhutan, but danger still lurks as it always will in this charmed land. The book which I just commenced also has a funny scene with Catherine who explains that the head bobble means yes rather than no. I’m a Bhutan history buff and am fascinated by Father Mackey, Jamie, Nancy, Dr. Mark, and Catherine ET all and feel that the current batch of teachers are standing on the shoulders of giants. Ken’s book reminds me that through my recent travails I am so fortunate to be in this occasionally exasperating position. Despite my torrent of negativity I think deep down I get it and am proud to be one of the first Americans to serve in East Bhutan. As you know I am a son of the East and love my range on the border but when I do get the rare chance to spread the love I cherish it. That’s why I loved vacationing with my family in the holy West, or my transitory stopovers in Bumthang. Thimphu is my favorite capital an intriguing Himalayan city with landmarks like the National Chorten and The Zone. Today was pleasant locally except watching the warden beat Sangay Tobgay, I gazed at the ridges and listened to the wind and ate some cheese balls that weren’t stale. Now is the time to purge my soul like the alchemist turning lead into gold and it’s a time to slow down and focus. This proposition seems touch and go but hope springs eternal like the blossoming forest that awaits my return. Meanwhile I appreciate campus in its fluctuating state of endless gardening and construction. But we have the old clock tower which now keeps time, the row of regal cypresses towering sixty feet in the air with feathery foliage. The old block of original classrooms and the newer stone buildings. Saturday’s at Tsenkharla boy’s washing their ghos and hanging them on the barbed wire fence. Kid’s doing social work making gardens, tending the fields, playing basketball, and reading text books or ducking under the fence and raiding the village for ramen noodles which they devour raw. I am determined to take my regular meals now and can hear my loved ones imploring me to do so in my head so today I had eggs for breakfast, K WA, for lunch, and am headed to the village for a puja/ dinner now that’s what I call a blessing.
Just got back from dinner of chicken, fried fish, and emadatsi (When I say chicken were talking bony little chunks with scrappy meat attached) Sometimes I feel like the Tsenkharla mascot as administration theorized the cause of my illness as drinking too much coke and eating junk food and/or not opening the door for the puja (I did open after a Tashi delay) Now I’m not denying either of their hypotheses but still how does one respond to such accusations. I was mildly defensive and irritated but I am pretty Teflon when it comes to good natured ribbing these days since this is a strange form of bonding when the cultural gap is so divisive. They also made a comment about my moodiness when sick implying I am down in the mouth which is absolutely correct. I admitted the Bhutanese are indeed heartier than me but also told them they might feel down too being sick so far from their family and familiar culture. But it all comes back to temperament and in that regard I admire the Bhutanese even keel. Anyway school dinners are weird but I feel comfortable enough around my community, oh yeah they also attributed my sickness to excess roaming and sometimes I wonder what they want me to act like. Probably acting more Bhutanese wearing a gho, playing their reindeer games, and learning the languages, so I accept that I might appear arrogant in that manner but WTDL. Hopefully longevity will compensate for some of my shortcomings. I like these gatherings sitting on the floor because they remind me that as much as I try to insulate myself I live in a traditional culture my own personal Dances with Wolves without the love story, ultimately this eastern exposure is good for the soul if not the immune system. But I’m not feeling full after eating which makes me suspect a tapeworm and will request a deworming tablet from the BHU ASAP. Currently a creamy moon reclines in the sky actually I can’t pinpoint that color of that luminous eggshell illuminated by a hidden sun making me suspect that the two celestial bods are in cahoots. It’s still cool at night but the bite of winter has released its frosty grip and the deluge has still not arrived. Unlike the misty monsoon the spring storms are violent with thunder and lightning and huge pellets of rain. My first year a bolt of lightning shattered a nearby prayer flag like the splinters that birthed wonder boy but this year the rains seem late. Weather is a mysterious fickle force which I learned while employed as a ski bum depending on copious Tahoe storms for my requisite face shots. I wonder what the farmers are saying about the situation if anything as California resembles a dust bowl these days so I hear. How is the climate of Bhutan and California interconnected since its all one ball of blue spinning around in space? What came first the chicken or the egg? I know the answer to the second query but I’m not telling!
Can you believe this country has no traffic lights even Plumas County California has one stoplight in Quincy. Downtown Thimphu relies on the white gloved kinetic traffic cop and at Tsenkharla we have a paved road but you will see far more bovines than boleros on it.
Bhutan an isolated Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom is wonderfully diverse in flora, fauna and human terms yet also culturally homogenous and rigid. A tapestry of ethnicities and languages woven together under the Dragon Banner like the subjugating of Avalon under the great King Arthur, Bhutan is an oasis under a benevolent Fifth King and compassionate Monarchy. There are also liminal characters Indians, Nepali or Southern Bhutanese, and tribal Brokpa that sprinkle in with Sharchop to form the Eastern diaspora. Western Druk are peppered throughout but the migratory patterns of East and West were not the same. From my understanding people near Paro came down from Tibet where the Sharchops came from the Burmese horizon. Brokpa migrated via Tawang from Tibet bringing a distinct high altitude attitude, they are Buddhist but wear different dress and have their own dialect and style. According to lore many Sharchops are descendants of Prince Tsangma. How long have people been living in these impenetrable hills I can only wonder? Wandering into all this is pretty remarkable when I sit back and contemplate my circumstances I have stumbled upon a treasure chest of exotic culture vastly separate from my own. The Buddhist aspects tints everything even if you aren’t practicing it permeates the air you breathe and then there’s the bon deities like the Blue Lady at the Mani Wall who prognosticated that this place would become my home. Their vantage point is so different than mine that I can barely comprehend their mindset or they mine, and therein lies the folly and fun.
It’s Sunday so I reentered the forest hiking up the hill through a wispy cypress grove to the ruin. Tsangma’s fortress is still remarkably intact weathering more than a thousand years with one lichened stone wall rising forty feet to its apex. The castle is timeless sitting inside on my pyrite throne sunning my face and listening to the wind rustling through the eucalyptus trees like shimmering sails. Next stop Zongtopelri a half mile up the trail where I chatted briefly with Rinchen Wangmo who had her toddler strapped to her with colored cloth. As we talked she picked ear wax out of her ear with a matchstick, saying “Gom Kora” apparently the dust from Tsechu had clogged her ears. Then I entered the solemn temple prostrating on the emerald marble in front of a towering gilded Guru Rinpoche before spending some attention on the plethora of statues all subduing naked dolls with their giant bare feet. Artifacts and frescos adorn the main chamber I studied them before ascending up steep stairs to level two, a bare board room with copulating deities on the walls including a depiction of a tigress woman and blue man doing it tantric style with the lady atop the man in lotus positions. Another complex mural has an elephant trunk morphing into a penis, the fornicating male deity has three heads bulging eyes and a staff with impaled human skulls with astonished expressions. Riding him is a demoness tigress with talons and garuda wings except you can’t tell the two entities apart their so entwined. Below animal people with spears dance around to the strange music of serenading minstrels floating in the cloud void (my descriptions are impotent as these fluid paintings embossed with gold come to life) Level three is the attic a place of peace, a cozy room just tall enough to stand erect but perfect for sitting cross legged on the floor, light up some incense and chat with The Golden Buddha. After departing I looped down through the pine and rhododendron forest passed a rock where I had strewn prayer flags in a place that is noticeable by the Shali kids on their way along the channel. It wasn’t a long roam but it felt great to be back in the woods, back at home doing laundry a task I typically don’t enjoy but tried to apply that Zen attention that is supposed to bring joy to mundane tasks. Now that my life force is returning I need to be vigilant and diligent devising tactics for survival knowing like Santa Claus the Dragon is always watching…
Changes are afoot everywhere all the time. Flies have begun to buzz around the house they are small but grow as the season progresses. The forest on the west side of the ridge facing the Kulong Chu is becoming green with deciduous trees sprouting chartreuse leaves blending with rusty and russet blooms. Things are coming to life as a myriad of songbirds have joined the patrolling ravens along with pallid moths and orange butterflies arriving on the scene. On the trail dragonflies encircle my head like Godzilla on a rampage amongst crimson rhododendron blossoms, while on the horizon the pinnacle of Lumla peeks out from behind the Shampula massif. Tumbling in every direction palisades and promontories features I will never reach like the grandiose Dragon’s Tail a bumpy ridgeline with toothy serrated peaks spanning the borderlands high above any road, trail, village, or check post. Only forests remain diminishing into vertical crags and Tsenkharla ridge sees it all at the nexus of the vast narrow river valley (Looking Glass Valley) encompassing Tawang and Trashigang along with a divergent plot of wilderness rolling up towards Trashiyangtse, it’s no wonder Prince Tsangma chose to settle here. As for me this year is entirely different and stranger than my first two. For one thing I feel forsaken without Becky and my other friends around causing a generally more isolated feeling. My schedule is loaded, my health is poor, and I have only fumes left in the tank but I have already had some stellar moments and the overall mission remains intact.
Spelunking spring horizon
Splashing in river
(Jesus, Guru Rinpoche, and Lord Buddha meet in the astral plane and after tea and meditation play some dice to see who will take The Goddess out for drinks. Jesus wins the toss but gets cold feet, he’s only got eyes for Mary. Buddha wins the rowshambo match smashing the Gurus scissors to smithereens but just before reaching the Goddesses bungalow Buddha realizes that this date might lead to attachment so he cowers back to the mansion where he meets the Guru fondling his flaming thunderbolt of wisdom, He tells Lord Buddha “you don’t want to go on a date with a loaded gun” Jesus has run off to find a rabbi to repent, Buddha prepares some rice and puts on some Kenny G, and the Guru sweeps the Goddess off to another dimension for some tantric exercise)