Saturday, December 26, 2015


My heart hurts a lot. Leaving is not easy and Bhutan is still impossible to describe.

I wanted to write a post about things I will miss. Then I wanted to write a post about things I take for granted after living here for a year. Then I thought about writing a post about things I’m looking forward to in order to help myself with the transition. But these are all shit ideas. Words do not describe the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had, or the ways in which I’ve changed. Much of this I haven’t fully processed myself. All I know is that my heart hurts when I force myself to confront the fact that I have less than 48 hours left in this country.

I read Slyvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” earlier this year and in it her characters says,

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

            From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.”

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet”

… Hello biggest fear of my life. For a long time I’ve been afraid of growing old and realizing too late that I hadn’t made the most with my life, or made a wrong decision somewhere along the road.

What I can see now, however, is that these decisions don’t have to be scary and limiting. They can be the most empowering and enabling aspect of our lives.

A fellow teacher, and a very good friend, Alex Rothman, has made a few videos about his time in Bhutan. His last video is titled “The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Bhutan.” In the video he talks about chance and how randomly our lives are shaped. Apart from an incredible representation of Bhutan in the last three minutes that makes me tear up, he shows a different take on how our lives are shaped.

It's true that there are countless unknown variables in my life that could have prevented my coming to Bhutan if things had been slightly different. I have no idea if my time in Bhutan was because of chance, making the right decisions, randomness, fate, or some other mysterious magical pull Bhutan was able to have over me. All I know is that I ended up here and I am better for it. 

There are a lot of outside variables that will affect the life choices that I am able to make. But I choose to have faith in life that if I continue to make them based on curiosity and being open to any love that comes my way, that I'll end up in the right places. 

I still have no idea who I am. And I am excited about that. The world is full of knowledge and understandings that I have yet to encounter, people to meet, and lessons to learn. I am less sure about everything, and more confident that it’s exactly how I’m supposed to feel.Every year that we live changes us. This has been the most beautiful year of change in my life.

However I do love the person that I am in Bhutan and I fear that when I go home I will lose that. I didn’t expect to meet other foreigners that would impact my life so drastically. In them, I see glimpses of the person that I want to grow into. That means my next big challenge will be to resist falling back into old habits and make a conscious effort to carry lessons that I’ve learned in Bhutan with me as I move on.

And it will truly be a challenge considering that I’m not ready to move on. I don’t know how it’s possible for me to pack my bag right now, yet I have no choice. If I had been a better learner this year I would be more at peace with the impermanence of this experience, but I find myself entirely attached to this place and it’s people.

My vice principal has said to me that everyone we meet in our life somehow impacted one of our past lives. If that is the case, then I can only hope that in any future life, or hopefully in the future of this life, I will again meet with the people I now call friends and family.

If you enjoyed Alex's video, here's another one that shows the Fourth King's birthday celebrations at his school which closely mirror the celebrations had at my school,

Thursday, November 26, 2015


Yesterday I was invited to the annual puja (a religious gathering) of the family that owns the house I live in. I've attended a few puja's since being here but I've never taken many pictures or really written about them. So I tried to take pictures of all the food - and there is a lot of food - the praying and the dancing. 

When we first arrived around 3:00 pm we were served suja and accompanying tea snacks. Suja is butter tea - butter, salt, and tea churned together. I really don't enjoy it but drink it when served at gatherings like this. Except for the popcorn ,the snacks are very standard for Bhutan: puffed rice, wheat things, and flattened maize kernels. 

This is a picture of my suja and a dish that is made from rice with boiled egg, oil, chili powder, and coriander.

After the rice dish I was given chunkay. This alcoholic dish is rice fermented with yeast with added bits of boiled egg. 

When families have pujas they request monks and lamas from local monasteries. The monks arrive the day before and prepare the family's alter room. The monks create the statues made of flour, water, and rice and paint them with water colors. All families have alter rooms in their houses but during pujas they give offerings of fruit, veggies, and junk food seen just behind the butter lamps. After the ceremony, it is believed that the food is blessed and that eating the food will bring blessings and long life. 

Across from the alter, the monks and lamas spend the entire day chanting in order to appease the local deities and drive away the demons.

And then there's this - my attempt to take a video but also not be annoying with my camera. So we have the view from my camera sitting on my lap as I scan the room. 

Along with the food, other items are blessed such as arra- the homemade alcohol. After it is blessed it is, naturally, served out of a human skull to insure blessings and long life.

I've told two people about the human skull and they had a LOT of questions. So to explain further - Bhutanese cremate their dead. After the cremation they go through the bones and look for skulls and thigh bones that are still intact. They use the thigh bones to make horns that the monks use to make music during ceremonies and the skulls are cut, painted, and turned into proper bowls. 

There are lots of preparations done for pujas. Sometimes people have to sacrifice their time, their money, and their cows. It makes you wonder if the white cow has any idea that she is resting under her friend's, or more likely family member's, bloody skin. 

The spread - rice along with many different versions of the unlucky cow who was alive just a few days before.

And the stove that it was all cooked on. 

And finally, while we may enjoy sweet deserts after dinner no Bhutanese meal would be complete without Doma - the beetle nut that give some of the Bhutanese their distinct red mouths. 

After dinner there were a few hours of traditional dancing. Unfortunately, I did not take any pictures of the dancing which makes my mission to take pictures of the whole night feel unfulfilled.

While driving home after the puja around 9:00pm, it struck me how familiar this all feels. Not to say that it feels normal, because believe me I don't feel normal drinking out of human skulls or watching cow skin dry, but it feels familiar. And part of that is due to how welcoming everyone in Bhutan is, especially the family that owns my house. In a way, it was a little Thanksgiving celebration for me as it came the day before Thanksgiving - not that anyone in my village knows what Thanksgiving is.


Things have been changing a lot for me. The last time that I posted was just after my parents visited. That was only a month ago but I was in a very different place then. School was still in full swing and the everyday routine carried us along until the king's birthday neared. After the three-day celebration in honor of the king's 60th birthday, exam prep started and everyone became focused on the end of the school year. 

Another way in which things are changing is my mindset. In the last few weeks I have purchased all of my plane and train tickets for my slow journey home in January. I don't leave Bhutan for five weeks and I don't reach home for two and a half months but planning my traveling has created an entirely different mindset for me. Now everything I do is done through the filter that I'm leaving soon and have to make the most of it. Of course in many ways this whole year has been that way, but now more so than ever. 

Bhutan is always beautiful, and as the seasons have changed I've grown to appreciate all of them. But now that we are making a full circle back to winter, I think I can say that autumn is by far the most beautiful in my eyes. The rice turns a golden brown and the rivers go back to being clear bright blue. Watching the rice as it was planted, transplanted, grown, harvested, and finally sucked has been fascinating. 

Rice fields in the village above my school. 

Sunday picnics by the river with Sebastian and Holly. 

The paddies are cut down, laid to dry, shaken to separate the rice, and then the stalks are put in haystacks. 

This view from a small monastery in the forest is called Jiligong - or Cat Place. 

All 500some people in my school made their way down to the village Lhakang where the Thromdre was hanging during the first day of birthday celebrations in honor of the king. 

The Thromdre - a hand-sewed silk tapestry only displayed on special occasions. 

In other news, here is a tidbit about school and academics for anyone interested in the school system of Bhutan, especially any potential BCF teachers. These are things that I did not know to expect when coming to Bhutan and it might help mentally prepare anyone thinking of teaching here. 

Everyone at every grade level takes district-written exams in Punakha. The exams, which teachers do not see before the students take them, range between one and a half to three hours long. The idea behind the district mandated exams is that it makes grades fair and equal across the district. But the curriculum standards for the students, in my opinion, are way too high and not having access to the test worries me. 

Coping for classwork and homework is a common practice here and is not yet regarded the same way that it is in the U.S. I can see that a year of relying on others for answers has left many students feeling very alone on their exams. During this year I tried to crack down on the coping habits in my class which resulted in some students not doing the work at all - one of the many ways that trying to implement "western" school standards felt like fighting an uphill battle. 

I've reflected a lot recently on academics because the time in nearing when I will have to submit my first set of grades for an academic year. And, likewise, will have to fail students for the first time. Students need to achieve 40 marks out of 100 for the year in order to pass. This is strikingly less than the 60% required in the U.S. but even so, a number of my class 4 students will have to repeat.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


Did you hear that Mom and Dad visited me in Bhutan?? If you’re fortunate enough to live in the greater Richland/Kalamazoo area you must have heard, and more likely than not, you’ve already been shown pictures.

But for anyone who may have fallen through the cracks of my father’s reach, here is a little update from their trip.

I never thought that I would admit this, but my having my parents see and experience my life and my job felt really important. In a strange way, it almost validated what I am doing as real. Having them come to Bhutan, see my village, meet my students, eat lunch with my school’s staff, and hike the mountains that I live in made everything feel different.

I consider myself pretty independent so I’ve been trying to figure out why their validation of my life was suddenly so important. I've done things in the past knowing that they disapprove but I'm never deterred for it. But I've realized that it's not their approval that I wanted (I already had that), just their understanding of what it is I'm doing and what I'm going through. 

My entire life my parents have been pushing me in certain directions, acknowledging when I succeed or fail, encouraging me, and supporting me even if they don't fully agree with my decisions. Since moving to Bhutan last January, there has been a disconnect in their acknowledgement and validation. Of course they are my biggest fans and have supported me in every way possible during the past ten months. But they were only able to do this from afar. They listened to my stories and saw my pictures, but there is an aspect of Bhutan that is only recognizable in person. Stories are only select details and pictures never do life justice. So having Mom and Dad come, see my life, and actually play their role as my mom and dad who observe my life and support both the good and the bad was unexpectedly important for me.

Their trip was a perfect mix of relaxing days in nice hotels and also getting them a little out of their comfort zone by “roughing it” in my house or the tents on the trek. We did both touristy things like visiting the Punakha Dzong and the famous Tiger’s Nest in Paro, along with non-touristy things like visiting my classroom and going for walks in villages that are definitely off the beaten tourist track.

Of course we also went on the Druk Path Trek. We started in the Paro Valley around 2,400 meters and our highest peak was around 4,200 meters, or 13,800 feet. Trekking the Himalayas was a new experience for all of us and also helped to remind me how fortunate I am to have two parents who are healthy and fit enough to do it. Following are a bunch of pictures from our trek because Bhutan is just too beautiful not to show off:


My camera is an interesting mix of Bhutan through my lens and my parents. I found dozens of blurry pictures of the side of the road that Mom took as we traveled around Bhutan. She obviously felt the same way about the roads that I did when I first arrived. 

Their visit also encouraged me to take pictures of things that I've become accustomed to but still have no pictures of like chilies drying on rooftops or trees growing out of abandoned and disintegrating houses.

One thing that I’ve believed for a while but that has been solidified by my time in Bhutan is the idea that all spiritual beings on Earth recognize the same God but are polarized by language translations and rituals. Being able to share these thoughts with Mom and discuss the incredible similarities between our Christian faith and the Buddhism of Bhutan was another highlight for me. Growing up in a conservative Catholic church I sometimes worry that I’m on the wrong side of the spectrum of our faith. I think I had some religion teachers who focused more on the fear of God than the loving side of him. So being able to agree on some of these ideas with Mom, the person most responsible for my faith, I have to admit was reassuring.

Now that Mom and Dad are gone, I’m left with only three weeks to finish my syllabus, final exams, and the end of the year. The rice is being harvested, the chilies dried, and everyone is starting to wear more layers as the weather turns cold again. I’m worried about all of this finishing up too quickly and not recognizing the time as it goes by. A few weeks ago I made the final decision not to return for a second year. I can only pray that I am fortunate enough later in life to return to Bhutan to visit again.

Lastly – a paragraph I felt compelled to write when I finally looked up from my computer screen after writing this blog:

As I sit on my balcony in my pajamas with a cup of tea and my laptop, I am once again comforted by the smells, the sounds, and the landscape. The sky is blue and the sun has warmed the air. I have been out here two hours and the sun has moved so that it is close to setting over the mountains on my left. The shadows have moved across the fields, the forests, and the hills and continue to change the valley. I can actually smell the chilies and cheese cooking. It is an appetizing smell and I’m disappointed in myself for being too lazy to do anything other than oatmeal for dinner. The grandpa from my house is sitting in his Gho with the cow and it’s newborn calf. More of the rice has been harvested from this morning. Somewhere a fire is crackling, dogs are whining, cows mooing, and the birds are singing. I can hear small students from school playing and rambling in Dzongkha that I don’t understand. Amidst all of this noise it remains the most calm and still place I have ever called home. If I was never reminded of the all the family and friends I have waiting for me back home I might stay here forever.

*fun fact: I almost published this blog with calm being spelled as clam which is funny because this place is nothing like a clam. J

**fun fact #2: This one isn't so 'fun'. When I reread that paragraph I'm reminded that it's impossible for me to understand what someone who has never been to Bhutan imagines when they read my posts or see my pictures. That is one of the most frustrating aspects about living so far from home. But it's also what makes life interesting. If that wasn't the case, the desire to travel and experience other places and cultures in person would be diminished. I read a T.S. Eliot quote this week that really spoke to me: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." Traveling to faraway lands for me isn't about running away from home or the things I don't like, but about exploring and experiencing something so totally different from what I know that I'm able to return home and see things through a new lens. One of my goals in life is to acquire many of these lens's to see things as clearly as possible. 

Furthermore - these long ramblings at the end here are a result of staying in my flat all day and trying to write my final exam. Normally these thoughts go in my journal but today I happen to be blogging and just add and add and add.