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.