Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Punakha & Pancakes

    It is not everyday you get tapped on the head with a wooden phallus by a monk. But today was my lucky day and I was on the receiving end of this phenomenon. I think I now get to chose the sex of my future child. I should have called this entry, “Pancakes, Punakha and Phalluses.” That seemed a little flagrant.

    After this blessing we ascended the miniscule staircases, one after another of the Chorten. We had driven three hours on roads that make Highway 17, (“death ridge”) in Northern California look like the bike lane at a retirement home. After a short but vertical hike we passed through the doorway to this paradisiacal mountain top temple. Greeting you as you pass through the archway is a tree that comes from the seed of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment in Bodhgaya, India.
    Every inch on the temple’s inner walls are hand painted with intricate bright Buddhist imagery. The way you navigate the Chorten is to begin on the bottom floor, complete your prostrations and make your offerings while circumambulating clockwise. You may then ascend to the next floor, then the next. At each floor you say your prayer and accept the holy water offered to you by a monk from a golden jug accented with peacock feathers. When you reach the pinnacle, you are outside alongside the golden steeple that can been seen for miles. For several minutes we sat silently in meditation and I couldn’t help but notice the sound of the crashing river thousands of feet below us and the almost silent sound of birds that soared below us. In every direction mountains layer each other, as far as the eye can see are emerald colored peaks skirted by fluid rice terraces.    The last memory of today that I would like to leave you with is after the three hour ride home we pulled over for dinner. The restaurant was a tiny home. We entered and took our places on benches built around a large wooden stove. On the stove were pots of boiling milk and porridge. We warmed our hands and feet. It has happened several times since I have been here that this same arrangement unfolds; the smallest infant in the family is placed closest to the heater and falls asleep in their warm bundle, then the adults get the tier around the infant. We all sat there around the baby laughing and enjoying our dinner while the
 baby slept.

    The novelty of pancakes has never been lost on me. Some of my favorite memories from college took place in our tiny kitchen cooking pancakes with Caitlin while dancing to Jackson Browne or whatever music was pulling our heartstrings at that moment. It was worth it to be 20 minutes late to class if it meant pancakes for breakfast. It is a fact that novelty of pancakes increases when you are making them outside of the US. That’s why when Michael and Shafik invited us over one Sunday morning for pancakes I felt like I had just been invited to tea with the King. The best part was that they were not just any pancakes, but chocolate chip( a rare commodity in these parts). Finished pancakes went into the rice cooker to stay warm. Because there was no syrup we loaded up on jam, peanut butter and honey. Yum. Over breakfast Shafik gave ‘animal readings’. He assigns you and animal and explains why you are that animal. Michael assigned me a giraffe. He said I want to see everything and that my long neck allows me to eat from places where others can’t reach. He said I have hearts lining my entire neck and that means that I have extra love to give. After breakfast Michael invited us to a recording he was doing for Centennial Radio. He asked me to interview him so as he read, I scribbled down questions that came to mind. Then we were recorded having conversations about his writing. We don’t have a radio so I never heard it.
    The Kingdom rejoiced on Sunday in celebration of their Fifth King’s 30th birthday. We had a party for him at school. His image stood prominently on an alter surrounded by fresh fruits, candles, and other offerings. Thirteen sixth graders showed up to deliver speeches they had written wishing the King a happy birthday. Kueron and Sonam suggested I give a speech too, so I did. I said:

Today we celebrate the birthday of a King who’s vision for his country and reputation for benevolence has crossed continents and oceans. It is because of this vision that Cara and I are here in Bhutan. It takes a special visionary to imagine and implement an idea like Gross National Happiness. I already see it alive and well here. I saw it when we were welcomed so graciously by our colleagues here. I saw it when I met my new student, Kisang, and she gave me a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek. We feel honored to be here and watch these values take hold. We have the hope that we will bring these values back to the U.S. with us. Thank you, and Tashi Delek.

    We have a teacher at our school who is famous in Bhutan for her performances of traditional Bhutanese songs. She is also the Paula Abdul of Bhutan’s own version of American Idol, “Druk Star.” She performed the national anthem and later sang a song in Dzonkha. I looked around me at the end of the song and many people had tears running down their faces. Imagine celebrating one of our leaders in such a way and feeling moved to tears when you reflect on their life’s ever growing accomplishments.

    After eight days in a row working at school we decided to celebrate the King’s birthday in a different way. A new Karaoke bar opened so at 9 o’clock sharp we were there, mics in hand performing several ballads of love addressed to the King. The crowd pleaser was our version of “I’ll make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. Our version included some free style rapping by Sonam and the insertion of, “Fifth King” whenever the song refers to the nonspecific, “you.” At three a.m. we no longer sounded like the angelic sirens we had earlier in the night. That did not stop us from singing a few more; James Taylor’s “Handy Man” and Prince’s “Purple Rain.” How fitting for the King’s birthday. Highlights included dancing to “Mambo Number Five” and replacing the American names with Bhutanese ones, ie: “A little bit of Sonam in my life, I little bit of Kueron by my side, a little bit of Namgay’s all I need...” We felt deep inspiration our profession as teachers while singing Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” (“I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”) Later on in the night we did not look the part of reverent teachers and I will keep those photos personal for the sake of professionalism. Unless I ever see the need for blackmail.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Chorten

The Most Romantic Losar

    The lights of the city get smaller and smaller below us as Sonam’s tiny Indian made Maruti barely makes it up the winding mountain roads. As we climb, stars approach eye level and I realize that no matter how long I look, I won’t see an airplane flying over us. Two airplanes land in this country on any given day and both arrive in the morning. Sonam and her friends sing in Nepali at the top of their lungs as we skirt thousand foot drops. No guard rails in sight. When we arrive at the top of this massive mountain white prayer flags flap furiously in the wind and tiny little lights of Thimphu, Bhutan’s largest city, look like a quaint mountain village.  At three o’clock in the morning, the road is surprising still lined with cars as people head to Buddha Point to celebrate Losar, the Bhutanese New Year. It was an especially romantic Losar, falling on Valentine’s Day eve. We celebrated at Club Ace, Sonam’s favorite Disco. I told Carris this morning and her reply was, “What?! Bhutan has a disco? I thought it was a tiny Buddhist kingdom tucked in the Himalayas!” Yes, it is, but it can also have a nightclub. And what a nightclub it was. For hours we danced to everything from Hindi music to American hip hop to Reggaeton. I am unexperienced in the Bhutanese way to dance to Hindi music so I got some tips from two guys who looked particularly practiced in this fine art form. I noted that a passionate facial expression is essential to looking authentically bollywood. I was approached often by people curious about how I found my way to Bhutan. Everyone I talked to happened to know or be related to one of my coworkers at the Early Learning Centre.
    I am going on week three in Bhutan. Every day has been adventure, complete with lessons from our principal on how to take a shower and do laundry. We arrived on Monday, and Tuesday morning we began inservice at school. The school is private, owned by our principal who conducts the daily professional development sessions. Each session revolves around the ever-prevalent theme of Gross National Happiness. This is the concept that the Fifth King of Bhutan introduced when he imposed democracy on his admiring subjects several years ago. The idea is that such a small country that values its pristine nature and humanity so deeply will always attempt to prioritize collective happiness above monetary gain or gross national product. This vision is radically transforming the education system of Bhutan. Meditation is now required in every school. Our professional development seminars have included an expert intervention from the local Lama (Sanskrit word for teacher, or “highly learn-ed monk” as Sonam explains). We received instruction on how to properly meditate and how to inspire children to integrate mediation in their lives. We begin each session with several minutes of mediation and close each day with a prayer in Dhzonka (Bhutan’s national language). The last thing we do each day is recite the Gross National Happiness Invocation.    
    This local Lama has become central to my life here in Bhutan. He holds weekly mediation class on Tuesdays and on Fridays screens indie films to encourage critical thinking and create a community of people interested in the Middle Path. Sundays are ‘Wisdom Tea’ where we huddle around an electric heater to read Buddhist literature and have a question and answer with the lama while drinking tea and eating lemon flavored popcorn.
    I want to devote a paragraph to talk about my gratitude for the people who have made the landing in Thimphu such a gentle and comforting experience. After our first day at ELC, two smiling faces offered to pick Cara and me up from our house and take us to dinner. The two smiling faces were sisters, Sonam and Cheychay. The took us to dinner at Ambient cafe. A wonderful restaurant/cafe/hotel/gathering place. Since then they have done something kind and generous for us every day. One day they invited themselves over for dinner. I was embarrassed because I had no idea how to feed them, but wanted to do something to return their generosity. They ended up coming over, making us dinner, cleaning our kitchen and then preparing teaching materials for us. Cheychay said it had been a scheme to get into our house and make it feel like a home. Mission accomplished. They have introduced us to their friends, invited us for meals, included us in their lives. They have taken us shopping, to the hospital, various ministries to clear our visas, and made our existence ever enjoyable. So thanks to them and to everyone else who has been so open hearted (Kueron, Namgay, Mme. Deki...)
    The first week I got here a brand new yoga studio opened. Cara (my roommate) and I attended one of the first classes and left having found a new favorite place and new friends. Since then we have spent almost every day with the people we met there. Michael and Noam are musicians who have provided many hours of entertainment. Even watching the two of them have a conversation is amusing, which is why they also have a radio show. Last night they put on a Valentine’s Day concert at the home of the local radio producer. Now it is Sunday and I am sitting at a very American feeling cafe. I just finished breakfast of hash browns and eggs. Michael and Cara are here. We are going to go for a walk across the river and then to the yoga studio tonight to watch our yoga teacher’s favorite French film called, “Bleu”. Tomorrow there is no work because of Losar. Life is good.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hello and Goodbye from Gate 128

Yesterday my horoscope said, “Take your time. Life doesn’t change overnight.” I would like to disagree. Especially in the case that one boards a plane and lands in a small kingdom in the Himalayas, which is exactly what I happen to be doing today. So in this case, life does change, drastically, overnight.

As we drove to the airport I noticed that this time I did not have the old song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” on repeat in my mind. It is true that all my bags are packed and I’m ready to go but by the third trip to Asia in three months some of the romanticism has worn off. The song that has taken over in my mind is now Jim Morrison’s “Light My Fire.” As I approached Inglewood all I heard was, “The time to hesitate is through. No time to wallow in the mire” Since this time last year I have been anticipating this day and everything that is to follow. It feels that the goodbyes have been a long, drawn out process. Since leaving for China several months ago I have been saying goodbye only to return weeks later just in time to say goodbye again. So today from gate 128 in the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX, I say ‘goodbye’ in the physical sense, you won’t see me for a year. But I also say ‘hello’ because by reading my blog you may get more of me than you want.

Caitlin likes to remind me that just two years ago while on a bus ride from Brazil to Argentina, I made it perfectly clear that I was highly disinterested in Asia. “I have no need to ever go to the East.” She just reminded me of that yesterday. I didn’t realize then that I had just said that I didn’t want to see the other half of the planet. I think my maturing, (small minded) self was actually acknowledging that I had no context to understand the other half of the world. My roommate from my freshman year in college was from China. Back then I don’t think I could have named a single city in China. One time I thought to ask what her village was like where she grew up. She told me there had been ponds filled with lotus flowers. I didn’t know what a lotus flower was so I didn’t ask any more questions. That mentality was precisely why, when I landed in China several months ago, I felt like I had just discovered another wing in a house I had lived my whole life. Who knew there was so much to be seen, felt, and experienced? I didn’t even know what I had been missing. What if I went my whole life without ever seeing this? This feeling of discovery continued throughout my recent trip to Indonesia and Thailand.

So today I head back to Asia (wasn’t I just there last week?), the place I never thought I had any interest to visit. This time, I go to Bhutan, a country I didn’t know existed last year. The girl checking me in to China Airlines had also never heard of it, along with ninety percent of the world’s population. So now I know that it exists, I can even point it out on a map and tell you that Thimphu, the city where I am living is between 7,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level. I can tell you that a national symbol is the image of a penis, because I read that in the Lonely Planet Guide. I can tell you that my place of employment is The Early Learning Centre, a private school in the capital. I also know that if I sit on the back left side of the plane I may be able to see Everest when we fly over. Beyond that I don’t know much. So along with the theme of this entry, goodbye California. Goodbye to tons upon tons of massive freeways, goodbye to kids on leashes, to In-n-Out (can’t say I’ll miss that), to high rise buildings, to the ocean (that’s a big one), to familiar faces, to a boyfriend, to mass media, to Costco (there is one in Kuala Lumpur if I get desperate for dish soap or cat litter in bulk) and mom and dad. And hello to...Well, I can’t pretend to know. I’ll fill you in when I get there. Miss you already.