Monday, March 21, 2011

There Are No Experts To Consult In A Choose Your Own Adventure Novel

K5 drove back up towards his house as the fire moved up the mountain towards the royal compound.  I noticed people in orange suits climbing along the mountainside to fight it.  Soon, the army arrived to fight the fire as well.  All the while, men, women, and children watched as flames taller than the pine trees roared in the wind.
Having grown up in Encinitas and lived in Santa Barbara, I've seen a few fires in my day, but nothing as up close and personal as this one.  The fire leaped along the ridge of the mountains, and created a ring around the homes.
            Around sunset, I heard cheering and I ran to the kitchen window.  I saw a line of men and women walking down the mountain.  Some of them wore yellow backpacks used to carry water.  Picture camping shower meets Ghostbusters costume.  I watched a man in uniform jokingly pump up his gun and hose down a friend with some water.  I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Holy S***, I had Super Soakers more powerful than that as a kid, and it was just used it to put out a forest fire.”  I learned that some of the “fire fighters” use branches to beat the fire down.  I also learned the orange suits were volunteers.
Within ten minutes, the volunteers piled into 3 buses and were off down the mountain.  The army soldiers followed, piling into the same trucks seen dropping students off at school.
As Americans, we live by numbers and percentages.  Had I been in America, I would have put myself at ease by flipping on the TV, seeing the number of fire fighters on the scene, assessing the percentage of fire containment, hearing the number of acres burned, and looking at the precise evacuation line drawn by the experts.  In Bhutan, in times of crisis, the answers are approximations that usually include, “your guess is as good as mine.”
My home smells like a campfire and the hillside out my window is black.  Yet as I sit and Google “Thimphu fire” to survey the damage, nothing appears.  I guess I’ll walk to town tomorrow and look up the mountain to see where it is black and where it is still green.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fire In A Country With No Fire Hydrants

The hill outside my home is burning.  There are no evacuation warnings in Bhutan and one fire truck is parked outside my apartment.

I asked a local what we should do.  He said, “Wait until it gets closer and then go help.”

I asked my friend if his family owned the home next door and if they wanted me to go and help them hose it down.  The response was, “We don’t own it, and there are no hoses.”

Soot is leaking through the windows and covering my keyboard.

Local men are climbing into the hills to put it out.  Not quite the time or place for a female chillip just yet.

Others are watching.

Too bad Bhutan has no helicopters.

Mountains of forest, dry brush, howling Himalayan winds, and fire surround me.

The fire is about 100-200 yards away and every change in the wind’s direction makes me hold my breath and throw a few more things into a bag.

In California, you evacuate hours before this, to the sound of sirens outside your window.  In Bhutan, you lesson plan near a window, so you can see when it is time to go.

When other people leave, I will take it as my evacuation warning.  I hope fewer people will be hanging around if it gets to be 50 yards away.

I'll write again soon.  Tashi Delek!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Toast

“Madam Jennifer, why did you wink and blow a kiss to that boy, and nobody else?”
“ Hmmm.  I am not sure what you are referring to.”
“You winked like this, and you blew a kiss.”
“Oh you must be talking about the fact that I winked and made a clicking noise with my mouth.”  Apparently he had misread the wink plus the clicking noise, which in American English, translates roughly to, “way to go kiddo”.
“Yes.  Well mam, he is telling everyone you blew him a kiss, and he is very happy about it.”
            The things that sixth graders cling to.  But hey, if that wink motivates him to ace his next spelling test, then it’s fine by me.  It was Friday, and hopefully the wink heard round the school would be forgotten by Monday.
To celebrate the end of a busy week, I went to a canteen, found a table all to myself, and ordered some Dahl and tea to eat slowly and quietly.  Two high school boys in matching school tracksuits entered the canteen.  Despite the fact that all the tables were empty, they sat at the table right next to me.
            They struck up a pleasant conversation about where I was from, what high school was like in Bhutan, their traveling experience, etc.  My conversation with the students went something like this:
            “Where are you from?”
            “Oh, the USA.  Someday I would like to go to college there for architecture or engineering.”
            I advised him as I had once advised my little sister about searching for a place you love, then finding a school in the area, then using the Internet to explore the options and scholarship opportunities.  As a teacher, it’s easy to fall into the “you can do anything you put your mind to” spiel, but as a young adult, I figure I still have a little bit of street cred with teenagers, and I don't sound too cheesy.
            From there, he asked me if my parents still help support me.  I proceeded to explain the term “cut off”, and I told him to enjoy the “love money” while he could.
            “Are you bachelor?”
            “How old are you?” asked one of the boys.
            “Oh, you are too old for us.”
I know that due to the size of Thimphu, it is particularly important to watch what I say; otherwise the entire town will talk.  This may come as a shock to you, but believe it or not, I have developed the skill of self-monitoring what truly wants to come flying out of my mouth.  The following is what I held off on saying after the student said, "You are too old for us":

Inner Monologue #1)  Yes, yes indeed I am.  In the US we call that statutory rape.

Inner Monologue #2) What you are basically telling me is that, I am too old to date and too young to qualify as a cougar.  Thank you for gently reminding me that I am 26, in the awkward age of no-mans-land.

Inner Monologue #3)  Call me in 15 years when both of us will probably be too old to give a shit about age anyway.

Instead, I replied with, “Yes, I am.  I could be your high school teacher though!”
On that note, the young lad said, “Do me a favor.”
“Yes, What is that?”
“Find a Bhutanese man and marry him.”
His phone rang. I assume it was one of his parents calling to pick them up.  The two boys quickly gathered their belongings, grabbed a momo to go, and waved, while hurrying to the counter to pay.
At that point, I said "goodbye", and I smiled a “teacher smile”, pursing my lips tightly so that, “Any other dating advice?” didn’t slip through the cracks of my teeth.

As I sipped the rest of my tea solo, I reminisced on my encounters: two men in matching tracksuits and the imaginary kiss that swept the play yard.  As I sat alone in the little canteen, I lifted my mug of tea, and I toasted to my Friday.  Here’s to being single, seeing double, blowing kisses, and staying out of trouble.

What do you call a boomerang that won’t come back?

Every morning, the students line up into perfectly straight lines.  They sing three prayers.  Then they meditate silently, with perfectly straight backs, hands on their knees, lowered eyes, and mouths slightly ajar.

The last few mornings, one of the smallest third graders has caught my eye.  Her hair is beautifully pinned back, and her bangs cover the perfect mini features of her face.  Beneath her clean and kept appearance, you can see scrapes on her tan skin.  She holds a chunk of rock hard yak cheese between her cheek and gums, as she closes her eyes and sings the prayers, moving her entire head and neck to hit the notes.  By the end of the day, the white cuffs on her wanju are brown and her skin has a few more bumps and scratches.

Today, as the students were waiting to be picked up from school, the perfectly filthy 3rd grader’s 5th grade sister said something in Dzongkha that made the little sister cry.  Within seconds, the 6th grade brother of the two, ran over and whapped the 5th grade sister upside the head.

At this point, I was thankful that I was not the closest teacher, so that I could watch the compassionate mishap unfold.  I wish I were a fly on the fence of whatever playground these three ran around in after school.

The same thing happens in the lunchroom, as 22 sixth graders lie out their lunches atop unfolded handkerchiefs, share their meal and their conversation with their peers, and then pack up and stack their chairs.  Moments later, one student attempts a flying squirrel leap, diving from the highest chair, while another student jokingly shakes another boy to his senses by the cheeks.  Of course I only see the landing or the pinch marks, because these things happen the second I turn my back.

The bottom line is, don’t tell me you wouldn’t laugh if you heard a teacher convincing two third graders that they weren’t REALLY stuck together, and that they could return to their respective lines.  Or better yet if you saw the same teacher confiscating the same student’s super glue, which he had brought to school to glue his friend’s mouth shut.  Perseverative interest much?

If I had a dollar for every time a student told me I had something on my tego and then went in for the chin flick regardless of the fact that I didn’t look down, I would probably have 50,000 Nu.  The teacher after me can look forward to my lame contribution to cheesy pranks when the students tell her 1,000 times that something smells like “Updawg”.  I can only hope that moments later, they will share with her one of the Firecracker mottos, “work hard and play harder”.

Oh, and by the way, a boomerang that doesn’t come back is a stick!  Every sixth grader knows that!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I hope we can still be friends after you read this... Yikes!

It has been warm enough to sleep without the space heater at night.  Consequently, I convinced myself it is warm enough to break down and shave my legs for the second time since I arrived.  You do the math; it’s about 1 stroke of the razor to every swish of the razor in the tub.  At least the giant black ant floating next to me didn’t seem to mind.  I only got to just below my scabby knees (see Chillip vs. Dog post) when the water began to go cold and I aborted the mission.  At least my ankles will look sexy when they occasionally and scandalously peek out from below my kira.

As if I haven’t lost enough friends already from this post, I have to confess something more horrifying.  In the midst of beginning my first year of teaching and also beginning an at home therapy program for one of my students, I have been avoiding a slightly more pressing issue in my life.  It’s amazing how things get tossed to the way side here.  I am officially embarrassed to admit, I wake up with a rash/bug bites every morning.  Actually, I lied.  I lay in bed and feel stingy, then wake up with a rash and bug bites.  In order to wash your bedding here, you must do it in the morning and hang it to dry, hoping it drys by the evening.  After nights of lesson planning, waking up to do my laundry before school has not fit into my schedule yet.  I am also not whole-heartedly convinced that my blanket would dry in time to keep me warm later that night.  “Night, night, sleep tight!  Don’t let the bed bugs bite!  If they do, let them chew!”

I Joke About Tigers, But It turns Out, The Most Dangerous Thing You Can Do Here is Travel

One of the things to do here at night is drive to the top of a mountain and hang out with your friends overlooking the city.  I have gone a few times now and enjoyed myself very much.  The roads are sketchy, but the views are amazing.  Last week I noticed there were a few people missing on the first day of school.  I thought little of it, but when the day was over, my principle made an announcement.

The night before, three guys from our school drove up to Buddha point and they had an accident on the way down the mountain.  Two of the teachers were teachers who had taken me to do the exact same thing in the weekends prior.  Two of the men had to get stitches and one broke his shoulder.  The 6th grade math teacher was taken to the ICU with a skull fracture and a hand injury.  Days later he was flown to India to receive further, more advanced treatment.

I am relieved to hear he is recovering.  The whole situation really has made me think twice about safety here.  The math teacher, age 23 and an only son of 8 children, had taken his paycheck home to his mother before heading off with his friends.  It is a shame that the first time he ever left the country of Bhutan had to be under these circumstances.  It may be a while before he can resume teaching me Dzongkha, but it is a relief he is getting the medical attention he needs.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Firecrackers!

As I walk to work in the mornings,  I see a giant green truck with a soft cover, resembling something you’d see driving along a US army base.  A man rides in back, hanging one leg over the side.  When the truck comes to a stops the man lowers the back door and children, impeccably dressed in checkered kiras and ghos, pile out and scatter toward the playground.
            School has officially begun in Thimpu!
            My homeroom class has named themselves The Firecrackers.  I couldn’t be more ecstatic with the name, seeing as though I had already planed a unit on finding your “spark”.  Also because “J Jennifer” didn’t win.  You will be happy to know we have our own class handshake in which we bump it and blow it up, and we also have class songs such as Dynamite.
            Throughout the school day, I continuously find myself silently proclaiming that I have found a new favorite student.  The favorite changes about every 10 minutes.
            First, it was the class clown, a complete spitfire, and the very reason I changed the whole class positive behavior support system on the fly within the first ten minutes of class.  Mr. Class Clown is a peanut, and fulfills many of the beautiful stereotypes associated with this particular type of student.  One example was when the students were decorating their 3 H’s for helping others; head, heart, and hands.  Mr. Class Clown pinballed around, popping up and down from his seat to occasionally harass a peer, then hopped on over to me and showed me some of the things he keeps in his heart, one of which was my name.  Well played sir!
            Later that day, I reigned in chatty Mr. Class Clown and two of his partners in crime to “tell them a secret”.  We all know it is scientifically proven that the only ways to get kids to really listen is to call a huddle.  The three became quiet.  They got a real kick out of it when I proceeded to whisper, "I wasn’t born yesterday.”  We all smiled, and I hopped back on the positive behavior support train to try and minimize the chaos.
            Next, I noticed a student with a goofy grin between his large ears.  He walks with an awkward swagger and turned out feet.  At first glance, you might pin him as the self-conscious type; only to find out later that you were wrong.  When I turned on the first song, which the class earned by behaving, I figured all the students would want to dance around.  Instead, the entire class pleaded with me to allow the best dancer in the class to go to the front, and entertain them.  It was a good thing my little awkward man had come in at recess while his peers were out playing.  He had explained that he needed to put his sole inserts into his shoes to combat his flat feet.  Little did I know, those feet could dance!  The entire class clapped to the beat as my new favorite student popped it, locked it, dropped it, you name it.  No wonder his peers requested an encore the next time the class earned a song.  I got to see how respected he was among his peers when he swept the competition in becoming voted the first “Class Captain”.
            Next, I assigned the students a few questions that the principle of our school wants to focus on this year.  I asked the students write what they were passionate about.  I explained that something you are passionate about is something you care a lot for; something that makes you light up inside or gets you out of bed in the morning.  As the students were writing, one pulled me aside and said, ”Madame Jennifer, is this okay?”  His journal said: “My alarm clock gets me up in the morning”.  My new favorite student was Mr. Literal.
            As the day rolled on, my favorites changed continually.  There was the boy whose hopes and dreams were to “see his mother’s face again” because she had been in America working for the past 3 years.  There was also the girl who loaned me a bowl of rice at lunch because each and every child in the class insists that I try at least one bite of their lunch; 22 courses later.
            As cliche as it sounds, teaching is what I am passionate about.  I am happy to say that, along with my alarm clock, my students get me up in the morning.