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 hour...at 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?!
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 balance...as 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.