Friday, April 30, 2010

Blog #16: Keira Comes to Khaling

After being in her new home for less than two weeks, Keira was told that the school would be hosting a puja, a religious ceremony, for the entire Dzongkhag of Lheuntse. The consequence of this ceremony was that the school would have to house all of the guests, and would therefore be closed for the duration of the puja.

When Keira first told me that her school would be closed for about ten days my immediate response was that she should come visit me in Khaling. She hadn’t seen where I was living yet and I wanted her to see my town, visit my school and meet my friends. We had been keeping in touch fairly regularly, mostly to laugh at the ridiculousness of this or that experience, but also to vent our frustrations and pick each other up when we were down, and it seemed as though this was the perfect opportunity to meet up and hang out again. Lheuntse isn’t exactly close to Khaling or easy to get to, and after recognizing that another opportunity to visit Khaling might not present itself, Keira agreed to come.

We began working on a plan almost two weeks before the puja was scheduled to begin. Obtaining the proper roads permits and applying for leave from school proved to be somewhat complicated, as the proper authorities, be they government officials or principals, needed fairly concrete dates and locations for the trip.

Initially the puja was supposed to be ten days long and begin on a Monday, so Keira was going to attend the first two days, then travel from Lheuntse to Mogar on the Wednesday, Mongar to Khaling on the Thursday, and stay in Khaling from Thursday night until Monday morning. I say initially because the plan changed several times in the week leading up to the visit. In fact, it almost fell apart completely.

Keira called me in the week leading up to her visit to let me know that the dates of the puja had been changed, and it was now set to commence on the Sunday, which meant that she would be in Lheuntse until at least the Tuesday, and would only be arriving in Khaling on the Wednesday at the earliest. This wasn’t the biggest change to the itinerary so we moved forward with the planning of her visit. But then, on Wednesday, one week before she was supposed to arrive in Khaling, Keira called me to inform me that the puja was now scheduled to begin the following morning, and so she might be coming a bit earlier. Again, I had no problem with this slight alteration to our plan. However, the complication, she informed me, was that she hadn’t yet received the road permit that she applied for more than a week prior. We were told that these road permits usually took only two or three days to process, but Keira still hadn’t heard anything about hers. So for the time being the plan became a big question mark, and neither of us felt too confident that it was going to work out.

But then on the Sunday night, Keira called me from Mongar where she was visiting Ann and staying for the night. They were having a great time with one another and with a few of Ann’s neighbours. It was late and it didn’t sound like things were winding down for them any time in the near future, but Keira assured me that she was catching the 6:30 a.m. bus that departed from Mongar and passed through Khaling. She told me to expect her at around 12:30 p.m..

She arrived at almost exactly 12:30, and I went into town to greet her and led her back to my house. Since it was a Monday afternoon I had class, but she was exhausted anyway, so she crashed and had a nap while I went back to work.

After school we went for a walk through Khaling (all ten shops of it) and then rambled down the road, chatting and appreciating the view that was still new to me as well. After a little while we stopped and sat on the edge of the mountain by the wayside, and we had a conversation that reminded me of so many other conversations I have had with Keira. It was something intellectual, yet philosophical, and though we were actually agreeing most of the time, it still sounded more like a heated argument or debate than it did a friendly conversation. We, of course, always recognized that we were actually in agreement with one another and that our conversations tended to digress into conflict for no apparent reason, but still we were unable to control the direction of said conversations.

The next day Keira came to school with me. We decided long before her visit that it would be interesting for her to come see how my school functions as a means of comparison with her experience in Lheuntse. She came to all three of my classes that day, and also observed one of the Biology teachers’ classes, as she is teaching biology at Phuyum.
The other teachers all wanted to meet her and talk to her, and as always she was happy to oblige. The students also loved meeting her and having her around for the day. Most of the time she just silently in my classes observing me teach so as not to disturb anything, but in my grade nine class (a much smaller class) she helped out during some of the group activities and really got to interact with the students. It was really fun having her at school for the day.

That night we went over to Namgay and Choki’s place for dinner. They were eager to have us over for dinner and it was guaranteed to be far better than anything either of us was capable of preparing for ourselves so we happily accepted the invitation. UK was there too, of course, as he usually was when they invited me over for dinner. They made a delicious soup, which has since become one of my favourite meals that they prepare (though I have yet to learn how to prepare it myself), and after dinner the five of us just hung out, talked and played guitar.

Keira had originally made fun of me a few times leading up to her visit because I would often talk about how I had done this or that with my “best friend, UK” or how I had a solid group of “best friends”. She thought it was amusing that I would call anyone here a best friend because it seemed like something one could only have at home. But I think after spending that night with UK, Namgay and Choki, Keira understood why I was able to describe them that way.

The next day Keira and I took the bus to Wamrong to visit Natalie. I had organized with my principal to take two days leave while Keira was visiting so we could actually do some fun activities. The bus ride to Wamrong was completely nauseating. I hadn’t really felt sick once during our whole journey from Thimphu to Khaling, but I certainly did on this bus ride. The only seats that we open on the bus were directly in the rear, and so we were forced to sit in the worst possible place for carsickness. It actually hit Keira a little worse than it hit me and I was slightly worried that she might ralph right there in the middle of the bus, but she held in together, and after an hour of twists and turns (in both our stomachs and on the roads) we arrived in Wamrong.

We didn’t know where Natalie actually lived, so we were planning on calling her when we arrived in Wamrong. The problem was – in typical Bhutanese fashion – that the cell phone network was temporarily down in all of Wamrong. So we did the only thing we could do: we asked a few townspeople where the higher secondary school was, and after they pointed in a direction we asked if it was far, and they replied, “Not very far,” so we started walking.

Not very far turned out to be quite far. It took us about forty-five minutes of walking on an ever-ascending road before the school was even within sight. We also weren’t exactly sure if we were going the right way most of the time, and weren’t entirely sure what we were going to do when we arrived at the school considering we still had no idea where Natalie lived. But as we turned the final corner of the road, and the school gates came into our sights, we heard Natalie calling our names, and there she was, her house only a few metres from her school.

We relaxed outside for a little while cooling off, and then took a tour of the school’s campus. It was actually a beautiful location. From Natalie’s front door there was a perfectly panoramic view of the Himalayas. The school was perched high on top of the mountain, so one could see far off into the distance. The principal met us early on in the tour and took us to his office for tea and biscuits, and then told us that he was going to have someone bring lunch to Natalie’s house, and join us there.
After lunch we met Natalie’s friends, a very kind Indian couple who had been keeping her company and taking care of her when she felt low. The husband, Joseph, and I engaged in heavy philosophical, religious and political conversation while Keira laughed at me and Natalie sat quietly. I know why Keira was laughing, and I found myself laughing at myself some of the time, but Joseph was a very smart man and it was a pleasure talking to him about real, serious issues.

Keira and I weren’t sure how we were planning on getting back to Khaling, but quite luckily (and not entirely unexpectedly) the principal offered to have the school bus driver take us, so at about 8:30 p.m. Keira and I said our goodbyes to Natalie, climbed into a school bus with three Bhutanese men, and wound our way back to Khaling.

The next day we had planned on waking up and doing a hike up to the top of the mountain behind my school, but we slept in (I so rarely get to sleep in, and couldn’t help myself on a day off) and got a fairly late start to our day. We snuck past the school’s building where students were busy in class (class I was supposed to be teaching) and started to climb to Goenpa, the mountain village just above Jigme Sherubling. After reaching Goenpa we wandered off the trail until we found a spot that seemed unlikely to have any other visitors, and that offered a spectacular view of Khaling below. We brought a guitar with us, as well as a few snacks and some water, and spent the next few hours taking turns playing songs for each other and singing together.

At about 2:30 we could see a rather large storm forming in the distance. We watched as the mountains turned a misty white and disappeared beneath a screen of rain. To our right the sun was steal beaming down, so we decided to wait it out. After a half an hour of debating whether the storm was going to hit us or miss us we felt the first few drops. Lightning was sparkling in the distance and we decided that it probably wasn’t safe to be on the edge of a mountain during a storm, so we headed back home.

No more than two minutes after deciding to begin our descent a few drops of rain turned into a real shower, and then the rain turned into little pellets of ice, and before we knew it we were running down the mountain in a full blown hailstorm. By the time we reach my house we were completely drenched from head to toe, but the hail kept coming. We made a big pot of tea, and sat outside on my front porch for a little while just watching the storm. It was actually amazing to see all of the surroundings fade into whitewash. The sound of ice bouncing off of corrugated iron roofs echoed across the town and consumed all other sound.

The hail didn’t let up until the following morning when Keira left. She and I spent most of her last night drinking (none of my friends here drink) and playing guitar. We worked on one of her new songs and a few of mine. I had her sing a few of my songs and rewrite the vocal melody the way she heard it, and by the end of the night, after many drinks and many compromises, it was sounding pretty good. I’m hoping that when we finally get home Keira and I can play together for all of you to hear. I honestly think she has one of the best voices I have ever heard, and a presence in the way she sings that is hard to ignore. There is definitely a chemistry between us that developed very quickly and naturally, and it translates into the music we play very easily.

I know that several people are probably reading this and making assumptions about some sort of romantic involvement between the two of us, so I feel it is best to just address this instead of sitting back and letting people’s imaginations get the best of them. There is actually nothing romantic about my relationship with Keira. We did discuss whether there was something there, I will admit that, but we came to the conclusion that we probably aren’t very good for each other romantically, not to mention that we are very close friends in a situation that requires close friends, and that it would be foolish to jeopardize that friendship for something that would never work. We have talked about our past relationships and our romantic lives in such detail with each other that I think we both really understand what the other is like romantically, and acknowledge that even in the “real world” we can’t offer each other what each of us is looking for. Keira is a dear friend, one with whom I am so happy to share this ridiculous experience, and I hope that we will be friends for years to come (and make beautiful music together), but that is all she is, so get your minds out of the gutter and behave yourselves, all of you.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Blog #15: A Rocky Start in the Mountains

I knew that this experience would be a challenge for most of us, and for some more than others, but I honestly never expected that things would come unraveled for some people so quickly.

Inthu decided to go home the day before she started teaching. I never even spoke to her after reaching Khaling, but I heard this first through Andrea, and then from Meena. I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised that she wanted to leave – her reaction to her new home was a bit of an indication that she wasn’t exactly prepared for the life she was going to be living – but I was shocked at how quickly she made the decision, especially considering that she had not even begun teaching. But before any of us knew the full details she and Rathan were headed out of Bhutan and into India. I believe they spent a little bit of time traveling in India, but I haven’t actually heard anything from her or about her since.

So our little family of eight crazy Canucks (nine including Rathan), was now down to seven, and after a little less than a week it was sounding like that number might continue to dwindle.

Sometime during my second week in Khaling Meena called me. She was calling to confirm that Inthu had in fact left the country and to check on me and see how I was doing. She asked me about teaching and how I was adjusting to my life in Bhutan, and I told her the same thing that I tell everyone else who asks, that I’m doing great, that I really haven’t even noticed an adjustment period, and that I’m happy. I could tell through her line of questioning that there was some serious concern coming from the BCF side of things regarding our well-being and perhaps our commitment to teaching in Bhutan. After quite a long conversation she finally dropped the developing news; that Grant was quite unhappy and having a difficult time, and that he was now considering going home.

I was honestly quite surprised. Of all the people on the trip, Grant was one of the more gung-ho participants in the program, and in Thimphu he had seemed happy and enthusiastic about being in Bhutan. But once again, I suppose life in Thimphu was not the most accurate representation of how our lives would be in our postings, and obviously something had changed in Grant’s mind for him to be considering leaving. I assured Meena that I would call Grant and try to talk him through whatever difficulties he was experiencing.

I called him almost immediately after hanging up with Meena. He explained to me that more than anything he was just starting to realize that he was missing his life at home. He admitted that the fact that he always felt cold and that Chumey was rather desolate didn’t help him feel any happier being in Bhutan, but that when all was said and done, it wasn’t that he didn’t like Bhutan, it was that he realized how much he liked his life in Toronto. I understood where he was coming from – after all, I too had left behind so many people and things, but at the same time I encouraged him to take some time to think about the decision, as it was a fairly important one to make. He said that he had taken the rest of the week off of work in order to contemplate his next move, but that he was quite confident that he was going to leave Chumey at the very least. We discussed whether he would be happier in a different location, and he told me that he thought he probably would, but that he still wasn’t sure that it was going to work out. I could tell in his voice that he had basically made his decision, so I told him to call me if he wanted to talk about it further, and certainly to let me know when he decided.

I never actually heard back from Grant. I called him a few times about a week later, but there was no reply. I eventually heard from Andrea that he had decided to go home, a fact that Meena later confirmed. I received an email from Grant a few weeks later (one that was sent to all of the Canadian teachers) explaining that it all seemed like a blur to him, and that he wasn’t exactly sure how he was at one point in time so sure of his decision to teach in Bhutan, but now so sure it wasn’t for him. He sounds confident in his decision and happy to be home. More than anything I was worried that he would regret his decision to leave, so I was relieved to hear that he felt as though he had made the right decision.

So we went from eight to six in the first two weeks of school, and not long after my last conversation with Grant I caught wind that Natalie was having a difficult time and thinking that she might want to go home too. Natalie is my closest neighbour here, with Wamrong being only forty-five minutes to an hour away from Khaling. I had actually seen her once in the first two weeks of being here when her and two teachers from Sherubste came to visit Khaling for a hike. She seemed to be doing fine when I last saw her, but I guess things had suddenly taken a turn for the worst.

I don’t if it was because I was having such an easy time adjusting and felt slightly guilty about it or just that I enjoying helping people and talking them through their problems, but somehow I found myself on the phone a lot in those first few weeks, talking to some rather distressed Canadian teachers. Meena had actually asked me to make the calls for the most part (not that I wouldn’t have anyways), I think because she recognized that I was doing well and feeling fairly stable. I think to some extent she was concerned that the homesickness that had already claimed two victims and was threatening another was contagious, and so she sought out someone she believed to be resistant.

Natalie was very upset and quite convinced that she wanted to go home. Talking to her was difficult, just as it had been with Grant, not because of anything either of them said, but because I was trying my best not convince either of them into doing anything they didn’t actually want to do. Natalie actually seemed more convinced that she should go home than Grant had, and after spending more than half an hour attempting to convince her to stay I realized that maybe some people actually shouldn’t be here. The more I talked to her, the more I conceded in the conversation, and eventually I found myself telling her that it was alright to go home and that if it’s not for her, it’s not for her. My intent was never to persuade someone into staying here if they didn’t actually want to be here. Rather, my intent was to assess whether they actually didn’t want to be, and to try talk them into giving the adjustment period more time. After all, we had only been there a very short time and everything was still very new.

Natalie ended up…staying. She later told me that our conversation had really helped her. She said that more than anything my blunt honesty had helped her figure things out. I had explained to her that even if she went home she would have tried something that very few other people have ever tried, but at the same time, if she stayed and pushed through the tough times it would probably be one of the most rewarding things she ever did in her life. I had given her an out, and after seeing that out I think she realized that it would always be there and that if she was still miserable weeks or months from then, she could always leave and take her own unique experience home with her.

So Inthu left, Grant went home, and Natalie stayed, and after a precarious first few weeks in our locations only six of us remained.

Blog #14: Settling In

For the first few weeks in Khaling everyone kept coming up to me asking me if I was feeling settled yet and if I was having a difficult time adjusting. I had been labeled a bachelor almost immediately, and as such there was great concern for my ability to take care of myself. I later learned that this is somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. Bhutanese men apparently rely fairly heavily on the help of a woman to keep themselves alive. If that woman is not their wife, it is their mother. This sense of female dependency is only exacerbated by the large Indian presence among the school’s faculty, who are all of the same belief: that a wife is a necessity (for several rather chauvinistic reasons).

I have explained to numerous concerned colleagues that I have taken care of myself before and that I’m sure I will be fine, but their probing questions have continued to this very day, so I have learned to accept it as an act of kindness rather than one of nosiness, which it can feel like sometimes. “Sir, what are taking for lunch today?” Sir, have you taken breakfast this morning? No? Why not?” “Sir, do you not have a wife at home?” “Sir, where are you going? I’ll come with you.” The questions can certainly feel endless at times, but I know now that it is just friendliness lost in cultural translation. And there have been several times when my neighbours and colleagues concern has translated directly into delicious meals being cooked for me, and pleasant company for a meal, and that I have appreciated greatly. People have really been nothing but kind and welcoming to me, and I feel fortunate to be able to say that.

The other incredibly nice thing about my situation is that a large percentage of the teachers at my school are young, and many of them are actually bachelors as well. I have learned that this term, bachelor, really does mean a lot here because the reality is that married couples tend to keep to themselves, or at the very least go straight home to their families after work, rather than finding this or that to do. Ironically, two of my closest friends here are actually a married couple (although they would never describe themselves as being married, but in the school’s eyes they most certainly are – I will try to explain Bhutanese marriage later), Namgay and Choki. But they are not like the other married couples because they live independent lives as well as their joint lives, and perhaps more specifically Choki is relaxed and allows Namgay to do his thing (which is mainly endless sports and activities). They are both two years younger than me, they have been together for five years, and this is their second year teaching at Jigme Sherubling HSS.

And then there is Ugyen Kelzang, whom I have never actually called Ugyen Kelzang before, but rather U.K., as do most others. UK is a gem. I think that he has played a significant role in making me feel comfortable in Khaling. Most noticeably, UK’s English is probably the most fluent of anyone’s here. I wish that this wasn’t a factor, but there is something very comforting about someone who understands the subtleties of what I am saying. With many other people I catch myself in moments of having to find simplified or more direct ways of saying things, but I can speak to UK as I would speak to any of my friends at home. This is also due, in part, to UK’s familiarity with western culture. He is quite an avid film buff, and as such has seen many of the latest Hollywood movies, including several that I have not yet seen. The combination of his fluency and familiarity with western culture makes him very easy to talk to, which helped us form a solid friendship in the early days after my arrival in Khaling. It was only after the first two or three weeks that the other obvious reason for our strong friendship emerged. Although we are from extremely different cultures, and grew up in two different countries separated by more than twelve thousand kilometers, we are somehow remarkably similar people. We share a very similar sense of humour, we both consider ourselves to be somewhat sensitive guys who have struggled as such, and through countless discussions about past girlfriends, current girl troubles, and futures hopes with girls, we have come to realize that our experiences are almost one and the same. For all these reasons I have mentioned, we have become extremely close.

So the four of us, UK, Namgay, Choki and I have become a bit of a crew. We often hang out together, sometimes having deep, cultural and political discussions about both Bhutan and Canada, sometimes watching the English Premiere League football, sometimes going on simple outings like visiting the market, and sometimes venturing out into Khaling’s natural surroundings for a more adventurous endeavour.

Namgay asked me fairly recently whether I was expecting to make friends here before I came. I explained to him that I had expected to make friends in the sense that there would be people that I would get along with and share company with at times, but that I was also expecting to feel as if the friendships I made were going to be somewhat of a burden at times as well. I recognize that this might sounds slightly vain, but I mean to say that I was expecting the friends I made to be people with whom I was friendly, but not necessarily close. What I have found, however, is a group of friends whom I can truly be myself around, whom I feel like I understand and appreciate, and whom I would happily call my friends at home as well as in Bhutan.

And the reality is that this had made all the difference. I know that when I decided to come to Bhutan my parents and several friends of mine voiced their number one cause for concern as my potential loneliness, and since arriving here my neighbours have voiced the same concern, usually in the form of incessant questioning, but after less than one week of being here I was able to say to them, “Yes, I am feeling settled, and no, I’m not really having a difficult time adjusting at all."

Friday, April 9, 2010

Blog #13: Home Sweet Home

After yet another long drive and few minor immigration problems at the Dzongkhag checkpoint we arrived in Trashigang for lunch at about two o’clock in the afternoon.

Trashigang is the closest major city to Khaling, so Nancy told me several times to familiarize myself with it, as I would likely be visiting it frequently. The truth is there wasn’t much to familiarize myself with. The city essentially consisted of one block of hotels and stores, and not much else. We ate lunch, did a quick wander, which lasted for maybe ten minutes, and then were back on the bus for my final approach.

The drive from Trashigang to Khaling was actually quite nice, and fairly relaxing. It was only two hours away, and after one hour of what felt like a constant ascent we came across the town of Kanglung, which is home to Sherubtse College, one of Bhutan’s major colleges. We drove directly through the campus, which was actually quite impressive. The facilities looked quite modern and the natural environment of the campus was gorgeous. I was later told that the altitude in Kanglung really isn’t that impressive, but I can tell you that from the edge of the mountain’s road it looked as if the valley was miles below us. I have learned that it is impossible to gauge altitude in this country, but I have also learned that altitude is rarely the important figure. The more important details are the mountain’s gradient and it’s elevation from the valley below. This mountain was impressive.

After another forty-five minutes of driving I started to get nervous. It don’t think it was that I was scared, I think that after three weeks of being in Bhutan but not in my town, the anticipation and curiosity was becoming to much to bear. I just wanted to see what this place was going to look like and put my mind at ease once and for all.

There really isn’t much to see in Khaling. I will save my description of the town for another posting, but I will say that if you happened to blink at the right time while driving east you could very easily miss the entire town altogether.

My principal, Kinzang Dendup, was waiting to greet me when the bus pulled through the school’s gate. For a principal he is quite young and I immediately got the impression that he is a fairly relaxed individual. He took me through a small, walled community towards my future home. Most of the housing in the community consisted of big, concrete buildings, which were divided into several apartments. But as we wound our way around the buildings, under clothes’ lines and through walkways and gardens, it became evident that I would not be living in one of these concrete giants. Rather, we walked right up to a small, cottage-like building on stilts. It was a little lower down in the community than all of the other homes, and immediately it provided me with a sense of privacy and coziness. I was happy to see that I would have my own building in which I could separate myself from the rest of the community if need be.

The inside of the building reinforced the feelings of coziness. There are four main rooms in my house, as well as a small bathroom and a small kitchen. The four main rooms are all the same size and I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as big, but they are certainly comfortable. I felt relieved to finally see my home for the next year, and I think that when all is said and done, it is perfectly adequate.

We unpacked my stuff, I said goodbye to everyone, and then I turned to ask my principal something, and when I turned back the bus was gone. I didn’t even get the chance to see it pull away. The departure was much more abrupt than I had expected it to be, but I felt perfectly comfortable with that and was just happy to be in a place that I could finally call home.

The principal invited me over to his house for dinner that first night and I was more than happy to accept his invitation. I had no food, and even less of an idea how I was ever going to prepare meals for myself. After a few hours of unpacking and playing around with the organization of my new home, I marched up to the principal’s house and sat down for dinner with him and his family. Actually, only he and I ate, but his wife and children joined us here and there. I felt very comfortable with Kinzang right away, and got the sense that he is very happy to have me here. I could already tell that it was going to make all the difference in the world to have a principal that I feel comfortable with.

After dinner and some extended conversation I thanked him and his wife and wandered back down to my house in the dark. Stepping into my house was a very strange. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to do with myself, so I simply threw to the side of the room whichever possessions had yet to find a home and plopped myself down on my new bed. I was exhausted and school started the following day, so I lay my head down on my pillow, closed my eyes, and was out cold in only a few minutes.

Blog #12: Ann's Palace

As predicted, it was quite late by the time we returned from dropping off Keira, so we stayed one more night in Mongar. Despite having seen her school and settling into her new house, Ann stayed in the hotel with us that final night. There was dinner and drinks as usual, though the drinks were far less plentiful. I think everyone was exhausted, and I know that I was personally trying to take care of myself, as I had started to develop a sore throat and was concerned that I would be entering into my new life at with only half a charge in my battery. Rest was very necessary, so immediately after dinner we called it an early night.

The next morning we had a quick breakfast and zipped off to see Ann’s new house and then say goodbye to her. Her house was unbelievable. She later confessed to us that she was paying more than we were, and so some of the luxuries were justified, but still, the teachers who had already been dropped off couldn’t have imagined that one of us would be living in a place like Ann’s.

Basically, Ann’s apartment already had everything you could possibly need or want. We had all come to terms with the minimalist lifestyle that awaited us, but I must admit that I couldn’t help but feel just a little jealous after seeing Ann’s place. On the first floor of her house were a fully furnished living room and a fully stocked kitchen, with a four-plate stove, which the landlord had provided. Ann had also purchased a stove in Thimphu (just as the rest of us had at the recommendation of the BCF staff), so she actually had six plates in total. The kitchen was also fully stocked with any and all kitchen utensils you could possibly imagine. On the second floor was her master bedroom, fully equipped with a double bed as well as a single bed for guests. She had a fully functional water heater, and the kicker was the washing machine that was only accessible through her tea garden. That’s right, her tea garden. The reality was that I would have been quite happy with her apartment in Toronto, never mind Bhutan. She looked like she would be quite alright living there.

We said our final goodbyes to her, hopped back onto our increasingly barren bus, and headed toward Trashigang Dzongkhag, and more specifically Khaling, my future home.

Blog #11: Lady Lheuntse

The drive to Lheuntse was spectacular, as promised by Andrea’s Lonely Planet, which called it the most exciting drive in all of Bhutan. Unlike our other drives, this one provided us with a constant river view as we crept through a lush valley between two rocky mountains. The hum of paved road beneath the rolling tires mingled with the music spilling into my right ear and left an uneasy feeling deep in my stomach, but all I could do was take a few sips of water, close my eyes and try to lose myself in Joni Mitchell’s gentle melody.

When the road suddenly turned bumpy I reopened my eyes. Our bus was grinding through a gritty gravel road that was obviously not meant to be that way. We were told that a large section of the road had been wiped out by a landslide, and that this was the first stage of its reconstruction. Apparently this was not uncommon in Lheuntse, especially during the monsoon season. At this point in time Keira asked to listen to the iPod alone and I gave her my earbud. I think the reality was just beginning to settle in for her, and only Joni could calm her nerves. I watched as she slipped the headphone into her ear, leaned her head against the window, and slipped into the world of her thoughts.

Keira is a thinker. I realized this only a few days after meeting her and called her on it almost immediately. It is not my intention to attach a negative connotation to a “thinker”, but I do believe that one must be able to separate the thoughts from the emotions inside one’s own mind, and to steer oneself away from over thinking. Since that day, Keira and I have joked numerous times about her tendency to over think things and to work her mind into a putty-like puddle of confusion as a result of this tendency. At the time, however, I think it was entirely justified. It was probably the first time throughout the entire journey that we hadn’t shared our music with one another, and it gave me a chance to absorb my own individual experience once again, something I would be forced to do in a matter of hours anyway. I sat by an open window, gazing out at the white water of the meandering Himalayan river beside us, and lost myself in my own thoughts.

When we began our final approach up the mountain towards the school, Keira took out the headphones and basked in her own anticipation. I think we were all waiting to whiz by a small market or some semblance of a town, but all of a sudden we found ourselves at the gate of the school, climbing to a lush mountain plateau atop of which lay Phuyum HSS.

The school’s campus was gorgeous. There was a main cluster of academic buildings in the centre, with staff housing off to the sides, and lovely looking soccer pitch spilling out towards the edge of the mountain. When we arrived a group of students were actually playing soccer on the field, and each time they kicked the ball in the air it looked as though it would soar off of the mountain into the river-valley below. Fortunately, this didn’t happen while we were watching them play, but I imagine that it must from time to time.

Keira’s living arrangement was probably the most interesting of any of ours, and I can honestly say that if it had been anyone else I would have been worried, but Keira is quite adaptable. It was quite a small two bedroom, two bathroom apartment in the staff quarters. The apartment itself was actually quite nice, but space became a slight cause for concern when we all learned that she would be sharing the apartment with three Bhutanese girls, all of whom would be sharing the second bedroom. It was a surprise to say the least.

I know that one of my own concerns was that of personal space. I knew that I could handle any physical conditions that might be thrown at me, but I also knew that I needed my privacy and space in order to maintain my own personal sanity. Seeing Keira’s situation was cause for concern. The teacher who had greeted us and showed us around explained that housing in Lheuntse is extremely limited and that there was really no other option, so Keira accepted her new apartment and new roommates with a smile, and that was that.

We stayed for a quick lunch, unpacked all of her things, helped set up her bedroom, and then returned to the bus. It was difficult saying goodbye to her. We had become very close over such a short period of time in such a bizarre set of circumstances. I had written Keira a note, just as I had written Lynda one, and I stuffed it in her bag, deciding it was best to let it do the talking rather than dragging out some long goodbye. She said goodbye to the others first and came to me last. It was no secret from the others that we had become close friends, and I think that seeing the two of us say goodbye to each other was quite emotional them, as well aas for the two of us. I gave her a big hug, whispered some words of good luck in her ear, and then said goodbye. We all boarded our bus, said a few more goodbyes through the open windows, and drove off. I looked back a few times as we pulled away and watched Keira fall right into place. She wandered off with no apprehension, like nothing had changed, and I knew then that she would be just fine.

There were only three of us left on the thirty-six person bus, and there were only two people’s belongings left on board. Keira was just one more person and had only a few more possessions, but all of a sudden the bus felt very empty.

None of us spoke much on the way back to Mongar. Early on in the drive Andrea turned from her seat in the front and asked me if I was okay. I was. It felt strange, but I was okay. Honestly, I had come into this experience with the attitude that I was going to be on my own in the middle of nowhere, and so there was no need to make friends with the other teachers. Mentally, I had prepared myself for loneliness, isolation and strong feelings of homesickness. I never expected that I would make such close friends, and I certainly hadn’t expected to form such a powerful bond with anyone in such a short period of time. Up until that moment, I had the luxury of having close friends with me at all times, but now, after just having dropped off my closest friend, and being only one day away from my own arrival, I found myself re-preparing myself for the kind of experience I had expected in the first place.

For the first time I crammed both headphones in my ears, put on one of my favourite Phish shows, and snapped photos most of the way back to Mongar. As good as it had felt sharing my music and the experience with Keira, the feeling of losing myself in the music – in the experience – was a welcome change. I was ready for an adventure to call my own.

Blog #10: The Monstrous Mountains to Mongar

There was absolutely nothing but mountains and rivers between Bumthang and Mongar. Every other leg of the journey had provided us with mountain villages or even small cities along the way, which we often used to grab tea or lunch, but the road to Mongar was entirely different.

Nancy had not lied when she said that it was a long way between the two cities. It took us about eight or nine hours of near non-stop driving to reach Mongar, but it was the most jaw-dropping drive I have ever seen.

We stopped for lunch after only a few hours because it was really the only place we could stop. Our bus hugged the left hand side of a large chorten in the middle of the road and pulled over just a few meters beyond it. Lunch was to be a picnic, we were told, as there was literally nowhere else to stop along the way. We all sat around the massive stupa and ate cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, and baked potatoes, and drank hot tea. After less than twenty minutes we were back on the bus, making our way through the high reaches of the mountains.

Most of the drive was spent just like the others. Most people slept the majority of the way. I continued to live in my own little world of half-reality, gazing keenly out the windows while sharing music with Keira. After a few more hours of winding through what was becoming – and I feel ashamed to say this – repetitive scenery, I found myself nudging Keira and whispering for her to wake up. I couldn’t stand for her to miss what was happening outside the bus, and I needed someone else to reassure me that I wasn’t just overreacting; that what I was seeing was actually fantastic, and that it was in fact happening and I wasn’t just dreaming.

The irony was that there wasn’t anything to see. Our bus had ascended into the thick clouds of the atmosphere, and out of the passenger windows and the windshield alike, all we could see was a thick layer of gray-white. Once I let Keira in on what she had been sleeping through she let out burst of hysterical laughter, which sent me into a fit of laughter and awoke everyone else on the bus. When the others realized the source of our laughter, they too joined in the amazement. Sitting inside that bus, it felt as if our excitement would burst the doors wide open. Every time we rounded a new bend, tiny arms of cloud would creep onto the road as if they were clinging to the mountain for dear life. Occasionally we would turn a corner and the edge of the road would become sharply defined by a completely vertical drop down to a valley which must have been a thousand metres below. It became difficult to decide which was more exciting: the consuming cover of the clouds or the dazzlingly dangerous drop down from the road. More than once I pictured how our bus must have looked from the outside and the only image that came to mind was that of an animation cell in which a bus was drawn, but the background remained blank so that it could be placed on whatever frame was called for in a particular scene. We could feel the bus’s wheels spinning, but our belief that we were moving was based strictly on inductive reasoning. How our driver could see the road, I am still unsure, but the bus barreled blindly through the thick clouds towards Mongar.

We stopped just once after our hasty picnic lunch, and that was at the highest pass between Thimphu and Trashigang Dzongkhag. The pass was a whopping 12 400 feet, which was by far the highest altitude I have ever experienced. The air was cold and wet up there. Sadly, we really couldn’t see very much, again because of the heavy cloud coverage, but the sensation of being so high up in the world was definitely an exhilarating one.

When we finally got to Mongar it was dark and we were all exhausted. Most of us, including myself, slept for the last hour of our bus ride. We were put up in a very nice looking hotel in the middle of the city. I say nice looking because the hotel was really ridden with problems, but aesthetically speaking it was lovely. The hot water didn’t work, room heaters were broken, and various other little surprises emerged during our stay there, but other than that it was actually quite comfortable.

We had our usual dinner and drinks, and then pretty much hit the hay. The next day we were supposed to say goodbye to both Ann and Keira. Ann was going to be living in proper Mongar, and Keira was living in a Dzongkhag two hours north of Mongar called Lheuntse. I was not really thrilled about this situation in all honesty, and I voiced my displeasure at dinner that night.

First of all, I felt as if we had taken our time in certain places that we really needn’t have taken our time, and I was feeling fortunate enough to be in the position to see everyone else’s locations, and didn’t want for Keira’s town to be the one place we – I – didn’t get to see. I made the point that because it is so out of the way, the likelihood of us ever seeing it in the future was quite slim, so why not take this opportunity to see it.

Secondly, Keira and I had become very close and I didn’t love the idea of saying goodbye to her all of a sudden in the middle of Mongar, leaving her to travel for two hours with no one else from the group, only to arrive in a strange and foreign place which she would call home for the next two years. More than anything, I thought that her departure would feel somewhat abrupt and that it would be much easier to say goodbye to her in the driveway of her school. Nancy basically responded by saying that we would talk about it at breakfast the following morning, but that there was probably some flexibility in the schedule, and that we might be able to make it work.

I talked with Keira about it after dinner and she told me that she would be fine if she had to go alone, but she agreed that it would be much nicer if we all got to come to Lheuntse to send her off. It would have been nice to know whether or not I was going to have to say goodbye to Keira immediately after breakfast the following morning or whether we were all going to travel to Lheuntse to say goodbye, but as I have been reminded of several times and subsequently learned, plans and arrangements often come together in the very last minutes in Bhutan.

At breakfast the following morning Nancy informed us that Ann would be staying in Mongar for the day, arranging her new house and seeing her school, while the rest of us would be traveling to Lheuntse to see Keria’s school and apartment, and to say goodbye. I think everyone was happy with the decision, so we scarfed down our breakfast and hit the road to Lheuntse.

Blog #9: The Bumthang Gang

I think the absurdity of the terrain hit most of us on the drive from Punakha to Bumthang. It became obvious that we were actually covering very little distance and that the constant ascent and descent of the steep Himalayan mountains was tacking countless hours onto our drive. We were not complaining though, quite the opposite in fact. I think that this drive was when most of us fell hopelessly in love with the physical environment of Bhutan.

Our tiny bus puttered up and down the narrow mountain roads like an ant marching up and down an anthill. Sometimes the roads seemed as if they were barely wide enough for all four tires to remain on solid ground, but it was usually in those situations that some massive transport truck would come careening down the mountain in our direction and the road that we doubted could fit our single bus all of a sudden was home to two large, crossing vehicles. I often sat by the window on the valley side of the bus, as the excitement and terror of anticipating when the bus might tumble off the mountains edge was both exhilarating and oddly amusing. I would look out the window and see no road below us, only clouds, trees and the deep trench of this or that valley.

There were also times when I paid little attention to the roads, but they were often brought back to centre stage when Grant, who was usually sitting in the front seat, let out a, “Whoooa-kay!” as a transport truck barreled by us at full speed, leaving only inches between the two vehicles. He would then slowly look back at me with eyes wide and eyebrows upturned in a similar look of terror and amusement. I suppose most of the time we were just in complete disbelief.

The drive was long and we also slept for a significant portion of the drive, or at least most people did. I was sharing a pair of headphones with Keira most of the way. We generally rotated between our iPods in order to save battery life, but also to share some of our favorite songs and artists with each other. There was something about sharing music during that drive that had a particularly profound impact on me. I think that part of it was that I was never fully immersed in music as I usually would be, but was rather experiencing somewhat of a half-reality. The music would sweep me off into the surreal, but Grants gasps or the bus’s horn would pull me back into reality. But I think the other – perhaps more accurate – explanation is that by sharing an iPod and headphones with someone else, I was truly sharing an experience with someone else.

I have always found that listening to music while driving through a foreign country has a profound impact on me and often makes for a memorable moment, but it is usually a moment that no one but myself recognizes or appreciates. I have always been aware of the power of music to influence and manipulate emotion. The most apparent example of this is in movies, where the songs chosen by the filmmakers have a dramatic impact on the viewer’s reaction to a scene. Well, looking out the bus’s window into a vast expanse of misty mountains was better than any Hollywood film, and the music served as the soundtrack to our adventure, but this time there was someone with whom I could share it.

By the time we approached Bumthang the terrain had leveled out considerably. Bumthang is located in a rather large valley and so the undulation of the land was far less drastic than that which we had encountered up until then. The bus picked up speed on the flat road, which, for Grant, meant that we were rapidly approaching his new hometown, Chumey.

Chumey was small. In fact, I’m not exactly sure where Chumey supposedly began and where it ended. There was a small, straight two-lane road running through the centre of “town” and on one side was a relatively small school campus, and on the other were a few homes. We stopped at the school to take a quick look around. Again, as soon as I stepped off the bus I wandered through the school’s campus looking for a bathroom. By the time I returned to the bus we were apparently ready to turn back in the direction we had come from and drop Grant off at his new home.

Grant’s place was quite nice in the sense that it was new and clean, but it did possess a few shortcomings, and I think that he was instantly rattled by the thought of it being his home for the next year. For starters, his apartment consisted of a single bedroom and bathroom, and in true apartment fashion there was a long, narrow hall with several other apartments’ doors lining the walls. Secondly, his kitchen was not inside his apartment, but rather separated by the outdoor entrance to the entire complex. This meant that every time Grant wanted to prepare a meal he would have to go outside to do so, which, for those of us who like to cook in our underwear, might be a cause for concern. This distress surrounding the outdoor kitchen was only compounded by the fact that Chumey, and the greater Bumthang area in general, is notoriously cold. This was one of Grant’s major concerns, and rightfully so I think. It is difficult to feel comfortable somewhere when you are constantly cold.

Unfortunately there was only one alternative housing option, however, and the principal of Grant’s school assured him that it was considerably worse, and so with some reluctance and apprehension Grant accepted the apartment as his new home. We unloaded his things from the bus and piled them into his apartment. Inthu and her husband, Rathan, were going to be living in Jakara, the more central part of Bumthang, so we were going to be spending the night at a guesthouse in Bumthang and say all of our goodbyes in the morning. Jakara is just half an hour away from Chumey, so we left Grant to set up his apartment for the time being and headed to Jakara to meet Inthu’s principal before it got too late.

Inthu and Rathan’s house was enormous. They had the entire second floor of a rickety, old wooden house, which was literally enough space for a large Bhutanese family. In fact, a large Bhutanese family actually lived on the ground floor below them. Their flat consisted of three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a large dining room/living room area with a space for a Bukhari, a wood burning stove. The obvious shortcoming was the house’s lack of a kitchen, as Inthu loves to cook. Three bathrooms also seemed slightly excessive, and I’m quite sure that Inthu would have traded the two extras for one of them being clean enough to use.

The group of us stood in their house for quite a while, brainstorming ways for the two of them to organize the main room and make it work. It seemed as though there was ample space to create a counter along a wall and to put a table and stove. The only inconvenience would be that there was no sink in their makeshift “kitchen”. Still, Inthu was not thrilled with the idea, but when we looked out the window and saw her school directly across the street from her house, the sheer convenience of her the house’s location seemed to tip the scale ever so slightly.

We all spent the night at a guesthouse nearby. We had a delicious dinner accompanied by many drinks. Nancy was always a reliable source of quality wine, an attribute that was welcomed by all. It seemed difficult to find quality alcohol in Bhutan. Inexpensive alcohol was in abundance, however. After polishing off a few bottles of Nancy’s finest white and red, we switched to some stiffer drinks from the bar. Dragon rum was generally the preferred choice among the group, but I actually grew quite fond of the Courier Special whiskey. Both were a mere 30 ngultrum per shot, which works out to about 75 cents. By the time we were on our second glass we were all feeling pretty loose, and Nancy had promised a friend we had made along the way a musical performance, so Keira and I busted out our guitars right then and there in the middle of the guesthouse’s restaurant.

This had actually become quite common practice between the two of us, but what was not quite as common was that the guesthouse staff kept the restaurant open for almost an extra hour and joined in the fun. Keira and I performed a few songs by ourselves and together, and then the staff treated us all to a few performances in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language. The contrast between East and West had never seemed more evident to me than at that moment, and yet the line separating our two cultures had clearly become blurrier in recent years. The Dzongkha songs’ vocals sounded very traditional at their core, but at the same time, hearing them sung with an acoustic guitar gave them a modern vibe. When no one had any more energy left to sing another song, we all decided to call it a night and turn in.

It was quite strange but I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Grant in person the following morning. After breakfast he had gone on a mission to investigate his alternative living arrangement, and he was supposed to return before we all departed, but sadly that never happened. Nancy had warned us the day before that the journey from Bumthang to our next destination, Mongar, was quite far and that we would need to get going early in the morning, so there was really nothing that could be done about our inability to say goodbye face to face. Before we left I gave him a call, sent him my best wishes, and said goodbye. We all wished Inthu and Rathan the best of luck as well, said our goodbyes, boarded our bus once again, and continued on eastward.

Blog #8: Leaving Lynda

Lynda went from being the second person to have to say goodbye to being the first. I know that for me her departure from our group felt incredibly abrupt, so I can only imagine how she must have felt. I have to admit that I did not envy her position at all. I know that I personally would have had a difficult time being the first person to be left standing in the wake of a bus full of friendly faces pulling away and leaving me alone in a strange new place.

Psychologically, I don’t think I was really prepared for anyone to leave just yet. We had bonded so superbly as a group in the three weeks we spent together in Thimphu and Paro that parting ways was much more difficult than I was expecting it to be. Not only was I about to say goodbye to a good friend, but I was also forced to face the fact that I would soon be in the same situation, left standing alone in a new town with little to no support.

I think Lynda was quite nervous as we approached her school, and understandably so. Gaselo is only a forty-five minute to one hour drive from Tashidingkha, so after leaving Andrea’s school there was very little time for her to mentally prepare herself for what was about to happen. Some would argue that she – we – had three weeks to prepare for what was about to happen, but the reality is I don’t think three months would have made that final approach any easier for any of us.

I wrote Lynda a little note as we wound our way up the side of the mountain, doubling back over and over again on a steady incline until we could no longer see the valley at the base of the mountain where we had started our ascent. The note was simple but heartfelt. In some strange way I felt as if I was speaking on behalf of the rest of the group, and that the note could have been directed at any one of us as well. I don’t mean to devalue the sincerity of my note because, after all, it was for Lynda, but its central message was for each of us: that no matter how alone any of us might feel at times, there are always friends nearby who would drop everything and travel across the mighty Himalayas should we need them. In reality we were not going to be left alone because there were seven other teachers who would be experiencing the very same ups and downs as each of us inevitably would, and that knowledge was somehow comforting. As Keira and Lynda sat oblivious, sharing a pair of headphones, I tucked the note into Lynda’s purse.

When we finally reached the top of the mountain, Lynda’s school came into view. By then, a few of us were desperate to pee. It became an ongoing joke that every time we arrived somewhere, the majority of us needed to pee. Over the course of our journey, Nancy actually warned us several times that we should ask the bus driver to pull over somewhere before arriving at any of the schools so we could empty our bladders, but I don’t think we ever really figured that out, despite being a group of intelligent teachers. The difficulty was that we never really had any idea when we would reach the schools. Sometimes a school was a two minute drive from the main road and sometimes we would truck along a dirt road for close to an hour. More often than not the schools would suddenly appear out of nowhere.

So when we stepped off the bus in Gaselo, we shook hands with the school’s principal who had come to greet us, and four of us, including Lynda, ran to his house to use the facilities. There, of course, was only one bathroom, so three of us were left waiting awkwardly in the principal’s house as one lucky person relieved themselves. The principal’s wife was very kind and insisted that we have a seat, and by the time the first urination rotation had taken place she had brought out tea and biscuits for us. We had learned so many things about the importance of proper etiquette in Bhutan, so many of which feel very foreign to me still, that not one of us moved after being served. We each sat there perfectly still, waiting for someone else to make the first move and take a sip of tea or reach for a biscuit. After the principal’s wife insisted several times that we drink we finally caved and began filling our bladders for the next leg of the journey.

After taking a quick tour of the school the principal took us to Lynda’s new home, about a five to ten minute walk from campus. Lynda’s apartment dwarfed Andrea’s apartment, which we had seen just an hour prior. It was part of a massive house that had been divided into four units. Her unit consisted of two large bedrooms, a very basic bathroom, a roomy kitchen, and a big, spacious living room/dining roomWe took all of Lynda’s possessions off of the bus and placed them in an embarrassingly small pile on the floor of her enormous living room. At that moment I decided that a small apartment actually might have its advantages over a larger option. The reality was that we didn’ . t have many things to fill a big apartment, and a big, empty apartment feels much lonelier than a small apartment. Lynda’s apartment was nice, but I have to be honest, I was a little worried about how she would do living there. But for the time being she seemed happy and confident, so I told myself not to worry.

After taking several digital and mental photographs of Lynda in her home, we all walked back to the school to say our goodbyes. Only a few tears were shed at first, but like the rivers of Bhutan, those few streams turned into surprisingly swift rivers. It was difficult saying goodbye to the first of the group, but we all knew that this was what we had signed up for and what we had come here to do. So after a few hugs we all stepped back onto the bus, waved one last goodbye, and watched Lynda disappear as our bus dipped down the mountain.

Blog #7: Andrea's Almost Arrival

Andrea was supposed to be the first of us to settle in at our locations. She ended up being the last.

By the time our bus had finally bounced over the final bump in the dirt road leading up to her school we already knew that we would not be saying goodbye just then. The school was completely deserted. The feeling of complete and utter emptiness was compounded by the fact that Tashidingkha was located on the very top of a mountain overlooking Punakha, the much bigger town below.

The campus was beautiful, with a variety of intricately designed gardens leading the way from one building to the next. The school, we were told, had just been built so all of the buildings were brand new, and the campus definitely felt fresh.

Andrea was told that she had two options in terms of living arrangements. One option, we were told, was quite a large apartment off campus, down the mountain about thirty to forty-five minutes by foot. The other option was a small but cozy room in the staff quarters directly on campus. We were all lead to the room that was offered on campus to judge it for ourselves.

We never even saw the other place. We all agreed that the room was all that Andrea needed. It was clean, fully furnished, had a private bathroom, and was only a hop, skip and a jump away from school. Andrea accepted the room as her new home, we all hopped back on the bus, and left Tashidingkha in a cloud of dust.

Blog #6: The Blogyssey

Hello friends,

Here is the first of my catch up blogs. I decided that it would be nice to describe each teacher's departure from the group, so I have done my best to recapture the experience, but I must admit that I wrote all of these entries after the fact, and so I may have missed some important moments. I have decided to post each individual teacher’s departure as a separate blog, mainly for the ease of the reader, however, I must emphasize that it is difficult to address one departure without another, as they are all inextricably linked. I urge you to read all of the entries, as they are all part of one collective experience. Again, I apologize for the length of these postings, and I promise that once I begin posting current entries, their length will be drastically reduced. I hope you enjoy...

Monday, April 5, 2010

Blog #5: A Sour Apple

Friends,

Here is the last posting I wrote before realizing that I didn't have any internet access, but before arriving in Khaling:

I apologize to all of you who may have been wondering what has been happening to me, as I have been out of the loop for the last week or so. The power cord for my laptop burnt out soon after arriving in Thimphu, and access to Apple products is limited to say the least, so I have been without a computer for quiet some time. I searched the nooks and crannies of Thimphu in hopes of finding a power source to recharge my fully drained battery (if only for a brief moment) to no avail. It was actually at the guesthouse we were staying at in Thimphu that I found my saviours, Hugh and Kathleen, an American couple who were in Bhutan for a month as volunteer doctors. Both had their Mac laptops with them and were leaving in a week. So after meeting them in the hotel restaurant and attempting to tutor Hugh in some iPod tricks, I sheepishly asked them first if they would mind lending me one of their cords to recharge my laptop, and eventually if they would consider selling me one of the cords before I left. They were happy to oblige and were so kind that they actually refused the money I gave them and offered me the cord as a gift for my journey.

I was really hoping to maintain a steady blog throughout the course of my time here, and despite the fact that I missed reporting on the last week I will do my best to summarize the important places and things that I have experienced so far. I will also take this moment to emphasize that soon after my last posting, the group of us came to the realization that orientation was perhaps not the best word to describe our time in Thimphu, but rather vacation.

I can honestly say that I feel as though I have formed some very powerful friendships with my fellow Canadian teachers and that the group has bonded superbly. We all enjoy each other’s company and have shared some of the most unique experiences imaginable. It is amazing how quickly relationships can form in such extreme and unusual circumstances.
One of the most exciting adventures we endured was our hike to the Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan’s most famous monastery and landmark. The Tiger’s Nest is a surreal sight, perched on the edge of a cliff high above Paro, in western Bhutan. The hike is four hours from the base of the mountain to the steps of the temple. It is also possible to ascend the trail on horseback if one desires, though it is impossible to ride the horses back down.

We began our hike early in the morning while the clouds still covered the sun’s powerful rays, but as we reached the half way point, the misty haze began to part and revealed the prized jewl of Bhutan resting above us.

I’d be lying if I said that the hike was easy. I was dripping sweat most of the way and was struggling to catch my breath as we chatted our way up the mountain, but the motivation peered down at us from above, and we pushed on through our fatigue.

The inside of the temple was peaceful in the truest sense of the word. We were lead into several rooms in which shrines had been built long ago. We did our prostrations and said our prayers, first for all other sentient beings and then for ourselves, and finally laid our offerings down on the altar at Buddha’s feet. I had gone through these same motions several times before at various other temples in Bhutan, but I don’t think I had ever really felt anything. But this time, perched high in the Tiger’s Nest, a chill came over me and I felt completely at peace. My mind was empty of all negative energy, my breathing was steady, and my body was relaxed.

The walk back down was a breeze compared to the steep hike to the top. My friend, Keira, and I ventured off the trail once or twice and talked about simple things like the stories of our lives, and heavy philosophical concepts like the meaning of enlightenment and whether we would all experience enlightenment in the same manner, if were ever to experience it at all. The topic seemed more than apt as we serenely shuffled our way down the mountain and back to the small van that was waiting for us at the bottom.

The majority of people slept most of the way back to Thimphu, but I couldn’t keep my eyes closed. Each corner our van hugged, every bend the mountain forced us around, revealed a new and fantastic sight. Mountains would suddenly jut out in the sky, leaning building would emerge, clinging onto the side of inclines too steep to climb, and what began as a small stream would suddenly become a foamy torrent. A smile was glued onto my face for the entire drive’s duration and my lips still tend to curl just thinking about it.

I apologize to all of my fellow perfectionists, for I am about to commit a grave offense and describe events out of chronological order. It pains me to do so, but I will consider this blog entry as one organized based on events’ humbling impact rather than their sequence.

Prior to our visit to Paro and the Tiger’s Nest, we were driven to a landmark known as Dochula. Now, all of us had heard about the Tiger’s Nest from the research we had done in the comfort of our homes in Canada, but not one of us had heard anything about Dochula until we pulled into a parking lot which lay between a beautiful temple and one-hundred-and-eight stupas – or chortens as they are called here – covering a grassy knoll. But when we stepped out of the van into the brisk mountain air we recognized the true sight that we had come to see.

Laughter bust out of each and every one of us as our eyes gazed upon the most jaw dropping, awe inspiring, breath taking panoramic view imaginable. Words can’t come close to doing the view justice, nor do photographs I have learned, and yet I will provide you with both in this entry in an attempt to make at least one of you painfully jealous.

Dochula is a viewpoint from which you can actually see all the way into Tibet. Mountains span the horizon from left to right for as far as you can see. Those in the foreground seem monstrous, but it is the snowy peaks that reach for the sun far behind them in the distance, taunting it to melt their icy caps, that are the real giants. Watching the snow blow across the taller peaks and blur the image was enough to make me rub my eyes several times in an attempt to readjust my eyes. But no readjustment was necessary. Reality lay right before me and my imagination couldn’t have conjured up something more perfect.

After taking a tour of the temple – including its royal quarters (and royal bathroom!) – we had tea with the architect who designed the buildings of Dochula, and a Senator/friend of Nancy’s (the director of the BCF) and Sam Blyth’s (the Chair of the Board of the BCF) in a small cottage also designed for His Majesty. We then explored the one-hundred-and-eight chortens, taking numerous photos along the way, and finally descended back down to Thimphu; back to reality.

Life in Thimphu was filled with many simple pleasures. Keira, Lynda and I found common ground in our undying love for music. I was so happy to discover that both girls had brought guitars with them and that both loved to sing and play as much as I do. I have learned from my trip to Southeast Asia three years ago that there is no better tool for connecting people than a guitar. The three of us instantly found our groove and were soon finding any opportunity to play together, entertaining others along the way.

One afternoon we brought our guitars to a nearby park and began playing. It was no more than five minutes before several children flocked to us to investigate the music they had heard. Kids of all ages – small ones, big ones, fat ones, skinny ones, clean ones, snotty ones – gathered around as we played. Eventually they started experimenting with the instruments, strumming nonsense. Keira lent her guitar to a few of the older boys there and set out to entertain the younger ones, engaging in a wild game of tag (or at least we think that’s what was going on!) Our presence was such a great hit that we told a few of the kids that we would come back the following day, and when we returned to the park the following afternoon, the number of kids had almost doubled. This time music was only one ingredient in the recipe for fun. We played group games like musical chairs, gave guitar lessons, sang songs, chatted with the older kids, took photos, and it was as if our time in that park, that one afternoon, had made those kids as happy as could be.

The rest of our time in Thimphu was divided between spending hour upon hour in one of three caf├ęs that actually sold REAL coffee and shopping in the market, an area less that one city block that consists of a few dozen small shops, each of which sells identical goods to their neighbours but at fluctuating and always negotiable prices. Over the course of three days, we stocked ourselves with what we considered the essentials to be, items that we were told we would not be able to find outside of Thimphu. Rice cookers, kettles, pots and pans, plates, cups, cutlery, mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets, towels, and various other bits and bobs soon dipped and soared inside the guesthouse’s storage closet like our own little mountain range of meager possessions.

Finally, while out in town the evening before we were set to depart we received a phone call requesting that we come back to the guesthouse ASAP in order to pack the bus that would be taking us through the Himalayas to the our respective locations. When we arrived back at the guesthouse we lined our belongings along the edge of the parking lot and waited…and waited…and waited…

By the time we had packed our thirty-six passenger bus there was barely enough room for the eight Canadian teachers, Meena (the manager of BCF) and our driver. We had stacked the majority of our lives onto the roof of the bus, tied down by a tarpaulin and a frayed rope, and yet the items in the back of the bus still spilled up to our feet. After a few quick goodbyes to the supporting staff of our guesthouse and a few of the BCF and Ministry of Education employees we piled ourselves onto the bus and hit the not so open road towards the east.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Blog #4: Out of the Dark

Hello friends, family and curious readers. I apologize for the lengthy gap in my postings. I have received so many kind and encouraging words regarding the blog, all of which I appreciate greatly. I have honestly been trying to stay in communication with the Western world, but Bhutan is a long way from home, and things here don't operate quite the same way that they do in Canada.

Up until two or three days ago, my internet access had been limited to a few minutes per week, and even those few minutes are only thanks to the kindness of one of my friends. A few days ago the school finally received the most basic internet connection, so I am going to attempt to start posting again, but I apologize in advance if once again there are long periods without communication, for this is my life in Bhutan, and perhaps the lack of accessibility to describe that life actually describes it best.

So please stay tuned for some lengthy posts summarizing the missing months. I'm doing my best to capture the beauty of the country as well the experience. I do feel that I sometimes write too much, but it is hard to limit the story of my experience, so for that I apologize. I hope that reading the postings is more enjoyable than it is painful.

Thanks for reading!