Friday, February 12, 2010

Blog #3: It's Gho Time!

Today was busy and I still haven't slept properly, though I'm looking forward to it. All of the Canadian teachers who have embarked on this journey with me are really nice. I arrived late and interrupted a meeting, but was welcomed warmly and felt comfortable among the group instantly. Most of us are young and fresh out of teachers college. I was surprised to learn that for many people, this was there first real travel experience.

We just got back from a shopping mission in Thimphu. Grant and I both bought ghos (the Bhutanese national dress for men) and the girls all bought kiras the national dress for women), but the girls are having their kiras custom made so they have to wait. Grant and I marched through Thimphu in our new digs, strutting proudly down the main drag. Some people seemed to enjoy our willingness to engage in the culture, others seemed to be talking to each other in Dzongka as we passed, laughing considerably.

The gho is perhaps the funniest garment I have ever seen in my life. Essentially it’s a long, thickly woven housecoat, worn with a white cotton shirt and underwear underneath, knee high socks (apparently it is meant to be worn commando style traditionally, but I don’t think I’ll be going there), and a belt (which is apparently supposed to constrict one’s air passage).

The true humour of the gho presents itself in the actual dressing process, and the locals seems to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation. I’m having trouble imagining how I will EVER be able to dress myself in this fascinating piece of clothing. In the stores I visited I tried on several different ghos in an attempt to find one that I liked and one that fit me (apparently I’m a little larger than the average bear here). We did, however, establish that part of the problem was that I was wearing my pants underneath the ghos when I was trying them on, and that this was causing the fabric to bunch and generally not fit as well. Neema, one of the Bhutanese men who works for the Bhutan Canada Foundation (BCF), instructed me to take my pants off in the middle of the store. I was happy to oblige. So there I stood, had told me to do that, and I was happy to oblige, and there I stood, in my soon-to-be brand new gho, in the middle of the store, on the main street of the capital city in Bhutan.

My insecurity and doubt regarding dressing myself is based mostly on the fact every time I tried on a new gho I was assisted by two Bhutanese people. I simply stood with my arms extended to their full wingspan as they went to work, perfecting each and every fold. Neema, one of the Bhutanese men who works for the Bhutan Canada Foundation (BCF), would disappear inside my gho, carefully aligning the material of the right opening with a seam deep inside the left side, along side my hip. He would emerge and instruct me to pinch the fabric where he had lined it up. The rest is a blur, and that’s the problem, but I’ll share with you the important details that I remember.

The gho should reach just below the knee, but it is unacceptable for it to be longer that just below the knee. I have decided that I good way to gauge this is to leave about an inch of skin between the sock and the bottom of the gho. This seems simple, but it is important to realize that the gho starts at about ankle length, if not longer, so in order to get it to the appropriate length there is an awkard lifting process in which everything seems to bunch up just above the belly button.

There are also a number of tucking and pleating techniques that ensure that one is wearing the garment properly. One technique that stands out to me (mostly because there is no chance I could ever pull it off) is slipping one of your arms back through your sleeve into the torso part of your gho. Once your arm is inside you slide it along your back and chop down firmly. This ensures that the fold in the back is satisfactory, and also that your pleats are properly aligned. The gho is pretty much all about the pleats.

So there you gho. That’s pretty much all I remember about dressing myseld in the national dress and I actually think I’m giving myself more credit than I deserve.

Now I must gho to sleep (trust me, they’re endless) because we have an early rise tomorrow and I’m still trying to catch up. Don’t gho anywhere, there will be another post before you know it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blog #2: Touch Down in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Hello from Thimphu!

So the flight from Delhi to Paro was UNBELIEVABLE! The Himalayas are the most breath taking natural beauty I have ever seen. We took off from Delhi at dawn and quickly climbed to our cruising altitude of 39 000 feet. There was a thick blanket of clouds beneath us the entire time, rolling and undulating like the hills of Scottland. As I looked out my window I found myself having difficulty distinguishing between what were clouds and what looked suspiciously like mountains. And then, as if someone had pulled the cotton carpet out from under us, the sky was blue and clear, and we were gliding gently along side a monster mountain chain that seemed to have no end. Before I knew it we were literally spiraling through the mountains trying to land. I have never felt so much like a bird soaring through the air, living on top of the world. Our plane twisted and turned, we broke left and right, climbed and fell, following the contours of the mountains closely. There was one instant when we flew over one peak and could not have been more than 50 feet above it. It’s strange because sometimes when I'm landing in planes in the city, I'm gripping my arm rests tight, feeling as if the plane might come crashing down at any minute, but I actually don’t think it registered at that moment that I was flying. I was just riding the mountains.

When we finally began our final decent I had no idea where we were actually going to land. The mountains of Bhutan aren’t quite as angry looking as the rest of the Himalayas. There was little snow atop their peeks and houses seemed to be situated in the most illogical of places. So every time the plane dipped and turned and revealed a stretch of more houses, I asked myself is it actually possible to land a plane anywhere in this country? But as we dropped below one final layer of clouds and cut sharply to the left, a single landing strip revealed itself, stretched down the middle of a large valley like a red carpet inviting our plane to land.
I touched down in the Land of the Thunder Dragon at approximately 9:00 a.m. Bhutanese time.

I was greeted at the airport by two Bhutanese men, Karma and Neema, who will both be orienting us with Bhutan - and Thimphu more specifically - for the next few weeks. Both work directly for the Bhutan Canada Foundation. So I piled my copious amounts of luggage into the back of their SUV and we hit the road.

First stop, I was told by Karma, was a small restaurant in Paro for tea. Paro was much smaller than I expected and quite desolate. I’m still unsure of whether we were actually in the heart of Paro or just a suburb (I use the term loosely), but there was not a lot of activity (nor people for that matter). We had a delicious cup of chai and chatted for a little, and then hit the open road for Thimphu.

The drive to Thimphu was amazing. Karma is a very friendly and outgoing man, while Neema was slightly shyer and more reserved (at least that is my first impression). We wound our way around the meandering mountain roads at top speed, with nothing but good faith separating our car from the valley below. Just as is the case in other parts of Asia I have been to, in Bhutan, lanes on the roads mean very little. A simple toot of the horn gives free reign to shift to the wrong side of the street and drive into oncoming traffic. But I arrived safely in Thimphu and couldn’t be happier to be here.

Thimphu is a bustling city with people everywhere you look. The architecture is beautiful and the people seem friendly. It is by no means a bit city (at least not by our standards), but it feels like much is going on within its narrow city limits. It is so mesmerizing being in such a unique urban centre that I find myself forgetting that I am in the middle of the Himalayas. But one look beyond the city’s streets and I am reminded of just how small I am and just how massive the protective mountain landscape is. I am still in awe that a once ancient civilization has been able to evolve into a modern society while remaining hidden, deep within the heart of the hills. And now I'm hear to discover it all for myself. What a treat!

Blog # 1: Down the Rabbit Hole

So I’m sitting in Delhi’s International Airport trying to wrap my head around what day and time it is here, and what day and time it is at home. For the last 36 hours I have been helpless against my body and mind.

In all honesty I have never experienced such an immediate reaction to something as I did when I crossed through the security check in Toronto. The trip has been long anticipated, this is true, but anyone privy to my preparation for this year long adventure knows that my attitude towards my trip prior to the departure date was to avoid talking about it. I convinced myself that it would be too difficult to discuss, that talking about it meant it was happening, and if it was happening I would have to think of everything I was leaving behind and the big question mark that lay ahead. So I’m not necessarily surprised by the degree of shock that I experienced while crossing through security at Pearson, but more by the immediacy with which it hit me. Picking up my bags from the conveyor belt, I waved goodbye to my mom, my dad, my sister, my sister-in-law, and my girlfriend, and turned and walked down an endless tunnel of fluorescent lighting and advertisements towards my gate.

It was at this point in time that the gravity of the situation really struck me. I’m leaving for a year (10 months I constantly reassure myself); I’m going to a weird, far off land where everything is different; I’m not going to know anyone there; no one will have anything in common with me; I’m not going to have any of the comforts of home; I’m not going to have any comforts! What was I thinking???

The reality is that I’m not entirely sure that I would be doing this if it had been offered to me again two weeks ago. When I applied for the job my life was completely different. I was frustrated with life at home. While I was in the midst of making my decision I wrote these words:

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.

Obviously I was not in the greatest place when I wrote that, but things quickly turned around. I met someone that I was (am) crazy about, my band was doing well, I had a part time job that I loved; all of a sudden the ceiling was rising and I was finding more space to breathe and to grow. But the decision had already been made.

The first leg of my trip was the toughest. I am taking pills for altitude sickness, and I’m not sure whether they might account for some of the physical discomfort I experienced, but nausea was the name of the game for almost 8 hours straight. I would get up and walk around, constantly going to the bathroom (a side effect of the pills); I would attempt to watch movies to take my mind off of the battle being waged in my belly; I would close my eyes and listen to music (hoping that I could escape like I did when I was lying on the floor of a friend’s tattoo shop in Thailand for 8 hours while he gave me a traditional bamboo tattoo); but for the first time in my life, music did nothing. Nothing did anything to help! And what’s worse is that in times of physical discomfort and pain, we tend to lose control of our minds, and mine had turned to doubt, questioning whether I had made a terrible mistake.

I don’t mean to suggest that I regret embarking on this adventure, only that I am having a difficult time remembering why it was that I was so eager to do it in the first place. Again, I’m sitting in the airport in Delhi, and I’m sure that the glare of fluorescent bulbs is making it difficult to see the brighter side of the what I’m doing, but let’s just put it this way: I’m in India and I’m quite certain that I’m the smelliest person for miles; I have been traveling for 36 hours and haven’t had more than two or three hours of sleep; I have all of my most precious possessions packed away snugly into a duffle bag, guitar case, knapsack and laptop bag; and I left behind an amazing family, the best friends in the world, and a girlfriend with whom things couldn’t have been going better.

But I’m telling myself that Alice didn’t know what lay down the rabbit hole until she dove in (or fell) head first! And it’s not like she landed in God-awful-land! For the love of dog, she landed in Wonderland! And if there is even the slightest possibility that I might emerge on the other side in some sort of real life fairly-tale acid trip, then how can I deny myself that. Bhutan awaits!