Monday, October 31, 2011
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Below is an article I wrote which is to be published by Kuensel this Saturday. How exciting! I'll be trying to post again shortly.
October 18, 2011
The other day, I had failed in a hitchhiking endeavor and was thereby taking a taxi home. The taxi I had reigned in was a dinosaur. The entire ride I had a perfect view of my expressions, content or terrified, in the side mirror that was hanging on to the taxi by a few strings – a feeling I also felt for most of the ride. Each jarring bump sent something falling from the dashboard to the floor and I became the unofficial search and rescue party for these fallen items. At one point, Tshewang, my driver who resembled Wario without the mustache, reached over and opened my door as we were speeding on the narrow Himalayan road. The side mirror reported a state of shock and my mind thought of a particular scene from “Throw Momma From the Train”, but he quickly shut the door and told me, “shaking”. Now, he could have been describing my reaction, but I think he meant the door. Tshewang then reached over a second time and locked the door with a big smile on his face that showed off his doma-stained pearly reds. Perhaps he could sense my unease. But as the road stretched long and the sun began to hang low, we fell into our routines; Tshewang attacking the road like a man on a mission, and I picking up dislodged items and keeping Tshewang entertained. It was during one of our short, punctuated conversations that I realized something: in Bhutan, it’s the roads that change the quickest.
Since my arrival at the tail end of January, the roads that I consistently find myself on have undergone remarkable transformations. In winter, the rough road to Samtengang was decently flat and relatively safe. The road to Phobjikha was under widening work and road blocks were frequent. The road to Thimphu was scarred from last year’s landslides. By summer, the rough road to Samtengang had become a wet slide which was quickly washing away with each rainfall. Cars couldn’t get up the slick slope; pushing vehicles through mud and fears of slipping off the road became commonplace. The road to Phobjikha was no longer being blocked by machinery but instead by earth. Landslides were coming every evening and at times you would have to drive quickly to beat a slide that was slowly enveloping the road. The road to Thimphu saw similar challenges. And now, after battling the monsoon rain and an earthquake, the road to Samtengang is once again safe but left in a twisted heap with boulders scattered throughout. The road to Phobjikha is no longer blocked but quarry trucks have left Alto-sized potholes to navigate. The road to Thimphu has been paved and cleaned in many parts and newly constructed gates (gaelgo) line the road to Punakha. All of these changes have happened within 9 months of my arrival. And I see these roads changing parallel to Bhutan. Everything I have learned about Druk Yul in my short stay here points to a country in a similar state of upheaval and drastic change.
I watched Tshewang caress the steering wheel with his whole body and squint his eyes menacingly as if the road was his foe. Despite the rickety state of this taxi, it was one of the most comfortable rides I have had in Bhutan; I chalk this up to Tshewang’s skills. The taxi was an extension of him; it even looked as if the steering wheel was centered in his chest. His squint was focused on every bump, jagged rock, and hole to which his body naturally reacted and adjusted the position of the vehicle. It was amazing. “20 and 1 years drive” he told me. Twenty-one years, I couldn’t imagine the amount of changes he had seen. Of course there are the highlights: 1974, beginnings of tourism; 1999, Television and Internet are made available; 2003, cellphones make their appearance; 2008, Monarchy changes to a Parliamentary Democracy; 2011, a royal wedding brings Bhutan a new Queen, Her Majesty the Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck. It’s the impacts of these major changes that are altering the landscapes of Bhutan. And much like the weather that changes the roads, these are unbridled forces.
As a teacher, my experience has mostly been with students and those in the education sector. I consistently see students getting Korean-style haircuts and wearing DC Shoes knockoffs. Homes are filled with the drama of Hindi soap-operas and movies. Children are tattooing themselves and learning to break dance. And students seem less interested in the cultural traditions than my teachers say they were at that age. In essence, the impacts are visible and real. But they do take time; these trends didn’t happen overnight. For instance, curricula change has been continuous for 5-10 years shifting from a mimetic and memory-based system to a student-centered, critical thinking based one. In addition, teacher training has changed to produce teachers equipped to instruct in this new system. However, the impacts are only beginning to take place. Most of my students continue to struggle when asked to give their opinions, to challenge their understandings, and to connect lessons with their own experiences. I can see students memorizing pages of notes that will most definitely be on their upcoming tests. That being said, change takes time – policy is one thing, minds are another. Development needs to progress slowly in order to adapt to the culture and context in which it is implemented. And if anything is apparent, it’s that Bhutan takes cautious and calculated steps toward development – a wise action when considering some of the failures of other nations.
Having a foreign perspective of Bhutan, I can’t properly comment on the benefits or drawbacks of the changes taking place here. But I can recognize that Bhutan is truly undergoing a drastic transformation that will alter the nation for future generations. Cultures change, nations adapt, development of any kind has consequences. I’m just glad that I’m able to catch a ride, while the change is underway.
Monday, August 15, 2011
Bhutan can be a strange place sometimes. It's a country clinging to tradition and yet surrounded, and indeed at times, obsessed with other cultures. Most, if not all, of my students know who K’naan is and can sing along to “Wavin’ flag”. I have heard MGMT’s “Electric Feel” on the radio on multiple occasions. Even Bon Iver has made an appearance! Yesterday, one of my students started singing Ke$ha, “Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy…” AHHHHH!!!! The majority of boys have Korean styled haircuts and the majority of girls are determined to marry a Korean man. One really sad trend is self-tattooing. A lot of my students have tattoos all over their hands and arms and they are just terrible, terrible tattoos. They say things like, “Baby Punk”, “Emo”, and other equally stupid things you would think of in 7th grade. They are also very poorly drawn. As there are no tattooing parlors in Bhutan, it’s homemade all the way. I just think about what I was like in 7th grade and I imagine the tattoos I would have given myself: “Airwalk”, “Beanie Babies”, “Tickle Me Elmo”. Okay maybe not those last two but I think I would strongly regret any tattoo from that stage in my life. To complement the tattoos, a lot of students wear ’10-gallon shoes’. These are essentially skater shoes with overstuffed padding and are sized one or two sizes too big. Realistically they look more like strange clowns than ‘punk’ skaters (too harsh?). But again, I think of my fashion sense back then, now even, and I was equally unimpressive and confused.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Kuzuzampo! Class is in session, let us begin:
Being in Bhutan has been great. The people are lovely, the hospitality amazing, the scenery gorgeous, and the students never seize to make you smile, even when they’re annoying. Just today I was able to have a ‘Bhutanese’ day. A day where you look around and feel settled, feel at home, know the routines, know the landscape. Or so I thought. I was just walking home when I made the connection that, even though I live on a plateau at the top of a mountain, my village is still enveloped by larger mountains. For how long I have been living here, this seems like something I would have noticed. But honestly, it took a while to get adjusted, to figure out the ropes, so that a small detail like this seemed to slip by my conscious attention. And there are other small things similar to this. I now know which dogs belong to which pack and where their territories seem to lay. I know who’s running for local election. I know how to play the local games and even partake in them (A traditional bow is currently being made for me). I’m noticing things that aren’t particularly important, but carry importance in relation to my stay here; they show me that I’m thriving here and that I’m not just passing through (a feeling hard to shake when you’re new to a country – it feels like a vacation at first).
Maybe this all hit me today because some tourists were poking around just outside our school. I could see them walking here and there, cameras attached, head on a swivel, taking in the scenes. Although I never talked to them, my reaction had two sides. One, ‘how lucky to be them, seeing Bhutan for the first time,’ and two, ‘thank god I’m not them.’ I mean, I’m glad I don’t have to drive everyday to see something new or go to a new experience. I’m glad that I have students and a community to experience Bhutan through and with. I’m glad that today, I was invited to a tea party held by my class 9’s; they made delicious tea and we spent the time making jokes and even had a singing competition (I’m pretty sure they won). I’m also glad that mid-terms are here and that the break is coming. I can start the next term fresh with some small chance that I know what I’m doing (in fact, I’ve figured a few things out that will come in handy) and also see parts of Bhutan that I don’t see everyday…18 glorious days of relaxation.
I’ll be sure to update you on whatever adventures befall me.
But until then, please enjoy some above average experiences/happenings that I felt worthy of your notice.
Best. Student. Ever.
You know those moments in your life that will last forever? Those times that you know you will look fondly back on in your wizened and elderly state? Such an event took place recently. It was the middle of a hot day and I had just entered my 7th period class, 7B English, when one of my students ripped out her tooth. My reaction was something like this:
Carson: ‘Oh my god! Are you alright?’
Phub D.: ‘Look, my tooth.’
Carson: ‘Uh, yeah, look at that! Does it hurt?’
Phub D.: ‘Yeah, it’s paining a little.’
Perhaps it was shock, or most likely her blank stare as she ripped out a tooth while looking deep into my eyes, but I couldn’t help but laugh at this point, WHAT THE WHAT?! I asked if she wanted to go see the matron, who could get her some help or some painkillers, but she refused. ‘No, let me go for water and come quickly, I will stay in class.’ Now, what happened next will forever impress myself (for actually doing it at an appropriate moment) and create a deep loving bond with class 7B. My natural instinct, I shit you not, was to begin a slow clap….yes, a slow clap. What’s even better is that my class immediately picked up on the history being made and joined in. The class slowly erupted into a triumphant cacophony of praise, admiration, and joy. May May 26th, 2011 be a day to live on in infamy (sorry for the repetition but how often do you get to say May May?). This student was easily my favorite before but after? Forget about it! (You’re not supposed to have favorites as a teacher but, I mean, come on!)
The days have started to progressively become hotter. This is obviously typical in summer (unless you’re a super lame weirdo and live in the southern hemisphere, LOSER). However, I usually am not wearing a blanket to work during the summer. All the supreme strengths of Bhutan’s national dress are quickly bitch slapped by the fact that you border on heat stroke every time you wear it. Thankfully, the summer is also blessed with rainfall and each afternoon we are being graced by the sweet kiss of a storm. If not for the rain, I’m pretty sure I would need to shower every half hour. But, there is also another type of rain blessing me these days…a rain of maggots. I’ll wait while you throw up in the nearby garbage…..back? Okay good. This phenomenon is foul and off-putting, so why does it also amuse me? I mean, think about it. Every day, I know I can expect one or two new friends waiting for me on my desk. I get to excitedly await the next deployment of maggot paratroopers as I work on exams. I guess I laugh because it’s so goddamn ridiculous, raining maggots? WTF! In truth, teachers told me that a pigeon probably died in the ceiling and these little buggers are falling through the cracks…I don’t really laugh so much at that part.
I hope some of you are enjoying this email while eating a nice bowl of Pops, Lucky Charms, or at the very least, Corn Flakes. Delicious cold milk, nice crunchy cereal, a spoon…what I would give. But the Bhutanese have a different style for breakfast altogether. Recently I have been dining at the mess in the mornings because 1) it’s quick and 2) it’s free (BOO YA!). A Bhutanese breakfast consists of a warm cup of naja (thank god) and a bowl of rice with eze and is eaten with your fingers (try eating rice with your fingers, it’s hilarious and makes you feel like a 5 year old). Eze is a mixture of chillies, onions, and some cheese. So I down a bowl for breakfast and a few things happen; 1) my mouth no longer feels any sensation except for burning, 2) my breath reeks of onions (awesome!), 3) I start to feel sick and my belly is more like a coal fire. The rest of the day is spent trying to ditch the taste of onions, douse my coal-fire-belly and avoid quick movements. So why don’t I stop? Did I mention it’s free breakfast? ‘Nough said.
Hope you are all doing well and enjoying some warm weather somewhere!
All the best,
Sunday, May 15, 2011
So this email has been a while coming but it has taken me a little
while to take a step back from things and really think about it. I’ll
give you a quick heads up that this is not a joyous email.
On Easter Sunday, I was hanging up some laundry when a student ran up
to me and said, “Sir, one boy drunk. 24 minutes.” I thought this was
really strange so I asked him to repeat his statement. This time,
“Sir, one boy under water. 24 minutes.” While still perplexed by the
statement, but fully realizing that something was terribly wrong, I
dropped my washing, threw on sandals, and ran toward our lake. While
in transit, I kept trying to piece together the message; surely he
couldn’t have meant 24 minutes. As I came to a rise overlooking the
lake, I saw a boy being dragged to the shore and a nearby student
said, “Sir, dead body.” Refusing to believe any of the reality before
me, I sprinted faster in a vain attempt to possibly help.
When I reached the boy, things did not look good; the boy was
completely limp and blue. However, some policemen had been picnicking
near the lake and were underway with resuscitation efforts. After a
minute or so, and with things clearly not improving, 4 boys hoisted
him and ran off toward the BHU (basic health unit). Despite not
wanting to believe what was happening, I knew the boy had drowned. It
was only later that we received the official news.
So what happened? Well, our UNESCO club was hanging prayer flags over
the lake and there were other works being done around the lake that
day. This boy was swimming with a friend and they swam from one end
to the other. It’s believed that the boys tired themselves out and
began to struggle. One boy was able to draw the attention of the
policemen who were picnicking and was dragged ashore unconscious but
resuscitated. However, the other boy disappeared under the water and
it took about 30 people 25 minutes to even find him.
The aftermath was a bit hectic; organizing and counting the boys,
holding prayer, contacting all the correct people, etc. Teachers
reported to the BHU where the boy was being held upon arrival of the
parents. We sat with the boy and a butter lamp and incense were burnt
next to him in offering. After some time, the teachers convoyed with
the boy down to the boy’s parents house.
When we reached Tikki Zampa, the boy was taken to be washed by his
uncle, step-father and other relatives. While this was taking place,
locals constructed a rudimentary shelter out of branches and tarps.
The shelter included an altar and shrine. The boy was then brought
down the hill and placed on the altar of this shelter in a position as
if you were hugging your knees with a lowered head. This last detail
is to represent bowing to the gods. For the rest of the night and
into the next day, relatives and close friends chanted prayers and
offered gifts, incense, and butter lamps to the deceased.
We left before prayer began in earnest and on the trip home, the
principal, vice principal and myself stopped for a beer. During this
somber time, I had a multitude of questions about death in the Bhutan
(which I think was a way to help me deal with this tragedy).
Regardless of the reason, I learned quite a bit.
After a person passes, the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 49th day since the
death are important days for prayer with each day having different
prayers and rituals. The prayers and rituals are designed to help the
person figure out that they have died and also to cheer them up.
Supposedly, a person will continue with the routines of their life,
unknowing of their death; their friends won’t speak to them, they
won’t be served food, the physical world will no longer interact with
them, and, as a result, they will become very sad. The highest lamas
of Buddhism are said to take 3 days to realize they have died while
most take 49 days (however, Bhutanese believe the smarter you are, the
quicker you will figure things out). If, by the 49th day the person
has not realized their death, they may end up as a hungry ghost, the
lowest level (if I’m remembering correctly) on the scale of
reincarnation. Upon realization of death, a person faces judgment for
their deeds, good and bad. This is where karma comes in. If a person
has committed many good deeds, they will be reincarnated with better
circumstances or as a higher being (demi-god, god, etc.), if bad deeds
outweigh the good, they may be reincarnated lower on the scale (dog,
insect, etc.) or with worse circumstances (disabilities, etc.).
The Bhutanese cremate their deceased. After prayers and offerings
have taken place, a lama will come to one of these makeshift shelters
to decide upon the proper time and day for cremation. They use
astronomy to guide their decision. Cremations take place at a holy
location nearby the dzong of a dzongkhag. They are not private
affairs either; often 5 people will be cremated simultaneously, each
with their own pyre. Lamas and monks will bless the souls during
cremation and throw various ritual items onto the fires at different
times. Following a cremation, relatives will take a few pieces of
bone and some of the ashes and seal them in a stupa or chorten, a
religious structure. Families commit rituals on the death date for 3
years following, which, upon completion, finishes the passing of the
A strange end to that conversation over beers was the presence of a
gorgeous moth with an 8-inch wingspan and calm demeanor. Who knows
what it meant, if anything.
At our school, students sat for 2 days praying for their classmate.
Prayer was only interrupted for meals and short breaks for tea. Some
of the girls chose to prostrate 108 times to the image of Buddha,
karmically benefiting both the deceased and those prostrating. These
girls looked exhausted when finished. I have to say, watching 500
students chant prayers for their classmate was a very moving
experience and I had to excuse myself a few times to keep from losing
it. On the 7th day, they again sat for prayer. Prayer seemed to help
quite a bit for students. While somber, I only saw one student
actually crying. Perhaps their grief is lessened by the strong belief
in the next life and the cycle of living. It’s a belief at odds with
my own style of grieving but one that I was envious of when at my
As for now, things have returned to some normalcy. I still think
about it, but have found the Bhutanese, both the people and their
beliefs, strongly comforting and an immense help. While my emotions
certainly run the gamut, I find them somehow hard to express in
written form. I mean, you keep rethinking it, keep analyzing things
but what to do? I am doing better these days, but certainly take the
experience with me.
I’ll be updating you all again on the lighter side of things here
soon. Hope you are all fantastic.
All the best,
Thursday, April 7, 2011
April 7th, 2011
April 7th, 2011
The D Word
An interesting phenomenon that I did not expect to encounter is diarrhea. Now that I’ve got it out on the table, let me break it down. I don’t mean personal diarrhea, I mean diarrhea as an excuse. Without fail, in every single class, every day, one student will rush up to me mid-sentence and ask: “Sir, can I go toilet? Emergency. Diarrhea.” While this is certainly worthy of an interruption, I’m mostly surprised by the lack of reaction from the class. No one cracks up, no one giggles; instead, they support their afflicted peer. “Sir, he needs to go!” In fact, they support him or her so strongly that I am surprised that I don’t have students standing up in the middle of class and declaring, “I HAVE DIARRHEA!” which would then be followed with cheers, whistles, and “Yes we can!” chants. The unfortunate consequence of this frequent excuse is that, when I believe a student, and actually allow them to go, I am then hounded by 5-10 students with the same problem. It becomes a classroom epidemic and I am faced with a diarrheal choir, a fecal affair. It’s just something I never counted on and I’m pretty sure would mean ostracism in an American classroom. Such is a Bhutanese life.
Bucket showers! I can’t even remember what it feels like to stand under a shower tap and let water cascade over me….oh wait, yes I can, it’s AWESOME. Unfortunately, my days begin with a bucket ‘o water, old timey style! Now before you start feeling too sorry for me, I at least get the luxury of a warm bucket shower. Having spent 8 months taking cold bucket showers in Uganda this is a VERY important distinction. However, it does come with its own drawbacks. Simply put, I have to stick a metal rod into the water and connect it to a socket and run electricity through the water. If you haven’t majored in a science or passed the 3rd grade, you might not know that electricity and water is a match made in death. So each morning, when I am the least alert, I have to delicately place and remove an electric stick into my bucket of water. Our director forcefully told us: “Do not stick your hand in the water to test if it is warm before you remove the electric rod, you will be electrocuted!” Wise words my friend. Luckily I haven’t had any mishaps and should they occur, it’s not enough of a shock to kill you but you might feel a slight “tingle” (a.k.a. see smoke rising from the top of your head).
Hostel Emergencies (very different from hostile emergencies)
“Sir, emergency.” Ahh, the life of an assistant warden charged with the safety and well-being of 200+ boys. I get called to the hostel quite a bit with “emergencies” or “problems” in full swing. I carry my med kit with me each time and so far I haven’t used it’s more intense components (gauze, latex gloves, suture kit…). I’m still figuring this culture out but I’m pretty sure the Bhutanese like to play up the drama. Most of my calls follow a pattern. Boys run ahead of me to the emergency to which I walk briskly and in control, med kit at my side (check! ). I walk into the room and boys are freaking out everywhere. It takes a few minutes to find out that some boy has a minor headache or is dehydrated or has lost something. I then tell the captain (boy in charge) instructions for solving the issue. Granted this can be a bit annoying but realistically it is quite a necessity. Just last night I was called away and entered the room only to find a boy on the floor writhing in pain. As you recall my last email mentioned Bhutan as an ulcer haven; this boy’s ulcer (he’s 15…yeah) was causing him an unbelievable amount of pain. I kept him talking (best he could), calmed the boys (can’t even explain that scene), and scrounged up a ride for him to the hospital (45 minutes away on a dirt road). The report is that he is doing fine. That certainly was a shocking experience and I felt bad that I couldn’t do more than offer some antacids and some sips of water for this boy (pain relieving medicine makes the situation much worse). But in the end, while you have 200+ boys that can get into trouble or get hurt, there are also 200+ boys to help in real emergencies.
Handsome. I usually hear this more commonly used in a sentence like: “Hand some of that beer to me will ya?” or “Give me a hand, some of these boxes are really heavy.” However, Bhutan never fails and I am called handsome at least 2-3 times a week. Most people celebrate this because they are attractive enough to receive actual compliments on their divine features. I, however, am more confused by it. The other week I wore my dress clothes and a tie and about all of the 500 students called me handsome. I got my hair cut recently, that too made me handsome. I wore glasses…handsome. I had snot on my face, handsome. I admit, the first time it felt pretty good, but I quickly realized it is a common comment and one that doesn’t seem to carry as much weight here as in our culture. “Sir, your bloody nose makes you look so handsome!” If only. Bhutan tends to lift you up with comments like these, and then let you down when you actually figure out their use and frequency.
I feel like I have a lot to say about cars and my experiences in them so let’s see what comes out.
Yesterday I was getting a ride down my mountain to the local town to pay some bills and purchase a few luxuries (TOILET PAPER!) when I noticed why there were so many flies in the car. The driver thought it was a terrific idea to wrap some raw meat in newspaper (he did an awful job of it) and leave it on the dash on a hot spring day. Big mistake buddy. Luckily the window rolled down (not a given here) so I could at least breath without inhaling flies.
Roads are ‘bumpy’ here. Basically, you need a Humvee to drive the roads but the most common car is a sedan that is slightly bigger than a Smart Car. So as you drive along, you start to not notice your face smacking different surfaces in the vehicle and begin to dismiss the alarming sounds of what could only be parts from the car falling off. It’s a bit like listening for thunder after a lightning strike; you know that some gigantic dip in the road is going to shake you silly but you just can’t predict exactly when. And when it finally comes, you’re just as off-guard as when you started listening which translates to a new bruise on your head.
As for the day to day, things are going on as usual and nothing terribly exciting has transpired. However, I will note that I just got back from watching my students act out Billy Shakespeare’s Othello in Dzongkha. They have to put together a 20 minute skit for a Drama competition on Saturday and of all things, they chose one of the most complex, challenging English plays to reenact. It was actually awesome to see, especially since my students LOVE to fake die. Oh and Shakespeare is not part of the readings in our curriculum, they straight up chose that out of the blue and did a good job with the plot. So theater is alive and well in Bhutan my friends.
Wishing you all the best,
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
March 10th, 2011
Hey there everyone,
Classes are off and running these days so I find myself to be a bit busier which is nice. But I find times to relax here and there (which mostly means I zone out during meetings in Dzongkha). One of my favorite periods of time is morning assembly. It is run predominantly in Dzongkha through an aging and whispering PA system so I find my mind drifting just a tad. Mostly I like to watch “The War” on the Nature Channel. Now what I mean is the battle between the birds flying around over our heads every morning. Our assembly ground is surrounded by our classroom buildings and each roof has an army of birds perched atop. Now these birds constantly bombard and chirp expletives at each other in attempts to take over the new roof space. The “no man’s land” is above the heads of our beloved children and as anyone knows, in any conflict it’s the children who suffer (There have actually been a few strafing runs ‘deployed’ overhead). My thoughts have strayed to thinking if each camp of birds has its own Tomb of the Unknown Bird Soldier. Do they commemorate any fallen veterans? Do they have ranks? “Orders have just come down from the top feather that General Sparrow requires 50 pigeon regiments to take the east flank of the science building, any volunteers?” So yeah…I get bored sometimes.
I’m officially teaching English to class 7b, 7c, 8b, and 9d. My classes max out at 32 students and they are all pretty hilarious. I think they are really used to a strict style of teaching because I get big laughs out of being goofy (like a ridiculous amount, don’t be surprised if I come back thinking I’m the next Johnny Carson or Bob Hope). Right now I’m using music to teach parts of speech. I find that the Beatles are a good teaching tool. The Beatles wrote hundreds of songs so it’s not hard to find some that are short, use simple English, and aren’t too hard to understand (not to slight the Beatles but it’s easier than using Phish lyrics). Plus, I can then explain how to distinguish between proper nouns and adjective noun agreements with such songs as Rocky Raccoon. I mean, that’s not confusing right...?
I also have some extra responsibilities at school. I am the head teacher for class 8b which means I supervise them when they are doing campus beautification, maintain their report cards, and generally hang out with them like a giant child. I am assistant warden which makes this place sound like a prison which is totally not true at all! (Except we have a barbwire fence surrounding the campus and students need permission to leave…) The warden is in charge of the health and safety of the boys at the school so I help out with his duties; lights out, studying, cleaning up the dorms, etc. Oh and I am sure you will be pleased to know that my school has Scouts which is the Bhutanese equivalent of the Boy/Girl Scouts. I am a troop leader of Sharibu (the 3rd level – mostly 9th and 10th graders) and I have no idea what I’m doing. I joined because I love hiking and camping, and I guess we do those things at some point, but the other troop leaders are the girliest teachers on our campus so I’m interested in what hiking and camping means in Bhutan (or if we go at all). It’s actually really adorable seeing the 60 students decked out in their scouting scarves and walking around tall and proud, apparently scouts in Bhutan is not social suicide.
The food here is amazing…because potatoes are king! Seriously, potatoes are in about every dish and are never out of season. I am literally overflowing with potatoes and joy. While kewa dhatse (potatoes and cheese) is my favorite, the unofficial national dish is emma dhatse and is simply chillies with cheese. This thing is hot. I admit, I do not like spicy food and really have had no affinity for tolerating spicy food, but it took me maybe 5 days to adjust and now my tongue is truly Bhutanese. I can handle the hottest dishes they throw at me and even out eat (spicy-wise, not quantity-wise) the manliest of Bhutanese. While they’re sweating and belly-aching (literally), I’m smiling and asking for more. But seriously, Bhutan has the highest ulcer rate in the world, I wonder why. Pretty much every dish is a dhatse (which means you cook something and add cheese to it – dhatse = cheese): emma dhatse, kewa dhatse, sok dhatse (spinach), lafu dhatse (radish), shamu dhatse (mushroom), dhatse dhatse (okay I made that one up but cheese cheese would be delicious).
Drinks aren’t very complicated either. For tea there is suja and naja. Naja is milk tea that is sweet, delicious, and awesome. Suja is butter tea. In case you wish to experience suja follow these steps: 1) Melt a stick of butter in a cup. 2) Add 3-5 tea leaves so it technically qualifies as tea. 3) Add salt. 4) Drink it. 5) Curl up and die in a corner. Suja is disgustingly foul, who wants to drink savory tea? No one, that’s who. Some of the foreigners love it, and they are crazy because this stuff is nasty. Unfortunately for me, it is the more common tea and considered the traditional drink at pretty much every occasion.
“Carson, please take some tea”
“Is it suja or naja?”
“Suja” “[coughing back vomit] No thank you”
“You must take it, it is tradition!”
I then spend the next ten minutes spluttering and choking down grossness.
For alcohol, it may not be surprising that there are many options. Ara is the locally made wine and it can be served cold or hot. The hot version can be served with butter in it or with butter and a fried egg in it (WHAT?!). No one has been able to tell me why there is a fried egg in their alcohol that you then have to awkwardly chew at the end of your beverage enjoyment. While the ara tastes good, the egg leaves a bit to be desired. Imagine cooking your morning eggs in vodka and then eating them. Depending on how dedicated you are to booze, you may already be familiar with this. I guess I can’t really act surprised, we drink bloody mary’s, but those also taste like crap so really I don’t understand it. Next there is chungke. Chungke is pronounced chunky which is easy to remember because it is fermented rice and is, in fact, chunky. Chungke tastes sweet and is only served during local rituals. I think rituals must happen every other day because chungke always seems to be around the corner. They also have beer here; Druk 11000 (which I call Drunk 11000 – booya), Red Panda (an animal that actually exists and actually is found in Bhutan – look them up, they are adorable), Hit (which is aptly named because you feel like you’ve been punched in the face after drinking one), Fosters (Australia’s crappiest/best beer, there is no distinction), and Tiger Beer (from Thailand, actually not bad). Luckily for drunkards, these beers come only in 24 oz bottles and some genius thought it would be a great idea to make them 8% and charge you $1 for them. Basically, 1 beer = fall on your ass (unfortunately, like Lays potato chips, you can’t have just one – they force you).
Now for other hilarious things I have observed.
Our school has a prayer wheel and, no joke, that thing is like the see-saw of our school. Anytime of the day you will find students constantly turning it and walking around it and I’m starting to think it’s the ‘cool’ place to hang out. Either our students are dedicated to Buddhism or they think they have some really bad karma to work off.
My school has a Samtengang Star competition. This is effectively American Idol. It starts in a few months and I can't wait to see the drama unfold as students vie for the cash prize of…nothing. But really, I am excited to hold up a sign saying “We love you Tshering Dorji Wangchuk!” while jumping up and down and crying hysterically. Look out Samtengang!
Probably 25% of the students have Justin Beiber pictures covering their notebooks, the majority are guys. About 100% of the staff can sing Justin Beiber songs by heart. Somehow Bhutan has an epidemic of Beiber fever, I fear it will kill us all.
Anytime I run into a tourist here, which is actually very rare, I love watching their eyes as I tell them I am living here for at least 1 year. Considering it costs $220 per day to visit, I am technically getting $70,400 for free.
“My dealer lives in Wangue town”. I’ve heard this sentence on multiple occasions from different people. They are referring to how they purchase cigarettes since tobacco was banned this past January. And pot grows all over the countryside…what a strange place.
Well, that's all that's really exciting over here but stay tuned for more updates and insights! Oh and stay in touch, I love emails.
All the best,
February 13th, 2011
Hello officially from Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon!
This might be a longer email so I'll warn you now. Just read however much you want (a.k.a. one sentence).
My entry to the Paro Valley was amazing, as I mentioned. Stepping off the plane was so surreal, I can't believe I'm living here! We've been thrown into the throng of orientation schedules so I've been rather busy and also the internet likes to cut out during my free time for some reason. I'll run through some of the highlights.
The morning after flying in half of us hiked up to the Tiger's Nest. This is the location of a cave where Guru Rimpoche (the Guru who is hailed as the bringer of Buddhism to Bhutan) meditated and quelled all the demons in the area. It is the holiest place in Bhutan and it is insanely beautiful. But first you have to climb about 1500ft to get to it. Certainly overcoming the altitude was half the battle (step-step-suck wind-step-suck wind-fall over). But it was a great introduction to the Bhutanese landscape because there are prayer flags EVERYWHERE and insane hills and just breathtaking sights around every corner, it's really indescribable.
After a day we moved to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. I quickly got two gos tailored for myself. The go is the national dress of the men in Bhutan and is definitely the most useful/awesome thing you could ever wear. Let me break it down. First off, it comes down to your knees and all you have to wear is underwear so it's like wearing a robe. Then, there's a fold over your belt that is designed to be big enough to carry a bowl and a knife traditionally. In reality, you just shove all your crap in there; it's hilarious to see Bhutanese men whip cellphones out of these things. Some of them are super skinny but look huge because they have tons of stuff in the pouch fold. Then, the undershirt doubles as a hankerchief napkin (finally!). So I got one that's a bit more normal colors, then I got another one that's really bright colors because, hey, I'm in Bhutan and I'm gonna rock a go. The girl version is the keira and isn't nearly as cool or useful but I will say looks amazing.
A few days ago a group of us hiked up to Buddha Point which is a point high up on the mountains surrounding the Thimpu valley where they have constructed a ginormous Buddha. This thing is around 100ft tall and is covered in gold. Again, another sight that is pretty indescribable. This day was followed up by another hiking day planned by a few of us. We were originally going to drive up to a trailhead and hike for 4-5 hours. Unfortunately, we were stopped at an immigration checkpoint (apparently these things dot the landscape) and were regretfully rebuked. But they did allow us an hour and half into the "restricted" zone to check out a beautiful temple and a small hill that is dotted with over 50 chortens (small structures that are devoted to deities). Following this quick visit, we descended to the nearest town and jumped out of the taxis and decided to just ask locals where to hike. As the taxis pulled away, we were pointed in the direction of a gompa (monastery) at the top of the mountains enveloping the valley. Well, after 2 long hours of heavy breathing and breathtaking sights, we made it to this secluded monastery where we were greeted with the utmost hospitality, were invited inside, and shown the temple rooms. I will have to explain the innards of a temple in a coming email because they are just so amazing it would take an extra page to describe. Following the monastery visit, we descended with the quizzical thought of "how to get home?". But not to worry, as soon as we hit the road we quickly flagged down some cars and hitch-hiked our way back into Thimpu. Ugyen was our savior (for at least three of us) and spent the whole time explaining the various landmarks of the valley as we descended on the capital.
Since the hike, and actually since when I began writing this mass email, we have begun to move toward our placements. Today we visited Punakha en route. Punakha is yet another beautiful/amazing valley with terraced fields, huge monoliths randomly placed amongst the landscape, a great turquoise river, and the biggest/most important Dzong in the country. A Dzong is the administrative building of every Dzongkhag, or district. At the Dzong, a Dzongda, or district leader, presides over affairs and most business is conducted in Dzongkha, the language of Bhutan. As you can tell, it's all pretty confusing and complicated. Every Dzong, which were originally fortresses to repel invaders, has two sections of the compound; one dedicated to administrative tidings and the other devoted to the order of monks. Now the Punakha Dzong is important because it is the winter quarters for the monk-body which pretty much runs all of the religious aspects of the country. It is home to some 150 - 200 monks. The structure is overwhelming and very imposing. It sits inbetween two rivers who join just downstream from the Dzong. They are called the male and female river. The whole structure is intricately detailed with paintings of Buddha, local Gurus, lamas, and icons of Buddhism. It is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen in my life and I have no idea how it is not considered a wonder of the world.
At present I am in a village near Wangdi which is the main town of my Dzongkhag (district) of Wangduephodrang (pronounced WONG-DEE-FO-DRONG). Tomorrow the other teachers head off on a 4 day bus trip to the far east while 4 of us are shuttled to our placements. I am being placed in Samtengang (Sahm-tay-gong) Middle Secondary School which is about 1 hour from Wangdi. Our director forced me to go to the local market to stock up on vegetables and food because where I am going no food is currently growing. Also, the nearest market is an hours walk from my door so I'll be getting some good exercise in my attempts to stay fed. I've been told that my placement is beautiful (which is a theme of Bhutan), that there is a nice lake in my village, and that I am at the top of a mountain. So I am definitely excited and really intrigued as to what this place will actually look like. My accomodation is one large room with a bathroom and shower room and I was told to 'construct' my kitchen somewhere in this room. It's all pretty hilarious and you get used to the idea of just going with the flow and making things work with whatever resources you have. I'm not too worried about it.
Anyway, I'll let you know how the village life is after getting settled and finally being able to unpack (living out of a bag sucks a big one). I'm impressed if you have read this far and I hope you are all doing terrificly well. I'm excited to finally get underway with my purpose here and I can't wait to share it with all of you.
I wish you all the best and Tashi Delek!
January 24th, 2011
I have safely made it to Bhutan. Sorry for the delay but Druk Yul (the Dzongkha name) is a completely different world and it's taken until now to get a message out. The flight in was terrific, it landed directly in the Paro valley and we had to do huge sweeping banking turns to avoid the mountains then you straighten out and land immediately. It was insane but fun.
We stayed in Paro the first night and then we just moved to Thimpu today. While in Paro we had delicious food (oh my god, riciculously good), walked around Paro, visited the local museum, and climbed to the Tiger's Nest (look it up because it is breathtaking in photos, let alone in person). But now we're about to relax and have a bit of free time before our orientation starts up tomorrow. Bhutan is amazingly beautiful. I can't believe I'm here really, it's very surreal.
I love you guys and I'll be sending out more email soon.
I have arrived safely in Japan after a smooth couple of flights. So far the trip has been rather hilarious.
Upon boarding my 10 hour flight to Tokyo, the guy next to me (a 23 year old) turns and says "I guess we're gonna be talking a lot because this flight is 10 hours!". What I was thinking: "Nooooooooooooo!", what I said: "yeah...". My annoyance was only bolstered when 5 minutes later he turns to me again and asks: "I wonder how long I should wait before ordering my first beer?". Me: "Why travel gods, why?!". My heart really began to sink when he mentioned he was flying to the Phillipines and started griping about the lack of internet, having to sleep under a moquito net, and going on and on about malaria. It's somewhat hard to have sympathy for someone like this when I lived without electricity or running water in Uganda and also got Malaria. But in actuality, Matt (my new travel buddy), was a really nice guy and was really just nervous about his first trip outside of North America. We spent time talking about his fears for the Phillipines and joked about the differences between Canada and America while I tried not to laugh when he ended every sentence with "eh?" (I mean come on!).
After the plane ride I had to make my way to Tokyo (the airport is an hour away) which was a fun bit of adventure. I prefer to liken my arrival in Tokyo to Godzilla's stomach: it was interesting, a bit unsettled, and full of Japanese people. When I got on the train, the guy across the aisle immediately started to chat me up (I mean who can resist right? My eyes are BLUE!). Randomly enough we talked for a long while about marathons that we had run, each of us doing two. This quickly transitioned to talking about beer (duh) because he was slamming back a few Yebisu (Japan's malt beverage choice). But before I knew it, I was at Shibuya and my brother and I were off to his apartment.
Jeff and I dropped my stuff then ran out for some food. Within 2 hours of being in Tokyo I had eaten chicken cartilage (awful!), sting ray (sweet for some reason), squid, octopus, and tons of fish. Japan is pretty crazy like that. My brother's apartment is also pretty hilarious. You control the temperature of your shower with an electric sensor on the wall, the dryer is in the ceiling of the shower (which makes complete sense! wait...), and I can pretty much hit my head on any door jamb. In essence, I'm slightly convinced my brother's apartment is a domestic transformer spaceship.
Anyway, this email is way too long for being gone for 24 hours but I just wanted to update everyone. Thanks for all your well wishes!