Saturday, December 22, 2012

What will you miss, Miss?

Open eyes ahead.
With closed eyes I can go back,
To the secret heart.

I have never really noticed the passage of a year as much as this last one. Most of my years have been spent in one place. Though I have traveled, I never extended a stay over 3 months. Spending a year in Bhutan has shown me how much can change in one year if you are paying attention. It demonstrated how much you can grow and learn, and exactly how long a year is. A year can seem at the same time languidly long and sneakily short. I have been on both ends of the spectrum and in between. I have learned to appreciate time in a new way, how to practice patience and presence, even when I felt like running away. 

There were intense struggles, but with it, sublime sweetness. There were times when I was lonely to tears. Life, the teacher, does not give easy lessons, but nothing is ever so polarized that you can’t find something to appreciate. While I dealt with my learnings, I began to integrate into my community. What makes it now hard to leave are the people who have helped me through each rough spell, here in my village, as well as other teachers in the program. I have surrogate families now and people who have become fixtures in my life. The toddler, Dechen, who always gallops around in his tiny blue golashes in front of my gate and says, clapping his hands together, “Kuzuzempo madam! Gaté jo ni?”.  This little guy has no idea how many times he’s brought me out of a funk. 

My students. I will miss them the most. No students I’ve ever taught have made their way this deep into my heart. They have been such a joy, each day. They have made everything worth it here. Without these students, I would have left after a month. Ok, nice village, beautiful place, but this is rough! I’m out! The kids kept me going. Seeing their faces each day reminded me why I came, and brought me more and more out of my self, out of whatever I thought I was, or what problems I thought I had. And it was work! They weren’t always easy to be with, hitting each other, calling names, being naughty kids. But we learned how to solve problems in new ways together. Do I know if they will stop hitting each other? No. But at least they know there’s one person who doesn’t approve. 

I’m also going to miss my landlords.  Hearing Ap Kuenzang’s cane against the wood floor above me, the TV tuned to BBS, and Am Tandin muttering her nightly prayers. I’ll miss talking with them in Dzongkha, their patience with me as I eek out meaning from this once impenetrable language. I joked that Am Tandin has been my “Dzongkha Lopen” (teacher). She got kick out of that. I have loved living with grandparents. I hope when I’m old, my eyes still twinkle like Am Tandin’s and that I keep working outdoors through any impediments like Ap Kuenzang. I also hope to be as generous as these two. They continually give to me, even when what we each have is scarce. They’ve inspired me, so that when I get something good, I share. Finally, I want to be as sweet as they are with my partner. Sometimes, when they’re working, they sit down to rest and just talk with each other. They do sweet things for each other daily, and I’ve never heard their voices raised in anger. 

I think I’ll even miss the quirky things too. Like my uneven floor with wide spaces between the boards.  I’ll miss getting my cold water from the outside tap. I’ll miss the sound of the outside tap always running, like some kind of meditation waterfall track. I’ll miss the good things, like the crackly logs in the bukari while I snuggle into bed. I won’t miss sleeping alone, or not sleeping at all. I’ll miss my alarm clock bird that always starts singing right at 5:30am. I’ll miss the cows. A lot. I’ll miss the mountains, the near horizons everywhere. My walks. The quiet. The intense quiet. I’ll miss the memories I’ve kept in my “secret heart”, the ones of such intense beauty that the clumsy hands of words could never grasp. 

I’ll miss drinking milk tea everywhere you go and eating too much rice all the time. I’ll wonder why no one is asking me over and over if I had my lunch, or if I want to eat lunch now. You ate your lunch? How about dinner? I will miss the supreme hospitality and generosity that is so ingrained in the culture. The formality too. Driglam Namzha. Oh yes, I will miss that because the US could use a little more politeness and ritual in everyday life. 

What’s hard to imagine is that I won’t see these people for a long time, if ever again.  We’ve given so much to each other, and now I am leaving. We’re continuing our lives separately. There’s even one friend to whom we all said a premature and mournful goodbye as we attended her cremation here. As Phurba said on our last Gompa Mobile adventure, “Life is like that. It is always coming or going. You are born, then you leave when you die. So even your life is coming and going. So we meet, but we always depart at some point. I am glad we got to meet in this lifetime.” I am glad too, that I got to meet all these people in this lifetime. Even though my students have given me presents on which they write “Sorry miss, I have nothing much to give” over the wrapping, their presence in my life exceeds anything they could package in paper. 

I am learning how to say goodbye to people I love. I know I will continue to send my love to this place and these people for as long as I live, whether or not I get the chance to return. 

Kadinchey, from the top to the bottom of my heart. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

November Adventures

Ok, this is not a haiku, but it is what I have for this month:

Larch Tree
The larch said yes,
though maybe she still
gripped her green needles of youth
that would necessarily change.
Her neon display of faith
flames amid the safety of evergreen.
These brave limbs:
the glory of the fall.

I made it to The Lake. My students have been talking about this mythical lake at the top of a mountain for the whole year. I have meant to visit it, but no one could point the direct path that would lead me there. Finally realizing my impending departure in December, one of my Class V boys offered to take me to The Lake one Saturday. This boy is quite talkative despite his limited English, is squirrelly in class, and has a penchant for break dance moves. He’s the kind of kid who has trouble stopping long enough to write his fast-paced ideas down. It was a good opportunity for me to allow him to talk and work on his English informally, just be a kid along with my kids, and discover the mysterious lake.

After class on the 3rd, I followed “Karchu” and “Pema”, as my two boys are called by everyone except teachers, up the steep slope to their families’ homes. Karchu’s house is a traditional style farmhouse with a log cut with steps to the raised door. The home was one that displayed the signs of a busy farming family: drying vegetables lining the front yard, along with a multitude of shoes, machetes, hoes, and buckets. Inside, his mother was separating butter from churned milk with her grandson surveying over her shoulder in a kabney (a wide colorful scarf wrapped below the baby’s bottom, x-ing across the carrier’s chest and tied in a knot at the front). She greeted us and handed the baby off to Karchu to finish the process of making cheese. Thus, our walk to the lake had to wait until the cheese was done. Although Karchu can be occasionally disruptive in class, he is good natured and helpful at heart, which showed as he cared for his nephew, swept the floor, and brought his mother the tools she needed to work on the cheese. This is the great thing about visiting students’ homes: you get to see who they are when they’re not showing off for their peers.

I’m glad we waited for the cheese because his mother prepared us lunch of ema datse and rice and we drank the dachu (whey) from the cheese-making. After lunch, Karchu yelled up to Pema’s house and we went to meet him higher on the hill. The boys talked non-stop about everything we saw: this rock has flags on it placed by some grandfather because it looks like a horse, these berries are edible, but those ones are not, Pema fell out of that tree over there, there are snakes here, that’s the house that burned down this year, we built a fort here once… It was hilarious, but their knowledge of their surroundings is astounding. Even more, they understand how breathtaking the place they live is. As we reached the summit, Karchu pointed to the sun and remarked on the slanting light over the surrounding mountains. Pema pointed out the circling eagle. Each time they looked out at the view, they exclaimed “miss, beautiful!”. We found soft yellow and brown feathers, remains left by a golden eagle’s feast. The boys collected them and gave them to me, telling me never to forget this place (as if I could). We took many “pictures with our eyes” as I don’t have any more film for my camera, snapping photos of the view, the eagles, each other. Over the top of the ridge, we spotted a little spot of mud surrounded by dwarf bamboo. This was the lake. Coming from Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, this was not a lake. The boys admitted that it was bigger during the monsoon. We poked at the mud and made shadow puppets which we “took pictures” of on the puddle of water.

We descended along the opposite side of the ridge where the boys found a cave and pretended it was their “meditation cave”, like the one from the film “Ashi Nasa” which played in our multi-purpose hall a few days earlier (at night, in the unheated building, in Dzongkha, and yes, I went). We also found a beehive, which Karchu went to investigate, then ran screaming away as he realized it was still inhabited. We ended back at Karchu’s house, just as the cows were lining up in his yard to be milked. I walked down the mountain with Karchu’s mother, who was going to the temple, and Pema, who entertained us with funny little Dzongkha songs. I opened the door to my house, wind-blown, cheeks sunburned, with feathers and rocks in my pockets. My little brother Georges would be proud.

Monday and Tuesday we got a holiday, or “chuti”, since there was a Lama visiting the Rukubji temple. At the end of the week, a blessing, or “wan” was held at Chendibji. The lama from Gangtey Goemba was holding prayers at the site of the 3 chortens by the river about 10km down the road to the east of Rukubji. After 3rd period, classes were cancelled and the children ran as fast as they could to board tractors or pile into vans and pickup trucks to make it to the blessing. I walked the road with a few students, had lunch at the hotel, and then hopped in Phurba’s truck along with Ajim Yangzom and the kids from the hotel. We arrived to a crowd of people extending the length of the football field area on which the chortens stand. A tent was erected near the largest chorten and I was led inside, linking hands in a chain with my companions. Inside the tent, about a hundred red-robed monks sat on the pine-blanketed earth in rows along with lay people in the back. I was seated behind the sisters and their nieces near the back. On a stage sat the lama, with a red fleece under his traditional robes for warmth, accompanied on the left by other monks and on the right by government officials. Monks scurried around the altar in the back fetching things for the lama at designated points while others filled baskets with blessed food to distribute to the crowd outside the tent. Though my student Tshering Lhaden and her sister Khandu did their best to explain what was happening, I didn’t really understand the significance of the prayers and accompanying actions. Everyone else knew exactly what to do and when. I guess it’s the same when people come to Catholic mass for the first time and wonder how everyone knows when to kneel, stand, sit, hold out your hands, etc. In fact, I’ve noticed that the Bhutanese brand of Buddhism is a lot like Catholicism in its iconography, ritual, and stratification of holy men. At the completion of an hour and half of prayers, the lama walked between the rows of people and touched each head with a wand (well, it might not be a wand, but I like to think it is). Following him, monks distributed “tso” (blessed food, which is usually packaged snacks and fruit), “sunkyi” (blessed brightly colored cords that you tie around your neck), holy water and holy alcohol, poured into your extended hand, and “paktso” (a dense, unbaked cake made of butter, wheat flour, alcohol, and puffed rice that ensure long life and are quite delicious). A few monks with beaded headdresses danced at the end of the procession, which exited the tent to attend to the masses outside. We collected our goodies in a scarf, chained hands again, and snaked through the crowd to find a ride back to Chazam. We passed vendors camped out to sell everything from cellphone jewelry to rice cookers to the crowd of pilgrims. A taxi Ajim Yangzom knew opened its doors for us and we squeezed in like a clown car. Back at the hotel, the girls and I shared our “tso” with the kitchen staff  while we drank milk tea and talked about the nearing exams.

The next week I finally got to play host. After numerous visits to friends teaching in other areas of Bhutan, two friends came to stay at my little house. Noorin, along with her fellow teacher Misato, from Kuruthang, and Tara from Bumthang.  Misato is a volunteer teacher from Japan who came through JICA to teach at Noorin’s school. They came under the auspices of going to the “Thrung Thrung” (black necked crane) Festival at Gangtey on Nov. 11th. Any excuse to get them to visit me. On that Saturday, Tara showed up at my school right after class. The literary club and I showed her our “renovated” library, then we left the cold, windy school for the sheltered sun-soaked respite of my front porch. After a lovely lunch cooked by the master chef and pizza baroness of Bumthang, we set off on my favorite hike in my village.

The hike winds up several hills to a spot called Palipokto, which is a hill on top of which stands the B-Mobile cellphone tower. I don’t go for the solar powered tower, rather for the exquisite view of the entire valley and surrounding mountains. All year I have watched the change of seasons through the foliage along the path. This time, the leaves and ferns spread out in reddish brown tones and the dwarf bamboo’s spikes were dusty grey. The evergreens looked drier, but still sported their deep blue green needles. The most fascinating change has been the larch trees. These are the only needle leaf trees (I think, please correct me if I’m wrong) that change color and loose their needles. The needles on their drooping spider leg branches turn blaze orange, like deer hunter jackets amid the mute browns and greens of the surrounding forest. In contrast, the oak trees are evergreen and do not seem to notice fall has come, except for the fern sweaters they wear up their trunks, which changed from yellow to red to brown before dropping to the ground, leaving the dark gnarly bark naked.

On this particular afternoon, the light was slanting, as it only can in November, through the slats between the mountains, giving the whole valley and opposite mountains a soft look as if we were in a Vermeer painting. I must admit I felt proud that Tara deemed this viewpoint one of her top in Bhutan. That’s saying something, since this country is known for its views and exquisite natural beauty.

We headed down, collected some firewood from my stack, and got the bukari nice and toasty. Soon after Noorin and Misato rolled up the dirt path in a taxi that they’d hired for the weekend. We set about getting cozy around the fire, talking and eating snacks. We prepared a meal of radish datse, rice, and eazay. The rice was a gift from Gangamaya, brought from her hometown in the southern Tsirang Dzongkhag. It was so fragrant, and is by far the best rice I have ever eaten. I had saved it for this occasion, since all food is even better when it is shared.

The house became quite warm from the bukari and the bodies, yet Misato anticipating the cooling after the fire died overnight, layered up before wrapping up in blankets in her bed. Fearing that my guests would be cold, and unaccustomed to the heat that so many people can create, I had stoked the fire constantly. When I crawled into my bed, I was sweating and could hardly fall asleep. In the morning, I made buckwheat, coconut, ginger pancakes served with Bumthang wild strawberry jam (thanks to Tara) and coffee (again, thanks to Tara). After, I led a tour of the village, up to the school, across the suspension bridge, through the archery pitch, past my students washing their uniforms, and to the renovated temple. From there, we went down the oak lined path to my house to meet our taxi for the festival.

The festival was held at Gangtey Goemba, a large and beautiful temple that overlooks the Phobjika valley. Not only is it special to people, but the black necked cranes that winter in the valley each year circle it before returning to Tibet like good Buddhists. We watched some students perform a dance and then the festival halted for a lunch break. Gangtey has one main street and not much else, so we found a tiny “hotel” where we had tea, rice, momo, and chili-chop (chickpea flour coated whole chilies that are deep fried). There were many western tourists wandering around with their guides and snapping photos. We wandered in and out of shops and examined the offerings of street vendors before deciding to visit the valley to get a better look at the cranes. The cranes keep their distance, so the best view is actually inside the crane center where you can look through a telescope. A small but precious flock, there are only about 400 birds that come to winter in the valley, the rest prefer the east, and that’s still only about 100 birds. After viewing the graceful cranes, Tara informed us of an Aman Kora located at the other end of the valley and we made the easy decision to go there for a cup of something warm as a treat. At the luxury hotel, with a bank of windows overlooking the valley and the temple on the opposite hill, we ordered chai, hot chocolate with chili, and a hot toddy, which came with complimentary cookies. It was exquisite. One of the staff came to talk with us and recognized me from the Tour of the Dragon. I had handed him water with my students as he was biking past Longtey in the 280 km race in September. After finding out my profession, he gifted my school with books donated by guests at the hotel. With warm delicious drinks in our stomachs and books in hand, we departed after taking some great pictures with the valley as background. The taxi driver took us to the junction with the main road and Tara and I said goodbye to Noorin and Misato. We ended up catching a ride on a tour bus full of Italians which got held up in a herd of yaks for a moment right after the Pelela pass. The Italians were wild with joy to see the yaks, exclaiming and pointing with childlike excitement at them.
The next morning, I made breakfast for Tara and I before donning my wool kira and heading to school. I hugged her tight, because this might be the last time I see her in Bhutan. I’ll be leaving my school on the 12th and she won’t be coming to Thimphu until after I am back in the US. I’m going to make a point to stay in good contact and I am sure I’ll see her in North America sooner than later!

As for the most recent adventure, I just came back from a spontaneous trip to Bajo town with Phurba. It started with a terrible stencil cutter that botched my annual exams and a query to my monastic friend as to when he’d be going that direction next. The answer happened to be “now”. So I ran down the hill from Gangamaya’s to throw things together to leave. We had been celebrating the last day of Dasain by eating sel roti, drinking tea, and putting tika (this time: rice flour paste with several colored powders that must be applied by matchstick, then showering the head of the receiver with marigold petals) on her son Vim’s forhead. I took a moment to decide whether to leave the gathering, but decided that readable exams were a priority. During midterm, I had to run all around the hall rewriting letters and sentences that the stencil printer hadn’t cut boldly enough for my confused students. Some students never raised their hands for this kind of correction, resulting in scores that lacked validity.  It was a headache and I was willing to pay whatever price to get the exams done well this time.  So I grabbed my toothbrush and thumb drive with the exams on it and ran back out to the road where I met what I refer to as the “Gompa Mobile”, a white Bolero truck with “Wangdigompa” emblazoned across the top of the windshield. Though the trip began with Bhutanese hit songs, I quickly realized my friend has a soft spot for English music, especially love songs. I don’t think I will forget him singing along to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” or Kayci and Jo Jo’s “All my life” anytime soon (to be honest, we were both singing). 

Sometimes I forget that Phurba is a monk, except that he is always wearing a maroon wrap skirt and his requisite yellow and brown tops, though now he covers these with a red puffy “The North Face” knockoff down jacket. I’m fairly certain that lay people like myself have notions about what monks and nuns are like and what they do or don’t do. So when someone doesn’t embody what we thought, we try to categorize them differently rather than absorbing their uniqueness into the label they carry. So when Phurba doesn’t get up at 4 am to meditate for an hour, adores love songs, is nearly constantly on his cell phone, and is frequently on the road to and from Bajo and Thimphu on business for the Gompa, these things don’t necessarily fit into the imagined category of “Buddhist Monk in Bhutan”. But the truth is, they do. I’m by no means saying he is not a proper monk, rather that the conception I had of who monks are must expand, and it has.

So back to our exam adventure. We rolled into Bajo town at about 7:45pm and Phurba deposited me at a shop where I could print. After processing 26 (condensed!) pages, I paid the shopkeeper 260 nu and then we sped to the copy shop that would be closing at 8pm. The kind owner stayed open for me while Phurba ran errands for the Gompa. The man’s son, in Class IV, piloted some of my questions while we waited for all the copies to go through. In all, I had 272 pages, double sided. It took nearly an hour to complete the copying, but the shopkeeper was incredibly patient, gave me sweets, and even stapled all the tests by hand. In the end, he gave me a deal on the cost, allowing me to pay only 1500 nu for the job that should have cost closer to 2000 nu (~$40).

After printing, we boarded the Gompa Mobile, passed the burned Wangdue Dzong, and headed across the river to Phurba’s sister-in-law’s apartment. She works for the Punasangchuu Hydro Project, one of the major hydropower projects happening in Bhutan. She welcomed us with sweet milk tea and sel roti, then set about heating up dinner. By this time, I had eaten my fill of sel roti and “food” (which is what people call rice), and could hardly find room for the tea. Yet there’s no way around it in a Bhutanese home: you must eat. After dinner, she made up my bed in the altar room and Phurba got the couch in the sitting room. We went to bed promptly, since Phurba warned me it would be an early morning. He spoke the truth, and his alarm beeped us awake at 4:30am. We had a quick cup of tea and then fumbled our way through the alley in the still dark dawn to the Gompa Mobile. The nights get cold here now, even in the low altitude of Wangdue. I shivered in the heater-less car, but found the slowly brightening sky magical. You can see still the stars at 5am, which is the time I usually wake up in the village. I don’t usually observe them for long because I get too cold standing outside in my pajamas while I collect wood for my morning fire, so it was a treat to see them in the navy sky.

We turned off onto a rough road toward at village called Kazhi where we would collect rice from the recent harvest for Phurba’s goempa. We arrived on time, 6 am sharp, but no one was there to meet us. Phurba got on the phone, and in a half hour a man came waddling down a steep path burdened by a 50kg sack of rice on his back. Soon after, another man came down another path in the same manner. Both unloaded their sacks into the Goemba Mobile’s truck bed. I wondered if we were ready to leave, but Phurba’s acceptance of the invitation from the men to have breakfast at the house atop the hill next to us signaled to me that we weren’t leaving any time soon.

We climbed the path lined with orange trees and cows to the base of a ladder leading to the door of the house. Phurba and I sat on the kitchen floor while the “ama” (lady of the house) prepared tea, the traditional stove keeping us warm with its burning logs. When breakfast was ready, we were ushered into a sitting room and sat on the floor next to an open window overlooking the harvested rice paddies and rising sun. Breakfast was greenbean and chili datse with rice—a lot of rice. We ate with our hands while the ama asked us if it tasted good and tried to refill our heaped bowls with more rice. A little girl came out of the room across from us as we ate, her hair duck-tailed in the back from sleep. She eyed us with shy curiosity, coming closer slowly and eventually laying down a toy car, which she passed to me and Phurba alternately. We played with little Tandin while more and more villagers deposited their 50kg bags of rice into the Gompa Moblie waiting below. After another hour, Phurba told me we had to get moving. We thanked the ama for the meal, bid Tandin farewell, and descended the ladder with a new addition to our Mobile, one of the farmers who was hitching a ride with us back to Sephu (where the goempa is located).

One metric ton of rice in the bed, we rumbled down the rough road while petrol sloshed in jerry cans, which had to be moved inside the car, stinging my nostrils with the sharp scent of gasoline. I was thankful for the relative smoothness of the main road when we finally reached it. Phurba and the farmer talked, and Phurba explained me to him. Learning I was a teacher, he thanked me, telling me, “Teachers have one of the most important jobs in the world. Teachers have the ability to affect so many people, they teach a certain number of students, but those students go out and share their knowledge with countless others. It’s a chain. Not many jobs are like that”. Wow! I was so honored. I told him that farmers are incredibly important to all of us, because without farmers, there would be no teachers or other professions. I also shared that I had begun a course in farming with my boyfriend in the US, a plan to which he nodded his fatherly approval. We continued on, with Phurba and me breaking into song occasionally, until we reached the turn to Rukubji where I jumped out and waved goodbye to the laden vehicle.

Now, exams have begun. Class PP, I, and II have finished and it is Class III, IV, and V’s turn. Next week, Class VI, which is a national exam. I know my students will be grateful to have readable exams this time around. Getting them printed was worth the adventure!

And, here’s an actual haiku I wrote for having 3 weeks left in my village and having a little insomnia:

So close to the end
my mind stays awake at night
with a dying fire

Monday, October 29, 2012

The leaves are shivering...

He ran up that hill
hooting from his child heart
eyes changed like red leaves

This poem is dedicated to one of my Class V boys who has struggled with school all year. Recently, I got to walk with him up a mountain called Palipokto. His complete joy about being on this walk inspired the haiku. I wish all teenage boys could get the chance to drop their guard and be so innocent and joyful.

The end of October has always been my favorite time of year, and it holds true in Rukubji. I thought for a moment that the trees would never change color, and though most are evergreen, they are now set off by yellows, browns, and reds, which lends depth to the landscape. Noticeably, the few larch trees that would be overlooked as normal needle trees have taken a golden orange hue and have begun to shower the earth with their dried needles. The air wears a frosty perfume, carried on brusque wind that makes the leaves shiver. The scenery of my daily walk makes me want to kneel in awe of all the beauty and at the same time quicken my pace for the chill. The bukari fires began during the late September evenings and now must be started on both ends of the day. My fingers have taken to becoming immobile and ghostly at school as I try to wield the chalk in the drafty classrooms. Despite the slight discomforts of being unheated all day, I enjoy cold weather immensely, which no one can quite believe here.

I am dealing with the cold much better than the beginning of the year. I now have a cozy wool full-length kira to wrap around me during the school day and find no shame in wearing three shirts and two pairs of leggings under it. I’ve also had additions from home, like extra wool tops and a pair of wool clogs that I wear at school. More important, I am far better at starting my bukari fire. It takes hardly any time now to get it burning (without the kerosene that many people use), which is far more enjoyable than the struggles I had in the winter. The lack of struggle may also be due to the ease I’ve felt with life here in the past few months.

Besides enjoying the fall atmosphere and burning fire, I have had a few small adventures during this month. To backtrack into September for a moment, we received a new teacher at our school. Our new, very young Miss came in mid-September along with a Non-Formal Education (NFE) teacher and an early childhood education teacher. The other two teachers work in the village NFE center next to the temple, and Miss Tshering Yangchen works at our school. It is a relief to know that each class has a teacher in it all day, making teaching far less stressful. We all had some schedule shifts, and as a result I got handed Class I for a “reading period” after lunch. I admit I was perplexed and not enthusiastic about the prospect at first, but after a tough first day with them, I changed my attitude. I went back the second day, determined that fun would be the top priority. I brought in all the books with few words on each page, taught “One, two, buckle my shoe”, and we all had a fabulous time. It just took setting a little routine and being committed to enjoying my time with them. Not many people tell them they’re smart, and they are, so I make sure they know this all the time. The cool thing is, these kids can read! I am so proud of them. They come up to me screaming “Miss! Miss! THE!” pointing to the word ‘the’ on the page. The other day, I had Class V students who were free come in and “buddy read” with them, which was a total joy for all of us. The Class V kids really took on the teacher role as they read slowly with the little ones. We have also learned “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck” which we play as a reward game, though I’ve changed the words to “Cow, Cow, Yak”.

Speaking of yaks… I got to visit the yak camp near Pelela. In the fall, the yaks come down the mountain to enjoy the cold weather that has befallen the lower altitudes. Several of my students’ parents are yak herders and they invited me to visit the baby yaks on Saturday. We hiked up the shortcut to Tsengaypokto (the steep climb up to the 2 shops  and Gangamaya’s house at the top of the hill/mountain behind Rukubji). At the top, we jumped in the back of a pickup truck with the rest of the students heading to Longtey for the weekend (about 8km to the west of Rukubji, the village just before the 3,000 + metre pass called Pelela). My guides were Class IV Phurba, his brother Class VI Dawa Tashi, Class VI Sonam Dorji, and Class V Kumbu Dem. We unloaded at Longtey, had tea and puffed rice at Phurba and Dawa’s house, offered by their grandmother.

Their grandmother is one of the oldest people in Longtey, but like most older people in Bhutan, she never stops working. Dawa told me a story about how his grandmother, in her younger years, won a prize for being able to shoot an arrow and hit the target in one try. She was dressed in a wooly patterned kira with another around her waist and brilliant “koma” (like brooches that are used to hook the top ends of the kira over the shoulders) fixing the top of the kira together. She and I made conversation out of my limited Dzongkha, me telling her I was Dawa and Phurba’s teacher, she sharing about the cold weather and her aches, while refilling my cup of tea excessively. Though our conversation was limited by words, her eyes and smile made me feel welcome, as if she were my own grandmother. After recently listening to a podcast on aging in America that discussed the lack of visibility of older generations in public life, I realize how Bhutan is the opposite. In Bhutan, elderly people are out and about everywhere. In fact, one incredibly old grandmother makes the 8km round trip from Bimilo each day to pick up her Class PP grandchildren. My landlords, Ap Kuenzang and Am Tandin, who are quite advanced in years, are always in their fields or working on projects. For me, this is how aging should be. Young people need to be in contact with older people. We all need a reminder of the beauty and difficulty of aging, because hopefully it’s where we are headed as we continue on in our lives.

After the tea, Kumbu came and collected us and we continued our adventure to the yaks. We took a “short cut” into the woods that led us past one of the rocks where Guru Rimpche meditated. Dawa advised us to take a rhododendron branch and place it on the rock, making a wish as we did so. We walked a worn footpath through the rough grey dwarf bamboo and autumnal brush that reached our shoulders. Even 8km from Rukubji, the vegetation changed to that common of higher altitudes, speckled with rhododendron and sparse trees. Soon, we saw the blue peaks of tarp tents poking above the spiky bamboo. We also spotted the horns of yaks. Yaks are like buffalo wearing long coats. In fact, there’s a folktale about how the yak came to be. Apparently, the yak and the buffalo were brothers. One day the yak had to go up the mountain to find food. He told his brother he’d return. He put on a long thick coat and went up the mountain. There, he found food, but never returned. This would explain the long coat of hair, which people cut and weave into cloth. Sure enough, there were “buchu” (baby) yaks too! They kicked up their back legs and fluffy tails as they bounded through the brush. Kumbu led us to her mother’s tent where she would stay for the weekend. I am amazed that people stay in these tents during the coldest weather. They are a simple tarp tented over poles. There is a fire pit in the back end of the tent, pots for cooking, blankets for sleeping, and not much else. From the top of the tent, strings of yak cheese, called chugo, hang to dry out, a tooth-chipping treat that everyone loves. After being gifted with many strings of chugo, Dawa, Sonam, and I continued on to Pelela to visit the chorten there, leaving Phurba and Kumbu with the yaks for the night. We circled the chorten 3 times and then galloped back towards Longtey, catching a much-appreciated ride half way there from a man on his way to Trongsa. He scolded us as we got in the car, telling us we shouldn’t be walking in the dusk- he thought I was one of the boys until he took a second look! I admit, running around with kids isn’t something most people do. It is sort of a compliment that I was taken for a child.

The next week brought two events: Dasain, a Hindu festival, and the Sephu Community School Variety Show.

Wednesday we were granted a day off for Dasain. I had agreed (in March) to spend the holiday with Gangamaya and her family. The holiday is based on the victory of Ram over Ravana, as recounted in the Ramayana. It is celebrated by Nepalese people in Bhutan and Nepal, and lasts 15 days. In the morning, I walked up to their house in Tsengaypokto and was warmly greeted by my student Vim, his older brother Tara who had made the trip home from boarding school, SB, their father, and Gangamaya, the generous matriarch. They led me to their altar room where SB and Gangamaya pressed a mixture of yogurt and uncooked rice onto my forehead, which is called ‘tika’. They sprinkled me with rice and gave me some folded money. People do this for their family each Dasain. Gangamaya and SB have certainly become that for me during my months here and it was a pure honor to be able to celebrate this familial holiday with them. We then ate a feast of rice from Tsirang (the BEST rice I have ever tasted), chickpea curry, yogurt, ghee, pumpkin curry, chili curry, and homemade mango pickle. The day continued with visitors filtering in and out, Gangamaya feeding everyone and making sure we were all stuffed to the top with tea at all times. Gangamaya is an incredibly openhanded hostess. Everyone is welcome into her home, whether they are upstanding or not. I will not go into the details of the issues that some of my students families face, but there are deep and hard things happening. No matter what the situation, Gangamaya lets people in, even when they abuse her generosity and trust. I deeply respect her for this, because most of us would just say, “No, you hurt me and others before and I don’t want to offer you any compassion.”  She’s an example of what so many religions preach, but people rarely embody in practice. As dusk approached, I bowed in gratitude to my hosts, saying “donebad”, and began a chilly, indigo walk home along the road, full of food and love. I was reminded that autumn is a time in many cultures for celebrations exalting connection and gratitude. It is truly the spirit of the harvest to share in this way. These celebrations, which happen as the light retreats, exemplify human hope—that we make light out of darkness, bring celebration into a time when things around us are dying.

The next day, I walked down to Chazam after school to catch a ride with the hotel staff to the Sephu Variety Show. Sephu is a school about 4 km away from Chazam, down an unpaved farm road. It is a primary school, like Rukubji, and the students are drawn from the villages in the surrounding mountains and valleys to the north and east of Chazam. At the school, we were ushered into a bamboo-woven multipurpose hall, devoid of chairs and benches except along the walls. People filtered in and sat directly on the earthen floor. Since we were “honored guests”, we got plastic chairs along the wall near the front. The actual “guest of honor”, the Gup (like the mayor of the Geog- the assemblage of villages called Sephu) invited me and my friend Yangzom to sit next to him. He’s an amiable man and the father of two of my students. We had a good time talking in a mix of Dzongkha and English as we waited for the school staff to rewire their mic system. The Gup recently returned from a government tour in Thailand and told us about his adventure there, recounting the amazement at seeing roads that went over other roads, the ocean, and so many people. After an hour, the mic system was running and the show began. There were 32 items on the list, and not a single one was cut, despite the delayed start. Traditional dances and songs, nursery rhymes performed by the younger classes, modern dances, a skit about AIDS prevention that involved cardboard boxes decorated with inflated condoms … By the time it was over, at 11:30pm, our backsides were frozen into our chairs from sitting in the unheated space for so long. Even so, we had to stand up and perform a last traditional dance and song with the staff, the Gup, and other village officials. The Gup drove us back to Chazam and I spent the night at the hotel since there was no way to get back to Rukubji at that hour. I am grateful that our culture show was far shorter! Yet the Sephu students had something that was lacking in our show. The kids actually sang the songs. It was more student-driven in many ways, and that made it more interesting for me. I talked about this fact with my students and they agreed, so I hope they take more initiative next year with their show.

This week, Halloween is Wednesday.  In celebration, students will be bringing pumpkins, ‘kokor’, to carve after school. They are excited to celebrate and learn about this holiday, and I’m excited to share the fun. We can’t go trick or treating, but they were really intrigued by the idea of getting candy from strangers. Noorin gave me the fabulous idea of doing a candy hunt- like an Easter egg hunt. It will be nice to have some fun, since the exams are now on the horizon and soon all available free-time will be spent in preparation for this. Winter timing will also begin, as the cold forces us to spend the least amount of time possible in the unheated schoolrooms.

So, imagine me in this last month in the village, snuggled up in wool, sitting next to my bukari fire or out walking in the patchwork of color that fall has brought.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Butter and lamps

plunging, up and down,
the forgotten ache milk takes
to give its butter

This is a haiku for churning butter. This past week I got to do so twice at my student Sonam Choden’s house. I had asked her to teach me to make “datse” (cheese) in the traditional way, and she happily agreed. Before you make the cheese, first you have to make butter, I found. I walked into the main part of Rukubji village, past our 3 chortens and tangly evergreen oaks to see Sonam and another student, Pemba Lham, waving to me from the front step of the house. Sonam’s house opens immediately into a traditional Bhutanese kitchen with a wood-fired stove that you feed wood into from a small hole in the base. The kitchen is basically built around the stove. It has a few holes on the top where you place pots to heat, or cover if you’re not using them. I love this kind of stove, even though I know it takes a lot of work to keep it going and can take longer to cook things. There’s no rush like there is in the US though, which became even more clear as we began the process of making cheese.

We began by churning the milk in a hand churn that is composed of stacked circular wooden boxes with a wooden plunger (trying to explain the set up makes me miss my lost camera). The milk sits in the churn for 3 days, after which you begin to churn it. The churn was set up in the living room in front of the TV and we set to work plunging up and down, watching coverage of the Thimphu Tsechu (festival) that had taken place last week. Churning is hard work! Despite the chill, we stripped down to our t-shirts, sweating. After a half hour, Sonam’s mother added hot water to the churn to help the butter float to the top. Then, when it was almost ready (after an hour!), she added cold water, which would help the butter condense and separate more fully. Then she unplugged a hole from the side of the churn, releasing the “dow” or buttermilk. Once the churn was half emptied, she took the top off and we saw what our work had produced: golden chunks of floating butter. The butter was scooped into a wooden box and rounded using some cold water (a small bit was reserved for me to take home). We poured the “dow” into a giant pot on the stove (only half the amount fit at a time) and Sonam set to work very gently dragging a paddle around the edge of the pot to get the curd to separate from the whey and clump together. As we sat there, we chatted in English and Dzongkha with her mother and their friendly cat nuzzled his way into purring sleep on my legs. 

Autsho, from Reidi's school

Reidi, Martin, and Me

The cheese began to show up in the pot and Sonam’s mother ladled out most of the whey (called “dachu”) into another pot before straining out the curd. The curd went into a bowl and she began squeezing it into generous balls, which she sells for nu. 20 a piece. She laughed about how some people make really small balls, but she thinks that’s not fair, so she makes hers nice and big (I’m proud to say I understood all this in Dzongkha). I’m buying from her from now on!  This process was repeated a second time with the remaining “dow”. The reserved “dachu” is given to calves for food or boiled for people to drink (as I’ve said, it’s my favorite drink). Once all the cheese was balled, Sonam’s mother washed up some greens and made a fabulous cheese and greens curry called “hentsi datse” served with rice and a glass of buttermilk. I had arrived at the house at 6pm, and we were eating dinner close to 9pm- another proof that time isn’t any concern. Things take as long as they will. Politely declining the invitation to sleep over, I walked home in the dark with my cellphone flashlight, which I’ve never done by myself, feeling a great sense of ease, connection, and happiness from the evening.

Now, a trip through September…

September tousled me as much as the growing fall winds have been. After Joe left, I dealt with a knock out case of strep throat. An innocuous fever yielded to an infection that left me bed-ridden for 4 days. Antibiotics and vitamin C from our Sephu Basic Health Unit did their work and I was back to school in the next week.

Shortly after, I had planned a trip for the holidays of Blessed Rainy Day and Wangdue Tsechu (festival for our district) to see my friend Reidi up in Lheuntse, which is a two-day trip to the northeast. As I waited for the bus to drop by Chazam on the Thursday before the holiday, unexpected events changed everything. Martha, a Canadian colleague teaching in the east, had become seriously ill and was getting worse. I found myself swept urgently to Mongar with the director of our BCF program and her driver, collecting Martin in Bumthang along the way. My fellow teacher passed away in the Mongar hospital as we were on our way. We reached the town in the middle of the night, driving straight to the vigil. I attended the cremation the next day, along with 9 other BCF teachers. It was a shocking and sad time for all of us, but we felt blessed to be there to say goodbye.

That night I stayed in Rangjung, where the teaching duo, Vicky and Ian, are posted. They have a lovely spot in a multi-family apartment house on the fringe of a rice paddy. It was comforting to be surrounded by friends and the beauty of their valley. Their town has quaint traditional style shops and a bright temple surveying from the top of a hill surrounded by winged chortens. The East offers spectacular scenery that is surprisingly in contrast to that of the West. The mountains are steeper, the valleys narrower. There’s tropical vegetation. Rice and maize populate the fields in place of potatoes and wheat. People speak Sharchop. Bhutan is not homogeneous and linguistic diversity accompanies climatic and floral diversity throughout Bhutan.  In my village, the people speak Lhenkey. In Bumthang, there’s Bumthap and Kengpa to name a few. With my now Dzongkha trained ear, I can hear these changes as I travel.

A breakfast of Martin’s famous pancakes in the morning to the soundtrack of Miles Davis, perusing Vicky and Ian’s striking photographs of their summer trek in Sakteng (farthest eastern corner of Bhutan), a tour of Vicky’s picturesque school, and then almost as soon as we’d come, we were hugging and saying goodbye. Martin, Reidi, and I had decided to take a convenient free ride back to Mongar courtesy of Vicky’s school bus driver as he was going to the town to spend the holiday with his family. 3 hours later, passing through Trashigang’s main town overlooked by the dzong, traveling up the winding road, we came into a holiday quieted Mongar. The shops were vacant, but luckily a little restaurant was open so we stopped in for lunch before our trip up to Autsho (‘ow-tso’). In town we crossed paths with Martin’s colleague Yeshey from Bumthang and were invited to his home to celebrate his son’s birthday and Blessed Rainy Day. We walked into his home and were greeted jovially by the other guests and his wife. His son entertained us with his childish antics, which included donning a batman costume. He and his wife generously treated us to drinks, food, and jokes. We left with faces stretched from laughter and piled into Reidi’s friend’s cab for the hour ride up to her school.

That night at Reidi’s, Martin made us potato pancakes and we sat on the floor talking until bedtime. In the morning, we made Martin an early breakfast and hurried out to the “bus stop” in front of a shop to wait for the Thimphu bus to arrive. After more than an hour, the Mongar bus showed up, but not the bus we were hoping for. After some detective work, we learned that the Thimphu-bound bus would not be coming as it was scheduled to every Sunday: the driver was “taking rest” because of the previous day’s festivities. Martin, true to his spirit, just hefted up his pack, gave Reidi and me a hug, and began to walk the road out of Autsho. Hitchhiking is common and quite easy, as I’ve explained, but we still watched him with awe for his adventurousness. A car came by as we were walking back to Reidi’s and we asked them to pick up Martin and drop him at the Gongola turn-off, which is the intersection of the north-bound Lhuentse road with the lateral east-west road that would deliver him west to Bumthang. 

After a nice and lazy morning in the house, we walked to the classroom building next door for dance practice with Reidi’s students. Her school’s annual concert show was approaching, as was mine, so she was working on teaching a dance to a popular American song by LMFAO. The dance was fantastic and I was thoroughly impressed. I had chosen a far easier route than choreographing and had taught my students the Electric Slide. We took a walk down to the river afterwards to take in the gorgeous drama of the rushing water and Autsho’s high pink cliffs.  At dusk, we cooked up a fine meal of pasta and got ready for the next day at school. In the morning, we donned matching purple kira and yellow tego (thanks Vicky!), fueling the intention that the students would ask if we were sisters. As we walked to school, students bowed, greeted us, and stared. The assembly proved just how much larger Reidi’s school is compared to mine. And how much bigger the students are since they go up to higher classes. After the requisite prayer, student speeches, announcements, lecture by the principal, and national anthem, we were released from the beating sun to first period. As planned, Reidi did her routine journal time with her class (which I found to be a great idea and wished I had adopted from the beginning with my classes), and then I introduced myself and launched into my lesson on haiku poetry. I used my book (a gift for Reidi) as an example and then had the students compose their own haiku about their favorite place. Her students enthusiastically took to the task. We repeated the lesson with her next classes, enjoying teaching together. After lunch, we got to teach yoga for physical education since the teacher was absent, which was quite hilarious for us and the kids. I took time to rest for the last bit of the day, since I had begun to feel ill. We took an evening stroll in the other direction down the river, under the tall trees that line the rocky pink ravine. We had a goodbye dinner at Reidi’s friend’s home, and then settled in for an early night since a taxi would be arriving by 5:30 am to ferry me to the intersection with the lateral road so I could catch the Mongar-Thimphu bus by 7:30 am.

The taxi never came, so we walked down to the shops to find it. After some coordinating, my bag was loaded into a taxi and I said goodbye to Reidi before hurtling down the rough road. We made it to the intersection by 7am and by 7:30, the rumbling of a bus was heard coming toward the market stand where I waited along with other hopeful passengers. Feeling quite ill by now, as I had not recovered from the previous day’s bout of sickness, I boarded the bus and hoped that I wouldn’t need to call any emergency stops. It was a long and eventful ride, which I would have appreciated more had I not been doubled over by illness. A landslide of rock blocked our way only a ½ hour into the ride, but was miraculously cleared by road workers within 20 minutes. We stopped every 30 minutes or so to pick up vegetables and crushed corn and farmers from the roadside. People were packed into any available crevice of the bus. Weighted by cargo, we climbed the steep mountains, through the eastern jungle, past plummeting waterfalls that washed over the road, with the pace of a weary tortoise. At the edge of Mongar dzongkhag, the landscape changed to one of higher altitude, less dense and tropical and more agricultural, reminding me of Rukubji’s environs. Around 4pm, a road sign read “Jakar 10km”. I tried to keep my patience as we slowly wound into Jakar town and pulled into the overnight parking spot. I leaped off the bus, bolting to purge myself of hours worth of unrelieved sickness. 

I phoned Martin, picked up some honey from a shop, and unexpectedly ran into Simon, an Australian BCF teacher posted to Wamrong in Trashigang, who was touring with his visiting parents. Simon had the driver he and his parent’s had hired take us to Martin’s where we were welcomed with warm hugs. Martin took care of me like a father, making me hot ginger water, letting me lie down on a well-made bed to rest. We spent a quiet night, Martin correcting papers, me sipping hot water, watching Barack Obama address the UN. In the morning, Martin got up with me to walk to breakfast with Simon and his parents and drop me off at the bus. Still feeling weak and ill, I said goodbye to Martin, feeling an abruptness in the departure, wishing I could stay with him in Bumthang for a few days. I made it home within 4 hours, relieved to be in my little village home, and collapsed onto my bed with the weight of the weeklong journey. Shortly after, Dave phoned and dropped by with his mother on their way to Trongsa. We chatted over tea (which was shamefully inadequate- I can’t believe I served Brits such awful tea), then toured around the village and school. The kids asked if they were my parents!

As soon as I got to school the next day, the heaviness of the previous week melted from me with the smiles of and greetings of my students. I felt a pang in my heart as I realized I have a few months left with these sweet children. That weekend, we put on our concert show. It was a fabulous event that brought out the entire community. People don’t go out after dark in Rukubji. There’s nothing to do and no lights, so everyone is always in by dusk until the dawn. Seeing the community out at the school was an event in itself and made the night lively. The show ran two nights, and on the second night we performed the Electric Slide, which was a hit. Also a hit was the unexpected dance the principal announced I’d be doing with Chimi (our caretaker) and Lopen Namgayla. Without hesitation, I got out there and hammed it up with my co-workers. Even the principal joined in. The crowed went wild. The villagers still talk to me about it. Watching my students dance, I felt an overwhelming love for them. I remembered meeting them in February, not knowing who they were. Now, when I looked at them on the stage, I could tell you their names, their stories, the things that make them unique and special. I also felt how important it is to maintain their culture. Being Lebanese-American, I know how important language, song, and dance have been to me in keeping connected to my Lebanese side. I prayed that the children would continue to appreciate and value their distinctive culture. They’re the ones who will keep it alive into the future.

The final act of the concert show? The principal announcing we’d take a day off on Monday.

That Monday (October 1st )  was my second visit to Wangdue Geomba (monastery) in Sephu. It sits 40 minutes of walking past Chazam, on a dirt road and up some shortcuts. The walk ascends among the pines and spruces of a community forest, finally placing you in a surreal scene of twisting oaks that lead to the Goemba’s entrance. The Goemba itself displays bright red, black, yellow, and blue intricate paint against the white body. Dorji Lingpa, the great Terton Pema Lingpa’s kin, built this Goemba only with the approval of a mermaid deity who lives in the river below. It is also home to my friend Phurba, a monk who takes care of the food and tutors younger monks. Incredibly generous and engaging, Phurba and I became friends instantly when we met at the hotel at Chazam, (he grew up next door to the hotel family and drops by almost as often as I do). He immediately invited me to visit the Goemba, and it took me about 5 months to finally do so. I was rewarded with a personal tour of all the temples, including one that is painted entirely black with gold outlines depicting mermaids, curlicue waves, and clouds upon which float god-like figures and magical animals. It is my favorite temple room because it is so unlike any I’ve ever seen. The gold lines against the black give the room a night sky effect that stays with you long after you’ve left. There is a restricted temple room beyond the black one, dedicated to Yeshey Gonpo, the raven who guided Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal to Bhutan in a dream. Women aren’t allowed in that room, but Phurba let me and Nalay peek in, giving us a view of the tiny painted room.

The last time I went, Nalay accompanied me and we drank tea with Phurba and lit some lamps for Joe’s safe journey to Bhutan just before I left to retrieve him from Thimphu. This time, I walked alone, carrying palm oil in my backpack to light lamps in remembrance of Martha, who passed two weeks ago. In Bhutanese tradition, you must light lamps in honor of the deceased on the 7th, 14th, and 21st days after they passed. At the 49th day, the spirit has finally moved on. A ceremony is held on the one-year anniversary. In fact, when I arrived at the Goemba, a one-year anniversary ceremony was underway and many villagers from Chazam were seated in the stone paved courtyard as monks handed them drinks and blessed food.

Phurba invited me in and cooked me a fabulous lunch of vegetables, egg, and rice before we went to the temple rooms to light the lamps. After lighting the lamps and saying prayers, we went back to his quarters and talked over tea. Being at the monastery reminds me of a movie called “The Cup”. The young monks, though they spend most of their time in spiritual practice and prayer, are very interested in the things that ordinary young people are interested in. This was proven by the fact that a young monk sat on the steps to the house peeking in at the TV that was on in the back of the room. Phurba became a monk as a teenager. Now, at 23, he speaks of his monastic life with a normalcy that many young men would find hard to believe. At the end of my visit, he led me to a little house built specifically for the Geomba’s latest acquisition, a miniature white statue of their mermaid. As evening turns the sky dark at 6pm now, I left with two hours of light to guide me home. Phurba made me promise to visit a 3rd time before I go home, 3 being an auspicious number. I happily agreed, as this hidden Goemba has taken a spot in my heart as one of the most memorable places I’ve been.

With my toes dipped into October, I feel the rush of time sweeping me towards the end of my experience here. It is now that I feel so connected to my community and students, more at ease with my life here. I am glad for this sweetness, though it will make it harder to say goodbye. For now, I try not to think about December, and focus on making each day special for me and my students.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A New Take: the final part

In the departure
there's a lesson: be present,
all you hold is now

Trongsa from our balcony at the Yangkhil 
Class I

Tobgay, explaining how old he will be on his birthday

Trying not to look ill on the bus

The "final chorten"


Me and Tara in front of the First Palace

Pretending we're staying at the Aman Kora

Jambey Lakhang

Rice paddy with a watch shed

Kurje Lakhang

Joe excelling at Khuru

Preface: I apologize for the delay. Due to unexpected events, I have been away from home or internet for a week and am just getting back into things and feeling  the energy to write. Last week, a fellow BCF teacher, Martha, who taught in Phongmey, became seriously ill and passed away. I traveled out to Mongar and then Trashigang to attend the vigil and cremation. It is still a shock, but luckily many other BCF teachers came to mourn and support each other through this difficult and sad time. There is much to say regarding this experience, I want to allow a respectful amount of space and reflection before I write about it. In any case, whatever I do write will focus on my travels in the eastern part of the country and not the tragedy, out of respect for my fellow teacher and her family.

So here's the final installment of Iman and Joe in Bhutan:

The next day, and early morning Teacher on Duty start, I got a package from the Gup’s (like the mayor) daughter, containing letters and packages from home! Thank you Elsie, Ed, Hans and Liz, Linnea, and my Mom for making an ordinary day like my birthday! Included among the great letters and gifts were 5 copies of The Stranger, the book Linnea and I published in May. I had been anticipating this for months. To see the work in person was surreal. Our names on the cover. A real book, that I wrote and Linnea illustrated…. I donated one (signed) copy to the school, and read it to all my classes that day. I told them that it is proof that they can be authors too. The name on the cover of a book is a regular person, like them or me (yet, there are some books in our library that have no author attributed, which makes the concept of authorship a bit harder to explain. “But Miss, this book has no author.” “Well, it does, someone wrote those words, but they didn’t put the name on it.”). 

That weekend, Joe and I had planned to visit Martin and Tara in Bumthang, but Tara came down with something. We postponed to the next weekend and prayed for her swift recovery. Since the weekend marked the date of our first meeting, we decided instead to visit Trongsa, the town 2 hours to the east of me. It is situated on the side of green sloping mountains, with an impressive dzong that taunts you an hour before you actually reach the town. On Saturday, we walked to the hotel to find a ride and got lucky after a ten-minute wait. The driver, a man from Bumthang, worked for the Royal Insurance Company of Bhutan. He had a cold, but was jovial and talkative, and gave us a pomegranate to dissect as we rode. We reached Trongsa just in time for the bank to close, to my dismay, and bid our driver friend farewell. 

Since it was a special occasion, we had indulged and booked a room at the Yangkhil resort. The resort is very peaceful with fountains, flowers, prayer wheels, and rooms with white linens and small porches where you can sit and take in the view of the bright white dzong nestled in the steep jade mountains. After getting acquainted with the resort, we walked into town to do a little shopping and visit the dzong. As we walked, some extroverted kids on dilapidated bikes struck up a conversation with us and asked for a picture and some money. Whoa! My students would never be so forward with anyone, much less strangers. I’ve noticed this about children in towns versus children in villages, the former are far more outgoing and unabashed.

In town, we dropped some letters in possibly the cutest post office I have ever seen, tucked down a mossy stair, painted bright yellow and blue with flowers out front. We found a shop, in fact the first shop we visited, that sold camera memory cards. Fantastic luck, since Joe’s card was full and he had forgotten the cord to download the pictures onto the computer. We also purchased a celebratory bottle of Raven wine for later. We ate lunch at a little hotel, the Olympics on in the background and a friendly grandfather teasing his granddaughter. After a meal of dal (lentils cooked like a soup), vegetables, cheese momo, and rice, we headed down to the dzong via a long stairway behind Trongsa’s main road. In front of the dzong, an archery match was taking place, and we also saw our tag-along boys roving up and down the road to the dzong.

This dzong boasts an ancient cypress tree directly before the entrance that towers far above the roof. As we walked into the prayer wheel-lined entrance hall, a man pointed out a bat tucked into the eave of a prayer wheel. I have never seen a bat so close before- soft brown with a little snout, tightly closed eyes, with fingers on the ends of its wings. What strange creatures.  We roamed around the dzong, a dog following us as a guide, admiring the painted woodcarvings which are sometimes reminiscent of a similar Norwegian craft. We ran into a Dutch man and his guide briefly, and an impressive rooster. The temples are not open in this dzong, like in Punakha, so after inspecting the scenery, we exited back to the marvelous cypress and walked up to a modest chorten that we circled 3 times for good measure. Circling the chorten, a few kids playing soccer commented “Jarim, sarim!”, the name of a tv show, meaning “beautiful and handsome”.  As it was approaching evening, we began to walk back to the resort. Trongsa has a hidden path that follows a stream from the dzong up to the outdoor market. It is completely overhung with viney branches boasting monsoon soaked greenery. It would have been perfectly gorgeous, except for the trash that had found a home in the stream and bushes. The thing about Bhutan is that the trash is not hidden away. There’s still not a great system in place countrywide to deal with the trash, so it becomes part of the landscape, even in my village. When I think about it, we have a bigger problem with trash, at least in volume, in the US, but we’re pretty good at hiding it from the majority of people. Out of sight, out of mind. Here, it’s a visible problem. Which is worse?

At dusk, we arrived back at the resort and toasted to the sunset and our anniversary. Unlike the plains, the sunsets are quite short here due to the mountains. As we sat out, the Dutch man from the dzong passed by on his way to the dining room. He was a teacher and was spending his month of holiday in Bhutan, traveling to the far east of the country, which many tourists do not see. Impressive, and expensive! We too headed to dinner shortly after, thoroughly enjoying the luxurious place.

Breakfast on our balcony, then it was time to pack. We walked back to town to visit the outdoor market and get lunch. After lunch on a patio looking at the mountains, we went down to the taxi stand to wait for a ride. An hour of waiting, and we changed tactics and wrote up a sign declaring “Rukubji” and sat on the wall next to a prayer wheel to continue the wait. Just then, a pick-up truck pulled into the taxi parking and a gorgeous woman got out, looking like a movie star. She and her brother, the driver, came over and told us they could take us to Rukubji. They said they loved our sign. We squeezed in back with their sister in law and were off on the road. The brother and sister were amazingly kind and by the time we reached Chazam, they had invited us to come camping in Punakha where they live. We had tea at the hotel with our new friends, then got let out right at the turn to Rukubji. We thanked them wholeheartedly, and they made us promise to visit them when we could. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to visit them while Joe was here, but the sister and I are still in contact and I do hope to visit her before I leave.

Another week of school, walks, music, and good meals followed that memorable weekend. At the end of the week, we took the Friday off to go to Bumthang. Again, we waited at the hotel for a ride. This time, we waited for 3 hours. We had good company, as Tobgay, Ajim Yangzom’s 4 year old son, was there to entertain us. Tobgay speaks about 2 words of English, but that didn’t stop him from telling us elaborate tales in his own language. He also made sure we got plenty of puffed rice with our milk coffee and hung around as Joe played guitar with Leki and Sonam Tashi.

Finally the eastbound Trashigang bus roared up at about 1pm. We waved it to a jolting stop, jumped on, and it took off before we were even seated. The only seats open were the back. The very back. Riding in that bus was every bit like riding a rollercoaster, the white rickety one at Valleyfair. Usually, I imagine I am riding a horse when I’m on a bus here, because you have to hold yourself steady like you would on horseback as the bus clangs over bumps and careens around curves. It did not help that we had each finished a giant cup of milk coffee on this hot day immediately before boarding the rollercoaster. You can’t for one minute rest when you ride in the back, your head gets so jostled, so we had to bear our upset stomachs and heads upright, at attention. We reached the Chumey valley in about 3.5 hours time, greeted by Seussical pink fields of buckwheat and glowing yellow sunflowers. At the last chorten pass before the descent to Bumthang and Chamkar town, the bus driver circled 3 times, adding some insult to injury to our state. We got out as soon as the bus stopped, paid the driver, and wobbled away. We walked slowly and knock kneed into town, past cows grazing, and fields of marijuana. Marijuana grows rampant all over Bumthang, making it an actual “weed”, which I find hilarious. I have never been drawn to this or any other drug, but it is quite amazing to see a plant that is so demonized, that has police actively pursuing and jailing people for its growth and consumption, growing in abundance along the road (though it is condoned here as well).

We walked to Martin and Tara’s place just outside of the main town. When we arrived, we were greeted by hugs and fresh made pizza, a fabulous welcome. We spent the evening talking about everything, especially about Bhutan and the experience of living here. Worn out from our "thrilling" bus ride, we went to bed early in their cozy wood walled house.

We concocted a pan of potato and egg breakfast for Tara (Martin had school), and then left to hit the bank and some shops in town. Walking into town from Martin and Tara’s, you have two options: the road, or a back path that follows the river. We chose the path, and were treated to bright sunflowers, fruiting fairytale trees, and plenty of cows. We crossed the bridge over the Chamkar Chuu (river) to the bank, and as soon as I saw people milling about on the stairs outside its doors, I knew something wasn’t right. Sure enough, the “system” was down. No one could get money out. The tellers were waiting for the computers to get working again, and everyone was standing in anxious lines waving their banking slips. I got myself in line, though I knew it would be a long wait, because this was my only chance to get money out, the next day being Sunday. Sure enough, after a half hour, the teller at my window worked a bit of magic and I left with a wad of ngultrum.

The town has a lovely little cheese shop down the road from the bank, so Joe and I walked the kilometer to the shop and picked up a wedge of gouda, a bottle of apple cider, some dried cheese on a string (much like candy necklaces) called “chugo”, Bumthang honey, and a bottle of apple juice. We took turns swigging the apple juice on our walk back to town and munching on chugo.
We set out on our mission to find gifts in town. I hadn’t yet visited the handicraft stores in town since I get to buy lots of handwoven crafts and bamboo baskets from my neighbors. We visited all 3 gift shops in town, chatting with the owners and finding some fine gifts. We also got another set of guitar strings and some vegetables and fruit. Last, we stopped at my favorite restaurant that serves lassi. We drank our lassi and I got some curd (yogurt) for Martin so he could make yogurt. I wish I could make yogurt in Rukubji, but I have no way of keeping it cool afterward, resulting in a fizzy sour mess after a day of sitting on the counter. Sometimes, you just have to adjust to what is possible and accept that you can’t have everything you are used to having. Martin and Tara have a fridge, so I showed them how to make yogurt in their rice cooker during midterm break and they’ve kept it going since.

We arrived back at the house to meet Tara, then ambled down the back path again to visit the first palace and the Aman Kora. The First King's palace sits up from the river and is open to anyone at anytime. It isn’t restored or a museum, just a beautiful old structure that used to house the royals. Walking on the stone tiles, you can imagine what it was like to live here a hundred years ago. Now, only a few monks and a family of cats live in the palace. We walked across the lawn to the Aman Kora, a luxury hotel that sits next to the palace. Tara knows the manager, and we were invited to have tea and visit. The staff gave us a tour of the $1,500/ night rooms and amenities. We settled on a bank of couches in the dining area and treated ourselves to lemonades and snacks. The manager showed up in her usual bubbly fashion, then Martin came to join us, and we ended up spending the bulk of the evening chatting there together. We began walking home around 8:30, in the dark. There aren’t street lights along the roads, so we used our cellphone flashlights (the best part of my phone is the flashlight feature!) to guide our steps.

The next morning, we made pancakes for our hosts and had a leisurely time. Joe and I walked to town again to get screening material for my windows at home. The shop was a mix of harware and groceries, a Bhutanese Fleet Farm. We met up with Martin and Tara in the kitchen of the Leki Guesthouse where they were teaching the owner and her children to make carrot cake. We were all treated to a fabulous lunch, finished off with apples from the trees outside. We had planned on walking to the nearby temples after, so invited the children to come with us. A stop at home to get the Khuru set Tara had gifted Martin for their 5th anniversary (wood), then back out to the road to walk to Jambey Lakhang.

We passed fields of burgundy-tipped rice paddies where farmers sat in bamboo stands with strings leading to them that they could shake if, ringing alarm bells on the ends, if they spotted a rogue animal trying to steal their harvest.  Jambey Lakhang is a 7th century temple that is part of 108 temples built in one day by the orders of a Tibetan ruler. There are 4 chortens painted indicating the 4 directions. Inside, the temple has two giant prayer wheels at the entrance and a courtyard where a few elderly people were walking, spinning the wheels, and praying their beads. At the end of the courtyard is the doorway to the old temple. The 3 steps into the temple room represent the past, present, and future. The steps are sinking, so it is said that when the 2nd step sinks (the “present”), the world will stop. I guess it makes sense that if the present falls away, there really is nothing left. The inner temple boasts large golden statues around the perimeter and an altar of butter lamps (actually palm oil, in case you were wondering), offerings, and incense. There are also dice which a monk can give you to roll to see if you have good fortune. Joe rolled the dice, and of course, it was a good roll. We circumambulated the temple and spun the prayer wheels that surround it.

Bumthang is a valley of temples, so we walked down the road toward Kuje Lakhang. Kurje is the site where Guru Rimpoche subdued the demons of the valley and also where the 3 past kings are honored with chortens. Joe and I walked with the children up to the temples. The first had a giant statue of Guru Rimpoche, and not much else inside it except two monks taking a nap by the window. The next had an antechamber where you test yourself by squeezing through a dark u-shaped tunnel in the rock. If you make it, you’re good. If not, well… Thankfully we both made it. 

In the courtyard, we caught Tara and Martin and headed down to the river to test the Khuru set. Khuru is like darts, but long range. The target is about ½ a soccer field away and the darts are hefty with wooden bodies and long sharp noses. The kids were pretty good at it since this is a game they play from the time they can hold the darts. Joe was also surprisingly skilled, though the rest of us were not. We spent a quiet last night playing Scrabble with Martin and Tara, knowing we’d have to leave early the next morning to catch the bus. We woke at sunrise and walked to the bus before the 7am departure, reviewing our lovely time with Martin and Tara and appreciating the early morning scenery of cows, fields, and flowers of the valley edged by pine blanketed mountains.

Back in Rukubji, we planned for the week ahead, Joe’s last week. We’d have to leave on Thursday in order to make it to the immigration office early enough on Friday so they could process Joe’s visa extension. I also needed to see the dentist on Friday to fix my uncooperative retainer (again). It would be a short week at school indeed. On Tuesday, we walked up to say goodbye to Gangamaya, wearing our 'school dress' (gho and kira), which impressed her and made her giggle. Wednesday, we went to the hotel for a farewell dinner, which coincided with the arrival of an important government official, so everyone was quite busy. Still, they treated us to a good meal, after which we gave Leki Tshering a final guitar performance of “Hallelujah”. Joe told the boys to take care of me and they all gave their word. My heart sighed as I helped Joe pack up his things that night, though I knew we’d have a few more days together before I was alone again.

On Thursday morning before heading to the road for the bus, we went to school for breakfast with the Principal and Dema. We brought the buckwheat pancakes and French press coffee (the pancakes were a hit, the coffee was not) and they gave us a spread of puri (fried flat bread), fried chana (chickpeas), aloo dum (spicy potatoes), and tea momo (steamed dumplings without filling). Dema also gifted Joe with a hand-woven silk scarf for his mother. We thanked them profusely and then went down to assembly where Joe gave a small goodbye speech. Joe made sure we got a staff picture, as well as pictures of each class, in front of the school. He’s going to print these and send them to the school. The kids were very sad to see him go, and several ran up to us as we were leaving with letters. I began to think what it would be like when I left the school. They’d only known Joe a month, but I am their ‘Miss’ and will have seen them through a whole school year. There will be tears. 

Back at my house, we picked up our bags and took a picture with Am Tandin, which Joe is also sending to her since she calls me her ‘buum’ (daughter) and will appreciate a visual reminder of the funny foreigner who spent a year in her house. We caught the bus just in time and were lucky to be seated near the middle behind a very cute and flirty baby with the fattest cheeks I’ve ever seen. The requisite 7 hours later, we were back at the bus station in Thimphu hailing a cab to get up to a friend’s place where we’d stay two nights before going to Paro.

In Thimphu, we decided to have some fun even though we had errands to run. We got up and out early on Friday and walked to the immigration office. There, we went from one desk to another, visiting almost every desk in the tiny office until we had the requisite signatures,  stamps, and payments made. After, we walked to the hospital and put my name down to get my retainer fixed (once and for all!) by the orthodontist. Luckily, I saw our school caretaker’s brother who works in that ward and he helped me get in to see the right person. I was in and out, with the retainer filed and pain-free in less than an hour, at no cost (not paying for medical care still surprises me).

Back out on the Thimphu street, we could hear drums, rumbling horns, and chanting. Looking down from the hospital road, we saw a congregation of people and monks at the police grounds. Apparently a city-wide blessing was taking place, headed by the Je Khenpo (chief abbot and spiritual leader of Bhutan). We had heard the chanting and instruments the night before and had now located their origin. We stopped back at the house for lunch and then decided to track down the Takin, national animal of Bhutan. There is a Takin reserve on the outskirts of Thimphu where the animals roam in a fenced area with several kinds of deer. After proclaiming I knew how to get there, we hailed a cab after an hour of walking a more than a mile in the wrong direction.The Takin are elusive, even in their own reserved area, but we spotted a few of them. They are strange animals: a shaggy deer/goat/bear. Hard to imagine, I know. They seem mythical, a perfect national animal for Bhutan.

As we walked down from the reserve, Joe spotted a sign for mini-golf. What? He dragged me in the gate, and I’m glad he did. My first ever round of mini-golf would take place in Bhutan. We were greeted by a retired forestry officer who had discovered mini-golf in the 60s during his time in Europe. He had built the entire course himself and planted its lush surrounding gardens. He gave us our ball, scorecard, and clubs and then hurried to sweep off the concrete obstacles. As we putted around the course, he checked in and gave us pointers in a grandfatherly way. For all its unmechanized simplicity, the course was harder than expected. I won with a great deal of beginner’s luck. We left the proprietor with high praise and well wishes for his enterprise and walked into the city for dinner. What a perfect “date night”: visiting some animals, mini-golf, dinner on a patio.

After a nice and easy morning, we walked down to the bus station and caught the Paro bus for a mere 44 nu a piece (less than a dollar for a 2 hour ride, wheras a taxi would cost 1000-2000 nu, or 20-40 dollars). The bus dropped us off on the main street of Paro town where some kind of variety show was taking place amidst a large crowd in the town square. We peeked over heads to check it out, but apart from a man singing sporadically, not much else was happening. We decided to unload at our hotel, the Dechen Hill Resort which had been the BCF landing pad for the group when we arrived in January. The staff welcomed us into their empty resort and showed us our room, which was above the one I had occupied in January. We were hungry from our travels and skipped lunch, so we walked into town along the dirt road, following the fences of rice paddies. Paro is a stunning valley, and more so when the rice is growing, creating a lush green expanse between the guardian mountains.

In Paro, we found a quaint restaurant after some searching. Restaurants are usually on the 2nd floor, so you have to do a little more work to see the offerings and decide if you want to eat there. We shared noodles and rice and curry, then walked through the town and back to the resort. Paro quickly transitions in a few short blocks from paved streets with businesses along each side to dirt farm road lined with small wooden shops and rice paddy.

The next morning, we arranged for a taxi ride to the trail head for Takseng.  As a foreigner, you learn quickly that taxi drivers will need to know you aren’t a tourist, or you’ll be paying an outrageous (by Bhutanese standards) fare. Taxi fares aren’t fixed by time here, and are clearly variable depending on the driver and if you are Bhutanese or not. This was the case with our driver, and though I don’t like to negotiate price, it was necessary in this case since he was charging us more than what we were paying for our 2 night accommodation. (I only mention this point because I find it to be inconsistent with how I am generally treated by business people in other enterprises here.)

This was my second trip to Takseng, and this time the scenery was greener and wetter than it had been in the winter. We hiked the wooded ascent to the “Tiger’s Nest”, stopping frequently to take in the majesty of the view and the forest. Near the top, what had been a frozen ice sheet banking a cliff in January was now a plummeting waterfall that sprayed us like a ride at an amusement park. Up, up, up the many steps to the temple, only to find that they were closing for the lunch hour. I had forgotten this detail, which was why when we had climbed in the winter with BCF, we had gotten an early start. Joe was happy with the climb as it was and decided it would be alright to descend without seeing the inside, though I regretted my poor memory had resulted in this unfortunate timing.

The walk down was accompanied by the many tourists we’d caught at the top and a group of boisterous high school age students from Thimphu. We saw grey langurs on the way, swinging from the trees. We stood and watched them, letting the noisy students get a head start. There’s a cafeteria at the half point, so we stopped for tea, called our taxi, and ordered lunch for when we arrived back in town. We met an American woman working in Bangladesh, and found out she’d be on the same flight as Joe the next day. We also discovered she'd worked for Wellstone’s final campaign, which I volunteered for in high school. The world can be so small. The walk down was a lot trickier as it began to mist, making the path slick like wet clay. I was glad we took time to appreciate the scenery on the way up, as my eyes were glued to the mud trying to steady my feet on the way down. We arrived to find our taxi waiting and got back to town where we ate momo (steamed, filled dumplings), rice and curry, and tea.

I was acutely aware that this was Joe’s last day in Bhutan. In the morning, he’d be on a plane heading back to the US. I didn’t want to dwell on this, but my mind kept returning to the thought, washing me with a preview of lonely sadness. We had a sweet evening at the hotel and enjoyed dinner in the deserted dining room. In the morning, we packed up the bags and took a walk down the road to spend some time in the beauty of Paro before saying goodbye. Though we knew this would be easier than saying goodbye the first time in January, it was still hard to know that we’d have to return to our lives apart from each other for another few months.

The taxi arrived and we held on to each other in the back, silently watching the road and fields. At the airport, we hugged, cried, and kissed. I decided it would be better to say goodbye outside the doors and let Joe go from there. Still an hour until the plane’s departure, so I got in the cab and went back to town where I could watch it take off without being tempted to buy a ticket and board it. I cried without shame the whole ride back into town. The tears kept coming all day, because now I was alone again. I have friends here, but a partner is different. I knew we’d be back to phone calls and emails, which I look forward to enthusiastically, but there’s nothing like being in the company of the person. I steadied myself with the thought that we’d already spent twice as much time apart as we had left to go. The time would pass, and I knew I needed to enjoy this last bit.

I got back to Thimphu on the bus, and the next day, back to Rukubji. As it turned out, it took Joe about a week to make it home due to a special ticket arrangement we’d made through a friend. He weathered this with grace and made it back to Minneapolis safely.

Now, it’s the last day of September. Joe’s tutoring and playing music in Minneapolis. I’m enjoying my time with my students, trying to wrap up our lessons in time for annual exams near the end of November. It was such a gift to have him here, and now when I talk to him about Rukubji, he knows the cast, the setting, and can understand more deeply the experience I am having. There’s no way I can tell the whole story, take the whole picture. His visit gave him insight, made this a shared experience. That will be important to me as I transition back to life in the US, where few people will really understand what this experience was for me.

So what's present now? Our Annual Concert Show. This two-night event brings out the entire community to watch our students perform a mixture of traditional and modern dance and song. Tonight, 15 students and I will dance the Electric Slide. You'll have to imagine this scene, since the only footage I can get is on traditional film since my camera isn't cooperating anymore. Old-time slideshow when I return?