Friday, June 18, 2010

Blog #25: Where am I?

DISCLAIMER: This will be my last disclaimer. I have apologized all I can for my lengthy blog entries. The reality is that my blog has taken on a life of its own and I no longer feel as if I can limit how much I write. It has been a long time since my last entry, and a great deal has happened. I have spent a long time trying to condense this entry into a manageable length, and this is the best I could do. Happy reading!

Let me start by saying that I love Khaling. It is not the most beautiful place in Bhutan by any means, but it does possess a certain charm that I haven’t really felt anywhere else. I have become accustomed to watching the thick white clouds roll over the mountains behind the school each and every afternoon, and the ensuing showers no longer bother me. There is something surreal about jogging along the two-lane, transnational highway that twists and turns through the mountains as the clouds creep over the road, enveloping me and cooling me in my sweat. Khaling has become my home. But I didn’t really realize just how much it felt like home until I left it.

It is extremely difficult not to feel slightly trapped here. For weeks all I could think about was getting out of here and seeing somewhere new, somewhere different. It’s difficult living in a foreign country and only experiencing one tiny sliver of what it has to offer. I realize that I’m not here to travel, I’m here to work, but when I finally go home I would like to be able to say that I saw all there was to see here. The challenge lies in the fact that we work six days a week and that it is impossible to get anywhere here in less than a day when you don’t have a car. So in the midst of a serious bout of cabin fever, I arranged to take a few days leave from work and visit Ann in Mongar and Keira in Lhuntse.

Even with a few days off of work, Lhuntse is a long way from Khaling (in terms of travel time, not distance). Realistically it takes almost two full days of travel to drive the 200 odd kilometers from point A to B. The bus leaves Khaling at 12:30 in the afternoon and arrives in Mongar at 7:00 that night, and then the next morning the bus leaves Mongar at 11:30 and arrives at 4:00 in the afternoon. So with four days of travel time I had to get creative in my planning. On Wednesdays I don’t have any classes after lunch so my day technically ends at 12:30; Thursday, May 27 was a national holiday here so I wasn’t required to be at work; and Saturdays only count as a half-day because we finish school at lunchtime, so I figured if I left on Wednesday afternoon I would only have to take Friday, Saturday and Monday off of work (two and a half days) and I could actually have a six day break: ample time to make it to Lhuntse and back.

So I cheated. I skipped out of my fourth period class at about 12:15 just to make sure that I made it into town in time to catch the bus that was loosely scheduled to leave at 12:30 (this departure time is based entirely on inductive reasoning; in reality the bus leaves twenty minutes after it arrives, and it arrives when it arrives). When I arrived in town at 12:25 I asked around about the bus and was happy to learn that it had not yet arrived. My relief turned to frustration about half an hour later when I was still waiting for the bus to arrive. My frustration turned to aggravation when the school’s lunch hour came to an end at 1:40 and the bus was still nowhere to be found.

The bus finally pulled into Khaling at about 1:55. UK had come into town during lunch to see me off and to help me sort out the arrangements of my journey, as the major players involved in getting me to Mongar spoke no English. He had spoken to the people at the restaurant where the bus stops a few days earlier to find out whether I needed to buy a ticket ahead of time. They told him that the bus is usually quite empty and that getting a ticket in advance was unnecessary. You can imagine my surprise then, when the bus rolled to a stop and not a single seat was vacant. But UK worked his magic and spoke to the bus driver, and by the time the passengers finished their lunches at the restaurant, the bus driver and ticket collector had “made room for me” on the bus. I thanked UK for his help (something that has become all to common), gave him a hug and our patented handshake, and loaded my bags and myself onto the crowded bus.

The “room” they had made for me was the middle seat in the very back of the bus. Anyone who knows anything about carsickness knows that the back of the bus is the absolute worst place to be in the event of an episode. And anyone who knows anything about Bhutan knows that if ever there were a road to induce projectile vomiting nausea, it would be the highway that stretches from east to west across the Bhutanese Himalayas.

I was actually relatively unaffected by carsickness. I only experienced one or two waves of nausea, but with some deep breaths and focus the queasiness passed. I have always found that the remedy for nausea is usually a heavy dose of mind over matter. The human mind is a powerful force of influence, one with the potential to work for or against its operator. Learning to recognize the mind’s tendency to focus on the negative and teaching it to redirect its influence into a positive force is something that is not always easy, but it is something I have learned to do when necessary. Because nausea is really just in the mind, it is one of those things that, in my experience, can be conquered with the right amount of metacognition.

What was actually more challenging to overcome was the discomfort of occupying the middle space of a bench designed for five, but seating six. I shouldn’t be complaining because the bus was so overcapacity that it actually reached the point where people were sitting on the spare tire in the front of the bus or even standing for the whole journey, but at times I questioned whether that wouldn’t actually be more comfortable.

The bus was occupied almost entirely by Indian men – labourers who had arrived in Bhutan to work in construction. This is relevant only because Indians tend to have a very different understanding of the notion of personal space to us westerners. More than once my neighbour to my left rested his head on my shoulder while he caught a little shut-eye, while my neighbour to my right stretched his legs out into the space my legs were hoping to occupy.

The stares basically started the second I stepped on the bus. For the first ten minutes of my journey they made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. I have become accustomed to being stared at – it’s simply something that comes with the territory when you live in a town where you are the only white person people have ever seen in real life – but usually I will make an effort to ease my discomfort by approaching people and talking to them, even if only to say kuzuzangpola or hello. But after an attempt at speaking with my neighbours on the bus I realized that no one – and I mean no one – spoke a word of English and that any attempt at communication was futile. Ironically, my attempt to communicate with my neighbours only drew more stares, and soon almost all the passengers were swiveled in their spots, their heads popping over the seat backs or protruding into the aisle, studying me as if I were the subject of some fascinating experiment.

I put my headphones in my ears, pushed play on my iPod, and let myself slip into my own little world. It was much more comfortable there. The stares didn’t stop for quite some time, but they were somehow less intrusive – less threatening – with the shield of my music. The faces that stared back at me ceased to bother me and instead plastered a smile on my face that stretched so wide I thought my neighbour might feel it. All of a sudden I realized where I was and what I was doing.

Keira and I have discussed several times how every so often a little voice inside our head screams at the top of its lungs, “Where am I!?!?” I think it is a fair enough question to ask given our situations. What’s strange is that I haven’t been asking myself that question more often. Life in Khaling has become so routine that I have become desensitized to the many cultural eccentricities that I experience on a daily basis. It’s usually only when I share stories with Keira that I actually realize what we’re doing and just how crazy it is.

I find that it is often easier to appreciate an experience when I take a step back and remove myself from it temporarily. The bus ride from Khaling to Mongar proved to be the perfect reminder. I did nothing but stare out the window for the first two hours of the journey. Khaling may not be the most beautiful place in Bhutan, but the area surrounding it is certainly a contender. The mountains soared high into the periwinkle sky while the valleys and all the life they contained rested peacefully bellow. Clouds clung to the steepest escarpments and crept ever so slowly up the cliffs until they escaped into the endless sky. Massive rivers that snaked through the forests became nothing more than tiny earthworms as we climbed and climbed, higher and higher. And all the while I sat silently, being stared at, unable to communicate with anyone around me. I don’t think I have ever felt so completely foreign before.

Where am I? This place is so incredibly beautiful, and my words can hardly do it justice, nor can my photographs, sadly. Physically it is so very different from home. What am I doing here? I’m a city boy. I’ve lived in cities my entire life. And now, here I am, living in my small mountain town, with nothing but rolling mountains for hours in every direction.

And then something strange happened. As I stared out at the massive mountains I really started to ask myself “Where…am…I?”and a surge of tears began to well in my eyes. I thought about the immensity of the world – all the people, places and cultures, all the diversity that makes it so interesting and so exciting, so beautiful. And then I thought about the immensity of this experience. I mean, how lucky am I? How many people in this world could even point out Bhutan on a map? How many people can say that they have lived on top of a mountain in the middle of the Himalayas? How many people can say that they have willingly left the comforts of home behind only to blindly push forward into the unknown? My tears were not tears of misery, nor were they tears of frustration. They were tears of pride. The decision to come here had not been an easy one. I often think about the sacrifices I made in coming here, the things…the people I left behind. But I no longer question whether that decision was the right one. I already feel like I have accomplished more than I expected to just from being here. I know that by the time I go home I will have grown so much. I have already learned so much about myself and about how I want to live my life. The challenges of living here continue to present themselves on a near weekly basis, but I have persevered thus far, and I no longer have any reason to doubt that I am fully capable of dealing with whatever is thrown my way. Maybe it was that I had just overcome one of my biggest challenges to date, my illness (see blog #23), or maybe it was just that I had finally taken a step back from what I am doing, but either way, as the bus crept forward I was filled with an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. I mean, after all, where am I?

By the time my tears of pride had dried and crusted on my eyelids the bus rolled to a stop on the outside of the narrow mountain highway. As the driver popped his door open the flashing lights of an ambulance whizzed by our bus. Through the front windshield I could see two more ambulances just ahead of us at a rocky bend in the road.

Human curiosity got the best of most of us. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow rightly points out “ the fascination of the abomination” that humans experience. When we see the flashing lights of an ambulance we are immediately drawn to the cause of its presence, despite the fact that we know we will more often than not find a scene of misery – one of pain and suffering. People didn’t even hesitate. They stepped off the bus and walked directly towards the bend in the road.

Thankfully, no one was actually injured in the accident. The ambulances appeared to be there as more of a formality than a necessity. A construction truck and a small hatchback had apparently been rounding the same blind corner at the same time when they collided with one another head on. They must have been going quite slowly because there really wasn’t a great deal of damage to the car. A dented fender, a broken headlight, a hubcap bent and pinned against the side of the mountain. People gathered around the collision and seemed to be discussing the damage. Not understanding what was being said, I strolled back to the bus, appreciating the opportunity to stretch my legs.

I really only appreciated that opportunity for about fifteen minutes. After an hour of waiting, uninformed, I was beginning to question whether I was going to make it to Mongar that night. The bus had already been two hours late in departing from Khaling, and the journey to Mongar supposedly took about seven hours. The bus had rolled to a stop at about 5:00, and by 6:00 it didn’t seem like any progress had been made in clearly the collision. I really just wanted to share the absurdity of my predicament with someone, so called Keira to explain what had happened, but two or three minutes into our conversation I lost cell phone reception. It returned just long enough for me to text message Ann to inform her that I was drastically behind schedule, and then disappeared once again.

Finally, at about 7:00 two police motorcycles cruised by our bus towards the scene of the accident. About ten minutes later the passengers and bus driver returned to the bus, the engine grumbled, and we were once again making our way through the mountains.

The bus careened through the mountains, inertia sending all of its passengers flying into its sides as it made 180 degree turn after 180 degree turn, up and down the mountains. It appeared as if the bus driver was attempting to make up for lost time – something I would have appreciated had the cause of our lost time not been a road accident. Rain spat down on us from thick gray clouds that were undefinable in the graying sky. Daylight turned to dusk and dusk to dark in a matter of minutes.
By the time Mongar city came within sight I was exhausted. It was about 9:45 and I had been stuck on the bus, wedged between two men for far too long. I’m embarrassed to admit this, and I’m hoping that my exhaustion excuses it to some extent, but I made a classic Bhutan traveler’s mistake. I text messaged Ann and told her that I was close and that I would probably be arriving in fifteen to twenty minutes. After all, I just saw the lights of Mongar and it didn’t look that far away. I should have checked the time before making this prediction, but I think it was such a relief to finally see my destination that wishful thinking clouded my judgement. It is important not to trust your eyes when judging distance in Bhutan. Nothing is as close as it seems.

I remember making the same mistake during a stretch of our journey from Punukha to Bumthang. We were going to stop in a place called Trongsa for lunch. Our bus screeched to a stop beside a beautiful chorten overlooking a lush valley. On the other side of the valley lay Trongsa Dzong and a few hotels, one of which was our destination for lunch, so we quickly piled back onto the bus and kept moving. Well, it was half an hour before we arrived on the other side of that valley.

Mongar was close, but not that close. Its light came into view and left several times before I stopped watching. The sky had cleared by then and the moonlight shone brightly through the rear windshield, aptly casting a shadow of the window’s bars on the back of the seat in front of me. After a long and tiring day of ups and downs, the bus was certainly beginning to feel like a prison I would never escape from.

* * *

I arrived in Mongar at 10:40, only regaining cell phone reception after stepping off the bus. I tried calling Ann to find out how to get to her place, but her line busy. Keira had visited a few times and knew where she lived, so I tried calling her. Busy. I knew exactly what was happening. They were on the phone with one another, clogging up their lines, and I had no idea where I was going. First I texted Keira telling her to get the hell off the phone and stop talking to Ann, then I texted Ann asking her how to get to her place. In the meantime, I asked someone in town if they could tell me how to get to the lower secondary school because I knew that Ann lived nearby to the school. The woman asked me who I was looking for. I told her, and she told me that she was one of Ann’s colleagues and that she could take me to Ann’s place. I accepted her offer and piled my bags into her tiny car.

When I got to Ann’s place she wasn’t there. I knew what that meant; she was waiting for me back in town. I tried calling her once again and this time I got through. She told me that her door was open, so I dropped my bags inside and then made my way back down the road to meet her. When we finally arrived back at her place I was completely spent. Ann very kindly made me a quick dinner, we chatted as I ate, and then I hit the hay in a hurry.

I barely spent any time in Mongar on my way to Lhuntse. I woke up at about 9:00. Ann and I sat on her balcony overlooking Mongar city and enjoying some of the real Tim Horton’s coffee that she had brought from home. It was extremely relaxing and I envied Ann’s lifestyle. She had just a few of the luxuries of home – real coffee, a running shower with hot water, a washing machine, a refrigerator – but that was still so much more than I had. I’m not sure I would actually want those things here, but having a little taste of what life used to be like was definitely nice.

A little later we wandered into town. I brought all my bags with me (my knapsack, my guitar, and a shopping bag filled with a few snacks, my book and my glasses) because going back to Ann’s place before my bus left didn’t seem to make any sense. We did a bit of shopping for vegetables to bring to Keira (her request – it seems Lhuntse’s supply of vegetables is even more pathetic than Khaling’s), and then started enquiring about where to catch the bus. We received a few different versions of the story and finally settled on the one that was told with the greatest confidence.

When the bus arrived I said goodbye to Ann for the time being and lugged my bags on board. As soon as I stepped in the aisle of the bus a young guy sitting at the back told me to pass my bags back to him. I did so and followed them to the rear seat. This time the bus was much roomier so I didn’t mind my positioning.

The guy next to me chatted on his cell phone for a little while. I sat and I waited, preparing myself for another long, uncomfortable ride. Then the guy hung up his phone, turned and spoke to me.

“Where are you going?” he asked (a common greeting here, similar to “how are you?)

“I’m going to visit a friend of mine in Lhuntse,” I replied.

“Are you a tourist here?”

“No, I’m a teacher. I’m living in Khaling.”

“At Jigme Sherubling?”

“Yeah,” I replied unfazed. It seems like everyone has either gone to JigSher at some point in their education or knows someone who has.

“Oh. And your friend is a teacher too?”

“Yeah, she’s teaching at Phuyum,” I told him, searching to see if he knew of it.

“Cool. I live in Autsho. It’s about half way between Mongar and Lhuntse.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, not really knowing where exactly Autsho was.

“Well, I was just talking to my friend who drives a taxi about taking me to Autsho. Would you want to take a taxi? It will be much faster.”

“Um, maybe, but how much will it cost?”

He explained that it would cost each of us 100 ngultrum to get to Autsho, and then once we arrived there he would help me flag down a ride to Lhuntse. The plan actually didn’t seem so beneficial to me, as it cost more money and was likely to take me just as long to get there, but it did sound more comfortable and more likely to result in adventure, so I accepted.

The taxi ride was definitely fast and comfortable. Sonam proved to be a really nice guy. He was working in construction because he had failed to qualify for university. His English was excellent, and I could tell from his style that he was heavily influenced by American film and television. He told me that he wanted nothing more than to visit Canada. His old principal had studied in Canada (New Brunswick I assume), and had told him all sorts of amazing stories about living there. He was so familiar with the culture from television that he felt like he would really love it there. After my previous day’s experience of not being able to communicate with anyone, it was actually really nice being able to talk to Sonam, and during that drive to Autsho the time passed quickly.

When we arrived in Autsho there wasn’t a car in sight. It was a national holiday in Bhutan, the Buddha’s Parinirvana, so not many people were traveling. Sonam waited with me for a little over an hour, and finally, when no cars had passed and coaster bus (a slightly more upscale bus) arrived, he talked to the driver, and arranged for me to sit in the front seat the rest of the way to Lhuntse. I thanked him, arranged to meet him back in Mongar on Sunday (though that never happened) and said goodbye.

I had forgotten just how beautiful the drive to Lhuntse was. I won’t go into too much detail because I already described it in my entry about dropping Keira off when we first arrived, but it really is one of the nicest drives I have experienced in this country. The road follows the river the entire journey, most of the time right along its banks, but occasionally soaring high above it, up through the rising mountains. Across the river, steep cliffs made up of bright orange rock rippled upwards towards the clear blue sky. On the more gradual inclines lush forests mixed with grassy coverings. It was as though Lhuntse’s colours could have made any artist’s palette all the brighter.

* * *

I arrived in Lhuntse town at about 4:30. Keira was going to greet me where the bus dropped me off, but before she arrived I ran into some students who were headed towards the school, so I called her and told her I would just meet her at her place.

The Dzongkhag’s athletic tournament was taking place at Phuyum that weekend, and by the time I followed the students to the top of a steep hill I could see all of Phuyum in action. The football field, basketball court and everything in between was littered with people moving to and fro. The massive mountains stood just beyond the school grounds, watching over the day’s events, guarding the school from whatever lay beyond them. I carefully navigated my way down the slippery mud path until I was standing in the school’s parking lot, and there was Keira.

We didn’t do much that first night. We went for a quick walk and Keira showed me around Lhuntse town, and then we just hung out and I met some of Keira’s friends. I can tell you that Lhuntse town is not the most exciting place. The market is divided into upper and lower market, but essentially the two are the same. There is a short strip of wooden shops offering only the most basic goods. I thought I had it bad in Khaling, but Lhuntse’s market was truly destitute. In terms of produce, there were only a handful of shops offering any vegetables, and even then the only options were potatoes, onions, and some very rotten looking cabbage. We did eventually stumble upon one shop that had a fresh supply of garlic, a welcome surprise that excited Keira very much.

The next morning we wandered around the school for a little while, watching bits and pieces of the various sports events taking place. Breakfast was being served in the school’s MPH (Multi Purpose Hall) and there I met a few more of Keira’s colleagues, all of whom were lovely.

Keira had been coaching the girls’ football team (soccer for all you ignoramuses) up until a few weeks prior and was eager to witness her girls compete in the championship match, so we set off on a mission to enquire about the day’s schedule. We asked every teacher we came across, but no one could give us a straight answer.

“…I’m not exactly sure.”

“…I heard right after lunch.”

“…Probably not until later.”

The ambiguity continued for well over half an hour. It became quite apparent that no one had the slightest clue when any of the day’s events were taking place. In fact, it was beginning to look as if there was no schedule at all. Eventually, Keira and I agreed that it was silly to sit around waiting for the game when the majority of people were saying it would be towards the end of the day, so we compromised and decided to go for a walk along one of Keira’s favourite jogging routes right by the river and return to the school at lunchtime in order to catch the girls’ football final.

It took us about forty minutes of walking down a dirt road carved out of the side of the mountain before we reached a small clearing of brush just beyond one of the tiny communities that we had passed. We stepped through the opening and wandered down the trail. On either side of us, dense patches of tall marijuana plants blew in the wind and led us down towards a beach.

Lhuntse seems to be the land of marijuana (although it grows wild throughout the country), with massive patches of the plant springing up in the most unusual places (including patches in the middle of the beach). Though it is widely available to anyone who chooses to pick it, the consumption of marijuana is still illegal in Bhutan, and few people, if any, dare to challenge that law. The result is six-foot high plants with massive leaves sparkling in the sunlight. To a foreigner, the sight is quite amusing – I mean, look at all that pot! – but to the Bhutanese marijuana is just another one of the thousands of species of flora living in their Himalayan home.

Keira and I spent the rest of the morning relaxing by the river, playing our guitars and signing, working on new songs and practicing old ones. I hadn’t realized this before, but Khaling is seriously lacking a beautiful river. It was so nice being able to get away from “civilization” and just sit with my feet dangling in the cold, swift water. It was so peaceful listening to the rush of water crashing against the rocks.

We stayed by there until about 11:30 and then Keira started to get anxious about missing the girls’ final, so we packed up our things and headed back to Phuyum.

As we were hiking up the school’s driveway (and I mean hiking!) we came across a few of the girls on the football team. The good news – they had won; the bad news – we had missed the game. I know that Keira was extremely disappointed that she had missed the match and felt quite guilty to boot. I felt awful that she had missed the one game that she had so desperately wanted to see, and couldn’t help but think that if I hadn’t come to visit that weekend she would have seen it. At the same time, neither of us were really to blame. The real cause of her missing the match was a general lack of organization and communication, something that I think we have both experienced on a regular basis in Bhutan.

We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out at Keira’s place. The little kids who live upstairs from Keira eventually came down to play and completely wore us out. They were cute little guys, but definitely troublemakers, and they spoke basically no English which made them all the more of a handful. I was actually quite impressed with Keira’s ability to communicate with them in Dzongkha. I don’t mean to suggest that she has learned a great deal of Dzongkha, but she has definitely learned far more than I have, and her grasp of simple commands is quite strong. Unfortunately, Keira’s strong sense of obligation to the school occasionally forced her to pop down to the field to make an appearance and to help out in any way she could, leaving me alone with the troublemakers. When she returned for the last time in the late afternoon, the two little ones, Yeshi and Jigme, were literally bouncing off the walls. Keira picked up one of them holding him like a baby, and I swung the other one, giggling, over my shoulder, and we carried them upstairs to their parents.

I was craving momos like nothing else, so when we came back downstairs we decided to head into town. Keira had a bunch of work to do, so I told her to bring it with her and do it at a restaurant. I threw a book I was close to finishing into my bag (The Book of Negroes…highly recommended if you haven’t yet read it) and we marched up the slippery mud path towards town.

We only ended up staying in town for an hour at the most. The reality was that it wasn’t so inviting. We were sitting in a dingy basement, Keira studying and myself reading, both of us trying not to get distracted by the television playing “Home Alone” in the corner of the room. We packed up and headed back home.

But Keira was not done her work. Oh no! Not even close. She had seemingly endless stacks of homework books to correct, and I could see in her eyes that she wasn’t going to be able to relax until they were finished. So when we got home she worked...and she worked...and she worked some more. I have to say that I was impressed by her focus during those next four hours, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wanted to smack some sense into her. I have had numerous telephone conversations with Keira about the amount of work she does. I understand that she feels like she has to do it all, but I have warned her several times to limit the amount of work she brings home each night. There is endless marking here – this is just a reality of teaching in Bhutan. For us Canadian teachers, I think we feel an obligation to put in a wholehearted effort to be as thorough with our marking as possible. I know I have picked through every single word in students’ essays, correcting each tiny spelling, grammar or punctuation mistake, as well as providing comments and suggestions for improvement. But I also think that this is gong above and beyond the expectations here (not that there is anything wrong with that if one has the time). The reality is that many Bhutanese teachers deal with the endless evaluation process by putting in minimal effort in their marking. More than once I have watched my friends at JigSher flipping through students’ notebooks, ticking check marks here and there without even looking at what they are doing. I mean it. I have a had long conversations with people as they “mark” students’ work, all the while maintaining steady eye contact and paying no attention to the books they flip through. There is just too much to get through and not enough time to do it all. It doesn’t help that the students often only have one notebook (notebooks are “expensive” and many of the students come from extremely poor families) and can’t take notes in class if we don’t return their books in a timely manner. So I understand why Keira works so hard and feels like she needs to do so much. I do too. But the difference between us seems to be that I realize that sometimes more needs to be done than is humanly possible, and that if I try to do it all I will be miserable and not enjoy my time here. After all, I’m living in a foreign country, having this insane experience, and I want to enjoy it! I don’t mean to suggest that Keira isn’t enjoying her time here – she definitely is. I just don’t want her to burn out, and it's easy to get caught up in all the work if you don’t set limits for yourself.

* * *

The next day I slept in a little while Keira watched many of the sports events. I was honestly feeling fairly exhausted and just wasn’t up to mass-socialization at the time. Keira came back to her apartment in the late morning and we discussed the day’s plan. Again, there was no schedule for the sports events, so planning became extremely difficult, but what was quite clear was that Keira was still feeling guilty about missing the girls’ football final and felt as if she should stay at school to offer her support and assistance. I didn’t mind, but I wasn’t particularly interested in hanging around the school’s campus all day (in fact I was looking forward to spending some time alone in this new place), so I packed up my guitar, my moleskin and a book, and headed back down the dirt road towards the river.

I was actually planning on going back to the beach where Keira and I had spent the previous morning, but on my way there I saw a little opening in the brush on the side of the road and my curiosity got the best of me. I stepped through the gap and wandered down a scraggily path lined with cow dung, dodging the branches and weeds that lay in my way. Finally, I came across a grassy clearing in which a single cow was grazing. I felt so incredibly alone standing in the middle of that clearing with just a single cow to acknowledge my presence. No one else in the world knew where I was. If I wanted to I could disappear. That is true freedom.

From where I stood I could hear the roaring river and feel the moisture in the air. I didn’t waste any time with my bovine buddy. I knew the river was just to my left, and when I stepped from the grassy field through one final wall of foliage, my foot landed on rock.

If I had to estimate I would say that I was no more than a five to ten minute walk from where Keira and I had spent the previous morning, but the terrain here was quite different. There was no beach here; just a rocky embankment that led first to a pool of crystal clear water kept calm by an island strip of elevated rocks, and then to the swift white water of the raging river beyond the island. In the middle of the calm pool lay several large boulders, flat and smooth – quite inviting really.

I really had my eyes set on the island that separated the two bodies of water, but after several failed attempts to navigate my way across the fairly deep pool (remember I was carrying my guitar), I gave up on that and hopscotched my way to one of the big boulders in the middle of the calm water.

That rock became my home for the next three or four hours. For the first little while I played guitar, then I lay down and let myself unwind. I was still exhausted from my bus ride to Mongar, and it felt amazing to just sit there with no plan, no agenda, nothing at all.

It was so relaxing that I actually dozed in and out of consciousness for the next hour and a bit. I awoke to the sun beaming down on me, my face burning under its blistering rays. The sun! I had forgotten that there was a sun. It’s a foreign concept to a resident of Khaling; we just have clouds and less clouds. But when I looked up there wasn’t a cloud in the sapphire sky.

I think the sun rejuvenated me. I perched myself up on my tiny piece of dry land and just sat there taking it all in. I was quite literally in the middle of nowhere. I don’t think I have ever felt so insignificant. In the grand scheme of things I was no more important than the cow that grazed in the grassy clearing just beyond the river’s rocky banks, or even the rock on which I sat. In that narrow river basin, the animate seemed no more relevant to the world than the inanimate. In fact, I was starting to believe just the opposite to be true.

One tragic inadequacy of the living is that our time on this planet is finite. But the mountains that hid me, the river the rushed by me, the rocks that surrounded me, and the wind that blew through my hair – they had been there for all of Earth’s history. And they haven’t just existed in a passive or trivial sense of the word, but rather as significant contributors in shaping the present, and they will continue to be there to shape the future of the planet.

Then there is the animate. The more I think about it, the harder I find it to rid my mind of the image of parasites clinging to their host. Humans are obviously the worst kind of parasite, but the reality is that no living thing really does anything. They serve no real purpose on an existential level. To consume or be consumed. How sad is that? The animate and inanimate: dichotomies. Sitting alone in the middle of those prehistoric hills, I wanted to hop the fence.

But then the cynic in me stopped myself from descending into an inescapable pit of despair and put everything back into perspective. It is just that fact – that the living’s time on this planet is finite – that obligates us to spend our time wisely and experience all that we are capable of experiencing. The irony is that sometimes we don’t actually need to do anything to experience.

It was at that moment that I think I experienced real silence for the first time. But it wasn’t the way I would have imagined it to be. It wasn’t the absence of all sound. It was the harmony and balance of all of nature’s sounds simultaneously. The river’s water rushing over the rocks, the rustling of the trees’ leaves, the blowing wind whistling in my ears. Does absolute silence exist in the natural world? Absolutely not. Not possible.

I don’t know what it was about that rock, but there was some kind of energy flowing through it. Or maybe that particular moment in time was significant in some way. Either way, I have never reflected so deeply on life and the different courses it can take. I thought about all of the important decisions I have made in my life and the ways that they have shaped my experience and character; each one has ultimately led me to this time and place. If you had asked me a year ago what I would be doing right now I never could have predicted this. But that is what makes life exciting. We really don’t ever know what direction it might head in or what turns it might take. It is a series of decisions, each one changing our course forever. I will not be the same person when I return home. How could I be? Even in the short amount of time I have been here, too much has happened. Life is different here, for better or worse, and I am seeing things from a new perspective that I can’t ignore. I have grown, and I’m sure I will continue to grow, and somehow this makes all of the sacrifices I’ve made to come here seem worthwhile. I will quote Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a poem that I had the pleasure of teaching my class IXs this term, one which I had read many times before, but struck a chord as I stood in front of a class full of Bhutanese students:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I__
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I had to drag myself from that rock when the familiar grey of overcast skies finally swallowed the sun. I didn’t want to leave. It felt like if I had just jumped in the river its cold current could have carried me off to some transcendental destination, a world where enlightenment flowed like the water rushing by me. But, alas, I was still stuck in the real world, a world full of limitations and obligations. But I feel as though I am seeing things more clearly now. I have realized that my only real obligation is to myself – to live my life in a way that makes me happy and proud. I see that the only limitations in this world are the ones that we set for ourselves. I have come so far in my journey, learned so much, and yet I honestly feel that this experience is limitless. There is no telling what tomorrow might bring, there is no saying what new lesson I might learn, and no predicting who exactly I’ll be by the time I return to Canada.

My cousin, Greg, the most well-traveled person I know, gave me a moleskin before I left, and on the inside cover was a beautiful passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I will quote a small portion of it.

“Marco Polo said that the more one is lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understands the cities he has crossed to arrive there; and he retraces the stages of his journey and he comes to know the port from which he set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home.

“…the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed. Arriving at a new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had; the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

I feel as if there is something lying in wait for me here. Perhaps I have started to uncover it; perhaps I have only scratched the surface. But the excitement lies not in the destination, but rather in the journey. My journey has taken me from the comforts of the big city to the confines of the Himalayas, from a point of ambivalence to one of confidence and purpose, from a time when I constantly asked myself, “What am I doing here?” to a place where I constantly have to ask myself, “Where am I???” I haven’t arrived yet; I would not try to kid myself into believing that I have, but I’m starting to feel that I’m well on my way.

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