On Tuesday I woke up putting it straight in my mind to improve my attitude. I was rewarded with a good day at school with ample energy to meet the challenges. It was a sunny March day with streaming clouds feathering the valley which still has a multitude of wildfires burning on either side of the river in either country. On our little mountain kids ran about in national dress and not one of them was speaking English which I called to their attention all day sidling up to social groups and imploring them to gossip or play in that language. This simple natural choice is the primary hindrance for them in developing as speakers. It’s not much different in the staffroom where I sit now. Classes are rolling along and going well. Next to me they’re having a scout meeting which is a branch of the same American program which as it turns out is a worldwide phenomenon (I retired after the pinewood derby at the rank of Cub) They just conducted a weeklong scout retreat with 28 teachers from Yangtse Dzongkhag who spent day and night engrossed in activities bedding down in the MP Hall. By night one could hear them singing and dancing and by morn one could observe them marching in Orange scarves quite the military outfit. Our scout master is Sangay Tenzin previously (Counselor) but I can’t call him that anymore since we have acquired a professional counselor on staff. Sitting nearby is Nir Mala who wears a teal kira looking like a mermaid who swam way upstream from the Bay of Bengal before wriggling out of the Dangme Chu and joining our mountain community. Actually she’s from Wangdi and is of Nepali descent but despite speaking Nepali as her mother tongue she very much identifies as a Bhutanese saying her great grandfather had lived here. She adeptly speaks Dzonkha, Nepali, Sharchop, English, and most likely Hindi too as one must remember how skilled at language Bhutanese are indeed. She’s never been to Nepal and doesn’t seem to have a desire to retrace those roots. Essentially she’s as pure Bhutanese as her name suggests and my new plan is to make a nice friendship and ignore the rumors that she has a boyfriend in Paro or the overtures by the native bachelors. Meanwhile I offer meager blandishments hoping to curry favor. I admire her deportment and everything she says and does as a first rate infatuation ensues, a spring of hope in the desert of my heart. Hell love is in the air for someone somewhere with red rhody blooms thumping in my hungry heart as crickets are reborn. Thunder is on my mind and I wonder if the Dragon will deliver a heavy load this spring yet so far the weather pattern is hazy and mild with cold nights but the needle is turning. The meeting adjourns unceremoniously with that winsome aquatic maiden departing without as much as a flick of recognition. In her absence the air has been sucked out of the room and I’m left only with ringing laughter drifting up from the playground.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
“The sun gonna shine in my backdoor someday, March wind gonna blow all my troubles away…”
These last few days have been intense. Right now all I want to do is make my K WA supper but no water flows from the tap. How on earth did I survive two years with practically no water? I couldn’t hack it now. I’ve exerted tremendous will in the classroom clamping down on behavior while maintaining a positive vibe. That will mean less joking but today I was very pleased with the returns on my efforts. The forest fire has jumped from Lumla catchment to Kiney side and I wonder what Lynn is thinking. A ring of fire encompasses my beloved village of Jangphu where the Monpa’s hail. My computer needs antivirus and is acting out and damn popup ads have been encroaching on tiger so I’m sorry for that and hope the dear reader ignores them. Now that Himalayan Odyssey is behind us the work goes on…Rain is falling from a charcoal sky, its cold; the rats back, my camera broke yada yada…The difference is that I’m still reasonably happy where two years ago these nuances of life might have sent me into a tailspin. Surgit who refers to me as “college boy” teased me about the flannel over shirt I wore to assembly and I teased him about his shiny Indian trousers that make him look like a mustached merman. If I want to impress Nir Mala Tapa I should bathe more than once a week since admittingly today I looked like a ragamuffin and might’ve stunk like a Brokpa with Danny Newnan hairdo. Still, my yearly plans are complete, I’m a week ahead on lessons and I had a successful day in the classroom carrying out my discipline with class 8A trash picking at interval since it wouldn’t be fair depriving them of lunch. It’s always challenging here which is actually comforting since you know the waves will keep rolling in. Surfs Up!
Nima Gyelston just brought a case of coke for me from the shop and I set him and Pema Chedup to work cleaning and making curry before Monopoly. I don’t want to force work on them but it’s reciprocal since they’ll get a proper meal and enjoy a board game. I want to help them too with homework especially Nima whose Class Ten. I mostly do my own housework but on occasion having some help is great. Outside the six black pups snuggle in a box and accumulate puppy merit so when they go to the doggy Bardo they can follow the rainbow light and be reborn as humans. Yes, the community is swinging now and it feels good to have some hardships under my belt knowing many more will come. To borrow a Chinese proverb (where’s Pema Lhamo) “May you live in interesting times” Ho! I realize as long as I’m healthy life is good but I’m sure I’ll complain anyway since that’s what humans like to do. I can’t rally anyone to go see the Monpa’s on Friday Evening so I might have to mission. How’s it that Mr. Tim’s more interested in aspects of culture than the native’s. I guess their whole life is culture so they can just make Emadatsi and watch it on BBS or the Doksom Cable Station I never knew existed. I will buy Surgit’s tiny T.V when he departs so I can watch “Men” in my own home instead of T-Gang. This year a kindler gentler Mr. Tim since aggressiveness only aggravates the denizens and won’t get me to first base with Nir Mala.
Today is Wednesday and I already have seen the possible pitfalls of 50 members in Social Service and am devising a plan to organize. Campus looks TERRIBLE and it’s a pity that my efforts haven’t amounted to much, partly since administration doesn’t support my efforts. No need to give up and for my own sake I will continue my personal mission. The rumor that I fancy Dir Mala has spread through the staffroom like the wildfire near Jangphu, to be honest my initial reaction might’ve just been the sucking desperation in my soul wanting somebody to share in this life but maybe deep down I want nothing to do with women anymore. I don’t really know my feelings since Bhutan has me all mixed up. That’s okay too since all I really care about is becoming a capable teacher and staying healthy building a new life. My soul is ripe for something BIG and I have no idea what. I know this is the place to bear fruit and despite missing my family there’s not much else to lament from my former life except juicy double cheeseburgers. The harder I try at teaching the more I realize how much I need to improve, I just spent two hours to mark one paragraph for each of my 120 pupils so that tells you what I’m up against. My goal is better consistency and setting a higher standard for Mr. Tim since teachers can only expect their students to excel if they do.
Today’s cold with Tsang Tsang Ma sparkling like a Jewel atop the crown of the Tawang Valley. Plumes of smoke billow up the spine of Shampula and snow dusts the mountaintops that ring the valley. Again I’m waiting for water and didn’t make it out of doors today but I reckon the woods will wait for me since they’re my TRUE LOVE!
(Action Plan for afterschool Reading Program)
Reading Rainbow Action Plan
Motto: Reading for a brighter future…
In honor of 2015 being declared as National Reading Year in Bhutan we will resume our afterschool reading program at Tsenkharla. Students need a comfortable and nurturing environment to read. Boarder students have a very busy schedule and aren’t able to set aside time on their own for reading books. Furthermore the hostel is not a conducive environment since there is an excess of noise to contend with. It’s our aim to provide students with a consistent and supportive environment to enhance their reading skills. To improve reading students must practice on a regular basis. The program will meet Monday -Friday afterschool from 3:50 - 4:50 starting April 1st and concluding approximately October 15th. Reading Rainbow will not meet during the week leading up to Midterm Exams. The rotating schedule will range from class 6 to 10 and will include both boarders and day scholars. Students will only be permitted to read library material focusing on storybooks and novels. Those students who don’t have a library book will be offered periodicals such as Kuensel. Students should check out books and read them over the course of 1-3 weeks and will be expected to finish books they have started. Facilitators should keep track of what each participant is reading. It’s also possible that two sections can congruently meet if we are allotted another classroom and another facilitator is available. I will discuss this with the English Department and decide if this is feasible and Mr. Sangay Tenzin, Madam Tshering Wangmo and I will set the schedule. The library period is not a time for browsing or for pupils to read segments of random material. The point is that students are to be involved in a particular book which will foster a love of stories and insatiable thirst for reading. Only then will students begin to regard books as friends to cherish and they’ll look forward to reading every day.
I will facilitate the program assisted by Mr. Sangay Tenzin and Tshering Wangmo who will supervise the students. Personally I will monitor the students five days a week guiding them in their reading. The role of the facilitator will be to monitor behavior making certain that students follow the prescribed guidelines agreed upon by myself, Sangay Tenzin, and Tshering Wangmo. Students must choose a proper book in accordance with their respective reading level. Choosing the right book is extremely important to ensure that the student is engaged and challenged but not overwhelmed and the facilitator will make sure students have appropriate reading material at all times. Students should be reading novels or storybooks outside of class in addition to assigned school texts. The reason for this is that students must find books suitable to their interests in addition to what they’re assigned by teachers in class. We also need to work towards improving our library facility by adding to our selection of books in all grade levels, interests, and abilities. By improving our library we will motivate students to engage in reading providing a wide selection of titles to choose from. I will be happy to attend the Mongar Book Fair and assist the librarians in picking out suitable selections to add to our library.
Class Nine and Ten students will be allowed to read either “Dawa the Dog” or “The Giver” and any other novel assigned by their subject teacher however, short stories from textbooks should not be read during the library program. This should be a time and space where students are pursuing their own literary interests while improving individual reading skills. Facilitators will circulate through the room assisting with pronunciation and answering vocabulary inquiries from students. It’s paramount that all participants remain quiet and no talking will be permitted unless it’s a question for the teacher. A list of Library Guidelines will be posted on the wall for the students to follow and strict attendance must be observed. Students who fail to turn up for the Library Period will be reprimanded in conjunction with the T.M.S.S Discipline Policy.
Our objective is that the, “Reading Rainbow Program” will encourage all participants to incorporate reading into their lives making a habit of reading every day. This will make a huge improvement in the four English domains reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Students will dramatically expand their vocabulary which will improve both their writing and speaking; in addition they’ll hone their concentration which will drastically improve listening skills. In my three years of teaching in the Kingdom of Bhutan I have noticed that most Bhutanese learners are not active readers and I sincerely feel this puts them at a disadvantage in a competitive world. Living in an isolated part of the Kingdom students will be exposed to the outer world by reading and will broaden their horizons learning many valuable lessons. Reading avidly provides a healthy alternative to television which is a growing concern for the youth of Bhutan. All over the world students benefit from reading but nowhere is the need greater than in Eastern Bhutan. We must do everything we can to improve T.M.S.S students reading skills so they can compete with the students in the western part of the country. Students have reported to me that they’re not getting enough time for independent reading. Boarders have many extracurricular activities including prayer and social work in addition to regular classes and homework. As educators we must find a way to encourage reading including setting a personal example for students by reading ourselves. Our Reading Rainbow Program will hopefully be a steppingstone in a lifelong relationship between students and books.
Reading should be a priority at our school and our program will allocate time for book talks so students can share reports on interesting stories they’ve read. It’s our sincere hope that participants will also spread the joy of learning to others and reading books will become contagious so that everyone in our community will benefit!
“Take a look in a book, reading rainbow.”
Reading Rainbow Architect Mr. Tim Grossman
One from the vault: December 2014
For Butterfly: Thank you for being a friend…
Yesterday my friend and colleague Ashish (AKA Butterfly) was laid off by the Ministry of Education. Sixty teachers all in his subject also got the ax in an ongoing elimination of Indian teachers. Indians like Prabu G who have served over 15 years were temporarily spared. For years Bhutan relied heavily on Indian personal at one time having Indian administrators. Now MOE wants to ensure jobs for fresh Bhutanese teachers coming out of training. Unfortunately they notified Ashish and company without warning and Butterfly is distraught although bravely putting on a smiling face. It’s too bad since he’s probably the most dedicated teacher on staff having the onerous task of teaching class ten and putting in extra hours with students prior to exams. Performance had nothing to do with these cuts and finding a job in India with a comparative wage will be difficult. I went over to Surgit’s house and had dinner with Ashish who was devastated. Meanwhile I still haven’t wrapped up my paperwork opting for the trail in a sepia afternoon with a lopsided moon breaking through a sea of clouds. I ate all my rations and care package and plan to go to T-Gang to meet the fellas tomorrow. We have enjoyed pleasant weather with fine views brushes of color flourish the ridges and crisp autumn smells make traversing the pine spine of the mountain delightful, needles coat the dusty trail and the wind howls ruffling the treetops. The sunshine seeps through my third eye and I’m MINDFUL of my feet on the packed earth.
We had a meeting on the grass today and were surprised to learn of a plan to construct a Chorten on that spot on which we were sitting. Teachers were advised to donate 4,000 NU or more (100 bucks) I was ornery perhaps since Butterfly’s dismissal and proclaimed I was not Buddhist and would have to think of an amount I’m comfortable donating. I also wanted to know whose idea the Chorten was. I should preface by saying there was a long speech in Dzongkha so it was 30 minutes before I knew of the intended Chorten. I like Chortens but scratch my head at the rapid development that has overtaken the area and campus in its wake. Now the giant Sky Dakini Chorten near Nankhar sounds dope and I guess I could get behind a campus Stupa. I was just feeling cheeky but seriously would only donate fifty bucks. I can see it now schoolboys spinning clockwise before a test. Jesus, our assembly ground is already cluttered by an excess of gardens and disaster placards. By December a Phelincpa is feeling every bit the outsider and now I am losing Ashish who was my buffer, we would commiserate about our frustrations and joke around. We even had what we called “Foreign Corner” at staff parties and meetings so we could whisper translations in English, a play by play of what was going on. Tsenkharla loses a good teacher, a big fat WHAT TO DO!
I hung out in the village watching kid’s play and Karlos do dishes at the spigot located off the dirt strip. Up in the pastures a woman was rounding up her cows and singing at the top of her lungs a happy song in Sharchop. She wore ubiquitous blue gumboots and worn grey kira cavorting around the pasture Sound of Music style. It’s a fascinating scene especially when a maelstrom of ravens lands on a massive oak all squawking in cacophonous unison while leaves continuously plop on my head. Below at Zangtopelri the conch vibrates through the cellular makeup of the mountain at sundown. At the hermitage site old men bang sticks adorned with shells and chant funky mantras borrowed from Himalayan cave dwellers. Cedar smoke fills the air offerings to unseen spirits, entities in other dimensions that roam with one foot in our world. When I told Principal Sir that I was not Buddhist he replied regardless I could accumulate merit by funding the Chorten. He had me there, isn’t it? Even I spin for merit but am lazy on the wheels unlike Bubba Ganush. Puja horns bleat from Zangtopelri like snakes uncoiling loose upon the world, a sound once strange but now familiar. This puja was intense with bells chiming like the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Time” overlay by Alice’s bagpipes. There’s also a fair amount of white noise emanating from some channel of the void ala screaming sirens of the Bardo. Meanwhile lama’s decipher the cosmic mess in the Lhakhang and pipe it all back to the surrounding villages through a PA speaker attached to the pagoda. Ken Kesey couldn’t have done better and all that was missing was a sweaty shirtless Neil Cassady juggling a ballpoint hammer.
Prabu G said I should avail my readership to fund the Chorten, any takers?
It’s amazing being here a year revolving with the seasons, winter is hazy, dry, introspective, and brown. The spring has its thunderstorms and rhododendron blooms and slowly the forest enlivens. This year the T-storms were subdued and then the verdant monsoon smothers everything in moldy clouds for four long months. Steamy leeches in the jungle yo. Finally the monsoon tails and autumn sparkles like an emerald. One constant is it’s always beautiful.
And so it was in Trashigang this weekend meeting Jonathon, Warren, and Mack at the K.C, three quality bros. Warren and Mack are in their early twenties and Warren has an old soul as Kezia put it. He has a shine and calmness in his presence that is refreshing. Mack is solid too. Both gentlemen had fantastic experiences and it was touching to see Warren’s community deliver him in the school bus with entourage who looked upset at his departure. The Bhutanese aren’t demonstrative at farewells even with family members but it looked as if they had embraced handsome Warren Tanner as kin. I didn’t watch the particulars but saw that his peeps carried his luggage up the stairs and were hesitant to say goodbye. It’s humbling to see BCF success stories in the field unfold. Mack also told of his tearful goodbye down in Pema Gatshel. They headed off to Thimphu on the bus and I took a casual day in Trashigang waiting for the road block to open hanging out with Jon. He has a rapier wit and we can joke all day if left to our own devices which we did admiring the view from a gardened veranda sitting on dusty plastic chairs drinking pop and eating chocolate chip cookies imported from Australia. It was a good meeting with everyone and it confirmed that Bhutan is beloved by many of us. Each of us placed in a village where we make connections and live our lives the best we can for the time that were here. I’ve met some awesome individuals while in Bhutan and we share a connection. How cool is it that people from around the world become true friends despite cultural differences.
On the way to the hill station I was picked up at Gom Kora by a female teacher from Bayling. It’s rare to see a woman driving in Bhutan. We got a flat tire running over a nail and she changed the flat efficiently while I stood around holding tools like a little boy. Trashigang sparkled with billowing clouds, a Brokpa man in his wool red tunic and a stylish pink cowboy hat chewed doma hanging around the shop rapping with Sharchop dudes. Blood red poinsettias stained the parched hillsides, and blood red doma spit stained the pavement. The town is being whitewashed and spruced up for the Kings visit (K4 & K5) tomorrow. I couldn’t stick around despite Jon’s plea since I had to complete my work but it was good to see the guys. Jon and I are Americans and they are both Canadians so we explored stereotypes of hosers and which government is worse. When Americans hang with Canucks I feel everyone in the room wants to blurt out that their country is superior, eh. I didn’t know Jim Carrey was Canadian or that he renounced his Canadian citizenship. Now I’m back in the cool mountain air of Tsenkharla and soon I’ll be on my way to the capital and eventually leave the kingdom for a spell. Jon and I walked to the Dzong where indeed they were dismantling the historic fortress brick by brick. Apparently there’s foundational damage and the whole structure must be rebuilt.
It’s December 8 2014 and exactly 20 years ago tonight I saw the Grateful Dead at the Oakland Coliseum Arena with my dad and Aunt Mare. We drove in URF and it was a frosty night but Jerry warmed all our spirits.
Leaving tomorrow and still I can’t finish my work, being a class teacher in Bhutan demands heaps of paperwork. Right now my problem is collecting the marks then entering them on the massive spreadsheet (I can’t explain all the snafus that occur in the process) and my eyesight is not suited for this type work. Regardless one way or another it will get done but its stressful just getting out of town. Today is Wednesday foggy and cold in the kingdom. I woke up at 3 AM with the rat gnawing on my foam spare mattress basically chewing through half of it scattering bits of foam across the cement floor. I never got back to sleep anxious about my unfinished tasks and now it’s Thursday and I’m still muddling through the snafus. I won’t bore you with the details but rather tell you about the adorable snot nose PP students looking scared at registration for next year.
The highlight of the day was the class ten Picnic which featured the students sitting on dusty red strips of carpet, boys on one side of the court and girls on the other. I have taught many of them including the batch in my first class 8 in 2012. Nawang Choden won the chance to interview for a scholarship in the UK (what an opportunity for a farmer’s daughter) I said goodbye to a few students including a nice conversation with Kinley Wangchuk a good natured lad I have enjoyed over the years. Dema a retiring girl thanked me for teaching her and wished me a safe journey. The image of the day that I remember clearest is Pema Yangdon standing near Thinley Wangchuk a teacher who is leaving. She was overcome by emotions and when I gave her a last photo and said goodbye, she couldn’t speak. Pema Yangdon is a pensive girl and at departing radiated modesty. I never said goodbye to Sangay Tobgay who after eleven years says goodbye to Tsenkharla.
A hazy sunny Thursday with zeppelin clouds floating across the sky casting mutant shadows on the Dangme Chu. Wood smoke permeates a pink sunset over Drametse and the bats torpedo through tinsel gloaming. The skeleton of the giant oak looms above me and a leaf plops on my head. A few stars peep into the valley where lights blink on and off like a Christmas tree.
(We are all so fortunate)
It’s Friday evening and I finally completed my spreadsheet and progress reports, the end of a long year. The prayer wheel chimes outside the staff room and sleepy birds tweet in the waning light.
“Keep on rolling by…”
In this stage of my life I’m sort of like a chrysalis waiting to emerge into a butterfly. Piet told me butterflies only live a few weeks and that got me thinking about what a marvelous symbol of impermanence they are. We also don’t live long in the scope of time something I recalled when Piet was rapping about rocks and the formation of landscapes in a high mountain glade that I’ll never visit again. Human time is a drop in the bucket compared with geologic time but even earth is fragile and impermanent. One might consider this fact terrifying or comforting depending on their perspective- This too shall pass- all of it and in my little life many wonderful people and moments have already gone by. Maybe the best times but since time is an illusion what difference does it make. A river continues to flow even when diverted into hellish manmade channels or through polluted cities on its journey to the ocean before evaporation starts the process again. All a body can do is hold it close and let it go and this practice gives life its sustenance…Furthermore we never know the impact we have on others, for example my parents will never know how much they’ve helped me since some things remain unsaid. Open wounds never will heal and that’s good too tenderizing that soft spot. I still wake up in rapturous pain remembering- but I gradually soften slaked by Dharma laughing at my neurosis and what a funny clingy creature I AM.
I open my door to see a peaked gibbous moon peeking through layered clouds while the dead grass burns below…Everything is changing and fluid and it’s alright...
Thursday Night is Circus Night and the wildfire still smolders under a full moon reaching the valley floor near Tsangma’s ancient defense on the phallic knoll above Gongsa. It was another busy day at school with a lengthy meeting after classes. Principal Sir announced the meeting in morning assembly and I told him afterwards that I was now checking the schedule tacked on the bulletin board and he replied that he had made the announcement on my behalf which was kind. In turn I was on time for the meeting which addressed health issues in the community.
I had a few moments with Nir Mala (meaning pure) and she reminds me of what Mari Devi might have looked like except when the sunlight struck her hair there were ruddy gold highlights. When I asked her why she colored it she replied, “I have too” a typically quirky Bhutanese response. She’s nice, simple and frank but I don’t have much in common with Bhutanese women in general. They’re a unique breed and for all their variety share many of the same traits. It speaks to the greater dichotomy since Bhutanese couldn’t be more different that your author but I revere them all the same more than any other race (authors note they are not one race at all) Shall I venture a description of this chapter’s heroine? She’s a perfect height coming up to my nose possessing a slender body but with curves hinted under her tightly wrapped kira (I haven’t picked up her scent yet) She favors rusty earth tones and the one she sported today reminded me of the iridescent brown trout I saw spawning in Yellowstone. Her hair falls loose around the shoulders with bangs that frame her kind face. Her nose is pronounced and squat and her black eyes are direct and honest. Her lips are not pouty but her cheeks are rounded with a soft chin and she possesses a light chocolate skin tone. Nir Mala slumps a bit when she walks and stares at the ground sometimes like myself. Once I made a joke in the staffroom and she laughed heartily revealing the rich inner chuckle behind a laugh which tickled my soul. She already reprimanded me once for calling the Je Kempo ‘that guy” when I saw his face on a calendar correcting me by saying “that’s not a guy he’s an important religious personality” Some facts I’ve gleaned she’s 22, hails from Wangdi, is unmarried (although she wears a ring on that particular slender finger) Speaking of those fingers they’re very active brushing her hair from her forehead or stroking the tassels on her embroidered rachu but always searching for something. We both teach class eight and I admit I spied on her a bit enjoying her brash voice at work. Oh, the intangible and tangible configurations that spur attraction are as mysterious as the stars.
I cleaned the hut today and Nima & Pema dropped by but eventually I ushered them out since I had work to do. Maybe I won’t make the Monpa celebration at the Kora and I wonder if they’re able to crossover from Blithing due to the fire although a contingent comes via a higher pass directly into Trashiyangtse town. Karlos is too busy with family to attend and I had to beg him to go last year. Little Pema Namgay is adorable and last night was all swaddled near a bukari as I was staring at his precious face (like Karma does) he woke up yawned and stretched his little arms like a grownup would. His miniature fists were balled and he had more strength grabbing my finger. I felt a pang of envy and also vicarious joy for my cousin and brother who have known the wonder of bringing new life into the world, there must be no feeling more potent including summiting the highest mountain. Reed is now a big boy running six and Paige is a little girl of her own with Holden on his way too. My bra and Cousin Larry both make excellent fathers in their own right and here I am a teacher. It’s all pretty unbelievable, ha! when did we all grow up I can still remember them following me around as a child teasing me mercilessly their tormenting laughs still haunt me, I remember threatening to shoot my cousin in the face with a Beebe Gun for stealing a coke, or them mocking me onstage during “Oliver” More recently I recall a Sound Tribe show the three of us together in the Crown Room before they were husbands or fathers. Yellama!
On a good day there’s a cadence that a teacher enjoys that is mildly exhilarating and modestly satisfying. Students were enjoying writing similes and sharing them in class, including my favorite Mr. Tim is like a King! Yeshi Dema is a star student and topper in class seven and was nodding her enthusiastic approval at my fencing display using a broom and dustpan as sword and shield demonstrating “Coat of Arms” that we’re making. I have found a new home in the staffroom which is quiet during my free periods and my plain wooden desk (table with drawer and wooden chair) is tucked in a cozy corner near a window with a view of the basketball court, prayer wheel, and Bromla towering above. Through the opposite window I can see Tsang Tsang Ma through the needles of a giant cypress. What a joy to live in Bhutan a simplistic perfectness with birds darting in and out of the classroom during lessons. There’s nowhere else on earth I’d prefer to teach or live even with only one thing on the menu. Tonight’s K WA was spiced with Masala from the import shop in Thamel and spruced up with garlic, spinach and tomato. I thought of Vicky munching on a rare raw carrot for dessert. I just started reading Moby Dick which is hilarious although it took me awhile to begin to grock those flowery sentences but the dude paints quite a picture although I have just begun only reaching the scene where the protagonist Ishmael is bedding down for the night with a cannibal in a dingy Inn. When I read a good book I feel connected to the man who imagined it and although I can’t do it, there’s nothing like good fiction, a world within a world. I see that those who lived and died were similar to me and there’s comfort in that. There’s other weirdo’s popping like corn through the space time continuum.
Not Much of a Saturday
“Everybody’s dancing at the local armory with a basement full of dynamite and live artillery”
Often when I awake on Saturday mornings I feel like a vampire who stayed out until after breakfast. I dragged my weary ass out of my coffin splashing copious amounts of water on my bloodshot eyes before pulling the stake from my chest hightailing it to assembly. Classes were smooth and afterschool we had a four hour ad-hoc meeting on Reading Year. Ultimately my action plan was rejected and now all students will get an extra reading period on Monday only. This is due to all the cultural and sporting activities that frankly are given higher priority in Bhutan. WTD? I was more than willing to dedicate five extra hours a week in the library but my services appear redundant. After the long freezing meeting I slid home in the grey afternoon made potato curry and passed out on my bunk waking up in time for the three hour welcome night program at the MP Hall. I like to watch the kids show their talents even if most dances and songs start looking very much the same after an hour. Tshering Choden rocked it as usual and the upperclassmen shouted, “shake, shake” when the older girls hit the stage. I had to stave off evil thoughts as Gyelpo held little Pema Namgay talking freely with Nir Mala. I was thinking how to compete with a Bhutanese suitor holding a babe plus he knows her from their schooldays. Those confounded evil thoughts, tying one to that despondent railroad track like a damsel in an old west flick, the train of jealousy its engine sparkling with a fresh green coat barreling down the line at high noon about to cut the victim to pieces. How many lifetimes will I wrestle with these infernal and trivial emotions but what of it? When I turned and saw her face alternating between pensiveness and delight something struck me deep and familiar but at the same time I know that my chances are slim. Some faces we might regret ever seeing at all, isn’t it? But in the eyes of Nir Mala something haunts me even as your author loathes making direct eye contact another of my weaknesses. I could tell by the way her nimble fingers adjusted the blankets of little Pema Namgay that she’ll make a fine mother herself someday and that made me even sicker. I feel at those moments like a hungry ghost wandering the wrong realm. It was a long Saturday so when the young fellas came over for Monopoly I told them to come back another night since I needed rest.
I had an audio vision two years ago in the sun streaked chamber of Zangtopelri where a voice in my head told me that I needn’t search for my soul-mate but that she’d find me. Since I don’t want to depart from my mountain I kind of hoped that I would be found where I stand. The problems of falling for a Bhutanese gal are numerous but I no longer desire (or see) the fair skinned honeys so I’m in a pickle. For eight years I’ve had various crushes but looking back they all seem silly yet when I see the face changing countenance of Nir Mala and here her flinty tone it’s like a missile obliterating the heart.
I also miss, Miss Rebecca who is acclimating in Chume watching devotees jump through flaming hoops to erase their sins accumulated from many lifetimes. Who will light my hoop and make the sacred tree bloom again? Oh well- we still have a long way to go...I haven’t been in the woods since the epic hike with Piet last Sunday as the realities of work set in. I’ve been home exactly 1 month and only left the mountain once. This will be the blueprint for the year as I will only go as far as my legs carry me following the advice that mysterious stranger gave Becky under the chandelier inside Dochila Lhakhang three years ago. Advice reiterated by Nancy as we picnicked by the Mani Wall on one of her auspicious visits on the mountain. As she absorbed the view of the Tawang Valley gazing eastward she said, “Why would you go anywhere?” True that Nancy you are indeed wise.
It was a beautiful day on the mountain with smoke hanging near the valley floor but stark blue skies tattooed with red rhody blossoms up high. I went to Darchin via the magic Chorten romping through idyllic Nankhar and up the sleep green ridge to the holy pond, now a bog. I encountered only a few people all day and every one of them laughed at my appearance, not in a malicious way rather in that affable Sharchop manner of laughing with you. First a half dozen kids picking kernels of maize off cobs tossing the husks into bamboo baskets. There farmhouse has a commanding view right where the Bey Yul joins the rim of the primary Valley. They laughed hysterically snot dripping from collective noses as I continued. Then another group of villagers of indeterminate assorted ages were out collecting grass for their cows. The lead woman with cropped hair must’ve known me since she asked where I went on winter vacation and if I saw my mother and father. She spoke broken English and directed me up the reverse way to Darchin but when I arrived at the ridge top temple all was quiet and a rusty padlock hung on the door. The ascetic lama was nowhere to be seen and only the sound of eddying winds that pouring in from the four directions rustling the cypress boughs. A most amazing wind powerful and refreshing but at ground level a mere breeze yet one could hear it howling and shrieking above while feeling comfortable in the March sunshine below. The pastures stretched out towards Bromla but I turned back descending the ridge with a spectacular view of Tsenkharla a thousand feet below, the forest, a mix of pine, oak and blooming rhododendron as red as love. I dropped into Daka the remotest outpost for day scholars (a long walk two ways every day) They’re supposed to be building a replacement Lhakang but I only saw the original one, over a hundred years old if a day. I’ve only graced this temple once and it’s one of my favorites in Bhutan. This tiny temple is simply a village shrine although Daka is only about four households with traditional homes shored up with cow dung in the crevices of the whitewashed walls. The Lhakang is slowly crumbling with beams bursting through frescos a lightning forked crack between the forehead of Guru Rinpoche like the faults of the earth, the walls themselves being pushed up like the Himalayas breaking apart floating Buddha’s on otherworldly murals. The simple wooden temple boasts amazing carvings some completely devoid of paint featuring ornate snow lions and dragons all faded from glory. Along the walls hundreds of carefully preserved holy books wrapped in orange cloth sandwiched between woodblocks what secret mantras do these texts conceal? Even more interesting the dusty framed snapshots of lamas and groups of monks that look fifty years old hanging along the walls. Many statues of Jamyung too his sword of wisdom and many faces smiling. The central statue is a stern smirking Guru with scepter skewing impaled heads staring back from behind smudged Plexiglas bloodshot eyes beseeching. The creaky floors bounce underfoot and I feel delightfully privy while prostrating. All day the forest was awash with magnificent aromas honeysuckle and lemongrass the vegetation under Darchin unseasonably green with gigantic draping ferns sprouting from rocky overhangs, creamy magnolias rubbing elbows with towering oaks. I walked under a dappled canopy with skirting songbirds and that wonderful wind overhead and thick layer of musty duff under boot.
“Hog of a Sunday dog of a Monday…”
It was a dismal day in my soul as dry as my spout although Mother Nature rolled out a blessed one as usual even affording your weary tiger a glimpse of the distant snowcapped twins. I felt out of place not just in Bhutan but the whole darn universe too. My soul brimmed with doubt then flooded with loneliness. Sitting in the staff room near Nir Mala and a Dzonkha Lopen I had nothing to say feeling miserable as she hummed along to her work five feet away and when I did speak I said something cheeky asking if she was afraid to live alone since she lives with her mother. What’s next pulling her pigtails? On two occasions I learned a tough lesson about misdirected emotions this week. When I ranted at my class for behaving poorly there was a knock at the classroom door and I rudely slammed it on former student Karma Sonam. I had forgotten that part of the incident until I noticed Karma Sonam didn’t say good morning as I crossed the courtyard. I asked why she wasn’t regarding me and she reminded me that I had closed the door on her. I felt terrible and apologized saying I was angry with the class and not her personally and that I shouldn’t have done that. She condoned my outburst since she knows my character in its myriad of colors. And now I was acting out towards innocent Nir Mala because I was jealous that she was talking with Gyelpo at assembly. MINDLESNESS. I felt lower than the bottom of the Dangme Chu and colder too so I dialed up Becky to complain releasing more useless negativity into our collective psyche. Regarding the aforementioned tale it also illustrates a shortcoming as a teacher which requires a certain detachment from ones emotions. In Bhutan I am well within rights to raise my voice and be myself because I know the children feel safe with me. In the U.S.A I’d be afraid of being myself with all that bureaucracy. I don’t think ear pulling is tolerated so many of the Bhutanese teachers would be in hot soup. Actually I paint a dim picture but we have great teachers at Tsenkharla some better than myself, to wit. Kunsang Yeshi is a very active and engaging teacher having the class ten kids up and moving around laughing like little ones, no small feat. Everyone in my department works hard and I feel very comfortable teaching in this environment. Although I am seeing some dividends from my extra effort so far the same issues remain. Speaking is hard for eastern kids and the curriculum is far too advanced for them. My taciturn class seven students are stammering out one sentence explanations of their beautiful Coat of Arms but a boy might point and say “dog” when he’s 15 instead of attempting a sentence. These are real challenges for teachers in the field particularly in Eastern Dzongkhag (everywhere too) they don’t read or speak English outside the classroom so imagine what a disadvantage its teaching non ESL curriculum to ESL students. Marking 120 students writing is also difficult but I’m doggedly collecting notebooks. There’s no way to do it all so I choose an assignment and mark it across the board then get a rewrite which I only scan. I know I check more than most of my colleagues. Ah Monday! Tailor made for despondent souls in formless gray suits (no Pee Wee Herman bowties or razzle dazzle allowed) I have always been a sad person at seed although people don’t know that about me. WTDL (what to do La) just keep going on…on the frontier with one foot in my community and one foot in the cosmos, no wonder sometimes I get lost. I know I’ve positively influenced students but I also know I’m TRULY an outsider. It’s the land that sees me through since it’s my HEART HOME and for that alone I’d stay FOREVER. This land is that meaningful for me. As for my schoolboy crush it’s best to just leave it and focus on what’s important, teaching in the time The Dragon allots me (I’m the bachelor king heir to Tsangma’s oblivious throne) This dream of Bhutan is impermanent and all I can do is hold it close than let it go. Except the kicker is that Bhutan knocks IT out of the park and everything is revealed for a dew drop evaporating in the void, while on this side the perfect illusion SAMSARA.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
For Langtang Lirung may we meet in our dreams
“We’re back in Terrapin for good or ill again…”
As we rushed towards the border the towns became smaller a few dusty roadside villages with colorfully clad women in flowing scarves selling vegetables along the street. The driver was accelerating down the back road only slowing down for speed bumps within town limits. It was a straight road lined with bent trees, between settlements open plains and a gravely riverbed. Eventually the foothills of the Himalaya poked through a screen of haze and I hoped we’d reach the gate before my bladder exploded like a water balloon. Along the road headstone markers ticked off kilometers to Daranga until we lit upon the bazaar with rusty bikes, rickshaws, the mosaic church with beckoning Silver Christ, and finally the ornate Dragon Gate marked by a painted tiger. I leapt out thanked my driver who didn’t speak English threw my pack in the border hut and hit the outhouse just in time. After that I sat in the same office where the twins were processed and Pema Dorji a nice young lad with an earring adorning his gho stamped me through the portal. While we did paperwork Muslim prayers could be heard blaring from a loudspeaker over on the Indian side of the palm lined brick wall.
Everything is mellower on the Bhutanese side although Samdrop Jonkhar blurs with the subcontinent Assamese milling with long skirts and wrapped heads. Meanwhile Bhutanese stroll at their own pace with innocent faces doma drool on their lips dribbling down their chins staining the pavement red. It had been an exciting journey through the chaotic plains of Assam providing a sense of arrival that was palpable. It was GREAT to be HOME recognized by the restaurant owner at Shambala where I haven’t been in over two years. I spent the night at the comfortable mountain hotel where I enjoyed a two minute hot shower and a hard clean bed. The next day at the taxi stand I saw Pema Chedup a class ten student from T.M.S.S who was happy to see me saying he thought he saw sir but wasn’t sure. Well it was me in the flesh and we chatted about our holidays. Pema had been in Phuntsholing working at a steel factory a typical scenario for our students. I packed myself into a shared taxi with screaming kid and we made the arduous drive into the mighty Himalayas. After waiting out a roadblock we passed all the usual Eastern settlements stopping in Khaling for lunch. At 3:00 P.M they dropped me off at Chazam and twenty minutes later returned with my bag of forgotten vegetables. Finally I hitchhiked to Yartse and walked the last 2 miles home in the twilight.
Upon arrival I immediately went to Karlos and Sonam’s shop to see their new baby who was born on my birthday! Pema Namgay is adorable with a perfect mongoloid face but I can’t say who he looks like more Karlos or Sonam. Sonam Choden makes an excellent ama and Karma a proper apa but they had banished Dawa Dema to Sep to live with Sonam’s mom and Nawang which made me sad. Karlos just stares at precious Pema with a look of pure adoration. I had supper with the happy family then went home to assess the rat’s damage which was calculable. The rat ate everything, a GNH cap, my best shirt that Morgan gave me with wonderful fabric that the rat apparently fancied too, and several other shirts and underwear. He shit everywhere including countertops, my bed, on clothes, in the closet, pots and plates. Apparently he’s a dope fiend too since he ate my antibiotics chewing through the plastic bottles and ate my hand warmers which are poisonous than shat on everything. I went through the bag salvaging what I could recalling the money I spent with my mom in Rite Aid for medicine now ruined. All told he caused hundreds of dollars in damage. It wasn’t merely negligence although I should of rat proofed better, my neighbor lost a gho and Scott’s neighbor in Yadi a 300 dollar Kira, it’ just a part of life here.
I finally got water and started the cleaning process, NASTY! I saw the culprit last night dark and large with prickly black hair. NASTY! So the hut is in disarray and I have a lot more cleaning to do including my entire wardrobe of tired apparel covered in sunflower seed looking poop. It’s not healthy breathing air and I have to start washing clothes tomorrow. It’s hard not to look like a ragamuffin since ghos seem to outlast shirt and pants. Hand washing just never gets the job done although the Bhutanese can do it. Back to Hard Living!
Before no water was flowing from the tap so I fetched H2O from the pipe on campus to make my K WA and spent my first two days in the woods hiking to Shakshing and Nankhar Gompa’s and checking out the rhododendron bushes in the evergreen grove. Winter is a time of solitude on the mountain with hazy skies limiting the views from Trashigang to Blithing. It’s an introspective season in the west end of the Tawang Valley with oak leaves carpeting the forest floor perfuming the air with a delicious musk yet all is not dead with muted green leaves, hardy ferns and lurid scarlet rhododendrons burst into bloom. It’s one of my favorite times in the forest bare grey trees and fallow fields punctuated by stunning rhody blossoms rubies of deep winter studding the hillsides. I took tea from Rinchen Wangmo and her Ama charged me like a rhino then pulled back at the last instant, hilarious. I visited the temple and shouted to students from across barren terraced slopes. The best moment since I returned was when my student Poop ran up the slope to greet me exuding boundless affection with a huge smile saying that she had dreamed of me. I asked what she dreamt and she replied that I had come back. I told her that it was her dream come true since there I was. Obviously I had done something right to deserve such a greeting that I will never forget. Other students were typically reticent sticking out tongues and hiding behind elders. It was a fine day getting a blessing up at Shakshing and Becky called from Chume at the auspicious moment I was standing beside the foundation of the Dakini Chorten being constructed near the Nankhar lama’s house. She described her new world where shafts of light penetrated the Bumthang mist a crack between realms. On my side, returning to campus in the hazy gloaming familiar faces shooting hoops a mix of boys and girls from several grades. Kezang Nima was there as was little Dechen and many others happily playing.
Outside my house six tiny black puppies fight for life and the little girl from the farmhouse below spends her day absorbed in these pups. Her name is Pema Lhamo she finally told me after three days, when she’s not tormenting her puppies like the loony tunes character she’s knocking on my door then bounding over the precipice vanishing into the void just as I fling the door open. I made a bed for the pups using the scraps from Morgan’s shirt and fed them my leftover fried rice which they ate greedily pushing the runt aside but I placed him where he could nibble. It’s been a week of long meetings but I am stoked to be teaching 7 & 8 with 28 periods. I will be the class teacher of 7A, Social Service Club Master, and coordinator of the afterschool library program as well as Assistant Warden (Yikes!)
I just got back from a lovely overnight in Sep Sonam Choden’s village. The reunion with Moon doggy Dawa Dema was memorable too as she bounded over a wood fence and lavished me with love bites and wet licks and she’s not really a kisser. She frantically whimpered rolling around in my lap gnawing on my appendages; she looks great with long blonde hair and kickers flaring from her elbows. Later that day I took her for a walk through the idyllic village of Sep which is now slumbering within fallow hillside terraces with Shampula looming above. We went up to Karma Om’s primary school and down the channel towards the perched prayer wheel, painted blue serpent and split towards Omba. Yonder is a secret valley a wall of green vegetation descending from the heights of Bromla towards the bone dry Kiney. Enormous fern fronds thrive unaware that it’s actually wintertime everywhere else in the valley. Dawa is a great companion she walks without leash, keeps up, and is satisfied to sit for long spells staring and listening to noises interrupt the void. My time at Sep was wonderful interspersed with moments of boredom. Ultimately though these are the days I will value the most completely immersed in Bhutanese culture. Village life is primal down and dirty, until two years ago Sep was not connected by a farm road. The little used road has not impacted the spirit of the village which toils blissfully in antiquity. People tend to be earthier there then Tsenkharla with dirtier clothes and snottier kids with permanently dirty feet. The custom of forcibly refilling ones drink or plate after every bite or sip and if you refuse you must cover your plate like a running back cradling the pigskin. Bhutanese are affable, gentle, good humored and wise and I am honored to be privy to their hospitality. Sep is simple and the government had installed a new brick hearth courtesy of Japanese donations in the kitchen where we huddled. Karma disappeared to search for vegetables but when he came home hours later he smelled like local brew and had no veggies. He married into Sep through Sonam Choden but after 3 years seems completely at home in the small community. I shudder to think of life in Bhutan without Karlos and Sonam who have been my family here since day one. My first week on the hill they got married and now Karma cradles little Pema Namgay lovingly just staring for hours. Sonam Choden’s mother now a widow and Abi is a perfect example of a traditional elder and her neighbors turned out to offer money to the newborn placing the grubby bills on the baby’s forehead. Primal! The afternoon was spent drinking Ara and the neighbors also brought Coke and I wondered if it was coincidence or that my habit is known far and wide. It can be a bit intense sitting in the middle of rowdy Sharchop getting their drink on while breastfeeding infants and shouting Phelincpa this or that but it’s all in good fun and I don’t seem to damper their party. They were already gossiping about Lynn’s arrival down at Kiney and Karma was trying to initiate a conversation between a village man and myself. He was Monpa and had hit all the hot spots in the forbidden domain, Sela Pass, Tezpur, Bomdilla, Dirang Dzong, and even Itanegar. Our meal was emadatsi, fatty pork, and cow stomach which I ate greedily. Nawang who runs hot and cold was extremely outgoing making my pallet in the altar room and working on her English skills more loquacious than ever. I awoke at 3 A.M to baby Pema crying and a puja being broadcast over the waves of Radio Shangri-La. The raspy grind of puja horns emanated from a PA through the pitch black hamlet reverberating off the face of Shampula which was good since the puja was for the local Goddess who resides up there. The next day was cloudy and cold but I took Dawa out finding a cluster of white vertical prayer flags that like Father Mackay says were blowing upwards. I couldn’t wait for a taxi any longer and hoofed it home in the twilight meeting two former Class 10 students en route, one who had barely qualified and one who just missed the mark. The one who missed was Sangay Wangdi a handsome and hardworking lad who used to come by for help with homework. It was awesome to see the list of my original batch that’d made it through and sad to see the names that didn’t. Ones you might know, Namkith Lepcha now in Phuntsholing passed along with Sangay Tobgay and Mess Captain Pema Yangdon. Pema Choki the intense four foot something that orchestrated the Christmas card for my mother and had a furrowed brow most of the term placed 3rd overall and boy did she earn it! It was vindicating to see my own efforts payoff but also humbling to think of how I could’ve done better. Overall English scores were high and I felt proud of our department which is hard working, if not always as a team. This was tangible proof that I’m making a positive contribution, but test scores are not the only proof of a good teacher or student. The real impact lies in between the lines as I think of the feedback from students about their past foreign teachers like Nancy, Mr. Mark, Nick Morris, Sheal, Sabrina and Kendra the list goes on and on…These teachers and more altered and impacted the lives of their students in innumerable positive ways.
The first few days of school have been interesting. Nima Gyeltson came by for dinner and we cleaned the hut. I breathed in copious amounts of rat shit and woke up unable to breath and with unrelated stomach pain. My body knows where it is and knows the fight is on. At school I reconnected with my beloved students who were shy at first but warmed up with the day. I really will miss my class eight kids who drove me crazy but are true characters. Karma Sonam (Lucky Star) fondly recalled the great peach incident and Sherab now grinning remarked about how hard she cried that day. Like my Aunt Mare I apologized profusely for being myself and assured them I loved them all. I was sad to hear that Tashi Wangmo (Broomsha/pumpkin’s) mother died over break; damn these kids have a hard life. Now they will drift out of orbit and I will be on the periphery engaged with my new 7 and 8 students. Not much happens right away but we did have to procure tables and chairs for our remote classroom an original building as old as your author on the upper part of campus. Next textbook distribution and rehearsal for our Rigsar dance for HM’s birthday. Tswing Choden (bunny rabbit) took charge teaching the boys the steps that she had created for the Druk Pop tune. It’s well known that she wishes to be a celebrity some day and we‘re all rooting for her.
Female Wooden Sheep Year
“Let my inspiration flow…”
Today is Losar (Chinese New Year) and all are celebrating. I watched the male staff play kuru which is darts for big boys. They throw these darts that could impale a man twenty five yards at a small target and if they hit it, a song and dance commences and the victor gets a strip of colored fabric to hang from his belt. There’s all sorts of hooting and hollering and frequent trips to the tent for slugs of local brewed Ara which looks innocent as water in a plastic jug. The match is eight hours long and afterwards the men in ghos adjourn inside to circle dance singing gaily. This is how the Bhutanese males ring in the New Year getting high on culture. I have not received an official Losar invitation but have been supping heartily nonetheless. Last night was Pema Namgay’s baby shower and today I lunched with the kuru clan. Who knows when I’ll be eating like this again with bits of chicken and chunks of “real “pork. Thanks to the four legged and fowl who nourish me. I’ve been a bit like a starving Ethiopian at a buffet and I’ve had Bhutan belly. The house is coming along I’ve done laundry and cleaned all the stool and mold but that infernal rodent was back in the wee hours. The new batch of BCF teachers are peopled in the hills and valleys around the region but I’ve only met Lynn the Australian teacher placed below at Kiney when BCF Karma came to collect fees and take my passports for an updated Visa stamp. I still haven’t met 2nd year teacher Ash in Yangtse and I remember when I was the only teacher in the Dzongkhag. I got a call from pistil Piet today he’s back in Yangtse and was en route with some coworkers to a remote Dzong on the Yangtse/Mongar border. Our Becky is putting down roots in the alpine paradise of Chume a wildcat’s whisker away from Tibet. From what I can tell it’s an enchanted land of mist, snow, creeks, pines, and Bumtops but she’s far out of this tiger’s habitat.
I got my first dose of significant Bhutan belly and was up all night it wasn’t much diarrhea but stomach pain that kept me up until the silver dawn over Tsang Tsang Ma then I wasted the whole day sleeping waking up at 6 P.M. I forgot that Bhutan can sap ones strength and one must be vigilant. It might have been droplets of water left in a tea cup or anything really. During my long sleep I had my reoccurring nightmare where I am a soldier and a fierce battle is coming and I am paralyzed with fear desperate to run away which sometimes I do as the artillery and shooting begins. The fear is so potent and not once have I faced this battle. You don’t have to be Yung to figure that one out. I also had two good dreams one vignette where a squat swarthy girl kissed me on the cheek and one where I met HM in a great hall with many people and he remembered my name and commended me for my service. He was so lifelike in the encounter wearing a gold sash just like when I had met him at Trashigang Dzong.
February 21 was His Majesty’s 35 Birthday! We had our own celebration filled with pomp and culture. Pine needles were spread out in the VIP tent. There was marching with the little ones resembling March of the Penguins in their little ghos and kiras. I even danced with the staff in front of 500 students. I’m happy to report I have improved since my first try but I’m still terrible. All day I marveled at what a remarkable culture this is and His Majesty is one of the people I admire most.
What to do in Kathmandu…
Arriving in Kathmandu is a shocking experience. Judging by the streets outside the airport one might think they’re in Kabul or Mozambique. The rubble is not remnants from the Maoist insurgency yet just a lack of infrastructure and hallmark of Nepal. After checking into Ganesh Himal (The Hotel California) I took a rickshaw ride around Thamel to reorient myself with the locality. There are no street signs in this historic shopping district where just about everything is for sale. The narrow mid evil streets and alleyways are peopled with brick boutiques and shops selling Buddhist Tankas inlayed with gold, trekking gear, and food. The broken cobblestone streets are lined with brick facades buttressed by wood beams adorned with intricate carvings, the Newari architecture is some of the finest in the world. Kathmandu is a gothic city with millions of inhabitants with buildings filling the entire capacious valley. The valley which must have been paradise on earth once (The Garden of Eden) is ringed by Himalayan peaks that occasionally peep through the mountain dust and thick haze. Once when patrolling the narrow avenues of Thamel trying not to get run over by motorbikes and rickshaws (one ran over my toe) I spotted a snowcapped peak turning salmon in the afternoon light. Kathmandu is a crush of humanity and constant cacophony of beeping horns, dinging Rickshaw bells and ten thousand other sounds not to mention the aromas of the city ranging from stool to perfumed incense and every imaginable scent in between. My second day in the city I had to go to the US embassy to apply for a new passport and was strange to see the stars and stripes waving in a foreign dominion. Security was air tight and the atmosphere sterile like you had to pass through a metal detector just to take a piss. So much of my vacation was spent at embassy’s waiting in queues for this stamp or that. It was clear early on that this was more an adventure of self discovery than a mere holiday and I was never alone since the Dharma was my constant companion ally and adversary. After living in the secluded Kingdom of Bhutan it’s hard to be a tourist lacking the depth that staying put in a village offers, although the food is remarkably better on the outside. In Kathmandu I enjoyed a sublime Buffalo burger, beef steak, chicken and many Non Veg delights. My favorite were banana Lassies a yogurt based drink and banana crepes from Ganeshy Mall. I would have the boy bring one crepe with syrup every night as my bed time snack before enjoying a hot bath and episode of the Simpsons. I would be in and out of the capital several times before I left Nepal.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!
My first excursion was visiting Chitwan National Park. If I wasn’t to be found climbing a mountain or refreshing at the Mars Hotel I would’ve been spotted on a local bus. Public transportation in Nepal is an unforgettable experience often with busses that feel like sardine cans with passengers packed to the gills including standing in the isle. There is always blaring Nepali music which is as expressive as the natives themselves. The roads are similar to Bhutan except a little wider but with more traffic. What’s scary is how fast everybody attempts to navigate the twisty roads with many games of chicken ensuing, and they’re always close calls that leave the stomach in the throat. My ride to Chitwan was actually in a tourist grade bus that left the city and descended through the sprawling middle hills that are much more populated than the hills of Bhutan. Nepal has 33 times more denizens than the Kingdom with approximately 33 million. After exiting the foothills the bus encounters one of many large cities in the Terai. The Terai is a strip of dusty plains that border India and include several national parks and many towns with poor conditions. I arrived at the bus park on the outskirts of the park mid afternoon and hoofed to town avoiding the touts the road cutting through dazzling yellow mustard fields. Once reaching the strip of tourist shops and hotels I checked into the same lodge I had stayed at on my first trip two years ago. It was a nice mild day compared to the mountains and I headed right for the community forest on the riverbank opposite the park for a great walk through savannah. Terai villagers walked the trails with baskets balanced on their heads talking in a tonal language that seemed in perfect harmony with the day. An occasional trumpeting elephant could be heard from the breeding center nearby. Since I don’t spend much time inside the boundary the place to be is the river with its gently flowing blue water a life giving goddess supporting a plethora of birds and all the game if the area. It’s one of my most cherished rivers whispering primordial wisdom to my spirit. Restaurants and lawn chairs dot the shoreline where well off tourist smoke hookahs and sip cocktails. It’s not very crowded in winter in fact it seems deserted. It’s a peaceful place despite the Omni present hammering from construction projects. Still one can hear far-out bird songs and see water fowl gliding upriver. The development zone faces east providing stunning fiery sunset’s illuminating feathery cirrus clouds imprinted on the flaming sky. Nice places to sip a glass bottle of coke (250 ML Grenade) and listen to the jungle come to life. Yes there are tigers out there waking up for the hunt along with many other animals including wild elephants, One Horned Rhinoceros, snakes, monkeys, and countless other creepy crawlies. One recalls the large dusty city they passed 30 minutes before arriving at Chitwan and the outskirts of that city running all the way until the bus park. From my lawn chair I am viewing the edge of a wilderness harboring some of the planets most endangered species.
I spent less than two days in the area spending one full day in the park. I started out in the foggy morning with an elephant ride. I have mixed feelings about riding elephants and have done it twice and don’t really need to again. When my bra rode one in Africa that’s another story but this excursion was not so much a wildlife expedition as exposition on elephant cruelty. That’s taking it a little far but I’ll illustrate my point soon. I was seated on the back of a lumbering moderately sized pachyderm along with an Indian couple and Chinese guy. Elephants have a rolling gait as they rumble along through the forest. The skin of the elephant felt warm with some course hairs sprouting from the wrinkly grey epidermis. The animal conveyed intelligence in deportment and mannerisms and at present had our lives in its hand. We had to brush away leaves from the lower branches and I heard the lovely cry of a peacock over the chatter of all the Chinese from their respective elephants. I love peacocks with their exotic unfettered cries of freedom. They look brown but when they flare their plumage is a vibrant blue streak. Their cry goes A RIE A RIE. A RIE. It was a gloomy morning rocking and rolling through misty canopy on elephant back. We came across some barking deer in the forest then crossed a bog arriving in a strip of grasslands. Here was when things got weird. The mahouts started racing the elephants with us aboard and seemed to be deliberately agitating the creatures. I realize that I don’t understand the dynamics of this intimate Mahout pachyderm relationship but I know who’s in charge. The masters carry hooks and sit on the elephant’s brow once in awhile digging the hook into the soft tissue above their eyes. This is how control is maintained. Our mahout jumped off the elephant and let her run amuck with us in the carriage. On the elephant next to us a little Indian girl in bright yellow parka and braided hair was flipping out crying hysterically. Meanwhile the elephants were growling and trumpeting to beat the band. About an hour after departure we docked at the platforms and returned to earth. The elephants were led away to start eating no doubt their favorite part of the day where they hopefully can forget their cares for a spell. I had my park pass for the day so I opted for a canoe trip and jungle walk in the afternoon. Two guides are required anytime one enters the park since animals are a legit threat. The canoe was a thin dugout wood vessel long and sleek. I had a hard time balancing making my way to my seat in the middle of the boat that held 15 passengers. I didn’t have to row so I just sat very still constantly thinking the boat might capsize. It was calm on the water and the current moved us along with nary a rapid except one spot in 10 inches of water. The deep parts were smooth and everyone on this excursion was quiet birdwatchers or nature enthusiasts. We saw Siberian ducks; I love these birds from my first visit in 2013. They winter at Chitwan migrating all the way from the tundra and boreal forests of Siberia. They’re light brown and white with beautiful honks and are famous for monogamy. I can’t describe the vibe I get from them but it’s everything delightful about creation wrapped up in a feathery bird. Graceful. We also drifted by a magnificent gharel Crocodile with corkscrew snout. His menacing toothy grin and opaque eyes are eerily prehistoric but he took no heed and continued his sunbath, taking us back into forever B.C when only reptiles roamed. And he has endured with a wicked smile! Finally we pulled on shore and each group went separate ways in the jungle for their walks. My two guides and I followed the riverbed through thick sal forests with albino trunks and olive leaves dappled with sunlight. We stepped over mounds of rhino dung our only protection the staffs that the men carried. Slogging through Jungle is difficult stepping through vines and over stumps. Eventually we emerged into savannah where we saw a tiger pug imprinted in the sand. We also observed scratches in tree trunks from cantankerous sloth bears sharpening their razor sharp claws, evidence abound but so far no big game to speak of. It didn’t help our chances that the parks towering elephant grass had not been slashed yet, the huge tufts of grass can conceal a full grown elephant and certainly a snoozing big cat. Suddenly one of the guides who had scouted the route came back excited ushering us along the trail over a rise to a clearing with a bog where a female rhino was enjoying a soak. She stood in calf deep water before a backdrop of distant hills. The Asian One Horned Rhinoceros like a unicorn is a rare and treasured species. I can’t describe the components that make up this astounding animal with plated coat of armor over protruding ribcage, thick crinkled skin pointy ears and its distinctive horn. The animal was fifty yards away, docile in the afternoon sun but these are the meanest vegetarians on earth and can kill by charging. But she just swished her tail and splashed her head in the water exposing her meaty rump. This is one of the most magical animals I’ve seen in my life another prehistoric creature that emanates a certain magic and POWER. There is something unmistakably dinosaur about the Rhinoceros and I wanted to stare. When I had to leave I put a part of the rhino inside my heart where I can keep it and call on its power. The afternoon was dying and howling monkeys hooted along with barking deer as a bloody sun oozed through the forest. Finally we crossed over by canoe to the other shore and I treated myself to an ice cream cone. On one of dozens of solo candlelight dinners I devoured a buffalo steak which was nice and gamey. Sizzlers are also good grub after a safari chicken or buff served on a sizzling skillet.
I never saw a tiger but I know there out there along with many other animals in one of the few bastions of habitat remaining on the subcontinent. These great animals rival those of Africa but are pushed into limited strips strung together like emeralds so tigers and elephants can move from place to place freely. Chitwan holds a special spot in my heart and part of me remains there prowling for supper under a hazy yellow moon.
The Lumbini bus was a local all the way, a small tan vehicle with puddles of liquid on each seat. The ride was long trundling through a sequence of Terai cities all with wide dirty streets and dilapidated buildings with Newari style facades. Not the great architecture but the peasant designs tiled houses with balcony rooftops. Rickshaws packed the streets some bicycle driven and other carriages pulled by barefoot men. Every hundred yards the same scene endlessly loops; men selling oranges by the roadway or women banging on the side of the bus trying to hawk roasted ears of maize. Billboards advertise study abroad programs in Japan which doesn’t seem possible when I look out my window. This is a typically Indian way of life in fact the Terai has ties with the Indian plains across the border. The bus lumbered over a surprising segment of hills before descending into smaller Terai towns no more salubrious than the cities only smaller and maybe poorer. My god it was the dustiest place on earth with the ubiquitous acrid smell of burning trash which is always present in India. At one point the driver shouted for the Lumbini passengers to unload and board a larger jam packed local which trundled into Lumbini bazaar an hour later. First impressions Lumbini Zucchini! No wonder Buddha split although he might have considered going north but instead became a jungle ascetic merging with the astral plane. It might have been the saddest town on the whole line with smog stained Buddha statue meditating on a pile of trash. The road followed the endless dingy yellow wall with a river of trash strewn at its base. This was the barrier of the Lumbini Develop Zone which held all the monasteries I would never see and the birthplace of Buddha Gautama. I hopped off the bus stretched my legs and turned down the DUSTY main street in search of lodgings, singing the Weight, “Pulled into Nazareth.” Although it was Lonely Planet recommended I didn’t like my first option since Lumbini seemed depressing enough I wanted nicer digs so I opted for a tourist hotel across from the archway of the compound. My interactions with human beings were bizarre and made me ruminate on possibilities of aliens in Lumbini. The hotel clerk had dewy vacant eyes like he wasn’t really there asking me to sign the register.
Legend backed by archeology states that Buddha was born in a field in present day Lumbini more than 2,500 years ago, a full half millennium before Christ. In my opinion his philosophy is unrivaled to date and that’s why he endures and has my respect. Of course I only know him through others just like I know tigers exist in Chitwan through others telling me so. It’s been a long lineage branching into the Himalayas and its crazy saints but it started here and that’s why I came. Guru Rinpoche, Tsangma, Drukpa Kunley, all spring from this source. Therefore Yeshi is here too although I don’t feel her strongly walking down the concrete walkway past scrawny monkeys grooming each other adjacent to a hazy wetland. A brick walkway leads to the entrance to the holy complex. Hanging on the fence a rusty sign announces this as the birthplace of Buddha. Can’t they install a better sign? Pilgrims remove their shoes and go through a metal detector arriving in the field where the monument resides. The “exact” birth spot in enclosed by a building that one friend compared to a mental hospital, a utilitarian white building with an underwhelming Chorten fused to the top. It indicated Buddha’s humble beginnings but I’ve seen such lavish temples in Thailand and Bhutan you’d figure they’d spruce up one of the most sacred Buddhist places. You check in with an armed guard then enter the sterile building walking on a raised plinth over bare earth with excavated brick cairns dating back 2,500 years which is hard to believe since the ruddy bricks are remarkably intact. The walkway goes in a square and sunbeams flow in from some unseen windows above making IT seem like a dream. Others walk the plinth clockwise including a Chinese man ahead of me. People bunched up when we got to the alcove where Buddha emerged from Mother Mayi Deva revered by Hindus as a Goddess. She is akin to the Virgin Mary except the conception was not immaculate and Buddha was born a prince. Her party was traveling back to the palace where Buddha spent the first 29 years of his life when she went into labor. Much is assumed about the life of Buddha and I couldn’t help wonder if he ever passed by this place in adulthood or even gave it any thought. I mean how many of us think about the spot where we were born. Emperor Ashoka came from China and put a pillar up hundreds of years later and that pillar was destroyed by lightning and Lumbini was forgotten reclaimed by a phantom forest that no longer exists. Eventually the region and Lumbini was rediscovered before fading once more and again being unearthed. 30 miles away is the palace where Buddha lit out from on a moonlit night deserting his wife and newborn on an ambiguous journey into the heart of suffering. How many nights he must’ve cried in the jungle doubting his path? The weeping Buddha, in my mind’s eye it was the Palace that I wanted to see since that’s where his thoughts and feeling arose but I never got there.
Back to the spot where Buddha was born pilgrims rubbed gold dust from the brick wall and smudged their foreheads with it. I didn’t know the meaning of this so I simply touched my forehead to the cool goldbricks and clasped my hands together in reverence. The energy in the grotto was magnified and intense with so much fervent prayer over so many years directed to a pinpointed rock and slate carved slab encased in glass the rock that Mayi Deva grabbed onto when giving birth. People toss money around the spot (not tacky in Buddhism although it should go for a new monument) and white scarves are strewn over gold satin cloth. I felt an overwhelming presence of the human spirit the essence of our own Buddha Nature which burns or flickers in all of us waiting to ignite and I can’t deny I felt the Buddha to my marrow there-a moment of true faith. I imbibed the strong worship of Mayi Deva the Queen of a small empire spanning the current day Indo/Nepal border in the Central Terai. Even if Siddhartha never returned to his birthplace on this “exact spot” his impact is felt here and now spreading a glow around the world.
Outside the asylum the sacred pond where Mayi Deva bathed looks more like a skuzzy pool could it truly be the same pond from millenniums ago? Beyond the pond is a papal tree with monks in saffron robes meditating alongside two aging hipsters that looked like they’d been to Freak Street too many times. A group of orthodox men were chanting prayers. Around the tree and pond in the field are scattered cairns and crumbled plinths, walls of ancient obelisks reportedly dating back 2,500 years according to placards. I tripped out on the tree almost banyan style with sacred alter placed at its roots with smoldering incense and some figurines smudged with marigolds the mark of the Hindu. Some wacky toothless crone was shouting at the pilgrims reciting prayers and shouting at the tree itself either blessing or cursing everything in her path. This hunched withered body encased a firecracker ready to explode you could see her wick shrinking. Near the monument the restored Ashoka pillar looked suspiciously like a smokestack from a tugboat at Disneyland. Walking out I poked my head in the Nepali and Tibetan monasteries at the latter met a crippled man in wheelchair with twisted legs spinning a handheld prayer wheel. He was being wheeled by a red robed monk. We struck up a conversation and somehow talked about Bhutan when he said Tashi Delek. He wasn’t Tibetan he was local but somehow prayed that way, he must have a tough life real suffering in the heart of Lumbini. Then an unfortunate confrontation when I said hello to a group of women who looked Muslim with their heads covered only exposing face and wearing black robes, except one of the group wore colorful garb that looked like a fairytale princess. I commented on the clothes and asked where they were from and they mocked me imitating my voice then telling me to go away, “Go Go!” fanning me away with their hands as people in this part of the world do. I shot back that they ought to lighten up and that they didn’t understand the message of Buddha. Then I laughed at my defensive posture realizing I wasn’t getting it either. A Lonely situation as I walked alone feeling desolate watching the sun sink over the papal tree and white blocked monument and I guarantee at a time Gautama felt exactly the same way I did at that moment. Exiting the park I observed more lonesomeness watching the vapid faces in candlelit stalls dusting off identical Buddha statues waiting for pilgrims to purchase one. The streets were almost empty except of straggling locals and the shops had no snickers only warm Pepsi and Lotte pies. Beside the stale potato chips Lumbini couldn’t have improved much in 3,000 years. I witnessed the same type of decay and suffering that sent Gautama on his quest for enlightenment. I felt an oppressive lonesomeness and started to get that Buddha is in my toenail feeling and plotted an escape in a similar fashion to Siddhartha himself.
I wanted to get the hell out of Lumbini aborting my trip to the ruined palace instead boarding a morning bus bound for Kathmandu. It’s a 10 hour trip passing through the Terai, Middle Hills, finally arriving in the Kathmandu Valley. About two hours from Lumbini we stopped at a bus park in Butwal, a classic Terai town. The large city is an ancient trading center between India and Tibet and sits at the foot of the Himalayan foothills but is still a Terai town to the bone. It took us more than an hour to get out of there stopping every so often for no reason on the side of the road near vegetable stalls. I jumped off the bus and took a pee in a dodgy potty that looked like it had never been cleaned and bought an orange. This was a nice tourist grade bus and we stopped for lunch in a spot set off the busy throughway. The road through the hills weaves and the bus careened past motorbikes and roadside shops tooting its Ta Ta style horn as we hit the inevitable traffic jam on the turns outside the entrance to Kathmandu Valley.
(Christmas in Kathmandu Interlude)
I spent Christmas in Kathmandu puttering around Thamel feeling lonesome. It was a pathetic holiday meal stranded in the Penguin Dinner waiting an hour for a subpar chicken sandwich and handful of fries. The cafe was a dingy place with only one other group of Nepali in the corner making merry. Beleaguered I went back to Ganeshy Mall and soaked in the bathtub where I could hear the din of Thamel fading outside. I listened to Simon & Garfunkel shedding a tear for “Bridge over Troubled Water” (Sail on silver girl…sail on by) It was the first teardrop to fall from my eyes in years and quickly my stone cold soul iced it. I talked to my family which was the highlight of an uneventful Christmas, staring out the frosty window at the ancient empty streets to dead for dreaming.
It wasn’t even dawn but the disheveled streets on the outskirts of the city were awake bustling with people sweeping (pushing the dirt around) and pulling carts of vegetables to the bazaar. Kathmandu is always caught up in human commerce, the crush of humanity rolling by. I bought my ticket to Sera Besi from a man sipping chi tea from a tiny plastic cup nestled in a candlelit cubby. By the time the sun came up our dented green bus was chugging into the adjacent valley where I caught my first glimpse of a few snowcapped peaks. The bus was packed with locals many with Tibetan features and embroidered caps, there was one group from the UK with their guide. The Langtang Trek is the least popular of the teahouse treks receiving far fewer visitors than Everest or the Annapurna treks. I chose Langtang over the Annapurna Circuit where 20 trekkers died recently in a freak storm in October, they froze on the mountainside unable to make it back to shelter buried alive in a blizzard, a week later the route was reopened but I had resolved on Langtang following my intuition. Now I was on an interminable journey my destination a hundred odd miles from the capital took eight hours following a narrow scantly paved road. It was a ride I took four times always stopping for lunch at the same roadside canteen serving some of the finest Dal Bat on the planet. Dal Bat is the Nepali staple dish served on a tin divided plate (prison style) the dish consists of steamed rice, a vegetable curry usually potato, a crispy wafer, and pickled vegetable. The centerpiece is Dal a lentil based and spiced soup. Despite its simplicity Dal Bat can be a delightful sup and I fancy myself a connoisseur always searching for the ultimate Dal favoring the darker richer blends. This is Himalayan soul food like Emadatsi but the two are distinctly different in character. Despite rolling up the foothills of the Himalayan range I felt a world apart from Bhutan.
The bus stopped many times boarded by Nepali soldiers in blue camouflage who checked and rechecked my permit due to the parks proximity to China. Finally we reached Dunche the gateway village to the park which touts its resident Red Pandas a species of small ruddy panda found in Bumdeling, Sakteng and other pockets across the Himalayas and China. The bus continued on to Sera Besi where I disembarked grabbing my pack from the roof rack, immediately I walked up the road and found the trailhead which was not marked, crossed a suspension bridge threading through a cluster of lodges. It was 2:38 P.M when I initiated my trek up a dry portion of the canyon which would run in congruent segments all the way to the Langtang Valley. The sun had already gone behind the wall and a breeze kicked up but soon I was shadowing the turquoise river on a cliff which I absentmindedly nearly stepped off. I checked myself remembering where I was and that a lapse in mindfulness might mean death. I passed a handsome couple from England near a viewpoint where I ate an orange near a cluster of boulders and bamboo. About an hour later just before twilight I ascended into a riverside cluster of trekking lodges known as Bamboo. I took shelter at the first lodge which housed a big family who didn’t speak much English. The standard of living is similar to village conditions in Bhutan except the lodges are isolated and seasonal existing only for the tourist. Some families make a small garden but all supplies must be trekked in by Sherpa dudes and that’s why the price of Coke increases the higher one goes. The lodges also become more basic the higher you go, at Bamboo I ate Dal Bat around a bukari while little kids stared at me. Trekking in Nepal is a great way to get a sampling of authentic Himalayan culture and cuisine along with breathtaking views. The rooms were set apart from the family’s quarter five basic units with windows and a hard planked bed. It’s clean and perfect. The rooms are cheap where the proprietors make profit is on the food. I didn’t sleep well on that first night and many others too but I was rearing to go at first light biding ado to Bamboo. Langtang is a lovely trail and I say that with love in my heart. Trails all have their own character and Langtang seems to guide the walker with ease. This trek didn’t match the grandeur of ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) but it also didn’t have the dreaded stone steps. The trail does ascend 10,000 feet and is hard work but there is a cadence that encourages the wayfarer. Perhaps it’s the lush forest along the swooshing river that soothes the soul or the solitude. It was on that second morning I witnessed a trail miracle in an emerald forest alone at sunrise. A troop of languor’s skimming through the canopy bounded over the flexible branches with long limbs and enormous graceful swooping tails. These primates flew through the trees performing arboreal acrobatics moving incredibly fast leaping from the treetops before catching a branch and springing to the next branch Tarzan style. They made it look so easy and made me feel clumsy in my own primate body. Their sleek bodies were covered in white and grey fur with black tufts around their intelligent faces and liquid brown eyes. The forest was calm except for their clicks and whistles that reminded me of dolphins. I was overwhelmed, agape, tranquilized by the beauty of the moment and stood transfixed grateful to be a part of the scene. I might be clumsy in the trees but humans are expert distant walkers and in that spirit I resumed my quest.
Soon I encountered another strange creature on the trail a changeling. I was taking a break (always less than 4 minutes) and this entity collided with me. She was carrying wood on her back in a wicker basket with a strap across her forehead the traditional way of totting loads. We had a quarrel as to who should proceed first and it struck me as a long dialogue since it took place in a language unknown to both of us. A lot of hand gestures decided she would lead but she waited for me eagerly at every turn grabbing my hand with her boiled fingers before bopping along with cropped hair and china cat eyes. Eventually we came to Lama Hotel an important junction with a dozen closely clustered lodges mostly vacant in wintertime. She waved goodbye as the trail became steeper travelling through deep woodland along the riverside. The river a braided silver swath spiraling in the canyon it’s small cascading waterfalls dropping over rock ledges cutting the shape of the narrow gorge. Next, a series of undulating passes gaining several thousand feet in elevation as the grand firs and twisted oaks began to shrink. The last in these chains of minor passes was a wooded knoll decked in rainbow prayer flags and a small Mani wall. The river whooshed below the dusty trail at a point where I saw one of only two solo trekkers on my journey a man with a lopping gait. After the requisite Namaste greeting I continued upwards and through a bushel of bamboo caught my first glimpse of Langtang Lirung, a dazzling white peak both soft and hard in essence. A peak of boundless magic, a goddess protecting her dominion the borderlands of Nepal and Tibet now called China. Langtang would enchant me both in wakeful and dreamful hours gashing a deep imprint firmly entrenched in my ragged heart. Her name is Langtang…Fear, admire, and revere her…
The afternoon was creeping on when I stopped for lunch. I foolishly didn’t bring enough money which meant I took inadequate food and pushed harder than necessary but it might have been fate since I wanted to run like Buck in Call of the Wild taken over by the trail. My poor boy lunch was two boiled eggs and an orange under Langtang which now towered 15,000 feet directly overhead barely visible crowning a vertical rock face. I had to crane my neck for a look and soon I’d be too close even to see. The trail continued to twist up the canyon through stunted vegetation leaving the luscious forests and languor’s far behind. My beloved trail became more complicated sandy and muddy navigating through a labyrinth of boulders requiring some fancy high stepping. Occasionally a group of Koreans would come clacking down the pitch with their ski poles and it seemed I was the only one without poles. There would come a time when I’d trade my kingdom for a set of poles but at the moment I enjoyed the freedom of swinging arms. The Koreans love their gear and dress the same when patrolling a mound outside Seoul as climbing Everest Base Camp. Most of the Koreans are in their 40-50’s and must be admired for their tenaciousness. Ajamahs plodding along in bright parkas, floppy hats, and sunglasses, their poles click clacking on bare earth. I sport my worn boots with holes in them stitched up too many times to count but still taking me where I want to go. And on this day I wanted to make it all the way to Langtang Valley which required a hardy push in the afternoon and elevation was now affecting me breathing thinner air. At around 11,000 feet one begins to notice subtle changes and the body begins the process of acclimation. At the end of the great canyon was a military camp where I surrendered my permit and TIM’s card (Trekking information management system for solo trekkers) to a soldier who entered me in the ledger. Exiting the canyon I entered the astounding Langtang Valley gateway to the Greater Himalayas (that’s your big boys!) 7,000 meters or as Yanks calculate 20,000 feet plus. Langtang might be lesser in height than Annapurna South the hearth goddess but in this valley there’s but one queen and she had vanished again, stretching north a ring of frozen peaks and South the Langtang Glacier reining from heaven licks the valley floor strewn with giant boulders. Strips of dwarf pine cling for dear life on the opposite bank of the galloping river and along the trail a few scattered bushes and clumps of brown grass hang on. Regrettably I stopped for Yak Curd at a teahouse, it was a bowl of sourness that turned my stomach but to be polite I consumed the rancid elixir of Shangri-La thanked the old woman who sold it to me and continued to my destination with an acute stomach ache. It looked so appealing on the painted sign that announced, “Fresh Yak Curd”
Langtang trekking village must be busy in October but just after Christmas was a ghost town, two dozen lodges strung out over a rise in the valley on a plateau. I picked a lodge with a few other tourists including a German couple who’d I see in the future, an older Korean couple approximately the same age as the Germans and 3 young Nepali including a gal from the Terai who the tiger terrorized in the dining room. A retiring teenager named Maya did chores with Monpa apple cheeks and braided hair that hung to her waist. She possessed Tibetan high cheekbones and eyes of light complimenting her graceful deportment. She and her heavyset mother ran the joint which had a Guru shrine in the family room with seven bowls of water set before it. Soon after arrival the Himalayan lightshow commenced setting Langtang on fire! The peak was barely visible protruding violently scarlet over the brown crags capped by a royal blue sky. In that other unreachable world spindrift swirled off her rocky crown evaporating into frozen ether, a view that left a hole in the pit of the stomach, or was that the Yak curd? It was a helluva first full day on the trail and I was already looking forward to my birthday but first I had to endure an extremely cold and windy night. In the blackness the jet stream dipped into the valley threatening to blow us all away but there were windier nights ahead. And thanks to that wind I awoke to clear blue skies and slathered my face in sunscreen before heading out with a daypack towards the end of the line. The Terai girl Dill Maya wished me happy birthday as I lit out since I had told the group the night before as we sat around the woodstove chatting in broken English.
Snow and ice now became a factor on the trail. In the Langtang Valley ice was the adversary especially in the frozen dawn as I trudged slew foot style past a row of primitive stone Chortens brothers to the whitewashed Bhutanese Chortens. These stone stupas are of Tibetan design and the valley is home to the Tamang ethnic group tracing their lineage directly from Tibet speaking a language that is similar to Tibetan. Tibet is vast though with countless ethnicities and the Tamang folks are a long way from Lhasa and even further from Kham and the Eastern tribes. Although people in the Himalayas share many traits and characteristics the geography keeps them secluded. For example the locals knew nothing of the happenings in Bhutan if they had heard of the Kingdom at all. I suffer from the sin of excessive pride in my Bhutan residency believing that it brings some street cred with the Tamang folk but it doesn’t. Like in Bhutan I am a perpetual interloper in Shangri La. Yaks graze the remnants of grass along the trail, they look like bulls with shaggy coats and piercing longhorns. These are prized creatures in the Himalayas living only above the tree line. They provide dairy products and if butchered tasty meat. It was an auspicious start to my birthday sauntering among towering peaks in a valley that felt high and wide offering a fine taste of Tibet for the hungry ghost now 37 years old! But my stomach wasn’t completely empty since I ate doughy Tibetan flat bread for breakfast that was hard to swallow even with water.
This section of trail followed a gradual gradient rising to the last station on the line a place called Kyanjin Gompa. This was the end of the line with two dozen lodges nestled under an expanse of swooping peaks at the foot of the Langtang Glacier. One can creep further up the snowbound valley but I only proceeded as far as a gnarled dwarf evergreen tree which might’ve been the last conifer before the frozen peaks of Tibet. I meditated a spell watching ravens playing in the wind noticing a few songbirds darting around the underbrush. It was a stellar noontime with electric blue skies and gleaming white mountains unified in a tantric embrace. The sparse valley was awash with boulders deposited from the ice flow, rudimentary stone chortens, and well placed water driven prayer wheel. Ah but the trail was in my blood now and called me to retrace it’s steps rapidly flowing from the sublime openness of the high Himalaya into the thick riverside forests of fir and sweet stands of bamboo. By birthdays end I was alone at an offbeat lodge with an oddball proprietor who drove me batty dialing and redialing his mobile only to be denied by an automotive operator the mechanical voice of Nepal telecom.
The next day was a hard worn battle on the trail as I left Langtang initially missing my shortcut and having to re-climb a tough pitch. A nice boy took me back to the split off the main trail marked by an elusive blue arrow painted on an ankle high rock. From here on I would be lost most of the time on the trail less travelled.
My destination seemed viable on a map but it was a grinder from the get go. The luxurious trail that was Langtang had shot into a trail that was reminiscent of hiking in East Bhutan. No more passable parts since now I was on single track switchbacks that lumbered up the mountain through stunted bushes offering no views of any kind. Sweating, I came to a lone tea house where a mother was working a loom while her little daughter stared at me wide eyed. I declined lunch and took a moment too appreciate the scene and catch my bearings. The next portion took me through bamboo clusters on a flat ridge, always a rarity in the Himalayas. A clearing revealed the settlement of Thulu Syabru which would prove to be a disruption in the temporal continuum a vortex that would rule me for two days and a night. It all seemed simple enough get up to that village and proceed but it was a helluva climb from the suspension bridge across a river up to the ridge top settlement. When I reached the first teahouse it was another hour to the crest through a functional village with empty lodges interspersed. The sun beat down mercilessly and I felt like I would faint by the time I arrived at a rundown schoolhouse and Chorten and the shortcut to Gosainkund Lake. It was about 2 PM when I slumped down along a Mani Wall snacking on Pringles and hydrating with H2O. What to do? Push on or stay put since the map looked sparse with unreliable accommodations. A resident warned me that no lodges were open on the next stretch but I thought he was only trying to ply me for patronage. He was right however but how could I know so I lit out again on a trail that had no markings and several offshoots. Those little faded blue arrows were my only beacons as patches of snow began to appear on the footpath. Furthermore the sun had melted the mud and I was sliding around biffing more than once and making a mess of my clothing. My treads had no traction and soon six inches of fresh muck caked my boots. I struggled up to a gorgeous Chorten with slate Guru carving and views in all directions of forest, terraces, and snowcapped peaks. Again my heart filled with the joy facilitated by these magical mountains, a scope unparallel on our lonely planet. It was torturous climbing on an exposed slope to what I reckoned was my stopover point teasing me on. When I finally huffed and puffed into station I found it locked and deserted as was one further up the slippery slope. At the second lodge I encountered two locals descending who spoke no English but pointed the way. I waited at the deserted quarters wondering what to do and watching a three legged cow hop around the forsaken yard while a weather vane twirled aimlessly in the wind. A lonelier scene one couldn’t imagine… I thought of breaking into one of the abandoned dorms to sleep but opted to push on with a dwindling water supply. I hadn’t seen another trekker since departing the Langtang trail and afternoon was advancing in shadows across the valley. I could still hear echoes of faint laughter from children in Tharu below or it might’ve been an audio mirage. On a false summit a Chorten and a split in the trail caused my body to fill with anxiety a fearful spring always near bubbling to the surface. I went left and soon was crunching through crusty patches of snow through a brooding fur forest with the largest trees I’ve seen in the Himalaya with thick mossy trunks. It was eerily silent with nary a birdsong for company, only thick air, an oppressive consuming quiet. I was tired and drank my last sip of water and felt on the edge of safety and heard my mother’s voice imploring me to retreat. I pondered my situation near a towering tree the king of this lonesome woodland and eventually did turn back feeling annoyed and defeated in the middle of fucking nowhere. On the way back I slipped in the mud wallowing on my back like a terrapin but fortunately only my pride and backbone were bruised. I’d be okay but wondered if my crack at Gosainkund Lake might fade into oblivion. And that’s how I ended up back in Tharu three and a half hours after departing that same place slogging into a friendly lodge just before sunset. The German couple had caught up with me and I spent the evening watching the sunset glinting off Ganesh Himal on the distant horizon and talking with three sisters all with apple cheeks and thick braided black hair. I slept fitfully plotting my attack for the next day and considered heading back to the lower hills and civilization. You must know that I decided to press on at first light lumbering back up the 2,000 feet I had covered the previous afternoon past both deserted lodges, to the same unmarked Chorten and into the brooding fur forest now dappled with sunlight. Fortuitously I saw a local who pointed the way only responding to Gosainkund. I had the right trail all along but who knows if I could’ve made it the two hours of snowbound unmarked segments to the next lodge. Even in the bright morning I thought I had lost my way a half dozen times following crusty tracks of ghosts who had made the journey before. The morning was spent in the forest sometimes in ankle deep snow crisscrossing ridges making several wrong turns and backtracking every so often coming across an abandoned lodge not to reopen until the spring season. Gratefully I emerged out of deep cover and onto a ridge with five lodges and one of them was actually open. I had made my connection and now was on the trail bound for Gosainkund lakes!
Gosainkund (Are you kind Lake)
I ducked through a fence the portal to another universe and on December 30th made steady progress exulting on a flat pine topped ridge with sweeping vista, singing songs, chatting away with all the green leaved entities who are always fine listeners. I even ran antelope style kicking up a tail of dust. The sun was also on the move across the celestial plane but a fine afternoon stretched ahead on a day where time stood still or at least crept along in shades of eternity. Again I plundered into deep forest and I began to understand what I’d been through although Tharu seemed light years behind, using Ganesh Himal as a beacon I attempted to orient in the vastness of this range. I had a ways to go but had sprouted wings and like Hermes soared along, touching life lightly then letting it sift through my fingers like dry snowflakes. Faith had brought me this far and deliverance was under foot. It felt good to be treading upon the earth Yo! Father sky above and Mother Earth below, I AM a part of everything now and forever…This is Tim’s bell…I arrived at Sing Goempa at the foot of a seven story mountain where I took a rest rallying my spirit for the huge ascent that followed. I asked the two dudes working the lodge how far to Laurembina Yak and they replied two hours. The climb started immediately as the lush forest gave way to stunted vegetation that tapered along the rutted trail. It was approximately a 2,000 foot climb up to the bluff, a collection of lodges known as Laurebina Yak. I arrived in mid afternoon and although I wasn’t currently lost I had to decide whether to push on for the Lakes or overnight at the bucolic bluff with stunning view of Ganesh Himal range due west. I pushed on although the guidebook strongly suggested acclimation to avoid altitude sickness. I monitored myself closely and did feel a tad dizzy on the windy exposed terrain of ice and rock. I tried to step on bare rock but had to negotiate ice most of the time. I saw a woman and guide descending near a simple Chorten housing a Guru shrine. The painted Guru smiled enticingly holding his scepter with impaled skulls, and I wondered if I was one of them. I asked for his blessing before continuing over the craggy crest and onto a ridge of lichen covered boulders, cliff faces, and drop-offs. All the vegetation had dried up except the strange fluorescent lichens and ravens somersaulted above. Another shrine carved into rock this time good old Ganeshy the god of obstacles, he removes them but also places them in ones path a trickster in essence portrayed as an elephant. Ganesh is ancient Hindu and he was sentry to Gosainkund where in May thousands of Hindu pilgrims make the arduous trek to bathe in the lake to cleanse their sins. It’s said that Shiva bathed there (or was it Krishna) to cleanse after being poisoned. Hence they come to purge the poison of the mind a toxin we all share. I was treading on sacred ground and I wish it was possible to bring you along since I know these words are but a shadow of what I witnessed and felt. The raw seed of the moment tainted by consciousness and here my craft falls woefully short. I can only say when I finally peeped the frozen lake I dropped to my knees in reverence beyond mortal tears. An icy grey pool nestled in an amphitheater of snowbound mountains, this was not a pond but a small frozen lake suspended in space on the verge of pouring into the abyss over its shoulder. This was the first in a chain of four frozen lakes the second of which and largest being Gosainkund where three lodges stood. One of these three was open and contained a group of Thai’s who had been scripting Thailand in the snow for many miles and had turned back from Laurebina La that day, their guides, and a Japanese man and solo trekker who spoke no English and was intense. The sunset on the lake was a spell bounding scarlet with mist rising from the cobalt half frozen waters. When I dropped to my knees I had heard the lake speaking or the ice groaning a peculiarly primal sound, the music of mother earth. We all chatted amicably and I was inspired by the three Thais who had never seen snow and made it that far. One worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Thailand for an American company and was in charge of safety. It was a freezing night with little sleep as the temperature dipped to negative 10 degrees Celsius a cold that permeated the core and had me curled up in fetal position praying for dawn. Already my gear was woefully inadequate, I had no poles to help navigate the deep pockets of snow and leather boots with holes in them that were already soaked, and a light shelled jacket. Fortunately the boots were flash freeze dried in the unbelievable chill and good to go for the next morning. It was so cold
I could barely manage sitting in the dining room for my fried potatoes and tea and soon the Jap with proper gear and poles was off with me tailing ten minutes behind. At the lakeshore was a Hindu shrine decked with some prayer flags too. The Hindu touches were the bells which I rang out in the frozen dawn asking Shiva for safe passage. The Jap made good time and pushed farther ahead but the trail was covered now and only a series of footsteps in the ice lead me onward up the treacherous pitch directly over the lake. It wouldn’t have been a good place to fall and when I did stumble I made sure it was not towards lakeside. I placed my feet in the impressions made by others in days past but this sometimes was problematic so I tried making fresh tracks which also was iffy. The snow was inconsistent and at this point I was relying heavily on my past experiences hiking with skies on my back to Keyhole or Estelle Bowl. Slowly if not steadily I made my way up the peak until the Jap disappeared altogether. I would later surmise that he had gone a different way towards a 5,000 meter peak and not to Laurenbina La. I can only assume with his grit that he succeeded but at the moment I was preoccupied that I had no one to follow and would be on my own in a precarious situation. There has come a point in all my treks where I am pushed to the limit and must take a few tenuous steps beyond IT. I considered turning back more than once on the way to Laurebina La but always tottered a few more steps and then a few more after that. To my left now another in the chain of frozen lakes this one completely submerged in snow and only the depression hinted at a lake. The drop offs here weren’t deadly in themselves although a fall would have meant sliding a hundred yards into the gulch or worse yet onto the ice of the lake. My biggest concern was twisting an ankle in the permafrost footprints but when I tried to blaze my own trail I fell through the snow to my hips and had to wiggle out. The ridgeline became very scary but at that point turning back seemed just as harrowing so I endured and things leveled out a bit near the pass. For me this was the apex of the world and the highest I’ve ever been. Laurebina La is cradled by Matterhorn peaks on both sides and has a view of the Ganesh Range and lower hills of Nepal. In fact the trail carries on towards Kathmandu but the footsteps stopped near the pass and I would’ve never made it further. In this area two infamous occurrences a Thai airbus crash and Australian trekker getting lost and found alive after 46 days. The pass is located at 4,600 meters (around 15,000 feet) and marked by a simple stone cairn amassed in whipping prayer flags. Who had put them there because on this day there wasn’t a living soul around not even a winged creature just me, the snow and wind. It was a silence so golden that death itself couldn’t compare in its perfect solitude. I broke the spell with a rebel yell that could be heard in the four corners of the universe “Victory to the Gods!” I loitered as long as I could before returning and just like those who perish on Everest I knew the descent was equally if not more dangerous and I took a few spills on the steepest pitch above Gosainkund but was relieved to find myself trembling lakeshore watching a yellow and grey bird picking along the edge of the frozen ripples. I had a snickers for breakfast then started off for Laurebina Yak past Ganesh and Guru falling many times since I had a tendency to rush being in only ankle deep snow. At Laurenbina Yak I saw the German couple still trucking and on the way to Sing Goempa I face planted near a slate painting of a blue Buddha copulating with his nude Dakini. I wiped mud from my face and vowed to slowdown but was soon running the flattop ridge on a rigorous day that would see me descending more than 10,00 feet! I passed the Thais and made the last descent thousands of feet pounding endless dusty switchbacks through regal pines, oak and bamboo finally crashing into a lush forest of thick vegetation where I spotted another troop of languor’s swooping in the canopy clicking like dolphins. I felt beat down by the time I picked up the dirt road into Dhuntshe just as evening fell. It was New Years Eve in the dirty mountain town where likely most of the residents spent all their days without ever venturing to the holy lakes two days walk above. The inhabitants were a mix of Newari and Tibetan folk and from the filthy streets I could see the towering peaks that concealed the lakes although Laurenbina was too high to be spotted tucked away in its own dominion with its own deities. It was a depressing setting for NYE but I was much too exhausted to care, I wolfed down some questionable chowmein bought a bus ticket to Kathmandu and crawled into my fart sack counting sheep for my countdown and kissing my hand.
What to do in Kathmandu II
It was my second leg of the four legged beastly journey between Dhuntshe and the capital on this ride a fight broke out and I woke up to find a kinky old Tibetan Auntie rubbing my leg. She eventually removed her hand snorting some sort of powder up her nose that smelled like patchouli. The girl behind me was retching for hours and barfing green bile into a plastic bag. It smelled rank but it was so crowded that it didn’t even seem to matter. This bus serves as a local as Tibetans clamor on and off at each outpost. Then soldiers checking for poached animal parts or contraband of some sort prod the luggage opening bags. In the hills the roadside towns get bigger and nosier and now Hindu’s with flowing saris like Disney Princesses embark and disembark with big red dots painted on their brows. School children in wool uniforms and thin neckties hop on and off going home for lunch and finally on the outskirts of the Dew rowdy teenage boys in fashionable clothes shouting at one another. Some Tibetans are still onboard for shopping outings in Kathmandu.
When I get off the bus I’m shaking all the way in the cab to Ganeshy where I gulp my welcome Masala Tea then take a hot shower. The drain is clogged but I continue to soak and when I’m done I’ve flooded the fourth floor, luckily I’m a preferred customer at the Mars Hotel and the Tibetan maids just laugh gesturing “No matter” and I get transferred to a new room.
The next day I set out to Bodhi a wonder of the Buddhist world the great Stupa built thousands of years ago sacked in the thirteenth century by pesky Mughals then rebuilt and expanded. My VP told me just the other night a myth about the origin of the stupa and three sons who made wishes and one of them prophesized the birth of Guru Rinpoche who is inexorably linked to the Stupa. That would further explain how it is the center for Tibetan exiles that fled after the Chinese invasion of their homeland that resulted in massive loss of life, culture, and artifacts. It’s also said that a bone of Lord Buddha is entombed inside the Stupa and I can’t help ruminate about what else is in there? Anyhow it’s one of the big three holy places along with Lumbini and Bodgaya where Buddha attained enlightenment under the papal tree after thwarting a barrage of phantasmagorical nightmarish images sent fort by Mara (a devil centuries older than Lucifer) The last card Mara played was sending three frolicking maidens that tried to seduce Gautama touching him in all the right places but he merely saw them for the illusion that they were and they became crones and turned to dust infuriating Mara who still seeks revenge in the trenches of Samsara, Bangkok Whorehouses and Las Vegas Casinos.
Bodhi once was surrounded by forest but now the pilgrim buys a ticket at the ornate gate stepping from the chaos of a bustling shopping district into the relative calmness of the sanctuary. Compared to little Chorten Kora the stupa is immense with a shinning white dome reminiscent to the head of a well shaped penis. Surrounding the walkway where pilgrims have circumambulated for thousands of years are rows of shops selling expensive Tankas, Buddhist kitsch, and pepperoni pizza which I sampled overlooking the marvelous shrine. What would Buddha say about all this commercialism? Atop the dome are the bloodshot blue eyes of Buddha who most certainly didn’t possess blue eyes any more than Jesus did. Above his eyes a bullion rod and mobile stretches into the ether transmitting messages to the mother ship. All Hail the jewel in the Lotus! OM MANI PADME HUM! I also found out recently that Buddha who did not want to be worshipped as a god (oops) prophesized that he would be born from a lotus fully awake and be called Guru Pema and so it came to pass that our freewheeling second incarnation of Buddha subjugated the bloodletting lake worshipping Bonpo tribes of Tibet with his scepter and magic powers. All hail the jewel in the Lotus Yo! And so that’s why the power resides at the great stupa of Bodhi in a Hindu land that is of incalculable value for Buddhists. Kathmandu is a city of Stupas and this is the greatest. Tibetan red robed lamas fervently keep the flame alive praying night and day in the monasteries tucked around the stupa. But on this day it was some Sharchop puja with Bhutanese lamas and a gathering of thousands with bleating puja horns and crashing symbols that made me think of all my students toiling in obscure villages in the oblivion of east Bhutan. It seemed auspicious on a sparkling bluebird day with billowing nimbus clouds stretching and yawning into the stratosphere. It had rained the night before cleansing the smoggy valley washing the world anew. There were legions of maroon and gold chanting for Buddha, for our own Buddha Nature the compassionate seed within us watered by the sadness of Samsara. The weeping Buddha who shed rivers of tears for all of us just as Jesus shed his blood for all of us. They are the same and WE are the same but too asleep to know it! I am also asleep but enjoy the dream of this day ambling in somnolent circles around the stupa inhaling plumes of incense smoke plainly people watching. Western tourists, Tibetan old timers hunched over spinning rosary beads, and Nepali folks just hanging out with their families we are all part of the human family. (BE GOOD FAMILY) All playing some part in the heart of gold band. I thought of Becky since it seems her place more than mine. I had made it back to Bodhi, what a fucking blessing! What a world we call our home and what a shit show it has become but all the goodness is still present, every last mutated drop of life’s nectarous elixir as sweet as Coca Cola, also for sale at Bodhi along with Baskin Robbins ice cream. I climbed onto the jam packed plinth past banks of butter lamps and inconspicuous Hindu deities and climbed on the crowded stupa past rows of mantra mumbling monks. Below the plinth the wacky calisthenics of full length prostrates women sliding on wooden planks then bounding to their feet again before plunging earthward, full tilt boogie. We all experience the Dharma in our own way even if we don’t know what Dharma is and that is where my faith lies. Despite its lineage from the Hindu pantheon of gods and adaptation of Bon superstitions Buddhism at its essence is merely a Science of the Mind or lesson in detachment from non reality or the shimmering illusion containing both immense suffering and immeasurable pleasure seen as two sides of the same rusty coin. How we flip that coin is Dharma. In Hindu it means divine law or simply the teachings of Buddha but for me it’s life in your face challenging you 24/7 imploring release from the craziness of the cycle, a perverse merrygoround complete with flashing lights and circus music.
On that note I departed Bodhi making the cross town journey through traffic and ever beeping horns back to congested Thamel and Ganeshy Mall AKA the Hotel California to enjoy room service, a late night crepe and smooth yogurt lassi. DELICIOUS! The reason I had to return to Kathmandu was the logistical nightmare of obtaining an Indian Visa, claiming my passport, and transferring my Nepali Visa but not in that order. My myriad of taxi rides did however give me a fair overview of the sprawling city from industrial zones to shopping districts and even some overcrowded neighborhoods. The easiest was the USA embassy go figure but dealing with the Nepal bureaucrats and the Indians, not so much. The Nepali sent me up and down the stairs obtaining signatures from the same three guys in different order then went on lunch break just to ice me. But the Injuns topped the cake, arriving at 9 A.M on a cold sidewalk was akin to lining up early back in the days when you bought your Dead tickets at record stores. Wookies of all ages and nationalities lined up waiting to be admitted to the outside courtyard embassy where we took numbers Deli (not Delhi) style and when I got #1 I knew it was too good to be true since they rejected my paperwork since I put down Timothy Grossman omitting the Kristopher that appears on my passport. When I went to pay the internet café next door to redo it promptly and properly I met a foxy lady who was 28 and working at a nonprofit in Kolkata on a Visa run. We made fast friends and she asked if I wanted to go to the North Face Outlet for shopping. I could tell she was lonely and wanted companionship in the city much like Claire two years ago except she was sexier than Claire with sleek legs in tight jeans and a sharp but attractive face. She vanished to do her paperwork and I ditched her since my driver was waiting and frankly I thought it wasn’t worth the effort. What has become of my priorities preferring to be alone then in the company of a woman who in the states wouldn’t give me the time of day? Either way I already forgot her name but I would have to return to the embassy with trash pile burning next door for a third time to claim my Indian Visa. It’s what writers call foreshadowing.
Lost in Tibet (The Tamang Heritage Trail)
“In the shadow of the moon, Terrapin Station…”
The next day I was back on the bus to Langtang after getting another National Park Permit and TIM’s Card from the same attractive Nepali clerk who did ring my bell but wouldn’t give me the time of day. The Nepali chicks “valley girls” are so hip with nose rings long raven tresses and baggy genie pants. GRRRRR BABY! VERY GRRRRRR! I will spare you a description of the bus ride but I think you get the picture by now. This time it took even longer to lumber into Seri Besi the last outpost on the Nepali frontier where a gravelly road forks towards Tibet. The bus passed that road climbing on dirt track and I didn’t know where to get off on this village bound local sardine can teetering on the edge of bottomless cliff, Bubba Ganush would’ve flipped her lid. The lone English speaker advised I get off on the pass and I did then another youngster pointed me towards Gotlang the traditional village that was supposed to be the second stop of the trek. I had bypassed half a day on that bus out of Seri Besi and now was walking an anonymous dirt road with electrical wires as wet snow began to fall soaking my clothes. Soon I took my chances on a dirt track and sure enough followed a group of young girls with flip flops totting baskets of straw strapped to their foreheads getting a big kick out of me and asking for chocolate and pens as kids of that region do, “gimmie chocolate!” But the rural urchins led me into the attractive stone village just as night fell and I sought shelter in the first guesthouse but on this trek they’re touted as “home stays” That’s not far off since the vibe on the Tamang Heritage Trail is different than other treks. Margaret a middle-aged (like me) German and her guide were staying there too. She was nice and reserved like the other Germans and was an eye doctor and that prompted me to launch into my congenital nastagmus lament. For dinner I had Dindo which looked like a growler on a plate but the brown lump of Tibetan origin was made out of wheat and I had to work to get it down with copious swigs of water. I lit out before Margaret but would see her several more times since I was perpetually lost on this trek backtracking too many times to recall.
It was a morning as fresh as the first day on earth, snow dusted the fallow terraces and beyond the village a jumble of snowy peaks. I felt close to Tibet whatever that entails following a descending row of stone stupas more primitive than the whitewashed versions in Bhutan. Mani slates with Tibetan script adorned the stupas and I felt the juice of life coursing through my veins. Damn it was good to be out of that confounded city and in the mighty range again. I was headed away from those jagged peaks and stone dwellings with wisps of wood smoke curling from chimneys dropping rapidly into a narrow valley. I got confused not knowing when to leave the dirt road that was constructed for the Hydro project below. Finally some locals in Tamang attire confirmed my pointing on the map responding to the buzz word Tatapaini my intended destination. Except I said the name wrong half a dozen times before they got it and we all had a good laugh. Finally I was on a bonafide trail cutting rapid switchbacks through cute clusters of bamboo and dwarf pines coming onto a swift river. Things were looking up but tuned bleak when instead of a quant village I came upon a muddy gravelly worksite where Big Boy Tonka trucks were tearing at the base of the mountain for their hydro project sponsored by the Nepali/China Friendship attempting to harness the goddess for electricity for urban centers below. Unfortunately for all her POWER the Goddess cannot fight back (overtly) instead gracefully flowing allowing herself to be diverted and manipulated and yet she provides to our capricious whims anyway. HO!
It was yucky slogging through that mud and for the better part of two days I’d hear that tick tick of the toothy Tonka tank gouging the base of that coned mountain. I cleared the site and soon was lost again scrabbling over fallow terraces before another local (no one spoke English out there) pointed me back in that comical way that all Himalayan peeps do gesticulating wildly with hand flourishes.
An hour later and several more stops for directions I was on the unmarked trail that Lonely Planet remarks is difficult for route finding. Yeah that’s putting it mildly guys. A brutal climb in the hot sun with nary a tree for shade for hours I climbed up passing Tamang folk in colorful purple and pink dress with embroidered disc hats and turquoise jewelry completing their regalia. I rolled into Tatapaini by 2 and by 3 was soaking in the Hot Springs. At first glance I was disappointed at the hot springs with cement pools spigot and copper mineral waters. The water wasn’t too hot but very warm and made for a good soak after all. A Nepali couple or maybe Indian soaked all day since I took two soaks and a break and they were there both times. The springs didn’t have a mountain view but prayer flags adorned huge fir trees on the ridge above the pools and I warmed up to the place especially at twilight. Three white girls and a German they had hooked in with arrived on the scene. I had met the trio at Ganeshy Mall but as I said before I prefer the dark meat. They worked in Indonesia as ESL teachers but didn’t see me like an alligator lurking in the steamy waters. I chose a bad guesthouse that was pretty much abandoned but I did coax mediocre Dal Bat from the hostess and made friends with a young man who soaked with me the second time. He also looked Indian. It was a weird place tucked near the Tibetan border but many of the inhabitants looked mountain Indian like they came from Sikkim or somewhere. I never could figure it out but I did meet Mandarava incarnated as a lass wearing purple, she was a thing of beauty and when she uttered my name (saying it was sweet) it was like some holy incantation. She vanished into another room or dimension and I adjourned upstairs to the empty quarter where I spent a sleepless night with a violent wind that threatened to blow us all off the mountain, shaking the building and blowing my door open sending chills up and down my spine as I had to crawl out of my sleeping bag in the freezing cold and shut the door. Shudders clacked and the foundations shook the whinny of the wind trilling like Satan’s War horse. By daybreak the wind had died down some but outside tree branches littered the trail and I missed my turn ending up in some barren wasteland before retracing my route and sure enough meeting Margaret and her guide who I accompanied for about an hour to a viewpoint at an old ruined fort. Look! Ganesh Himal what a surprise now closer than I’d seen the 25,000 foot peak from Laurebina Yak a week before. When you put the three treks together it was a remarkable overview of the region from the gorgeous glacier of Langtang Valley, the awesome Gosainkund Lakes and still the best views of beloved Langtang Peak were yet to come but I didn’t know that yet. Soon I let Margaret roll by wanting to be alone on my trip but kept an eye on her and her guide as they ascended a succession of rolling bluffs gaining hundreds of feet in elevation with each hump. If you trained your ear you could still hear that damn truck thousands of feet below. Mostly though it was perfectly peaceful and I diverted from the trail towards my next point on the map but soon was slewing in the slushy afternoon corn arriving at the deserted “Great Wall Guest House” The name indicated its proximity to China which might have been any of those peaks beyond Langtang which now rose righteously across the valley. I was back in her bosom and had finer views from her backside than ever on the Langtang Trek itself. Go figure this world is full of surprises and if you hang with it long enough you are always rewarded in kind. But I had the dilemma of finding a place to sleep so I bushwhacked over dead grass to the top of the plateau where I met Margaret, the trio of white girls, their German tagalong, and guides all assembled at the only open lodge. We all had lunch chatting amicably and were joined by two Austrians a brother and sister. The brother was suffering from blisters but took it in stride. I would only get one blister not from my soft well travelled boots but wet socks the next day. It’s still benevolently residing on my heel. After lunch the whole bunch bugged out but I was attracted to this plateau with fine views of Langtang on one side and Ganesh Himal on the other so I stayed on roving along the 10,000 foot bluff with views in every direction of high peaks and the lowland hills from which I had come. The vista was dominated though by Ganesh and Langtang on opposing sides, A POWER SPOT. The lodge was operated by a Tamang couple who spoke no English beyond items on the menu. They did have expensive Coke and it was uncut fructose goodness. The sunset was unbelievable as Langtang was a scarlet fire finally fading to bruised purple. Nighttime the three of us huddled around the hearth and the man plucked at his lute but he was a beginner for sure. The night sky was full of low hanging stars and I reached up and played with them like a baby swiping at a mobile over his crib. The dipper burned brightly its ladle upside down pouring starlight onto the slated peak of Ganesh Himal (slightly higher than Langtang) a gibbous moon was frozen in its celestial sector illuminating the peaks in a ghostly whiteness.
The next day I decided to trek to a viewpoint that the guides said was closed, but how is a viewpoint closed. What it meant was that it was snowbound and the Tamang proprietor reiterated this fact in broken English but also somehow conveyed that one could see deep into Tibet from there. I was game so I decided to go for it. On this long day the heritage trail would transform into the hermitage trail and then I’d be off the trail and on “the path” At about 9 A.M I entered the dark woods following a defined trail which soon became lost in snow but fortunately like the parable of Christ’s footprints in the sand I tracked footprints for the next 4 hours through ominous terrain.
There was heavy snow in this country that plopped down off overburdened limbs sometimes baptizing me in slushiness. Sometimes the evergreens were regal and other times stout with inspiring views of Langtang through clearings. The mountain seemed to be getting bigger with each step. Funny the relationships we forge with inanimate landscapes but are they really just made of rock and snow or are our dreams hopes and fears in there too. Can a mountain feel love, it sure can inspire it! I stopped at a bench thoughtfully constructed by someone and there some logs were placed over the trail. Was this the point of no return the closure the guides had prophesized? I high stepped over the barricade and waded through drifts with inconsistent layers which made for slow slogging. Soon the trail emerged from the forest onto an exposed ridgeline in the intense winter sun beating off the snow, thank goodness for sunglasses. It was getting steeper and each time I convinced myself that it would be the final push I would only arrive at a false summit and a new pitch would be revealed mocking me. Trekking is a labor of love and sometimes a pain in the butt but through that effort immeasurable satisfaction arises. This was a memorable trail and it was wonderful to be alone with no one even remotely close. I knew if something happened the proprietor knew where I was headed but all the same I exercised caution but really you gotta just let it ride. This is Tim’s bell! Ding! Finally the real summit loomed above. What a treat, its exceedingly rare to actually summit anything in this part of the world since the peaks piggyback one another until oxygen runs out and you bang your head on the roof of the world. This vista though was the top of a round mountain and as I tackled the steepest section of the slope the snow lessened and I was able to pick my way on bare rock. By the end I was scampering and sliding backwards on slick snow clawing and crawling until I made it to the top! And there sure enough I was rewarded with a heart throbbing view deep into Tibet a jigsaw of razor sharp indistinct peaks and pinnacles stretching back over the curve of the horizon. Uninhabited and unconcerned about political boundaries, even the Red Chinese had no real claim here. Only Yeshi and her Guru might tell of their secrets from astral adventures in secluded mountainside caves in places much like where I was standing now. I projected my own being out of body and made a foray into that forbidden domain. The secrets I learned there were not revealed to my conscious mind but like I said the best things are left undiscovered. A knee high cairn bedecked with rainbow flags flapped in a light breeze. I romped in the midriff drifts of powder dry flakes each one unique trying to navigate the ridgeline towards Ganesh Himal a mountain that I admire immensely complimenting Langtang Lirung like the tantric union of male and female energies. The union of sky and earth represented in celestial beings painted on stone slates engaged in coitus. A blue Buddha in lotus position with a slender Oriental Dakini sporting pert breasts perched on his member penetrating her essence. I lived and died many thousands of times on that summit experiencing ecstasy and anxiety the gamut of worldly emotions and desires coursing through me like the jet stream blowing spindrift off the crystalline peak of Langtang. Actually the peak is a million tiny peaks all protruding from ONE massif. Each one with its own lines, shadows, affinities, and moods but tied together spiraling towards the tippy top although it’s hard to tell the true apex as the lesser peaks coalesce into three major peaks that still retain their oneness. Intricate cornices and depressions are carved on the crystalline entity I blink and shut my eyes and see colored worms swimming behind my lids and hear loud ringing in my ears. When I reopen them the mountain is fluid and alive, again I see her face but now she’s smiling at me with twinkling icy eyes. Turning I see Ganesh his slated rock and snow peak resting on a strong back with trumpeting trunk the feature obviously responsible for his name. Remember Ganesh the God of obstacles who I knew before Guru Pema, this is his domain and he and Langtang are connected and currently both beam down their energies engulfing my heart in blissfulness beyond earthy comprehension. On the Tibetan horizon a jigsaw of jagged peaks with all the saints and their dakini’s dancing in a sundog around our sacred star.
When I rejoined my body I realized my boots were soaked and I couldn’t feel my toes but I know from skiing that it was only temporary as long as I descended so reluctantly I began my descent immediately sliding feet first twenty yards down the icy slope before clawing my way to a stop. It was a long way down to that special bench and then back through the enchanted black forest to the lodge where I had left most of my gear taking only a lightened pack. I ordered up some chowmein slugged a coke from a plastic bottle and decided to keep heading down to avoid another frigid night on the plateau. The plateau was called Nagthali Ghyang and the viewpoint Tharuche.
I passed some grazing yaks beside a blossoming tree with red berries one shaggy black yak had piercing curved horns framing Langtang in a perfect bulls eye. The trail resumed at the old “Great Wall” guesthouse forlorn and empty. It was muddy and the snow had refrozen into treacherous ice and I took a hard fall struggling to get a foothold. I had to plan every step but got out of that tight spot and dropped onto a series of descending bluffs with Langtang getting closer and closer towering higher than any mountain ever has with golden light gilding all her lovely spires, a golden crystal pure as a snow virgin yet ruthless as any woman and I hate to think that man has climbed on her. The lower I went the higher she rose and soon I was singing and dancing on bullion bluffs prancing past a water driven prayer wheel with a tiny bell clanging with each revolution chiming only to the wind and water. I was abruptly gobbled up by a black forest with fir trees of unimaginable height and girth with sprawling crooked limbs draped in a thick carpet of moss and Langtang turning a multitude of warm hues was the only beacon. It was cold and quiet and even the birds whispered. I was dropping fast and again took a nasty spill landing face first on the rocks but was unscathed save a scratched wrist. I took a break since my spirit was outpacing my legs and I had to rebalance my body and mind. I was on my way to another traditional village called Thuman a cluster of stone houses some doubling as lodges with guestrooms. I found one with a nice view of my goddess and was served blue ribbon Dal Bat with bean curry instead of potato, and not green beans but Mexican style with out of this world rich Dal that made the knees buckle. Himalayan soul food! My stomach was a bit upset from the less salubrious plateau cook but it wasn’t that bad. Now I was in the domain of the Dithang a splinter tribe of the Tamang also directly linked to Tibet but with a different custom and language. Only one ridge separated the two tribes but after the walkabout it made perfect sense. My last sunset on Langtang luminous rays creeping up her broad shoulders and cropped hair illuminating the strong and gentle features of her face finally twinkling in her kind brown eyes holding me there for just a moment before fading into silver gloaming. Kids ran around in the adjacent field burning something in a smoldering fire pit. Haystacks rested in raised lofts and the stone dwellings made Thuman a nice holdover for the night and one last chance for mingling our dreams together of turquoise horses leaping off stenciled prayer flags cantering through this dimension. I want the realm where we can be ONE where I can stay forever.
I’m not a morning person even on the trail and when I said goodbye to Langtang now a pensive grey I never thought it would truly be the last time. I soon entered an arid village and then the trail was obliterated by a sinister road in progress and angry machine clawing gracelessly at the mountainside. A group of villagers pointed out the bypass and I ended up hanging off a small embankment my feet dangling five feet over gashed earth. I let go and dropped to the mangled earth with the deafening roar of the tractor spouting noxious fumes. I retreated down that evil track until I came to a roughly paved roadway and bridge where one Chinese looking man was shoveling gravel. In one direction was Seri Besi only 3 KM away and in the other Timure and the Tibetan border connected by this scant gravel road. I stood my ground deliberating before turning left towards the border. It was a hard slog 3 hours to the border and I always find rode walking more tedious than the most strenuous trail especially with a pack. I wasn’t expecting much but felt inclined to make it to that manmade line that defines the boundary of Tibet, nexus of tantric Buddhism. Bhutan is the last bastion of Mahayana Buddhism but Tibet is the cradle of all the schools in this sect including the old school Nyingmapa which Thegsey adheres too. It’s where the Guru amassed his POWER before heading south to Bhutan. So I felt inclined to look but I knew it would be a melancholy journey. Tibet is vast and I was a long way from Lhasa the central power and even further from the green rolling mountains of Kham very near to Tsenkharla and Tawang. It’s comprised of diverse ethnic groups and traditionally tribal Kham is not affiliated with the political structure of Lhasa but now all these parts are ruled mercilessly by China. When I came to Bhutan I thought that Buddhism was a peace loving religion that wouldn’t hurt a fly, literally. But no religion is bloodless since they are comprised of men. Tibet at one time captured lands in central China and made repeated invasions into Bhutan being repelled at Drukyul in the West and Trashigang Dzong in the East. Some Bhutanese have it that Guru Rinpoche prophesized the invasion too. Yet it was China who struck the deathblow in 1959 with bombs and machine guns massacring many Tibetans and destroying many monasteries. They kept a few as an investment and I’m not entirely sure the circumstances that prevail today. I’m sure some monks are left but the Dali Lama and many thousands of citizens fled to Nepal and India where his holiness resides today in exile.
The Chinese built road with occasional Ta Ta traffic and zipping motorbikes follows a pure vein of turquoise water braided with creamy rapids through a narrow canyon walled in steep hills. The place resembles the lead into Doksom and the two places share a sinister fate. Hydropower. Here, a major hydro project is underway and upriver the Chinese/Nepali Friendship bullshit company is tearing up the mountain diverting the sacred waters into channels and all sorts of unholy shenanigans, All for POWER and money. The valley must have been paradise lowland Shangri La, a Bey Yul or hidden land comparable to the Tamang side of the ridge and now both valleys are being raped and plundered the thoughtless commerce of the Chinese spilling over into Nepal. The labor camp looked dismal with workers eating gruel and men and women in monkey suits and hardhats who looked Han Chinese carrying around clipboards or shovels. Closer to the border excavators roam like terminators scratching at the bedrock piling gravel in a huge swath of destruction. In the last unspoiled beach I knelt down splashing some of that cold clear water on my face and asking for one rock to give my best friend. The river looked so good after enduring the torture of the trucks and channels but I’m still disturbed and wonder about the outrage of local deities.
Timure at first glance is dismal and dusty with dozens of Ta Ta trucks parked along the roadside. Ironically most have murals and sayings of Buddha painted on them and I wonder if the drivers are Chinese or Nepali. It’s not a heavily trafficked road and the main entry point from Nepal into China is at Borderlands and the Friendship Bridge 3 hours from Kathmandu. Why did they need another road? the answer was stretched before me, the hydro project POWER and money. The Chinese have ongoing disputes on every border from Tawang where they fought a war in 1962 blood oozing into the soil of my beloved valley and copters crashing in Sakteng, to Leh on the Indo/Pakistan frontier. They have reclaimed Tajikistan in a conflict I know very little about but there it was unfolding before my eyes as I walked the last few dusty miles around a bend the pillaging beginning at the border itself. Near the border a huge iced peak overshadows the canyon and a cluster of stone dwellings with erect prayer flags seems eerily out of place in this construction zone. Then it appeared like the Death Star before the Millennium Falcon, a huge tan edifice 25 stories high. A square block with ominous black mirrored windows an enormous façade with the road running through the middle like a gaping maw. It’s a sinister yet alluring building emanating ruthlessness. Mandarin script and the Chinese seal seem otherworldly yet surprisingly no Chinese flag unfurls. No prayer flags either just neon pennants that look like they’re from a racetrack the edifice is sterile and grand at once. The old border gates from a more civilized era still stand rusticating. One has auspicious Buddhist symbols like the conch and a few yards in front of that an old iron archway of barred iron reads “Welcome to Nepal” on its frame. At one point I would have been standing in Tibet but the Chinese “graciously” receded they’re border a whole quarter mile so now I was still in Nepal when I approached the huge bridge with spotless smooth pavement. The massive border building is newer than any building I’d seen in Nepal and an old tangent suspension bridge sporting prayer flags on the Nepal side runs into a parking lot on the Chinese side (A bridge to nowhere) No one passes here without authorization says the friendly Nepali soldier who was just placed there a few days prior. He’s handsome, tall with Anglican features and dressed in blue fatigues. He says I can step out on the bridge and take a photo but my camera lens had frozen the day before. I do however oblige and step into no-man’s-land onto the immaculate four lane bridge since you know how I love borderlands even despondent ones. Energies always coalesce at borders, the good the bad and the ugly. It’s strangely quiet over on their side with no armed sentries no vehicles but I imagine them Han Chinese peering out from behind opaque glass sitting behind desks with ledgers and a big red phone linked directly to Beijing. I was enthralled and very sad at once. I returned in late afternoon to an even stranger scene there, a ruined fort on the Nepali bank that’s fenced off and now I’m sitting on a chair at the shed but the Nepali soldiers are gone. A lone Chinese soldier and vehicle sit at the other side of the bridge. The Nepali roadblock is a flimsy barbed wire fence scaffold with sticks. The dichotomy couldn’t be more apparent between the two countries. I try to look suspicious and draw the Reds out but they pay no heed and I sit in the gathering dusk fixated on that building the color of the rock wall behind it. There are no views of Tibet the road immediately turns right from the customs tunnel and heads around a bend near a building that looks like a Doubletree Hotel probably housing the seemingly invisible throngs of employees and soldiers if they exist at all. From here I couldn’t advance but my heart goes on into the heartland of the Guru, origin of Milapara, Drukpa Kunley and Tsangma. The birthplace of CRAZY WISDOM! On the sorrowful walk back to Timure past the ramshackle shops I see a rock niche with a framed picture of Yeshi Tshogyel with a few frayed rupees crammed into crevices and I offer a note. Oh Yeshi this would break your heart and I know you know and for that I’d weep if my tears still flowed. Oh Yeshi you are so loved and you who loved your enemies as brothers. Oh Yeshi why are WE this way? Tell me Yeshi WHY? Only silence and the whoosh of the river but I know she has heard my cry and for that I am pacified.
A peach peak peeks out of Tibet my last sunset in the Nepali Himalaya a country that encompasses a third of the range and shares claim to the highest mountain on earth, Mt Everest with China who of course has built a road all the way to the 16,000 foot base camp. Timure is peculiar even for a border town and people walk around with stars in their eyes and vapid expressions. The shops display cup of noodles with Chinese kids on the package and Chinese Pepsi, the men sit around puffing those funny looking Chinaman cigarettes. Of all the bus rides that last one was the most grueling taking nine hours to travel 150 miles from the border back to Kathmandu.
What to do in Kathmandu III
My pal Jon and his brother Dave had just arrived in Kathmandu and we all hung out for two days. Jon taught in Wamrong and will be working at a private school in Thimphu this year and living with Ian and Vicky. He’s a funny guy and we encourage one another riffing endlessly on what the other says. Sometimes we get a little bawdy. His brother is more reserved living in New York City but a cool guy too. It was refreshing to make human contact and I fear I dominated the conversations having diarrhea of the mouth since I’d been on my own so long. We breakfasted on a roof top veranda then hit Kathmandu Durbar Square. This is world class people watching and offers prime examples of Newari architecture which has Hindu significance and Buddhist touches. You might duck into a secret cloister and see brick plinths with Ganesh shrines topped by stupas with Buddha Eyes. This is where the two faiths mix indiscriminately and we must remember that Prince Siddhartha (who later became Buddha) was born into a royal Hindu line much like Christ was a Jew. I find the mixing very refreshing and love these secret courtyards set off the brick avenues near the main square. The main square is vast with a collection of Newari pagodas made of brick and wood beams with intricate carvings with strange Hindu mythological creatures. One huge White House looking edifice is a relic from the colonial British. Nepal has had a crazy history and recently the entire royal family including king was slain by the prince in 2001 thus ending a 200 year reign. Recently the Maoist gained sway and there was fighting in the last decade. Nepal has significant poverty amongst its 33 million people and just in Thamel you get a taste. Beggars asking for milk money for their babes wander the corridors while inside well to do Nepali families eat pizza.
On our second day together we went to Bhaktapur one off Kathmandu’s three ancient city states and probably the best example of the classic Newari style. It takes nearly an hour to fight through ever present traffic to the outskirts of the modern city where Bhaktapur stands reeking of ancient culture. The mid evil city-state traces its roots to the 12th century when it served as a trade post between India and Tibet. The streets and buildings are all ruddy brick inlayed with cubbyhole shops that one must duck into. The Durbar Square is a happening gathering spot around sunset for Nepali’s of all stripes, sitting on the brick plinths among gilded penises, lion and elephant statues. The architecture is the finest I’ve ever seen although I’m still partial to Bhutanese however the dark carved wood blends so naturally with the brick and exudes a certain brooding intensity that is MID-EVIL. Nepali lovers walking hand in hand seem so at home superimposed against the bricks glowing gold in the sunset. It’s a great way to spend a day with friends having tea on a rooftop enjoying good conversation. Becky dubbed this part of my trip “Mr. Tim’s Social hour” which is true because the next day Jon and Dave went to Pokhara and Becky arrived all the way from the USA. The visits didn’t really overlap but they did see each other briefly reuniting three BCF chums.
My four days with Becky were a blessing and the first day we puttered around Thamel browsing in many bookstores. She surprised me with a pocket Turtle Island to go along with the pocket Pema she gave me last year. Now I have a great book for each pocket since that’s the kind of friend she is. We exchanged simple gifts are first night, she brought me chocolate from Abu Dhabi and I gave her a simple green rock from the Tibetan river. One afternoon we headed up the hilly avenues on the edge of the valley to the famous Monkey Temple or Swayambhunath that is perched on a hillock overlooking the expanse of the valley completely packed with buildings, an overview of that crush of humanity. The stupa is smaller than Bodhi but also less developed with only a few quant souvenir concessions. To reach the stupa the pilgrim climbs what seems like the world’s longest and steepest staircase, crooked and uneven stairs rising hundreds of feet from street level past statues of Buddha and snow lions. There is a distinct Hindu flavor at the temple and even the Buddha eyes atop the eggshell Chorten have a pronounced bindi on them. In fact I was seeing red dots everywhere including a huge smudge on the forehead of a beautiful young woman as I remarked to Becky, “look at the size of that red dot!” and the lassie overheard. For once I wasn’t misinterpreted and the fetching woman laughed batting her luxuriant lashes in a universally flirtatious manner. HO! Sunset at the monkey temple is magical with surprises everywhere including a wood carving of Jamyung the god of wisdom wielding a sword. The lines of this stupa are not as wide as Bodhi but are also a classic. Emperor Ashoka from China visited 2,000 years ago but the first confirmed activity is around 500 A.D. Like Bohdnath those pesky Mughals sacked and shattered the Stupa in the 13th century plundering its crackerjack prizes but today the Monkey Temple shines again (It can be seen from the rooftop patio of Ganeshy Mall) The reason it’s called the monkey temple is because it’s overrun by cantankerous monkeys all battered and scared from infighting. I recall on my visit with Claire one agitated monkey with pink face accosting me for the coke I was holding. These monkeys are bold and sort of ugly. They must have lived here when there was forests and now are stranded on their little monkey island. There is still a patch of forest behind the temple and beyond the relatively affluent neighborhoods stacked against the emerald hills ringing the valley. A bit below the great stupa, a wishing well and hundreds of strands of prayer flags flapping in the breeze. The Nepali stand around the well tossing coins into the water presumably making wishes and if I was to take a poll I estimate most of them are Hindu. I have seen Koreans and other Asian pilgrims circling the temple as well since Nepal is a Buddhist haven.
The next afternoon we went to Patan another mid evil city state although not as well preserved as Bhaktapur. The Durbar Square area had some treats including my all time favorite pagoda a five tiered and slender ancient edifice with pigeons roosting near the top. Can you imagine the thought and action that went into designing and building this one pagoda hundreds of years ago. It’s said that it was the Nepali not the Chinese who invented this classic Asian style of ascending and narrowing tiers, this one had unrivaled grace and I put it in my heart as a keepsake. I’ve never seen anything even remotely as elegant in America for all our wealth and dominance. Kathmandu although at times confounding has become one of the few cities that I cherish along with San Francisco, New Orleans, and Seoul. Another amazing experience was spying the Golden Temple in an enclave off an indiscriminant alleyway. The Golden Temple (Kwa Bahal) is a Buddhist temple built in the 12th century but to this day is immaculately kept. Imagine the hundreds of caretakers who put their hearts and minds into maintaining this jewel hidden in an alcove. Hundreds of years before Columbus set sail devotees were making offerings at this place and now here I stand. It would be an easy place to miss and the wanderer must explore the numerous hidden courtyards and cloisters that people the neighborhoods. This ornate temple was Nepali to the bone with Hindu touches but there are Tibetan friezes on the wall with Yeshi, Buddha’s floating in their bubbles and the wheel of life with its wild boar encompassing ALL. The courtyard temple is a slender and ornate pagoda with every point, tangent, and angle gilded in bronze. Prayer wheels line the main shrine with golden Buddha statue inside. Plumes of sweet incense waft through the air and a dozen elderly are around praying or simply reading the newspaper. The place gave me a special feeling and again I put it in the recesses of my heart as a keepsake.
We hailed a taxi and rolled across town to Bohdnath (Becky’s Stupa) it was my second trip to the holy Chorten with Becky and my how far we’ve come since then. Today the Stupa seemed quiet compared to the Puja a few weeks prior. We circumambulated spinning wheels and people watching then went up to a rooftop for tea peering down on the complex with a bird’s eye view as an airplane zoomed overhead. After tea we went on a famous Becky walking tour which is always a grand adventure as she is much more patient and less itinerary driven in her travels which often yields dividends. She led us out the back gate of the temple into a funky residential neighborhood that was one of my favorite areas of Kathmandu. We tried our best not to get run over navigating a maze of backstreets in the endless labyrinth that is the city. For me Becky’s presence is strongly connected to the Stupa and I always associate the two. While taking last licks around the Great Stupa I remarked that this might be a place you’d spot Singye the Caucasian Monk and BCF alum. Ironically Becky and Jon spotted him at Bohdnath a week later on the mendicant trail between Bodgaya (the tree where Buddha attained enlightenment) and the Great Stupa. His search for peace of mind in this mixed up world is admirable and I heard he misses the Kingdom so. With the Buddhist moniker Roaring Lion how can he fail his quest? Another famous alum Ashleigh was reputedly in Pokhara on tour with a local rock band while vacationing from her job in Dubai. We are a class of our own, isn’t it?
For are grand finale Bunks and I had a grand misadventure to Narakuat, Narogot, or kumquat. I never did get the name right and kept saying it wrong to any and everyone to her bemusement. This is a tourist trap located an hour outside the city touting its views of the Himalayan range. A host of ridge top hotels exist for no other reason along with a poor unhygienic village. First the hotel we got dropped at didn’t offer mountain views and thus began our Goldilocks adventure skipping from one hotel to another looking for the one that was just right. This one’s too expensive, this one is musty with a heart shaped mattress, and this one is a dive. We never did get one that was just right but we eventually had to settle on something a somewhat dilapidated hotel with a room whose door wouldn’t close and a burning pile of trash blowing towards the balcony. As for the views it was cloudy and hazy that afternoon so we didn’t see anything but the expansive valley below. We walked to the luxury hotel and sipped tea on the balcony before it started to sprinkle and they threw us out. We tried to do the nature loop but the first 100 yards had been used as a public toilet. Becky put it like this, “There was stool of every shape, size, color, smell, and consistency.” We covered our noses with our sleeves and ran out of the woods hopping over mounds of feces. At night the room was cold and when I asked for an extra blanket they gave me one bombed by mothballs (a harsh chemical) that clung to my clothes the whole night lingering in my nostrils and making me sick. I smelled like Miss Havenshim or whoever that old maid was who pranced round in her wedding dress in the attic for 150 years. We passed the night away laughing about Narapot and listening to Leftover and I dozed off to the shenanigans of Vince Herman having dreams of hoedowns in the Big Red Barn. ESKIMO! The next day was hazy but clear as a cherry red sunrise scorched a slivered moon. We went back to the luxury hotel but the balcony was closed until 11 AM so we couldn’t get the full view. We did see a partial view of some peaks from the helicopter pad but were already over it and hailed a taxi back into the valley. It was sad to say goodbye to Becky and Nepal but the next day I departed for India.
goa in a trance
“While you were gone these spaces filled with darkness, the obvious was hidden…”
Goa was a harsh comedown in every way except financially since it was an expensive destination. Sure it had its moments and I bonded with the Ocean like never before but the trip was peppered with loneliness and isolation. India is a pain in the ass from start to finish and although the flight was smooth enough they make you jump through many hoops. In Bombay I barely made my connecting flight first wandering through a thoroughfare with acres of a puke colored rug like one of those connecter terminals in Vegas linking Excalibur and Circus Circus. Next an air-conditioned capacious customs checkpoint with marble floors and voluminous ceilings that made me aware of all the shanties outside with starving people living a hopeless existence. India has a wide gap between rich and poor and the divide is staggering. I had to leave the airport and go to a domestic terminal which meant boarding a bus with hundreds of blowfish faced Indians who looked ready for a fight and seemed unwilling to answer my questions. Through openings on the concrete freeway I spotted the infamous shanties with some of the most destitute conditions on the planet, ramshackle shacks piled atop each other. I barely made it and at 6 P.M arrived in Goa taking a two hour taxi to Arambol rolling the windows down and enjoying the warm trash tinged breezes. It had been a long time since I left the mountains and a change of scenery was the purpose of my visit. As it turns out though I’m a mountain man to the core and all that sun, surf, and sand proved unnerving and I never really felt myself down there. Midway through the trip I even chaffed in the saddle and had to procure diaper cream. Later my face broke out and it seemed I was experiencing the problems of a babe and a teen. My digs at Arambol were not impressive a bamboo beach hut on the waterfront, the rolly Polly proprietor warned me that theft was a problem and my unit had been broken into a few days prior, not exactly comforting news on arrival. There was blasting music nearby which seemed alright since I thought I might get my boogie on and went to check it out. Sure enough there was a party in progress at the beach shack with groovy DJ mixing premium trance. Some Wookies were assembled and the typical hip Euro crowd that represents North Goa along with swarms of cigarette smoking Russians. I gyrated to the midst of the sandbox dance floor and for a brief moment was encompassed by five mermaids of Atlantis, the closest looked Israeli with humus colored skin, a Hasidic nose, and chestnut medusa curls gathered in a lofty bun. A promising start to the action little did I know that it was an anomaly and that it would be my first and last dance party. If I had known I would have stayed on till sunrise with the booming wamp wamp beats instead of trying to sleep through it.
One thing you’ll find living in Bhutan is how amazing it is to be part of a community. In Goa I was just a tourist with everyone after “my” money. Even if you’re lying on the beach touts will wake you up and try to sell you jewelry. One woman remarked when I said I had no money, “No money no honey.” In this place they want money just for use of a lawn chair. That gets old quick as does solo candle lit dinners although food was the highlight of the Goa experience (although it’s not quite on par with Thailand) I enjoyed amazing red snapper both tandori and butter garlic style. They had lobsters with no claws but I opted for tiger prawns instead which were to die for along with hundreds of grenades and Lassi’s. I didn’t sleep well in Gho or most of the vacation. I was itchy with mosquito bites and had sand in my bed. I left Arambol having to visit the one ATM in the adjacent town waiting in line with some very crispy critters. Goa has some wacky ones mixed in with a lot of Indian tourists. I saw a man resembling Crazy George strolling on the beach in a banana hammock, neo hippies banging drums, dakini’s in bikinis, some ladies so shriveled by the sun they looked like California Raisins, and a blubbery Englishmen with an accent so thick that he made my own language sound foreign. On my last day at Arambol I went to the Northern tip of the beach where there’s a sweet water lagoon and a banyan tree claimed by neo Hindu white dudes in Sadhu robes, weird.
I headed 3 hours South to a great beach called Agonda with pounding surf and grainy copper sand. Becky had turned me onto Cuba resorts when Ashleigh, her and I went to Goa last year so for the remainder of my trip I booked with Cuba establishments (“Where time takes a break”) My room at Agonda Cuba faced the street but I spent my time walking the long and sparsely populated beach the foam of the Arabian sea lapping over my toes. I read a lot in Goa which was nice including a handful of Paulo Coelho books which are sort of my guilty pleasure. I also read Coo Coo’s Nest and Carlos Casteneda since you inquired Mare. Agonda was a pleasant blur and probably the most relaxing part of the trip with fantastic sunsets with our sun a huge orange ball splashing into the Arabian Sea, submerging until it was nothing more than a red pinpoint than a green flash. From Agonda one sees the curvature of the Earth like a water filled drum. For hundreds of years Goa was claimed by the Portuguese who left behind architecture and Jesus Christ and both are quite popular on the South coast of the subcontinent. I like the Christ’s decked with marigolds a little Hindu meet’s Jesus action. Most of the fishing boats that look like big canoes have names like St. Francis but some are called Guru Krupa.
After Agonda I ended up on the wrong beach called Pallolem, the lovelier one Becky recommended was 5 miles South and I did a few daytrips there. Pallolem was not a bad beach but it was overcrowded and loud. Every resort had its own music blasting so Marley was competing with Floyd and both were losing out to trance beats all played at excessive volume. It grated on the nerves and it wasn’t until 2 AM that this racket ceased. Yet with all this music no one was dancing anywhere, what to do? The one nightclub was on the road between Agonda and Pallolem called Leopard Valley with a heavily advertised party once a week on Friday. I imagined scanty clad cougars of every imaginable strips and spots tearing there male victims to shreds in an orgiastic feast. I envisioned a place where all were free to do naughty to their hearts delight but when Friday rolled around I balked and never made it out. My colorful beach hut was nice and the swimming was delightful with a shallow sandy slope and gentle surf allowing one to frolic far offshore letting warm waves roll through them, bobbing around in the Arabian Sea. Once I spotted an Indian mermaid who swam around for the sun’s splashdown. Another good moment was at 3 A.M on my patio when all the music had stopped, crickets chirped, a train whistle blew, the moon radiated, and fairy lights draped over palms swayed. Goa has many crows that wake you up early and one fledging had fallen from the tree and broken a wing I spent the morning watching him die and it was very sad. Later a worker came and carried him off for an unceremonious burial. He had just as much right to life as you or me and was calling out to the treetops to his friends but they couldn’t help him and didn’t even fly down to his sandy death bed. Goa was full of Dharma moments and a pool of great sadness welled within me most of that two weeks.
The receptionist at Cuba was named Gunja (Flower) and I asked her for a walk she agreed but stood me up and I joked about it each time I saw her afterwards. Like so many others she’s from Northern India or Nepal and comes down for seasonal work. The tourist season runs from October to May with summers a virtual rainout. This year the industry is suffering since the Russians have been told by Putin not to travel due to the economic strife from the Ukraine conflict (It’s a small world after all) but there seemed enough of them blowing cig smoke in my face. In Paulo’s book he spoke of ordinary miracles that presents themselves everyday and that we must seize those opportunities or they’ll pass us by. One night I was walking alone on the beach watching a huge sandcastle resembling Angkor Wat melting into the surf when they started blasting fireworks above the sexy smell of sulfur filling the air and primary colors bursting like bombs overhead. Standing nearby a lonely Asian gal just my type looking very approachable but I couldn’t do it and later on saw her walking the beach with some guy who I could tell she’d just met. My opportunity had indeed passed me by.
My favorite beach was patonem a serene spot on the Southern end of Goa. One side of the beach is deserted and here one can finally bond with the wildest of all wildernesses from which the mountains and all life emerged. Chasing crabs over the sand or letting the undertow tug at your heels surrendering to the sea that runs in our blood. I spent my last night there and the morning I left a tan monkey with sweeping tail was perched on my porch but when I opened the door he bounded into the palm fronds and disappeared.
(Banged Up in Bangalore Interlude)
Vacation was winding up and I was homeward bound with no fresh seafood in my future. Next stop Bangalore a landlocked Indian city in South India. The sky was clear but it was not a good omen since I was about to experience a classic Indian bamboozle. My mom who is my shining star helped me book many hotels along the trip taking a kickback from my bonus. Unfortunately things didn’t work out well in Bangalore. The hotel called Ring Valley ended up being 40 miles away from the airport and it took two hours in traffic to reach that part of town. Except when we arrived the hotel was nowhere to be found. The driver who spoke very little English was a nice guy and to his credit didn’t abandon me in the ghetto. As it turns out Ring Valley was bankrupt and now calling themselves Enzo, a hotel we passed half a dozen times. He found this out after many stops for directions talking with many strangers while I huddled in the cab feeling overwhelmed by the aggressive scenes outside. Like all Indian hotels in big cities it was a dismal place with dingy white walls no hot water and a window looking out on the highway which had traffic zooming all night long, a thousand beeping horns in the midnight hour and I sat dismally by the window watching the endless stream of cars whiz by and making up stories for the people inside. I ventured onto the street looking for a Dominoes pizza but almost got run over. The sidewalks reeked of human feces and it was what Americans would consider a very poor area. I ate fried rice at a street stall and remarkably didn’t get sick. Looking back it was an interesting misadventure but at the time seemed like hell on earth. Eight hours later the taxi driver returned and for another 50 bucks took me to the international terminal. All told I had spent 100 bucks to go a long way to sleep in a dive and I never did find out if my mom got her money back from Expedia for the hotel that didn’t exist.
Panther Dream: Mission to Manas
I flew to Guwhatti via Kolkata and in the air noticed the entire continent was covered with a layer of filthy haze. On our approach to Guwhatti I saw a white peak poking out of the grime and it must’ve been in Arrunachal or Bhutan. It really impacted me that all this disgusting pollution lingered on my doorstep and suddenly Bhutan seemed in peril a tiny island in a world gone mad.
After all the Guwhatti airport is less than 200 miles from Tsenkharla just a three hour drive to Samdrop. I figured I’d be in the border town by late afternoon and assumed I’d buried my dream to go to Manas National Park. But as we made our approach I struck up a conversation with a man on the isle who was visiting his family and had lived in Santa Clara, he told me that Tom Brady and the Pats had won the Super Bowl and I thought Jon’s bro Dave must be happy. He remarked some friends had just sent him photos from their rafting excursion in Manas meaning the park was reopened. The park and Assam had been on temporary lockdown after the massacre of 80 people by the Bodo Front a group seeking independence from Assam hoping to form their own state. These are the same terrorist that set off a bomb in Gelephu and hid in the jungles of Southeastern Bhutan prompting the fourth King to lead an attack ultimately irradiating the cell driving them back over the border. They had made themselves comfortable even shopping in Pan Bang and other border villages in the South of the Kingdom. The Fourth King had met with them diplomatically many times but they refused to leave so he took action to protect his people. The Bodo’s and other related factions never went away wreaking havoc in Assam storing AK 47’s poaching rhino’s for their horns (used for impotent Chinamen) and every so often massacring a village like they did over Christmas. As a result Barpeda and Manas along with most of Assam was under strict curfew and the military shut down the park. Manas Park receives few tourists and is basically undeveloped, the park joins Royal Manas National park in Bhutan forming a huge wildlife corridor for species like Royal Bengal Tigers, wild elephants, Indian One Horned Rhino’s, black panther’s, clouded leopards, golden languor’s, and many endangered birds and snakes. The aforementioned beasts and critters are a drop in the bucket as the park boasts copious amounts of wildlife. It’s hard to believe that these animals can still find a home in India and the park serves as a sanctuary for some of our planets rarest species.
We touched down in Guwhatti considered the Gateway to Northeast India the least developed part of the massive country. The NE is connected to mainland India by the Chicken Neck a thirty mile wide strip sneaking between Nepal and Bangladesh before it widens into the Northeast. I claimed my bag from the carrousel and went to the prepaid taxi stand. It was the moment of truth. I promised my mom I wouldn’t go to Manas unless it was safe so I asked the guy three times and he assured me it was alright by shrugging so I went all in and for 3,500 rupees had a stub for Manas. I was assigned a driver and his buddy who spoke not a word of English and we sped off through the ramshackle shanties surrounding the airport.
Assam is a fascinating place with a long and illustrious history. The main feature of the region is the mighty Brahmaputra River that flows from tiny streams in Tibet advancing through Arrunachal Pradesh joined by the Manas from Bhutan eventually snaking through Guwhatti as a wide river on its journey to the sea. Assam also produces 80% of India’s tea export but the region is poor and plagued by violence. And that’s the way it has always been with many civilizations rising and falling with huge battles fought in present day Guwhatti a polluted city of one million. Migration and invasions came from Burma and China and at one time the Southern border of Bhutan extended into the Duars past Rangia and Coche Behr. Guwhatti has many Hindu temples and mosques and is the launch pad for Tezpur, Tawang, and outlying Nagaland on the Burmese border. It’s also a half days drive to the border of Bangladesh and the biggest city in this part of the world. I went there once and that was enough and I always chuckle when I think about mom and Bubba on a leaky boat in the Brahmaputra a very unlikely destination for the twins. Guwhatti is considered safe but the Bodo’s terrorize the villages along the Indo- Bhutan border from SJ to Phuntsholing and every year you read about kidnappings for ransom in Kuensal.
The taxi a rundown car bypassed the city heading into the countryside an endless repetition of roadside villages tucked in palm groves with dusty stands of bamboo and banana trees. Between villages swampy bogs and wasteland layered by a perpetual haze. Shacks have scummy ponds or cesspools in their yards and along the shoulder swarthy school children in blouses and neckties walk home from school and I’m struck at how many there are with each town having its own rundown school. Bhutan schools seem like paradise compared to these sorry campuses with dilapidated schoolhouses on parched grounds. When the kids see me a few smile but they don’t wave like Bhutanese kids. Each town is a carbon copy with dusty bazaars selling vegetables, papal trees at a crossroads with men dosing beneath. It’s all similar, crumbling buildings containing furniture, crappy junk food and gas cans. Undecorated rickshaws mostly idle with torn canvas roofs and barefoot men napping in the carriages they’re feet propped up on the handlebars. We fly through one after another and the drivers have no clue where Manas actually is as they stop frequently to ask directions. I keep mumbling Barpeda since I know that’s the nearest railhead and sure enough late in the afternoon we arrive in the large hub with its railroad tracks, belching smokestacks, Ta Ta’s and one legged women hopping around on crutches. Every ones face looks worn and people aren’t smiling even the kid’s faces lack innocence. It’s a tough place bustling with commerce, barefooted men pulling handheld carriages down Main Street among bicycles, scooters and cars; all this under a cloud of dust like the one that surrounds the Peanuts character Pigpen. We rattle over the tracks onto Old Barpeda Road with huge craters but as we get out of town hints of nature begin to appear. A cluster of bamboo here a colorful darting bird there. My heart is racing on the threshold of my dream and soon we turn left where a banner reads Manas 5 KM. It’s a straight shot now and before I know it I see the arched gate that I had first viewed on a computer screen from the comfort of Bay Point four years ago. It all seems so familiar somehow and right outside the gate is the Bonsbari Lodge my base of operations. Standing outside the Gate a group of soldiers armed with semi automatic rifles were casually talking.
The Lodge is a spacious government building leased out part of the year for tourists. The park has been receiving visitors for 15 years but only a fraction compared to other wildlife Parks. This is not Chitwan. On the other side Royal Manas is even less developed with only the occasional rafting trip from those shelling out the $300 tariff, needless to say there’s potential for development. The staff at the hotel was friendly and only one other party was lodging there, Surgit a sergeant in the army and his family. He was a safari enthusiast visiting all the parks in India even claiming to have seen a tiger in the wild. I had one of the staff an unenthusiastic young man take me to the river which was an offshoot of the Manas set in a gravely bed. Later I went back myself for sunset and the guys at the lodge were concerned telling me that a village woman was gored by a Water Buffalo and several others injured near the gate just last week while gathering wood. I promised I wouldn’t venture out alone again and they were appeased. Indeed one could slip through the porous fence and into the jungle easily enough. Apparently the woman died in an ambulance en route to Barpeda confirming that the jungle is a dangerous place. A gibbous moon on its second cycle on my Himalayan Odyssey was rising over the jungle where strange sounds emanated either monkeys or barking deer. The Ari…Ari of flamboyant peacocks rang out in the dusk. I had a nice buffet dinner as my meals outside the Kingdom were becoming more basic and dwindling. I borrowed some brochures on Assam and passed the evening reading on a wicker chair in the lounge arranging my jeep safari for the morning.
It was a chilly and clear dawn a thin haze permeated the branches of the Sal forests within the park boundary. Old Barpeda Road was now a jeep track which also connected Pan Bang on the other side of the border in Zhemgang. The landscape alternated between savannah with towering elephant grass concealing many beasts and jungle comprised mostly of Sal with dark deciduous leaves and light colored trunks with creepers wrapped around. I really enjoyed the various shades. Manas a haven for birds, and straight away we observed a majestic eagle swooping over the canopy. The Raven is my totem but nothing compares to the flight of an eagle that stops the heart in its tracks. It might have been out for an early morning hunt patrolling the jungle for snacks. I missed some animals especially birdlife since I have limited vision and since I gaze to the left they never think I’m looking where they’re pointing. Early on we saw three wild boars that ran into the tangled underbrush when they heard our motor. The wild pigs were black with course hair and large snouts and piggy wiggly tails. Next an Indian Guar concealed in tufts of golden elephant grass a horned herbivore. Nearby a group of Wild Asian Buffalo the same species that killed the villager.
The Asian buffalo has less fur than its American relative but longer horns. We came into a field where the rangers had already burned the grass and my guides spotted two wild elephants except they were very far off and looked like grey dots. When I asked if I could go closer on foot they said no. We drove around through the jungle on sidetracks seeing birds here and there eventually reconnecting with the main dirt track where I saw the most interesting wildlife of my Safari, a taxi full of doma chewing Bhutanese in gho and kira packed in a car from Pan Bang bound for Barpeda. Although Indians cannot enter the park Bhutanese enjoy special privilege although they’re probably instructed to keep to the main track. Soon we crossed a small bridge over a dried riverbed reaching a ranger station on the banks of the Manas Chu. It had been a dear dream of mine to see this river which my beloved Dangme Chu merges. It was lovelier than my dream with cobalt water murmuring softly interspersed with gurgling rapids. On the Bhutanese shore the forested foothills of the Himalaya abruptly rose. It was a power packed spot and although the acrid smell of India still faintly lingered over Bhutan the skies became bluer. I wanted to plunge right in and make it for the other shore but I simply took a handful of liquid and baptized my brow. We returned on the dirt track seeing a wild pigeon and a cute spotted doe with cotton ball tail BAMBI that ran in circles terrified at our approach possessing the primal fear of prey. Although I AM a tiger I am equally a spotted deer always running scared through the mean jungles of life. She scampered away and I can only hope is still out there beating the odds. I was supposed to get 3 hours of Safari but this was still India after all and we pulled into the lodge half an hour short. I was satisfied but a pang of jealousy when Surgit’s jeep rolled in and he showed me a photo on his pricey camera of a massive tusked wild elephant they had encountered. That’s the way it goes on safari you win some you lose some. When I was brooding about the elephant it hit me, all my life I expect things from the world, another show, a girlfriend, attention but what do I give back? I did see an elephant as I left the lodge a huge domestic one with mahout lumbering towards the Manas portal with the words Tiger Project and World Heritage Site painted in red on its arch. Along Old Barpeda women wearing wimples were hunched over harvesting tea.
Another local driver who had to turn back when the lodge called explaining I had left my cell phone and a bag of electronics in the room. We zoomed back fifteen minutes to the banner where the young man on his scooter met us. We raced off again down Old Barpeda Road and in town I went to three ATM’s all of them broken before finding one that spit out rupees. From there we found a highway with the occasional wandering cow eventually rolling into Rangia. I had been there once before in a Bhutanese convey from Phuntsholing. They had deposited me before continuing to SJ but not before commandeering me a ride to Guwhatti. Rangia is simply a smaller version of Barpeda and on the outskirts of town a small blue arrow pointed the way to Bhutan. We took the diversion through a construction zone and connected with a back road. The milestone that resembled a gravestone read 49 KM to Daaranga.
Back in the days when I was sliding on the Great Rainbow there was a common expression used in that circle, “Welcome Home!” The traveler would be greeted with these words when they entered the site and I remember hearing this expression on a dappled Ozark trail, “Welcome Home!” Perhaps even then I was searching for our collective root. It took many years and many miles but I have found that root at Tsenkharla. Since I come from a place that has no culture and since my people slaughtered or corralled America’s Natives I was born deprived. Bhutan is in essence a Native Society although the impact of Western Civilization is eroding their identity thanks to multimedia and television. Today gangs clash on the streets of Thimphu but out here in the East culture is still Omni present and I’m glad to be privy to it. Today was Thursday and students wore rachu and kubney draped over their national dress. When I returned from my Himalayan Odyssey although the mountains looked the same everything felt different, I realized I had come home. I had never had a home before including Marin County the place I was raised or even Donner Lake where I had played as a child on warm summer days. Sure there are places I cherish like Mount Tam and Yosemite but never was I truly home. It’s not merely the land (Tawang Valley) which courses in my blood but also the people that make this community my heart-home. The thing I miss about America is my family but in Bhutan I’m building a life for the first time in my life.
I have been back in station for three weeks and I’m starting to get my feet under me. My adversary the rat still plagues me wiggling through the barriers I placed over all the holes. I dislike him but he must be respected for his agility and determination, he’s a smart rodent always coming around the same time after lights out and at this point the battlefield is as much his as mine. Daily chores constitute a lot of a BCF teachers time here. Cooking dinner and doing the dishes takes an hour and half and I’d like to thank my mom for doing all these things for me for so many years. Washing clothes is also taxing especially in the cold soaking the garments then banging them against the cement floor like an otter cracking an abalone shell and in the end they just don’t seem that fresh or clean. It’s best to take Pema Chodron’s advice and take pleasure in mundane tasks always striving to cultivate a perfect cup of tea. MINDFULNESS!
We had 5 days off in honor of Losar and HM’s birthday celebration and I spent most of the time prepping lesson plans, completing my yearly blocks, and club action plan. This year I’m determined to do it by the book and shore up one of my weaknesses, organization. I did however find some time to roam in my beloved forest on two immaculate winter afternoons. I enjoyed views up and down the valley, to my left the rounded hump of Shampula and beyond the snowy twin peaks. To the right Tsang Tsang Ma and the Dragon’s Tail a ridge of spiked pinnacles some more rounded in appearance. At the eastern end of the valley a snowy saddle and to the West a large rounded peak overshadowing Kunglung. I’ve never seen a place with more mountains and Tsenkharla seems to be the center of this wheel a baby surrounded by a radial of giants. It’s no wonder Prince Tsangma built his redoubt here after journeying from Tibet to Paro then continuing East to Old Rangthangwoong. Some thoughtful denizen excavated another wall that connects to the main structure which I never knew existed. I like to go up to my thrown a niche in the primary castle of uneven stones where I plop down and try to conjure the spirit of the great prince so we can communicate. So far not much luck but it’s still a great spot to watch ravens and ponder the nature of things. At one time this deserted obelisk was the center of the Sharchop Universe and all descendents in this part of the Tawang Valley and much of East Bhutan are descendent from his royal line. Originally the Sharchop people of the East might have came over Sela Pass from Burma a completely different Diaspora then the Western inhabitants who mainly came down from Tibet. Most Sharchop are Ningma Buddhist a direct line tracing back to Guru Rinpoche.
Classes have begun and I have started teaching. We are all a little rusty but it feels good to be back in action. I have come to terms with what I’m doing here and no longer feel so out of place in the path I’ve chosen. I realize that the only reason I became a teacher is to teach in Bhutan. I have no desire to work in the American Public School System that would eat me alive. This is a perfect place for me to develop my skill set where effort and intent is enough and people aren’t waiting to judge or knock you out. I know I’ll never be a perfect teacher and that it goes against my grain but I also realize that in this nurturing environment I can succeed and positively influence students. On a hike I met Sangay Wangdi a lad who just missed the mark for class ten and was plowing the slopes beneath Shakshing for 300 NU a day ($6) He was so happy to see me running on the farm road wearing gumboots. He told me that he was going for an interview in Paro for a job with the police department and I told him that he needed to find a friend to rehearse in English. By the end of our chat he had already began speaking clearer and more confidently. He thanked me for my teaching and told me that he missed me which obviously made me smile. Sangay is strikingly handsome with the Anglican touches of the Nepali countenance. He’s no longer the class 8 boy sitting in the back row but a grown man. I am so fortunate to be a part of his life and to have made an impression on this fine young person. This feedback makes all the struggles I’ve endured worth it.
Coming home to familiar faces and I am stoked to be teaching 7 and 8 meaning that I already know the majority of my students. When I arrived I struggled to learn names but finally I can look out on a crowd of fuzzy faces and identify hundreds of students. This makes my job more fun since once you know a name you can then build a relationship. Today was the first day of teaching and it went smoothly. For my first lesson I simply had students come to the front of the class and introduce themselves encouraging the audience to be active listeners. Sangay Lhamo a tall girl from Shakshing was intently listening with nothing in her hands. Last year her eyes would wander and she would fidget and I was thrilled to see her improvement by her own effort. These are the moments that make a teachers day and make up for the less thrilling exchanges. I am sad my first batch of kids moved on but there are plenty who remain that I love and many more to meet. Bhutanese kids are not malicious and any problems are purely mischief even grubby Karma Wangchuk who is repeating the seventh grade is a joy to teach.
During the Losar holiday I discovered a new part of the grove much like Alice sliding down a steep embankment on a thick layer of duff into a spacious clearing encompassed by wispy cypresses with feathery needles. I took off my shirt and basked in sunshine. I visited a special Chorten where the elves dwell and once made the trail disappear just to stir my ire. All over the mountain scarlet Rhody blooms burst from grey branches sometimes over a hundred to a tree. Some our squat bushes but the queen is a fifty foot tree called Ruby near the Delog’s house in a fairytale village. Kids eat the petals which have only a faint scent and stick them in crevices on Mani walls. I wandered to the Bey Yul beyond Nankhar and chilled in a brooding thicket before traversing a lower ridge between Sep and Kiney with naked trees and a thick carpet of crunchy leaves. Above me Dakini Clouds (As Becky calls them) sprouted like mushrooms from Shampula and Broom La. On my way down the curvaceous ridge a swarm of wasps engulfed me sending me hollering for cover.
Afterschool I was so exhausted that I went directly to sleep for three hours. My lack of energy is a powerful adversary in Bhutan and sometimes gets me worrying. Part of it is teaching since I felt a tad that way in Korea and during student teaching as if the concentration required for the day obliterates my energy. For example I am never half that tired after a hard day on the trail. In this way I know teaching is not for me and only love keeps me going. In Bhutan diet also might contribute to this acute fatigue which usually subsides after an off day or two. I wake up with puffy eyes that make me look like I had been at Studio 54 all night even if I went to bed at 8:30. These are the challenges that give East Bhutan the moniker “The Land of Terror” a life I love so much that tests me to the limit every moment.
Presently it’s Thursday Evening and the Thunder Dragon has returned announcing his presence with authority over Tawang. It’s good to be home. I’m trying to wash up since Nima Gyelston and Pema Chedup are coming for dinner and a game of Monopoly.
Out of Station
After a little bit of coaching Pema Chedup wiped me out in Monopoly and seemed quite happy about it. He’s so much like me as a young boy explaining that he was just visiting his houses to check up on things. Saturday was a tough day, after teaching I handed out some photos of students with the twins from last year then got into my rags and walked out the front gate towards Trashigang. The PE teacher caught me telling me we had a meeting. I proceeded (in raggedy Ratdog sweatshirt) to the meeting hall and was publically scolded by Principal for being tardy. In his defense he never used my name saying that we should not be late for meetings and it’s our responsibility to know the happenings according to the school calendar. Since I was the only one late bursting in and interrupting meditation the message was clear. I vehemently defended myself explaining I didn’t know we had a meeting and no one informed me and he retorted that it was my responsibility to check the yearly calendar that was posted on the notice board. Well I didn’t even know the school calendar was posted on the notice board since no one ever told me that. Often BCF teachers feel left out of the loop since such announcements are usually made in Dzonkha. Anyway Principal Sir was within his rights and I got the message and felt miserable since I’m consciously trying to be a team player and all that. Then staff members were ribbing me about my torn sweatshirt and for being late which was in good fun but at times it seems that they ONLY joke with me and never say anything positive which I said out loud to no one in particular. Then I felt bad that I’m still so defensive which led to feeling shitty about all my other hang-ups like clinging to ego wanting everything to work out in my favor and being jealous of others good fortune. I took a nap and by sunset at Prince Tsangma’s ruin I was feeling pretty lousy about things when I got a text from Piet inviting me for a hike. The problem was it was twilight time and Yangtse was far away. Nonetheless I repacked a bag and started walking to Zongposar 9 KM down the curvaceous road at the three way junction for Yangtse, Tsenkharla, and Trashigang. I got to the Y around 7:30 and finally at 8 was scooped up by a shared taxi and made it to Yangtse in time for a late supper at a canteen. I went immediately to the Karmaling and banged on the door and was given a room for 1,000 NU upstairs. It seemed my fortunes had turned until I awoke at 3 AM with diarrhea. Even so at 7:30 AM I was at the bridge spanning the Kulong Chu to meet Piet. Piet is Dutch or from the Netherlands if that’s the same or not i’m not sure. He’s in his early 50’s but a superhuman athlete riding his bike to Thimphu and hiking like an ironman and whenever he guides me he probably goes at half speed. When I meet Piet for a hike it’s a mixed feeling of excitement and dread, I know I’m going places I couldn’t reach on my own but I also know I’m gonna get whipped. This Sunday was no different since Piet doesn’t take breaks with lopping strides probing with his lone trekking pole.
Our trail started from near the bridge in the Bumdeling buffer zone ascending straight up to a small village overlooking the Yangtse valley. The mountains surrounding Trashiyangtse are lush even in winter with vibrant red rhody blossoms (a few white ones too) magnolias, honeysuckles and ferns. Along the way we discussed the ongoing trash problem and the impending Kulong Chu Project with legions of laborers on the way. It breaks my heart that they’re damning this wild one that unites from two smaller rivulets high in the Himalaya. The trail entered a majestic oak forest with trunks dripping in luscious moss underfoot pellets of barking deer scat littered the trail along with an occasional plastic wrapper. After two hours we had risen about 3,000 feet above the valley floor and were looking back at the tiny buildings of Yangtse town. The trail ceased and from there on out we were bushwhacking with Piet in the lead hacking brush with his pole. The vegetation became a thick tangle of bamboo a species I have come to appreciate in all varieties. Passing some prayer flags hoisted with bamboo poles instead of wood we came to a knoll with a stunning view of my entire universe. To my right the jumbled hills including comely Tsenkharla Ridge and the snowy patch on Yellang side that I see from Shakshing. Simple enough right. But moving the eye left the mountains over Yangtse dusted in snow are considerably higher than my own marking the border with Arrunachal Pradesh. Even further left Bumdeling valley layout with the Kulong Chu snaking through its sandy bed and all the way stage left the granddaddy of them all a cluster of soaring peaks on the Tibetan border! I’ve only glimpsed Tibet twice from East Bhutan save for the Matterhorn peaks that jut out from behind Shampula. But this was a layered segment of the Himalayan Range with several titanic peaks in an uninhabited swath between Bhutan and China, between those peaks and Tsenkharla a sea of emerald mountains. There it was the Greater Himalaya a continues spine rising from the hills of Burma crossing Arrunachal Pradesh, Bhutan, Tibet, Sikkim, Nepal, Himachel Pradesh, Pakistan, and finally becoming the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. In the sky a bright corona encompassed the sun while two other sundogs colored clouds nearby. In that same sky three Black Eagles (Piet is an animal expert) glided in ascending circles higher and higher into the ether. A more unbelievable scene is hard to imagine and I apologize for a woefully inadequate description. Leaving the view behind we bushwhacked another thousand feet up to a glade resting flat on a ridgeline with grasses uprooted by wild boars. We were in leopard country now the domain of black bears and other fierce predators, a wild land. We lunched in a meadow ringed by ancient boulders where Piet gave me a geology lesson but my mind was still with those peaks in Tibet so I can’t report the lesson to you. We descended via a steep shortcut where I had to jump off a rock sticking the landing like Shawn Johnson from the vault, Applause! Next we came to a hermitage site and were surprised to see three nuns with shaved heads who were living in a hut for six months but details were sketchy since they didn’t speak more than a few words of English. Above the hut a sacred cave with prayer flags wedged into the crags where Guru Rinpoche himself meditated. We dropped the last two thousand feet through bamboo and oak groves until we hit the valley floor just as my legs turned to noodles. I had just enough energy to circumambulate Chorten Kora 3X the Kora looked splendid recently whitewashed now the color of that great snowy pyramid in Tibet. The Monpa return in a week for their special celebration paying homage to that virgin entombed inside. Monpa means barbaric folk from the land of darkness and I bet they’re in Lumla preparing as we speak. I hitched home in a packed taxi knowing that this was a very special day.
Tim on Duty
You better believe I checked the schedule twice after Saturday’s scolding and reported bright and early for my T.O.D (Teacher on Duty) the sun was blotted out by stratus clouds but you could see down the valley all the way to the saddleback, layers of mountains overlapping with Bhutan in the forefront and India in the background. We magically look back in time a half hour into Arrunachal the “Land of dawn lit mountains” living up to its moniker on this reflective morn. It was good to chat up the students (speaking practice) but I miss the class tens from last year who were more outgoing. Some younger ones have dropped out or transferred vanishing off my radar. Simple Tswering Wangmo who tried so hard but was not book smart dropped and now resides in Kumdung. Soft spoken Tendy Zangmo has a new best friend since Sonam Wangmo has disappeared. Karma Wangchuk spends more time out of the classroom than anyone always going to the toilet with perpetual shooting diarrhea. Tashi Wangmo “Broomsha” says she misses my teaching and Guru Wangmo says I should find a Monpa Abi (Grandmother) to marry at Chorten Kora. They are now immersed in routine starting before sunup with prayers and continuing until 9:30 lights out. I checked the calendar and the next three Saturdays have programs so I won’t be able to do my work in T-Gang for a month or more. Welcome to life at a boarding school. At least I can leave in the afternoon and hike or shop although I am controlled by the panoptic wheel nonetheless. Foucault would have a freaking field day observing Bhutan where everyone watches closely. The Monarchy, religion, scholastic institutions, and the bear of culture all keep us towing the line happily in Bhutan, GNH right? How about the hydro project that reeks of GDP isn’t it? What of the local deities who reside in the river the giver of all life to all creatures in various catchments? I’m sure they’ll do a helluva puja at the dam site.
T.M.S.S has become a central school which means little ones are now boarding, tough life for a six year old but overall we have less students (650) sending some sections of 9 to another school across the gorge. Overall the discipline creates students that can stand still as statues for 40 minute assemblies. I get restless and wander around after 20 minutes my ADD kicking in. All over the Kingdom, kids are preparing for another day of school some traipsing through the woods including the day scholars en route to T.M.S.S from Daka. God Bess them All!
You reap what you sow funny I start this paragraph with a proverb since I just had a lengthy discussion with Pema Lhamo about how proverbs are redundant and unnecessary in writing. Bhutanese students overuse them and often they have nothing to do with the point of the speech or essay. My friend had a list going about all the phrases he wouldn’t except from his students writing. Another cliché, Mr. Tim was on the warpath today. I had a positive attitude but my students were not following directions and I was very hard on them (a knock at my door the boys want a rematch in Monopoly) anyway tonight I need some space so I set the rematch for tomorrow. In one class when I said something a boy mocked my voice. I must sound very funny since that happens a lot to me in Asia. It really bothered me and I demanded to know who did it and no one stepped forward. So I held the class overtime and waited for the culprit to step forward which never happened. By then I was in too deep and sentenced the entire class to Social Work for lunch tomorrow (trash picking) my justification is that we are a family and we must be honest or we all suffer. I reiterated that the boy would not be punished I just wanted him to step forward whoever it was. I probably handled the situation wrong and know that students take advantage of my good nature. I’m more lenient than Bhutanese teachers partly to encourage a relaxed environment for speaking but that leads to misbehavior which will be detrimental to other students in the end. It’s a balance that I haven’t achieved and it seems I will have to toughen up and be stricter yet remain positive. I can’t have public backbiting though. The whole scene was a learning experience and I feel motivated to make improvements. I have been working very hard planning all my lessons thus far in great detail and I really want to have a breakthrough year at my craft. During the day there was a fierce wind (rare for Tsenkharla) that knocked many leaves off branches and made for a chilly viewing of the basketball game after school. At night I sat in on prayer since I was T.O.D and my neighbor Lopen Kinzang was there with a tiny stick. Even when not beating Bhutanese teachers love to carry sticks around the children. I feel like an interloper in the prayer hall and don’t want to distract anyone with my presence. The dirges are hauntingly beautiful morphing into soaring melodies praising Guru Pema and imploring the release of all sentient beings from Samsara releasing us into Zangtopelri, Gurus Nirvana. I stood with Lopen on the stage and directly below Tashi Wangmo (Broomsha) was fervently praying and I wondered how she was coping after losing her mom. The students are in a trance transforming into a Buddhist hive imbibing the Dharma honeycomb. Looking at the faces I’ve known for three years it made me feel grateful to still be here and plaintive that I’m an outsider. Mainly I remember to have compassion for myself and the students especially when they drive me batty.
We received a new teacher today a beautiful Southerner (Nepali) named Nir Mala Tapa and when I saw her I thought I might throw up. She has a plain beauty that is alluring and even said good morning which no other lady teacher ever does. I haven’t felt those butterflies in many years (ironically she’s replacing Butterfly) but already a Bhutanese male teacher seems to be swooping in and I know how quickly they’ll pair. Not that I have designs since courting a Bhutanese is nearly impossible. Last night my neighbor Lopen Kinzang stopped by and we had what he joked was a panel discussion for over an hour. One topic was the difference in culture between Bhutanese and the Western world. The main dichotomy is in family dynamics, in the USA a child is encouraged to leave home at 18 and it’s seen as a burden to take in elderly parents where in Bhutan it’s an honor to take in elderly parents and often three generations live under the same roof (often in the same room) This sums it up and is one reason a Bhutanese woman would not hitch her star to a Phelincpa’s wagon. First of all her parents and community would not approve and Bhutanese are very conscious of what other Bhutanese think. Secondly a Bhutanese girl would not leave Bhutan forever and it’s nearly impossible for foreigners to stay in Bhutan. There are some documented interracial marriages including the author of Dawa the Dog who married a Swiss but this is exceedingly rare. Therefore I can’t even throw my hat in the ring even if I had any self confidence remaining after nearly a decade alone. My neighbor also taught me something of the realms of rebirth which I will relay the best I can. Humans are those who have earned a body through merit seen higher than animals (that means even Hitler had accumulated good merit in a previous incarnation which is hard to fathom) Due to demerit one can drop to animal, hell, or hungry ghost. Hungry ghosts are those of us who cling too much and hoard in this life and I’m concerned I’m on my way to that fate. Also when we die and enter the Bardo we have to follow the correct colored light beams and beacons to be reborn in a higher state. Once we attain enlightenment we aren’t punished with a body anymore and live as free energy beings. Reincarnation makes sense on some levels but as usual I am perpetually on the agnostic fence not knowing what to believe, a consummate doubting Thomas. Fate has led me to Bhutan where I observe a better way of life than where I come from, a place where community trumps the individual. Yet I’m Western to the core and value my privacy and independence although slowly I’m trying to open up and let some fresh air into my stingy heart.
It’s a gorgeous day although smoke billows from a cirque in Lumla however the valley is clear like a popup book with Dakini clouds dancing in the ocean of the sky. Classes went well and maybe with love and attention I can maintain positivity and discipline together. My neighbor told me a tale of Milapara a Tibetan Saint who once was a murderer and black magician before embracing Dharma. His Guru told him to build a 12 story house alone and every time it was nearly complete that Guru destroyed it and told him to build another one in a different shape so Milapara began again. That’s the attitude I have about my work here, I will persevere! Today was Guru Wangmo’s 15th b-day so we sang to her in class and she passed out sweets.