Thursday, October 9, 2014

Day sleeper. A one way ticket yeah.

Last week we spoke about the meaning of the word brave in grade 7 English. Brave: to do something that scares us. We were reading a story about a girl who one might call “brave to the extreme.” I’m talking fearless of ghosts, walking alone at midnight, and hunting down human skulls. The usual.

From left: Kimi, me, and Jude with Mr. Carma.

I was coming back from an eastern village in Bhutan recently over our midterm break. I waited outside my friend’s house with my hand stretched out ready to flag a car down. I jumped for joy (in my head) when within ten minutes a taxi pulled up and was asking for the equivalent of 5 Canadian dollars to make the 8 hour drive across the country to the capital. I hopped in the back gleefully.

By 2 pm in the afternoon we were flying down what I believe to be the most beautiful stretch of road in all of Bhutan. Perfectly paved, windy, with a steep mountain valley below and picturesque views of the Himalayas on either side, I could drive on this stretch for days. I remembered riding on the back of my friend’s motorcycle down this stretch only a year before.  This particular ride clear in my mind, I put in my headphones and enjoyed the views. My thoughts soon winded down into a deep sleep.

Shortly after, I was jolted awake. The taxi took a sudden sharp jab at the mountain to our right, now completely perpendicular to the mountain, car still in full motion. In less than three seconds, before I could even register what was happening, we were then on the other side of the road, sheer seconds away from catapulting off the “picturesque steep mountain cliff to the left.” Within those three seconds, the passenger in the front seat had managed to both grab the wheel and put on the breaks as I leaned forward and shrieked a perfectly articulated, “hoooooolllyyyy SHITTTT!” Almost simultaneously, the car came to a screeching halt next to one of the only boulders that sat along the stretch of road.

My family swirled around in my head, as I shakily got out of the car, safe, still on our main road. I walked towards the college student who had been sitting beside me. Yearning for the warmth of a living human being, I pulled his body close and gave him a good hug.

“We’re safe,” he said.

We’re safe.

“The driver fell asleep,” exclaimed the hero of the car, and let out a small chuckle, as if any part of that experience actually warranted a chuckle.

But, maybe what else was there to do in this situation? I shed a smile. It was a direct result of my sudden realization that humans are so minute in comparison to their surroundings. This was a simple reminder to myself to wake up and recognize this fragility of the human body.

Life is impermanent. And I had lived that realization in full force.

I couldn’t formulate words to say to our hero passenger, but it came out something like this, “Your reaction time was incredible.”

And then I gave him a pat on the shoulder and a high-five. A high-five to someone who just freakin’ saved your life after you practically somersaulted off a steep-ass mountain cliff, also known as the Himalayas?


We got back in the car and the passenger in the front took over driving. Within five minutes the driver who almost drove us off the cliff was fast asleep. Again.

This guy should be studied, I thought to myself.

“You know, I have an exam next week. And that exam is no longer scary,” exclaimed the student beside me. I flashed him a smile and was genuinely sorry he had to leave the car almost five minutes later.

Shortly after, we reached another taxi stand. I decided to leave the taxi I was in. I decided this not so much for lack of confidence in the new driver, but rather to start moving forward from the horrific memories I had associated with this car. I paid the driver for almost killing us, wished him a “safe journey (and good sleep)” and hopped into a taxi van with about five other passengers.

I laid my head back on the window as the sun slipped beneath the mountains. I had two more hours of travel, my body still in shock.

We pulled up to a roadside stand. The woman in the front, cradling a baby, bought some freshly roasted corn and passed it out to all of us in the car. This selflessness is so deeply embedded in the Bhutanese culture. The combination of this generosity and my shock-induced complete euphoria to be alive and breathing almost brought me to roaring tears.

I bit through the corn, happy for a distraction. This may be the only time in my life in which corn is serving as a meditative experience, I thought to myself.

Less than twenty minutes later, about to climb the final mountain pass before the capital Thimphu we got to about a 50 car pile up. We slammed the doors and headed to join the crowd outside overlooking the mountain cliff.

“Accident Miss, car is down,” A woman reacted to my puzzled gaze.

No, I thought. This can’t be the taxi I was just in.

I looked down to see another car completely mangled in the trees about 500 ft down below the main road. This is one of the widest stretches of road in Bhutan. The cause was either a mechanical failure, substance-induced, or fatigue, I thought.

I pictured myself in the car, and tears started streaming down my face.

Not a firefighter or ambulance was in sight. What I did see continued to feed my tears: About thirty Bhutanese people, children, parents, and monks, breaking the already shattered car, attempting to rescue the screaming driver inside. There were branches being used as tools, but mostly their bare hands. I could feel the energy rushing between these people, the common goal of simply busting their asses to rescue this stranger as quickly as they could, was astonishing. The only bystanders were young children, people with babies, the elderly and me. The experience lasted about 45 minutes and although there was ample space on the road for cars to continue, not a car started its engine. Until this driver’s body was out of the car, not a person would move.

I could feel common breaths being let out above the road as we first spotted the bleeding driver being carried up the cliff on the back of one of the saviors.

In my emotionally drunken state, the next thing I saw really made me giggle. Monks swooped around the destroyed car to collect the driver’s belongings. It was as if they had been called upon by some higher power to fly in in their red robes and offer their help in any way they could. They continued to sweep their robes around the car as bystanders on the road wrapped the injured driver in scarves and any clothing they could find. They hauled him into the back of one vehicle and off he went to Thimphu hospital.

“I need a fucking hug,” I texted to my friend Jonathan as I got back into the car.

I admit to having suffered from mild anxiety and irrational thoughts in the past. Perhaps because of the isolation in Bhutan, I continue to experience, sometimes intense, waves of them on the odd occasion. It may cause some late nights here and there, but all I am able to manage.

It was logical for me to feel frightened after my near-death driving experience. It is not, however, rational for me to fear every car that drives along the road, which has become my habit recently. And I recognize that, but am having difficulty acting upon it. It occurred to me one night that if I choose not to drive in any car I could be stuck in Tshangkha village for the rest of my life.

I decided last weekend that I wanted to take a leave day on the Saturday to visit some friends in a southern part of Bhutan for hiking and a rafting trip. It occurred to me that I could take a week to walk there or I could suck it up and take a car.

I spoke to my principal about what he thought would be the safest method of transport. I first mentioned my near-death experience to him, as if to justify what might seem like an irrational fear. My way of traveling has gone about 180 degrees from last year. Previously, I would take any ride, with any person, any time of day. I’d check out their speed when approaching me, for about 30seconds, and then more often than not just hop into the car. Meeting interesting people seemed to outweigh the possibility that they could actually be dangerous or better yet…. A day sleeper.

“He fell asleep? What time was it?” the principal asked.

“About 2 in the afternoon,” I replied.

“He should not be sleeping at 2 in the afternoon. Why does someone need to sleep in the day time?” he asked, somewhat rhetorically. I hoped.

That’s right, I thought. Falling asleep driving at night is okay.

I spent almost the entire night going back and forth between driving or not driving the following evening. My anxiety was peaking, and my brain was overactive to the nth degree. My dear friend Jude, a nearby Canadian professor, would be driving in the morning, but I’d have to find my own way home. I trusted Jude as a driver, but the ride home freaked me out 

I met Jude on the road outside my house at 530am the next morning to send some supplies with her for an upcoming trip to Toronto. I apologized and shook my head. I couldn’t get into that car.

“You’re getting in Sar. If you’re like this in your 20s, what are you gonna do later on?” she said.

I smiled and instantly jumped downstairs and grabbed my bags.

Three days later I convinced myself that the best option for my ride home was the public bus. They nicknamed it the “vomit comet” and I had refused to take it in the past solely because of this reason and because it drove approximately 10km per hour.

Today was a different story though. I had no ticket but gathered on a busy bridge waiting for its arrival with a few other villagers. Two packed buses drove passed. The third bus driver said he couldn’t offer me a seat but he was willing to take me the 4 hours to my house.

I took him up on the offer.

So there I sat for 5 hours tangled between wooden crates, anxiously checking out the driver’s eyes to see if he was drifting off even in the slightest. The passenger in the front passed me potato chips and other treats as she continuously glanced back and forth as if to check if I was still there, or perhaps if my limbs were still in the right order. I shed her a smile and reassured her I was just fine, still battling an unnecessary amount of inner anxiety.
A perk of that weekend trip. Hikes with beautiful Thinleygang students

We piled off at a roadside shop for some lunch. The driver took me under his wing and whisked me into a separate room, designated for drivers only.

I helped myself to three different curries with rice and tea.

“You don’t pay. They treat drivers,” he said.

I of course made it home safely after the journey. The driver insisted I shouldn’t pay for the 5 hour trip. I thanked him kindly, but insisted he accept some money.

Being brave has taken on all new levels. Be it ghosts or mind-wrenching road trips, bravery takes some guts and in my case, some mind fights and manipulation. I’m developing a personal goal to tackle yet another obstacle of living in this magical place. I want to go back to my place of comfort and, perhaps innocence, that I thrived so well in last year. I want to laugh my guts out while doing so, because, after all, I am 25 years old living smack in the Himalayas in the happiest country in the world. So I will bite the bullet and take on some crazy experiences. And it will be okay. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Texts from Bhutan.

Inspired by such blogs as "Texts from Last Night" and "When Parents Text," here's another glance into the magical world of Bhutan. All of these are true exchanges between foreign teachers working in the field. Nothing edited. To these teachers, thanks for sharing the laughs on a regular basis. Let's continue to keep each other sane. To those reading, hope you get at least a couple smiles.

1. "My friend is surrounding our house with burning food for the ghosts of dead people. I feel we may die from all the fire around. But I won't tell her that."

2. "I think I'm getting intoxicated from bleaching mold in my own house."

3. "Just put the date of the second world war on the board. My kids asked if I was a survivor."

4. (The set up.)
"I showed him pics of our trip. He didn't even get scared off by the one with your finger up your nose. He's short, dark and handsome, but not too short. He likes long walks to the lake above Taktse. Seriously, sweetest guy ever."
"Good. We're practically married..."
" ...All you have to do is sleep with him once."

5. "Just went through the road block. We could see the rocks coming off the cliff infront of us"

6. (halfway through a cross-country journey):
"fucking gorgeous! my bus driver just bought me two shots of whiskey.. after I bought myself 2 shots :) "
"AMAZING. I hope the driver didn't drink them too."
"Yes. yes he did."

7. "Today is a day of firsts: shaved my knuckle meat down to the bone on rusty metal attached to the chapsang door while taking a shit. Had to wipe up while bleeding profusely. Now for a tetanus shot and stitches:) "

8. (How items get from Thimphu to my house):
"On Mongar bus. You may have to wave and jump in front of it, as i am in a packed bus in the middle."

9. "Oh gastroenteritis, why did you have to come on a day when i had really fun lessons planned?"

10. "I FUCKING love Bhutan"

11. " 'No, it is not a good idea to pierce your friend's ear with a safety pin' "

12. "Two grade 6 classes- our conversations went from the holocaust, Judaism, gay marriages, pipeline projects in Canada, to teen pregnancies. What a day! I'll probs have to pack my bags tomorrow..."

13. "Oh I i did such a walk earlier. Bear in mind the jungle is less than 5 minutes from my door"

14. "Just got a hitch hike with a guy who spent ten minutes talking about the mangled faces of farmers in my village who were attacked by animals."

15. "Here AGAIN no power and no water. GRRRRRR"

16. "I have lived in my place 6 months but now my place is actually clean. This is thanks to my friend ST."

17. "Just told my kids it was "Fogust 1st" today and they got it. I think this has been my most memorable teaching moment. Ever."
"That's seriously impressive. My kids don't even know what August is." 

18. "I don't know how to teach. Do you? I'd like a clear explanation thanks. 25 words or less."

19. "But more important I just saw a lady wearing a shirt that says I'm hear about the blow jobs"

20. "So yesterday a chillup (foreigner) appeared in my village... i never thought that would happen"
"Did they bring you starbucks too? My housemate bought us a fridge yesterday. I'd say just as good."

21. "I go home every night and clean mold off the ceiling for half an hour. Each day I fight off at least 2 leeches. I was caught in a mudslide for 3 hours on saturday. I'm scared to get veggies now becaue of the rockfall thats made the road into town the most dangerous in all of Bhutan"

22. "Did you say you had fleas?"
"Yes. Did I give them to you?"

23. "Holy fucking shit. We almost went off the cliff. A fucking boulder saved us. Jesus fucking christ."
"How many times do I have to tell you. DON'T DIE!!!!!!! Are u ok now?"
" Okay. In shock. 'My exam is no longer scary,' said the student sitting beside me."

24. "20 car pile up to save a guy trapped in a car that went off cliff. Watched the whole thing. I need a good fucking hug and a cry."

25. "Me too. But only after a dream about freestyle shopping in a supermarket."

26. "Aaaand I almost got kicked out of assembly for a laughing fit. Principal warning kids not to steal cucumbers...'first you steal cucs, then who knoooows what you'll steal?'.... TVs, couches, jewelry. ' "

27. "I'm solo drinking. Outside. Fog gazing and laughing at my own jokes. "

28. "Aint that the truth! And if you use the toilet without closing the door a ghost will wipe your bum!"

29. "Guess who's out of toilet paper and can't walk 4K to get more?"

30. "A very poor mum of my student just saw me walk alone in the rain. Stopped, took out an umbrella from her basket for me. This is why I am here"

31. "Just got a ride. I'm in a beat up van that reeks of diesel with a drunk grandpa beside me. Ima be hiiiigh after this ride"

32. "No, it's so amusing. And gross. After that, was a warning for students not to pee in water bottles and leave them places. "
"They definitely should use walls right?" 
"RIGHT. The problem was, a grade 4 student almost drank it."
"That's her fault. Who the fuck picks up a yellow liquid and is like, 'damn this water looks good."
"A grade 4 student"

33. "Mam my cock is in your bedroom' said the student playing badminton outside my house"

34. "Our shop has spinach. We won't starve for a week = that was enough to make me smile."  "There, ya see? It's easy. Plus just look out at your valley"

35. "If a good fart solves everything here, i should be able to solve problems in Ukraine and Gaza tomorrow."

36. " 'miss, i come to canada to make some monks for you all?' "

37. " 'sun! do not climb down that waterfall! Why do I even say these things to my kids?"
 "Yeah, especially since i watched you climb down one in Tashigang"

38."monsoon moment when you think it couldn't possibly rain any harder... and then it does."

39. "Okay one of my 5s AGAIN tried to jump on the roof of the toilet. Missed. Fractured his arm."

40. "Leech on NECK while eating lunch. YALAMA."
 "Ooooh invertebrate love bite! Get sooooome"

41. "Almost 4 hours later.... still in meeting. And hella craving a damn good falafel."
"I fell awful once. Hurt like hell"

42. "Yeah Bhutan does make my heart a tropical zone pretty regularly"

43. "So I'm taking the King's brother to lunch in Wamrong, no big deal."

44. "Hiking to monasteries in the middle of nowhere is really becoming my thing. I'm happiest at those times. One delicious sleep coming up."

45. "I taught in my pyjamas today."

----- Food cravings can take over some days... --------

46. "I have an INTENSE craving for a big hot dog from a street vendor"

47. "Wow I actually want pizza so badly now."

48. "My mum just emailed about amazing fish and chips she had. Why would she do that?"

49. "All I want right now is sushi"

50. "plus u know what sucks... finally have all the ingredients for french toast and stomach's too f'd to eat it. Bread will be moldy when i'm better."

51. "A truck selling just mangoes at our school this am. Today is going to be a GOOD day."
52. "How was your presentation? i'm at a baby shower.. for the principal's new car."

53. "Picture me at midnight last night. Drunk. And seeing a human sized sewer rat run across my kitchen. I fucking lost it. "

54. "It's too rainy to farm but i am being served tea in grandma's house barn. And the rats have arrived. And I love Bhutan"
"Just made spinach pancakes with grandma and helped her milk her cow!"

55. "A kid just asked me if I got a nose job."

56. "Passed a random Canadian on a bike today. Stared at him in shock, him the same."

57. "Just cracked an egg. Yolk was stuck to the shell. Plus mold INSIDE THE SHELL."
"Ew. I'm eating eggs."

58. (Staff meeting) "literally as i speak, two women are putting glue on their hands, letting it dry, and peeling it off. The men in the back are secretly passing tobacco and pinching each other."

59. "If a mantra is chanted in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

60. . "A teach was stuck in rockfall for 24 hours. No water, only food he had were the fruit he brought for teachers. AND HE SAVED THEM FOR US. THAT is buddhism."
"Is that too buddhist for you?"

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Mad Woman Cured of Her Diseases

Class 4 beauties.
“MADAAMMM your voice is not the same!”

“Madam needs to go to a nose workshop!”

“Madam needs to just chop of her nose.”

-       - exclaimed three of my students excitedly when I opened my mouth in class last week.

I have come to the conclusion that the only place worse to be sick in than Bhutan is in the depths of the Himalayan jungle. Outside

I say this of course as a completely over-priviledged and selfish princess. However, there is truly no other time when I question my decision for moving across the world to what I sometimes refer to as, “the middle of nowhere,” than when I am sick.

I lay in bed on Saturday night as close as I could get to being completely immobile without actually being completely immobile. I stared at my concrete ceiling, huddled in my -10 sleeping bag, clad head to toe in long underwear, fleece and covered by a wool toque. I was picturing myself in a hot shower back home. After this I would slip into my pyjamas and huddle on the couch with my mommy as I sip tea and obnoxiously slurp homemade chicken soup. Then I would get under my huge duvet and retire for the night.

I continued to stare at my concrete ceiling propped up on two pillows to help my cold- a good mommy tip. I had three options that could potentially help my situation. I could get out of bed, fill up my water heater, wait half an hour until it boiled, and then wash and absorb the steam. I could remain in bed and attempt to sleep. Or I could satisfy my craving for soup by mixing up the following ingredients (the only ingredients) that sat in the cardboard box in my kitchen:

  •       rice
  •        potatoes
  •        onions
  •        tomatoes
  •       asparagus
  •       cabbage

Close friends from last year.

I went for option number two. I tossed and I turned. I listened to the moths pitter patter on the piles of marking I had on my desk. I listened to them pitter patter on the window behind my wool head. I felt them pitter patter on my forehead.

I lay wide awake for about an hour, desperate for sleep.

And then the horns started. The monks and Lamas upstairs, in preparation for their house warming party, which I thought would start the next day, began to play their horns. The noise drifted from the upstairs apartment right into my ears.


There are approximately 25 foreign teachers in Bhutan as part of the Bhutan Canada Foundation, ranging from places as close to Bhutan as Singapore and Australia, to as far away as Canada and the United States. We begin the year forming deep friendships for two weeks in the capital and then we are dropped off one by one to our remote locations, hoping we see eachother ever again. Many of my friends are 20 hours away drive on rough roads. Our friendships are bounded by one major similarity- we are all experiencing Bhutan together for the first time. When things get rough, or really really good, we let each other know. We are all in cell phone range but I am one of few with internet access.


The horns continued to blast. I texted an American teacher, to her response:

“Only once you’ve lived in Bhutan, can you find yourself in a situation that you want to yell at monks.”

The text I sent before actually said something about stabbing monks, but I feel including this is too inappropriate for my Buddhist friends who are reading this right now. I have never stabbed a monk or even thought these morbid things really but my sick, weak, and fatigued body was finding myself growing more and more frustrated that evening.

Have I seriously grown into being this selfish that I want to blame a monk for my current unhappiness?

“Just let the horns float into your ears and calm your mind. Calm your soul. Give you strength to last the night,” I said to myself.

Fuck that, Sarah.

I slipped under my two pillows and deep into my sleeping bag. I tried to get as far away from the horns as I could.

A loud knock awoke me at the door accompanied by “Misssssss saaaaaaarahhhhhh”

Ohhh myyyyy goodness they have heard my thoughts.

I opened the door to find my housemate. She explained that the monks would be coming through the house with fire, and throwing rocks, to scare away the demons. The ritual is known in Dzongkha as “Gatey” and is typically performed to cleanse a house, especially after someone has died or has been really sick. In this case, it was being done to ensure that no bad spirits remain in the house after this special occasion.

Was I the demon?

I lay in bed thinking to myself, “At an unknown time in the next hour, monks are going to run through my house with fire and throw rocks. This is the third time it has happened this year. Which means this activity has actually become semi-normal for me.”

I screamed from my bed, “Gyem Lham is it sacrilegious for me to shut my door and sleep through this puja?”

“What?!” cried my housemate.

“Can I lock my door so the monks don’t enter my room?”


“I mean, I am looking forward to seeing the monks!” I said.

I got out of bed and joined my housemate and her boyfriend. Fortunately, the bells sounded outside my window and the monks came right in no less than 5 minutes later. They chanted their mantras, visited each room in our house, threw small stones in each corner. They hit me with rocks and said, “don’t mind miss,” carried their torch and headed out as a couple of my students giggled behind.

Approximately 30 seconds later I took my wonder drug, also known as Nyquil, and passed out.

At 5 am the bells sounded again. I cranked my aching neck to turn around behind me. Blue skies enveloped the mountainous landscape that I call my backyard.

I went back into sleep. At 7am a knock pounded on my bedroom door. My house owner kindly stormed right into my room, “breakfast misssssss!” he bellowed out.

For lack of better words, my body felt like total shit. I told my housemate that I would have to take today off. I would try to join in the festivities later but for now my aching body needed rest.

Best dressed award. 
Again, I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. Too sick to fall asleep or read a book I listened as village people crowded the cement outside my bedroom. They sat down on woven carpets and held out their mugs to receive tea and biscuits. Many faces I didn’t recognize. They must have hiked the two hours up the mountain from Tangsibji, the village below mine, to join in this celebration. Our house had been built two years before but the house-owners decided this weekend they would celebrate its construction. Our house was decorated in its finest for its big birthday. Colourful yellow, red, and blue flags hung from the roof. Colourful scarves draped down from the corners. I suddenly felt underdressed in comparison to my house-turned-temporary monastery.

An overwhelming sense of guilt suddenly came over me. This was not only an incredibly special celebration but also a deeply spiritual and religious celebration. I feared what people would say if I was not present. I decided to suck it up, throw on my kira, the national dress for women, and head upstairs.

Our house is made up of 6 apartments. People were crowded in every one, sitting on the floor, drinking tea, and eating handfuls of buscuits. I saw the teachers in my friend’s apartment and joined them.

“Sarah something is wrong with you,” said my friend bluntly. “What is going on. You look like mad woman.”

“Mad woman, eh?” I thought. I guess I could’ve at least tamed the fro sitting atop my head.

I sat down. Content to be here, but feeling my body slowly crumbling into the floor. Students, acting as servers for the day, hurried over to me with a mug followed by suja- traditional butter tea (exactly as the title sounds). This particular cup was very smooth and perfectly satisfied my first meal of the day. I opened my hands to receive gifts from the students- pieces of fruit, cucumber, sweets, doma, and a 5 ngultrum bill. All of these were a thank you and appreciation for coming.

Approximately 5 minutes later, overwhelmed by the people and activity, the mad woman was back in bed.

By Thursday of that week my principal politely told me that I looked “horrible” and sounded “not normal.” He recommended I visit the hospital. We have a basic health unit in our village, but for any thorough examinations you must hitch a ride 45 minutes to Trongsa town and visit the hospital. As this day was National Environmental Day, and you could therefore not drive, I informed my students that I would be missing their classes on the Friday.

“Madam I hope the hospital helps you get rid of all of your diseases. Good luck,” exclaimed my grade 6 student as I headed out the door.

I waited on the main highway above my house for a ride. I ran into a good friend Sonam. His wife had just left this year for New York City for a month and I continued to see the emotion in his face each time I asked how she was doing. Today I changed the subject to his new bicycle he had beside him. We caught up for some time until another woman joined us, hoping to give her datsi, fresh cheese from her cows, to Sonam and send them off to Thimphu on the bus.

A beat-up old van rattled towards us. I waved my hand and tried to look like the most charming mad woman. The van slowed down and the driver stuck out his head.

“Kuzoo Zangpola Sir! Trongsa?” I asked

“Yes. But maybe this car is no good for you. Very dirty. You want lift?” He replied.

“Yes please! Kadinchela,” I exclaimed.

I waved goodbye to Sonam and his friend and hopped in the back along with a younger woman and an older farmer in the front. Both smiled kindly. We drove for some time, before the driver said, “you don’t remember me?”


“Hahha, sir you do look familiar! But I am sorry. Are you from Tshangkha?” I said.

“Ahhh yes yes yes yes. Livestock sir. We meet on road often.”


“So no school today?” he asked.

“Oh we do have school. Very busy preparing for exams. I need to visit the hospital though.” I croaked.

“So we will go hospital first and then I have to go to Dzong,” He said.

“Ahh that’s very kind of you I said. But I can climb up to the hospital. I’ll be okay,”

“Ha! Not for you,” he chuckled. “My leg is not working! I am going to the hospital.”

“Haha aaaalways thinking about myself. Oh no! It’s never good when your leg is not working. Good idea to fix it,” I said.

We picked up one more passanger, a hazelnut farmer, before we left our region and headed around the steep mountain curves to Trongsa.

Yesterday a good friend spent the afternoon making
me Bhutanese dumplings (momos) to cheer me up!
Trongsa hospital, of all of the places I have experienced in my area, has the best view. It sits above the town overlooking the entire valley. If I was a bird, which I am not, it would be my ultimate playground.

After giving my name to the receptionist I bounced to “office number 2,” excited to be cured of all my “diseases.” I sat down outside the office until a familiar monk came up to me and we began chatting.

“I still remember that picture we took together. I come visit your house some time?” He said.

Who is this charming monk? Perhaps I do really have more diseases than I thought.

We continued to talk and he mentioned a good friend of mine, Jude, a Canadian professor at the college where he works. Yes! Jeez, I spent an entire holiday with this monk and his family! We had picnics outside his house, and indeed we did have a photoshoot.

I asked Drumsey about his family and his paintings. I told him that I was trying to put together a mural with my students and asked if he could offer some help. He was delighted and insisted we meet for tea to discuss further. Then he gave me a good tap on the back of my head, similar to what my father does, and skipped off in his draping red robes.

I walked into the office in my cardigan. The doctor checked me out and hurried me to get a blood test, fearing for tuberculosis.

I sat down in the chair, held out my arm waiting for a needle, thinking for 30s if it was hygienic. Zap! In went the needle as I turned to the nurse beside, googling “wiki how.”

How much confidence do I really have in these doctors?

Inside the x ray office, I threw on a gown and stood with my arms up as the technician pushed me against a metal plate.

“Just relax,” said the technician.

Just relax, I thought.

I waited outside the x-ray office at the hospital until the technician came out with an image of my lungs and said, "need light, go dry outside."

So, I stood outside with my lungs blowing in the wind until yet another elder patient came up to me with his lungs.
Told you the view was okay.

"I like your lungs,” I said with a thumbs up.

He flashed me a smile. I asked him if he thought my lungs looked alright, or if I was sick. He gave me the traditional bhutanese headtilt, which I translated to, "they look super healthy!"

So we both stood with our lung images blowing over the mountain top gazing at the cliff drop below us and the flowing river. The rice fields dotted along the steep mountains were beginning to wake up after a long winter. Soon their colour would be a rich deep green and flooded by the monsoon rains.

I wonder if birds can get tuberculosis, I thought. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

We can beat this.

I remember sitting in a lecture hall in Teacher’s College only two years back, surrounded by 400 of my friends. The professor displayed a situation on the board and we were told to think-pair-share- a standard teaching strategy where students are required to think about the answer independently, share with their “elbow buddy” and then finally share their answer with the class. The situation read something like this:

Your new teaching job is located in a remote part of the world. You are surrounded by teachers who are constantly beating their students with sticks and using other forms of corporal punishment to discipline their students. You know that it is wrong but you want to blend into the culture. Teachers tell you that if you do not beat the students, you will not be able to control them.

I remember thinking quickly about how I would tackle that situation. I decided you have to do whatever you can in your own classroom, use your own teaching methods, and do not bother with those around you. As a teacher, you have certain values, and changing these values does not define being able to “adapt” to a new culture, especially if there is evidence that your actions are benefitting these students.  

A good pic.
I received a call from a friend during our first week in our Bhutanese placement. She was in a rage. I calmly asked her what was wrong and she proceeded to rant about the discipline happening in her school- children were being beaten with bamboo sticks, fists, and having their ears pulled. I could not believe what I was hearing and fortunately could not offer any advice since none of this was evident at my school. We discussed for a long time and she ended the conversation saying that she was going to keep track of the teachers using these methods and try her best to make a change in her school.

While I agreed that her situation was serious, my initial reaction was that it’s not our place, as an outsider, to change the entire system. I was hurt by what was happening, but I was not sure that influencing others’ actions, culturally, was the right thing to do. Certainly I was not going to beat in my own classroom, but I was not sure how much influence I could have on the others. Additionally, because these students grew up on this system, I did feel that they were more mentally and physically stronger and hence able to deal with this type of punishment. That being said, no part of me agreed that corporal punishment was having a positive impact on the students in the longterm.

A little while later I stood at the front of our daily assembly. I have grown to truly enjoy this community experience. It always begins the same way with our hands in prayer, followed by two students presenting a speech, some announcements and the anthem. One particular day, however, this calm, meditative experience was suddenly shattered when our principal took a fist to a couple students’ heads. I brainstormed what they could have done- killed someone, stolen money, poisoned a teacher. Of course none of this seemed possible nor did even these actions warrant the principal’s behaviour. I turned to the teacher beside me, “oh these two are not paying attention,” and she started to chuckle.  

Neither am I, I thought. For twenty minutes, you must stand completely erect, hands by your side, facing the front every morning. You have an itch? Scratch it quickly. Be subtle. The dogs are fighting beside you? Don’t you dare turn your head. The hardest for me, is trying not to watch the birds soaring in the valley below. Almost every morning they grace us with their beautiful performance, but I must hold my attention on the assembly. An impossible task for the antsy and fidgety type- AKA me.

Over the course of last year, I began to notice the corporal punishment in the school and my anxiety, the inner conflict of how to react as an outsider was compounding. It became increasingly clear that the concerns my friend faced at her school, were very much embedded in our system as well. I want to emphasize that not every teacher at school beats, but many of them do. And many of them beat severely. The advice I told myself in teachers college no longer seemed that easy. I’d walk into class to find giant bamboo sticks hidden away in the corner:

“For beating Miss!” exclaimed the students excitedly.

I continue to throw the sticks out the window to the applause by the students up until this day.

Grade 7 test answer, Namgay Choden. 
My concern grew as did my confusion about how the students were really being affected by their punishments. How could a smack by a bamboo stick across the back of your head warrant a big belly laugh by the students? It seemed so contradictory to have this reaction in a Buddhist culture which so much values selflessness and respect and sympathy for others. Certainly seeing their friends being beaten would make them think twice about their behaviour. And maybe it does.

The assumption I made halfway through last year was that students were beaten because their behaviour was what Bhutanese teachers would deem as “insufficient” and not conducive to creating a positive learning environment. This did not justify their actions, but I could understand it, without assimilating into that culture.

One day last year, I was walking out the door of my grade 6 classroom, to an overwhelming, “Don’t leave Miss!”

They couldn’t possibly enjoy English class that much.

The roar from the students continued, “Don’t leave us Miss!”

A student quickly explained that they would be receiving their science tests back in the following class. For every wrong answer on their test, they would be beaten by their teacher. This means, a student who scores 18 out of 20 would still be beaten. Would still be mentally brainwashed that they are “not good enough,” “that they don’t understand the concepts,” and most of all “must do better than the last test.”

What they remember is not that they almost got perfect, but that they were physically hurt by their teacher. They become fearful and anxious.

The equation is obvious: study for your test, work hard, and you will not be beaten. This is easy. The teacher no longer has to try. They don’t have to focus energy on creating a positive learning environment where their students can learn and question their learning. They can simply motivate through fear.

I can recognize this, but I cannot explain it effectively to Bhutanese teachers. Nor do I truly feel that as an outsider, it would be appropriate. Corporal punishment is so much embedded in the system that any change seems unreasonable and far too ambitious for them.

Turning our classroom into the solar system. 
I was fortunate to attend a workshop last year on “Educating for Gross National Happiness.” I was beaming for most of the weekend with the progressive ideas presented by the teachers, the new ways of teaching, which emphasize cooperative and interactive learning. It was exciting and incredibly motivating to be surrounded by engaged and active teachers. But my mind continued to be drawn to the corporal punishment I had witnessed at school. Why don’t we work on weeding that out of our system, before we can even discuss the values of “gross national happiness?” These progressive ideas contradict the fear that the students are so much experiencing every single day in almost every single class. There was a giant paradox in trying to implement these ideas in a system that is already so laden with authoritative practices.

I conducted a presentation on positive discipline techniques upon arrival back at school from the workshop. I gave the teachers concrete ways that they could implement these practices in their classrooms with the resources we have available. We discussed the decision by the Bhutanese Ministry of Education in 1997, which stated corporal punishment should not be used in schools. We discussed the 2008 resolution to ban corporal punishment. I emphasized the importance of positive discipline and admitted that it will take many years before these practices can be implemented effectively. Students will take time to adapt and change their behaviour in response to that system. Most of all, I made a significant effort to be understanding and not condescending in how I presented the material. 

The response by the teachers was concerning. Many responded with lines such as, “but you don’t understand miss, this is how it has always been. This is how we do things here.”

Yes, that is true. But why not begin to make small changes and start somewhere?

I committed myself after this presentation and the workshop to doing exactly this. I decided to simply focus on what I was doing in my own classroom and not let the thoughts of other teachers get to me.        Most of all, not to become weak mentally in my own classroom due to the contrast in the teaching philosophies of those around me.   

The day after my presentation, I was surprised to see two of my students prostrating to our “goddess of wisdom” statue outside the school for an entire 45 minute period. I asked them why they felt the need to do that. Instead of being beaten the students were told to prostrate- to now associate religion as a form of discipline.

Progress, I thought.

My biggest challenge last year was with my rowdy, to say the least, grade 4 class. Students who would jump through the window, cut eachothers’ hair, swallow pen ink, and sucker punch their elbow buddy. These students in particular were so conditioned to a system of corporal punishment that any stray from that was simply an outlet for them to act out- mostly in a negative way. Positive discipline techniques, where students were rewarded for positive behaviour, where students recognized what they did wrong, were way beyond their limit.

But we worked at it. And we had lots of stickers. And students rewarded eachother with a big “thuuuumbs up” when someone did something positive in class. And we had circle discussions on ways to “make our class nicer, to be kinder to eachother.” And we created classroom rules. And we wrote constructive letters to improve our behaviour the next day. And I sent students on short runs during class to get rid of their energy so they could focus in class. And Miss Sarah continued to pull out her hair after class, because the progress was so small. But we continued to work. 

Until one day I walked in with a giant meter stick to measure the board at the back and the students grew silent. They were conditioned to see a stick and think “beating.”

This would be easy I thought. I don’t have to even beat I just have to put this stick on my desk.

But that’s not why I was here. I came to do what I could in my own class, to bring in new ways, and try to build a community, build a family in my class to steer away from this corporal punishment. To give these students the opportunity to recognize why what they did was wrong and do better the next day.

I continue with this battle. I am not an experienced teacher, but I am motivated and I am creative. I can come up with strategies the morning of, but implementing them in this rigid, corporal punishment system is my challenge.
Grade 7 Test answer, Tshering Dendup. 

Last week I walked up to a class with a class 8 student who works on my school newspaper. He’s a rowdy boy, but he is one of the more well-read and open-minded students I have met. I have grown to really admire him. He asked me on our walk which class I was going to and if these students were “naughty.”

“In fact, they do seem to be a bit more naughty than last year. But I think it’s because there are 40 of them now in that tiny little room,” I responded.

“Miss is beating?” I was shocked at his question.

“Oh no. Not me. Do you think beating is good, Jigme?” I asked.

“I think sometimes. Sometimes students have to be beat. But other students can learn when teacher advises them. But advice doesn’t always work.”

I thought for a moment. I think Jigme nailed the current challenges of this.

And so I continue to have to hope. I continue to gain strength in my own classroom, to recognize the growth in how the students respond to positive discipline. Most of all, to make my students realize their growth. I work against every grain to make my students comfortable enough that they can express their thoughts and speak without that constant fear and anxiety of that damn stick.

I walked into my 7B class the other day. I whispered to them, “I have a secret for you.”

“What!” whispered the class.

“I care about each and every one of you,” I whispered.

“That’s not a secret miss. We know that,” said Choney in the back.