Monday, April 5, 2010

Blog #5: A Sour Apple


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.

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