Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Blog #34: Peaks and Valleys

Keira keeps telling me that if I ever want to write a book about Bhutan I need to have some sort of steamy Bhutanese romance to write about, some intriguing love affair that entangles the remainder of the story. While the introduction of such a character seems unlikely, the excitement of such a plot twist would not be unwelcome. But I honestly don’t think that this is that kind of story. There is no heroine waiting to make her grand entrance, at least I don’t think there is. But that is not to say that mine is not a love story. It is. It’s just of a different sort.

When I think about my time here, the thoughts that run through my head echo those of a mind in the static stage of a relationship:

At first everything was so exciting, but lately life has been feeling a little routine – like a little bit of the spark has been lost. The spark, but not the love. The love is still there. But recently there really hasn’t been so much to talk about.

No, this is not a traditional love story; it is the story of the love between a man and a country, and just like any relationship, it is filled with ups and downs, highs and lows, peaks and valleys.

What’s interesting is how quickly the tides can turn. One moment I’m loving life, enjoying every minute of my day, and then, as suddenly as the clouds sweep in and block out the sun, emptying themselves on the world below, my mood changes and I’m left feeling frustrated or sometimes even angry. I don’t want to feel this way, obviously, but “life” sometimes forces this mood upon me. My only hope is that just as the flowers grow in the wake of all the rain, so too will my resolve and love of this country.

One of my goals since arriving in Bhutan has been to visit as many dzongkhags (provinces) as possible. I have already accomplished more than I had hoped to by this time, reaching thirteen of the twenty dzongkhags that make up this spectacular country. But there has been one dzongkhag in particular that has always sparked my interest, and until recently has eluded me: Pemagatshel.

It all started back in Canada when I was reading Jamie Zeppa’s book, Beyond the Sky and the Earth (again, highly recommended if you still haven’t read it). Jamie is a beautiful writer, and as only talented writers can, she brought me with her on her adventure to Bhutan. And because Pemagatshel was her first exposure to Bhutan, it became mine as well, and from there all my expectations were set. But when I finally reached Bhutan, six months after reading Jamie’s book and approximately twenty-five years after she arrived in Pemagatshel, things were not quite as I had expected. And so, a curiosity was born; I needed to know…what was Pemagatshel all about?

My opportunity for answers finally came when the teachers of Nangkhor HSS, one of two high schools in Pemagatshel, invited us to their school for a friendly football match. It wasn’t easy getting people to commit to the four-hour drive and the early Sunday morning departure, but eventually we found a combination of teachers, townspeople and former students to make up a team.

So, at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, my one and only day to sleep in and rest up in preparation for another long, busy week, I emerged from my house crusty-eyed and bed-headed, ready to set sail for this long awaited land.

I hadn’t driven east in quite some time, and I must admit that I had forgotten just how beautiful it was. Even before we made it to the turn-off for the road to Pemagatshel I was snapping pictures left, right and centre. The early morning mist still draped the mountains’ curves, blurring their ridges in silhouette. Little mountain villages clung to the steep slopes on impossible angles, their farmlands stretching out like safety nets. Temples sat tranquilly atop of prominent mountain crests, meditating like the Buddha sitting cross-legged, looking down on a world of sentient beings just waiting to be awoken. And all the while, our little convoy of three cars crawled through this endless expanse of mountains in search of a small village hidden deep within one of these countless Himalayan valleys.

It was only when we turned onto the smaller road towards Pemagatshel that the mist suddenly transformed into a bright blue sky. And then, for the first time in months I saw my old friend; the one who is always welcome in my hometown of Khaling, but who visits so rarely; the one whose image has faded from my memory; the one whose warm touch I miss so old friend, the sun.

As we moved deeper into the dzongkhag the road narrowed, the cliffs steepened, and the valleys dropped further below us. But the anticipation of what lay ahead trumped any concern for the dangerous road. Suddenly, the cliffs that lined the side of the road softened into sloping hills covered in massive bamboo trees as we descended into a lush valley surrounded by monstrous mountains on all sides. This was it. This was Pemagatshel.

Nestled deep in the valley, Nangkhor HSS was just as impressive as its surroundings. We were all taken aback as soon as we arrived at the school.

This year, the Ministry of Education has tried to infuse the environmental pillar of GNH into the education system by adopting the slogan, “Green schools for a green Bhutan.” When I first heard this I was so excited to be a part of something I believed in so strongly. However, the truth is that from what I have seen, environmentalism has its complications here, and this slogan, in many ways, is little more than a collection of words – a catch phrase that hasn’t quite caught on as a practice. At least that was my impression until that moment when we arrived at Nangkhor HSS. This school was flexing its innovative and creative muscles when it came to environmentalism.

Solid waste is a big problem throughout this country. What to do with all the garbage that we humans inevitably generate? Last year we dug pits in the community and buried much of the waste. What wasn’t buried was tossed over the side of the road into what became a makeshift dumpsite. That was last year. This year it was decided that this garbage dump was spoiling the beauty of Khaling, and so the entire community was informed that anyone caught dumping garbage would be subject to a fine. Instead, we were to burn all of our garbage. So, under a banner reading, “Green Schools for a green Bhutan: Khaling Mass Cleaning Campaign,” the entire Khaling community gathered to set ablaze every last piece of waste produced by our town. The tree-hugging, Birkenstock wearing side of me wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “This is NOT green! This is actually the worst possible thing we could be doing for the environment!” but unfortunately, the reality of living in a small little community surrounded by mountains is that there are few alternatives.

At least that’s what I thought until I saw a sign posted outside of Nangkhor HSS which read, “Welcome to Green School” (perhaps missing an article or possessive pronoun). What made this sign particularly intriguing is that the letters were formed out of used bottle caps. But that was only the beginning. Directly beside this welcome sign was a six-foot tall mock clock tower built entirely out of empty litchi juice bottles. The tower didn’t need to be there. It served no functional purpose. It wasn’t the most beautiful decoration, but it was certainly interesting, and what it really did was symbolize a genuine effort to put useless things to some sort of use. And that effort became even more apparent as we walked through the school’s campus. “Garbage” was being put to use in every which direction. This school was killing two birds with one stone; it was solving at least some of its waste management problem, while at the same time “beautifying” its campus and living up to its expectation as a green school.

The irony is that Nangkhor HSS’s campus needs very little beautifying; it is gorgeous already. The school lies on the rolling hills of the Nangkhor valley and is littered with a wide variety of natural vegetation, including orange, mango and guava trees. The main academic block stands on a plateau at the entrance of the campus and is guarded by smaller academic buildings on either side, leaving a grassy quad to serve as the school’s assembly ground in between the three buildings. Just below the quad are the school’s MPH (multipurpose hall) and dining hall. Then, down a gentle slope lie some staff quarters as well as the girls’ and boys’ hostels. Between the hostels is a beautiful basketball court with Plexiglas backboards and a scoreboard. And just below this, off to the side of the campus, on the very edge of the mountain’s plateau is the football field…and it’s perfectly flat!

The actual football match became only a secondary source of enjoyment. What had really lifted my spirit was the sweltering hot weather and the picturesque view I found myself staring at while running up and down the field. I was sweating before the match even started. I had honestly forgotten that it was spring and that not everyone shared the same weather as Khaling. This was a good wake up call, one I welcomed as much as I did the sunburn that it induced.

Pemagatshel was blissful. When we finally had to leave it felt as if I had just met the girl of my dreams and was being torn away from her before anything was allowed to blossom between us. I wanted more time with her, and perhaps if I had had more time something amazing could have formed between the two of us; I know I was ready and willing. But alas, I had already made my commitment, and it didn’t matter that that commitment was to a cold, miserable hag; it was a commitment nonetheless. So, I did what any loyal, devoted man would do. I said my goodbyes, took one last mental photograph of this absolute beauty, stepped in the car and drove off into the sunset, staring out the car’s rear window the whole way, wondering what might have been.

I was on such a high from that day in Pemagatshel that the journey back home was a complete blur. My mind was someplace else, somewhere magical. I should have known that that feeling wouldn’t last forever. It couldn’t. It never does. But I never expected such a dramatic re-entry into reality. As we came to the little settlement popularly known as “Handloom,” approximately 3 km away from Khaling, the heavens opened and the rain came pouring down. Her message was loud and clear: welcome home!

It rained through the night and most of the morning. And not just your everyday drizzle, but rather torrential droplets, like a million angels were hawking loogies down on us for fun. I’ve gotten used to this type of rain, but still there was something about that Monday morning that hung heavy. I was still exhausted from the previous day’s journey and wasn’t particularly thrilled to be walking to school through puddles and clouds.

Monday morning is weekly test morning. Every Monday the students are tested on a different subject according to the school’s timetable. Let me start by saying that I’m fundamentally opposed to the idea of these weekly tests. Not only do I find it intrusive for the school to tell me when I need to test my students, but I also feel that the tests are weighted disproportionately considering that they are only thirty minutes long, consist of only ten marks each and are supposed to account for 10% of the student’s overall grade. Anyway, I digress…

It was a rainy Monday morning and I trudged up the driveway towards school resenting the fact that my job was getting in the way of my sleep. I arrived at school at 7:50 a.m., ten minutes before the weekly tests were scheduled to begin, received the test bundle from the school’s examination cell, and hiked up the steep, rocky path to my class’s classroom. No sooner did I arrive than the bell rang to commence the weekly test (one of the things I have grown accustomed to here is that there is no single watch or clock that is used to measure periods, and so the result is an unpredictable timetable in which you never know exactly when the bell might ring).

I’m sure the bell was at least five minutes early, so I rushed to distribute all of the test papers as quickly as possible.

Snag number one: there are not enough test papers for every student, and because the school insists on taking these tests very seriously and counts them so disproportionately towards students’ overall grades there is little room for creative solutions. So what do I do? I poke my head out the door and search for a helping hand. Do I find one? Of course not, it’s still pouring rain outside; no one in their right mind would be wandering through the campus. So I tell my students to please keep quiet and to keep their eyes on their own papers, and I run out of the class, through the pouring rain, back down the steep, rocky path, and back up the stairs to the examination cell where I explain to the examination people that my class is missing two test papers. For a few minutes they tell me that that is impossible because they counted them before giving them to me, and then finally they give in and print me two new question papers. So I take the fresh papers, march downstairs, back up the steep, rocky path, through the rain and back into my classroom. By this point in time the silence that I left has evolved into a roar audible from outside the classroom walls, so I distribute the two missing questions papers and repeat my instructions about keeping quiet and keeping their eyes on their own papers.

Snag number two: detecting cheating in a classroom of 39 students when those students are taught to read aloud to themselves to improve their comprehension is simply impossible. I’m actually not sure this is the reason that students read aloud to themselves, but what I do know is that they are not the only ones. Pretty much everyone at the school, teachers included, when reading a document or a letter or an essay or an announcement – anything with words really – reads it out loud. It’s not that they are projecting their voices, but it’s certainly something that takes getting used to, something that can still be distracting. And in the case of a test it would almost be better if they were projecting their voices. Instead, there is just a steady murmur sweeping across the classroom and a dizzying wave of lips mouthing words. So who is speaking to themselves and who is talking to their neighbour? After a little while a few students become less subtle in their conversation and I warn them to stop talking or I’ll take their tests away. I abandon the work that I had brought with me and start hovering over students as they write. After a few laps of the classroom I perch myself against the back wall and watch over the class. Then, as if I don’t exist at all, two students start reading off of each other’s test papers right under my nose… no exaggeration intended. I’m talking about two students in the very back row, literally sitting directly under my nose. I snatch their papers from them and march up to the front of the classroom, being sure to be seen by the rest of the class, and slide their incomplete test papers into a file folder. I expected the message to be loud and clear: enough of this messing around. But to my surprise and dismay, by the end of the test I had collected another four incomplete test papers as a result of wandering eyes and over-active vocal chords.

This was not a good start to my already miserable Monday morning. I was tired, frustrated and generally grumpy, and it was only going to get worse.

My Monday teaching timetable was not particularly impressive, but the attractive quality that it did possess was that I didn’t have to teach any classes until third period – a particularly advantageous situation when one is busy all weekend and doesn’t have a chance to fully prepare for one’s Monday classes, as was the case on this fateful Monday. However, by the time I returned – sour and soaked – from my class’s weekly test, there was a little present waiting for me on my desk accompanied by an announcement.

“Teachers, please notice the new timetables on your respective desks. They are in effect as of today.”

No warning, no notice, no surprise (at least not in my second year here), but a whole lot of frustration. First and second period – class XI Sci A and XII Sci A. I’m partially to blame for not preparing on Sunday night after getting back from Nangkhor, but I was exhausted and thought I had two hours – ample time – to prepare for these classes the following morning. That’s fair enough, no?

At first I lost my cool. I was livid that the school would do such a thing. But then I listened to the wise words of a few of my Indian friends and heeded their advice. “Why to bother,” they told me. Well put, good sirs, well put.

I went to my first two periods completely unprepared. I spent a good portion of my class XI period lecturing the students about what had happened with the class tests. I warned them that that was their one warning and that next time I would instruct their subject teachers to give them an automatic zero as well as inform the VP of their misconduct. And in my class XII period we simply chatted about the story we were reading and I attempted to clarify any doubts the students may have had. I wouldn’t say either class was terrible, but they certainly weren’t my best.

Third period: previously my first teaching period of the day, now my first free period of the day. Master (UK’s father and the school’s Tae Kwon Do Master as well as “Health In-Charge”) comes to me and informs me that my students aren’t fulfilling their duties of cleaning and maintaining the boys’ toilets.

Toilet duties, being the absolute worst possible duty one could ever have, are distributed on a rotational basis, and it just so happened that this Monday morning fell right in the middle of my class’s duty and, to make matters oh so much worse, they had neglected this duty up until then. Now I tend to approach most class duties with a “who gives a shit” kind of attitude, as a great deal of the work students are asked to do is just busywork, but in this situation that kind of attitude seemed unbefitting; the answer to that question itself emphasized the importance of the duty.

But it was only after pulling six boys out of class and entering the boys’ bathroom myself that I realized just how shitty the situation really was…literally. The smell actually hit me long before I stepped inside the small cement structure, but it was seeing the six clogged toilets that made this one of my most memorable experiences to date (one I could have done without). So there I stood, staring at what a daily diet of chili, rice and potato curry looks like once it comes out the other side, while the boys tried to solve the problem. First they poured buckets of water in the toilets because sometimes students just choose not to flush, but when the toilets’ contents started to ascend rather than descend we realized there was a bigger problem. Next, the boys took some giant bamboo sticks and started poking at the muddled masses, twirling the sticks in an attempt to loosen the clog.

Nothing was working, so I went to Master’s office to ask him what our next move should be. He returned to the toilets with me, and after the boys showed him that the water they were pouring in one toilet was gurgling out of the other toilets as well as the trough (for urination), Master identified that the clog was not actually in the bathroom but rather in the underground pipe leading to the septic tank just outside of the bathroom.

After almost an hour inside the smelliest place I have ever been, having witnessed some of the most disgusting conditions I have ever seen, I decided that I had had enough. I returned to the staffroom while the boys retrieved their spades and began digging up the earth beside the toilets. When I returned thirty minutes later to check on their progress the boys were gone and so were the masses in the toilets, but unfortunately the memory of what I saw and smelled hasn’t been quite as quick to disappear. I know that “shit happens,” but quite frankly I wouldn’t mind if it never happened to me again.

Needless to say, I was having a bad day. It was not quick to get better either, but it couldn’t really get any worse than watching students deal with toilets that were overflowing with human feces. After the toilet fiasco the principal called me into his office and asked me to edit a letter that he was sending to Dasho Dzongda (the governor of our dzongkhag). It wasn’t a particularly large order, and if it had not been for the terrible morning I had already had (not to mention the massive pile of work on my desk that remained untouched) I wouldn’t have minded at all, but at the time it certainly felt an extra burden that I didn’t need.

I finished editing the letter by lunchtime and went to the hotel (restaurant) with UK to treat myself to a lazy lunch break and a delicious meal. Over lunch I blew off a lot of steam by complaining about my day to UK who could only laugh at me. I would have laughed at me too. What’s not to laugh about?

Somewhere between the hysterical laughter and frustrated rants I decided that the time was right to talk to the principal about relieving me of my class teacher duties.

At the beginning of the year I was given numerous responsibilities including English Subject Committee Coordinator, Literary Committee Coordinator, Football Coordinator, Creative Writers’ Club Coordinator, and to my disdain Class Teacher. After being a class teacher last year, I knew all too well that this responsibility consumed a great deal of extra time and demanded a great deal of extra work. I was not thrilled about the idea from day one, and so, no more than a week into school I spoke with the principal about relieving me of that one responsibility considering all of the other responsibilities I had agreed to. He told me that it wouldn’t be possible just then, but that perhaps I could be a temporary class teacher until the new teachers, whose arrival we were anticipating, finally reported to the school. I agreed and waited patiently.

So on that Monday afternoon, knowing full well that two new teachers had recently arrived at the school, I stepped into the principal’s office to ask to finally be relieved of my duty. His response was not exactly what I was looking for.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that. I think for now it should be quite okay for you to continue.”

“But sir, I’m finding I have so many responsibilities right now that I I’m having a difficult time doing any of them with the full attention that they deserve,” I retorted.

“Well, I’ll see what we can do, but I think you will have to continue on as class teacher for the time being.”

I convinced myself to chalk this up as a partial victory, though I was not na├»ve enough to actually believe it to be one. “I’ll see” and “for the time being” do not have a particularly good track record at my school. In fact, more often than not they translate to “probably not going to happen” and “get used to it.” But I had broached the topic nonetheless, and the day was almost over, so I resigned myself to the staffroom and started doing the corrections that had been neglected for so long.

The day ended with an inter-class volleyball match between my class XII Science A boys and another class. It was still drizzling outside, but the match was held despite this minor setback. What’s a little rain anyway?

The match was just what the doctor ordered. The audience was sparse – only the teams’ classmates and a few teachers braved it through the rain – but that was just what I needed. I was once again reminded of what lured me back here for a second year. It was not the weather, nor was it the school really. It was the people, more specifically my friends and my students. Watching XII Science A win that match, seeing the way they had bonded as a class over the year and a half I have known them and they each other, hearing them cheer for each other and crack inside jokes to which I was even privy sometimes, and sharing those observations with people who also appreciated those types of moments – those students – as the payoff for a frustrating, exhausting, and sometimes shitty job, ended my Monday on a note of optimism, one that actually allowed me to look forward to the following morning.

This is the nature of the relationship that I have formed with this strange land. It is not always one of laughs and smiles; I think it would be unfair to portray it as such. My story is not a romance, for romance is not reality. Romance is hyperbolic love; it is the exaggerated portrayal of what love would be in a perfect world. That is not to say that moments of romance don’t exist in a relationship, they certainly do in this relationship, but they can’t exist all the time. Romance would be easy, but love is not supposed to be easy. Real love is much more complicated than that. It is about accepting someone for the good and the bad, for all their perfections and their flaws; it is not just about the highs that you share, it is also about pushing through the lows that inevitably arise in all relationships. And never before have I been so constantly reminded of this. For when I look at the mountains around me, I realize that it is the valleys that lie below which make the mountain peaks above stand so spectacular. I have learned that where there are peaks, there will always be valleys. That’s just the way it goes.