Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Blog #23: Facing the Inevitable

I knew it was going to happen at some point in time. I remember joking about it with my friends at home before I left. I believe my exact words were, “I know I’m going to get really sick at least once.” Why would I say this? Well, it just seems like an inevitability when you are living in a developing country. The better question might be why would I have accepted this job and moved my life here when I knew that sickness was inevitable? Trust me, on Saturday afternoon I was asking myself that very question.

I suppose it all began on Friday at some point in time. I’m not exactly sure when, and I’m not exactly sure how, but what I do know is that I was fine on Thursday and most of Friday. I went for a jog on Friday evening (something I’ve been doing more and more frequently) and I remember thinking that I was much more tired than usual, but I chalked it up to the fact that I had done the same 7 km (3.5 of which are uphill in the Himalayas I might add) jog the day before and hadn’t gotten much rest in between. What does standout now, in hindsight, is that when I was stretching towards the beginning of my run, my balance was quite off, and I normally have quite good balance. Again, I chalked it up to exhaustion and pressed on. When I got home I was tired, but no more so than after any other run. My legs were also feeling a little stiff, but back to back runs can do that to you when are not yet used to jogging this frequently. I “bathed” (showered), changed into some fresh, clean clothes, and went to a restaurant with UK for dinner, as I was too tired to prepare anything myself.

I was fine the rest of the night. My mom called when I got home and I talked to her for a little while about some of my frustrations as of late, until we were cut off due to a collapsed network on my side of the line. I tried to call her back, but there was absolutely no signal. I also realized that I had no money left on my phone (phones here are all pre-pay), which is never a good situation to be in. So I put the conversation’s conclusion on hold for the time being, read a few pages of my book, and then passed out almost immediately.

I awoke at 2:30 a.m., my body on fire. At first I wasn’t entirely sure I was awake. I could just feel the heat from my chest radiating against my arms. Initially it felt kind of nice being so warm, like my blanket was really doing its job. But when I woke up a second time at 3:30, I realized that this was not so normal. So I raised myself out of bed, searched for my thermometer in my oversized first-aid kit, and took my temperature. Thirty-eight point four. Not so good, so I took two Advil in an attempt to control my fever. I was also filled with that cold-sweat sensation and I couldn’t decide which felt more comfortable, throwing my blankets off and accepting my convulsive shivering in an attempt to cool down my overheating body or controlling my convulsions by bundling myself under my blankets and feeling my brain frying like piece of puri (This comparison might indicate that I’ve been here too long already). I chose to bundle, as it was the only hope of getting back to sleep, and at about 5:00 I finally passed out.

The next morning I felt a little bit better. I was not perfect by any means, but definitely better. I went to school in a half-daze and did my best to push on. In my first period class I explained to my students that I really wasn’t feeling well, so I was just going to review a few things that we went over last week in grammar (Saturday is grammar day for my class XIs) and then have them do some practice exercises or any other work they needed to do. They were thrilled to have a work period (no one likes school on Saturdays) so they went to it. I sat down beside one student and began typing away at a book I’ve been working on for far too long. After about thirty minutes a tidal wave of nausea came over me. I quickly shut my laptop, packed away my things, explained to the class that I wasn’t feeling well and that I was relying on them to behave themselves, and left in a hurry.

I went straight to Master’s office. Master’s real name is actually Sonam Rinzin, I believe, though you would have a hard time getting that information from most teachers at my school. The only reason I know this is because Master also just so happens to be UK’s father. You would never hear anyone call him Sonam or Sonam Rinzin, however, because to do so you would be risking your life. For you see, Mr. Sonam Rinzin is referred to as Master because he is a master of Tae Kwon Do. He also happens to be the school nurse.

I told Master what had been going on and he gave me some Paracetamol (Acetaminophen or Tylenol for us Canucks), some oral re-hydration solution, and some antibiotics to take in case my symptoms got worse. I graciously accepted his offerings, thanked him, and ran home to use the toilet.

I had second and third period free, but class in fourth period and responsibilities after fourth period, so I decided that I would lie down and rest during my free periods. When I hit my bed my condition really deteriorated. My fever had returned, I now had diarrhea, my head was throbbing like no other, and worst of all, my entire body was aching from head to toe. I’m not just talking a little sore, I mean aching. No position was comfortable. My legs were by far the worst. I would stretch them, bend them, flex them, fold them, shake them, squeeze them, rub them, hold them. Nothing relieved the pain. The only thing, I came to realize, that provided any kind of relief – or perhaps satisfaction is the better word – was to expel a variety of grunts and groans each time I moved an inch. I later explained to UK, Namgay, and eventually Keira, that anyone walking by my house probably would have gotten a very wrong idea about what was going on inside. My breathy “Oh gods” and “Oh *@&$!s” could easily have misinterpreted as sounds of pleasure rather than sounds of pain. And I suppose to some extent they were. For whatever reason, they made the following hours slightly more bearable.

Needless to say I didn’t return to school that day. I called UK and asked him to see if he could find someone to cover my class and my class teacher responsibilities after school and he told me it wouldn’t be a problem.

At about 2:00 Namgay knocked on my door to check on me. He was carrying a package of Koka (like Mr. Noodles). UK was close behind him. They had come to check on me and to make sure that I ate something. The truth was I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I really wasn’t feeling up to it (solid food didn’t appeal to my stomach, and hot liquid didn’t appeal to my fever of 39.6), but they insisted that I eat. So Namgay slipped into my kitchen and prepared some soup for me, while UK sat with me on my bed and dabbed my head with a cool, wet cloth.

I am so lucky to have made such amazing friends here. They had no idea what kind of condition I was in, but they still came to check on me out of genuine concern for my wellbeing. Not only this, but they came with food with which to nourish me, and compassion with which to nurture me.

They hung out for a little while and then left to play a soccer game that I was also supposed to be a part of. They returned later to check on me once again, this time carrying three more packs of Koka and a package of more substantial soup. They hung out for a bit, we joked around, Namgay played some guitar, and eventually they went home.

I was somewhat relieved when they left, simply because I could only bask in my own misery when I was alone. The company was nice, and it certainly distracted me from the physical pain most of the time, but at the same time, it was effort that I didn’t really have the energy for. I was feeling incredibly dizzy by that point in time and I just wanted to lie down and rest.

The rest of my night was horribly miserable. The diarrhea really kicked in (I promise that’s as much detail as I’ll go into) and my legs felt like dull, rusty spoons were going to tear through my every pore. If anyone has ever had a bad infection, it felt somewhat like that, with an amplified pins and needles sensation thrown into the mix. No matter what I did I couldn’t get comfortable. And the fever! Oh, the fever! My head was completely ablaze and throbbing in pain. I could feel the pressure building to the point that my hearing became muffled. I continued to dab my forehead with a cold compress throughout the night, but just to give you an idea of how hot my head actually was, it took less that ten seconds of leaving the compress on my head before the cold water turned hot. I was forced to constantly re-soak the rag and reapply it to my forehead, which, I assure you, makes it difficult to sleep.

I got maybe an hour or two of sleep total, but between my stomach’s desperate cries for relief, my body’s angry disapproval, and my head’s relentless nagging I couldn’t really immerse myself in zzz’s.

I woke up on Sunday feeling just awful. My head was pounding and the familiar aching continued. I lay in bed for as long as possible, but I knew that eventually I had to get up. When I finally got up I realized that I had been sweating profusely. My sheets were drenched and my hair was soaking wet. But as I slipped out from under my blanket and chill came over my body and I was freezing. My fever obviously survived the night.

I went about my business in the bathroom, took two 500 mg Paracetamols, and plopped back down on my bed. I didn’t get under the blanket this time, but rather lay so my legs were covered but my torso could breathe.

An hour later I was feeling much better. I was still sweating profusely, but my fever was down, my head wasn’t throbbing quite as much and my legs only felt like only a few knives were stabbing at me from time to time, rather than thousands constantly. What price did I have to pay for this kind of relief, you ask; well, my stomach lost whatever stability it once had. I was running to the toilet and back all day. I’m convinced that I actually got more exercise on Sunday than I did on Friday during my jog. Sometimes there was an hour between visits, sometimes merely minutes; it was completely erratic and entirely beyond my control. Nonetheless, it was a trade I was more than happy to make.

So here I am. It’s Monday morning and the pain has subsided. My stomach is still playing tricks on me, and I didn’t quite make it to lunchtime before having to run home to use the bathroom and relieve myself of the overwhelming nausea that seems to appear out of thin air. I had a free period anyway, so I’m just taking it slow and resting whenever possible. There were definitely a few moments on Saturday when I looked out my window and asked myself what the hell are you doing here? There were moments when I looked at the people walking through town and for those moments I genuinely resented being in Bhutan. I have never been sick like that at home and I honestly don’t think it is possible to get sick like that at home. The only time I have ever experienced anything like that was when I was traveling through Vietnam a few years ago with my girlfriend at the time. In fact, my experience then was almost identical to what I went through this past Saturday, with a few minor differences. Firstly, I was with my girlfriend at the time, who could perhaps not provide me with any medical support, but did at least provide me with a great deal of emotional support. Secondly, I was in Ho Chi Minh City, which is a fairly developed city, and thus provided me with access to topnotch medical facilities and the medical expertise of a variety of expatriate doctors. Lastly, I was on vacation with not a worry in the world. My illness was a serious damper, but I had the time and freedom to wait it out and let it pass. My situation here provides me with none of the above comforts. I am a single guy living in a rural town with no hospital less than an hour’s drive away, and even then I have no car and no real way of getting from point A to B. Even if I had managed to get to a hospital, I would have had to worry about work the following day and about providing the principal with the proper documentation in order to prove that I was in fact sick; as if my sweat-stained sheets and empty toilet paper rolls aren’t evidence enough.

But I survived it in Vietnam, and now I’m just hoping that this was my one mandatory confrontation with complete and utter sickness in Bhutan. It was definitely a miserable experience and I feel as if I have beaten it, but then again it’s now Monday afternoon and I’m still lying in bed, and let’s just say that I have made more than one trip to the facilities in the process of writing this.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Blog #22: The Pains and Joys of Teaching in Bhutan

DISCLAIMER: This is by far my longest blog entry so far. I apologize once again to those of you who just want the gist of what’s going on. Apparently I am incapable of reducing my thoughts and reflections to a few words. I assure you that, just as with all my other blog postings, I have done my very best to only share with you the most amusing, absurd and transformative experiences of my journey. I hope you enjoy!

I realize that one of the major shortcomings of this blog so far has been that I haven’t really mentioned very much about teaching, which is in fact the reason for my being here. My failure to address the teaching aspect of my experience is not intentional, at least not on any sort of conscious level, but rather a consequence of being subject to so many other exciting things. But my teaching experience definitely does deserve mention, so I will do my best to communicate my experience in the classroom over the last three months.

When I think back to my first few days teaching here the one thing that really stands out in my memory is just how little an idea I had regarding what I was going to do. The fact of the matter is that this is my first year teaching and even if I were back at home I would have felt like I didn’t know where to begin. Compound this with the fact that I only arrived in Khaling the night before school started and you can imagine just how unprepared I felt. In all reality I really wasn’t told anything before marching into my first class. I arrived at school early in the morning, was given my timetable, and told to teach. Looking down at the timetable I was given I became confused. I was quite sure they had made a mistake. It said I was teaching “IX A”, “XI Sci A”, and “XI Com B.” I went straight to the principal to remedy the situation.

“Sir, I think there is a mistake in my timetable. It says I’m teaching science and commerce, but I’m supposed to be
teaching English,” I explained.

“No, no. Science and Commerce are the class sections that you will be teaching, but you will be teaching them English,” he replied.

This information would have been helpful, I thought to myself as I left his office and headed to class. I, of course, had no idea where I was going because no one had shown me where the classrooms were (the school is divided into several buildings, each of which contains numerous classrooms), but I asked a few teachers where class IX A was as I passed them in the halls, and they pointed me in the general direction.

My first exposure to the Bhutanese educational culture came the second I stepped through class IX A’s door. There was a shuffle of chairs against the wooden floor, every student popped out of their seat, and at the top of their lungs and in perfect unison they all yelled, “Good morning, sir!”

“Good morning everyone,” I replied, and I walked over to an empty seat at the front of the class and threw my book bag down. The students remained standing at attention until I realized that they wouldn’t take their seats until instructed to do so. “Sit down, sit, please.”

My first day with each class was much the same. I had no idea what I was doing and was genuinely rattled by the experience. I had thought of some activities on the bus ride to Khaling (we all shared our ideas with each other), but for the most part they didn’t seem very realistic. I passed around a notebook with a rough sketch of the layout of desks that I had whipped up in the first few seconds of class and asked students to write their names in the appropriate space.

Then I introduced myself and told my students everything about Canada and Toronto that I could think of off of the top of my head. I ended up speaking for almost the entire class, and only realized weeks later that I never really gave my students a chance to introduce themselves (I think this was partially because I was thrown off by the number of students in the classes). I don’t think they really minded at the time, and I think they were genuinely curious about Canada and their new, funny looking, strange sounding teacher. I still remember the one fact that fascinated them more than any other. I asked them the population of Bhutan, and they all obediently replied, “6 lack (or 600, 000 to us North Americans).”

“So there are six hundred thousand people in Bhutan. Okay, well where I come from, Toronto, which is the biggest city in Canada, there are over six million people. So the population of the city I am from is ten times the population of your entire country.”

This drew hysterical laughter as well as an assortment of bug-eyes and dropped jaws.

The end of class was just as confusing as the beginning. When the bell rang I wrapped up my lesson and said thank you to the class. They shouted back, “Thank you, sir.” I stood there waiting for them to leave so I could pack up my things and erase the writing on the blackboard, but not one of them moved, I felt like I was engaged in a staring contest. Both parties refused to blink. Finally, I realized that these poor students were not going to leave until I had left, and that they were missing a part of their morning recess waiting for me, so I shoved all my things in my bag and led the way out of the classroom, a wave of students on my heels.

Entering and exiting classes here is so very different from anything I experienced at home, as I explained to several colleagues who asked me about the difference in culture. At home, a teacher is generally in the classroom before students arrive (which is not difficult when students arrive 15-20 minutes late, as they did at one school where I did my practice teaching), and when students do arrive it often takes some authoritative commands to calm the class down and begin the lesson. Similarly, in Canada, at the end of class students are already packing up their belongings before the bell rings, and regardless of whether the teacher is in the middle of the most important and entertaining lesson of their lives, like Pavlovian dogs they are out the door the moment they hear the bell ring.

The respect for teachers in Bhutan is extremely impressive and something I think is much needed back at home, but at the same time, I also think it comes at a bit of a price. It is my understanding that this respect stems from a time when teachers used to beat children who “misbehaved”. I must strongly emphasize that there is absolutely no corporeal punishment taking place at my school, nor is there supposed to be at any school in Bhutan under the Ministry of Education’s “Child Friendly” schools policy, though I’ve heard the practice of beating children does still take place in many schools. So though it does not occur at my school, many of my students have at some point in their lives been subject to a beating or two for what was most likely an arbitrary offence. As a result, yes, the students respect their teachers (fear might be synonymous with respect in this example), but as a result, they are extremely timid when it comes to responding to questions or asking questions themselves. This continues to be a problem to this very day, as I will ask a question to the class and no one will answer, until all of a sudden eight to ten people mutter some inaudible response simultaneously. I then tell them that I can’t hear them when they all speak together, and ask them to raise their hands and I will call on them to answer. All of a sudden, once again, no one wants to answer. It is actually quite an amusing phenomenon if you don’t let it get under your skin or disrupt the lesson. I have learned to rely on several of the more confident students in order to keep the lessons’ momentum alive.

I think the number of students plays a significant role in the classroom atmosphere as well. I am actually quite lucky with my class sizes. I have only 18 students in my grade nine class and in my grade eleven classes I have 33 and 36 students. The classes are so big that it is almost impossible for me to remember everyone’s name (see blog #23 which is coming up) and it essentially provides anonymity to anyone who is seeking it (usually those students who need to be called on the most). I shouldn’t complain though. It might sound difficult to believe but Keira has one class that is 46 students. With classes this big, it becomes extremely difficult to ensure that all the students are learning. As an English teacher, it is also an absolute nightmare when it comes time for marking students work. For the last two weeks I actually haven’t been able to see my desk in the staff room because it has been consistently buried under piles and piles of notebooks and papers.

Perhaps the biggest challenge I have faced in adapting to teaching here is the lack of resources in the school. I think back to my student teaching days when I would hear teachers complain about not having the resources they needed to teach their class. All I can do is laugh at those memories. We may not have had all the resources we would have liked, but we definitely had most of the resources we needed. At my school, basic resources are unavailable. For example, for the first few weeks I watched as my box of chalk disappeared in front of my eyes. Chalk is like gold here. It took me a week straight of people stealing my chalk to realize that I needed to hide it from plain view if I wanted to have any chance of using it myself. The matter is only made worse by the fact that the chalkboards here are often just framed sections of concrete walls painted black, so the chalk will have literally crumbled into nothing by the time you have finished writing the word “onomatopoeia.”

In teachers’ college we were taught the importance of providing students with handouts and graphic organizers in order to maximize retention and enhance learning. This is the practice being used with Canadian students in high schools all over the country. Well here, where English is still very much a second (or third, or even fourth) language, and we are teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets and essays by Booker T. Washington, students don’t have the privilege of handouts. You see, the fact of the matter is we aren’t allowed to make photocopies. There is only one photocopier in the school and it resides inside the principal’s office. Photocopying handouts for an entire class-worth of students is out of the question. There is a cyclostyle machine (if you don’t know what this is, I urge you to look it up in the dictionary; you will find it quite amusing), but in order to make copies using this prehistoric machine you must provide at least a day’s notice, and bear the guilt of asking someone to turn a crank eighty times, so that your students can have a handout with ten questions written on it. This might seem feasible once in a while, and it is, but as a regular practice it is not at all realistic. As a result, the alternative is to simply read the questions aloud or to write them on the board. The problem with this is that it is incredibly time consuming. The reality is that there is barely enough time to actually teach the content we are expected to cover, so spending 10-15 minutes reading out a list of questions is not worth it. The result is that I rarely assign homework other than reading or maybe a writing topic.

My last example of the lack of resources is perhaps the best to illustrate just how frustrating and challenging teaching here can be. The evaluation for English class is fairly complicated. It is divided into two separate courses (which are being taught in one class), one of which focuses on reading and literature, and the other that focuses on language and grammar. For the first course, called English I, the evaluation is based on two exams worth 80% of the students mark, and on a reading and writing portfolio, each of which account for 10% of the student’s overall mark. The expectations laid out by the Ministry of Education are that the students read forty books a year. Forty books! I have openly admitted to each of my classes that I could not read forty books in a school year. The expectation that these teenagers who have a limited grasp of English, and for whom simple tasks take a considerable amount of time, is not just unrealistic, it’s completely absurd. But the unrealistic expectation is not even the point. The point is that even if my students were capable of reading twenty books each term, they don’t have access to that many books. There is a school library, but students are only allowed to visit the library once every two weeks (I’m not exactly sure why), and for some reason the librarian was not allowing them to borrow any of the school’s books; they were only allowed to read them inside the library. I talked to the librarian and arranged for my students to be allowed to visit the library during lunch one day and borrow a book each. Most of them did take advantage of this opportunity, but I think some of them were already feeling discouraged and didn’t bother. I still haven’t seen the inside of the library though I now know that it does exist in an extremely limited capacity.

One of the consequences of this lack of resources, in my opinion, is a glaring abundance of plagiarism and cheating. I was told that these issues have never really been addressed in the Bhutanese education system and that plagiarism in particular is deeply ingrained in student culture. To be honest, the issue never even crossed my mind until I collected the first essay I had assigned to class XI Com B. I was not particularly impressed by their work at first, not was I disappointed. The ideas were relatively sound and the grammar was as I had expected it to be. But my surprise came when I first read one essay that sounded identical to another that I had already marked. I quickly skimmed back through the essays I had already marked in order to find the essays partner only to discover that the two essays were - word for word – identical to one another. I wrote a quick comment at the bottom of each instructing the students to speak to me about my suspicions, recorded “copied” into my marking sheet, and continued to read on. By the time I had finished marking the entire stack of papers I had a separate pile of twelve essays that had been copied, once again word for word, from one another. I asked Deva Kumar, the head of the English department, what I should do, and he explained to me that there wasn’t much that I could do. You see, Jigme Sherubling – and I’m sure most schools in Bhutan for that matter – does not have a plagiarism policy in place.

So students cheat, right? No big deal. It happens everywhere. Well it doesn’t end there. No more than two weeks ago I was approached by one of my senior colleagues. I was sitting at my desk, which was once again buried under a stack of books and papers, when he asked me if I was busy. The answer was obvious, but the culture here dictates that when someone senior to you asks you to do something you do it. So I told him that I was marking and then asked him what he needed. He explained to me that his sister is studying at a neighbouring university, and is a very good student, but that she was feeling very overwhelmed at the moment and needed some help with an essay. At that moment I thought that he was going to ask me to help edit her essay, a favour I would have been happy (well maybe not happy) to do. But then he handed me a piece of paper with a essay topic written on it and some very broad, rough ideas scribbled down. “Globalization is an powerful force of good in the world. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the above statement.” I chose neither to agree, nor disagree. I didn’t want to even think about it. But after handing me the piece of paper he asked me if I could please write a few paragraphs on the topic.

At this point in time I told him I wasn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of writing this essay, as I am not just a native English speaker, but also an English teacher with two university degrees. In an attempt to meet him half way I offered to brainstorm some ideas for the essay and create an outline for the essay, but somehow – I’m not entirely sure how – he dismissed my ethical concerns and told me just to write some sentences with ideas linked together (this sounds like a paragraph to me).

I came home that night, opened my laptop and created what I considered to be an incredibly detailed outline. Next, I opened up a new word document and began typing an introduction. After one sentence my brain locked. I couldn’t write another word. The truth was that I didn’t want to write another university essay. I feel like I’m done writing essays. It’s now my turn to evaluate essays. On top of that, I couldn’t bring myself to write an essay for a university student that I knew would be evaluated and count towards her overall grade.

I was educated in a system that constantly reinforced academic integrity and honesty as core values. I talked to my mom that night, and she fully agreed with me and planted in my mind the perfect analogy. It was totally unfair for my colleague to expect me to write the essay, as it totally compromised my values, just as it would have been unfair for me to ask him to kill a chicken, as it would compromise his values as a practicing Buddhist. At that I saved my outline, closed my computer, and went to sleep.

The next day I very briefly explained to my colleague that I had created a detailed outline that I would give to him, and that I was happy to edit his sister’s essay once she had completed it, but that I wasn’t comfortable writing it for her. He didn’t seem to mind much (I should have mentioned that he is an incredibly nice man), and I left him with a load off my mind.

A few hours later, another teacher came into the staff room. I could very faintly hear him asking people about the term “NAFTA”, asking if anyone knew what it was. I, of course, knew exactly what it meant, not only because I am Canadian, but also because it was one of the supporting points I had included in my outline under the heading of economic benefits. It was obvious to me that the responsibility of writing the essay had been delegated to another teacher and that my colleague's sister would never write a single word. I quickly explained the basics of NAFTA to the desperate teacher and then washed my hands of entire situation.

The point is that it is not that people are maliciously engaging in plagiarism, but rather that they fail to see anything wrong in what they are doing. It is not even an ethical grey area for them; it’s just not in the spectrum. People just use and reuse words as if the purpose of their existence is to be recycled. A favour here and favour there are sometimes necessary in order for people to cope with the stress that life sometimes deals us. It’s funny because I actually think there is something charming about it. This is the land of Gross National Happiness, and the truth is that people are just trying to help each other and make each other happy. The reality, of course, is that we can’t always be happy and that the stress that accompanies our university studies is actually designed to teach us to manage our time efficiently and to cope with the stress that will most likely greet us when we enter the professional world.

I know that I have been feeling that stress as of late. Teaching has been nothing short of completely exhausting. Teachers’ duties here often begin at 6:30 a.m. and can extend to 8:30 p.m.. In case that doesn’t sound exhausting enough for you, consider that we work a six day week (occasionally seven), and that simply staying alive here takes a considerable amount of work, what with the manual laundry, the malnutrition, and the lack of sunlight and electricity. I’m definitely starting to feel run-down, but at the same time the two-week midterm break is only a little more than a month away, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Needless to say, work has been quite an eye-opening experience. I knew that it would be a challenge before coming here, I just didn’t know how exactly. Again, I think it would have been an enormous challenge in the comforts of my own city, in my own province, in my own country. Being in a foreign country, immersed in a foreign culture, teaching in a foreign education system, has only amplified that challenge. I do think that I am benefiting greatly from this experience, both professionally and personally, and that I will emerge on the other side a better person and a better teacher.

I realize that after reading this people might think that I’m having a miserable time teaching here and that my life is filled with nothing but frustrations, but this couldn’t be further from reality; the truth is I’m loving it all. I can remember a time during my first semester of teachers’ college when I started to seriously doubt whether teaching was the profession for me. I pushed through, telling myself that teachers’ college isn’t teaching, it’s still school. How true that is. Both of my supervising teachers during my practice teaching told me that they thought I was a natural and that they were impressed with how quickly I was learning and adapting my teaching style. It was comforting to hear these words of encouragement, and I honestly felt as though I had developed professionally over those four months. Now I have my own classes and my own students. I am “Sir” or “Nick Sir” or “Mr. Nick” and it just feels right. Teaching is such a great profession, and although it is incredibly stressful and incredibly frustrating at times, it is also incredibly enjoyable, and when you make powerful connections with kids from a totally different culture in a country complete unlike your own and get to witness the positive impact you are having on their lives, it is maybe the most rewarding thing anyone can do.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Blog #21: Khaling’s Cuisine

Before leaving for Bhutan, one of the most common questions I encounter regarding my future home was, “What is the food like there?” At the time I really didn’t have that great of an idea how to answer – my knowledge of Bhutan in general was incredibly limited. I had spoken to Jamie Zeppa about what to expect in terms of food, and she bluntly replied, “Rice and chilies.” This was a tad bit intimidating, as I was not exactly known as a spice man among my friends, but I figured that Jamie was exaggerating slightly and that I would adapt to whatever situation I found myself in.

Well, Jamie was exaggerating slightly. It is unfair to say that the diet here is limited to just chilies and rice. There are potatoes too.

When I first arrived in Khaling (or maybe even just before I arrived, when I was talking to people about Khaling) I was asked numerous times whether I like potatoes. The answer was easy: I love potatoes. I was honestly relieved to learn that potatoes would be readily available here. When I describe a North American diet to my friends here, it is hard to avoid the “meat and potatoes” cliché. The fact of the matter is that in Canada potatoes were a fairly regular part of my diet. So was meat. My friends find it hard to believe – and recently so do I – but in Canada I would most likely eat meat at least two times a day. How quickly things change.

My first dietary surprise upon arriving here was that meat would no longer be a regular part of my diet. In fact, I don’t think I ate meat more than three times in the first month I was here, and even then it would be only a sliver or two; nothing substantial. There is no meat shop here, which essentially means that it is impossible for one to cook meat oneself. There are two restaurants in town (they call them hotels even though they offer neither beds nor rooms to guests), both of which have meat from time to time, but eating at restaurants is expensive (relatively speaking of course), and I only realized that they could satisfy my carnivorous needs a little less than a month ago. So for my first month and a half of living here I essentially became a vegetarian.

I missed meat a great deal for the first week. The second week it became more normal. The third week I wasn’t really thinking about it. And finally, after about a month, I began to notice that my stomach actually didn’t react well to meat when I did eat it. I never would have imagined that my body would adjust so quickly and reject something it once loved so dearly, but I assure you my toilet paper allowance would suggest otherwise.

Now I’m sure many people are rolling their eyes at me as they read this. Fair enough. Being a vegetarian isn’t that big a deal. Really it isn’t…when you have access to vegetables. It actually became a fairly serious problem that I had absolutely no source of protein. I was actually starting to notice that I had very little energy and was lacking strength. What was even more obvious to me was that I was losing a lot of weight. I admit that I did have a lot of weight to lose (since I was expecting to lose weight I let myself eat pretty much anything I wanted to in the month leading up to my departure for Bhutan), but still, my pants were literally falling off of me. I think I have stopped losing weight now, but I would estimate that I have lost at least twenty pounds since arriving in Bhutan. I suppose that this is somewhat of a blessing (I definitely needed to lose weight), but it would also be nice if I wasn’t forced to lose it due to a lack of food.

Sadly, Khaling is notorious for having extremely lazy farmers. I’m still trying to understand what exactly this means, as it seems to me that “lazy farmer” is somewhat of an oxymoron, but I think I have figured it out. It is not that they are lazy, but rather that they are extremely cautious. For the most part they grow only potatoes and maize (and I mean 99.9% of them), as they are failsafe crops. I still haven’t seen any actual fresh corn in the market (only beaten maize), but I’m told it is one of their cash crops.

So we have a constant supply of potatoes from our local farmers, but everything else is imported from other parts of the country and often from India. As a result, our supply of fresh vegetables is fairly limited and frustratingly sporadic.
When I first arrived there was cauliflower and green beans, as well as the standard potato, chili and onion, but after less than two weeks the cauliflower went bad and then ceased to exist, and the beans came and went faster than Grant and Inthu (sorry for the cheap shot guys, just teasing). Then there was a period when we were getting cabbage, but cabbage does not last that long, and after a week they were not particularly appetizing.

Then there was a long period when nothing was arriving in the market. I would go to town every day, searching for anything edible (other than potatoes) that I could throw into a frying pan or pot of boiling water to no avail. So it was kewa datsi (potato and cheese curry) and rice for dinner on Monday night…and Tuesday…and Wednesday…and so on for more than a week. I’m sure to many people the idea of a meal consisting of two carbohydrates and a slab of cheese sounds completely absurd, but it is incredibly filling and when you don’t have any other options, you don’t have any other options.

At this point in time I should point out that I am in no position to complain. The students are fed kewa datsi and rice literally twice a day, every single day of the year. There is absolutely no variety in their diet, and the result is that many of the girls (who are far less active than the boys) are quite tubby. The only other dish they are sometimes given is ema datsi.

Ema datsi is chili and cheese curry. I was warned about it before even arriving in Bhutan, and it is entirely worthy of its notoriety. The best way to describe it is as a bowl of fire. I eat it from time to time when it is offered to me, but usually only in fairly small quantities. At the very most I am usually capable of swallowing four or five bites of this delicacy before my stomach (not my mouth, though it is obviously ablaze) completely shuts down. It is like someone is grabbing your intestines, stretching them to their limits, and tying them into knots so tight they can’t come undone.

Sometimes it actually isn’t that bad, but the cruel thing about ema datsi is that you never know how hot it is going to be until you take a bite, at which point in time, if it is a hot one, you find out in a hurry. Even my Bhutanese friends will often acknowledge to me that this or that batch of ema datsi is too hot for them. This speaks wonders about just how hot this dish can sometimes be.

The Bhutanese eat chili with everything. If there isn’t chili in it, it’s not complete. Most of my friends and colleagues have explained to me that for the Bhutanese, chilies are a vegetable, not a spice. Meals usually consist of a hilarious cacophony of sniffs, grunts and groans, and a people’s faces are usually glistening and dripping with beads of sweat by the time they take their last bites.

I remember Jamie telling me that when she first arrived in Bhutan she could eat two chilies in a meal, and by the time she left could eat twenty-two. I have been trying my hardest to embrace chilies whenever I’m given them, and I have to say that I’m getting there, Jamie. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there.

So to answer people’s questions about the food, it has been a challenge, but at the same time, above all other challenges that I have faced, the situation with the food has taught me that I am capable of adapting to whatever situation I am thrown into. Do I enjoy chilies? Yes, I’m actually starting to miss them when they aren’t in my meals. Do I miss meat? Yeah, I miss it, but I don’t feel like I need it as much anymore. And do I still love potatoes? Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be upset if I didn’t have to eat a potato for a little while, but for the time being that doesn’t seem too likely.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Blog #20: A Royal Rendez-Vous

His Majesty did not show up on the Thursday morning as we had hoped he would. I hadn’t really prepared my lessons so thoroughly because I was counting on class being canceled but I guess I should have known better than to expect schedules to be followed. Thursday was just like any other day, but perhaps slightly less organized on my part. But we were assured that the king was just delayed and that he would likely arrive in Khaling the next morning. So on Friday morning we all gathered during assembly, students and Bhutanese teachers wearing their rachus and kabneys, and waited in eager anticipation for the principal to update us on the king’s status.

We were disappointed by his news. The king was once again delayed and it was looking unlikely that he would stop in Khaling because he was so behind schedule. We were told that classes would resume as usual and that we would be updated if anything changed. Nothing changed all day.

I was disappointed, but at the same time I thought back to my experience with the Rimpoche and figured that I had already had one unbelievable encounter that week, and that I was just being greedy. Besides, I knew that even if the king had visited Khaling, it would have been very different from the Rimpoche’s visit in that it would be far less personal.

That night one of the vice-principals invited my friend Wangchuk and I over to his house for dinner. We arrived at about seven o’clock carrying a big bottle of Sprite and two big bottles of beer as a token of our appreciation. We were invited inside, seated in front of the television, and served tea and biscuits by the vice-principal’s wife.

We had already been chatting for quite a while when the VP’s phone rang. I couldn’t understand the conversation he was having, but I could see that something was going on. When he finally hung up he explained to me that the principal had asked him to come down to town to wait along the side of the road with the students because the king was going to be driving by. The VP told me not to worry about coming because there was little chance that the king would actually stop, but the students were being asked to stand in town to show their respect for the king, so he was being asked to join them as well. He slipped out of his casual clothes and into his gho in less than two minutes (refer to blog #3 to appreciate how impressive this actually is) and was out the door.

No more than ten minutes later I received a call from Namgay saying that the principal thought it would be a good idea if I came to town as well, and that I should hurry because they had received news that his Majesy was only a few minutes away from Khaling. I was slightly frustrated. I had been wearing my gho for the past two days and had only taken it off right before leaving for dinner. Now, with so little time and everyone already waiting in town, there was no way I would be able to put it on back on.

I ran home, quickly changed from my jeans and sweatshirt into some smarter pants, a dress shirt, and a sports coat, and weaved my way through a short cut to town.

The entire community was waiting in town. There was electricity in the air. People were chatting excitedly, fixing their clothes and hair, arranging themselves in an orderly fashion. A few people were standing at the beginning of the crowd, piling branches of Cyprus onto an open flame. Thick white smoke spewed into the air, filling my nostrils with the tree’s sweet aroma. A haze settled over the town and the anticipation was leaving everyone a bit on edge.

I have to admit that I was extremely nervous. I knew that there was certain etiquette that one must follow when meeting the king, and I honestly did not know what exactly I was supposed to do (if I was even going to be lucky enough to meet him). My friends tried to help me, but the anxiety was sickening nonetheless. Several of the Indian teachers told me not to worry about it, that I was not expected to follow the etiquette, which did make me feel slightly more comfortable, but I was still nervous.

Less than five minutes after I arrived in town the flashing lights of the police escort pierced through the thick Cyprus smoke and warned us that His Majesty was arriving. People scurried into position, neatly lining the street in front of the shops.
When the first car rolled up to the pile of burning Cyprus it stopped, as did all the cars behind it. A door swung open and then several more doors followed. Through the smoke I could make out a tall man, wearing a black gho, who seemed to be the focus of the rest of the men around him. His Majesty had arrived.

I was lucky enough to be standing close to the burning Cyprus, so I was one of the first people he would have to pass when walking through the town. He greeted a few of the community leaders first and then began moving through the parted sea of people. With each step he took he created a wave as each person bent their back and bowed at a ninety degree angle. It was a ripple effect like none other I have ever seen before. It was, at least, until he reached me, not because I didn’t bow - I did - but he stopped in front of me and immediate said, “Hello, you must be one of the Canadian teachers,” and he shook my hand. My reputation had apparently preceded me.

“Yes, your Majesty, I am,” I replied nervously.

“I met one of your friends in Wamrong,” he told me, referring to Natalie. “How are you finding Bhutan? Are you comfortable?” he asked.

“I’m very happy here, your Majesty. Thank you. It’s beautiful here and everyone has been very kind.”

“That’s great.” And then he paused. “Can I ask how old you are?”

“Twenty-six,” I responded, still in disbelief that the conversation was still taking place.

“Oh, you’re so young to be so far away from home, teaching in Bhutan.”

At this I had to bite my tongue. His Majesty is only twenty-nine years old. All I wanted to say was You, your Majesty, are so young to be ruling Bhutan! but I figured that this kind of comment was probably not appropriate for the situation.

“Well I hope you enjoy your time here,” he added.

“Thank you, your Majesty,” I replied respectfully. And with that he continued on.

He actually ended up staying in Khaling for almost an hour. He had brought with him three of Bhutan’s most famous actor-comedians who put on a show for the students and townspeople. It was a huge hit, and though I couldn’t understand a word of it (it was in Dzongkha), I even found myself chuckling at some slapstick moments.

After the show, His Majesty made a brief speech, mostly directed at the students (since his coronation he has placed particular emphasis on the development of the country’s youth), apologized for the brevity of his words and explained that he was suffering from a cough and cold. With that, he said some closing remarks and began walking back through the crowds towards the parked convoy.

I thought that was it, I honestly did, but it was nowhere close to it. Call me delusional, call me conceited, but I swear the king was searching for me in the crowd. As he walked in the direction of where I was standing I could see his head scanning the masses looking for me. When he finally caught sight of me he walked directly to where I was standing. As he approached me, the people all around me folded into right angles. I stood there fully exposed like a flower’s pistil when it has fully blossomed.

“Did you enjoy the show?” the king asked me.

“Yes, sir. It was great.”

“I just wanted to come over and say goodbye,” he told me. “I also wanted to thank you for what you are doing here? I am so appreciative of you coming here to teach. Our country and our students are so lucky to have you here.”

“Well I’m very happy to be here, your Majesty,” I replied. “And I think that I speak on behalf of all the other Canadian teachers when I say that it is us who need to thank you for the opportunity to be here doing what we are doing. We all feel very lucky to be a part of this. I know that this is an exciting time in the Bhutanese education system.”

I think my response impressed him and to some extent caught him off guard because it launched us into what became a long and fairly casual conversation about what was going on with Bhutan’s education system, about Canada, about Oxford, and about a series of other unrelated topics. I felt somewhat guilty about the duration of the conversation, not because I was uncomfortable talking to His Majesty – he was an extremely nice and easygoing man – but because the poor people around me remained bent at ninety degree angles the entire time we were talking.

Finally he said, “Well, it was very nice meeting you. I’m going to send you a package, nothing big, just some food and things that might remind you of home. I would give it to you now but it’s all packed away in my car.”
I was so shocked that I stuttered, “Thank you so much, your Majesty.” I didn’t know whether I should say something along the lines of you don’t have to do that, or thank you but really I’m fine, but I decided that when the king offers you treats you accept them graciously. “It was very nice meeting you.” We shook hands once again, and he walked away.

One of his assistants came up to me once he had left and asked me my name and phone number. I gave him my information and he told me that the king would send me a package when he arrived back in Thimphu. I honestly didn’t care about the contents of the package at all. I was doing fine without the luxuries of home. But the fact that the king now had my name and phone number left me with a sweeter taste in my mouth than any of the goodies he was going to send me ever could. After days and days of waiting, after all the anticipation, then disappointment, and then more anticipation, and after less than two months in Bhutan, I had met the most powerful man in the country, His Majesty, the 5th Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Blog #19: The King is Coming! The King is Coming!

We had been told a week ago, only days before the rimdro, that His Majesty, the 5th King, was going to be traveling through Khaling at some point in the near future, and that there was a possibility that he would stop at our school. Well today, towards the end of my 6th period English class, the last period of the day, two students came around to each class informing the other students that the principal was asking for them to bring their kabneys and rachus to school the next morning, the accessories which elevate their ghos and kiras to the status of formal attire. The message read loud and clear: the King was coming and we were to be prepared.

I should, by now, be used to this kind of last minute notice, but still it continues to catch me off guard. It’s strange because I consider myself to be flexible in terms of planning and schedules, but for some reason I find myself getting slightly frustrated not knowing whether I’m going to be teaching my classes the next day or not. The frustration is not at the point where it cannot be contained, but I can feel a little something brewing deep inside of me sometimes. I’m usually quite good at recognizing this and I come home and call Keira to vent, or write a few words here and there on my computer, or play my guitar to blow off steam.

I think that more than anything the last few weeks have been filled with surprises, but at the same time, this vivid image of a BCF document on culture shock stands out in my memory. I don’t have it with me (I didn’t bring it – part of my refusal to over prepare), but I remember it’s general message: that there would be several stages of culture shock, including one in which the small quirks of Bhutanese culture might begin to frustrate us. I don’t really think that that is what I’m experiencing because I actually enjoy the quirks of Bhutanese culture, but I do feel like sometimes my job is made more difficult by an unpredictable and fairly erratic schedule.

That being said, I couldn’t be more excited about the possibility of having the King visit our school tomorrow. After my experience of meeting Garab Rimpoche at the rimdro last week, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with good fortune right now. It was such a treat to meet the Rimpoche, and he seemed to respond to me differently than everyone else (which I feel guilty about, yes, but also appreciate), and I have to admit that I am crossing my fingers that I might have the good fortune of a similar experience with His Majesty.

I was warned by several teachers that the King visited last year, and that makes the likelihood of him stopping in at our school this time significantly lower, but I can still hope for the best. From what I understand, we are going to go down to the market at the beginning of the school day and basically sit around there waiting for any sign of His Majesty’s convoy. I was told that we might have to wait thirty minutes, or that we might have to wait upward of four hours. But this only goes to show the patriotism and the love and admiration that the Bhutanese feel for their King. Their devotion to the monarchy is an enormous part of their culture, and I am assimilating into their culture, and so I will stand by the wayside and wait with them.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Blog #18: Rimdro at JigSher

Early in the week we were told in assembly that Jigme Sherubling HSS would be having its annual Rimdro on Friday, and that classes would be canceled that day in order to prepare for the event.

At school all of the teachers were asked to contribute some money in order to finance the festivities, a request which sparked a little bit of debate that was left unresolved. The question was whether there should be a mandatory minimum donation or not. I understood and sympathized with both sides of the argument. On one hand there was going to be a large celebration for the entire school community that would span from morning to night, and therefore require meals for students, staff and guests. I was told that dinner would be a large feast and that much of the money was going towards purchasing meat, a commodity towards which I would have contributed the majority of my salary. On the other hand, a rimdro is also a religious ceremony, and considering that none of the twelve Indian teachers are Buddhist, it did seem somewhat unfair to demand that they contribute to this Buddhist ceremony. I, of course, am not Buddhist either (at least not yet), but I was happy to contribute the same amount as all of my friends. I was already salivating just from the thought of sinking my teeth into some tender beef.

The rimdro was supposed to begin at about 9:00, so I was also quite excited that I was going to be able to sleep in a bit. But at 6:30 in the morning my phone rang and jolted me from my sleep. At first I considered ignoring the call, as it was from a number I didn’t recognize and didn’t really feel like acknowledging so early in the morning, but then I realized that it probably had something to do with the rimdro and that ignoring it wouldn’t reflect so well upon my professionalism. So I answered the incessant ringing with a groggy, muffled voice. It was one of the other teachers who was helping coordinate the rimdro. The principal, he told me, was requesting that I be the official photographer for the day. I got out of bed, grabbed my camera, popped the battery out of its slot, threw it into its charger, jumped back into bed, and slipped back into my dreams for another hour.

The morning program was fairly uneventful. For the most part I actually slipped away to the computer lab and chatted online with a few important people at home. In all fairness, not much else was going on. Several students were in the dining hall praying with some monks, but the majority of students were preparing for the arrival of one of Eastern Bhutan’s most powerful Lamas, Garab Rimpoche..

At around eleven o’clock I was rushed over to the principal’s car. The Rimpoche wasn’t far from Khaling, and as a custom important guests are always received by their hosts a ways away from their actual destination. So I hopped in the principal’s car with my camera in hand, and we led a convoy of eight cars to Thrizor, a tiny community (better described as a small clearing) about 15 minutes from Khaling. We all parked snugly against a bend in the mountain, and moved over to a plat clearing on the other side of the road, where we set up a chair, an umbrella, and a table with cloth for the Rimpoche’s arrival.

The actually arrival and reception were over in the blink of an eye. What took more than twenty minutes of preparation to set up was used for less than three minutes while the Rimpoche blessed each of us who came to receive him, and before I knew it I was being hustled back into the principal’s car, leading the convoy back to JigSher.

The whole school was waiting for us by the time we arrived back. The teachers and several lucky community members were lining the path leading towards the dining hall, waiting to be blessed by the Rimpoche.

His Holiness was actually incredibly casual and laid back. He instantly struck up conversation with me when I first met him (I stand out a bit here), while my Bhutanese friends and colleagues stood with backs bent, eyes lowered and mouths shut. I was not entirely comfortable with my special treatment, but at the same time I understood where it was coming from. I was not a part of Bhutanese culture, and his Holiness had traveled a fair bit and been exposed to many western cultures, so as a result he was trying to make me feel more comfortable by blurring the lines that divided East and West. More often than not he did this with humour. As a walked backwards past the receiving line snapping photos of the Rimpoche’s arrival, and the Bhutanese bowed and covered their mouths and noses with a hand, the Rimpoche approached me and asked, “Do you know why all of these people are covering their mouths and noses?” to which I replied, “Yes, sir. It is out of respect for you,” the appropriate and accurate response. At this the Rimpoche pounced, “No, it’s because the principal and I smell really bad.” I couldn’t believe it. I was standing next to one of the most powerful religious figures in the country, and there he was cracking jokes with me.

Backwards, I led the way into the dining hall where the entire student body was waiting for the Rimpoche to give his speech and to recite several mantras. The assembly was quite boring for me, I must admit, as the entire speech was delivered in Dzongkha. I spent the two hours snapping photo after photo, but even this left me unsatisfied, as the lighting in the dining hall was less than ideal.

At the end of the speech, after the students had cleared out of the dining hall, the Rimpoche called me to the stage on which he was sitting. We chatted casually at first. He thanked me for coming to Bhutan to teach and expressed his appreciation for what I am doing, and I told him that it was my pleasure to be here and that I consider myself to be the lucky one. Then he summarized his speech to the students for me. He told me that he was explaining to them that Bhutan is really a model country for the rest of the world and that they, the youth, are responsible for preserving this status. He told me, and them, that in terms of culture, peace, safety, happiness and other aspects of life that we all value so dearly, Bhutan is leading the world at preserving and fostering these values.

Then the Rimpoche’s lunch arrived, so I thanked him for talking with me, and left him to eat in peace.

At the end of the busy day we once again escorted the Rimpoche to a different sight on the opposite side of Khaling. Just as it is customary to receive important guests, it is also customary to send them off. We drove to an equally beautiful sight where the principal and teachers of Wamrong had erected their own reception sight. I followed the Rimpoche and principal to the top of a hill while the rest of my Bhutanese colleagues stood below. We stood around while the Rimpoche drank some tea and ate some biscuits, and then right before we were all about to depart, I mustered up the courage to ask one of his assistants if it would be okay to take a picture with his Holiness. The assistant asked the Rimpoche who was happy to oblige. On top of a grassy hill, I stood beside one of Bhutan’s holiest men while he put an arm around my shoulder and joked about how I needed to crouch a little so he didn’t look so short next to me.

When the principal and I marched back down the hill and I showed my friends the pictures they were all bursting with jealousy. Again, I felt guilty that I had been treated so differently and had been awarded a photo opportunity with this man who they all worshiped so passionately. However, this is just the position in which I have placed, and I am telling myself that all I can do is embrace all that this unbelievable experience has to offer.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Blog #17: Rain, Rain, Go Away

People had warned me before arriving here that Khaling was somewhat “gray” or “dreary”, but for the most part I disregarded what they said. When I arrived here the weather was beautiful and I thought that they must have been mistaken, just as they were when they told me that everyone here drinks and drinks hard.

Well after Keira left it rained for almost two weeks straight. I mean torrential downpour, day and night, non-stop rain. Just in case the rain wasn’t bad enough, there were also a few more hailstorms thrown into the mix, as well as some violent windstorms.

At first I didn’t mind the rain, it was actually kind of exciting. I love watching big storms and being right in the middle of a downpour, especially when I’m in an exotic place, but I never really considered how big an impact rain can have when one is living a relatively simple life. For instance, I ran out of clean clothes after about one week, and considering that my laundry facilities include two buckets that I manually dunk my clothes into over and over again until they are clean and several clotheslines outside my house for drying my clothes, laundry became quite an issue. I could get my clothes clean, but getting them dry was near impossible. I dried my underwear and socks inside, which took a minimum of three days, and resorted to wearing the same two pairs of pants and the same two shirts day after day. The reality was that I had no other options. It was, however, a bit of wakeup call for me because the rainy season begins in June and ends in September, so there is certainly more of the same to come.

As if two weeks of non-stop rain wasn’t bad enough, matters were made worse by a long stretch without electricity. At first it was kind of fun having blackouts here and there. I would usually light a few candles and play guitar or write. There is something about candlelight that really gets my creative juices flowing and makes me feel inspired. I wrote a few songs that I think are quite good and for the first time since I arrived here I started plugging away at a book that I’ve been working on. But that was just at first. After the first full day without electricity my laptop’s battery was completely drained, so I no longer had my computer. My guitar became my saving grace as it has numerous times in my life, and I found myself playing for hours at a time, singing at the top of my lungs to overcome the din of rain or hail hammering against my roof. But even still, I could only play guitar for so long. I would read by candlelight, but I found that reading in such a dimly lit room just made me tired and I would often end up falling asleep at around 7:00 just because I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer without light.

For the first two days with zero electricity I just brushed it off. This is just a part of life in Bhutan, I would tell myself. But after more than 72 hours without power I started to get fairly frustrated. More than anything else I just wanted to have a shower, and considering that showering involves filling the very same buckets I use for laundry with water, heating that water using a crude looking electrical device that is placed in the bucket and plugged into a wall outlet, and dumping that water over my head using a small jug, I wasn’t really looking forward to doing that without the crucial step of heating the water. It had been almost a week since I last showered (and to “shower” here means to simply rinse, whereas to “bath” means to scrub yourself with soap) and I kept telling myself that I would wait until I had electricity again so I could have hot water. But it never came, so on day three, lit only by candlelight, I had myself a cold shower, dried myself off, and jumped directly into bed at about 9:00.

When I woke up on day four the electricity was still off. I went to school, taught my classes in a fairly half-assed manner considering that preparing for work was exponentially more difficult without power, and returned home at the end of the day to find my apartment still had no electricity.

I decided to go to the market to kill some time and because I was actually about to run out of candles (I had half of one left). In town the power was also out, but the shops remained open, lit by candlelight when customers entered, but otherwise draped in darkness. I went from shop to shop searching for candles, but every single shop in town was sold out. I couldn’t believe that it was actually possible for the electricity to be down for four straight days and for no one to have any candles to counter this rather significant problem. Finally, in one of the last stores on the strip I found a small package of six tiny candles for twenty ngultrum (about 50 cents), so I bought them and returned home only to find that the power was back on.

I sat at my table and watched a bit of a movie on my computer as it charged. I took three of the candles I had just purchased and stuck them to the table at various locations, and no sooner had I secured the last of the three than the power went out again. I couldn’t help but burst into laughter. At first not having electricity hadn’t bothered me in the slightest, then I had become quite frustrated by it, and then all I could do was laugh at the absurdity of the situation. I had waited three and a half days for the power to come back on, and when it finally did, it was for less than twenty minutes, and then I was once again left in the dark. I lit the candles, turned off my computer to conserve the battery, picked up my guitar, and wrote another song.