Monday, August 23, 2010

Daily Life in Bhutan, Part III: Ambient Café

The definition of home during my year in Bhutan was Ambient Café. Almost no day went by without a visit to my favorite place in Thimphu. Ambient opened just a few days after my arrival in Thimphu in August 2009, and I quickly discovered what a marvelous place it is. Located right in the center of town, near the traffic circle, the big glass windows allow wonderful light to shine into the entire room. The room is tastefully decorated, and the environment is truly comfortable. I came there for the food and coffee, and soon found my Bhutanese family and a remarkable community of friends.

Letho and Junu (up above in the photo) a wonderful couple who run this café, have created a place that serves the best coffee in Bhutan, serves delicious and healthy food beautifully presented and cooked by Sonam, and above all a place that is truly a community gathering place, with great ambience (as the name suggests).

Throughout the year, Ambient’s menu has evolved in wonderful ways. And today you’ll find such delicious dishes as Hummus Platter, Lasagna, Moussaka, Quiche, Tofu Curry and many other varieties along with the assortment of sandwiches, wraps, and appetizers. Everything is made from locally grown fresh vegetables, according to the seasonal vegetables and fruits including a fresh fruit shake that changes as fruits become available.

Letho makes awesome coffee, the best in Bhutan without a doubt!

Indeed, for me Ambient Café was more than just a place to go have lunch every day. It was where I felt most comfortable, most happy to be. Every day, as I would work through my mornings, I would eagerly anticipate lunch time, when it was time to go walk up those stairs and say hello to Letho, Junu, and Jigme! and of course, also always hoping Lama Shenphen would be there. Lama, (in the pic below) with his wonderful sense of humor, his terrific stories, compassion, wisdom and always smiling face is a contagious presence, a magnet and an inspiration. To see how present he is, day in and day out, and to witness his work with youth that have drug and alcohol abuse problems in Thimphu is a true inspiration.

At Ambient Café, I spent so many wonderful afternoons and evenings, sharing great food and great company, laughing, laughing and laughing with friends from far and wide. Spent lovely hours with so many wonderful people, and indeed Ambient would always be a reminder of the impermanent nature of life. People coming and going. Sometimes interesting tourists, but more often than not volunteers from overseas who would be in Bhutan for two or three months, would make Ambient their home for that time, and soon enough it was time for them to leave, and we would say goodbye, and always new people would emerge.

Indeed, after a year in Bhutan, just two weeks ago, it was my turn to leave. I will miss Bhutan so much, and maybe I’ll write a little more about that another time. But for now, I should just say, that I will undoubtedely greatly miss Ambient Café for everything that it is, and for everyone that is there!



Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Daily Life in Bhutan, Part II: Kilu Bhutan Music School

Of course, how can I write about my daily life over the past year here without writing about the most constant aspect of my life here and the opportunity that brought me to this amazing place. I am nearing the end of my one year appointment as a music teacher at Kilu Music School and it’s been a fantastic year.

The Department of Youth and Sports complex, where Kilu is located...

Kilu is located on the second floor of this building

Decorations on our building...

There certainly have been many highlights for our school during my time here, and I’m very proud of the efforts we all made to facilitate the success of these events. Some of these events include our wonderful annual student recital in December followed by our intensive winter program in January; our students performing in a BBS TV special in celebration of His Majesty’s Birthday in February; A wonderful week long workshop conducted by guest music teacher from California Janet Greene in March; Cellist Frances-Marie Uitti’s visit and performance with our students in June and of course most recently the remarkable honor of performing in front of His Majesty just last week. It seems one more highlight is coming up later this month as several of our students will be featured on BBS’ special music program “Spotlight”.

Of course, these highlights as wonderful as they are, are only the surface (and a wonderful surface at that) of the work and fun that we’ve had this past year at Kilu. The daily work of teaching children is no easy task, and has had its challenges for me. But I feel my students are my teachers. Every day teaching I learned about myself, about music, about patience, about children and about how to be a better teacher.

A new addition to the interior of Kilu. Framed photos of our students and guest performers from recent concerts.

The view from outside our school...Changankha Lhakang up above.

I’ve grown so fond and attached to my students, and I care deeply about them. What I have enjoyed so much during my time with them is that even when they have been disruptive in class, or misbehaved there is a kindness and a joyfulness about these children that is moving. They struck me right away, as such incredibly talented, intelligent and kind-hearted kids.

I would be remiss if I didn’t write a few words of appreciation about one very important person, who plays a crucial role in Kilu’s continued existence and success as a school. I’m talking of course about Rinchen Lhamo, Kilu’s administrator. Rinchen is one of the most wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting here in Bhutan. She was there that very first morning to pick me up at the airport, and has been a great friend and colleague ever since. Her generosity, sense of humor, supportive and compassionate upbeat nature have helped make my life here in Bhutan, at Kilu and beyond, a joy. I can’t imagine where Kilu would be without Rinchen’s diligent, can do, easy going, committed and efficient work as the single person who runs all the logistic and administrative matters relating to our school. Having her as a companion through this journey at school has been a real gift. Thanks, Rinchen!

And thank you to all of my students for a great year of learning!!! I’m going to miss all of you!



Monday, July 12, 2010

Daily Life in Bhutan, Part I: Memorial Chorten

The National Memorial Chorten came to represent the feeling of “home” in Bhutan very soon after I arrived here in Thimphu. During my first week in Bhutan, a week long puja was taking place at the Chorten. Every day I would wake up to the sounds of the ceremonial horns and drums and cymbals, to the sounds of prayers coming loudly through the speakers in the Chorten grounds. That first week, walking to the Chorten every morning, to watch the puja going on and the many devotees circumambulating, joining in, that was my first real introduction into Bhutan, and it created an immediate and deep connection for me with this wonderful spiritual monument. Though at the time, I did not exchange anything more than a smile or a glance with the other people around me, it was really the first place here in Bhutan that gave me a sense of belonging and community.

Every day, as I walk from my apartment to town or to school, my path inevitably leads me by the chorten. It’s a two minute walk from my apartment to the main intersection below where the Chorten stands, beautifully and peacefully. It’s bells ringing in the wind, it’s golden top radiant and awesome looking.

As I walk outside of my apartment garden gate, this is what I see...

walking down the path leading from my apartment to the main road...

At any point during the day, you will find devotees circumambulating in clockwise motion around the Chorten, reciting mantras, turning large prayer wheels, prostrating and praying. The Chorten is a place of worship, a place of practice and devotion for many. A daily and physical reminder of Buddha’s teachings.

The prayer wheels are right on the left when you enter the Chorten grounds...

A woman prostrating...

But the Chorten is not only a place of worship and practice, it serves as a kind of community gathering place and park at the same time. In the absence of a park in the town area of Thimphu, the Chorten serves as a place of refuge from the busy day, a place to come and take a nice evening walk, quietly, or with a friend. The Chorten grounds are also a place for teenagers and young adults, couples and friends to come and hang out, giving them much needed privacy to share their lives with one another away from parents, relatives and school.

I, myself, have often joined the crowd in circumambulating round and round. It just feels really good! The seasons have changed, from autumn and winter through spring and summer, and the Chorten has seemingly changed its personality along with the weather, yet always remaining a kind of comforting presence, an inanimate friend and companion.

bird's view (inside the chorten, from above)

To learn more about Chortens/Stupas visit here or here.



Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kilu's Big Day: A performance in front of His Majesty - Monday, July 5, 2010

The day began very early, when I arrived at school at 6:30am, to find Rinchen, our school's administrator already there. She had been there since 6:00 she said, she couldn’t sleep. Shortly after I arrived Saito arrived and Rinchen helped myself and Saito put on our Gho. By help, I mean she dressed us as neither one of us knows how to put it on. The students were to arrive at 7:00 and by 6:45 we were both ready to go wearing our ghos, and we moved to the DYS auditorium right near by the school and got prepared.

Students started to arrive, slowly, with only about 10 arriving on time. By 7:05, a whole crew of His Majesty’s bodyguards and staff arrived to inspect the area and guard the auditorium’s entrances and entire area. Their early arrival prompted me to worry that his visit would be happening earlier than planned, and yet on the other hand it was a sure sign that it was actually happening!

By 7:15 most of the children arrived, we practiced going on and off stage, did a sound check (overcame a big mic problem), warmed up the kids with songs and arranged all the last minute matters, such as were the individual performers were to sit, and what the announcers (two teenage students) were to do. We spent extra time making sure the kids bowed properly, went all the way down, with the heads down, and took their time getting up. A few of the young ones were less than gracious!

Around 8:30am we received word that we should have the children line up outside the auditorium, towards the parking lot to welcome His Majesty. The students all stood in a row, we instructed them on how to bow in three different groups as he walks past us. Since I was wearing the traditional gho, in this particular circumstance, as in any formal occasion, I had to accompany it with the kind of white shawl, called the kabne, and I had to learn how to bow properly with this kabne when we greet His Majesty. I got a quick lesson from his bodyguards, and thankfully they allowed me and Saito to only have to do it when he arrives and then take it off when we perform, otherwise, we would have had to bow with it and put it back around our shoulder, and bow again every time we went on stage which would have been a train wreck waiting to happen.

We saw the royal vehicles come through our center’s gates, and we all got prepared, one of our teenage students stood first with a ceremonial scarf to offer him and then the board members, teachers and choling (sound man) at the front and then all of the students lined up to welcome His Majesty. It was so exciting to see him step out of the car, I had only seen him in photos previously. He looked elegant and very awake (in the deeper meaning of the word), his hair combed backwards with gel…at that point I bowed, following the proceeding to my right, and stayed down as he walked past us and towards the students. He walked quickly past our students all the way to the end and then took a long look at the group, and then announced “let’s take a group photo before we begin”. So he called the children to come sit on the stairs, all around him, he sat with them, on the stairs and our students all sat and stood on the stairs around him with us the teachers and board member joining. The royal photographer and videoman snapped their cameras, and after a few moments, he said “ok…big smiles…”.

Then he moved into the auditorium and suggested that we start the program. He remained standing as the children first sang the national anthem, with one of our students accompanying on piano. Our two announcer students, extended a very brief thank you to His Majesty for coming to attend our concert and then the program began.

I was watching how His Majesty listened to the students. How he sat. He has such intense focus and discipline about him. He was listening very intently to every piece, there was no flinching, there was no restlessness of any kind. His every movement was graceful and majestic indeed! For the most part he kept his head lowered and listened, without looking at the performers. But when each finished performing he said something briefly to each one and clapped, such as “well done” or “thank you”. The students all did exceptionally well, and the program went without a hitch.

Towards the end of the program came the teachers’ turn to perform. With my performance, I elected to play an excerpt from the composition ("The People's King") I had written especially for his 30th birthday back in February. I watched him listening (from time to time) as I performed. His eyes were closed, head down and he was listening very intently, I felt that he was enjoying it and really following along, appreciating it. I could sense his appreciation from the moment I started. His hand tightening up a bit, half way through my performance almost as though he is feeling the deep emotional content in the music. When I finished performing and after taking my bow, I walked gingerly towards where he was sitting, and with my head mostly lowered handed him the score of the piece which I had prepared in advance, and said that it’s the “original score of the composition” he said, “thank you, it’s beautiful”.

Then Saito, my colleague, performed a movement from Brahms wonderfully and all of our students came on stage to sing the final two songs together. An arrangement I made of a Bhutanese song by Jigme Drukpa called Gamay Ga and Michael Jackson’s optimistic and hopeful “Heal the World”.

His Majesty stood up for the final song, and stood very close to our children, smiling at them as they sang “Heal the World”. When we finished the song, and took our group bow, he spoke. He thanked us for the “wonderful concert" and congratulated everyone on a job really well done. And asked us if we wanted to hear what he thought about music and why it's so important. He said he wanted to share with us a few thoughts. I'll summarize by way of paraphrasing.

Firstly, that playing music is wonderful because it brings happiness to ourselves and to those who listen to us play, such as our friends and family.

Secondly, that it helps develop creativity in those who play and sing. And, that actually studies have shown that studying music also helps students with their academic work, sports and social skills.

And finally, that in his mind the most important thing about being a musician is that it helps us learn how to listen. We learn how to listen to music, to one another, to what others have to say, it helps us learn how to listen to the environment around us, to the streams, and the wind. Indeed, it helps us develop compassion for others and reminds us to take care of our environment.

After the concert he surprised us all, when he invited all of the students and staff for a private tour of his Palace and of his "office"...the Throne room, in fact. His Majesty has visited many schools in Thimphu this past year, but I hadn’t heard of such an invitation being extended! Maybe usually, because there are just too many students, it's not possible. We were in for a real treat! I later heard it was ordered spontaneously by His Majesty while the concert had been going on, so his staff had to frantically put all of this together!

So we loaded the buses, and made our way to the palace grounds, in we went through the gates, where a ways into the palace, we stepped out of the buses and organized into a group. It was just us and His Majesty (and his body guards, and secretary). A private tour through his palace (which is quite modest by the way, but very beautiful). We all walked quite closely to him, behind him, basically as though it was a field trip and he was our tour guide!!! He talked with some of the kids as he was walking and a few of them got to walk by his side, as he guided them, holding their hand and showing them various things around the garden. I exchanged looks of amazement with Rinchen (the school administrator) and the board members, and we all felt that we could have never expected such an opportunity to come. This was special not only for the kids, but also for all of us. This was extraordinary not only for those of us who are foreigners and would never again likely get the opportunity, but also for the locals, who have never had such an opportunity before.

After a tour of the garden, we looked at his house from the outside, and from there we walked up the steps that lead from his palace, to the entrance to the Thimphu Dzong. Dzongs are the government and monastic headquartes of each Dzongkhag (district) and the Thimphu Dzong is the nation’s center for both administrative and monastic work. As he walked up the stairs, his assistants, helped him put on a gloriously beautiful yellow kabne, (shawl) which I’ve always seen him wear in photos.

We then reached the main entrance path to the Dzong, which is living organism, not a museum, and there were passerby, people who were walking to and back from the Dzong, who stood to the side of the path and bowed as he walked past them, and we followed. We reached the stairs that lead to the entrance of the Dzong, and then he suggested we take another group photo. So again, he sat in he middle of the stairs, and all around him we gathered. More photos were snapped. Then our private royal tour guide (His Majesty) offered more explanations about the Dzong, which was built by his grandfather the 3rd King, when the nation’s capital moved from Bumthang (in Central Bhutan) to Thimpu. After all Thimphu is actually a relatively new town in Bhutan. But, in the center of the courtyard lies, the main temple, which is much older than the rest of the complex, and is the older part of the Dzong. He walked us in to the main courtyard, and explained what department is in each building we see, pointed to where his office is and where the monastic body works. Right above us, he said, is where all the cabinet meetings take place. He said there is something very special about the fact that in Bhutan the administrative and monastic centers reside in the same complex, and that often when important dignitaries from all over the world come to visit and have meetings, during the meetings they ask, “what are those sounds…?....those are the sounds of chants and ceremonies going on by the monks on the other side of the Dzong”.

From there we walked around the courtyard and towards his office complex, where we were guided quietly up the stairs and towards a long hallway, which had walls that were beautifully decorated with paintings that depict the entire story of Buddha Siddhartha. I looked out the window and I saw, a group of elderly, handicapped, and poor looking children walking towards the same building we were in. We were all guessing that the King was granting them audience and Kidu (Kidu is an on going living tradition of financial support that the King grants to people of need). This is basically an extensive and comprehensive system of state support of the poor, underprivileged, sick and handicapped. No doubt His Majesty was a busy man! After a short while, he indeed informed us he had to go upstairs and host these visitors, but asked that after we finish our refreshments we come to take a look at his "office" (throne room). When we got upstairs, he asked us to perform one of our songs for his Kidu receiving guests, and our performance of a Bhutanese song was much appreciated by the visitors.

There is no doubt in my mind, that he does in fact have a real presence about him. The presence of a leader, but also a kind of generosity of heart and compassion. I have been impressed previously by reading his speeches and hearing of the work that he does, the Kidu I have written about earlier, his long walking tours of the remotest parts of the nation, where he walks by foot for hours every day, sleeps in the fields, to grant Kidu in these areas, console those who have suffered because of the recent earthquakes and floods, and to help with reconstruction work.

For all of us involved, this was indeed a wonderful and unforgettable day!



A Very Special Composition

One week ago, Kilu Music School had the remarkable honor and great fortune of performing in front of His Majesty, the King of Bhutan. My next blog entry will be about that unforgettable day. During that performance which mostly featured our students, I had the opportunity to perform a short excerpt from the special birthday composition I was commissioned to compose for His Majesty’s 30th Birthday several months back. I am taking this opportunity now to tell you more about that remarkable project.

Not long after I arrived here in Bhutan, I was asked by the Press Secretary for His Majesty if I would be interested in a commission to compose a special celebratory piece in honor of His Majesty’s 30th birthday, which took place February 21, 2010. I happily accepted such an honor and opportunity and composed “The People’s King”, a 25 minute cross-cultural work that brings together traditional Bhutanese music with classical music and jazz. It features the piano, four traditional Bhutanese instruments: flute, dramnyen (lute like), pchewang (similar to the chinese erhu/two stringed bowed instrument) and yangchen (zither like) as well as the long life Amitayus prayer chanted by the young monks of Dechen Phodrang.

I composed the piece during the months of December 2009 and Janauary 2010 and it was rehearsed and recorded in February 2010 at the national studios of Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS).

In my letter to His Majesty, which was submitted along with my composition on His Majesty’s birthday I wrote the following in describing the composition and the intentions behind it.

February 21, 2010

Your Majesty,

It is with great and distinctly unique pleasure that I submit to you this musical offering for the occasion of your 30th birth anniversary. When Dorji Wangchuk of Royal Office of Media asked me not long after arriving in Bhutan to compose a piece of music for your birthday, I immediately felt compelled by the exceptional honor and opportunity to express my great appreciation and admiration for this wonderful country, its beautiful people and its exceptional leader. As the months went by, and my life here grew ever more rich and rewarding in virtually every aspect of my life, I feel that this has also become my opportunity to express my gratitude for the many gifts that Bhutan has bestowed upon me.

In composing this piece I have attempted to bring to life an integration of my very preliminary understandings of Bhutanese music with the other compelling influences that have shaped my internal musical landscape. To achieve this end I decided to bring together four traditional Bhutanese instruments along with the piano, and write melodies that primarily use the Bhutanese musical scale, while incorporating harmonies and rhythms that are jazz and classical music inspired. I feel that the result is at once exciting and full of promise for many more such endeavors of musical collaborations and integration in the future.

In the beginning and ending of the piece you will hear the young monks of Dechen Phodrang Monastery chanting the Amitayus (Tsepagmed) mantra of Limitless Life. This long life mantra was chanted and recorded especially for the occasion of your birthday, praying for your long life. Aside from wanting this very meaningful and appropriate mantra in the piece to express my deepest wishes for your continued health and prosperity I have been very moved in the past few months by the beauty and hauntingly meditative quality of mantras chanted collectively.

I would indeed like to join the monks in my piece and wish you a long, limitless life. I also want to take this opportunity to personally express my admiration for the work that you do, for your leadership and service to your people, and for the values that you articulate and demonstrate by example. This world desperately needs more countries like Bhutan and more leaders like you.

I hope that you enjoy the music!

Yours truly, with deep admiration and respect,

Noam Lemish

The experience of creating and delivering this piece was unique and full of learning every step of the way. The minute I had decided that I wanted to use primarily traditional Bhutanese instruments and Bhutanese musicians, I also had to limit the melodic content played by these instruments and musicians to the pentatonic scale as this was the only music they knew how to play on these instruments. I believe the melodies I wrote for this piece were inspired by the many songs and melodies I’ve heard many mornings of the year coming from all around my neighborhood. Sitting on my balcony, or working inside, sometimes I would hear Bhutanese pop music coming from a neighbor’s house, chanting and religious songs coming from the Memorial Chorten, or contemporary Bhutanese folk songs being blasted loudly from speakers at the police grounds, where rehearsals were taking place for various National celebrations.

During the rehearsal process, I taught by ear each part of the piece to the four Bhutanese traditional musicians. And when we recorded there were a myriad of logistical obstacles that came up. However, the piece was completed on time, and the result was heartening.

This project was made possible, with the help of several important individuals. I would like to list them below.


Samten Chopel, flute

Kencho, pchewang

Songay Thinley, yangchen

Kelzang Phuntso, dramnyen

Monks of Dechen Phodrang Monastery


Sonam Wangmo, sound technician

Neten Dorji, mixing

Choling, editing

BBS Studios

Khen Sonam Dorji, for helping me find musicians

Dorji Wangchuk and the Royal Office of Media for all of their help.


Thank you,


Kilu Music School Fundraising Concert: June 12th, 2010

Last month, on Saturday June 12th, we had a very special day for our school - the annual fundraiser concert, at the Taj Tashi Hotel in Thimphu. Featured in this concert was world-renown cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, who came from Holland especially to donate her time and talents to Kilu Music School. Her primary reason for coming to Bhtuan was to begin discussion and plans for opening a string program at Kilu. And we took the opportunity and planned a concert around her visit.

Along with wonderful performances by Ms. Uitti and Kilu’s teachers (myself and Saito Ryohei), the concert featured collaborations between Ms. Uitti and our students as well as individual and group performances of piano and singing by Kilu’s students.

The concert was a smashing success. The children did fabulously well, we had a full house in attendance, and managed to raise a good deal of money for the school. The Minister of Education, Lyonpo Thakur S. Powdyel honored us with his presence, and spent time with our school board, teachers and Ms. Uitti after the concert complimenting us on our work, and offered his pledge to support our future endeavors of music education in Bhutan.

As was the case with our annual student recital which took place in December, I was immensely proud of the hard work and dedication of our students in preparation for this performance. They worked really applied themselves in rehearsals, and in the concert itself, they all rose to the occasion and did a marvelous job.

On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of performing an improvised piece with Ms. Uitti during the concert and it was a wonderful musical experience. Indeed, during her entire stay in Bhutan, I was lucky enough to spend many hours with Ms. Uitti, enjoying great conversations, music and good food!

Here are a few photos from the concert courtesy of Xochitl Rodriguez:

Tashi Delek,

Friday, July 9, 2010

My visit to Karshong, a remote school hamlet in Trongsa District in Central Bhutan. May 22-27, 2010

The bus ride from Thimphu to Trongsa was smooth and enjoyable. Nodding off to sleep from time to time, enjoying the beautiful, luscious, scenery throughout and gnashing on snacks. Riding on Bhutanese buses is such a wonderful experience. An intense mixture of emotion. A sense of relaxation, while sitting back and looking out the window at the splendid views, and yet a kind of tension and fear also running through my body. At times, driving so close to the edge, sheer drops. Driving through Bhutan’s mountainous terrain, there’s never really any respite, as you’re seemingly always on the edge of the mountain. And when a car comes straight at you, on these one lane roads, the bus moving even more to the left of the road and the edge, fear increases. And so this happens time and time again. Sitting there, tension and relaxation, cheesy Bhutanese pop music blasting through the speakers, the smell of doma and perspiration, driving left of the chortens, this is the experience of riding the bus in Bhutan.

Arrived in Trongsa town after about eight hours on the road, where not long after I arrived Sonam Lhamo, my friend and her fellow teacher and friend Sonam Tsoki came down to meet me from the school. After spending the night in a small hotel in Trongsa, and before setting of on our journey to Karshong (the small enclave/settlement school four hours walk from Trongsa town).
Trongsa Dzong
Inside the Dzong
Dzong from above!

As we began our walk outside of town we thankfully ran into the cook from the school which meant the tractor heading from town to school (once a month only when it comes to town to bring construction supplies) hadn’t yet left. We could hitch a ride with the tractor and save ourselves the walk. Thank goodness for BST – Bhutanese Stretchable Time. It was past noon, and the tractor was supposed to leave at 10:00am, but it hadn’t left yet.

It was quite a scene to get on the tractor, as the tractor was full of supplies, materials for cement, which were quite dusty, and the cart was already filled with several villagers. There appeared to be discussions going on about where we were going to sit, and some of it seemed to be about me, because as often is the case Bhutanese are very reverential towards foreigners, and they seemed to not want me to sit on the dusty cement materials and get myself all dirty. I tried to explain that I was grateful for the opportunity to ride in the tractor instead of walking and that I didn’t mind it at all, and that I also didn’t mind the fact that it was going to be a very bumpy ride, which they were trying to explain to me and make sure that I would be comfortable. They finally brought some empty boxes, dismantled them to prepare seats on top of the bags of cement supplies, for us to sit on, and we were ready to go.

We finally set off and wow was it a bumpy ride. It seemed for us, the bags of cement were providing somewhat of a cushion, while our fellow riders who were sitting on the metal of the cart, were suffering much more. Several times, they literally stood up, balancing themselves, it was better than having the pain of the bumps from the metal. As we climbed higher and higher on the mountain above Trongsa the view of the Trongsa Dzong, the town itself, the valley, and the surrounding mountains was spectacular. The ride was extremely bumpy, with dust from the supplies, mud from the road (flying off the wheel) flying everywhere. Bugs, flies, insects and the sun.

On the driving part of the tractor, the front part, there were five or six men, Indian laborers and Bhutanese riding along, squeezed in surrounding the driver. They were also headed towards the school, where they work on the on-going construction of the school. In the cart behind us and next to us sat the cook from the school, a school boy, two young village men and an old villager from villages not too far from the school (several hours walk it must be). These villagers not only live in a super remote place, they also speak their own dialect, so even my friends cannot really communicate too well with the older ones, as they don’t even speak Dzongkha.

Now, back to our journey. We were jumping up and down, laughter and smiles abound. The villagers were getting a kick out of the fact that a chillip (foreigner) was on board. But, not long after we started our journey, maybe a half an hour in fact, we hit a road block. A truck carrying huge rolled up electricity wires (they are working on connecting a village half way up towards Karshong to the grid) got stuck in the mud, one side of it falling half way into the side of the road, and almost to the gorge below it. A few men were already working on unloading its cargo and now all the men from our tractor joined in the work. There was a Toyota pick up truck with the project contractor there, connecting the truck to its rear with very thick ropes and they were trying to unload these super heavy wires which were rolled up into thick rolls. The truck looked to be thoroughly stuck and the task at hand looked impossible and time consuming. We debated whether we should start walking or wait. Since we still had about three quarters of the walk left we decided to wait a while and see if they succeed.

They all pulled the ropes, trying to get the cargo unloaded. They managed to get three such rolled up wires, but could not unload anymore. They then tried to see if enough weight had been removed for the truck to set itself free from the ditch. Remarkably enough, as they tried to use the pick up truck to pull the truck out, it almost worked, and most of the truck had been centered again and now only one wheel was stuck in some more deep mud. They then dug around this wheel, to create enough space for that wheel to also be free and the truck was freed from the ditch and ready to carry on with its journey. After an hours delay so were we.

Oh, it was so wonderful to get back on the tractor and keep on driving on this beautiful dirt road, with its amazing views, our legs spared, heading deeper and deeper into the Trongsa wilderness. Interesting, how such a bumpy ride, quickly became, in relative to the strenuous task of walking up the mountain with heavy bags, the height of comfort.

We passed the village that was being connected to the electricity grid (by village, I mean three or four houses and a Chorten). Sonam Lhamo told me that this is the last village before the school.

But it was not too long after we passed this village and right after Sonam Lhamo finished explaining to me that we were coming up towards the hardest part of the walk where we have to walk straight up to the top of the mountain to our right that we hit a terrible part of the road, our cart bouncing violently left and right several times and suddenly we were stuck, could not move. The right side of our cart was totally tilted down. We looked to the side and the right wheel had completely fallen off. So, there they were, all of the men, hurried out to examine the situation and start working on a fix.

There was a stream running through the road, and our right wheel got stuck right in the middle of a pool and a rock in it. The wheel had come off and the part of the cart that connects to the wheel was stuck inside. They had to work to lift the cart enough, searching for appropriate size rocks so they could fit the jumper exactly to actually generate the necessary lift. They managed to lift the right side enough to find out that actually a very crucial piece that would connect the wheel was missing. Hands dirty from the mud, went into the pool searching for this missing part but to no avail.

We knew that for us this was the end of the road. The men would continue to work on fixing the cart, but it might take hours, and it might require going back by foot to town and getting the necessary part. So, we took our bags and started to make our way up the mountain. We had about an hour and a half of walking left, and unfortunately had to climb the very part of the journey that Sonam has just spoken about.

As we walked up through this steep “short cut”, that went straight through the dense forest, we went through an area, where Sonam pointed to the trees and said, this is where bears live, you can see by the leaves, she said. This area is well known for the bears. Oh jeez, I thought to myself. Here we were two young women teachers, me and a school boy walking up through the jungle, with snakes, bears and other wild animals potentially lurking. I was hoping we would have no wild encounters.

Actually it really wasn’t bad at all and the scenery was wonderful. The sun shinning on the mountain ranges, while sheets of rain in the distance were being lit by the sun. The so called difficult part lasted only thirty minutes and we were quickly back on the dirt road, which would lead us in one hour’s time to the school.

Then, we arrived at the school, literally in the middle of nowhere. But the view, wow! So wonderful. As we arrived in the late afternoon, the beauty of the light and clouds above the multitude of mountain ranges was stunning.

Now, this school, and everything that is happening here is so amazing. Four teachers, a principle, sixty three students, and one cook. A school in the middle of nowhere, truly a settlement in the wilderness, with six or seven small rooms for classes and an office and an adjacent two small houses for the teachers’ quarters perched on top of a steep slope on the side of the mountain. Out houses down the hill, a moderate size dirt patch in front of the school with a tall prayer flag flying high, and several wood benches, for assembly gatherings. Construction everywhere, a bigger dirt patch below for a football field and several small huts in the surrounding areas for the children that stay on site during the week and the Indian laborers.

The school...

Morning assembly.
Hangin' out at school...
School Photo! All of the students and teachers!

The four teachers and principle in the middle...


My hosts’ house was very modest, with no electricity, but with a bukhari stove and batteried lamp which they charge during the day from solar. Once the sun sets in this little hamlet, it’s dark!

Ranges of mountains surrounding us in a 360 degree panorama. Landlocked fully, nowhere to go, except more mountain ranges in each direction which take days to cross by foot, and no roads, or vehicles around. This is the “real” Bhutan that everyone speaks of. The Bhutan that is outside of Thimphu still exists. Small villages scattered scattered all throughout this harsh and demanding terrain. Still no roads or electricity. This is what Bhutan used to be like all over the place, though it is shrinking as areas are being connected by electricity and roads. Surely, it is a good thing that peoples’ hardships are alleviated, but with such advances comes a loss to. Electricity and exposure to mass culture through the media, changes the nature of these people. The simple life is changed, one’s relationship with nature and the environment and so do the sense of meaning and purpose and perspective in one’s life.

On the afternoon of my first full day at Karshong, after my friends finished their days work of teaching we took a walk towards a Lhakang (monastery) that was located an hours walk from the school. They picked wild berries, yelling at the top of their lungs in the high pitched Bhutanese way.

The school from a distance during one of our afternoon walks...

On the way to the Lhakang we sopped at the “shopping complex” which is the running joke here with the Sonam’s. Saying that down the road is the shopping complex and just a little bit further down lie the movie theaters. Funny stuff considering how remote and underdeveloped the area really is. Anyway, the “shopping complex” was a little house along the way that is also a small shop that sells a few necessities for passerbyes. We took a few sweets (that’s a necessity isn’t it) and the last pack of biscuits (the joke by Sonam Tsoki, was that tomorrow the helicopter will be delivering new batch of biscuits).

The "Shopping Complex"

Outside the "shopping complex"

Then we made our way towards the Lhakang: Ugyen Thegchok Choling in Karshong, which was founded by the Ninth Gangteng Tulku (Kunzang Rigdzing Pema Namgayl). He also runs Gangteng Gompa and the Yeshe Khorlo centers all around the world.

The young Samling Tulku (a reincarnate lama) stays at the Lhakang and I asked Namgayl, one of the teachers if he might make the request on my behalf that the Tulku bless me and give me my Bhutanese name. Here in Bhutan, almost everyone receives their name from a Lama. When a baby is born, the parents take their child to receive a name from a teacher. In recent times, I have heard that some parents go to more than one lama if they didn’t like the name they received. I think, it is fairly common for foreigners who live here for a while to go to a lama and receive a Bhutanese name. Names here are usually loaded with meaning, most often relating to Buddhism. I had been thinking about getting a name for a few months, and all of a sudden, unexpectedly the perfect opportunity emerged. The young Tulku, perhaps no older than 13 or 14 looked at me briefly, with a kind of curiosity and promptly spoke: Sangye Rigden. And how interesting that I should receive Sangye (spelled Sangye or Sangay) as my first name, when in fact on the bus ride to Trongsa while I was thinking that I still needed to find a lama to give me a name, I thought of how Sangye would be a nice name. And I never imagined that I would receive my name in the middle of nowhere in Trongsa. We asked to take some photos with the Tulku, who was very shy but accommodating and from there we made our way back to the school for the night.

The view from the Lhakang.

With the two Sonam in front of the Lhakang where I received my Bhutanese name (strange looks with the socks, huh? protecting against leeches...)

The Tibetan word “Sangye” means, “Buddha”, and the term Rigden can refer to a “cosmic principle of wakefulness that exists as a potential to manifest in human society”. I happen to really like my birth given name, of “Noam Lemish”, but I think “Wakeful Buddha” is not a bad name to have as your backup…

As we walked back towards the school from the Lhakang it was starting to get dark. The sun had set and there was still a good deal of walking left. My eyes were glued to the ground as we walked, trying to make sure there were no snakes on the ground. I didn’t want to step on one. The thought of what we would do if one of us got bitten by a snake was frightening. The closest medical facility was a four hour walk away. So many sticks on the ground, it made me think of the famous Buddhist analogy for our state of delusion in samsara, mistaking a rope for a snake. Well, here I was in the Trongsa jungle, it was getting darker, and I definitely had my eyes glued to the ground, trying not to mistake a snake for a stick. In fact, every time we took a walk around the jungle, it made me think of the intense vulnerability that is the reality of humans living in such wild areas. Bears, snakes, and perhaps even tigers in the area. Nothing much to do if you have an encounter with such an animal.

There is a great sense of camaraderie, a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood between the four teachers that live and work at this school in Karshong. They eat meals together, take their evening and afternoon walks together, and entertain one another. The strength of their community keeps them strong while facing the challenges that their work and living conditions present.

The following day during lunch time a remarkable double rainbow appeared. A full circle rainbow all around the sun, straight up in the sky. I had never ever seen anything like it. And below it a larger rainbow that was not complete.

In the afternoon after the teaching day was completed, the four teachers and I went on a walk in the opposite direction of where we had walked the previous afternoon to the Lhakang. On the way we passed the huts of the cow herders who live in the area. All of these herders are women, and there were lots of kids playing around. Some were school kids that actually reside at the Karshong school and some were the cow herders’ children. Apparently, these women in the spring and summer take their cows away from their village and move along with them from one grazing area to the next, every three of four weeks. In every area there are huts set up for use already there year after year.

Children in the cow herders' living area...

We stepped in to have some tea at one such extremely modest hut. Basically, just one small room in this hut. Kitchen, bedroom, living room, guest room, everything in one tiny space. These women cow herders and the whole experience in general was really amazing to behold. I have only ever seen such communities in movies. People living in such remote areas, living under such harsh conditions, and yet displaying such a kindness and friendliness, openneness, a sense of community among them, and seemingly a kind of quiet contentment.

It is amazing to think of how remote this school really is, some children have to walk up to an hour a half a day in each direction to go to school. Other children whose homes are too far from the school by foot for daily walking, are accommodated at the school with very modest huts. A small community is thus created amongst these children, the teachers and the Indian laborers that live on site as well. We played football down in the dirt field, in the evening after we returned from our walk. The “stay at school kids”, two male teachers, the Indian laborers and myself playing football in the mud and drizzle, having a great time. Football, the great equalizer, bringing together people from all corners of the world so easily. No words necessary.

One child who stays at the school site is the 8 year old Sherab Wangmo. She stays with the Sonam’s and is shy beyond words. She is actually mostly silent, solemn and seems somewhat unhappy. Perhaps she really misses her mother (there is no father, I understand). It must be so hard at such a young age to stay away from your mother, your home, your village and everything familiar, and to live with strangers, teachers. I tried hard to make her smile and play. And when I engaged her about colors or cards, she did respond, but only temporarily.

The following morning at 10:00am I began the journey back to Trongsa with the school’s cook.

He doesn’t speak any English which for me worked well, as I prefer to walk quietly rather than have idle conversation. The only talking we really did was when he would point at villages on the other side of the valley and name them or point at something along the way such as water or mud and say what its called in Dzongkha and ask me what it’s called in English.

The walk was tiring but not exhausting. It was mostly nice. Neither downhill for long stretches nor up hill. We walked along two or three mountain ridges, went mostly moderately down, gradually, following the dirt road that we had moved on by tractor when we came up and took two steep downhill shortcuts through the woods.

Approaching Trongsa town by foot from above...

The following day early in the morning I made the short walk from the hotel to the entrance of the town where the bus dropped me off, ready to begin the journey back to Thimphu. For the first hour or so the bus was full but quite normal, we stopped several times along the way and picked up people. It was a very holy day in Bhutan, Buddha’s Prananirvana, and later it would become clear to me where all these villagers were headed. They were headed to a big chorten along the way, maybe an hour and a half drive outside of Trongsa itself.

But, before we reached the chorten itself, the bus was stopped by a group of people, waving the yellow bus tickets. Apparently, many of the passengers on the bus were not actually ticket holders, but just given a lift by the driver. So, he instructed those who don’t have tickets to get off the bus, and he stepped out and started loading up the bus roof (which is where all the luggage is roped and taken along as cargo) with all the stuff that this large group of people had. It was bag after bag after bag. It seemed like we were about to take an entire villages’ worth of belongings to Thimphu. I wasn’t actually sure what was going on. I thought maybe a couple of people were moving from this village to Thimphu. But eventually a group of approximately ten men, mostly young ones in their 20’s came on the bus, they said hearty goodbyes to friends who stood with them and were not joining and off we went after the half hour delay.

Immediately, everything about the bus ride changed. These men were full of energy, loud, jolly and full of a sense of entitlement about the bus ride as if they were the only passengers on the bus. When a group travels like that together, there is a sense of obliviousness about anyone who doesn’t belong to your group.

In talking briefly to a couple of the men, I realized that they were coming back to Thimphu after being away for three months, conducting surveys on the hydrolelectric power. They travel by foot in very remote areas. It’s a harsh life, exhausting, kewa datsi (potato cheese curry) every day which “in the summer turns sour before we even have chance to eat it for lunch” .

Insects and leeches every where, very low pay, far away from family from any kind of city amenities. But much like the teachers in Karshong, they were like brothers to one another with a deep sense of camaraderie, and on this day they were full of joy and excitement as they were coming home after a long time!

The man sitting in front of me, was the leader of the group and he was clearly older and they all called him sir. He was in charge of the songs. The bus drivers in Bhutan have these MP3 players and they rotate songs.

This man in front, cranked up the volume very high, and they all sang so loudly, especially a young man sitting across the way from me, who would almost scream instead of singing, and hold the notes far too long on purpose and sing somewhat out of tune.

Well, eventually we made it back to Thimphu, after a long and bumpy ride, full of delays. I was happy to be back “home” and truly grateful for the opportunity to visit this remote and beautiful part of Trongsa.


Yours, as always,

Sangye Rigden