Friday, December 17, 2010

Blog #31: Oh So Cold!

I’m Canadian. I’m used to bone-aching winters. My blood is thicker than the blood of people of other nationalities. I have words for winter clothing that are only understood in my country. I embrace the cold, the snow, and the challenge of living in a climate that many would run from. At least I thought I did.

Winter crept up on me. At first, it was just a little cold in the mornings. But getting out of bed is always a miserable experience, I told myself. The warm bundling of blankets can’t last forever. Nothing is permanent…not even warmth. So I chalked it up to good ol’ fashion morning reluctance to wake.

The days were absolutely gorgeous. The sun shone more brightly than I think I had previously seen it shine in Khaling, with not a single cloud in the sky to hide its radiance. Its rich blue sparkled and blinded me on my walk to and from school every day. I would find myself standing on top of the stairs in front of the school, looking out over the school’s football field, the town, the valley, and the vast expanse of mountains in the distance, left in awe by the heavenly view. It wasn’t cold as long as the sun was sharing its warmth. But when the sun grew tired and ducked below the mountains to gather its rest, the cold advanced on Khaling and left us all retreating for our homes.

The problem here is that homes are not heated. Many people here rely on bukaris, wood-burning stoves that act both as heaters and as stoves. The school staff room was home to a bukari, and I admit that I really enjoyed the heat that it generated, but I generally avoided being in the staff room when the bukari was being used because it not only generated a surprising amount of heat, but also a disgusting amount of smoke. I would often walk into the staff room to find a group of people gathered around the bukari in a thick haze of smoke. Upon entering the room my eyes would instantly burn and tear, but others seemed unfazed. I’m sure the smoke inhalation experienced by the crowd could not have been far off from that of a person pulled from a burning house. My lungs stung and a lump formed in the back of my throat. I decided the warmth was not worth it.

The other option for warming one’s home is electric heaters. I actually have two heaters in my house. One is a rod-heater, a little box with a coil that glows a mesmerizing fluorescent orange when switched on. The rod-heater is a great little treat when the toes start to go numb. When placed in front of the heater those little piggies could quickly become a delicious grilled pork dinner. The problem with this heater, however, is that it fails to radiate the heat and warm a room. If you are right in front of it, you’re doing great. If you’re more than a foot or two away from it, you really don’t feel its effects.

So I also have a panel heater, which is essentially a portable radiator. This gem is slow and steady, and trust me, it wins the race. Standing directly beside it will gently warm your bones, blood, or whatever needs to be thawed, but its true value lies in its ability to warm a room. Turn on the panel heater, close the door, and return one hour later to experience a comfortable warmth filling the air.

So there are possible sources of warmth, but they also become costly if used all the time. My electric bill for November was more than ten times what it was in October (granted, it went from one dollar to twelve dollars). It may not sound like much, but it’s all relative. So I compromised by using the panel heater for an hour before bed and wearing jackets and hats inside the house the rest of the time. If it’s still too cold I will obviously use a heater, and I find that is happening more and more often, but right now I’m coping with the compromise.

What is absolutely impossible to cope with (and to really express) is my daily chores. Washing dishes is torturous. I sometimes feel as if I might as well be holding ice cubes as I scrub away at the pots and pans. It burns and tingles like pins are pricking at my skin. After less than thirty seconds my fingers are bright pink and the rest of my hand is left looking jaundice in relation. The only solution (or at least partial solution) is to have a bowl of lukewarm water readily available to dip my hands in after each and every plate. This bowl, of course, must be refilled with boiling water on a regular basis, as the water cools almost instantly in the cold air that fills my kitchen.

So washing dishes is awful. But even worse than that is doing laundry. Remember, I do my laundry in a giant bucket of water. Well, now it is a giant bucket of ice water. And the water splashes here and there, inevitably soaking the clothes you’re wearing at the time. Not even the lukewarm bowl of water will help you this time, as your whole arm turns scarlet in the icy bucket. The only solution is to go fast and take breaks to recharge in the sunlight as frequently as possible. The winter has essentially made a miserable task unbearable.

And yet, I can’t help but laugh at the cold a lot of the time. Just as I have found other parts of this experience ridiculous, I also find the cold to be. I mean, imagine going to the bathroom and losing track of where the toilet is because the steam rising up from where your pee hits the frosty porcelain hides the toilet from your view. People in the west often hate on the squatter toilet, but I’m telling you, touching your cheeks to a toilet seat in this kind of cold is not something I would want to try even once. When winter hit I finally understood the logic behind the squatter toilet.

So what to do? Well I could keep bundling myself in layer upon layer of warm clothes; or I could run my heaters 24-hours a day and just take the financial hit; or I could subject my lungs to physical trauma comparable to that of a fire victim; or I could chop of my hands, thus avoiding the burden of doing laundry and the dishes.

Well I’ve come up with an even better solution. I call it “Operation Jump Ship.” To hell with the cold. I came here to experience new things. The cold is old news. I’m familiar with it, and I quite frankly don’t need it right now. What I need is some warmth to recharge my battery for next year. I will admit that by now I’m running on empty. Work has drained me emotionally and daily life has drained me physically. I’m giving myself a vacation – I think I deserve one – and luckily one of the world’s hottest countries is my next-door neighbour. So I’m off to India. I don’t have much of a plan. I will see some of the sights, I will explore some of the cities, I will relax on some of the beaches, and I will visit some friends. And more than anything else, I will stay warm.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Blog #30: Done and Done!

DISCLAIMER: Those of you who have been following my blog will have noticed that I haven't written an entry in almost two months. I apologize for the significant gap in entries, but time has not been a luxury I have had (nor have I had any other luxuries if you want the truth). But just because I haven't written anything in two months doesn't mean I didn't have lots to say. As you will see, there has actually been quite a bit on my mind. Many people have asked me to write more about my teaching experience here (in particular those brave souls considering coming here to teach next year). I found that during the school year this really was of no interest to me since I lived and breathed that experience every day. But now that the year has come to an end, I found myself in a long awaited state of reflection. I apologize for what you are about to read. It is about two months worth of ideas and it might just take you that long to read it. Good luck and enjoy!

Work has completely consumed the last two months of my life. To tell you the truth it’s all a bit of a blur to me now. I was hoping to keep better track of the time, to take in every experience, to let life here marinate, but somehow the remainder of the school year has come and gone with little excitement to show for it.

I returned to school after the mid-term vacation with the idea that I was going to do everything differently in the second term. I had recognized several areas of my teaching that I needed to improve and I felt that I better understood my students, both their personalities and their needs. My new approach was short-lived.

At first I had students reading the stories, essay, poems, what-have-you on their own, and working in groups to generate exam style questions that they might be asked on those particular readings. The groups would then submit the questions to me, I would spend the night sorting through them, weeding out the ridiculous ones and typing up the ones I deemed worthy of addressing, and the next day I would give them a practice test on the reading.

My reasoning behind this was twofold. First, I think that students learn best by asking critical questions to themselves as they read. If a student can ask a good question, they can probably produce a good answer. This is particularly true in this culture, where students are used to being spoon fed information rather than being asked to think for themselves. Secondly, a significant portion of the final exam is devoted to sight passages (25% for an unseen essay, and 25% for an unseen poem). After marking their first term exams I realized that both of these sections caused a tremendous amount difficulty – there just wasn’t anyone to spoon feed them and they lacked the critical thinking skills to comprehend the passages on their own. And so, something needed to be done about this.

So group work it was, and for a short while it worked splendidly. But only for a short while. What I soon noticed was that only a few students in the groups were participating in generating questions. The rest were sitting idly by as the smarter students did the work. This could just be a typical teenage attitude towards learning, but I do wonder if it has something to do with the apathy that I sense persists in both the students and at times the teachers. The belief in both cases is that the ultimate goal is to simply finish the task – a fallacy which in my opinion, more than anything else I have come across, has the potential to obstruct the future educational development of the country.

Unfortunately, even when the “groups” were able to produce relatively intelligent questions, individuals were generally unable to produce answers that could be described as such. I have been working for the better part of a year to get students to move beyond the superficial to a place of substance, and still only a handful of them truly grasp what that entails. Then there are some students who from time to time surprise me with a truly insightful response, but usually they themselves are more shocked by this than I. Others produce, on a consistent basis, the most basic level of response to questions that demand much more. And lastly, and perhaps most commonly, there are those students who simply regurgitate Buddhist philosophy in the most tangential way. To these students, the answer to any question that could ever be posed seems to relate to nature’s impermanence, which is enough to plunge me into an existential crisis, both as a human being and as a teacher.

After my role-reversal experiment in which students were setting the questions for their own tests I tried a new activity. I asked students to read a story for homework and underline at least two lines from the reading that they found interesting. The results, I assure you, were uninteresting. They were simply unable to distinguish the important information from the superfluous information. Again, all year I had been modeling how to do this. I would pick out provocative lines from stories or essays that we were reading as a class and ask students to respond to a series of guided questions relating to a line. Even so, when left to their own devices…nothing.

Then I came up with yet another idea, one that was considered both novel and controversial among my colleagues; I showed my students a movie. I’m sure I broke at least half a dozen rules in doing this, but I will adamantly defend my decision to do so. It wasn’t just for fun – although I wasn’t opposed to injecting a little bit of entertainment into my students’ otherwise monotonous lives; there was actually some method behind my madness. Students have almost no exposure to film or television here, and this, in my humble opinion, is a missed opportunity. My students (and friends) with the greatest proficiency in English all accredit this proficiency to movies and music (hip-hop in particular). I’m not sure how strong the correlation is, and I’m sure there are other variables in the equation (in particular socio-economic status – only wealthier families have televisions and/or MP3 players), but at the same time, the power of television and music is undeniable and constant exposure to the English language can’t possibly be a bad thing. So I showed a movie. Shoot me.

Unfortunately my choice of movies lacked dialogue for the first 30 minutes of the film. Whoops. Not my fault though. I couldn’t just pick any movie (although I did later show my students The Princess Bride “to teach them about the elements of fiction and good storytelling”…giggle), I had to at least pick one that related to the curriculum. So when we finished reading “Too Bad,” a futuristic story about a man who invents a robot that, upon miniaturization, can be injected inside the human body in order to quite literally zap cancer cells with its laser, I searched through my hard drive for a movie that could at least draw one or two parallels. I found the Pixar animated WALL-E. For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, familiarize yourselves immediately. It is an incredibly cute movie, and as is becoming the trend with animated films, it is also incredibly intelligent and geared more towards an adult audience than to children.

The students absolutely loved it. They were quoting lines from the movie for the following few weeks (again, The Princess Bride probably trumped the effect of WALL-E. Every time I passed one of my students they would say to me, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”)

I had told the students before watching the movie to bring notebooks with them and to try to draw comparisons between the movie and the short story. I expected them to touch on ideas like character traits (both robots, despite being machines, exhibit human emotion) or themes (both robots sacrifice themselves for the greater good of humanity), ideas that were fairly obvious, especially after the numerous hints I gave before starting the movie. But alas, my naïveté got the best of me once again. Instead of critical analyses on the parallels between the movie and story, I received haphazardly written plot summaries which, even then, proved to be inaccurate (somehow a number of students started talking about the “moon people”). Once again, a few students produced well written, thorough and sound comparisons, and perhaps that makes it all worthwhile, but the majority of students just couldn’t manage to think on that higher plane.

“To be articulate and discriminating about ordinary affairs and information is the mark of an educated man.” This line was taken from the unseen essay that appeared on the class eleven final exam. The essay is entitled “Classroom Without Walls” by Marshall McLuhan. It’s actually a brilliantly written essay, one which I would urge anyone in education to read when they have a chance. In it McLuhan argues that educators need to embrace the mass media as a valuable teaching tool, as it has the potential to tear down the restrictions of the classroom walls and allows for students to learn through their exposure to different forms of media. The novelty of this idea has by now worn off in the Western world, but I assure you that in Bhutan it is still considered not just novel, but strange as well. When I came across this quotation I found it ironically appropriate to include on the exam considering my failed attempts to teach my students to think critically while watching a movie.

The question I actually posed to students was, “Do you agree or disagree with the above statement? Justify your response.” I will admit that it is a difficult quotation, but the essay was actually taken from the supplementary section of their textbook, so it was deemed ability-appropriate (that is not to say that it is, just that it was “deemed” to be) and if students had understood the essay at all, they would have had some opinions on the matter. The incoherent drivel that landed on their pages spoke for itself.

I’m going to begin the next school year by writing this quote on the board. I think it establishes a good objective for the year, if not for the students then for me. I think it is a worthwhile goal. I have always believed that the purpose of education is to teach children to think critically at all times, to ask questions, to voice their opinions in a meaningful way. I have never been one to care about what is right or wrong. Obviously, in certain disciplines that is the ultimate goal. But being a student of philosophy, I have never found a point in discussing what is right or wrong, but rather why something makes sense or fails to do so. If a student can express an idea clearly and convincingly justify their reason for thinking that way, in my opinion, that student is far more likely to succeed than the student who is simply able to answer a question “correctly.”

With that being said, I find myself living in a pedagogical paradox. I was brought to this country to deliver a Canadian style of education to my students, – and I find my personal philosophy of education does align with this approach to education in most respects – however, the Bhutanese education system is still largely based on the Indian education system, which holds at its core a very different philosophy, one which does in fact stress a “correct” answer (keep in mind that when I’m discussing these philosophies I am doing so as an English teacher. I do not mean to suggest that a philosophy which emphasizes fact is not valuable in other subjects. But when students come to me and ask me, “Who is considered to be the father of the essay?” I’m not exactly sure of the answer or its importance).

Bhutan is still a relatively poor country, and as such, citizens rely heavily on the government for assistance. This is particularly true when it comes to education, as education is free for all Bhutanese citizens. However, because of limited resources and the geographic need for schools to offer boarding facilities to their students, positions in schools are quite limited. The result is that all students are offered a seat in government schools up until they reach class ten, at which point in time they must write a national board exam in order to qualify for class eleven. Of the 12, 000 or so students who write this exam (this number is an estimate based on what friends have told me – please do not consider any of these numbers facts…you know I don’t like those!) approximately one third of them will qualify to continue their education in government schools for class eleven. When students reach class twelve they once again write a national board exam. Those students who receive an average above 40% will be granted a leaving certificate which verifies that they have passed class twelve (frighteningly, these people can become teachers!). Those students who are in the top thirty percentile (again, this is an estimate), usually a mark above 65% I’m told, will qualify for scholarships to colleges within Bhutan. And then finally, those students in the very top percentile (maybe 1%) will qualify for government scholarships (which includes a comfortable living allowance as well as tuition and books) to universities abroad (which is necessary to pursue certain careers, for example a career in medicine, as Bhutanese colleges do not offer such programs). So the whole system is highly competitive and there is obviously a great deal of pressure on students, as well as teachers, to perform and get good results.

So here is the problem. The national level board exams that I have described are based on an Indian system of education. They are extremely content heavy (the Physics textbook is bigger that the Whitepages in Toronto) and notoriously unpredictable. So preparing students for this exam, especially when it comes to English, which is – despite some people’s refusal to admit so – highly subjective, is extremely difficult.

Why, you ask, is it so difficult? Well in order to understand why it’s so difficult to ensure good results I must first explain the evaluation process.

Every year in January teachers from across the country travel to a designated location to participate in evaluation camp. Teachers are not only paid a tidy sum of money to participate, but they also are given a travel allowance for the expenses they incur on their journey to said location (I’m building up ammunition to write an article for a Bhutanese newspaper on this issue).

The entire evaluation camp lasts thirteen days, one of which is granted as a holiday. During the twelve working days, teachers are assembled into teams based on subject, and these teams, usually consisting of eight or nine teachers, are responsible for evaluating the exams for all of class ten or twelve in their respective subjects. In some subjects the task is not so unreasonable (not all students take subjects like physics and chemistry, and these subjects are also relatively quick to mark). However, considering that every student must take English, and that evaluating an English exam takes considerably longer than evaluating a Math exam, the English teachers who attend the evaluation camp face quite a daunting task. Oh yeah, and to make matters just a little worse, students write not just one English exam, but two (each of which is three hours long)!

Because the camp is only twelve days long, teachers are given a daily quota of exams that they are required to evaluate (if you do the math, for English it works out to about forty-one exams for class twelve English per teacher per day). This in itself yields interesting results, mainly that exams are more often than not scanned rather than read. However, the troublesome part for an English teacher like myself is that in order to cope with the mountains of exams, evaluators are given answer keys for the exams. In some respects this is probably a good thing considering that often the evaluators are teachers from primary schools (remember I mentioned that one only needs to have passed class twelve with an average of 40% to become a teacher), but again, for the English exam it is still probably not so great.

The problem with answer keys is that the evaluator doesn’t really have to think. They simply read the answer and see if it matches the model answer given in the answer key. For English, a subject in which answers can vary in an infinite number of ways, this system of evaluation is fairly illogical and certainly flawed.

Perhaps an example will better emphasize my bafflement. I will give an example from the grammar section of the class eleven exam. Keep in mind that grammar is by far the most concrete area of the English curriculum; there are at least some rules that should be followed (although we all know there are always exceptions to grammar rules). I say this only to stress that in the English literature section of the exam, answers are even more subjective. But let’s stick with grammar for now. (Let me warn you that in some cases…sigh…I’m not entirely sure of the correct answer. Please don’t judge me. Trust me, neither are you.)

1) The new law passed by the parliament made everyone’s life secure. (Rewrite using the word “security”)

My best guess for this one is as follows: “The new law passed by the parliament provided everyone with security.”

But maybe: “Security was guaranteed to everyone in the new law passed by parliament.”

2) He demanded them to treat the information as confidential. (Rewrite using the noun form of ‘confidential’)

I’m not sure, but maybe: “He demanded that they treat the information with confidentiality.”

I also thought of: “Confidentiality was demanded of them in regards to the information.”

3) Young people think the world is made _____ them alone.
a. up of
b. for
c. of
d. with

You tell me, is the answer “up of” or “for?” I personally would have said “up of” but I believe the correct answer on the exam was “for.” Who knows?

Okay, last one. These ones are the students’ favourites. You are instructed to rewrite the sentence using the given prompt while maintaining the original meaning. Good luck.

4) A: It would be a good idea if you went and asked her yourself.
B: You’d _________________________________.

The only thing that comes to mind for me is: “You’d be wise to go and ask her yourself.” I’m sure there are other possibilities. I urge each and every person who reads this to contribute any variations on any of these answers in the comment section.

Not only are the questions extremely difficult to begin with, but if a teacher is simply marking off of an answer key and fails to use any judgement of their own, a student with perfect grammar could actually end up doing quite poorly. I have experienced this first hand while marking exams. I usually have a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of responses to these types of questions, but every now and again one of my brightest students throws me a curve ball and provides a response that I hadn’t even considered, a response that is perfectly correct. I do my best to award the marks where they are deserved, but I’m not so convinced that the teachers at evaluation camp will exercise the same discretion (I do not mean to criticize. I, in fact, sympathize, as the expectations placed on evaluators are far from reasonable if quality is to be maintained). With that being said, the board exams are clearly flawed and attempting to predict which answer evaluators are actually looking for, especially for a native English speaker, becomes a nerve-wracking task (after all, students’ educational futures are on the line).

So how do you deliver a student-centred approach to learning when there are very specific expectations on the exam which actually discourage any sort of deviation from the “norm?” In the literature section of the exam it becomes a matter of structure and form, teaching students the components that make up a good answer, but in grammar questions like the ones above, it becomes a game of mind reading and speculation. Combine this with the fact that the expectation is that students have a comprehensive understanding of English grammar (an expectation that most native English speakers can’t possibly meet) and students often give up before even writing the exam.

And grammar is in my opinion the biggest problem here. There is no concrete guideline for what grammar a student is expected to know, so what do you teach? What concept is being tested in question number four? Seriously, I have no idea.

Even when there is a concept to be taught, the expectations are that students know everything there is to know. According to Deva Kumar, the head of the English department and a thirteen year veteran of Jigme Sherubling HSS, in 2009, for the first time in his experience here, students were asked about idioms on the English board exam. Nowhere had the curriculum specifically mentioned to teachers that they were to teach idioms and so the students were left flabbergasted and clueless when they reached this section of the exam.

Now we know to teach idioms to our students, but the question still arises, which idioms? The answer: all idioms. Well, living in a country where English is a third or fourth language to most people has taught me that native English speakers speak almost entirely in idioms. I found that towards the end of the year I was teaching my students an idiom a day simply because I had accidentally used one and they had no idea what I was talking about. So they’re learning. And I guess I’m teaching. But if you look online or in a book of idioms you will quickly realize that to demand that students know all the English idioms is completely unrealistic (there are literally thousands and I’ve learned that I don’t know what most of them mean) and unfair. Oh yeah, and just a reminder that idioms have appeared on the exam once in the last thirteen years. So is it worth the time or the worry?

Anyways, I have digressed. Somewhere – approximately 2000 words ago – I mentioned the pedagogical paradox that I find myself in. I am supposed to be delivering a Canadian style of education to my students, – a student-centred approach that teaches students how to find answers on their own or in groups, but veers away from rote learning and lecture based classes – and yet, on their own students can’t possibly meet the demanding expectations of the exams that unfortunately determine their entire future. The reality is that it takes a heavy dose of spoon fed education to guarantee good results on the board exams. As a teacher where do my obligations lie, in educating them properly or in ensuring that they do well on the exams and continue their education? For most of the year I found myself stuck in this crisis of conscience.

So I made a compromise with myself and with my students. I decided that since I am teaching class nine and eleven this year, grades that are not subject to board exams but rather “home” exams, I will teach in my own, Canadian style, working on critical thinking and writing skills, and next year I will adjust my pedagogy, feeding them information until they’re bloated.

All was fine and dandy until about two weeks before exams when I finished the syllabus and began review. It was at that point in time that it became frighteningly apparent that my students were confused about the short stories we had studied. When I taught these stories the first time I had checked students’ understanding on a regular basis through questions and assignments, and all of them seemed to be doing okay, but again, in my naïveté I failed to recognize that they were all just faking their understanding in order to move on to the next activity or story. I figure that in a class of thirty-six students, maybe five or six of them actually did the work themselves (less so in my weaker class), and the rest just copied their friends, altering their answers ever so slightly with zero understanding of what they were saying. When I was teaching and asked time and time again, “Does that make sense?” I imagine Pavlov was rolling around in his grave, laughing proudly as my students collectively, though mundanely, answered, “Yes, sir.”

So I did what any good teacher would do. I completely abandoned my principles and started teaching them in classic Bhutanese fashion. The problem was that being Canadian this approach was completely foreign to me. Even worse still was that it was far more time consuming. Students specifically requested that I take them through each and every line of a story and explain what it meant.

Soon it became clear that class time wasn’t going to suffice, so students began asking for me to come after school to teach. How can you say no to students who are so eager to seek extra help? At home I think I would faint if even one student asked to have class for an hour after school; here there was an entire class asking me to teach for an hour to an hour and a half, not just after school, but also on Sunday, the one day of the week we don’t have school. I felt even more obligated to take extra classes when, once again (and slightly less surprisingly this time), regular class were canceled during the week leading up to exams for various (ridiculous) reasons. My friends and colleagues thought I was crazy (taking extra classes is actually quite common for class ten and twelve but unheard of for class nine and eleven), but I did it nonetheless.

For the most part I honestly loved it. These classes were usually far less formal than regular classes. Not all of the students came, though most did, so I would crowd them together and just sit on a desk and go to work. They lapped it up. Once we finished the short stories – again – the focus shifted to grammar. Even teaching grammar during these extra classes had a different feel to it. Maybe it’s that only the students who were really eager to learn were attending, I don’t know, but there was a flow that I don’t think existed during regular school hours.

Anyway, this continued for a little over a week, at which point in time I had already collected the students' reading and writing portfolios, and started to panic that I wouldn’t be able to mark them in time to return them to their owners. So extra classes were suspended indefinitely and my days and nights were consumed by students’ portfolios.

Oh portfolios, how I loathe thee! If I never see another portfolio again I will die a happy man. Best case scenario, it took about forty-five minutes to finish one student’s portfolio (that’s including both reading and writing). But that was if the grammar was good. If the grammar was bad, it could add another half hour. And if the grammar was atrocious (which is actually not a strong enough word to describe some students’ portfolios) I was looking at maybe an hour and a half, at which point in time I would just give up and ballpark their mark. So we’re talking about an average of maybe an hour per portfolio, and I teach ninety students. I get dizzy just thinking about it.

In all fairness, some of them were extremely well done. I gave one girl eighteen out of twenty. She was very creative, had great style to her writing, and a really critical mind. That was the type of portfolio that made it all bearable. But that was also the type of portfolio that came around only when the stars were aligned just right. For the most part students would all write the exact same things: essays on nature’s impermanence, stories about girls who fall in love with boys only to discover later that the boys are cheating on them (affairs are very common here; see Ann’s blog for an entry entitled “Marital Relationships” which discusses this matter), or poems about teachers and/or parents being gods (those are my favourite). After reading two or three entries on these topics you want to throw up; after reading eighty entries like this you want to chop up a bunch of chilies, rub them into your eyes until you can no longer see, which in all reality would be much less excruciating than reading even one more portfolio.

So after working from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (and sometimes later depending on my duties for the week) during the weeks when I was taking extra classes, I embarked on a professional voyage (of a very static nature) to correct ninety portfolios in just two weeks. It took me day and night (and weekends), an entire tin of coffee, and a few bottles of whisky (upon completion of my day’s work only), but I am proud to say that I got it done, and just in time to give them back to my students before they went home (some actually refused to pick them up and so they have become entertaining kindling for the Bukari…the portfolios, not the students).

I was so relieved to be done marking portfolios that the 180 exams that I had to mark couldn’t even bring down my spirits. I have learned that the joy of marking exams is that they require absolutely no feedback. With portfolios I would read through each entry and meticulously correct each and every grammar mistake (when possible) and then provide a comment and the end of the portfolio informing the student what they did well and what they needed to work on. With exams I wrote a number next to the answer and (this was my favourite part) drew an oddly satisfying circle around said number.

I’m not saying that marking the exams was easy; it wasn’t, but it was certainly less painful than marking portfolios. I have been working on them for the past three weeks. For the last week I have been working from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. with breaks only for lunch and dinner (and sometimes a short rest), but I’m finally done.

So how did my students do, you ask? Well, I’m technically not allowed to say anything until the results are officially declared, but let’s just say they finally managed to muster up some creativity despite the questions demanding nothing of the sort. Grammar was just as I had expected, and the extra classes seemed to have paid off with the short story (for the most part).

Critical thinking continues to be a complicated problem. The unseen poem proved to be a disaster. I chose “Hawk Roosting” by Ted Hughes, admittedly, quite a difficult poem. However, the questions posed on the exam were not particularly difficult, and yet the results were shocking. Some students actually left almost the entire section blank (including the multiple choice questions). One girl actually came up with a brilliant interpretation of the poem, both literal and figurative, in which she argued that the poem was actually about a man’s sense of entitlement over women (pretty much exactly what Hughes was writing about, I think). I was elated to see such a fabulous response. My elation faded when I later awarded one student half a mark (0.5) out of twenty-five for the entire poetry section of the exam. But sadly that is the reality of teaching here. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try as a teacher, students will not succeed. It took me a long time to come to terms with this (pretty much the entire year…and I’m still not entirely comfortable with it), but my sympathy wanes when the student doesn’t even attempt to answer the questions (especially multiple choice…I mean, come on!).

So I’m done for the year! We are still asked to report to school every day, but hours are fairly loose and there is nothing to do. It has all gone by so quickly. My class threw a tea party for three of their teachers who are leaving next year and I was invited, as I was the class teacher. It was really cute and they are all such sweet kids (even the naughty ones), and more than anything it was a really good opportunity for me to once again reflect on my decision to stay here for another year.

Sitting there, sipping my tea as one of my friends spoke to the class with tears in her eyes I realized that there is no way I could have come home so soon. I was not ready to say goodbye, and I feel fortunate that I didn’t have to. Next year will be a good year. I will know what I’m doing. I will spoon feed information to my students, I will reluctantly teach to the test, I will deal with the grammar problems as best I can, and I will be sure to marinate in the experience. It really does feel like one that only comes along once in a lifetime.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Blog #29: The Verdict's In

This did not come easily to me, but I’ve been drowning in indecision for far too long. There were a few brief moments in which I thought I knew what I wanted and floated comfortably back to the surface. But I could never keep my head above water for more than a few hours without my doubts thrusting me back below the surface, leaving me gasping for air. Days drifted by with my internal monologue overpowering my external dialogue and drowning out all other conversation. Sink or swim had been my philosophy coming into this whole experience. The time had come to decide.

I knew that time was my enemy. I wasn’t going to be ready to leave this country two months from now, that just wasn’t enough time. But another fourteen months sounded dauntingly long. Was it better to leave sooner than I would have liked but on a high note, or stay longer than anticipated and risk hitting a wall eight months from now? W.W.J.D. (…Jigme, not Jesus)?

I would have asked him, but something told me that my dilemma was not high up on His Majesty’s list of priorities. Besides, the Bhutanese postal service is about as efficient as a solar power plant in Khaling would be, and putting off the decision was only causing me stress and anxiety, so I decided dig down deep and find the chutzpah I needed to make the tough decision – no royal influence required.

In the final days leading up to the moment of truth I was completely convinced that I was going to stay…except for when I was completely convinced that I was going to go home.

So on one starry night, as the clouds drifted and disappeared behind the mountain peaks, so too did my indecision. I went to UK’s apartment to share the news.

“I think I have to go home,” I told him in a defeated voice.

I explained that there were so many things at home that I was starting to really miss. I explained that I sometimes felt like I wasn’t doing a very good job here, that I was actually hurting the students’ chances of being successful more than helping them. I explained that I just couldn’t shake this feeling that I should go home, and that that probably meant something. I explained that my mind was made up.

And it was…for one sleepless night.

But a cloudless night is usually followed by a bright, sunny day, and as clear as everything may have seemed in the starry, moonlit night, the early morning sun shed new light on my decision. As I walked to school I breathed the fresh mountain air deep into my lungs and gazed off into the distance, to the ripples of earth that lined that rich azure sky like the choppy waves of an ocean. And something unexpected happened. That question – that simple yet profound question – popped right back into my head. Where am I? But this time the answer didn’t seem quite as implausible. In fact, this time I didn’t even have to search for an answer; it was right there; it had been there throughout the decision-making process; it had really been there all along.

Every time I had left Khaling there had always been something pulling me back here; a voice that whispered gently in my ear, like a Siren singing its song, impossible to ignore, “Khaling is waiting for you.” And so, like Odysseus I set sail for my destination despite the dangers and detours that I knew lay ahead; no obstacles – no man, no god - could stand in my way. And when I reached my destination after what had seemed like a lifetime, in an instant it felt as though I had never left.

So where am I? I’m home. No, it is not like my home in Canada, nor will it ever be. But it’s home nonetheless. My bed here is not as cushiony as my bed in Canada, but it’s still my bed, and no other bed feels quite as nice. My lifestyle here isn’t as comfortable as it was in Canada, but still I manage to get by and actually enjoy the challenges that present themselves on a near-daily basis. And my friends here will never be like the ones I have back in Canada – they can’t be, they never could be – but just as I couldn’t ask for a better group of friends back in Canada, nor could I ask for better ones here. They are my crutch, my support, and my family in the absence of the family I miss so dearly. No, this will never feel like the home that I left behind almost ten months ago, but I would never expect it to. It’s neither better nor worse; it’s just home.

Every once in a while I experience what I can only describe as an epiphanic moment in which the reality of what I’m doing strikes me. It usually hits me when I’m sitting around discussing culture, religion, and philosophy with friends both younger and older, Bhutanese and Indian. It is in these moments that I most appreciate where I come from and where I am presently. Hearing the perspectives of a world completely different than my own and, in turn, being able to share my perspective on issues humbles me and reminds me of what a privileged position I come from and what a privileged position I am in to have these experiences.

Usually these types of conversations (often shared over a few beverages) eventually shift to discussions of the problems facing our school and the Bhutanese education system at large. It is in these conversations that I am reminded of the significance of what I’m doing here. I am not only teaching students skills and lessons on the English language; I am also teaching them life lessons that they will hopefully hold close to them for the rest of their lives. I am not only trying to improve my own pedagogical skills, but also the pedagogical skills of other teachers at my school to whom a Canadian approach to education feels both foreign and sometimes impractical. I am not only trying to improve the quality of education for the students of my school; I am trying to improve the quality of education for all students across the country. And although in conversation I am quick to point out the many shortcomings of the education system here, I do not share my criticisms in an attempt to derail the current education system, but rather to advance it by gently pushing it forward onto a new, smoother track. After all, I am not only trying to contribute to the future of an education system, but more significantly, to the future of an entire nation.

Simply put, being here inspires me and makes me feel as if I am having a real impact on the world. Whereas I once lacked drive and ambition, this experience has made me want to do great things with my life. And I hope I will. Or maybe I already am. That is not for me to say yet. I think the full significance of this experience – of its impact on me and all the other players – will only be felt long after I return to Canada. So for now everyone will have to wait, because what became obvious to me as I pensively climbed the hill to school on that bright, sunny morning under the clear, blue sky, was that I still have more to give and more to gain. One year just isn’t enough. I’ll take another, please.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blog #28: Stay or Go?

NOTE: I would appreciate any and all comments on this blog entry. It is an ongoing internal debate and whether it's coming from friends, family or strangers, I'd love to hear what people think. Thanks!

“People tell me what they think I should do, but again, there is no overwhelming consensus. So how does the input of others help at all when it only deepens the divide? There is no middle ground. There is no compromise. There is only do I stay or do I go?

“I take others input for what it is. It is easy to tell someone what you think they should do. It is even easy telling someone what you would do if you were in their shoes. But they are not me, and they do not have to live with the decision. They get to make it and move on like it never happened. Meanwhile, if I stay I have to face the what if? And if I go I could very easily end up asking myself why did I? Pros and cons.

“The temptation is there. I want to go. I also, conveniently, have no reason to stay, other than the fear of going, of course. At this moment in my life, I feel like I have become stagnant. The river of my life has flowed into a boggy marsh. But on the other side of the marsh the river has to flow again. The question is how do I get to the other side. Do I stay or do I go?

“I want to grow and I feel like my head is already touching the ceiling here. What’s worse is that I’m convinced that the ceiling is lowering itself ever so slightly each day. At first it wasn’t so noticeable, but recently it has become quite uncomfortable. I can deal with discomfort, really I can, but if I want to continue to grow and the ceiling continues to descend, I’m afraid discomfort will quickly become excruciating pain.”

I wrote these words roughly one year ago while in the process of making the decision about whether or not to leave behind my friends and family – my life – to embark on a terrifying, but hopefully life changing adventure. Reading them now as I sit in on my balcony and watch the mist creep across the mountains while the rain patters against my tin roof, it feels like a lifetime ago. So much has changed and I have changed so much. And yet, here I am, readdressing my decision-making process and trying to remember where I found the key that unlocked the door to this ridiculous experience.

So why, you ask, am I dwelling on the past? Do I regret my decision? Not in the slightest. But history has a way of repeating itself, and as I read those words, ones I wrote from such a different place in my life, they resonate and haunt me. Do I stay or do I go?

It’s decision-making time once again and that question is eating away at me. I came to Bhutan on a one-year contract, which I constantly assured myself (and my girlfriend at the time) was actually only ten months. Back then the mystery surrounding Bhutan made it sound like such a long time. But here I am, almost eight months into my contract, the mystery uncovered, and I’m trying to figure out where all the time has gone.

The problem is that as soon as I think I have come close to making the decision, the “what ifs” and “why did Is” appear in a puff of smoke on either side of my head and start whispering their arguments in my ears, driving me back into complete and utter stalemate.

It seems that with this decision the stakes have been raised. I actually would have expected the decision to come more easily this time. Before coming here I was caught between the fear of the unknown and the excitement surrounding it. This time I know what both choices have to offer. It should be easy to just examine what each option has to offer me and pick whichever one can give me what I’m looking for. But it’s not that easy. It’s not just what I’m looking for that I have to consider; it’s also when I’m looking for it.

This whole process has started to make me feel old. A part of me feels like I would be missing important “growing up” time if I stay here. I’ve started doing the math (despite being an English teacher), and just as they always have, the numbers are scaring me. Staying here a second year would mean that I would be 28 years old when I return to Canada. In some ways that’s not so old, but then again in others – like the live-with-my-parents, have-no-money, have-no-girlfriend kinds of ways – it does seem old. After all, remedying those wants in my life is something I’m looking to do, something that only coming home can achieve. But the question is does postponing those pursuits for one more year make a big difference?

One thing I am sure of is that Bhutan will never fully feel like home. I remember from Jamie’s book (for those of you who still haven’t read it, please do… “Beyond the Earth and the Sky”) that for a while she convinced herself that she was going to spend the rest of her life in Bhutan, only to realize later that her life was really in Canada. I don’t think I have ever deluded myself into thinking that this could be my home forever. Don’t get me wrong, I have fallen completely in love with this country and I think it will always be a part of me, but being here has only reinforced my love for Canada, and a part of me can’t wait to get home.

“So just come home already,” many people would say. Well it’s not that easy. What makes this decision so much more difficult than the one I made last year is the finality attached to it. The cold, hard truth is that once I leave here I will likely never return, and that stings. For me, the mystery has been uncovered and it has revealed something so absent in the western world. It has revealed a natural environment too magical to be captured in words or on film; it has revealed a proud, unique culture that understands the dangers of modernization and is approaching it with caution by preserving its customs and traditions; and it has revealed a people to whom kindness, compassion and enjoyment come as naturally as breathing. In many ways (not all) this really is the land of happiness, so how does one turn their back on that?

Ultimately it comes down to people. There are other factors that come into play like money and experience, but ultimately it’s all about the people. I have made the most amazing friends here and they have in turn made my experience what it is. UK has become like a brother and I have slowly become close with his extended family as well, joining them at family dinners, playing with his little cousins while we wait to eat. Namgay and Choki are amazing friends who worry about me when I need to be worried about, and feed me when I need to be fed! Namgay is probably the bravest and most forward-thinking of my Bhutanese friends (even more so than UK probably) and that makes it easy to have serious, intellectual conversations with him, and Choki is so sweet and bubbly that even when she is in a bad mood she breaks into spontaneous giggles. And then there is an amazing supporting cast, some of whom have been friends since day one and some of whom I am just beginning to discover.

Then there are my students. Recently I have realized just how close I have become to my classes. I am lucky enough to teach some of the smartest students at the school, and as a result I am able to take some liberties with them that I might not otherwise be able to take. For instance, I take advantage of any and every teachable moment that presents itself in class. In fact, I think I have become somewhat notorious for going off on tangents in class. But when an opportunity presents itself to teach these kids about the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda or Sudan and why it is that the world doesn’t react in the same to these atrocities as they do to human rights violations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I look down at sea of eyes glued to me, fascinated by my every word, I feel like I am giving them the type of education they so desperately crave and deserve.

And we have fun together! The shyness has given way to an almost disruptive familiarity, but in many ways that is better than the pin-drop silence that once filled the classroom because I can reign it in and extract some sort of meaningful idea out of the silly comments that are so eagerly contributed. And sometimes I don’t even have to do that.

Class XI Science ‘A’ has become my favourite class to teach because they are not only the most intelligent of the grade, but they also exhibit the greatest maturity. The have come to understand what I’m all about. They are not shy to crack jokes in class, but the jokes are usually relatively intelligent so I get a genuine laugh out of them as well, and on top of that they understand when it is appropriate to joke around and when it is time to buckle down and get some work done.

It was in that class last week that, for the first time, my students asked me about next year and whether or not I am coming back. I told them that I am in the process of deciding that and that I will let them know when I make my decision, at which point they essentially begged me to stay. How lucky am I? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel amazing to have that kind of positive reinforcement and to feel like I am actually getting through to them. It was validation that I have been doing at least something right (there is, after all, little feedback from the administration). I was truly flattered to know that they all desperately want me to stay. How can I disappoint them?

But then my family and friends at home pop into my head, and I remember that this amazing experience and my students’ exposure to a Canadian style of teaching doesn’t come without sacrifice. This deliberation has resulted in my first real bout of homesickness since coming here. Sure, I have missed people and things before, but not like this. Now I can picture get-togethers with friends; I can taste delicious family dinners; I can hear my band performing on stage in front of a crowd of screaming familiar faces; and I miss it. I honestly do. And then, any and all progress that I thought I had made towards making this decision is lost.

So all I can do is revisit my thought process from last year and find solace in the fact that I was this confused back then and that everything has worked out. My head no longer feels like it is touching the ceiling and my life no longer feels stagnant. I have crossed that boggy marsh and landed in a beautiful valley. But without the ceiling over my head, as I look out onto the vast expanse of mountains and valleys, it feels like there is still so much room to grow. So the question remains, do I follow the setting sun which is just now starting to dip below the ripple of mountains or do I wait to see if tomorrow it rises even bigger and brighter than before? Do I stay or do I go?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Blog #27: Not for the Faint of Heart

Everyone said to try to avoid traveling during the rainy season. Well that’s great and all except that our only real vacation falls directly in the middle of rainy season. What’s one to do, remain in the town they have been trapped in for the past five months? I think not. One hikes up their pants (after all, they were probably dragging through puddles), packs their bags, and gets the hell out of Compton…no wait, Khaling.

The break did not get off to an optimistic start. My plans with Keira and Andrea came unraveled after a 48 hour torrential downpour blocked the roads on either side of Khaling. I was literally trapped with no way out. Finally, by the time the sun reemerged and the roads were cleared there seemed little point in going to Lhuntse. Keira and Andrea were supposed to go on a hike two days later, a hike that I didn’t have time for because my parents were coming to visit Bhutan over the vacation and I wanted to meet them on the other side of the country in Paro (where the international airport is located). The two day journey to Lhuntse hardly seemed worthwhile if I was only going to be able to spend one night with my friends. It seemed especially foolish to make the journey after hearing that Lhuntse’s main road was among the most volatile in the country. All it would take is one heavy rainfall and I would be trapped in Lhuntse for days. It was just to risky.

So I commenced Operation Parental Pick-Up, which – little did I know at the time – involved a great deal of strategic planning, not to mention assistance from friends.

All bus tickets to Thimphu had been reserved at least two weeks prior. At that point in time I didn’t even know one could reserve bus tickets weeks in advance. Why would I? Every time I had taken the bus people had laughed at me when I suggested that I reserve a bus ticket. So you can imagine how foolish I felt when the laughter broke, not from me trying to reserve a ticket, but from not having reserved one. There were no seats available for the next week.

I couldn’t face spending my summer vacation alone in Khaling. Besides, I had to get to Paro to meet my parents. So Namgay got on the phone and started making some calls. He asked everyone and their brother if they had an extra ticket to Thimphu or knew anyone who did. Once again I was reminded how lucky I am to have such amazing friends here. I essentially backed off the whole situation, leaving it to the gods…and Namgay. A few days later he came to me and told me that he had resolved the whole situation and that not only did I have bus ticket to Thimphu, but that it was actually the same bus that Choki and he - as well as two other friends of ours, Nima and Pema Wangchen – were taking. I was elated to learn that I had a way out and that I would have company for what was sure to be a painful journey.

I hadn’t been back to Thimphu since we first arrived in February, but I remembered the journey quite vividly. I remembered traveling in a bus that was much too large for the eight teachers on board. I remembered the winding roads that threw some into dizzying fits of nausea. I remembered the peaks and valleys – not just those of the mountains, but also of our emotional states. I remembered that we had taken five days to cross the country and that each leg of our journey had still felt long and exhausting. Well, I was about to make the same five day journey in two days.

This was the plan: Our bus was scheduled to leave Trashigang town at 6:00 a.m.. Trashigang is two hours (55 km) away from Khaling and the reporting time for the bus was 5:30 so we needed to arrange a ride from Khaling to Trashigang. From Trashigang we would travel directly to Bumthang, approximately 14 hours (288 km), where we would spend the night. The next morning our bus was to depart at 6:00 and travel the remaining 12 hours (267 km) to Thimphu. It was not supposed to be fun; it was supposed to get us from one side of the country to the other in two days, one night. Supposed to.

On the morning of our departure I woke up at 3:00 a.m. after only three hours of sleep. We had decided that we would meet on the road at exactly 3:30 and leave as quickly as possible. My friends were only 15 minutes late (see the previous blog on BST), but it didn’t matter. The school driver whom we had hired to drive us to Trashigang was nowhere to be found. In all fairness, we hadn’t hired him as our driver until the night before, when we learned that his predecessor wouldn’t be able to drive us because he was stuck in Samdrup Jongkar, the south-eastern border of India and Bhutan, due to a border strike. So Namgay started pounding on the new driver’s door, yelling “Ata,” a commonly used word which translates to older brother, but which requires no relation whatsoever. It may have seemed unreasonable to bang as loud as possible on someone’s door at such an ungodly hour, but we had little option – our entire two day journey rested on a punctual departure from our home town.

Finally, after about 10 minutes of nervous knocking our driver emerged half asleep, helped us load our bags in his van, and plunked himself behind the wheel. He rolled himself some Doma (beetle nut), popped it into his mouth, and once we were all crammed inside, sped away.

It was completely surreal leaving Khaling so early in the morning. The night’s sky still blanketed us in darkness as we wound our way through the mountains. Thick clouds lurked just below the road, and as dawn began to break across the valleys the clouds glowed a bright baby pink against the dark plum skies. It was painful running on so little sleep. My eye’s burned as if they had been attacked by some noxious gas, and my eyelids drooped as if gravity had become too powerful a force to resist. And looking down at those clouds – those soft, cushiony, cozy, fluffy clouds – I longed to be back in my bed with my face stuffed into my pillow. But I was on the road again, heading back to the “big city”, and as tired as I was, after the complications and confusion surrounding my departure from Khaling, I was relieved to be making progress.

We arrived in Trashigang at about 5:45, fifteen minutes before the bus was supposed to depart. The bus station in Trashigang was bustling so early in the morning. Lined up neatly in a row were six buses, some idling, some still sound asleep. We found our bus – a rather sorry looking piece of machinery – and loaded our bags onto the roof to be tucked away beneath the tarpaulin for the bound-to-be-rainy journey.

Surprisingly, at almost 6:00 precisely our bus’s engine woke from its slumber, first unleashing a stentorian roar and then settling into a mellow purr. We promptly boarded the bus, and as I wriggled and writhed in my seat in an attempt to identify and locate the protruding pieces of metal and worn-away foam cushion, I looked out the window only to see the Tashitse Higher Secondary School bus idling beside us, and several of my students sitting comfortably inside. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t envious of the lustrous benches on which they sat and the vast space in front of them into which they stretched their tiny limbs. But then the bus lurched forward and the sharp pain of my knees colliding with the metal frame of the seat in front of me snapped me out of my jealous stupor.

Desire is a cause of suffering, I told myself.

* * *

I have been reading an amazing book on Buddhism, one I would recommend to anyone interested in the religion, called “The Teaching of the Buddha.” The reason I like it so much is because it tends to focus on the philosophical side of Buddhism rather than the religious side that is more commonly practiced in Bhutan.

I consider myself to be a practicing agnostic; I am extremely interested in organized religion from a philosophical and anthropological perspective, but I find it difficult to align myself with any prescribed system of beliefs. I simply believe what makes sense to me; sometimes that will resemble ideas from organized religion, sometimes it lies directly in the face of it. Religion is didactic in my opinion. Spirituality, on the other hand, allows much more room to breathe and to adopt a system of beliefs and practices that suit the individual. Most of us are searching for some sort of truth in our lives, and that typically means different things for different people. For me, upon my first exposure to Buddhist philosophy I found truth.

After studying philosophy for four years in university I learned to dissect arguments, expose their weaknesses, and essentially shatter them with some sort of counterargument or objection. I consider this to be the most valuable skill I learned in university, and with anthology after anthology of western philosophy to work my way through, I found a common objection to most classical Western philosophy: it mostly examined the world from a religious standpoint. The philosophers are not to blame; it was the world in which they lived. However, there are some questions to which modern science now has the answer, so we can all stop pondering.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is not concerned with the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent being to whom we are all subservient underlings, but rather teaches that within each and every one of us there is an enlightened being, a Buddha, that lies dormant, waiting to be awakened. Essentially, that higher power, which most religious folk would call God, exists within the individual. We just have to learn how to access it.

How nice is that?

So what is the first step to awakening the Buddha within each and every one of us? Understanding the Four Noble Truths, the central tenet of Buddhism.

Noble Truth numero uno: Life means suffering. Exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, physical pain, sickness, and ultimately death - sadly, suffering is an unavoidable part of life, one that is likely amplified if we don’t accept it as such.

Noble Truth numero dos: The origin of suffering is attachment. If we accept that nothing in the world is permanent (which is basically impossible to deny) then attaching ourselves to anything can only cause us suffering (either physical or emotional). This includes attaching ourselves to the notion of the “self,” for the “self” is simply a delusion to which we all defer. The fact of the matter is that the “self” exists only in the mind, as each of us exists only in connection with the rest of the universe, which itself is impermanent.

Noble Truth numero tres: The cessation of suffering is attainable (just in case you were feeling like throwing yourself in front of oncoming traffic). We can rid ourselves of all suffering through something called Nirodha, which is the rejection of sensual cravings and attachment. Essentially, we can end our suffering by extinguishing the cause of that very suffering (seems logical enough). Once we have rid ourselves of the cause of our suffering – desires and an attachment to an impermanent world – we can achieve Nirvana (the ultimate goal of Buddhism in which freedom from all troubles, worries and ideas is achieved).

Noble Truth numero cuatro: The path to the cessation of suffering is eightfold. There is a right way to live our lives. Neither hedonism nor asceticism can lead to a happy, healthy life. We must walk the middle path that lies between these two extremes. As we move slowly down this middle path we will find that the causes of our suffering will gradually diminish, and thus our suffering itself will subside until it ceases to exist. The process is a slow one and cannot be expedited; it is something that is believed to take multiple lifetimes to achieve…but most people feel Nirvana and Enlightenment are worth waiting for!

* * *

My lack of religious faith was tested less than two hours into our journey from Trashigang to Bumthang when our bus was barreling down a mountain and came to a 180 degree turn. As we slowed to negotiate the sharp bend I watched the driver spin the steering wheel for at least two full rotations, but much to my surprise – and his – the bus chose to ignore his commands and stubbornly continued down its coarse. After several more rotations (I’m pretty sure more than a wheel should turn without locking) the driver managed to roll the bus to a stop on the side of the road just passed the bend.

Once stopped, he briefly attempted to diagnose the problem, grabbing the wheel and spinning it like a small child would steer in an arcade racing game. The wheel offered no resistance, spinning perpetually. The steering mechanism was clearly shot; we weren’t going anywhere.

It was still quite early in the morning, but already the sun’s heat was hitting us hard. There was no point in sitting on the bus any longer. One by one the passengers abandoned the skeleton of our steel steed and gathered under a tree by the side of the road.

For a while the bus driver and ticket collectors slid back and forth under the bus, jamming arms elbow deep into its bowels. What they were trying to achieve remains a mystery to me still, but I do appreciate their efforts as a symbolic gesture of optimism.

Sadly, optimism waned after three hours in the midday sun. The driver had caught a lift back to Trashigang to find a mechanic or at the very least the spare parts he required to try to resurrect the deceased. We were left to wait on the side of the road. Luckily, our trip had come to an abrupt halt in the small town of Sherichu, not that it was much of a town. There was one small general store and one restaurant. The general shop had little more than the standard beverages, chips, and instant noodles. The restaurant didn’t even have that.

The “restaurant” housed us for a little while and provided us with an escape from the heat. After eating a bowl of Maggi instant noodle soup (the only thing being offered on the “menu”) I followed a few others’ lead and lay down on a bench underneath the cool breeze of a ceiling fan. I dozed in and out of consciousness for what must have been thirty to forty five minutes, at which point in time I was told that we were very subtly being asked to leave unless we were going to buy anything else (a bogus offer considering the lack of options).

We waited on the side of the road for a few more hours before the idea of abandoning the bus and hiring a car became too attractive to ignore. The only problem was there were literally no vehicles passing by in the right direction. We had one of the ticket collectors call the bus driver to receive a status update, but the news was grim. The driver was still in Trashigang and was having a difficult time tracking down the people who had the part we needed (and may or may not have been taking an extended lunch break). Not to worry, though, we were told. We would still reach Thimphu on schedule. We’ll just drive all through the night until we reach Bumthang, then sleep for two or three hours, and then drive the remaining twelve hours to Thimphu.

Not to worry?!?!? Not only did that sound incredibly unpleasant and uncomfortable, but it also sounded incredibly unsafe. Let me get this straight; the driver is going to drive the bus, which has a major mechanical deficiency, for twelve hours straight after being awake for – at the very least – twenty four hours, then sleep for two hours, and then drive the remaining twelve hours the next day on little to no sleep? Great. Sign me up.

Huddle: What should we do? It’s already five o’clock. It doesn’t look like this is going to happen. Let’s just hire a taxi to Mongar, stay there for the night and then hire a taxi to take us from Mongar straight to Thimphu early the next morning. Agreed? Okay, so it’s settled. Now let’s just sit back and hope that a taxi drives by us.

I couldn’t believe our luck when a taxi cruised by in the other direction only a half hour later. We negotiated a ride with the driver, sheepishly requested the ticket guys to unload all of our bags from the carefully bundled tarp on the bus’s roof, and waved goodbye to Sherichu.

We arrived in Mongar at about 8:00 p.m.. Knowing that Mongar is a hub for anyone looking to travel east or west (or north to Lhuntse for that matter), Ann had been kind enough to leave the keys to her house for all of the BCF teachers during the midterm break while she was back in Canada. I felt slightly guilty about showing up at her neighbour, Chundu’s house unannounced with four friends, all of us looking to crash on Ann’s floor, but the situation provided few alternatives. As fate would have it, showing up at Ann’s neighbour’s door ended up being the single most important link in the chain of events leading to our successful arrival in Thimphu.

Chundu is such a nice lady. When I met her for the first time back in May on my way to Lhuntse I instantly liked her. She is very easy to talk to, very kind, and extremely helpful. It also just so happens that her husband is the chief of police in Mongar, and on that fateful night that made all the difference.

I chatted with Chundu for while when we first arrived and explained to her what had happened and what our plan was. The problem, she explained, was that almost no one drives straight from Mongar to Thimphu in one day, especially during the Monsoon when the roads are so unpredictable. I explained to her that my friends needed to arrive the next day to be with their families for some special celebrations and that we would do whatever it took to get there in one day. At that point in time her husband came outside bearing a police walkie talkie. Connections are connections no matter where you are in the world. “Let me see what I can do,” he said with great poise. I thanked him profusely and left to go to town for dinner before the restaurants closed, while he broadcasted our request across the radio waves.

After we finished dinner we wandered through town to a taxi stand, making the same request to each and every driver we came across. No one was willing to take us. It most certainly didn’t help that we were making the request only seven hours before we were hoping to depart. It also didn’t help that there were five of us and only a few taxis would fit five people plus a driver. Finally, we huddled around a taxi where the head of traffic police was standing with two other men. We had stumbled across them randomly, but it was no coincidence that the driver of this taxi was willing to take us; Chundu and her husband had pulled through – the driver wasn’t particularly thrilled about the journey, but when the chief of police asks you to do something, you do it.

So after countless “thank yous” and another shorter-than-necessary sleep we were back on the road at 4:30 a.m.. Leaving Mongar was just like leaving Khaling. The clouds still hung low and glowed a majestic lilac in the early morning sky. We zoomed along the bending road through sleeping towns and villages, up and down lush mountains, above and below thick layers of cloud.

Three hours later our taxi came to an abrupt halt behind a line of cars. This was not an unfamiliar situation, just an unwelcome one. A line of cars waiting on the road means only one thing in this country: road block. I didn’t wait long to get out of the car to examine and assess the cause of our delay. About ten metres beyond the lead car was a muddy landslide, with trees and other debris lodged in its powerful grip. By this time it had started raining and the tiny trickle of water that slid through the drain along the side of the road began to increase in volume and pick up momentum. So too did the landslide seem to increase in volume as mud continued to slowly ooze from the mountain’s side like puss from a wound. To make matters worse it was Sunday and the bulldozer operator doesn’t work on Sundays, so for the time being a few men futilely cleared away some of the less significant debris and I returned to the car. There was nowhere else to go.

I probably slept for over an hour while we waited. When I awoke not much had changed. We were still lined up, mud and rocks were still blocking the road, and a few people continued to busy themselves by trudging through the landslide, clearing one rock at a time.

Finally, at about 11:00 a.m. my ears stiffened to the sweet sound of a bulldozer’s growling engine. Help had come and I was extremely grateful, but it had taken its time and the thought of the still-fifteen-hour-drive was making me feel a little anxious.

Once the bulldozer had cleared the road we encountered another surprise. I actually never would have considered the implications, but luckily the Bhutanese are quite accustomed to landslides. There was no oncoming traffic, no cars waiting on the other side of the landslide. What did that mean? It meant that there were other landslides ahead blocking traffic from the other direction. So we got back in the taxi and crept down the road behind the bulldozer at a snail’s pace. With the bulldozer’s final dump of debris down the side of the mountain, we and the other cars spilled past the metal monster like a dam had burst. The obstacles were behind us for at least the time being and the road ahead was looking smooth.

Actually, it wasn’t just looking smooth. It was smooth. Clouds clung to the mountains below us as we made our way through Thrumshingla National Park, but then, just as we were leaving the park, the clouds parted ever so slightly and allowed for just a tiny glimpse of the bluest sky imaginable.

The drive through Bumthang was beautiful. Many people here consider Bumthang to be the most beautiful part of the country. Its rolling hills and lush valleys have a very Swiss feel to them and in my experience its sky is always blue and its sun is always shining. It also happens to have a few stretches of relatively straight road, something that one comes to appreciate after countless hours of twists and turns (both on the roads and in one’s stomach). Our driver certainly seemed to appreciate it. He hit the gas hard, reaching speeds somewhere around 100 km/hr (remember that on average we would normally travel at around 25 km/hr if we were lucky). We zoomed by cows lying in the middle of the road, children walking or cycling along the side of the road, and other cars driving at more reasonable speeds. I couldn’t blame the driver; he knew we needed to make up for lost time if we wanted to reach Thimphu in one day.

It was strange driving back along the roads that had led me to Khaling six months prior. So much has changed since then. We were all just nervous foreigners back then, jaws dropped and eyes wide to this fascinating country and the breathtaking beauty of the Himalayas. As I retraced our steps, I no longer felt foreign. The scenery was even more beautiful than it had been in February, but it wasn’t nearly as shocking. Places we had casually passed through on the way out east became recognizable towns and passes this time around. I felt connected to this country in a way that – for obvious reasons – I hadn’t the first time around.

And scenarios that may have shocked me in the first few months of being here were now incapable of doing so. There’s no gas in Trongsa, the only gas station for hours in either direction? No problem, we’ll just keep driving and hope we don’t run out of gas in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain in the Himalayas. All the restaurants on the side of the road are mysteriously closed for no apparent reason? No big deal, we’ll just eat packet after packet of uncooked instant noodles. Who needs real meals anyway? What’s that? Our driver is too tired to drive? Not to worry, Namgay – who hasn’t driven in years and has had just as little sleep as the driver – will drive.

This was when things got interesting. I in no way blame Namgay. I actually think he did an exceptional job keeping us alive. The driving conditions, however, we doing their best to really challenge him in doing so. It was at about 10:00 when I realized just how dangerous the drive had become and for the first time felt a little scared. Namgay was trucking along, our taxi puttering up and down narrow roads, weaving left and right, following the contours of the mountain, when the fog moved in. In reality, the “fog” we were driving through was actually the thick, lazy clouds that hadn’t quite had the energy to make it over the mountains, so they decided to just go through them instead; and in rainy season the clouds are plentiful and particularly lazy. Combine this with the pitch-black conditions of an isolated mountain road and visibility became a luxury we weren’t afforded.

Zai! Where’s the road?” became on all-too-familiar question to which no one had an answer. But we pushed on, guiding ourselves by the inside edge of the mountain (we figured that was probably a better idea than using the outside edge). Then the rain came: from 50% visibility to 25% just like that. So what do you do when it starts to rain torrentially? You close your windows. And what happens when you close the windows? It’s just like in the movies when a couple is making-out in the backseat of a car at “Look-out Point”; the car gets steamier than a Turkish bathhouse. So from 25% visibility we dropped to 10% at the most. There were times when we actually had to slow to a stop, just waiting for the fog to dissipate to the extent that we could at least see the road immediately in front of us. And then, just when we thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, Namgay skidded to a stop just in front of a fresh landslide.

This wasn’t the first landslide that we encountered on our long journey, nor was it particularly large, but it did pose a unique problem at that particular juncture. It was late at night and we were nowhere near anything that even resembled civilization. Our options, it seemed, were to turn around and drive to the nearest town and either find help or seek shelter for the night, or get out and clear the landslide ourselves. We chose the latter.

So Nima, the taxi driver and I got out of the car and started lifting basketball sized rocks out of the middle of the road, throwing them over the side of the mountain.

We had only cleared a few of the bigger rocks when we were startled by what sounded like a firework crackling up above us. And then, out of nowhere, a rock a little bigger than my head (insert small or big head joke here) came flying out of the sky and landed no more than two or three metres from where I stood. At first I chuckled, not fully absorbing what had just happened in the stupor that immediately followed the near death experience. But I was awoken from that stupor by the next set of crackling boulders shooting down the side of the mountain in our direction. We ran back to the taxi as fast as we could, leaving the road only partially cleared. Namgay reversed the taxi as quickly as possible, and it was only once we all felt that we were a safe distance from the crumbling mountainside that I took a deep breath.

But we weren’t out of the woods yet! We were still in the middle of nowhere, it was still dark and rainy, there was still a small portion of mountain lying directly in our path. What to do? …Vrrm. What to do? …Vvrrmm…vvrrmm! What to do? …Vvrrmm…vvrrmm…vvrrmm!! And then, with no other viable options, Namgay hit the gas hard and the taxi jolted forward.

At first we hydroplaned over the slick muddy surface that was the road, but that smooth, frictionless ride came to a bumpy halt when we felt the crunch of rocks hitting the underside of the taxi. It was like running full speed into quicksand as we entered the quagmire, but Namgay never took his foot of the gas, and the rest of us kept our eyes glued to the mountain above us, which was still spewing rocks like a bulimic purging after an all-you-can eat buffet. And then…traction and one massive, collective sigh of relief.

I don’t think any of us even looked back. I didn’t want to see it. It was behind us where it belonged. It had already been such a long, dramatic day that the only thing to do was keep our eyes on the prize. That is, if we could keep our eyes open. We had been awake for almost eighteen hours by this point and the previous day’s fatigue was beginning to carry over and take its toll.

The remaining five hours of our drive was relatively uneventful. The fog continued to deprive us of any sort of visibility, but the perfectly paved roads of western Bhutan made the journey much smoother than before. The disparity between east and west became even more glaring as we neared Thimphu. The road became considerably wider, and retaining walls and drains became more prevalent in what I can only assume were high risk areas for landslides. While it frustrated me to see the western part of the country get such preferential treatment in terms of basic infrastructure, I have to admit that it was incredibly welcome at the time. The final three or so hours of our drive were an absolute breeze. The fog and exhaustion still challenged us every eye-stinging blink of the way, but our destination was near and the hum of the our taxi soaring over the smooth road was enough to lull me back into a blissful state of serenity. Quite frankly, I had doubted whether I was going to make it to Thimphu on several occasions, starting with my numerous failed attempts to get out of Khaling the week prior, and then with all the obstacles we faced on our journey.

We pulled into Thimphu at about 3:30 a.m., 23 hours after departing from Mongar. The city was fast asleep and unrecognizable. It had been more than six months since I had left the nation’s capital, but even in the dead of night, in my semi-conscious state, I knew that I was re-entering the city in a completely different state of mind than when I had left. I remember feeling like I had landed on a different planet when I first arrived in Thimphu back in February, and now, returning there after six months in Khaling I was overcome with waves of déjà vu. This wasn’t Khaling: there wasn’t just one row of shops, there were city blocks worth of them; there wasn’t cow dung lining the streets, there were cars; and I didn’t know everyone there was to know – I was once again draped in the anonymity that only a city can offer. This city-boy had become de-urbanized.

But for the time being none of that mattered. All that mattered was closing my eyes and drifting into a long awaited, much deserved slumber. 610 km of mountainous madness had come close to defeating me, but I had persevered, and as I lay awake on the springy hotel mattress, I couldn’t help but laugh at the whole experience. From Khaling to Thimphu in 48 hours: Not for the faint of heart.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Blog #26: Wise Words

Being an English teacher, I have spent the better part of the school year thus far drilling essay-writing skills into my students’ young, malleable minds. Avoid writing in the first person. State your thesis and three supporting points clearly at the end of your introductory paragraph. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence that introduces your supporting point and links it back to your thesis. Provide examples to back up your supporting points. Some get it, some don’t. In order to help them I have written several essays as exemplars. When I finished teachers’ college I thought my days of writing essays had come to an end, but alas, a teacher’s job is never done, and sometimes we need to become students once again in order to teach.

In the spirit of essay-writing, and as a means of limiting this blog entry to a more reasonable length, I have decided to write an essay supporting the validity of a maxim for living in Bhutan that Keira, so brilliantly articulated. I apologize if I break one or two of the “rules of good essay-writing,” I only do so in order to inject a bit of colour into what may otherwise be a dull entry. Here goes…

Bhutanese culture is undeniably one of the richest, most unique cultures in the world. With the mighty Himalayan mountains isolating Bhutan from even its closest neighbours, the country remained entirely disconnected from the rest of the world up until the 1960’s. Even then, careful attention was paid to preserving and promoting Bhutanese culture. However, Bhutan is a rapidly developing country, and with development comes modernization, and often with modernization comes a dilution of culture. Mobile phones, television and the internet all play a pivotal role in shaping the future of Bhutan, for better or worse, and the result is a growing concern that Bhutanese culture is changing too much, too fast. There are, however, elements of Bhutanese culture that seem to be here to stay. Archery will most definitely remain the national sport for years to come; Buddhism isn’t going anywhere; hospitality will forever be one of the people’s top priorities. However, for a foreigner living in Bhutan there is one piece of Bhutanese culture that stands out among the rest: unpredictability. Due to the culture’s general disinterest in timing, its willingness to change schedules without providing any notification to the parties concerned, and the general futility of planning, a maxim for any foreigner living in Bhutan is “prepare for everything, expect nothing.”

People often want to know the time zone in which Bhutan is located. It’s not EST, and it’s not PDT or MDT, nor is it ICT or ISP (yes, I’m looking these up as I write this). The truth is I could tell you the time difference between Bhutan and Toronto, I could tell you other cities/countries that share the same time zone, but the only acronym that is at all relevant in Bhutan when it comes to time is BST. Oh! That’s Bhutan Standard Time, right??? Wrong (but you’re forgiven). The reality is that there are no three letters that when combined better capture the Bhutanese sense of humour or timing. After all, BST or Bhutan Stretchable Time is as big a part of Bhutanese culture as ema datsi or the gho.

It is not that the people choose to ignore timing or feel it unnecessary to set timelines for events – they do in fact schedule things meticulously; but there is a general understanding that whatever timing is proposed for this or that has a margin of error somewhere in the range of plus or minus three hours. Western culture, on the other hand, tends to allow for a five to ten minute margin of error when it comes to the adherence to schedules before bolts and steam begin to shoot out of people’s ears…or is that just in cartoons? And yet, people don’t seem even the slightest bit bothered by not knowing when things will actually happen.

For example, the Jigme Sherubling staff football team has become somewhat of a legend since acquiring one athletically gifted – not to mention handsomely chiseled – young, Canadian teacher. Being the gracious hosts that they are, they have invited teams from other schools to play matches on their rocky, mountain field numerous times. Typically these games would take place on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, as teams often have to travel for an hour to reach the school. On paper (which is rationed more strictly than rice in communist China) the game is likely scheduled for 2:30. School ends at 1:00 on Saturdays, which leaves just enough time to rush home for a quick lunch, change into one’s highly fashionable football uniform, and return to the field for a brief warm up. But by the time the day’s events make the leap from paper to practice the brief warm-up has evolved into an epic display of dazzling moves, thunderous shots and laser guided passes, all of this before the opposing team has even arrived. By the time they do arrive, usually somewhere between two or three hours late, the home team has often graduated from warmed-up to overcooked. By the time the match is finished and the losing team has taken the winners out for a beer (the standard wager), the whole ordeal has consumed at the very least 5 hours.

For that handsome and – did I mention – highly intelligent teacher, the time would be of no concern were his workload not so demanding. It is difficult – or maybe futile is the better word – to get frustrated when the culprits adhering to BST are strangers. But when your colleagues, people who are aware of the implications of wasted time, are committing the offence it has the potential to make one want to pull out their thick, silky-smooth hair (is that enough of the narcissism?).

During the school’s intramural track and field competition teachers were required to facilitate the event by recording times, heights and distances. The responsibilities were divided equally among the teachers so that each teacher was responsible for supervising only one event on one of the four days. So on a Tuesday afternoon, that charming Canadian teacher was scheduled to supervise all of the track events for Druk house, one of the four school houses. Being the responsible young man that he is, that teacher asked the organizer of the event what time he should report for his duties, to which the organizer assuredly replied 4:00. So you can imagine the teacher’s surprise when 4:00 came and went, when 4:30 whizzed by, and when the clock struck 5:00 and his events had yet to begin. You can imagine this calm and collected teacher’s exasperation when he was told at 5:00 that there wasn’t enough time for the events to take place before evening study, so they would carry over to the following day. Not to worry that hours of precious time had been wasted standing around waiting – hours that could have been spent correcting essays in the kind of detail that has been asked of the teachers or planning lessons for the following day’s classes. It’s only time, and time in Bhutan is stretchable; hence, one must prepare for everything, but expect nothing.

Though BST does force one to prepare for anything but expect nothing, it alone is hardly cause for the birth of such a pithy maxim. Bhutanese culture’s willingness to change schedules at the drop of a hat without notifying anyone prior to doing so is truly enough make one want to abandon the civilized world of human beings and live with the animals where things make sense.

At the beginning of the year all teachers are asked to create a block schedule, a calendar of the school year indicating exactly what one will be teaching during any given week. The block schedule is just one of the many organizational documents being required by the Ministry of Education in order to improve accountability and professionalism in the field of Education. Sounds good, right? Well it is in theory. Actually it is in practice as well…in most countries. But in a country in which a six-day work week is all of a sudden transformed into four days, the block schedule would better serve as toilet paper than as an official document. How can a teacher possibly follow a schedule when days of the week are vanishing with absolutely no warning, like Khaling’s sun in the mid-summer monsoon? Yet, during the teachers’ mid-term reviews they are asked to submit their block schedule and all lesson plans so that the documents can be cross-referenced in order to monitor progress. This is obviously a headache for the teachers, but at the end of the day education isn’t about the teachers, it’s about the students, right?

There is such a strong emphasis on academic results at many schools in Bhutan – a consequence of a highly competitive education system in which there are fewer positions available in school than there are school-aged children. Apart from the standard school day, students are forced to study for one hour from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m., one hour from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., and one hour from 7:30 to 8:30 pm. In the weeks leading up to exams any and all extra-curricular programs are cancelled in order to provide students with additional time to study. All of this extra study time is superb, however, it is no replacement for class time in which the teacher can guide the students through difficult concepts and students can ask teachers questions. Of all the class time, one of the most precious periods is exam review week: the week in which teachers reduce a term’s worth of material into a more manageable package of information and allow students to ask questions or raise concerns about said material. So a responsible teacher – an organized one – would allow for enough time to provide students with one week of review. In fact, a well organized teacher would also carefully plan the content and/or concepts to be reviewed on each day. A well organized teacher might plan the week so that they can use the final day of classes to provide their students with some strategies/tips for writing the exams and allow for any last minutes questions/concerns. A well organized teacher would also probably confront his/her superiors when rumours that the last day of school is going to be cancelled begin to circulate. A well organized teacher would continue to follow their schedule, praising themselves for doing such a great job managing their time after their superiors assure them that class will proceed as usual. A well organized teacher will want to gouge out to their eyes and tear out their fingernails one by one when they arrive at school on the final day of the term only to discover that class has been canceled and those important last minute reminders that they had so desperately wanted to provide their students with will remain unspoken and unheard. A well organized teacher should prepare for everything, but expect nothing.

BST – or the Bitterness Susceptibility Test – and the potential for one to miss important changes in schedules if one is foolish enough to surrender to the body’s urge to blink or sneeze can be trying of one’s patience, but there’s nothing quite like a logical paradox to make one want to run for the hills (of which there are many to choose from) and subscribe to the foreigners’ maxim. If you don’t believe me, riddle me this: How do you plan something in a country that doesn’t allow for you to plan things but requires you to plan them? Enough said.

Futile is the only word to describe any effort to plan things in Bhutan. For example, summer vacation is a time when everyone wants to get out of Khaling. It’s not that the town doesn’t have its charm; it’s more that all the town has is charm…and potatoes. So at the final utterance of the words “pencils down” there begins a mass exodus of students and teachers. In order to avoid the mass exodus and to account for the long and arduous journey to Lhuntse, one teacher opted to take several days leave and depart from Khaling two days prior to the end of the term.

Or at least that was the plan. He packed, he cleaned his house, he got all of his work in order, and on a Monday morning, through a light mist of rain he lugged his heavy bags into town and waited for the bus. He waited...he waited some more…and then even more. The bus was nowhere to be seen. Through a variety of ludicrous hand gestures and pantomimes he managed to ask the Nepali restaurant owners in town whether they knew if the bus was coming (the bus usually stops at their restaurant for lunch), to which they replied a noncommittal “not sure.” In all fairness the previous two days had seen almost 48 hours of non-stop torrential downpour so the road conditions were not great, but at the same time neither was the flow of information. So he waited…and waited…and waited…until at about 5:00 he realized that if the bus did finally arrive in Khaling, it wouldn’t arrive in Mongar until 1:00 in the morning at the earliest, and that thought was more than he could bear. So what did that Canadian teacher do? He lugged all of his heavy bags back up to his apartment through what had become a steady shower of rain. He wasn’t going anywhere that day.

The next day was blue skies and sunshine so that brave young man once again prepared for his early departure. He packed, he cleaned, he got all of his work in order, and on that Tuesday morning, he lugged his heavy bags back into town and waited for the bus. He waited…he waited some more…and then even more, until at about 2:00 he decided to ask the restaurant owners about the bus once again. Before he had even made it through his first carefully choreographed movement the hotel owner stopped him and said, “Not sure.” But by 4:00 the teacher was quite sure and once again he found himself retracing his steps back up towards his apartment.

The next day marked the beginning of the exodus, and though the Canadian teacher still had his heart set on traveling to Lhuntse to meet up with two of his Canadian friends, it no longer seemed practical or realistic. Bus tickets were no longer readily available. Actually, quite the opposite was true. Westbound tickets for the remainder of that week had been reserved weeks if not months in advance due to the sudden increase in the number of people trying to leave Khaling and the number of buses remaining constant. So instead of reaching Lhuntse before the term had officially come to a close, that Canadian teacher found himself trapped in Khaling well into the break with little idea of how he might escape. It was almost as if he had been punished for his desire to plan his summer vacation, but at the same time he was being punished for not having planned his summer…vacation!?!? In his naïveté he had prepared for everything and expected something – he had attempted to plan something, forgetting that Bhutanese culture doesn’t actually allow for planning…except when it’s required…sometimes. How could he be so foolish? It obviously makes far more sense to prepare for everything and expect nothing.

Although there are countless aspects of Bhutanese culture that could charm the pants off of a priest (not that that seems quite as hard to do these days), its unpredictability is not one of them. Bhutan Stretchable Time, though a charming concept in theory, can result in one feeling as if they are spiraling through a dimensionless vortex when put into practice. And although there are people who might think that showing up to work only to realize that work has been cancelled would be a nice surprise, they fail to recognize that the result is that one has to try to fit a whale in a gold fish’s bowl; the amount of work doesn’t change, just the amount of space in which one has to fit it. Lastly, imagine the torment that comes from identifying the futility of making plans, but being forced to make plans regardless, and then having those plans fall apart faster than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. As much fun as all of that sounds, one would be better served by removing the fork that they have impaled into their own thigh, taking a deep breath, and simply adopting the foreigner’s maxim for living in Bhutan: prepare for everything, expect nothing.