It was hard to leave the land of the thunder dragon!

So many things to say farewell to:

The “dorm room” of the guesthouse looked positively spacious without all our stuff!

There were farewell parties up at Yonphula, and a bonfire down at Sherubtse. On the last evening, and the last morning, there were neighbors and colleagues to be sadly missed.

But what touched us most was the caravan of students who drove 90 minutes down the road with us, a kata trailing out the window of the lead car, until we found another group of students waiting to feast us with butter tea and sweet rice on the hillside.

We had given the students little turned bowls from Trashi Yangtse as farewell gifts, and they used those bowls to toast us on the road:

We laughed and we cried and then we said farewell,

driving “to down,” past the classic signs of the Samdrup Jongkhar road.

Teacher’s Day

I was warned that there would be a full day of programming (not teaching)–but little did I realize how elaborate that programming would be!

The students formed up into two receiving lines. We faculty processed up through those lines (though we then ended up waiting a while for the Dean to arrive).

The classroom had been decorated with masses of hand-lettered signs, balloons, and a small altar. The balloons were full of glitter, and the teachers were given pins to pop the balloons and be showered with glitter. (I was very startled!)

The students were attired in their finery (especially Pema Wangmo and Yeshe Dorji as class representatives).

First the dean and then each of the instructors were invited to light butter lamps on the altar. Then the students launched into a series of speeches, readings, songs, and dances.

The program may still be tiny, but the connections are strong!

Dechen Phodrung: the palace of great bliss

The day after our trip to the College for Zorig Chusum and the monastery in the old dzong, Choki Dorji’s father came with a taxi to guide us to Dechen Phodrung.

The drive to Womarung school was itself eye-opening. We passed people hoeing communally as a kind of human-tractor. They chanted “O me mo, o la so” to keep the rhythm of the hoes together.

Shacha and the taxi driver struggled with the massive lunch of many thermoses.

In the photo below, the bright green at the end of the field shows new rice waiting to be transplanted.

Stones and plants are left as offerings on the trail, requesting permission to cross a stream.

We passed a sign proclaiming that “The goal of life is living in agreement with nature” and then over the crest of a hill we came upon the blasted path for a new road.

Half the time, it felt as if we were heading for a mountain pass.

This suspension bridge will be unnecessary once the road is finished.

These tiny chachka-stupas showed that we were getting close to Dechen Phodrang.

Once we arrived, we were greeted by the caretaker of the lakhang. The first photo features the noble Bhutanese approach to photographs; the second shows more of his personality.

We arrived in the midst of a ceremony held in honor of a community member’s death (perhaps a year ago). Community members were carrying butter lamps into the lakhang. They invited us to eat lunch with them, but after carrying the thermoses all this way, we resisted.

Right beside the lakhang, a cave beneath a massive rock (perhaps known as the tortoise rock?) included a shrine and a narrow karma-testing passage. Only the taxi driver was really willing to try to make it through.

We left the community to their picnic and headed further on to the “ney” beyond. Shacha ran over to this monastery to ask permission for us to pass an invisible gate, closed except for one or two specific months of the Bhutanese calendar.

The ney–a place of power, where the possibility of enlightenment is higher than usual– included a platform holding (stone) snow lions which (I believe) carried Yeshe Tsogyel and Guru Rinpoche.

“They don’t look much like snow lions,” said Shacha, and I would agree that you have to find the right angle and the right light.

On our return from the ney, we picnicked with the mountains all around us.

A wonderful outing: such kindness and care!

Return to Trashi Yangtse

Getting back to Trashi Yangtse was quite a challenge. Choki Dorji and Naomi intervened to get us travel permits (Jeremy joined the rest of us on “official business), and Pemba loaned us his little car. The turnpike at the Chazam checkpoint was broken, but not beyond the ingenuity of Bhutanese truckers!

On the far side of the river, a mudslide made the road almost impassable. James lost his sandal in the quick-mud, but with some mutual assistance from another car, we all made it across.

Once we had pushed through the mudslide, it was double or quits: no way to turn back. But the rain continued. The road was like a river in the gathering dark. We were happy to see the old dzong loom up on the left. There was a final crisis when the bridge into Trashi Yangtse was out. James had to cross the ford, then make a sharp right uphill through the mud, with a sharp left at the top of the hill. We were so happy to arrive at the Choki Farmhouse and see Shacha’s cheery face through the rain. And of course Choki Dorji’s mother had made a delicious meal for us.

In the morning, we went back to the school for Zorig Chusum–now the College of Zorig Chusum–to show the videos to everyone involved. We also did a little more filming and bought a few mementos in the school shop.

In the afternoon, Zoë rested while the rest of us went off to visit the monastery housed in the old dzong on the far side of the river. The road was still soggy from the rain and we worried a little about getting back. But then there were young monks to welcome us to the shedra: they popped out from behind plants and walls at unexpected moments.

The younger monks enjoyed showing us around and taking selfies with James’s camera.

Yonphula tsechu

No one else in the family was interested in attending the dress rehearsal, so I climbed up to Yonphula by myself.

As Namgay Tashi had told me, the dancers wore specialized outfits for the dress rehearsal: a special gho for the lay dances, and special robes for the monk dances.

The first day of the tsechu proper started with the dance of the stags, followed by the black hat dance.

Guru Rinpoche introduced the Black Hat Dance during the construction of Samye monastery in Tibet in the 8th century. It represents 21 wrathful and peaceful tutelary deities.

The Gings appear in three dances from Drametse: with sticks, with swords, with drums. Here, they have laid down their swords.

This figure, who I think of as the Green Man, started wandering the edges of the courtyard during the Dance of the Gings with swords. By the afternoon, he is primed to play a key role in a different dance: the Dance of Stag and Hound. The dance tells the story of Milarepa’s encounter with the notorious hunger Chirawa Gonpo Dorji. Milarepa was engaged in “River-flowing samadhi” (a meditation practice on non-attachment) at Ghadaya hermitage between Nepal and Tibet. A terrified stag bounded up to him, followed by a red hound and the hunter. Milarepa composed a Gurma, or song of realization.

The stag begs for Milarepa’s help and help is granted; the stag comes to sit by the sage, and the hounds subside to the ground. But the hunter is furious that the yogi is interfering with his hunt and threatens to shoot him. When the hunter shoots, supposedly the arrow snaps three times, but in this dance, the green man grabs the arrow and runs it back to land in the hunter’s head. Milarepa sings his realization song. In the story, the hunter then enters Milarepa’s cave, finds that he subsists on nettles and herbs, and in admiration offers up the hound(s) as well as his bow and arrows to the sage. He follows Milarepa’s teachings and becomes known as Chira Repa, cotton-clad hunter. (Plain cotton robes were the mark of a wandering yogi.)

The second day of the tsechu began with the Dance of the Black Hat with Drums:

The choreography celebrates victory over obstructive spirits “and their joy and freedom at seeing the truth of transcendental wisdom. The dance stomps and buries obstructive forces and heretic beliefs.”

Almost no one is there when we arrive, but a small crowd of women and children come to sit with us at the edge of the circle over the course of the dance. The atsaras wander by and stop to chat.

The ceremonial master lays out the three-sided receptacle once again, with the sides representing the three poisons of anger, desire, and ignorance.

This hunter wanders the grounds, taking aim at spectators. If he “hits” you with his arrow, you have to give him money (a donation to the monastery). The hunter will feature in a dance later in the afternoon.

Duthro Dagmo Chezhi: Lords of the Charnel Grounds.

I think this was the Tum Ngam Cham: Dance of Wrathful Deities. The three eyes see past, present, and future. Watching the dance is supposed to stop beings from committing further bad karma: it liberates their departed consciousness to Buddha field.

Phubee received a little too much attention from one of the atsaras…

The Dance of the Ging Tsholing was a little confusing: first the Tsholings (in the purple robes) danced, representing external male and female tutelary deities subduing spirits of the ten directions. Then the yellow-skirted Tsholings came onto the courtyard: internal positive forces of sky and earth heroes. These two groups do battle, ostensibly to “remove obstacles and confusions, avert disease and famine in the ten directions.” But some people said that the dance records conflicts between the monks and the laity (or maybe different sects of Vajrayana?) and in ancient times, the sticks they fought with were sometimes studded with nails so that people could be quite badly hurt. Here our friendly atsara gets in on the action.

Bardo Raksha Mangcham: Dance of the Judgment of the Dead. Shinje Chogyal, a wrathful embodiment of Manjushri, wields a sword of wisdom in his right hand and a mirror of consciousness in his left. He is preceded by a white god (la karchu), also known as Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion. Because Shinje Chogyal is larger than life, it takes quite a few men to maneuver his figure around the dance ground to the seat of judgment.

The devil’s advocate in this trial, arguing that the hunter, despite his occasional good deeds, should be turned over for torment.

The tsechu’s third day opened with the display of a brand-new thongdrel.

The dean was present…

as was the Buddha, apparently,

and the Yonphula Rinpoche.

One of the odd things for us as outsiders was the presence of toy guns from the tsechu market.

The dance of the sixteen dakinis (cross-dressed young men in “lace”).

Our favorite part of the tsechu has been the company of the students–here, most of the ladies sitting together.

But the temple and the entire community looks very grand in all its finery.

Mid-April in Kanglung

April in Kanglung is still a season of spring, with the ferns expanding at a rate almost visible to the naked eye while other plants unfurl their blossoms.

In both Kanglung and Yonphula, we were all still coming to terms with the massive cutting of invasive tree species.

Our neighbor Pema Yangki let me try carrying the basket of greens. That basket is heavier than you might think! My neck was not happy.

The aftermath of the massive cutting involved weeks of burning detritus, leaving an acrid taste in the mouth and in one’s clothes.

But up at Yonphula, the felled trees are transformed into wooden planks with nothing but chainsaws, sharp eyes, and very steady hands.


After we got back to Rangjung from Merak, we transferred to an open-bed truck to make the rougher trip to the trail head to Sakteng.

It was all good fun–except when the dust and fumes were particularly strong.

The road wound past small towns–hillsides full of smallholdings–and around streams guarded by water-turned prayer wheels.

Once we got to the end of the road, there were ponies waiting to carry some of the food the students had packed (heavy potatoes). The truck driver planned to spend the two nights until our return. We started off on a path marked by landslides from the blasting for a new road–and before long, we found ourselves hiking over charges of dynamite set for further blasting. The valley will seem very different when seen from a motorized vehicle on a paved road, we all felt.

Sonam Norbu stopped to chat with some friends who were working on the road.

I looked down and saw the fuse wire set to blow some more explosives for road clearing. The men warned us there would be more blasting ahead.

The path wound through red and white rhododendrons, and we passed cattle returning for more loads from the trailhead.

Chador offered me some dough designed to ward off altitude sickness. “What’s in it?” I asked. “Flour, oil, arra…” the students started listing all the ingredients. “But what makes it good against altitude?” “The arra, of course!” they said, and everyone laughed.

There were many rest stops along the way, the final one just over the crest of the hill above Sakteng, where the land has been grazed down and the hills open up. These Brokpa men were amused by us–you can see the difference between the serious look donned for photos and the broad amusement that tends to happen off-camera.

This ancient ceremonial arch marks the final (lower) hill before the main village. The hills before that arch are covered with grazing yaks.

The village itself feels more open and spacious feeling than Merak did.

Here, men spin and women weave. These people are working in the courtyard in front of the store across from the school.

Inside the main wall of the school, we foreigners are given the principal’s empty house as temporary quarters: we all gather around the bokhari for tea and biscuits.

The next morning, we watch as the children sing at the raising of the flag, then run for their bowls, wash their hands, and gather again to sing for their breakfasts.

After a spell of trying on Brokpa clothing, we start climbing up to the two lhakhangs above Sakteng.

I admired the portraits of the four geps. The students hung prayer flags,

and we took a group photo with the temple caretaker.

It was a beautiful temple.

We went galumphing down the hill to head over to the second lhakhang.

Just below this second lakhang we passed through a major construction site organized for a new goemba (I think). We were supposed to test our karma by trying to match the footprints of an enlightened lama–even with a running start, my steps fell short (of course!)

The caretaker of the second lakhang shared a selfie with me: it’s unusual for women to be caretakers, and so it seemed especially unusual for both lakhangs to have female caretakers–perhaps, the students said, as a result of Aum Jomo’s power in these parts.

From the perspective of this lakhang, the first seems distinctly lower. But the story of the two lakhangs goes something like this: a student of the master of the first lakhang builds the second lakhang for himself and then is mortified to find that he has placed himself above his master. He offers to trade lakhangs with that master, but the master refuses, saying that the student is the reincarnation of the master’s own master, and so it is just and correct for the student’s lakhange to be higher. The friendly dispute is resolved by GPS, which proclaims that the two lakhangs are exactly level, despite appearances to the contrary.

Sakteng means “the place of bamboo”and the uses of bamboo are extensive.
I found this low fence particularly elegant in its design and execution.

After our trip to the lakhangs, we had chosen to stay inside during the afternoon rain and hail storms rather than going to “Aum Jomo’s place,” so the next morning, before we left Sakteng, our hosts led us over to this final lakhang, passing through a sheep yard on the way. We would pass by Aum Jomo’s cattle, they told us–not these sheep, but rather a set of mossy stones.

An effigy of Aum Jomo

At the last lhakhang we visited in Sakteng, one of the masks from the tercham dance makes an intriguing pair with the portrait of the king

Outside, the stream that runs below the lakhang down to the river is shown to us as evidence of a pillar within the temple that periodically oozed water.

We paused for a group photo at the stone arch, and then paused again to look at the path down to the bridge, the water-turned prayer wheel, past the beautiful yaks and the close-cropped grass.

Then we traveled down the path, past the now-visible warning about construction (“beware dynamite” could still be more clearly stated), various men carrying building materials up the narrow path, children not in school, a walnut seller from Phongmey.

While the mountainside shows the effects of blasting, most cargo is still transported to Sakteng by human or pony labor. We passed these folks near the place the path connects to the existing road. The bags of noodles puff up because of the air pressure at altitude.

Jeremy led the teachers in a game of “BS!” on our rainy ride out.

For me, this photo of a major digger dwarfed by a landslide epitomizes some of the complexity of road building in Bhutan.


Tacking back and forth up the hills above Rangjung gave us plenty of time to appreciate the vast number of rhododendrons in bloom. Of course Sonam Norbu had to dance and everyone had to sing. (Boom boom boom, show me the way, show me the way…)

We also marveled at the road, especially when we came to parts that were just flattened rocks. This was progress! in honor of representatives from the World Health Organization coming to celebrate World Health Day in Merak.

We got out and walked, trying to spare the poor, new Yonphula coaster bus.

As we climbed, the clouds closed in and the ecosystem changed dramatically. We stopped for a picnic in the rain. A yak came looming up out of the mist–and students went exploring over the hills.

“Ha ge lo!” everyone shouted as we went over the pass. Then the students argued over what that meant. “Ha ge lo” means “victory to the good!” No, it means “This is the pass!”

On the far side of the pass, we could see the river that had carved out the valley.

Was the fire burning compost for a field? Housing seemed relatively sparse.

Merak hove into view, distinguishable by its various walls of manidhar. The school signs are full of Bhutan’s contemporary skills focus and broader moral teachings.

We watched while one group of children practiced some traditional dances to perform for visiting dignitaries on World Health Day. Other kids were playing on the football pitch below the school (just next to a cliff down to the river). Then it was time to go home and we all went over to say hello. Calls for a group photo led this little girl to plunk herself down on my crouching knee.

After the children dispersed, as we were heading over to the school kitchen for a cuppa, this man in one form of Brokpa dress came up and wanted to know whether I’d like to buy a hat.

Yes! I love those hats: the tightly felted yak wool and the way the spider-like legs lead the rain away from your face and head.

My students thought I looked very funny!

The choice in Merak seems to be cold and wet on the one hand or dark and warmer on the other. The kitchen was quite magically steamy and the cooking pots were amazing.

Shacha coached Jeremy on the volleyball pitch.

while the football field overlooking the river slowly emptied.

Jem seemed happy playing volleyball, so the rest of us followed the children over the stile out of the school grounds.

Where to go now? Left past the stupa…

Merak is all stone and wood. Phubee and our host helped facilitate a conversation with this lovely woman who was moving a major set of stones to rebuild a seat within her enclosure.

I lagged behind others to try to chat with this woman who was weaving under her yellow tarp, unfazed by cold or rain, but perhaps a little balked by language hurdles on both sides.

Stone, stone, more stone. So many examples of traditional Bhutanese roofing–held down by stones on the rooftop.

On our way to the temple, we met the man preparing for the high level visit for World Health Day. We were startled to hear from him that Merak was a place where AIDS was entering the country–the population of Merak seems small and self-contained: an unlikely spot to serve as an epicenter of disease–but then Bhutanese views on AIDS seemed to us somewhat alarmist in general. (We learned later that the community includes many traders who travel age-old routes, largely ignoring national borders.)

The temple itself was closed, but we wandered the grounds, which offered a panoramic view over the village and the valley.

This line of grey roof tops under shifting fog sums up my sense of Merak.
The students didn’t like the village, but I found it very evocative.

We poked our heads in a local shop. The students were amazed to find the prices as good or cheaper than prices in Trashigang (they had expected prices to be much higher due to the cost of transportation to this much more remote location). Selection seems a little limited, however…

Members of our group huddled around a bokhari in a room attached to a shop near the school. Again, the choices seem to me dark, enclosed, and warm versus open, grey, wet, and cold. But very evocative.

The fog on the metal roofs gave the effect of snow–even in April.

Ritual bamboo creations seemed more brightly died than the versions we saw in Kanglung.

The long mani walls are evidently an older form of chorten: these are full of plaques so old that the writing has worn away entirely.

Jeremy met up with Phubee and Chador and some others of ‘the ladies’ and they had hiked up to the hill with the manidhar on the outskirts of town. Jeremy and Chador practiced their magical powers on the hillside.

James and I also wandered out that way separately. We were struck by the clothes washing area preserved by this wooden spout, providing (we assumed) clean water for the laundry we could see drying nearby.

We ate dinner in the school auditorium, at long tables. Every time someone came in, the frigid wind followed them. It’s hard to describe how very cold it was. Jeremy and Eden offered us a tae kwon do battle on the stage. (Eden didn’t know anything about tae kwon do, but she was game anyway.) After dinner, we retreated to the classroom set aside for us, while the students gathered in two rooms: men and women separated.

But Chador and Phubee went to visit Chador’s uncle, a kind of park ranger for the Sakteng Wildlife Refuge, and he told them so many scary stories, they couldn’t sleep and begged a couple of the men to come and sleep on their side of the building. Aum Jomo can be very fierce with those who break her rules–and she doesn’t like strangers.

After sundown, the moon and the mountain dominate the landscape–almost as much as Aum Jomo dominated Chador and Phubee’s dreams.

We had an early morning start, both because of the long travel time to Sakteng and in order to clear the way for the visiting dignitaries coming to celebrate World Health Day. Phubee was in charge of the chargers!

We drove back through hillsides of rhododendrons: so beautiful, so impossible to show their expansiveness.

We walked part of the way down the road past the rhododendrons, past the ponies, toward the mountaintop with the monastery on its summit.

Then on to the next adventure: Sakteng!

Trongsa cliffs

The next morning, we left on the 7 am bus for Bumthang, continuing on to Trashigang.
I liked the sun on the Buddha of Buddha point, up behind the young man loading the roof of the bus.

We were impressed by the impromptu lumber yards we passed on the road, where men were turning logs into wooden planks with only a chainsaw. This was just the start of a massive removal of all invasive trees–a command from on high which led to clear cuts, the threat of mudslides, and extended burning of debris.

This cement truck pulled up to send cement down to a construction project on the hillside below the road–only to find its wheels slipping of the hillside. Traffic stalled for a while as everyone tried to ensure that the truck would not slide off altogether.

At every major turn of the road, we feasted on a skyline of snowpeaks.

Then we got to the roadblock just before Trongsa, where a landslide had swept away the road. What will happen? we kept asking the bus driver, but all he would say was that we would have to wait and see. We waited for five hours, through several rounds of dynamiting as the engineers attempted to find a solid ledge on which they might reconstruct the road.

When I called the Dean to tell him I might be late getting back, he said the landslide was right where Pemi Tshewang Tashi threw himself off the cliff.

A jeep rolled in with tea and noodles for sale, like a Bhutanese tailgating party.

These monks decided that they would need a fire as night began to fall, so they chopped down some small trees and built a fire–just before the engineers managed to find solid ground.

It must have been midnight when we came across this car stuck in a ditch on the approach to Bumthang. We all jumped off the bus and helped to lift it back up onto the road. I was the only woman helping. A Bhutanese man turned to me in surprise: “You are very strong!”

The next morning, the mountain valleys seemed especially fresh, the road surprisingly solid. We like adventures, and seeing new places, but we were so glad to be back home again.

Vajrayana summit

The week after our study tour to Dewathang, we went to Thimphu so that I could attend the Vajrayana Summit. Top left, you can see the Indian ambassador to Bhutan on stage behind the dancer. The first afternoon was inaugurated with a brief dance inside the conference center; the next day the festivities began in earnest.

Pawo dancers came to open the proceedings:

Karma Ura made the marchang offering to deities and teachers to secure blessings for the removal of obstacles, and for successful outcomes:

Then the Black Hat dance worked to clear obstructive energies:

My favorite part of the opening ceremonies might have been this moment: walking through the entry hall repurposed as a “green room,” with the dancers and performers packing up their robes and instruments and other materials.

The creation of the sand mandala went on steadily in a small enclosure outside the main conference hall.

The presentations varied widely, both in kind and in quality, but I was impressed by the range of topics covered:

The prime minister spoke at the start of the Vajrayana summit, and as promised, he returned to speak at the end, and to listen to the views of participants as to the possibility of launching an International Vajrayana Center in Bhutan. He mentioned the somewhat eerie appearance of a tiger in a neighborhood within Thimphu and his own bemusement that one of his ministers was not available for government business because he had gone to participate in a ritual on behalf of the tiger. “Of course!” said the prime minister.

International scholars and practitioners of Vajrayana warned that Bhutanese Vajrayana would have to find a way to reach out to youth, women, and lay people before an international Vajrayana center could really succeed.

Travel permits

I thought it might be interesting to show what a trip out of Trashigang district involved in terms of travel permits. First, we had to fill out forms requesting travel permits, then the college had to support our requests with a variety of forms:

Note the promises the College has to make in order for us to be able to travel!

Study tour to Dewathang

This time, I chivvied the students about a timely departure, and the second bus skated through the roadblock just as they were closing the barrier. We picnicked to the sound of dynamite: the puff of dust from the explosion is visible below:

The Zero Waste Initiative in Samdrup Jongkhar is associated with the Lhomon society founded by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Lho means south and Mon means one group of people in Bhutan and Assam. We started the day with red butter tea and a presentation on Zero Waste by Lhomon Society staff.

In Dewathang, a zero waste craft center turns plastic bottles and drink cartons into traditionally shaped bags. They demonstrated the simple machine used to rip plastic bottles into consistently sized strips that could be woven in this way.

Lead farmer Tshering Gyalpo (better known as Ata Daza gave us a tour of his small holding. First, on the steeply terraced hillside, he talked about his polycultures and the partnership between SJI (Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative) and Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya organization. Since we had read Vandana Shiva’s Earth Democracy for the Ecocriticism course, we were excited to see this connection between her work and Bhutanese farmers!

Ata Daza also demonstrated his closed-circle systems for making use of waste: first, his biodigester, turning manure into methane;

second, his gravity-driven system for harvesting cow urine to water down and use as fertilizer on his fields

Below, a plastic-covered food drying frame: the plastic intensifies solar heating but the openings at either end of the frame keep air moving (sometimes with a fan) to minimize humidity.

We were also give a tour of the Chokyi Gyatso Institute, a shedra or monastic school that began as a small temple built by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s maternal grandfather, the late Lama Sonam Zangpo. Under Dzongsar Khyentse’s leadership, the temple was rebuilt in Tibetan style (as my students kept telling me), and the shedra began trying out innovations in monastic education, including sustainable practices.

Such a tiny amount of waste to come from a substantial number of people!

Digital storytelling, second batch

The weekend after our trip to Wengkhar, we wrapped up the first digital storytelling workshop at Yonphula.

Again, people shared important, difficult, and touching stories–and they helped each other as listeners, technologists, cheerleaders and more.

Jeremy in particular played a cameo role as technology instructor (note the students taking photos of his teaching, as they do of mine)

and cheerleader in chief.

(James and Zoë did a lot of coaching from the sidelines.)

Spring in Tashigang

By early March, the beginnings of spring were everywhere we looked: butterflies, the first cherry blossoms, the first calves, knock-kneed and doe-eyed.

Not to mention the rhododendrons of Yonphula, immortalized in the song Meto Eto, and wildflowers of many varieties:

Study tour to Wengkhar

On Saturday, March 8, we set off on the first of three Ecocriticism study tours, to an agricultural research station, or a Research and Development Center (RDC) for Renewable Natural Resources (RNR). For me, the field trip was a masterclass in how you can’t know what you don’t know.

I didn’t know how far we had to go. After the trip was booked and confirmed (for a single day), the dean said to me, “I thought you would take two days for the trip.” Oh well. I thought the drive was 2-2.5 hours each way, but it took us 4 hours each way on the bus.

I didn’t know, until after we missed the open hours for the roadblock, that there were established hours (and the road closed at 8 am, not–as my vague impression had it–at 9 am).

Above all, I didn’t understand the local culture around field trips. “Should everyone go? Why not just the group working on climate adaptation? What do you mean, the others will just wander around while the focus group interviews the experts?”

Live and learn.

The students started off some 20 minutes late from Yonphula. Then they stopped in Kanglung, not just to pick up faculty members but also to buy water and doma (betelnut) for the trip. If I had known that this would put us an hour and forty minutes behind…. Maybe it’s just as well I didn’t know.

The first part of the road from Trashigang to Mongar is rough, but very beautiful.

The roadblock is well set-up, with a small hut offering snacks–tea and momos. Because I’m a plant geek, I was struck by the cactus helping hold the hillside in place.

My students decided to walk through the construction site and wait for the bus on the far side. This involved one of the students going up and tapping on the window of each of the first two diggers, asking them to let us pass. With the third digger, we just ran through its arc as it swung to the cliffside for another load of rocks and rubble. Not like any field trip I could imagine in the US.

My students are good foragers. Here, Rakesh has found curry leaves, and Pema Gyelpo and others are knocking tamarind pods off the tamarind tree.

The soap-making factory the students had wanted to visit was closed, but while we were waiting at this bridge for the bus to rejoin us, the Dasho (a title of high honor) from Wengkhar called to find out where we were. Hearing that we had only reached the roadblock, he abandoned the plans to give us two presentations on climate change adaptation, and left one field officer in place to give us a tour of the station. Aargh! I was embarrassed and frustrated, but the students were unbothered. “They could have waited for us,” was the general response. But we were hours late! Bhutan stretch time rules…

The main buildings at Wengkhar are beautiful and well-kept. The plantings attest to the station’s attention to plant growth.

The emptiness attests to our late arrival.

Our poor tour guide pointed out that if he didn’t live at the station, he too would have left to pursue personal affairs. But we were so grateful for our tour of the grounds. I liked acquiring the name of the Chinaberry tree (so pretty, but useless, as my students point out):

I also learned that the fencing tree is a kind of a fig! When I said that our figs in the US produce fruit that we eat, Shacha said that the same was true in Bhutan, and that the figs were fed to pigs also–which makes me think we’re talking about very different fruits.

The permaculture block is a work in progress, with a visit planned to a permaculture center in Nepal. Wengkhar staff want to learn about permaculture, while the Nepali center wants to learn about Wengkhar’s lead farmer program. (Lead farmers come to Wengkhar for extensive training and resources and then they become training centers, passing on dividends to other farmers in their vicinity.)

The main crops explored at Wengkhar include hardy kiwi and citrus

including more exotic kinds of citrus like loquat. Tangy! (Their kumquats were incredibly sweet, however.)

Phubee found the chestnut shells bizarre in their spikiness.

For the younger generation, the Wengkhar staff emphasize modern features such as hoop-houses and automatic watering systems–strategies that seem less like subsistence-level farming to youth who are tempted to migrate to the city.

It was all quite fascinating! But, as I discovered at the end of the tour, the real purpose of a study tour is the picnic lunch! That was why people were late leaving Yonphula–because they had been up since 4 am cooking lunch!

In the end, a fine time was had by all. It was certainly a field trip like no other I have ever been on!

Return from Delhi

If our trip down to Samdrup Jongkhar was interrupted by a landslide, our return from Samdrup Jongkhar to Kanglung had a briefer but still dramatic interruption.

We were the first car on the scene after these boulders plummeted down the cliff onto the road. For once we were thankful that Jeremy had been dawdling on our departure from the hotel. Our brave taxi driver, Geri, let us get out and walk across, and then he drove carefully between the boulder and the cliff edge, on the soft shoulder. In his shoes, I would have turned around and headed back to SJ.

Sunday, the day after our return, we spent the day working with the second batch of digital storytellers up at Yonphula. Then, in the evening, we were invited to supper with the Vice Chancellor of RUB and a group of students and faculty visiting from Kyoto University. I had a fascinating chat with a young academic who taught at Sherubtse last year, and only returned to Japan to start teaching at Kyoto University last summer. He, of course, had mastered Sharchop and other matters of interest to me as well. “I want to learn how to make ara,” I confessed. “Purely for the academic interest of it.” “Oh!” he replied. “That was the second thing I learned.” (But he didn’t really learn how to make it from scratch or how to do it himself–nor, at current rates of progress, will I.)

I think we can all agree that Bhutanese campfires put the American version to shame.

Heading to Delhi via SJ and Guwahati

Riding down to Samdrup Jongkhar with Karma was its own adventure. We were stopped for two hours for a roadblock, we thought–but this offered a chance to look over what had been a road worker’s camp, along with the detritus left behind when the camp was disbanded.

It turned out that the roadblock was actually a landslide that had crushed one of the big machines working on the road.

A small car that went ahead of the queue ended up with its rear window smashed by a late falling rock.

We enjoy the Dantak road signs, due to be removed. This “Trouble regretted” sign seems like a larger existential statement, as opposed to the more chatty and comical sayings.

We spent the night at the Mountain, though there was some confusion over whether or not we had a room booked. We met up with Chitra, Balamaguran, and Tshering Thinley, on their way back to Kanglung from having gone to interview possible faculty in Thimphu. It felt like a reunion! It was especially convenient because Karma couldn’t get a room, but he was able to sleep on the spare bed in Thinley’s room.

The next morning, we all went our separate ways: Karma to Thimphu for some medical tests, Bala and Chitra and Thinley back to Kanglung/Yonphula, and our family on to Guwahati, en route to Delhi.

The bikes on the Indian side of the immigration gate attest to the number of day laborers crossing the border each day.

Assam is famous for its tea, and we pass by fields of shade grown tea plants on our way to the “foreigner’s checkpoint,” some 7 km out of town.

21-23 February: The king’s birthday, Fire puja, and Vajrakilaya ceremonies

I can’t seem to find the screen shots I took of the prince’s birthday or the royal anniversary, but each of these events is greeted with a digital poster and poem. The king’s birthday gets a full three days of celebration, as opposed to a single day (sometimes a working day, sometimes not) given to other kings and important personages.

Sherubtse held a birthday celebration, complete with birthday cake.

My students were invited (read: compulsory attendance). KPS students were also present en masse.

James and I split our focus between the secular celebration and a fire puja being held at the Zangto Pelri. This puja was part of preparing for a Vajrakilaya ceremony beginning the next day. We wrote names of the living and the dead on a piece of paper, and, because James had been very interested in discussion with some monks the day before, we were invited to sit with those performing the ceremony. Offerings of grains (lentils, rice, barley, grasses, and other substances) were presented to the officiating monk and then cast into the fire with copious amounts of oil.

Other small goblets (on a second table) held offerings of rice and milk. At the appropriate moment, one of the monks took the lists of names (ours and others) and cast them into the fire as well. This should enable people who have died to find a positive rebirth.

When the ceremony was over, we were invited to take tea with the monks, but we went back to the festivities at Sherubtse, meeting up with our neighbor Mr. Pant,

and eventually having lunch with the President and the guest of honor, who invited us to visit him in his home in Rongthung. (He and James had an extended conversation about rambling around the hills in these parts, and he pointed us to a path from Yonphula to a more remote monastery and then down to his village.)

The following day, James and I went to part of the Vajrakilaya ceremony at the Zangto Pelri. James snapped a photo, even though we were inside the temple. I think this is naughty, but so many people here, including monks, take photos inside the temple, which makes it harder for J to resist.

I was amazed by the precision of the dancers working within the tiny space of the rows between the monks. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay for the entire ceremony because we were catching a ride with Karma down to Samdrup Jongkhar, and heading from there down to Delhi for the annual Fulbright conference.

Losar: 16-17 February

Losar–New Year–is celebrated in Bhutan largely by spending time with family and by enjoying traditional Bhutanese past-times: archery, darts, and ara.

James spent some time watching dart competitions. The slow-motion videos are hard to share, but even the photos give some sense of the sport:

Archery was of course happening at the same time as the darts; drinking tends to be more of a private affair, no matter how vigorously engaged.

Exams and a new start

The students who had failed or missed exams in the fall had to re-take their exams in the second week of February, and then the semester began again on February 12th.

I had brought extra Environmental Studies and Crum Woods t-shirts to share with the students in the Ecocriticism module (plus socks, since there weren’t all that many t-shirts), but I offered the shirts first to Baburaj and Chitra, who looked splendid in them:

Baburaj has effectively been seconded from Sherubtse to Yonphula. He will be teaching Literary Theory and Criticism and helping supervise research proposals. A search for someone to replace him at Sherubtse is ongoing.

I will be teaching 4 days a week this term, and Chitra may have to be up at Yonphula every day of the week. Luckily for me, Zoë is happy to climb the mountain with me.

The “fence” lines of the shortcut are familiar now, and I’m fascinated by the pruning of these spiky living fence posts in the winter season.

It’s a great pleasure to see the students again.

Digital storytelling with Media Studies and English professors

I have no photos to show our group in action, but we had a wonderful and busy two days of digital storytelling. I had to trim the workshop from three days down to two days because of participants’ limited availability, so it was a full-on gallop through the materials and course content.

Just as in the US, though, participants listened to one another deeply, and as a result, many people took emotional risks and shared brave, important stories. As we worked, several people noted that there was no existing forum at the college in which they could connect this way.

The challenge, of course, is finding the time people are willing to commit to this kind of work and this kind of connection.

Despite the rush, I was really pleased and impressed with the work people managed to accomplish, and I hope to be able to share some of the stories on this site before too long.


Choki Beda’s daughter calls out to me every time she sees me. “Barbie! Hello, Barbie!”

The call is a reminder of how I must look to most people here, with my unnatural white-blonde hair and pale skin. Each time I see Nidup, I am chagrined to be reminded of the gap between my exterior appearance and my Barbie-mocking interior.

Puppies! and fields! and the start of the spring semester

As promised, Kanglung was still largely deserted when we returned. Most faculty came back on January 31st, just in time for the mandatory planning meeting on February 1st. But we had the food we had bought in India, and there were enough shops open to get by on.

The planning meeting started with a speech by the president, applying the King’s speech (given in Haa December 17th) to an academic context.

I have spent these short days and long nights working on course materials for the new semester–and trying to take at least a brief walk with Zoë and Jeremy each day. Eventually, we realized that the seething huddle of black fur we had thought might be kittens were actually puppies, and both kids perked right up.

A little puppy cuddle on a daily basis did wonders for our general contentment–despite the many warnings we received about the threat of rabies, etc.

At the same time, it has been fascinating to see the fields in winter, and the ways farmers are beginning to develop those fields for new plantings.

Piles of compost are carried out and deposited,

then the compost is plowed into the fields (plow lines seem to run almost downhill instead of horizontally across the hill as I think would be done in the US–I wonder if this is to allow heavy rain to run off through the furrows instead of drowning the roots).

The sun casts long shadows on our walks,

and a neighbor diverts water to soak his field in preparation for planting potatoes.

It’s cold enough that acquiring firewood for bokhari remains a constant concern for many.

Return to Kanglung

After our vacation, we flew into Guwahati (where again we were all a little shocked by the air quality) and went to the Big Bazaar to shop for the second half of the year. Dal! spices! Even a food processor! The manager had to help us find our way back to the hotel afterwards with our many bags.

Then a taxi driver recommended by Balamaguran met us at our hotel and drove us up to Samdrup Jongkhar, helping us shop for veg along the way.

Entering Samdrup Jongkhar felt like coming home. Clean air and sudden quiet after the many car horns of Guwahati. Life was a little complicated upon entry, because we had to obtain travel permits for Jeremy and Zoë (James and I are seen as “coming home” to Kanglung and Yonphula, but Jeremy and Zoë needed an excuse for travel. Eventually, it was decided that they were “traveling to meet relatives” (their parents, with whom they were traveling). Bureaucracy is not always logical. Pema came to find us within a few minutes of our arrival at the hotel, and we made an easy plan for returning home.

On the day, Pema seemed very tired, and the drive took several hours longer than anticipated, but the hills around Khaling were again dreamlike and evocative.

Sri Lanka

We got into Sri Lanka late, and then struggled to get money and taxi/transportation sorted. But the next morning, we were met with a magnificent breakfast

and then with an Uber driver with a smallish car who turned into a friend: Asif.

Asif insisted on treating us to fresh coconut water and corn-on-the-cob and other roadside drinks and treats along the way.

Our first day, we went up into the hill country where tea plantations (and towns) where British names abounded. Colonial residues everywhere.

The waterfalls were beautiful! The place we stayed was pretty gruesome, but we were very close to the church where Betsy, James’s infant aunt, was buried.

We were able to find her grave, meet the man who tends the graveyard, and visit the church.

The next day, we visited one of the tea plantations that J’s grandfather had managed,

and they sent a field officer to open the house up for us. He was so kind–inviting us back to his house for a drink of yogurt! (and the house J’s family had lived in was so big, in such beautiful surroundings!)

On we drove, through the hill country, down toward Yala National Park on the far coast. We passed some monkeys on the way–Asif offered them his corncob.

The safari camp where we stayed was (as promised) hard to find and a little off-putting upon first arrival, but the food was good, and we could see its charms more fully as we adapted to this new environment.

The nearby pond was a wonderful place for birding

and an early morning walk introduced us to our first land monitor.

Our guide picked up a peacock feather for us, and we marvelled at the iridescence of its individual strands and barbules.

We went on two half-day safaris, wanting to avoid the heat of mid-day. Our first sighting was a chameleon, right at the entry to the safari camp:

Within Yala, there were again many many different species of birds:

Our favorite was the tiny, elusive, brilliant bee-eater:

In general, we decided that trying hard to spot a leopard meant spending a lot of time looking at other jeeps,

so we asked the driver to give up the hunt. Still, we were lucky enough to be the first to see a large bull elephant in the bush.

Are you supposed to avoid direct eye contact with wild elephants? This one looked at us long and hard and then swung around to pursue us down the road as our driver reversed at relatively high speed.

Perhaps our favorite elephant sighting, though, was this small family group, which included a baby estimated at only 4 days old (hiding behind an older sibling in this photo).

Zoë took a highly pixelated shot of the baby, with its big sister grinning in the midst of a dust bath, which may not “read” well, but it makes us happy nonetheless.

More generally, though, we loved the quieter times at the camp itself, with the flowering bushes that foster the insects supporting bird life.

We loved the weaver bird nests

and the quiet of the dusk.

Then we were off again, this time to the coast for a little swimming and surfing action. We splurged on a beautiful beach-side hotel

where Jeremy and James spent hours building sandcastles and swimming skills

and all of us experimented with surfing. Chicken wing, lizard leg, up up up!


I’m not sure our vacation time counts toward “the great happiness,” but it definitely helped with little happinesses along the way. Here are some highlights of our time in Nepal.

First, there was the flight from Paro to Kathmandu. One is not supposed to take photos while flying for fear of disrupting the pilot’s controls, but everyone on the plan had phones up to the windows. I liked seeing the monasteries perched on high, and the great river down on the Indian plain–

–but Zoë and James were the ones seated on the good side of the plane, with beautiful vistas of Everest and the Himalayas:

We spent a night in Kathmandu, where the air pollution came as something of a shock–and the water coming out of the tap at the hotel was a deeper brown even than we were used to from the rainy season in Bhutan. We had dinner at Fire and Ice, which had seriously good pizza. Zoë noted that she hadn’t seen so many white people in 5 months. We were also struck by the impetuosity of the electrical wiring on the streets.

Then we got up in the early morning to catch a bus to the river for rafting on the Trisuli.

We had such fun, though the evidence of that delight is a little scanty. We loved seeing the wire crossings over the river–especially when people were making the crossing.

After the rafting was done for the day, we got back on a bus for another few hours to head down to Pokhara. The snowpeaks were beautiful in the fading light.

Unfortunately, everyone else also seemed to think Pokhara was a good place to spend New Year’s Eve.

Zoë, Jeremy, and I spent the first days of the new year on retreat at Sadhana yoga center in the hills above Pokhara. The setting was beautiful,

and so were the staff.

We tried lots of new things, in addition to yoga, like cooking

(including momos, though Nepali momos are different from the Bhutanese kind…)

There was candle gazing and chanting and a steam experience constructed out of a metal-lined box hooked up to a pressure cooker. Jeremy considered this somewhere between a torture chamber and a carnival show. I did look a little goofy inside the box. (It’s supposed to be good for your health to steam your body but not your head.)

While we were off on retreat, James checked out paragliding–and the rest of us took a page out of his book once we were back in Pokhara.

We liked it so much, we did it again the next day. Biru (who took me) and Rakesh (who took James) swapped sails so that Rakesh could do a loop-de-loop with James and Biru could take me high and far. Scudding along over the mountain range and down to the city–and then back across the lake–is an experience I hope to remember for the rest of my life. The second time, we wanted no photos, but here are a few from our maiden flights.

Then we were back to the river, for an overnight camping trip on our way down to Chitwan Wildlife Preserve.

On the far side of the river at our putting-in place, a funeral was in process.

This section was a little less exciting, not least because the raft was weighed down with a lot of gear, and it was being used as a training run for two young women who had no idea how to use a paddle.

On the other hand, they made some terrific food on the riverside (french fries and roasted marshmallows–yum!) and the scenery was very beautiful.

But it was bitter cold. The chief guide set up a lean-to sort of tent facing into the wind because he didn’t believe the wind would continue through the night–when it did, he and his partner shifted the tent (but I think they were still pretty chilly).

At Sapana Guest Lodge (h/t previous Fulbrighter Shelly Daly), we struggled for a bit to find a room that didn’t have mold problems after a flood in the fall, but the staff were terrifically patient with us.

January was still kind of chilly–too cold for helping bathe elephants, for instance–but there was plenty to see and do. Jeremy liked feeding the baby elephant, in particular.

With our new-met friends Simon and Vanessa, we watched and listened to an Asian hornbill (it came to a tree right above our balcony as I was reading.

We spent a day in the park proper, first taking a raft across the river

and then spending a day on a jeep in search of the elusive tiger

and the less elusive rhinoceros.

The two above were actually seen by Simon and Vanessa and not, I think, by us, but we watched the twitching ear of the one below for a good ten minutes.

We enjoyed the lunch eaten off of stapled leaves

and the sunset was gorgeous.

But the most remarkable thing about the park were the birds! All photo credits below to Simon:

This eagle, holding a deer leg up on its perch, offers evidence of a recent tiger kill nearby.

Back at Sapana, we had the opportunity to watch elephants taking dust baths as part of an attempt to start a “free-range” elephant program on an island-like space owned by the lodge:

(Simon photo credit)

After a good night’s rest,

we went back to the park via the river, with many marsh muggers and gharials among the birds along the banks.

The marsh muggers have shorter snouts and are carniverous; the gharials have long elegant noses and feed mostly on fish.

We learned so much on this trip from our guide Makunda–he shared a wealth of information, not only about birds and mammals, but also about plants and insects.

Here, Jeremy stands on a fallen tree with Makunda, who was trying to see the tiger who had just roared nearby–until he started wondering what Jeremy was up to.

Some of the termite nests were as big as Jeremy:

One of my favorite stories from Makunda was about the interrelations of termites with other elements of the ecosystem. He showed us mud “highways” up the trunks of trees that the termites were consuming–they use the mud for protection as they travel, so that birds can’t pick them off. The nests undergo continuing construction over a number of years (unless the nest is attacked), with internal columns created for air-conditioning and other effects.

Sometimes snakes (cobras, I think) come and lay eggs inside a termite nest, knowing that the termites will maintain a constant temperature to help hatch the eggs–and once the baby snakes come out, they can feed on the termites all around them. Bears will sometimes come and destroy the nests in order to snack on the termites as well.

On a second trip with Makunda, we came across fresh tiger prints (on top of recent deer prints) and both fresh and old marks on trees. It was kind of a thrill to know that even if we couldn’t see the tiger, the tiger was probably watching us.

Certainly when a pea hen took off nearby with a loud whirring of wings, we all jumped a few feet in the air….

Chencho Dema’s house and family and the ends of December

On Boxing day, Chimi Dorji and Chencho took their family to Chimi Lakhang, to give thanks for the birth of their children. Chencho had visited the lakhang before becoming pregnant, and she takes the children at least once a year to give thanks.

We started as a family to visit the Paro dzong, but we had a little family drama, and in the end, Jeremy and I waited on the dramatic stairs of the dzong (Jeremy performing for me) while James and Zoë had a look around.

Then, because we wanted to stay an extra day and visit Chencho and her family at home, we struggled to find a hotel for one more night. This was a bit of a struggle, but we finally found a place with a single room, a little way out of town. James and I went on a short walk to visit Kyichu Lakhang, built on the same day as Kurjey lakhang in Bumthang (among 108 total), all a part of the same project of subduing a demoness causing trouble in Lhasa.

The hotel was a bit of a splurge for us, but it ended up being full of a conference of extroverted (read: loud) Bangladeshis, as well as a much quieter group of Bhutanese geologists. When we asked for an alternate room (we were sandwiched between two especially enthusiastic Bangladeshi groups), we were allowed to “borrow” the room of the head of the mining department. This was a large and elegant suite, though we only inhabited it briefly.

The next day, Chimi Dorji picked us up and gave us a ride to Chencho’s family home.

We walked across the fields from the river toward the house. The fields were dotted with small piles of compost (manure plus leaves) that Chencho and her sister had carried down from the house the day before (not visible in this photo, which has someone else’s fields in the background). Soon, those piles would be plowed into the fields to add fertility. Carrying the manure is traditionally women’s work; mechanized (or animal powered) plowing is traditionally men’s work.

The ground floor of the house is still a storage area and a barn for the family cows.

The stairs are a dugout log.

On the first floor (American 2nd floor) is a storeroom where rice and other grains are kept, along with baskets and champaca “flowers” for ritual use.

I was intrigued by this hole in a floor: you slide a pole down through as a lock on the door to the barn below.

The 2nd floor (3rd US) holds the kitchen and living areas. The floorboards are impressively wide! Chencho’s grandfather built the house himself.

The center of the house is the altar room. I did not manage to capture it with any degree of elegance or fidelity, I’m afraid.

The views from the altar room are also lovely–I imagine even more so in the summer, with the fields of rice.

I was too shy to ask if I could take photos of her mother and grandfather–but perhaps someday Chencho will create a digital story about taking the cows up the mountain with her grandfather.

After a pasta lunch with Chencho’s family, Chimi Dorji drove us back up to Thimphu–he was going to help out his mother, who was down sick. On the way, we saw a troupe of monkeys, including a nursing mother:

We also saw a forest fire, which made Chimi worry that his father (as a civil servant) would have been called out to fight the fire. Chimi was going to try to find his father and take his place.

Back in Thimphu, Zoë fell ill–and felt worse as time went on. She was running a fever and had a mild sore throat. The rest of us met Jesse, Sarah, Ellie, Isaac, Levi at the Ambient. Jesse is a lecturer in Environmental Sciences at Royal Thimphu College; Sarah works as a volunteer counselor there and is also homeschooling their three children. Jeremy immediately hit it off with the boys in particular. Sarah is one of those people who knows everyone and everything, and she helped me get Zoë some antibiotics to combat what I was diagnosing as strep throat. (Please, I thought, lets avoid the post-streptococcal glamerial nephritis this time around.)

Here’s the mandatory photo of the human stoplight in Thimphu. Really, I should show you a video to share the balletic effect:

Our last night before leaving for Nepal, we spared a moment for nostalgia about the clocktower square and the surrounding mountains:

Then the next morning we were off to Nepal!

Taktsang: Tiger’s Leap

The day started with Jeremy’s sock, discovered beneath his origami Christmas tree, stuffed with tiny treasures. Then Chimi Dorji kindly came to pick us up at the hotel and whisked us off to Taktsang. The starting point is quite a ways past Paro–and cars are now able to drive up to the base of the hill before reaching the parking lot. It was cold in the early morning!

Everyone wanted us to rent ponies for the climb up the mountain, but that didn’t seem as if it would be all that much easier. The views from the trail were luscious.

At some points, the trail even seems to climb above the monastery, looking down on it.

Jeremy went bounding up the mountain ahead of everyone. He’s the little speck of red on the right of the photo.

Here’s the mandatory re-creation of the classic tourist image:

But I preferred the small retreat of Yeshe Tsogyel, the dakini-consort of Guru Rinpoche.

Yeshe Tsogyel often makes me think of what they said about Ginger Rodgers: she did everything Fred Astaire, but backwards and in heels. Yeshe Tsogyel is the one who turned into a tiger and gave the place its name. And her retreat, in a cleft of the rock next to the waterfall, makes the rest of the monastery seem positively balmy. She had a wonderful view, too:

James, having patiently waited at the back on the trip up, felt driven to climb up to another two monasteries above Taktsang:

The rest of us waited (im)patiently for him at the cafeteria, with Taktsang back behind us.

Not a bad way to spend Christmas day, even if it didn’t feel especially Christmassy (except for the sock!).

Week of 24 December: Paro dzong

On the 24th, Ugyen gave us a ride down to Paro as he headed back east to Kanglung. Our plan: to climb to Taktsang (Tiger’s Leap monastery) on Christmas day.

We had a somewhat slow start, struggling to get over reactions to a different hotel, and the beginnings of travel fatigue. Eventually (around lunch time), we headed off to climb to the dzong, and the National Museum up above.

The way leads down the road out of town and across a covered bridge.

The stairs up to the dzong offer a mesmerizing array of different angles.

Evidently, the bees like the angles as well–at least the ones up high.

We went to the National Museum, perched up above the dzong. It took a couple of attempts to find the path (of course the shortcut we were sent on ran through people’s private yards, though there was also a way to arrive by the road). The National Museum had a lovely collection of masks, with some very useful explanations of what different forms (might) symbolize. There was also a fascinating natural history collection. Zoë was particularly impressed that the great blue poppy can grow to the height of a person (1.5 meters or 5 ft, perhaps particularly the height of a Bhutanese person). Sadly, most museums in Bhutan forbid photography, so our discoveries were evanescent, to say the least. And the museum was under renovation, so many of the floors were closed.

Outside the museum, we enjoyed the views and then had the pleasure of a long chat with the director, Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi. He had visions of integrating Western museum experiences with Bhutanese culture and traditions. One possibility was a room (or space) full of mist and rainbows, to help recreate a sense of spiritual discovery. He was also looking for translation help, and gave his email to Zoë so that we could stay in touch. (Must act on that contact information soon!)

Later that afternoon, we met up with Chencho and Chimi Dorji and a “brother” (cousin?) in the Champaca café , and Chimi Dorji volunteered to be our guide up to Taktsang.

For the evening, since it was Christmas Eve, we had planned to go to the Institute for Hospitality a few kilometers outside of Paro. We didn’t realize how complicated it would be to get a taxi there–and the taxis we could find wanted to charge far more than we had been told was reasonable. Of course, after bumping over a very rough road in the dark, we had to agree that the higher fare was entirely fair–but then the taxi didn’t want to come back to pick us up. The food was delicious, and the formality of the waiters-in-training made the evening seem very festive indeed. We were the last people to leave, having asked the manager to help us find a taxi home. In the end, he said he would give us a ride back to the main road, since he too could not find anyone willing to come to the Institute itself. Once we reached the main road, however, he decided to just take us all the way back to Paro–despite the late hour and the many demands on his time. True Bhutanese hospitality and kindness!

Week of 17 December: Thimphu!

On the 17th, we drove from Punakha to Thimphu, stopping at Dochu La on the way. It was difficult to believe that this was the same place we saw back in July. Here’s a photo from monsoon season for comparison.

This time, for the first time, we saw the map of the snow peaks visible from Dochu La. The first time around, the map would have seemed ludicrous. This time, we still struggled to link the peaks we could see with those on the map, but the peaks themselves were luminous.

We spent a week in Thimphu, but it went by in a bit of a blur. Here are some highlights:

We ate good food, which made everyone happy.

We went to the post office and had stamps made of various friends and family members.

We went to visit the takins at the “un-zoo” above Thimphu. Evidently the fourth king decided that a zoo was not appropriate in a Vajrayana Buddhist kingdom, so the zoo was disbanded and the animals released into the wild. Unfortunately, the takins had decided that they liked living in close connection with humans and being fed, so they wandered the streets of Thimphu, wandering into shops, making a mess, and generally creating havoc. The only thing to do was the recreate a takin preserve to maintain peace between the species.

There are also some Sambar deer and other creatures in the un-zoo. Jeremy was a bit of a deer-whisperer.

From the Takin Preserve, we went for a hike along the ridge above Thimphu. We enjoyed the views:

We also liked seeing the restoration work being done at the Wangditse Goemba:

This tree, weeping sap, is probably a chir pine, known for its resin, which the Bhutanese burn for light.

Immigration (route permits, additional entry permits) was of course a priority. The amazing thing about the immigration office is how tiny it is and how much goes on in its endless binders.

A different day, we met up with Sue and Brian, whom we had first met in Punakha. Brian was a pediatric nephrologist volunteering at the referral hospital and Sue was our bosom buddy for many days. We went to meet up with them at the National Institute for Traditional Medicine, but they got further into the Institute than we did. Brian said the actual hospital was more interesting than the Institute: rooms labeled “Bleeding” and “Enemas” and other intriguing elements.

The (deserted) lobby of the Institute included an introduction to Bhutanese medicine, some key plants, and a sculpture of the Medicine Buddha.

How is it possible we have no photos of Sue and Brian? We were so sad to say goodbye to them. And for Christmas, Sue gave Jeremy and Zoë hand-made hats (modeled here by Jeremy); he also scored a pack of Canadian cards.

On yet another day, we revisited the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory, where Pema gave us an excellent tour. We’re still hoping to go back with a decent mic to re-record it. Pema is one of the designers, and we were so impressed with her books and other products.

Finally, just as we were getting a little restless, we ran into Ugyen, who was finished ferrying Sherubtse faculty back and forth to the Gender conference at RUB, and he kindly gave us a ride north of Thimphu to Pangri Zampa, near his own childhood home.

The new Drolma Zingkham Lakhang, built by the Royal Grandmother, is set off by a long stupa wall and includes 21 images of Tara. We couldn’t find a way in, sadly.

It was a beautiful site, and it felt serendipitous to be able to visit on the spur of the moment, on the eve of our departure for Paro.

16 December: Chimi Lakhang, Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, Punakha dzong

Ugyen was very concerned about our plan to visit Chimi Lakhang, founded by the “divine madman” Drukpa Kinley. “We don’t normally go there with our families,” he said. Not to worry, James told him: Jeremy had already had an eye-full of yab-yum statues. “There are many statues,” said Ugyen, somewhat repressively. But in the end, the lakhang was very restrained. True, we did receive a blessing from two phalluses, one of wood and the other of bone, tied together with ribbon, followed by a blessing from Drukpa Kinley’s iron archery set.

But the prayer wheels around the outside of the lakhang had elegant slate carvings behind them; the courtyard with large Bodhi tree was very peaceful; and the monks were deeply engaged in their rituals.

Granted, the shops below the lakhang were full of phalluses, but I think those were aimed at tourists for the most part.

Then we drove north, to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. We parked where a raft trip was getting ready to launch, and then started the trail by crossing the suspension footbridge.

Punakha is so warm that people can grow two crops of rice each year. As we walked through the fields, we saw people plowing and sowing seeds for the new crop, using a variety of methods.

The chorten itself was stately and elegant.

The inside (no photos allowed) was remarkable in its display of figures. Here’s what I want to figure out: on several levels the focus seemed to be on five statues, in five different colors, all representing what seemed to be a single wrathful figure (in yab-yum). There seemed to be a squashed human figure behind the coupled deities, and a squashed elephant as well. Who were they? Why were they featured here?

Circumambulating each level, we climbed three stairways, prostrating at every level, and pondering the meaning of the statues, until we reached the roof. The views up and down the valley from the roof were expansive and heart-expanding—which was helpful, since we were a little weighed down by family squabbles.

Coming down from the chorten was an easy saunter; we snacked beside the river on oranges and bananas (butter bananas, Ugyen says this particular version is called), watching another set of rafts launch. Then we piled back in the car and drove to the Punakha dzong.

Punakha dzong

We had to pay full tourist fees to enter the dzong (instead of the 10% we pay as residents elsewhere)—but a guide was included in the price. Poor Wangdi, who was assigned to us, didn’t really know what he was getting into, but he was patient and thorough in his attempts to answer my many questions.

The main and largest courtyard is for administration of the dzongkhag; it’s also the site of the annual dances during the five-day tsechu.

We were interested to hear that the shrine to the queen of the nagas was created to mark the fact that the Zhabdrung, when he first arrived in Punakha, granted this place to the ruler of the nagas. In gratitude for this gift, the ruler of the nagas offered up the stones used to build the dzong (and there was a pile of leftover stones behind a glass wall in token of the gift).

The second courtyard is ringed with rooms occupied by monks. The two courtyards are separated by the utse, or a building containing a series of temples dedicated to the use of the monks. Wangdi said that the monks use this second courtyard as a green room, before passing through the narrow corridor into the first courtyard when performing their dances.

The third courtyard opened onto three temples: one, full of eight stupas, used to be open to tourists, but has been closed because of the hassle tourists cause; another is open only to Bhutanese subjects on the first two floors, and the third floor, containing the Zhabdrung’s body, is open only to the kings, the Je Khenpo (chief abbot), and a guardian monk who makes offerings in front of the Zhabdrung’s body. (The Zhabdrung entered the room when he was dying and he began his final meditation there—I’m not sure whether he’s supposed to be still meditating, or whether his body is understood to be preserved even after his spirit has left. If you’re a spiritual master, I guess you get to manage endings however you like.)

We heard some stories of the Buddha’s life we hadn’t heard before. Evidently, the story of his life is traditionally told in 12 panels or paintings. (No images since we were inside the temple, but the narrative may be of interest to someone, if only myself when I’ve forgotten the details of our trip.)

1. Buddha preaching to the gods in Tushita before his birth. Tushita is the heaven where Siddhartha lived as a fully realized Buddha before coming to earth; it’s also the place where bodhisattvas live before they come to earth to achieve full enlightenment.

2. Buddha’s mother, Mahadevi, dreamt that a white elephant came down from heaven to enter her womb from the right side. Mahadevi in Sanskrit and Hinduism is known as the “great Goddess.”

3. Birth: Buddha was born from his mother’s rib (!) and takes his first seven steps, with a lotus blooming from each step.

4. Accomplishments in worldly arts. Evidently, the young prince demonstrated superhuman powers: the ability to lift and throw an elephant (!), the ability to fly or float above water that would wash other men away, talent at archery, and more.

5. Marriage and four excursions. He was married to his cousin at age 16 and gave birth to a son, after which he ventured outside the grounds of the palace and discovered suffering (of birth, illness, age, and death), leading him to renounce his princely life and his family.

6. Renunciation. His charioteer or driver, who took him on the four excursions, wanted to come, but was sent back.

7. Life as an ascetic. Images here are of the skeletal or starving Buddha. He practiced severe asceticism from the age of 29 to the age of 35 and gathered five followers. One day he collapsed after nearly starving himself to death. A village girl named Sujata fed him some milk or porridge, saving his life. Then he began following and preaching the “Middle Path.” His five followers turned against him.

8. Meditation under the Bodhi tree. He meditates for 45 days…

9. Conquest of Evils (Mara). Mara, personifying all forces that block enlightenment, tries to seduce and distract Buddha during this period of meditation. Mara sends his beautiful daughters to seduce Buddha and then they and other demons shoot arrows, spears, fire, etc. at the Buddha. Instead of being distracted, Buddha realizes the four noble truths. Mara’s daughters appeared as beautiful female figures to distract him, but he turned them into ugly forms; after his enlightenment, they asked his forgiveness and asked to be made beautiful again. He granted that wish and they became protectors of the faith.

10. Buddha’s first teaching was given to the Hindu gods Indra and Brahma, who changed themselves into deer for the teaching. The Buddha didn’t want to give his first teaching to a select group of humans, for fear this would create jealousy through injustice, so he gave his first teaching to the deer in order to inspire all humans. Then he gave his second teaching to the bikkus (the five earlier followers who turned against him and then became arhats, or holy men and his first disciples).

11. His mother, who had passed away before his enlightenment, had seen his suffering as he meditated below the Bodhi tree, and she let fall a tear drop. Thus, after his enlightenment, he returned to the heavens in order to share his teachings with her and others. He spent quite a long time there and the Hindu gods had to plead with him to re-descend to teach humans, this creating the descending day of Buddha (a national holiday in Bhutan).

12. At the age of 80 (8), Buddha was fated to die, but being Buddha (and thus having achieved enlightenment), he extended his life for 3 months and then, in order to model impermanence to all living things, he chose to die. His image here is known as “reclining Buddha” but some call it the dying Buddha.

I might have left out or muddled part of this history, but this is what I took away from the discussion. There’s a slightly different version of this 12 panel story (with some images) at

Wangdi also told us that the three hanging fabric pieces in temples (fain, gyeltshen, and chebor gyeltshen) stood for the Buddha’s earring, his body, and his clothing. Who knew?

Jeremy, meanwhile, was delighted to get confirmation that Vajrapani is indeed the same as Chana Dorji (vajra = dorji, after all)—though he was disappointed that Wangdi could not find an image of Milarepa among the many followers of Buddha portrayed on the walls. Jeremy also received a more authoritative answer to his recurring question of whether or not the Buddha achieved enlightenment in his first lifetime (no: he was reborn many times as an animal and in other forms, hence the Jataka tales).

15 December: Phobjikha to Punhakha

James and I got up about six, but he was first out of the room, as it took some time for me to find my socks in the dark. By the time I headed out, he was nowhere to be seen. The dining room was locked, and so he went for a walk clutching his laptop. I went back and left my computer in the room and went out for a shorter walk on my own. The birds could be heard, though they were hard to see across the valley. But what a beautiful valley!

We had breakfast (with real hot chocolate, much to Jeremy and Zoë’s delight), and packed up to leave.

We were just walking up to the Black-necked Crane Information Center, directly above the lodge, when James waved us back down, to see a group of three cranes feeding close below the lodge.

Up at the center, we especially liked the documentary about the cranes, with glorious footage of take-off and landing, and learning the fact that the cranes circle three times around the Gangtey goemba before coming in to land, and circle three times again as they leave the valley.

The information center had excellent binoculars, and Zoë managed to get a decent photograph through the scope. We could have watched the birds preen and ruffle their feathers all day…

Still, the road was calling. We drove a short distance to the Nyelung Dechenling, built in the fourteenth century by Longchenpa. (“Ling” means residence—this is one of eight “residences” built by Longchenpa.)

A youngish monk studying up the hill was down helping at the monastery for the school vacation: he was a welcome translator for the resident older monk. The sanctuary was up a steep wooden stairway (like a ladder with rails). The statue of Guru Rinpoche was flanked by Longchenpa on one side and the reincarnation of Pema Lingpa’s speech (I think) on the other side, with a fourth statue toward the back, of a locally important religious figure. James asked if we could see relics, and the young monk said it was not permitted, but the older monk took out two relics from behind the altar: a “skillet” or iron plate said to be formed by Pema Lingpa’s hands, without tools (the underside had endless ridges looking like fingerprints); and a petrified elephant’s tooth, said to come from the elephant Longchenpa rode on when he came to found the monastery.

In the distance, we could see the “upside down tree,” planted when Longchenpa struck his staff into the ground.

We drove up to Gangtey goemba, but this time not to visit the goemba (though it was founded by Pema Lingpa, and I at least was interested—but there are only so many monasteries you can focus on in a given day). Instead, we headed off down the “nature trail”—a very easy meander through tall pines, meadows, along a road, and back into the pines.

The end point was a gathering of prayer flags with a gazebo for crane-watching—and we did manage to see a few birds take off across the valley. The sun was warm, like a blessing on our backs.

Then we were back on the road for another few hours, through rough road and smooth, heading for Punakha. We saw a troupe of langurs on the way, and the mountains were as beautiful as ever.

The Meri Puensum is a lovely place to stay, with beautiful views out of broad windows and a balcony. Electricity was somewhat erratic here, but that added to the sense of adventure—and a semi-candlelit dinner created a sense of intimacy, even though we were sharing the dining room with a large tour group of elderly Americans.

14 December: Bumthang to Trongsa to Phobjika (Gangtey)

We were all sad to leave the Swiss Guest House (especially Jeremy, who shot another four baskets while others waited in the car). But we packed up, piled in, and headed off again.

We broke our journey from Bumthang to Phobjika by stopping at the museum in the Tower of Trongsa. (“It’s like a real museum!” said Jeremy.) You climb from the bottom of the tower to the top, passing through some eleven galleries. The museum does a lovely job of explaining many facets of Vajrayana Buddhism and some of the religious thoughts and figures behind the royal family (and the raven crown). Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed, and so the details of those explanations are now lost in the mists of my mind. I was particularly grateful for the explanation of the raven crown (created by a spiritual master to endow Ugyen Wangchuk with special powers), the statue-accompanied explanation of Guru Rinpoche’s eight manifestations, the account of the five Tathagata Buddhas (with the accompanying explanation of how anger is transformed into wisdom, pride into seeking enlightenment for all beings, and so on). Jeremy, on the other hand, received a graphic lesson about yab-yum (the consort pose of various Buddhist figures): “Mom, why is his penis going inside the other figure?” Errr. This is not the context in which I had envisioned having this conversation…. The views from the rooftop stretch in all directions along the valley—but these too will have to live only in the mind’s eye.

The road from Trongsa to Phobjika was suitably dramatic, especially as night fell.

We didn’t arrive in Gangtey (in Phobjikha valley) until dusk. It was very cold! Very very cold! I hadn’t realized that the valley was actually at 2900 meters. The people at Wangchuk lodge had misunderstood James’s attempt to book a room and had put us in a room with only a king-sized bed, with no room for an additional mattress. After one look at us, they shifted us to a slightly larger (but unprepared) room on the ground floor, where they added a mattress (actually two piled together) on the floor. Both Jeremy and Zoë were hungry and somewhat overset by the place, which was admittedly pretty rough and ready (or, more to the point, moldy). It took a long time for the room to warm, and the dining room bukhari only heated the area in its immediate vicinity. We ate a quick supper and went to bed. Jeremy spent much of the night trying to kick his way across a lake to someone on the other side. I was apparently the water through which he was trying to move.

13 December: Mebartsho

After lunch, Ugyen took us off in the other direction, to the “burning lake” (mebar—burning, tsho—lake) of Guru Rinpoche and Pema Lingpa.

Here’s the story.

When Guru Rinpoche was busy in the Bumthang area in the middle of the eighth century, he buried various spiritual treasures (terma) in the area: some are supposedly in the lake under the Jampa lakhang; others in a small dark eddy of a ravine some twenty minutes out of Jakar.

In 1450, a boy named Pema Lingpa was born in a small village in the Tang valley of the Bumthang area. He learned the craft of blacksmithing as a boy and chainmail he produced is still hanging at Tamshing and Thangbi goembas. At the age of 25, he had a dream in which a monk gave him a scroll in dakini script. Each word of dakini script stands for 1000 human words, so translating the scroll was a massive job, but with the help of dakinis, Pema Lingpa eventually finished, and he turned the translation into the basis of teachings. The story makes me think of William Blake, but even Blake wasn’t trying to capture a thousand-words-in-a-single-word vision of the world. Over the course of his life, with the guidance of this dakini-authored script and other dreams, Pema Lingpa discovered 34 statues, scrolls, and sacred relics.

At the age of 27, presumably still in the midst of his translation project, Pema Lingpa had a dream that told him to go to a part of the river where it widens enough to look like a small lake.

Standing on a large rock, he stared into the lake until he saw a temple with many doors, only one of which was open. He dove into the water and found himself in a large cave in which a life-size statue of Buddha sat on a throne, surrounded by many chests. An old one-eyed woman handed him one of the chests and then Pema Lingpa suddenly found himself standing on a rock at the side of the river, holding the treasure.

That treasure told him to go back to the river, but by this time, his activities were starting to draw attention. Many people gathered to watch him, and the penlop accused him of deceiving the people. Pema Lingpa took a lighted lamp and said, “If I am a genuine revealer of your treasures, then may I return with a treasure now, with my lamp still burning. If I am some demon, then may I die in the water.” He dove in and was under water long enough that people thought he had died—when suddenly he reappeared on the side of the river with the lamp still burning. He had a statue and a treasure chest in his hands.

The light and calm by the water’s edge felt magical to us, partly because of the story of course but largely for their own sake.

A covered bridge across the river is extravagantly garlanded with prayer flags, showing the importance of the site in religious terms:

There was another karma-testing passage, this time requiring testers to crawl up a narrow cleft in the rock. Zoë cleared it easily; James gave up; Jeremy, being a little short for the footholds, took a little boost, and I managed the tight squeeze by turning upside down. Ugyen said he had tried a couple of years before but had given up: the rocky passage did not agree wit his girth.

The upper side of the river was a peaceful place for us also:

Meanwhile, back at the Swiss Guest House, Jeremy shot 15 baskets this afternoon, including three in a row! A red-letter day.

And have I mentioned the food?

13 December: Zhugdra (or Shugdrak)

The guidebook promised that Shugdrak was “well off the beaten path” and our visit confirmed that—not least because the drive to the site (less than 10 km) took over an hour.

But the temple, hanging off a cliff, more than repaid our trouble in finding it.

The path up the cliff was delightful (even if we had to retrace our steps a couple of times); the tiny room hanging off the cliff was occupied by someone deeply engaged in meditation.

A sign gave a number to call, and Ugyen called and then we waited for a woman to come along the cliff to open the temple for us.

While we were waiting, James climbed the rest of the cliff, up to the prayer-flag filled top, while the rest of us gazed on the old tree growing out of the cliff, or the bell swinging from the top of the temple.

Up the stone steps toward the temple, a statue of Guru Rinpoche fills a cleft in the rock.

The temple itself, with its handprint and two footprints, was quite magical. For the prints to make sense, you have to imagine Guru Rinpoche effectively landing on the cliff as if from flight; the meditation cave is slightly to the right of those prints, filled with a statue of the guru himself. On the right of the cave, words have been cut into the stone.

After our visit, James persuaded the rest of us to climb to the top of the cliff, and then we descended at speed, late again for lunch.

Kurjey goemba may have the bigger story, but the solitary meditation (marked by the occasional bell) and the isolation of this sunlit temple were very moving to us.

12 December: Hike to Pelseling goemba

We were all charmed by the promise that the dogs of the Swiss Guest House would guide us up the mountain to Pelseling goemba. Tiger and Lily did indeed guide us, with one or two of their colleagues—but they got distracted at a certain point and led us astray, over to a small village from which we had to ask directions in order to regain the path.

The monks of Pelseling goemba seemed busy with construction and other tasks, but we appreciated their solar panels and their goats—and the sign over the office door emphasized the importance of their work. (Photos lost at the moment–I’ll try to track them down!)

We ourselves were a little more frivolous in the meadows below the goemba.

And we were very happy to get back to a late lunch of pizza!

11 December: Bumthang, land of lakhangs

Waking up at the Swiss Guest House was a beautiful thing, even before breakfast.

Jampey lakhang
Our first day in Bumthang, we visited a couple of monasteries. First, the tiny and ancient Jampey lakhang: the oldest temple in Bhutan, built by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in 659, on the same day as Kyichu Lakhang in Paro. The goal was to subdue a demoness: Jampa lakhang pins her left knee; Kyichu Lakhang pins her left foot.

In the parking lot, we saw the stupa or pile of mani stones, in a form said to be dedicated to the guardians of the four directions—also known as the four kings. In each corner of the large courtyard there is a stupa of a different color—white, yellow, red, and blue—also helping to anchor the lakhang. In the back of the temple, there are two square stupas, and you’re supposed to go around the outside of those stupas, ignoring the prayer wheels in the temple walls, luring in the unwary. We circumambulated the temple, spinning the prayer wheels, each with handles deeply worn by decades of worshippers. Then we walked through the entry, flanked by two large prayer wheels on each side, into another, smaller courtyard, with the Jampa lakhang directly ahead. Each time we visited, an elderly woman was doing prostrations in the courtyard.

Crossing the courtyard and removing our shoes, we could hear a monk chanting. At the door of the temple, we bowed to him, sitting next to the throne, and we crossed the temple to the doorway of the space where Jampa or Maitreya, the Buddha of the future age, could be seen. The guidebook says that the stone steps here represent the past, present, and future. The past (the age of Sakyamuni Buddha) has already sunk into the ground and is covered by a wooden plank; the present step is a few inches above the floor, and when it sinks to ground level, supposedly gods will become like humans and the world as we know it will end. Then the future age—the third step, and the time of Jampa—will come into being. Guru Rinpoche is supposed to have meditated in the alcove above the entry, leaving a footprint behind; he is also supposed to have hidden treasures in a lake buried under the temple.

On the south of the temple, there is another temple with statues of Guru Rinpoche, Tsepame, and Chenrezig. The passageway between the two temples includes ancient armor hanging on the walls.

Outside the temple, two women were selling various wares. We bought a set of yak-bone prayer beads for Jeremy and me to share, along with a hand-woven scarf.

James and I came back to Jampa lakhang on the afternoon of our second day in Bumthang because we hadn’t managed to see the promised demons of the bardo. We timed our visit badly—4 pm services were happening—and so while we did manage to visit the Jampa lakhang again and we found the kora path, a corridor around the central lakhang, lined with images of 1000 buddhas, we didn’t bother asking anyone to open the Kalachakra lakhang in the northern side of the courtyard. I guess I’ll just have to meet the demons of the bardo without any prior introduction….

The Jampa lakhang seems to be most famous for the naked treasure dance included in its annual tsechu, but we were glad to be here at a quieter time.

Kurjey lakhang

After the Jampa lakhang, the sheer size of the Kurjey lakhang was a bit of a shock. The courtyard itself is imposing, enclosed by a wall with 108 chortens, and the facades of the three temples are glorious. We liked watching and listening to the birds wheel around and return to the rafters time after time.

We went into the third temple first—a temple built by Ashi Kesang Wangchuk, queen to the third king, under the guidance of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. On the wall outside the temple proper there was a “mystic spiral” mandala on the left hand side and a wheel of life on the right hand side. The most impressive part of the temple, though, was the wax figure of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche inside the temple, with a hand raised, looking so lifelike that several of us actually thought he was alive for a few minutes.

The second temple, built by Ugyen Wangchuk when he was penlop (a regional ruler, before he became king) contains a huge statue of Guru Rinpoche along with his eight manifestations.

The entrance to the first, earliest temple, the Sangay lakhang, is on a lower floor (up a flight of stairs, so it feels like a second floor). There was a boarded-up passageway (boarded up to keep out wild dogs) you can crawl through to leave your bad karma behind. Jeremy and I crawled through—it was a little dusty, but not too tight a squeeze. Then we all went up another flight of stairs to the lakhang proper, where statues of Guru Rinpoche and his manifestations rest in front of the (tiny) opening to the meditation cave which holds his body print (kur: body; jey: print).

Guru Rinpoche first came to Bhutan in 746, when he was invited to Bumthang to intervene in a local power struggle. Two Indian kings had established strongholds in Bhutan: one, known as Sindhu Raja, established himself as king of Bumthang, while another, known as Naochhe (big nose) held power in southern Bhutan, where he killed Sindhu Raja’s son and 16 attendants. Sindhu Raja, in a fit of rage, desecrated “the abode” of the local deity, Shelging Kharpo, who turned the skies black and took Sindhu Raja’s life force, leaving him near death. One of Sindhu Raja’s secretaries invited Guru Rinpoche, already known for bringing Buddhism to Tibet through various magical feats, to come to Bumthang to save the king.

Guru Rinpoche meditated in the cave at Kurjey, leaving behind his body print. Then, as part of the process of recovering Sindhu Raja’s life force, Guru Rinpoche was supposed to be married to the king’s daughter. He sent her away to fetch some water in a golden ewer or pitcher, and in the meantime, he transformed into all eight of his manifestations and together they began to dance in a field by the cave where he had meditated (perhaps now the temple courtyard). Every local deity except Shelging Kharpo came to watch the dance—but Shelging Kharpo was the point of the exercise. So when the princess came back, Guru Rinpoche turned her into five separate princesses, all with golden pitchers. The light flashing off the pitchers finally caught Shelging Kharpo’s attention, and he turned into a white snow lion to come and see what was happening. Guru Rinpoche turned into a garuda (a mythical bird) and swooped down to battle with the snow lion. Caught by surprise, Shelging Kharpo gave up Sindhu Raja’s life force and agreed to be one of the protector deities of Buddhism. To seal the deal, Guru Rinpoche planted his staff in the ground at the temple and it flourished as a cypress tree. He then converted both of the warring kings to Buddhism, bringing peace to the kingdom.

Do Zom, the suspension bridge, and Tamshing goemba
After a late lunch, Ugyen drove James, Jeremy and me over to Tamshing goemba, apparently established in 1501 by Pema Lingpa. Lonely Planet says it’s the most important Nyingma monastery in the kingdom, but it doesn’t say why. We arrived around 3 p.m., just as hordes of Bhutanese folk were arriving. We thought we wouldn’t interrupt whatever was happening, so we left Ugyen with the truck while we walked up to a suspension footbridge by the Do Zom, which is said to be the remains of a stone bridge built by a goddess who wanted to meet Guru Rinpoche.

The bridge was destroyed by a demon, according to the story. Jeremy loved the footbridge, and James found it all very meditative.

Back at Tamshing goemba, an overtired Jeremy rested in the car while James and I went in. We loved the courtyard of the first entryway. (No photos, because I left the phone with Jeremy.) Circumambulating the temple, we passed a bird-feeding table, full of ravens coming in to feed for the night. Inside the lakhang, we followed the walls covered with paintings attributed to Pema Lingpa himself: they have the same feeling as old unrestored frescoes in Renaissance Italian churches. In the inner building of the temple (a building inside a building) the monks were chanting, carrying offerings, blowing horns, banging drums with a rhythm like that of a heartbeat (heavy beat, light afterbeat). We sat in a corner for a while and then went to rejoin Jeremy and Ugyen.

10 December: a long day’s drive

We left Kanglung at about 7:15 in the morning,

and we arrived at the Swiss Guest House in Bumthang at about 7:15 in the evening. We spent about 40 minutes waiting, stationary, for a section of road to open, but most of the time was just jolting over bumpy roads at a very slow pace.

Still, the mountains were beautiful, and the changing forests were very striking.

The rice terraces at Mongar are striking (at least to my eyes):

Bumthang at night was freezing! We tumbled out of the car and wondered whether we had made a terrible mistake.

But the bokhari heated up the room in seconds, and the food was delicious.

Moving toward departure

Zoë wanted to have her birthday at home before several weeks of traveling,

so we enjoyed several more days of beautiful sunsets and evening hikes as I graded the last exam, met with colleagues to “moderate” results, and basically wrapped up the semester.

We are amused by what look like barn stalls for cars, but the narrow fit shows how precisely Bhutanese drivers can maneuver on these roads perched on the edge of the mountains.

Dechen the president’s wife gave us “Crow beak” and tree tomatoes out of her wonderful garden after we stopped by to chat with them (interrupting them from rebuilding a shed with their boys).

We also had a day to wash out all the wanjus of the wardrobe Zoë and I share.

Then, with the blessings of Dantak (the road-building organization)

and the thoughtfulness of the boys’ hostels

we take to the road, with Ugyen’s expert driving to keep us safe.

Dinner with Phub Namgay and Yenchen

We got back from the Yonphu tshechu just in time to receive two of James’s computer science colleagues who had joined together to bring us a traditional Bhutanese dinner.

As you can see, we were treated to rice, ema datse, mushroom datse, and a potato curry (Jeremy’s favorite).

Jeremy’s contribution was a Christmas tree and an advent calendar in honor of the (Christian) season:

We also made a blueberry crumble, but we’re never sure that our Bhutanese friends really enjoy the food we produce…

Still, it sure makes Jeremy happy!

Week of 27 November: Yonphu Tshechu

We got back from Trashi Yangtse just in time for me to proctor one of the two exams I needed to “invigilate.” Exams here are very solemn things, with desks set far apart, writing paper distributed on a strictly need-to-have basis, counter-signed by students and invigilators, and so on. At the same time, when I called time at the end of the exam, no one stopped writing. Gradually, the more docile students handed over their exams, but the more stubborn ones were still writing five to ten minutes later. I had heard a lot from other American instructors about the contrast between formality and what different people called disrespect or defiance or insubordination, but this was my first very clear experience of that contrast.

As I worked on marking the exams, I was struck by the persistence of Bhutanese morals in the reading of Western poems. Students found support for claims about reincarnation in Yeats, Eliot, and the Romantic poets, for example. A couple of groups of students had clearly worked together to develop a set essay for the final essay question on the exam: the same topic sentences and thesis appeared in multiple exam papers, with very slight variations due to the vagaries of memory. Unsurprisingly, this essay did not actually address any of the questions on the exam.

But the most striking event of the week was the Yonphu tsechu. Jeremy and Zoë declined to go, but James and I walked up the mountain with Chitra, meaning to stay only a couple of hours–but we struggled to drag ourselves away some six hours later. Perhaps you’ll see why.

The thongdrel was taken down before the lunch break, rolled up and carried off by a group of important monks and citizens.

The black hat dance was performed even as the thongdrel was descending:

The lords of the cremation ground were engaging:

And in fact all of the dancers were fast, dramatic, and remarkably athletic as they danced for hours on end.

The atsaras were particularly explicit in their costumes:

And the fading light lent its own special drama to the closing dances:

Trashi Yangtse surroundings

On Saturday, we went back to film just a little bit more in the morning, and then in the afternoon, we went for a hike up in the mountains above the town.

We drove up as far as we could, then scrambled around for a bit until a friendly teacher from the Bayling Central School set us on the right path.

The children, both in town and above the town, found us very entertaining:

Traditional crafts are practiced outside the Institute for Zorig Chusum as well as within it:

Up at the monastery, too, an old man was weaving bamboo, but we didn’t want to intrude on his work. The views from the monastery over the town were lovely, but the images are now lost in the cloud. I will try to add them later…

The next morning, we were up and back on the road, heading home to Kanglung.

Zorig Chusum, interviews and filming

We went back to the Institute for Zorig Chusum, hoping to interview a few teachers and students. We had planned to make three short videos, but it was difficult to limit ourselves to just a few subjects or skills. Everything seemed so photogenic!

The 5th year painting class stretching their canvasses:

The gold and silversmiths working together on a prayer wheel for the Central School at Rangjung:

The maskcarvers and the results of their work:

The woodcarving class, taking advantage of a sunny morning:

The tailoring class, here shown as an empty classroom, but normally full of cheerful conversation:

The sculpture class, where everyone is encouraged to give things a try:

And more, more, more. So much more!

From the Institute for Zorig Chusum to the Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary

We were all a little nervous heading over to the Institute for Zorig Chusum. The first morning, we planned to meet with the principal and look around the school, doing our best to come up with a plan for filming. I had a set of questions written out to ask people–but would they be the right questions? How does a person pull together a compelling mini-documentary, especially without extensive experience in the process or in the field?

We had a lovely conversation with the principal, after which he gave us a personal tour around the campus and the various classes. More details will follow in the next post!

Then we went back to the guesthouse for lunch, along with some musings as to how best to proceed. After lunch, we headed off to the headquarters for the Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary at the edge of town. When we arrived, everyone was still at lunch, but we were encouraged to come back in an hour. In the meantime, we admired the plantings out at the front of the building…

we visited the Sambar deer in the enclosure on the hillside above the road…

and we took the short nature trail, where I was amazed at the number of species growing on the trunk of a single tree:

By this time, the director had returned. We were invited into his office for a chat with him and his wife, who was also the principal of a local school–so I asked about environmental education in the schools. She was quite sanguine about the maintenance of traditional ecological knowledge–“My students are the ones who tell me that it is a sambar deer we have here, after all!”–but I wished for more detailed examples. (What I see of “environmental clubs” in Kanglung tend to be engaged with campus gardening rather than demonstrating a more sophisticated grasp of ecology.)

We asked about going to see where the black-necked cranes roost and feed, and we were told that we could go and follow a ranger heading out to the park. But then it turned out that the ranger had already left. We could cross the bridge and go after him–he would wait for us. But we couldn’t find the bridge! Another range jumped in a truck and led us to the bridge–after which we hurtled along a rather rough road, hoping we would know the ranger when we found him. Eventually, we did manage to find Sonam Tenzin by the side of the road.

He kindly led us further on, into the Sanctuary itself, where we saw the cranes, like large sheep feeding in the rice fields.

At our request, he led us further up the river, past the footprints of the cranes, to the fields where they roost for the night.

On the way, we passed the site of a major gathering for a teaching given last summer, with the flags like the ghosts of that gathering.

The riverbeds–a Ramsar wetland site–were so beautiful. We could have stayed till night fell and morning came again.

Sonam himself has to be out before dawn in order to count the birds as they first take flight in the morning.

Sonam gave us so much of his time and attention, even though he was leaving before dawn the next day on a three-day trek to the north of the sanctuary–almost all the way to China–on a mission to reset trap cameras to try to keep track of the number of tigers in the sanctuary.

Trashi Yangtse and the Choki Guesthouse

The road to Trashi Yangtse is narrow but quite beautiful, passing through pine forests, streams and waterfalls–not to mention little water-turned prayer wheels.

When you reach the town proper, you pass by the Chorten Kora

and then the valley opens out, giving the town a sense of spaciousness.

We tried to stay at the Dzong guesthouse, but it was full up. We asked the manager of the guesthouse for a recommendation, and he suggested the Choki Guesthouse. It took a little extra driving around and asking, but we finally found our way there. The decoration was lovely, and the food was delicious.

The bed was big, even by American standards! Plenty of room for 3!

We were so grateful to find a place to lay our heads, in anticipation of a busy day of work the next day.

Gompu Kora, on the road to Trashi Yangtse!

With classes completed and the students on “study leave,” we too took our leave of Kanglung and Yonphula for a few days. The YCC staff helped me hang some prayer flags over the entrance to the academic block: I’m hoping it will help my students on their exams.

Ugyen Tshering explained that prayer flags should be hung in sight of mountains and rivers so that the winds and water will carry the prayers even further. A site that is too protected is not ideal: rather, the wind should wear the prayer flags out. At first, he said the prayer flags should be moved as soon as exams were over, but as they caught the breeze and waved merrily at us, he agreed that they might stay where they were.

Balamaguran was kind enough to loan us his car and Hap Tshering helped us sort out the necessary road permits, and we were on our way: to Trashi Yangtse, to try to film a mini-documentary of the Institute for Zorig Chusum there. We felt almost giddy: driving somewhere! Just the four of us! Independence!

The way things work here: if a tree falls down across the road as part of a landslide, you simply drive over the tree.

The road to Trashi Yangtse first runs along the Drangme Chuu, the longest river in Bhutan:

It also runs through rockfall territory, with some interesting effects:

Our first stop outside of Trashigang district was Gomphu Kora, a monastery by the river, built on the site where Guru Rinpoche meditated and did battle with various demons.

We weren’t wearing national dress, so Jeremy, Zoë, and I were reluctant to go into the monastery grounds, but James went down and found a monk who said we were permitted even in Western clothes. Two young monks did their best to show us around, a little hampered by our linguistic hurdles.

Most of the images we took were actually in the form of video–and of course the inside of the temple is out of bounds for photographers. The temple itself contained statues not only of Guru Rinpoche, the Zhadrung, and the Buddha, but also Chana Dorji with the exploded eleven heads. And the relics included footprints in stone (I think Guru Rinpoche and Pema Lingpa, but maybe others too), as well as other natural history treasures. The wooden steps were so smoothed with age and oil that they seemed wet in the morning sun.

We went around the temple to see the virtue-testing stone. If your karma is good, you will be able to climb the stone face. James attempted it and an older Bhutanese man tried to give him a helping hand, but to no avail. The path winds around the stone, past markers of various supernatural encounters: a demon buried under a stone here, the mark of a demonic serpent on the rock there.

We proposed letting Jeremy try slithering through the karmic tunnel, but our monk guide did not advise it and the passage did seem especially tiny.

The light filtering through the leaves of the central tree was quite magical, as was the quiet sense of community: old people and babies spinning prayer wheels, chickens in the field around the monastery, a woman twisting wicks for butter lamps.

After touring the monastery, we went up the hill to try to find the cave where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated for three years, but our moral compasses were not working well. We did manage to find a chorten overlooking the monastery: ample reward for our efforts.

Week of November 13

This is the last week of classes, and it’s a bit of a mad rush to get through essay revisions (for the students) and marking (for me)–we “moderate” semester grades here, which means presenting sheets of grades to colleagues and discussing high and low cases. There are also the dreaded (to me) class sheets of attendance, with percentages of absence to be calculated, with students’ ability to take the final exam hanging in the balance.

Zoë climbs the mountain with me to serve as a writing resource, though not all the students who would benefit from her help choose to take advantage of it.

The skies continue to impress us, both in the day and in the evening–even the night.

James and I go walking down the hillside. I’m struck by what look like cherry trees in bloom–in mid November.

Sometimes, the world seems all topsy turvy here. The hardest thing for me to understand (beyond even the strangeness of the seasons) is the weirdly positive associations Hitler seems to evoke here:

When positive Hitler quotations show up on classroom walls, you have to imagine that some high-level figure is a Hitler fan. But who would that be? And why?

I’ll stick with the landscape for now: the rice harvest,

the butterflies,

the prayer flags,

the birds,

the chortens,

the wasp nest, like a rough-hewn heart near the top of the manidhar pole,

and the Sherubtse clock tower, backlit in the evening light.

Barshong! November 11th

November 11th is the 4th King’s birthday, and Sherubtse College began the morning with a small celebration in the college temple (or Zangto Pelri, the paradise visualized by Guru Rinpoche).

We tried to chant along in Dzongkha, a little like trying to follow a Latin Mass. Then, after some rice and butter tea for all, we piled into buses and private vehicles and drove over to Barshong. The Sherubtse faculty were offering lunch to the monks during the ongoing puja (ritual) there.

I think the ritual in this case is a drubchen (like the ceremony James attended at Yonphula): a religious ritual working to clear away negative energy and obstacles on behalf of all sentient beings.
The ceremony has been going on for days, but many people are attending this day (a Saturday and the king’s birthday, so a double holiday).

The temple, draped and decorated, looks different than the foggy place we visited two weeks ago:

As we arrived, the local scouts were dancing, but almost as soon as we arrived at the top of the steps near the temple, the masked dances began.

The first dance seemed to be a “clearing the ground” process: a huge number of masked dancers came and moved slowly, spinning periodically, in a large circle around the stone courtyard. (At the center was a bamboo sculpture and ritual cakes or torma, into which negative spirits had been invited.) At a certain point, the dancers broke into two lines that moved up the center of the courtyard and then divided to circle outward again.

By the end of the dance, the monks were clearly exhausted.

There was a break for lunch during which many people went to see the thongdrel (an immense image of holy figures and lineages). The name “thongdrel” means “liberates by sight,” and the idea is that just by seeing the thongdrel, people can win free from the cycle of suffering and reincarnation. I just wish we could find people to explain the imagery to us.

The big event of the day was the Rinpoche dancing. As part of the Sherubtse group, we got to meet the Rinpoche and receive a blessing. We actually met him twice and Zoë and I had our katas put on by him early because we were so confused about what was happening (so we took them off and went around again with everyone else several hours later). He’s very young–though of course not when you take reincarnations into account.

In preparation for his dance, young monks come bearing important ritual items. And one of the jesters (atsaras) carries a basket of burning aromatic branches.

The Rinpoche’s dancing was designed to pin negative forces down into the ground. Any forces of evil would be driven into the ritual torma which was then to be cut and burned, to dissipate those energies fully.

But there were stages to the Rinpoche’s dance, and at various intervals, other dancers would come and perform their own dances in his presence.

The skeleton dancers were younger boys. Zoë captured the moment when they seemed to explode in dust.

They also did cartwheels and other gymnastics, and they jingled with small bells.

The atsaras–master dancers themselves–staged their own comic play:

The animal masks came back again, with pairs of dancers (stag and bull) waving swords through the air, to cut through delusion.

The “wrathful deities” were perhaps the most striking dancers:

The audience sits close to the action

But the monastery had to request everyone to stay (by loudspeaker) until the Rinpoche’s dance was done and the ritual cakes had been burned. We didn’t understand the request (in Dzongkha) and the Sherubtse contingent left early. But this was (by far) our favorite dance of the day:

Quite the day, all in all.

Week of November 6th

We are loving the sun and warmth in Kanglung, as the peppers dry on rooftops of all kinds, and the prayer wheels line the entries.

Some days, storm clouds redefine the sky.

When the power goes out, Jeremy does cross-stitch by headlamp-light.

There are new dogs trying to claim a piece of territory.

Meanwhile, up the mountain, the flowers are still hanging on.

And as the weather clears, it’s easier to see how very close the airport is to the Yonphula academic block.

This photo is taken from the college “parking lot” (or rubble-filled truck turning zone), with the horizon line being the runway of the Yonphula airport.

Meanwhile, Zoë and I are continuing our evening walks. This calf likes the spot between the manidhar….

Jeremy came hiking up to Yonphula with me, having proven himself strong and competent by hiking up first with his dad. We start from nearby the school…

We climb past the archery field and the entry to the higher monastic school…

We see people gathering firewood for the winter…

Jeremy looks out over the mountains…

and climbs the steps over the fence that always strike me as a metaphor for my work at Yonphula:

Back down the mountain, our neighbor Karma is installing a bokhari (Bhutanese wood-burning stove) against the cold weather.


Chimi Dorji took James up to see one of the almost weekly archery competitions. Everyone chips in something like 100 ngultrum, and then every time someone hits the target, they receive 100 ngultrum from the pool.

Someone like Karma does very well because he is so focused on improving his skills. Then again, the composite bows cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000-$1500–so it takes many scores to earn the price of a bow.

Sonam’s father represented Bhutan at the Olympics.

Still, Sonam’s father seems far too dignified for the stories that we hear about Bhutan’s Olympic archers. “Oh, the Bhutanese don’t think much of the Olympics–the targets are too close to provide any kind of challenge.”

(See the white target way off in the distance?) But then why don’t the Bhutanese win the event every time?

“Ah, because they aren’t allowed to drink! What’s the point of archery without a little arra to add spice to the contest?”

Week of October 30th

A week of commenting on essays. I spent 10 hours each day on this work Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday, I couldn’t walk up the mountain because I was busy producing a last minute grammar/citation practice handout. I’m still not sure how to get students enough practice to make their English more grammatically correct and fluent.

Jeremy came home reporting two traumas: at assembly, a boy one line over threw up very dramatically, raising fears about a stomach bug. Then his classmate CTC lost her money at school, and the science teacher decided that someone must have stolen it. He threatened to beat everyone except Jeremy in order to make the thief confess. Jeremy said he couldn’t bear to watch others being hurt while he stood aside, and so he told the teacher to beat him first. This created a temporary impasse—“he doesn’t want to hit me because he’s afraid I’ll tell you, which I would,” says Jeremy—but the science teacher was unwilling to give up the general punishment plan. We were all quite impressed at Jeremy’s willingness to put his body on the line to defend his classmates. (Later, Jeremy acknowledged that this was also a strategy for getting out of going to school. As Zoë noted, his selfless quest for justice was also a canny plan for advancing this personal goal.)

On Saturday, I went up the mountain with Chitra and Balamaguran to listen to a retired Australian geography professor talk about academic writing. I ended up sitting in the back and commenting on student papers. I then spent an hour or so talking with students about their drafts. They then invited me to come with them to lunch at Imtrat (the Indian military base) for a Sikh holiday celebrating Guru Nanak (the first Guru of the Sikh tradition). The lunch was actually offered on the same football field where we had the inauguration. The food was yummy, though the dessert was too sweet for me, confounding the expectations of my students, who expected me to like the dessert (sweet) but not the main dishes (spicy).

After lunch, I met with another student about her essay, and then I got ready to walk down the mountain. I found Yangchen waiting for me outside of the building. “Ma’am, if you need a friend, I could walk with you.” This, despite her toddler and five-year-old waiting at home for her—and despite the fact that walking up and down the mountain seems to be an activity reserved for those without access to “a vehicle.” My students are working hard to take care of me.

Meanwhile, at KPS, Jeremy was busy helping hoist new prayer flags, while other students repainted the chorten.

More butterfly love. White violets with just a hint of purple go flying past; bright orange bursts of color shoot by, eluding the camera.

Walking on the mountain, or even through campus, makes the loss of insect life in the West more tangible. I waste long moments of every commute pursuing butterflies, usually in vain.

The other day, I was stalking a particularly striking butterfly, and I was totally caught up in sneaking a step closer, off the path. I had dropped by backpack and walking sticks across the path in my pursuit—and suddenly I turned my head to find a Bhutanese woman at my shoulder, regarding me quizzically. “The butterflies!” I said. “Did you come down from Yonphula?” she asked, unmoved by the butterflies. “Yes.” “By yourself?” “Yes.” This is the part that baffles my Bhutanese friends. “By yourself” is just an incomprehensible choice.

For my birthday, we hiked much of the way up the mountain again, passing the phallus above the entrance to one of the boys’ dorms.

I’m about as tired as this photo makes me look. Working hard here, Fulbright!

I tried to capture the birds making the most amazing sounds, but with little success. Look for white combs, and you may be able to discern two of this particular species in the photo below.

The big family treat: oreo chocolate bar. Note that the chocolate bars all seem to melt and recongeal on their way to Kanglung. Not super-appealing.

But Jeremy baked me a lemon drizzle cake, and the flowers and butterflies are still beautiful. It doesn’t feel like mid-autumn here.

28-29 October Trip to Rangjung

After many false starts, we finally made it to Rangjung with Pema!

The idea for the trip began as I chatted with Pema about his family, who still live in Rangjung: his wife works for the BHU (Basic Health Unit) there, and she cares for their five-year-old son and small daughter. Pema only sees them every few weeks, because to travel from Kanglung to Rangjung at the weekend requires three vehicles: bus service from Kanglung to Trashigang, Trashigang to a tiny roadstop whose name I’ve forgotten, then another vehicle on to Rangjung. “Perhaps you could drive us there and see your family,” I suggested. But then the truck was out of fuel one weekend, the President needed it another weekend, and James was busy with an entrepreneurship event a further weekend.

Pema arranged for us to stay at the monastery guest house in Rangjung. We started our journey from Kanglung around mid-morning, after I finished another round of commenting on student essays, first and second drafts.

This was our first trip beyond Trashigang, and we were struck by the appearance of the dzong as we descended the valley.

To get to Rangjung, you travel up a river valley, staying a little lower (and warmer) than Kanglung.

We are always struck by the Indian road crews and the way they cope with hard labor and difficult living conditions. Someday we hope to talk to the people working here, rather than simply driving by.

We stopped at the monastery guesthouse to drop our bags and then we continued further up the mountain, to the town of Radi, and to what appears on Googlemaps as “Dudjom Tersar Monastery” though it is actually a nunnery. Radi is known as “the rice basket of the east” and we were right in the middle of harvest season. We saw harvesting and threshing in the fields, and rice stalks piled up high in trees and man-made frames to keep the cattle from eating them before winter. (Cattle can still find greens to consume, but in January and February, they will need the dried rice stalks to sustain life.)

At the nunnery, both nuns and community members were hard at work on new construction. We felt we should roll up our kiras and ghos and join in, but we weren’t sure we would actually make much of a contribution. The nunnery is associated with the monastery (also known as the Rangjung Woesel Chhoeling Institute of Buddhist Studies).

Without an interpreter, we had trouble processing the many elements of the nunnery we were shown: meditation halls, paintings, the library, and more. But the beauty of setting and people was immediately accessible.

On the way back down from Radi to Rangjung, we stopped for Pema to fill up some bottles with holy water from a top on the hillside.

Back at the monastery guesthouse, we chatted with Karma, the monk who manages the guesthouse. He is a friend of Pema’s, and it turns out he is also the monk I met once on the Yonphula path: I was heading down at speed, and he was heading up. His family is from a village near Yonphula.

Karma was full of theological thoughts—the story that Christ’s missing years were spent in India learning Buddhism (which I have also heard elsewhere), plus some other Christian-Buddhist connections which seemed a little dubious–or wishful–to me. (Sorry, Karma, for doubting!) The photo above is actually from our second day at Rangjung, where Karma gave us a wonderful tour of the temple.

First James, then Jeremy and I went for a walk through the gathering dusk.

Pema found me and Jeremy perched on top of a large rock jutting out of a wall at the end of the village as he was taking his family to a restaurant for momos.

The next morning, Karma walked us through the temple, beginning with the stupas outside, with detailed explanations of the different meanings attached to each element of worship. He encouraged us to take photos and to videotape his explanations.

Unfortunately—perhaps because my phone is overloaded, as is my computer—the videos seem to have evaporated. We’ll just have to return to Rangjung in January or February….

We lit butter lamps in an aspiration for world peace, and then we started back to Kanglung.

Week of October 23rd

Last week, the Guardian reported a massive drop in insect numbers in nature reserves across Germany. The implications are sobering—or terrifying, depending on your temperament (I myself am easily terrified by the environmental news of our era).

Here in Kanglung, we are living in a biodiversity hotspot. I thought it was worth sharing snapshots of some of the insects with whom we share this space.

James was delighted the day he discovered a constant stream of ants marching in formation around the guesthouse. My own response was dismay, or worse. Sure enough, after marching past our doorstep for a week or so, they began streaming in through a hole in the doorway. After a few days of massive ant-sweeping campaigns, we stopped at a shop where a teenage boy had set up a basket with some corn to try to “trap” some birds. When we commented on the contraption he had created, he noted that he was just trying to stop the birds flying in the window of the shop and eating directly from the bags of grain. James mentioned our issue with ants, and the boy immediately offered a remedy. “I don’t know the word in English, but it is a strong spice—yellow—that we put in our food.” Turmeric. I have never thought of it as a strong spice, but we did as directed, and filled the hole in the doorframe with turmeric and our ants went on their merry way.

The butterflies—most of whom elude my lens, skating past my eyes or across my cheek at high speed, even in strong winds—these are the insects that most clearly bring home to me the difference between living in a biodiversity hotspot and living in southeastern Pennsylvania. The sense of endless gossamer motion lifts my heart on the mountain, even as it distracts my eye.

Week of October 16th: student presentations

Mid-week, Jeremy and I went on our standard walk and watched some archers practicing.

My walk up to Yonphula is the best commute in the world. On the way down the mountain, listening to the cowbells, I feel like Heidi (from the children’s book about the Swiss orphan who goes to live with her grandfather). This makes me wonder: why are there so many cows in Bhutan? Presumably an extension of Indian/Hindu reliance on cows?

On Friday I have no classes so in the afternoon we all went as a family to Khaling in order to look at the Handloom Centre just past town. We had intended to go in the morning, but we hadn’t managed to make arrangements the day before. In the morning, I called the Handloom Centre to be sure they would be open; James called Leila’s taxi driver (Tashi); and we were good to go.

We waited just a short while for some road clearing work.

Our eyes were caught by a small monastery on the roadside; Tashi pointed to the new, larger monastery up the hill on the other side of the road.

The National School for the Blind is an entire village spread down a hillside.

The Handloom Centre itself was smaller than anticipated—both in its buildings and in the number of weavers present.

The official word is that six weavers are being trained at a time, but there were only two weavers present (and only two looms in use).

The showroom included many old photos of natural dyes.

Lac is cochineal, imported from India. The others are mostly plants common to the northeast USA as well as Bhutan.

Unfortunately, the kiras we liked best were either silk and hugely expensive or slightly moldy and worn or battered in key places (or all of the above). So we bought a couple of presents for friends, and went back the way we had come.

I was amused by the Bumpa bus awaiting a new tire outside the handloom center. My first encounter with a Bumpa bus (immortalized, I think, as a “vomit comet” by Jamie Zeppa) was driving up to Yonphula behind a bus that was belching heavy black smoke. A couple of passengers were indeed hanging out of windows spitting miserably. Pema pulled out to pass just as the driver of the bus opened his door and spit betel juice onto the road. Pema gave a little honk, the driver closed his door, and in true Bhutanese style, gestured gracefully toward the road ahead as an invitation for Pema to pass.

At James’s request, Tashi took us up to the “new” monastery at Barshong. “New” is a relative term: the monastery was hidden behind trees that were planted when it was first built. James guessed 15 years; Tashi thought perhaps 10.

We walked up through an archway into a massive stone courtyard, with monk hostels on either side, and a temple straight ahead. Everyone seemed busy preparing for a coming tsechu: the horns and drums and space together created a powerful sense of atmosphere.

A young monk walked us through the temple, but his limited English and my limited knowledge of Kagyu history created some obstacles to understanding. The paintings on the walls featured various Karmapas and teachers such as Marpa, Milarepa, Naropa, and others.

This is a private temple, Tibetan Kagyu or Karma Kagyu rather than Drukpa Kagyu. (As a Nyingma practitioner later explained to us, Tibetan Kagyu lineage is headed by the Karmapa in a line of descent traced back to the Buddha; Drukpa Kagyu goes back only to the Zhabdrung. Clearly, there are ways in which the different traditions assess one another.) Only Drukpa Kagyu monasteries are state supported; the others remain in the private sector.

Saturday morning, Jeremy ran in the school “marathon.” This was roughly 5 kilometers, running partway up the mountain, and then down the road. The teachers announced the course in Dzongkha and Jeremy didn’t feel able to ask for clarification. Jeremy ran with a sixth-grade boy and the two of them rather trailed the pack, though 5th and 6th graders started the race last, and the two of them refused (with some indignation on Jeremy’s part) to catch a ride on the downhill part of the course.

Week of October 9th

The week after the inauguration, we were all a bit tired and out of sorts. By Monday I had a cold. Zoë went down with a low fever, Jeremy was desperate not to go to school. We let Jeremy stay home, but I still had to go to work, so he was out of sorts and neither he nor James was happy.

I canceled my tutorial hour (9:30-10:30) but classes were not to be canceled in case the vice-chancellor wanted to visit a class. Pema forgot (or didn’t register) that I had said I would need to go up the mountain at noon, so I was almost late. I was met by a delegation of students asking me to take only one hour of class time. I said they could have the second hour to prepare for presentations in whatever way made best sense to them. Horizontally, perhaps.

By the time we were headed down the mountain, the rains were torrential, and there was a double rainbow in the sky.

Thursday (late Wednesday night for her), Nat gave a guest lecture on the Victorians, which the students found very engaging—they also picked up her trick of using different font colors to communicate parts of a close reading of a passage, which greatly improved their presentations.

I started hiking up the mountain as a means of getting some exercise.

Food continues to be a central concern. We had hoped that the cloth bag of maida (white flour) would be a sustainable approach to storage, but unfortunately it tasted a little rancid, on the edge of mold. The plastic bag of atta (whole wheat) survived better over time.

And this is definitely chili season! Chilis drying everywhere—mostly on rooftops.

The prayer wheel in middle market is almost done with the renovations:

Friday evening, James ventured out to see the inter-hostel traditional dance competition. Many new kinds of dances! Dances with bows and arrows, dances with descending dragons (coming down on strings from the ceiling—that photo didn’t come out…).

Saturday, Jeremy came up to Yonphula with me and practiced film-making while I met with my students about their upcoming presentations.

Sunday, we watched people painting an iron roof and explored new routes up and down to our favorite walk.

Everywhere we turn, there seems to be another ritual construction, fending off bad karma…

Then Chencho brought us a squash—that thing is a squash?!—and we made her show us how to prepare it.

8 October (Sunday): more Inauguration snapshots

Here are some more images from the Inauguration: my students in their finery…

Ugyen Tshering, the linguistics tutor (and third faculty member of the College this semester)…

Some of the details contributing to the ceremony…

So much dancing…

Jeremy with Chador Wangmo:

And the Fulbright team…

It was a grand day!

8 October (Sunday): Inaugurating Yonphula Centenary College

The events of the day were all laid out in the invitation.

Chencho, having loaned me clothes for the day, took us in hand to guide us through preparations for the inauguration. She loaned me her clothes, and she got up early Sunday morning to come and help us all get dressed.

Chitra (photo below) drove up the mountain with other colleagues, so the whole family was able to ride up in the truck with Pema.

When we arrived, my students came to greet us—about the same time that the dancers were also arriving to (wait in order to) welcome the prime minister. Many photos were taken.

Notice how I loom in this photo–and of course, I look like I’m crossing a river.

Jeremy and I with Tshering Thinley, the Dean of Yonphula Centenary College.

There were two sets of dancers: one set in yellow, one set in white and blue. I’m still trying to work out the difference….

The ceremony began with chibdral, which is the welcoming procession. In the olden days (or perhaps for a member of the royal family today), this would have been led by a dignitary carrying a white scarf, followed by a riderless stallion or stallions, bearing cloths of ceremonial importance. Our procession started with men in red ghos beating drums followed by a series of flag bearers. According to Karma Rigzen (2011), the flags include

Chogdar (directional flag),
Tsendar (a series in which each flag is associated with a particular deity),
Rudar (coy flag),
darneynga (five coloured flags) and
Gyaldar (victory banner).

Armoured marchers (scouts in our case) and Pa Chham dancers follow the flag bearers, and behind them walk high profile officers (my students seemed to fall in this category). Next come a group of people carrying various religious items: I’ll spare you the details. Following these individuals is the Kudrung (monk prefect), who claps his hands in order to alert the entourage of arriving chief guest the ground, signifying control over the area. Next comes the chief guest: I almost missed his arrival, amid all the other moving parts.

“During the course of the procession, Pawo dancers line either side of the chibdral (procession) as it moves along. The dancers hold small drums in their hands and call attention to the chief guest and create a pleasing environment around him. As the procession enters the ceremony venue, those persons carrying the Chogdar, Tsendar, Rudar and Darna Nga flags stand behind the official who is being promoted or honoured. To the right is a line of dancers and singers, office people and divisional heads. On the left side are the team of escorts and people carrying the official’s belongings. The official who is promoted stands between the two lines and in front of the bearers, where he remains while until the conclusion of the marchang ceremony.”

Here’s a link to a rough clip of the procession (the people crossing in front of the camera in the middle bit are mostly my students):

Marchang is a ceremony following chibdral, and is an offering of alcohol to deities and teachers to secure blessings for the removal of obstacles, and for successful outcomes.

Before the ceremony began, we met the Vice Chancellor of RUB (Royal University of Bhutan), Nidub Dorji, (making the marchang offering in the photo above) who (we realized somewhat belatedly) had been kind enough to write to the home minister to help get Zoë a visa at the eleventh hour.

We also met the head of the Indian army base and his wife (with James, below), who was lovely–we were sad to learn that they were moving to Haa the following day.

The unveiling of the college plaque was prepared by a blessed water ceremony, similar to that performed for the consecration of the new academic block:

I think Zhugdrel Phuensum Tshogpa is the name for this collection of fruits, which must be ritually served for any ceremony involving a high-ranking official.

According to the tourist website, Bhutan and Beyond, this ceremony hearkens back to Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel’s first arrival in present day Punakha in 1637. Announcing that the gathering was a very auspicious omen, he instructed everyone to be seated in rows and served food items including a variety of fruit, while special prayers dedicated to his spiritual lineage were being recited. Today, various foods are served and offerings are made to the guardian deities for their blessings. Only afterwords did we discover that since the food items are auspicious, we were not supposed to show any gesture of refusal. (I refused the betel nut. Ooops. Shacha gave me his for the photo.) Interrupting the Zhugdrel, looking sideways, cracking jokes, and laughing are also improper.

My students performed a dance also—-but not all of them danced.

When I asked later why only some of them were in the dance, they replied, “Some had never done the dance before in their lives. There wasn’t time to learn it all from the beginning.” (This offers a different context for their invitation to me to join them in learning the dance earlier that week….) At the end of the dance, they formed a semi-circle around the prime minister, who spoke to them for some five minutes. The students told me later that the prime minister had said to them something like this: “This new college is a big step forward. Don’t take two steps backward now. We are counting on you.”

We also had a chance to chat with the prime minister. The first thing he said to me was, “I didn’t realize…how shall I say this? I didn’t realize that the Fulbright program was available throughout one’s working life.” Translation: you’re so old to be a Fulbrighter!

I replied, with great dignity (I’d like to believe), “Senior scholars are a core part of the program.”

“That’s good to know,” he said. “Perhaps when I am finished with this work, I can become a Fulbright senior scholar.”

We chatted a bit about Pennsylvania (he did an undergraduate degree in engineering at the University of Pittsburgh on a UN fellowship) and Swarthmore. I mentioned a famous person who had not been accepted, and he riposted, “That’s your claim to shame!” Very quick on his feet! I suggested that he and James should talk as engineers—and after embedded systems were mentioned, I think I was the one who said James was interested in hydropower control issues. The prime minister said that would be very useful to Bhutan, James asked for an introduction to someone who could get him some data, and the prime minister turned to the vice-chancellor and asked him to help make this happen. James has now been thrown in at the deep end.

Coming back after inaugurating the airport, the prime minister stopped by again. He asked Zoë where she was going to university. “Cambridge in Massachusetts or Cambridge in England?” “England,” she replied. “Ah, as far away as possible,” he said, looking at her parents knowingly. As he was talking with her, he was hard at work cracking a walnut. At the end of the conversation, he put the walnut down in front of Jeremy with a smile, and turned away. We were all very charmed.

The dignitaries served lunch (prepared by Sherubtse staff) to “the people”

and then the higher-level guests enjoyed a buffet lunch brought from Lingkpa Lodge (on the way to Trashigang). We might have to go stay and Lingkpa Lodge in order to learn how to make their dal.

The whole family joined the students and other dignitaries in the Tashi Leybay dance, which again made it feel as if we had a real stake in the new college. Then a few more group photos until I rang Pema to ask if we could get a ride home.

“I’m behind the tank,” he replied—or so I thought. Turned out he meant “tent”—he was right behind us. On our way down the mountain, we saw students being transported in the back of a truck: not the vehicle one would expect in a US context. (Jeremy accidentally did something to James’s camera, hence the odd appearance.)

6 October (Friday): Cheese day!

Thursday morning, we had a little visitor to our kitchen:

Friday, Chimi Dorji, Chencho and Karma gave us a ride down to Trashigang, ostensibly to visit the cheese factory, but also in the end to help us manage the next step in the banking saga and to do a little shopping.

Friday is “no tolerance day,” so we had to go through two traffic checks on the road. Other days of the week, the traffic police can “consider you” (as the saying here seems to be): you can say, “Oh, I left my license at home!” or give some other excuse. But on Fridays, if you don’t have your license, then you are given a fine.

We know at least one person who drives around Kanglung but doesn’t have a license! She tried to take the driving test, but failed. There’s evidently a box painted on the road, and you have to drive into the box forward, and then maneuver around to come out forward. Then you have to reverse into the box and then maneuver around so that you reverse out again. If you touch the line at any point, you fail the test. “I don’t know what they are thinking,” says Chimi Dorji. “Who would drive into a box like that in the first place?” I reply: “Perhaps they think that if you can do all that, you won’t fall off the side of the mountain.” Dorji chuckles.

There is the standard wait for roadworks:

The rice paddies on the way to Trashigang are now full of scare-ghos:

Chimi Dorji takes us (the “girl’s car” plus Jeremy) to the bank, while Karma and James go up to the hospital. Karma needs an abdominal ultrasound to try to find out why he’s been having abdominal pains. We don’t know how long it will take, so we just plug away on getting the cash card and investigating why the money from the USA has not arrived.

Then we go to what I think of as the tourist shop, so that Jeremy can get postcards. Chencho says the prices are not unreasonable there, so I should perhaps shift my terms of reference. We find a tegu that will work with the handwoven kira, and two wanjus. We have a choice between silk and rayon, and we go with rayon, since the cost of rayon is roughly 20% that of silk, and there aren’t any drycleaners in Kanglung.

Chimi Dorji asks the shopkeeper to show us a ritual horn. He blows on it and then explains that it is made out of a human shin bone. I should have taken a photo but I was too busy freaking out about the human bone. “They prefer human bones for the tone,” Chimi Dorji says.

Jeremy tries on a traditional Merak-style hat.

After a brief snack,

we end up visiting the cheese factory, based on Chimi Dorji’s recollection of earlier visits several years back. It turns out that the outlet shop is back in Trashigang. To visit the factory costs 300 ngultrum per person, which is a lot of money here. You have to dress in a special uniform they provide, in order to maintain sterilization standards. We decide to pass on the tour, at least for this day. But we do purchase vast quantities of dairy products, since who knows when we’ll be back?

In the shadows, you can just about see the milk arriving in small quantities:

I was also interested to see the financial arrangements

and the evidence of Japan-Bhutan collaboration through this well-known animation:

After we return, we find students, supervised by one and then two workmen, digging holes to install a ceremonial gate to welcome the prime minister. “We thought he was flying in for the ceremony and flying out again,” we say. “No,” Yeshi Penjor of HR replies. “Plans changed. He is flying into Bumthang and driving the rest of the way, making visits. He will be here tomorrow (Saturday) and leaving after the ceremony Sunday.”

Jeremy is full of anticipation: “Maybe the prime minister will hear me humming in the bathroom!”

I think the USA could learn something from Bhutan about ceremonial celebration. It’s certainly not my strong suit! We decide that Zoë will wear the handwoven kira, requiring a belt, and I will wear one of my existing outfits.

James purchased a kabney from the JC store. He had been warned that he would have to roll the edge of the fabric, but once we were looking at the fabric, the extensive labor involved became clear. First you have to separate all the threads; then you roll three threads together; then you roll three of the now-spun-strands together, alternating directions in order to create a V pattern that will also prevent the strands from tangling. I suggested giving the job to Jeremy and Juntsho shook her head at me, eyes wide. Clearly not a job for a young boy. Juntsho and her mother were trying to show us how to do the work (“any knitter can do it”), but when we expressed some hesitation, Juntsho sent the young woman who helps in the shop, off to see whether another shopkeeper (“who is often idle”) would be able to do the strand-work for us. Alas, she was already busy doing the same work for someone else. Next, Juntsho sent her assistant off to see the wife of the barber who agreed to do the work within a day for 150 ngultrum. Phew! Crisis resolved! As always, the critical path forward requires knowing people and knowing whom to ask for what.

4 October (Wednesday): Drubchen

Later that same morning, while I was teaching, James went with Sherubtse faculty to participate in the Nyingma drubchen, and to offer lunch. The monastery lies just above the Yonphula Centenary College campus, and the buildings are beautiful.

James was told that there are images of “the four kings” on the sides of the monastery. This seems to have been an issue of translation: they are the “geps,” which translates as “kings” but in this context means local deities. Chencho says they were kings long long ago. The local deity of the north holds a mouse/rat. The others we have yet to fully understand.

Young monks come to monasteries sometimes because their families are very poor and can’t support them. It is possible for them to leave after receiving an education, but Namgay says that there is some stigma attached to leaving.

Thinley told James he could take some photos inside the monastery, and unlike me, James took permission to do so, though like me he also took some photos after the ceremony was done.

Here are the horn players.

Drums, texts, high-pitched horns:

Sandalwood arra was offered with lunch, from the tank carried by this monk.

James couldn’t finish his, so they sent him home with a bottle! James is persuaded this is pure methylated spirits, but I’m going to try it. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week. Building up some courage.

4 October (Wednesday): Consecration at Yonphula

The new academic block had to be consecrated before it could be used. I had asked Thinley if I could participate in the consecration ceremony and he said that I could, but pinning down the timing of the ceremony was a little tricky. The original plan had been Thursday or Friday of the previous week, but it turned out that the Rinpoche was very busy. Yonphula Lakhang (a Nyingma monastery, different from the Kagyu monastery in Kanglung) was holding its own retreat, a ten-day Drubchen designed (according to Wikipedia) to act “as a remedy to the negative forces at work in the world, and to promote inner personal peace, peace within the community and world peace.” In the Nyingma tradition, teachers don’t have to be monks: leaders are often married. The Yonphula Rinpoche is the son of a famous lama and (according to James) is considered to be the reincarnation of his grandfather.

Monday, Thinley said the ceremony would happen Wednesday. “Before classes? During classes?” We had already been discussing canceling classing Thursday and Friday so that the students can help prepare for the inauguration. “Before classes,” Thinley said, reassuringly. On Tuesday evening, Thinley said the ceremony would start at 7 and Pema would pick me up at 6:45. Wednesday morning at 5, I received an email (sent Tuesday at 10:30) to say that the ceremony would begin instead at 6, and Pema was coming between 5:30 and 5:45. At 5:30, I called Pema, waking him up, to ask if he was coming. Oh, well. At the upper market, we had to wait for UT to get dressed—he brought an extra gho for someone else to wear.

Driving up the mountain, it was clear enough to see snow peaks for the first time. “What are those mountains?” I asked, but no one could tell me. “Don’t people normally know the names of snow mountains?” I said. “Oh, but those mountains are in India, madam. We only know the names of our own mountains.”

“That’s India?” I asked. “I thought it was Mongar.”
“No, madam. These mountains” (pointing to the south side of the eastern range) “are Mongar. Those mountains (further north) are Trashi Yangtse and then India: Arunachal Pradesh.”

We arrived and swarmed up the steps toward the academic block. “It just started ten minutes ago,” Dorji said, consolingly, knowing my American peculiarity around time. He led me into the academic block and gestured for me to sit next to the Dean (Thinley). I didn’t take photos during the ceremony, out of respect, though Thinley and others keep saying it’s fine to take photos. Still, it seems distracting and disrespectful to me. Certainly, I found it distracting to see a colleague (not the Dean) checking his email and leaving to take a phone call in the middle of the ceremony. So the photos here were taken after the ceremony, with permission/encouragement, or later, at another event.

The Rinpoche, in Nyingma style, wore his longish hair pulled back in a ponytail. (This is a photo from the Yonphula inauguration–no security forces at the consecration!)

He had a red striped shawl over his robes. He sat elevated, with a senior monk on the floor beside him.

Two horn players, dressed in charcoal gray ghos with (rather dirty) blue sleeves, sat beside the senior monk, playing through most of the ceremony. Then there was a younger monk, with a black mask over his mouth, performing various ritual actions in front of the altar.

The Rinpoche and the senior monk chanted through much of the ceremony. They also played relatively complex rhythms on cymbals and drums: the senior monk played both cymbals and a standing drum, while the Rinpoche played cymbals and a small hand drum.

The Rinpoche alternated between tapping his prayer beads against the cymbals (for a softer sound) and clanging the cymbals directly (for a louder sound). His hand drum was swung back and forth, with small beads banging against both sides for a clamorous banging noise at certain peak moments of the ceremony. The senior monk would sometimes blow on a conch shell, adding a much higher pitch to the tonality of the low horns. When he blew the conch shell, the first horn player had to play the standing drum as well as blowing his horn. The rhythms were neither terrifically complex nor utterly simple—I think it must take a lot of experience to stay on top of this multi-modal consecration music.

The young monk at the altar came back and forth repeatedly to the Rinpoche’s seat. There was a large pot which was repeatedly sprinkled with holy water. He also took the pitcher of holy water and poured a significant amount into a bowl in front of the altar while also holding up a mirror between his body and the pitcher, so that the altar images would be both in front of and behind the pouring water. (It seemed a little incongruous to me that the mirror was in a frame of baby blue plastic.)

Pema was sent out with the young monk to scatter water? rice? other blessed substances around the building. The young monk brought various substances from the altar to the Rinpoche, who would take a pinch and toss it very gracefully into the air. Eventually, most of those substances were brought to the lay participants (the dean, me, Dorji) as well. We then followed the Rinpoche throughout the building scattering yellow rice and dried daphne bush bark (? This is a guess, based on the similarity of the fiber to the traditionally made paper we saw in Thimphu).

We returned to the reading room, where the ceremony was being held, and the different kinds of sacred substances were brought, first to the Rinpoche, and then to the rest of us: holy water, milk, toasted flour. We drank the liquids, poured into our left hands, then smoothed the remains over our hair. (Milk? Ok, ok.) The flour did not have to be put in one’s hair, thankfully.

Then it was time for breakfast: the Rinpoche in the reading room, the other Nyingma practitioners (and me) in the discussion room.

Once the Rinpoche was done, we escorted him out to his car. Each of us took a moment to hold his hands: he touched the Bhutanese on their heads, but when I bent down for a similar touch, he just held my chilip hands. Americans act with their hands, not with their heads, evidently.

Other images from the room in which the ceremony was held:

2-3 October (Monday-Tuesday)

We let Jeremy stay home with James, but the result was a great deal of mutual unhappiness. Meanwhile, the prime minister confirmed that he would attend the Yonphula inauguration, so preparations, which had been held in abeyance, suddenly shifted into high gear. Invitations could not be printed without the name of the guest of honor—but now there was only a handful of days in which to print and distribute invitations. High-level ministers would have to be invited by phone; Sherubtse College invitations would be hand-delivered.

By Tuesday, my digital storytelling workshop had been postponed till November because of all the busy-ness associated with the inauguration, but I was still working on slides and assignment structures. I made Zoë come on an afternoon walk with me, and we explored farther down the farm road, past some prayer wheels, to a point where we could see across the valley to the Trashigang road.

Along the way, we came across this interesting sight:

Nakchung the librarian said this was built to defend against bad gossip. The crosspost at the top is a phallus (of course); the cups and bowl and basket are to represent each member of the household. The upper framework is to create a kind of deflecting effect, to drive the gossip away. I still don’t have a good explanation of what certainly looks like arrows driven into a symbolic scrotum (??!!). Perhaps I’m taking the symbolism too far.

It looks as if the prayer flags and prayer wheels may help mark the boundary of some protected land.

After the walk, I asked James to let me try loading my iPads with Afterlight at his office. On the way, we met Chimi Dorji who was carrying some green matting. (Storekeepers had been asking him where they could get some matting and he said he would get them some—from the college, which was replacing the matting! Nothing goes to waste here.) He shifted from his course and offered to let me use his office, with the best wifi on campus, to try the download. As we walked across campus, a variety of housekeeping staff asked him what he was doing with the matting, and he replied, “I’m selling it!”

Of course it took forever for the apps to download, even once I got them all going. James and Chimi Dorji looked into ordering Raspberry pi’s and various attachments. Chencho came and went; Kinley arrived from school. Chimi Dorji and Chencho suggested a trip to a cheese factory at the weekend, and Chimi Dorji said he could get us some local butter in the meantime. He also promised to introduce James to the librarian who is the source of butter and also vegetables. I don’t know how anyone acquires food here without knowing all the right people: the milk van that comes by around 10 a.m. (and the person who will get the milk for you because you’re at work); the local kids who bring beans and greens around campus, selling to anyone who’s interested; the librarian-cum-dairy farmer.

In the evening, James, Jeremy, and I went to the lookout. The clouds and sunset are pretty consistently satisfying here.

1 October (Sunday)

It was a rough day for the family, but in the afternoon, James and I went for a walk down the mountain instead of up. We liked the rice paddies,

the fenceposts (phallus topped, or serving as a drying rack for boots),

the ruined homestead overgrown with vines (with a functioning house next door),

the wood pile for winter,

the mystery containers,

the traditional compost creation system: dried leaves as bedding for cattle, to be mixed with manure to form compost,

the bird-like blossoms of the red-flowering trees,

and evidence of three sisters cultivation: corn and squash at least.

30 September (Saturday): a day on which we do not drive through pouring rain

…even though my students invited the whole family to come with them to Chador Wangmo’s village, beyond Rangjung. First we thought we might ask the Dean to let Pema take us to Rangjung so that we could see the monastery and he could see his family, but then it was raining and Pema had to gather deliveries from Trashigang. Then my students invited us to go with them, and I was oh so so tempted–such a lovely invitation!–until there came a thought of Zoë and Jeremy unhappy in the car as we waited, perhaps for hours, for a landslide to be cleared. I declined. For the most part, the family was happy throughout the morning at the thought of not being on the road. I worked on materials for my digital storytelling workshop, scheduled for the end of next week.

Most importantly, however, James fixed the oven! With a little help from Jeremy, he tested the thermostat and the timer, and solved the problem by shorting out the (already non-functional) timer. Hurray!

Jeremy started the morning in a bad bad mood and I tried to distract him by helping him make applesauce with some of the apples we had been given.

The footy pajamas helped his mood too.

But we all agreed that the applesauce was outstandingly good. Too bad the only apples available are gifts from people with family in the west. Care packages from west to east are highly valued. Chimi Dorji grumbles that Chencho’s family loves her more than his family loves him because they send care packages and his family doesn’t.

29 September (Friday): school trouble

Jeremy came home from school very upset: Kaka said “a bad word,” and the science teacher picked him up by the collar of his gho and then dropped him and hit him at the same moment to smack him across the room. “He is more violent than the Dzongkha teacher!” says Jeremy, in distress.

We start considering home schooling more seriously.

“If you can develop friends outside of school…”
“I can, I can!”

We’ll see.

24 September (Sunday): Tea, not tea

Chencho and Chimi Dorji came over with their family for tea: we had invited them for dinner but then Chencho said, kindly, “If dinner is too hard, you could just have us over for tea,” and I leapt at that offer.

Then I realized I didn’t know how to make Bhutanese tea.

Thank goodness for the JC Store. I went up and said to Tenzing, “We have people coming to tea but I don’t know how to make Bhutanese tea.” “No problem,” said Tenzing. “Here is instant suja tea—just like instant coffee.” (I was gobsmacked by this collision of old and new—and then there was my family’s horror when I pulled out the bag of instant suja back at home.)

“But what if they want sweet milk tea?” I asked. “One of my students said she was in Switzerland and all she could get were these little packets, by which I think she meant tea bags, and she said, ‘A person cannot make Bhutanese tea with those!’” But that’s all I have!

“Ah,” said Tenzing, “if you boil those bags and add milk, it gives you stomach pain. Instead, you add loose leaf tea to boiling water, wait for the water to grow dark, filter out the tea leaves, put the tea water back in the pot with some sugar and milk, and bring it back to a boil.”
“Do I need powdered milk?”
“No, it’s ok to use packet milk too.”
I accept that answer because I don’t want to buy a bunch of powdered milk, but I am sure my student would not agree.

When Chencho and Chimi Dorji arrive with Kinley (6 years old) and his little two-year-old sister (who has the same first name, I think, but a different “home” name—like my nickname, Betsy) and their babysitter Ugyen (the first female Ugyen we’ve met), I tell them I have the makings for tea, but I’m nervous about making it. “That’s ok!” says Chimi Dorji. “If you want to learn, she (Ugyen) can show you, or I could. But we can just have water, too.”

Some other time, I will learn to make tea.

Jeremy baked pumpkin chocolate chip cake, as promised—only to discover that Chimi Dorji does not like pumpkin! He did like bread dipped in olive oil and salt, however.

Chencho and Chimi Dorji are quite funny about Blessed Rainy Day. Chimi Dorji decided that since the spring our water comes from is open to the air and surrounded by trees, it will have been receiving blessings and flowers probably fell into the spring at some point, so taking a normal shower will do. Evidently the 3:30 a.m. time was the time we were all supposed to get up a shower. Chimi Dorji thought normal waking time was still sufficiently blessed. Chencho and the children didn’t shower until evening, though. “I’m not sure there was any blessing left!”

23 September (Saturday): Blessed Rainy Day

In the morning, it was raining, at first lightly, and then in earnest. This did not actually seem like a blessing, because Sonam had proposed to go on a picnic up to Yonphula, and Jeremy was excited at the prospect. We brought in the bucket and took turns splashing the blessed water over us (some more seriously than others) and having a shower. Then, I made oatmeal for me and Jeremy, because we had heard the traditional breakfast for Blessed Rainy Day was porridge. Then, around 8:30, Sonam arrived at our door, bearing actual Bhutanese porridge and cookies. The porridge was rice porridge–rice cooked until it dissolves into a kind of salty soup, seasoned with just a little chili, and with cubes of cheese floating in it.

Not at all what the word “porridge” had brought to mind, but it was good–especially if you aren’t thinking about American-style breakfast or porridge. Sonam said he would come back to pick us up and take us to lunch at his house (above upper market) around 11:30. He had also invited his uncle and aunt, and some other family members.

There followed many deliberations over clothing. I thought that people would be wearing traditional Bhutanese dress and we should follow suit. Zoë was worried about being overdressed, and in fact, I had never seen Sonam in a gho–he was always dressed more casually in his shop. Eventually, we persuaded James to send a text asking about dress. No reply. At about 11:20, we all put on Bhutanese clothes. At about 12:15, James called to ask more directly. Sonam was on his way down, but his wife said to just wear normal clothes. Everyone else shifted into civvies. I said I wanted to wait and see what Sonam was wearing: two minutes later, he arrived wearing a gho. Everyone else shifted back into Bhutanese dress, while Sonam went to get something from his other house. Of course, when we arrived at his house, most of the teenagers and children were wearing t-shirts and trousers, so Zoë felt overdressed.

The rain had stopped by this point, and the sun was struggling through, so we didn’t actually go to the house–instead, we climbed some stairs to a grassy plateau above the house. There was a small prayer hall and a roofed table there; mats were spread on the ground for sitting, and there was a special seat of honor for the chilips (foreigners), made out of a car seat bolted to a wooden frame.

The meal began with suja (butter tea): I tried to warn Sonam and his wife that we could only drink a little, and this led to us being given half-full mugs instead of full mugs. “In our tradition, it is a good omen to drink a mug full to the very brim,” Sonam explained. “Oh, is it a bad omen for us to take less?” I asked. “No, no, it’s fine–but if we are in an archery tournament, we take a full mug, and if we cannot drink it all, we just set it aside.” Good to know, especially for our next participation in an archery tournament. Jeremy refused to take a mug at all; I was again the only one to finish mine. The memory of rancid yak butter tea is always with me, making Bhutanese suja much easier to swallow. Jeremy ate a lot of cookies to compensate for not drinking suja.

After suja came arra. Sonam had wanted to show us the traditional container, but he had forgotten to bring it. The arra was very mild, vaguely reminiscent of sake to me, which made me think it was made from rice. But no–maize is the basis. Maize is mixed with yeast (explaining, perhaps, the large size of yeast containers available in the market), and then left to ferment for about a month. The mash is put in one container, with another bowl as a lid, and another smaller container inside to capture the condensate. “Ah, so it is distilled?” asked James, and Sonam confirmed. “Very strong, then,” James noted–but it didn’t taste especially strong to me. To go with the arra, we were given spicy Indian-style nibbles.

Then came the feast. We should have finished our arra before the food, but Sonam’s wife noted that Westerners often take wine with their food, so we were granted an exception to the rule. Two kinds of rice, many kinds of meat dishes, one paneer dish (perhaps for the nuns present?), two kinds of ema datse, beans.

The group had split in three: the older generation, the chilips (foreigners) with Sonam, and the younger generation. We went over to the kids’ mat for James and Jeremy to do some card tricks—Sonam did one too–and then it was time for dancing.

Sonam had to work hard to get the dancing going, but eventually there was a small circle of dancers (mostly the older generation). Sonam and his uncle were the most graceful (in my view). Gracefulness is the key. Sonam said he could dance Bhutanese-style, Nepali-style, Hindi-style. I asked whether Nepali dance was the same as Bhutanese, and he said it was more energetic. “Quite tough.” Eventually James and I did a little swing dance to Bhutanese music, in the interests of cultural exchange. Sonam’s sister-in-law was taking photos and videos and Sonam said he would share them with us. I’ll try to post a link if anything comes through.

Then we (translation: women and children, not the chilips) packed up the picnic in order to go up to Yonphula. I asked Sonam if we could go and change, and he drove us back down to the guesthouse for a quick change, complete with a peek out over the lookout. Sonam told us the name of the river–Drangme Chhu–the longest river in Bhutan, and also identified some of the towns on the other sides of the valley, in neighboring Mongar.

Sonam’s uncle was a new driver, so we drove carefully up the mountain behind him. We stopped briefly by the road to the Kelki school construction to look out over Sonam’s birthplace. The house is now occupied by someone who is tending the fields, keeping the farm going. The roof visible from the road belongs to Sonam’s mother’s eldest sister; then there is a house belonging to the middle sister. Sonam’s mother, as the youngest sister, has the house at the very bottom of the set.

Everyone was going to Yonphula yesterday: we drove through the Indian military base up to the air strip, where people were driving through the fog, parking to climb the hill of displaced soil at the end of the runway, picnicking on the runway itself,

or parking to look at one of the magical lakes on the side of the mountain. Unfortunately, the construction has muddied the lake, which would normally be a turquoise color.

“We believe the lake is inhabited by a mermaid,” said Sonam: I imagine this was his translation for naga, usually a female spirit of rivers or lakes. “Cool!” said Jeremy, who promptly started climbing down the scree slope toward the lake. Sonam followed him good-naturedly, and I went too. In the meadow below the scree, Sonam, quite the photographer, took a bunch of photos. Jeremy tried to slide down closer to the lake, but Sonam stopped him. “It is very deep!” he said. “Don’t go closer.”

By the time we turned to go back up the hill, Sonam’s children and wife were on their way down to us. Jigme Norbu Wangma, their six-year-old, slid down to Jeremy and his mother stopped him sharply. “We believe if you go in the lake, she will not let you go again,” she said, referring (I think) to the naga. This idea caught Jeremy’s attention much more firmly than any worries about depth.

Sonam’s wife Dechen showed us how to pick the last blossoms from my favorite green-headed plant and make little rings from those blossoms.

We walked toward the overlook at the end of the lake as the fog blew in–then it was time to climb back up the scree to those waiting patiently at the airstrip for our return.

At the top, we met Thobsten, our neighbor from the guest house with Tshering Thinley and his daughter (her face always buried in her father’s shoulder). A small world. Then the children started to walk down the hill to our picnic site while the grown-ups drove.

We set out mats and Sonam’s sister-in-law served everyone sweet tea, coffee, and eggy arra.

“Eggnog!” James announced. You half-scramble an egg and then pour in arra. That’s as much of the recipe as I could follow. It was warm, distinctly stronger than the earlier arra, and very unusual by Western standards (I had to finish James’s cup).

Sonam maintains the traditional practice of carrying an antique drinking cup with him. He inherited this from his aunt, and older people would always carried one in the “Bhutanese pocket” formed by the front of their gho or full kira.

The inside is silver; the outside a beautiful wood burl, turned on a traditional lathe:

As we sat and talked and drank and listened to music, other cars passed by, returning to Kanglung from the mountain top. A truck full of monks passed by,

as well as another truck full of a large family.

“Hello, Jeremy!” called Kaka, passing by in the back of another truck. Chencho and friends drove by also. It felt as if everyone we knew was up at Yonphula.

Jeremy played Connect-Four with Sonam and Jigme Norbu:

The music speaker had been brought up the mountain, and eventually a microphone appeared, introducing karaoke. With much laughter and many demurrals, the mic was passed around the circle, and everyone expected to sing something. Pema Dendun, Sonam’s 9th grade son, was the star of the show, with an amazing voice and great command of American pop lyrics. Dendun started us off, and after his younger siblings practiced on an American song, he sang again to show how it was really done. Sonam too had a beautiful voice and he sang a traditional song. (I’ll post a link to a video in a while.)

His aunt sang a song about a peacock landing, which Sonam said referred to us (human beings? this party of picnickers?): “It is very traditional and very meaningful.” As dusk fell over the Indian military base, we began to pack up.

“It is our tradition,” said Sonam, “to close with thanksgiving.” There was some struggle, though, to recall the right song and the circle dance to go with it. As the group struggled, some students came leaping down the hill from the airstrip. “The students will help us,” Sonam said, and they came into the circle and led the dance with much more precise footings and gestures. The moves ranged from stepping in and out of the circle, with a hopping kick at the innermost point of the circle, to movement back and forth around the circle, to joining pinkies, to putting arms around each others’ shoulders and swaying and stepping first to one side, then to the other. The song finished, the students waved and continued on their way, and we began carrying mats and thermoses back to the car. Partway down the hill, we passed the students and everyone called greetings. As they fell behind, one female student called, “Goodbye Jeremy!” much to his bemusement. But Jeremy is known wherever he goes.

22 September (Friday): Preparing for Blessed Rainy Day

I think we snorted the first time we heard the name of the holiday. Really? There are a lot of rainy days here: what makes one particularly blessed? Well, the answer is more complicated than we anticipated. A little googling gave us this report:

“Blessed rainy day, locally known as Thrue-Bab, is truly an indigenous Bhutanese festival (celebrated only in Bhutan). It is believed that on the particular day, the rain is thought to be sanctified by the cosmic Buddha Mahavairocana. And therefore, taking a cleansing bath from the divine rain water collected overnight is thought to purify all defilement and bad karma.”

Blessed Rainy Day also marks the end of farming season and start of harvest months: in eastern Bhutan, it’s treated as a New Year’s celebration. People call it “the gateway to other celebrations” because Blessed Rainy Day is the first festival in the Bhutanese calendar.

“It is said that, at the beginning of time, the universe was evolving and the sun, the moon and a planet named Rikhi also called (Thruelkar) were formed simultaneously with other solar systems.  Planet Rikhi is said to be composed of water crystal jewel (Norbu Chushel).  It is situated at half the height of Mount Meru (Rirab Lhuenpo), which is the center of the universe according to Buddhism. At that same height on Mount Meru, there is a huge statue of Buddha Nampar Nangdzay (Vairocana), and the crown of the statue is composed of the same material as that of planet Rikhi. As the planet Rikhi passes by the crown of the statue (over the course of seven days) once a year, blessed and pure rain falls on earth from the confluence of the Buddha’s crown and the planet.  For seven days, the Buddhas and Bodhisatvas bless the rain [to make it the] pure elixir of life and good luck. The rain on that day [one particular day in the week?] is believed to be so holy that taking shower in its water will clean all negativity and defilement in a person’s life. This day is marked as Blessed Rainy Day in Bhutan.

Back on earth, on the eve of the Blessed Rainy Day, we keep buckets on our roof tops to collect the sanctified rain water. In the morning, the holy rain water collected overnight is mixed with tap water and all the members of the family take a bath with the blessed water with prayers and devotion. After the bath, everyone sits around the fire and starts the day with suja (butter tea), thukpa (noodle soup) and then all the delicacies of a Losar. Men, women and children then set out to start their entertainment for the day. Happy Thruebab!”
Adapted from: Chorten Norbu, Final Year, Paro College Of Education, Paro, Bhutan.

Evidently, the local astrologer is supposed to tell you when to put out your bucket and in which direction, but we haven’t formally met the local astrologer yet. (A colleague told me it was the caretaker at the temple, but it’s not clear to me who that is.) I asked at JC Store about this magic time and direction and they said “the time” was 3:30 a.m., “so any time after that, you can bathe.” Then two of my students came over in the afternoon and stayed for about five hours, after which it was a scramble to get everyone fed and to bed late. So I just put a little water into a bucket and put the bucket outside our door, past the overhang so it would gather rain water if it actually rained. And then, because one is supposed to put flowers in the water, I went and stole a single blossom from a neighbor’s flowering bush–a bit of negative karma which will hopefully be washed away by bathing in the blessed water.

Sonam invited us to spend Blessed Rainy Day with him and his family. He called to say he would come and get us after breakfast: Zoë and I both thought he said 8:30 a.m., but James said 10:30 in response, so we’re not quite sure what will be happening. As ever, we shall see!

20 September (Wednesday): Monk Halloween (plus Nativity play)

Clearly the analogies don’t hold here. Let’s stick with simple description.

The day after the retreat, the monks came out of the monastery for the first time in 45 days.

First, they climbed the mountain to a new monastery, still under construction, where they had a first breakfast (with some hangers on).

Then they came down through Kanglung to Sherubtse College (the MPH or multi-purpose hall) where they had some more breakfast amid meditation.

The procession was the most dramatic part of this early process:

All along the path, students of all ages congregated to contribute candy and other small goods to the monks’ begging bowls.

I particularly liked the matches and the pins as useful items.

Note that the abbot (third from the back) does not carry a begging bowl.

I’m curious about the other roles: how does one decide who gets to bang the gong or blow the horns or carry the spinning canopy?

After walking through Sherubtse College, the monks returned to the monastery, where a cultural program was performed.

The tent of dignitaries: the President of Sherubtse on the right, the abbot slightly elevated

Students of various ages danced.

Then came the performance of the Buddha’s early teaching, which struck James as just like a nativity play, complete with problematic sound projection.

19 Sept (Tuesday): Final day of the Retreat (Yarney)

Nobody warned us that today would be different from the rest of the retreat, so we headed over around 4:30 p.m., only to find the temple packed with people. As we arrived, there were dozens of people leaving, and others circumambulating the temple but not going inside. What I think of as the back door (to the east, where the older people tend to sit), was closed off with a metal grate, so the only entrance was through the front. We teetered, on the brink of going away, but one of the monks we now think of as a friend—the one who nudges sleeping monks awake—said, “Come in!” and walked in through the lines of people. Jeremy and I stopped and prostrated in the middle of the aisle—which seems to have been not the right thing on this particular day (but no one told us, so how were we to know?). Then, as I looked around a little wildly for somewhere to sit, our friend came back and said, “You can sit on the other side. Come with me.” He led us back behind the altar (I put my head against the foot of the statue of Guru Rinpoche, just as Sonam Seldin taught me to do) and we squeezed in in front of Tshering Thinley’s mother and some of the other older women regulars.

We arrived in the middle of what seemed like a sermon: one of the less senior monks was standing at a podium, wearing a red pointed hat, speaking at some length. After he finished, our friend the monk of the gate stood at the podium without a hat and spoke. He made people laugh—even the abbot (the khenpo)! It was lovely to see Khenpo’s face lit up with pleasure: he has a lovely smile and a lovelier laugh.

Then there was a debate: one monk seated, wearing the red hat—a second monk standing, pacing, setting questions and punctuating those questions by pulling his prayer beads up his arm, stomping and slapping one hand against the other. At times, when the seated monk was speaking, I could see Khenpo’s lips moving in time with the words. The standing monk went up to the seated monk at one point and swept his robes across the other man’s face. A few moments later, he stripped off his outer robe and tied it around his waist, still pacing, pulling up the prayer beads, stomping and clapping. Jeremy was wide-eyed: the drama of it all was very engaging.

From a different debate (photo from web), just to give you the idea

Once that debate was done, there was more speechifying—first more fluid speech, from our friend the monk at the gate, evoking more laughter, then another more solemn speech from one of the younger monks (not young, just not senior). As he spoke, I could again see Khenpo occasionally mouthing the words, as if cheering on his charge.

During this same time, one of the more senior monks was sprinkling and laying down scent from what seemed like a (recycled plastic) bottle of infused oil. The scent was strong and familiar, but I couldn’t quite put a name on it. When I asked Jeremy, he said promptly, “It’s the smell of the Lalit hotel” (the hotel we stayed at in Delhi)—an apt answer, even if it didn’t get me much further. Also at this time, younger monks were serving tea and snacks. The serving went on and on. The poor monks kept having to step around me and Jeremy. When some people got up and left, we were encouraged to move over to the places they had occupied, in front of some VIPs sitting on benches. Some of the people telling us to move over also made a Sherubtse student come and sit next to us in order to translate for us.

The next speech from our friend the monk at the gate was an introduction to a monk recounting the life of the Buddha. The introduction ran something like this: “The major world religions all have beautiful texts, which everyone knows about. Muslims have Mohammed, the Messenger of their God; Christians have Jesus Christ, whom everyone knows; Hindus have their pantheon of gods—but if you ask a Bhutanese person, ‘Who is Buddha?’ all they will say is, ‘He is a man with a knot on his head.’” [Laughter.] The more solemn speech recounted Buddha’s achievements from birth to nirvana (not just enlightenment, but his achievements as a teacher, post-enlightenment).

The next introduction (according to my translator) contrasted the followers of Buddha in his own time with those who become Buddhists in the present day. “In Buddha’s time, those who followed him were among the wealthiest and most accomplished people in India. Today, the opposite is true: those who become monks are among the most financially challenged people in Bhutan. People who have been drug addicts and want to change their ways turn to Buddhism—or the parents of a drug addict enroll him as a monk.” (“And they laughed at these words!” said my translator.) “Buddha never tried to persuade anyone to become a Buddhist—rather, he showed a path and people could choose to follow it or not.” The subsequent speech was supposed to deal with Buddhist practices. My translator said he would let me know whether there was anything relevant to me, but nothing seems to have struck him as relevant. Instead, he started up a side conversation as to whether or not I found it offensive to be called “madam.” (I suspect he’s been treated to Leyla’s views on the word “madam.”)

Meanwhile, treats kept being offered: a puffed rice treat, soaked in oil and combined with coarse sugar grains. It was hard to chew: everything here seems to be hard to chew. They gave us far too much and then it was hard to know what to do with it. In the end, I spilled it all over the inside of my bag and even into the handle of the umbrella. Ugh. And then the monks came around with doma! Leaf, betel nut, lime paste. Men and women—but not all men or all women—both accepted some.

Then came another debate: this time with three monks seated and another three interrogating them. “It can get heated,” my translator said happily. “But it’s all in Chöki (Tibetan scriptural language) so even we can’t understand what they’re saying.” The three standing monks jockey for position. Two speak at a time and move to the front. The Sherubtse graduate stands a little farther back, looking as if he is trying to find a way into fuller participation. Then the pattern shifts, and he is the leader, moving forward, speaking strongly, clapping. Suddenly two other monks plunge in the melee: “Any of the monks on the floor, if they hear a point where they have something to contribute, they can join in,” explains my translator. The two new monks—one of them especially—raise the heat of the debate considerably. They plunge toward the seated monks, they raise their voices, they stomp on the answers with more and more sharp retorts and claps. Occasionally one of the original three will pull them back from the seated monks by their robes. Occasionally one of the new monks thrusts forward through the others once again. Spectators (VIPs) are standing, moving closer, bringing out their cell phones to take a video of the debate. When they sit down again, I see Khenpo gesturing the standing monks to step back. Most of them move back promptly, but the most energetic interrogator can’t stop. He keeps dancing forward, slapping, making his point, circling back three or four times while our friend the monk at the gate says thank you [gedinche la] three times. Finally the challenging monk is done. All of the debaters exit the center area, and our friend the monk at the gate is speaking again, this time noting that one must debate with the right attitude. The goal is to help the monks being questioned to clarify their own path. If one is only trying to score points against an opponent, that is not the right attitude. This seemed meant as a commentary on the debate we just witnessed.

One of the things I liked best about the evening was seeing the whole community gathered: across the room from us, the president of Sherubtse College sat next to two policemen. Behind us were other solid citizens (though I’m too ignorant of local politics to know who they were). They shared their tea with us, and had Jeremy come and sit on a bench with them when he was particularly restive. Also, after Jeremy peeked around the curtain into the corner room, the monks invited him to come and sit in there with him (but he was too shy to go).

At Jeremy’s insistence, I asked my translator how much longer the evening would last, and the answer was “Quite a while.” My sense is that this service was not unlike a Christian lessons and carols service: you teach as much of the tradition as possible to an audience you may be able to tap only once a year. Jeremy and I fidgeted for a while longer, and then the student said, “I am going to leave: do you want to follow me?” So we did—only to find our shoes full of rain. The president’s Personal Assistant PA was outside, asking Jeremy whether there would be school the next day. We asked him whether college classes would be canceled (as the student had projected). “No,” Tshering snorted. Of course not. I asked what would be happening on Wednesday, and he said that if we were interested, we could line up along the path of the monks and put some candy in their begging bowls. So off we went to get candy at Sonam’s and then we went home for a late supper and bed.

18 September (Monday): rainbow blessings

Today in the temple, the electricity went out in the middle of the public program. Suddenly, the experience shifted dramatically. The lighting was more sombre, the feeling more calm, the chanting became much more evenly distributed. Instead of the one voice pouring through the speakers and radiating through our chests, there was a swell of softer voices, often with a single voice rising, like a soloist, slightly above the others–like a descant in a minor key. Jeremy and I were both reminded of the music of Eric Whitacre–complex harmonies, a murmuration of voices.

It was also one of those days where the light seems tangible, reaching down from the heavens to touch us more directly.

Monks walking through the arch of a rainbow. “You can’t get much more auspicious than that,” I said to Norbu Choden, and she agreed.

There was a giddy feeling all around the temple grounds as monks and lay people prepared for the coming end of the retreat. People stood around chatting with friends

Norbu Choden with monk friend

as decorations were hung

and the sun picked out the face of the temple in gold.

17 September (Sunday): Iron/tool puja

Today was an Indian festival for iron and tools and mechanical things of all kinds. We give thanks for machinery! The cars and trucks were all festooned as a part of the celebration. The construction site near the college temple became the site of a dance party.

I asked Pema the next day why he hadn’t decorated the Yonphula truck. “Oh, I did, madam!” “And then you took it all off again?” “Yes, madam!”

15 September (Friday): giving tea, receiving blessings

Today, we went as a family to offer tea to the monks and receive blessings in return. (When I spoke to the monk at the gate, I suggested we might just make the offering, but he thought it would be a good thing for us to receive blessings too. I think the reciprocity helps to integrate us into the community.) On Wednesday evening after prostrations, I took the money to the gate with Chencho, and we arranged to offer tea Friday afternoon, a time when Chencho could be there to help guide us through the steps. In the end, though, something came up and she couldn’t make it to the temple in time, so we were on our own.

We should have brought katas, but we didn’t realize or remember (I should have known)—so the monk at the gate gave us one for the family. James, as “head of the family” was in charge of the kata. It had to be compressed in an accordion-fold (this brought back memories of Lobsang’s quick fingers creating accordion folds in any scarf that came his way), and then wrapped around itself. Then, at the appropriate moment, James was to snap the scarf sharply to release it from the folds and hand it to the inside managing monk. He would then carry it forward to the abbot—sometimes he shakes it out grandly—every now and then the scarf, floating through the air, would catch on the stubble of a monk’s shaved head.

The kata explained, then came the next part of the instructions: we were to go up before the abott and monks, prostrate three times, then give the scarf to the lead monk. We would then prostrate three more times, then crouch. Then we should prostrate three more times, then go up to the abbot in a line to receive a blessing. Then we would go to the side, prostrate three times to the statues, and sit down.

James bore the burden of the ritual steps and found it all a little stressful. But we got through it!

Again, we have been careful not to take pictures inside the temple, but one of the monks took this photo of us, and then it went shooting around the community. I can’t tell you how many times someone said to me, “I saw a picture of your family at the temple, offering something.” When I say we offered tea, the other person says approvingly, “That was well done.” One of my students eventually shared the picture with me.

After we had been sitting a while, one of the monks brings over the bottle of holy water and pours a little into each of our hands.

Today, the holy water has a resinous taste, as if it were flavored with local pine somehow– vaguely reminiscent of rosemary, but a little closer to pine. Maybe the local cypress? Briefly, I feel weepy and overwhelmed. I miss Lobsang–perhaps the taste reminds me of the Kalachakra initiation in Dharmsala, the way our senses offer different paths to our emotions and our minds.

The statues are massive and surrounded with textured backdrops, as if they’re partly statue, and partly bas-relief. I spend some time looking at a protector deity I take to be Mahakala (guardian deity of Bhutan), with a head of skulls. I think I’m sitting directly in front of the female version, who holds a corpse in her mouth, but I can’t quite get the right angle to see the identifying features of the statue. The statue I can see has a tongue standing up in his mouth like standing wave, with the top cresting over to the right. The static nature of the statue makes some of the more macabre imagery curious rather than terrifying. I wouldn’t want to meet a protector deity on a dark night, but in the light, meditating on his components seems more interesting than frightening.

Mahakala with tongue as standing wave–web catch

Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava–web catch

After the temple, we went home, and then we went over to Chencho Dema’s and Chimi Dorji’s for dinner. We started with suja (butter tea–not a hit with my family!–but better than my previous fleeting experience) and apples, and then progressed to a feast, prepared mostly by a young woman from Mongar whom Chencho calls her sister, who seems to act as something like an au pair–looking after the children and fixing food, etc. Chencho made us some Indian bread, Chimi Dorji made a paneer curry. We also had ema datse, potato curry, beans, two kinds of rice, dal. I should have taken a picture!

Chimi Dorji was out most of the time we were there, helping a friend whose car had broken down on the road. But when he arrived, he fully lived up to his reputation as a charismatic and gregarious person…

12-14 September: Offerings to the local deity

I missed going to the temple on Monday—it just took too long to get down from Yonphula. So I was startled on Tuesday to find a new addition to the ritual. A set of several serving monks were gathered around a table next to the pillar in front of the altar. On the floor next to the table were large white plastic bags and stainless steel serving dishes and large red plastic tubs. On the table were three two-tiered goblets.


The monks were kept busy pouring puffed rice and other grains into the goblets, and then pouring a combination of arra, black tea, and soda over the grains. (The soda was a little grating: Pepsi for the Buddha! I found out later that this part of the ritual is designed as an offering not to the Buddha but to the local deity of Bhutan: I think this is Mahakala.


Evidently, Mahakala likes sweet soda.) When the goblets were full, they would be tipped into the red buckets and the process of offering these substances was repeated. Holy water was also poured into the offering goblets both at the table and at the altar in front of the Buddha (where a much smaller goblet was also assiduously filled and refilled).

The server monks wore long white cloths wrapped around their mouths and noses, tied behind their heads, and trailing down their backs. (This is a later outdoor image, from the Yonphula inauguration.)

There was another monk, without this mouth covering, who directed operations, which seem to have been timed to the chanting of the monks. There was one part of the chanting where the monks (especially the young ones) would speed up and get louder—some of them rocked back and forth as they shouted out the words—I wonder if it was a patriotic chant or something similar.

Later in the week Jeremy came with me, and we sat on the west side so that he could have a better view of the offerings. I did say to him and Zoë that this whole process seemed like a ritual that they would have constructed as children: lots of offerings! More! More! Now pour it away! Now more potions! And more! Jeremy’s eyes were so big the first time he saw it all, and every day afterward he wanted to come back.

11 Sept (Monday)—Migraines, and muddles, and leeches: oh my!

Zoë and I have both been struggling with migraines, perhaps from the altitude, perhaps dehydration. My current theory is that the problem is weather-related: I can see the dark clouds as a ceiling into which we drive each morning going up the mountain.

As I try to get my students to practice writing (the ones who most need practice are the ones who resist it most), I arranged to have the whole family come up, so that Zoë and James and I could all respond to student paragraphs and cover three times as many writers in the same amount of time.

Some of the student writing shown to James and Zoë confirmed my sense that my students—or at least some of them—only understand roughly every third word I say to them.

Eden took a photo of Jeremy in the rainbow

After class ended, we sent James and Jeremy down in the van, and Zoë and I started down the mountain on foot. We had a hard time finding the start of the trail, and a harder time finding the end of the trail. Worse yet, in the middle of the trail, Zoë looked down and found her foot in a pool of blood in her sandal. We had forgotten that it was leech season.

Zoë wants to know how I took this photo without noticing the pool of blood (trust me, I wasn’t photographing her foot)! I want to know how she walked so far on a leech, probably two or three. We think she only noticed when her foot squashed the leech and it exploded. Ugggggh. The rest of the trip down the mountain–especially bushwacking at the end, when we slid ten feet and a time and didn’t always keep our feet–was a little nerve-racking.

10 Sept (Sunday)—Meltdown

Lest we forget the challenges of these early days, let me note that all is not bliss and happiness. Jeremy and I went to the temple, which is usually restorative, but he was tired and incommunicative with the monks (who looked a little sad and rebuffed when he didn’t go off with them for a chat). Later that evening, someone-who-shall-remain-nameless locked himself in the bedroom because I closed the bathroom door and kept it closed while brushing my teeth when he wanted to keep asking me for something and wouldn’t stop talking at me. (I just needed two minutes to myself to brush my teeth and grasp at some shreds of equanimity.) This was followed by weeping at bedtime: “I don’t want to be here—-I want to be home! Morocco was easier because they let us wear our own clothes and go to a school more like our own school, and we could find food not the same as our food at home, but closer….” He feels badly about the emotional explosions: “It’s because of Bhutan! I’m not like this at home!” And if I get snappy, he feels unloved. All of which makes total sense–and it makes me feel sad and guilty. In the aftermath of an earlier explosion, my young poet noted that he couldn’t understand any better than I could what was going on inside of him. “I’m like a puzzle that’s all broken up inside so you can’t see how it all fits together.” On days like this, I spend too much time thinking about exit strategies that will care for my family without leaving my students in the lurch.

9 Sept (Sat): Very so cute la!

Saturday morning, James gave a presentation on his use of statistics in his research. He gave the talk in the large lecture hall, which was full of math and computer science students and faculty members: quite a high-profile event, with photos subsequently circulating through the community. (Not that we have seen them.) But it’s a good thing he wore his gho!

Zoë and I went on the walk Namgay showed us earlier. We saw…

In the afternoon, Jeremy and I went to the temple. Some young women asked us to have our photo taken with them before we went in.

Once we got inside, we found Ugyen’s wife and sister and children there, along with Chimi Wangmo from Jeremy’s class. Jeremy was so happy to see them all. But the space was so crowded that prostrations were challenging: one of the younger girls kept standing on my hair, which made it hard for me to stand up again.

When we came out of the temple, we were waiting for the monks to exit before doing the three circumambulations of the temple. I began speaking with a group of high school girls, and when I looked around, Jeremy had vanished. A few minutes later, he appeared around the corner of the monastery, in the midst of a cluster of five monks, all chatting happily. I excused myself and went after them: by the time I found the nerve to take a photo, several of the monks had pulled away to complete other tasks (check the butter lamps, help with washing up):

By my third time around the temple, a young monk with just a few wiry hairs growing out of his chin broke away from Jeremy and came to chat with me. Where were we staying? For how long? How did we feel in Bhutan? How old was Jeremy? Where did we get our clothes? He was clearly a little nervous in talking with me, but so pleased that we were appropriately dressed. In his words, “When you wear our national dress, you look very so—how do you say?—cute la.” (La is a word used extensively here to indicate respect.) So there, y’all. You may think we look funny, but we have it on good monk authority that we are very so cute la!

7 September (Thursday): family visit

Given my enthusiastic response to visiting the temple, James and Jeremy decide to come with me on Thursday. I had told them of meeting Dechen (the President’s wife and the second-grade teacher at Jeremy’s school at the temple on Wednesday, and the way my presence was clearly noted around the community. On Thursday, perhaps because James was present (as the man of the household), the head monk brought us some holy water again. By this time, I had learned enough from watching others to coach James and Jeremy: you slurp from your hand, and then wipe whatever moisture remains over the top of your head and down the back.

While others (at least of a younger generation) seem to take photos inside the temple without constraint, I have been very mindful of Jigme’s warning against photography, so you will have to settle for a verbal description.

The older members of the lay community gather at the eastern side of the temple. We all shed our shoes before entering. Many of the older women are dressed in red shawls; the older men seem to wear lighter plaid ghos and of course rather battered kabneys. They all have prayer beads, and the were delighted to see Jeremy handling our family set.

The walls of the temple are lushly decorated with paintings in dark greens and reds: some places seem to be landscapes, perhaps with demons coming out of caves, or trapped into the earth through the power of holy men and women. At the front, the statues come out of the walls, as it were, as a kind of bas-relief sculpture. There’s a large golden Padmasambhava, with other golden (male) figures beside him. Some of these also seem like (smaller) versions of the same Guru Rinpoche. In between the male statues are smaller female dakinis. There are also protector deities in the corners of the building.

Bright, primary-colored fabric is hung from the ceiling in a wild range of patterns: some of the fabric is sewn in patterns that create chevrons along a line (I’ll try to find a photo elsewhere to show the effect). Other examples of flags or bunting are hung in circular patterns. So much color! Visual explosions everywhere.

At the same time, it’s hard not to be struck by some of the contrasts: one’s eye follows the exquisite paintings on beams–only to be struck by the electric lights and fans. Power cord snake over the hand of Guru Rinpoche (the biggest statue in the temple), through the dorje (or thunderbolt) he holds, across to the altar with (smaller) Buddha, then to the pillar on which the fans are mounted. I wonder if there’s an intentional pun here, running the electrical cord through the spiritual thunderbolt.

There are four rows of monks chanting, reading from books of long thin pages filled with Tibetan script. But this sound pales beside the speakers that amplify the Buddhist-version-of-a-cantor’s voice, which makes the whole event seem more like a rock concert or a Broadway performance. I love the way I feel the sound in my chest cavity, as if the chanting is coming through me, speaking through me.

6 September (Wednesday): care packages; temple take two

My students asked how we were doing yesterday and I said that James was losing weight, so today we were given many food stores: fruits and vegetables from Chador Wangmo’s village, and special rice from Eden’s family in Paro. Yummy!

I went to the temple again today, though I was a little late because of coming down the mountain from Yonphula. This time, I went around the temple and went in the ‘back’ door so that I would be over on the side where most people sit. I left my phone at home and tucked some money into the fold of my sleeve for an offering. Then, as I was leaving home, James and Zoë and Jeremy all said, “If you’re going to Lower Market, could you get…” so we dug out 500 ngultrum, which I tried to stick in the other sleeve fold. The old ladies welcomed me and sent me forward, to sit next to some women (who would eventually go up for scarves). I started the prostrations in the wrong direction (to the statue before the dharma teachers), but they put me right. I brought prayer beads this time, and as soon as I sat down, a nice young woman (Norbu Choden—I learned her name later) told me I needed to use my left hand instead of my right. Really? Decades of doing the wrong thing?

There was a group of women sitting next to me. They were very friendly and welcoming. They also spent most of the time taking selfies (many with me!) and chatting. They too were offering tea, and so they went up, performed the prostrations, and received blessings. Unlike the students, however, they came back to sit down again for the rest of the service. The woman who was organizing the whole group gave me her blessing string—when I protested (“But that’s yours!”), she replied, “I have others! I asked for so many!” She also sent an image of the two of us to my student Pema Gyelpo (who was a teacher in the local school system before starting the MA program). She also gave me the little packet of blessing pills/medicine and I tucked it into my sleeve along with the money for shopping. When we got up to do prostrations, I shed money and blessings in all directions! People gathered up my bits and tried to put me back together. At least I didn’t have to do prostrations with my cell phone tucked into my toes this time!

5 September (Tuesday): “Prostrations: so many, ma’am!”

I saw Chencho again when I picked Jeremy up at lunchtime. In the end, I didn’t make it down from Yonphula in time to make it to the temple last week, but today, for sure! We arranged to meet at the temple at 4 p.m.

In the end, though, Chencho had a bobble in her schedule: Kinley had to be picked up and she couldn’t make it to the temple in time. So I stood around for a while, awkwardly, at the gate, and then timidly went further. There were some older men and women sitting and walking around the big prayer wheels inside the second gate, close to the temple, so I went there, wondering whether I might find Chencho there. Everyone looked at me with a mix of curiosity and kindness and encouraged me to turn the prayer wheels. So I spent a little time doing that. Then I went out again, and found a younger woman I thought might speak English, and I asked her about this “public program.” She shrugged at me apologetically and motioned inside. Some monks were at the doorway of the temple and they too motioned me in. A young monk greeted me and offered me some holy water. He poured it into my left hand for me to sip (this required some coaching, since I thought my right would be more appropriate). He suggested that I come back at 4:30.

So I walked out of the temple, about ready to give up and go home–at which point, another young monk with better English whisked me off to a room up in the buildings a little further up the hill. This young man was a Sherubtse graduate, and he explained the retreat which had puzzled us. Later, we discovered the printed explanation on the side of the entry:

My new friend (whose name I didn’t catch clearly enough to recall) wanted to give me tea, but I was gracelessly concerned with taking part in “the program.” So he walked me over to the temple. On the way, we met a regional judge (identifiable by his green striped kabney) who was being ushered up for tea. My friend brought me in to the temple and invited me to sit near the statues at the front on the western side of the temple, but the four lines of monks kept glancing over at me, and all the other lay people seemed to be gathered on the eastern side. “Can I go over there?” I asked, and he said, “You want to be there?” in some surprise, but he took me over willingly enough, passing behind the statue of the Buddha and in front of the larger statue of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava. There were Sherubtse students there, sitting on rugs, and they made room for me to join them.

An older woman behind me nudges me and gestures toward the statues. I look at her, trying to figure out what she means, but eventually I give up and face forward again. Another woman nudges me, gestures toward the statues, and holds up her index finger emphatically. I ask the student next to me what it is the women want me to do. “Prostrations,” he replies. I should prostrate three times first toward the monks, then toward the statues. (I try to do full body prostrations as taught by Abbe Blum and witnessed in pilgrims on the road, but I get stuck on the wooden floor with my sweaty hands (and I worry about whether I’m flashing skin between kira and wanju in the process). This is all great comedy for the peanut gallery behind me. Eventually I will learn that the prostrations expected here are tight and tidy, not full body extensions. Also, that the rachu and kabney are very useful in a temple context: one wraps one’s hands in them while doing prostrations.

I arrived just in time for tea, which the students were providing as an offering to the monks; along with the tea came some nibbles (dried pounded corn coated with oil and sugar: very chewy!). “Bhutanese popcorn, ma’am!” Then the students all stood up (“We have to do some work now, madam”) and went up to prostrate to the abbot and receive blessings, after which most of them vanished out of the temple.

A girl in a middle-school uniform arrived and became my mentor. Suddenly everyone was standing up.

“What happens now?” I asked.
“Now we do prostrations, ma’am.”
“How many? Three?”
“Quite a few,” she replied. Then added, with a smile, “Many. So many, ma’am.”

And indeed, it was a workout! Somewhere between twenty and thirty minutes of prostrations: three again to the teachers and then “so many” to the statues. At the end, my new mentor (her name is Sonam Selden, I learned later) asked, “Where are your shoes?” and when I said they were on the other side, she walked me back through the space between the statues, pausing to touch her head against Guru Rinpoche’s shoe. So I did that too. Then we circumambulated the temple three times. Quite the experience all together, but I was glad that I had come alone, to learn the many processes involved in the retreat: I think the others would have been more mortified than I was! But I choose to focus on how kind everyone was in trying to help me find my way.

2 September (Saturday): Construction progress

Meanwhile, both up at Yonphula and down at Sherubtse, construction goes forward apace.

The new academic building which was supposed to be ready by mid-August is almost done on the outside. When we first arrived, it looked like this:

And we thought it might be done by mid-October, despite assertions that it was two weeks from completion.

Now the painting of the exterior is almost completed:

But the interior, especially wiring and plumbing, still requires extensive work.

Down on campus, installation of all-weather turf is still waiting for the end of monsoon season. (Sports fans are in mourning until this happens.) The temple renovation progresses in ways that are sometimes delightful and sometimes mysterious to a Westerner. The wall building strategies: delightful! (Note the way the tension of the curved bamboo shapes the line of the wall.)

The removal of existing buildings, more mysterious: easier to burn than to knock down?

I’m always amazed at what trucks endure here–and at how human efforts can dig a truck out of mud this deep.

Meanwhile, in Bhutan, morals are also under construction.

3 September (Sunday): Popcorn! (and walking)

First it appeared in the canteen at the Indian military base, then my student Pema Wangmo gave me some to bring home, and finally we found additional packets in the JC Store.

Popcorn designed for pressure cookers, packed in oil!

It was a great consolation for days of total internet outage–our response to which demonstrated deep addiction. James at least went for a hike almost all the way to Yonphula, passing a well-maintained chorten,

a small lakhang (monastery),

a ruined chorten

and the wall I had found earlier:

He also passed farms and farmers

and reached the manidhar a little below Yonphula:

We love the tops of the poles!

Football tournament

Friday and Saturday, the Kanglung primary school hosted a football tournament. The “cluster” of schools includes a number of primary schools nearby: one down the road 3-4 km in Rangthung, another up the mountain in Yonphula, another even further away. I’m sure there are others I am forgetting. The local middle/high school is also part of the cluster, but not part of the tournament.

People in Kanglung are very serious about their sports. When I asked the teachers to share “something about you we wouldn’t know if you didn’t tell us,” many of the men said they liked to play games. “Oh,” I said, somewhat startled. “What kinds of games?” “All kinds!” was the answer. Eventually I succeeded in translating “games” into “sports”–archery, darts, soccer, badminton, and more.

The President’s wife, Dechen, also the second-grade teacher, was the announcer for much of the tournament. James and Zoë were struck by the larger moral lessons being underscored as the game progressed.

“Kanglung Primary School, you have had the ball for quite a while now, but you haven’t done much with it. You need to focus.” After Kanglung scored, attention turned to the visiting team: “Yonphula, you need to do better. You need to try your best!” When Rangthung team lost, they heard, “I know it is very difficult, but you tried your hardest.”

Fans are fans, around the world.

28 Aug-1 Sept: Settling in?

It feels as if we’re beginning to settle into a kind of a rhythm as we come to the end of our first month in Bhutan.

We admire the painting on a nearby chorten: each of the four sides feature different Buddhist figures.

Zoë and I mix and match kiras (the skirts), tegus (jackets), and wanjus (shirts) to get the most out of our shared wardrobe.

Jeremy goes off to school.

This is his nominal schedule: 1st period Math, 2nd period Dzongkha, 3rd period English, 4th period English, 5th period Science. He comes home at lunch. He says that teachers are present more than on his first day, but many still miss 10-20 minutes of every class.

Zoë goes off to school. Jeremy’s English teacher tells Zoë that the school is “child friendly,” which in context seems to mean that they don’t engage in corporal punishment. Meanwhile, on the desk behind him is a stick–smaller than the bamboo used to hit children a few days earlier–presumably left by the Dzongkha teacher, who has class just before English.

None of this negates the fact that I really liked all the teachers when I met with them for the “Small Teaching” workshop. And James had a conversation with a colleague who felt that Bhutan had moved too far from its past traditions, including corporal punishment. (“It was good enough for us!) I imagine all of the teachers in the Yonphula program grew up with corporal punishment. Most of them are far from their families, and one mother received a text at 11 p.m. from the teacher of her six-year-old daughter, explaining that the teacher’s hand had slipped while administering a “spanking” and this left marks on the little girl’s leg. My student was as upset on behalf of her daughter as I would have been. This all makes me wonder how the shift away from corporal punishment was accomplished in the USA.

Meanwhile, Jeremy learns to do his own laundry.

And bake bread for the family.

31 August (Thursday): Where are you going?

I think of this as the standard greeting in Bhutan. In the USA, when you see someone, you say, “Hello, how are you?” In Bhutan, you say, “Kuzuzampo” and the follow up is: “Where are you going?” Sometimes this can seem intrusive to us westerners. Why do you care where I’m going? What business is it of yours? “I’m going shopping” is an answer that makes sense here; “I’m going for a walk” is a little less legible, especially if you don’t know quite where the walk might take you. “Where are you going?”

But today, I learned the usefulness of this greeting. I was walking with Jeremy when I saw a young mother I had first met at his school.

At lunchtime, various parents (mostly mothers, but the occasional father) gather at the prayer wheel just by the soccer field and lay out mats and open tiffin tins of food to share with their children. It’s a lovely community gathering, and someday I hope to take a picture with permission. I’ve been sad that Jeremy doesn’t want to join the community there. Instead, we pick him up at lunchtime and bring him home for the afternoon. Still, while waiting for Jeremy, I had met Chencho Dema, who teaches Media Studies at Sherubtse and has a son in first grade.

At about 3:00 this afternoon, we saw Chencho and Kinley walking. “Where are you going?” she asked me.

“We’ve just been shopping,” I answered, glad to have such a convenient response. But then I boldly returned the query: “Where are you going?”

“I am going to the temple,” Chencho said.
“Oh! Can I come with you?” I asked. “Is it permissible?”
“Yes,” Chencho replied. “There is a public program every day at 4 for a month. But I have to take Kinley to a tutor first, and…” Clearly it wasn’t a good day to tag along today, but we made an appointment for tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I have been thinking about the query in other ways too. Where am I going with my teaching? I gave my students a self-assessment survey, and discovered that only about 20% of them were comfortable writing complex sentences (as opposed to compound or simple sentences) and only 10% were comfortable drafting a structured paragraph. “Where are you going, madam?” Where indeed? Or rather, if the destination is still a 60 page dissertation a year from now, how are these students going to reach that destination?

27 Aug (Sun)

James and I go shopping in the rain again. Here are the offerings at what we believe to be the best store for produce (in the upper upper market): green tomatoes, mystery veg,

pomegranates, Asian pears, broad beans, garlic, onions, okra, mango, ginger, mystery “Indian” veg, brinjal (Indian eggplant), and the thing that Ugyen says is too sour to eat at this size (and that James abhors at any size).

This was the last broccoli we saw (in among the cabbage), ugli fruit, lots of chilis (the national dish), daikon radish, Bhutanese eggplant, some apples, a few bananas (these vanished from all the shops for a few weeks and the family went into mourning).

Even pineapple! And weird lime-looking sour oranges. And local ferns (which I was warned off of because they’re hard to wash properly). But Zoë had them at Tshoki and Sonam’s and thought they were nice!

Unfortunately, the pomegranates we bought with great enthusiasm were half rotted, the tomatoes are hard even when slightly redder. But we’re loving the green beans.

Inside the shop we find dry staples (rice, dal), ramen, and various forms of junk food (those are packages of potato chips hanging up as strips) and toiletries.

A packet of crackers costs about a third of the price of a week’s worth of vegetables. (“100 rupees for 1 kg of tomatoes this week,” Mr. Pant informed us. [One kay gee is what they say in the shops here.] “Is that a lot or a little?” I ask. “Very high price,” he replies, shaking his head. That’s about $1.50 for a kilo of tomatoes. Outrageous. From an Indian or Bhutanese perspective.)

Outside the shop is a bucket of natural broom material (and a sleeping dog, who looks like a cat).

The rain doesn’t stop the dart tournament at the school field. I loved the singing that went along with the match.

26 Aug (Sat): corporal punishment

Jeremy came home at mid-day and reported that his Dzongkha teacher had beaten a group of students for not doing their homework. Other children had told him earlier that she would beat him, but I swore to him (on the basis of many questions to relevant people before we arrived) that teachers no longer beat students in Bhutanese schools. Phub Namgay had just confirmed the same this week. Someone (Namgay?) had told us that there were social media accounts that would publicly shame any teachers using corporal punishment—at a national level. But the local facts seem to contradict all of this information. So much for my research—and so much for learner-centered teaching, about which so much had been said on all sides the day before.

“She made them line up and hoist up their ghos so that they would feel the beating more, and then she hit them with a piece of bamboo. She seems so nice—not like a teacher who would hit you. Then she saw me looking shocked and she came to explain to me: ‘If I don’t hit them, they won’t do their work. I have to do it.’ If I were taking Dzongkha class, I would probably have been beaten too.

Jeremy made me swear not to talk to the principal or the teacher. But he is strategizing about how to respond if this happens again: he talks about throwing himself in front of his friends to protect them. It’s hard to know how to handle this.

In the meantime, Zoë and I went and bought some more kiras at the JC store, to flesh out what is becoming our shared wardrobe…

Our neighbor Mr Pant came to dinner—and gave us some crucial information (that “atta” is indeed whole wheat flour, despite its white appearance and somewhat different taste). This information will transform our bread-baking efforts. In the middle of supper, the lights go out, and Jeremy puts on a headlight, confirming that he is the light of our lives.

24-25 August (Thurs-Fri): Primary school workshop on “Small Teaching”

Late Thursday afternoon, the principal texted and then called me to say that they had other obligations on Saturday, so could I please come and do the workshop Friday afternoon instead. “Err, tomorrow afternoon?” I replied. “Yes!” came the answer. “Okay… I was going to use that time for preparation, but I’ll do what I can.” (The local governor was visiting Kanglung for the first time and wanted to meet with leading members of the community.)

Phub Namgay came to dinner, bringing chocolate. He too is keen on conducting some research, but, like the principal, doesn’t seem to have the same sense of required procedures or how much expertise is necessary to get published. James and I try to persuade him to find ways to continue working in data mining, since he has experience there.

One of the boys in Jeremy’s class is now saying he will beat Jeremy himself—or he will f*** Jeremy. Again, we urge him not to feed the flames by responding. But we’re all a little stumped about how to help him settle in.

Friday morning I kept making slides as fast as my little fingers could type (and I borrowed a bunch of slides from James Lang, whose work I was citing most extensively). Then I headed up to the school at 1:15 for a 1:30 start time. As soon as I turned on the projector, I called home to ask James to bring up our mini projector: the slides would have been largely illegible otherwise.

Here are the slides, in case you’re interested. I thought the reception was relatively warm, though late Friday afternoon is not the ideal time for a workshop, and I didn’t have enough time to prepare any interesting activities.

Teaching and learning 2 for pdf

Here are a couple of shots of my weary participants.

Note the captions around the walls.

The yellow paper holds a fuller version of the words of the Fifth King my students quoted to me:
“You cannot tell children to be strong if you are not strong yourself. If you don’t know anything about the subject that you are teaching, how much of it are you going to give to your students? You can’t give what you don’t have.”

I was also fascinated by the copy machine.

We started late, and ended with momos! My favorite! Evidently Jeremy’s English teacher’s wife is a local maker of momos—I must find a way to ask if she will teach me how to make them.

Just before the arrival of momos, there was a presentation of an envelope from the teachers to one particular teacher who had lost his mother. “I will make the presentation in English because you are here,” the principal explained. “There is quite a sad story. Our friend’s mother has, er, kicked the bucket, so we are making this contribution to our friend.” I think I kept my face straight and appropriately solemn.

That night, we went out to pizza with Leyla. Eden the pizza maker, daughter of a Sherubtse faculty member, was very taken with Jeremy, but Jeremy was restive throughout the 45 minutes it took to prepare the food, and Zoë was restive with the national generalizations being thrown about over pizza. But the stars were lovely. We need to remember to bring lights when we go out to eat—we do it so seldom here.

23 August (Wed)

Brave and beautiful Zoë heads off to try assistant teaching at Jeremy’s school in classes (e.g. grades) four, five, and six.

Jeremy comes home complaining that his “friends” are trying to scare him by telling him the teachers will beat him. “They’re just going for a reaction,” we say. “Try not to show any interest.” Kaka tells Jeremy that if he doesn’t come back to school for the afternoon, he (Kaka) won’t be Jeremy’s friend. “Just ignore him,” we say. “But he glares at me,” says Jeremy. “It’s horrible when that happens.” It’s hard to know how to help him.

22 Aug (Tues): Trip to Trashigang

James and I went to meet with the principal of the primary school today, to talk about a combination of how I might help them with action research and how Zoë might help with some assistant teaching. For the first five minutes of our conversation, the principal kept looking at James, even though I was ostensibly the person with relevant expertise. The principal left the room to ask for some juice to be brought for us, and I told J he had to be quiet. He too had noticed the problem and said he was keeping his eyes on me in an attempt to provide a model.

The principal, Sangay Dorji, was eager to get started on action research. I said this was out of my field, but I could look into things, and in the meantime I could share some recent research into learning-based teaching practices. We agreed that I would come to lead a “workshop” on Saturday morning (I gulped and then agreed).

After that, we gathered up Jeremy and Zoë to go meet Ugyen at the administrative wing to drive down to Trashigang to establish a bank account. This was supposed to be a family treat, but much of the day was a little hot and frustrating. First we had to wait for almost an hour for Ugyen. He was painting something, so he had to stop painting and change—then he had to get driving orders for going to Trashigang (that meant a signature from HR)—then another set of documents, perhaps authorization for buying petrol. Here are some of the sights at the entrance to the college:

Dogs own the road and the basketball court

Paintings by the entrance to the administrative wing