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.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I Won't Talk Too Much About the Fungus

DFC Student Reps

Zilukha School Students Listening to DFC

Future Leaders of Bhutan

ELC and Jeffery Sachs

The rejuvenating Jen N Joe
Zilukha School
At four P.M. on Saturday afternoon, I still haven’t left the house. I haven’t brushed my teeth or  changed out of my P.J.’s. This is the first weekend in a month that I have enjoyed a free weekend with nothing to do. It’s been heavenly. I have two new roommates, Jen and Joe who wake me up with breakfast ready on the balcony and put coffee into my hand as I stumble groggily out of my room. I have spent the whole day looking through photo and travel blogs and eating delicious food sent by Jen’s mom from the US. Thanks Karen!

The Design for Change Group, Bhutan, has hit the ground running since returning from summer vacation. The students and we teachers have presented the global contest we are participating in to around seven hundred people including the Minister of Education, the Unicef Country Rep, and most of Thimphu’s principals in less than thirty days. The idea of waste reduction in all schools in Bhutan is spreading. Equally exciting has been watching our group of six students go from eager yet fidgeting and fumbling, to little professionals who get their message of change across clearly, succinctly and eloquently to any group willing to listen. If you are an educator, a parent, or anyone with access to children, I heartily recommend entering the Design for Change contest. Watch your kids change the world in one week. (www.designforchangecontest.com)

Last Thursday we got the notice that world famous economist Jeffery Sachs was going to give a talk in Thimphu that afternoon. We recruited students to write questions to ask him, screened them for proper etiquette, and loaded them onto the bus after reading them his wikipedia-ed resumé. They slept patiently through his entire talk and then gorged themselves on the refreshments afterwards as they chased each other in the courtyard like possessed banshees. From an adult perspective, his talk was brilliant. With the Prime-minister, most of the cabinet and other influential decision makers in the audience, he advised Bhutan to step-up their agricultural sector, demand every rupee they are entitled to from India for hydro-electric energy and prepare urban areas with sustainable transportation and infrastructure for increased migration in the next ten years. He based all of his economic advice on the four pillars of Gross National Happiness and basic tenets of Buddhism. Immediately following his speech, he and his family were escorted into the “Executive Lounge’ and I’m sure the according legislature will follow. Afterwards a western man and his lady friend approached me to find out what I was doing here in Bhutan. The man invited me to come back on Friday for his talk on Space Tourism. He was one of the first space tourists in the world. Later on, another guide approached to ask if I was American and would like to have dinner with Congressman Brian Baird. In Bhutan you meet people you would never dream of back at home.

I know you are all dying to know: As for my fungus, it’s really a fungus. I can’t remember what it’s like to not itch. My armpits are indigo color from the medicine and anyone who looks directly at them runs the risk of exposure to ultra violet rays. The days here are hot leaving me longing not only for the refreshing ocean, but any deposit of water large enough to submerge myself in. I miss water. I find myself gazing longingly into storm drains and open sewers. Rivers and lakes are sacred here in Bhutan. Residents can ramble off long histories of horrific stories about those who have ventured into the holy waters and suffered terrifying fates for offending the deities who reside there. I’m not going to risk it.  “How about a swimming pool?” you ask. One of my students relayed the information that H1N1 is festering in the town’s swimming pool. She herself was there to go for a swim one scorching day and was turned away by the life guard. “The pool is giving H1N1,” she said. “I looked inside Ma’am, and I could see liiiiittle white worms swimming around, those are the H1N1” She scientifically testified. We are studying folk tales in class V. Most morals conclude with, “The little boy fell into a hole. And that is why you don’t tell a lie.” or “The girl was never seen again. That is why we don’t steal meat.” One folk tale began with, “Once upon a time there was a land without soap and tissues and the children had no dreams.” After a careful description of a neighboring more hygienic land, the tale concluded with, “And that is why you wash your hands so you don’t get H1N1.” I will have to settle with doggy paddling around in my bathtub.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Whole Foods in Venice Beach, CA

I barely set down my red pen after correcting the last of the midterms when I hopped on a flight to California. Thirty short hours later (I am a champion sleeper) I arrived at LAX. I walked through the same arrival gate that 25 years earlier my proud parents had walked through with a six-week old me to present to America for the first time. This time, I had butterflies in my stomach eagerly anticipating my (likely tearful and sentimental) reunion with glorious Dylan. (There’s your shout-out, Dylan.) To my dismay, he was NOT THERE. (Still want a shout-out?) At close to two in the morning, I still sat at LAX awaiting his arrival. Three hours later after I had given up hope, unassumingly reading in my plastic chair, I was pummeled from behind by a scruffy blonde man. Dylan! And I couldn’t have been happier to see him. He had a completely viable excuse for his tardiness: Hot dogs at the all-you-can-eat pavilion at the Dodger game!

I had so many expectations riding on this visit home. For weeks prior I dreamed of reunions with loved ones, the ocean, sushi, Darshan pastries, Pannikin, Mexican food, a southern California Fourth of July, Big Sur, bike rides, yoga at the yurt. The thing with California is that it never disappoints. It is always spectacular. The turquoise water of Carmel, the vineyards of Paso Robles,  the charm of Leucadia, Mexican food is always better than you remember it. The same goes for all the people I missed while away. You are funnier, smarter and more beautiful than I remember! All of you! These feelings are exacerbated by a habit I call ‘sun-setting.’ It means that you experience life by putting an expiration date on everything. I was home for two weeks. I will be in Bhutan for one year. I will only commit to something knowing that there is a time limit. I think it creates appreciation that wouldn’t be so overt if the situation could continue indefinitely. It’s like watching a sunset. You don’t really appreciate the light of the sun until it is almost gone, hanging just above the horizon, casting golden light on everything.

One of the cherries on top of this indulgent return home was Melissa’s wedding. The wedding and all events surrounding it will be memories I will treasure till my dying days. Being home for such a short amount of time magnified all the appreciation and gratitude I have for my family. Melissa looked like she walked off the pages of a bridal magazine. The ceremony was sacred and the party following overlooking the Pacific Ocean will go down in family folklore. We should have a live band at every family gathering playing eighties music and Al Green (funerals included). What do you think Grandma?

So a word to those living in developing countries, if you ever come for a quick trip to the states before returning back, DO NOT GO TO WHOLE FOODS A HALF AN HOUR BEFORE BOARDING YOUR PLANE BACK TO YOUR COUNTRY. I’m not sure I have ever been more overwhelmed in my life. I asked Dylan to take me there ‘real quick’ so I could get a sandwich to eat on the journey. Walking through the sliding doors, I saw before my eyes a festival of earthly delights. More food than could ever be consumed by the entire population of Los Angeles is contained in that market. There is a burrito bar, sushi bar, cheese bar, meat bar, gelato bar, raw food bar, juice bar, smoothie bar, beauty bar, desert bar, wine bar. I had a similar feeling to what I have described in previous posts. But instead of my eyeballs being too small to take it all in, this time I felt my mouth and digestive tract would just not be big enough. My bag was already full of Trader Joe’s food to bring back to Bhutan. Tick, tick, tick. Half an hour till take-off. I was gripped by a sudden fear that if I was not able to haul these perishable treasures with me back to Bhutan, I was going to DIE of starvation. That’s when Dylan decided it was time for us to leave. Good decision. I might have abandoned my new life in Bhutan for good and instead sought permanent residency inside of that Whole Foods. There was room for me just next to the desert case.

So somewhat reluctantly I boarded my flight. It was not so effortless as the journey there because this time I was afflicted with a malicious armpit rash. I have been (knock on wood) healthy as a yak for my entire stay in Bhutan. It’s not until I returned to California that this mysterious, painful and repulsive armpit condition afflicted me. I spent the proceeding thirty hours fervently scratching my armpits like the ape I am, much to the concern of my row-mates. “It’s not contagious.” I nervously chuckled. (It probably is.) Back in my apartment in Thimphu I grimaced as I inspected the damage. They looked like the armpits of a rotting corpse. I’m on the mend now. Don’t worry, I’ll keep you all updated on that.

Now that that confession is out of the way I want to say thank you to all of my friends and family who made every moment of my time at home perfect. And I mean that, it could not have been more perfect. I am still reveling in love and memories.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On Deciding to Love 350 Strangers At Once

I loved them before I got here. I planned it. I decide that no matter what, I was going to love each and every one of my students. My homeroom is only twelve so that’s easy. Then there are all the students I teach who aren’t in my homeroom, that’s another 62. Then they all have brothers, sisters, cousin-brothers and cousin-sisters (Bhutanese consider close cousins siblings). Then there are the kids who stop me in the hall to give me a kiss and ones who deliver love letters to me even though I don’t know and never did know their names. Once it’s all added up, siblings, close relatives, distant relatives in remote villages, etc, I figure I am committed to loving all kids in Bhutan, not just the ones in my homeroom, my classes, or even all of ELC.

In theory, this is easy. What teacher doesn’t love kids? Once a woman who came to talk to us future teachers in Santa Barbara warned about future job interviews, “When they ask you why you went into teaching, don’t say, ‘Because I just love kids,’ that really creeps me out.” Fair enough. I am learning that you can love kids and still experience more than mild irritation at them several times throughout a day. Especially when they draw with crayon on the walls, (that was the sixth graders), or when they are hiding feral cats in their ghos (Cara and I ended up adopting it), or when they interrupt a lesson on question tags to sing “I’ll be There” by Jackson Five or when they are caught peeing in the upstairs bathroom bathtub and cursing at you in Dzongkha.

I think you all knew where this entry was going before it started: even at their most irritating and infuriating, I cannot help but want to bring them home with me.  Although maybe just for lunch or a a quick snack. When they sing Justin Beiber in unison replacing, “Baby” with “Ma’am” I get chills of happiness. When they misunderstand an assignment to write a three stanza poem of five lines each, and turn in a fifteen stanza poem of five lines each in a homeric tribute to their parents I want to hug them. One day I let them free write on any topic they want and then ask who would like to share. The consequence of the free write is that I now know the very complex and twighlight-esque love triangles of every fifth and sixth grade relationship in the entire school. For the rest of the day I bask in the memories of what it was live to be a tweenager in love. (That's a shout-out to you Danny Flannery.)

This teacher-student love is flowing both ways. On my birthday I was accosted at the gate and before even entering school grounds, I had an armful of homemade cards, gifts, giant teddy bears, and Buddha figurines. I was blindfolded by the Head Girl who led my to my classroom where my homeroom class threw a very successful twenty-fifth birthday party for me with live musical entertainment, homemade food, and non-alcoholic champagne. Things got a little wild when I granted their requests for MJ and the moonwalking and gyrating began.

I know they love me too when they find me on Facebook (despite the lengths I have gone to tighten my privacy settings).  I know they have checked up on me when the next day he/she wants a detailed account of every experience I have ever had up until now, beginning in my sophomore year of college when, “You and that blonde girl are eating bananas on a boat.” They have searched through every photo of me ever posted. This must be love.

At times, this is great for the ego but at the end of the day, they are teaching their teacher what real unconditional love feels like. I could be anyone. They don’t love me because I am me, even though it is an appealing thought. They just love so well. They love all of their teachers this much. We can scold them, give them a weekend full of homework, make them watch as their friends play basketball for some minor infraction and the next day it’s as if we are still the brilliant sun of their sky. I’m not saying I am going to be doing this forever. Screaming, “WALK IN THE HALLWAYS!!!!”, “What goes at the end of a sentence?” and ‘What part about, “Go pee in the toilet wasn’t clear?” gets old after the first three hundred and seventy five times, but for the moment I can’t think of a better way to spend my days. Deciding to love this many strangers has been a good decision.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Tiger's Nest and Tiny Eyeballs

    For the most part, we are all born with eyeballs. We take in similar sights as those around us, we choose on what and where we choose to focus our attention.  If we stay in the same place for too long, we sometimes even stop looking, stop thinking. We know what to expect so we can worry about other things instead. At any one time there are a thousand things going on all around us but we can really only look at one thing at a time. But the eyeballs are only doing part of the work because the interpretation of what we are seeing is where the thoughts spring from. Since arriving in Bhutan I have had the feeling of hovering a few feet about the ground because my brain cannot catch up to the sights around me. Since arrival I have never felt grounded. I am always hovering, observing from an outsider’s perspective and trying to make sense of the sights before my eyeballs that never seem quite big enough or capable enough to absorb all the newness.
    Yesterday we finally made the trip to Taktsang, Tiger’s Nest. It is one of the first sights that shows up when you google search Bhutan. We chose the perfect day. It was the first day since I have been here that was sunny from sunrise to sunset. The drive to Paro was worth the journey itself. Around each bend were ruins of ancient buildings to be seen, mountain peaks stacked upon peaks and at the bottom of the valley, a mint green river flowing through red cliffs. You know you reach Paro when graceful rice terraces appear along the base of the mountains. Marijuana is growing everywhere now along with wild iris, pink roses and potatoes.
    The night before our journey it occurred to me that I had the same feeling that I used to get as a kid when I knew that I was going to Disneyland the next morning. Not much has changed. We visit these places because we are looking for an extrinsic physical place to give us these feelings of excitement and wonder. Over the years, it’s just the places that change, the feelings don’t so much. When we’re younger it’s Disneyland, Six Flags in junior high, in early adulthood, Buddhist monasteries tucked into monolithic mountain sides and natural wonders of the world. Later, I expect it is museums. At the late stages of life, it’s more convenient for the relics to travel to you than to travel to the relics.
    Tasktsang is the place where Guru Rinpoche landed on his she-tiger when flying in from  Tibet in the seventeenth century. He mediated in a cave still located in the depths of the monastery and emerged in eight different manifestations of his original self. The monastery burned to the ground in 1998 and was reconstructed in the original way, without a single nail. Yes, the exterior is magnificent and seems to defy physics, but it is the inside of the structure that was truly incomprehensible to my simple, un-enlightened human mind. Each winding staircase leads to a different alter room and each alter room could take up hours of your time as you let your eyes sift through each colorful detail that appears on tapestries, murals, and larger than life re-creations of the lives of Rinpoche. This is where I realized my eyeballs are just not capable enough, and the mind behind them is not much more competent. Each image tells a story and each story has something to reveal about your own human experience in relation to the universal truths of the world.  Kind of like, “It’s a Small World” ride in a spiritual way.
    To interpret all you see takes visual processing to appreciate the skill and artistry of the images all around. It takes emotional processing to reflect on how you are being affected by such graphic, glorious and sometimes gory images. It takes physical processing because you have to react, you can prostrate three times to the various alters in the corners of the room, you can listen to the teachings of the monks and lamas, you have to remember to accept the holy water being poured into your hands, you have to be mindful in the volume of your voice and be careful to not point your feet at holy people or objects. It really requires every mode of processing we have to be present and mindful in such a place and I guess that’s the point.
    I left Taktsang with that feeling I described earlier, an understanding that my five senses are not enough for the depth of understanding that is possible.
    In other news, Liz forgot her cell phone at Kueron’s one day and came to ELC to find it. We met each other at the gate and decided to go for a sunset walk. During the walk a swarm of bikes sped past us. “Do you know who that was?” she asks. People only ask that about one person in this country: The Fifth King. On his way down he stopped to talk. The next day we tried our luck again; same time, same place. And to our wondering eyes he appeared again. Then again the next day and so on. We go walking everyday now and pause at the top of the mountain to gaze upon the a tiny Thimphu below us and the infinite sky above us. On lucky days His Majesty stops to talk and other days we can count on at least a wave and a smile. “Next time we’ll have orange slices and Gatoraide waiting!” I once promised.