Saturday, February 23, 2008

Children of Bhutan

Once we left the trailhead at Paro on our high altitude Himalaya "walk" we encountered few villages, really more like settlements, in this remote, rural part of the world. As usual for my trips to the Himalayas, I carry about 200 toothbrushes in lieu of candy and look for the children and schools.

Six days into walking and climbing we came to the settlement of Lingzhi and a boarding school of 80 children in primary grades.

A beautiful view from a realtor's point, but at 13,150' winter stays around for nine months of the year. The Lingzhi area has about 300-400 people, most living a great distance from the school.

By law, men and boys are required to wear a "gho" in schools, government offices, and on formal occasions. It is like a roomy bathrobe, tied with a belt and a little tricky to getting it on right and proper. Once fixed, it is warm, comfy, and lots of things can be stuck inside, both front and back. The girls at Lingzhi wore a long version of the gho. I wondered what this young one was carrying inside her gho.

Like the Children of Cuba, the children of these mountains are as photogenic as the scenery.

Most of the children living at these high altitudes had the reddened cheeks from exposure to the sun and cold.

Does the young boy below seem to be listening attentively to a school lesson? Or could he be trying to figure out a group of white people singing "Old MacDonald Had A Farm", chicken, pig sounds and all? On the spur of the moment it was the only children's song we all knew.

Four more days of walking and several passes, we came to the settlement of Laya, a settlement on the smuggling route from Tibet, and another school.

The Layap culture is based on yak herding, their beast of burden. We had not seen a vehicle road since leaving Paro ten walking days back, and the value of the yak was clear, even if they didn't eat the beast unless it was accidentally killed. One afternoon we came across some men butchering a yak below the trail. The unfortunate beast had been on the short end of a yak fight, and our cook took the opportunity to buy some fresh meat. I always said I wouldn't eat yak, but if you get hungry enough... tastes pretty much like hamburger.

Laya is unique in the world for these conical hats, beaded sometimes elaborately in the back, worn by the women of the area. Women are the primary yak herders and the hat is believed to keep the herd fertile.

By now we had learned to leave the singing to the children, and they did next to a bonfire several hours into the cold night.

A couple more days of walking we came to the village of Gasa, famous for its hot springs. Only catch is, no way to get there except by walking - no tourist crowds here! - and were we ready for a little hot tub soaking!

While checking out the dzong/monastery at Gasa, I heard a familiar sound... I felt homesick. I slipped away from the group and asked one of the young monk students, "Is that a cat?"

He went inside and brought out, you guessed it, a very well fed cat.

Previous chapters:
These Boots Were Made for Walking
Doors of Bhutan
Tiger's Nest and Not Your Ordinary Cupcakes

Goodness, Gracious! Great Balls of Fire

One final chapter to come... stay tuned! And then Patty has to finish her Russia stories!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Goodness, Gracious! Great Balls of Fire!

A couple weeks back I wrote about the Doors of Bhutan and one practice in this Buddhist country was particularly puzzling.

Why the ubiquitous public display of the male member in this Himalaya kingdom, soon to be a constitutional monarchy/parliamentary democracy?

No sooner wondered than the March issue of National Geographic arrived in the mail. Inside is an article "Bhutan's Enlightened Experiment" with a terrific description about Bhutan's history and emergence from its cocoon into modernity. And, of course, those amazing National Geographic photographs. If you want to understand Bhutan, run to your local newsstand for a copy or check out the website.

But, back to my story. When I asked a Bhutanese about the phalluses, I was told "it's good luck".

According to National Geographic, though, the significance lies in Bhutanese Buddhism itself. It seems there was a 16th century lama, Drukpa Kunley, also called the "Divine Madman", who "caroused across the countryside...slew dragons and granted enlightenment to young maidens with the magical powers of his 'flaming thunderbolt'".

Have we progressed in the last 500 years?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Courage Under Fire

"Our coach said we wouldn't win today", Hayley said from the back seat of the car.

It was 4:30 AM and dark. I was driving her to the team bus for her first crew racing, a southern California regatta being held in Long Beach this weekend. She and her other Novice buddies had been learning to row for the last six weeks with ZLAC, a San Diego women's rowing club started by four ladies in 1892, Zulette, Lena, Agnes, and Caroline.

"Why would he say something like that", I asked. I wondered about this coach, but I didn't say anything.

"I don't know". Neither of us was awake enough at that hour to think this through.

There was room on the bus but, no thanks, I'll pass on a bus load of teenagers.

Her mother called from out of town at 9:00 AM after we arrived in our separate vehicles and before her first race to ask how Hayley was holding up. "I think she was a little nervous in the car, but she seems fine now", I reported. Indeed, jitters weren't apparent watching these youngsters hanging out together, getting their boats ready and in the water. They were all business in the water and typical 13 year olds on shore.

The other racing clubs were clearly bigger in numbers -- ZLAC pretty much had to race everyone to fill a boat -- but if ZLAC racers felt intimidated it didn't show.

Hayley had two races, an eight man shell to row and a four to "cox", then a third race to cox was added. Most boats had a coxswain (pronounced cox-en) to motivate and keep the team together.

The eight "man" shell for the first race looked long enough to launch a jet.

As they rowed up"river" to get into position, I got my own position on the opposite bank to take pictures for her Mom, that was my assignment for the day. I could see rowers coming down river and focused my camera on the lane that best fit Hayley's description of where they would be rowing. Snap, snap, snap... some good shots and I turned to leave.

Wait, there's another team coming from farther back. Are they in the same race? Could it be?

I waited. Yes, it was Hayley rowing in her boat of eight. Not quite as crisp and speedy as the others, but they were making their way to the finish line.

By the third race, I knew where to look for these plucky girls. Hayley was the "cox" on this boat, filling in at the last minute. I was positioned again, waiting to take that perfect photo, following the progress of the last boat toward my direction. Just a minute... they seemed to get off course, they were almost stopped, were they dropping out? I learned from Hayley later, you can't just "drop out" unless your equipment totally fails. I watched as they got themselves together and started up again, of course by this time very far back in the race. When they passed by, though, they looked beautiful and, in my book, pretty courageous.

I asked Hayley later what happened. "Tanicia caught a crab, we were heading for the rocks", she responded.

Not knowing the lingo at this point, I thought this was a strange thing to be doing in a competitive race. She explained catching a crab is putting the oar into the water other than vertical and it throws the whole boat off, sometimes violently.

I asked how she handled this, being the cox and all. She answered with some technical lingo, then said, "I just kept calm. If I hadn't, they would have all lost it". I think to myself, another generation with a "shield on her arm"!

The day was almost over, but not until unloading their boats back in San Diego, one hundred jump squats for leaving trash on the bus, and a Hannah Montana movie ("Ouma, you need some teen pop culture").

The next morning was more of the same, only in San Diego on Mission Bay. The girls had a "duel" with Xavier Rowing Club from Arizona. I was beginning to learn this sport starts pretty early in the morning, like before dawn, getting their boats ready.

Hayley had two races, a four man cox and an eight man row. (I'm starting to learn the talk.) I watched a quiet moment before the four man event...

and the launch for the eight man race.

Hayley was becoming a seasoned racer. She and her team would row almost a mile out into the bay to their starting positions, then bring the boat back across the bay, all by themselves from so far away you couldn't see them in the distance. No mind they would be in last place. It takes a lot of guts for a thirteen year old who knows all the words to Hannah Montana's "Nobody's Perfect" song.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Where are my beads?

So can you tell which of our presidential candidates might have said the following?

“I do not want -- as I believe most Americans do not want -- to sell out American interests, to simply withdraw, to raise the white flag of surrender. That would be unacceptable to us as a country and as a people. But I am concerned -- as I believe most Americans are concerned -- that the course we are following at the present time is deeply wrong. I am concerned -- as I believe most Americans are concerned -- that we are acting as if no other nations existed, against the judgment and desires of neutrals and our historic allies alike. I am concerned -- as I believe most Americans are concerned -- that our present course will not bring victory; will not bring peace; will not stop the bloodshed; and will not advance the interests of the United States or the cause of peace in the world.”

“I am concerned that, at the end of it all, there will only be more Americans killed; more of our treasure spilled out; and because of the bitterness and hatred on every side of this war, more hundreds of thousands of … slaughtered; so that they may say, as Tacitus said of Rome: "’They made a desert, and called it peace.’"

“We are entitled to ask -- we are required to ask -- how many more men, how many more lives, how much more destruction will be asked, to provide the military victory that is always just around the corner, to pour into this bottomless pit of our dreams?

“But this question the Administration does not and cannot answer. It has no answer -- none but the ever-expanding use of military force and the lives of our brave soldiers, in a conflict where military force has failed to solve anything in the past…Instead, the war will go on, year after terrible year -- until those who sit in the seats of high policy are men who seek another path. And that must be done this year.”

“For it is long past time to ask: what is this war doing to us? Of course it is costing us money … but that is the smallest price we pay. The cost is in our young men, the … thousands of their lives cut off forever. The cost is in our world position -- in neutrals and allies alike, every day more baffled by and estranged from a policy they cannot understand.”

Fooled ya. The above excerpts are from a speech made by Bobby Kennedy almost 40 years ago at Kansas State University. The war he was talking about was Viet Nam. We just don't seem to learn, do we?

(At the end of the movie Bobby, I cried my eyes out listening to his City Club of Cleveland speech on violence, given the day after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, while reconstructed scenes of the aftermath of RFK's own assassination flashed on the screen.)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tiger's Nest and Not Your Ordinary Cupcakes

I was starting to get sick getting onto the plane in LAX, that telltale scratchy throat, the body aches, but 23 hours of flying time later, a day in bed in Bangkok, and I was ready for the first adventure -- climbing up to Tiger's Nest.

Really, the first adventure was flying into the valley of Paro, descending over a high Himalaya ridge into the town that used to be the capital of Bhutan. Our guide, Phil Ershler, had clued us that the approach to Paro was going to be interesting. I might have some other words for what seemed to be nearly vertical banking, more than once, in a commercial airliner to enter the narrow valley. I could look down the plane's wing to the river below. Not much choice, this was the only airstrip in the whole country. I looked over at Phil. He was smiling.

Fifteen of us were here to follow Phil and our Bhutanese guide, Tschering (prounounced chair-ing), through 150 Himalaya miles... on foot... the only trek for which I've had to submit a climbing resume' to be accepted.

The first test... a steep hike from Paro at 7,500' to Taktsang Monastery, or Tiger's Nest, at 10,500'. Actually, thank God, we drove to the trailhead at 8,500'. I know Phil is watching us and deciding whether he's going to need to bring along a "sagwagon" once we get started on the real thing. In the US, it's a van that follows cyclers or runners who can't go on in a race. In the mountains, it's a horse. Not quite as humiliating as being "bagged" on Rainier, but close. I'm tired from my cold, weak from the altitude but I'm drinking, drinking, drinking, trying to pee clear, and hoping I don't look to Phil like I'm going to need a sagwagon on the expedition.

A couple hours up a well worn dirt path through pine, oak and rhododendren forest we get a look at Tiger's Nest through the clouds. Mystical, magical, perched on a granite ledge that drops 3000' to the valley floor, it definitely has that Wow factor.

More walking and some time later -- time has mysteriously become irrelevant - the clouds have cleared.

A closer look at what has become the image of Bhutan, and I am compelled to wonder, as everyone must -- how did they do this? Not only is the monastery built on a narrow ledge, but the approach is even narrower. The monastery burned completely down in 1998 and was reconstructed using an electric tram car from the valley floor. But in 1692 when it was built? It's not like there were electric trams or thousands of Egyptian slaves.

Look closely at the bottom of the above picture and you can see a string of prayer flags from the monastery across that 3000' gorge to the other side. How did they do that? My thought is -- it was shot with an arrow. Archery is the national Bhutanese sport and I have seen a Bhutan archer hit a bull's eye from a football field length distance.

The next question -- why here? It's not from lack of flat places on the valley floor.

Well, it seems in 747 A.D. the founder of Bhutan Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambavha, flew across the Himalayas from Tibet on the back of a tiger to Taktsang and meditated in a cave for three months. He came out of the cave and converted the people in the valley below to Buddhism. There are several sacred caves at Taktsang, one inside the monastery. A small temple was built above the site in the early 1500's and they thought about building Tiger's Nest for a couple centuries, but they were always busy building some other dzong or monastery until finally a high up monk assigned the task of Tiger's Nest to a teenager! Never underestimate kids.

Non-Buddhists can enter the monastery only with a special permit from the government, and we had one. Most view the monastery across the "ravine", but we were fortunate to go inside. A monk blessed our trip and gave us a Buddhist symbol to wear around our necks. Climbers going into the Himalayas seek out blessings before heading to the hills, and I suspect Phil had something to do with our permit.

Bhutan Majestic
tells us:
"It is believed that more merit is gained if we meditate one minute in Taktsang than to meditate months together in other sacred places. Its sacred essence is that of Drubkhang/Pelphug, the holy cave in which Guru Rinpoche and many other renowned saints meditated, and also the body of Langchen Pelgyi Singye had been placed deep in the rocks under the site of Kudung Chorten."

No question, this is a very special place.

Heading down, I paused at a curious place just below the monastery.

It was another cave with what appeared to be hundreds of cupcakes.

I looked closer, still looked like cupcakes, little decorated tasties.

Not so, Tschering said.

Turns out each cupcake was a person, cremated, mixed with a little water to make these shapes, and brought by a relative to this holy place. The soul has left the physical body to await the next reincarnation.

Bhutan Majestic
has an excellent historical background on Taktsang as well as daily Bhutan news, well worth reading.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Mother's Love

I should be paying my bills. Instead, I'm blogging. I don't write for weeks and then I go hog wild. Go figure.

I don't know how to embed this video from the New York Times, so just click on the link and watch, ok?

Imagine That

Kathie e-mailed me this link the other day. To protect the innocent, the significance of the article’s content to us will remain undisclosed here. :)

Anyway, it seems that Karma Wangchuk, a member of the Bhutanese royal family (we think) who is also an urban planning student at MIT, has spent some time shadowing Missoula (MT) city planning officials. Why Missoula? There are similarities between Missoula and Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan and the city of which Mr. Wangchuk is currently the deputy chief town planner.

”There are, of course, a few differences. Instead of black bears and whitetail deer getting into backyards, it's wild boars and elephants. And developers defer to government planners, although they may appeal to the king if they dispute a decision.”

Imagine that.

“'Every citizen has access to the king,' Wangchuk said Wednesday as he prepared to return to Boston. 'That keeps everybody in check. At the end of the day, you don't want to fail the king, country or people. It's shameful to ask that I only benefit and others suffer.'”

That last sentence was bolded by me. Can you imagine our government people (or any of the rest of us Americans, for that matter) thinking like that?

Bhutan has a four-pillared test for making major decisions. According to the article's author, “An action must create sustainable benefits for the economy, the culture, the environment and the government.”

Perhaps we could have gross national happiness if our government used a similar test.

The writer goes on to say that “a recent proposal to aggressively log the nation's extensive forests was defeated because its economic benefits couldn't match its environmental impact.”

Wow. Are you listening, Dubya? How about you presidential candidates?

When Mr. Wangchuck finishes up at MIT, he will return home and run for mayor. Hope he wins.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Doors of Bhutan

I walked 150 high altitude miles of Bhutan's Himalayas in October, through snow, rain, mud, glacial moraine, yak stampedes, over high passes, and saw some of the most beautiful remote landscape in the world. What did I come home with? Pictures of doors and windows and dzongs and children. In this isolated part of the world where buildings are white washed mud and stone, the doors and windows are splashed with color.

Know what the most common response was when I said I was going to walk Bhutan?

You guessed it -- "Where is Bhutan?"

Well, it's a small Buddhist Himalaya kingdom bounded by Tibet on the north and India on the other three sides. The geography is so difficult Bhutan was never conquered or colonized. Mountain climbing was not allowed. Tourists visas were difficult to obtain. Smoking is not allowed. By law, 60% of the country must be covered by forest. Until not long ago, Bhutan was essentially a medieval agrarian society. Most of the people probably didn't know about "us" until television and Internet was allowed in 1999. And so the culture remained fairly pure.

In the 1980's His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuk introduced his goal and philosophy for the country: Gross National Happiness (GNH). Success measured by the people's happiness, not the gross national product, or shopping, or material acquisition.

He envisioned bringing the country into modernity based on Four Pillars - economic growth and development, preservation of their cultural heritage, preservation of the environment, and good governance based on integrity, efficiency, accountability and transparency.

In December 2006, the king abdicated to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgeyl Wangchuk, 26 years old, Oxford educated, and single - the world's youngest head of state who is supervising the transition to a democracy with a constitutional monarchy. A few weeks ago, elections were held for the upper parliament. The oldest elected parliamentarian is 45 years old, and most are in their 20's and 30's.

The next elections in March will form the lower parliament, and Bhutan will be on its way to a westernized democracy with a goal of happiness for its people.

Sound like Shangri-La?

At the end of January, about two weeks ago and a few days after the March elections were announced, the country experienced a series of bomb blasts believed set off by Nepali militants. It seems that in the early '90's, the Bhutan authorities, in a type of ethnic cleansing, stripped citizenship from Hindu Bhutanese who were Nepalese in origin. About 100,000 fled or were forced to leave the country. Most crossed the border to Nepal and still live in refugee camps. An agreement between Nepal and the US last year to resettle 60,000 Bhutan refugees in the United States created more conflict with those who believed they should be allowed to return to Bhutan. The conditions have been fertile ground for Maoists and communist groups to foment militantism in the camps and the bombings appear related to disrupting the elections.

Are you asking yourself, is that what I think it is?

Yes, two large, hairy penises. In Bhutan the penis is a symbol of good luck, and they are everywhere. It is not unusual to come across a guest house or restaurant, like this one in an idyllic 13,000' village, and be welcomed by twin dicks. Or to go to the village spring and have to collect water out of a penis shaped pipe.

The doors of Bhutan are opening. Wishes for Good Luck and Happiness to them as they let us into their world.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Out of the mouths of ...

Where better to ski than the wide open spaces of Vail?

And in what better company than grandbabies? A teen and nearly teen, they object to being called grandbabies.

When one insists on skiing with an open jacket, even with a temperature below zero,

and the other gets distracted by knocking snow out of trees,

and still wears alien holographic ski googles,

I say they are still grandbabies.

This year, though, they thought they were too old to go to ski school. They came up with a deal. If their Ouma would be their teacher, and they could behave like good students, they wouldn't have to go to regular ski school. Fair enough, I thought.

They lined up to listen, followed through with directions. One problem, though. While I'm OK with teaching more advanced techniques, I didn't know how to get the younger one out of her "pizza-french fries" into parallel skiing. I talked about edges, and knees into the hill, and upweighting, and using your breathing to set a rhythm. But, how to get Jennifer to progress beyond the wedge?

I said to the older one, "Hayley, I don't think I can get Jennifer out of the wedge. You're going to have to help teach her since you're closer to learning how to do that."

Hayley turned to her sister and said firmly, "Jennifer, keep your skis together".

I watched in amazement as Jennifer headed down the mountain, skis perfectly together.

Is there a lesson here?