Tuesday, December 21, 2010

One Last Adventure

One Last Adventure

I step onto the tarmac and take a final picture of Bhutan. Then I continue walking towards the airplane. The pilot steps out and reaches his hand out to me, “Madam Kellie, welcome! Come with me.” He is a father of one of my students and recognized me from the tarmac. He escorts me away from Economy where I was headed to executive class, right next to another ELC student. After all the passengers have boarded, the Stewardess tells me that the captain is requesting I follow her to the cockpit. I thought that I would get a quick view and then be escorted back to my seat, but no, they strap me into a seat right in the center, happy strap and all.

As we shuttle down the runway the pilot explains the wind direction and how complicated it is to land and take off in Paro.  The tower gives the final okay and he turns to me, “Are you ready?” The engines start roaring. Am I really leaving Bhutan in the cockpit of a jet? We speed down the runaway and I crane my neck to take in every last view. The sky couldn’t be more blue. We rise into the air and the pilot points out a tiny Tiger’s Nest beneath us. Having this jet last time I hiked it would have been very convenient. In the distance appears Kachanchunga, the highest mountain in India and the third highest peak in the world. Surfacing above the clouds in the far distance is Everest.

Soon everything is silent and we start talking about his daughter and the quality of secondary schools in Thimphu, his sister living in New York City. As if he’s not flying a plane full of people. As if we aren’t surrounded by the highest, most glorious peaks on the planet. As if we aren’t soaring as high as the atmosphere will let us. “How long will you be in Bangkok?” he asks. “Oh, I’m actually not getting off in Bangkok, I’m getting off in India.”

So before heading back to the US to settle down, get married, have some kids, learn to cook (just kidding grandma, you wish), I will be settling in India. My plan is to realize my dream of becoming an ambulant salesperson selling shell roti and fireworks. I will work one week a year during Diwali and live off the profits the rest of the year.  Just kidding again. But I am going to India. The plan is to drink tea in Darjeeling, take a photo in Princess Diana’s pose at the Taj Mahal, and who knows what I will do with myself in Delhi.

The Bhutanese do not agree with this decision:

“They cut off people’s heads for American passports in Delhi.”

“You should duct-tape your money to your inner thigh and lock yourself in your hotel room. Don’t come out for ANYTHING.”

Bhutanese: “ Once, my friend went to India.” Me:“Oh, how did she enjoy it?” Bhutanese: “Nobody ever saw her again.”

“The strongest man I know was drugged and robbed at the train station in India. They took his leather jacket. He never got it back.”

But before I can be consumed by the India subcontinent and all the unsavory creatures that dwell there, I would like to say thank you for reading and I’ll miss you. From the sound of things, it is more likely for me to come back dead than alive.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


The light of the bonfire gave everyone’s face a sepia glow and I felt like I was looking back on this scene from twenty years in the future. In two days I won’t see these faces anymore. I won’t come to this compound everyday and stand in front of assembly as students say their prayers, sing their national anthem and practice meditation. I will no longer dress in kira.  I will no longer be a teacher at The Early Learning Centre.

Earlier today was graduation for the sixth graders, class of 2010. They came dressed in their most elegant kira and gho. Each one wrote a speech to reflect on their years at ELC and thank those who have helped them along the way. Most speeches were long and detailed. Some were not. One of my favorite speeches went like this:

“I have been at ELC for...nine...long.....years. [heavy sigh]. Thanks to all my friends who gave me supports and guidences.” [even longer heavy sigh and deep exhalation into the mic.]

That speech could of summed up my feelings too, essentially. But I am an adult and sometimes things aren’t so simply stated anymore. So instead I delivered a speech to the sixth graders about independence, doing their laundry without being asked and making good decisions even when no one is watching. Looking into the eyes of the sixth graders who weren’t busy gnawing on their tassels, doing origami with their diplomas or poking each other in the neck, I decided I really like giving speeches because you can plan out what you need to say ahead of time and make sure that all necessary advice and farewell can fit into a neat three minutes.  After I gave my speech I didn’t know what to do with myself. How do I say all that I feel to each and every one of these students who have meant so much to me?

After the ceremony and the frenzied photo session concluded, the crowd seemed to know what to do next. I did not. I am so bad at saying goodbye. When you say goodbye you have to acknowledge all that has happened and all that failed to happen between you and the other. Especially when you are saying goodbye for an indefinite period of time, possibly forever. The graduation program read, ‘Tashi Lobay’ as the very last item. I wondered what it was but didn’t ask. As the picture-taking concluded, the crowed floated into place forming two concentric circles. I was pulled into one of the circles and the crowd began to chant, softly singing in Dzongkha. All of us glided together following the current of the dance, sometimes moving forward and sometimes backwards. As we danced I looked at all the people singing and swaying around me. Some were Dashos, some very small children, all of my students, my colleagues. I had no idea what we were doing together but I liked it.

After the dance finished a parent approached me to ask if I had given any thought to her proposal of going into business together as tourist agents. I said that was not in the immediate cards for me but took the opportunity to ask about the significance of the Tashi Lobay that I had just participated in. “ It’s a way of saying, ‘May all good things befall you until we meet again. We perform it when something is ending.” I had managed to stay tear-free through the graduation, but when I heard these words my eyes welled up. Somehow in language I do not understand I took part in a ceremony that perfectly professed all the feelings I had not been able to verbalize. I found out later in the day from Letho that there is no word for “goodbye” in Dzongkha. Instead you say tama che ghe or ‘see you later’ even if you know may never see that person again.

Later that night, all the teachers and students gathered again for one last, more intimate farewell around a bonfire in the school courtyard. The gathering began festive and we sang and danced together to American, Bhutanese, and Indian songs.  Cara, Kueron and Tobden performed a farewell dance in my honor, so did Madam Anju. Later though the mood became serious as everyone tried to articulate to all the ‘leavers’ what they needed to say. All day I had been so preoccupied about what I should say that I didn’t consider that there might be something I needed to hear. Among other farewells that I will never forget, it was Kueron, who has always put into words the most vague feelings who told me what I needed to hear but somehow already knew. She looked at me from across the ring of the people who have been my life since my arrival and said, “Oh Kellie, what to say? I feel confident to say now that whatever you were looking for here, I think you have found it. But, you are always welcome back.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Designing for Change

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”                                         Robert F. Kennedy

One of the first of many books I read about Bhutan was a memoir by Canadian author Jamie Zeppa. Not knowing how to cook upon arriving to Bhutan, let alone where to buy the vegetables or how to ignite her stove, Jamie lives on imported cookies and crackers that come in plastic packaging. Coming from a part of the world where you take your trash to the curb and a truck comes to take it away forever, Jamie is baffled about how to dispose of her trash in remote Bhutan. So she keeps it piling up in her house for months. When her students finally weasel their way into her living quarters they are overjoyed to see how much trash she has collected. For them trash is not something to be disregarded and removed from sight: rather, it is raw material to be repurposed into other things like flower pots, cooking utensils and toys.

Since Jamie has written her book things have changed here. Now trash is in the rivers, along the roadsides, dumped in monstrous piles in the center of communities. It is true that Japan donated a pair of miniature trash trucks that play classical music as they cruise around, but the threshold of trash seems to have exceeded the capacity of these fetching little inventions. Scraggly dogs and roaming cows feed on the scraps they can find. It’s surprising that this is the case because Bhutan manufacturers almost nothing. So every bit of trash is imported from India and Thailand. It travels all that way to rot teeth, add to increasing obesity rates and finally fester among otherwise untouched natural beauty.

When the Design for Change contest reached us from Riverside School in Ahmadabad, India we agreed to be the Bhutan country partner. Our students loved the idea of participating in a global contest and they came up with their idea of change pretty effortlessly. I had some of my own ideas for change like, catalytic converters for cars, or sending the sixth graders on an extended vacation to Siberia until they completed puberty, or a community initiative to teach the town cows how to use a litter box. But the contest is only for children’s ideas of change. Their idea was to stop contributing waste to the landfill that they had recently visited on a field trip. They imposed a rule on themselves and all teachers that everyone would bring packaged food only one day a week. Other days were designated food focus days when students would eat traditional Bhutanese food, fruits, vegetables, and homemade food. Eventually we made our way to being a zero waste school sending absolutely no waste to the landfill.

Being the country partners, it was ELC’s responsibility to get other schools to enter the contest. On November 11, the Fourth King’s birthday and Children’s Day, ELC hosted Bhutan’s first ever DFC Contest Awards Ceremony. Throughout the year we have been working to make this a reality. More than a few twelve hour work days and weekends went into the planning and preparation for the November 11th presentation.

Last December Principals were given the task of educating for Gross National Happiness. Nobody could argue with that. But once it was agreed upon that happiness would become a priority in the classroom, educators were left with the question about how to educate for GNH. Participation in this contest has been the answer to that question. Students become participators in their communities, they learned leadership qualities and developed their powers of mind along the way. The best part is that they are self motivated to seek out information, to teach each other and truly affect change. Happiness is capability.

Watching the ceremony did feel like the culmination of a fruitful year of our efforts, but more than that it felt the beginning of something bigger. Donors from all over the country came forward to offer financial support. After the awards had been distributed students began to ideate for next year. The enticing thing about this contest is the hope that it could become a way of life. If students are taught the skills for making change and empowered to do so it could be a whole global generation that internalizes the process. I just finished reading The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, one of the world’s most eminent idealists. She stresses over and over the importance of individual leadership, just like Bhutan’s present King.  Teaching people to listen, observe and take action is the hope for a sustainable and enjoyable future for all. With a lifetime of change-affecting leadership under her belt she reflects:
    Today we are redefining the geography of community and accepting shared accountability for common human values. We have the chance to extend the notion that all men are created equal to every human being on the planet...Though the average citizen cannot, of course, match the enormous gifts made by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, each of us in his or her own way can contribute something by thinking-and acting--like a true global citizen. We have only one world for all of us on earth, and the future really is ours to create, in a world we dare imagine together.

It turned out that the means became more important than the end in the case of the DFC contest in Bhutan so I'm not even going to tell you who won...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Julie and Jon in Bhutan

    It is one of those mornings when you wake up before the alarm goes off because you are so excited. My parents are arriving today. Out the window a giant orange sun is rising between two mountain peaks. Their landing between the steep crevices of another worldly landscape will not disappoint. I know that in just one hour the tiny plane will be arriving right here in Bhutan, a nose dive right into the impossibly skinny Paro Valley.
    Jigme and Sonam pick me up in the school bus. We arrive to the Paro International Airport and before we can exit the car we have already met three people we know. That is one of the most enjoyable things about Bhutan, wherever you go, there is your community. What other international airport in the world lets you wait for your loved ones, surrounded by familiar faces as they wait for their loved ones on a daily basis? “Kellie! Your parents are arriving today?” One friend calls out. Another friend has been on their flight and is now exiting, “ Kellie, I’ve just met your parents! They’re absolutely charming!” And then there they are in the flesh. I wave frantically. Don’t they see me? Before they exit my dad makes a hard left and disappears for a few moments.
When he reappears, he has a sizable bottle of Scotch in his hand, his first purchase in the country from the duty free shop. Now he is ready for Bhutan. Julie is also ready for Bhutan. In her hand she has a giant Toblerone bar and I hope for a fleeting second it may be for me? But no, that is for her. I am so happy to see them and we hug and kiss in a wild display of affection that is not very Bhutanese. Around us, Bhutanese give us warm smiles anyways. Parent-child love is universal. I take hold of my dad’s hand and don’t let go for three days.
    We load Julie and Jonathan onto the school bus and take them to the trail head for Jimoulhari, the tallest virgin peak in the world. The mountain has never been summited because there is a deity residing there who may not be bothered by adventurous humans. From the trail head we marvel at the jagged snow covered peaks. Around us old men mutter their mantras and spin their prayer wheels. Within moments of arriving in Bhutan, you are really in Bhutan. There is none of the metropolitan buffer that usually greets you in international journeys. As we drive back to Thimphu I try to answer all their questions the best that I can. I point out the natural elephant on a cliff face. I point out the haunted house that supposedly revealed some treasures several centuries earlier. My cell phone rings. Several of my class six students have baked a cake and are waiting on my doorstep to present it to my parents. This is just the beginning of the tremendous hospitality they will enjoy during their visit.
    Every class I teach held welcome parties for my parents, showering them with homemade food and traditional gifts. One morning I arrived late to assembly and Julie had organized an impromptu hula-hoop contest. In her quiet yet stimulating way she commanded even the most hyperactive student’s attention. She personifies teaching as the art form of compassion and enlightenment that it is.
    One weekend we piled back into the school bus with Madam Deki, Chechay, Madam Manju, Jane from Santa Cruz, Joe, Jen, and Jigme. We drove six hours to Phobjikha Valley, the sacred home of the endangered black necked cranes.We enjoyed amazing hospitality at the Phodrang Monastic Lodge right behind the stunning Gangtey Temple. The guesthouse is perched on a little hill looking out over the valley with young monks running all around. At night we sat around a bonfire under millions of glittering stars and passed around a canteen of Jane’s coronation whisky. It was our only hope for staying warm.
     The night before my parents were due to leave we all sat around in Madam Deki’s house eating some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted (thanks Deki, Kueron and Chechay). All my loved ones were together and even though they had only known each other ten days, they professed their deep admiration and respect for each other. My parents were showered with gifts and treasures to forever remind them of their time here.
    The next morning, all too quickly their trip is over and I’m riding with them back to Paro. Julie happily chirps to the non-English speaking driver how she will be returning next year to teach at the Early Learning Centre. For free. She loved it that much. She tells him how in Madam Deki’s new school she will have her own living quarters right above the school so she’ll never have to leave.
    My dad looks at me with a weary smile. I know what he is thinking, “How much of that Scotch is left for the three day journey home?”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

G Chat

me:  tomorrow is a holiday for the descending of lord buddha. so we are going to buy hand woven textiles and singing bowls.
then on saturday we are taking the school bus (principal included) on a trip to see endangered black necked cranes.
 Sent at 9:16 AM on Thursday
 Caitlin:  hahaha
well i am making mashed potatoes in my robe, transcribing audio interviews with rural el salvadorans about grocery stores and their beliefs on oral health, THEN im going to martins for home made buttermilk fried chicken
im glad to see we lead such similar lives. yours sounds more interesting

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Flies on My Face

 "Knees up! Eyes straight!"
 Corn growing in the center of town.
 Jen and Polenta!

I will be thanking you for your visit for a long time.

For the past three days I have been woken up by a fly that keeps landing on my nose and other parts of my face. One morning, it was the fly and my cell phone that rang three times before 7 a.m. This morning, I was dreaming that the relentless fly was a faceless student. Determined to irritate me to the point of exasperation, but not motivated enough to complete their project work. Every night, the howling of the dogs sounds like violent warfare. Not lonely cries to a full moon, but fury charged gunfire-like barks that rouse me even after I have attained unconsciousness. “Just wait till you go home,” my yoga teacher says. “Then you will know what real noise sounds like.” She’s of course right. My home being several yards from a train track and a taco shop. Teenagers howl at each other until dawn rather than dogs.  However, there are no flies. Instead there are yapping seagulls who roost outside my window as soon as the sun has popped up. I imagine they discuss the tide, the winds that blew in from Mexico during the night. The delicious mackerel devoured last weekend.  So why am I so annoyed?

On Friday night Jen, Joe and I finished a couple bottles of wine and danced in the living room. Hotel California came on shuffle and the longing of the song that I had never sympathized with before was now resonating quite strongly. “We analyzed this poem in fourth grade,” Jen said. “I heard it’s about rehab,” I responded. Then it struck me, it’s not about rehab. “It’s about self-exile.” Jen stopped dancing to listen to the words, “We are all just prisoners here/ of our own device.” “It IS!” she exclaimed. We decided to come here. It all sounded so romantic from California. Images of prayer flags, verdant mountains, picturesque little cottages haphazardly perched on ridges. Then you get here and it is all that and more. Being referred to as “Aunty” is so quaint. I’ve never been anyone’s aunty and now I am anyone’s. Running in to acquaintances at the veg. market makes you feel like you have put roots down.  Even barking orders to unruly students has some kind of satisfaction; you know them well enough to tell them what to do.

So when does the grass start looking greener in the place you left behind? It may be the little things that start to compound, the dead rats on the side of the road, the diesel fumes of dinosaur-like trucks, day after day of rain and thick grey clouds. The way the taxi drivers drive like this ride is their first time behind the wheel. Or is it coming from the other side? Is the irritation I am experiencing a result of all I feel I am missing at home? Caitlin’s facebook photos of a home-made ice cream, Carris’s shots of stonesteps sunsets, Dylan describing in careful detail the delicious meal he just enjoyed. I miss the ocean, the meditative trance it induces. I miss pastries from Darshan that taste like the original Viennese masterpieces. I miss painting because I am inspired and exultant. I miss bike rides down Neptune, tortillas and avocados.

I feel like I need to write a “All that being said, I love Bhutan and stand one hundred percent behind my decision to self exile myself to the Himalayas” paragraph.  Well, maybe I can speak so freely about my homesickness because ultimately, I do stand behind my decision one-hundred percent. Bob Dylan wrote in his memoirs about the first time he left for New York City, “When I left home, I was not in search of love or money.” Journeys initiated for the quest of love or money are filled with discontent and dissatisfaction until you strike it rich or meet your soulmate. When I left for Bhutan I was not looking for love, and certainly money was not going to make the experience worth it. Journeys like the one I embarked on over eight months ago didn’t have an objective. Anything that I was to come across would eventually become part of the reason I had chosen to leave. So even in a state of homesickness, regret and dissatisfaction are not part of the experience. By coming here I have gained more than I could have anywhere else. The gifts have not been monetary, the rewards not always instantly obvious. Instead I have had to rely on the kindness of people who used to be strangers: my principal, my roommates, my friends, the pharmacist. I have had to resign myself to the fact that I can’t do everything I want to do here in a single year. I have had to admit that adventures can be tiresome and sometimes all you need is a good night’s sleep. In the midst of this adventure it is still hard to recognize the rewards that come from prolonged challenging experiences. The inevitable nostalgia that always follows a trip like this will take a firm grip in a couple of months and while eating my tortilla chips and guacamole, enjoying the sunset over the Pacific with friends and family I will probably crave a cheese momo. I will remember evening walks to the BBS tower and wish that I was headed to teach at ELC the following day to bark orders at children about picking up their toes and keeping their eyes straight while marching.