For the Thunder Dragon
Proof of god is really a search for proof of soul. It’s our own immortality that we yearn for, isn’t it?
On the last day of Zangtopelri Tsechu I developed a festering boil on my left eyelid, eerily reminiscent of the apocalyptic infection that I brought home from India last Christmas. I looked so monstrous that I stayed away from school for a bit of convalescence. Also this boil hurts! That is where I’m at now typing these words to you. I haven’t had the privilege to read many other BCF blogs this year since I have no internet, but over the summer I read a few from an internet café in Bumthang. In her blog Sarah Diamond remarked that the only time she felt doubt about coming to Bhutan was when she lay in bed forlorn and sick. She really hit the nail on the head as every BCF teacher realizes sickness and struggle are part and parcel to ones experience in the Kingdom. Just as one might exult in the unsurpassed beauty of the land they must also wallow in their bunk uncertain and afraid. I visited our BHU (Basic Health Unit) to consult with the good Doctor Namsa who I have seen too often this year. He remarked that perhaps it was time I had a puja (religious purging ceremony) to exorcise the evil spirits that might plague me. He commenced to recall my litany of maladies, falling, viral flu, and eye and ear pain etcetera. Only in Bhutan will a trained medical doctor suggest superstitious forces for intervention as if a lama’s incantations could stave off evil. I would gladly do a puja but puja’s cost money you see, about a month salary in fact. It’s not a good time to be sick with exam preparations but fortunately my review sessions are almost complete and now it is up to the students to study. Man if you could see your mixed up author now, like a Cyclops or a haggard mutant beast staring back from a dusty mirror. I miss my mom though all traces of her are erased from the hut. Near the end of her trip she told me she was proud of me and Aunt Barb said I was a good teacher. Selfishly that was motivation for bringing her here. I wanted to show mom that all her efforts have amounted to something and that I amounted to something.
“…and every morning a new freedom arose over the eastern mountains and lighted the world” Sweet Thursday
Twirling in Moonbeams & The Boogieman in the Bardo
Rain only lasted a day and I awoke to mostly blue skies with castles of clouds congregating on the eastern horizon redirecting the sunlight in potent orange spheres shot from the Guru’s bow. While giving a practice test to class 8 I encountered a girl dressed in shirt and pants and asked who she was. The retiring girl was twelve years old a hired babysitter for one of our female teachers whose husband also works in the community. It turns out Karma Yangzom the young babysitter with cropped haircut is Brokpa and now employed by the couple. A very interesting situation and no doubt in this case the girl is treated well although separated from home. She seemed a natural with the baby as many Bhutanese children tend to be. According to the teacher the girl comes from a very poor family and gets NU 2000 a month including housing and meals. The point is the girl seemed intelligent but it’s a shame she dropped out after the third grade. I looked down at the students hunched in the grass taking their quiz and felt a surge of responsibility.
There’s a whimsical side too.
An autumn day at Tsenkharla the eye roves around seeking candy in every direction, MOUNTAINS! A flaxen butterfly hovers over a galactic marigold. A towheaded Dawa Dema chases me down the path surrounded by shining orange marigolds. Along the hedge crimson roses refuse to relent to the advancing season and the needles of a giant cypress gyrate and glisten parceling out light in dappled fractal waves. Undulating energy vibrates connecting all souls in October. We’re connected in a fine silky web, like the intricate designs woven by the local spiders rivaling the weaving of the Sharchop ladies themselves. While walking in the grove those webs end up stuck to my lips that terrible viscid auditory stretch that makes me feel like a fly in the ointment. Roses and poinsettias overlap in October. Rain reprising, breezing through clear cool days, cloud cathedrals ever receding vestiges of the monsoon. Purple and pink blooms in deep forest, on campus scarlet poinsettias, magenta bogenvia kowtow to wilting crimson roses late in October. Mummified sunflowers decaying, cicadas rattle and hiss surging like a pump all day and into the darkness, spiral galaxies dancing in unison with other spiral galaxies. DERVISHES! Look! Clusters now, revolving in a celestial Lotus where alien Buddha’s preach alien dharma’s on faraway planets lit by faraway suns. If you go deep in meditation you might be contacted by these enlightened entities who are discs of light beaming around the universe. BEAMING AROUND IMAGINATION! SHINE ON ME! All this foretold in the flicker of ninety odd butter lamps a lambent bank behind chainmail at the nexus of an ancient Katmandu Shrine, midnight under a stream of prayer flags and incandescent stars that burned ice cold. Catching a rickshaw through the frosty Milky Way underdressed into the danger zone! Following a leopardess down a long brick alleyway into the void the lost corridors of an ancient realm. I digress everyone knows there are ghosts in Katmandu just like New Orleans. I have taken a step closer to Great Spirit NOW by discovering I’m an Agnostic Pagan. I believe it’s impossible to decipher the mysteries of life with certitude and I don’t prescribe to any organized religion. I revere Guru Rinpoche but mainly worship the wonders of nature and the good within people. After midnight a visitor in my room, a firefly or perhaps a pixie glowing and floating around in kinesthetic strobe action, I couldn’t believe it as I drifted off to sleep.
On Wednesday night it was my turn for supervising class ten for night study, patrolling the MP Hall with 135 over wrought students whose fusses seemed burnt to a crisp. Some slept on the tables some chattered away, and others sincerely addressed their work. The days have become arduous with review classes followed by Center Marking until dusk. Needless to say I haven’t been into the woods for nearly a fortnight. Speaking of night it’s legitimately cold after dark and my nose is full of snot like everyone else. Back to night study after the bell rang at 9 PM the girls quickly filed out peeling off from the artery of gawking boys and as the last young ladies left the building I heard a loud clink and saw something white at the heel of a girl that was retreating into the night. When I stooped over I picked up a carved wooden phallic made from a light albino wood. Kinley Wangchuk my former student fell against the wall gasping for air laughing hysterically. I tried to hand him the woody but he wouldn’t take it so I took it home and set it upon my sill among drift wood, stones, and pinecones.
In honor of Zangdopelri Tsechu we had three days off of school. I couldn’t wait to get the party started so on Thursday afternoon I tripped into the woods for some twilight exploration. I made many pit stops along the way and encountered many magical things. To wit, crossing the spine of the ridge following a gentle glade a little girl appeared in front of me who I thought I’d recognized from a nearby farmhouse. She had cropped hair and faded yellow pants but when I blinked she had disappeared or completely vaporized. Often kids will hide in the underbrush if they’re shy but I scoured the bushes to no avail. Had I seen a ghost? When I approached a geometric prayer flag design with erect rainbow prayer flags, filtered rays of sun warmed my breast. I went the long way up to Shakshing following the shoulder of the ridge which has many contours, rising and falling with many bumps. Along the western escarpment towards Yangtse a searing blue sky scrapped by pearl clouds, something in that sight touched my deepest part like a memory too early to recall, something from the crib or even another life.
Cresting the ridge I encountered the elfish Dechen Choden from class six on the dirt road and we had a pleasant conversation before I veered towards Namkhar. The trail leaves the dirt road ascending through an oak forest with stunted trees before emerging on a hillside village the footpath broken by palisades and a huge dormant rhododendron tree that gives off a warm vibe. Perched on the slope is a lean-to that is residence of the Delog or fortune teller whose work it is to speak with devils. She is implored and employed to contact the underworld and the spirits therein. I saw an old crone chopping firewood and I wondered what she thought of the Delog as a neighbor. On this evening before Halloween spookiness emanated from the hamlet although the Delog’s shack was dark and quiet. The last particles of light draining out of the narrow valley reflected a silver streak on the Dangme Chu, its huge S curve swooping near Gongsa. Walking through a holler in fading light a burl come tumbling down the hillside almost hitting me so I let out a “Waaaaay” Like a gang of goblins they descended upon me through the forest but I narrowly escaped down the farm road taking a shortcut through a haunted cow shed and across the face of the mountain. Pausing by the meditation hut I heard the conch echoing over the valley and from the hut the rattle of a rain stick and pounding of a drum was accompanied by guttural chanting. The Western mind couldn’t conceive of anything this far out of that I’m sure. (As it turns out two days later I was walking towards Zangdopelri with a class ten boy who told me his father was living in that hut with seven other men for three years six months and three days in a life of austerity) Malleable clouds drifted into phosphorus crescent moons a lunar fractal display of mushrooms, genies, bejeweled amulets, sky temples, and gold chalices floating in shape shifting amber coronas. I found myself at Prince Tsangma’s castle reclining on my stone throne. To be exact my throne is merely a pile of loose slabs within the ruined redoubt. From my position I had a commanding view of the CELESTIAL! Incandescent stars hung low in the sky at different depths like globes on baby Zeke’s mobile, constellations of triangles and dippers. The tiny clusters of light on distant mountaintops comingled with the stars and a lone flickering electric blue body rested on the silhouetted summit of Shampula. I possessed supersonic hearing listening to the hush of both rivers at different pitches and the vibration of children laughing from huts nestled in the ravine below. It was so quiet that if someone coughed in Tawang I might have heard it. A strand of rainbow prayer flags swam in a river of wind held static in the current, rippling with all the subtle colors of the moonlight. A lone firefly impervious to the chill rested on a blade of lemon grass. Suddenly, from Zangdopelri sound erupted like a trombone, elephant flatulence, the slaughtering of lambs, or the uncorking of serpents from a wicker basket morphing into galloping dragons loose in the cosmos. The bleating of the puja horns sounded like the eternal struggle of life and death (reminiscent to the intro to AC/DC’s Thunderstruck) a siren wailing from the other side. THIS IS THE SOUNDTRACK FROM THE GATES OF HEAVEN OR MORE PRECISELY THE BARDO. I sat immobile watching the patterns envelop a gawking not quite gibbous moon. A genie’s lamp, a bronze mushroom, an angel all illuminated in lysergic moonlight ephemeral pictures dancing in the sky. CELESTIAL! Everything crackling in the void.
The magic continued into the weekend abruptly running out on a Sunday. Saturday was an ethereal day marked by the Chaam Dances at Tsechu. The dancer’s raiment’s included golden skirts with robes of varying colors silky emerald and royal blue interspersed with scarlet and silver embroidered with dragons and mythical garudas. The dancers are lay monks from the surrounding villages all men who undergo a transfiguration into archetypal beings, Avatars of Guru Rinpoche. The dozen dancers bowed, leapt, pirouetted, turned, and twirled in a fluid motion like water forming a river. On their heads they wore ornamental animal masks of deer, pig, and other unidentifiable mammal’s creature kinsmen that we humans share warm blood, fear, and predatory instincts. All connected by the dance that went on for hours with the cacophonous cornucopia of blaring horns banging drums, and crashing cymbals. Vibration’s bursting forth like the snorting of a fire breathing dragon. The audience sat on the outer ring in a crescent shape running the gamut from babies to the elderly both gazing in toothless wonder. The footwork is amazing as the strong bare feet stepped and twirled in a dizzying array. The marquee dance was the Judgment of the Soul in the Bardo something akin to Christian Judgment Day. The dancers made two lines while the boogieman clad in blues with a fearsome mask and a bushel of course black hair raising two feet into the air. THIS WAS DEATH! His costume adorned with bones, shells, and maracas that clip clopped and rattled when he moved. You see DEATH is the star of this show and IT alone held the salvation of the soul. The soul in question a white masked entity waiting in the anteroom of THE BARDO the space between birth and rebirth or the space between thoughts. Here in center ring, DEATH evaluates the deceased deeds and reassigns the soul to either a particular realm of hell or sentenced to rebirth to again try for enlightenment. This dance is offered to the audience an instruction for entry into the afterlife a sort of Tibetan Book of the Dead theatrical interpretation, a reminder that we’ll be judged for the actions of this life. The departed soul prostrates to death but I never did find out the fate of the deceased, I’ve seen the dance three times over successive years but still can’t quite figure it. Sometimes the unimaginable has the most sway over the soul anyway. So covered by a parasol with neon tassel tentacles The Lord of Death retreated into the underworld through the canvassed portal. That was the climax of a long and interesting day where I passed the time with Nima Gyeltson and many of my other students.
Nima had come over bright and early my faithful Man Friday arranging me in my gho and making our pack lunch for the picnic. Nima brought along the adorable pint sized Lobzang Wangdi from my class seven. Nima Gyelston is in class nine now but he was my student in class seven. I have told you before he has made a meteoric rise in the ranks and grown into a fine and mischevious lad. Nima is a Kidu student which means his father abandoned his family very early on. I visited his house and met his mother and sister. The house in Yartse is a drafty lean-to but the family subsists on a small plot of maize and other vegetables to eat. Nima is the most consistent visitor to my abode and sometime offers to help tidy up. Nima has an angular face with shinning round eyes and spiked hair. His companion Lobzang is a quiet boy with squinty eyes and a shinning smile. The three of us headed up to the temple together and I gave them some pocket money for the day. At lunch we shared a picnic as all the revelers assembled in groups sharing their packed lunches. Nima’s mother and sister who speak no English brought a plastic bag filled with rice and vegetable curry and the three of them all ate from the bag with their hands. Nearby Guru Wangmo and her friends from Class Seven ate happily and next to them was Karlos, Sonam, and Karma Om’s mother. There was one masked dance before lunch where the atsara’s (or jesters) dived into the crowd shaking their red wood painted phallic at some sheepish and angry female students. An awkward public display as the atsara’s fondled their phallic as Karma Lhamo hid her scarlet flushed face while swiping at the offender with her freehand. Of course I got it from the atsara’s too even after my cash donation. Two Swiss tourists also arrived for an hour, a woman named Anita and her husband accompanied by their guide and a native clad in animal skins and sunglasses. It was a goofy good day as I walked back to campus observing the long shadows stretching eastward across the drying valley. That night Butterfly came for tea and Nima Gyeltson came to look at the days photos on the displayer screen my brother gave me. Last year Thegsey Rinpoche came from Tawang bringing the good vibe and attendance for a super charged blessing. This year proved a more stripped down affair and the crash was yet to come.
Sunday I awoke with my massive boil, the Everest of boils. On my way up to Tsechu a girl asked if I was drunk probably since my eye was swollen shut. I assured her I was not but felt as self conscious as a clothed man at a nudist colony. My mood was not good as I found a spot amongst Karma Wangchuk from class 7B and his pals to watch the Cham. Today was the dance of the Guru featuring a hefty bronze mask that had transformed into the Precious Master himself ONLY one year ago, today would not go that way but they can’t all be winners. I spied Karma Om who had snubbed me so many times that I turned away. In truth she was wearing a coy smile and silver kira, she had gained weight but it didn’t detract from her beauty but we’re all getting older isn’t it? I restlessly wandered the grounds seeing boy and girl students huddling behind sheds talking, a pang of jealousy and isolation hit me hard remembering those youthful days when my heart was emblazed with passion. I briefly chatted with Karlos skipped the blessing and high tailed it for home. All told the phantasmagorical weekend and festering boil has left me prostrate.
Recuperation, “Onward to the future, our glorious party!”
I feel old. My knee, big toe, and arm ache from former injuries and my face is hideously appointed with a nasty boil. Also too much time alone can make a body lean and mean. My students and community would regard me as jovial with an air of melancholy. Things really changed for me around my thirtieth birthday in Korea (I sat alone dining on octopus) Soon thereafter I left Asia and broke up with my girlfriend Kim So young, a relationship that had come on the heels of losing my true love. For the last six years I have not felt intimacy with another woman and the worst part is I’ve tried. I labored as a bagger for United Markets in Marin for two years then made it through Dominican by the skin of my teeth. True, there were Hot Tub nights including one with a veritable Latin supermodel but I digress. I thought Bhutan would be a new start for me and it has. As it turns out though it’s not easy to leave your past behind as this paragraph attests. Bhutan has been one of the defining experiences of my life and the most important. Still the inertia and gap within my soul continues to widen. Perhaps it’s all grist for the mill on the pathway to enlightenment, a path lined with barbed wire and broken shards of glass. Right now I’m in big baby mode. I don’t want to get off my duff and cook potato curry, It’s bleak, its comical, it’s real life. Getting a boil is a humbling experience and I’m not exactly thrilled about facing the masses tomorrow. The swelling is so ugly that my eye is practically squinched shut, leaving a malevolent looking slit with no visible pupil. Think the elephant man’s peepers.
This festival season has been intense including Shakshing and Zangdopelri Tsechu. I’ve never seen a major Tsechu except Gom Kora which is an entity onto itself. I am fortunate to live at Tsenkharla enjoying two local festivals. Namkhar also hosts a minor one but it’s not very interesting lacking students. The highlight of the season was a pilgrimage to Shakshing with mom and Aunt Barb on a beautiful early October day. I felt full of the spirit that day and impressed that my 69 year old mom and aunt climbed the mountain so well. INSPIRATIONAL! My best two hikes in the Himalaya have been with my mom. The atmosphere at Shakshing and Zangdopelri are quite different one enclosed and one wide open. At Shakshing (a power spot) I remember taking a wrong turn with my mom and almost falling off a cliff. Later huddled in the shade with Aunt Barb where we developed a headache figuring out that the aggressive music was the cause since we were crouched by the bandstand. At Shakshing the viewer is on top of the action kids sitting on the overhanging ledges their feet dangling over the precipice. On a knoll above the centuries old Lhakhang is a cluster of tarps, a gypsy bazaar with gambling, kitsch trinkets, food and beverages. That day shined like a diamond with one ominous cloud approaching from the west during the big Zhana Chaam, the beastly figures creating a vortex, a window into the soul of the world. I Only wish I could make the next world with my Mom and Aunt and many of the others around the ring that Saturday afternoon. Walking home along the dirt track overlooking the breadth of the great valley were some of the happiest moments alive. Oh! how far we’d all come through many lifetimes. If one believed in reincarnation what a shift in thinking that would be. The passed out meme on the dirt might be your father in the next life, or that dog you kick might be your son. In this life I’m lucky to have my mom and aunt and people here continue to ask on them, including Principal Sir.
Presently the moon fattens over the valley and the river sings despite the fact that no one may be listening. To the residents of Gongsa it must be white noise embedded into their souls. I can hear it though wax falls out of my ears. After the final bell is clunked echoing through the valley the night sounds come alive, the river 3,000 feet below and a stray cricket who doesn’t want to admit his time has passed. I’m making hot compresses for my boil on advice from my health buddy Becky and Dr. Scotty from Yadi. Our Becky is on her way HOME to Bhutan, I hope I’m not spilling any beans that haven’t already spilt. She awaits her redeployment and then will ship out to reorientation in January 2015. And where will your author be? Right here sans boil I hope!
Becky just called to tell me to put an onion on the boil to drain the puss, now that’s a true friend. I happened to have one precious red onion left. She also told me that over near Leh Chinese and Indian troops are massing. I’m sure the two Indian spies (Cloak and Dagger) at Blithing living in the blue house are aware of it. Maybe two new spies in jumpsuits have replaced the former dynamic duo. They had one helluva view of this valley from there cottage porch. The reader might remember that Baghi Sir and a Bhutanese guard escorted me to the checkpoint separating Bhutan from India near the village of Jangphu. Remember that the Indian side of this valley is claimed by the reds and blood was shed in 1962 with the Chinese briefly occupying the famous monastery. The reader might also be interested to know that Sakteng is east of Tawang town. On my tour of Shampula with Principal Sir and other teachers we saw old dugout trenches made by Indian soldiers although to my knowledge no Chinese soldier advanced that far west. Tawang is about 25 miles from Tibet the demarcation on a 15,000 foot pass with nearby lakes and waterfalls. My estimation is those Matterhorn peaks I adore also straddle the invisible Indo-China border. Tucked in the far eastern corner of the Kingdom of Bhutan is the place to be! Some of my favorite souls in this world are sleeping nearby their dreams enmeshed. According to students they mostly dream in Sharchop but the themes are UNIVERSAL! On occasion they dream of me and I dream of them.
Rats and Boils
Bhutan is the greenest place I know but it’s not tropical except in the farthest Southern jungles and Duars. The valley floor is crisping to brown although lush pockets remain on ridges but plants are going to seed and the ferns along the oak boughs are rusted. Fields go fallow until spring and scrappy oranges grow from scrawny vines. Poinsettia’s say “HO HO HO!” Up in Village Incognito the water situation has improved drastically which is a real good thing! Today’s lesson impermanence the sweetest treasure of all. Life’s a garden, dig it! In my marrow I fear change as much as death but it’s inevitable and essential otherwise we’d have no butterflies or second chances. Remember the demoness/friend Phuntsho from T-Gang recently she called me haranguing me about visiting the U.S.A then somehow finagled Becky’s number from me (bad form) and called to harangue Becky too. Poor Phuntsho living in Thimphu who claims to be dying but probably is not. She spun Becky and I out like that infamous dinner with Shadow in Trashigang two and a half years ago. What a character. I sure do miss my pal Becky.
It’s my fourth day with a second head that is scarcely diminishing in fact there might be two boils melding up there. I am putting onion on it, taking medicine, and soaking it. In class I supervised the students study session showing off my boil to any who wanted to see it. I did wear my Ray Charles sunglasses to class though. The rat was rummaging atop the closet last night but I let him stay and eventually trailed off to sleep. I tried to be cheery today and it was a magnificent setting even though my vision in the left eye is reduced. The contours and layers of mountains with rolling humps, scarps and cirques unfolding in every direction always command my admiration. Plus my students cheered me up as always. I might be stuck with this thing for a week or more but I have curtailed my Coke intake and am drinking more water. I remember how remarkable our bodies are when sick and I know my taxed immune system knows it’s in Bhutan and lumbers onward, tally-ho! What to do Kathmandu! Karlos says my boil is a result of too much roaming and two people said a boil above the waist is good luck. Meanwhile there is work to be done. At this point I’ve over indulged myself and for that I apologize but what the hell it’s a slow day. For me this writing serves as therapy, solace, and release like a diary. Maybe evolved souls actually keep diaries of observations, notes, or better yet fiction. Most people write about personal thoughts and feelings. Why I subject you to it is anybody’s guess. I can report honestly that outside ravens are circling and crowing in an ebony funnel soaring into ether. Marigolds peoples the landscape and the cypress and pine trees stand regally against a clear sky. Tracing the ridges with your eye is fun and if I could go one place in the world it would be the pinnacle of Tsang Tsang Ma. Like Miss Mackenzie in “A Bouquet of Love” I have astral travelled many times. It’s too bad I’m not a morning person because Bhutan is a morning place in every way. The morning light is immaculately clean almost yellow, crystal like the beginning of the world. In the Himalaya the sun burns hot but often is hidden behind cloud or mountain. When it spotlights a person it catches them off guard.
The Bhutanese are brown in complexion like Native Americans although some could pass for Mexican, South American or East Asian with a Mongolian countenance. Others look Tibetan and of course there are many Nepali’s. Some of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen are Nepali with their Arian eyes or Greek. There’s a remnant of European lineage with stately eye brows, strong cheekbones, jutting jaws and a mocha complexion. Definitively slender noses often heart shaped faces compared to the moon shaped Bhutanese face. Nepali women possess haunting eyes and striking features and like the men have a different deportment and manner. Baghi Sir and Cricket are Nepali. All citizens are living harmoniously under the Dragon Banner of the Wangchuk Dynasty. Nowhere on earth does “culture” define a society more than in Bhutanese. There’s Lobzang out in Rangjoong who is Brokpa tracing his roots to Lhasa. My barber Deepac is Indian but almost looks Nepali too with a classic face. Lhasa is directly North of Bumthang closer to Jakar than Kathmandu.
A knock at my door and Pema Lhamo and Sharub outside they want to borrow my portable speaker which they call a sound box. It’s very rare for a girl to come to my house since they are forbidden to come near the boy’s hostel. Pema Lhamo and Sharub are sweet kids. Pema Lhamo projects happiness and good energy but she has confided through her writing that she has a streak of sorrow. Sharub was the girl who flipped out when I scolded her and cried for three hours. She is a taller and thicker girl looking like a class 10 student but is very sensitive. Pema bowed with an obsequiously genuine simper and said “Sir you’re like a God.” I replied, “Oh stop that Pema” I know they like me but that’s the biggest hyperbole in this jumbled story. Hyperbole means deliberate exaggeration for literary effect, fortunately it’s a quality built into the oral tradition of Sharchop. If I could translate all the things said about me in Sharchop and transcribe them for you, well that would be the real story. My reputation holds true but I’m not spotless as no one can be. As foreigners (Phelincpa’s) in Bhutan we are put under a microscope, so it’s best to keep a thick skin and sense of humor, Truculence won’t curry favor in the Kingdom. The Bhutanese do have a way of respecting our differences and I feel quite comfortable here. As an outsider I don’t have to conform to the cultural standards or mandatory religious activity. I admire it all but as an observer looking into a great mystery. Life also has purpose, potential for fulfillment, a sense of adventure, and as Scott pointed out, “It’s boring at home” Scott is from Utah but that isn’t his reasoning. He likes the sense of anonymity and challenge. Scott is a boisterous and animated larger than life man with a rocking gait. He’s a gregarious loner who walks the National Highway between Yadi and The Monkey Shoulder. A widowed pharmacist who raised children owns a house but chooses to teach and travel instead of retire. He’s extremely dedicated to his craft putting in extra hours to teach Science to upper grades. Whenever I have a medical situation I call Dr. Scott. Scott served two year in Yadi, went to China for a year, than came back to Yadi. Ian and Vicky also came back and now are headed for the Capital along with Jonathon. Then there’s Miss Rebecca. Best stay still or else I’d have to come back too.
Trusty Nima Gyeltson dropped by to check on me after hearing about my boil. The worst face of all was Poop in class eight she looked on me with whore like seeing an uncle with an ax stuck in his head. By my estimation it’s the size of half a golf ball. My other favorite reaction was Dorji Wangmo B a class clown and obstinate joker. She burst out laughing at me than told me grinning to wash it frequently with warm water. She might still be laughing on her walk down the channel westward toward Shali with Tashi Yangzom and Sonam Choden. For all of us afternoon light is pretty swell, a molten honey smothering the valley and illuminating the billowing clouds that spangle on the fringes. A nice place to be a raven!
Tim on Duty, Sweet Thursday, Last Fair Deal
Today was my turn in the rotation for Teacher on Duty. As usual Pema Chedup knocked on my door at 6:15 A.M to remind me that I was TOD. I had forgotten once long ago and now Pema always raps upon my door when it’s my turn because that’s the kind of boy he is. I grumbled out of bed groping for the handheld mirror to examine my boil. I looked hideous but it’s slowly coming to a NASTY head and hurts less. I went to school with an attitude of acceptance but did pop on my shades. The students strolled in late since they had to change from their predawn aerobics (Military School) and many startled faces received me. Sangay in class 7 topped the cake as she just broke down in shock and awkward laughter at my appearance, making funny gasping sounds and darting her eyes around the room. As always there were some tongue wagers. I told the students frankly that I felt shy about my appearance and felt the best strategy was to invite attention to the boil instead of withdraw. Funny, I never felt that way about my shaky eyes. I made my rounds and a fantastic sunrise illuminated the student’s faces through dust window panes illuminating the boys as Cherubs and girls as angels. At evening study a rotund Burmese moon bathed in the last rays of sun sat precisely on the saddleback in Tawang before starting its climb, an hour later luminescent moonbeams flooded the valley in ethereal silvery gold light, transforming the world. In between the rising of those celestial bodies was a sweet Thursday. The best day in Bhutan is when your community picks you up and raises you to exultation. It was a casual day in the classroom with a lot of levity to relieve the tension of approaching exams. Thursday November 6 was an immaculate day with stunning views a veritable 360 degree panorama. T.O.D days allow me to reunite with students I rarely see and some who are ranging out of my orbit already. My first batch of cherished students is passing out (graduating) this year and either heading to Bayling or back to the farm. Students like Sangay Tobgay who tried my patience but also is like a son to me, or Pema Yangdon who has blossomed into a radiant young woman. There are many more I could mention some of the finest humans I’ve known and as it happens I got to be their teacher. I am close to many students but those original class 8 kids are extremely special even if we’ve lost touch over the years. Nawang Choden developed into a school leader and her best friend Sither Zangmo went more until a shell but also is great in her own right. Chogi Gyelston still has that winning smile and eyes of slumber. Both Dechen Choden and Sangay Tobgay have lived here 11 years, the irreplaceable years of innocence. They’re experiences are vastly different than USA students but my finger is on the pulse of Bhutanese youth not American. Since they exist in a bountiful natural world, since their culture is intact, since they all work the land this molds them into a platinum breed. They still come from broken homes occasionally and illness and death are real to them, yet they possess a natural grace that is admirable. It’s because of them that this experience will be the benchmark of my life. Teaching is hard work but loving your pupils is the reward. My relationships broke through the second year but some I met the first year made huge impacts and now are gone. Students like Namkith Lepcha or the six foot tall Sonam who vanished. Living in Bhutan allows an individual to embrace and be embraced (figuratively the Bhutanese aren’t huggy folk) by a community and be widely known across the nation. It’s far out man!
It’s past eleven and a seasonable night after a few weeks of nippy ones. It’s not much colder than when we munched French fries and tried to get Oliver to play. Making garlic fries and wolfing them down with mom and Aunt Barb is crisped into my memory. Phew what a day MIRACULOUS so many faces that have become a part of me. Sometimes in a trying time one can step back and glean the glory that envelops them. As for my boil you can kind of roll around the sack of bacteria about the dimensions of a silver dollar. Reading East of Eden by Steinbeck heavy shit man, I need to make a pilgrimage to Salinas someday. He’s good at exploring the universal inky depths of emotions and sub- emotions. As I get older I start to see myself in others much more perhaps a result of travel and living abroad. I used to absolutely define the world against myself as its center. I still do the only difference is I have an inkling of awareness. Except there were times when I felt the jet stream of the universe more intensely and things weren’t as muddled perhaps because I was in love and that’s a powerful force. It’s quirky being out of love which isn’t the case entirely. I love the world indeed but I wander it alone which also isn’t true. Today was full of magical encounters. Nima Gyeltson came by to look at photos and Butterfly landed for a spell. I went to Karlos and Sonam’s shop to cheat for a Coke. I talked to mom and Becky briefly on the phone and got a text from Pema Zangmo. A teacher in Bhutan can get lonely so it helps to make a few friends. I hit the jackpot meeting a kindred spirit in Becky and luckily have three friends in the village Karlos, Sonam, and Butterfly. I get along well with everyone but have friends I can depend on. The BCF contingent Jon, Scott, Ian and Vicky- Christ I know more people now than I ever have or ever will. So that’s a groovy counterbalance to the loneliness thing. Yes the aforementioned students and an endless mountain paradise to explore round out the wheel. When you take it all around it’s a pretty fair deal.
I don’t tell you much about my house, which I love wholeheartedly. The water situation has improved sevenfold and these days its flowing most of the time! I would have a hard time returning to those first two years of constant shortages. I’m grateful for every drop yo! Your live on Tiger (keep cool my babies) next to me the soothing glow of my jerry rigged Chinese heater. Behind me something scuttles and Jerry sings sweetly. The place has high ceilings, an occasional rat, and tie-dye tapestry, framed picture of the Guru, Four Friends, and graffiti on the wall (Only my mantras, baby!) There are a few plastic buckets on the cement floor (buckets are sacred) in a side room my very own “Two feeter no seater” as Aunt Barb would say. You already know about the view from the kitchen scrambling eggs. It’s nice to be making eggs (chronically unavailable) with sparrows indifferently pecking about your floor while the sun shines on snowy peaks along the Tibetan border. I forgot to tell y’all why buckets are the bomb diggity. You store water in them, take baths from them, wash clothes, and dishes in them. Then you gotta wash the damn buckets themselves. There was a girl in Korea who had the same birthday as me but eight years younger. She was a voluptuous Kentucky Philly with giant fake tits. I mean HUGE X rated Knockers! I might have come up with the surreptitious nickname “Miss Big Buckets” sharing it with my friend and senior Andre. Guys can be silly especially far from their homeland and Andre was spending nights with her even though she had a beau stateside and the twenty year age gap, it’s the old story. Someone had mentioned the tiger was tamer these days so I thought I’d spice her up a bit. SMOKING HOT EMADATSI as Scotty would say. I got that moniker from a Carla Tortelli line if you’re keeping score.
Close to 1 AM and a few boys are stirring outside on the hostel balcony. My neighbors are sleeping as they typify a GNH couple. They get approximately eight hours of sleep every night lights out at ten and up by six. I’m inconsistence on bedding protocol. It simply depends. Jimp’s and Lopen Kinzang never quarrel either. Karlos and Sonam are more familiar to me and had some doozies. I always felt an honored guest at their fights (RINGSIDE) and only had to break up a few scuffles. Bhutanese can be remarkably passionate about life whether it’s archery, weaving, prayer, gossiping, or drinking Ara. Christ, look at what they wear to work and school, Yella! The fifteenth of the Bhutanese calendar (they have two calendars Jesus’ and the Dragons) is an auspicious day they lit 108 butter lamps and served ema datsi. The moon seemed most auspicious of all pointed out by none other than Moon Tshomo the Monpa student who had two mooned hemispheres reflected in her spectacles. Like I told the kid’s the hounds would be howling tonight. Just got a precise craving for pink salmon, drawn herb butter, and cream spinach, cracked crab or Lobster would be fine too.
Good Night and have Goofy Dreams…
It’s a good Day for a Picnic
In my class 7 Jigme Sonam the boy who fell off the boy’s toilet roof returned today. I am very concerned because his eyes are rolled up in his head and his friends say he can’t remember anything. I informed his buddies to take care of him and asked Principal Sir to look up on him. I hope he hasn’t suffered permanent brain damage. Later that day I found his two friends Karma Wangchuk and Chongola out of place wandering the ridge bunking from campus. I gently reminded them they had evening study in fifteen minutes and had better make haste.
Saturday was our school picnic. I got hell from the Indians for oversleeping remiss in my duties for setting up. I was tired when I awoke but it was a glorious day with tumbling blue skies streaked by feathered cirrus. At ten O’clock the dancing started one performance from each home class. In three days they will do the same dances again for the same audience to celebrate the Fourth King’s 60th birthday. My class seven did a good job. I moved my chair out in the sun and was served a hunk of bread and tea and later a glass of Coco Cola by students. In the glass tiny bubbles skipped across the dark fluid and hissed effervescently. Pema Yangdon was wearing two banana leaves on her head as a hat, she looked like Eve. Dawa C. was serving the VIP’s in the tent acting obsequious and mannered but I know her other sides and it seemed funny. The night before in the dingy school kitchen Pema Yangdon stood near me in her pressed school uniform, demure a black and red kira with purple plaid ankle length skirt and clogs. While I ate she looked directly into my eyes unabashed. Somewhere in the last year she had become a woman (17 years) and a leader of her peers. She is a well built girl with solid head on solid shoulders. Her skin has olive undertones and her hair brushed back hangs only to her broad shoulders, black but with autumn highlights. Pema exudes dignity, power, and wholesomeness. She is real. She wanted the photo of her and my mom. I told her I didn’t have it and would have my mom or aunty send it along, she stomped a foot and said, “Oh sir!” and then “Good night Sir.” releasing a reserved smile as she walked away a twist of hair askew at 3 O’clock. I was left breathless as the moonlight wishing she was my daughter. Back at the picnic I overate and still feel uncomfortably full ten hours later. I was like a prisoner of war released into a Vegas buffet. I couldn’t help it and the rich chunks of meat made me drunk from their juices. After lunch I helped put away the chairs then shot the shit with the Indians who had forgiven me outwardly anyway. I wanted to go sleep it off but Pema Chedup came over. He is also a Kidu student and brother to the adorable Pema Yangzom of class 7, his father ran away when he was three and he is angry saying he never wants to meet him. They are both tooth achingly sweet so for that reason I hung out with Pema Chedup for the afternoon. We went to the village where I bought some vouchers for my phone and then we came back and looked at photos. I asked if he would show me the shortcut to Kiney and he did. The trail leads down past my favorite rock through a lovely stand of pine into a part of Tsenkharla I never saw! Right below my hovel is a cluster of homes straight out of Grimes. I half expected to see Hansel or Frodo, traditional whitewashed homes with wood carved windows raised off the ground. Stone stairs twisting through plots of onion and uncut maize past a pig stall where a pig the size of a cow wallowed and snorted in retort to my snort. All the wonderful fragrances of a farm filled my soul, animal lather, manure and fresh air. The houses all had red geraniums in homemade pots made from halved plastic jugs or spare tires. Large tufts of bamboo sprang into the sky with a shimmering greenness and the hillside village had an unobstructed view down the gulf of the valley into Tawang. At the bottom of the village stands a lovely white Chorten. When I say the valley I should paint a picture. The mountains on both sides reach down touching the riverbed before expanding upward into a wide panorama. The open air between the opposing escarpments is the valley which stretches near Tawang town to the east and Kanglung and the college to the west. It might be a hundred miles but like time distances are deceiving in the Himalaya. The flat land on the banks of the Dangme Chu are narrow strips, often times the cliffs lick the rapids themselves. After I returned with Pema I lumbered to my cot and slept until 10 P.M and now at midnight I’m still full and wide awake. My sleeping has been disrupted this week and this year I have not slept well comparatively. My itching kept me up many summer nights but this week it was my addiction to “East of Eden” a heavy handed prose as achingly despairing as life itself. I talked to my dad and was happy to here he was reuniting with his brother flying him out West, as anyone who has a bro plays out the Cain and Abel theme recognizing themselves in their brother while endlessly competing with him. I’m trying to take my place in this world, right here on top of this mountain in the village now known as Tsenkharla and once called Rangthangwoong. A picnic in Bhutan has more order than an American potluck with the kids sitting on the ground in neat rows boys and girls separately eating with their hands. They seem to finish in unison peeling off to promptly wash their plates. I couldn’t be more different than the Bhutanese and that’s why I fit nicely here. A community is a living entity of many parts all keys to the whole. There is no policeman to keep order here. I never did see Frodo but I did see Dawa Dema 8B who sports a breakfast club style haircut. Her and Samten Tshomo regarded Pema Chedup and I on the trail, they were headed the other way to Nombaling. Pup Dawa Dema was back at the shop sleeping off her own meat hangover.
On a Friday night constitutional a baying orange moon arose dramatically over the shoulder of Shampula exaggerated by a thin layer of smoke that clung low in the valley. A Broomsha or pumpkin harvest moon. Yesterday I bought a flannel coat from Sonam Choden since it was too small for Karlos because his paunch. The consensus in the village is that I overpaid but it’s a nice garment. The boil recedes to a giant zit, snot fills my nose, and I feel decadent and salty from the beef. Kimock plays softly, 1:38 A.M is his domain (remember, a raving Raby by the picnic tables saying she would love me forever that was thirteen years ago- somnambulist half dreaming in the big red barn. Eight years ago ravishing the fake flower on the blue barn) How many loves did I suffer until I reached the doorstep of Bhutan. Oh how grand it is in the far -east I wish y’all could see it. November in Bhutan duller green in places but also rapidly decaying. In the grove lushness while the eastern mountains tan as they drop to the arid floor. Honeysuckle has its day in the pine forest, yummy! On campus are a dozen or more regal cypresses towering more than a hundred feet with interlacing limbs. They line the pathway to the assembly ground and are a treasure. I like to touch their strong bark and always pull wrappers out of their knots. They seem cousins to redwoods, somehow related. The needles are delicate and cascading evergreen with brown hues in winter. They were the star of the picnic shading the kids but eventually the sun glared and students put paper over their faces ONLY Pema Yangdon thought of the banana leaf. Little ones ran about since T.M.S.S starts at preschool. There has been a lot of improvement around the main infrastructure of the school lately, a tiled courtyard, cement platforms (partly funded by my BCF grant) statues of The Guru and God of Wisdom (They offer potato chips to The Guru) gardens, etcetera. My favorite buildings are the original single story longhouses from Catherine’s era. It was Francois who pointed out Catherine’s dwelling near the front gate of the school.
1:50 A.M the drone of a lone cricket in the fading grass suddenly drowned out by my refrigerator kicking on. What purpose does the cricket play in the whole? How are we related? My neighbor has replaced the fluorescent light on the stoop that he leaves on as Karlos once had. I liked it better dark so I could step out and evaluate the stars. As Warden he has more sway in our adjoining housing matters and a larger multi room unit, we split the electricity bill but my housing is free. I’m lucky. My view to eternity is only impeded by electrical wires. I’ll never know what’s beyond that eastern saddleback as I’ll never know true love again. Dogs are viciously brawling outside my door and I recognize many of them, it’s a veritable K-9 melee. Hasn’t been a drop of rain in weeks, the dry season has arrived. Winter is coming.
Bey Yul & Culture Fest
Bey Yul means hidden lands a sort of Mountain Avalon or obscured realm hidden in Bhutan. Shangri La. These are located in places like Laya and Lhuntse and Nankhar. Parallel to Shakshing on a tangent ridge is the village where the Delog lives and on the point of that ridge the Lama’s house and the site of the Chorten (foundation only) of the Sky Dakini’s. The trail turns into a secret cirque a large piece of wilderness between Bromla and Shampula. Nankhar sits at approximately 7,000 feet and the little horns beyond Shampula are approximately 10,000 feet. There’s a MEME looking hump nestled in the cirque itself. The ridgelines between Bromla and Shampula are uninhabited and no trail is visible through thick oak and pine forests. On a glistening Sunday after entertaining Tandin Wangdi (Police) and Pema Chedup in the morning I headed up to my own Bey Yul. Past the government temple with auspicious cypress trees are beautiful pastures that tumble into the hidden land. On the scarps of Shampula a village digs into the craggy slope etching out a few plots now fallow. I found a ruined wall and sat in the grass listening to the wind whistling along the high peaks. The hot November sun burrowed into my back and with nothing else to do I gazed at the last parcel in my sector of East Bhutan with everything on the other side of Shampula in a different country. Somewhere nestled in the Bey Yul is Omba where Yeshi serenaded the Guru. At the end of the pasture is a peculiar rhododendron grove with towering specimens sporting shimmering leaves, no flowers. Star pointed ferns spread their fronds on the sunlight dappled floor among clover and black mud. The trail peters out and I retrace my steps back into the world. I stroll past houses with red chillies drying on the tin roofs. Nankhar is a traditional village inaccessible by road about thirty minutes walk from the Shakshing dirt track. It has electricity with flimsy poles and wires juicing the village. It’s a halcyon hallucination an idyllic setting and quintessential Himalayan village with scant trails teetering over fallow fields. Wild grasses with tiny purple flowers entwine along the sinuous footpath. Palisades made of sticks line pathways creeping between clusters of farmhouses. Concrete platforms with Spigots provide water for common use. You gotta see it to believe it folks. I’m still bound up by the picnic here’s a first constipated in the Kingdom. A seasonal evening as the heat of the day evaporates off the giant stones littering the mountains. It should be noted that within that strange otherworld the grass was still a muted green. Between the worlds massive oaks shelter peeping children and a grown woman runs away at my sight taking refuge in her mud walled dwelling. Wonderful aromas swirl in the autumn breezes and near the Delog’s house a row of white prayer flags with a crucified scarecrow. A raven pierces the sky darting westward performing aeronautic acrobatics. I remember the hawk soaring over my mother on the way to Shakshing Goempa. Karlos and Aunt Barb were ahead of us and Sonam Yuden and her family was the caboose.
Outside the moon is waning as violet stars flicker with ancient light.
I can neither comprehend nor explain how important culture is in Bhutan. Culture permeates everywhere and today was the 60th birthday of the Fourth King. The Wangchuk dynasty emerged in Bhutan around 1900 and the 4th King ruled from appoxamately1972-2008 when he abdicated to his son. The Fourth King is beloved and revered a king among kings. His four wives are sisters and all are involved in helping Bhutan. In 2004 he personally led troops that drove out Assamese separatist from the jungles of Manas. From his ubiquitous portraits he looks like a no nonsense man. As my VP said to me today, “Being king is no joke” He asked if I would want to be king and I answered, “No!” Being a teacher is enough responsibility. The celebration began at 8:30 taking place on the football ground which has recently been leveled but has no grass. They also carved terraces into the embankment where the canvas VIP tent stood with pine needles strewn on the earthen floor. The old tent has purple dragons painted on its canopy. Out on the ground the students were divided in rows with their leaders holding banners that read, “Long Live Our 4th King” A mist enveloped the revelers but then cleared unfurling a streaming brocade of clouds and mountains. Behind the parade the mountains near Bartsham and Trashigang unfolded while students marched to a drum and traditional zither type instrument. The students marched lockstep swinging their arms in rhythm (and boy did this day have holy rhythm) the parade was followed by speeches including Karma Loday’s oratory. After the colorful procession were 29 programs ranging from primary students obstacle courses and sack races, to traditional Bedra dances and quasi hip Rigsar etcetera. Shamefully I balked at the communal dancing having painful memories of my previous attempts feeling the heat of many eyes on me as I misstep. I watched from the sidelines as the dancers hundreds coiled into two circles in moving spirals. Finally it was lunchtime at 2 P.M. I felt off today and that usually means I will attract unwanted attention. If my mood ebbs people want to know what’s wrong. I played it off okay and for the most part enjoyed the day. I was tired though and at 4 o’clock Pema Lhamo came to my door and invited me to the Scout Bon Fire. Holy Christ another program! You see even a campfire is a program in Bhutan with electric (microphone and LOUD music) POMP. Well the real pomp was in the daylight but the intimate nightcap still followed a procedure and Principal’s table still had fake flowers. Counselors scout troop has about 40 members and some familiar faces, Pema Lhamo, Dorji Wangchuk, Guru Wangmo, Singye Wangmo, Phuntsho Wangmo, and Kesang Nima to name a few. They wear orange scarves adorning their gho and kira and some even sported green sashes. The troop is the Bhutanese cousins to Boy and Girl Scouts back home but is coed. More dancing both communal and in groups with the deceptively simple steps and waving hands. It’s pretty cool everyone can dance except for me. Too many nights at the rock n roll circus ruined my coordination. Eventually the teachers got in on the cultural bonanza and I sang Dark Hollow into a microphone sitting near the campfire. At the end of each program a student said, “Go, scout clap” and they did a rhythmic clap. Funny! Finally as the fire was tamped shooting sparks into the black sky, the guest’s a dozen teachers and administrators formally saluted and shook hands with each scout. I wish I had the energy to recall in detail the amazing depth of such a rich day but all I can do is unbutton my psychic belt and exhale.
Yesterday was a baby shower and I was called by both Butterfly and Principal Sir while I was descending from the woods. I am trying to train for my trek and need some miles under my belt. As I explained to Principal Sir no one had informed me about the baby shower and I’d be there shortly. He directed me to stop by Pema’s house to see the baby before joining the group in the conference hall (a charmingly dilapidated building) At dinner he asked if I carried a flashlight referring to the fall as “my mishap” I assured him that I carry a flashlight always. It was a good meal with two pieces of boneless and fatless pork, two modest chunks and two scoops of emadatsi. I am hungry these days with no vegetables for sale. At the bonfire Karma Loday looked ancient, a tribal dancing Mongoloid with movements as graceful as a black necked crane illuminated by firelight.
Everywhere are orange marigolds stuffed into niches of Mani walls or left on Chorten sills. They’re curled into the fingers of girls who fling them at boys and laugh. They are bold as death and darn near as pretty. Red Rhododendron’s own the spring, Roses are summers bud, but autumn worships the marigold. Did I see them in another life? I saw them in my father’s hand planting them in wooden boxes his tan hands removing them from plastic cartons that cracked oozing black soil. My father who continues to teach me lessons on how to live. Here and now on campus thousands of marigolds burning like dying galaxies, screaming IMPERMENANCE! Ouchy! Like all of us they blossom and go away.
Autumn trundles along and today was a holiday and I barely managed to get out. Smoke choked the eastern half of the valley the world filtered through hazy sunlight. I cleaned my house and organized my teaching materials. Exams start tomorrow and up at dinner students prodded me for answers. Pema Yangzom tried to be cute asking me for the topics. I told her that would be cheating and unfair to the other students and asked if she still wanted to know. She said yes but of course I wouldn’t tell. I have a month left on campus before making my way westward. Upcoming exam duty, center marking and preparation of grades will keep me occupied. It’s a lonely time as the routine is broken and the weather turns cold. I get occasional calls or texts from other teachers but I’m isolated, full on immersion. Double dipped in a barrel of Bhutanese sprinkles. So one must have niceties to endure like a spruced up hovel or fresh picked flowers (imaginary ones will do) Nice encounters at the mess scrounging potato curry since I can’t score any vegetables. I desperately need to go to T-Gang for errands but it will be tricky escaping for a day amidst marking.
If the story ended here what a MUNDANE ending it would be…A steady stream of students dropped in for help since their class 8 English 1 Exam is tomorrow. I made four tests for my two grades consisting of English 1 and English 2. The tests cover essay writing, letter writing, grammar, short story, and poetry. The exams must adhere to a specific format and pass moderation from the Counselor. I usually will mark my own papers while lending a hand for Class 9 and 10 corrections. Class ten will take their exams December 1-14. Overall it’s a stressful month for students and teachers, nothing a piping hot pepperoni pizza couldn’t fix. Up at the mess Pema Yangdon greets me with a mellifluous, “Hello sir!” She is in good humor bustling about sweeping the kitchen floor with a Cinderella broom then splashing water from a bucket finishing the job. Her Taegu sleeves are rolled up as she proficiently completes her tasks. Pema Lhamo and her friends huddle by the wood burning stove, the scene has the vibe of summer camp but a few minutes later all are hushed sheepishly taking food under Principal Sir’s supervision in the dingy MP HALL. My boil has shrunk to a bump above the eyelid and considering living almost three years in East Bhutan I feel somewhat fine. I just chased a fat rat out of the house.
Friday, a smoky day just administered class 8 exam and will correct this afternoon. This is a winter day not cold but hazy my precious view of Tawang taken away by the lord, probably people burning fields throughout the valley. The glory days are over folks but my mom and Bubba Ganush got to see em. Beauty is always abundant but nothing like crystal clear mornings with the Matterhorn’s shinning like diamonds. The lack of vegetables also marks the season but water is flowing so life is good. I will really miss my class 8 students who I taught for two years consecutively. There were some real characters in that class like Karma Sonam (The peach thrower) Tashi Gyelston who has grown up before my eyes. Precocious Dawa C Seldon and that’s just a few among 8B. I like teaching grade 7 and 8.
Picture Debacle, My Home is on the Border
I thought it would be nice to print photos for students free of cost. The process took several hours with patient Kesang at Jigme Wangmo printing studio. They also sell washing machines and big televisions. Anyway when I reached home I was mobbed by students who tore the pictures out of my hand. A vortex of about 35 students swarmed me and several photographs were stolen. When the tornado cleared a pile of photographs lay strewn in the grass. That led to disappointed students whose photos got ripped off. It was my fault for being too trusting and not forceful with the offending students who violated me. Many present were not my pupils but ultimately I’m annoyed at myself and the perpetrators. Now I have to try to get to T-Gang and replace the photos. As it happens I had a hell of a time getting to and from the fabled Hill Station due to the roadblock between Chazam and Gom Kora. It’s a nasty dusty scene with precarious drop-offs and games of chicken with Ta Ta’s in the twilight. Not those Ta Ta’s but Indian semis with multicolored lights and “Good luck stenciled to their sides” For all the trouble I got a layover at Gom Kora discovering a dope nearby river spot consisting of smooth terraced rocky ledges stepping down to the Dangme Chu which is dark emerald braided with cream rapids. FLOW FOR SURE! I thought about the bottom of the river and the rocks that cause the backwash, eddies, and rapids swirling through the narrow ravine. This river never stops flowing always keeping whitewater in certain places but the high watermark is in August and now the river runs clean with clear waters.
Trashigang is always flowering and gold grasses sway in afternoon light. The new prayer wheel by the hotel is complete dedicated to the Fourth King. Eucalyptus trees rustle in the secluded wooded haven of Trahigang as multicolored rectangular buildings cluster around the taxi stand. The relaxing drivers laugh when they see me and no what’s coming. The town goes about at its leisurely pace with Brokpa men in Red woolen tunics walking about in gumboots chewing doma. That scrappy husky dog still sits on the bakery steps three years later while the ancient Dzong gets a makeover. After the pictures I got the blues and it seems Bhutan (or the human mind) can be a desolate place at times. So it is that Miss Rebecca is headed to Bumthang and a 59 year old Australian woman to Kiney? Could it be another phelincpa placed between me and Tawang, and what of my best friend so far away? It’s getting cold now and I’m feeling listless, WTDL? It was a beautiful autumn day at Tsenkharla with pastel colors and towering clouds casting long shadows across the empty valley now free and clear. Center marking is taking place in the staff room. Teachers hum mantras, gossip, and get down to the business of marking piles of exams. I wonder if the gentleman’s exposed knees get cold, the space between curtain of the gho and the knee sock. Groups will serve tea and snacks and everyone assumes correctly that I’m hungry. I threw a hissy fit with counselor today in the staff room an outbreak I haven’t displayed since the first year. The Bhutanese occasionally quarrel but don’t often hold grudges. Thankfully everyone knows I’m temperamental as Phelincpa’s often are. Every ones nerves are frayed a bit by now but most handle it better in an Oriental rooted grace. Nestled in culture and purpose and steeped in community assists. I am a lone stag finding my way through a strange forest, oh my I might be lost!
Two weeks later and the boil is now an indiscriminant bump on my head that doesn’t seem to be getting smaller. Overall I’m not a picture of health but my stomach has improved this year. The house is clean but I admit my spirits need dusting. Sanga means Buddhist community and my Sanga for all its worth continues to teach me. In the end were left with our Sanga to muddle through. I’m grateful that my community allows me to find my way. This afternoon I admired how the clouds lightly touch the mountaintops and drift away. I must find a father in Principal, a brother in Karlos, a sister in Tashi Yangzom, and many sons and daughters amongst the students. I get to make a life here.
The next day I gave Dawa Dema and Yeshi Dema their pictures and they were gleeful and very appreciative. It rained at dawn and the valley was swimming in clouds ala monsoon. Very curious November but cold for sure, clouds and rain are never far away in Bhutan. A helicopter buzzes overhead drowning out the cry of a raven. Very rare since no commercial aircraft flies overhead, it’s an Indian chopper surveying the Indo Tibetan border and taking in East Bhutan all easily from its aerial view. The three countries converge outside my door. The flocks of ravens have dispersed but they hang around all year. Those roses near the assembly ground cling to life and marigolds turn crispy brown and flaring orange. Last stands of maize fade to gold standing alone among fallow fields. The medicinal herbs that Bhutan was named (The land of medicinal herbs) wilt and go to seed. Ferns turn tawny and oaks shed leaves that litter the hillsides. Decay activated in November. Holy rhythms of the earth the valley playing out its own drama. When I heard the rain pattering I tucked into by sleeping bag and dreamt of snow in the high country that rims the valley, it descended upon Tsenkharla and we had ourselves a snow day. But when I awoke it was foggy.
By afternoon it was partly cloudy with brass light seeping through silver puffy clouds. I poked around above Shakshing on some muted green terraces overlooking Tawang and the Dangme Chu. The mountains ever imposing bold, towering ten thousand feet from the river bed into the clouds. Multilayered ranges forming the Inner Himalayas of the East. On the grove floor giant leaves crunch under foot and returning home stars prick the sky. This was followed by another rainy night with cold swirling clouds like frozen waves breaking over monoliths. The scale of the landscape is magnificent both micro and macro universes constantly evolving cyclically.
Like it or not center marking is a community gathering. This often means unwanted attention (although I might crave it on subconscious frequencies) I made peace with Counselor today and since it was my paper I brought snacks. Vice Principal sir laughed and said I finally understood the etiquette but he didn’t use that word. Then he remarked that my snacks were made for children. Box juice, Fish ramen packets, chewing gum, and potato chips (all made in India) I retorted that I wasn’t savvy enough to make momo’s and tea for a large group. Many others made comments on my choice of snacks but ate them all the same. Butterfly spoke up saying that I always say “I don’t know” and “Nobody informed me” Principal got a laugh out of that one and maybe I have said these phrases often in Bhutan. All good natured ribbing I’m sure and fortunately I am fond of my community and only hope they feel the same. In three weeks I will be on the road and in the meantime working and saying farewell to many beloved students who will fade out of my radar some forever, running in and out of the fabric of my life a wondrous needlepoint tapestry. For the record I made the unseen essay on the class seven exams way too difficult and the scores were low. Puddles around campus reflecting rippled mountains hiding beneath a curtain of spindrift periodically penetrated by a jagged peak with Shampula completely blotto. My fur lined flannel turned out a smart buy indeed with my wool cap to keep my noggin toasty since one looses 80% of their heat through their dome. Pockets of green remain lining the ridges and the western valley still retains greenness rugged slopes and pastures falling three thousand feet to the Kulong Chu, a wilderness intact and in places pristine where the wild animals rule. The heaviest population centers surrounding Trashigang with villages hugging the cliffs in every direction. New farm roads zig- zag up improbably vertical faces. The hallmark of the East is farmhouses hanging precariously over thousand foot emerald abysses. Tsenkharla is endowed with a view only rivaled by Bartsham. Except Tsenkharla is my place and this is my valley and Bartsham is that other facet of this Eastern piece. Tawang, Trashiyangtse, Trashigang, Khaling, Merak and Sakteng all portions of this eastern mandala. Mongar, Lhuntse, and South Eastern Tibet round it out, but it goes on forever westward to Everest and Pakistan or East to Itanegar and Burma beyond. I live in the hills of a great range impervious to the claims of Bhutan, India or China- snowcapped and uninhabited, except by blue sheep and snow leopards. Wildcats prowl the upper forests of Bromla and the highlands between Tawang and Trashiyangtse where the Monpa roam. Blah Blah Blah, Those highland moors are the lowlands of the greater Himalaya range, many layers ascending from the Indian plains to the top of our planet. Geography gives me a sense of place and my Sanga gives me a purpose. Poinsettias bloom and I think of my mom who loves them and purchases little baskets with gold tinsel to display around her house at Christmas. Currently rain gently falls with no crops to receive it. A requiem for roses that hope to cling to the vine another day and I wonder how the pink one near the assembly ground is faring. It’s nice to be human and dry and not a poor drenched tiger, a solitary cat hardened by hunger and the elements paying the price for kingship.
Beyond the Limit
It’s hard to be reflective on this journey for instance it’s late in the evening and I haven’t even conquered dinner yet. Frankly I don’t want to conquer the dishes first. Thank god for water this year! On my wall is written Tim Gets Things Done! I copped it from a movie clip of the Furthur bus where a sign near the steering wheel read, “Neil Gets Things Done” And from my side I do, for example marking moves steadily along thanks to assigned attendance between certain hours the year wheels towards completion. I think Neil would approve and marvel that I’ve stayed in one place so long. Yet I’m sure I’m living out one of his gazillion fantasy paradigms, his metaphorical road to the Southern tip of South America. How’s the eastern edge of Bhutan old boy? It’s been a challenging year for me testing me to the limit. One must expect that limit to expand exponentially. Work towards good karma every day and try to stay healthy I guess. Mr. Tim sometimes forgets to have fun but often he catches himself and remembers he appreciates his community and admires his students and wants to help them. I’m thankful for mom and Aunt Barb’s visit as a highlight and impetus for me to continue. I confess that I feel a little stripped down and lonesome but I guess that’s to be expected. More gentle ribbing around the center marking table. One issue for me is noise distracts me easily and between prayer anthems blaring on cell phones and chatter it isn’t a peaceful environ. I am resigned to it and check the largest part of my own exams. Class six I will probably check solo. Today was my class eight exam and they were so cute begging me to reveal the questions before the bell. I will miss that class a landmark it was my first class I taught for two years consecutively with the same roster. Moreover they were good kids although I went through some rough patches with 8B. I observed that I taught the story effectively though some still bombed. Others nailed it but as usual I kept the scores low. A 40/100 in Bhutan is passing and a 70/100 in English is a high mark. Another misty night and cold as winter is upon us although it will steadily get colder into February. Tsenkharla is mild for Bhutanese climate colder than Trashigang and warmer than Bumthang.
It was a classic Sunday walking to Shakshing in the footprints of mom and Bubba Ganush. I basked in Himalayan sunshine all day hopping up the trail from glade to rock to pasture visiting spots I love all with different views. The Shakshing romp affords scenes towards Yangtse, and the sweeping easterly from Tawang to T-Gang. Today haze truncated the view as gilded filtered light flooded my beloved valley. Cows still ate what was left green and a fetching villager was cutting pine boughs which made her all the more alluring. While sitting in meditation leaves fell on my head. Meanwhile back in the City or Oakland California to be precise Tyler, Beth and company were getting down to STS9. This was the makeup show for the cancelled performance in January “Fuck You Murph!” but maybe Murph is the tragic victim, either way we’re both missing the show tonight y’all. Hopefully everyone’s locked in with Morgan groping at angels, Beth with a coy smile forgetting the kids at home, and Ty scanning the cavernous room mid jam for a friend at the (I gotta Fox!) From my side I went roaming finding beauty in the vast vistas sprawling from my radial third eye. The coils of sound unleashed from Hunter’s guitar tickling my feet in the dust as imperceptible vibrations. The forest alive with activity ravens calling from cypress branches, little kids shouting “Mr. Tim where are you!” At home yet another batch of K WA with the last potato, onion, garlic and masala spice. It was flavorful but it’s a sparse diet. Tea and biscuits scrounging veggies can’t even scare up an egg or a decent piece of chocolate let alone a top notch spicy tuna hand roll. Mine is a free and uncluttered life with only the tangles of my mind to contend with. How wonderfully human is that struggle and that is how I am connected to you, and how we are connected to Buddha.
An image of Guru Wangmo in fur hood looking like an Eskimo behind barbed wire asking if I was going to meet Rinchen Wangmo. The mellifluous salutations of the girls all sitting on the ledge with books spread before them, fresh laundry snaps in the breeze giving off a soapy aroma mixed with pine. The girls get the Yangtse view of the Kulong Chu and the boys view is to the east. I awake to the boys with the noise shouting Dzonkha songs to the rising sun. At 6:30 they go to morning study like gho clad soldiers leaving birdsong and cow bells to ease me into day.
When I open the door I see eternity.
We are deep into examinations now. The boarders are departing tomorrow for winter break save class ten. My class six takes their board exam on Saturday which I will mark myself. School officially closes December 19th but I have to leave on the 13th to sort out my Visa renewal. I made emadatsi for lunch since I have run out of potatoes. I’m pretty ravenous these days but feeling okay. There is a bump on my brow that was the boil that hopefully will disperse. It’s been a long challenging year and I feel wiped. My work will be done in a week and after leave is sanctioned by Principal Sir I’m on the road to Thimphu. The days are hazy and cold but always beautiful with green ferns among decaying oak leaves in the forest. It gets dark at 5:30 and light at 6 tipping the scales in nights favor. No veggies for sale publicly and I’m eating raw cheese and biscuits not even bothering to layer the cheese on the cracker. I shove a hunk of cheese in my mouth chew and then add the cracker like a log to the grinder. There you have it bachelor cheese and crackers eaten standing up on my cold cement floor while a rat hides under the cabinet. Its crisp out on the trails and Styrofoam litters the woods near the spook shit shed, they never bother to clean up their INDUSTRIAL size mess before leaving with plastic sheets and foam packing strewn for quarter of a mile. The Gup was there the very same man who borrowed and never returned my tent two years ago. Fall colors pepper the groves with oaks losing leaves rapidly. Since our mountain shelters more oaks than pines when I return in two months they will seem naked. We have a nice mix of oak and two species of pine (blue and chir) one specializing above 7,000 and one below 7,000 in elevation according to Piet. The round ridge above Shakshing arcs above the Delog’s house and slopes down to Kiney and below to tawny paddies along the Dangme Chu. Even when the views recede and the flowers decay the forest always harbors ravens, pines, and magic. Nawang Choden looks like an elf with strong jaw high set cheeks and pointy ears, many Bhutanese look this way some characteristics inherited from Tibetan lineage. Some look like shy swarthy jungle cats and some milky in complexion but they all have on matching outfits. Morning was exam duty sitting in a cold room watching the pupils for three hours. Occasionally I patrol the isles and I get served one hot cup of milk tea and a few biscuits (crackers) tomorrows the last assembly with all students before the manic last push for class ten students. Some I will never see again like Samten Tshomo who is going to Pema Gatshel. Still plenty of work to be done marking class six, and filing grades and paperwork and compiling spreadsheets (the best for last) I’d like to see the Black Naked Cranes out in Bumdeling too. I hope to file this report and beam it to you before I leave on my grand adventure. It’s been a strange trip for “Tiger” this year and I hope some of you are still aboard. Posts have been erratic but I have shared some nice photos which is what the crowd wants. I only hope to convey a fraction of the madness that is my life on the wild eastern frontier. So let me wish you a Happy Christmas and Merry New Year and Happy Hanukah for the Hebrew readers, I hope your Turkey was delightful. It’s not the year of the Tiger for eight more years nor is it the Fire Monkey, I heard some bah about a sheep or something, Yellama!
I will keep writing since I’m still present, today was my last exam duty and the bulk of students departed. I encountered Samten Tshomo, Sangay Dema, and Dechen Wangmo B on my way up the trail they had gone to Shakshing and when I asked for roaming they corrected me, “No sir praying” Pretty cute, young Buddhist girls class six and seven on afterschool pilgrimage. I said goodbye to Samten Tshomo who is like a little sister and continued on my way. Further up the trail was my other bigger sister Kesang or Lamboo (meaning big and tall) Kesang is a lovely teenager with haunting Arabic eyes. She is almost as tall as me and was walking with her lama cousin brother with her suitcase balanced on her head while she played a song from her cell phone. She was dressed in kira bottom and sweatshirt, a half kira. Nice girl that one but I forged ahead into a still and quiet forest with maroon frosted ridges and fallow pastures. Deep in the enchanted woodlands the last buds droop from their stems, gnarled roots grip enormous boulders, tawny ferns dehydrate on thick branches, and huge shriveled leaves fall on my head. I walk through the oak grove that still pulses with twilight birdsong as a slivered moon emerges from the clouds. Down in the paling pastures kids play and I shout a hearty greeting. The landscape is dotted with Chortens and prayer flags and layered with clustered farmhouses descending into the ravine. There is virtually no shoreline on the Kulong Chu in certain places. Like Jamie said were halfway up the mountain.
Not much pageantry for the last school day for everyone but class 6 and 10. Principal Sir made a long speech in Dzonkha probably encouraging good behavior over the break. Oh which reminds me half way to Shakshing at my dream house there is a puja going on with outdoor cooking fire and as one lady offered, “Maize Juice” or Ara. She added as I sauntered off that it was tasty. Clouds hug the high peaks and smoke lays in the nooks and crannies of the mountains. Autumn is happening folks with musky seasonal aromas, of damp rotting mushroom and wood smoke. Did you ever realize if you’re hungry aromas have increased potency? Although it’s not the most idyllic season I love winter in Bhutan. The forests are in repose but never entirely without life. One more week of work ahead the final push of a long year.
Dinner a cup of noodle knock off from India that has been at the bottom of my food box for a long time. Today I ONLY had eight bags of cheese balls that were surprisingly fresh (Yes I see the irony of fighting trash while producing so much of it) Two other nice encounters giving photos to Samten Wangmo a sincere youth who did the lions share in Social Service Club, she has a distinct Mongoloid face. Also Nima Gyeltson dropped in to say goodbye. He also asked for NU 300 to pay a fine for his confiscated cell phone. I begrudgingly oblidged giving a testy lecture and later he returned with the money after he got his phone back free. I told him to buy something nice with the cash and he thanked me, we embraced and he walked on. I gazed out at the eastern mountains evaporating into a blurry silver haze. Inside I polished off “The Call of the Wild” and looked at Dawa Dema differently nipping at my heel.
I find myself homesick for thanksgiving with Turkey dripping in fatty juices and 49ers vs. Seahawks grudge match on the T.V. Guacamole can be purchased a quarter mile away for appetizers, my Aunt Mare squabbling with mom over the volume of the television. One realizes how precious family gatherings are when marooned halfway around the globe, and hungry. Shanghaied in Shangri-La isn’t so bad but one feels the cold grip of isolation by late November. It’s not the calendar but the feeling in the bones that I should be with kin on the very day that my surrogate family has left. Loneliness is a blessing I’ve savored in my life but the ties that bind me still cause suffering. Buddha would commiserate but ruthlessly hand you the knife and wink. Severe the ties that bind and annihilate desire provoking immediate release from Samsara. Isn’t it funny how after Buddha freed his mind he still ambled about in his flesh and bones body for forty odd years preaching the dharma, blissfully detached yet fully engaged. MINDFULNESS! Ego is the realization that you’re distinct from all other living things. That is your identity fully loaded, but what when you discover that EGO is illusionary and that in fact you are the same as all other living things. Icarumba! The house of cards that we build for ourselves scattered like leaves in an autumn gust. If you sit on the rock under the regal pine you can hear the wind of the jet stream, its primal howling eddies circulating over the upper crest ridges.
Just chased that damn rat around the hut and I have no idea where he went, brazen bastard. I have a rat trap but Buddhist sensibilities or laziness precludes me from using it. I wonder where he goes in the daytime. Maybe I should catch him and fry him up. Today is Thursday with no circus in town except maybe there was. From Shakshing I heard a clamor below near Shali that sounded like a kiddy jamboree or pre pubescent puja. There was banging of pots or drums and primal shrieking, the Bhutanese are not immune to fun but enjoy life at their own pace suitable for the environment. A good laugh and doma chew while gathering wood in the forest constitutes a party, a fortuitous encounter with a demonstrative phelincpa makes it all the jollier. People shout at one another over great distances from one village to another. What can I do but soak it all in. I have tried in vain to describe the indescribable beauty of this place when my mom nailed it, “The Mountains of East Bhutan are unsurpassed.” The people that live in them are pretty groovy too.
I enjoyed thanksgiving chicken with Karlos and Sonam (I mostly call him Karma these days) I had a frozen fowl. Sonam made Indian chicken curry and remarked that my mother wouldn’t like it because of the spice. A few others joined us and it made for a nice meal, a Bhutanese thanksgiving. Karlos seemed adamant that I get fed on my mother’s behalf on Thanksgiving. Sonam is ripe in belly and soon to pop with a Christmas baby. On the last day of November the skies open up and snow dusts the saddleback in Tawang.
Epilogue: December Daze
The first day of December was glorious and memorable just like last year. One year ago I visited Chorten Kora with Rebecca and was free from duty and on my way into the world. I didn’t feel as unfettered today since I was marking class six board exams which was difficult following the board’s specific rubric. I sat alone in the staff room with Dawa Dema curled up in a plastic chair beside me. Outside was resplendent and I was grateful to be on the trail between Zangtopelri and Shakshing. When little Dorji leaves school on his way to Shakshing he first pitches up steeply to Tsangma’s ruin, the mani wall and gateway, and then another steep knoll to Zangtopelri. Then he enjoys a wonderful flat portion of trail on the ridgeline through blue tinted pines and wispy cypress packed tight on either side of a sumptuous glade. There are only a few farmhouses on this stretch including the one I pass each day with giant bamboo stand and white rummaging goat. The hermitage is also in this sector along with my repossessed dream house with views of both rivers in opposing valleys. It was clear and I was up at 5 watching silver light illuminate purple silhouetted ridges at the Eastern end of the valley and the looming Matterhorn peaks all sharply defined and close enough to lick. The eye tries to untangle where one mountain separates from another as ridges weave the massifs together. The outer edges of the panorama leaned in eavesdropping on the whispering dawn as yellow light burst over Tsang Tsang Ma splashing Bromla then Shampula and finally spilling onto my frozen toes. Steam rose off the river and curls of mist laced the midriff of Shampula hovering around the tiny pinnacled Hill station of Lumla. Smoke curled from stovepipes near Kiney, breakfasts in the borderlands. By afternoon the mountains have been dipped in gold the treetops on the rounded ridge maroon and the distant mountains Pale blue almost silver.
You’ll never guess what I’m eating right now. Italian dried salami, oh yeah! What a difference a package makes. It’s so good I’m humming while I eat. My mom’s care package bolstered my spirit when I needed it most. Now I’m scrambling to collect marks from concerned subject teachers and enter them in a spreadsheet. Finally I will enter the information from the spreadsheet onto hardcopy grade sheets. I have trouble visually completing these tasks which must be done painstakingly slow without error. The whole exam process is convoluted and in certain ways detrimental to the student but I am not here to change the system. I ate half my salami log in two days neglecting the potatoes I scored the other day in the village. It’s a relief to know I have enough food for the duration. Karlos got a bukari (wood burning stove) I sat with him and pup last night chatting. Today is un-wacky Wednesday cloudy with a chance of Emadatsi. Somehow magenta bogenvia twines around cypress trunks and the pink roses make their stand while scarlet poinsettias are comfortable in their proper season.
It’s hard to be reflective when there’s work still to be done. It’s been a trying year with much travail like my Humpty Dumpty impersonation, my summer itchiness, and my spring viral fever. It also has been a triumphant year including monumental treks to Shampula, Rigzam, and Gongsa Goempa. Moreover it was a moderately successful year in the classroom and I have a better handle on teaching Bhutanese students. I was pleased that Mare paid me a compliment about my teaching from watching my mom’s videos. I enjoy a good rapport with my students and am better understanding how to effectively teach them English. I continue to be bowled over by the Bhutanese youth and grateful for this unique opportunity.