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.”