Thursday, April 7, 2011

And now, the ramblings of a traveling man…

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

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.

Being ‘Handsome’

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

This Just In

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!”

“[Fuck!] Okay…”

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,


On the move

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

Hey guys,

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.


Made it!

January 12th, 2011

Hey Everyone!

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!


Here We Go

Okay all, I decided to open this blog so people who may not know me but are interested in Bhutan, and perhaps teaching here, can get a glimpse of what life is like in the Druk Yul. I called my blog Druk Mail because what I'll be doing is posting my mass emails that are sent homeward for all to see. Druk, because the messages are coming from Bhutan (Druk Yul), and mail, because the posts are my emails. If you can't figure that out I'll send Tommy back there to hit you over the head with a hammer. 20 points to those who can tell me that movie quote! Anyway, stay tuned for my deepest, darkest secrets and stories. Carson