Monday, August 15, 2011

Oh Bhutan

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. 

During the break I was able to trek to Jomolhari (joe-mol-har-ee) with Meghann.  In a word, it was AWESOME.  The Himalayas are absolutely breathtaking and I was taking so many pictures that I might as well have been making a video.  We started out from Drukyel Dzong in Paro (an old, ruined dzong) and slowly hiked into the higher hills and quietly said goodbye to civilization.  Our first campsite was at about 2780 meters (9120 feet) and was right next to the Pa Chu, a raging river.  Our second day was the hardest with an 8 hour day that ended at Thangangkhar, 3550 meters (11646 feet).  On that day we passed the road to Tibet, took in amazing peaks, and gawked at the ridiculous amounts of wildflowers encompassing us.  I could feel the altitude at that point with some heavier breathing while walking but Meghann began to develop a headache, a minor sign of mountain sickness.  Oh well! We pushed on from our second camp at Thangangkhar, which was infested with rats, and walked for 5 hours to our final destination, Jangothang.  Along the way we were greeted with plenty of alpine meadows and also yaks with their yaklings.  The altitude plays host to yak herders and their herds during the summer months.  As a result, we also got to see their makeshift shelters which are pretty impressive.  They consist of a low foundation of stones which they then pitch their self-made yak-hair tents (which are water proof) over.  Hard to describe, amazingly awesome.  We also passed through the village of Soe where we met a school teacher who teaches 12 students, the total population of children in that area. Their archery range looked pretty well used considering there is nothing to do there (except take in the views with a cup of tea).  And then we made it, Jangothang.  This camp is at a height of 4015 meters (13172 feet) - although I’ve been told anywhere from 4010-4040meters - and the altitude was very apparent.  While I just breathed harder when walking, Meghann’s headache got worse and she started to feel dizzy.  She actually had to take some Diamox (altitude tablets) to help her cope.  Despite the altitude, I was up and about checking out the abandoned dzong, which was originally built to repel Tibetan invaders, and scouting out our camp.  The next day, Meghann and I went on a day hike toward a glacial lake at the base of the mountain.  Unfortunately, we were turned back due to weather but we saw impressive views, blue sheep, ridiculously large yaks, and a pristine alpine plateau along the way.  Regardless, it was well worth the extra huffing and puffing.  The trip back down to Paro was rather uneventful despite being very long (one day 8 hours walking, the other 9).  But the trip was fantastic and something I will remember for a long time to come.


My Dzongkha is slowly improving over time. I can now tell students to: 'come here', 'sit down', 'understand?', 'where are you going?', 'where does ‘x’ go?'... So all very useful things one would assume.  Dzongkha uses the Tibetan alphabet with a few modifications and is impressively fast.  When writing, they start from the top line of the paper and put a period every three sounds or characters followed by a long vertical line which acts as a period.  Realistically, it is pretty difficult to master mostly because of the different sounds they use.  There are soft t’s, hard t’s and really hard t’s and the same for a plethora of other letters, one being p.  This crazy distinction had me feeling pretty bad the other day.  One of my students is named Pow (an awesome name) which is pronounced – pow – like the onomatopoeia version.  Unfortunately, I have been pronouncing it – po – all year with a strong p pronunciation.  Apparently, this pronunciation means penis in Dzongkha… So I’ve been calling one of my students Penis all year!  In addition, his second name is Dorji, which stands for power or sometimes lightning.  So really I’ve been calling him Penis Power or, alternately, Penis Lightning.  This is certainly one of the more embarrassing (but also slightly awesome) things I’ve done while teaching.  If only it stopped there.  Yesterday, I was asking students how to pronounce ‘students’ in Dzongkha which I’ve forgotten now but involves the word – tu (pronounced too).  Like last time, I was pronouncing tu with a strong t instead of the softer t that it requires…and I was saying vagina to my entire class.  Somehow I’ve been able to mistakenly say penis and vagina in front of a multitude of students.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they ran me out of Samtengang…or asked me to teach sex-ed.

A bug a day.  Yes, a bug a day keeps the doctor away…actually, it just keeps me up at night.  Lately, I have been selected, chosen, nay!, targeted by our critter friends.  Each night, as I’m going to sleep or already asleep, I get to defend my bed from an intruder.  A cricket, a caterpillar, a spider, another cricket, a paper eating bug, a long bodied beetle thing – the list goes on.  These invaders seem to love to crawl all over me like a 3rd grader on the monkey bars at recess. It’s partly my fault for having my mattress on the floor but they started it! Not much I can really do but I just thought you should know that I’m constantly sharing my bed with the locals.

To get around in Bhutan I mostly hitchhike, rarely do I take a taxi.  I really enjoy this aspect of my life in Bhutan.  Every single time I travel I get to meet someone new.  I have met: monks who had a case of beer in the back (and a few in their hands), a loving couple that didn’t speak a word of English but that shared bowls of soup with me at a rest stop, an ex-military truck driver and his brand new wife, a business man who loved to listen to techno and take turns like Speed Racer, and a gup (local leader) of a village a few days from mine.  These are only a handful of my saviors.  Each time it also seems like a completely different journey.  I’ve had lengthy talks about Bhutanese and American politics, seen a crew of men trying to hoist a truck out of a steep gully after it had lost control and run off the road, watched a driver contemplate what was wrong with his car when it wouldn’t start only to get out and hit something with a hammer followed by the car roaring to life!  One trip the keys fell out of the ignition while we were driving and the thing kept on going (the guy didn’t even notice!), and did I mention the cows?!  These cows won’t budge; they’ll stare down a 4-ton semi coming at them head on and win.  One of my teachers told me a great story explaining this phenomenon:

Many years ago, a cow, a goat, and a dog were taking the bus to their respective homes.  When the bus arrived at their stop, the goat paid too little so he ran off the bus and into the brush.  The dog paid too much but the driver didn’t have change so the dog was outraged and chased the bus as it sped off.  But the cow paid the right amount and was thus satisfied.  So now, when you drive these narrow roads, goats will run away from every vehicle, afraid that the driver is going to ask for the fare.  Dogs will chase your vehicle, demanding to be given the correct change.  And cows, well cows feel entitled to the road and won’t move a damn inch; they paid their fare.

Right now things are going pretty well! I am teaching a unit on summarization and analysis to my class 7’s and 8’s so I’m sure you can just imagine their excited faces every time we begin our lessons.  Actually, I’m using music by The Very Best, Toto, Bob Marley, John Mayer, Eric Clapton, and Tom Petty to teach comparison and analysis.  In addition, I’m using pictures from The Simpsons to improve their summarizing and analyzing skill sets.  I’ve had a blast and students seem to smile so I’m sure it’s not all bad.  I’m about to show them WALL-E.  Students will have to pretend to be a film critic and write a synopsis and critique of the movie.  I’m super stoked to watch it with them, mostly because I'm a giant child and really like the movie.

Well, I hope you are all well! Drop a line, I would love to hear from you.

All the best,

Karsang Dawa Drukpa (a.k.a. Carson)


Karsang means crystal clear, or very white.
Dawa means moon
Drukpa means Bhutanese.

So the name given to me by my friend Ugyen, is Crystal Clear Bhutanese Moon. He chose Karsang because I'm very white but also because my name, Carson, sounds really similar.  The more you know...


  1. Wai! you are still left with many things unexplored (himalayas).
    Good observation in the case of students' behavior
    great and keep growing

  2. Hey Carson,

    Fingers crossed I'm coming to Bhutan to teach with BCF next year! Very excited about it. Really interesting reading your emails - keep them coming if you can... any nuggets of advice greatly appreciated, but just getting a bit of an insight into the experience is valuable.


    Dave Green

  3. Interesting paragraphs and great pictures too............keep on exploring and learn new things about Samtengang and of Bhutan in general. You could fly 'into the wild' and come back a newer Karson.