Part 1: A Medley of Horrors
“This journey has been like a full dinner of many courses, set before a starving man. At first he tries to eat all of everything but as the meal progresses he finds he must forgo some things to keep his appetite and his taste buds functioning” Travels With Charlie, Steinbeck
Ain’t No Bugs on Me
I have experienced many maladies in my two and a half years here but extreme itchiness is a new one. HMMM what could it be? I caught scabies in a VW bus returning from Eureka in my freshman year of college, could it be? Is it head lice, students have worn my hat? Is it general dirt or something unknown and mysterious? Whatever it is its vexing as it feels like microscopic bugs are crawling over my entire body or maybe it’s the worms wriggling on the inside? The worst zones are my scalp and bottom of my feet so I have to alternate scratching which fires up the itchiness even more. I hope it’s not bugs oh yeah my pits are irritated too. Could it be fleas from pup Dawa Dema or perhaps the work of a demon? It seems especially acute in my hut? Yes I know what you’re thinking is his hovel a sty? What to do La? Last night I couldn’t sleep so I stood on my stoop listening to the lullaby of the river scratching myself feverishly, good times. Oh by the way any bug doctors reading this? Actually I’m typing with one hand and scratching my tummy with another. Heck I spent four hours washing clothes and cleaning my lair.
After our ascension of Shampula I really appreciate Tsenkharla ridge. I took a stroll up the spine through pine and cypress groves with capacious views of Tawang and Yangtse with the Dangme Chu on my right and Kulongchu on my left. On the way home I stopped in at Zangtopelri a full house these days as two of my brightest students Sonam Rinchen and Nawang Tenzin are residing their along with Rinch, ama, little Pema, and Jamphel. Also Deki an educated voluptuously appointed young woman is also staying up there. I was chilling in the shed with Deki and a calf that was licking me with her sandpaper tongue which was about a foot long. No bestiality jokes please although it was the most affection I have gotten in many moons. Rinchen gave me a juicy peach from her garden which I savored. On the path near the ruin I could hear them blowing the conch signifying the end of another day in the borderlands. Its 9:38 B.S.T and I’m making ramen for dinner yippee! On my hike I saw a mossy looking snake which made me think of Arwen my friend who worships snakes (if atheist can worship) I also saw a group of boys and girls playing that stone game where they toss one in the air and try to pick up another off the ground before catching the original one. I watched them closely mourning their youth already as soon puberty will change them irrevocably. I also thought of Becky who relished teaching and playing with the young ones of Phongmey Primary School.
Eye of the Tiger
I woke up with a nasty eye infection that hurt like hell as I described to anyone who would listen it felt like a demon was rubbing my eyeball in a sandbox then topping it off by squirting pulpy lemon juice into my irritated socket. So I hitched to T-Gang like an agitated Cyclops and saw the Cuban Doctor for some drops then holed up in room 113 listening to episodes of “House” and the “karate Kid” for two days eventually stumbling to the hospital again where they changed my medication. If it weren’t for my infection it would have been a perfect weekend at the hill station, a humid June evening dinning al fresco in the veranda just like Becky and I used to do. Then I went to the momo hut and chased my cagey little friend around the kitchen encountering the drunken Lama who seems to do nothing but party taking full advantage of his status (on some despicable level I can respect that) Oh by the way the K.C Hotel is now The Pepsi K.C Hotel its moniker illuminated under the PEPSI insignia. Furthermore Coke can no longer be purchased at the K.C Hotel or K.C Store. During my rehabilitation I spoke long distance with both Becky and Morgan mainly to dominate the conversation and incessantly complain. With Morgan I was raving about my apprehension returning to Marin where life is difficult without money or a driver’s license and she mentioned I hadn’t established myself in the USA and of all the rural states that might better suit me. Then it hit me the principle reason I like it here is that I AM established for the first time in my life. I know I’ve made mistakes and maybe even offended people with demonstrative behavior but I know I have accumulated some merit by educating the students. By Sunday my eye was on the mend and I was even able to appreciate a maiden’s superbly rounded buttocks as she climbed into a red taxi. Is there anything sadder than a bachelor in heat on a broiling afternoon in a foreign land? Well maybe the situation in the Middle East but I digress. Sad news conveyed by the receptionist at the Pepsi K.C, the Nepali kid a real good egg died unexpectedly last month apparently from alcohol and pills but it just as easily could have been a seizure since BST can also mean Bhutan Stretchable Truth. Poor kid he was only in his early twenties leaving behind a young widow. He always had a glint in his eye and was a hell of a cook and I know he took a particular shine to Jonathon. I cogitated lying on my bed with a festering eye cognizant of impermanence to the soundtrack of Alice in Wonderland blaring from the T.V.
The ride home was lovely despite the obtrusive roadwork which nearly claimed the life of my favorite shimmering tree near a spring that I noticed on my maiden voyage to Tsenkharla two and a half years ago. This broadleaf specimen seemed to be transplanted from the Garden of Eden and In February 2012 it was an emerald encrusted in a sunburned landscape. Now it’s undermined and dusty barely spared by the bulldozer reminding me of that remarkable banyan tree with roots exposed, nearly a victim of the Sakteng Road near Phongmey. I was de facto tour guide for Pema the aforementioned lass with the ass since it was her first trip east I pointed out Gom Kora and the cave where the beleaguered Guru finally subjugated that demoness who’d he’d been grappling all the way from a lake in Tibet. Now I’m back atop my cherished ridge grateful for my limited 20/200 vision again, enjoying the sepia cloudscapes of a late spring twilight. On the work front my exam questions are set and hopefully printed down at Kiney and now begins dreaded central marking and invigilation duty along with filing grades, attendance, and Kidu paperwork. These tasks will keep me occupied until summer break in two weeks.
Sunday night emadatsi at the mess so pink eye or not I’m there along with the student body in finest gho and kira in splendid array since the other six days school uniform is required. I am trying to avoid contact with people in case I’m contagious but I observed from inside the kitchen amongst the vats, pots, and pans. The students poured out of the MP Hall in high spirits a chorus of Oy’s and PShht’s and other Sharshop sounds. One thing the Bhutanese have my respect for is that most of them are multilinguist, but these kids adore their Sharshop their own mother tongue.
Where have those rakish days gone? It’s 4:20 A.M and I haven’t slept a wink in fact this might be the first night in Bhutan I skipped a night of sleep except that night in Trashigang more than two years ago where I traded war stories with Becky until dawns early light, today’s dawn a muted grey with speckles of baby blue sky in the mix. A raven crows an early bird. Last night a fierce tempest plopped drops of rain but as Janice says it’s all the same day man! Especially when you don’t sleep. I am itchy have a clogged nose and my conjunctivitis has come slithering back into my left eye. Actually I am miserable but take heart in the chorus of crickets overlapped by a medley of morning sounds including the stray raven and whooping whatever bird and a few tinkles of laughter from early rising students studying for exams, and some devout soul spins the wheel of fortune its faint chime reaching my ear. I just stripped the bed and am soaking my sheets as now I’m convinced of bed bugs. Poor Becky I called her three times tonight in a desperate attempt at companionship and feel I’m abusing our friendship. All I can do is read with my one good eye as I polished off, “Travels with Charlie” and now started “Wild.” A world full of joy and sorrows and I don’t have to tell you which end of the spectrum your scratchy author dwells in so early in the morning. I am heating a bucket of water for a bath and will brew some tea for sunrise and hope for the best. Good Morning Y’all from The Land of Terror or is it The Terror of Life! Heartbreaking as it is this is probably my swan song preferring a standing eight count to the Dragon’s knockout blow. But right now my task is to cure this infernal pink eye so I can focus on my schoolwork. Flies buzz around my head despite my clean abode and a fetid odor of feces drifts through the window from an overflowing septic tank. Mean to wash my eye but the water trickled to a halt. Hum I’m afraid no one gets out of here unscathed.
On a gorgeous Tuesday afternoon I received a care package all the way from Colorado from Miss Rebecca. Contained was an I Pod, a can of beef ravioli which I promptly devoured, candy, jerky, books, glow sticks, and many other sumptuous treats including salami! Best of all was a fancy pen for Butterfly which I proudly delivered to him interrupting his class. The purpose of this pen is a long story but Butterfly expressed his eternal gratitude and sent his regards for Becky. It’s nice to be remembered isn’t it? And these days I am a bit down in the mouth so the package buoyed my itchy spirit. The rain cleared out the looking glass valley with the saddled escarpment to the east appearing close enough to mount. The iridescent mountains hold the hues of the sky spawning soaring puffy clouds with their animated characters. This afternoon I continued washing everything including my two sets of sheets to stem the tide of itchiness and on the upside the casa is clean and organized. Exams begin tomorrow so I spent the day reviewing material with students and doing some paperwork. I feel they are adequately prepared for the exam and think they will perform well. But Central Marking will level the scores since my colleagues are very strict markers ensuring lower scores across the board. Right now I’m writing this from my desk in the staff room just before the final bell. The sparse room has views of the courtyard which is being revamped by Assamese laborers who are laying cement. Meanwhile assembly has been conducted on the basketball court adjacent to the large prayer wheel. This year has seen improvements on campus most notably a myriad of gardens and a cleaner environ thanks to the Inter- house competition. Tsenkharla is a verdant paradise bursting with hibiscus, geraniums, and roses. The only thing that would make life better would be the instillation of an A & W hamburger stand, Yes I’m craving a root beer float right now and a flame broiled cheeseburger! If anyone in the audience wants to send me anything my address is this simple…A shameless solicitation…
Send me a cheeseburger at:
Mr. Tim Grossman
Tsenkharla T.M.S.S, Trashiyangtse, Bhutan
Is it Central or Center Marking? I don’t know but I abhor it and if I had my druthers I would mark my own exams. The reason it was implemented is to involve support staff in helping with corrections especially in class nine and ten which have more than five separate sections. The first year Principal put the issue to a spirited debate and subsequent vote although before the vote he touted the benefits of Center Marking. The second year he made a passing comment at the review meeting and this year no feedback was required as center marking is an unspoken decree. I have heard it through the grapevine that other juggernaut schools have implemented this strategy which seems communist. Let me set the stage, its three O’clock on a mesmerizing afternoon with puffy clouds and streaks of gilded light penetrating the bluish mountains in our hourglass ravine. How can I ever explain in words the otherworldliness of this place? The colors and aromas are all ineffable for instance that sour smell that is intrinsic to the east but I can’t describe it. I soaked it in on my walk from my hut to campus (one minute) and joined my colleagues in a packed classroom where we sat five at a table practically buried by exam papers. From experience I know that following the answer key gives me eye problems so I volunteered for marking essays to the amusement of another teacher. I retorted that in the next life he might have bad eyes and me a beautiful wife (good thing I’ve gotten over my defensiveness isn’t it?) So for five hours we sat working our way through the pile. When it comes to writing essays these kids are homogenous, conforming to a distinctly Bhutanese pattern even sharing common mistakes. They love to use cliché’s and proverbs, as the saying goes blah blah blah, “The root of education is bitter but the fruit is sweet” Certain idioms and vernacular habits float around and are retrieved and regurgitated by osmosis. But there are good writers here who scribe from a different perspective and therefore teach me things. There is a lot of chatter and gum snapping going on during all this and greasy snacks staining the test papers and by the end someone is inevitably blaring Hindi pop music from their phone even though we have been instructed by administration not to do so. Sangay Tenzin (The Counselor) is the chair of the English dept. He is a bespectacled fellow who is quite ambitious and loves to talk about Obama and India. He’s fascinated about the USA but lambasts our foreign policy never getting any rebuttal from me. After the last papers of the day were marked we were still involved in a spirited debate about the deportation or volunteered exile of the Nepali descendent Southern Bhutanese. Ironically many of these refugees immigrated to the United States while many are still languishing in camps near the India/Nepali border twenty five years later. Ironically Becky’s mother’s church buttresses these displaced Southern l2Bhutanese in Virginia. For my part I like the Southerners for their frankness and openness you might recall my pal Baghi is a Southern Bhutanese. There are only a few Southern students at T.M.S.S to my knowledge. I excused myself from the marking because I had to oversee reprinting of my class six exam that came out blurry. Since our printer broke the last primary exams were being cranked out on an archaic hoojiggey where Cowla spins a crank after painting the ream with black toxic ink. Cowla was fuming and quarrelling with Madam Tashi an outspoken young woman who scowls like my aunt Mare must have thirty years ago; the men in the office call her black beauty due to her dark complexion. Cowla is our handyman and a strange dude altogether which is why I like him he complains and broods which 99% of Bhutanese won’t do. He doesn’t conform to the Bhutanese identity and is regarded as being an ignoramus. So he printed cranking and dabbing ink with a toothbrush at one point stumbling into me staining my clean cream colored Izod shirt with ebony ink (Of course I chose today to wear my one clean shirt still reeking of American detergent) Butterfly tersely whispered in my ear, “sometimes I want to fly away from this place.” But he is no pouter and a solemn worker who keeps his darker moods suppressed in smiles and laughter. After adjourning I took my constitutional along the west side channel encountering young Poopghem and her friend. She is a sweet girl in class eight who speaks beautifully and writes adequately. ESL can be so unfair since certain kids who can speak with confidence might not be toppers as is the case with Poop. I visited a strand of prayer flags I’d strung over a rock in the arid winter and now they have been partially reclaimed by the thorny plants and leaves and on my return encountered Sangay Wagdi a rebellious lad with spiked hair (oh these boys and their Korean styled quaffs) Sangay Wangdi is more interested in girls and roaming than studies and in that regard embodies the American teenage ethos so of course I feel a kinship and how there aren’t more like him I can’t reckon. In the shop in a cardboard box was sorry bunch of onions sprouting green shoots and some very fresh small potatoes still covered in dirt, but no tomatoes no chillies. So I sighed and skipped it skimming home having a cliff bar from Bunks care package for supper. Tomorrow I will repeat the same routine including invigilation duty in the morning. My eye is on the mend after a nasty relapse but for some reason I haven’t been sleeping well. I’m exhausted by 2 P.M but at 2 A.M wired which is unusual since I have slept fairly well over the last two years. I enjoyed a rare phone confab with Scotty from Yadi a veteran pharmacist turned teacher who has grown kids on the other side of the world. He is the BCF voice of reason especially when it comes to medical advice and also shares my passion for Nepal. It’s nice to commiserate and conspire with another teacher once in awhile as we face many of the same challenges at our respective postings. In about two weeks I will meet a dozen teachers for the first time many of whom live within fifty miles of my position. My third year only faintly resembles my first year as the novelty has shredded like a ragged prayer flag and all my old friends have gone, except my love for Bhutan only grows deeper certainly more worn.
Bhutan lacks sunshine, moon and stars, and cheeseburgers but it has an abundance of rainforests, tigers, and jagged peaks emulating the abode of the gods, but of all the places I have ever seen Tsenkharla is the best, the greatest vista is from my rock peering straight down the gullet into naked eternity. I must be lonely, the first year I never dialed the USA and this year I am placing a call to Becky three times a week and calling home too (Perhaps the reader deduces I just miss Becky) These calls are expensive but buoy my spirit. I just got cut off with my Bra who was taking the kids to an A’s game. Heck I still remember attending games at the Coliseum with my dad and Tyler. Life just moves along like a swift river. My brother was interested to hear about our trek to Shampula asking if it was for teambuilding. “Their whole existence is teambuilding” I replied and they’re great teammates. I just hope they want me on the team but either way they never indicate otherwise since Mr. Tim is a part of Tsenkharla family! I forgot father’s day altogether until my dad called me and I said, “Give me a break I just found out Iraq is at war” Then I asked about the American league East standings. The knell of the last bell of the evening at 10 P.M for lights out a bell that dictates seventeen hours of movement in our lives. Luckily it’s such a pleasant noise encouraging mindfulness consistently reminding me where I live (Heck Sangay Tobgay the little rascal is the one ringing that bell so…) On top of a glorious ridge at the center of a mandala of mountains at the center of the universe.
These days it’s partly cloudy with radiant sunshine and astounding cloudscapes that conquer the afternoon bringing evening showers. Somewhere off the coasts of India the monsoon lurks eventually climbing up the slopes of the Himalayan range depositing buckets of rain. Bhutan even exceeds Eureka in rainfall especially with torrents that can douse the landscape with several inches of precipitation in minutes. Tsenkharla is considerably dry compared to other parts of the region with our western slope robust in vegetation compared to the drier Kiney side, both thick forest or sweeping grasslands are all coated in endless varieties of green now. Whilst it’s true the veneer has rusted not a day passes that I don’t appreciate the insurmountable beauty of my placement. It helps to stay hungry! I’m off to the refrigerator for salami (so much for a special occasion) I hope all my readers whoever and wherever you are have a friend like Becky and if you do you ought to kiss your lucky stars. I forgot to tell y’all about this wild looking cactus just inside the front gate. When I came it was a knee high spiny succulent, this year its base towers over my head and a peculiar shoot towers ten feet above that. I’m waiting for that thing to burst open and aliens to strut out. Nothing compares to the row of regal cypresses towering seventy feet tall on campus that I’m sure were here in Catherine’s era. Becky found some writings of hers on the internet which I haven’t delved into but only saw one line, “just a village called Rangthangwoong” Well were still just a village called Tsenkharla. I often think of the cliché “It takes a village” whoever coined that must have spent time in Bhutan where a foreighner lives or dies with their village. I’m so glad Pema Choden threw that dart labeled Mr. Tim and it hit Tsenkharla and shudder to think how my fate would be altered if it had hit say Lhuntse or Punakha. I know I was supposed to be here it’s my destiny since I’m not that lucky. Trashiyangtse is “The Land of Spiritual Awakening” on the map Tsenkharla is at the edge where it looks like the dragon has bitten off a chunk. Tibet makes a foray into Arrunachal Pradesh as far South as Bumdeling so I imagine parts of that area of Tibet look like Yangtse. As the raven soars I am approximately forty miles from China and five from India. Although inhabitants of all three regions share a common religion and way of life the geography and political lines keep us isolated from one another. One similarity is that villages are incised into vertical slopes etched into improbable crannies. Trade between Monpa, Brokpa, and Sharshop is active and some clandestine trade with Tibet occurs. One of my students had an uncle who reputedly walked from Bumthang North to Lhasa which is awesome. Piet has also seen Tibetan yak herders deep in Bumdeling on the northeastern frontier of Bhutan (he joked he was seven minutes in Tibet) I might have glimpsed Tibet once from Kunglung but am convinced I dreamt that multilayered view encompassing Tsenkharla, Shampula, and finally an intricate labyrinth of snow encrusted fangled peaks that I assumed were Tibetan. So much lies beyond the serrated dragon’s tail and the Tawang saddleback and what about the faraway twin Matterhorn’s that vanish for months on end? Pondering on my walk today the last two and a half years IT seems like a fugitive dream. It’s warm now at night as I sit on my stoop in the darkness listening to the night symphony. It’s true that stars are dim and rare but nighttime is still the right time as cozy darkness envelops the valley and I watch the pretty lights twinkling in Tawang glimmering in and out of focus, and the lone white light by the river (the rice farmer on his paddy) and the three lights above near Lamas house.
Today I administered my class eight English One paper. You might be interested in a detailed explanation of the English 1 and English 2 breakdown but I’m not interested in describing it. The students are lined up in rows with countenances of consternation mulling over questions chewing their pens. In Bhutan the exam outcome is everything and they all crave, “a colorful result” Sure I assign homework which constitutes a fraction of their CA (Continuative Assessment Marks) And sure I assess whenever possible but it all boils down to exams, that’s the system and it cannot be negotiated. Bhutanese students are multifaceted individuals who work hard and play hard. The boarding life is hectic without much freedom or liberty for the pupil. Since exams are so important nearly two months of the academic calendar teachers are out of the classroom making, marking, and proctoring the tests. In defense of the system Bhutan doesn’t have that many prestigious jobs or colleges so many students must be weeded out and shipped back to the farms. The next twenty years will be very interesting as a new class of educated farmers will toil in the fields before going home to watch Indian soaps and American Movies like Deuce Bigilo. Many of my beloved students will live a life similar to the generations that came before but some will make it to better opportunities. My first home class from 2012 will be taking board exams this year deciding their futures. Some have already departed from T.M.S.S like Namkith Lepcha who I will never see again. BCF teachers share a tremendous responsibility in trying to implement western pedagogy while still preparing the students for their standardized class ten exams. I teach in my own style but review for the exams in the specialized format of all Bhutanese exams. Moreover I am a class teacher which means I will scrutinize consolidation spreadsheets entering figures, calculating, and rechecking my work. The first year I made a mistake due to my poor vision and they have never let me forget it. Frankly it was nice not being a class teacher last year but in my third year I have three grade levels instead of two and I’m a class teacher again, WTDL. Today is cloudy and warm but yesterday mellow gold light dappled the valley before a steady rain moved in. It was warm enough to attract mosquitoes and fireflies and the ubiquitous crickets. I haven’t been sleeping well so I lay awake listening to the hush of the river three thousand feet below in a desolate paddy and scrubland. The Mountains on either side of the Dangme Chu descend almost to the meandering strip of water leaving a narrow twisted stretch for rice cultivation, a patchwork of terraces only accessible by descending a few toilsome hours from Kiney (a hike that nearly killed me two years ago but was well worth it soaking in a magical pool along my holy river, its grey water rolling by) I love to visit the lowlands but my heart belongs to this ridge and to these cartoonish people. They are as real as me or as cartoonish as me but detached in some wise way. One benefit of embracing reincarnation is that it broadens the scope of one’s worldly view. Reincarnation is hardly a reward but a punishment until one attains enlightenment. Its complexities are beyond my puny comprehension but it has something to do with our karma and deeds in this life. We try to do good deeds and accumulate merit that will enhance our journey through the next life. In a weird way it seems more sensible than hedonism or trying to gain the prize of cloud nine. Since energy cannot be destroyed after creation our bodies will decay into dust but what about our energy. Consciousness might be a fluke but is more likely part of the fabric of the universe and therefore must be recycled. But how do we hold the strand of our soul while ejected into the Bardo, an in-between state (purgatory) between death and rebirth. I have considered embracing the Dharma and becoming a Buddhist specifically the tantric kick ass Himalayan Mahayana brand with its shortcuts to enlightenment, after all Guru Rinpoche was on permanent spiritual tour. I wonder for all the religions if anyone deep in their marrow is 100% sure of the final outcome. If they say they are they are probably lying since how can anybody really be sure of anything? That is what makes Buddhism attractive since at its core it’s a Science of the Mind more than a dogmatic faith. It’s all about making ones way through uncertainty which is the spice of life. I can laugh at my deeply entrenched fears and neurosis as part of a human process that stretches back to our cave dwelling Buddha’s. My challenge is letting go and unclenching my but cheeks, I grasp and hold onto illusions. My loyalty and pride which I used to value are the very characteristics that keep me deeply rooted in Samsara. But we can’t all wander off like Buddha leaving behind all we know. I might have gone halfway round the world but I am not free of any earthly bonds and am still impacted deeply by the plight of my loved ones. Those doers like Buddha or Eckhart Tolle seem detached and otherworldly to me furthermore alienated from this tangible world. I remember seven years ago on the heels of an acrimonious breakup calling my ex girlfriend and threatening suicide. I had no intention of killing myself only plying her in a desperate attempt at pity. My pain was incredibly vivid and REAL but it also existed in a larger reality that I am still struggling to comprehend. In this reality we are all ONE and ego is a joke, in this reality love isn’t something to be horded but to be spread like jam on the toast of the world. In this broad spectrum of reality versus non reality I am still clasping to the egocentric somnambulist dream but there are flashes of waking from that muzzy state. Another benefit of reincarnation since very few beings awaken in one lifetime (Only the Guru sprang awake from the lotus a direct reincarnation of the Buddha) as for me I have strange karma to sift through and my best teachers are my students. They are my gurus (Guru Wangmo is an actual student) but they are the ones that point the direction to my shortcomings and also strengths as an individual. So back to my alleged conversion I asked Jimba my “always fine” neighbor how to go about converting to Buddhism and she didn’t know since they are simply born into it. Furthermore I still am not a joiner or conformist and wouldn’t dare announce my intention to the Bhutanese who might scoff since I can’t even pray in their language. So for now I remain a baptized Catholic and hedonic pagan with a Buddhist heart and a sliver of awareness. Bhutan has planted a seed that hasn’t germinated and probably won’t until I’m gone from this place. I just hide and watch and sometimes participate alongside the finest folks on this Dragon Planet.
Back to the terrestrial I am in the staffroom lulled to sleepiness by the whirling fan and birdsong contemplating where I can mooch some green chillies for lunch since the shops are devoid of vegetables. I will admit that food remains a formidable drawback in Bhutan I know I won’t starve to death but find myself dreaming of ice cream, steak sandwiches, and West Brooklyn Pepperoni pizzas. A smile from Pema or Kezang goes a long way satiating my hungry spirit if not my aching belly.
Yesterday the circus of center marking trudged onward as I sat at my own table working through a pile of essays. The Counselor and colleagues were at the adjacent table laughing and smacking doma. Every once in awhile the Counselor threw a fresh pile onto my heap and seemed indifferent when I asked if he was on vacation. Today I will voluntarily mark my own essays since it’s not fair to have two teachers marking essays who will obviously have different standards even if following the same rubric. I will allow them to do multiple choices and letter writing. This means extra work but shouldn’t the student come first especially in these all important exams. It makes me angry to see the flippant attitudes towards marking when the students put in so much time studying. I forgot my group had ordered me to provide refreshments for today’s stint so I better get to Kesang’s shop to purchase snacks. I’ll by them some doma too!
On a break from marking I dashed home to get a sweatshirt through falling monsoon showers. I went to my fridge retrieving the thinly sliced salami that Becky sent and curled up on my bunk rolling each piece into a reef before devouring them until the whole pack was gone, HEAVEN!
I didn’t quite finish my stack of essays completing 45/60 and frankly disappointed by the result after we worked so hard in class. They were riddled with clichés and other entrapments of Bhutanese writing with a few shinning exceptions. I know how difficult writing in English is for them, I do get that. But I had worked so hard to break familiar habits and implored them to use their senses and describe (Not that I’m the best descriptive writer either) It’s hard to know as an ESL teacher on one hand I am impressed they have acquired this much skill in a foreign language even the essays that were muddled convey fragments of meaning and the top students often blow me away with their insightful prose. On the other hand I wonder am I aiding them in their development. A teacher is more of a guide providing certain tools for the students to use in discovery. We are not barrens of knowledge inculcating facts and figures into their heads, or we shouldn’t be anyway. Sometimes I’m humbled by my occupation and the enormous power I wield, other times it makes me feel ineffective and guilty for not being good enough. I wonder if other teachers feel this way too or are they confident or indifferent. I feel fortunate to be working here and not under the scornful bureaucracy of the California public school system. Maybe it isn’t so but as a student teacher I never felt comfortable in upscale Marin County. Here I feel accepted for who I am including my mistakes. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world but am uncertain about my career choice.
It’s Friday night and for some reason Friday night’s breed loneliness for me. I sit here wishing the phone would ring from a Sharshop chick, a former student, Becky, or my family, but only a soft pattering of rain and the company of yet another good book. I was standing in the staff room today when I realized how strange it is living amongst people completely opposite from me, and also how “normal” it has become. But in the center of that certitude is the reality of how vulnerable I actually am. Also due to my insolated nature I reckon how few friends I have here. Butterfly is the closest thing to a true friend and we are indeed that. Except we come from different cultures and backgrounds and have extremely different ideologies. Even two Americans who vehemently disagree are still two Americans. The other paradox is that Bhutan tenderizes and hardens me at the same time. A seed of tenderness has been planted inside me from all those amazing interactions with students but I’m afraid to open up for fear of being swallowed whole by the dragon. I have referred to this round with the Dragon as a war of attrition and when I look in the mirror I know it. My eyes are baggy and when I smile I have gnarly crow’s feet. I also have persistent stomach aches and am bored to death of ramen, and K WA datsi. I have a box of pasta and assorted readymade Indian food but nothing seems to whet my appetite except coca cola. An undeniable compulsion pushes me onward and the more I have invested the harder it is to let it go. When you live amongst a vastly different culture (in this case deeply religious) one forgets themselves. I have my known anxiety and familiar neurosis but in the midst of that movie I also stop and wonder who this Tim character is? What do I try so hard to hold onto when nothing’s really there? What is this overpowering fear that drives my every action for so many years spawning in early adolescence and expanding ever since? What are these patterns that I fixate on? Who are these other people called humans and why is it so hard for me to act like them? If it weren’t for the students I would have gone mad long ago and now I realize why exam time is the worst. It seems the daily classroom grind is the thing keeping me grounded. Coming back to health I have been so fortunate here but I never quite feel robust or spry unless I’m trekking. Both mental and physical health is precarious on the outer rim so far from the familiar and a proper hospital. In the annals of volunteerism in the Kingdom there have been some infamous meltdowns but I will spare the organizations from revealing specifics’ in this public forum. If you are a prospective BCF teacher reading this you need to know what’s coming. Bhutan is wild, disorganized, unhygienic, and for me HOME. You have to roll with the punches or you’re gonna get squashed. I have earned the right to say this but realize a wave can drown me anytime, and if it does it was worth it, and if it does cremate me and put my ashes in the Dangme Chu every last particle so I can be reborn as a Bhutanese or Monpa. My plan is to live through this adventure though so I can spend the rest of my days wistfully recalling what was the best. If I was a reader of “tiger in a trance I would think the author is a madman oscillating between loving and loathing Bhutan. I remember in my first few weeks my boss Nancy inquiring with Becky if I was doing alright noting the morose prose. Well Nancy if you’re reading it’s all good but I might just go on complaining anyway. Two things I’d love to change about myself is poor listening and frequent complaining both terrible traits in humans and both indicators of an inflated ego or some innate insecurity. LOVE ME LOVE ME LOVE ME! In that way remoteness, isolation, and immersion has benefited me even if the results are elusive or intangible.
Has the monsoon arrived? Today was the quintessential summer day in Bhutan with foamy tendrils of mist draping the mountains under a canopy of steely clouds. (Sort of like living in an emerald submarine) The monsoon world is overpowering with luscious greens smothered in a sea of mist both steamy and dreamy the world shrinking away to this one valley, or sometimes the mist evaporates everything except your feet. If you have lived through a Bhutanese monsoon you won’t forget it just ask Ken, Linda, Becky, or Jamie. It’s eerie, hauntingly beautiful, introspective, and moldy. Even your thoughts mold and I can’t imagine what it must be like in the wetter places for Jon in leachy Wamrong, or Sharon in PG (Whatever happened to that girl anyway?) We are all living our separate dreams facing challenges conquering ourselves or losing the battle. Where have my peeps gone, as this year has been at times unbearably lonesome. But that loneliness can be sweet or it can drive you to bed early, but since I’m an insomniac this month WHAT TO DO BLAH. The real reason I keep this blog spot is to keep track of myself. I get the feeling that no one is on the other end receiving these words but it doesn’t seem to matter. Originally the thought of readership or a fan base inspired and titillated me but now I write to keep sane and to document the episodes that are vividly surreal, everyday is boundlessly challenging and mutable passing through the phases and tribulations of this life. Each day there is a moment of complete reverence at landing in this place, Tsenkharla at the end of eastern Bhutan in this entrancing region that I have barely explored. But this is my corner of the Himalayan World and I cherish it more than life itself.
MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF! If you’ll excuse me I have to take another shit.
Part Two: WILD
“How wild it was to let it be”
On a rainy Saturday evening I threw some items into a backpack and scurried to the tiny bazaar to auntie Kesang’s shop. Her husband has a battered white V.W and agreed to take me to Trashiyangste for 600 Ngultrum. I have been refraining from hiring reserved taxi’s this year so I can save some money but this was an auspicious occasion. We drove down the serpentine road to Zongposar the hillcrest junction with roads leading to Doksom, Yangtse proper, and Tsenkharla and veered left into a new world. Within minutes the sweeping grasses, hemp, and shrubbery turned into a verdant oak forest with creepers and tree ferns as the valley narrowed into a gorge teeming with vegetation, waterfalls splashing onto the roads. The click of tree frogs sounded like the jangling of gold coins and floating through the darkening maw were sparks of fireflies moving in their strobe light procession. It’s more like jungle here the dichotomy between a few miles never so stark. By nightfall I was dropped at the bazaar where Piet was already waiting on the steps of a canteen shouting my name. Piet is a remarkable Dutch fellow, living in a world all his own. He has been based out of Trashiyangste on and off for the last fifteen years where he does different jobs for the government. Right now he is surveying new trekking routes in the east including what he calls the far out eastern trek encompassing my territory of Omba, Shampula, and my three local temples. Primarily he works in conjunction with Bumdeling Wild Life Sanctuary surveying the plethora of fauna that dwell there. Over the next twenty four hours he would impart invaluable information about a trove of wildlife. For instance he explained that in 1992 a tiger was spotted across the river from Tsenkharla lapping water from the Kulong Chu or that he spotted both a leopard and Asian gold cat on the road between Yangtse and Buyoung (our water source waterfall) Mainly he spots birds and butterflies while roving as far as the yak settlements along the northeastern border with Tibet. He told me about birds getting lost blown over the crest of the Himalayas specifically an arctic bird who overshot its summer roosting place in Mongolia ending up in the park. On our trek he would point out a yellow magpie perched on a thatch cow shed soaking in the pouring rain that has been pounding the Dzongkhag for over a week. After a dinner of dried beef and seaweed soup we retired to the Bumdeling Guest House an impressive complex at the mouth of the park that I hadn’t seen before. He is living there on his current three month visa and put me up in a musty sitting room to spend the night. My insomnia persisted so I stayed up until the crack of dawn polishing off WILD a magnificent account of Sheryl Strayed hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, finally shutting the book and drifting off to the roaring river outside. Yangtse is a wet place with the rushing river being fed by rivulets that run over the streets of the town water leaching from the foliage of trees collecting on the bushes below so it feels like being encased inside a rain stick. On Sunday morning we set out in the rain walking from the bazaar up to Bayling School and along a farm road for two and a half hours to the trailhead. Piet is 63 years old with a trimmed hoary beard, spindly arms, and a trekker’s gait. He is also a machine. This dude is nuts, he hikes with his bike on his back, rides from Trashiyangtse to Thimphu in four days, and sets a blistering pace without taking breaks. I was winded by Bayling but on and on and on we would go for the next twelve hours. Piet was patient since I probably walk at half his speed even forgoing the hundreds of breaks I am accustomed too when I trek alone. The trail started at a stand of cypress near a Chorten that had been vandalized. Around Tsenkharla all the Chortens are secured but this is a persistent sacrilege from iconoclast thieves who raid the stupas for treasure. Inside the thousands of Chortens are artifacts some containing precious cat’s eye a sea bottom jewel imported from China and sacred to Buddhists. Most contain semi precious artifacts which I don’t know about but they are pillaged and the contents smuggled across the borders for sale. The trail wound through slushy paddies past pastoral farmhouses and flooded rice terraces. I can’t convey the joy one feels in this landscape and how naked my soul will be when it fades away. This is an Arcadian paradise with bare foot woman and children laughing from the traditional wooden hovels surrounded by giant roses and strange orange flowers that I’d never seen. We asked for directions and were pointed in the direction of our first Lhakang. Piet doesn’t speak Sharshop either which makes me feel a bit less like a chump for not learning the local dialect. We left the fields moving into a dripping forest of towering oak and ferns across a suspension bridge to a feeder river that was raging from ongoing rains. Every step reveals wonders and no two places are alike in The Kingdom. This hollow was particularly enchanting its own universe of tiny white star shaped flowers, a carpet of clover, and enormous heart shaped leaves that invited me to recline on them. It felt like I had drunk that potion that makes one smaller and the forest bigger but all I had had for breakfast was milk powdered oat meal and a cup of Assamese tea. Our first destination was a place that irrevocably altered my soul.
Dechen Phodrong is one of the most entrancing places on earth. I had no expectations since I was only focused at matching Piet’s steps so I was shocked when he crossed a planked footbridge over a stream into a fairytale. I’m not sure how do describe a place of this magnitude but as the student’s say, “Here it goes” the first thing I noticed were outcropping of boulders including many as big as two story houses. Some of the smaller rocks had inspirational messages painted on them in English and Dzonkha. One said, “Trees are the silent beings listening to heaven’ while another said “The good man is a friend to all living things” As I read the second aphorism I picked a thin leech out of the webbing of my fingers. Although one cannot merely pick a leech off you actually have to prod and pull them and then they become stuck on the other hand. I squeamishly recoiled in fear while feverishly slapping at one leech after another as the day unfolded. The Lhakang itself is built into the rocks with one boulder melding with the whitewashed wall of the temple. The centerpiece of the spot is a gargantuan Cypress with its girth and height comparable to an old growth California Redwood. The trunk had the circumference of a school bus, its trunk raising two hundred feet into the mist. The Lhakang was amidst a coppice of these giants that lined the slope but this one was their queen. Trees of such magnitude are rare in East Bhutan, like the one shading Khaling’s Lhakang, or the one beyond the old Dzong in Yangtse. They might have been planted hundreds of years ago since these cypresses are always in auspicious locations. Apparently this particular specimen arrived when the Guru himself jabbed a stick into the moist earth on that very spot, strangely I have no doubt about the veracity of that tale. The foliage cascading feathery needles that listlessly hung from thick branches enmeshed in iridescent dew. To describe the vibe emanating from this tree is like trying to describe God but rarely has a tree impacted me so deeply. Perhaps the Queen of the grove in the Great Sequoia’s, or a tree named Cassidy in Fern Canyon; ineffably they’re all connected much like when you stop thinking all things are connected. Near the temple was a stone pool which is reputedly fathomless and indeed one could not make out a bottom peering through the crystal liquid. We had a sparse lunch sharing dried apricots (from Becky) and Kit Kat bars before reluctantly continuing. The next stretch meandered through tall grasses past rustic farms with potatoes stored underneath the houses before beginning a lengthy pitch rising three thousand feet. At this point I started having the problems that would persist throughout the day including a pinched Achilles heel and tweaked groin that slowed me considerably. Piet pulled ahead as I labored stammering excuses for my tardy progress. The trail was awash in slick mud and I was sliding all over the place. Up and up and up and up and up and up the trail climbed past grazing cows, and thatched herder huts through gnarled oak with humongous ferns sprouting from their mossy bows. Every so often I stopped to pick leaches off my hands and one off Piet’s neck. They wriggled and writhed into my fingers their thin black tadpole bodies half submerged into my flesh. If I didn’t get them off I was convinced they would wiggle beneath my flesh remaining in perpetuity. I struggled perilously upward falling flat on my face a number of times feeling self conscious about holding up Piet who waited atop each rise apparently unfazed by the exertion that was breaking me down. After two hours of steady climbing we reached a false summit with a strand of soaked prayer flags before the mountain leveled into a bamboo blanketed ridge. I love this species of wispy bamboo that thrives at 9,000 feet all across the Himalayas. It gave me a familiar felicity that carried me on although by now I was staggering and sidestepping to abate my groin pain. I lurched on having gone silent where in the first part of the hike I had inundated my companion with questions. The view opened up to a vista of monsoon clouds that festooned the mountains of Bumdeling. Throughout our hike we skirted between the park and its buffer zone. The vast park stretches into Mongar, Lhuntse, and North through Yangtse reaching the Tibetan border. Up north nomadic yak herders graze their beast of burden and smuggle in goods from Tibetan herders across the peaks. There are snow leopards, blue sheep, sloth bears, and the occasional tiger wandering through. In the area we slogged concealed leopards, boars, and a million leeches. The park also is home to the world’s biggest butterfly and a myriad of rare long-tailed birds. Throughout the journey we encountered exotic trumpeted pale yellow lilies and delicate white flowers made of tissue paper, finally arriving at Rigzam Goempa serenely perched on a ridge at the base of another behemoth. My first glimpse of the pagoda was ordinary enough most temples share the same design but when we reached the Lhakang I was astounded by its prominence.
A sign on the front gate listed the rules of the temple including wearing proper dress which wasn’t possible for me. I was caked in mud and when I pulled off my soggy boots I was also covered in blood. I pulled two engorged leeches off my ankles and the wounds began seeping blood. “Yellama” proclaimed a teen age monk who led me to a spigot to wash my legs. Soon I was surrounded by a boisterous troop of maroon clad monks who I dubbed the “punk monks” due to their profane language and recurring sexual innuendos. The lead boy was shouting “did you fuck your wife last night?” joined by a chorus of laughter from his monk friends. “No I’m a bachelor and please don’t talk like that inside the temple” I retorted. The Lhakang was as exquisite inside as it was outside with cherry wooden floors, impeccable murals, and obligatory effigies of The Guru and Buddha. In a side room were fiercely dark statues and deities with bulging eyes and fangs and an intricate depiction of the wheel of life. The whole chamber was embossed with intricate carvings of dragons and deities that popped off the columns. Despite being beautiful the temple radiated dark magic and perhaps it was rubbing off on our horny monks who berated us with naughty questions. Finally after leaving the requisite monetary offering I said, “Hey what does a guy have to do to get a blessing around here?” The lead monk who was twenty responded by pouring a dash of grainy water from a silver chalice into my right hand which I pretended to sip before running it through my hair. In the main chamber I methodically prostrated in triplicate to Lord Buddha my heart filling with reverence for being there and realizing my DREAM. Afterward we bade farewell to the raucous monks and headed down the mountain which turned out to be a three thousand feet uninterrupted descent through ankle deep slop. I fell a dozen times but my last fall was regrettable slamming my spine into the earth below the layers of cow pies and mud. It was the hardest descent of my life trying to stay focused empowering myself to safely arrive but the destination was elusive and it took several hours by which time my body was racked with pain. Finally we heard the river and saw a maze of paddies that was the Bumdeling Valley a place I hadn’t seen in nearly two years. Gratefully we came to a suspension bridge spanning the tumultuous Kulong Chu and I thought of my late friend Martha who always said I had hootspa which I guess translates to moxxy. In a misty twilight we crossed to the other shore where a fragrant burst of honeysuckle made me think of my other home in California. I collapsed on the side of a shop while Piet searched for a ride the eight miles into town, luckily he found one since I was past my physical and mental limit. We disembarked and had supper at the canteen before I thanked him profusely before parting ways. I limped up to the Karmaling hotel stopping over in the underbrush for an emergency shit, finding some fronds to wipe with. Squatting in the rain defecating I couldn’t help laugh at my primal condition. I continued up to the hotel pleading for an upstairs room and they obliged. A few minutes later I came down wrapped in a scrawny towel with bleeding ankles requesting toilet paper and a brush to wash my clothes with. I had left my flannel shirt at Piet’s and had neglected to bring extra socks or pants. Back upstairs I picked another leech off my body tossing it at the western style toilet but it stuck to the rim dancing like a snake rising from a Persian basket, I could hear the winy NAH NAH NAH NAH NAH music in my head. Finally I wrestled it into the pot and flushed. I scrubbed my clothes and took a warm bucket bath before drying each item on the radiator and falling into a dreamless sleep.
I had arranged a ride in the battered VW who picked me up at 6:30 wheeling us the hour and a half back to Tsenkharla so I would be on time and wouldn’t receive one of those infamous “Where are you?” calls from my esteemed LA. My itchiness continues to drive me crazy along with sneezing fits. I went to see Namsa at the BHU and waited over an hour as he and his nurse tended to a sick person slumped on a bed wrapped in blankets. Finally I begged him for scabies lotion although he vehemently disagreed with my self diagnoses while offering none of his own. For all I know it could be a mold allergy or those arachnid microscopic scabies. Once home I couldn’t get the damn bottle open and it is still sitting next to me right now. It’s tough up here these days with no water coming from the tap but mucky water flooding campus. Administration is upset because the Assamese workers botched the courtyard project and must redo the whole thing. The constellation of Assamese seemed in better spirits shyly walking down the road towards their shanty with the afternoon off. I took dinner up at the mess amicably chatting with students soaking in their shinning faces contemplating how endearing they are. On the brief walk home I admired the misty clouds swooning in the valley and it felt like I was gazing back on earth from the lunar surface, Shampula was swaddled in misty tendrils leaving Tsenkharla in the pocket.
Life is Wild in the jungle but also atop Tsenkharla ridge. There has been absolutely no water for a week so I am living out of Becky’s care package or the school mess that stores water in a tank. This is basically like my first two years here and I wonder how I endured it. The scabies lotion seemed to work but last night I vaguely remember waking up several times with diarrhea and woke up this morning with an ear ache. These are all minor maladies but irritating nonetheless. Principal Sir has decreed that all teachers file life skills reports for their classes in addition to all the other paperwork. It’s not a big deal but these tasks seem monumental at the moment. I had a minor meltdown during center marking yesterday when I shouted at the Counselor who had moved my pile of class eight exams without telling me where they were. He knew all along where they were but enjoyed getting a rise out of me. People have been taking advantage of my emotional reactions my whole life and I should learn not to give them fodder. The mountain still has its head in the clouds and although it’s mesmerizing it’s also gloomy. Both teachers and students have frayed nerves but I really appreciate the student’s fortitude as their life resembles the military. They look like weary toy soldiers lined up for assembly the haunting National Anthem fails to provide succor for my battered spirit. I really loathe center marking for the primary fact that it undermines my morale. I don’t feel invested in my work having to mark a small section from an exam made by someone else and composed by students I don’t teach who are identified solely by an index number. The fact that two instructors mark the same section completely obliterates objectivity replacing it with subjectivity. No two teachers will mark the same even if adhering to the same rubric with ultimately will harm certain students. Plus the atmosphere is vexing with some humming mantras while they mark and others eating greasy snacks and blaring music and the Counselor doubling over my work and telling me to go faster or mark it this way or that. Overall teaching in Bhutan is pleasant until dreaded exams, which is just part of the experience here that must be accepted. Mostly I just miss my classroom routine and working with students, I will see some of them at study hall tonight. One thing a BCF teacher realizes is they are on their own. My front lock has been coming off its hinges and I have asked Principal, VP, to tell the cook to fix it but nobody has come down. I realize it’s a busy time but it’s still frustrating and although Bhutanese are trustworthy I can’t go away for two weeks with a front door with no lock. Yesterday the sun momentarily burst through the cloudbank so I wandered around like a bedazzled vampire blinded by the light. Don’t get swept away in the negativity of this blogger as there is still no place I’d rather be and while my third year has been difficult it has also provided me a deeper appreciation for all my sojourn entails. If Bhutan was easy it would be meritless and no fun at all!
Hey Now, the sun came out revealing towering cotton candy clouds wafting through electric blues sky. My eyes can’t adjust the splendor after days of grey. I took a cup of tea outside listening to the birds and watching the Assamese workers working on the courtyard. They have dark chocolate skin and solemnly perform their task with heads wrapped in colorful scarves. They have penetrating eyes that speak of a hard life and remind me of the eyes of young women working for Damtek the migrant Indians who toil on the roadways of Bhutan keeping traffic flowing. Maintaining the roads is endless work especially in the landslide season and the Bhutanese aren’t willing to do it. There are thousands of Indians in the Kingdom some are teaching but most are laborers many of whom are from Assam the poor state to the South. From my seat near the grinding stone for which Rangthangwoong was named I can see villages etched into the forested slopes across the Kulong Chu. I can see dozens of settlements that I have never reached each clinging impossibly to vertical slopes with terraced potato or maize plots blending with forest. I can’t help but ponder how “time” has passed them by considering the ancient cities of Rome or Constantinople that had more luxuries thousands of years ago than we do now. Yeah we have light and cars but I’m betting one could get a hot mineral bath and delicious meal in those ancient cities where at Tsenkharla, not so much. That is the appeal of living here I suppose despite the hardships it’s a beautiful life. If I had to boil Bhutan down to a word it would be beautiful. A word that might have lost its impact most places but here retains its essence. The landscape and people are beautiful although it ain’t Shangri La, and it’s the imperfections that make it so beautiful. It’s watching students grow a foot taller or the lines increasing in Principal’s Sir’s face, or the crow’s feet etched around your author’s eyes. WE GROW TOGETHER HERE! Sometimes it feels like atrophy but like the convoluted oak we indeed splinter and grow sometimes sideways or upside down. Thus the advantage of staying put for more than a year where one can gauge this growth tracing it along the path of impermanent ridges that are also growing in imperceptible increments like Gary Snyder’s Blue Mountains Walking.
At lunchtime I went to string prayer flags down in the wispy pine grove below my hut. I strung the rainbow strand between two thin pines with a view of the Dangme Chu. I descended through our hazelnut plot winding through lush terraces into the shade of the pine stand with pup Dawa Dema in tow where we bumped into namesake student Dawa Dema and her friends enjoying a picnic. There is nothing like a partially clear day in the monsoon with lurid colors and utter freshness with the deepest azure sky reflecting on the mountains surface. My rainbow prayers lilting in the soft breeze sending well wishes to all sentient beings including YOU!
At center marking today certain teachers at my table passed around a plastic bottle of coke spiked with whisky. As I write boys peek through the crack in my curtain like peeping Dorji’s. It’s a glorious day but I am cleaning the hut and enjoying the view from my stoop. Water came so I did my laundry scrubbing the shirts and pants on my cement washroom floor with a thistle brush. Outside a pastel rainbow painted the Arrunachal sky as mellow light cast checkered patterns on the rumpled ridges. This light play will always remain in the recesses of my soul. I feel I’ve come to the nitty -gritty. The staff is angry these days as today I administered class six examinations shouting over the other teacher who was giving instructions to class four at the same time. This teacher was berating the students and kicked the hell out of a stray dog who wandered into the classroom. I am supposed to attend a BCF retreat in three days but my Principal was never informed by headquarters and seemed ambiguous about letting me go. This is what I meant by being on one’s own here. You would think my company would keep our Principal’s in the loop. So now I just will scratch it and meet my friends for the trek. I like everyone at BCF and my Principal but feel there is often a communication gap. Meanwhile who cares since it’s a gorgeous day and even my chronic health issues or the angry vibe can’t dampen the reality which is BEAUTIFUL! I know administration thinks I should be more akin to the National Teachers in how I deal with the students but I can earn the students respect and be supportive even tender since in my opinion they need that being marooned at a boarding school away from their families. Today I will be busy marking all my six exams myself since I’m fed up with letting others haphazardly mark my students papers. I just made some bomb K WA for lunch but am perpetually famished. Boys are streaming by in the evenings asking me for help, Pema asked me to summarize The Magic Brocade but I replied that he should give me a summary. He bashfully put his head down and I told him to read the story again preparing some guiding questions and informed him to come back tonight for a tutorial. He’s a good boy and the only one who came by to help when I was very sick in April. I enjoyed supervising study hall rapping with the boy’s afterwards examining their tattoos while cautioning them about the permanence of such decisions and informing them that I had none. I gave Dawa a hard time for putting one right on top of his hand in plain view. I get it though; they are so hampered by religion and culture that they’re desperate to express themselves. They use needles that are meant for sowing their national dress to administer the tats right in the hostels. God knows what else they do over there. Many of these students will be moving on next year and who knows where I will be. I treasure these encounters with Sangay Tobgay, Kinley, Chogi, and many other boys who were my former students and like younger brothers to me. Soon we will separate and it’s like some Buddha somewhere said, “We are born to depart.”
What does loneliness mean to you? To me it means walking to Butterflies hut for company, once there he fried me up some Indian treats and sweet tea and we did our usual gossip routine. I love him dearly but our conversations cover the same topics including Prabu G’s idiosyncrasies and the capricious nature of the Bhutanese. During my walk home alongside fireflies in a fresh breeze the lights of the fabled Hill Station twinkled in the distance. I typically enjoy being alone but still am lonely particularly for the arms of a woman, a forgotten touch I haven’t known for years. All I have are the alluring mountains personified as GOD but here on earth we are people persons, isn’t it? The Bhutanese cherish community and friendship but where do I fit into the puzzle? To my students I am a well thought of teacher maybe loved by a few but decorum forbids friendship. Karlos is my brother but ignores me these days, Becky is long gone, and Butterfly. I feel like shouting at the void or taking a night hike to the edge. I FEEL…Sometimes the night envelops me in its cozy cloak but tonight it feels empty a phantom voice whispering in my ear, “Psst you are all alone…I mean truly alone like all sentient beings…so alone...no god…just crickets chirping in the void. Buddha was wrong…Jesus was lost…the world keeps on pretending…its prayers unanswered…until certain death! If you have a loved one on hand hold them close tonight. In Bhutan we lack distractions although we have more than the original batch of volunteers had twenty years ago. For my part though I am immersed in Bhutan going months without foreign contact and I’m not sure that’s what I’m craving anyway.
Dinner up at the mess was bony beef scraps and K WA as another pastel rainbow sprawled the border in what I consider the most beautiful place on earth. At times the mountains beseech me to stay forever in their protection and I remember the vision of the blue lady up by the ruin so long ago when the apparition told me this was my home now. I wonder how that deity thinks I’m doing or about the work I’ve done so far. There have been blunders and wasted opportunities but also successes. It was touching to read some of the feedback from class six students in their essays that talked about what they have learned in English class this year, proof I’ve made a difference. When trekking with Piet we discussed that fact that here one can truly make a difference in such a close knot country, in the U.S.A I feel invisible and insignificant. My blues were abated when Bunks called me from old Virginia reminding me its okay on that side. Bhutan spurs ambivalent reactions but mostly just a deep love for what it is. The best kind of love, I love it for its loneliness, its scabies, its hungry nights its misunderstandings and clashes and mostly for the nature and the youth both eternal in my soul.
A Day in Bhutan
Trying to convey directions to Yeshi Dema
And Sangay Rinchen
Over a shouting Butterfly
Sir and Sir and Sir a thousand precious questions
Heads Down for the big moment
Did I teach them well?
What will they remember in the end?
A pastel rainbow paints the valley sky
Infinite mountains uncountable contours
The mirage of Tawang
The pinnacle of Lumla
The Constellation of Trashigang
Startling Pema Yangdon at the door to the mess
Priceless gold hearts in gho and kira
Forever scripted on my heart
Afterschool I headed up to Zangtopelri which is a full house these days. Three of my students were involved in a badminton rally including the adorable Sangay Dema of class six, the decrepit old man was sitting on his dusty burlap sack spinning the wheel as usual, a barefoot Rinchen was sweeping, and voluptuous Deki was learning how to thresh rice from ama. I learned that Rinchen Wangmo has only been at Zangtopelri for four years after having married the itinerant lama Tashi. She says in broken English she’s a graduate of class two displaying her earthy sense of humor. Her father forbade her education in Shali opting to have her as a farmhand when she was little. The temple itself was years envisioned and is one of the most ornate temples I’ve seen in Bhutan (more specifically Eastern local Lhakang) it is funded by a wealthy trading family from Tawang that is somehow connected to the Bhutanese occupying it. I’m not sure if the Monpa and Sharshop are one family or if the some Tawang benefactor wanted the temple there and the Sharchops are the stewards. I know Thebsgey Rinpoche from Tawang is affiliated with the temple with Zangtopelri pledging allegiance. The temple is perched on a knoll about a half mile over Tsenkharla School lined with prayer flags and pennants a quarter mile past Prince Tsangma’s ruin. Upon returning Nima Wangchuk was waiting at my doorstep for a tutorial and I just can’t believe how much he has improved since class seven. I remember talking to him outside on a sunny spring day in 2012 imploring him to try harder after observing him sleeping in class. He is an orphan and king sponsored student with all his needs financially met by a small allowance provided by the king for thousands of destitute youth. I can’t take responsibility for the improvement but whatever inspired Nima to work hard I am proud to have play a small part. On the way home from my constitutional I walked by studying girls who looked like prisoners behind their barbed wire and bamboo fence. The Guru asked me about her test score which is a familiar ritual all BCF teachers know about. As if I remembered all their index numbers and scores in the mayhem of central marking. Of course I recognize many of my own student’s handwriting, but when class ten students ask about their score I laugh explaining I don’t recall.
Tonight I got an auspicious call from my Aunt Mare in Selma Oregon beseeching me to come home. Contact from the other side always goes a long way to sustaining me during this long strange trip. She expressed concern for my health and just like that when we hung up my itchiness kicked up, I’d better get some more lotion from the BHU, a curtain of rain patter the roof in the midnight hour with invigilation duty and marking in the morning…
Easy To Slip Interjection
“It’s so easy to slip; it’s so easy to fall”
(I went to Butterfly’s for supper and found myself walking home in the dark without a flashlight (idiot!) and fell off a retaining wall. It could have been worse but I am still in shock hoping it’s only a serious leg contusion. What a shame and I hope it’s not a sprained or broken leg but I was able to limp home. I’ve never felt so stupid in my entire life and pray this injury will heal. The other knee is also tweaked since I just fell off a wall eight feet directly onto my lower leg bone which I’m lucky didn’t snap in two.
It’s now the morning after the fall, all night I had terrifying dreams of being stalked by a sinister monster intent on paralyzing me, It didn’t make sense but the message was clear, the dragon was watching. Lying in pain itching from scabies all I could do was laugh at my circumstances realizing it could always be worse. I had a very tough time bending over to defecate but am able to walk gingerly through my hut sending a boy to the bazaar for water and vouchers for phone calls. I had to call BCF and Doctor Namsa. Most alarming is my knee bone is severely tender but I pray it’s only bruised that with time it will heal. The timing is inauspicious with plans for trekking over break likely erased. All I can do is read and rest and hope for the best and try not to be too crestfallen. One must suffer setbacks in life and this is just one of those instances. But life goes on until it doesn’t, a student came by for help and my neighbors brought me porridge and a menacing spider crawls on my keyboard making me shriek)
Part Three: About This life
“You load the dragon on hands and knees. You squat in its dank interior like someone preparing to trowel a flowerbed.”
Why do I love Bhutan?
More aptly I love Tsenkharla, the first place on this marvelous planet that I can call home. I was fortunate to grow up in Marin County the land of milk and honey in an affluent upbringing. Later on my parents struggled financially after their divorce but for a while we lived high on the hog in a grand house on a forested ridge with dead red views of Mount Tamalpais. The sinuous street we lived on was called Upper Toyon on the border of San Rafael and Kentfield. My dad twice took down the large green county sign that said San Rafael City Limits since being a part of Kentfield garnered more property value for our million dollar home. I drove past our old driveway last December with my cousin Larry the block letters 237 still painted white on the pole above the mailbox, I remember picking out those letters, painting, and mounting them with my dad. We spent summers on Donner Lake sharing a cabin for twenty years with close family friends which fostered a community spirit. From that base I learned to ski and appreciate the Lake Tahoe basin particularly Donner Lake itself an emerald jewel set in the pine clad wilderness that constitutes the Donner summit. I can still smell that pine perfumed air stepping out of the car after our three hour drive from Marin that seemed a world away. While speeding over the summit in URF I always proclaimed “America we made it!” and for some reason those mountains felt more like home to me that our garden state surrounded by oak. Summers were spent on vintage wooden speed boats and winters on snow ski’s two activities I cherish and now seem farther than a three hours drive away. (Three hours now will reach me to Mongar) I was titillated by the story of the Donner Party who was marooned at the lake in the pioneer days of the mid eighteen hundreds and resorted to cannibalism for survival. It was a bucolic upbringing even though my parents were Real Estate people (Now my brother is too collaborating with my mom in Team Grossman) and I never learned the plant and animal names or how to wield an ax or use tools. My dad was pretty good at fixing things but I was too busy playing out imaginary baseball games in my yard pretending to be Ricky Henderson to care for tools or fixing things. Since the beginning I’ve always lived in my head which has manifested in a deficiency in pragmatic matters and proved audaciously reckless in the Land of Terror or the Dragon’s lair) This is still glaringly apparent when I attempt to craft lesson plans which in essence are like scaffolding for a child’s developing mind and I’m still a novice teacher with a plenty to grock and apply. For someone who treasures aloneness I am compulsively needy. When I took my fall (a minor injury in comparison to the suffering of the world, I felt compelled to call everyone I know to garner sympathy and write about it too) a trait well known to the readers of tiger in a trance. So back to the question why do I love Tsenkharla? Because this is home, this is my place and community. I have never stayed in a place this long where one is a part of all things. Here, nature isn’t something to be gawked at or admired for the scenery (which happens to be first rate) Nature permeates every second of life often causing discomfort or consternation. This nature is inseparable from the denizens of the land, the Sharchop, sprinkled in with Druk, Nepali, Brokpa, and on the other end of the valley Monpa and scattered Hindu’s. Here on this mountain I am the sole westerner a voice for my people and just Mr. Tim. There are other teachers on other mountaintops, who speak to their communities, but this is my place and despite loving Northern California I never knew that land in the intimate way I know this land. I never walked those mountains like these mountains. Most villagers don’t walk these mountains like I do but they don’t have to, they are already a part of them. Some folks walk these trails though more than I do, cowboys tending their dozen cows or horses up on Shampula, or even the old man wearing blue gumboots who grazes his half dozen cows in the village proper where we exchange amicable Kuzuzongpola greetings on cloudy afternoons. These mountains maintain throughout my moodiness and are casting their spell on me even when I ignore them or can’t see them since I am stuck watching my own inconsequential movie. These mountains will remain when I choose (god willing) to leave Bhutan, and will remain past my departure from this world. If I’m lucky I will be reborn into their womb a better version of Samsara but sadly it probably won’t work out that way and if reincarnation does exist I will probably be recycled into Western America running my own karmic marathon. These mountains aren’t just mountains they have distinct personalities and are also ALL connected. (MOUNT BHUTAN) I try to assimilate them into my CORE or maybe it’s the other way around.
I’m reading a book on my I pad (a precious gift from my mother) called About This Life. My dad gave me this book thirteen years ago and it sat unread on the shelf, I wasn’t a reader until I came here. I felt vaguely guilty for never reading it so I ordered it on my I Pad at an internet portal last year (I haven’t had internet for months hence the erratic postings) the book is a collection of wonderful essays by Barry Lopez about the nature of place and meaning of community. He shares a lot in common with Gary Snyder but of course like all great writers he has his own voice and point of view, something I struggle to develop. Like all my favorite writers on Americana he struggles to uncover an American identity focusing on the lost local. I often emulate the writers I admire trying to incorporate their styles into this blog it’s a bad habit but until one finds their own voice it might even be necessary. One thing I have going against me is poor grammar which constitutes a slipshod approach and always makes me feel phony as a writer. The only advantage is that I have an interesting subject matter in East Bhutan a place very few westerners have been privy to. In my village there have only been three or four (none for over twenty years) and when I summated Shampula it might have been a sight unseen by Western eyes, for whatever that’s worth. Anyway thanks dad for the last two titles I have thoughtfully devoured and this latest nonfiction is an adequate distraction from my latest malaise. Also dad, thanks for being one of my most faithful readers and maybe the only one to have read every word of this blog. Maybe my friend Julie has also read every word and for those who read any of these words I am grateful for your companionship. This is an extension of my own heart and community with readership around the world including my Principal and other Bhutanese!
Time is so odd and superficial and when I call Becky in Virginia to complain about Morgan laughing at me she laughs too. It is commonly said that Bhutan time is elasticized and that is called (BST) Bhutan Stretchable Time. On a dark brooding June afternoon swaddled in foamy mist lying on my bunk itchy and in pain one feels archaic and detached having the sensation of not belonging to the outside world, a sort of phelincpa anachronism. This is Wonderland and Avalon put together a dangerous and often inhospitable place and if you are fortunate enough to sojourn here you realize that. Sometimes I feel like a marked man but know it’s not true, it’s just that phelincpa’s who live here don’t get out unscathed and we will carry the scars of Bhutan in our hearts all through this incarnation and for some of us the next (RIP sister) Scars of love and sufferings that we’ll bury deep since no one can share them except perhaps in my case Miss Rebecca. About twenty four hours ago I walked off a retaining wall on a foggy evening freefalling for a second before smacking the sacred Bhutanese soil, a ditch in a construction zone. I’m lucky I didn’t fall on rebar or splatter my ignorant brains on the broken pavement. I stood up initially disgusted at myself for allowing this to happen to me. Like my fatherly Principal said the next day when I bashfully called him, “You should be more careful” and he is absolutely right always looking out for my best interests. I walked to the village looking quite ridiculous and barking at Pema Gyelpo for laughing at my plight even threatening to punch him in the face. (For the record I’ve never punched or been punched, once I was head butted at Bar 10 in Anyang City for hitting on an Englishman’s girlfriend when I was absurdly drunk on Tequila, another reckless decision like not carrying a torch in the darkest place on earth when I’m half blind to begin with) I owe Pema an apology isn’t it? Perhaps the laughter that resounds around the world is out of love from people who know my character, as a sleepy Morgan exclaimed, “that’s so like you” Of course I took my anger out on her too and shook my head after hanging up realizing that I haven’t changed a bit, my ego like a sputtering locomotive begging the rotating cast of engineers of my life for more coal to run. Even this passage, an homage to egotism, as I star in my own play and expect others to find something of value there. I I I….Maybe I ought to stick to descriptions of a place so outlandishly beautiful that even on a shitty day I can’t help paying reverence. I didn’t spend much time out of doors today but did notice the silver sky reflected in the arch of the Dangme Chu River. Somehow I’ve wondered off topic digressing from the query posed. My love for Tsenkharla goes deeper than passion, bone, or blood. It’s contained in the eager faces of teenage boys starved for my attention, or in the adulation of schoolgirls decked in matching kiras on the verge of womanhood. I see myself in Sangay Tobgay the boy I bawled at last year in class maybe permanently creating a rift between us. Or maybe our relationship just like this entire experience morphs into something new continuing on with a scratchy limp. They are the sons and daughters I might never have except I wouldn’t insult parents by pretending it’s the same. For as much complaining and self abuse I administer about teaching students will offer me a sanctuary or community when I reach the fractured outer world, the entire configuration of the universe outside the Kingdom’s borders, as Becky says, “you always have your class” Why is it that we will be damned to compare Bhutan to the rest of the world for the rest of our lives on earth then? And why is it we waste so much time complaining or just trying to make it out on two able feet? Why can’t we stay forever? At first this was a dream come true hence my favorite aphorism “Living the Dream” but it goes deeper than that illusionary state of dreaming even verging on wakefulness at times. As I have said before, the students are my teachers and due to their rectitude and fortitude they’re the finest ever seen. The realities of Bhutan are different from the realities of Marin County. Kids aren’t coddled here and life is harder, its okay for a national teacher to smack a student out of line but a homicide is still a shock to the nation. Concentration and surefootedness is important for foreigners and many have fallen to their death in the kingdom or sustained some injury. These stories always cut deep like the gaping wound on my own mother who fell on uneven steps in Thimphu. Courageous BCF alumni Andrea who broke her hip and rehabilitated for a gallant swan song in the Kingdom which she loved so dearly, or the Swedish mother who fell to her death above Tiger’s Nest with her sons witnessing the tragedy, or the Indian honeymooners in Bumthang who fell into the Burning Lake vanishing off the face of the earth in the maelstrom. My own minor slip has me wondering about karma versus coincidence in this remote Buddhist Kingdom. I accept the same risks that the reader does living with the terrifying uncertainties of this gamblers life. Adversity is the only true teacher for us all just like heartbreak is the flipside of romantic attachment (LOVE) and death is the solution to LIFE attachment, the beloved ten thousand things that sent Siddhartha packing. Tsenkharla will always be inscribed on my heart both the mandala of mountains (especially this ridge) and the students and friends who pass through my life changing me in ways I will never fully understand.
Other aspects of Bhutan I love are making pilgrimages to temples and the prayer flags that adorn the landscape expressing inexplicable tranquility. Life is congruent here like the patterns of woven bamboo that fringe the eaves of Lhakang’s, or the patterns embroidered into fine gho and kira woven by most Bhutanese women. I encountered a class seven student the other day touting groceries in an intricately woven handbag. I complimented her on the bag and asked her if she made it herself which she responded, “Yes sir” My only reply was Yellama or wow! Boys are also adroit at tasks like cutting wood for erecting prayer flags a skill which is passed down from father to son over countless generations. Despite encroaching Western aesthetics Bhutanese culture is mainly intact and so is the natural world with much of the country left as the domain of tigers and bears and the multitude of predator’s and prey to play their eternally important cat and mouse game in a trove of flora. I can’t think of any other place with an environment and culture so much intact as The Kingdom of Bhutan. There are pockets of wildlife and culture left around the world vestiges of a more enlightened age but where else do 700,000 multiethnic people unite harmoniously under the Dragon Wangchuk banner (The Nepali refugees not withstanding) How much will fashion trends, T.V, and democracy undermine the cohesiveness of the Bhutanese ethos a creed steeped in Buddhism is undetermined? I asked Piet his opinion about that on our long hike and his assessment is that Bhutan will remain better off than the rest of the world but that culture and environment will still degrade. We talked at length about the Kulong Chu project and the insatiable road building and the difference between environmentally friendly roads verses irresponsible roadwork. Piet dropped by for tea the other morning meaning he road two and a half hours more than twenty miles from Trashiyangtse to Tsenkharla on a sinuous road to return my copy of “Wild”
Bhutan is a special place one can feel it in the air and that’s why tourists eagerly shell out three hundred bucks a day just to be led by a guide here. They come for amazing treks that I will never tread and culture which is the fabric of my daily life. Living in a mountain village is the coolest part of all with all the exasperations and exhilarations that entails. When I unduly complained that I was on my own here that is because I am not a burden to the community I am a part of it. Of course I will remain an anomaly but not one to be babysat. VP sir did send someone to fix my lock and in retrospect I could have borrowed a hammer and done it myself. Teach a man to fish or in this place teach a man to make emadatsi. Well it took me more than two years to get a handle on that simple dish and I’m still perfecting it.
Tim’s recipe for emadatsi: Peel and chop potatoes, Red Onion, Garlic, Chillies, and tomato. Put a dollop of oil in the pressure cooker, heat oil before adding veggies, Fry for a minute or two stirring, add two cups of water and local cheese, close pressure cooker and wait for four whistles, rest for ten minutes and serve over rice. NOTE: mostly water, chillies, tomatoes, garlic, and onion is unavailable. One can substitute Indian cheese for the local variety. Also my pressure cooker doesn’t whistle or even croon since I done busted it.
On the phone my Aunt Mare asked me how teaching was going, sometimes I can’t believe I am a teacher. I conceded I have a lot to improve on and confided that teaching challenges my fundamental makeup. I am not an organized person or consistent in bearing and this can lead to ineffectiveness. I have improved though in regard to teaching Bhutanese learners and am better at connecting the abstract material to their tangible lives. Although teaching can be mentally draining it’s equally invigorating and I thrive off the interactions with my students. Since I am not one who was born to teach their must be a reason I fell into this career path. In my brief foray into the noblest profession I have impacted and been impacted by hundreds of young people and for that I will always remain eternally grateful. They stay with me long after departure and frequently I recall their faces, for instance I think of my preschool class “The Cardinals” in Anyang City, South Korea now they are be fifth graders. Do they remember me? Or my fifth graders like Jen who will be in high school now, how did I shape their lives? A teacher tries to positively influence and instruct the kids who enter and exit their lives. We’re like boulders set amidst the rapids, hoping to change the course of a life for the better. I will leave an indelible mark on this community but I must do it the right way always asking the question, do I give as much as I take? With the boons of Bhutan bestowed upon me I am obligated to give a whole lot more. My accidental has given me pause to reflect on my experience here and what I want to do with my limited time left in the Kingdom. What will Mr. Tim’s legacy be and how will I be remembered? What I can be proud of and what I need to improve upon? Each moment in life is a precious opportunity something we often fail to recognize. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves advice I rarely follow. I spurn myself for my anxiety thus creating more anxiety and more spurning. Instead of replaying my accident wishing I had done this or that differently and lamenting the complications it creates, I could see it as a wakeup call or lesson. The other day I thought to myself what if I just said fuck it and became a positive person. I have spent my whole adult life enmeshed in negativity a trait probably passed down by my father and generations of Grossman patriarchs (It’s upsetting how little I know of my lineage which traces back to Adam himself) To be frank I’m terrified of dying and this causes a disdainful reaction to the freshness of life. My mother is positive and a remarkable woman for it. When she fell in Thimphu she rued calling people to boast and nary complained. Our reactions were completely polarized and I remember her triumphantly climbing to Tigers Nest in obvious pain that she concealed to all but her attuned sons. I yearn to announce my pain to the world as if I’ve been perpetually cheated. My attempt at positivity was marred by internal strife between a peculiarly familiar voice, ego, which has lambasted my golden boy “intuition” into inertia. Ego is afraid of death he is an ugly green troll full of spite and envy who feels the incessant need to prove. Intuition is easygoing and angelic drifting with the flow of the universe he is featured in the barn at 3 AM at High Sierra, or tutoring boys after hours in a hut in East Bhutan. He readily loses himself in the breeze through the treetops or the croak of a raven. He values forgiveness and levity realizing it’s all interchangeable. He is timeless, ethereal, and basically good.
2:38 A.M Sunday morning in Eastern Bhutan, as if those determinants mean anything. Microscopic life teems under my skin those scabies that won’t abate especially without the aid of water or a washing machine. I slather myself in the last dregs of lotion listening to the rain outside rhythmically pelting my tin roof. My sleep patterns have been disrupted lately and with my scabies infection and bruised legs I don’t bother putting out the light instead reading Lopez on my infested bunk. The rain comes and goes in bursts drenching my hut which leaks near my food box, cascading off the ancient stones of Prince Tsangma’s ruin, tapping on the copper tin of Zangtopelri’s pagoda, filtering through the cypress grove that I haven’t visited in over a month. Pulling back my chocolate curtain and peeking out my dusty window pane I see the lights on in the closest boy’s hostel, a series of buildings housing hundreds of students. They are no doubt studying for their final exam tomorrow while other boys maybe attempt to sleep under the gleaming fluorescent lights. Every morning at approximately 3 A.M I hear the chime of the prayer wheel adjacent to the cement basketball court where the hoops have no netting. I wonder why this devout soul chooses the sanctuary of the wee hours to practice. I imagine an old man thumbing chestnut rosary beads in one hand while murmuring mantras and spinning the broad wheel that is taller than himself and one of the finest in East Bhutan. He is probably decrepit wearing an earth toned gho and barefoot a relic from a dying age. I know there will come a day where I won’t ever spin the wheels in fact there are too few days when I opt to spin our own wheel, or the handhelds of Gom Kora. It’s been too long since I visited either Kora and too much time in this dusty domicile. Although the view afforded from my stoop rivals any on this earth in terms of openness and light play. The rain comes and goes like it has since the birth of these mountains and the formation of the desolate valley below. In between countless microclimates our nooks and crannies with their own species of plants and critters. When the rain stops the lilting whir of crickets strikes up again like an enchanted nocturne. I wonder what my children are dreaming of right now and if I ever creep into their dreams as they seep into mine. Night time is a peaceful repose from wakeful village life and like anywhere there is a particular cadence here. Especially at a boarding school that undulates to the knelling of the brass bell struck at precise intervals by Sangay Tobgay. Sangay Tobgay has grown a foot since I taught him in class eight but still retains the mischevious and alert glint in his eye. Although a portion of his innocence has been replaced by the self awareness of adolescence transitioning into adulthood. In twenty four hours he will be in Shali visiting his mother, his father was taken by a demon in the forest or at least that’s how he tells it. He doesn’t come around anymore to my house and overall I have fewer visitors this year except the occasional request for homework help. Perhaps the novelty has worn off or maybe I need to be more open. My original class eight boys have grown entering different arenas of experience and maybe are too cool to visit old Mr. Tim. I know if I invite them they would come in a heartbeat and will make a better effort next semester to make them welcome. At times I have felt overwhelmed by visitors especially in my first year when we’d watch movies or eat lunch together. Boys still come by to borrow money and work on their homework and I enjoy the interruptions. Different BCF teachers have different attitudes about entertaining students outside the classroom but it seems the ones who sacrifice the most are the happiest here. J.D lived through his students as did Becky Story and Ashleigh and I admire them for it. Certain teachers who left after a year disallowed student visitations and one teacher even spoke belligerently of his students. My students have dismayed me but I love them through and through and the disquiet I have felt stems from my own impatience and restlessness not their malice or ill will. Students are constantly testing their teachers to see what they can and cannot get away with. I’m sure Mr. Tim is regarded as a pushover compared to the strictest national teachers who can be arrantly apoplectic expressing their disapproval with a beating stick. Bhutanese students are well mannered and I can always get them in line if need be without the use of a stick rather with a little bit of scolding which seems alien to my intrinsic nature. Not that I’m placid if anything I’m overtly emotional but never physically abusive. The few times I’ve lost my temper and yelled at students have haunted me long after they have forgotten such outbursts. In effective teaching there is no need for such communication breakdowns with a healthy classroom based on adulation and mutual respect.
Sonam the boy who brought me dinner has barely grown since I taught him two years ago with dark ringlets encircling his eyes and a slight frame. I remember he called me on summer break from a pasture where he was, “looking after cow” Sometimes I don’t recognize him in the sea of faces that greet me daily and I forget him but not really. Then I will encounter him on a path or at supper and I remember. I stop to scratch at the tiny travelers surfing my epidermis causing red crisscross patterns to crop up on the surface of my arms and legs. I scratch my feet against the serrated stoop peering into the amorphous blackness conjuring images of the nebulas reaches of outermost regions of space where even starlight fears to venture, as horrible as the itchiness is the step provides a euphoric sensation of abating that persistent tickle. Images from last night’s unnerving dreams flash in my mind running through Thimphu with teachers I had just met taking an escalator near the National Memorial Chorten. There are no escalators or traffic lights in the Kingdom but I was so exhilarated to ride its movable ascending stairs, does that mean I want life to be easier. When I went home this winter it was wonderful to see my family and loved ones but I was a wreck. Not only was I sick half of the hiatus I was a sleepless bundle of nerves. Constantly fearful that I wouldn’t make it back to Tsenkharla. When I walked away from my hut I muttered a prayer aloud to the local deity to oversee my safe return. My time spent in California seemed a fitful dream cut off from my real life in East Bhutan. Life in East Bhutan has spurred calamity this turn picking up the thread that began when I exited the Kingdom in Phuntsholing through the Dragons Gate trailing a streamer of TP on my heal. “You’ll get it back” Becky assures me but I’m not so certain that I will or that it matters. She is suffering her own posttraumatic effects of returning to the United States after sojourning two years in this other world. The change one may undergo here is drastic affecting the rudiments of our core being in ways that our conscious minds will never untangle. Our souls are stamped with the dragon’s insignia like the blue serpents of Avalon with invisible ink. Its 3:38 A.M B.S.T marked by a sneezing fit as the clockworks of my body are in disarray but I’m thankful to bash on regardless my immune system and whatever constitutes my distinct soul forging ahead into another bleak dawn.
Vacation starts today with students dropping by to see how I’m doing and say goodbye with carefree grins lugging their belongings to their villages in the surrounding hills. I do feel better and am icing regularly although is doubtful I can join the trek in two days. It’s a splendid day with high curly cue clouds layered over the ridges beneath which one can see down the gulley to the eastern saddle in Tawang. Little sparrows dart around my door pecking at my discarded rice in the cushy grass before torpedoing off with their signature rustling flutter. I am feeling well enough to finish my marking with my English colleagues and tomorrow I’ll probably get too T-Gang so the scabies in my house die out since Becky said they can only survive two days without their host in this case Mr. Tim. I will also score some more lotion in town steering clear of the retreat since I’m contagious. From there its wide open as I’ll focus on recovery taking it easy with books and a nice view somewhere and maybe some adequate food. I am feeling lucky that I’m not lying in traction somewhere and satisfied at making it this far in The Land of Terror a place I dearly love for its wildness and uncompromising beauty. Pale sunlight gilds the mountains coated in a gamut of green always evolving turning changing. The meandering Dangme Chu a gleaming silver snake slithering from India into Bhutan refreshing my spirit.
Part Four: Banged up in Bhutan
When I got back home Dawa Dema leapt in the air nipping at my heels lovingly. It was probably the most grateful greeting anyone could ask for and much better than a cat or human could offer. My rat shack didn’t appear as dismal as I would have thought after fifteen consecutive nights in a hotel, some mold on a dirty pot and no water on tap. Some boys came by and I gave them some bottled water. Imagine growing up as a student without access to water, they can’t afford bottled like me. So I caught up with Kinley and Sonam and their precious faces brought boundless joy to my heart. After I say good night and close the door I can hear the rat rummaging and my heart sinks. An enlightened one would see no difference between a rat and a rose but I’m scared of rats. I see his black form scurrying into the shadows but when I cautiously prod the area with my broom handle he has vanished into thin air. The first day back at school it was good to see student’s faces as they are reticent to speak as if I haven’t known them for two years. The problems of Central Marking continue when the students get the exam back they encounter problems including a section the Counselor marked where he just checked them off in a cursory manner. The whole system is crazy since my answer key got thrown out, the kids have doubts and a whole day has to be spent sorting everything out. In my class six where I marked all my exams there were no problems and all the sections marked and totals calculated. I repeat it was good to see the students and no sign of the Indians, pleasant salutations with administration and staff. Bhutanese are friendly and hospitable people but it takes real effort to make inroads with them especially my peers. Of course the rapport with students is the sustenance of a teacher here, some like Kezia and Keith find a good group and others really suffer. I feel supported and I have a few friends but my loner lifestyle at least by Bhutanese standards doesn’t allow me to afford many meaningful relationships but that’s okay. In the USA that’s my style two having a few close friends only and I am more open in Bhutan than I ever have been. It’s Friday and the sun is shining with curly cue clouds ringing the mountains. There is nothing like a sunny day during the monsoon season with the definitions of the mountain mandala clearly defined with sharp contours, the sun glinting off tin roofs in distant villages that I will never reach. The mountains themselves take on an iridescent quality a dark green canvas flecked with majestic purple hues that tint the creamy clouds lilac with charcoal undertones. The colors spill over reflected in the sumptuous grass or the coffee colored cheeks of the students. Innocence is the trademark of the Bhutanese student not that they are naïve or unaware of teenage problems but they maintain a purity of spirit that I will never know again. The Bhutanese people are for the most part kind hearted and open but I will never be one of them. They blend seamlessly into the landscape (where they work the fields, Kesang showing hard worn blisters on his hand from helping his parents weed) Samten Wangmo bashfully handed me a bag of green chillies from her plot in Yartse. That is tradition since I implore her to give me chillies every summer for three years, the first year she knocked on my door (brave for a girl) and I opened it up wearing only a towel after my morning bath. She was shocked and we were both embarrassed as usually only boys knock on my door. Samten Wangmo has done a great job assuming a quiet leadership role in Social Service Club and is the epitome of the aforementioned innocence. Her face has a Chinese characteristic contained in her slanted twinkling eyes. She was part of my first class that will graduate this year and move onto other things. Right now I’m entering marks into the consolidated sheet after finally sorting out the mismarking from the dreaded Center Marking fiasco. It’s one of those strange transitional times found in Bhutanese schools where teachers are scrambling to complete their paperwork before final results are given and students are twiddling their thumbs contained in their hot wooden classrooms. I ran into some former students today and was disappointed at how shy they were but I guess when they leave my tutelage they clam up a bit especially when they get older. The most talkative are my class six students but class eight are the kids I know the best after two years of teaching them. We have three teachers leaving for graduate studies in August which means I have been saddled with seven more periods taking on the other section of class seven. I now carry 35 periods a week and know some BCF teachers who only take on 20. It will be an extremely busy semester at the ebb of my Himalayan Odyssey. In the last two months my well documented malaise has taken the wind out of my sails. I continue to itch, my knee is hopefully on the mend but I will feel that injury for the foreseeable future and am yet to test it on the trails. I miss roaming my mountain but accept this difficult phase as part of my karma. Last night I couldn’t sleep until 4 AM as a soupy fog blotted out the nightscape. I fell asleep for half an hour having a terrifying nightmare. Currently a teacher makes a comment that my face is too close to the PC screen and my limited eyesight becomes a topic of conversation.
The night before I departed Tsenkharla for summer break I sat up reading Arctic Dreams and scratching my legs and chest. I couldn’t sleep and at five A.M I hobbled to the village, a row of five wooden shops, to meet my connection to Trashigang. He wasn’t awake so I sat on the dirt drag listening to excited birds starting their bird day. Suddenly my student from class six Sangay Dema burst out of her hut rubbing her eyes sporting awesome bed head. She must have been awake less than a minute and probably still partially dreaming when I surprised her with a hearty “Good Morning Sangay Dema” She groggily replied her salutation and we sat in silence watching the half light of a developing overcast sky. My ride finally emerged and we sped off to Trashigang along with Butterfly and Surgit who were off to Kerala for their break. Once in T-Gang we said our goodbyes and I headed to the Pepsi K.C where I immediately passed out on the hallway sofa awaken by the widow of the deceased Nepali kid who checked me in. Once in room 113 I fell into a deep sleep missing three calls from BCF. As it turns out they went to Tsenkharla to get me out of concern for my injury and I felt horrible for the miscommunication. I skipped the retreat entirely plagued by itchiness which I thought might be contagious and my battered legs. The archaic x-ray machine in the hospital showed nothing injurious and the medicine for itchiness didn’t do anything and two days later I took the local bus to Mongar. From Mongar I hitchhiked to Limithang where I flagged down the Bumthang coaster. Since the bus was packed I sat on an overturned bucket while others stood in the isle and we began the long haul over the Big La. Limithang has an elevation of approximately a thousand feet and in the summer is enmeshed in greenery. The road climbs past terraces of maize and thirty foot high banana trees with hammock sized fronds. The banana trees always give East Bhutan a tropical jungle touch and the ones down there are no joke. The road swerves a thousand times threading through luscious oak, tree ferns, and creepers in a harrowing ascent. For four hours the bus ascends eleven thousand feet on an eight foot wide two lane a mix of dirt and pot holed concrete that is the National Highway. In the most dramatic scenery I’ve ever seen the road reveals itself to be clinging to a ledge thousands of feet over a bottomless pit where waterfalls spill over the road like a rock in its misty cascade. One waterfall starts from a vantage point impossible to see before sloshing over the road before a sheer stomach dropping descent into an unknown abyss. Now fir trees ala Bumthang start to appear mixing with oak and clover like understory a medley of mosses that cover the forest floor along the vertical drops. Sengor is the lunch stop a pastoral settlement that is reminiscent of the Sound of Music. But the ascent isn’t complete as the bus lumbers another hour to the summit at 13,000 feet always enshrouded in mist and draped in thousands of rainbow colored prayer flags strewn over the broad summit in a show of devotion for their faith which may or may not be distinguishable from the Guru himself. Now the scenery shifts with spooky silhouetted firs with deep green foliage that appears almost black in the mist. The road winds towards Ura the highest of the Bumthang valleys a fairy tale clustered village set in a green bowl rimmed with rounded mountaintops. Like the alpine panorama the bus rolls through endless pine and fir forests until Jakar located in Bumthang’s primary valley. The last half mile into town is the only straight section for three hundred miles and is lines with farmhouses enclosed by palisades and lined with weeping Himalayan willows.
In my heart Bumthang is a winter place but it is delightful in summer with sumptuous green valley surrounded by immaculate forests. It is also the physical and cultural heartland of the Kingdom and where the Guru first transmitted the tantric dharma. My time there was at intervals uneventful, frustrating, and amazing. Uneventful since I lay about reading in the hotel room resting my body trying not to scratch too much, frustrating because my camera broke and I had to replace it with an inferior model (Lucky I was in Bumthang where I could find a camera) and an amazing visit to Jamphey Lhakang. This ancient temple is at the end of a road past where Martin and Tara used to live and the school in a cul-de-sac. But despite the ranch road feel this holy power spot has been here over a thousand years. Of course these temples are perpetually revamped which only adds to the luster and the edifice radiates with millions of prayers over thousands of years to the Guru himself. Sangay is also in the mix and is the principle upon which the wacky adepts of the tantric school drive their vehicle down the lost highway trolling for souls of Samsara ready to leap into enlightenment. The exterior of the temple is modest but appealing with its broad and humble pagoda matched the milieu of that end of the valley. Aesthetics and ascetics are equal in Bhutanese lore as a constellation of elders in old school plain gho and kira sat on the stoop chewing doma and spinning mesmerizing personal prayer wheels or thumbing rosaries. Why do they do it so fervently? I, Mr. Tim, of Tsenkharla was also on a pilgrimage to this temple which is a founding pillar of Bhutanese faith. Like Kichu Lhakang in Paro this Jamphey was one of one hundred and eight temples built on the same day to subdue a pestilent demoness. You might say hey how 108 temples can be built in one day? This isn’t exactly like God creating our universe in a week and obviously symbolism must be accepted or belief in exalted magic. The truth is its irrelevant when you shut up and step inside. If you buy into the Guru then it’s hard to describe the feeling you get when taped into his holy places. For one thing unless you are a Mormon and believe Jesus touched down in the Southwest American Christians don’t have pilgrimage sights for Jesus. We don’t know if Guru Rinpoche roamed as far and wide as the prophecies state but any devout soul overflows to the brim with empowerments when visiting certain holy places. Jamphey is an homage to all Buddha’s including the historical Buddha and the hallmark of this temple are the three steps representing the past, present, and future Buddha known as the Maitreya. The primary statue is the Maitreya shinning in a radiant golden glow that stirs the heart as if he is bathing you in compassionate yellow light. The altar is in a cavernous enclave which is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in Bhutan. I can’t adequately describe it as a room since the temple appears quant and subtle from outside but once inside it resembles a wood forest and then at its core a primal cave an environment a caveman would savor. So it comes to pass one steps into a temple that erases day and night and all time that resembles a cave in some Buddha realm. I skipped ahead so we’ll go in reverse; the cave is stuffed with statues and relics so one has to move around stealthy. The trove is usually locked by gilded chainmail but I was admitted into that cave along with an elephant tusk, blackened murals, horns, butter lamps, artifacts, and relics and no less than thirteen thousand religious accoutrements. The Guru peeped out from some hidden throne above the entrance boring into the back of one’s head as he gets his bearings. One is mindful on the three steps traversing the age of infinite Buddha’s arriving at his own Buddha-hood. The air in this room is the same air that the masters breathed and it feels hauntingly familiar like the womb or a flash from a future incarnation. What else I saw I cannot remember but it is imprinted on the faded walls of the subconscious secret termas or treasures revealed in some other lifetime. Outside the cave is a hardwood scented room with glossy burgundy floors made of impressive lumber where a marooned robed lama sat reciting prayers out of a dusty holy book. He glanced up smiling without breaking cadence. Within the temple on the exterior of the cave is a stone corridor or outer cavern with a row of decrepit hand held prayer wheels and faded depictions on crumbling walls of the cave or building. The ceiling of the room or cave is covered in gilded tapestries that seem borrowed from a sultan’s caravan. After one circumambulation you are back in the wood room with the lama and now the Maitreya has been locked behind chainmail. Inept words to describe a pulsating vortex that makes you want to burst your seams and exalt the Guru’s glory a messiah sympathetic to all our neurosis, a deity so powerful and subtle that he can be found in every moment anywhere on earth. Where I admire Buddha for his austerity and our similar circumstances I love Guru Rinpoche for his wild compassionate power. He united through lovemaking with countless dakini’s (represented as ageless teenagers) the coalescing of male solar and female lunar energies for complete balance akin to Buddha’s middle path. But tantric Buddhism has a history as fraught with strife as the human heart. In that manner the Guru is our own God essence and the God essence of our perceived enemy excuse the digression and eventually I emerged into daylight feeling lighter and heavier at once.
The only other noteworthy experience in Bumthang was a visit to the Dzong. It was my first substantial walk since my humpty dumpty impersonation and it was a start at recovery. Although on my return trip through Jakar an American Doctor sojourning with his family in Thimphu and visiting the valley diagnosed my injury as a ligament sprain in my knee and healing will be a lengthy process. He told me to worry if it still hurt in six months which bummed me out. I know I was lucky but didn’t escape with only the bruises on my right leg which will heal quickly. The Jakar Dzong has a commanding position over the town and is a classic Dzong with its own distinct style and aura. Within the redoubts whitewashed exterior are narrow courtyards that seem mid evil as if knights might come dashing in their armor and scabbards. The front door is from the real Lord of the rings twenty foot tall solid oak with auspicious wheels painted on them. The Interior foyer painted with wrathful deities and a bug eyed Guru playing a lute. What inspired me about this Dzong were the series of narrow and deserted courtyards that seemed indicative of this cold -mountain and incalculably important settlement. The structure had all the markings of a Bhutanese fortressed Dzong the carved wood windows the gingerbread house patterns of rusty reds and weather worn whites, its rectangular contours but in distinctly misshapen angles as if the structure is built in accordance with the jagged hillock which it is inseparable. A structure like this one adds sustenance to the natural feature that might appear naked without it perched atop its soil. This spot was selected from a white bird omen hundreds of years ago when the great The Dzongs of Bhutan were erected physically connecting the unifying country (I only know a smidge of Bhutanese history so please don’t seek validity in my ranting) It was a sublime visitation at Jakar Dzong and I noted the giant cypress tree (auspiciously planted at Dzongs and temples often from the Gurus walking sticks) I lurched down to my hotel and on the way three small boys said, “Give me money!” It was more playful than begging but it made me sad to see a Bhutanese boy doing that. The next morning I boarded a decrepit bus bound for Gelephu but I was only going as far as Zhemgang or so I thought. I would spend too much of this break on hotel beds and in busses since serious hiking was out of the question. I had a seat this time and as usual enjoyed the scenery until my bladder filled and I prayed for a stop. Chummey (home to Sonam Lhamo, her new baby, and a Queen) is a gorgeous pine clad strip of a valley dotted with cabins with moored horses and handicraft shops. I haven’t spent any time there but enjoy it flashing by the window every time I breeze through. Pines turn into mixed vegetation and tangled forest on the pass between Bumthang and Trongsa where someone saw a bear recently.
Trongsa is located in the bull’s-eye of the country on the edge of the Black Mountains in Central Bhutan. The town is historically important and noted for its massive ridge top Dzong. All trade from east to west came through this Dzong on a foot path and it’s an important location for the monarchy for various reasons. The road slithers south towards Gelephu and the forest turns into jungle, but where was Zhemgang? According to my lonely planet map it should be on the road except a shortcut had been constructed bypassing the town in route to the border town of Gelephu. So I disembarked at Zero Point and hitched up to Zhemgang through a resplendent forest of orchids and enormous tree ferns a humid botanical wonderland with rolling mountains blanketed by thick virgin forest with no trace of human habitation. Only the grey faces of monkeys peering out of the steamy foliage. The sun visited the celestial steam room and it began to rain from the ground and my pores as I disembarked on the lonesome little hill station known as Zhemgang. Every Himalayan Hill Station in the modern era has a cellular tower and power lines just as it has seasonal flowers (rumor has it some Indian Hill Stations have artificial flowers lining the sills) Pennants inscribed with horses flap in the breeze, the fortress of Zhemgang Dzong sits at the foot of the town an austere guardian, and I meet Kezia in a bright orange building which functions as a canteen, guesthouse, and karaoke bar. Kezia is a tall outgoing woman of my approximate age from Steamboat Colorado although she has spent time all over the Southwest teaching disadvantaged and violent youth. She is incredibly intelligent and sincere and quite in her element holding court in this orange guest house where her brawny friend was singing Credence Clearwater Revivals, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” a song appropriate for the weather. We talked for a few hours about our educational backgrounds and our experiences with Bhutanese students, along with crazy things we’ve seen at our schools. She settled down to a game of cards with her Bhutanese friends and I headed off to meet Ugyen Wangdi a forestry official I hoped would get me access into Royal Manas National Park in the South. My two dream places in Bhutan are Jomolahari and Manas and it is unlikely for complex reasons why I will never visit them. You don’t just hire a taxi into Manas for one thing it has only reputedly been opened to tourist not the least of which is due to flushed out Assamese militants that used to inhabit the jungles there. The real trouble is the only way for me to access the park is through Panbang eight hours from Zhemgang on a rough dirt road. The rain was already threatening to wash away my dream altogether. My first week in Bhutan at the Dragon Roots Hotel I met the head forestry official who gave me his business card. Three years later I called reminding him of that meeting and he referred me to Ugyen the forestry chief of Trongsa and Zhemgang. He lives in a house reminiscent of government quarters, spacious with nice wooden carved furniture, a flat screen T.V, but constructed of concrete lacking much charisma. Over the obligatory tea and biscuits we eased our way into a discussion on my aspiration to visit the park along with conversing about the animals of the area and environmental issues effecting Bhutan and Tourists in the Kingdom. Regarding my aspirations he said he would try to arrange a vehicle as far as Tinktibi the village where a dirt road leads to Panbang six hours south near the Indian border on the outskirts of Royal Manas along the Manas River, where river dolphin’s frolic and hornbills and peacocks cry. I enjoyed a home cooked meal and discussed a tiger recently spotted near Trongsa. Tigers roam all through Bhutan including up to 13,000 feet in the domain of the Snow leopard and both cats leave their tracks in upper Yangtse. My hope of reaching my goal would mean hitching down the dirt road to the remote but populated village of Panbang. The next morning was a deluge so I went to the bazaar and bought a rainbow colored umbrella hugged Kezia goodbye and set out towards my destiny walking south towards Tinktibi.
I walked about twenty yards out of town and waited for twenty minutes but no vehicle came so I walked back past the orange hotel and towards the rangers house where I sat another twenty minutes listening to the rain pelt my umbrellas canopy and finally a car stopped and I climbed in, leaving my aspirations of Manas behind. The long ride back to Trongsa was “risky” as my driver and his wife repeatedly said. They were teachers and she held the ubiquitous baby on her lap, a cute one too. The driver a nice man who taught Science rapidly asked me a thousand questions including if I went to Oxford, the climate and topography of California, and the workings of my school. I transferred to his brother’s car leaving my brand new umbrella behind and then his cousin brother proceeded to ask me a series of outlandish questions until we reached Trongsa and I thanked them and checked into a hotel exasperated. The Guesthouse was one of the nicer rooms I’ve stayed in and I they gave me a discounted rate. The room was all wood like a tree house with a balcony with a commanding view of the Trongsa Dzong lit up like a bejeweled accordion at the center of a symphony of night critters. Tuffs of steam drifted between me and the Dzong making it appear as a titanic ghostly riverboat. I ambled to town causing a scene at the oyster Bar demanding real Oysters but it took them at least fifteen minutes to get my joke and afterwards we all made friends and I ate terrible beef chowmein. It took me two days to get out of Trongsa including soaking at dawn watching gigantic toads hop in the eerie half light the rush of water pouring off the tin eaves splashing on the street in rivulets, not a Druk stirring, it was one of the loneliest scenes imaginable. I called Becky who was boarding a plane. Unable to hitch out of town I finally caught a ride mid morning back to Bumthang. This is where I met the American Doctor from the same town Becky is living in and he diagnosed my injury. His family was nice including two middle school kids and we all listened attentively to proprietor of The River Lodge regaled us with stories of his grandfather fighting bloody battles with the British in the late eighteen hundreds over the Duars.
The next day I took the bus to Mongar town. On the drive I sat in shotgun and past Sengor the waterfall splashed onto my lap as the youthful driver with flamboyant Korean style hair held hands with his girlfriend while driving the most perilous stretch of road on earth, he still managed to work the stereo, talk on his cell, and crane his neck exchanging barbs with his buddy in the backseat. Tired I found the last open restaurant for supper three handsome white dudes walked in and sat down at the adjacent table. I asked where they were coming from and they replied visiting a friend in Autscho and I knew I had found three elusive BCF teachers. Kevin sports a lumberjack style beard and steely blue eyes and is placed in Bidung. Mac is only twenty three and works in Pema Gatshel, and Warren who Kezia says has an old soul works on a mountain across from Sherubse. Together they are three young bucks who had only positive things to say about their experiences here where I complained and gossiped like an old lady. It was good to see westerners and I was happy to meet some of the new teachers since I missed the retreat. I walked the streets of Mongar under a full moon avoiding snarling mongrels. The phone rang and it was Becky and I told her I felt like I had peaked and I asked her where I should go next. I had the plan to retreat to Tsenkharla but she suggested Lhuntse.
On a partly cloudy July day I ambled to the crowded Mongar taxi stand and arranged a ride with an affable fellow named Tswing who for about USD 100 became my driver for the day. We headed up to Lhuntse where I hadn’t been in exactly two years when I hired a driver in a similar manner. Lhuntse is in East Bhutan but seems a world unto itself and is associated with Central Bhutan and is the ancestral home of the Monarch, the birthplace of the first king’s father. The drive to Lhuntse follows the Kuri Chu River as it carves its way through dramatic canyons which are the lowlands of Tibet just north. We passed sweltering Autscho where Reidi used to live and Keith currently resides. (In about thirty miles due north as the raven fly’s the topography rises from 1,000 feet to twenty five thousand feet!) The road continues north for two more hours to Lhuntse proper but first we detoured to visit a mammoth statue of Guru Rinpoche. What’s amazing about this statue is that it’s the idea of one Lama who raised the millions of Ngultrum to build this wonder of the Buddhist world. It’s humbling to imagine the process, the donors from all over Asia and beyond, even the Assamese laborers constructing the grounds. The statue is located in the improbably remote settlement above Tangmachu up a dirt road that winds through fluorescent rice paddies and maize plots with views of Menji across the ravine. To the north a cone like peak marks the horizon as the mountains of various shapes rumple into the sapphire horizon beyond which another layer of high altitude peaks that define the border of Bhutan and the Chinese region of Tibet. Where I was standing might have been one of the fabled hidden valleys of Bhutan like Avalon. It is indeed sad that Tibet has been subjugated its culture practically destroyed by the red army but one must know history to realize that Tibet once conquered parts of China in the 1400’s when they were the preeminent military power in Central Asia. Tibet repeatedly invaded Bhutan until the Kingdom was united a few hundred years ago. It is sad though that Bhutanese culture which derives most of its essence from the high plateau is now cut off and isolated as the last bastion of true Himalayan Buddhism. Here, in Lhuntse one can’t help but feel the link emanating from the crown of the Guru himself, favorite son and bearer of the dharma in Tibet and later Bhutan. It takes about an hour to reach the site, the last ten minutes on a paved road that is starting from the top working its way back to the “highway” below. The statue itself is in place but the site is a year or so from completion so as it stands the Guru presides over ongoing construction carried out by a group of swarthy Assamese laborers. But the incomplete project does not retract from the full glory of the Guru whose effigy rivals that of Big Buddha in stature but radiates more power in his remote setting in the heart of Lhuntse not so far from where the real Guru entered Bhutan from Tibet at Singye Dzong.
The statue stands nine stories high with a base of teal marble, an elevated promenade under the Guru’s chin, and is hollow with a Lhakang inside (like living inside the Guru’s head) The statue is copper and gold with the Guru sitting Indian style holing his magical accoutrements and dharma crown. The face of the Guru might appear frozen at initial glance but the longer one stare’s his golden face becomes animated and begins to transcribe divine precepts into the viewer’s brain. His unblinking bulging bloodshot eyes bore into the soul allowing the Guru Pema’s lightning to course through your mortal bones and at night I’m sure HE comes alive like the Black Angel statue of Wisconsin. I am not being symbolic here in describing a phenomenon that ONLY one who recognizes the power of Guru Pema can fully appreciate. It took me a long time to realize what it meant when the Bhutanese refer to their Guru as God. I’m still not sure what the tantric Buddhist God form is except that it’s certainly formless and in that way the Guru is God. He embodies the eternal moment which is each and every moment absolutely timeless and omnipotent. Once one accepts that moment and fully lets go of their precious ego they themselves will also embody the Guru and therefore God. (You are already, according to tantric precepts a Buddha or awakened one except most of us are still dreaming) I have found the door but cannot unlock it or rather let it evaporate into the void (There is no door only thought that anchors us to Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth) Inside the Guru they are in the process of constructing/painting the Lhakhang with sacred geometric mandalas but the smaller Guru within a Guru statue is their along with his consorts, the Indian hill princess, and Tibetan Dakini Yeshi Tshogel who sacrifices her flesh and spirit for all sentient beings until Samsara is empty. To know Yeshi herself is to realize Guru Pema’s perfect unity with everything including YOU. The iconic tantric image of the blue man making love with a naked Dakini symbolizes the unity of solar male and lunar female forces, the yin and yang.
This is where the story of the tiger in a trance emphatically ends as he is united with all things and all people, deities, demons, and dakini’s of all the infinite realms and limitless dimensions. One might describe this actualization as a confluence of rainbow light or a precious white diamond shinning in the blackness of internal space. There is still more ACTION before we say goodbye but the ending is here standing at the foot of OUR precious master completely overwhelmed with reverence and inspiration! And since we can still move forward after such an end I continued on to the impressive Lhuntse Dzong fortress perched on a wedged hillock over the Kuri Chu and surrounded by imposingly steep black mountains, the last layer before the crest of the Himalaya that separates Lho Mon (The land of Southern darkness) to the Tibetan plateau. Since my last visit the Dzongs stately courtyard has been revamped and is now fit for a king, and that’s how I felt strolling in the deserted courtyard admiring the fading paintings of tantric lore and the wood and whitewashed Dzong in the traditional Bhutanese form that is unrivaled anywhere on earth. THIS IS IT! I said goodbye and we headed to Kolma a traditional weaving village along a rushing tributary famous for its fine woven items. I finished my Lhuntse pilgrimage by relaxing for three days in Autscho passing the time relaxing and swimming in the river with Keith, a dedicated teacher from Santa Cruz California. What makes him dedicated is he stays put doing Zumba on Sunday morning for the laymen like I was, that’s Jazzercise. It must be quiet a spectacle with some even wearing kiras. He runs the program with Sonam Choden who was a close friend of Reidi’s. At night between strikes of yellow lightning the pearl like Lhuntse moon shone down on the enclosed ravine dominated by the wide and swift Kuri Chu its waters illuminated by silver lunar light. It happened to be the same moon EXACTLY that Becky and I encountered our first night in East Bhutan while walking to the haunted Chorten on the outskirts of Autscho. Unfortunately a pal hung over the village like the heavy rain that fell since a student was killed in a car accident near Wangdi. Kesang, a student, whose family ran the guesthouse I was occupying was the girl’s best friend and despite being devastated went about her chores. Life always goes on in Bhutan, they don’t regard death callously but in my estimation Bhutanese are practically strong minded. Perhaps their faith in reincarnation gives them a healthier outlook about death. My vacation ended with a shave in Mongar (a Himalayan treat) then hitchhiked back to Tsenkharla where the milestones along the road resemble headstones. I made a brief stop at Gom Kora to circumambulate before arriving on top of my mountain the evening before reporting.
July creeps on as the beautiful monsoon unfolds which hasn’t been too oppressive this year. We have had ample rain and misty days but the sun or patches of blue have been appearing intermittently. Ironically with all the water falling from the sky there is little trickling from the tap and boys stream by to ask for H20! I have a habit of buying bottled water since I don’t trust my filter and am too lazy to boil it. I also have the habit of giving the bottled water away to boys when I should fix the filter or boil it and also I should drink five times more water in the first place instead of Coca Cola. My itchiness is probably caused by dry skin and dehydration! I vowed to rest for two weeks before hiking but the ridge called me up onto its spine and I made it all the way to a Chorten below Shakshang Goempa where I ran into Dechen Choden from class six congratulating her on a colorful result. She is shy so she just nodded and stammered “Thank you Sir” I always encounter students in the woods on the trails between Tsenkharla and their farmhouses scattered throughout the hills. Before my hike I stopped off at Zangtopelri where Rinchen Wangmo offered me supper of rice, spinach, and potatoes curry along with curd from Amadumma the cow which I politely sipped. For some reason I am wary of the curd and think they warned us about milk products at orientation. All the ingredients for this meal were grown on premises. After lunch I visited the temple a trove of tantric idols, statues, artifacts, bells, butter sculptures, peacock feathers, chalices, incense, holy books and one riffle among the million other details. From the outside this modest temple is an exact replica of the Guru’s Copper Mountain of Paradise with a three tiered gold pagoda, this is his sanctuary and my refuge. Sliding back the latch and entering through two tall wooden doors we arrive in the glorious main chamber. In my view this room is like that ancient Hebrew Temple in Jeruselum packed with the riches of the universe. In the middle of the glossy terra cotta colored floor sits a patch of marble a pattern of emerald and block traced with silver lotus petals. Surrounding the black an emerald are squares of ivory white. I always prostrate three times (which Becky taught me to do halfway through our first year in the armory at Drametse) touching my forehead to the emerald part of the block. The main altar has a dozen butter statues which are strange geometric gingerbread houses with pastel lollypop swirls. The lambent glow of a butter lamp languidly glows in the otherworldly air on the altar sits packets of biscuits, incense, peacock feathers, and a silver chalice. Next to this altar on a smaller table are a pile of holy books and more relics. The altar sits near the middle of the main chamber and behind it against the wall are a dozen twenty foot tall statues including the central figure of Guru Rinpoche flanked by his two consorts, The Indian Hill Princess, and my beloved Yeshi Tshogel. The Guru is draped in a lavishly appointed techno colored robe, his consorts where elegant silk robes and our bedecked in turquoise and wooden beads hanging from their hands and necks. Sitting in the Gurus lap is an autographed photo of Thebsgey Rinpoche. Other manifestations of the Guru have his appearing demonic with many heads and belligerent eyes in flames and making love to a demoness while riding a three dimensional tiger whose paws pin down a naked blue deity and a bon farmer. Painted along the trim are elephants and auspicious symbols. Along one wall is a throne harboring a photograph of the Fourth King, beset on the table brass bells, trinkets, and holy books bound in wood planks and wrapped in yellow or red cloth. The entire chamber is one moving mural with exceptionally complex geometric mandalas on the ceiling ranging in every imaginable design and color scheme. The load bearing pillars are carved with dragons, garudas, and roaring snow lions. How do I describe a place where every time I go there I make 108 new discoveries, and no matter how many times I visit I will never notice half of what treasures exist therein. Here’s what I do know, the main chamber walls are covered with immaculate portrayals of some sacred scenes from the tantric pantheon. Dancing headless goat people with spears, naked dakini’s with beckoning vaginas, there are praying Lamas in their Buddha bubbles, phantasmagorical clouded backdrops, Guru plucking a banjo, Queens, King’s, death, and subjugation of man and demon alike all with the message surrender yourself to the compassionate heart of the universe, embrace the madness and so on. Up the steep staircase with no railing are more stunning naked dakini’s waiting for their flaming thunderbolts of wisdom to penetrate their essences, before entering the second floor one is in a hall with a portal view of the Kulong Chu and idyllic Shali to the west. Entering the second room through sealed wooden doors one is immediately confronted with the sparser aesthetic lacking the cannibalistic beast orgy of the main chamber. My favorite depiction on the endlessly scrolled mural is a blue man and nubile Dakini making love in the lotus position. There is nothing grossly sexual about it at all, rather emanations of ultimate harmony and togetherness in nothingness, heads all empty bobbing in the cosmic current. This room has a wonderful cedar scented creaky floor that feels grand on your bare feet. The main altar features a multi faced sun Buddha that I cannot assign a gender too but it reminds me of the myriad of the same face protruding and staring at you from Bayon Temple near Angkor Wat. This sun Buddha entity is holding a gilded bow and arrow quivers and some sort of scale apparatus. Through a cloth curtain in a side room where only males are permitted is a wrathful deity illuminated by the dim flicker of a butter lamp, this deity is utterly too fierce and scary to describe here. On the third floor is the attic featuring a sparkling statue of Lord Buddha with cat like serene all knowing eyes and pursed lips with lilting cheek bones with an expression of perpetual and timeless rapture. Just to gaze upon this modest statue brings instantaneous Satori. My first year I spent a quantity of time pondering life sitting Indian style on the wooden floor in this cozy room barely large enough to encapsulate my body if I lay end to end. I often would light incense and sometimes even take a crack at meditation or just chat with Sangay awhile. On the ceiling is the only faded portion of any mural, a simple mandala with a Buddha type figure meditation at the apex of The Copper Mountain of Paradise. On top of it all Rinchen Wangmo keeps the temple spotless and offerings on time like a Swiss watch but unfortunately this description has been pathetically inadequate and I’m afraid it won’t impart any appropriately profound aspects of this riveting edifice that pulsates with divine breath radiating a palpable presence of something that ONLY the Guru can contain. I also cannot describe the boundless joy of being on my beloved ridge with its cypress, pine, oak, fern, maize lanes, farmhouses, little kids, horses, prayer flags, aromatic smells, sprawling vistas, sacred rocks, and soil. An overcast day couldn’t diminish the bounty of a Bhutan summer the land rejoicing with life including a tiny butterfly with paisley trim around its jet black wings, pretty neat. Ravens croak ancient squawks predating all the Gurus of the human race, the raven is the divine messenger, a creature of the Bardo, the space between life, death, and thought. The national bird of Bhutan is the Raven, The Raven Crown, my favorite bird. Immortal! Lucky to get in before dark I never learn a lesson but I make it and now typing my knee locks up and it has a springy or spongy feeling when I flex it. Forbearance is the name of the game now as I will settle into the teaching routine again, if I can only get out of doors into the forest a bit I’ll be okay! You might have noticed my melodramatic nature a human weakness of thriving on conflict and thought to enhance the feeling of self importance. Selfishness is my ugliest quality and why I admire selfless people. The students keep me honest often bringing out my best side and privy to my worst, overall they are an eager lot willing to follow the leader. Another assembly with the kids in rows, singing, making speeches and getting scolded by staff. Dog’s lay about like logs on the basketball court exhausted from a night of howling, scuffling for territory, and tussling for scraps. The rhythm of a boarding school is a unique aspect of Bhutanese traditional culture especially in the far -east. Just observe the mealtime chow line or eavesdrop on evening prayer and you will see a different life altogether than on the streets of Mongar. This is my Bhutan a regiment that I am gratefully a part of. Within that rhythm of boarding school life an afternoon hike to Shakshang is my purest pleasure! What thing that is great about living here is it is the right place and time in this continuum. When I read “The Life” an account of Yeshi Tshogel interactions and assimilation with Guru Pema the landscape of those myths is the landscape I roam, you don’t have to use your imagination walking in the footsteps of saints, Princes, Guru’s, and Madmen. This valley hasn’t changed in thousands of years and when I leave I will take it with me but the NOW is where it’s at, gazing out over my domain is like looking in the mirror. I am so thankful for each day here even when I’m not embracing the moment properly it doesn’t really matter since life is a learning process whether you’re reborn or not. Meeting Becky makes me believe in reincarnation since it would be an amazing coincidence to meet a dharma sister music lover in Thimphu in 2012. In this life I only get to live in East Bhutan once and like my brother said, “that’s about as deep as it gets” He was alluding to the landscape but you get the point. My mom is coming for a visit in two months which I am ecstatic about. I wish I could show everybody Tsenkharla and I do my best in this meek written interpretation of a Guru sized heady trip. I am most excited for mom to meet my students. I will be spending a lot of time with those students and thirty new ones starting on Monday!
Weather Report: Stepping outside the fog has lifted but its velvety black. I trace the few lights across the ridge like connecting stars in a constellation above I can see only two faint stars so my gaze drifts back to the lights, a comets tail leading to a fireball, Kiney. The one rice farmers light steadfast and dim alone on the bank of the Dangme Chu which roars like a dragon thousands of feet below my cochlea. He’s probably sleeping down there now, I should do the same. It’s cool but I am comfortable in a t-shirt listening to the whir of crickets rising and falling and the click of a few tree frogs.
(Authors Note: It’s been six weeks since I started this post and I’m still itching BIG FAT WHAT TO DO LA. Also internet has been down all over the village and last I saw an advertisement had crept onto the blog spot page so if you see any please ignore them. TIAT is defunct and listless without a launch pad hence the sporadic outdated and long winded entries. I hope you receive these words soon and thanks for sticking by me in a lean and mean year out here on the frontier)
We’ve reached a place where words will devalue the purity of the encounter but I will plod on with the plot for prosperity. Why write about it, well if anyone is reading this its time well spent. Most will go unsaid or undone that’s the nature of the dragon, we must accept it.
Summertime is enchanting in Bhutan otherworldly where the sun seems out of place and foamy clouds make your folded clothes mold. You’re spirit molds and moulds over a long monsoon summer, where the moniker, Land of Southern Darkness is appropriate with dank forests enveloped in mist, water flowing into rivulets joining the swollen rivers. As usual I woke up and campus was enveloped in fog. The Assamese laborers are putting the final touches on the schools courtyard and when it is finished assembly will shift from the basketball court. Misty tendrils sift through the upper foliage of the noble cypresses that line the path towards the administration block. Flowers flourish despite the absence of direct sunlight, orange dalias with undertones of scarlet, the last blood red roses, and giant sunflowers. The maize crop now towers twelve feet high and familiar birdsong and cicada clacks fill my ears, it’s a wonderful time to be alive in the Kingdom.
Teaching has begun and to celebrate I have been saddled with six extra periods bringing my load to 36 periods a week. That’s six more hours of classroom teaching but more importantly 32 more students, more planning and marking. Plus I will be starting from scratch with 7B, the upshot is I will get to know more students. I still don’t know all my students names from my other classes although I know most of them. Now I have about 120 students in my charge. Some BCF teachers are carrying 23 periods which gives them more breaks throughout the day for prepping. I did come here as a willing volunteer so therefore I shouldn’t complain but as you know this is my venting forum and so my habitual negativity progresses. Luckily teaching in Bhutan is delightful that is if you are cut out for the profession at all. By Bhutanese standards I rate myself an adequate and enthusiastic teacher but deep down I fear being woefully inadequate. Despite the delights there are real challenges teaching Sharshop learners, for one thing none of them speak English at home or in the hostels which means English is minimally used as a school dialect. The majority of students will only speak under duress offering fragmented answers. When I polled my students two out of thirty admitted they spoke English over summer break and those two were Sonam Rinchen and Nawang Tenzin two toppers who live together at Zangtopelri. A dozen others admitted to watching English films which sadly addressed the other problem emerging in the Kingdom. Students are watching an alarming amount of television, their habits resembling American children. Fortunately they still maintain a healthy lifestyle toiling in the fields along their parents. This generation of Bhutanese is nothing like their elders though, who used to walk from Trashigang to Thimphu or Tibet for trade. Furthermore parents are not regulating what kids are watching and one can’t help but wonder if the decree allowing television in 1999 wasn’t a severe blow to the traditional way of life. Bhutan exists at that cross roads, the kids still weed the fields like they have been for thousands of years but now they are privy to the outside world and are certainly influenced by other cultures. Here in the east the flicker of televisions emanating from huts doesn’t detract from the extremely rural and agrarian way of life but times are and will continue to change. In the east things will remain primitive with more variety of junk food and less willing farmers but accessed by two sinuous roads what more can change? I wouldn’t expect the landscape to be altered which brings relief. The impregnable barrier of the inner Himalaya sees to that.
We have eight periods throughout the day and on some days I will not have a free one in the mix. One thing that sustains a teacher is the astoundingly mutable beauty that permeates the day. Of course one must make their own beauty but living in Bhutan is a cheaters advantage. As far as the eye can see this is god’s country or precisely Guru’s country. I have never heard Buddhist refer to God the way I was indoctrinated. They seem to pray to a pantheon of deities and the Guru himself as a sort of godhead or link to the unknowable mystery. Like God, Guru is a friend, father, master, and wrathful force. To my knowledge the Guru doesn’t strike down heretics like the Old Testament God rather uses his vengeance to subdue our inner and outer demons.
I just got back from Butterflies for dinner where I brought two flashlights! Always enlightening as Surgit joined for Indian rotti, potato curry wrapped in tortilla like cakes. They commented my hair was like a hippy and when I inquired their definition of that word they replied, a hippy is someone who doesn’t wash themselves, believes in fate not god, and doesn’t treat wounds with medicine. I had no reply. Living in Bhutan we automatically rely on our judgments and subtle prejudices. As if my combined twelve days in India give me any understanding of their place or their studies of the U.S give them an inkling of our place. The Bhutanese have wacky notions of America based on John Seena as our international ambassador. When we get passed these notions friendships and magical relationships transpire especially with the students. I have never felt closer to a group of people yet at the same time so far away. I hope they respect and admire me like I do them but I doubt it.
The monsoon barrels on steamrolling the imposing labyrinth of emerald mountains. When the sun makes an appearance it’s seething and blinding a testament to boys and girls fanning themselves with cheap government issued notebooks. When they run back and forth across the courtyard I think of penguins or for whatever reasons bats. The black and red kira remind me of bats flocking together squeaking in Sharshop. It’s funny that my previous karma or coincidence has led me to the Kingdom of Bhutan. As a rugged individualist bred in the west where being different has been my passion I now live in a place that prizes community and conformity over everything else. The reader knows that I consider this my heart home being a mountain man why not live in the greatest range of them all, being an individualist why not go where only a handful of Americans have gone before. I am also drawn to their communal unity which slowly erodes many of my ideals and perceptions about life. I don’t know how I’m changing, like Paul Simon sings, I’m still crazy after all these years but I am a different sort of crazy now. In many ways Bhutan fits me better than my homeland which worries me. Logistically I can survive here easier than in the U.S.A (barring obvious health concerns) where without cash and car one is a lame duck. Here I am king of a vast domain, here I have influence over countless youth, and here I starve for food and attention. There I might be well fed but my spirit is empty. In both places I suffer the same hang-ups but in Bhutan I glimpse sanity. And that’s what is worrisome, how can I feel more at home as a misfit in far eastern Bhutan then amongst my own loved ones on Turtle Island. One can’t question these matters one must only intuit. The gulf between the worlds gets wider and I feel compelled to make a move in either direction with a chasm between logic and desire. The name of the game for now is survival which is imperative. Even an agnostic eventually finds the need to seek refuge in something after coming through so much peril it’s all one can do to seek the shade of the Dharma or stowaway inside the Guru’s hollow noggin for protection. Every morning I wake up feeling depleted, some nights getting few hours of sleep but by day’s end I am grateful. One can still be grateful when there is no water for three days or their clothes are molding, heck when Zeppa lived here they didn’t have light at all. Despite frequent usually short lived outages we have consistent electricity but I will always regard water as extremely precious after living here. Internet will also be a sweet luxury too but water is a serious and holy matter. Student’s having little alternative drink opaque water directly from the tap which would kill a phelincpa; damn these kids are tough, isn’t it? They are a hearty mountain race evident from occasional boils, and skin ailments but on the whole they are a strikingly diverse and beautiful people. Today I felt hapless and overwhelmed in the classroom but class six as usual saved the day by working hard with arrant respectfulness but sometimes I crave teaching materials like chart paper, internet, or chalk board erasers. It’s 11 P.M B.S.T and I will leave you here for a night cap and another itchy evening on the frontier. Oh yeah! I saw an ominous black snake behind my house with a protruding abdomen from swallowing some unfortunate prey. Karma Wangchuk was using two sticks to pack the three foot serpent into my discarded hot coco carton before hauling it away. Later he said the snake was murdered which seemed anti Buddhist. Arwen would have enjoyed the encounter and adequately lectured the boy’s on snakes. I’ll be checking my sleeping bag twice tonight. Goodnight Tawang, Goodnight Lumla, Goodnight Tsenkharla, Goodnight Pema, and Goodnight YOU!
Tim on Duty
My favorite word in Sharshop and one of the few I know is Yellama which can be shortened to either Yella or lama and is an expression of shock or surprise. For me it’s more of a mantra or magical invocation of the divine mysteries coded in every moment. Another month has passed and Tim is on Duty again that is to say my turn for teacher on duty has come up. Details to follow: After another night of itching and turning I woke up and groggily trudged up the muddy path to the academic block. Morning study begins at 6:30, and the view resembled a seascape with monoliths protruding from a bed of foam that blanketed the hourglass valley, through the morning leads appeared in the thick bank exposing sections of greenery. Tsenkharla has approximately 650 students of which 400 are boarders. The classes range from PP-10 with cute little kids bowing and simpering with an enthusiastic, “Good morning sir!” I will never get over tiny gho and kira uniforms with dirty handkerchiefs tied around their necks, too cute! Classes went well and in class eight I had students conduct interviews in pairs in an effort to get them speaking. Initially I wanted to do impromptu speeches but that is beyond most of their abilities. If one claims that this isn’t ESL learning they should have sat in on our class today. An American class of third graders would be more fluent in speaking than class eight Sharshop students. My students are intelligent multilinguist learners but they lack confidence in fluency. Poor little Kezang Dema who has the temperament of a shy housecat was mortified being paired with a boy she didn’t know well. I had to coach her through the exercise initially asking the questions for her while she recorded her partner’s responses. Eventually she stammered out the remanding questions. I empathized with her predicament and guess that she has never had to speak in class in her entire eight year scholastic career. Tomorrow Kezang and company will share about their partners in front of the class, so keep your fingers crossed for her. Teaching English in Bhutan is an uphill battle which often seems as formidable as climbing the mountains themselves. Afterschool was club and I led the students through the drizzling afternoon picking up an endless supply of plastic wrappers wedged in the mud and stuffing them into burlap sacks. Samten Wangmo complained it was raining and I laughed comparing her to an American girl. I taught seven of eight periods and am exhausted but someday will treasure these rhythmic days in the classroom as much as any summit scaled or triumphant excursion. The gentle rain melding with students struggling with their pronunciation, students sprawled under the eaves for group work or Chunkho Wangmo gathering the courage to ask me what I did over break; all the subtle humor that emerges in a teacher’s day if they are open to it. Water even came at lunch so I washed my molding dishes before collapsing on my bunk enjoying a bluegrass tune and catnap.
Evening study is always a pleasure allowing me to help students individually although they are still reticent to ask questions relying on memorization. It also offers me a chance to catch up with my former students, boys like the incorrigible Sangay Tobgay and Kinley Wangchuk who were both excited for my mom’s impending visit. Since study hall is segregated I also assist the shyer girls block interacting with Pema Yangchen, Chunkho Wangmo, and the Jangphu girls who speak Monpa as their mother tongue. Jangphu students hold a special place in my heart as that village served as base camp for my solo Shampula ascent and is the easternmost settlement in Bhutan on the threshold of the Indo/Bhutan border affording glorious sidelong views of the hourglass valley that stretches a hundred miles from Tawang in the east to Trashigang in the west. The traditional farmhouses are incised into the vertical slope supporting improbable terraces of maize, potato, and millet. The village has strong ties to the Monpa culture of Arrunachal Pradesh with their ruddy woolen dress and turquoise jewelry (the folks of Jangphu where gho and kira since they reside within the Kingdom’s boundary) Before modern borders the Monpa and Sharshop mingled cohesively and the two cultures are still bound by religion and lore, for example the Monpa’s trek overland in mass to Gom Kora festival or to visit the Delog in small numbers for spiritual advice. Cowboys from both countries move their cattle through the borderland forests between Jangphu and the check post and up on the moors of Shampula. I will never forget the congregation of Sharshop, Druk, and Monpa circumambulating Chorten Kora bathed in candlelight singing an energetic melody in one united voice. The Monpa like the Brokpa splash their rosy essence on the tapestry of the east coming down from the highlands into the sacred ravines to worship, and I’m richer for their sporadic presence. About a dozen close knit Monpa kid’s board at T.M.S.S including Lathero, Sonam Choden, Karma Lhaden, and Moon Tshomo. Another subset I admire, the few Nepali or (Southern Bhutanese) who I always greet with a hearty Namaste! Overall you’d be hard pressed to encounter a better bread of youth than at Tsenkharla. I am humbled in their presence and soon forget any minor incidents of misbehavior in class which are never malicious. After the hour long study hall they move through the curtain of rain to the MP Hall for evening prayer. The girls walk arm in arm cheerfully slogging through the mud hiking up their kiras exposing mud stained and toned ankles they trod along wearing rubber flip flops. The boys sling their arms around each other with trademark knee socks and smart plaid ghos laughing, coyly engaging the girls. They all move like a heard or flock of migrating birds always with that indescribable team spirit that pervades a boarding school. Within five minutes they’re praying in response to the chime of a brass bell their incantations gathering steam into a dirge then lament before the crescendo of supplication. Solemn prayer captains stand over each table overseeing their peers in the ritual. The students move seamlessly throughout the routine of their days where my transitions like in the classroom are awkwardly choppy. Right now they are in their personal world within each hostel. I have on occasion visited the boy’s quarters where they lounge on their bunks sleeping thirty to a room the size of my luxury hut where they study and joke, a pubescent musk filling the air. The lights seem to be on even at 2 A.M and I wonder how they sleep remembering that Bhutanese are used to living in close proximity and even seem to enjoy it. Overall I had an immensely pleasant day in my community, enjoying the reward of staying on a third turn and getting to form more precious relationships despite my reclusive tendencies. One can’t effectively hideout while teaching in Bhutan. It’s a good balance as people respect my privacy but I still feel included in the vibe. The challenge is to continue to open up and stay available for the magical encounters that lurk in each moment. All this magic stuff the fruits of a hard existence among these fine individuals who function as a group in a way I struggle to comprehend. The gold is mined in priceless moments with students, moments that rarely come around. Since often I deal with the herd I relish making individual breakthroughs and have adopted several brothers and sisters across the country (none in my current classes for professional decorum) these relationships are simultaneously superficial and deep. Over break I dialed the wrong number for Dr. Scott instead reaching a nineteen year old girl named Pema Zangmo in Samtse. After a few minutes of chatting she asked me if I would be her adopted bro, what could I say but okay. I might never meet this recent graduate (who missed the mark by one point and said she cried for three days, now she’s pursuing private school if her family can afford tuition) but somehow she fills a unique space in my heart and if she ever needs my help I would acquiesce.
This summer has been a bounty of precipitation and relatively speaking the lighter accumulation in spring has been washed away. I try to observe these things, and I can say at Tsenkharla we have had more rain this summer than the previous two years. In Bhutan there are infinite microclimates varying from valley to valley. We’re deep in it now, the monsoon hanging on the steep slopes (like dragons breathe) shifting shades of gray that form a barrier between the plains of Assam and crest of the Himalaya only a hundred miles apart. In a hundred miles from South to North is an unfathomable elevation gain of 25,000 feet. I live here and it still doesn’t make sense until I study the adjacent mountains that rise like an emerald wall four thousand feet from the riverbed. From my limited experience roaming in areas of the Himalayas the mountains exist in layers and nowhere was this more evident than Chomerang in Nepal nestled in the Annapurna Sanctuary where one could see 27,000 foot glaciered peaks and by turning their head peep down through a deep green pocket landing in fertile valleys at an elevation of 3,000 feet. Tsenkharla is no less remarkable, from my doorstep I gaze east down the throat of the valley 60 miles to an saddleback escarpment in Tawang province, then walking a minute to Aunty Kezang’s shop the path curves in a semicircle revealing a view of Trahigang 30 miles to the west and once you reach the shop and continue into the tiny village proper you are peering 20 miles north towards Trashiyangtse. This is the place I’m in love with and will wear on my sleeve forever. I can’t help the feeling I dwell in a psychedelic snow globe within a complex mandala of eight dimensional mountains, perhaps the trinket of an alien god whose shelves are lined with other encapsulated globes from countless other worlds. Dejavu, Maybe when we get an earthquake the tremor is caused by this god child shaking our snow globe? The combination of landscape and people is unbeatable in this foggy globe as the two seem inseparable in nature. One might even think of Conway’s Shangri La if it weren’t for the ailments and lack of creature comforts, but in the end the hardships define The Life more than anything!
The last time I saw the moon or a star was in Lhuntse more than a week ago. Layers upon layers of surreal mist coat the mountains swamping my mood. Entirely gloomy and beauteous enveloping the world in misty shadow an endless steam dream evoking a mountaintop Avalon were The Goddess of Wisdom wields Excalibur for the sake of all beings. The connectivity of all beings is overpowering here and on a day such as this how can I doubt reincarnation. Haven’t I evolved with these people before, weren’t my students my teachers once? What about the other side of this life where few of my peeps embrace the Dharma? Which world will I be reborn into to learn and grow. Living in Bhutan has accrued me valuable merit a guaranteed seat on the carnival carousal, the next ride twirling around Samsara in a barrage of blinking lights and circus music. Yet a gnawing unsettling reason whispers this is it, yes are energy fields are vast and connected but only in this lifetime and reincarnation will be in matter only not in mind. Why so rational, who knows? It’s not my style to not believe or have faith. No worries I guess we’ll all find out soon enough and what’s important is here and now. Still, asking these questions is entirely human and in the face of these mysteries we forge a life together. In the pitch black night an apparition of an illuminated blue yeshe Tshogyel imparts a message that stows in my cosmic vault, I know now it was her that I met midnight by the Mani Wall two years ago.
The monsoon continues to pound us with rain making campus a mucky mess. During periods of heavy rain the tap is dry leaving me with visions of a roast beef sandwich on soft sourdough, mustard, mayo, and a crisp dill pickle. Becky says the “Food Game” is better than the actual food itself. I like her cynicism and perversion that sort of self deprecating personality that can only thrive in Bhutan. You’d better learn to live without if you’re gonna live here. Today the village seems angry and I am up against the deadline to complete my grade sheets a task I find confusing and visually difficult. A four hour meeting including mandatory dinner is scheduled for the next two days and my work is due Saturday. Now instead of itching at 1 AM I will be working too. When the going gets stressful I just look around and am succored. My first year I would have considered this an inauspicious day but since I am relatively healthy I am relatively happy. My knee still aches but my other leg is almost healed and I am walking normally despite the twinge of pain. The good news is that I LIVE IN BHUTAN, to me every rock, twig, and tree is sacred. Something tells me a bad day in the Kingdom is better than a good day anywhere else. All one can do is embrace the monsoon and its spellbinding aesthetic, I look forward to getting Result Declaration in my rearview mirror and focusing on regular classes establishing a robust routine. While we were reading a story together in class six two sparrows darted in and out of the classroom looking for snacks. Class six is a wonderful class consisting of 24 day scholars who have been schooled at Tsenkharla as a unity for years where class seven is a hodgepodge of students trucked in from the surrounding primary schools to board at T.M.S.S. In all classes the ability levels vary significantly and the challenge is assessing and formulating a plan for each student. What to do for lunch maybe scavenge at the mess or subpar and suspect momo’s at the de-facto canteen? I’m enjoying the presentations from the interview exercise learning many things about my class eight students including Tashi Yangzom’s favorite food is pizza which she tried in Paro. I wish I could deliver her a piping hot slice from West Brooklyn. Those poor kids eat the same bland curry everyday for lunch and must miss their mother’s special emadatsi like I miss my mother’s special chicken dish.
A grueling day followed by a four hour meeting on GNH. Coming out of dinner I paused to watch the kids practicing dance on the dimly lit basketball court in a misting shower. They were so happy reveling in their culture decked in school issued gho and kira spending rare moments with the opposite gender. Suddenly I felt like an interloper realizing that when I go life here will continue on unaffected by my absence, a fact making me both happy and sad. There’s little room for depression here so I take a deep breath and remember where I am letting my spirit fly through the darkness and rain to Lumla or zip out over Bumdeling and the unknown land beyond, I return in a flash via Darchin a place sacred to me and the kids.
I want to believe in the Guru but all I have is legend learned from the Bhutanese and a potent feeling in the presence of masks and statues that have transmitted live qualities, (I have felt the presence of Guru Pema but what was it exactly I was feeling) like my best friend said I don’t believe in anything which leaves a gaping hole in my heart bigger than the Dharma and one that can’t be filled by Christ love.
Another classic Himalayan weekend, Saturday was results day with the student body and about a hundred parents assembled on the basketball court for the announcing of academic excellence certificates. I have mixed feelings on this day, I’m proud of students for their achievements but I feel strong empathy for the students who failed. In my homeroom Kesang Nima a boy I have written about before placed tenth in the class out of thirty. When I taught him in class seven two years ago he was dead last and had to repeat the seventh grade. To bypass twenty students in position is unprecedented in this structure. Then there’s Dawa Dema the affable student who towers over her friends since she was already tall and broad shouldered and repeated 8 last year. Dawa Dema is failing again and one could read the despondent trail of thoughts behind those sad eyes and I tried to encourage her best I could. These stories and others are repeated as everything rides on the results of these tests. The results themselves are shared and viewed by all so everyone knows that Sither Wangmo is last, that’s why I chuck confidentiality and reveal the scores here. The results themselves are posted on tickertape sheets, a complex three foot long spreadsheet with a final score and class position at the caboose of this train of befuddling numbers. It took me eight hours to punch the numbers mostly because of my poor eyesight wary of making a crucial mistake. I still have to file attendance numbers, obtain some signatures and stamps, and rap up some Kidu accounts making the whole ordeal of exams stretch more than two months.
Life is primal on the frontier now with the water situation no better than it was my first year and dirty clothes pilling up and me wondering what I can manage to eat without any clean water stored. Where electricity is great water is essential for a salubrious life. After results declaration I headed down the hill eventually getting scooped up in Yartse by a car carrying the Namkhar Lama. We had a bite in Doksom and eventually I moved on to Gom Kora in a scorching heat. It was a rare rain free day with electric blue skies and vividly appointed clouds that billowed from the mountaintops into the azure atmosphere. The steep canyon traps the heat that bounced off the blacktop and by the time I reached the Kora I thought I might evaporate and immediately sought shelter in the oasis of the temple grounds. Gom Kora is a fabulous temple perched on the bank of the Dangme Chu and sandwiched between the river and the road. When I gaze from the road at the gleaming golden pagoda I imagine what Guru Rinpoche encountered here when he passed through. If he came on a summer day like this one he would have had to carry drinking water and instead of the temple would have seen only an ominous boulder perhaps not shaded by the magnificent Bhodi tree that provides a refuge from the merciless sun for modern pilgrims. The story goes that the Guru was wrestling with a demoness who had spawned in a Tibetan lake and pestered him through Tawang crossing the nonexistent border at Omba before the pair engaged at Gongsa before ending up at Gom Kora. He actually subdued the pestilence at another cave a mile down the road towards Trashigang. When the Guru was meditating in the cave at the base of the rock he was again startled by the serpentine demoness and he left his imprint there along with the hood of the serpent. Therefore Gom Kora is the direct link to the Guru for East Bhutan and attracts devout pilgrims from Arrunachal Pradesh and Bhutan during the annual Tsechu. This Saturday was quiet just roosters and elderly worshipful who seem to step from the whitewashed walls of the temple itself. Surrounding the Goempa, banks of prayer wheels form a pentagram around the interior. Wide lanes paved with beautiful stone surrounds the banks of prayer wheels. The Goempa itself is several hundred years old and impressive especially for the east rising hundreds of feet from base to apex. There is an ineffable quality of the structure with religious plates high above inlaid into the rusty trim beneath the pagoda itself. Within the complex is what I call the oasis a walled garden containing the formidable boulder and cave which is sheltered by an enormous bodhi tree like the one Lord Buddha meditated beneath attaining enlightenment. I sat on a cool stone ledge imagining myself the colors of the rainbow letting my thoughts dissolve into the roar of the river and chime of the bells which emanated deep from an otherworldly trance pocket. A weird sensation as thoughts died I temporarily entered the Bardo (the DMT realm) steamrollered by the death molecule, the sounds of the void engulfed me. My monkey mind soon identified those vibrations as the noise of the river and the rustling of the breeze through the heart shaped bodhi leaves. I came back to reality too quickly unable to let go of my consciousness always coming back to useless words. I remained in my oasis for many hours watching a spattering of tourists come and go, first a group of elderly Japanese followed by a youngish hip looking western dude accompanied by a pruned older man and their guide. I stayed until the sun slid beneath the ridge and then circumambulated a final time before heading back the way I came. Hitchhiking out of Doksom I pulled a ride with the assistant Gup (mayor) of Khamdung. While we plodded up the curvy road I observed an evening rainbow stretching from Yellang towards The Kulong Chu. He imparted some very interesting statistics that because of the mesmerizing rainbow and undulating landscape I was unable to properly record. Trashiyangtse has eight Gewogs in which Khamdung has the largest population with 400 households. Khamdung Gewog encompasses the tiger’s territory stretching from Doksom up to Tsenkharla, Shakshang, Darchin, Shali, and Chakademi. Kiney to eastern border falls under a different Gewog, to the north Yangtse town and Bumdeling form two other Gewog’s. Remarkably after two and a half years of roving I have only touched half of the Gewogs in my own Dzongkhag. By comparison Trahigang Dzongkhag has one of the largest populations in the country spread out in many villages sustained by various agricultures. On Sunday I braved the heat enjoying another respite from the rains, and ascended the ridge detouring through the grove eventually looping around Shakshang via the ridge over idyllic Shali. The trail passes a pair of my favorite Chortens unadorned receptacles with heart throbbing views of the Kulong Chu and some knobby peaks towards the Yangtse wilderness, turning the eye left towards Trashigang and the impressive pinnacles above Kunglung what strikes the observer is that the mountains bases touch the river itself with no shoreline whatsoever creating a desolate remoteness. All life in this region clings to the mountainside leaving dusty Doksom and Gom Kora anomalous. Trashiyangtse town is a rare settlement in a small bowl that provides the easterner some relief from living on cliffs. At Tsenkharla our tiny mountaintop ridge feels open compared to the myriad of tiny villages incised into the verdant slopes. One has the feeling that a misstep might send a farmer plummeting three thousand feet to the river below. In short, I haven’t seen such ruggedness anywhere on earth with hardy villages interspersed with expansive forests that unfurl on ten thousand horizons. When one swelters on the bank of the Dangme Chu at the confluence of the two torrential rivers they have no perspective of the scope of mountains one observes from Tsenkharla. Of course every mountain I imbibe has its other side that I will never know but I am contented at Tsenkharla nestled beneath Zangtopelri on Guru’s Copper Mountain of paradise. Right now life is hard on this mountain but also indescribably wondrous. While meditating nestled between my two beloved cypresses an umbrella of feathery foliage with peepholes revealing portions of the valley I could hear the distant hush of the river and the sounds of ravens and a twirling salutation originating from an elfin realm, a woo wooing that whips around in glimmering pastel tones. This wobbly vibration is the nexus of the valley and always emanates from the somewhere in no-man’s-land down near the Dangme Chu as it sweeps into the Kingdom from the lowlands of Arrunachal (Arrunachal Pradesh is shaped like a woman’s stiletto heel that is missing the toe, and Bhutan itself forms that stubby toe) The colors of the mountains and sky are lurid washed from constant summer rains and hung to dry on a butterfly’s wings. Along the furrowed terraces of the hourglass valley, sun gleams off tin roofs of minute dwellings perched on palisades that drop impossibly to the desolate and mostly abandoned paddies of the eastern slope of Tsenkharla. The quality of the sky is the deepest most hopeful blue I’ve seen and is childlike in essence, a child’s blue and the boy’s I met on the trail laughed hysterically recapping our meeting where a boy called me “La, in an obsequious tone and his friends were ribbing him.
It’s been exactly one month since my fall and my knee is still tweaked but making some progress. I am able to roam at least to Shakshang a roundtrip of three miles but it smarts afterwards from excursion, as usual forbearance is needed. Tomorrow teaching will continue and I will embrace my new schedule and extra classes, after all I am here to teach and for that I am grateful. Rainclouds accumulated in the evening pooling in the high cirques briefly revealing the lost Dragon’s Tail contour before sweeping into the valley engulfing our ridge. The monsoon denotes an intensely passive rhythm distinct from other seasons. Bhutan doesn’t have seasons that I’m familiar with, rather different aspects of winter and summer bleeding into spring and fall. Summer is ruled by the rain an ocean of mist settled over the country the tendrils of the great Bengal Monsoon stalled over the labyrinth of the eastern Himalayas.
When living in Bhutan one must be vigilant constantly reinventing oneself in the classroom and in life. It’s a marathon of endurance which must be endured with grace, humor, and humility. For me it’s been an arduous odyssey. A knock at my door, Sangay Tobgay wants to charge his I Pod, his results have dropped and I worry that he won’t pass the Ten Standard Exam. A boy that smart has so much to contribute even if his test scores don’t prove that. He is so much like me and I never would have passed that the government examination at his age. What can I do as a teacher to better prepare them for standardized tests and still teach them how to be well rounded pupils? This is a formidable challenge of teaching in East Bhutan, a constant process of picking yourself up and dusting yourself off, of giving as much as you take. The great ones give more than they take like Father Mackey and Nancy Strickland. Bhutan gives me so much it overflows the coke bottle of my soul, The Dragon gives in ways I am blind too and ways glaringly apparent. Standing in her spotlight at the center of the universe is a mesmerizing mountainous mandala, a trove of raw purity and awareness packed with precious people, gigantic bees, and plants. I consider it my auspicious karma to be here no matter what outcomes may occur. At this stage in my Samsara adventure I am reborn into this valley. Skeptical as I am, it seems improbable that this is my first trip down the corridor of this valley trolling the Dangme Chu. Nor is it the first interaction with certain people here but how I’m bound into their matrix alludes my finite perceptions. Where it is my good fortune to be here, I also feel called to teach them in this exchange, manifesting my own destiny.
I wonder if anyone is still reading this rant, if so you might be wondering if it will go on forever. I haven’t accessed internet from my home in six months and must ask Principal Sir for the code every time and the office is only open school hours. Basically I’m offline which sucks for teaching since I can’t access cool ideas. Even in Bhutan people are dependent on their gear. If you’ve travelled this far maybe you’re willing to continue? It’s ten o’clock on a Sunday Evening and like any teacher I’m thinking about tomorrows lessons.