Monday, October 26, 2009

Elephant Kings and Queens

And so i find myself settled! as "settled" as one can be considering some of the adjustments required when a gal crosses the oceans and the mountains and the clouds and and and... i've found a beautiful roommate--Miss Rebecca from Norway--who is working with the UNDP as a photo journalist/media coordinator. aside from her work with the UNDP, (i am so very thankful) she's nuts! beautiful traveling Norwegian that girl is! the tremendous process of digesting things when you arrive in a country that is in such a complex situation feels a little bit lighter when you can talk with someone about it. it's uplifting to have a person you can share stories with about the places you've come from and the place you are now...and of course, it makes me smile to have been granted one of those magical Bhutanese wishes by way of a beautiful roommate.

we have "click" moments...the moments when we're sitting up above peering down between these Himalayan mountain tops at ourselves tick tock about, through Thimphu--smiles and courage spilling from us as the sharp crisp sun hits our faces.

it goes like this:

sunday market time-two "chelips" walking about trying to bargain for cheap pillow cases. they spot incredible baskets scattered in front of a woman selling vegetables out of them-baskets full of garlic, onions and chili. after ten minutes of extreme sign language, these two ladies recruit an english speaker to translate, "we would love to purchase those baskets from you". ten minutes later-after smiling their eyes out to explain without words that they weren't crazy for wanting her carting tools-baskets, pillows, blankets, beds, waste baskets, weaving yarn, and pieces of the Bhutanese national dress in tow, the ladies carry their mountain of items, catch a cab, smiles and lady muscles bouncing into the eyes of all the giggling onlookers, home to their apartment. full of satisfaction and excitement.

first settled night in their apartment time-the ladies decide they want to find a drink to toast to the success of their shopping adventures from earlier that day. a friend of theirs agrees to take them down the street in search of some beverage, but it was tuesday, and tuesday is dry day in Bhutan-the bars are all closed, but you can still find a drink in the tiny shops. they walk awkwardly into a few shops (the only people looking for a drink on dry day). in Bhutan, directions are given by a systematic flailing of the arms in the basic direction of where you want to go. no street signs, and no numerical addresses lead to great adventures. so they go in circles for a while, following the graceful gestures the shop owners are directing them with. they finally end up on the back end of a little joint, lights are out, but there's noise inside. their friend knocks and opens the door. the two chelips find themselves in a curious situation...they've walked in on an intense game of "marriage" all across the table, money and laughter too. even their Bhutanese buddy was uncomfortable. they awkwardly ask if they can buy a and walk back up the steep hill to their apartment. once there, they find the lights are out (again) but the day was so good, they pry open the drink and and have one last good laugh for the day.
there have been so many moments when we've screamed of "chilip". foreigners.

it's interesting to see the way things bloom in this place. everything is so crazy when you arrive somewhere that's totally foreign to you-it took some time to allow myself to notice that in the madness of adjusting, the place is so very steadily paced. i've only just realized how quickly even i move about in the U.S. its the tick tock syndrome. tick tock go go go. it's certainly necessary, but there should be some balance. the tick tock should be acknowledged and minded, but it shouldn't be driving the car or tractor (i'm in Bhutan).

i guess its easy to forget about what is right in front of you when you're so concerned with what is ahead. in a place like Bhutan, what is right in front of you seems to be otherworldly, but if you let the tick tock go you can get your head around the fact that it is absolutely of this world.

i suppose it goes back to the insignificance a person feels when they enter such an overpowering place. it's my understanding that most people who come here experience an immediate shrinking of their being the moment the drukair plane starts its winding dissent through the Himalayas. it's a terrifying feeling, but a very important one to have at least a few times in your life--especially if you're alive for the purposes of assembling what is in you.

and the great irony is that while time hardly exists in Bhutan (the clock tower hasn't moved, no tick or tock, since it was built) every now and again, i'm realizing my time here is short...and though it feels steady and slow, it's moving quickly. my first of many projects with the students at VAST has begun. we spent our last two saturdays in the company of kites made of Bhutanese newspaper and the stiff straw they use for their brooms. the students drew whatever they chose on their kites. we attempted to fly them in one giant fleet of glimmering messages, and while they all flew for at least 4 seconds, only one climbed its way up up and away. the kites will be used for an installation at the Young ZOOM on garbage exhibition to bring to light the possibilities of recycling materials. the goal of the exhibit is to teach the community about waste management. (recycling, proper disposal practices and general environmental awareness.) when we started making the kites i asked the children what their understanding was of the Bhutanese prayer flags. almost all at once their eyes lit up and they said "they send a message!". so i responded, "let's send yours."
a while back i showed them slides of some of the three dimensional artists i admire. the artists ranged from work made by folks i studied with in el paso (andres payan, aryk gardea, jesse meza, kaletia roberts...) to judy pfaff, andy goldsworthy and cai guo name a few. i decided in order to make some sort of map i had to start with the goal of helping them understand that they can use anything to make a piece of art work, and often times, the things you wouldn't normally use to make a work, are the most effective. so when our kite making began, i was thrilled to see them understanding completely that the kites alone were not the work, nor was the drawing they put on them...the art will be the making of them, the flying of them and the use of the kite as a material to transfer a larger idea. we're not sure how we'll install these kites yet...the idea is marinating in the kids' GIANT BOOMING brains. hooray for these bright young people... AWAKE!

along with this first project i'm working on a larger piece, focused on the trash issue in Bhutan... (that one is a surprise!)

in collaboration with VAST, i'm coordinating a workshop with the Youth Development Fund based in Thimphu. there are many young people in Bhutan who fall into limbo- not in school, not able to get back into school, not able to gain employment. this is a piece of the "youth problem" situation...and something that inevitably comes with migration from rural areas to urban, booming growing cities and ...................... development. so the Youth Development Fund (YDF) implements programs to provide young people with alternative opportunities. (vocational training, employment grooming...etc.) there's a media club that is sponsored through YDF and Asha Kama and i have offered our experience to help them understand basic elements of design and aesthetics that might help them use the skills they've learned...most of which are in the area of photography. essentially i'll help them build their understanding of how to visualize things and form an understanding of the connection between the photography training they've recieved and art. hooray!

i'll also start a workshop on jewelry making tomorrow. the goal of that workshop will be to help recovering addicts (in Bhutan, when i use the word "addict" i'm not making reference to the hard hard drug kind...) learn a commercial, sell-able, skill. i'm so very excited.

along with all this i'm hoping i'll fit in some traveling in the coming months. i recently visited Paro, which was actually the city i first saw upon my arrival to the Kingdom of Bhutan. (too bad i was sooooooooo jet lagged and, how might one say, not even connected to my body at that point, i didn't remember any of it.) so every piece of my recent mini trip was like a dream. the drive from here to Paro is beautiful (and from what i understand, not the MOST beautiful in Bhutan! she smiles.) But Paro did something to me...something i couldn't put into words... something i was hoping for.
The city is wider than Thimphu. That open space is carved, molded, compressed, expanded, GROWN between two mountain tops (or five or six or seven or....) i think i came to understand my movement as i flew atop that thin two lane snake through the mountains. the movement of my journey is calm now (everything is settled now). it will be a long journey, i'm sure, filled with mad wild peaceful tender brutal and ever lovely moments... forgetting, remembering, learning teaching sharing and growing.
the vastness of this place is overwhelming. i imagine the flowers that live here grow up from the earth's core and stretch down from (reaching up toward) the tips of silver star life. it's a little bit closer to the sky is the sky here. in Paro i sat atop the city and saw the shapes of man draw patchwork across the valley. softly. one plane cut gracefully and admirably through the clarity of the crisp sky, winding through the slithering space formed by the mountains (the space lives like a graceful chubby snake.) i sat amongst the ghosts of apples, leaves dancing with gold on their edges, clouds dissolving and forming with slow smooth rhythm.
"if you just close your eyes for fifty seconds you can will the clouds away..."

gracing the drive from Thimphu to Paro i saw giant elephants formed from stone. they've formed at the mercy of the Himalayan rain and the touch of some magical hands no one actually has or will ever see (we only see the elephants and...). those elephants stood across the valley like giants...protecting and reminding. that drive, my first drive, exists like a dream. it exists on my finger tips (they reached toward everything) and across my skin is still swimming in the cold wind that breezed by the window i stuck my head out of for the majority of the drive home. ---careful not to fall'll go down down down. oh the cliffs.---

car windows and elephant kings and queens (the oldest of all the elephants)..and some delicate dancing being that's wrapped its tiny fingers around the -clumbsy- lenses in my eyes. (they're human)

things you can't believe exist are created and REMEMBERED in Bhutan...they live in the land and in the air...and in the dangling flying messages that are everywhere...
i couldn't say where the memory was born or what precisely it is born out of. (i wouldn't dare disobey such an overpowering mystery). only something in my somewhere tells me-when that incessant tick tock has gone and my slumbering parts rise out of the metal bed they've been sleeping in, and the lenses of my eyes adjust their search for grace-i know in my soul that that memory is in all humans. that memory made us. that memory gave birth to the infinite truth of goodness and paths and emptiness and space and the volume, pace and presence (or absence) of that tick tock....

it will balance soon enough, and settle into some sort of rhythm. until then i'll sit these silent moments out, gathering fuel...and assembling.

i was asked by a student what the difference was between Bhutanese art and american art. oh i had no idea where to begin! after fumbling a bit and doing my usual word vomit thing, i finally just stopped and said "in Bhutan, you have a reason to make the work, it is for a specific purpose. in the u.s. artists are always searching for the reasons to make the work, the search with the work..." i still don't know how i feel about that mini epiphany. is it better to have a reason or not? is it better to be perpetually searching...searching without knowing what it is your searching for? i think artists do this innately...they are born with a desire to search and find and lose and gain and build and destroy and and and...

i like the search. especially when you don't know what your searching for and have no desire to determine what it is your searching for. i know now, that there is ALWAYS something searching for you. and if you give in to the movement and whirl of "oblivion" (keep your hands off the wheel) you might actually bump into that something...then comes the magic...

i wonder what the artists here would say about that search...i wonder if they too need that search... does the religious nature of the work they make seperate them from the artists who are searching?
(why do i want to know this my brain is twitching from the relentless domino effect of the thought process "la")

that being said, in some ways it would be almost impossible to discuss the differences between art in Bhutan and home. all the madness that has moved and molded and triggered the many faces and souls of american art does not exist in Bhutan. art is for worship here. so to discuss the difference between art in Bhutan and home you would have to have one hell of a break-EVERYTHING-down session and of course, you'd probably end up asking that ridiculous question. (the "what is art" one) and inevitably you'd have to validate one end and invalidate the other...because whether or not you want it to, that always slips in when you try to talk about art. creativity and other-worldliness is one of those mysteries we should not disobey.

sometimes its better not to disobey the overwhelming power of such relationships and questions...sometimes its better to simply let these things exist as they do...and ABSORB its beauty...where ever it may be...
and especially in this place...

as always...there is more to come...

i continue to smile and send my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan.
(Himalayan hug style)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I Smile.

After a completely insane few weeks, I sit on the couch at VAST and finally feel like I may be able to find some words to begin this story. The two weeks that followed my time in Philadelphia were, to say the least, CRAZY. It was like an insane chapter out of a novel, when the main character is pushed to the point of a totally ridiculous melt down. I won’t go into details about the strange things that happened but I will mention one thing-in the event that anyone who might read this intends to travel through India. I didn't have a proper visa to travel through India so my flight was rebooked, I was sent to New York overnight, only to return to Newark Intl. the next day (I’m just a small town girl—if you can imagine me running through the streets of crazy crowded noisy Manhattan with only 15 minutes remaining until the deadline—I felt like I was in a (bad) movie.) But of course, there was more. I arrived back at the airport and they had overbooked the flight…so I couldn’t fly (quote). By this time, calm cool and collected Xoch decided she should come out of her peaceful shell. After some “informative assertion” the airline understood that if I did not leave the U.S. that night, I would not be able to get to Bhutan for at least another three weeks. (It’s difficult to get here, especially during tourist season.) So…after it was clear to them that rescheduling was not an option, I flew over the Atlantic in first class directly to Delhi.

–oh the funny ways of the universe…my jeans alone were odd and out of place--

I learned from two tour agents that there is no VISA required for transit through a country. SO! Here are the possibilities—

1. I did indeed need a VISA and should have planned that better.

2. I did indeed need a VISA but it could have been processed upon arrival in Delhi for half of what I was charged…so I “got owned” as my little brother might say. (this is the more likely of the options)

3. I did NOT need a VISA and still…I “got owned”.

Oh India.

--now onto the good stuff—

Three days ago I realized it was October. Seven days ago I realized I was in Bhutan. My time here has been full of unexpected challenges and beautiful adventures. In the first week I was here, I found retreat and tranquility at the park just below the Royal Stadium in Thimphu. I sat next to the river and listened to the sounds of this place. That river is now the river of my mornings…even if I only visit it for a few minutes…its SOOTHMAD rushing makes my day.

I was very fortunate to be allowed to stay with a friend’s family for my first two days in Thimphu. After those two days I moved to Babeca—a village just outside of Thimphu. (now Thimphu proper as it is growing) I woke up every morning to two beautiful tiny faces full of excitement and curiosity for the “Auntie” from a faraway place. It is custom in Bhutan for the generations of a family to live together, so I was lucky to live in a home shared by three generations. This is a beautiful thing to witness, especially in a place that is rapidly changing and preservation of its culture is a major priority. The youngest of the family, beautiful baby Yeki, entertained everyone and could often be found entertaining her uncle, who is a monk. In the last two weeks, I have walked among the clouds as they boomed 20 feet away from me and then swooped up toward the tops of these Himalayan Mountains. By day, those clouds dissolve into a pristine blue sky…only to return again during the night.

I have seen a Himalayan monsoon storm and felt the bone chilling cold of this high place-it’s a little bit closer to the sun where I now make my home. During the monsoon I climbed among the clouds and rain up the slippery slope of the mountain where my host family lives. I am completely “of the desert”, so for me these monsoon adventures were heavenly. MORE WATER IN 24 HOURS THAN I HAD SEEN IN TWO YEARS. For the Bhutanese—not so much. The dirt roads up the mountains are impassible during rain storms, floods are inevitable and their harvests will be damaged if not totally ruined.

I arrived just in time for Thimphu’s Tshechu where I was fortunate enough to witness some of Bhutan’s most incredible religious traditions first hand. I have visited a traditional Bhutanese home and was lucky to be present for a Puja ceremony which was hosted by my host family’s oldest generations. During a Puja a group of monks goes into a home and chants prayer all day in the altar room of the house. The monks’ sounds float rhythmically into the air..and when I think of it, I can still hear them in my ears.

I was a guest at the opening of Bhutan’s National Boxing Tournament—coming from a city where boxing and soccer are GOLDEN, I obviously had an incredible time. The Bhutanese crowd can be compared to a Mexican crowd (minus the insane fights, public urination and trumpets and drums). The peoples’ sense of humor, though I couldn’t understand most of the commentator’s jokes, was so very refreshing. It was also refreshing to watch Olympic style boxing. Bhutan is a peaceful place, so the boxing I have seen in the States and around Mexico would never happen here. (No brutes.)

I had my first meeting with the student s at VAST on October 3. I was amazed. I sat in front of a group of young children who were interested and engaged in conversation. They were excited to learn what I might be able to teach them, and happy to discuss ideas and possibilities for the “strange sculpture” we will surely be making. (in this case “strange” equals contemporary) I was full of excitement and I was full of nerves. There’s much to be taught and much to be learned and so many things pushing, pulling and guiding both.

I’m so very interested in the workings of progress. My interests to this point were guided by ideas of family and values and how progress is made through nurture-I’ve always thought that, for the most part, parents held the promises for a child’s future. I find myself in a funny place now. What happens when your world is completely foreign to the world your parents know? In this place, progress is such a delicate flower. There’s that push and pull situation—a little bit of push a little bit of pull…if one moves more than the other…doom’s day. The situation seems to be an extreme. The parents are teaching the children while the children are also teaching the parents. And while this happens everywhere, it’s a very unique situation here. The children teach parents about things like recycling and the dangers of burning trash. The parents teach children what is was to be Bhutanese—to be Buddhist. That has been a very interesting aspect of my journey so far. I wasn’t raised under any religious belief system. In fact, in many ways organized religion was discouraged. I talked with a friend here about that and he explained that Buddhism is not a religion; it is simply a way of life. It is a system of teaching by which a good human lives by.

I feel a great challenge approaching…one that is much larger than those I expected. Teaching is always a challenge, touching lives is always a challenge, progress is always a challenge. But the challenge I am feeling in my soul probably has much to do with the battle that is stirring in my slumbering parts. In order to carry out this project I had to buy a camera and a laptop—both of which I had never considered owning. I dipped into some of my savings to treat myself to an iPod as well, on account of my dependence upon music in hard times. All three of those gadgets (the iPod especially) were things I detested in the past…and the horror of knowing that I need them now, the horror of knowing that those material things are evidence of “progress and development” and evidence of….

How do you say….

money money money money money (“makes the world go around”?)

well that horror is the most bone chilling and confusing struggle I’ve experienced.

So, countless times, I have sat near the clock tower (center of town) and children come and want to listen to my iPod (thank heaven I don’t like that gangsta shiz). They want to see the photo I’ve just taken or see what it is I’m typing…and what do I do? The best I’ve thought of is to play Bob Dylan for them and to show them photos of themselves and the big blue sky that floats above my home in El Paso. I show them pictures of the dark streets in New York—sky scrapers towering above. I’ve come here to find a balance…to find some truth in what it is to be “modern” and still be pure. I’ve come here to teach them tools that will help them remember as they move forward and I've come here to understand the workings of that "little bit of push little bit of pull". But…I couldn’t come without these items, without these things. And I could never tell the kiDdO that he shouldn’t see my camera or my iPod or my laptop. Why shouldn’t the Bhutanese have what the world has?

And so there’s the situation. I won’t find that balance immediately…I know that. But I must say that I have never felt so small…the tremendous power of the mechanisms of progress cannot be avoided. The tremendous power of change and preservation cannot be avoided.

I am in the Kingdom of Bhutan…its capitol city booms with the strange workings of its current situation. The monks walk by on cell phones, the people wear traditional dress, children laugh and play in the streets, tourists take their pictures and buy Nepali goods before even thinking to ask if they’re Bhutanese. Traditional Bhutanese music plays in the shops on one block and on the next you hear modern Bhutanese music…and on the next you hear American pop music. I bought some antique bamboo baskets for my apartment (and really for Lola). When I came back to work, everyone asked me why I bought the old ones. I sat silently for a moment (old things, to me, are so very precious) and finally said, “In the U.S. you have to search for such beautiful old things. Americans don’t like old things…" They prefer shine. I prefer EVIDENCE. My friends immediately understood what I was saying.

I cannot deny my nerves and I cannot deny this confusing sense of hypocrisy I am feeling. But I also cannot deny my excitement and the simple fact that this journey has begun. It may not have begun when I arrived in Bhutan and it surely will not end when I leave.

I smile when I remember my excitement over the unexpected down pour of rain that filled the mountains with water a week after I arrived. I smile when I realize that that rain will surely be the first of many unexpected and beautiful surprises during my time in Bhutan. I smile because though I may not see them yet, I feel the challenges that lie ahead of me…and I feel the beautiful tremendous terror of what it is to be AWAKE.

And so…….she just keeps going! VARROOOOOOOOOM!

With a smile….I send my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan.