Saturday, March 27, 2010

"Like I said, Bhutan has the nicest people on Earth."

Today was pretty amazing. In town visiting Strassfeld and Eric, we skipped out on the Paro Tsechu and tried to hike to Taksin monastery, otherwise known as Tiger's Nest, otherwise known as the steepest slope in the world with a building on it. Unlike the tourists, though, we weren't taking the lame path off the road. We were going to try and reach it from the other side of the mountain. That means summitting the mountain and climbing down to Taksin from above. The monks weren't going to know what hit them.

Well, we failed. Luckily, at around 3:30, already dead tired from a long ascent and a general lack of available oxygen, we ran into a 20-person hiking party of Bhutanese people who informed us that Taksin was 4 or 5 hours away--meaning our attempted trek was about a 10 hour one, not the "easy" hike we'd been promised. Still, it was unbelievable--Zeb should be posting the pictures soon. Highlights include sightings of mountain goats and visiting a remote mountainside monastery in which we inched across rickety part-broken boards over a 100-foot drop to reach a former residence of Guru Rinpoche, the spiritual father of Bhutan, where we drank from a vat of water blessed by his proximity. Imagine hiking up a sheer face for three hours to discover a tiny outcropping of houses, being led to a tiny cave, and having someone tell you, "Oh yeah! Jesus used to live here. Hey, there's some holy water in his former house. You want some? Go ahead, fill up your bottle!" That's exactly what it was equivalent to. All in all, one of the more memorable hikes of my life.

Oh, yeah. The monastery had solar panels on its roof.

Maybe more memorable than the hike itself were the continual gifts of human faith we keep receiving, unbidden, almost every day we reside in this country. Strass tends to romanticize things, but one refrain of his--"Bhutanese people are the nicest people one Earth"--may be literally true. Two things that happened to us today:

First, we didn't know the exact route to the base of the mountain. Our attempted route involved cutting through people's property. At one small house, we greeted a woman washing clothes, who asked us where we were going. "Taksin," we told here. She spoke little English, but it was clear she wanted to point out that we had no idea where we were going. After some awkward gesturing, she screamed something into the house, and a child of around 12 emerged. With great effort, she turned to us and mustered in her best English: "Take this my son with you." With great humility, we followed this boy as he led us over gates and across rice paddies for twenty minutes to the base of the trail. We offered him some money, which he refused, even though he had every reason to assume we were tourists, and thus both rich and clueless.

Almost immediately after he left us, we came upon an old woman walking through the forest. She vocalized fervently in Dzongkha for a while and pointed towards the woods; we thought we had somehow already gotten lost. We tried some simple phrases on her, but there was to be absolutely no communication this time. After some fraught moments of silence, she motioned for us to follow her but stay behind.

Some thirty feet in front of us stood a herd of cows. At its front was a humongous bull, locked in battle with a smaller cow as we first saw it. This alpha male bull quickly fought off its challenger and stamped its feet, kicking and snorting, in a murderous temper.

We stared in amazement as this bent woman picked up a stick off the ground and headed straight for the enraged beast. Yelling, the woman waved the stick at the bull, landing a couple of solid blows. The bull, a fearsome force of nature, took off stampeding into the trees, with most of the herd following behind it.

The woman calmly walked up to us with a smile that said, "you understand?" We were speechless. Then she insisted on giving us a parting gift of hardened yak cheese as she sent us on our way. Why wouldn't an old woman confront a violent 1000-pound animal to help some foreign strangers? It's the nice thing to do.

It wasn't lost on me that we had these experiences as a consequence of skipping the Paro Tsechu, an important cultural celebration that masses tourists to come and get an 'authentic' view of Bhutanese life via traditional dances that are performed once a year. We were talking about not going to the tsechu, and one of said something to the effect of, "tourists don't know how bad they have it here. The culture is nice and all, but the whole reason this place is special is how the people treat each other. You can't really experience it without living here."

Which we are.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Losing the battle, winning the war

10/33 of my students in one 11th grade section completed the homework today. I gave them a stern lecture about how the class is not graded on a curve, all work is compulsory, and I had no qualms about failing all of them if they didn't take class seriously. Here is our exchange from the end of class.

ME: So do you all understand tonight's assignment?


ME: Do you think you can do it?

CLASS: Yes, sir!

ME: Are you going to do it?

CLASS: No, sir!

ME (exasperated): Are you going to repeat the 11th grade until you're 50 years old?

CLASS: Yes, sir!

ONE BOY: Fifty-one, sir!

Since the midterm and final are supposed to be 80% of their grade, and since I'm told just passing rather than achieving high marks is emphasized by many families, I can understand that my kids are frustrated by the high volume of work I'm giving them. I wouldn't be frustrated if they weren't so funny--a trait that shows me that in general they are very bright. Many of them remind me a good deal of myself in high school--precocious without being offensive, subversive without being directly rebellious. The difference, I think, is that I always understood the consequences of not putting in my best effort in school.

I am teaching the way I was taught: homework every night, constant quizzing to reinforce concepts, major emphasis on in-class discussion and a democratic classroom. I think some of this methodology is just going to prove too foreign. I remain astonished at how my kids were raucous and unable to pay attention during a fun activity like in-class debate, but work diligently and quietly when I give what I find to be a boring grammar lesson. Well, as I told them, I'm happy to teach grammar and syntax all year. They could certainly use the help. As could we all.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In which cultural objects have different associations when taken out of their original context

I had each of my classes introduce themselves and tell me what their favorite thing to read was. The only repeated answer (except for "I don't read," which was really common) was "Nicholas Sparks." Two girls and two boys. One boy brought a copy of "The Notebook," book version, to class. It was the only non-textbook I've ever seen in the hands of a teenager here.

An older kid came to basketball tryouts yesterday wearing a pink Jonas Brothers t-shirt. I saw a grown man wearing the same shirt on the street a couple hours later. During downtime at tryouts, a group of teenage boys, who fancy themselves real badasses and have a club team called "The Delinquents," listened to Justin Bieber on a cell phone.

Many of the most rebellious teenagers I've seen display their affiliation with their crew by holding hands with them, or, more commonly, draping their arms affectionately over their bros' shoulders as they amble down the mean streets.

Homosexuality is against the law here.
Wandering around town yesterday, we randomly ran into two of the 21 other teachers from our school. Last Saturday, we saw five of them while shopping, then another two of our friends in the supermarket, and then another three friends at a cafe, where I met the Lama who presides over the youth center where we'd seen a movie our first night in Bhutan. It's safe to say there is a small-town vibe here. Bhutan has a gossipy culture befitting a society built around small communities; if you meet someone who has a single friend in common with someone you know, they probably know every intimate detail of your personal life already, especially your marital status. As a teacher who's been working here for a year told me, "be careful what you do, because if it's interesting, you'll be reading about it tomorrow on the front page of the Kuensel [a local paper]."

Thimphu is supposed to be an 80,000 person city. Where are most of these people? Why do we keep seeing the same 20 of them?

Friday, March 12, 2010


----A guy named Simtoshi whose dad lives upstairs claims to hold the Guinness World Record for smallest carved statue----

----I spent a significant portion of today, the last day of preparation before school starts, transferring textbooks from a chicken shack into a pickup truck-----

----My 12th graders are going to be tested by the state on "Tess of the D'ubervilles," a 450-page novel about social mores in 19th-century England; when I asked an experienced colleague how many pages per night I should assign for that level of material, she responded, after serious consideration, "Two, and most of them won't read that much"----

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In which I start teaching in six days

Again my internet situation is less than optimal, and I'm tired to boot, so only quick updates--

Our apartment is livable. We have a heater, a stove, blankets, and a number of other things that people have in apartments. As much of a hassle and an expense as it's been to shop for essentials every day--and to realize every day that there are essentials we don't have--it's a rewarding feeling to take such an empty place and slowly turn it into a home. There's nothing like finding and purchasing a cutting board to make you feel like you've achieved a major victory. A number of times since we've moved in, I've gotten that rush you get when you're backpacking and you do something basic like cook a meal or brush your teeth; it's a combination of the visceral contentment of satisfying a fundamental physical need and the satisfaction of imposing your will on the forces of society and the natural world. Once we get paid, we may even buy curtains and rugs. We figure we'll be ready for a housewarming party sometime around the beginning of April, and will be excited for the kinetic energy of living beings to literally warm the place.

As for official business,

We've been meeting for three days as a faculty. Only today, in which we tackled the dubious job of writing school rules and guidelines, felt like a real faculty meeting in the way I was expecting them to feel. I am the head of Dramatics Club, which I anticipated since being hired, but which remains daunting. I doubt it will be hugely popular, as one of the other options is ping-pong. (You are a crafty fox, Mark.) It shouldn't be as anxiety-causing as the task of teaching my ~120 English students, but the fact that it will be such a smaller group, and such a less formal setting, adds a whole different set of expectations. While I have every intention of making a real impact on my students, I'm not harboring any lofty fantasies of changing every kid's life with the self-actualizing power of literature, Dead Poet's Society-style; in Dramatics club, though, I will be teaching only a small group engaged in something they will probably have little to no experience with and in which I am highly knowledgeable. Right now, it feels like anything but opening their minds to the transformative power of unchained self-expression will be a total failure. Which is rough, because that last sentence is ridiculous, and I know it. But that's just how I feel.

Though I'm more confident every day, I'm starting to see how teaching could get brutal on my psyche, even though I consider myself as mentally tough as anyone. I've always gotten by by setting an absurdly high bar for myself and having things turn out OK when I only achieve half the things I thought I should have. I'm realizing that this job takes that power largely out of my hands--that even if I go all Robin Williams-in-New-England on everyone, many of my students will not be inspired, many will not care, and some will fail. That's just how life is. I shouldn't beat myself up over it, but I'm going to. That's just how I am.

Many more interesting things happened recently, but I'm not going to write about them. Here's the best (appropriate) quote from yesterday, from a very fit, health-conscious, athletic, young Bhutanese guy, a guy who told us he broke up with his last girlfriend because she was a smoker:

"No, you should drink this tea. It's very good for your health. There is nothing in it but butter, salt, and water."

And he will live 30 years longer than me. And so it goes.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

In which it gets very, very real

At 8:30 this morning—a Saturday morning, mind you—a middle-aged woman rang my doorbell. As my apartment is well removed from the middle of nowhere, I hadn’t been anticipating a social call. Also, it was 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.

“Uh, hello,” she whispered. (She’s shy, and her English is better than she puts on.) She placed a giant thermos in front of the door. “I made tea for you. Um, I have to go shopping into the city.”

On Thursday, on our insistence, Zeb and I moved out of the cushy hotel our employer had been paying for and into an edifice I have dubbed The Realness. It is an hour’s walk from downtown Thimphu, fifteen feet from a calm but highly audible river, several kilometers away from the pervasive influence of Whitey, and, at the moment, cognitive light years away from being a respectable domicile. At present, we lack: a heater; curtains; chairs; floor coverings; a stove; sheets; and anything designed to conceal the exposed cement that forms almost every surface.

We have: potatoes. (That one’s for you, Christian. Though it is true.)

It is going to be a simple existence. That said, we are extremely fortunate to have gotten this apartment. The housing market is crazy here, as befits the most rapidly expanding urban area in the country—our principal, for one, is still looking for a place. To boot, the place is gigantic. We have a huge common room and a master bedroom that we don’t know what to do with. Given that we live in a dusty cement box in the basement of a building, there’s really no excuse for us not to be training in Muay Thai streetfighting, or at least becoming enlightened ascetic monks.

Our best experience with this place has been the landlords, of whom the aforementioned lady is one. Our first night here, they came to set up our water heater and noticed that we were about to cook dinner by an open fire by the riverbank. Somewhat appalled, they invited us to come eat with them. We spent a very enjoyable evening making awkward conversation with the husband, who speaks excellent English and studied in Australia for two years. They are just sincerely selfless people. They set out snacks for us that they didn’t touch; they cooked a huge meal and insisted we eat before they even served themselves; and most incredibly, again without our asking, the wife (Dawa) served us tasty homemade liquor from her family’s home town, and then told us that they don’t drink at all. They keep liquor on hand (and in a beautiful ornate serving vessel) just in case they happen to have visitors over. Keep in mind they live an hour away from town.

The next night, still having on hand the potatoes and vegetables we’d cut up and offered to the landlords (they refused, of course), we decided to cook out by the river. We (and by this I mean Zeb, who is an Eagle Scout) built a fire in a pit we found and fried up a nice wokfull of chilies, potatoes, onions, and a literally inedible dried cheese product called Chugo. (As in, it tastes good, but you can’t eat it. It just sits there, mocking you. We soaked it in water overnight and deep-fried it. No dice.) Halfway through the cooking process, we see several residents of the apartment building staring at us from their balconies, with that look that even from 50 feet away says, “WTF LOL WHITEYS.” Right on cue, Dawa came down to the river bank, I guess to make sure we were aware that we had built a fire and were not criminally insane. She hovered around us for a good while, assessing the situation, and, likely, our mental well-being. When she determined that we were both serious about this camp-cooking and rather successful at it, she trundled off to her apartment to bring us rice, without which our meal would have been incomplete. She invited us to cook in her kitchen until we got a gas stove installed, and generally extended the kind of pitiful hospitality you’d give to an invalid retiree who’d just had his pension cut. We tried to explain that we found this kind of outdoors experience fun, and that we wanted to do it at least once, but this concept didn’t translate. Thus, there she was at 8:30 with a thermos of hot tea.

Discussing this with our other American friends yesterday, Zeb and I found ourselves a little divided. Zeb, rightfully, seemed ashamed to have been subjected to this pity—and it was clear that pity was the defining element in our relationship to our new friends upstairs. The more I thought about it, though, the less I minded. Pity, after all, is the opposite of the attitude locals have towards tourists, and any distance I can put between us and that demographic is worth some loss of dignity. After all, this was our truest interaction with locals yet. In many ways, this was the personal, spontaneous hospitality I’d been promised in long trips to Ecuador, Costa Rica, and France, but had never experienced. So our connection to these people started off based on our perceived poverty, or incompetence, or insanity, or whatever: it was still a connection. If it took some pity to get there, so be it. You’ve gotta start somewhere.

[There’s a lot more to tell right now—the school is finally starting up, and I lucked into 11th and 12th grade English, which I’d most wanted to teach. We don’t have internet in the apartment, and probably won’t until our first paycheck comes in, so updates will be few and far between.]

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


It takes forever to upload pictures here, so you may experience some inconsistencies between pic posting date and real life. Here are some from yesterday.

It's supposed to be somewhat rude to take pictures of people here, so I was surprised when these little girls asked me to take a picture with them. Cute.

This is an archery target we found on a dirt path. The Bhutanese love archery.

This is Zeb giving you a sense of scale. The Bhutanese are really good at archery.

This is Trashi Chhoe Dzong, the royal building that houses the government and royal monastic body.

And finally--a special prize to the first person who guesses what the function of this body of water is. Game on! Hint: it's not something Bhutan-specific.

Buddha Fail

As detailed succinctly in Zeb's blog (, the past day and a half have been largely taken up by boring bureaucratic blundering. We did take another nice hike, and again failed spectacularly to reach our unmapped destination--this time the telecom tower on top of a hill from which great views of Thimphu can be had. It was still nice, though. It also provided us with the experience that made my day.

Halfway up the mountain, deep into the 'burbs past where tourists dare to tread, we found ourselves walking behind a group of three monks. As always, we did our best to be deferential, especially in the hushed solitude of this ornate mountainside. Soon, though, we found ourselves gaining on them, walking, as they were, with the unhurried pace of those who dedicate their lives to seeking out the most fundamental truths of cosmic harmony. As we approached, we heard them laughing and yelping some high-pitched incantation: a ritualistic chant? An ecstatic cry brought about by some monastic revelation? As we came within a few feet, we realized that they were singing along. To a song. Playing on their cell phone.


the song


"Tik Tok."



I guess there's just no accounting for taste.


Still new in this mystical wonderland, we've been experiencing some firsts:
--first nose ring on a Bhutanese girl
--first Calvin Klein cowboy hat rocked by a Bhutanese gentleman in a gho
--first outdoor concert, by a power trio, in the town square, as part of an ongoing promotion for Toyota
--second Ed Hardy shirt