Never Give Up
“Eventually, all things blend into one, and a river runs through it”
I sit placidly on my rock on the lip of a precipice overlooking vast airy space encompassed by expansive ranges. Directly in front of my gaze a pastel rainbow stretches from Lumla towards yellang, the apparition has no beginning or end and curiously hovers in the heavens. An hour later it’s still there although the spectrum of colors fluctuate becoming alternatively dimmer or brighter. Afternoon dissolves into evening with a milky beam of light cast from Zangtopelri onto the opposing slope. The light has the quality of a projectors beam travelling through a dusty cinema, NOW SHOWING ETERNITY! Light always plays here, like arctic fata morgana mirages on a pyramid peak oddly hued in rainbow arcs. Night, a smattering of stars viewed through a segment of the milky way while lightning flashes in yonder valley another mirage perhaps quickly erased by mist. It begs the question, what is real?
Interviews were a success that is to say the students enjoyed themselves, listened intently, and spoke clearly. Even Kesang Dema was able to deliver her part and my learning objectives were satisfied. The important nugget was that the students spoke in English which can be like pulling teeth from the Dragon. It is hot today, a rare phenomenon atop Tsenkharla, ironically I have a cold giving the odd sensation of the chills on a scorching day. The temperature is only about eighty degrees but the Himalayan sunshine envelops a body in conflagration. This made for lazy students during classes and for Social Service Club where as usual we filled several burlap sacks with trash, almost exclusively plastic straws and wrappers from junk food which students partake.
Last week we had a two day workshop on infusing GNH into the education system. Ironically the teacher delivering the keynote on “No corporal punishment” was the guy who beat the heck out of two hundred schoolgirls breaking multiple sticks on their backs and legs. After his presentation he said he thought corporal punishment should be maintained in the school. However, it’s positive that proper policy is being handed down from the top and that healthy discourse is occurring. Recently in Mongar a Principal was removed after bruising a group of students, an incident only noted because parents complained. Overall the session was lucrative especially the segments on assessment and mind training. Assessment is a point of contention here since it’s arrantly impossible to do it properly with so many students. Nevertheless I have spent the evenings marking essays the problem is when I give them back for revision I don’t get to verbally conference with every student simply because it would take up to much class time. In class seven today I assessed reading giving a mark in my grade book so I could target the weaker readers and pair them with stronger ones. Honestly to use a restaurant adage its “Turn and Burn” Essentially you have to attack the communal mistakes and get limited interaction with the individual students. As far as teaching to different learning styles one must implore tactile, audio, or visual techniques but with limited teaching aids I am doing a poor job at this. Last night on the magic phone my Aunt Mare queried if the students in my class were improving. I sighed and admitted that they were learning but it made me think of what more I could do. I am trying to incorporate the students as much as possible into the lesson but still tend to over explain and talk too much. Last night I supervised night study and my informant of culture Kinley Wangchuk told me that twins in Bhutan are always named Nima and Dawa (sun and moon) Usually names are assigned by lamas not parents and last names are not inherited. Something in the name combinations in conjures reincarnation. Anyway Kinley asked when my mom and aunt were coming which spurred the confab on twins.
This week we celebrated the first sermon of Lord Buddha. I give Guru Rinpoche so much play but neglect sweet Sangay THE BUDDHA. Of all the iconic religious figures my pathway connects most with Buddha. The reasons I love the Guru and Buddha are complex and variant. According to the Bhutanese view they are the same or Guru is the reincarnation of Buddha which was prophesized by the latter. And the way my magical day unfolded perhaps they are the same especially in the way we’re all the same. Buddha walked out on his hot wife and brand new baby one sultry night near modern day Lumbini Nepal. As the story goes Siddhartha lived a sheltered life as a handsome prince shielded from all death, decay, and suffering until one day he glimpsed a sickly old man through the gateway of the palace. That one moment annihilated all Siddhartha’s conceptions of life and soon after he absconded. First he became an ascetic before eventually finding the middle path and attaining enlightenment under a bodhi tree. I found myself under a bodhi at Gom Kora at dawn on that auspicious day of Buddha’s first sermon thousands of years ago before Christ was an apple in Abraham’s eye. I couldn’t sleep so hoofed it the 16 Kilometers down the sinuous road ticking each one with a headstone until the Kora. That early in the morning there was only an elderly couple sweeping the cobblestone with Cinderella brooms and a pack of dogs. Thankfully the mutts were all bark and no bite. Inside the Goempa with the lacquered cherry floor I heard the crimson robed monk telling another novice that I was “Tsenkharla Lopen” It’s both unnerving and flattering to be so well known throughout the region. I got a blessing from a silver chalice touching the offering to my lips before running the grainy water through my hair. One statue of Buddha was giving the international okay hand signal which I thought was amusing. I then took a position on a ledge rimming the promenade and watched a handful of devotees circumambulate like planets around the sun, they’d appear every few minutes spinning the hand held gilded wheels, a rattling rhapsody filling the morning air under salmon tinted cirrus clouds. One fetching woman in a silver top and brown plaid bottomed kira was particularly graceful and I was hopeful she’d come round again. As the sun poured into the slits of the rocky canyon I humped it back to Doksom to a canteen where I fortuitously encountered a hotel owner (hotel means eatery) from T-Gang. She and her friends were headed for Gongsa so I insisted I tag along. Only in Bhutan can you willfully impose yourself crashing a party and its “no matter” I tried once to reach Gongsa two years ago becoming marooned on the hot rocks along the Dangme Chu never finding the elusive temple. Now I had a chance to try again and we set out from Doksom following a trail I had explored once before that led to white sand beach along the Dangme Chu a most luxurious spot with piles of driftwood and small trees for shade. It happened to be the hottest day I’ve ever experienced in Yangtse with a merciless sun, so hot in fact that every gnarled tree we came to became a compulsorily shelter. I imagine this is what desert travel is like and this is the most arid place in the region. From that beach I pressed into new territory, the trail continued on the bank of the river revealing a small valley and looking up my heart leapt seeing my beloved ridge stretched out revealing the saddled escarpment in a way I have never comprehended running all the way to Kiney. Above, Shampula rose into an azure sky. A few tuffs of mist clung to her shoulders in a way that proved tough broads are always the sexiest. From my position on the flat valley floor the redoubtable hump of Shampula towered eight thousand feet above but what of numbers in this landscape. My conversation with this mountainous valley has been going on for two and a half years and never had I learned more than on this day. I realized I was walking in the wasteland I had viewed everyday from above but it was actually a narrow valley with chest high gray green shrubs interspersed with the occasional rice paddy. Gone were the extensive views and suddenly the contours of my ridge lay bare before me like a naked and beckoning lover on an earthen pallet. (I think of all those sweaty afternoons in the closet with Morgan making love for the sake of all sentient beings) I see the cypress grove adjacent to Zangtopelri its tall trees a cowlick above the shrub and oak coppices further towards Kiney. Shampula looks different. It all looks different like the masses had shape shifted. I never loved my home more looking up at it, somewhere my tiny campus indistinct to my bleary eyes. Eventually we came to another resplendent beach where the waters had overflowed the bank forming a wide and swallow swath of languidly moving water to bathe in. The main river is now a violent torrent fifty yards away but here my companions practically strangers splash each other and jibber on in Sharchop. One disservice that I will live with is not attempting to learn Sharchop. First, it shows my ignorance and disdain and second I will never properly grasp the Sharchops relation to each other, religion, and their land. I admire Dr. Mark who is fluent in Sharchop or Nancy who made an effort to know a bit of the language. Here my students have to learn English and Dzonkha and I don’t learn their language, I could offer a defense but why bother. Suddenly the trail is lost and we bushwhack through thickets of nettle, hemp, and vines that sting and claw at us making me feel like a trespasser in their botanical world. Lately East Bhutan is feeling a lot like the Garden of Eden snakes included. We found our way out into an expanse of gently sloping paddies descending to the river a half mile away. My region isn’t known for beautiful terraces due to the “tough mountains’ as Becky once called them. Her place, Phongmay has gorgeously appointed terraces that transport the viewer into a shire of the mind. The terraces along the Dangme Chu have their own magic retaining the rugged spirit of the land while evoking something of that shire. But one cannot escape the heat and bleakness of this land even with its deceptive shades of green ranging from the fluorescent paddies to the dark green of Tsenkharla ridge now superimposed into the bluebell sky behind me as we move east. At one point we’re jumping rocks and walking a tightrope pipeline before we seek shelter at a temporary dwelling which is occupied by a middle aged man and woman dozing on straw mats. This tin roofed rectangular shack is open aired with a back wall made from mud but no front wall, in the corner is a hearth and scattered around the floor are jugs of curd, water, and Ara. The dwelling overviews the network of terraces and in true Bhutanese style they don’t seem put off by our presence. After refreshing, we descended to the temple whose golden tiered pagoda shone magnificently in the noonday sun. Walking in terraces is very difficult balancing on crests of mud a foot wide with a slope that falls away five feet to the next level. It requires concentration to not topple into the mucky crop or worse down to the next level. Rice looks like blades of grass that poke through the flooded terraces. There is something distinctly Asian about rice terraces and I’ve encountered them in Japan, Vietnam, Nepal, and Bhutan. The Himalayan ones are remarkable for being etched into steeps slopes (my first encounter of the mountainous terraces was actually at Sapa in Northern Vietnam) on this harrowing traverse of a terrace I ran into Lathro a Jangphu lad and his buddies who were returning from the temple. On holy days when school is out students often trek to surrounding temples sometimes walking ten hours roundtrip to reach Omba or Gongsa. A slightly shorter option is Darchen or a few hours roundtrip to Shakshang. Gongsa is the farthest site comparable with Omba but located thousands of feet below it. According to legend the Guru came into this part of the valley from Tawang visiting Omba then heading down to the river at Gongsa before arriving at Gom Kora. That means his demoness adversary had also been here too, and I was reversing their track.
Two words to describe Gongsa, fucking fantastic! The three tiered pagoda and whitewashed exterior made it appear a 1/8 scale of Gom Kora. On closer inspection this temple transcended elegance and grace all embodied in the glowing face of the temple mistress (Gongsa’s Rinchen Wangmo) the grounds are on a steep embankment perched on the churning shore of the Dangme Chu. The opposing shoreline is formed by the rust speckled rock canyon. On the backside of the temple are huge boulders one of them infused into the Goempa itself. The grounds are a riverside oasis with whitewashed stone walls fortifying the exterior separating the small complex from the paddies beyond. There’s short grass reminiscent of a lawn shaded by pomegranate and other fruit trees along with sunflowers and banana trees with enormous fronds. Other hearty pastel flowers similar to the ones at Gom Kora lined the narrow dirt paths. This is a place of rocks and butter lamps. The exterior walls have niches carved in them that enclose flickering lamps but everything here is on a small scale, even the vertical prayer flags are dwarves some only a foot taller than me fluttering and snapping in the hot wind. More students arrive, Pema Choden who was the impetus behind my mother’s Christmas card and three girls from my class seven. Samten Tshomo, Sangay Wangmo, and Sangay Chozem have walked directly from T.M.S.S via Kiney. Samten Tshomo is wearing a purple shirt that reads in oversized white letters, “MUSIC HEALS THE SOUL” and I give her a high five. The more demure Pema Choki (known by her classmates as Pema Chokes) is wearing her pressed school kira and adorning rachu. I glance down at my dirty undershirt and feel a bit ashamed. Not only did she walk eight miles descending four thousand feet to get here, she looks immaculate too. The pagoda is enchantingly slender, ethereal, and wispy in appearance with ubiquitous carved wood pillars painted with tiger strips and posters of great lamas hung near the doorway which had an elephant painted on it. I thought I spied the Dali lama instead of the Je Kempo on one of the prints. Entering the Lhakhang is like entering another space, on the floor a dozen monks and perhaps a lama chant mantras tapping drums and blowing six foot brass horns making a cacophony. The paintings are exquisite including an unusually pensive Guru accompanied by his two consorts including heroine Yeshi Tshogyel. Again as a novice writer I find myself in the position of being woefully impatient and inept at cataloging or conveying the icons, statues, trinkets, and more importantly the ineffable qualities contained within the incensed haze. Of particular note were stacks of cloth wrapped holy books and a nice gilded effigy of the Guru (much smaller than Gom Kora’s or the massive Zangtopelri Guru) The back end of the cozy Lhakang (half the size of Zangtopelri’s main chamber) was pure rock and one had to duck more and more until they were kneeling. This temple was melded to a boulder and now we were packed into a cavern. Inside the treasure box in an alcove were amazing stones lying in a row on the cool floor, including a boot shaped stone which was the boot of Yeshi Tshogyel. My heart skipped a beat handling the heavy stone that despite being ugh boot sized could barely be lifted. I felt like Prince Charming before his quest to find Cinderella but I was inside her already, we were already unified. I have a mad crush on Yeshi and all the reincarnated dakini’s I have met on the road. I felt something there amongst the Bhutanese present that I cannot explain, all I can tell you is for me it was the holiest place and damned if it wasn’t my first visit. Gratefully I took another blessing from a bald monk at the end of the earth.
Outside we enjoyed a packed lunch of standard Bhutanese fare, eating red hot chilies on a scorching day with our hands. There is no civilization save the paddy people and the temple itself. One lonely farmhouse sits a ways down the opposing shore. Upriver bends into Tawang out of view; this is the lonely beginning to Bhutan the water flowing west on a long journey. But one doesn’t need the invisible border to feel the otherworldliness. It’s primal, gentle, and inexplicably soothing to feel the Guru’s presence. Like Tigers Nest and Gom Kora I am certain he crossed here and must have been struck by the remoteness of the lowland. He left something of himself too, an indelible mark upon the land and the hearts of the people who call it home. There’s nowhere to hide down here and one is left only with God and the roar of his silt gray river rolling by in perfect undulating liquidity. I reluctantly said goodbye and began the weary trek back to Doksom studying my land each step of the way. We stopped by the river and my companions had rum and wine tossing plastic bottles into the water and leaving yellow plastic wrappers on the grassy bank where a chestnut horse grazed, I picked up the rubbish to their obvious bemusement. Along the trail someone has chalked “Never Give Up” into a stepping stone. It’s rare to have a day like this one and I will cherish it always. Once in awhile we get a payoff for being here, actually everyday’s a boon but there are magical ones that change you forever. Temples draw people together and draw something out of the land that speaks, “I know you’re here” This is my land and I will never have this again. (The kid’s say our Bhutan)
Gongsa was auspicious since it marked my first epic hike since my knee injury. The knee held up well on the mostly downhill hike but was tender today. I feel optimistic and will gladly endure interminable itchiness as a trade for strong legs. Tonight was spicy potato curry at the mess and as one boy aptly stated “A boarder life is a potato life.” Before service I talked with Tsewang our school captain and a former student. He sometimes slept in class but he holds the third position in a competitive section. Out of thirty five students there are ten excellent students including Pema Choki. He wants to be an architect after schooling and he’ll probably do it too. Our esteemed VP was overseeing supper reminding students to be mindful when they eat. He is strict but admirably committed. On the walk home I encountered Sangay Tashi an athletic boy who was returning from a puja at Zongposar and I briefed him about what he missed in class. A coy crescent moon inconspicuously reclined in the indigo sky, typical that I haven’t seen the moon since full of Lhuntse. The moon is unique since it has a different face every time. Not only waxing, waning, robust, or sliver but its amorphous personality always changes depending on mood and country, longitude, latitude, and attitude. Sometimes she’s withdrawn and cold and others she sits in your lap smacking your lips. The one truth is she’s always changing just like you. The other night I saw a huge rat scamper into the washroom, I was a little less terrified but the long hair and fat body was aggressively funky, his whiskers (or hers like the bearded woman from rainbow) dragged on the floor. It’s Friday night and I will sign off to go mark essays. I hope all of you in internet land are doing grrrrrreat!
A great time to visit Chorten Kora is summer, where it’s so green that even the whitewashed rotunda sprouts grass under Buddha’s bloodshot eyes. I went to Trashiyangtse for shopping and stopped in at the gorgeous stupa to circumambulate with the old timers. I thought of Becky since this is one of her favorite places. Clouds the same color as the rotunda billowed into electric blue filament, the golden apex atop the Kora transmitting Monpa signals to the Mother ship. I can’t explain the geometric assurance of the edifice but everything is acquainted perfectly with the universe and makes me think of infinite space. The structure modeled after Bohdnath holds light on its pointed and rectangular edges and the gleaming white dome. My Catholic upbringing conjures associations with angels or heaven with manicured wild grass, pearly gates, park benches, and partly cloudy skies. It’s always windy in Yangtse and you can almost feel the deities including the one that preceded the Kora which is over three hundred years old. People have been praying here consecutively for hundreds of years, there’s something naïve and touching in that fact. I’m also compelled to come, even though I don’t always pray Buddhist sites resonate in my heart. Making pilgrimages has changed my whole way of looking at the world and is how I spend my free time, whether I’m going to a temple or a favorite rock or Chorten. Here, at Chorten kora the iconic religious site of East Bhutan, the story of the entombed Monpa girl seems especially sad with only a few cousin brother Sharchops tooling around the exterior spinning every wheel one in a white cowboy hat that matches the kora. I strolled to the bridge over the Kulong Chu at the entrance to Bumdeling Park where they replaced the woodsy sign with a modern and less charming one that reads no fires, no felling, no camping, no gathering flora, and no poaching. A huge cypress acts as sentry of the sacred park a place where animals rule and people subsist alongside them. Once I step on the bridge I’m in the wildlife sanctuary that extends north to Tibet encompassing tracts of Lhuntse and Mongar. Tigers, snow leopards, rare migratory birds, gigantic butterflies, and too many species to list all reside in the park along with a few villages and yak herders who trade with the Tibetans over a high pass. It’s a lazy Sunday so I turn back sauntering to the bazaar where I stock up on chillies, potatoes, and garlic for the week ahead. I wait and after a few hours cram into a Tsenkharla bound taxi packed with Kamdang passengers. I’m so prostrate I don’t even coax the phone number of a spinster teacher from Sep named Wangmo. The light is sumptuous and pastel both deep and delicate. The rounded sweep of a mountain over Doksom imbibes the sky’s colors, streaks of violet seeping into zoftic greens. We curved through the canyon and the lush landscape shadowboxed moving along like a dancing dragon. Piet rocketed the other way in a spandex orange biker’s shirt his countenance like Lance Armstrong in the homestretch. Sigh, it’s always good to go out and come home again.
On a recent hike to Shakshang a ran across a tarp encampment of potato sellers. The spuds were carried down by stocky dudes carrying inconceivable loads akin to the Nepali Sherpa types on the trail in Annapurna. This is a Himalayan trait guys with bulging calves carrying ridiculous loads. The taters are grown at Shakshang, Namkhar, and outlying settlement and they will be brought to Samdrop Jonkhar and exported to India and Bangladesh. Ironically I couldn’t purchase potatoes in any Tsenkharla shops.
Things are changing at Tsenkharla and even though pace of life may be perceived as relaxed events are always taking place. Mostly imperceptible movements until the crack like the movement of glacier ice. Test scores were down and principal is tightening the screws in an effort to bolster staff involvement increasing night study, cracking down on bad habits, enforcing discipline without the stick, enforcing school policies, and etcetera. I’m glad to do my part! I already glanced out the window to see a teacher kicking a student and the matron was giving stern warnings to the girls attending the forthcoming education meet to tie their and wear kiras properly. Every Thursday students drape themselves in rachu and kubney with religious significance
On A leisurely hike to Shakshang I was saddled by dark unwanted thoughts until I was caboose in the Shakshang day scholar train including some funny characters more like fairytale cartoons than live human beings (or maybe I’m the loony tune. Bhutan has not pacified me in any way at this point making me more brooding and intense. The kids keep me honest bringing out the best in me but I must admit that being cut off from my culture might have some repercussions. Luckily Becky spends a fortune calling me and occasionally my family will drop a line. Butterfly just called (technology) and invited me to dinner down at his place. I will bring a torch since I can’t turn down a free meal, isn’t it? I had a good day as class six interviews were a blast and in every way superior to class eight including attentive listening (Ironic since I’m the world’s worst listener) it cool to see the kids light up while learning and I wish I could say every class is like that. I have had triumphant moments here and some flops. Afterschool I was hypnotized by the receding lightshow in the valley I was amazed at the new things I saw. Tiny huts gleaming on cusp of high altitude cirques, dirt roads far off in Arrunachal Pradesh and the blurry Gongsa below, mostly unused and tough land with sharp and smooth contours to please the eye. Ah, memories roving over this side of the valley from Bromla to Shampula, Omba to Gongsa and all the secret spots in between that I might never find again. I wonder how someone with normal eyes would interpret my bleary topography. What geography would they relate? Mine is mostly a map on my heart consisting of colors and smells but what I lack in vision I make up in feeling. I admit to some numbness but I guess that’s natural for a phelincpa sojourning in the east for an extended stint.
Authors Note: There are two approaches to Gongsa, one from Doksom a mostly flat walk and one downhill from Kiney. The kids all came and returned via Kiney taking a short cut from T.M.S.S that saves going from Kamdang. I need to find that shortcut, a passage that would make Jangphu and Shampula more accessible.
Beyond the Pale
A rare sight the Milky Way cocooning precious stars an apparition in this part of the world.
Class eight was only a skeleton crew since eighteen students checked out for the annual educational meet in Yangtse. They will be playing sports and competing in cultural programs for the week leaving a handful of students in class. It’s nice to get quality time with the ones who stayed but the whole ordeal disrupts the syllabus. Anyway in this reduced class one girl asked to go to the bathroom proclaiming to have “Shouting Diarrhea” instead of shooting diarrhea. When I inquired what that meant she told me that when one has diarrhea it makes a sound hence shouting diarrhea. Afterschool I scrubbed some clothes on my cement floor taking advantage of rare water. I got a nasty blister and ran out of soup which gave me an excuse to quit. Stepping outside a squat rainbow hung over Lumla, it appeared as if a painter had dipped her brush through her palette before blotting the sky with a hasty lurid patch. Why rainbows gather at Lumla just across the border is anyone’s guess. Teaching is a grind but has rewards that cannot be discovered on the rail or any cornice. For instance reading an essay that names you as a student’s hero, or having that same student want to be an English teacher just like Mr. Tim. Pride is a sin but I let myself indulge briefly. I am rightly hard on myself knowing that more effort is always required but also realize that I have changed lives and taught. The essays themselves have shown some improvement with many students grasping the ideas of outlines and organization in the five paragraph structure. So to answer your question Mare, yes I have taught them something. In other good news we also got a pay raise but I also haven’t been paid in two months. At this point any healthy day in the kingdom is a good day, I’m still resting my knee although I’m roaming again but just as often staying home and watching afternoon light splash around the valley glittering off the Dangme Chu. My biggest challenge is an indefinable fatigue that dogs me especially in the morning as the war of attrition goes on. Mental fortitude is helpful and remembering the plight of the children. Poor Pema Wangmo an affable student wrote about some of her serious medical issues and today was slouched over on her desk sick. Life is hard in Bhutan, hard and beautiful. All the students work the fields with their families over break and field work is brutal. The life of a student in Bhutan is more difficult than a stateside student especially for boarders. They never fail to inspire me and are the impetus providing fodder for motivation. The seemingly obscure Christian calendar has turned to August and the sun shown over the land a grateful respite from the monsoon, as usual illuminating Yellang. In East Bhutan, life goes on revolving around husbandry of animals and agriculture. I sleep while most Bhutanese start there chores and I lay awake while they dream of bumper crops in Sharchop. Today is Thursday making the rainbow especially auspicious proof of the greatest circus of all playing under this most resplendent big top. Eerie golden light tints the world bedazzling the eye, by contrast the mountains are a smoky blue.
What makes Tsenkharla a community in a sense most westerners will never know. Simple, everyone knows everyone and what everyone is up to. I can only imagine the stories in Sharchop circulating about Mr. Tim. I dare not speculate if there true or not, that old mascot feeing. Surgit compared me to a cheery squirrel. I hope people see me as positive especially my students, his other nickname for me is college boy since I live what he sees as a carefree bachelor life. That’s probably what I love about Bhutan is you carve out your own terms in a challenging aesthetic. Also appealing is the sense of adventure that drove western explorers into the arctic or tropical jungles for hundreds of years. Pouring a dash of accomplishment dissolved in an engaging community and it’s an unbeatable and exhausting cocktail. This cocktail come neat since there’s no water for ice.
Saturday Night with a luminous moon, a rare visit from Karlos and Sonam we enjoyed tea and Bhutanese spaghetti. Packaged pasta and canned tomato sauce with chilli ese on top to jazz it up. I realized how much I miss them nearby as dinner was just like old times. We talked about Prince Tsangma and about how little is known about him. He was exiled from Tibet landing out in East Bhutan around 900 A.D. The valley was already settled and probably provided a similar agricultural existence as today. I don’t know if hunter gatherers lived hereabouts or how long this region has been inhabited. It seems history is a new endeavor for man and particularly murky in Bhutan. Karlos asserted that the Buddhist prince married a local Sonam and had two sons up at his residence (the ruin) His eldest son moved to Tawang and his youngest inherited the estate (our stone redoubt) can you imagine childbirth at that time? I wonder who his distant relatives are, we all could trace our lineage back to Cro -Magnum Adam, or Neanderthal Eve, or some monkey man who fell out of a tree. The Bhutanese seem to recycle through time all maintained by cultural threads that have been cut in America. I wonder how it is that these perceived “primitives” might hold the key to all life’s secrets and how western ideals threaten the foundations of the youth. Bhutan is not a utopia its superior since it’s real. Life goes on and sacredness prevails even amongst terrible suffering and abundant joy. My part is unclear and I wonder who thought up my dream. People like the Third King, Father Mackey, and Nancy Strickland and all others along that path. As for dear Tsangma I will take the myth to my grave and can only embellish any speculations of the exiled prince as I fritter away the hours in his castle that looks to stand for another thousand years. Eventually there will be no trace just as someday our sun will explode and all life will cease on earth. We’ll send our prayers out to the universe where it’s mathematically probable that a plethora of intelligent life exists. Thinley Gyelston of class seven pronounced that aliens created the earth and he’s a topper. A Saturday close to home Dawa the dog trailed me on my hike then managed to ditch me causing me to abort my Shakshang Pilgrimage and retreat an hour to Tsenkharla where of course Dawa was cavorting with strays in the village. It was another gorgeous day as one student put it a season within a season. Baking sun overshadowed by mutable clouds. Bhutan is a study of mountains and clouds they dominate ones consciousness and we often live in pools of light and shadows. Right now the moon is blotted out by the clouds while deep in the inky valley lights twinkle in and out of focus. Farmhouses, headlights, or tiny villages in Arrunachal Pradesh the Monpa clan worshipping the Guru with their own flare and twist not to be outshined by their Sharchop or Brokpa brethren. One feels at the edge of something here and it’s not only due to the demarcation. In fact the land goes on beyond that last saddle. Where are those Matterhorn’s visible in the fall (my kingdom for binoculars) its vermillion cornices untouched in the lambent autumnal sunsets? The hill station of Tawang has a renowned monastery and Tawang is the biggest settlement between Guwhati and Thimphu. Arrunachal Pradesh is vast with a similar forest cover, flora, and fauna as Bhutan. The restricted province stretches north, shadowboxing Tibet then mainland China converging with Burma. Somewhere in that endless jumble of mountains the Himalayan ceases and turns into formidable lush hills. I’ve told this all before but the geography of the Eastern frontier of the Himalaya fascinates me and my mind usually drifts eastward into unknowable and forbidden Arrunachal Pradesh a collection of tribal peoples. The Monpa represent only the western sliver and around Tawang district. As one travels east into the capital Itanegar and beyond what does the Buddhism converts to. Tribal beliefs, ubiquitous Christians, or Hindu’s? All I can love is half this valley with a smattering of getaway spots in greater Bhutan and Nepal. One amazing thing about Tsenkharla is that aside from my beloved expansive eastern view, is a beautiful chunk of rolling lush mountains threaded by the Kulong Chu to the west. Two satisfying and different landscapes visible from the strategically placed ridge. Reconnaissance missions are invaluable to maintain a proper territory and the breadth of the Guru’s range throughout the Himalaya is now inconceivable. It’s a long way from the Swat valley of Pakistan onto the Tibetan plateau descending into the lush ravines of Bhutan. What of his legacy? The Dharma stamped out in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of India. In Tibet his wheelhouse, Buddhism is suppressed leaving Bhutan the last bastion of tantric precepts. This is what I admire when the students transcend into vessels of the Dharma spinning the big wheel with their haunting dirge and riveting laments. How did I get caught up in this tract? This is one of the last great adventures to be had on earth, including a meaningful encounter with a wondrous land and its kind peoples especially the students, my best teachers who define the life.
Every day brings reverence acknowledging what’s around. Like Sangay Lhamo leading the younger village kids up to Shakshang. Even though she’s thrice their size and in my class six, she’s as shy as a class one student sticking her tongue out iguana style as I walk by. Teachers enjoy an intimate rapport with students. At best it’s an awesome synergy and worst it’s a cacophony. I have approximately 120 students and don’t even know all their names especially my inherited class. I don’t like this since it leads to partiality not with grading but attention. Some of the weaker students I know only from my grade book or by face although the majority of students I know. About those students, the day scholars carry the fragrance of the deep woods to class, an aroma of burnt wood and yak cheese. It can get a bit funky in that small wooden box on a hot day.
A long night in the hut plagued by a rat who somehow got inside my rolled straw mat and when I finally shook it he fell out of the sky nearly onto my face before scampering into the bathroom presumably exiting down the toilet hole. Also a helicopter beetle and cockroaches clung to my mosquito net making my hovel like a creepy crawler exhibit. Those beetled rattle and hum all around the hut in the darkness crashing into walls like kamikaze pilots, whereas spiders prefer the bathroom. I wouldn’t say the hovel is infested and there are les flies this summer but vermin are majority stockholders.
I’m at a harrowing point in this saga your hero is tired and today exasperated with class 8B. It was one of my most infamous periods which all started out with good intentions. What is that they say about good intentions? I am challenging the students to perform skits of the Red Sweater a short story we have recently read. I was working with my group in which I am playing a leading part, meanwhile too absorbed while students from other groups began climbing and shaking the peach tree above until a fruit hit me square in the noggin (I know some of you are laughing and I know who you are) I was displeased and ordered the class inside where I yelled at them breaking my lotus bowl vow. I calmed down enough to decree the many offenders to write disciplinary letters as per our school discipline policy. Two girls broke out in tears with one of them blubbering uncontrollably through lunchtime. It was a horrific scene and I hadn’t seen a student reaction that strong even from a national teachers flogging. It’s my entire fault for not assigning group leaders knowing the temperament of this class. 8A did their work perfectly enthusiastically engaged in the same task but by then I was just trying to make it through the day and went home collapsing on my bunk nearly in tears. I’m so overdue for a cry it’s like a ceaseless drought on Mars. As a teacher I don’t want acrimony with students and don’t feel comfortable in a disciplinary role but realize that’s a huge part of teaching. Two things to work on, better lesson plans accounting for unruly students and stricter and consistent facilitation of the classroom. I must subjugate my little demons but do it with compassionate love. I have established rapport with the students (8B for two years) and they feel comfortable in my tutelage which is essential for language instruction but today exposed my weaknesses, somewhere in the middle is the proper potion.
I woke up from my catnap and staggered up the trail towards Zangtopelri in a foggy drizzle but turned back halfway feeling dejected. The temperature dropped ten degrees and the world seemed too quiet for August, the monsoon resuming in an earnest solemn rhythm. A faraway rooster crowed and a silent raven landed on a eucalyptus treetop near the ruin. It was a very lonely scene punctuated by that desolate loop of the cobalt river through a hazel wasteland. It’s stark and beautiful and the land is trying to open up and tell me a secret but I’m not ready to listen. It’s so tranquil it’s stifling with the voices of the river rising thousands of feet in the half lit stillness, asking me. Why am I still playing games and unwilling to fully grow up and detach from my unyielding ego that pins me like a butterfly behind glass. The wall of the emerald escarpments vanish in the mist like headless horseman and I feel alone as only a foreighner in this land can, walking past a mani wall with dried chilli offerings and native cairns that stand by decrepit prayer flags, there color faded to grey. I want this life more than anything and therefore must bash on regardless not forgetting to grow and survive if not flourish. I have been more organized and creative in the classroom this year and that’s why today’s incident made me crestfallen. Teaching is emotionally draining and intense. You are star of the show with thirty five pairs of eyes boring into you or worse yet averted. Every day I mark notebooks and do my best to prepare for lessons and stay consistently upbeat. Obviously I have ambivalent feelings about my profession but am sure that I enjoy interacting with Bhutanese students. I could fall back on the Bhutanese rote style of inculcation that the students are accustomed, but I choose to go in the other direction which the ministry supports, a more student centered approach. Certain native teachers have told me that corporal punishment (flogging with sticks) is necessary to maintain discipline in remote localities. As the dream enhances its harder to wake up or find that elusive reset button. The cooks remarked in Sharchop (translated in broken English) that I must be missing Becky and that I’m not going to Trashigang anymore. That’s true on both accounts and funny that the cooks know my itinerary and social leanings. The loss of Becky in Bhutan has been debilitating for both of us. From my side I will never recapture the magic of my first few months in Bhutan that freshness and optimism reveling in a new world. Day’s like Bartsham mesmerized by the floppy bird near a remarkable Chorten with trim a perfect blend of pink and orange (a color I can’t place a word for) and the most charming bronze bells that chimed in the spring breeze. Just down the road from there a tranquil water driven prayer wheel below the baby bounce contours of the ridge. Already in November 2012 the luster had peeled off when we found ourselves stuck on the wrong side of a massive landslide in SJ for three interminable Indian summer days, a slide we foolhardily were escorted through in darkness by the police. Now, the adventure gains breadth and depth as it goes along, relationships solidify but the shadows inevitably lengthen.
What kind of light is this?
is it the same light seen in Tashi Wangmo’s eyes?
the valley unfurls an emerald violet banner
drawing the eye further
splashing in pools of shadow
before mounting Tawang saddle
galloping east, a misty mosaic of pastel colors
unarranged and reassembled
for the faithful
the strip tease of twirling prayer flags
gyrating on wooden poles
beckoning the slithering Dangme Chu
a cobalt liquid serpent
a female water snake uncoiling, writhing
in a parched rock bed
on the stark bank, Gongsa
a graceful temple with wispy
gold pagoda and rusty trimmed whitewash
melded to black rock,
enclosing the compound, crumbling ancient walls
stacked with cairns and carved with burnt niches
butter lamp embayment’s
inside the Lhakang a cave enshrining
clothed holy books, bundles of smoldering incense
and a gilded effigy of the precious master,
his enraptured countenance
giving me a contact high
ducking into cool alcove
a row of unbelievable stones
including the speckled boot of Yeshi Tshogyel,
trying to pick it up, it’s as dense as meteorite
on the caverns interior
a luminous fresco of Guru and Yeshi copulating
an intertwined pulsating lotus, their successive orgasms
swashing over the edge, in cream braided rapids
flooding the soul of the world
Dried Fish and Other Matters
“Back to back chicken shack, son of a gun better change your act”
Resilience is essential for survival in this life. In that spirit I assumed the mantle as teacher for one more day and 8B did a fine job rehearsing for their skits. What a pleasure as a teacher to see students taking ownership of their own learning with enthusiastic smiles while blocking their movements. Of course they spoke Sharchop working out the details and lines (they couldn’t do it all in English) Their multilinguist abilities are astounding and I marveled at Kezang Dema, a painfully shy girl who has found her voice over the last few weeks ever since she conquered her own timorousness during the interview assignment. Moments like that make any hardships worth it. That kind of teaching is more rewarding than talking at your students in rows, a tedious form of chalk dust torture. Obviously direct instruction is needed much of the time but incorporating opportunities for the students to shine is essential. It’s also a zillion times harder to plan for. Meanwhile the monsoon has returned with a vengeance with a curtain of heavy rain draping over the land a watery nocturne serenading the earth. Today the campus was awash in puddles and Scooby Doo mist sifting through the trees. I had seven of eight periods and on my freebee I marked essays. All classes went well except 7B who was late from the library and whose classroom was a mess. We remedied the situation as half the class swept while the others finished their comic strips and presented them to me. Surgit, in his subtle backbiting fashion told me I didn’t sound like a typical teacher when I addressed my students. Perhaps that’s true but our VP (who speaks limited English who is a Dzonkha Lopen from the old school) asked about my scolding from the other day which he heard all the way in the office upstairs. By now the peach landing on Mr. Tim’s head is local lore and everyone has had a good laugh at my expense. Even Sherub Chozem was smiling again and the peachy perpetrator Karma Sonam the mischevious girl whose name translates to Lucky Star was actively engaged today. I wouldn’t consider my style lenient rather I try to run a classroom based on mutual respect and admiration. One thing’s for sure if I was overly strict students like Kesang Dema would never find their voice. The wonderful thing about teaching in Bhutan is it’s an opportunity to evolve in a KIND (not necessarily a supportive) setting where I too struggle to find my teaching voice. Tomorrow my life will get even busier as we’ll begin the afterschool reading program I implemented last year. I was hesitant to reinstate the program since both teacher and the student’s are burdened with work but The Counselor, head of my department insisted. One thing you will observe in Bhutanese classes is students slouched on their desks sleeping. This was extremely rare when I was a schoolboy but in Asia (my experience school teaching in Korea and Bhutan) it’s common. At Tsenkharla this is due to the overloaded life of a boarding student with prayer, social work, study hall, and endless extracurricular activities like cultural programs, sports, and agricultural work. The Bhutanese boarding student is to be admired for their strong moral conduct and for enduring a life that would send me down the road bunking with a cartoonish gunnysack hanging from a stick and a sign that says Thimphu or bust. In class seven I still have filthy day scholars with halitosis and dingy white cuffs. By class ten peer pressures for hygiene keep the students looking more impeccable than your author. Scrubbing laundry is the pits and I suck at it, laundry machines might be the greatest invention ever put forth by man. Keeping clothes dry and clean in the summer is especially toilsome as mold grows on dormant garments in the closet and I brought far too many clothes here. More than anything I always miss food, of course I can survive and not get scurvy and I have my beloved Coke but it can be monotonous. Currently there’s a dearth of vegetables in the village and one must scrounge to make basic potato curry. There are always plenty of crackers (biscuits) and chewing gum and low grade Indian masala chips, even the cheese balls are stale! I had a mild stomach ache and remembered that for my first two years how common that ailment was. Since you will rarely feel tiptop here it’s helpful to spread the maladies around. Thankfully my itchiness has subsided although it still flares up. I decided it’s probably a result of the humidity a sort of skin rash that eventually will go away. My knee is also getting better and although I can feel it stiffen after long walks I am unspeakably grateful that I have my mobility again! HO! One thing’s for sure I will never be so rich in this lifetime. Financially I hope that’s not the case (I make $300 a month and haven’t been paid since May) but money isn’t any priority of mine beyond surviving and entertainment. My wealth comes from interacting with the land and community, especially the students. It’s a continual learning process whether I like it or not, and the blowup at 8B (which I’m still processing) has taught me a lot. At the worst scholastic moments I feel like a ship’s captain trying to avoid a mutiny but thankfully neither teacher nor students hold grudges for long. More funny moments were the students of 8A sucking salt and juice out of raw chillies a treat only a Bhutanese pupil could love. They carry around the shell of the large Bumdeling brand chillies drinking the juice from the interior like their at a kiddy cocktail party. In Korea I loved kimchi and now I have fallen for the chillie , a lust that comes with a gastronomic price. In Korea my diminutive girlfriend would forbid me to eat the Pelicana spicy chicken but here no one will admonish me for my dietary habits (HABITUAL IN BHUTAN) Speaking of which, darkness is falling and I must go to the tiny bazaar for Coke and Chillie! For your kind information the chillie burns like anything, and if one fondles his junk about ten minutes later it will burn like he has gonorrhea. My kingdom for a cheeseburger and giant dill pickle. Becky, if you’re reading this drive to that place with the sign that reads “Best cheeseburger in Colorado” Go inside and eat it, but save the last morsel walk outside and throw it into the wind for the hungry ghost to devour.
Beside hunger another side effect is loneliness. I am involved in my community and more fulfilled than I ever have been. But I have no physical contact with people let alone romantic love. Removing contact and creature comforts has strange effects on a body and mind. Things like ogling a breast feeding mother or jealousy of a puppy getting their ears scratched. In some ways getting out of touch with your own body too. I never did resort to that surrogate cloth doll but it’s never too late for that, and if one chooses to become intimate with themselves forthwith don’t eat chillies.
I headed up for dinner at the mess which unfortunately turned out to be dried fish. My mother would hate dried fish and also hate my subsequent observation. After eating the small petrified salty critter ones fingers smell like they fingered a trail worker who hadn’t douched in a fortnight (fans of tigers naughty side are happy tonight) In fact I love the Bhutanese phrase, “Doing Naughty” since it’s so active and lively meaning one is in the continual process of naughtiness which might garner the response, “Not feeling shy?” Some of you know your author is very tactile and touchy feely but Hands across the Himalayas stalls, usually received by the recoiling of a village woman and a swift brushing away. So after cold rice and dried fish I’m back in the hut which is moderately clean, except a pile of laundry that Kendra could appreciate. Rain hammers the roof gaining rhythmic power every fresh moment, enveloping our sleepy hamlet in dense fog that swirls up your nose. The good news is three plastic bottles of Coke are chilling in my fridge (plastic bottles can only be coke whereas glass bottles can only be Coca Cola) another lonesome evening in paradise and for whatever reason there’s nowhere else I’d rather be, not on the rail or in the love vice of my former consort, nowhere!
On the way from dinner Dawa an oafish lad with tattoos asked if I could look at his poetry, this same boy broke my $50 dollar speaker I’d lent him. But that’s what you get for lending out electronics, Sangay Tobgay just came by and plugged a thumb drive into my computer and that even made me nervous for viruses. I’m becoming stingy about letting boys use my electronic devices now. I hate saying no to students and always want them to feel welcome, just now Tandin Wangdi AKA Police and Pema Chedup left. Pema Chedup is a sweetheart and I know he adores me and I should do more to spend time with him. He’s a handsome boy a little small for his age with bright inquisitive eyes and elf ears. When I was seriously ill in April he was the only one who came to see me and help out. Sundown in the Himalayas with no sun to speak of, it’s an oceanic scene with mountains awash in foam with imposing monoliths rising through the backwash into tentacles of spray. Take note if you dare, a moment in time, we’re all on our cardboard floating deathbeds crossing the Samsara Sea of daunting impermanence, ain’t that sweet! I find the view comforting since IT existed before I was born and will continue delighting after I’m gone. Maybe some of us interlopers who are fortunate to live in Bhutan might feel this is a lifetime within a lifetime. I wonder if Jamie Zeppa can instantly access that place inside her that belongs to Bhutan, with a Bhutanese son she has a direct link to the Dragon folk. Sometimes I must kick my own ass into gear reminding myself to savor this chance. All I have to show for myself is a few adopted brothers and sisters and an adulating student body which is a helluva a lot.
It’s Friday sometime in August and today was a grinder. I awoke under overcast skies with a blanket of mist obscuring the Dangme Chu shrinking the world to dismal proportions. The anticipated skits were underwhelming even though they tried. I think the task was too ambitious and again revealed just how hard it is for them to speak English on the fly. To be honest it was painful to watch most of them and I was internally mulling over how to make them better speakers. In one sense the endeavor was successful since it forced the students to speak especially the ones who never volunteer. Some of the shy ones are coming out their shells like Sonam Wangmo a squat and swarthy girl with dusky Middle Eastern eyes. She sang a traditional song at the end of the period and it was a big deal for her to get on the stage, it was also the highlight of my grueling day. Some days just seem to go on forever and although I love my kids I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Tonight we have a school dinner and though I’m grateful for grub I am also exhausted. Tomorrow I asked permission to be excused from the religious ceremony to go to town for personal business which I’m looking forward. H20 is a no go yet again and it seems we are back to square one with the water situation and the sunflowers appeared ironic in the drizzly morning. Outside the squeal of puja horns evaporate in the mist, sounds like the circus is in town.
A Path through Sorrow
“God way down at Gongsa, god at Omba too, god inside of me and god inside of you”
A lugubrious Saturday swaddled in a blanket of forlorn mist which soon became a dirge of rain. Today a “big lama” visited from T-Gang who turned out to be rather small in stature. The lama had the right stuff though gliding, a luminous egg with large shinning eyes and an omnipotent smile that almost touched my core. He had a soft touch on his blessing touching heads with a pillowed object that appeared like a chalkboard eraser. I went home and fell asleep and I can recall only one other time sleeping on a Saturday afternoon in Bhutan. That was when I first arrived and like that winter afternoon I was haunted by strange dreams with uncomfortable themes. My subconscious mind angry at my conscious actions and letting me know so through vivid hyperbole. When I awoke the rain had lifted with fog below and cirrus clouds above but the craw of the valley was clear to Tawang even exposing the serrated dragon’s tail. For whatever reason a shroud of loneliness weighed down on me as I lay in bed recapitulating my life. Missing love I had the epiphany that I destroyed my relationship with Morgan eight inauspicious years ago. How fortunate I was to meet my soul mate and then foolishly squandered our love snuffing it out with my destructive heel. We might have had a life together but now… By the time I abandoned a Korean woman who was ready to give her life to me it was already too late. These events led me here but what have I done with this opportunity? I earned this mountaintop by falling out of love and now my soul seems beyond repair. Tonight was another staff dinner, with the same lagging conversations in English and same emadatsi. The rats scurrying around at his gnawing and I wonder if he’s capable of loneliness. Moods are a strange thing aren’t they? Our temperament dictates are reality and on a day like this even my beloved valley offers no solace. I often feel like an interloper during religious occasions with students absorbed in their tasks and worship and I felt invisible when I slipped away into the grey afternoon. 9:26 BST Saturday August 16. Exactly twelve years ago tonight I was being indoctrinated into the Radiators fraternity at the Justice League, and I can still feel Dave’s smile over the distance of years. I dragged my brother there paying the eighty bucks for the tickets. In the afterglow we rode on the Bay Bridge back to Treasure Island. What that has to do with this moment I’m not sure but a thread connects us all through overlapping furrows of time. Got some sound advice from an old friend saying stop feeling sorry for your-self, my challenge in this incarnation, isn’t it?