Monday, August 6, 2012

The Afterglow

"Grant your blessings so that confusion on the path
                  may be eliminated
Grant your blessings so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.
Please bless me so that I may liberate myself by attaining
Bless me so that I may liberate others by the strength of
May all connections I develop be meaningful."
                  -His Holiness the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa,
                  The Preliminary Practice of Guru Yoga

Several things have happened since my last post. I am horribly back logged on my chronicles and have a lot of catching up to do. This is due to the fact that my computer crashed, among other things. I left off last time saying that I was just heading in to the Midterm Exam frenzy; I was sure I’d have a ton of stories to tell after the break, and not so sure I’d be able to make it through all my marking. Both predictions turned out to be true. And then some.
The road, the mountains, the view. This is how traveling looks.
My computer had the decency to crash after daily lessons/planning had stopped in lieu of review for the Midterm. I have never seen exams taken to such extent in the U.S.- not even at the college level. It was intense! Students and teachers were given a time table of the exams they were taking and when, and the campus turned into one big testing facility. The taking of exams and reporting of their scores are taken very seriously. That is because at least 70% of the students’ entire grade is based on the Midterm and Annual Exams. In my opinion, it is detrimental and inauthentic to make assessment so punctuated and with such high-stakes. This only provides results for a student’s capability of taking a test at a specific point in time, rather than making an ongoing and honest representation of his/her performance and progress. But this is the system that works here, and it’s not up to me to make those decisions. So I wrote the two English exams that are administered for Class 8 Standard, and took my allotted exam duties faithfully. I tried to focus on those things, rather than the fact that my computer had rendered itself useless until the point that I would be able to get it to Thimphu over the break. I also took it as a blessing that this happened at a time when I would have the availability to make the 2-day journey (one way) without having to take casual leave, which I am storing up for when mom visits in October.  
On the way

In Bumthang Valley, where mom and I will spend some time
Ashley made her way out to me here in Autsho on June 26th, and on the 28th, we headed west to join our BCF friends in the Bumthang Valley for some much needed reprieve. In the day and a half Ashley was at Autsho, she managed to “misplace” her phone. Someone found it, picked it up, and turned it off, probably wanting to use the remaining minutes left on her voucher without being caught. We couldn’t locate it before we had to leave that morning, and there was no way of delaying our departure because 1.) I had to beg the shop Auntie for a favor of getting two tickets on the bus going from Lhuentse to Thimphu to take us as far as Bumthang. We only got them because she knew the driver and pulled some strings for me. It would have been rude not to go and we wouldn’t have gotten another ride. 2.) This is monsoon season, and traveling is treacherous, if not impossible, from the end of June until the beginning of September. It was not raining, a.k.a. time to bust for it! So there we were, one with no phone, the other with no computer, both with all of our exams to mark still, about to embark, come hell or high water! Incidentally, this cliché saying is not an exaggeration of the actual situation.
Just after our breakdown
There is but one bus that goes from Lhuentse to Thimphu once a week, which means every person going that way (of which there were many due to school letting out) piles themselves and whatever huge cargo they are moving onto this rickshaw operation. It was a good two hours late pulling into Autsho and that pretty much set the tone for the duration of the trip. It was so over-packed that each time we went over even a small bump, the tail end of the bus grated on the ground. This eventually led to the inevitable breakdown that stopped us for an hour just a few kilometers from the highest pass in Bhutan. This happened shortly after the bus started fishtailing towards the side of a few-thousand-meter cliff as the wheels spun in the gumbo clay of the road. No guard rails, naturally. As if it were a routine drill, all the men jumped up and out of the bus and started pushing it back to the center of the road. At this point, Ashley had positioned herself right next to the door and was ready to bail; she looked back at me with sheer terror in her eyes. This probably should have been more alarming had it not been for the hilarity of the whole situation. I couldn’t find it in myself to panic, as it seemed so customary for everybody else, so I sat back and casually waited for the men to manually push our sliding bus back into “comfortable” position. And they did and we continued. Twelve hours later we arrived in one piece and fell into Tara’s open and loving arms. She took us to their beautiful, comfortable home and we spent the night eating, drinking, and enjoying being reunited.
Kitchen party, good company!
Tshechu, Kurjay
The next few days were pure magic and bliss. There is too much to relate everything in great detail, but to just gloss over the highlights: June 29th was the birth day of Guru Rinpoche (considered to be the Second Buddha) and Tara, Martin, Ashley, and I went to tshechu (holy festival/blessing by a Llama) at Kurjay, one of the most holy places in Bhutan and where the first 3 Kings are buried. Iman got in that day too, and met us there. One really interesting thing that happened was when people got in “line” (formed a slowly moving mass) to get a blessing, it turned in to something of a mosh pit. People were pushing so much that the police actually started removing the babies and small children from the crowd because they didn’t want them to get hurt. Once again, this seemed perfectly customary for everyone involved except us, so although uncomfortable, once again, you just gotta go with it. It was a day I’ll never forget. 
Beer in banana-leaf hut with my loves. A proper birthday celebration of Guru Rinpoche!
Of course there is masked dancing at a Bhutanese birthday party!
Swimming, Bhutanese style
The Burning Lake
The next day most of the other BCF clan got in to town and we headed over to the River Lodge, where BCF kindly put us up for a few days. Nancy, Meena, Karma, and Nima had a well-planned and lovely program set for us. We went to Membartsho, or the "Burning Lake," and drank in the splendor. Then, we got taken to the Tang Valley, where we got to see the Ogyen Choling Museum, a former feudal palace, and meet its owner/ proprietor Ashi (means queen) Kuenzang Choden- renowned female author- and her Swiss husband Walter. I got her to sign the book of hers I had been reading, and found out that she and Walter spent some years in Nebraska. Small world! The scenery of this place was excruciatingly, exquisitely gorgeous. It is what I imagine the Swiss Alps must look like in the springtime. This is the Bhutan I came to see. No pictures or words can ever capture the magnitude of beauty. It was one of those days I kept gazing at everything with my mouth gaping open, beseeching my mind to capture every little detail, and not let it fade. It is bittersweet to have such awe-inspiring experiences and in the same moment realize that this one too, like all others, will pass. I could have lived in that day forever.
Garden at Ogyen Choling
Picnic and views
Tang Valley
The gang in front of the museum with Ashi Kuenzang

Over those three days, there was shopping, eating at a Swiss Guesthouse, hiking, down time, bed bugs, Budwieser beer in honor of it being the 4th of July, and soul-filling conversations. Talking to my BCF colleges about the parallels in our experiences, hearing others' hilarious stories,  and feeling connected and relaxed was necessary. There is something about being in this situation that makes people skip over the luke-warm "getting to know you" phase and we all have cut straight to the heart of true friendship. Soon, the BCF-sponsored program was over, and while most others opted to stay on in Bumthang and go on a three-day cultural trek (which I’m still a little sore I missed out on), I went back to Thimphu so I could attempt to get my computer issues sorted. What an ordeal that turned out to be.
The first night, Karma dropped me off at the side of the “Tandin Hotel” and I spent the first night alone, on the main drag of downtown. For some reason I felt like I was in Bangkok, or in some seedy hotel in a  city, somewhere other than Bhutan. I actively missed my little nook of Autsho that is buried deep in the canyon of the Kuri Chhu. But I was exhausted, and passed out, dog noises and all. I woke up the next morning and, on a recommendation from Dave, spent the better part of my morning in the Ambient Café, waiting to hear from Karma, who was going to take me to the place where I heard I could go get my computer looked at. I met some really interesting people there and had the best latte and breakfast I’ve had since I got here. It was nice to see this new side of Thimphu, and my new, more-Bhutanese self in it. It was empowering and thrilling to be by myself in a foreign land, relying on my instincts and limited knowledge of where I was, handling my own agenda. Through a conversation with the owner, I realized I was only a few shops down from where I needed to go. I thanked him, asked if I could leave my oversized duffle bag within his sight while I ran around to do my business for a while, and set out. Ultimately, nothing got accomplished with my computer that day, but I did meet the people who would end up fixing it, and they went far out of their way to help me. The I.T. Kuenzang worked on it for the whole day, and the following, and took me around to get another external hard drive, and even walked me to the grocery store I wanted to go to.
I ended up staying the next two nights with two lovely gentlemen named Niall from Ireland, and Alvaro from Spain. They are in Bhutan working in the tourism department in association with the United Nations, and I got Niall’s contact number, once again, from Dave. In Bhuntan, life is about connections, chance encounters, luck, and flexibility. They had a great flat with an extra room, which happened to be within spitting distance of the BCF offices, and Nancy (the director) and Mark’s (World Bank) houses. I ended up hanging out with the neighbors upstairs, since Niall and Alvaro both had Friday night plans. This turned into going to a proper club, where Alvaro met up with us much later. Such a fun night! I haven’t danced like that in over half a year. It felt amazing!
New friends Tshering, Alvaro, and Sonam after a long night out
Sonam, the brother of the guy upstairs, was going back to Bumthang on Sunday and would take me. He kept calling me a “country girl,” and I was so proud to realize that, yes, I am. I belong to a little place in the least-developed part of this country, yep. I may be a foreigner to the greater Bhutan, but in Autsho I am a local. I have a home here. I have a family. I spent my third day in Thimphu trying to get my laptop fixed, again, and that evening walked over to Mark’s where I got to have dinner with his lovely family, Nancy, and friends. The next day I made it back to Bumthang, without incident, and spent the remainder of break putzing around. The stress, lack of sleep, travel, and germs of all this had left my immune system in shambles, and so of course I got sick.
The people in my life right now really make all the difference. Being around such goodness: the support, love, advice, and help of those around me, has really made life glow. Thank you, Tara and Martin, if you’re reading this, for being such lovely hosts. And to everyone else who made the energy and time so touching, contented, and substantive. I have a huge sense of gratitude for people being there and going out of their way for others. I could say something about each single person I’m in contact with that has given and done special things for me. The people I met in Thimphu and all along the way took care of me- this would hardly happen in California. Strangers don’t go out of their way for one another, where time is money and nothing is free. I’m blessed to be here and aware of the difference.

back in Autsho celebrating Pema and Tshenden buying a new car
Morning greetings, scratch my belly!
It was quite a trip, in every sense of the word, and produced some memories that will last me a lifetime! I have come back from it with a whole new perspective on patience and flexibility, as well as a renewed enthusiasm for teaching and my community. There have been days that I have questioned my teaching abilities and felt lost and lonely. However, there has been a tangible shift and I have a newfound sense of my time and place here. I am doing new and interesting things with my classes every day and feeling good about the learning that's going on, both ways. I am working on a Library renovation project, using the funds I applied for and procured with the BCF, so as to leave something of a mark here. I have planted a vegetable garden with the help of my students, who I then invited in to watch a movie on Madam Tashi’s computer I borrowed. I made them snacks and tea. It felt great to host- made me feel like I truly have enough now, literally and figuratively, that I can share with others. It was so nice to hear “Thank you for everything!” rather than being the one to say it. I am spending as much time as possible with my new friends and family. There are some puppies, well, just one really, that has adopted me; but he has a twin that goes everywhere with him. Thus, I now have a pair of little dogs that follow me around and sleep on my doorstep. Today, the one who fancies me tried to follow me all the way into a classroom. I feel genuinely connected to teaching and my students. In short, I’m feeling better than ever before here, maybe better than I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I’m feeling the love. The peace, gratitude, and affection I have found here trump all else leading up to this. I’m torn over what I should do next year, but I couldn’t be happier or more appreciative of my life here in this moment.

No shoes? No problem.

Saturday classes are best spent outside!                     


  1. Reidi,

    I can feel how happy you are through your words, which ignites so much joy in me. If I was a student, I would love to have you as my teacher because not only are you so smart, but you have a truly kind spirit that always makes me smile and I can just imagine your love coming out in your teaching. Stay joyful no matter what.

    It was so fun seeing you on vacation and I miss you!

    Love ya

    P.S. Finally, you got the puppies we swore that we were going to get haha. I have adopted a school puppy too, but he lives at school. I taught him how to sit and shake. lol