Monday, June 9, 2014
“From the top of the mountain you can see far and wide now, still can’t see that other mountains other side now”
TIM ON DUTY
On Thursday I was Teacher on Duty or TOD. The day began at 6:30 A.M with ample light twenty minutes after the sunrise, a bright silver screen as a layer of stratus clouds obscured the horizons limiting the breadth of the range. My first task was supervising morning study which runs one hour. I helped students edit speeches, pronounce and define words, and paraphrase passages. I failed miserably at a few algebra queries which was embarrassing. Next up to the mess where they served cheesy porridge which was surprisingly delicious. Observing the meal procession is fascinating and reminiscent of a prison chow line. They shuffle through endlessly while cooks and Mess Captain Pema scoop curry out of vats ladling it onto mounds of white rice. A day in the life of any BCF teacher starts at morning assembly, an impressive militant display of Bhutanese culture where the students line up in rows according to class. First a minute of meditation then a dirge of prayers accompanied by a chiming bell, before the compulsory singing of the National Anthem (my favorite part although I don’t gleanthe meaning methinks there are no bombs bursting in air) I know it references Buddha the bombardier of wisdom. On the other hand the murmuring of mantras during the intermezzo are directed at Jamyung the God or Goddess of Wisdom wielding a sword. Afterwards students make speeches in Dzonkha and English and then I said my bit addressing the missing yellow dust bin, and the situation in the boy’s common toilets which are clogged with wrappers, grass, and stones. Basically the lads are wiping with anything they can get their grubby hands on. NASTY! Furthermore although the water situation in my home has improved greatly this year there is still an overall shortage on campus meaning no water to flush growlers, no TP, and no water for hand washing. Ha! I’m so glad we had had that four hour meeting on the importance of hand washing in the community. Despite that rigmarole the reality is a filthy mess. I won’t go near any student facilities except the outhouse up by the old classrooms (original campus structures) and the staff toilets. Sometimes I’m happy to be visually impaired in such an unhygienic place. Other duties for that day in addition to classes included supervising evening study, lunch, and dinner. I enjoy the evening study catching my stride later in the day. It’s nice to talk with former students who I rarely see anymore and newer students along with kids I know but never taught. One girls group drew a funny picture on the chalkboard announcing the forthcoming dinner as boneless meat, underneath in small letters it read Ha, Ha, and Bromsha which is pumpkin. If you’re not teetering on your seat from tittering it’s because you don’t know the backstory. I always talk about the mess menu with the students who are aware of my favorite and least favorite selections. Anyway it was both clever and amusing and it turned out to be Nutrella a soy based boneless meat, at least the ubiquitous dal cheered me up. In the chow line a jocular Dechen Tshomo was goofing with me chanting boneless meat and laughing hysterically. Hours prior just as the final bell rang a cloudburst flooded campus drenching me on my way home, we must have gotten five inches of rain in twenty minutes!
Rendezvous with God
Hiking to Shakshang with a group of day scholars including a little imp that I remember from last year with an infectious cackle (was it Wangmo or Zangmo?) Usually I divert from the group but today I tromped in the train of little ones in gho and kira as we traversed the undulating ridge before commencing a steep pitch towards the Goempa. Eventually my fledgling companions flew away to a cluster of farmhouses leaving me alone for the arduous ascent to the remote temple. Along the way I encountered GOD and foolishly denied his name, as I climbed over successive terraces and circumambulated successive chortens(ascending the seven story mountain) the wonders of nature astounded me. In a state of satori I felt any separation between perceived self and the universe melt away to the distant tune of bleating horns and crashing cymbals. The transitory nature of matter suddenly made the world come alive as if sculpted“in real time” by the hands of the maker. I came to anengraved stone tablet of a Buddha and Dakini engaged in everlasting coitus and rested my forehead letting the warmth of the sun soaked stone flow through my eyelids down to my toes. At that moment I knew I was the luckiest man alive to be living the dream! These peaceful moments never last but the hike was perfect circling the temple in triplicate with only snarling mutts and mooing cows for company. I took the abandoned road now sheathed in new grass passing farmhouses eventually taking a shortcut back onto the face of Shakshang through a grove of oaks with chartreuse leaves,a stand of lonely bluish pines brimming with cones, and scarlet rhododendronblooms.Gusty vibes whistled the treetops conveyinga faint chime of pixy bells jingling in the pine scented air. This sector of the mountain is a trove of diversity with conifers, outcroppings of lichen covered rocks, deciduous foliage, flowering potato fields, rhododendron, lemon grass, and a plethora of perfumed bushes. The ridge affords the rover views of two dazzling valleys, to the east the redoubtable hump of Shampula, Yellang the hinterland temple perched on a precipice on the far side of the Dangme Chu, from here thosetors are a vertical wooded wall rising three thousand feet from the riverbed into impregnable crags. On a clear day one can see the Arrunachal Pradesh Hill Station of Tawang (not quite as it’s tucked away on a plateau around the last visible bend) To the West of my footsteps a leafybowl stretching towards the verdant forests on the outskirts of Trashiyangtse town. It’s humbling to survey it all from an auspicious location ringed by an oval of fading rainbow prayer flags watching the sun sink into a cloudbank. I make my way down the ridge towards Zongtopelri, The Cypress Grove, eventually rolling by Prince Tsangma’s ruin via the Mani wall and gate. The trail is littered with plastic like the L.A Freeway tarnishing my heart more than the landscape as I follow the pyrite road into the village and onto campus where the students are congregating for evening prayer. Ironically I had GOD”s full attention and slinked away.
At the last communal supper I sat nearby Principal and our two VP’s, with Ashish and Surgit, The administrators sat in chairs while we sat Indian style on the floor. Between blackouts and the relighting of candles a famous Bhutanese film starring a foreighner named Michael Harris was showing on T.V. In the movie the protagonist gets separated from his trekking party in Gasa and Principal Sir joked that he specifically wanted me to see that scene since he’s always worried about me getting lost in the forest. Later he also remarked about my familiarity with the Samdrop Jonkhar road an inside joke between us (In my first autumn Becky and I got stuck south of a massive landslide)actually I enjoyed hanging out casually with my bosses and in an affable ambience. I received a nice compliment from my VP who commented on my thorough assessment and checking of student notebooks. I have been putting a lot of effort into marking and revision this term and the rare compliment was nice even though we don’t teach for praise. Class six has turned out to be a great class with a manageable 24 students and some real enthusiastic learners. In many ways they outshine my class eight students who are beginning to become self-conscious. It’s full steam ahead on the syllabus and the six day workweeks and extracurricular activities are piling up but therein lies a routine that makes up my days and the beauty that surrounds me buoys my spirit daily. It helps that this is home!
The entire student body proceeded to Zangtopelri to help recite mantras for the Guru. Over one week an astonishing 1,000,000 mantras the invocations are recited by lamas, community members, including approximately 500 students. They looked splendid wearing their finest gho and kira a rainbow array of silk kiras and wool ghos. They had slips of paper writing some numbers while others had rosary beads and all were chanting the incantations along with the lama seated inside his monotonous voice broadcast over a PA speaker attached to the attic. WEIRD! This all coincides with Easter and the Resurrection miracle. I don’t believe in either the Resurrection or Guru springing as an adept 8 year old prince from a Lotus flower in an Afghan Lake. I like the story of the historical Buddha who left his life in the palace, gained enlightenment, and died of dysentery dutifully preaching the Dharma until his last breath. You can sink your teeth into that tale not having to believe in miracles you never saw. That doesn’t mean that the Crucifixion and resurrection myth doesn’t stir my soul. I imagine a bedraggled Jesus in sullied robes descending back to earth in the beam of light illuminating Chakademi (Obviously reentering from the void through the wrong portal) Following the canal the disciple encounters dank forests rattling like a tambourine with clicking insects, drowning out the myriad of birdlife. The deciduous forests burst into life as the channel heads deeper into the aromatic jungle towards our water source, above my stopping point was Darchen perched atop an impenetrable wall of vegetation. Along the way I see a boy herding cows, a woman in a faded purple kira gathering a mound of dead leaves in a bamboo basket (who turned out to be Dorji Wangmo B’s mother)traditional wood farmhouses, and packs of students descending from their second consecutive day of repetitious prayers up at Zangtopelri, I wonder if they reached the 1,000,000 mark? The reason I admire Guru Rinpoche so much is that he was/is perpetually roaming all over the Himalaya including East Bhutan how much of this is documented is up to the imagination but that isn’t the point. He lived into his hundreds and arose to nirvana never dying and so goes Easter with blaring puja horns and crashing cymbals since it’s always Easter in East Bhutan.
I was a good boy this weekend judging the extemporary speech including making an impromptu speech of my own on the topic “Think Before You Act” I babbled on for three minutes about being impetuous and reacting hastily to things. When I got the topic I froze like a deer in the headlights before stammering out a speech. I got many compliments but it wasn’t very good. Poor Sither Zangmo got the topic what animal would you like to be and struggled mightily, afterwards she was mortified burying her face in her hands. The truth is most students would struggle mightily and the ones who try should be commended. Saturday afternoon and evening was a doubleheader of observing the puja and staff dinner and I was the only expat at supper since my Indian cohorts ducked out. On 4/20 I bunked Zangtopelri puja instead walking Dawa Dema down the channel going as far as a hillock above Chakademi. She is a funny little dog growling at cows and quarreling with goats almost causing me to fall of the cement beam into the jungle abyss. I do admire her temerity chasing any animal she encounters even one fifty times her size with giant horns that could skewer a man like a pork chop. Back at Sonam Choden’s shop she lazes on her stomach watching her beloved Hindi soaps telling me if I don’t have houseguests that in my next life I will be born as a turtle with a house on my back. She also said backbiting students will be reborn as dogs or without legs, I didn’t get that one. I must have leered at too much cleavage to be born with poor eyesight. She regaled me with her version of Buddhist doctrine even saying non-believers of the Guru go to a special hell but the catch is that hell is being a housefly right here on earth. I can imagine waiting to be squashed is scary oh wait aren’t we all houseflies in that way? I popped Indian made Cheeseballs in my mouth and slugged my coke pondering reincarnation and the karma that led me here to Bhutan. I wonder at the circumstances that brought me here in a saga that continues to unravel every moment.
On the antipode of Zangtopelri Tyler, Beth, andJohn drive on the Golden Gate Bridge returning from a concert in the city (Gravity is so trippy I still think it’s kooky that we all don’t fall into space) we talk via the modern marvel AKA the mobile phone, even more miraculous is I am on speaker in their speeding car. A kerfuffle of rushing student’s and puja horns are making it difficult to communicate so I bid adieu oblidged for the call. For five days tolling cacophonous horns meander from the knoll stray vibrationsseeping under the crack ofmy doorway and rustling the hairs of my cochlea. My brain identifies the sound as PUJA MON! From where the temple is perched an interminable streak of supplications for all sentient beings drafts into ether but is anyone listening?
One reason many of us like teaching here is being a celebrity deep down isn’t it true? Like any superstar we might get annoyed at the attention but we also thrive off it. On a deeper level it’s the profound challenge and work of teaching that matters but being someone important feels nice too.
I awoke on Monday morning with an ornery asshole burning from too much chilli intake (gives new meaning to the expression fire in the hole, isn’t it) I am taking regular meals but procuring certain foods is challenging. No fruits and limited vegetables including potato, onion, and chilli (Hope I don’t get scurvy like a pirate)Egg is also a reliable staple and we can round out the diet with crackers and coke. But right now I’m satiated from pork and emadatsi from the mess. They warn us about the pork and if I don’t have a tapeworm already I probably do now after eating the fatty chunks of cartilage passing as swine. But I eat it for the energy as I feel weedy from lack of meat in my diet, i’m more sinewy than emaciated or that’s what I tell myself.
In class six I teach one Indian student Augusta whose father runs the hydro project. The family has been here for years and Augusta’s sister was a topper at Tsenkharla before “passing out” graduating. He is also extremely bright and the only student who has been on an airplane while the boy next to him Pema Wangchuk has never reached Trashigang.
Afterschool a meeting on Life Skills which I will teach to my home class starting next week during the new zero period. Life at boarding school is cooking now as the weeks begin to blend together and I stay rooted in the vicinity on my one day weekend. Today was a sunshine daydream with golden light saturating fleecy cloud ships transporting God’s and Goddesses to clandestine appointments. Classes went smoothly as I assessed class seven reading outside on the sprouting clover. One must always remember these multilingual students do a good job provided the circumstances, the easterners performs poor in English compared to the westerners especially in speaking ability. That is my primary goal this year focusing on building confident speakers who can hold a conversation in English. Order Up!
Right now a nocturnal tiger prowls the highestranges of Yangtse GRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! But where is the missing yeti?
Tiger Tiger Burning Bright
Will you be my meal tonight?
Blessings from Bhutan
Guru Rinpoche is the second Buddha or the reincarnation of the original Buddha. But I heard somewhere there are infinite Buddha’s throughout the bands of time. Precambrian Buddha tripping out on Dinosaurs, Ameba Buddha, and Maitreya or future Buddha’s. We are also unawake Buddha’s, In addition there are reclining Buddha’s, Smoking Buddha’s, Laughing Buddha’s, fat Buddha’s, skinny Buddha’s, and Buddha’s with boners, it goes on. The itinerant and powerful Guru Rinpoche concerned himself with subjugating demons thusly converting them to Buddhism from paganism. It seems even the Guru had an agenda to wipe out those incessant deities that harken back to the source of creation. Dark spooky things that go bump in the night and transform themselves from shadows to serpents. So it went the Guru triumphed over all converting the denizens both occult and humanto the dharma his legacy found in the shinning eyes of every Bhutanese alive today. Sonam Choden even told me he foretold the Chinese conquest of Tibet because Tibetans had been iniquitous. I’m quite certain the Guru loved both Tibetans and Bhutanese equally as Sonam’s interpretation sounds eerily Christian, a vengeful Guru? He did appear in eight manifestations including a monstrous Dorji that could scare even the heartiest Bon Spirit into adopting the Dharma. Guru also rode with two consorts including Yeshi who turned into a Tigress to fly Guru Rinpoche up to Taktsang Goempa(Yeshi was Tibetan) but he also had an Indian consort scribe. The truly adept don’t lead ascetic lives in tantric Buddhism the Guru and his disciples like Drukpa Kunley score with the ladies. Except when they make love it’s more about the constant longing of yin and yang to coalesce. Guru Rinpoche was a master working on levels I can’t even dream about just as Jesus the miracle worker was the light of this world the Guru told us that he would be there every time the morning sun crests the mountain and every moment thereafter like Jesus carrying us piggyback on the sand(Yet sometimes I feel deserted and alone?) I can only say I’ve seen the Guru incarnate with my own heart and have pined to be touched by Christ in that way. But the real force that sustains me is primal pixyish and older than dirt the true light and darkness of this world. Part of the forces that patrolled the void when Jesus wasn’t even the apple of Adam’s eye. Why am I rhapsodizing religious yet again well there is seepage here as I watch them pray all the livelong day. Also I would be remiss if I didn’t elucidate to any new readers about the merits of the Guru.
ALL HAIL THE JEWELL IN THE LOTUS
…And then there is reincarnation; the Bhutanese themselves pose strong evidence of this phenomenon. They have rarely spoken of it but the glint in their eyes just proves it. For one thing names are given by lamas and so a brother and sister could be Sonam Wangmo and Sangay Tashi. These interchangeable names somehow are indicative of reincarnation but it’s so much deeper then names alone. Their souls seem as interchangeable as to only be explained by reincarnation. There are some faces that strike me as eerily familiar as I wonder if I was here before but I would think Bhutanese are only recycled as Bhutanese. Once I accept reincarnation my agnostic ideologies evaporate like dew in noontime grass. For whatever reason I was a train wreck visiting the U.S.A and reintegration was challenging but I have a new outlook on the Bhutanese now, one that is as ineffable as the people themselves. A strange mix revolving around some dragon nucleus from the jungle dwelling Lepcha to the high altitude Brokpa a people as diverse as the hues of silky kira varieties and wound tight as the threads that make up a snazzy gho.
Back on earth I had pesky diarrhea running to and fro from the latrine. Probably payback for that fatty pork isn’t it? Not to mention the Chillie bender I’ve been on. Smoke plugs the vast valley again but I did step outside after midnight spotting a luminous gold orb lounging over Bartsham, sighing howdypartner!On Wednesday our social service task was transforming a former trash pit into a garden. The kids are at home working laborious projects or in the fields. The girls plucked offshoots from plants in other gardens and transplanted them into the fresh soil that the boy’s had dug up, and I led a troop to clean the surrounding area which was embedded with plastic and glass. Hopefully the marigolds and other flowers they planted will flourish long after my departure. Since the new garden replaces the trash pit it may attract litter so we will be vigilant. Principal Sir ordered the trash pit renovation due to it being an eyesore for guests who visit campus especially dignitaries. My school is on a beatification craze making countless gardens (some obstructing walking) renovating the courtyard eventually slatingit with stones. Campus is in a transitional state right now as we’re waiting for our second statue and refurbished courtyard. Today was so smoked out that you could barely make out the outline of Shampula, there must be a fire or every farmer is burning their fields or both. It’s been light on rain so far but we have still probably gottenten inches sporadically. The forests are blooming and the potato plants are sprouting in fields that were barren a few weeks ago. Birds flitter about and butterflies circumambulate children’s ankles, and rhododendrons make their last stand! Only red ones hereabouts. Horns and cymbals can be heard wafting down the knoll from Zangtopelri as the march for a million mantras continues. Classes roll on and I can only say that more patience and practice is required but these kids are a delight take it all around. I finally made curry in my pressure cooker formally my popcorn popper. I couldn’t open it and called Becky in a panic who informed me I had to wait ten minutes for depressurization. So I learned what I should have on a third day not a third year,anyhow I even had Butterfly over for lunch who said the emadatsi was fine. When I asked the students in class eight if they wanted to be an educated farmer almost half the class raised their hands which surprised me. Farming is hard work but it bodes well for the kingdom that the agrarian culture will remain intact. As I watch my first batch of students approaching the class ten exam I ponder what will become of them. Many students I taught have already vanished without a trace from my life transferring to other schools in other Dzongkags. Places like Thimphu, Gelephu, Samdrop Jonkhar, or Punakha. Nowadays there are ample fresh faces to build relationships with and try to educate as the mission continues.
Since I have no internet access I will ramble on and tell you about an unusual day. After lunch classes were suddenly cancelled the whole school ascended for a pilgrimage to Zangtopelri for a mass blessing. The march for a million mantras was finally over although I’m not sure they surpassed that milestone. A Rinpoche was visiting from Yongphula home of the derelict domestic airport with a view of Tibet. Unlike Becky and my Rinpoche Thebsgey, this one is not reincarnated but a wise and learned Rinpoche nonetheless. I was impressed by his presence (no one levitates like Thebsgey) but this older Rinpoche also had an air about him as he proceeded through the congregation bonking people on the melon with his magic wand. Where Thebsgey threw the hammer down this Rinpoche had a softer touch, another amazing blessing when I really needed it. I was seated between Ashish and Sonam Choden when it came for my turn for an affirming thud on my head. Then the electric afterglow as a blessing ties the community together in an inexplicably intricate design. Perhaps this is natural for a Bhutanese as many toddlers’ eyes shine with Buddha light, but for a foreighner it’s remarkable to be a part of it. As my tenure progresses I enjoy the fact that they have become accustomed to my idiosyncrasiesand way of being and now I can blend into the fabric of it all. This has been a hard year with health challenges, a full workload, diminished traveling, trips to town, and the loss of my best friend who returned stateside. Yet it has also been a good year with visits to both Gom Kora and Chorten Kora Tsechu, some extensive l2roaming, and a deeper sense of what I’m doing here.
Up at the puja I visited the outhouse to pee entering the duplex at the exact same time as a dignified old lama draped in maroon robes. As I pissed I heard the holy man defecating a bombardment of the chunkiest excrement imaginable plopping gurgling and splattering around his pit (think Harry in Dumb and Dumber) I ran out of there right quick and got a cup of tea from Rinchen Wangmo. Behind all the remarkable events up at the temple Rinchen steers the ship seamlessly through the emerald frothy waves making food, washing dishes, and a thousand other chores including cleaning up lama chunks. She is also primary caretaker of the temple itself responsible for sweeping and making perpetual offerings lighting butter lamps and fragrant incense. Its 6:17 Thursday evening in Bhutan and 5:47 in Arrunachal Pradesh now obscured by a veil of smoke. I just got back from witnessing the boy’s final soccer match which is compulsory for teachers. Watching soccer is like watching paint dry and I spent more time observing ominous plumes of smoke rise from the ridgeline of Bartsham,the atmosphere was so acrid the trees across the soccer field were blurry. The kids are at their prayers NOW as usual and I am off to join them at the mess for dinner, as for the aforementioned pressure cooker I done busted it when I tried to pry it open before it depressurized. Idiot! It still works alright but doesn’t whistle, who wants a train that don’t whistle?
Every blessing has a different feel and this Rinpoche definitely brought the heat satisfying all. The crowd warmed him up by humming prayers while he sat under a canopyatop a throne eventually navigating the rows of worshipful Bhutanese ranging from just born to nearly deceased bopping them on the head. Buddhism is inseparable from life here and the liminal Christians and Hindu followers don’t make a dent in the omnipotent dharma like gold tasseled bunting ruffling in the wind. Today was both smoky and windy as Tsenkharla is usually a placid place considering its elevation but through the impending calamity the community stays together since that is what being Bhutanese seems to be about. I was raised by a culture touting individualism a blessing and a curse. My personality drives me to the extreme end of the spectrum being downright reclusive, but if I wasn’t programed that way I never would of slipped the bonds of my loved ones and migrated so far from home. Still I envy the Bhutanese and learn slowly how to be a part of a holistic community starring in the special role of phelincpa teacher!
I’d almost forgotten about those dragon thunderstorms like the one last night. As the storm seized the ridge from the four black corners of the universe peals of thunder clapped louder each passing minute until thunder BOOMED echoing through the maze of mountains appearing to roll boundlessly in an oval. From that oblong vortex came a torrent of rain that soaked the forests and fields leaving the campus full of muddy puddles come morning. Around midnight the power went out leaving the world black throughmy open door rageda howling wind, driving rain, and a terrifying fork of lightning that ripped through the void with a thousand purple prongs; an unadulterated display of the Dragon’s power and man’s puniness. The electromagnetic shakeup left me tossing and turning and I’m exhausted today. Energy levels can fluctuate rapidly in The Land of Terror known as East Bhutan like temperature. Today was blustery although the icy fangs of winter have receded up the moraines along the northeast border with China. I wonder if I walked due north from Bumdeling what Tibetan village would I reach first? I’ve never imagined a scope of wilderness as vast as this section of the Himalayas, trying to comprehend it is like trying to understand the scope of the universe itself. Humans have left an imprint just go to Guwahati and sniff the air. The sector of East Bhutan, Arrunachal Pradesh, and southeastern Tibet alone is a huge chunk of wilderness with incredible flora and fauna. Tigers are indicative of a healthy habitat but you’d be surprised how close they roam to cities in Nepal and India. Here in Bhutan they enjoy a freer range prowling the icy precipices alongside blue sheep and snow leopards. Around Rangthangwoong we have cows and dogs with ample plant, bird, and insect life. The emerald chain of impenetrable mountains known as the Inner Himalayan, waves of verdant walls buffering the foothills that tap the plains and the foreboding abode of the gods a crest of giants reaching 28,000 feet and beyond them the Tibetan plateau that might as well stretch on forever. From Samdrop the Himalayas rise 20,000 feet abutting the border of China all within about a hundred miles. Bhutan exists on stellar steps which spiral upward towards the top of the world. I feel blessed to be on the rounded ridge of Tsenkharla instead of superimposed into the mountainside like most of the surrounding villages that look as if they might slip off the slope and tumble into the abyss at any moment. But it is nestled in these hills that the Buddhist culture glows the brightest, on thousands of simple alters, butter lamps emanating from the darkest hollows of Arcadian Bhutan.
What if we suddenly realized that we were everything and that there was no distinction between ourselves and our enemies or the blades of grass under our bare feet, what would we do then? Do you believe that statement anyway or would Jesus reprimand you? Well not my Jesus who has been spotted in the Himalayas seeking enlightenment with his buddy Lucifer for companionship (a handsome fellow with inflated ego) but the savior always turns his cheek to his pal’s mischief. Are you more like Jesus or Lucifer or is it all interchangeable? How can you feel Jesus’s love shinning two thousand and fourteen years into the future? I had an inkling staring at the forlornly serene Jesus nailed to the cross above the pulpit at Saint Anselms. My mystical encounter with THE GURU up at Zangtopelri transformed me in a peculiar way, not to say I found proof of God rather that God never needed proving to begin with as HE is contained in every vessel conveying life and every element that makes this earth. Namaste! IT is the formless masquerading as form for the benefit of all sentient beings. Besides there are some things humans aren’t meant to know, and most of us enjoy seeking more than finding anyway.
This choppy post trundles on without direction as I can’t connect internet from the hut this year. That means I have been publishing from the plugin in the computer lab which is easier for pic loading. But now the school voucher is spent therefore the lost tiger drifts and dreams, they can’t all be winners right? It’s Friday night and I’m bushed. Housework and marking piles up and tomorrow is Mass Cleaning so obviously I will help coordinate the event,I support cleaning 24/7 but need to dissuade the habitual littering before any real progress can be claimed. One redundant theme in this post is religion which I call my own fear of death, this is the primary motivator for most devotees, or at least an intrigue of that biggest question. Living in the wild puts these big questions in the forefront of my consciousness. All that really matters is living the moment which is basically the quest for enlightenment. The Buddhist prayers put them closer to that elusive NOW an egoless state of perfect grace. Academically I know it exists but practically I shun it, Mindfulness, moderation, and meditation are not the three M’s I prescribe to in my life. Last night’s volley did a lot of good for the crops as precipitation seems more dependable here than in California. But it has been a light year and I secretly cherish those cosmic thunderstorms (my first year I sipped tea after midnight reading Sometimes a Great Notion rain pounding my tin roof and thunder rattling my bunk) and two years later a cricket chirps outside my window saying congratulations you’re still here! If that cricket could read my soul he might note that my zest has wavered but my love has deepened so let’s hang it up and see what tomorrow brings…
Rain clutches the land and I woke up with a swollen toe that left me hobbling around the house washing underwear and making hot chocolate reading Under the Holy Lake. Apparently Ken visited Tsenkharla ruin and his book reminded me that all the One Valley Kings of East Bhutan claimed descendent from Tsangma. Tsangma’s ruin remains a power spot in the region connecting East Bhutan and Tawang the area the exiled prince influenced. If the east had united under Tsangma’s banner and marched west what would the result have been? Now I’m always alone in the castle contemplating such matters. I had hoped to bust out into the forests or onto the road this weekend but weather and bum toe has rooted me at home. The author is adrift in some Bhutanese doldrums but I know by now that is part of the game. This year I am rundown and health has become a real challenge or “red flag” as Mare would crow. Survival is the endgame here and all else a supreme bonus so I endlessly practice making K WA Datsi in my broken pressure cooker like Bill Murray on Groundhog’s Day with no desire to escape. Keep your nose to that old Rangthangwoong stone each and every moment. (Instead of “I Got You Babe” my endless loop starts with the tolling of the brass bell each morning at 5:15 A.M) Today’s afternoon program is as follows; laze about on my bunk, planning lessons, washing garments, and sidle up to the mess for supper. Not much of a weekend and between Teacher’s Day and July 1 is the busiest portion of the year. Ah shucks I’ll have to run on down to the village for a couple of cokes. Yesterday Sonam Choden (student) corrected me when I told her I was going to the village for snacks,“You mean the bazaar sir she retorted” a pack of girl’s also poked fun at me for eating cheeseballs which they quipped “baby food, no sir?”
At this point in the semester I don’t feel in the weeds or overwhelmed but I am maximally busy with schoolwork. The extra grade level has added pressure to my workload, I teach 30 periods a week which is less instructional time than I taught in Korea but there is more marking and prepping here. The maintenance, health hazards, extracurricular activities, and impromptu visits round out one’s life as a volunteer teacher. Time is paradoxical here, in ways you have ample amounts yet in ways it’s never enough, only someone who has worked here might concur with that statement. That’s the balancing act, how much to spare and how much to conserve. The gnawing guilt of am I doing enough to help and at the same time am I growing and enjoying the experience. The upshot is life is full and interesting in a way I have never known, ultimately there is so much to do and no time to do it. But that’s okay too sitting around on a Sunday lounging on top of the world. A Sunday afternoon that might last forever, charcoal clouds sag from heaven like an old man’s beard grazing the summit of Shampula. Intermittent showers spray the saturated landscape, this storm was both abundant and timely. Spent the day marking unit tests and feel that comprehension was adequate but the difference lies in writing abilities. Section 8B performed stronger than 8A and both classes include an array of talents as well as academic prowess. Reading Ken’s book I feel grateful to live at Tsenkharla with less rain and no leeches. I remember travelling between Khaling and Wamrong I hopped out of the jeep to pee and when I got back in the cab there were wispy leeches burrowing into the webbing of my fingers. Electricity has been the biggest advancement since the original volunteers (no Americans) served twenty five years ago. Bhutanese mannerisms have changed little as you can still find children bowing to oncoming tourist (or in the case of our maiden voyage one ornery kid making lewd gestures towards two female staff who were waiving on the outskirts of Limithang) for the most part culture thrives at an eastern boarding school but the insidious allure of western fashions takes its toll especially in Thimphu. Many of my students will return to agrarian life after class ten which ultimately is a good thing. Bhutanese seem to know their place intuitively but it is sad when a boy misses the mark by a point and never gets a shot at a career. Regardless I see bright futures for the students that will go on to lead and those who will go back to the farms and support the agricultural heart of the kingdom. Hopefully in fifty years Bhutan will remain similar to how it is today in regard to its simplicity and beauty. This is not nostalgia and Bhutan isn’t Utopia but it’s as close as it will ever get.
A student dropped by to borrow my portable speaker and asked if my mother was here recently? Scratching my head I said no but as it turns out he meant Nancy Strickland the Executive Director of BCF who had visited campus. The Bhutanese are innocent in that way like when I was sick the Swedish fiddler came to Tsenkharla and the shopkeeper remarked that my friend was here. As if they don’t comprehend the complexities of the outside world. I laugh when they ask about my village back home or my USA village. After the boy left Butterfly dropped by fluttering around the house showing off his dance routine for teachers day. For dinner I had the requisite K WA which was my best yet. The sweet red potatoes I procured are grown in Chakedemi the early girl harvest (they are reminiscent of the kind I use for my baked chicken stateside) they blended seamlessly with the goopy Indian processed cheese. Delicious! My energy level is low this year but I keep plugging along currently mulling over my lessons for the week that are sitting next to me at the moment. I guess these words are a procrastination like the chili flavored popcorn at my side. A knock at the door Butterfly is back with Surgit to rehearse their dance number and it’s priceless to watch my living space transformed into a Bollywood set. Outside a ferocious T-Cell buckets tipping over the land, rivulets forming on every pathway on campus. Emerald clover and grasses have sprouted transforming earth into a wonderland. The shades of green that bedazzle the senses making East Bhutan the most beautiful destination on earth as confirmed by that cricket chirping outside my window. Today had terrific lightning bellowing thunder and a Scooby doo fog out. Now stars splatter the sky and ribbons of residual lightning circuit the capacious valley. That weird star lightning groove where the universe dresses up in a studded evening gown cavorting through the void saying, “here I am look at me!” The universe flouncesupon your pallet eternally but very few ever take a glance. In Bhutan it is hard not to notice isn’t it? For many volunteers it’s a spiritual homecoming that can’t easily be explained. As a vagabond for beauty this is as delicious as it will ever get a fact that I wrestle with, you got to let it ride obviously but also savor what will be the sweetest drops sizzling the tongue (even sweeter than minty lavender)Here I am in this amazing situation in some ways more closed off than ever, more ensconced in my defensive little ego shell. There have been chinks in fact the Dragon constantly chips away until one surrenders or flees accordingly.
My third yearhas been vexing but I am learning to surf, the theme of this year is staying put and besides my visit from Nancy I have not seen another BCF teacher. I’m shot like a woody sputtering out of gas (for the layman that’s a classic wooden boat) but my engine will roar again as I await GASOLINE to roll me to the finish line (Ha! As if an experience in Bhutan is linear you fool!) But miracles happen every day and that is GAS, here are a trio of long lost affirmations
Three Good Things:
1. Talking with Mess CaptainPema who looked angelic in her red rachu and pleated kira
2. Thunder and Lightning
3. Sipping Cups of tea after rehearsal with the fellas (with a hint of Nepali spice)
(Authors Note: Gosh I just reread some of this post and realize I am repeating myself on certain topics, has the tiger become senile at 36? I hope not anyway pardon me for this smorgasbord of gibberish written over several weeks and hopefully you found something worthwhile or you would had given up before now, my most loyal fans proceed through the bejeweled door to your left…agog!)
The Lost Tiger of Bhutan
Here is an example of a behavior issue in class. I confiscated Tandin Wangdi’s Science book since he was doing his Science homework during our English lesson. I placed his book on my desk but when I went to retrieve it the book was gone. Probably mischevious Dorji Wangmo B took the book and after I left the room the book found its way back to Tandin. Well I moved Dorji Wangmo B away from cohort Phuntsho Wangmo for starters. Classwork is going fine but I need to shake things up a little and incorporate more interesting activities. I am successfully hitting on the four domains of ESL but an occasional yawn from a student will humble a teacher. Kick start that old pedagogy toot sweet!
The sun glistened off the white line of the clock tower other rays reflect off caked mud shoving my hands in my pockets muttering to myself what brats they were today. Still wrestling with insecurities as a teacher when I should be mastering my craft if only the kids knew how I felt or maybe they do…Gulp that thought sends a shiver up my spine… Oh what a lovely clock tower it is anyway and look over there those trees are in bloom with luscious leaves. Twisty pines and the row of regal cypress can you believe some days I don’t notice them and what about my rock and all those chortens in the forest when will I visit them again? The bell rings interval ends students rush by in funny outfits like penguins not acknowledging me, am I invisible? “Hi sir!” good old Sangay Wangmo breaks this dismal train “Hey Sangay Wangmo, How are you?” “I’m fine sir.” “and how is sir, sir?”
“Oh fine, just on my way to class...”
Apparently that fire was in Bidung where a BCF teacher resides. I’m so out of the loop I don’t know who is up there maybe Kevin? Anyway he must have quite a story to tell and hopefully his house was spared. It goes to show how isolated one can be, I look out knowing there are foreign volunteers over hills and down in dales but I don’t know any of them. Hopefully I will encounter a few along the road ahead,the first year I talked to about five teachers on the mobile phone and Becky at least three times a minute. You feel connected to the batch you come in with, last year I met the newcomers and made a friend Jon who resides in Wamrong. But now I don’t know any new placements and couldn’t even name all our teachers in the field whereas the first year I knew intimate details of everyone’s lives. The last couple of days I have been drowning in Bhutanese which is ironic since that’s all there is except prancing Keralites. It’s all good but cabin fever has set in and I recognize it and see no end in sight. Now it is time to knuckle down until midterm exams but I still have a few aces up my sleeve. Took dinner up at the mess which was wet fish like bony chunks of trout. The portions of curry or food is much smaller than what my friends back home are used to as I envision my dad gnawing the bone of an enormous T-bone he just demolished with a gutted baked potato and empty salad bowl save dressing dregs. Here rice is called food and a scoop of vegetables or scrappy meat is extra(memories of Vegasgalloping through a corralled maze headed for the neon lit buffet, the edible ten thousand things) Here we have three edible things potatoes, onions, and rice, ah those Trashigang Chicken benders are sorely missed. If I die before I wake and head down that old tunnel of light may there be a guy in a puffy white hat and white coat slicing rare prime…
One pleasure of teaching ESL is reading with students and its admirable the effort they put in. Class six is a great class with fun personality but easy to reign. Eight is challenging since I have been teaching them for two years at a pivotal time in their development. They still abide by my rule of course but they attempt to rile me up and appeal to my humor. Teaching a class for two years is awesome though and a rare occurrence elsewhere. Furthermore this will always be my first real teaching job. South Korea was real teaching and I fondly remember teaching preschool and my brilliant returnees but living in a close knit community at a boarding school watching students develop over years has been a dream come true. Dechen Tshomo returned to school after attending her mother’s funeral rights,the other students told me her mom died of alcoholism a terrible fact of life here. Poor Dechen was ashen and heartbroken but today I heard her lilting laugh which was optimistic. The Bhutanese seem to take death in stride compared to Westerners. It is useless to speculate on how they relate to life and death since it is so distinct from my own view. Afterschool in between rain showers I walked down the canal on the western slope. The canal was rushing with muddy water gushing ten miles from the water source up in the jungle. I promptly took the shortcut up to Zangtopelri navigating switchbacks through rhododendron and stands blue tinted pines over my shoulder lay the fertile valley and the Kulong Chu, the farming settlement of Shali sprawls over the green slope creating an idyllic picture. The muted sky give the mountains a depth with deciduous leaves popping off the precipices. Towards Yangtse town a jagged ridge I had forgotten and on the flipside a view all the way to the eastern frontier, the last Arrunachal ridge occluding eternity. But what’s on the other side we will never know for I am only a ONE VALLEY KING but I fortunately inherited the valley where the Sharchop lineage began from an exiled prince seeking regeneration and I wonder what my little legacy will be in this strange land where everything is inexplicably linked. Surgit and Ashish rehearsed again at my place and I made tea and grilled cheese sandwiches with the scrappy white bread availed from Trashigang and purchased at Kesang’s shop. It’s the first time all year I’ve seen bread up here and I haven’t ventured off the hill much these days. Haven’t been hiking much either since my recovery and am anticipating a pilgrimage soon. As it stands now I have more places to visit than time to visit them but staying put is alright too. Prince Tsangma’s ruin a broke down palace has command over a huge area at the nexus of Tawang, Trashigang, and Trashiyangtse which makes his obelisk the center of my universe.
If one wants a taste of unbridled Bhutanese culture come to T.M.S.S we got it all! The pageantry of cultural dance, 100% national dress, and lickings for rebel rousers. In some ways it all makes Communist China seem freethinking. Except how can you not buy into the Bhutanese ideals and propaganda? It might seem draconian but this is the last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom and I’d like to keep it that way. Butterflies rule number one is astoundingly similar to the Prime Directive which inherently states, “Don’t destroy the culture” The Prime Directive actually says don’t interfere but you get my drift or maybe you don’t if you aren’t familiar with Captain Picard. And like Picard and most certainly kirk before him we all break our cardinal rule! Desire got the best of Will Reicker and it WILL get the best of me too. Step right up to T.M.S.S we got rectitude up the rectum and we’re pious up the pie hole.The Dangme Chu a cream gash rushing through dry riverbed swatches of grass forming hazel contours accompanies my midday tea, isn’t it lovely, isn’t it? Are my thoughts erratic? Are these phantasmagorical interpretations of daily events which may or may not be real causing you consternation or constipation? Does it matter? Teaching matters employment and enjoyment in the void improving the spirit of samsara like a cruise ship captain steering through a wavy void. FYI the buffet on this ship sucks!
Everyone seems angry today the hive is disturbed better hide and watch. Which of these things is not like the other oh that would be me! Student’s smiles and laughter buoys my spirit allowing me another moment so forgetting my woe I assume the role of teacher.
The very nature of ego is egotistical the notion of the individual. I perceive myself to be unique and distinct from you. I am even a bit of a freak by societal terms an outcast an expatriate but all that is pretend since at the core we are all light. Icky to think were all the same isn’t it? I know it’s true yet it somehow threatens to devalue my worth. Eckhart would implore you to shuck the ego like a worker at ACME sloughing the shell of a raw oyster and return to the gooey communal source of the moment that is eternal life. Blah Blah Blah! How the hell are we supposed to do that Haas? It’s seems more convenient to collect and withhold and ride the perpetually dazzling carrousel called Samsara. Samsara is the illusionary state we call life a classroom for migratory souls seeking enlightenment and liberation from form. Jesus was head of the class a real topperbut his was a Jew’s perspective generations after Buddha’s Science of the soul was unfurled on the dusty subcontinent. My first inkling of Buddha was as a teenager buying fireworks in china town noticing a fat laughing Buddha statue on the sidewalk like a grotesque cartoon. Now I know him as a handsome prince who became the king of wisdom and compassion.
Wednesday the last day of April traditionally I would place a call to Becky congratulating her on enduring another month in the Land of Terror, so now a pat on my own back. Morning was clear as a bell with views to the end of the valley a snowy crown in Tawang, including the fanged twin massifs straddling the border of Tawang and Tibet. In my imagination I have trod along those icy cornices looking out over the northern boundary of snowbound peaks and southwest towards the green mandala of Eastern Bhutan. Afterschool I headed up to Tsangma’s ruin for some meditation and a sparkling beverage. I pondered questions like how did our exalted prince find water atop our beloved ridge? And what did he look like? I imagine the prince mongoloid in appearance migrating from Lhasa but I have it on authority that he married a gal from present day Tawang and thus the Sharchop and Monpa lineages were born. I dropped into the cypress grove to touch lichen and hug some old friends in a world of crunchy leaves and sprouting ferns with a soundtrack of symphonic birds whooping it up in the gloaming. Back at home Surgit and Butterfly came to practice dance and make brianne a spicy rice dish, Yum real Indian food. A blast from the past no water for the dishes.
Today I taught sex education in life skills. I had the student’s right down anonymous questions and then I answered them. Mainly we discussed how to get and use condoms. Why condoms are effective, I discussed various diseases including HIV, how diseases are transmitted, myths about such diseases, and where babies come from. There was some snickering at first but I think the students appreciated the knowledge that they might not be getting at home. Another school day in the books another day at a boarding school complete with the bell for lights out tolling as we speak. The days blend together as I try to catch my breath. Just trying to stay on top of lesson planning, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and sleeping on my rock hard cot.
Health update it’s always something I have a bump on my nose that isn’t a zit or is it? I still need to get that deworming tablet. Saw Rinchen Wangmo in Kezang’s shop toting baby Jamphel to the BHU for a checkup. They were last seen heading down the gradient road Rinchen wearing her babe on her back strapped in with colored cloth and holding a parasol against the blazing sun. We talk about encroachment of westernization but traditional values and way of life is happening in East Bhutan. The old ones are amazing gathering leaves in the forest toothless and barefoot just like they have been doing for generations and you will still encounter uneducated teenagers pitching rocks in the canal looking unwashed and toned. Every day I pinch myself and implore The Dragon for her graces and safe passage, The Dragon is older than Buddha which is to say The Dragon is old as thunder. One things for certain my time here is short so there’s no time to loose.
The Days Are Just Packed
Teacher’s day 2014 was a tough day for me, not that the day passed without a miracle but I was a begrudging participant. I woke up feeling moody concerned about the bump on my nose but strapped on apseudo smile and walked up the path to the MP Hall. The day began with a student program including speeches and dance, followed by lunch, and a teacher talent program in the evening. A fierce thunderstorm reined over the land shaking the whitewashed buildings unheard within the steamy MP Hall ringing with song. My bit came near the end of the program so I did “We Bid You Goodnight” bringing Jesus to the forefront amongst flickering butter lamps. FYI my two Keralite compatriots did a fine routine I made a snide comment about them rehearsing all week in my home and later apologized, as if I need more alone time right? I didn’t spend quality time with any of my students that day since class parties were forfeited for a more communal format. The aforementioned miracle was a small one like morning dew just watching the euphoric face of young Pema from class eight as she imbibed the teachers dance featuring several male and female teachers including my neighbor Kinzang a stud with graceful movements. Argh life at a boarding school, we had three programs in two days including a whopping cultural danceathon lasting four hours on Saturday afternoon. There are three distinct types of dance which are Zhumdra (traditional) where students sing in a nasal pitch in a row waving their arms like kelp in a current. The second style is semi traditional and called Bedra and the third is Rigsar which is done to modern Bhutanese pop music with an emphasis on creativity. The best Rigsar had students dressed as black necked cranes doing accurate bird calls along with rhythmic movements. After the inter-house dance champion was awarded I spotted a red taxi and evacuated campus post haste ending up in Doksom. What the hell! I dropped in on Sangay Tshomo the Philly I befriended at Chorten Kora and convinced her to take a walk to Gom Kora. But as we crossed the refurbished steel bridge at the confluence of two mighty rivers the sky opened and we were pelted. So we ran like children into her friend’s shack, once inside she brushed wet tresses from her forehead and I was struck at the beauty of the human form and wondered at the quizzical pang in my abdomen. The rain subsided and I lit out in the gloaming towards Gom Kora solo but was scooped up hitchhiking by a funny man from Phuntsholing and I was his rider into the jeweled Hill Stationwhere I was deposited at the K.C. Dinner was room service chicken and chili in front of the boob tube.
I awoke to a text message at 7 AM from Francoise also known as Tashi Wangmo a French woman who has spent thirty years in the Kingdom. She is a historian and is the preeminent foreign scholar on Bhutan, in the same arena as Michael Aris and has been bestowed the rare privilege of citizenship in the kingdom which means she is fluent in Dzonkha. On my way out of the hotel I was shit on by a pigeon so I had to retrace my steps and wash up best I could before proceeding to the gas station outside T-Gang and drovea Bhutanese professor and myselfup to Tsenkharla. It was impressive to see this spry woman driving her own vehicle through the hazardous the construction zone, it was her aim to reunite with the Delo a shamanistic archetype which was teetering on extinction. In the car I harangued her about Bhutanese history and uncovered some nuggets that I can only paraphrase. It is thought people have inhabited East Bhutan since 3,000 years before Christ. When I look out at the pristine landscape I am amazed that people can live sustainably on the same hard land for thousands of years. Prince Tsangma’s ruin as it turns out was carbon dated to the fourteenth century not the eighth which means it might have been a descendent king’s fortress (Also home to local deity and lounge for Mr. Tim) As for Tsangma little is known but his political agenda might have been to establish himself as king after banishment from Tibet. History and myth are intrinsically woven in Bhutan exemplified by the Guru himself. His energy is what’s real not the form or subsequent historythereafter but as my aunt Mare says, people need stories and that is true in Sharchop culture where writing is irrelevant, and their stories probably more clever than this maniacal blog. HOWL! We arrived at Tsenkharla and Principal Sir graciously invited us for tea and afterwards we drove up to Zangtopelri pausing at Tsangma’s redoubt where I was informed of a third and original ruin down below Kinney perched on a hillock over the riverbed, while enjoying the view with Tashi Wangmo I stepped in a cow pie smearing my boot. Parking at the temple we hiked for exactly one hour to reach the Delo’s doorstep.
The Delo is an ageless woman with shinning black eyes that have literally seen many lifetimes. She is reportedly reincarnated from a Dakpa (Tawang side) tribe and was born in Bhutan with knowledge of this particular sect of Dakpa language. Basically this woman has psychic powers like a fortuneteller except she is visiting hell, the netherworld to retrieve information often from deceased spirits. Raised Catholic I have a different notion of hell than the Bhutanese but it’s safe to say this Delo who has a local reputation for drinking is in touch with the dark side. She receives visitors from as far away as Thimphu, Tawang, Bomdela in Arrunachal Pradesh, and Merak. They trek for days to this simple house with no furniture except pallets, cookware, and a basic alter where they gather on the floor while the Delo inhales incense and does her thing. She has the shine like Thebsgey but in an opposite manner, her eyes are wild and intensely vibrant,a heroine who has journeyed to hell ten thousand times drinking Cham with the devil. Tashi Wangmo showed the Delo pictures of their 1982 meeting on her laptop remarking how the Delo’s temperament remained the same. The Delo stealthy glancedin my direction sizing me up no doubt but my uncertain peepers probably relayed that I too have visited hell countless times always coming back empty handed. A Delo is a subversive figure not officially associated with the state religion but she is definitely Buddhist but seems a Bon throwback. I am humbled meeting Tashi Wangmo a legend in Bhutan realizing I will never know jack about this place and how arrogant and stubborn I am not learning the language and history. For me it’s all emotion simply going on a feeling and trying to stay afloat, in my heart I love Bhutan but I feel guilty about not doing enough to integrate. Anyway she has travelled throughout Bhutan and Tibet and paid her dues adopting the Himalayan world as her own, in this way she inspires me because deep down in my marrow this is also my place particularly Tsenkharla, where herl2 heart lies in Bumthang. My time here is a shadow moving swiftly across the mountain extinguished in eventide, foreshadowing separation. Meanwhile a chunk of Becky’s soul is being devoured by the denizens of phongmey turning IT into golden legacy. I admire Nancy and Francoise for making a life in Bhutan influencing countless lives on the path, I too play a tiny role influencing my students forming bonds and imparting knowledge. THIS IS MY LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT and I am acutely aware of it. The highlight of the escapadewas being escorted by Principal Sir who is a nice guy with a good sense of humor. He came along to act as guide and interpreter since he has a rapport with the Delo and has retained her counsel on various occasions. You might be wondering do I believe in the Delo. Francoise remarked she was only concerned about the historical fact of this woman not the faith aspects. It’s rare to meet a person as intelligent as Francoise and I wish I could have spent more time with her, she had to reprimand me once for interfering with her interview by posing a question something she forewarned me about. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm at the whole scene centered on this improbable reunion between Delo and Tashi Wangmo thirty years in the making. When Francoise came to Kamdang in 82 it wasn’t even on the map with no electricity and now she was showing photos to the Delo on her laptop. She observed that the quality of roofing had improved as tin roofs grace the top of mud farmhouses instead of thatched bamboo. As for the Delo she can’t tolerate crowds yet Butterfly gives an account of the Delo shouting at herself in Tsenkharla, while another teacher claims she is a huckster swindling money. If she is you wouldn’t know it by her simplistic living arrangement the only adornment is a handsome ram she saved from slaughter rummaging tethered to a prayer flag. From her dwelling near Namkhar on the mountaintop she commands a view of Tsenkharla ridge floating in space below, a shaman or madwoman watching over us all in an interchangeable universe mere illusions projecting from nothingness. If I only could interject in Sharchop or Dakpa “So what’s hell like anyway?” I’m not certain why relatives would be lingering there before being beamed back into the cycle of birth and death. Tantric Buddhism is convoluted in its endless pantheons yet I am comforted by the serene eyes of the Original Buddha who greets us in the attic at the end of the tour. Rinchen Wangmo blesses us all with grainy holy water from a silver chaliceadorned with an iridescentpeacock feather which I touch to my lips and run through my hair with my right hand making Rinchy laugh as liquid spills onto the floor. Standing beside a flickering butter lamp in her red sweater and rosy cheeks makes her look as if she is attending a Christmas party. Rinchen’s countenance and eyes of slumber denote a classic Himalayan beaut. The regional ladies perhaps not the fairest in the world but ruggedly simple running the gamut from creamy to dusky in skin tone with callused hands and feet. I go into the sidecar room and grab the old musket feeling like Clint Eastwood in the Wild East, Only the Guru would sanction a gun in a temple, a jolly good time! I am grateful to Principal Sir and Francoise for including me on the trip and mostly the muse in the form of The Dragon for keeping me. Today at Zangtopelri I felt the Guru’s glory radiating as we all worshiped in our own fashion inside the three tiered pagoda on the copper mountain of paradise. Every time I enter my beloved temple I notice ten thousand new things like unoccupied thrones, miniature statues, otherworldly geometric designs, and breathing frescos. I always notice the imposing statue of the Guru with bulging red eyes and curlicue mustache. On completion of the pilgrimage Francoise treated us to tea at the canteen in the bazaar before we all departed.
When I first dreamed up Hands across the Himalayas two and a half years ago I never imagined the scope of this odyssey, but the slogan to that fundraising drive proved prophetic as it is as if I am being ‘passed along by the grace of many helping hands.
Another grey day today but the forest was a haven for birds of all kinds darting from the treetops acrobatics in the abyss. I took a walk to a favorite mossy Chorten where I kicked it in the grass leaning my back against the stones enjoying a sparkling beverage and tuning into the exotic birdsong. Visibility was limited but the mountains in the forefront had rich hazel tones textured by deciduous trees mingling with pine as fresh fern shoots sprung under foot from the duff. Today Bhutan was the land of Southern Darkness Tibetan’s verdant neighbor tucked in an emerald mountain mandala a cornucopia of herbs. I look up from my spot a thousand feet above the vertical slope is the Delo’s domicileand I chuckle wondering what she’s up to now. It’s Monday and I am pooped after an eventful weekend, classes went smoothly but my house is a sty (I will clean tonight) I also have a heap of notebooks to correct. Water shortage this week reminds me of my first two years and how lucky I am to have better flowage this year. Invited myself over to Karlos and Sonam’s for lunch which is always comforting, good food and friends. Birds are warbling up a storm and the clouds are reminiscent of a monsoon steam dream, with warm and cold air circulating through the valley and elastic light lingering until 7 O’clock or 6:30 over yonder in Lumla. A crescent moon peeped through the clouds last night which was funny since I was so preoccupied with life that I hadn’t even thought of her in many days. Each day the land transforms before my blurry eyes glistening at each turn, this is spring in Lhomon and when the sun finds his way back its gonna be a party y’all!
Tim On Duty: Part II
This evening some folks from Thimphu screened a film about a “bastard” child conceived as a result of night hunting. Night hunting is rape committed by men who break into rural homes and have sex with women. It was interesting watching the reactions to the non-fictional film that incorporated typical Bhutanese slapstick humor. The whole thing was bizzare as the movie was shown to students in Dzonkha with English subtitles. There were parts where the natives were laughing at scenes I interpreted as pensive. I discussed universality with Francoise driving up the hill, she stated there were no universal truths and I suggested humor but now I know I was wrong. I can laugh with my students and have gleaned a tad of their perspective but our minds come from different upbringings. Night hunting in a twisted way is considered part of culture especially in East Bhutan. The issue is fatherless babies across the nation and in Bhutan if you can’t register with the census the child has no citizenship. After the film we had a discussion and I said a few words on the topic “no means no” Not that the assembly was flippant on the matter but communication works differently here in subtle ways I can’t convey. I can be judgmental but in reality even with the beating it’s merely a different way of thinking. We can even say their littering is their own prerogative but as foreign volunteers we can only offer alternative methods. As teachers our methods are often spurned but one imperative fact is that administration doesn’t interfere in the classroom or tell me how to teach lessons. The days are just packed with meetings, classes, and all day seminars where classes are cancelled at a moment’s notice. The rain has pounded the mountain and the grass grows under ones feet, the ridges burst with chartreuse blooms and plump pink roses pop from the vine. The sun is on hiatus and misty clouds drift below while charcoal ballooned clouds sag overhead. Class eight is driving me up the wall on this double period as the boys are chattering clandestinely in the back while the two Dorji Wangmo’s are giggling up front. Class six is awesome as usual as I rarely even scold them and they are so keen to learn. Water has stopped, a glitch on the endless rubber hose that snakes ten miles from the source. Haven’t started afterschool reading program since I’m too busy this year so I am only doing book reports in class. As my pal Julie said before we were cut off “you got to survive” and I am overextended currently. At this point the relationships I have cultivated sustain me through a third year with plenty of opportunity for growth. The student body is full of mucus with all sorts of nasty noises emanating from the classroom.
Live! on a May Midnight dogs howling cacophonously on my stoop, my stomach growls in unison nothing more to say…a touch of cabin fever these days and a smudge of loneliness too boohoo…How about you?
A foggy Friday holiday so I took Dawa Dema up to the Delo’s house and then we veered up the steep slope into a tangled oak mass mixed with pine that dropped their needles making a luxurious carpet and slippery ascent. Dawa Dema is amazing her little legs peddling her up the mountain through tangled forest. Bush wacking up the gulch the trees all under thirty feet tall but the mossy rocky slope supported oak, flowering pine, sweet scented orchids, humongous ferns, and rhododendrons, my aim was the tippy top of Tsenkharla Mountain but the summit was merely a bottleneck of knotted vegetation, a ledge beneath had a comfy throne made from rock cushioned with copper needles fallen from an elder pine. The wind whirred as fog sifted through the canopy and a few birds twittered a lonesome refrain where I remained the cool air blowing my sweaty locks. The mist settled into my lap as Tim evaporated into the mountain. On the way back we encountered a remarkable overgrown Chorten being devoured by thick moss and weird stone pilings including a stone that looked like a guitar. Not a trace of civilization existed in this primeval grove only a quadruplet of rotting prayer flags. Dawa and I got lost retracing our steps from numerous fern laden precipices finally descending safely into Namkhar. The idyllic village is a glistening green paradise with the air delivering steamy delights to the olfactory. My greatest pleasure walking through Himalayan villages on green terraces with laughing children tracking me from a distance, these are the intangible moments that make up East Bhutan. I circumambulated Shakshang Goempa with some class ten boys including Tinley (Bone) a former student of two years. The boys are decked out in caps, sunglasses, and scarvescomplimenting their finest ghos. They are ecstatic to be roaming on their own granted a free pass from campus by the warden to visit the temple for a blessing, among the pack are several of my favorite boys who I have spent extra time with and we descend laughing in the greying afternoon.
….It’s just a dream….
On Sunday I happened upon Becky’s friend Kezang from phongmey who was dropping his sister and my former student Chunkho Wangmo off. He deposited me in Doksom and we chatted amicably on the ride down, when I asked about the weather over there he said, “It was raining cat’s and dog’s La!” The idyllic Gom Kora reposes on the bank of the Dangme Chu sandwiched between river and road (and the river makes far more noise) I scampered along the boulders to the shoreline, the river is raging after recent rains the muddy water a frothy chocolate latte churns towards Chasm. Eventually I wandered to the Kora to circumambulate, spin some handheld wheels, and meditate in the Guru’s cave. The oasis is shimmering green with lovely flowers, and a lone dwarf palm tree amidst pecking roosters. The massive Kora is adjacent to an enormous rock and Bodhi tree. The complex also has an inner sanctum that encompasses the rock and cave along with a simple alter with requisite seven bowls of water. The inner realm is contained by whitewashed walls and even on a hard day I feel more fortified at this place wherecumulus clouds rise from the ridges into the stratosphere waltzing in a baby blue sky. Walking a mile eastward to Doksom I take the trail opposite Tsenkharla Mountain for a bird’s eye view of the dusty outpost and the mighty Kulong Chu which is in a rush to rendezvous with Sister Dangme (At the moment a lapse in concentration as drums reverberate through the wall from my neighbors puja) On that trail the sweet fragrance of lemon grass, and a bouquet of wild weeds enrapture my spirit, I am most moved by the sense of smell in this world and will likely sniff out a mate before I can ever see one.
I awoke to that pounding puja drum and droning prayers which intermingles with uneasy dreams. I have been restive these days on edge perhaps missing my friends more than I care to admit. But Monday was a new week which means both apprehension and excitement at seeing those shiny face I adore. Class seven was the highlight today as this amorphous group has finally taken shape as distinct personalities emerging from the blob. I know about half of them almost all of six and all of eight’s names (including Guru Wangmo) Because of my vision names can be tricky plus the first year they sounded so much alike but somehow I know hundreds of students now but bashfully not all the staff (a nasal horn whines with the bass drum inducing images of Persian Snake Charmers) A knock at my door as Surgit comes by on his way to Mess Duty, the students are praying and supper is simmering and I will join the feast since Monday is meat night (I might walk on hot coals for a few scraps of fatty pork) Don’t tell me what you had for dinner it might make me cringe (Earth to Becky, if you’re reading this proceed immediately out your front door walk down the street to the neon bell and purchase a six pack of original crunchy tacos and don’t forget the hot sauce, eat them up or leave them on a stone as an offering to the apparition Mr. Tim, over and out from the LOT)Hey Now! Back from supper where I stashed some fatty pork in my cup for Dawa Dema, I used to scoff at those who took doggy bags for actual dogs but now I get it. Currently rain pounds my hut atop the hill watering the precious crops.
Hey Boy are you ready, hey boy are you trying?
Morning is the time in Bhutan as birds start trilling at four thirty and the kids are up by five to jazzercise on the basketball court. By six the boys are pressing faces against my window pane during social work the rhythm of their sickles lulling me back to sleep. By six the bell chimes for morning study and I plop my immersion heater into my orange pail, by 7:30 it’s bath time! Finding my cleanest duds on to assembly by 8:30 tuned into the melodic anthem of the Druk Folk.Another hazy day in limbo between rain and sun but nonetheless the most beautiful place on earth with the most beautiful people who happen to be vexing me right now. I received a new student in class six Dechen Wangmo. She is the fourth Dechen Wangmo in that class so know we have Dechen Wangmo A, B, C, and D. Class six is a dream and class eight B a nightmare. Okay not that bad but they can be impudent and defiant. I gain some perspective when I eavesdrop on other classes and how strict certain teachers are. I am more indulgent but this can lead to classroom management issues. Actually my other three sections are easily reined in but 8B is challenging ironically these are the ones I have been with two years so we know each other well, they have studied my weaknesses and like any pupil will exploit them at any opportunity. I try to plan engaging and diverse lessons and occasionally have remarkable results. Its interesting teaching grade 6, 7, and 8 witnessing a rapid progression in maturity even more than ability. Class six still maintains prepubescent innocence, seven is awkward as kids filter in from the hills and valleys to start a brand new boarding life. The character of my students has changed from seven to eight. One example is Sangay Tashi the boy who stole my I-Pod and returned it damaged last year. He has befriended Sonam Rinchen the topper and now I notice a lapse in Sonam’s behavior as he emulates his friend. I am close to Sangay despite his indiscretion but his effort is disappointing. He is a rebellious lad with tattoos and gelled hair and a myriad of Lance Armstrong prototype bracelets. I rode home from Doksom with him and Tswering a former student from two years ago (My first home class students are graduating this year) She informed me of the whereabouts of another student (I don’t want to reveal the name) who dropped out and is weaving in Kumdung. She was reputed to be in the capital Thimphu but that was a cover up. Actually students are supposes to narc their friends who are dropouts and drag them back to school. This girl was an average student and old enough to choose an alternative way. On the home front I just visited the boy’s hostel where they are gossiping and studying on their bunks, they sleep about twenty to a room on bunk beds (like summer or boot camp) The last three weeks have had little water only the occasional trickle putting me right back where I started from with less tolerance (One day I will reread this blog and wonder why I spent so much time resisting and complaining, by then I will still be resisting and complaining no doubt) On the way back from the bazaar (row of wooden shops) I observed some verbal altercation in the street it occurred to me that I am in the dark most of the time here, spaced out living in a world of Sharchop and much of the time I have no idea what is happening.
At six this morning my student Tashi Gyelston was crowing outside my window like a rooster telling me to wake up. This is due to the fact that I explained that every culture has its own onomatopoeia to express a rooster’s bawl so Tashi did his interpretation of a Druk Cock for my benefit briefly disrupting my slumber. Conversely by third period Tashi was dozing in class and I in turn awoke him tapping his shoulder gently. Speaking of old friends Sonam Lhamo called me out of the blue to tell me she was pregnant (Don’t worry y’all it’s not mine) Sonam is more a sister as you may recall I took her to The Zone for pizza with my family and Becky in Thimphu on the Mayan Apocalypse. Now it’s raining kittens and puppies as nighttime is the right time for Mr. Tim. The hostel lights are out my neighbors are asleep and I am chilling with a cold coke in short sleeves and a vest. I had a good day in Bhutan with fluid classes with many positive interactions gaining merit on the mountain. Some of the most ordinary days here are the best like most days I felt rushed in the morning but arrived on time to teach life skills on the topic of bullying. The students were responsive with retiring Nidup, Tashi, and Pema participating in the discussion. They feel way more comfortable reading answers they have written then extemporary responses. I’ve been on a tear learning names but still don’t know all six and seven students. After school Social Service Club headed up the hill to pick up trash on the road running past the ruin. The campus looks better since they are bribing the kids with prize money in a house competition. At first I scorned the idea but it is getting tangible results. Since we did a mass cleaning the trail network also looks better except there is still a tonnage lurking. I can’t take credit for the improvement but need to keep after them. The bummer of the day was a member jumped into the trash pit and sliced his foot on a piece of glass and had to get stitches, Ashish escorted him to the BHU in the drizzle. For dinner I ate K WA with garlic and water came so I washed clothes and dishes and made a cup of tea for my pal Karlos. Oh yeah so I am paying Sonam Choden this month to prepare lunch so I can dine with Karlos and her at the shop. She is a righteous cook and I go back to class fortified. It’s funny as much as I don’t always fit in here it is more a HOME than I have ever experienced, if anyone can explain that I would be oblidged. The reason today was successful is that I was grateful to be in this place with these people.
I had double duty TOD since one teacher was on leave principal called me at 6 A.M to request my substitution. I arrived late due to short notice and encountered one Nepali (Southern Bhutanese) girl studying on the porch wrapped in a pastel wimple. Actually supervising study is one of my favorite activities since I can candidly speak with students and provide individual attention and assistance. Today I coached Pema Yangdon on essay writing as I found her plagiarizing from a text book. This was a bummer since she is a top student and I taught her class five paragraph essay writing last year. But old habits die hard in Bhutan, isn’t it? We sketched an outline and then I had to move on to make my appointed rounds. There are many challenges of teaching here and many holes in the education system and teacher pedagogies. Admittingly I am a developing teacher but one thing I have observed is that students are afraid of some of their teachers. Therefore they are reticent to ask questions which leaves lecture and call and response as the primary vehicle for conveying information (Bloom might have a fit as many seem stuck at the base of his taxonomy pyramid) I fall prey to lecturing too but certainly attempt to incorporate student centered learning into my classes. This is challenging when you are bucking an entrenched system since the kids have been taught in this antiquated style since the onset of primary school. They loath speaking in class and even top students have a difficult time expressing themselves verbally in coherent complete sentences, and most communication is done in one or two word fragments. If I am joking around with Sangay Tobgay and Thinley they are more apt to speak freely and we can have delightful conversations (Maybe humor is universal after all even if skewed by cultural biases) Another astounding thing is that some other English teachers are giving questions for homework without framing the assignment. If the kids don’t get it they still won’t approach the teacher for help since they are afraid. I’m afraid this leaves students paddling up the creek without an ore. As I have stated enumerate times these pupils are well rounded and intelligent but let’s face it folks, English is a fourth and fifth language so communication is difficult. But the worst part is the system works against them and at times I feel unappreciated and wonder why foreign volunteers are invited here in the first place? To answer my own question (just like class) perhaps we can offer new methods or more importantly effect individual student’s approaches to problem solving. Critical thinking is a rare commodity in Eastern Bhutan but one must be optimistic witnessing the emergence of a new literate multilingual generation who will assume leadership roles, if only in their farming communities, or in the capital. One thing is for certain I will never be exposed to this caliber of human beings again. The indigenous folk are one of a kind even though conformity is prized over the individual, this fact sums up the cultural gap more than any other truth as I learn to sacrifice more to my community while teaching my community to think for themselves.
Being a teacher is tiring work as I strive to become the teacher I want to be and not the teacher I am. With over a hundred students in my charge, how can I reach each of them effectively? Just got back from Emadatsi at the mess, the native teachers always rib me for taking school food which I resent. After fundraising thousands of dollars to reach the Kingdom a few meek scoops of curry won’t break the governments back or deprive the students as the cooks make some extra. But the comments manage to make me feel guilty all the more guilty since I only take food on special nights, Sunday, Monday, and Friday. Also whenever I am not looking my best or rundown people will ask, “What happened?” and “Are you sick?” Or if I get a pimple they will draw attention to it. Tonight a student asked my salary and I replied it was comparable to the Bhutanese teachers. The other habit that is bothersome is the Bhutanese will just hop on your computer, open the fridge, or thumb through your diary without asking. Actually these annoyances are a lack of evolution on my part rather than thoughtlessness from their side. Their sharing nature is what makes them the superior race as was demonstrated during the Cultural Show. When one group performs they remarkably are wearing kiras or ghos that match and sashes that match which means their readily swapping clothes with one another. Of course Bhutanese possess things but possession is certainly viewed differently here. Where generally Americans define themselves by their possessions Bhutanese define themselves through their shared culture. Unfortunately I identify more with American ethos than Druk.
Another fleeting weekend excursion to Trashigang. After classes on Saturday we had a cultural matinee lasting approximately the length of a Yankee game. Afterwards I lit out down the road taking the shortcut to Kamdang. Halfway down I got dizzy with my ear clogging something awful as I had to rest in the dirt and it remained clogged for several hours but eventually I could walk again. When it plugs up the whole world starts spinning and oxygen becomes like nitrous oxide. Eventually I made it into the twinkling hill station and took supper of charred beef at the Nepali joint. I felt so worn out that I crawled into bed in room 113 for a good night’s rest feeling somewhat refreshed by morning. I spent the morning shopping then watched an hour of sitcoms, “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” I thought of my dad since we enjoy watching “Men” together. It’s essential to sit in room 113 every so often insulated from the Druk Planet. Except the vibe of Trahigang while still groovy is not the same this year without Becky. I don’t enjoy haggling over taxi fares or worrying about finding transportation anymore. Furthermore my Principal who is a good man is strict regarding my locomotion and preferred I stayed at home. This year I have done just that except for wayfaring which is a privilege that is my birthright. Not bad for a Sunday smothered in silvery haze so it seems this year the rain refuses to fall and the sun refuses to shine. I haven’t been online in weeks and had no news from the outside world except the landslide victory for the new Indian Prime Minister. Gazing down the greening gulley I spy Lumla the tiny Indian outpost abutting Blithing and wonder how they voted. It’s unfathomable that half of our beloved valley is located within Indian Territory. Without access to internet this post trundles onward seemingly without end, ten gold stars for reading this far! I hope you are well fed and happy wallowing in this parade of impermanence called life. My halcyon dream continues as the crickets chirp and a distant prayer wheel chimes as the breeze gently conveys a million invisible prayers to inky heaven.
It’s Lonely at the Top
Today is the epitome of loneliness on the hill. At the recent cultural program Butterfly leaned over and whispered in my ear that “all people here are crazy” Butterfly usually has a positive disposition but like myself possesses a dark core. He also quipped that Bhutanese act like barbarians sometimes which made me laugh. I wonder how the reader reckons the experiences of this blogger, I paint a black picture sometimes but this cynicism is embedded into the ESL ethos even those fortunate enough to teach in the most coveted of placements. The truth is the limits of life are exaggerated here and now I am feeling isolated completely ensconced in Bhutanese culture. There is nowhere I’d rather be but the dichotomy can be besetting. Dinner was a delicious pairing of emadatsi and chunks of tender beef (top notch) I poked my head through the window remarking to Dechen Tshomo that I finally got my boneless meat. Poor thing was all smiles resilient after losing her mother to alcoholism recently. Dechen also placed first amongst girls in the school marathon and I gave her a 200 ngultrum bonus. I had promised her that if she took first I’d give her 200 and she actually did it winning an additional cash prize from the school. The school pays out dividends for academic, cultural, and athletic events. On the topic of cash a former student Nima Gyeltson just dropped by my pad for a tutorial on Dawa the Dog. He is a Kidu student meaning that he has no father and only a destitute mother, he needs 300 ngultrum to pay off a lost library book and the kid has been stressing about itso I offered to pay his fine. I caught him in a white lie as he asked for fifty NU this weekend and when I asked him what for he baulked. “Net time just tell me the truth I implored instead of scheming and worrying all weekend. I remember the story of a boy at a colleague’s placement in Chunkha, the youth hung himself committing suicide in the hostel over a stolen book from the school library. These kids are terrified of authority and despise confrontation. I imagine this minor issue has caused young Nima major consternation.
A cool May afternoon gazing down at the desolate valley IT seems a reflection of my soul, for the umpteenth day a silvery haze blots out the range but the birds sing on regardless. Ho hum sometimes I just don’t like being me, it’s not that I don’t recognize the special gifts within my spirit but my anxiety disorder cripples me at times like being stalked by a fearful predator. Like all of us I’m left alone to play out my karmic hand a deal that encompasses rapture and mental morbidity. As a teacher and leader my attitude and every action directly influences hundreds of lives which stresses me out, WTFDL? Much of my current dismay stems from impending exams and the extra class this year. That class happens to be six which I enjoy teaching but at the end of the year they have a board exam and I feel an enormous burden to prepare them, plus I am interminably tired this year. Those seeking external validation need not apply in Bhutan where you are forced to be your own best friend which can be a problem for human beings. Becky was my buttress and this year Karlos and Sonam have drifted away, leaving me to commiserate with Butterfly and Surgit. My life is fuller than ever before but somehow I still feel lonely even daydreaming of that special someone that can be so elusive. Furthermore any traditional life in America is now an impossibility especially without a driver’s license, now destined to live waywardly on the Asiatic fringes. Nature and students keep me afloat as I hoist my sail waiting for a third wind to blow me on. There are still priceless moments that make it all worthwhile like a student penning “I love you” on my door or a text message from another who had been displaced to Thimphu, or a success story like the aforementioned Nima Gyeltson who was a subpar student in class seven putting in little effort when I first met him. Now in class nine he showed excellent comprehension of Dawa the Dog during our tutorial the other night, I can’t even tell you how enjoyable working one on one with a student is. I don’t know what lit a fire under that boy’s ass but I can only hope I played a small role in his transformation. Meanwhile I am in the process of my own metamorphosis but am still lingering in the chrysalis stage. To be frank I don’t feel appreciated here and feel that my shortcomings are pointed out exclusively. Not that administration says much of anything except an indirect comment about my roaming habits and perceived leniency. I readily admit that disciplining students is not my forte but my classroom isn’t a three ring circus and my students are able to speak freely in a comfortable environment(If I was in inner city Oakland they’d eat me up and spit me out and I know it!)So good thing I am living amongst good natured and kind hearted Buddhist. As if the days aren’t packed enough now they added night study for class ten students and I will supervise one night a week. By the time you read this I will be completely exasperated but more tasks will be complete. It’s going to be a hectic month for all students and teachers and I must remain healthy and alert. Stay tuned! For my own transfiguration on a desolate ridge in no-man’s-land.
Jesus! Big news on the home front as baby Coleman or Holden was born! Congrats Cousin Larry and beloved! Also Reed’s 5th birthday I wanted to call but had no voucher. Being busy fathers I doubt you will ever read these words since your duties are more important than these ravings. Anyway my prayers are with you and oh how I envy you fathers, somehow I became a teacher alternatively but I reckon it’s just not the same. I’m honored to be an uncle but that’s just not a father is it. I marvel the way papoose Paige coos at Tyler since secretly I always wanted a daughter but now I’m ashamed to say I don’t want any kids at this stage in life but it’s a moot point, why even speculate in this topsy -turvy dimension? Why not make uncertainty and vagabondism your friends? Riiiiiight??? A chorus of cricket’s strikes up the band outside in a land of darkness, no stars no sun just flat light and yet somehow it remains perfect. To reiterate every blade of grass, rock, river, and crag in the Kingdom is distinct. In my book there’s Bhutan and then there’s the rest of the world. More specifically East Bhutan my TRUE heart home, yes I said it, shield your ears Sleeping Lady, don’t spill any tears Lake Tahoe, don’t fret Yosemite, and don’t be forlorn Oregon. Hark Mare! Yellowstone opened the door a nexus of all that came before and all that is yet to come…I stepped through it…Eternities Doorway and reformed in East Bhutan an Estimated prophet afraid to assume his position on the throne. Can you believe it? Little old Busy Timmy hundreds of miles from Timbuktu and like my namesake toddler says, “I did it all by myself” Except that’s not true without y’all I couldn’t have done it at all! I’m leaving Bhutan soon so I must seize opportunities to express gratitude so I told Kezang Dorji a gangly smiley lad that I would never forget him. He is so kindhearted and pure as opposed to the naughtier boys who often darken my doorstep. If you could put the real Bhutan on a postcard it wouldn’t be Taksang, or a monk spinning a wheel, it would be Kezang Dorji not the most handsome boy in class but owner of a gilded heart. Down on the bank of the meandering river which comes around the bend from Tawang making a huge sweeping loop where it appears to be flowing up the gradient, there is a lone light, and I think of the person that lives there often. I imagine an old man laboring in his rice paddies and relaxing by night swatting mosquitos while cooking emadatsi over a fire (Betcha I’m right) Maybe I’ll drop in on him sometime.
Just went to the tiny bazaar of Tsenkharla a truly bizzare bazaar oh my. Tonight was inexplicably dark not a crisp darkness rather like being swaddled in a bats wing. My beam was wavering and I almost tottered off the path. I paid my tab at Auntie Kesang’s shop procuring some local cheese while wondering where last month pay check was (so much for MINDFULNESS) a Samaritans life indeed. The rain is falling marching in like an invading army first a faint tapping now skimming down a delicious omnipotent hiss with a million little rattles contained like the bells of a serpentine shaman…In class six I unwittingly stepped on a fly to the horror of my pupils, the insects innards splattered on the concrete floor.
Polish your rainbows and come with me up and down the mountain. Thursday was a trip to the highlands with two impish class one girls who cackled and beat each other with twigs as we rose through a shimmering oak forest past clusters of prayer flags and farmhouses with a wrinkled barefoot Abi weeding her potato field.We parted ways as they proceeded to an idyllic farmhouse set amidst green terraces and I pushed up the steep precipice to Shakshang Gompa. I retired to an oak grove with sympathetic deities that is to say their vibrational frequencies are compatible to my own. Lately the bushes have been communicating with me, it helps if you ask them some questions. It’s not that they speak in English or even Sharshop but they do put out a vibe which I receive. I had aspirations for a big trek this Sunday but my ear is still clogged (one week) so I lurched to a terrace instead and plopped down burning my arms in the rare Himalayan sun. It was a short constitutional, a shortcut from the canal up the ruin through a verdant haven for shrubs and dwarf trees and gliding songbirds, fern fronds, boulders, rhododendron shimmering after shedding their burdening Cardinal buds. On the way home a raven graced my ear flying its formation so close that I felt a rush of wind in my ear. WOW! Powerful magic and all I could do was sigh and follow the meandering butterflies up the path. Yesterday I went down to the lowlands and the rushing rivers exhausted watching my favorite waters turning into creamy rapids racing through a labyrinth of cliffs approaching Gom Kora. But I climbed out of Doksom across the Kulongchu up a ridge on a precipitous path overgrown with hemp and lemon grass with a few trees sporting vermillion or mauve blooms. But here the bounding river takes center stage moments away from coalescing with The Dangme Chu literally where the flowage of Tawang meets Tibet (A POWER SPOT) But Doksom has a dark energy field also warily retracing my steps I loitered in town briefly visiting the Doksom girl another failed attempt to allay my loneliness at CLUB DESIRE. That one’s a lost cause even for meaningful friendship as you can’t make it with a village girl. I laughed thinking the last time I even had a hug and am considering making one of those surrogate rag dolls out of a stick and soiled undershirts. I’m itching to publish this post and won’t be writing much until midterm anyway. If I do have any loyal readership or fans of TIAT you might be thinking I dropped off the face of the earth well you’d be right or so was my thought when I woke up bleary eyed this morning. So this might be where we part as Karlos just called asking me to substitute his TOD evening study and I will be supervising Class Ten study hall tomorrow as well. As I said before the days are just packed, I have two exams to make, sixty notebooks besides me and lesson plans to construct, half of my soaking dishes in a bucket, a bag full of dirty clothes and as the students write to my consternation etcetera! Oh yeah I wanted to tell you I talked to my friend Jon on the mobile and he told me that Linkhar Lodge will organize a Sakteng Merak Trek after the retreat which is perfect! I’m sure the whole event will be socially overwhelming for this tawny stripped misfit but my mother would scold me if I didn’t go. Apparently the new lads in town were curious about me and one had spotted me walking along the road. When Jon told me this I got a brief flash of myself through their eyes a solitary figure walking a lonesome road and I wondered if it was the day on the cusp of my sickness when I walking near Chazam Bridge. It reminded me of a Migoi (Bhutanese Yeti) somehow.
The Wooden Male Horse is an angry year as even the cows express agonizing moos that well up from the depths of bovine despair. Perhaps these Gothic tales from Lhomon are exaggerated you’ll just have to sign on and see for yourself. But the vibe is harsh this year and the flat light persists. No rainbows, no thunder, no sun, and I haven’t seen Tawang in weeks. It’s still the most splendid place in the world but you only get a handful of days with optimal views for instance I haven’t seen those Matterhorn Peaks over in India more than twice this year. But every day is chalked full of miracles and I even notice a few of them. Usually the simple truths are most profound like monitoring a class full of class six learners who trek in from the hills (in national regalia) and are currently writing five paragraph descriptive essays. The fact we can communicate in ENGLISH is the biggest miracle of all. Oh class six what a dreamboat class as they do anything with enthusiasm and obedience. Then there’s class eight B an ongoing two year saga, the fact is they know me all too well and can be flippant. Truthfully my class offers a repose from their stricter teachers and it is my policy to have a comfortable atmosphere where students feel at ease speaking English. But class six has proven that I can have my cake and eat it too. I can teach effectively with active students who behave well. Today my department head Mr. Sangay Tenzin observed me for class 8B. I couldn’t hear a thing out of my right ear so I felt like I was teaching class from inside a fish tank. The lesson went fine as I challenged students to describe objects without mentioning the name of the object the objective was to improve their descriptive writing. We did a few samples in class before proceeding outside to find their own objects to describe. Sangay Sir’s feedback was appropriate hitting on all the weaknesses I also reflected upon. The lesson was apt and effective but my time allocation and closing needed refinement. I’m feeling the weight of the extra class this year with more lesson plans to write (adhering to a specific format) the usual 110 notebooks to mark and all the accoutrements of the boarding life. Tonight I will supervise night study and last night I spent time tutoring Nima Gyelston on a short story slipping him 300 NU for his library fine. In this year of the irate Male Wooden (WORK) Horse I am feeling tired and worn out but it is an interesting year and on the deepest level any day in Bhutan is a boon. I went to the BHU for ear treatment but all Namsa could do was shine a flashlight in my ear since he didn’t possess an ear scope. He compared the understaffed, ill equipped facility to a refugee camp. The place is clean and friendly but basic as the name states. The walk was nice anyway staring at the scarred Blithing road the entrance to the Subcontinent through its remotest Northeastern corner (A place still coveted by Beijing) the barren road awaiting connection to Kamdang so they can convoy their psychedelic TaTa’s from Tawang to Guwahati. But thankfully there is no connection and Jangphu is still the heavenly village perched in no-man’s-land. I digress into local politics that may hold little interest for an American reader perhaps it’s more interesting to quote a boy who stopped the lesson to tell me that I had chalk on my buttocks. God knows what they say about me in Sharshopa (a knock at the door as Karma Wangchuk asks for cheese and salt to make ese a Bhutanese dip) Karma is a grubby little dude who is poor in studies, mischevious as I caught him pilfering milk from my house but he’s a good hearted boy and fun to be around. He flunked last year in two of his eight subjects so he is repeating class seven. A boarding school in East Bhutan might be the trippiest place on the planet at assembly all I could do was shake my head at the resemblance to boot camp but there is also joy and resilience and everything you need to know to be a good person could be learnt from observing these students. Why am I not outside right now can I blame my clogged ear. Out of doors the sky is a blue eye peering down from the crest of Shampula where our QUEEN deity resides overseeing Tsenkharla and the secret settlement tucked behind her massive shoulder in Arrunachal Pradesh. On campus grass grows underfoot despite the moderate rainfall and flowers burst their blooms, resplendent pink roses just like in my mommy’s garden. I still remember dragging my mom out past Fairfax to the rose farm picking the bushes that still grow today ten years later. Those roses must be budding and I can almost see my mom sharing a glass of wine with Karen watching the Bachelorette on her flat screen, maybe even Jazzy is curled up on the couch nearby. At Tsenkharla I tried to explain barbeque to class six and made myself salivate like Pavlov in the midst of responding alas its K WA for me. I fling open my door to share the view SPECIAL FOR YOU. The breezy valley is breathing easy with five of the seven mirrored ridges revealing themselves in a strip tease refusing to drop the final pastel veil covering the goodies of Tawang proper. Sunspots dapple the undulating ranges as Lumla sparkles like a navel stud on a gyrating Monpa belly dancer (Dakpa girls are far gone man real crunchy Yo!) Sharshop gals are….Riiiiiight. Actually the distinction is negligible between a Monpa and Brokpa where a Sharchop is distinct. A very interesting hodgepodge in these parts and on this side of the boarder ALL our united under the Wangchuk Dragon Banner. ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER and his name is MR. TIM… I open my door again (the doorway to eternity) and a muted rainbow hovers deep in the zone like a mirage. Twenty five miles down the gullet beyond Lumla but before Tawang and the silhouetted saddleback at the end of the valley. Across the gorge from Tsenkharla a band of light illuminates Yellang Temple. Far above that point the fang of the dragon’s tail pokes out through tendrils of mist. The aroma of East Bhutan seduces my soul embodied in the smoky musk of a feminine herder shepherding my weary soul onward. The river hushes and sparrows tweet around my stoop. What is the face of this muse? it is invisible but I can feel it. A pretty brown face with eyes of slumber that morph into a beastly dragon ready to devour me whole. Gotta go just heard the dinner bell…REGARDS FROM THE LOT….That was quick you see I’m back from study hall it was nice talking with Sangay Tobgay and Kinley before the period commenced. Sangay Tobgay has been at Tsenkharla for eleven years and will graduate this winter. He has only been as far away as Trashigang but has a heart as big as the whole world. Most Bhutanese are worldly in their sincerity if that makes any sense at all.
A vivid scene one that would set Rebecca’s heart to pounding as monsoon clouds drift across the abyss with intermittent showers. The slope steams poaching me in the aromatic essences of Tsenkharla. In class seven Dookto points out a little mouse scurrying at my feet and I shriek like a little girl to the amusement of my chortling pupils.Bhutan is a battlefield of attrition and currently The Dragon has me retreating deeper into insulation in only the third round. Although walking to lunch two of my students Phubgyem and Kezang Nima at my side, Poop asked if I was happy or lonely living in Bhutan and I replied both. Then she remarked that I was like family to her. Her comment buoyed my spirit but I came home at the end of the day with a stack of notebooks, clogged ear, and purple rings around my eyes. I know like most of us I am the walking wounded but today looked like the walking dead. 7:28 P.M and the last ravens have retired to their nests for eight hours repose. I just popped a little white pill designed to murder any worms harboring in my entrails and will have to go to the shop for rice to prepare another batch of K WA Fuckin’ Datsi. Bump! Every day I consciously take a moment to imbibe the environs. From my stoop I can see hundreds of miles of mountains unfolding in a breathing emerald mandala. But today I fade into the landscape enshroud in the Dragons misty breath puffing from mighty nostrils. Did you know Lhomon was the moniker given to this land by Tibetans which means southern land of darkness? This was over a thousand years ago before the Guru spread Buddhism to Bhutan by subjugating all the local deities forthwith making them pledge allegiance to the Dharma and henceforth protect the Druk Clan. Tibetans perceived their southern neighbors as heathens since at the time indigenous folks worshipped Bon or the wonders of nature. Ironically Bhutan is now the only unadulterated Buddhist Monarchy in the world, a place where the Dharma is akin to law. In the sixteenth century east and west were unified and finally after driving out British invaders from the Duars and the subsequent installation of the Wangchuk dynasty did peace prevail (with a noted forced diaspora of hundreds of thousands of Nepali descendants notwithstanding) Bhutan existed in a feudal state until the 60’s. At the moment Jerry Garcia was pioneering Psychedelic Rock on Haight Street the first motor road was being constructed between Thimphu and Phuntsholing. When I encounter a grandmother in the woods she is a direct link to ancient Bhutan andlast week one of these grandmothers keeled over right in front of me drunk as a skunk. I implored the bedeviled crone to rest awhile and she just mumbled something in Sharshop and beamed a toothless grin. I figured she’d make it up the hill to Shakshang eventually so I left her to rest in the gathering dusk and proceeded down the spine of Tsenkharla ridge towards Zangtopelri. On the way home I stepped in the footprints of Chohoeten Zangmo embedded on a boulder, that dauntless woman who established Drametse (The Peak with No Enemy) and Shakshang Gompa more than 500 years ago. The peace was temporarily disrupted when China and India clashed in a major battle just down the valley in Tawang in 1962 and this sector is still considered a sensitive area (The border is strictly prohibited to foreigners but Sharshop and Monpa can pass freely) I admire Francoise for dedicating her life to studying this fascinating region, there is so much to learn here but I just try to stay afloat and avail my services to educating my students. OH YEAH and like Butterfly or Captain Picard says obey the prime directive and DON”T DESTROY THE CULTURE. How am I doing so far?
Tufts of mist break off from the opaque mass sifting through a peephole revealing a sliver of the Dangme Chu thousands of feet below. I am practically deaf in my right ear and terminally tired. These are my hardest days in Bhutan and wonder has tarrying in the Kingdom worn me down to the nub. The answer is irrelevant as the rain falls in a curtain dousing the land and while my mood might be bleak the earth rejoices. It’s Wednesday near the end of May 2014 no water flows from the tap which ironically is usually the case when it rains. There might be a blockage down on the endless rubber line that stretches for miles. I finished marking over a hundred notebooks each one taking twenty or so minutes. Now I am procrastinating preparing my grammar lessons. I feel like I am barely hanging on right now but I am still here playing this wonderful game. What a strange and difficult year it has been so far but I must acknowledge I am satisfied I came back for a third spin with many magical moments…
My Keralite friend Surgit drops by most every night on the way to Mess Duty, he is an introspective and solemn guy a counterpart to the extraverted Butterfly. Yesterday passing me on the stairs Principal Sir inquired about the pic of me with a gauze eye patch greeting my mommy. He said he saw it on you tube but it must have been on TIGER. The thing with Bhutan is there are no secrets which is why I keep my blog and my heart an open book. Anonymityis not an option as even the bushes have ears or the river eyes and all ready to speak of you to anyone who will listen. That’s what makes this place special but it can be unnerving and at times I feel more like the Tsenkharla Mascot Mr. Tim. (If I was a mascot I’d dance and howl for emadatsi with a costume of muddy shoes and faded slacks with a face decorated with a few red dots) Night envelops the range as tendrils of mist waft through campus like a classic episode of Scooby Doo. I hope this evening finds you well if anyone is left to read these words, if there’s no one no matter and if there is well I love ya for it!
Long ago I posted “Bhutanese Doldrums” but this is the Bermuda Triangle variety and all that is left are the foggy mountains a silvery brocade that is woven with the fabric of my soul. Perhaps it is the scene of this lonely rainy day I will revisit in my moment of death. Hopefully it will be an October day and my spirit will fly over Shampula and the FORBIDDEN border sailing over the glistening Tawang Monastery of that fabled Hill Station to retire on the corniced twin peaks of those alluring mountains that await me,those permanently frozen peaks that tantalize my core. Well so okay enough complaining for one lifetime lets hang it up and see what tomorrow brings…
I waited until the downpour ceased and ran to the shop in the pitch black night. Outside Auntie Kezang’s shop was a youngish looking man and three fetching lassies who turned out to be his three sister. The vibe emanating from the quartet was unusual and I accosted them asking if they were Brokpa in disguise since the girls were wearing pajamas bottoms (fashionable in the Himalaya) As it turns out I was partially correct since they are Monpa from Lumla which I intuited. They are here to consult the Delo and the benevolent brother is trying to contact his deceased Grandfather. He spoke fair English for someone hailing from that side of the line. They trekked in from Blithing walking all the way to Tsenkharla. The encounter cheered me up since as y’all know by now I have an affinity for the Monpa especially their woman. These maidens had taut cheeks, coffee skin and beckoning eyes that twinkled catching the dim light of the bare bulb. I know my soul has come home and I even considered I am reincarnated from one of Tsangma’s compatriots but it is just as feasible that I came from the other side of the valley and that is why I am pulled east in my dreams. The party of Monpa had names identical to Bhutanese and the short one I fancied was Tashi Dema. She is only 19 and uneducated speaking broken English, it seems the ones who never attend school mature quicker in certain ways and one of the sisters was a shopkeeper in Lumla.The hefty rain continues and we got approximately four inches in the last 24 hours.
A dismal Thursday morning with torrential rain but then the clouds sifted as if blown by the Dragon herself leaving a rim of ribboning clouds around the valley with stunning clarity (a chance in a million) with every tree popping off of Shampula massif and bluebell skies that cause me to weep, like the tears of Reidi at Paro International airport. Cathartic tears that reminded me I’m not dead yet and that I am worthy to give. Every contour and blade of grass etches in my brain like pictures from a child’s popup book. I have only seen a few days like this in Bhutan and might never see one again. On a morning like this I shed my agnostic scales of my doubting Thomas armor and stand naked before the maker. I needed that view of the last saddleback at the beginning of creation I needed it NOW at the eleventh desolate hour where the entropy of my mind had me slumping on the ropes waiting for the knockout blow the one that WILL send me packing. But today right now I am here so I make my bed and start setting exam questions in everlasting gratitude. The dream is muddled and even seems like a nightmare but the reality is a white diamond shinning in the void formed by the scene of the Dangme Chu winding its way looping through nothingness. I can feel the Guru’s thunderbolt in my cells I know that despite my imperfections I AM LOVED that I make a difference.
“Some or born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night” William Blake texted by Wamrong Jonathon
What is the relationship between the mountaintops and clouds that cling and mirror each other in an extraordinary fashion? When I pear down the length the gulley I see hallowed hollows and hidden amulets among secret cirques. Crumples and creases refined definitions never seen before and guiltily I crave that it is like this always but like Becky says The Dragon keeps on giving and today she gave nicely! Cotton candy clouds billow from the ridges that aluminate the clouds everything trading rainbow colors in between prevailing emerald and sapphire. My body breaks apart like a cracking eggshell and my divine light disperses up and down my beloved valley splashing in the river whizzing around Gom Kora, spinning the wheel in downtown Trahigang, buzzing my pinnacle hermitage site, taking tea with Thebsgey up in Tawang, bouncing along the dragons tail, grazing the Guru’s statue perched atop Lumla, resting my wings briefly on the withering obelisk of Tsangma’s castle. Sigh…Two texts lifted my spirits one from Jon with the William Blake verse and another from Cricket the precocious Christian Nepali girl from Yangtse now living in Thimphu. Kritika was one of Kendra’s former students and worshipped her former Math teacher and BCF alum. I never taught her but used to eat at her family’s canteen in Trashiyangtse. She asked for my number and occasionally will text me and today is the little ones birthday and she asked I pray for her. I wouldn’t know where to start since she worships Jesus maybe she thinks I do too. So I started to offer a prayer to the Goddess but that didn’t feel appropriate so I tried Great Spirit wrong number, and so eventually I switched channels to Jesus Christ and implored him and his Heavenly Father to watch out for dear Cricket who is one of the good ones, and why I had him on the line I asked OUR SAVIOUR to help me recall the strength I had inside me. I lost the signal though with local deities reeking static on the line. But it’s the students that spur me on like Kinley who I taught in 8 and 9 and now he is in 10 and set to graduate from Tsenkharla. He speaks well and we always joke around since he will just start rambling in Sharshop and I ask him if he is saying naughty things about his teacher and then I make him translate. He also used to ask who sir? Where sir? How sir? When sir? Why sir? I don’t’ know how that got started but it grew out of authentic queries and then a subtle way to stir my ire in class. I digress Kinley paid me a visit at lunch and asked if I’d snap a photo of his friend and him since the backdrop was so immaculate. He actually said “Can you snap one photo sir since today is nice day” I will “wash” the photo in Trashigang along with Pema Yangdon, Dawa Dema, Kezang Nima, and the dozens of others requesting. I lose money on these endeavors and feel funny charging them cost in the first place but it can get expensive when yo print 200 pictures at ten ngultrum a pop. It can end up costing forty dollars and I usually am lucky to get fifteen back. They really love getting pictures and treat them as keepsakes which they will treasure for life. Bhutan is changing as teachers own computers and some even cars but the kids almost exclusively come from poor back rounds and their families don’t own cameras but many own TV’s now. Villages like Jangphu and Omba have got wired to electricity only recently. Tsenkharla has had electricity for a decade. But in this impregnable mountainous terrain how much development can happen. Things should be copascetic if they don’t connect the road to Arrunachal Pradesh through the heart of East Bhutan. It’s an interesting buffer since you can drive to Guwahati from both Doksom or Blithing but you’d have to choose a road. My favorite mountain might be the redoubtable hump of Shampula which straddles Trashiyangtse and Tawang with craggy cliffs, oak forests, and topped by rolling moors. My one afternoon delirious from traversing endlessly was the zenith of my Himalayan Odyssey equal only to arriving at ABC at the base of some of the tallest mountains in the world, standing at the foot of a moraine at over 13,000 feet. One distinction though is that where thousands of westerners have seen the sight from ABC ONLY one has summited Shampula. So I will spend this day watching the light play on the mountains and piecemeal together a grammar lesson.
Sometimes this blog might resemble Finnegan’s Wake since it’s too cryptic I remember Beth’s dad Dave saying he read some of my blog and didn’t understand half of it. I put down Finnegan’s Wake after ten minutes but am enjoying the Kite Runner which made me cry this afternoon. I yearn to tell stories that way or like the Sharshop do. I don’t know any stories and if I had I might be a better writer with less nonsensical material. Steve used to tell us the Black Angel down in the dark room at Donner Lake and I was riveted. The coolest part of that tale was that he changed it each time with a new outcome for the kids in the graveyard under that statue that somehow personifies every night somewhere in Wisconsin. I always imagined a Darth Vader head with omnipotent powers. The Donner Party itself was my favorite story spending the happiest days of my life on the shore just down the way from where the survivors of the pioneers resorted to cannibalism. This is my favorite place on earth right here TSENKHARLA from my favorite rock and this is ALL a dream come true but not the happiest days of my life. Those would be as a preteen on the lake, perhaps as a season pass holder at Alpine, or making love to Morgan on wild grasses near Judah Chairlift. It’s been a steady decline in happiness but a bump in satisfaction. An anonymous student chalked I’I love You.” on my door did I tell you that already…Anyway it’s nice to be remembered but the metaphor affected me.Love is the ultimate doorway eternities doorway as David Duncan put it. My whole existence here is based on mutual adulation and it’s important to give more than you take, otherwise you get earaches or perpetual diarrhea. Does the guy who doubts god believe in karma? You bet I do! To end the day of magic rain clouds roll in sprouting a triple rainbow all converging over Kiney as a gilded beam shoots the crest of the cypress grove projecting its glow on Yellang. I slide down the bottle green terraces to my rock for a better look rejuvenating drops plopping on my face. May is rainbow month in Eastern Bhutan and this one made up for a gazillion bleary days. The rain seams to belt out the chorus to Touch of Grey “We will get by we will survive” The last words uttered by my hero nearly four months ago.
The Next Day…
Evening moods up at Zangtopelri where Rinchen serves a cup of strong tea and I chat with her sister and law a voluptuous 22 year old from Thimphu who graduated college. The mystery of the ornate temples unraveled further as Deki comes from a family with money. Sitting by our side is Nawang Tenzin a newcomer in my class eight class. He is a topper and it just goes to show that upbringing has an impact on student’s ability. Nawang comes from an educated family from the West and his father is a principal and mother a teacher. His parents are in Australia getting masters degrees which is why him and sister were shipped east. I noticed the pair also brought Rinchy and company a new flat screen T.V as we watched America’s Funniest Home Videos. So here we have Rinchen who never went to school and her educated sister who even lived in India. We talked of Thebsgey Rinpoche and about the temple just some of the queries that Rinchen can’t answer. I walked home in the topaz gloaming feeling drained wondering if my zest will ever return everything faded in this beautiful dream. But their smiles and laughter remains and this year new characters like Guru Wangmo, Sangay Dorji, and innocent and sleepy Yeshi Wangmo. I don’t want to let go and you never will it’s just like dying you see this is where you will learn to die. At moments like these it seems I have been here ONLY an instant in this place of no escape and no exit…A place that seems impossible to persist but when I EXIT left through the dragon’s turnstile it will be forever. I am so unawares I didn’t even register that the triple rainbow occurred on a Thursday! How can I ever explain what this all means to me maybe Becky understands, is the only one who will ever understand. Someday she will be my party favor from the most far gone shindig ever had. To say this was a positive experience is like saying the view from Shampula is lovely, undermining reality that cannot be transfigured into words. I asked myself when I got so bold. Since at heart I’m neurotic and timorous. It was the rock n roll circus lighting out on tour, it was getting my heart shredded, was shipping off to the Orient, all fuel for this crazy rollercoaster that rolls off the tracks. The Tim I knew is gone and that is lamentable but necessary. I’m not so innocent not so pure anymore. Just a glimpse a funny patterned dream looking in Morgan’s dilated Redwood eyes outside the red barn at sunrise no one left just the mangled paper flower hanging from the threshold of the blue barn. All a prelude to the most extreme adventure I will ever embark so yeah get to work!
Returning from the temple I peeked in the MP Hall where the kids ate curry with their hands on steel plates and again I felt sorry for them like they were in prison. Looking out at endless mountains is so freeing but life confined in barbed wire can feel imprisoning presenting a contradiction. At the mess stands Ashish and Surgit along with some native teachers. The two Indian with brotherly mustaches are now my closest friends as I have drifted from Karlos who will always be my brother from another mother. Yet tonight I feel estranged from everything and ironically as I toil trying for a hat trick I have never felt the gulf wider. The rift deeper now than the day I came (deep as my cherished valley below) but how can that be? I have come to love certain Bhutanese and some tangible emotions have been requited through that mutual admiration I see a distinction that can never be overcome. Except maybe in the hearts of the children (mostly young adults) those I really touched and changed but we come from such different places and yet I feel more at home here than anywhere else. Scary, I never felt so homeless and when I think of my future I don’t see a mate or steady job in a public school but dusty Asian streets, knapsacks, and an endless comets trail. When I talk to Becky I can feel her pain on the phone its palpable how much she misses her role as Miss (I can hear you when you sigh)the truth is this place changes some of us irrevocably in enigmatic ways. It’s not like hey what a great stepping stone and confidence builder it’s more like losing your true love forever, again!
No moon on a cloudy mild night as a beetle flies around the hut like a toy helicopter crashing repeatedly into the wall.It’s Midnight and I have headache which might have something to do with my coke and kitty Kat dessert. Friday night and another school day coming on fast. Saturday’s I only have one class but am required to stick around until noon. Hopefully I still have a few big hikes in me this year so we’ll see what the weekend brings. I’m perpetually hungry and recollect 2 A.M trips to Jack in the Box with my cousin Larry in Portland Oregon. We’d scrounge and pool are change drive in his stinky car thirty minutes each way for a jumbo Jack and the requisite two tacos for a buck and by the time we reached our apartment at 3:15 I’d have a stomach ache. That was seven years ago and my heart is still broken.
…And if you boom back got troubles with your ear and you can’t seem to come back and make it all clear
Hey Now another Saturday night at Tsenkharla. Traversed all over the mountain zigzagging between Namkhar and Shakshang Gompa’s through burgeoning oaks sprouting fluorescent fronds and assortment of other deciduous variety with shimmering emerald leaves along with stands of pine and a few entwined cypresses. I visited a special Chorten where I saw piles of wood in fact women were chopping wood all throughout the forest today (I saw a whole half dozen people in as many hours) And that’s what it’s all about folks, encounters in Himalayan forests or plodding along ascending terraces. On the outskirts of Namkhar two of my former students caught up with me bounding down the trail in matching uniforms with black kira red cuffs and purple plaid pleaded skirt, how can they run like that in their regalia and rubber flip flops? I switch into teacher mode discussing classes and other students who reside in their village. That’s the payoff of staying more than one year for me is gleaning a deeper understanding of my students. Samten Wangmo is an average student but a real salt of the earth type with acne peppering her distinctive features. My first year she delivered me chillies to my door that she had harvested and this year she is the de facto leader of my club exerting great leadership through her actions. Her friend Sangay has darker skin and dusky eyes and is more reserved in manner. We walk to a fork in the trail, they go down towards the school and I follow the grade up to Shakshang.
The day started with a somnolent Mister Tim standing at assembly then teaching my home class punctuation and the students readtheir finalized essays. Many students did a good job on descriptive essays implementing vivid details. The other day I was saddened when I read a class six students report about his father beating him. It turned out that his father had died and when I asked if the stepfather beat him he said, “Sometimes only, sir.” In the USA a teacher would be obligated to report abuses but in Bhutan corporal punishment is the law of the land. Even little ones bonk each other on their head and in class boys will bonk girls with empty plastic 7 UP bottles and vice versa. Can you imagine if Johnny smacked Sally with an empty plastic jug all four parents would be informed and a meeting required. I did meet my student Augusta’smom an Indian Expat whose husband is lead engineer on the Kulongchu hydro project. I wonder if those sonic booms from Doksom echoing off of Shakshang are for that project like the churned up road to T-Gang. From Shakshang the mountains interlace towards Kunglung concealing Gom Kora in their midst. At home I made K WA with some local cheese that was fermenting, I hope I don’t regret that decision. I have plenty of work to get started on but today I had to fly into the forest, a perfect spring day. Everyone has a different favorite season but spring in Bhutan is magical when the sun shines revealing evolving shades of green. The pinnacle of greenery is later but spring has a certain sheen that is incomparable. How fortunate am I to live in the most beautiful place on earth? Even within the realm of East Bhutan Tsenkharla is the place for me with endless trails in all directions. Heck I haven’t even ventured off the mountain this year. Long walks with tinkling cow bells, bird song, and cicada type percussion and children’s voices emanating from brush. Once in a while I catch a glimpse of a student in ubiquitous red and black colors picking wild strawberries tiny yellow berries from tangled briars. The smells of baked mud, cow dung, and that wood smoke perfume.
I hear giggling and peel back my curtain and see two boys cringe and run away. I am getting less visitors this year but they still come to borrow money, use the phone, talk, or get help with homework. Ashish and Surgit visit and once in a while and at that a knock on my door it’s Butterfly so we commiserate and imitate those around us and I give him a hunk of jerky. He nibbles cautiously then makes a face like a finicky baby with a mustache, “It taste very different” he says recoiling then spitting the chunk out the door. We laughed about it for five minutes. I walk him to the village where Trashigang glows like a constellation embedded into an invisible slope. Lights twinkle up and down the valley a few here and there clinging to inky cliffs. Inside Bhutanese are drinking and fucking and life goes on….It’s a genuinely warm night as I sit in a t-shirt. Down in the valley it must be muggy but stepping outside I put on the long sleeve shirt Morgan gave me. Five ravens flew in fleur-de-lis formation traveling north, and in a few minutes one screeches south towards Tsenkharla.
Sunday morning I took Dawa Dema to Tsangma’s and we sat in the ruin shaded from the hot sun. I feel fortified sitting on my stone throne breathing pine scented air high above two rivers. A raven lands on a pine bough and croaks hello. The castle is in remarkable shape its pyrite stones glimmering at its apex rising forty feet off the ground. At home now staring at the mountains sharing hard boiled eggs with Dawa Dema. The mountains myriad of contours are emerald with puffy silver clouds casting purple shadows over the tree laden slopes. HEAVEN! Nothing but nature wildness unfolds around me. AWHOO! Leaving campus first the boys, “Where is Sir going Sir?” Then the girls “Good Morning Sir” and “Where are you going sir” I think I remember complaining about that in this blog ironically it’s just that I will someday lament. A cursory cleaning of the hut and reading from some Pema Chodron who implores us to love ourselves just as we are.
Spent the afternoon in Doksom for a riverside matinee with Karlos. I walked Dawa Dema dipping my head in the olive and cream splashed Dangme Chu swashing onto the rocks. Karlos was occupied loading up on supplies. Every moment spent along the river is a boon and where the Kulongchu and Dangme Chu converge is a power spot. The sun vanishing behind the ominous cliffs tinting the billowing clouds tangerine. Walking down the forlorn drag the warm air caressing my weary face. Now at home and Butterfly is teaching me how to prepare chicken curry but I’m not being a good student since I’m writing. Behind me the oil is sizzling as he drops chunks of meat into the pan. I had to scrounge water from my neighbor as it’s been in short supply. A trio of spellbinding days in the Far East of the Kingdom and I was blessed to be here. In the month of June meat will not be sold in stores (the nearest meat shop is Doksom) I usually take only one helping of meat a week. Many denizens are vegetarians and some eat meat but killing is taboo and often people insist the cow just happened to fall of the cliff, RIIIIGHT! An interesting Sunday observing the Bhutanese, being gaped at. The streets of Doksom are crowded with Indians buying vegetables and returning to their shanti’s. Butterfly tells me most are Assamese laborers living like gypsies. Mostly I find them genial considering the life they lead. The room fills with yummy aromas so I will say farewell for now and who knows maybe I can even publish these words someday for YOUR bemusement.
…but that day is not today Social Forestry Day June 2 2014 and a fine day at that. After an afternoon quiz competition the student body proceeded down to the fluorescent terraces to mulch and weed our school hazelnut plantation. It’s been two years since Shawn visited with his company and planted the trees. All I could do was marvel at them working the field the rhythmic swish of the sickles melding with chattering in tonal Sharshop. I tried to imprint the moment on my soul and the faces of students I love and have come to know. On my afternoon constitutional with Dawa Dema I bumped into Sonam Choden and her sister Tashi Yangzom along the canal. Both sweet girls, Sonam from class ten was in my original home class with Sangay Tobgay and Namkith Lepcha. I have taught Tashi for two years and she is currently in my 8B section. I snapped a photo of the pair before veering into the underbrush towards Zangtopelri, the ridge a green wall of vegetation with a few pines enmeshed. In the hut the water has ceased leaving me back where I started but so much richer than the day I arrived. Do you remember my consternation at passing through the front gate which I compared to the gates of Hell?
By my third year in Bhutan I was feeling haggard and more than ever under the proverbial microscope. I won’t lie it was the most challenging go round but I learned how fortunate I’d been to be welcomed into that extraordinary community. I also realized I’m ruined for life and will spend the rest of my days outside the Kingdom with a Bhutan shaped hole in my heart. Only a few readers would understand the arrant pain that entails, Jamie Zeppa and Becky would empathize and so would Ken Haigh. So I try to say my goodbyes as slowly as I can and usually I am busy in the moment which is actually the best way to depart. So if things go wrong and I don’t get a chance to say it, “I LOVE YOU BHUTAN AND THANKS ESPECIALLY TO THE STUDETNS WHOSE CHARACTER IS INSEPERABLE FROM THE ASTOUNDING LANDSCAPE, THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY LITTLE OLD HEART AND GOODBYE” I was lucky to have an honorable Principal and two affable VP’s and I made a few close friends too. LUCKY! LUCKY! LUCKY! How could I ever thank my family and the donors whose Hands brought me HOME to what my cousin Larry called my “real home” In my heart of hearts I realize I will never find THIS again, doomed as a restive vagabond for beauty who left the most beautiful place behind him forever. But I am still here now which counts the most but I thought I’d reflect on what it has meant to me, every tribulation and treat.
“…line up a longshot maybe try it two times maybe more”
Dawa Dema is a savvy pup though audacious challenging thousand pound bovines nose to nose, but she also knows when to relent surrounded by a snarling pack of strays she will just stand her ground and look cute. I have a lot to learn from the fluffy blonde dog. Bhutan is the ultimate tradeoff and sometimes I feel I am getting more than I give so I will try to settle the score. Bhutan is a trove of insects including an array of fluttering butterflies who circumambulate wayfaring ankles. The hut is also attracting scary spiders, beetles, flies, but thankfully my resident rat is on vacation. And although it is the time of the fly there are fewer this year. The wonderful thing in Bhutan is each year is multifaceted with more people or dogs piled onto your life. The second year was a breakthrough where my relationships flourished and deepened. It takes time to cultivate the student teacher rapport at least it did for me. This time when I peered through the open windows of the mess I absorbed the ephemeral faces of Dawa C sharing her plate with sidekick Tandin Wangmo seated next to Dechen Tshomo a shy student from my original home class. In the twilight Kinley does cartwheels in his gho on the sumptuous grass. The thing about the Bhutanese youth is they have an indomitable spirit the retiring ones exude simplicity and the outgoing ones exude playfulness but either way they all bring outstanding characteristics to the dinner table. What part do I play? I will never fully comprehend which in the end is the greatest gift, knowing that our influence will survive and grow in these gilded hearts. Pema Choki exemplifies the aforementioned when she bashfully inquired if I gave my mom the card the class 9A girls had made for Christmas. I replied that I did and it had made my mom cry.
Currently a mild Monday night complete with pulsating crickets andoodles of hard work ahead but I am enjoying a string of amazing days like a strand of psychedelic pearls dangling from the dragon’s tail. On days like these I wish I could transport YOU here to share in the magic. If these meager words give even a taste of the gig then I have done my job. To say this experience is rare undermines the reality. The monarchy is wary of foreign influence and it’s a chance in a million to be here (you can keep your lotto money) this is priceless. I am not on a high since it’s also the lows that round out this ball. The hardships I have encountered especially this year have polished my Diamond Vehicle which soon will travel on.
When the smoke clears
In looking glass valley
Prisms of emerald and sapphire
Steep rainbow slopes dappled
Purple and blue
A breathing mandala
Concealing circulating porcupines
Wild pigs and Sharshop.
A Raven fly’s
Darting like an ebony arrow
Tumbling into oblivion
On the stoop
Of a triple gold pagoda
The Queen of the Himalayas
Blows a conch
The final push making exam, moderating questions, and completing the syllabus all make early June a whirlwind of activity. The extra adrenaline and disquiet doesn’t jive with the vibe but stresses even creep into this bucolic setting. The wide open view is a constant reminder that nothing is real anyway, nothing to do but move forward more or less in line. Weather Report ragged stars and a faded milky way a vortex of lightning over Phongmay, night symphony with crickets and dropping coin clicks, or the sound of a tattered baseball card stuck in the spokes, the terraces teeming with nocturnal percussions. It’s 12:07 A.M in East Bhutan the beginning of another WACKY WENDESDAY in the LOT.
Well Wednesday evening and my right ear has equalized after two weeks except now I have an earache in my left ear. So I dug in my medicine chest and popped an antibiotic. An interesting day in one of the remotest places on earth. I met Piet the European man who has worked in Bhutan off and on over twenty years focusing on Yangtse. Piet knows my territory better than any foreighner ever will and has trekked up to the Tibetan border from Bumdeling. He also has traversed many ridges in my looking glass valley so we spent the lunch hour talking about the region. He had just returned from Omba doing a homestay at the same place Baghi and I stayed last year. He is surveying options to boost tourism in the Far East and we discussed the possibility of turning Shakshang, Namkhar, and Omba into a local trek. Almost no tourist ever venture as far as Tsangma’s ruin and certainly not to the furthermost points. It’s been auspicious to meet Piet and Francoise this year two people I admire. Piet looks like Bricker’s doppelganger except his hair and cropped beard is more sandy than hoary. He works all around the Kingdom but told me when he returns to Yangtse it is home. He regaled me with trekking stories and regrettably I had to run back to school to deliver a grammar lesson. Today was hot with scorching Himalayan sunshine and crystal blue skies with a few ubiquitous clouds rimming the valley and afterschool I went up to a favorite rock near the Bon Meadow to bask in the sun (a sun bath as they call it) Upon my return Principal La and others were playing cricket on campus and I laughed watching Principal go all out for a ball diving. Later Principal Sir called to ask what the debris was called that came off a sharpened pencil and I told him shavings. Yeshi Dema also asked me the same question earlier since they have a presentation tomorrow in Yangtse. Butterfly was TOD or BOD and came to my house for a spot of tea, he loves the Nepali spice I picked up in pokhara and always adds a pinch. Yes I am the only one who has my guest make the tea but sometimes I brew it myself too. I took dinner up at the mess and got some raised eyebrows since I wore shorts and a t shirt. Legs and arms are not a common sight as Bhutanese appendages are usually covered. The women exude elegance more than sexiness in this part of the world. The coalescing of elegant and rustic defines the essential Bhutanese beaut. Kira’s make the mountain women appear as princesses with silky glosses of all hues and the men don’t look half bad either. I am the only tattered one with chalky knees and ruffled shirt.
I have felt like a somnambulist this spring dragging my ass up in the morning usually perking up by interval. A war of attrition kids. I have newfound respect for Scotty and Vicky and Ian who are in their fifties, I am not being ageist but I know I am withering here at 36. Even Butterfly remarked how healthy I looked today compared to usual in my shorts. But I am synching my belt tighter and Tashi the tapeworm just gets hungrier and my eyes just get puffier receding into my sockets. Like I say I’m more sinewy than emaciated Riiiiiight! Actually having fun teaching Grammar and Becky if your reading Dawa C had Sonam Wangmo’s notebook all along, phew. Sonam just gave her profound head bobble and that was that. Social Service Club ventured down the channel picking trash as the students chattered in musical Sharshop and I engaged some of them in English. Sangay Dema A vanished into the underbrush to pluck wild strawberries and Dechen Tshomo was all smiles her infectious laugh echoing through the forest (It’s all good) Black, red, and purple plaid uniforms stitched into a verdant swath of forests, pastures, mountains, and rivers. Sitting on the rock above Zangtopelri I could hear Sangay Tobgay ringing the bell from a mile away. Cow bells carried forever on the wind and oh that wind when you listen reveals its tricks. Coming from infinite sources gathering on the spine of Tsenkharla ridge the nexus of the looking glass valley rippling a thousand prayer flags, at the eastern edge of the valley snow embosses an Arrunachal saddleback. So I guess Piet and I share the specialist of bonds loving this place.But Tsenkharla is MY territory especially from the school up to Darchen and over to Namkhar and along the channel above Shali. My roving stretches FURTHUR but the core of my range is Tsenkharla ridge itself. It’s crazy since I can see places that would take days to reach and places that are probably impossible to touch. I can see them through the threshold as I frizzle onions that burn my bleary eyes. Places like the toothy pinnacle along the dragon’s tail that straddles the unmarked border. That spire resembles the apex of Angkor Wat, I try to teleport via astral projection and sometimes it works! My hut is positioned on the brink of the ridge with fathomless space expanding with me at the center (like Mickey’s giant space drum) There is so much space and so many mountains with boundless contours I still cannot decrypt it and that’s why as the kids say, “In my next generation” I want to be born right here at Tsenkharla Maybe with a hot Monpa wife who I will sneak across the border. I rush to the squatter style toilet (a porcelain hole) I have diarrhea of the shooting variety. These minor ailments lose their novelty by the third year but we all know Bhutan is the ultimate tradeoff and a certain salubriousness must be sacrificed. I laughed at the students of 7B who looked miserable in their national dress frantically fanning themselves with their crumbling notebooks as flies buzzed around their raven tresses. Some even have locks flecked with gold while some have Asiatic follicles. Ah the wholesome Bhutanese youth ain’t nothing like em anywhere else on earth, that’s what was ruminating in my muddled mind as Pema Yangdon scooped bean curry onto my plate from a steaming vat. You’re LIVE on TIGER and Its 1O:57 P.M B.S.T and outside a hellhound howls yodeling to a slivery moon, Awhoo!
Bhutanese sparrow are a hoot little speckled brown birds with squeaky songs that duck under my door for crumbs then dash through the crack again.
Today I felt like shit nothing serious just hungry and tired with a mild earache. I don’t help my own cause swilling coca cola and eating junk food but I am cooking more this year in fact I just made some killer K WA but I just don’t feel full. I love Bhutan so much but it can tax the body and spirit to the edge, actually that’s the whole point of this experience. And like a needles perception on the Richter scale life becomes exponentially harder with each day…
…And today typified my ambivalent feelings about my circumstances. I am frazzled and tired of this grind but also enraptured by liberty. Before and after the one and a half hour study hall I talked with students and each one of them has a story and it surprised me how many stories I am privy to. On the boys side I invited Sangay Tobgay to my house afterwards to give him some ear plugs. When I heard him ringing the brass bell from a mile away I thought it might be damaging his cochlea. I chatted with Kinley about monkeys and Chakademi. Monkeys inhabit the forests of Bhutan but I haven’t seen any within walking distance. Choki Gyelston has matured into a fine young man with warm narrow eyes and a canoe shaped smile and light acne. Thinley AKA Bone is usually jocular but with exams nearing he was tucked into a corner calculating square roots. On the girls side I counseled Dechen Choden who lacks self -esteem and is anxious about her impending fate. These poor class ten students have their whole life riding on one set of exams, and borderline students like Dechen might not get the chance they deserve. I never would of made it through since I was a below average student in my high school years partly due to my parent’s divorce and discovering my identity which wasn’t tied up with studies. Who could have portended that I would become a teacher and face many of the same struggles I had as a student. When Dechen said she’s a nobody I told her she is somebody, not just somebody but Dechen Choden. I wish I could have told her what a simple interaction like this one meant to me but mostly the teacher student relationship remains undefined and unstated. I breezed by Chunkho Wangmo her meek deportment slouched on the table blushing sheepishly when I said hello. Pensive Pema Yangdon was hard at work alongside her friend Sonam who was wearing Pema’s pink watch. Then there’s Moon Tshomo from the Monpa pack, she is so clever telling me to wear only short sleeves and no shoes atop Shampula since the god’s warm the atmosphere. Moon told me Dakpa is a class below Monpa, peeps and their classes and castes what a shame. I have long talks with Butterfly about Indian culture and arranged marriage my darling Butterfly is waiting for his bride who has to be fished by his family who advertise him in Keralite papers. What would the add say if I wrote it: One dazzling butterfly seeking female flower.
I try not to obsess about leaving Bhutanbut it plays on my mind. Truthfully I am more frightened to exit Bhutan than I was to enter. How can one be accepted into a community like this one and then excommunicate themselves into the big bad world. Most readers cannot comprehend what Bhutan can do for a person (Bhutanization) it’s not that I’ve evolved that much if anything I am deeper into my neurosis than ever but I also have seen another perspective and being excepted into the Tsenkharla family has been my proudest achievement. Of course the Bhutanese are naturally accepting and all I had to do was work and be myself. Work and be myself what more could anyone ask for and where will I ever get that opportunity again? That’s why I am treasuring moments with these class ten students as our departure from each other’s lives is imminent. Truthfully this is my niche and the only thing restraining me is resistance.The relationships I cherish most are with the hundreds of students that have become a part of me. I just had an epiphany that when I student taught under the tutelage of Tree I marveled at how she knew her students so well. For all my perceived shortcomings and real challenges in organization and a procrastination have proclivity, I have lot going for me. I might not be dialed like Tree yet but I do have the same rapport that I admired. I substituted another English teacher’s class and noticed that I had checked my student’s notebooks more thoroughly and obtained a better result in my student’s essays. I’m not tooting my horn just recognizing that I can be overcritical of my performance. I have endless room for improvement but also have certain strengths too. Bhutan is a great opportunity to improve my pedagogy in a tranquil environment.
I was so tired after classes that I fell asleep on my cot ONLY dragging myself up to the mess for dinner. When the clang of the dinner bell awoke me I groggily drew the curtain and couldn’t tell if it was 6:30 in the evening or morning since the glow was the same. Up there Pema had two toddlers cradled in her arms then sat them down for supper. What an amazing mom she will be someday. These kids are the salt of the earth and I admittingly feel like a phony around them. I am trying to push through this fatigue that I can’t seem to snap out of. But it was another day in Bhutan and for that I’m grateful.Bhutan is otherworldly in every aspect it’s just nothing like anywhere else you can feel it gliding through the dragon’s gate of Phuntsholing or stepping off the plane in the fields of Paro. Living in far eastern Bhutan is literally dwelling at the end of the earth where narrow valleys are smothered by an endless chain of impregnable mountains. For phelincpa’s who like extremes it’s the freaking pie in the sky.The students provide the impetus to keep going even though I feel like a dim bulb. I hope I have the energy to make it to the summit tomorrow.
There’s a poignant scene in “On the Road” where Sal is wandering in Fisherman’s Wharf feeling like a faded hungry ghost in which I can relate. Bhutan will test the sanity of phelincpa’s anyone coming here should know that. I think my kinship with the dark side has served me well here but my demons are also swirling in the forefront prominently displayed for you to see. It’s nice to have the adulation of certain students who know my character through and through. How I can feel so stuck and hung up in this environment is inconceivable since all I have to do is look around and realize I am King of the world. Except being King isn’t easy and aspects of my kingdom seem in disrepair. But I have built something and must maintain it like the great Tsangma before me.How many lifetimes have we been on this journey? How many times have I seen this valley? What were my former sins and how long will I be embedded in Samsara like a pearl in a shell? How did we all link up moving through countless incarnations if indeed it happens that way? What will you be to me in our next life or will I lose you down eternity’s dark furrows? Will we ever be released? Nobody’s perfect if you see them they haven’t reached heaven yet. We don’t get a free pass into heaven you have to earn it by letting go of this life like a feather sailing through a cloud. (Touch it lightly and then don’t touch it at all) Meanwhile we bounce around Samsara together. The crazy thing for us travelers to Bhutan is now our karma is mixed up with the Dragon’s children and we are scrambled riding the Mahayana rollercoaster rocketing past enlightenments door. How many lifetimes did Jesus live before he ascended from the tomb? The Guru only lived once and although I know he attained arrant compassion I know him for his power and the newness of the sunrise where Lord Buddha exudes gentleness and empathy like Jesus did generations latter. Many folks in the USA think the world began with Christ and Columbus but it isn’t so. Hundreds of years after Tsangma built his fort America hadn’t yet slaughtered the natives to conquer its bloody empire but little has changed in this rugged valley. When the Hard rock kid moved to Korea I gained a new perspective on life and in a way I grew up in the Orient, or more precisely lost my innocence here. Experiencing Eastern ethos has been enlightening especially for a guy who was afraid of walking up California Street to visit his new girlfriend fifteen years ago. Ironically now I will walk any exotic path or seedy street but am afraid of intimacy.
Auntie Kesang got in a shipment of fruit including pineapples dwarf plumbs and tiny peaches. It’s funny I am so grateful for a rock hard worm chewed peach. And how about water folks think of me when you’re drawing a steaming bath tonight since nothing is coming out of my tap. But I do have a cold coke at my side and crickets in my ears so life is good.
Exams are nearing and Prabu G the idiosyncratic veteran Indian teacher (whose been here sixteen years) had to go to South India for surgery but my class seven students were never informed. In Bhutan it is not uncommon for certain teachers to bunk their own classes. As a teacher I find this incomprehensible but most native teachers are sincere. As for me I am reviewing material and waiting to print my exams since our printer broke. My first year we used the archaic printing press with toxic black ink which proved more reliable than the primitive computer printer. The sun has checked out again obscured by frothy monsoon clouds that drape the mountains. A sparrow darts under the door pecking up crumbs around my fridge with arrant aplomb before darting under the crack in my door. What lesson did that little sparrow teach me? To be confident and fearless. For someone so in touch with fear I can be fearless but confidence must be faked. Fake until you make it as my mother would quip.
“Tiger Tiger Burning Bright
Won’t you get some sleep tonight?
THE MEANING OF LIFE IS NOW
On Saturday fourteen teachers including Principal Sir and VP Sir took the yellow school bus (which looks more like a Bangladeshi airport shuttle) down the bumpy dirt road to Sep where we unloaded our gear beginning our trek. We descended into a verdant forest alive with creepers and melodic birds hidden in the kaleidoscope canopy. An hour later we arrived in the village of Omba proper set amongst rocky outcroppings beneath a sheer cliff belaying Omba temple. The temple is perched halfway up a thousand foot crag resting precariously on a ledge but we bypassed the temple taking lunch near a Chorten. Lunch was a splendid combination of pack lunches a potluck picnic. Of course I neglected to bring anything except a measly pineapple which was our modest dessert. The main course was emadatsi, asparagus smothered in cheese, fried cheese, and several varieties of rice. Next we climbed through a maze of maize terraces and into a dense oak forest eventually plateauing in another isolated village with only a few houses and sporadic electrical poles. We were now an hour and a half from the nearest road access but this desolate village reaped the benefits of power. This would be the last village as we ascended sharply through scratchy bushes and into another oak stand. Varieties of oak (think an oak jungle) are the dominant tree in this area and I wouldn’t see another cypress or pine for two days. We zigzagged our way through the forest in a three hour scramble towards the pasturelandof Shampula. It was tough going and my pack was snagged by thorns and twigs that also scrapped my arms. Principal Sir was attempting to look after me when I headed in my own direction but at this juncture of the trek it was everyman for himself. In the silvery gloaming our group, the slower group, crested the forest emerging onto the vast moorlands of Shampula. A moon whose color is completely familiar but I can’t match a word forhung so low in the sky that I nearly swiped it away while wiping my brow. We stumbled into some tall thistles that towered to our eyelashes (like Dorothy and the Opium meadow) but continued on laughing and occasionally the flow of Sharshop was broken with an interjection of English. The faster group had summited and were already gathering wood and finding precious water for supper and when we finally scrabbled into our camp in a depression beyond the first humppast the famous pond it was 8:00 P.M. (The next day students said they could see our flashlights searching the summit a prime example of how it takes a full day of balls to the wall roving and your tiny beam is still visible) Ina cowboy sky that eggshell moon hungpoured out of the upside down Dipper. The fire was roaring in purple orange hues as we enjoyed hors d’oeuvre’s of dried fish and pickled chilli. Dinner was campfire K WA and boy you haven’t lived until you’ve taken emadatsi alfresco eating the hot and sloppy mixture with your hand. The boys prayed round the fire enjoying local brew libations while the innocents sipped milk tea. Of course I forgot my bowl breaking Rainbow Rule #1 so a shrewd native cut a water bottle in half and I used that for my hot tea. We had five tents four on loan from Kiney and mine which again proved difficult to assemble especially in the frosty dark. Principal and friends did the work and I was relegated to holding the light a position I could handle. We crawled into the tents at midnight in the advent of a storm, before zipping up his sleeping bag Principal muttered a series of mantras and at moments like these I glean how faithful Bhutanese truly are. I concur with Principal’s philosophy that Buddhism is primarily about mind control. Those of us outsiders attracted to the Dharma are overwhelmed by the TRUTH it presents. Instead of blindly believing the Buddha implored us to search for our own middle path towards enlightenment, that ever elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That pot of gold buys quietus from the vicious teeth of samsara (the interminable cycle of rebirth and death) Rain seeped into the tent and one point Karchung my Vice Principal was bailing water out with his plastic cup and I remarked that our ship was sinking. Needless to say we didn’t get much sleep but I dozed off towards dawn being awoken by someone yelling in my tent to get up. To my chagrin I was the last one up checking my wristwatch which read 6:49. I was sent to gather water with Kinzang and Kota oursinewy guide from class nine. Kota and I are the only ones who had made the arduous trek to Shampula but he knew the lay of the land growing up below in Jangphu.The water source was a muddy spring either ground fed or sky fed nestled in an oaky grove growing like a tumor from the downs. After breakfast of porridge we hiked up an enormous mound to mount prayer flags. My cohorts went into a strip of small trees cutting limbs luging them back up the mound while the others tied the cloth scriptures embedded with horses and Buddha’s to wooden totems fastened with ferns. Our offering was a geometric web of vertical flags interlaced with the horizontal variety (including my strand and strands donated from students in the ultimate enmeshment) in a splendid rainbow array muted by the fog because we were performing this duty inside a cloud. I was relegated to passing out red strips of cloth used to fasten the flags to the wood. Up here the Bon deities play freely never being subjugated by the Guru who ONLY treaded to Omba. After we finished we descended our mound to strike camp and when we left we were required to burn aromatic leaves as an offering to the Queen deity inhabiting the mountaintop. We walked away in a trail of smoke engulfedin an ocean of mist the indistinct silhouette of our flags waving goodbye.We walked along the undulating moor past overgrown trenches from the Indo/China war of 1962 soakingin the rain until we arrived at a ridge that was the boarder between Bhutan and India but you won’t find any officials here only a stone globe divided with embossed arrow like a pie with two thirds in Bhutan and one third in India. Engraved into the stone are the words Bhutan/ India and the #315. Just on the Bhutanese side are a row of dilapidated prayer flags and the fellas quickly went to work refurbishing them with fresh flags pulling impressive blades from their scabbards chopping and hoisting the new flags. Meanwhile nature responded with fierce gales and driving pellets of rain. I took refuge in a cool outcropping with mossy boulders sprouting fronds from crevasses. Like a fool I did some bouldering and ended up sliding ten feet down a rock face getting quite the Indian burn in the process. I rejoined the group who was finishing their task and I shook my head at the savviness and the heartiness of the Bhutanese. While straddling the border in that sacred space I thought I ought to pray and in true Catholic fashion I wished surprisingly for a wife. I even muttered aloud, “Did I really say that?” I should have been praying solemnly for all sentient beings instead. Blown by the wind I had an unremarkable epiphany that the meaning of life was NOW, this moment. Not standing on at the Zenith of a dream but any old moment anywhere on earth. HO! I snapped out of my reverie and the gang was sipping Ara under umbrellas and soon we were on our way leaving only fresh prayers dissolving in the wind. We encountered a cowboy and his family including his grubby barefoot wife approaching the summit exchanging Sharshop salutations in my cheeky manner I quipped, “Hi there I’m a phelincpa!” We left the vast pasture descending into a dripping oak forest and an hour later were passing Karma Wangmo’s house above Jangphu. (I told Moon Tshomo about meeting Karma under a huge cypress tree last year and now every student has fabricated their own version of our liaison)From Jangphu we walked in the footsteps of a famous merchant who used to peddle gold, silver, and cats eye and performed supernatural feats. He didn’t ring my weary bell but when Kota jumped on a rock hacking back the growth to reveal imprinted footsteps from dancing dakini’s who flew up to Shampula my interest was perked. Dakini’s are angelic deities that Principal Sir compared to fairies (But I think of them more as enlightened hotties like dakini’s in bikinis) Anyway we dropped down into a remote village with rocky fallow terraces and a deuce of water driven prayer wheels with hypnotic creak revolving in whooshing waters. From there we wound around another ridge doing the misty mountain hop into Omba for tea. Omba is a de facto guesthouse for local pilgrims, Sikkim hajis, and the odd phelincpa and the village inhabitants are jovial and hospitable. I remembered ama and her daughter with pure inquisitive eyes wearing blue gumboots. I had stayed there last June with Baghi Sir on our legendary escapade. On this spectacular Sunday our pilgrim party sipped tea or ara amongst banana trees, roses, and bamboo and the ubiquitous farmhouses with that rustic elegance that is scorched into my memory along with the trove of aromas of Eastern Bhutan. We left Omba at five P.M traversing switchbacks through a luscious woodland with creepers and tree ferns taller than the tiger. Finally! We hit a steel bridge across a rushing rivulet andtrudged the last mile along a canal and scattered farmhouses in the steamy twilight. Kota bent my ear in the fading light with a whir of insects asking me a thousand questions ranging from my perceived relationship with Karma Wangmo to how long it takes to travel to my village in California. “Is sir sad he didn’t meet Karma Wangmo?” By the time we all reached the awaiting school bus in Kiney we were exhausted and sore the redoubtable Shampula looming above capped in clouds. Despite the rain and lack of a view my second ascent of Shampula was gratifying especially bonding with Principal Sir, Karchung, and the other staff members. Often I feel insecure about my standing here and sometimes wonder if Principal Sir and others like me or not.But on this evening I was content,even my own demons reposed on the ride up to Tsenkharla which earlier had appeared as a baby mountain at the center of an unfolding emerald mandalaat the center of the universe.
Back in the classroom on a misty Monday reviewing grammar which the students enjoy as even retiring Sonam Wangmo ventured an answer. When you call on certain pupils they look like the proverbial deer in the headlights. This is the final push for this first semester which went considerably well as I welcomed eager learners into my life including the keen class six. As exams approach staff becomes testy and students exhausted. As a class teacher I will have a lot of paperwork to complete after the dreaded center marking making the last two weeks of term exasperating. I will also have invigilation duty monitoring student’s exams and supervision of study hall along with tutorials at home for the boys who drop by. Today a brief appearance by the sun with shafts of light slipping between billowing plumes of cumulus.
At the mess I looked around happily recognizing so many shinning faces. Mess captain Pema Yangdon seemed preoccupied with her hallmark scowl but the rest of the students ebulliently greeted me as it seemed the student body was pushing the good vibe tonight. Walking from my hovel with plate and cup I felt like the pope with all the handshakes and hoots (In Bhutan I prefer hoots to handshakes since they’re a lot more sanitary) Dinner was a modest portion of potato curry, wet fish, and dal. Outside another moonless night with intermittent showers, a quintessential early summer’s eve. Thanks for taking this radical trip with me and letting me be your guide. Was it a good trip or a bad trip kid’s? Ah shucks it doesn’t matter since it’s all interchangeable!