Last Station on the Line (2015)
For my beloved students who taught me more than anything...And my readers! Thanks for sharing this journey together....And finally to my Tsenkharla community especially Karlos and Sonam give Pema a kiss for me....XOXO
For my beloved students who taught me more than anything...And my readers! Thanks for sharing this journey together....And finally to my Tsenkharla community especially Karlos and Sonam give Pema a kiss for me....XOXO
The road is long like a snake trying to bite its tail looping and no more than a thin dusty track. Bare russet earth revolves until we gain the forests. This is the other side of my world a mirror reflection and oh so pretty. Norbu the driver a stout mustached man is at the wheel and Lynn is in shotgun as were on our way to Yellang, Tragom, and hopefully Dozom. It was my first time across the Gongri Chu and up this side of the valley so obviously I was feeling fine and good as Pema Lhamo would say. To get here is an effort shelling out $30 each for a hired ride and then finding Piet’s elusive Stonebridge in a region unfamiliar to us. We both enjoy distinct views of Yellang from our respective homes. I also enjoy a nice view of Kiney a few thousand feet below and she looks up at Zangtopelri and Shakshing alight at night. We both love our placements! The zigzag road is crumbling and dusty, clinging precariously to the mountainside and one cannot fathom eastern steepness until they feel the vertigo baby! An hour or so out of dusty Doksom we passed Yellang and twenty minutes later reached Tragom (At one point the road splits the other branch leading to the sizable Ramjar and over around the mountain to Bartsham, Bidung, and Rangjoong) All I knew of Tragom was what I descry from Shakshing an amulet cirque perched on a mountain face beneath a heavy forested ridge. I wasn’t disappointed with this side of the valley and its regal and twisted oaks that make Kamdang feel naked with farmhouses and rice terraces also carved into the rough terrain. Bamboo and banana seemed odder and all the while my own mountain was revealed to me in new and wonderful ways. It’s like love you see, when you ponder the one you love you admire qualities that that loved one doesn’t even notice in themselves, you dig. Same like that (as the kid’s here say) I admired my mountain as a pyramid with denuded Kamdang rising to the round top Tsenkharla and perky flattop ridge between Zangtopelri and Shakshing. Eventually Brong La too rose under a plump day moon. Clouds frilled the peaks but a coned behemoth briefly appeared through a lead revealing a new feature right in the heart of my world, a gnarly shark fin dusted with snow. The mountains always shape shift and often obscure one another in mystical precision. To see Tsenkharla from those vantage points was an unforgettable experience to be savored for eternity, perhaps feeling buzzed as in the astronaut looking back from the moon. An earth colored pyramid with a green forest beneath Zangtopelri. All sandy earthy tones browns, reds, and ochre all blend into this melting cone. We parked the vehicle near some groovy farmhouses with potted plants, orange trees, cows, and black and white Bhutanese paneling. Our driver conversed with a happy woman with a happy sounding cadence coming from her lips. Norbu couldn’t quite grock the directions so in classic Bhutanese fashion a Youngman in gumboots volunteered to schlep us up into the deep forest. Tragom is an amazingly serene village, a little bowl perched atop a four thousand foot slope. Then again, the mountain rises into airy forests of towering oaks with November creepers and decaying orchids raining falling leaves. It was utterly primal and moist in there and the trail was maintained although the soil is much looser than our side and the trees were bigger and it seemed a healthy forest covered in ferns and smelling of duff and dead leaves. Some parts of the trail remained boggy with a huge ravine resplendent with boulders, ferns and fallen trunks covered in dank mosses sprouting crusty mushrooms. Some of you might be friendly with such a forest and this oriental gem was an amulet indeed. It was cool and eventually we traversed the ridgeline and arrived at the giant pine tree. It towers hundreds of feet into the sunshine boughs outstretched with prickling light green needles. The trunk of the tree was huge in diameter so the four of us couldn’t link our hands around it, and at the base of the tree was a thick carpet of duff, a pillow of decaying needles matted together. One other large pine accompanied the queen in a forest of now dwarfed deciduous tinted in autumn hues. How did this mighty pine take root and flourish in this deciduous forest? How old was it? But first let’s move on to the main attraction in this dark grove, the arboreal looking stone bridge. It’s not easy to get to because the ravine is treacherous and below the Queen is a seven story boulder, slippery cliffs leading down to the anomaly which is an arc of stone hovering across a gap. A thin ribbon waterfall bounds over a rock face and funnels below the bridge. Everything is old growth with mossy fallen logs and bark that falls apart when you grab hold. I scampered down below into the ravine to view the amazing archway with ferns sprouting from it and even an oak shooting from the bridge its roots gripping the surreal stone plank. It wasn’t smooth sailing though and I nearly skidded off a precipice. It was an enchanted spot, containing ample energy a lush grove sitting at approx 8,500 feet, old and united undisturbed stoically receiving the weather from above. I picked up a few pieces of trash around a cute gazebo with prayer flags strung and while at the bridge I got a long distance call from Bra who has a habit of catching me in the highlights of action not in the fetal position on my bunk on a Monday. I lost the call but he rung me a few minutes down the trail and was hanging with Beth, Johnny G and Pete in Corte Madera. It was great to talk a bit to everyone and we all laughed about the different worlds. We emerged from the dappled forests deposited in Tragom where the trail from Melongkhar and Duktey near the Indian border opposing Jangphu. We got back in the car and headed down the bumpy track to Yellang and Bokar Lhakhang (Pema told me the proper name just now) I’ve been gazing at this temple bathed in afternoon light across the valley for four years and now I was knocking at the dragon’s door. A beautiful and well maintained Lhakhang with a fancy Chorten placed nearby the courtyard, it’s a sizable edifice raised off the ground with a series of wooden steps leading to the awning covered doorway. Inside is simple and elegant with a primary original Buddha commanding the altar and some lovely torma’s with ice petal flower designs with the most intricate and painstaking details. A framed picture of a matriarchal nun who resembled Becky hung in the gallery which struck me peculiar. Some little monk took a shine to Lynn and was explaining the iconographical displays in a darling manner so I excused myself letting the two continue their discourse. Outside Norbu scanned the horizon with the binoculars and we talked about the landmarks all revealed like a string of pearls. My entire roaming career from Zangtopelri to Brongla, Nankhar, Omba, and Shampula, all stretched out in rugged glory. With the binoculars I could even see my hut three hours by vehicle. FANTASTIC! On the way home we got stuck at a roadblock on the narrow dusty road which they were trying to shore up with a cement embankment. We peered over the side, a steep drop to the riverbed and rippled fields a thousand feet below. Soon enough we were on our way towards Doksom (Lynn aptly described it as the set of an old western) and then winding towards Kamdang. He dropped me first and I hugged Lynn who I’ve come to enjoy a lot as a neighbor and friend. She had a wonderful year at Kiney and is sad to depart. I admire her pluckiness and work ethic and am amazed at the companions who share this adventuresome life. For example Kiwi Alex just published a teenage fiction story this year which I am eager to check out. A group of BCF Teachers are even volunteering at the Kidu Girls Camp over winter break including Lynn. Each of us does good work in our own way and most of us love living here evident by the eight teachers extending their contracts. When I got home two tractors growled finishing tearing up the field below my house thus destroying my energy rock that I’ve sat on many days in solitude and revelry. Oh well or what to do as they say in these parts, all I know is I’m damn lucky to be here.
It should be noted in a weekend of discovery that I also walked from the Trashigang Dzong down the dry slope to Chazam visiting an amazing Chorten en route. An amazing spot and the completion of the heartbreak trail where I sulked after hearing Morgan’s news this spring, yet my heart still beats…That very hillside was the scene of bloody battles with the Tibetans getting whooped in the searing heat of East Bhutan arrows raining down upon them.
The cobalt cratered moon ebbs in the western sky illuminating the Gongri Chu which has waned to steel waters with cream braided rapids but near Chazam where the river widens the water appears smooth and olive embanked by white sandy beaches strewn with huge boulders. The students are preparing to return to villages as the school year concludes leaving only my administrative duties to attend, the spreadsheets and report cards which are taxing on my shaky eyes. Pema and Nima are serving dinner and I’m helping Nima study for tomorrow’s exam.
December in Bhutan, a lugubrious day as my cold lingers and when I walk my teeth hurt. I briefly went up to Zangtopelri where the temple was packed with class 8 and 9 girls draped in ceremonial rachu’s embroidered with auspicious designs humming mantras along with some elderly villagers keeping count on rosary beads. The boys were outside under a canopy doing the same thing and Pema Chedup racked up 11,000 mantras. As I sat there sipping tea I had to wonder if the prayers were invisible or if they were heard and did some good. Maybe it doesn’t matter since chanting centers the restless mind which is the name of the game to end all suffering and dissatisfactions. The three tiered temple looked immaculate imposed against a crystal blue sky with cottony clouds billowing from Brongla. Still it’s a restive time with the din of dueling tractors below my house and a water stoppage reminding me of the first year in residence; nothing to eat but crackers, coke, and emadatsi. The students are departing save class ten who are locked into exams. Pema and Nima are here for the last night cooking the remainder of my veggies and I sent them to fetch water in the village just so we could eat. I met Phubgyem on the trail with her group friends and she wished me a happy vacation then told me she might be off to Punakha next year. I took in her face for perhaps the last time then went on my way under a serene mountain sunset.
Meeting the Gang in T-Gang, Visiting Broomsha, Dancing Leaves, Final Daze
In Bhutan sometimes you need to get away from your duties, village, kids, and hut. Many of my colleagues have completed their work and are roaming the countryside. For some it’s their last licks since they are set to depart soon. When I was hiking above Shakshing Adam from Pema Gatshel called and told me that he and his girlfriend were coming to Yangtse. I wanted to meet them the following day so I asked my Principal for two days leave and while at first he balked he finally relented. I told him the truth that I wanted to see my best friend Becky and was missing the company of Phelincpa’s. I’ve been under the weather this whole autumn with a sinus infection that has been giving me irritating headaches, cream corn mucus, and dizziness from clogged ears. Nevertheless I threw together some sundry items into my knapsack and hit the road finally catching a ride to Doksom via the maze of farm roads in a desolate dustbowl above the Gongri Chu. This is the new planned site of Doksom town which someday will shift. We stopped to take tea at his pal the Principal of Doksom Primary School at his ranch style home beneath rock outcroppings hardly an oasis with the scraggliest banana trees swaying in the swirling eddies of grainy particles. I was finally deposited in Doksom where I eagerly rushed to the Post Office to claim two parcels but alas the postmaster thoughtfully had sent them up with a person going to Tsenkharla. I was short with the postman even though he did me a favor since I wanted to seize my packages which I still haven’t claimed. By this time I had a headache but I ambled the mile to Gom Kora stopping at my favorite riverbank. Again grateful to be worshipping at the stone altars along the rushing river walled in by barren canyon walls topped with a few squat pines. I took a quick lap around Gom Kora noting my favorite little palm tree and slate carvings of Buddha’s along the promenade where a rooster pecked. Night was falling when I got my next ride to Chazam where it was already pitch. Eventually I made it to Trashigang checking into the good old K.C where I fell asleep having Jurassic dreams. Obviously I never met Adam but recommended they go to Dechen Phodrang sending along my apologies. I was tired the next day but managed to print photos for kids and knock about town awaiting the arrival of my three friends Becky, Sebastian, and Kirsten who were bussing in from Bumthang. They checked into the hilltop hotel and we all gathered in my room and caught up. These are three solid characters with a thirst for adventure and travel. Sebastian is a thirty something Scandinavian looking Dane with a long physique and trim blonde hair parted to one side. His voice has a lilting timbre reminding me of Hunter S Thompson and we have a lot in common although we come from different worlds. Kirsten, a Canadian, is a vivacious young woman with dyed black hair, glasses, and an infectious laugh. Becky you already know so the four friends set out to the renovated bakery for some libations and chatter. Adam and his girlfriend Shannon joined us midway through the course and the bakery shafted us on portions which wasn’t to our liking. Adam and girlfriend went back to the hotel and the four of us moved on to Tenzin’s Bar to refresh are sagging spirits. Tenzin is the foxy lady with the delicious booty that I went to Gongsa with last year and she is very kind. She has given me free meals and sponsored two bottles of port for my mom and aunt. We got a little silly able to tell jokes and relate to our own kind felt really good and we attracted the attention of the other customers who began to take video of Kirsten and Sebastian dancing on their I phone. Finally we let ourselves out as the whole town shuts down by 9:30 and we adjourned to the K.C for more silliness before we all retired to our own quarters to sleep. The next day we were all tired puppies so we found a new restaurant in the upper bazaar which took a very long while to serve us our buffet style lunch. I fear I dominated too many conversations acting the fool and being socially awkward. Yet each of the quartet is a misfit in their own way. We all enjoy our work but also share many of the same challenges and frustrations of teaching. Becky and I decided to go for a walk and she led us to the tiptop of town with a commanding view of the partially dismantled Dzong and bare hillsides beyond the river. She snooped out a trail that led us on an epic excursion into the wilderness beyond town. We traversed a dry rocky ridge shaded by thin and tall pines a variety prevalent between Trashigang and Yadi with a wispy figure. Suddenly we lost our minds when we saw Meme and Tshongtshongma in the same breath. We nearly could see Tsenkharla and Phongmey with both opposing valleys sprawled out before us. (Live right now while listening to Ratdog a rat ran into my house from my washroom drain under my cabinet. I flushed him out with broom and he leapt into a Trader Joe’s style sack before hopping out and dashing under my bed. I finally chased him and he slid under the crack in my front door and out into the starry night. He was a big one and looked familiar. I wonder what he or she was doing in here when I was out of station and I still find bite marks in garments. I have a tummy ache and am soon to bed) It was a magical place and power spot joining Becky’s valley with mine the Bartsham Mountain hulking between. Her valley or Rangjoong Valley fringed by the highlands of Sakteng and Merak. And mine, less visible out towards Tawang with Tshongtshongma the nexus point an antenna of rock worshipped and revered by people of both valleys and countries. MONPA MOUNTAIN Her side has gentler mountains and is lush and bowl shaped. My side is rougher but both are equally appealing and go together divided by a ribbon escarpment. From a rock we could see it all right before the trail vanished into a thick deciduous forest canvassing impossible steep slopes. Off in the distance a white Chorten gleamed in afternoon sunlight. A wintry haze blurred the most distant peaks and clouds enveloped Tshongtshongma and the partial spine of the Dragons tail. It was a comely sight that I will never ever forget especially sharing it with my best friend who I see about once every six months. I finally got out of Trashigang Sunday Morning about eight opting to walk to Chazam via the heartbreak trail past the Chorten and down to the imposing bridge. It’s amazing to see strings of prayer flags strewn the wide river and one can’t figure out how they shot them across the gap. Some mysteries are best left unexplained so I went on getting a plate of Momo’s from a roadside stand nearby one of the three remaining snow lion statues (the fourth was taken out by a ambulance in deadly accident a while back) I lucked out and got a ride in a Ta Ta all the way to Tsenkharla. It felt like riding in a rumbling tank and I arrived with no time to lose.
About this time last year Tashi Wangmo who I call Broomsha (pumpkin) in Sharchop invited me for lunch at her house in Chakademi. She was my student for two years before entering grade 9 this year. So about two months ago I vowed to come on Sunday December 7. Well I didn’t intend I’d wake up in Trashigang and I did intent to go to Tashi Wangmo’s house with Doksola my adopted son (Pema Chedup) Before splitting for Trashigang (which some like Nancy, Jon, and Kirsten call Tashigang which is the old pronunciation) I tacked a note to my door telling Pema that I’d be late for our rendezvous. So when I got home there was no sign of Doksola so I lit out for Chakademi. I saw Nima while leaving and he suggested I go to Pema’s house in Shali first so I took the downward trail off the channel towards the settlement of Shali. Oh did I mention that Broomsha is Doksola’s admire girl. I don’t dismiss these feelings as puppy love because I remember my own heart burning for many girls before the icky world of sex and deception. A youthful heart has its own passions and yearnings that adults might do well to rekindle. I bounded through a dappled scented oak forest emerging past a towering bamboo stand with thick shoots and shimmery leaves. On the trail little brown and orange butterflies patted the earth then fluttered on. A group of farmers misdirected me and I found myself crawling through barbed wire into a village compound with banana trees and a prayer wheel. I spotted Kezang Choden called Big Kezang by classmates although she isn’t fat or ugly. She’s just built solidly like an ox and as usual today she scampered away with hobbit feet disappearing behind a building. She’s shy as a child but is at least 16. Finally a nice Shali student pointed out Doksola’s cottage on a bushy hillside so I hiked up there but his Aunty who didn’t speak a word of English just motioned that he wasn’t there and said, “Tsenkharla.” In the yard a cow was chilling and on a tarp were stalks of maize (corn that doesn’t taste as good and is used for making Ara) there were also some green pumpkins staked in a corner of the small yard. I retreated to the road and resolutely set a course for Chakademi. Both these settlements are in the western valley and one can see Trashigang and the Yangtse road along with patches of the Kulong Chu and every hour or so a blast of dynamite shakes the whole valley setting off some crows to cawing. Damn hydro project that is just starting its effects evident on the scaring and landslides from Doksom to Chazam, but Bhutan bears it’s scars well and feels pristine. It’s a little paradise with real world environmental problems. Yet tigers still prowl the forests and that makes me happy and thankful for wildness. It was a hot hour long walk up the curvy farm road and along the way I saw karma Wangdi who Aunt Bubba thought was the cutest playing soccer on the dusty track with some mates. Later I saw Tashi Dema in a dirty shirt with two elders and they were watching their cows. Cows are super important in these parts and prized by family’s who are fortunate enough o own one. TD says, “Where are you going sir?” I reply that I’m going to Chakademi and she points it out across a gulch. Brongla looms overhead with crags and impregnable forests. It’s utterly steep almost un-climbable from here but there is supposedly a route. A roadside water driven prayer wheel marks the boundary of Chakademi Village. Many residents speak Kurtep a language similar to Tibetan spoken around Lhuntse and parts of Yangtse Dzongkhag. Others in the village speak Sharchop and everyone knows Sharchop since it’s the uniting language of the eastern frontier, linguistics zealots hang on to your hats! Chakademi is a sprawling village with homes spread apart on plots of terraced fields and I hadn’t the faintest idea where Broomsha dwelled. Shali is a fine village but Chakademi is gorgeous enfolded in the bosom of Brongla not far from magical Buyoung falls and a thick jungle gnarled vegetation inhabited by birds and languor’s who swoop down from the treetops to steal maize from the fields to the consternation of the farmers. It’s an age old battle and even Broomsha said she doesn’t like the monkeys on what she called her land. I dropped off the road to the cute little primary school with about 70 pupils where the principal came to greet me. I asked if he knew where Tashi Wangmo lived and several other students including Namchag Wangdi, and Tendy Zangmo. Luckily Tashi lived below the school on a steep footpath dropping several hundred feet. He led me almost to her door before we bid farewell and I walked around the frame of her simple farmhouse where a little zamine’s face popped out of the window. I inquired to no one in particular does Tashi Wangmo live here and from inside I heard her mellifluous reply, “I’m here sir.” Her house was sparse and clean with only a bed shoved into a corner and plenty of warm blankets on a shelf. The altar was no more than two thick wood blocked Scripture wrapped in loose cloth. I asked her if she could read them and she laughed and said, “Oh no sir.” I think there in Sanskrit or another language uncommon for lay folk. She said she had been awaiting my appearance and had risen at 4 A.M to clean and I observed little puddles of water still drying on the modest floorboards. She lay down a thin mat and bade me to sit. Along with Tashi Wangmo were two younger sisters (also with second Wangmo names, only is it uncommon in Bhutan for family’s to share a name) scurrying at her side. Everything was shipshape but very simple even for Eastern Bhutan. She had a boil festering on her rosy cheek but it didn’t mar her. Broomsha has the visage of a blooming rose and wears many expressions. Truthfully in my earlier years I had more trouble learning names and might not of even known her the first year I taught her since she hid in the back row and never volunteered unless called on. The following year we formed a more personal relationship and I encouraged her to practice speaking to me. She would nervously ask me simple questions like where I was going or did I eat lunch and so forth and I encouraged her to keep talking. I’d never describe her as one of my best speakers and is an average student all around but intelligent and wholesome. She is also a good singer and a great dancer but I learned much more about Tashi Wangmo on this day. I already knew she lost her mom who died last year at 41. She left behind Tashi and two younger sisters to basically fend for themselves. It was disheartening to learn that her father has essentially abandoned the family and rarely sleeps at the house (the very house that Tashi Wangmo was born in and lived her entire life) Her Grandma lives in a shack above the main house on a knoll leaving three young girls living alone in the main house sometimes with an aunt. Therefore it seems Broomsha is practically a mother to her siblings during winter. The aunt takes care of her sisters one of whom goes to Chakademi School during session. She called her grandma down to help prepare lunch for me while her little sister Pema Wangmo served me sweet tea and zow. The sun was sinking and its rays warmed my back through the carved window frame but the day was already losing its heat and a brisk wind kicked up. As customary the chief guest sits and eats alone. I popped my head in the kitchen to see Broomsha and her elder squatting around the hearth cutting vegetables over a bucket. Smoke filtered through the sunbeams and they were all laughing and chattering away happily. Lunch was a heap of red rice with a nice vegetable curry with everything in the bowl homegrown and I was even given a spoon. I was at Broomsha’s for about two hours and then we skirted through her fields and an oak stand. She wore a kira with white blouse and rubber Live Strong bracelet her shoulder length hair stirring in the breeze. We arrived at Nidup Zangmo’s house who I also taught. Nidup was from a sturdy nuclear family and lives in a better quality house elevated on stilts with nice wooden floors. She was blasting music and was weaving when we entered. The girls giggled talking in Sharchop and I was again offered tea and snacks. Soon Broomsha walked me to the shortcut near the water driven prayer wheel and I shoved 1000 NU into her hand and she didn’t try very hard to refuse and told me she’d never forget. Upon parting I told her I loved her and I wished I had a daughter like her and she said in the next generation which means next life in Bhutanese parlance. I pressed her hand and she walked away leading her youngest sister whose five, ten years younger. I paused on the first rise watching them shamble down the road past farmhouses with red chillies drying on tin roofs eventually rounding a bend. On the channel I ran into more students including boys camouflaged and singing in the forest. Later in the gloaming I saw a few languor’s with sweeping tails playing in the oaks halfway between Chakademi and home. They were talking to each other in dolphin wheezes and clicks and shaking the trees producing a shower of yellow and orange leaves.
Monday evening Hors d’oeuvres including pepper crusted salami, and gummy bears thanks to dual parcels from home. Thanks mom and Bubba and I particularly like Bubba’s collages. Saw Broomsha walking with some Chakademi clan on the channel. She seemed reticent dressed in her hip jacket looking rural sheik retaining that Mandarava essence. I wished her a happy winter break and thanked her again for lunch and she called back, “Thank you sir.” I also went up to Shakshing then down to the second castle ruin with incredible oak tree growing out of the upper story stones. There’s a flat rock to sit on with a view of a farmhouse and stone fence beneath towering Brongla. A fresh wind gusted for nearly a minute sending leaves cascading from the branches making a crackling sound when they hit the ground. It made me think of death simply that it was time for each of those leaves to help regenerate.
It’s Tuesday morning and I’m trying to complete my workload. Construction has made it difficult to walk around campus so I had to pass behind the main academic block and staff toilets where I stepped in a puddle of seepage splashing feces on my pants and shoe. This is the kind of morning it is in East Bhutan. There are some things I won’t miss about living here including the health conditions. Of course I had to use water from a bucket to wash the jeans and shoe best I could since no water is coming from the tap. Oh Bhutan! The tractor roars outside and a makeshift shanty for the Indian laborers is now in dirt below my house where once an idyllic pasture rested. I still have a few days of office work including an exam blueprint that no one made but we have to complete after the fact in a complete bullshit manner just to submit the paperwork to the Dzongkhag. Needless to say I’m ready to get away from my beloved mountain for awhile.
Wednesday and end of the line for the academic year. Class ten students pace along the walls burbling and cramming information into their head before adjourning to the refectory cum examination hall. The construction below my house will be an 18 month ordeal and huge holes are burrowed into the earth….My last walk up to Shakshing with scarlet clouds at sunset over Kunglung, everything reveling in autumn with wonderful fragrance of falling leaves whirling in evening zephyrs. My mountain never looked better!
I’m getting closer to departure now, less than 48 hours, and still plenty to do including that blueprint, submitting life skills report, lesson plan book, attendance report, winterizing the hut and so on. Birdsong is interspersed with hammering and dump trucks depositing their loads of rock. Prabu is helping me with the final spreadsheet and hopefully I’ll get my ass on that westbound bus on December 12.