Monday, December 28, 2009

Touching Clouds...

two days left in this year. i sit at my computer in Bhutan and i cannot help but be reflective and nostalgic. the holiday season, though i'm not home, has nestled its way into me. it's a different kind of nestling action. in el paso, the holidays nestle into you when the first lights are up on houses, luminarias line the edges of yards and homes to make eerie patterns of light in darkness, christmas songs play in stores and on the radio, the light in the desert changes to a soft blue gray gold and the night gets cold, candles are lit in windows and poinsettias (as is the tradition of the women of my family) grace mantel pieces and table tops. a certain kind of peace settles over the city and memories of family and friends linger about you in the air. this year, the holidays settled with snow falling in the desert and cold filling my loved ones' lungs. el paso had a white christmas.

here, the holidays nestled their way into me quietly. i was busy adventuring and learning with the students at VAST so i didn't really even realize what the actual date was until the 23rd of December. when i realized the day, i realized what it was to be away from home. i realized what it was to have come from somewhere-to be of a place. this isn't the first time i've had such a realization...but it was a different kind of "epiphany" this time around. even though everything around me might make it difficult to constantly remember the life i traveled away from, that life now lives in me with more grace than it ever has. i am able to chart my life's moments over some course, and see that time has brought me so very far.

(i think this might be a normal feeling when one leaves their home...? )

i spent christmas eve with close friends and then ventured down to the border city of Phuentsholing at 6:30 in the morning on christmas day. the drive was long and trying...the roads were rough, winding and narrow. the winding snake to Paro i was used to has now become a nearly straight line after the journey i had along the Pheuntsholing snake. in total, without road blocks due to rock slides, the journey takes about 6 hours, moving at the equivalent of maybe 20 miles per most. of course we hit two road blocks. but for me, the things that usually seem to bother the Bhutanese (monsoons and rock slides) are the greatest adventures i've had in years. after nearly dying of fear as we drove two feet away from the edges of cliffs that fell and flew down farther than the eye could see (guard rails are few and far between-they only use them when they REALLY have to), we approached the first two road blocks i have ever had the joy of being stuck behind. giant boulders (bigger than some cars) had fallen down the cliffs above and landed in the road. earth movers jerked and jolted, screeched and shook...the sound of stone on metal and stone on stone flew through the crisp cold himalayan air. as the land movers strategically shifted dirt, stones and boulders i began to wonder where the stones would be sent. shortly after asking myself the question i realized the earth would simply be thrown off the cliff only to land in the middle of the stretch that followed the next bend in the road. (the roads wind and fold over themselves-tracing endless s's as they go!) i thought, i could either be really affected by the amount of time and noise such a process takes or i could get out of the car and stand on the edge of the cliff to watch the boulders rumble and dance their way down, surrendering to gravity's inevitability. of course, i got out of the car! the land mover, behaving like a clumsy desperate giant would, flung each boulder over the ledge and down. i watched the earth and its pieces tumBLe and crAck and shiffft. what power could a stone that weighs tons and tons possibly have against the cliffs of Bhutan?!

...she smiles.

i experienced deadly cliffs and killer boulders which filled me with a fear and excitement i had never felt before, but the most incredible legs of the journey were the ones i traveled along through the clouds. i wasn't under clouds, i wasn't over the clouds-i was IN the clouds. i am of the desert. fierce winds, endless sunsets, a vastness i could never describe and colors of earth which span all part of the spectrum except the green one. el paso is where my visual memories have their seeds. yet there i was, darting slowly and carefully down a thin snake, touching clouds.

there was a point in the journey as we went round a bend when i had to remind myself that what i was seeing was actually real. the giant mountains i had been watching roll, climb and fold among their fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers simply disappeared into mist. i couldn't see where they ended or began. the line that was once drawn between the earth and sky, blended into itself and all i could do was sit back and allow myself a tear or two. i felt reality completely fade away and whatever i have always known, no longer had a definition (or at least the definition didn't matter anymore).

as we continued our journey over the snake, we crossed over passes that were being swallowed by the clouds. i felt my skin swimming in their moisture and softness. i stuck my head out of the car and felt the mist on my cold cheeks. i smiled. moments like that i am certain i will never lose...those memories will never leave my mind.

we left the land of clouds and began our dissent down the mountains toward the plains of India and the border city of Phuenstholing. in an hour's time i found myself peering out at a jungle. (perhaps jungle seems like an exaggeration but i must remind you all, i am of the desert!) i saw leaves the size of my torso and vines thicker than the thickest ropes we use to pull cars of sand when they get stuck in the desert. i never dreamed in my entire life that i would see such things. such simple things-leaves and vines, clouds and stones-transformed into things that...well i suppose, things that are of our planet.

upon entering Phuenstholing, i felt like i was home. el paso is on the border, so the feel of downtown el paso moved under my skin like an excited kid. the weather was warm and damp, and buganvilias grew everywhere. the feel of the town was a cross between el paso and gomez palacio, mexico. an exact cross of the two. of course, the people and architecture were different, but the feel was the same. and so i kicked in to a strange combination of feeling like a child seeing snow for the first time and a grown woman remembering her home. Phuenstholing moves a bit more slowly than Thimphu, but i find it to be more peaceful. it's cleaner and more quiet. the people stand about chatting and looking around and colors and signs of the passage of time grace the buildings walls. the city is lovely.

and then of course there's Jaigaon, the Indian city just across the border. to put it in perspective, El Paso is seperated from Juarez by a river (at least that used to be all there was seperating Mexico from the U.S.). Jaigaon is seperated from Phuentsholing by a small fence--it's a one foot in Bhutan one foot in India situation. to access Phuenstholing i drove through the "Gate to Bhutan". it was as ornate and beautiful as the buildings that make their home in the Kingdom. once i crossed that gate, however, beauty took on a completely different face. perhaps all the beauty i had witnessed...disappeared. the city is mad and rushing. noise, garbage, cows and people flood through the streets. stereos, cell phones and sunglasses are for sale everywhere...plastic buckets that are used for baths, huge metal pots and pans, and any one of thousands of cheap mass produced Indian goods were everywhere. i suppose that's the madness that comes with a "frontier". as i walked through the streets nervously looking for a phone to call my family from (it was christmas night in el paso, by then) i tried not to allow myself to look frightened...i tried to hide the intense sadness i felt building in my throat (pleading with me to burst out). i found a phone and called my family, half shocked half excited to tell them i had crossed the border to India. as i spoke to the i saw a tiny woman standing at the bottom of the steps of the tiny shop, waiting for me with one hand out. i immediately looked down. i wasn't avoiding giving her money. i simply felt humbled and, to put it bluntly, ashamed. i walked down the steps and the woman approached me, put her hand on my arm gently and began to beg me for money. i felt her skin on mine, i felt her fingers as they graced the bend in my elbow. her dark weathered skin caught light upon it, her torn and dirt covered silk dress draped over her bones like spider webs that cling to branches catching light in darkness. i asked if i should give her money and my friend advised me not to. if i gave her money, everyone would approach me. i looked around and saw the wild and fierce sea of people that flooded the streets. we cut sharply into a shop until the woman moved on, still trying to keep the big sadness at bay. Jaigaon showed me a face of humanity i had only read about, a face of humanity i had only seen in photos, a face of humanity i fear i have never truly known. i do not come from wealth nor do i earn any large amount of money, but i know now, that my idea of wealth is built around naivety and ignorance.

after my initial trip to Jaigaon, i returned twice. i had more than a one hour span of time to soak in the madness of the place. i had supper in a restaurant on the second story of a building that looked straight down to the streets of Bhutan. it was something like looking from Juarez toward the west side of El Paso. i watched the people move about, i observed everything i could. in all of its sadness and suffering, Jaigaon is still beautiful. it is beautiful because there is nothing distracting you from the reality of our world's varied circumstances. the awful face of humanity's machine stares directly into your soul in that city--it requires you to surrender, it requires you to stop and look at it head on. the suffering slaps you awake like a siren might in the middle of the night.

i don't know if i will return to Jaigaon. the guilt i felt is a feeling i don't think i would want to have again. but then again, if i don't return...the guilt of that selfish act will be one that i may never be able to swallow. maybe ignorance is bliss for some...but for me, i couldn't allow such a blindfold to stay over my eyes. in a way i laugh at myself because i know that the tiny act of going back there is the only way i will be able to go to India. seeing Jaigaon again, seeing everything that city reveals about our world, is the only way i'll be able to actually see the world i want to see.

and so i touched some different kinds of clouds this Christmas. regardless of their color and movement, they were clouds nevertheless...regardless of their defiance or affirmation of reality, they were clouds nevertheless...

upon my return from Phuenstholing, i find my brain yet again trying to grab at some magic thing that can't be grabbed. i still try to touch the clouds-those ever-changing beings, they change faster and with more grace. as i moved down and up and all around that winding highway to and from the border, i could see the clouds' movement over ridges and through the trees-their fingers made of giant leaves. white and some grey green color became ghosts together. on the way toward the border, i could touch the clouds. on the way back, the clouds had retreated up up and away. now i'm back in Thimphu, and the intricate complexity and combination of things that surround me remind me that i shouldn't be so greedy. i can't touch the clouds all the time...we can't feel them on our fingers all the time. living, breathing, moving, dancing, singing, laughing and crying among the clouds is a dream...that was true vulnerability--the most penetrating vulnerability i have ever felt. but there are too many important things to touch in the realm of what is real...and so that sudden feeling of clarity and understanding and absolute confusion that comes with a journey among the clouds must retreat now...up up and away.

i continue to this wild land, in its peace, carries me over this adventure...through heights and depths of living--some of which i did not expect or see coming...

wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year...
as always...i send my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Monday, December 7, 2009

from the children...

and so...this one is by the children.

asked the kiddos at VAST to write about their favorite part of the last two days we spent together. They accompanied me to the workshop on Sunday. We spent the day welding a bridge with the help of Dulal.

They watched metal and welding magic, explored the shops, swam in the river and took me for a grand adventure on the city bus.

They photographed the day beautifully.
Big booming smiles were had by all.

today we completed the next step in the boat making process. they've also provided beautiful photos of today to share with you all.

from some of the children to all of you:

Tadin Tshewang
"On 6th December we the 10 people went to the work shop and my favourite part of that was when we travel in the bus because there was so many people. The bus went around the town. And the other one is in the workshop when the welding started and the colour of the fire was so beautiful!

Thandin Tshewang:
"On 6th December we 10 of the members of VAST volunteer to help make boat and bridge. On 10 o clock we came to VAST and 10:15 am we went to the workshop in the city bus.
We made a boat and bridge. We play and learn and ate lunch in the resturaunte clock tower. Thank you!"

"On 6th December we the 10 people went to the work shop. I went to river side and I swim it was interesting and it was my favourite part of the day."

Jamyang Thinley:
"My favorite part of the day:
We went to near river and some of us cross the river. I was trapped in the middle of the river. I felt very cold. One of my friend help me to get out. One of my friend swim in the river. Then we came back and had lunch and we enjoy a lot."

Lobzang Zangpo:
"We were lost and we walk finding the Sonam Automobile. We reach and Madam Xochi show the boat and gave some sunglass to watch welding! We make bridge. We played pushing car. We go to river and I cross the river and on friend swim in the river yesterday."

"We push car and we went to small river and we make bridge!!"

Kinley Gyem:
"On 6th we all went to workshop with Xochi and some of our friend to do welding. We learned a lot and we had fun. My favourite part of the day was when Xochi was welding and different colours of sparkles came out. Also when we reach at the clocktower we all were hungry that non one was talking. That day was an enjoyable day."

We all smile and send our warmest greetings to all of you from the Kingdom of Bhutan!

boats, bridges, rivers, buses, fire and lunch

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Binnacles and compasses.

give it some gas...slam on the left turn...then a sharp right....then a nice fat U turn...then a nice steep climb...some serious gas....sudden brakes again...then sit in the car and wonder which direction to go next.

Keeping momentum is hard.
So many things boom into each other all at once that its difficult to know precisely how to do what it is you're meant to do. it's been difficult to move with no binnacle to support my ever-wavering compass. i find myself writing quite a bit. (Her wall is covered in post it notes...none make any sense-Gancho asked her "i don't understand any of those yellow notes on your wall--one says 'where are you from?'"...we both laughed.) i write because i'm finding it easier to sort through this process by vomiting out these fragments of some kind of something.

before coming to bhutan i set my mind on not setting my mind on anything. i prepared for my journey with limited expectations because i knew the way in which the journey unfolded would be beyond my control. so many of the experiences i've had have been lovely and beyond anything i could have imagined. other experiences have been a bit difficult to handle...certain predictions-dare i say fears-have been very hard to swallow. it's never felt quite like it does now- to be a "woman".
i sat in on a meeting a couple of weeks back and someone actually said (something like) "A man will never be like a woman, he will never be pretty. And a woman will never be like a man, she'll never be strong." Of course that's all there is to be a woman and a man... ??


i'll do a performance soon. it will likely be private and i'll be the 'woman' that i am. i was compelled to do it in the first weeks that followed my arrival, but now it is far more than a matter of simple compulsion. Women in Bhutan are absolutely fortunate. they are definitely given equal opportunities. but there's an attitude present that cannot be denied. that attitude is present in so many places across the world. of course it's entirely up to women to decide they'll grab whatever is in front of them (and especially the things that are not) and fly up up up and then up some more.
two weeks ago, i spoke with a friend and all she could tell me was "xoch you have to understand you're here under very unique circumstances
doing a very unique thing. you're a female artist who was granted money from an american agency to come here. you're only 25. you flew across the world alone to come and work for free. and you want to weld. of course its awkward!"
i've never been the type of woman who wasted time being concerned with what it is to be an "ideal" woman. but i did spend the majority of the first twenty years of my life looking in a mirror. i was a ballet dancer. i dedicated myself to perfecting every muscle in my body. every line was trained for grace. i wasn't born with the long legs and delicate frame ballet dancers are supposed to have so i worked hard...and i used every ounce of discipline and energy i had trying to perfect the "person in the mirror". but all that was fine because i learned (rather quickly) that dancing wasn't about my body. it was about so much more. when i reached my teenage years, my relationship with the mirror was one that grew out of a desire to look the way i (xochitl) wanted to look. in time..i wasn't concerned with actually having the long legs or the delicate frame...quite honestly i despised the idea of having that.
since i've arrived in Bhutan, i've caught myself looking in the mirror again only now i'm not looking in the mirror to make sure xochitl is looking like xochitl...i'm looking in the mirror to see what i may look like to other people. several people who i've met and a few of my friends have no reserve in telling me how "healthy" i look...some will even say flat out "fat". all of that is fine...and even amusing at times. but it's been a bit of a slap in the face and a little poke at my heart. beauty in any person grows out of all those intricate and ever-lovely things that live far beneath (and beyond) the shell of a body our soul lives in.
i am (kind of sort of) an "American". every store i go to in the States houses magazine racks filled with covers depicting nearly anorexic celebrities (or nameless "skinny" women in some cases). i am no stranger to depictions of the "ideal" woman.

and i am no stranger to the effects of the viral nature of that depiction.

i enjoy being a LADY...but i will never do the blah blah blah whatever it is i'm 'supposed' to. (i tried-it went KABOOM in my face) makes a big giant BLEH in my stomach-that empty "ideal".

(these are the warrior women of all the world)

and so...
xochitl went to the mechanic's shop today. to get there we drove right down into the mouth of the same winding snake that takes us to Paro. we crossed the river at some point and then plopped the green bullet (that's the car) down into the mechanics' shops. (the shops live directly at the opening of a runoff from the mountain. they flood every time it rains.) the garage doors are lined up one after another--the set up is the same as the "junk shops" on doniphan in west el paso. there's oil everywhere and it smells delicious. rusted and new metal pieces are all over the place...the sound of heavy machines and hammers was music to my ears. i could have gone to a fence building shop in Thimphu but it seemed to be difficult to schedule...but difficult things always seem to be hidden blessings in Bhutan.
i couldn't be happier. that complex is like a dream. the sound of labor, real hard labor, bangs in the air...Hindi is spoken all's beautiful for a gal like me to think of working in such a lively and lovely place. reminds me of Mexico or Canutillo (just outside of el paso). photos of these adventures will come soon.

i was lucky to get some help in scheduling some time to was almost postponed again but i refused to let that happen. this morning this LADY (xochitl) welded.
oh goodness it felt so wonderful to get filthy. of course, there were only men working in said complex. yesterday, when my friend, Jurodui and i walked in, he introduced me and explained that i was the lady that needed to weld. immediate response: laughter- which made me laugh. there was a misunderstanding and the man was under the impression that i was ordering a boat and a bridge to be made by him. my immediate response: laughter. i explained that i would just need a little guidance with the welding machine (i had never seen one quite like it) and the rest i could do on my own. the mechanics seemed curious and were definitely excited. oh the joy of EXCITEMENT and ENTHUSIASM--we agreed to learn from eachother! no one, i'm certain, especially not a 'woman' has ever come to them for help concerning art. and so it is my be the first. (first in many many ways, i'm sure.)

and so here we go! Jurodui and i walked into the mechanic's shop, i sported my dungarees for good luck purposes-texas boots on my feet. of course, i was greeted with a giggle and many many onlookers. before arriving i knew there had to be method in my delivery (or madness from the onlookers perpectives) so i immediately grabbed the rebar rod and began to cart it around the mechanic's shop. and so the pace was set. the day was incredible. noise everywhere, absolutely no hope of communicating through language, a balcony lined with 30 curious and shocked onlookers, and xoch maneuvering her way around a big juicy boat-Dulal (the welding expert of the world) helping her, filled with half amusement half confusion half excitement. that's right-150 total!
and so the boat was assembled. hand gestures were perfected, laughter was had, barriers were melted...and of course, the 'ideal' was ignored.


and onto some not so...........??.........stuff.

November 20 marked the 20 year anniversary for the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Only two countries in the world have yet to be a part of this Convention. Can we guess which those are.....Somalia and the good ol' United States of America. ouch. VAST collaborated with Unicef and the National Convention for Women and Children to organize a week long celebration for the children in Thimphu. There were painting, drawing, and poetry competitions for the children. The final products of the week long celebration were over one hundred drawings, paintings and poems as well as three beautiful murals-all expressing the rights of the child as children saw them. Several groups of youngsters were invited to help create the mural paintings. Young monks and nuns, children with disabilities, groups of elementary school students and, of course, all the children who normally spend their days roaming through and playing in the streets of center-city Thimphu all took part in the creation of the stunning murals. The entire week was beautiful-children danced, sang, played and created art. The clock tower was filled with color and life and the event was another beautiful example of VAST's ability to carry out such incredible and moving projects. The murals were exhibited and accepted with warmth and appreciation and the entire event was hugely successful.

While the entire celebration was carried out beautifully, one tiny moment in one day deserves mention.
xochitl writes a mini-sort-of-story.

Tiny Lungten stood in front of the massive mural, gho (that's the Bhutanese traditional dress for men) covered in dirt, grime under his unclipped nails, knees skinned scraped and scarred. He sported an empty pink backpack-a tattered doll dangled from its zipper. His little hand reached down to grab a paintbrush and he began to paint his masterpiece.
Lungten smiled and sang as random lines, shapes and numbers flew onto the canvas.
He was happy.

Before Lungten could choose his next color and move onto his next spot on the giant canvas he was chased away. Lungten was too naughty to help create the mural. Lungten was too naughty to be guided instead of rejected.

Only 'good' kids had something worthwhile to say. Only 'good' kids could express themselves during the 20th Anniversary Celebration for the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Working with children is always a challenging undertaking. Their impressionable nature inevitably leads to this push and pull that constantly moves and freezes you. How close to their level should I get? How authoritative should i be? i have never had a problem RAISING (some may not consider it an upgrade) myself to a child's level.

Lungten is my friend. i see him often, wandering through the streets of center-city Thimphu, his tiny home made bow and arrow strapped to his back. He's a firecracker of a boy. He constantly observes, constantly watches everything and though we have trouble communicating through language, we always understand one another. He dances like a dream and always lacks fear in his delivery. His stare is fierce and wiser than his age would indicate, but on the afternoons we've spent exploring together, he has never failed to timidly hold my hand.
Just minutes before Lungten was evacuated from the clock tower, two of his friends revealed the sadness of Lungten to me. i walked by the boys as they drew depictions of their rights as children. Their paint covered fingers pointed at Lungten as they asked me, "Are you his friend madame? He said you are."
i replied that i was everyone's friend and definitely Lungten's too. The boys looked at me with concern in their eyes and said, "His parents madame...his parents dead."
i looked down at Lungten, then back at the boys-their eyes were still full of concern. i smiled and said, "well that's probably why he isn't afraid of anything isn't it?"

The boys smiled and before i knew it, Lungten was singing and dancing to Hindi songs.
He is six years old.

Of the many striking things I've seen in my two months in Bhutan-all of which have been tremendous and beautiful in ways i couldn't have imagined-Lungten's evacuation from the Clock Tower Square that day has been the most difficult for me to accept. I cannot be silent. Children that live in Lungten's circumstances are
the youngsters who are most at risk. His booming brain and soaring spirit are just as valuable as any 'good' kid's might be. and in a place like Bhutan, where the future of a people will be carried out by the minis, every child deserves their moments. In every place, including my home across the world, all the minis matter.

i have no barriers or boundaries in terms of the amount i would give in sharing and exchanging with people (both mini and not-so-mini). i understand that carries some implications with it..and at times puts me, and those i'm sharing with in a very vulnerable position. but this has been in me for much longer than i can fathom...and so i carry on the way the women of my family have for generations...without fear. "it's not about changing the world-you can't change other people", my friend who operates the green bullet keeps telling me, "you can only change yourself." and so it is.

i continue to listen and absorb. i continue to smile at the binnacle that's gone missing...and my compass that never fails to waver.

To be a stranger.
To move forward and backward at once.
To feel at home in two places.
To want to push.
To want to pull.
To want to leave and stay.
To speak without speaking.
To be challenged and to be harmed.
To protect and damage.
To be silent.

--just a few "to...'s"--

all these "to....'s" are part of my machine's operations these days-they're all part of some process (whichprocessitmightbeidon'tknowyet!) but IT's ALWAYS the PROCESS. The funny thing is that there's always lag in the process. The spark will happen and months, if not years later, I get to a point where I can really bring all the levels of the process together. And here I am. One year (less now) to understand what is happening around me, to understand what is happening to me, to understand what I'm doing, what my presence alone is doing. Keeping your hands off the wheel is one of those ultimate KABOOM situations...KABOOM because its almost impossible and you're likely to crash at least once when you try to let go and KABOOM because if you manage it, so much floating and freedom sends you everywhere so very fast and you're likely to crash-ev.

but i'll go forward my my the freedom that is born out of flight is GLORIOUS.

i send my warmest (Holiday!) greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan.

--himalayan hug sent via wind currents and dissolving/forming clouds...and the snow flakes i hear are falling in the desert and not in the himalayas!--

p.s. to view more photos from the CRC celebration you can visit:
and i shall provide one more link the coming days with the photos i've taken. cheers!