Friday, February 17, 2012

Moving On, Moving In

"Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination
calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things"

                                               -Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

Kuzuzempo la! I am happy to report I am still very much alive and thriving here at Autsho Middle Secondary School; so much has happened since my last installment it’s going to be hard to summarize these events in any kind of orderly or coherent way, but here goes nothing…

Preparing to leave Thimphu was a whirlwind- everyone frantically trying to finish all necessary shopping and get mentally/emotionally geared up for an entire year “out in the sticks,” so to speak. Nobody knew exactly what to expect at our postings, so stress and apprehensions were reasonably high. Still, we managed to go out in style, have a great time with each other, and made the most of our last few days together. Some returning BCF teachers, Vicky, Ian, and Scott, came to the city to help us “Bhutan babies” out. They were really supportive in helping us shop and answering a bombardment of logistical questions we had for them. Scott kindly gave us the rundown on what to do if we get bitten by a dog, concluding by saying, “If you display signs of rabies, you will die!” Haha! Ian prevented me from forgetting my rice cooker at the store. Vicky’s warmth, humor, and candor were comforting to us all. Thanks, guys! They took the long route (as if there is a short one) back to their postings in Eastern Bhutan so they could tour the country and actually met up with me here in Autsho on their way- a welcome reunion! They gave my new friend and me dinner, more advice, helped me fix my broken water filter, and got to tour my school- all very pleasant. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The last few days in Thimphu were peppered with dinners and teas in which we were joined by various government/education officials and dignitaries, the caliber of which a lowly teacher such as myself would never have the good fortune to hold audience with in the U.S. It goes to show the priority Bhutan puts on education and the level of respect the Bhutan Canada Foundation has earned within this Kingdom. The directors, facilitators, logistical coordinators, and managers of the BCF have worked incredibly hard to bring this all to fruition. The effort and extent of commitment these people have to the cause is inspiring. Thank you, la. I am humbled and honored to be a small part of this I will do my best to uphold it’s well-earned reputation.

 Druk Wangyal- 108 chortens


Lopen Lungtaen Jamtsho,and BCF Executive Director Nancy Strickland
We all left on a Saturday morning in several vehicles and met at Dochula, a monument built on one of the peaks between Punaka and Thimphu (two districts here). It was founded in 2003 by the Queen Mother in tribute and appreciation of a successful military coupe in which Bhutan drove menacing insurgents outside its boarders; her Husband and Son both fought in this battle and returned unharmed, thankfully. “La” means pass between the mountains (it’s also said after hello, thank you, good day, or really anything else as a sign of respect or understanding, la). The site is aptly named. Cresting at right around 10,000 ft., it is pure opulence. As special guests, we had the honor of a guided tour and were allowed to go up to the second level of the structure to get a close look at the most intricate, ornate, and colorful mural that depicts the history of Bhutan painted on the walls. We then got to enter a room built specifically for use by the Royal Family for tea and rest when they travel- sacrosanct ground- a very exceptional privilege, indeed. Nobody likes a bragger; but let’s just say it wasn’t too shabby. Then, we took tea with the Director of Institute at Dochula, Lopen Lungtaen Jamtsho, and the Representative for Bhutan of the World Bank, Mark LaPrarie, who came to Bhutan to teach, much like we are, in the 80’s. See- there is hope for me still! Then, we walked around Druk Wangyal- 108 chortens built on the same site- and departed for the duration.  Three teachers staying in the West went back to Thimphu, while everyone else piled into a small school bus and one SUV for the most notorious road trip any of us are likely to have.  

I’ll skip over the painstaking details, and yes, they were painful at times. Sufficient to say, I had been dreading the driving part of this whole deal because I have a “slight” fear of heights, but my worst nightmares couldn’t even compare. I have also never been car sick before, but the hairpin turns and constant jarring had me turning green. Three days of this. I totally lost my appetite (which also never happens) and at times, the will to live. I’m only kidding, sort of…

River at Wandue

Taken right before suja and my first yak sighting!

Yeah. That's a good mile just straight down!

Yet if you just look out, this is what you see!
Ok, ok, it was beautiful, sure. In between the nausea, brake downs (both vehicular and for some, psychological), road blocks, and utter terror, I had some pretty special firsts: suja- Bhutanese butter tea, wild yaks, wild monkeys, some wonderful history lessons, courtesy of Meena, and sights that stirred a beautifying knowledge within me that moved my soul to recognize sublimity.

All that being said, I was very relieved to be done driving on that third day, yet sad to say goodbye to my friends, with whom I so quickly and easily bonded. This area and my school are undeniably beautiful, however. Autsho is in a canyon with towering mountains on all sides and a rushing river just below my brand spankin’ new campus. I am staying in the sick room of the Matron’s quarters, which is good-sized, and I have everything I need. Still, it’s an adjustment, and I can’t say I wasn’t scarred to face this place on my own. The reality of life here can be rough, and I’m not experienced in this kind of living- i.e., self-sufficiently- as I proved to myself on the first day when I almost set my new quarters on fire by neglecting the water boiling on my gas stove. The flames burnt the plastic tube connecting the tank to the stove and, WHOOSH!  I flailed myself over there just in time to cut the gas before it exploded. Whew! A good lesson to learn on the first day considering I have to boil every ounce of water I consume, so I’d better get good at it.

That's my house right there

This burned for 3 days
Fire was determined to get me, I thought, as the next day a huge forest fire broke out while my principle and I were driving back from doing business in Lhuentse. I took it as a humorous sign of fate. The drive was treacherous because the fire was burning on the mountain directly overhead and when the grass and shrubbery burn away, rocks become dislodged and plummet down to the road upon which we were driving, nervously, quickly. When we got back to campus, I was dropped off and told “It’s ok, it won’t come down this far.” Sure. Thanks, that’s comforting. Seriously, I could have thrown a rock and hit that fire. I would compare the reaction of those around me to the frog that stays in the pot of water until it slowly boils. I was thinking, "At what point is it ok to get alarmed, here??..." I was trying not to be a wuss, but it just didn’t seem logical to sit and watch a huge fire line descend towards my home and not do anything. So, I the second night I was here, I calmly re-packed almost everything I brought, just in case. However, close as it got, it never did come down all the way, even though the people who live in a hut right above me had to throw water on it to keep it from burning their home. Therefore, I turned out to be the overly-concerned American I guess I am. If this is any indication of the way the rest of the year will go, then we're off to a great start!

My all-in-one nook
I don't have hot water or a shower, so I figured out how to take my first sponge bath over the drain in my bathroom floor. I've never really taken conservation very seriously, awful as that sounds, but not having electricity, hot or pure water, washing my clothes in a bucket, and eating as a vegetarian all feel surprisingly natural; this lifestyle is nurtures me deeply. Sounds pretty corny that I would be proud of things as simple as figuring out how to rig my clothesline, boil water on my gas stove, and sweep with a broom made of grass, but it goes to show that it truly is the small things.
Bhutanese broom

My principal is a great man and very happy I’m here. I think he really likes me, thinks I'm spunky, positive, and will be a good teacher. He sized me up right away and in the first 5 minutes of talking, he said he thought I should join the men's volleyball team. I have even made some good friends already. Madame Neljor and Madame Sonam Choden: wonderful ladies who are teachers here, too- they live on campus too, have taken me in, and made me feel very loved and welcome. Neljor came in my door that first night as I was ferociously scrubbing my bathroom, wearing a headlamp no less because was no electricity. I looked a complete mess, but she came up, hugged me, and insisted on putting herself to work. She made my bed and organized my clothes as I violently kept trying to kill the stink that perpetually ekes from the drain in my bathroom floor. It’s an ongoing battle…The point is, I can tell that everyone really wants me to like it here, be happy and comfortable, and have high expectations.

New friends Neljor and Sonam Choden

My principal, Sangla and myself

Mountains on all sides

In our first staff meeting and I came out as the class 8 English teacher, head of the Humanities department (I think- these things aren’t always as concrete and clear as they are in the West) and am in charge of the Literacy Committee. I’ve been busy planning and have made year-long plans for everything so far. I’m really excited to start working on the projects I have come up with, particularly a cultural exchange via letters with students from Los Angeles. It’s going to be so great; I can see how interested these students are in Western culture!

The first day of school was the 15th; but I have yet to start teaching in the classroom because there are so many administrative matters to work out with the student boarders and new transfers, sections, etc. Only in Bhutan does school run for a good week before any “teaching” happens. It’s nice because everyone gets time to get back into the swing of things, plus it’s given me additional time to prep. Feb. 21st is the 4th King’s birthday, so after getting the students registered, sectioned, and settled in, we begin planning for and carrying out the celebration in honor of His Majesty. Therefore, it will probably be another week at least before I can say anything conclusively about my actual “job.”
Kuri Chhu River, just below campus where I run and play

The community of Autsho is very small and simple, yet there is a rustic beauty about this special place. A small smattering of light and life nestled in juxtaposition to the magnitude of the landscape.There are about 5 or 6 small shops carrying very basic supplies, staple food items (potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, chillies) and beer, lots of beer. Tendrils of smoke spiral into the air from wood burning stoves and fill the air with an essence of country life. Cows, chickens, dogs, and children roam freely, and the atmosphere is lively and hearty. As the only Westerner here, I do stick out in appearance and behavior, yet a large part of me already feels very deeply connected to it all.

I can say that the students all seem very sweet very curious about me. I am the tallest person on staff, which makes me the biggest woman, (and maybe human being) they’ve ever seen. I walk through campus and everyone bows courteously, “Good morning/afternoon, Madame!” Then, as I pass, there are the invariable giggles and whispers as I’m sure they have all heard me singing in my room, or have seen me going on runs, maybe doing yoga on the big rocks next to the river like a crazy person. Really anything I do seems different and odd to them, I’m sure. I can’t wait for the day when we’re all comfortable with each other. There is NOTHING more adorable than these little ones in their kiras and ghos, so it’s high time we make friends so I can properly bask in the full glory of playing with and loving them like I plan! At morning assembly and the students chant and sing. I didn’t know what was going on at first, par usual. Everyone fell silent and put their hands in prayer position. I just followed suit, and then I heard the most, enchanting (no pun intended) sound I ever have. The males carry a deep undertone and the girls sound like little chimes. It gave me chills through and through and I thought, “This is the way we should all start each day…” Luckily for me, I get to.

It feels good to finally come to where I will be indefinitely. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say that. I hope it’s not so long in until my next post, but I can’t promise anything. My Internet is sketchy, at best; hence the laps in communication (and no pictures yet, boo!) Thanks for bearing with me for this long!

Blissfully, Eagerly, Lovingly,
-Madame Reidi
All decked out in the national dress

Another group shot in front of Dochula

Simply amazing!


  1. Yikes! I just re-read this; clearly I wrote that last part it before I had the pictures up. Next time I should consider a good proofread before publishing!

  2. I love how tall you are lol Miss you and I'm glad you are doing great. Sabrina

  3. Reidi, I miss you! This blog made my day that fire picture is priceless. You've been on my mind the most since you were so sick when we left you. Shoulda figured a farm girl would be right at home here in Bhutan. Go down to the river on the far side of town (opposite the chorten) and say a prayer for me. Life in Tshenkharla is great except for no water!

    All the best


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