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.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Druk Path

I write from the floor of a four hundred year old monastery. The electricity as been cut by the storm raging outside. The only light comes from Kathryn’s very fashionable yet useful headlamp. Glued onto the wooden-plank walls are pages from Hindi magazines of flashy women and gourmet food. To my left, against a crumbling clay wall is a DVD player and a television where, no doubt, child monks get their fix of American wrestling. The scent of pine incense is inescapable.
Our first jaunt into the wilderness of the Himalayas started two days ago. Since then the only other signs of human life have been our guides and the occasional yak-herder. After nine hours of hiking along mountain ridge after ridge I hear the roll of thunder in the near distance. I suddenly feel very vulnerable.I ask our guide,

“Dendup? Is it going to rain?”

 “No, of course not. I prayed for no rain in the monastery this morning. Look! A dragon!”

Either he is alluding to Bhutan’s nickname, “Land of the Thunder Dragon” or a tiny little dragon just ran under my nose. It must have been a quick dragon because I missed it.
From a thousand feet up Dendup points down into an enclosed valley encompassing a dark lake, “There’s our camp.” And there it is, looking like a tiny village from our perch. I have never been in nature that is so vast and infinite. It is hard to believe that human life has weathered these elements and that somewhere, very far from here, the internet exists, and high rises and spaceships.
The horses, horseman, and cook always pass us on the route and have camp set up and have dinner waiting by the time we get there. We know dinner will be waiting in a luxury kitchen tent where we are served several courses beginning with tea and cookies followed by datsi with fresh veggies, Bhutanese red rice, and finally, fruit with cream. From this high up the camp looks like a microscopic version of itself made miniature by the enormity of the landscape around it, titanic mountains that still are growing a few centimeters every year. Talk about endurance.
As we approach the camp the first flakes of snow begin to fall. By the time we have reached the bottom, there is a full-on blizzard raging. The harsh landscape has come alive to put on an icy performance of swirling snowflakes, white wind and rapidly dropping tempuratures. That night, there is talk of cutting the trek short and returning to civilization. The storm rages through the night and Kathrin and I never quite fall asleep. In the morning everything is still again so we forge ahead. The day is clear and beautiful.
Come early evening, the snow begins to fall and we approach the steepest peak yet, marked by those who have come before us with a giant wooden phallus and an arch of fluttering prayer flags.

“Thimphu!” Dendup shouts.

    Thousands of feet below is Thimphu tucked into the crack of a single mountain range. At this point the snow again begins to fall in earnest. We start running down the hill to camp. As we reach, the tempest begins, raging wind and thick snow being hurled down from the sky. We tuck into the unsubstantial tent that is thrashing all around. We have to shout to each other from less than a foot away to be heard. This time, we are sure the tent will not hold up through the night. Dendup pokes a wet head through the flap up to announce that we have been given permission to “seek refuge in the nearby monastery.” We slog across the mountainside against the violent storm. The lights of Thimphu miles below us are faint and misty.
    Dendup bangs on the ancient door and an equally ancient and monk answers. Wordlessly, he leads us through a flooded courtyard up a rickety flight of stairs. He apologizes for the only room he can offer, which, religious traditions aside, looks like the manger where Jesus was born. (I speculate.)
    Now we sit here in the dark and the whole building, all four-hundred years of it is creaking and rattling like a ship on an angry sea. Outside, the thunder dragon continues to roar. Dendup has conveniently forgotten his sleeping bag and is happy to wedge himself tightly between Kathrin and me.

“Where will the others sleep?” I ask him about the cook and horseman. Thinking of the impossibility of sleeping in the wet, ravaged tent.

“Oh, they’ll be okay.” He says with a smile on his face. “I hope the rats don’t come out tonight.”
It's not the rats I'm afraid of, Dendup.