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.


  1. Dear cousin Kellie!
    I am having so many great visions of your life in Bhutan. It's been so fun hearing about your experiences. Thanks for keeping us updated about this unique and beautiful place. Keep it real with those love ballads! Hah!
    Love You!

  2. Wow! I wasn't aware that our not so talented American musicians would be able to make it to a Bhutanese karaoke bar!