Friday, November 12, 2010

...knowing there's an answer.

[a group photo taken during the ASPIRE after school camp. Campers and facilitators pose together after a day of cleaning up the community and starting the AIR SHAKE MURAL.]

There are thanks to be delivered! My time in Bhutan would not have been possible without the help of some extraordinary people. I thank each and every child I had the honor of spending the last 14 months with in Bhutan. I thank HRH Dasho Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck without whose support the entirety of my experience in and contributions to Bhutan would not have been possible. I thank the Ella Lymon Cabot Trust Fund Inc. for the gracious support of and funding they provided for this entire project. I thank Mrs. Norma D. Hendrickson for the grace she has always given me and for her incredible sponsorship and support of my time in Bhutan. I thank the UStanlee and Gerald Rubin Center as it was a major catalyst for this project. I thank Asha Kama Wangdi for his vision and his invitation to work with an organization that motivated and inspired me to chart my unique and independant course in Bhutan. I thank all of the colleagues, friends and family who have been so instrumental to the smiles I have shared in this place. A few must be named:

Mr. Jurmi Chhowing offered me absolute and unfaltering friendship, support, wisdom and encouragement which allowed and inspired me to stay the course. Mr. Tshering Wangdi has been both an inspiration and a beautiful friend. Madame Kesang Phuntsho Dorji has been my catalyst for many smiles, truths and a great deal of courage. Madame Yuki has been the sunlight. Dawa Pejor, Sonam Kesang and their beautiful family were my beautiful rescue boat. Lama Schenphen Zangpo has been the best “red-robed” buddy I have ever had…and a person I will always admire. Letho, Junu and Jigme whose genuine warmth has made me smile everytime I walk into their cafĂ©.

And of course, I thank my beautiful family.

Having accorded thanks where they are deserved I will begin.

In honesty, i have never been able to say what is easy for others. Several character flaws/strengths make it difficult for me to deliver information normally…so i will simply say:

during my time in the Kingdom of Bhutan, I have allowed myself to remain open constantly to the youngsters I have worked with so that I might be able to share with and learn from them. On a personal level, in my inside hidden parts, i have opened myself as i said i would...and when i had to, i shut myself as i needed to.

October 10 was the closing of the ASPIRE camp. that was my final initiative in Bhutan…my final but most definitely not the most important. PROCESS…it has been a PROCESS.

[photos of the some of the different areas the camp focused on and the facilitator who led those areas. Lama Schenphen-meditation. Pre-mural-art class. Madame Kesang Phuntsho Dorji-music. RENEW's visiting councelors spend a day of camp with the children and share their questions, answers and experience.]

To be honest, I admit I do not want to write this blog. too many details, masses and discrete-tremendous occurrences have whirled me to this day. to this point. And I have no idea how to put into words what I am feeling. but i know i must write for the sake of sharing and goes.

To better find an easy place to start I’ll share the magic of “ASPIRE”. the closing day of ASPIRE was beautiful. The camp itself was absolutely FANTASTIC…its mechanisms were interesting to watch at work, it’s results were intriguing to see unfold. Before I begin, I MUST thank the volunteers who were the FUEL for this project (in no particular order). Mendharawa Dorji, Yiwang Pindarica, Namzay Kumutha, Wangchuk Dorji Namgyal, Kesang Phuntsho Dorji, Kuenga Tenzin, Tenzin Namgyal, Jurmi Chhowing, Tashi Pelyang, Robinisimo, Lama Schenphen Zangpo, Harry HAL Shaw, Sonam Palden, Kinley Bokto, Tshering Wangdi, Subash, Ngedup Jamtsho, Madame Tshering and other volunteers from the Bhutan Olympic Committee and Palden Phuntsho. There are many many more who were instrumental to the success of the camp, but these volunteers gave their time with dedication and went "beyond the call of duty".

[The children deliver the "air shake". With such a large number of children, it was impossible to shake hands with everyone when 'deals' and 'promises' were made...and so, the air shake was born. Ugyen shows off his interesting approach to the first aid lessons visiting "doctors" Mark and Nick gave. Mr. Jurmi Chhowing teaches through analogies in creative writing class. Mr. Harry "HAL" Shaw rugbyFIES the camp. Cultural trips were an essential part of the camp. The children climb to Taktsang-an historic monastery in Paro. Dawa throws down some dedication during a friendly game of soccer under the coaching of volunteers from the Bhutan Olympic Committee.]

The camp was a follow up initiative to the summer camp a few of the teachers at the school in Changjiji had initiated. I say a “sort of follow up” because the mechanisms for the two different camps were in fact very different. it’s important to note the extreme differences, which I realize now, some people failed to understand. At the most basic level the camp was intended to provide positive time use for children when they are not in school. (this is what EVERY youth camp usually does.) in places that have minimal resources to offer hungry hungry hungry youth, positive self initiated time use is a useful base to keep in mind when youth projects are approached.

The defining characteristic of this camp was the idea that it was completely driven using tools that would help children learn how to think critically. This emphasis on critical thinking was not blatant…it was subtle, hidden…covert and effective. (perhaps it was more important to give them the tools and let them discover how relevant they were and how they might be used) Of course expression and creativity were the words used to inspire the children. creativity and expression were the most relevant ways to teach them how powerful their booming brains could be if they thought critically. the driving force within the entire two months of magic was the value and development of critical thinking though. Basically, ART (in all its forms) triggers sections of the brain that allow reflection, observation, analysis and (most importantly) response.

DIRECTLY from the proposal I wrote for ASPIRE (a supplementary introduction to the proposal was prepared by teachers at Loseling Middle Secondary School):

There is no formal art training or critical thinking curriculum in the Bhutanese school system. The time has come to give all children, whether they are enrolled in school or not, the benefit of creative, analytical and expressive concepts and learning opportunities. The problems Bhutanese youth are facing have been caused by a very complex web of issues. These problems are multi-layered and multi-faceted. A simple solution to the problems does not exist. Youth must be encouraged to think critically and creatively in order to find effective solutions for such complex problems (their OWN solutions). Without an ability to analyze and dissect themselves and their environment, the youth of Bhutan will continue to face hardship and suffering as they search for meaning in their lives.
According to the Journal of American Art Therapy, “Meaning’ in art is renewed by the creation process. That process is a way in which life can be examined and processed.” Youth must have a means by which to examine their lives as Bhutan changes rapidly. The same article goes on to state that “there is an aspect of art that can focus more on efforts to create and witness the flow of expression in the images that arrive out of art making. Those images can be used to teach people about the mind. (So emphasis isn’t on fixing, changing, curing or interpreting mental states, they are merely witnessed.)” The youth must find tools that work specifically toward the development of their ability to analyze what is happening around them. These tools will help them understand their surroundings and the rapidly changing society they are an integral part of. It has been proven through quantitative research that brain activity is notably different after drawing or painting for one hour. It is that creative stimulation that can replace the stimulation of substances. Rather than seeking stimulation from external forces, youth can use creativity and expression to discover the things that live within themselves.

To put it simply, hooray for the introduction and acknowledgment of the importance of an art curriculum in education systems! This was the first camp in Bhutan that was specially crafted to target HOW youth can think about their role as positive contributors to their country.
[photos from the Closing Ceremony of ASPIRE. The AIR SHAKE ASPIRE mural was inaugurated. A drama performance was presented based on Life Skills lessons led by Mr. Kuenga Tenzin, Ashi Mendharawa Dorji and Mrs. Sonam Paldem. The Changjiji Choir shocked every guest at the ceremony when they performed "Stand By Me". The audience chanted for an encore. Haikus hung amongst the guest as the participants in the creative writing class read them aloud. The children also prepared their very own performances-dancing and singing to the audience's delight!]

Some examples of why this is necessary:
A question like “what are your aspirations?” was-almost-approached with the idea that only one aspiration would be possible for the children living in Changjiji. “how can you ask for five?!” Fortunately, after some reflection on the essence of the camp, it was agreed that children, most of whom are not yet 19 years old, should absolutely have more than one aspiration. (this low level of expectation and motivation was one of the “intriguing details” I discovered.) in an entire lifetime, it is only logical that we be as many different “people” as possible! One life is a lot of years to fill and humans were given these nice huge brains and endless souls to use in the process! not to mention, what better way to apply the creativity they were developing than to have them generate ideas for their life’s accomplishments!

After a brief discussion with the group, it was made clear that aspirations were something like dreams, wishes and goals, but different in the sense that a certain type of hunger has to be driving you to aspire. An aspiration is a heightened goal, not a “realistic one” but a truly ambitious desire. Aspirations, I have always felt, are THE ultimate. They are the product of SEEKING rather than simply wishing and doing. A goal is a goal, an aspiration is much more!

i suppose i knew all along i wouldn't be satisfied simply helping a few kids. i knew i would feel FALSE if i only taught some kids how to draw, paint, build and assemble. And whether or not I knew exactly what I was doing, right from the start, when i (seemingly) crash landed in the Himalayas...this entire attempt was in no way simple.

[Tandin Norbu and Madame Xoch bust a move during AIR SHAKE MURAL prep day. Tandin Norbu is a very talented free style dancer, soccer player and Captain at his school in Changjiji.]

all of this, from start to “end” has involved helping children understand how to figure out what is within them. (it’s not possible to teach them how to express what is inside them if they don’t even know what is inside them, or have never been encouraged to figure it out-when I say encourage the idea of *acceptance* is attached) reassurance was necessary to let them know it was ok to want to figure it out...and it was ok to want to share as they figured it out...

[en route to Phajoding-located above Thimphu. The first of three cultural field trips, the climb to the camp site was 4 hours long and one of the most difficult in Western Bhutan. We all panted, huffed and puffed...some of us (Xoch and most of the other "old folks") thought we might die. Will power and mental strength led the wayand we mastered the challenge, arriving safely at the camp site above the clouds.]
i wanted to encourage them to constantly search for ways to have a look at their insides, check out their surroundings and express how they feel or what they think about the relationship they discover between the two...and that art, in its purest form is simply sharing what your body and mind house. Even if, perhaps what your body and mind houses is difficult for ‘outsiders’ to swallow (outsiders being the folks looking at, watching, talking to, and –hopefully- listening to you)…IT IS ALWAYS VALID. And the beauty is that, when you share the treasures, also known as questions and ideas, within you they begin to change, they bounce off of others and a plethora of other ideas mix, blend sometimes collide with them. And then! Then the lenses in your eyes adjust a little and all the treasures you house feel different, look different and become DIFFERENT. And then…here comes the gold…this magical thing happens. You look in front of you and there’s no book, you look around you and there’s no fall silent and realize, most of the time, you just have to look inside yourself and discover things using all that you’re made of! The periphery only serves as an added field of challenges to help develop what is within you.

Then that becomes your compass…and because it is unique to you, it will always help you understand, within your own ideas and reflections, the direction of YOUR SEARCH!

And so…to avoid sounding presumptuous i will simply share my observations.

[Self portraits painted by student in the art class. After five minutes of silent self reflection, the children were asked to paint who they felt they were.]
in a broader sense, the youth in Thimphu (one might safely include the other relatively larger cities in Bhutan) crave individuality. they crave identity, both individually and as a group. they are hungry for knowledge. they are hungry for exposure. they have an almost undeniable desire to share their stories. once shared, they expect to hear others'. they are brave and strong. they are confused and afraid. they are fragile...they are experiencing the most dangerous effects of the modern world's machine. THEY CRAVE THEIR VERY OWN identity-but because the critical analysis that is required to explore things has not triggered yet, they can only think to absorb and imitate.

The camp volunteers, children and I worked together to discover ways that they could search within themselves for methods to find peace of mind and develop their hunger and craving for knowledge. (my approach has never been and will never be one where I take on the role of the superior madame…all knowing and completely in control…I have never been one to spout knowledge, information, blind orders or perspectives. nor have I demanded to be in control in order to teach and learn. it’s a high hope but one I haven’t wanted to give up on: the best teachers understand that the best thing they can do for anyone, regardless of their age is to help them understand how and why to learn. Providing basic knowledge is perhaps the primary focus, but anyone can spout knowledge…a true teacher teaches WHY that knowledge is important and that the most important teacher in anyone’s life is themselves.)

And so I have always and only worked WITH children in Bhutan.

many of the youth in Bhutan quite simply want some clarity, a voice and some freedom.

(after all, they were given a taste of all three when that image making machine reared it's dangerous face before them in the late 90's) perhaps it is a balance they are (usually blindly) searching for. A balance between dependence on all the beauty their traditions offer and independence from the rules of a small, remote and sometimes constricting place. that balance is surely the single most important thing they can find in order to carry their country's future forward.

Now, the beauty begins when one accepts that youth deserve that freedom. (all this depends on perspectives…but logic dictates, a craving and hunger for knowledge can never be nurtured if youngsters aren’t free to explore anything and everything)

I will digress a little bit and touch upon the “aspiration(S!)”--the final step in the ASPIRE camp was that the children had to write their aspirations. The aspirations would then serve as their promise to themselves. the list-the “situation” it required to request a list and not a single aspiration was a major revelation for me in terms of why certain situations exist in Thimphu- would be signed by the HRH Dasho Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck and the “camp coordinators”. That the children were able to search within themselves and decide, based on what they discovered, where they wanted to start their search was incredible. At the start of the camp, such a reflective process was not possible.

A major factor in the creation of the children’s list of aspirations was quite simply their acquisition of more TOOLS. when it was made clear that the more TOOLS (both academic and creative, tangible and not) they have, the more free they would be, their potential began to glow. When the youngsters discovered that if those tools are individualized and modified the REAL MAGIC began! they began to understand that this was one way to achieve maximum applicability of their tools and power through their tools!

There are different types of freedom. Wait…no. To be free and running wild and unguided is not actually freedom. That’s the interesting idea we all have at some point in our life of what freedom might be. To be free and running with understanding, perhaps the most basic understanding, of the simple fact that one is running, and desire to grow wisdom’s wings (instead of a chicken’s flappers)…well…that is true freedom. Whether one is running from or toward something is relative and doesn’t always matter considering more often than not, both directions guide the course. Of course both of these concepts of freedom serve very intriguing and interesting purposes…one is just more dangerous than the other-more counter-productive (or maybe the slower, longer and more confusing route).

[Dawa and Yeshey listen carefully to the words of an elder who was visiting the historic Kichu Monastery at the same time as the ASPIRE camp during the Paro cultural field trip.]

So let’s just get to the nitty gritty of it. There’s an alarming substance abuse problem in youth in Bhutan, more specifically in its capitol city. The only number I could give is based on the hundreds of youth I’ve worked with since coming to Bhutan (all of whom are below the age of 21)…and sadly, the “number” I have observed is something like 85%. That number of course is approximate and involves only youth, I've worked with. This figure is the number who have used or are using. The number goes up if I address youth who know about, have tried or know someone who has tried or uses substances regularly.

Youth often mention “family problem” issues when asked what leads them to abuse substances. These “family problems” are, of course, a cause for emotional distress and turmoil…however, the substance abuse is not caused by domestic violence. Substances are used as the coping tool because youth don’t know how else they might be able to cope.

And this is where I realize my years of youthful madness can be used for positive things. When I started using ART as my coping tool the magic of tough stuff revealed itself to me. Of course, it’s tough. Of course, it’s confusing and painful. Of course, you feel like a baby sea turtle running desperately for the ocean.

ART gives you eyes! Rather, it allows you to adjust your lenses and focus your line of sight in whatever way your insides command. It requires honesty, doubt, questions, mirrors, darkness, light and answers…or the acknowledgement that there is an answer. I guess most of the time, just knowing there’s actually a way to find the answers (that are indeed out there somewhere) can give you more peace of mind and hope than anything else in the world.

I’m glad I was able to help the children I worked with let their hunger for answers grow. I’m happy I was able to help them find hope for the answers that are sure to come.

And so…at the end of this time in the Kingdom of Bhutan I find I can only do what I enjoy doing most.


I travelled here to share worlds.
I travelled here with respect and care for our world’s youth.
I travelled here to ‘keep hope alive’.

I cannot say precisely how I helped (only those who feel I did could say). I cannot say what hope I helped keep alive.
I can only say that within myself I have found hope I never knew existed. HOPE lives in the questions…and it lives in the possibility of an answer. HOPE lives and breathes in the voices and smiles of the children I had the incredible honor of knowing.

As always…there is more to come.

I send all of you my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Neighborhood Watch

...the second (and final) beautiful situation of the last two months, born out of the personal grant from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust Fund that made it possible for me to spend this time in Bhutan... time here is moving rapidly, i can't say when it will end...if it will every truly and completely end (i have a feeling it won't ever). i'm not usually easily proud but i am proud to have done what i said i would do. bends and turns in the road were a plenty (which is appropriate for this remote himalayan land). i have been opened in ways that led me to feel absolutely uncomfortable. i have been opened in ways that led me to feel absolutely invincible and courageous. i have been closed in ways that helped me understand what is necessary to survive and grow. i have been closed in ways that helped me understand the implications of comfort and perspectives. i have fallen and i have risen. all these things, i'm sure i will revisit for you all at a later date...for now, the most important thing to mention is pulled directly from the last line of the proposal i submitted to receive funding to travel to Bhutan:

"it is a bhuddist belief that 'if you are able to touch one thing with deep reverance and awareness, you have touched everything'."

that was my hope...i knew that if i was able to do that, every minute of my time in Bhutan, this journey would be everything i hoped it would be. for myself and more imporantly for the children.

and so...i will tell you all about the final project of the year i have spent in Bhutan.


On August 21, 2010 250+ youth from Changjiji hosted Thimphu’s first ever projection based international public art exhibition. The exhibition is called Neighborhood Watch. 11 cities simultaneously hosted the exhibition and showcased work from 13 different cities across the globe. Youth from Changjiji built a river of questions down the middle of the open air amphitheater and played an active and crucial role in engaging the community in the exhibition.

Children from the ASPIRE after school camp gathered at the amphitheater in Changjiji (which has only been used once for a community event since it was inaugurated three years ago) at 2:00 p.m. on August 21st. They carried two stones each from the river that flows through Changjiji, throwing them down on the ground when they reached the amphitheater. Poster board in one hand, crayons in the other, the children were ready to pose their questions. These children observed and helped with the entire set up process of Neighborhood Watch. As things usually occur in Bhutan, the tiny details are the more difficult ones to take care of. In the case of Neighborhood Watch, we were in serious need of electricity and overlooked the fact that electricity is not as easy to come by in Bhutan as it is in other places. And so, with the combined effort of many lovely lovely folks, we were able to wire some electricity together from a few different sources and the show was powered! The children watched every step and when night fell, we switched a huge light on their river of questions, lighting its course. Moments later, (after some very funny power outages and a smoking projector) eight projectors illuminated the walls of the buildings surrounding the amphitheater. As the children walked around looking at the images, their faces filled with curiosity. They were simultaneously fascinated by the projections themselves (light on walls coming from a machine) and the images that were being projected. They danced in front of the images, stood as beautiful canvas in the light of the projectors as the images streamed on them. Other visitors stopped and watched intently, waiting for something (I could never say what exactly). Dancing broke out, simultaneous song and the endless sound of CONVERSATION filled the air until 9:00 p.m.

That night (among some other close runnersup) was the closest I have ever come to TRUTH AND BEAUTY in my life.

Some Neighborhood Watch factNESS:

The method of the exhibition functions to challenge ideas of public and private space, how interaction can occur and exist in both, as well as how to address the barriers that are created by private spaces. Artists in the Neighborhood Watch Collective are called upon to create art work that is a reflection of their time and place. Essentially, the work aims to reflect life. As it is projected in public space, the artists are sharing their lives productively with others around the world.
Neighborhood Watch utilizes a unique method to carry out its mission. This is a completely community driven public art installation. Digital images of art work are projected onto the exterior walls of homes and three dimensional work (sculpture) is installed in the yards of homes. Everyone (the public, the artists and all inhabitants of the city and environment) is invited to watch and talk as they take a walk amongst the art work. The project hopes to spark conversations, questions, ideas and perspectives that can be shared through an interactive process. It is Neighborhood Watch’s hope that such an exhibition allows the community to interact with one another and share in an experience and a learning process, positively and productively.

Neighborhood Watch:A Projection Walk hoped to serve as a bridge over which societies across the world could participate in a true artistic exchange-a genuine exchange of the human soul. Participation, interaction, involvement and exchange of ideas were all made possible through participation from ASPIRE participants along with the Changjiji Community.

artists from the following cities partipated (8 of the cities held the exhibition simultaneously on August 21):

el paso, texas-USA
tampa, florida-USA
lubbock, texas-USA
austin, texas-USa
san antonio, texas-USA
victoria, texas-USA
san fransisco, california-USA
seattle, washington-USA


i am most excited to always...there is more to come

i send my warmest greetings from the EVER LOVELY Kingdom of Bhutan!
(all rights to photos are reserved by the Neighborhood Watch Collective and those artists responsible for the work. thank you for respecting this initiative's enthusiasm to share these photos with you for your viewing pleasure)

Monday, August 30, 2010

up where we belong...

Dusty red rooftops form patchwork where green paddy fields once lived. Friends of mine have recounted the way the area used to look some time ago. From what I gather, it must have floated on the surface of the earth, the way most of Paro seems to do. When I think of what the area used to be, I imagine the wind blowing making those incredible ripples and waves in oceans of paddy field, melting and morphing ever shade of green that lives in them. These are images I keep in my mind from short trips taken to Paro. These are images I see in my dreams. These are images that echo between the dusty red rooftops as I walk through the Changjiji Housing Complex.

When I hear stories of what Changjiji used to be I can’t ignore this strange sense of loss resonating in my chest. The peace and simplicity that used to live in Changjiji has disappeared. The housing complex has taken over the entire area. Block number 52 sits ten feet away from block number 53. Today, within those ten feet it is common to find youngsters hiding, carrying out any one of many different activities, the least severe of which would be smoking cigarettes.

While there are some obvious measures that could be taken in order to fix the “youth problem” as some may refer to it, there’s a not-so-obvious route being taken in Changjiji these days. Inspiring youth to crave the ability to reason and understand the world they are living in could possibly turn the “youth problem” flat on its back. Youngsters have to be encouraged to reflect on their world in healthy ways and to react to their world through positive means. The “ASPIRE” after school camp for critical thinking, creativity and expression hopes to teach them how they might be able to do that.

"ASPIRE" was born out of a desire to help the youth in the Changjiji Housing Complex through extra-curricular education, diverse exposure and positive use of time. Its approach is systematic, its reach is extensive and it's aims are heartfelt. Essentially, this camp was born out of hope. Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning.

The youth in Changjiji are suffering. They are not necessarily “bad”, they are simply swimming in this new (red roof top) ocean without any navigation system. It's difficult to say how things got so difficult for them in this particular neighborhood in Bhutan. These types of situations are usually the product of so many things; things that are usually left kindling in the heat of many tiny untouchable things. These things, after some time spent kindling, burst into flames and the fire grows. Perhaps I'm being too dramatic. I am not referring to a forest fire just yet...the situation in Changjiji is more like an out of control cooking fire. As for the children, they are in the cooking pot. As for the cooking pot, it' boiling over.
"Madame, I don't like my father. He is drunk always...he beats and sleeps. I cannot stay there."

"Madame, I have to fight. We all do. We get to show our fighting styles and show who is boss."

"Madame, kids go to the bridge to date but they have more than one boyfriend. They are having affairs."

"We make gang to protect ourselves. if someone comes we slice them"...when asked if they feel bad because other people are frightened, they respond, "no Madame, they can join and also be protected"...when I ask what they are protecting themselves from, the response is "it's just like that."

"My friend's grab my arm and twist. It's just like that, Madame"...this said with penetrating and somehow gentle intensity in her eyes.
These are the stories the children of Changjiji have to tell.

"Broken homes" are common in the housing complex. Children can reenact domestic violence scenes as though they themselves were inebriated parents committing physically aggressive or abusive or emotionally abusive acts. There are 12 year old boys who know the names of every drug in Bhutan, where to find it and just how to use it. Those same boys are filled with fear to walk alone at night because they may wind up in the violent arms of an older boy. Those same boys are likely to be convinced that gangs are their safe haven and the only people who can show them "compassion". The number of school drop outs has also increased and the effects of their influence on in school children is alarming. 14 year old girls have friends who have multiple sex partners. It is normal for these children to see fights. It is normal for them to be confused and be left with countless unanswered questions. It is normal for them to feel afraid. Suffering, in all its varied manifestations is normal.

This is compassion gone wrong. This is defense systems smashing crashing themselves into offense systems. This is unrest in the peaceful kingdom. This is suffering in the land of happiness. This is a generational gap taking its casualties. This is fear unbridled. This is confusion exploding and imploding. This is misguidance and misunderstanding. This is not supposed to happen but it is happening.

In the face of all this, the children of Changjiji continue to smile. Their ability to keep smiling coupled with the absolute fact that these situations should not exist in Bhutan are the reason for the intiation of "ASPIRE".

At a time when the situation was almost irreversible, school teachers Sonam Palden and Kuenga Tenzin initiated Changjiji's first out of school camp in the summer of 2010. The "Tarayana Summer Camp for Leadership, Arts and Hope" was initiated by the counselors after systematic and careful observation and ground analysis of the youth situation in Changjiji. It was a ten day camp geared toward inspiring leadership, exposing the children to art and providing the community with hope. The camp was designed specifically for forty youth who were a part of the counseling system at Loselling M.S.S. Facilitator were chosen from diverse backgrounds, specialties and walks of life. Much to the camp facilitators' surprises, on the first day of the camp seventy bright youth stood in the common grounds of the school waiting to be registered. And so it began. The children were hungry for the opportunity. The children were ready for the opportunity.

The Tarayana Summer Camp for Leadership, Arts and Hope was a huge success. One could say that the product of the children's week in camp was difficult to swallow. Paintings screamed with dark, dramatic lines and colors. Poems sang of their suffering. A newsletter revealed the issues, setbacks and hardships of the Changjiji Housing Complex. Difficulty swallowing such displays is to be expected, but ignoring such displays is unacceptable.

It was obvious that the initiative had only just begun to see its potential. A (some might have said ambitious and impossible) proposal was drafted for a follow up initiative that would use a similar framework and systematic approach. As they usually do in Bhutan, the stars aligned and the United Nations Volunteer Fund, The Bhutan Olympic Committee and other private sponsors made it possible to carry out the extensive two month after school camp for creativity, critical thinking and expression.

The youth situation (I will now refer to it as a “situation” because I always stay away from the idea of any youth being a "problem") in Bhutan, is far from simple. To find a solution to the issues that are boiling over in Changjiji is no small task. However, it can be said that the youth situation's seeds are in Changjiji. The negative aspects of life in Changjiji are pumping through the veins of Thimphu making Changjiji the epicenter of the problems youth are facing in today's Bhutan. According to counselors at Loselling M.S.S., the number of students abusing cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and other psychotropic substances has inexorably escalated. Frequent gang fights have resulted in injuries to the young children of Changjiji, while drug use is crippling their health, minds and spirits.
We couldn’t just ignore it. We couldn’t just push the issue aside with stern punishment. Youth should not be kicked out of school, nor should they be held in jail so long that it becomes impossible for them to return to school. While these are, perhaps, just punishments for some of the things youth in Bhutan are stumbling their way into, these punishments are in some ways, counter-productive. Attitudes have to be nourished, guided, and even changed in many cases. Quite simply, youngsters need help because they don’t understand what’s happening around them, whether it deals with their own selves, their families, their community , their country or their society.

"ASPIRE" was aimed at reaching out to the youth of Changjiji to stop this multi-faceted problem from its source, directly at its core. It can be said that substance abuse, gang fights and rebellious behavior are forms of crying out, acts of sheer boredom or acts of frustration and anger. The youth of Bhutan are craving individuality and a means by which to express themselves and this camp was designed specifically to cater to their hunger. Ten facilitators and mentors serve as the gears of this huge machine. They have all volunteered their participation driven by a sincere belief in the absolute necessity of this new initiative.

“I could have the worst day ever. I could be feeling so low, but at the end of the day, after I’ve spent that time there I remember why I’m alive,” says Tenzin Namgyel, an ‘all-around’ volunteer who is contributing his experience and time to an initiative of this nature for the first time in his life.

All of the facilitators and volunteers contributing to ASPIRE hail from different walks of life. They all have different talents. They are all what one might describe as "different". From musicians to rugby coaches, visual artists to life skills experts, athletic coaches to writers and all the way through to street and theater performers-this is the fabric of the courses the children are offered during the course of ASPIRE.

“The camp that is being conducted at Changjiji is the sort of camp that should be conducted in every school in Bhutan. This camp is building a foundation and it’s the right way to go about things. Instead of telling them to do this or that, it’s helping to show them how they can decide what to do and how to do it best and as individuals,” Tshering Wangdi reflects as he remembers the first week of the camp he observed in mid-August.

The camp was meant to supplement the education youth receive during school hours with alternative education that could teach them how to use their time positively and constructively. The camp starts everyday with classes in five different sports activities made possible by the Bhutan Olympic committee. The children are split into groups and participate in basketball, football, rugby, athletics or taikwando. ASPIRE’s core curriculum offers classes in visual art, creative writing, forum theater, music, life skills and Driglam Namzha. To supplement their weekly lessons, campers are also taken on cultural field trips during the weekends. These field trips are intended to utilize their free time and remind them of the culture they must keep intact as they move their country forward.

Substance abuse is a major issue in the youth of Bhutan and is a major tangible target issue this camp would like to resolve. Substances are used as substitutes for boredom, quick fixes for emotional turmoil and as forms of stimulation. There isn't anything wrong with feeling bored. Every human does! There isn't anything wrong with being confused or feeling sad or angry. Every human does! There isn't anything wrong with craving some sort of stimulation either. Every human does! These things become a problem when they are evident in youth as young as 12 years old-youth who don't have the capacity or the facilities to process those feelings and react to them positively.

“It’s the ‘boredom in the kingdom syndrome, that no one does anything about”, says Jurmi Chhowing, creative writing facilitator.

ASPIRE is hoping to nurture that capacity and provide them with those facilities. Without these two essential things, youth will likely have a difficult time leading the future of their country. Youth must be given a guided opportunity to create the evolution of their culture. To create the evolution of the times they have been given.

There's not a doubt about it. The times they are facing are beyond our (I'm talking about us old folks) comprehension. Older generations can challenge the youth of Bhutan to rise and participate in moving their culture, traditions and progress respectfully forward. However, without guiding them relevantly, the youth will likely boil over in that cooking pot.

Art, in its innumerable forms, is a language that all humans can use to communicate. It moves across and defies racial, social, educational, and economic barriers and enhances cultural appreciation and awareness. If Bhutan’s culture and tradition is to continue to survive and flourish its youth must understand and accept their roles as guardians of the country’s future. They must discover the power art has in fulfilling that role. In order to effectively serve as those guardians, youth must have an understanding of how they might advance and contribute to the country’s future. In order to effectively contribute to their future and realize the lives they wish to carry out, youth must be able to effectively communicate and express themselves. They must be able to think critically. Youth must be aware of and embrace every communicative and expressive tool that is available to them as they carry Bhutan’s future forward. They must take advantage of their expressive tools and utilize them to affect positive changes in their lives.

Youth must be encouraged to think critically and creatively in order to find effective solutions for such complex problems. Without an ability to analyze and dissect themselves and their environment, the youth of Bhutan will continue to face hardship and suffering as they search for meaning in their lives.
Older generations can challenge the youth of Bhutan to rise and participate in society. Older generations can call upon the youth of Bhutan to move their culture and traditions respectfully forward. However, without guiding them relevantly, the youth will likely boil over in that cooking pot.

The children of Changjiji continue to smile. Those very smiles should never be ignored. Those very smiles are hope personified.

Those very smiles are a living breathing testament to the power the youth of Bhutan have and the potential they carry within them to ASPIRE to be anything and everything they may ever wish to be.

(this blog will be published in DRUKPA magazine, Bhutan's first ever monthly news magazine. if you are in Bhutan i certainly hope you will subscribe. if you are not in Bhutan i recommend you visit DRUKPA's website: )

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

i send my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"there are no children here"

I've spent these last few days in Changjiji. The Tarayana Foundation has kindly sponsored the "Tarayana Summer Camp for Leadership, Art and Hope" in Changjiji. It is Changjiji's first out of school camp and it couldn’t come at a better time. Changjiji is suffering.

During our daily one hour sessions, each group of camp participants shares their stories with me. They are all between the ages of 12 and 19.

"Madame, I don't like my father. He is drunk always...he beats and sleeps. I cannot stay there."

"Madame, I have to fight. We all do. We get to show our fighting styles and show who is boss."

"Madame, kids go to the bridge to date but they have more than one boyfriend. They are having affairs."

"We make gang to protect ourselves. if someone comes we slice them"...when asked if they feel bad because other people are frightened, they respond, "no Madame, they can join and also be protected"...when I ask what they are protecting themselves from, the response is "it's just like that."

"My friend's grab my arm and twist. It's just like that, Madame"...this said with penetrating and somehow gentle intensity in her eyes.

"Yes madame! I went roaming up up up and thats where I had first N10 [a drug]. My head was like this after [moving his small fingers in circles with an innocent smile]."

"Drugs make everything fine. When parents beat or friends beat or parents divorce...its just like that."

"If older boy says, I have to do, madame."

"Too scared to walk at night alone, Madame. They will rag [steal] on me. If I don't give they'll beat and maybe stab."

"Madame, you cannot call the police. They will not come and when they come it's late. They are afraid of the bosses."

"Madame! Last year I left home for six months tour of Bhutan, didn't inform my parents. Went for tour of all Bhutan!" When asked if he saw everything he needed to see, his response was..."no Madame, I like to see other places. Much nicer than here and parents will only scold and beat for one day. I was gone six months."

A 13 year old boy looks at me and says "Madame, I'll tell you one story. A man didn’t give me 5 rupees for the bus to go to the emergency room. I got my friends and took 500 from him. I just reached like this into his box and took. This is for revenge. I have to show I'm boss.” When I explained that a simple act of unkindness or perhaps greed, or maybe flat out poverty led him to respond in a way that was at least 100 times worse than what this man did, the boy explains, "If I need he should give."

This is compassion gone wrong. This is defense systems smashing crashing themselves into offense systems. This is unrest in the peaceful kingdom. This is suffering in the land of happiness. This is a generational gap taking its casualties. This is fear unbridled. This is confusion exploding and imploding. This is misguidance and misunderstanding. All of this is very sad.

I often ask myself, how did this happen? Is all this in us as humans? Is there no way to stop it because it is in fact our nature? Is it a fact of nature or is it the absence of proper nurturing? (Oh that age old debate between nature and nurture!)

These young humans are in no way weak. They are, indeed, very strong. Stronger than I can ever remember being when I was a girl. I could probably safely say they are also stronger than I can imagine being now as an older lady. 12 year old boys who know the names of every drug in Bhutan and just how to use it, those same boys filled with fear to walk alone at night because they may wind up in the violent arms of an older boy. 13 year old girls whose friends have multiple sex partners. It is normal for them to see fights. It is normal for them to feel afraid. And still, they smile.

I know a few neighborhoods back home that have hints and pieces of such problems. and of course, there are certain large cities in the U.S. a lady like myself would not even dare driving through, much less walk. However, in Bhutan?

How did this happen in Bhutan?

Parents are not debilitated with fear, parents are not being stabbed by gang members, parents do not even like to admit their children are going through these things, much less taking part in such things. So this only makes me ask again, in a country where its youth are the priority how did this happen in Bhutan?

Amidst an infinite and very complex web of causes and effects I manage to pull something from the sticky strings. That is, the idea of little humans growing up to be products of their environment.

Now, when I observe and question whether these little humans are a product of their environment I cannot ignore the voice in my head telling me this is one of the reasons for the problem. It is never completely a child's fault when they wind up behaving badly. There are so many factors that contribute to the LOSS OF VALUES that has led them to behave badly. This only leads me to ask how BHUTAN is home to such an environment. It's important to keep in mind that when I use the word 'environment' I am referring to an untouchable thing. I am referring to the workings of a machine that is, obviously, beyond control. I am referring to images and ideas about a world that is only seen on a screen. I am referring to mothers and fathers who are products of their own environments and are perpetuating this new environment. I am referring to the real and honest concern and attention that is missing in the broader realm of what these children are exposed to.

In a land where prayer flags flap in the wind everywhere, where mountains foster peace on their peaks…in a land where spiritual connections are living, breathing, walking beings...where the King plays soccer barefoot with boys from rural villages…how did this happen in a land like this? Has this happened because this new environment (the outside one) came too fast? Has this happened because the two environments that merged together didn't actually merge...they CRASHED. Though this country's development model in its great wisdom is designed to avoid the mistakes other developing and developed countries have made, something isn't working. Perhaps, it’s better to say something malfunctioned. Perhaps I am too close to the matter. Perhaps, the tremendous love I have for this country has made me worry too much. Be it as it may, these problems that might seem normal in other places, are especially heartbreaking to find here. Of course, I've always been a bit too sensitive and perhaps I'm speaking too soon.
Perhaps. But then again, Bhutan is small. There are stabbings nearly every week. Children are ‘roaming’ and hiding in friends' houses instead of going home. 12 year old girls speak of their promiscuous friends. At least half a city is abusing or has abused substances by the age of 15 (please do forgive me if this is inaccurate, but the children and I made an educated guess). Alcoholism is present in adults and youth.

Something has malfunctioned.

I could not say what it is that has malfunctioned. I even hesitate to write these things about Bhutan because I am not from this beautiful place and no given number of hours spent with youth could ever allow me to fully understand the scope of this situation. However, I have to share what I have seen and what the youth I have worked with have shared with me. I've always been one for honesty. The children deserve honesty. They deserve honesty because if that's absent, things will never be better for them.

Now, it must be made clear that Bhutan's most precarious youth situation lives in Changjiji. It is for that reason that this summer camp was organized there. Sonam Pelden is a counselor at Loselling Middle Secondary School and was instrumental in designing this camp. In her mighty wisdom and because of her admirable concern and dedication, she decided that something had to be done for these youngsters during their summer break. The situation is such that it is, in fact, possible that occupying their idle time like this, could avoid one more fight in Changjiji…could avoid one more stabbing in Changjiji...could avoid one more youngster starting a drug habit. Originally, the participants in the summer camp included 40 students who were nominated by the two school counselors from Loselling Middle Secondary School. These forty children were selected because they were more 'at risk' than the rest of the students. They are believed to be the MOST 'at risk' in-school youngsters in Changjiji. Unfortunately, most of these youngsters didn't turn up. 67 other youngsters, however, did turn up!! Of course, this has made the camp a bit more challenging for the volunteers who are guiding the workshops, but we probably all agree, we couldn't be more excited!

A young girl asked me today, "Madame, why do you like Bhutan?" I thought for a moment and replied "Bhutan gives me hope."

She smiled and continued questioning me curiously, "But why Madame? You are from America. That's the best place!" I answered, "Oh my dear, America has many many problems...we've just practiced hiding them for a long time. In Bhutan, there are no secrets. If I keep my eyes open I see so many things here. My country will never fix things because we are not always honest. People would rather close their eyes. In Bhutan, everything is very honest [whether purposely or accidently] there's hope to fix it because it cannot be hidden."

She smiled and I only hope she understood. At the very least, I know she was proud to be part of hope.

Thinking back to the things these youngsters have said to me in the last few days, I can only imagine what the selected students might have to say. My heart tightens when I think of what they might have said. My heart tightens when I wonder what they might be doing instead of attending the summer camp.

It’s unfortunate that they aren't part of the beautiful things that have been happened in the last four days. To effectively and thoroughly understand the stories we're trying to tell in our 'forum-theater' based performances the little humans and I have been systematically breaking down issues of substance abuse, violence, "affairs", crime, and sanitation. All of these issues are boiling over in Changjiji.

Our analysis method is simple. We start with one sentence that identifies the problem. 1) "Substance abuse is an increasing problem among youth in Changjiji." 2) "Changjiji is no longer safe due to an increase in violent incidents." 3) "Youth in Changjiji are increasingly having intimate affairs with multiple partners." 4) "Crime and fear are growing together making Changjiji a dangerous place to live." 5) "Poor sanitation is leading to low health standards and living standards in Changjiji."

After identifying the problem in one sentence, we identify the causes and effects of the problem together. I ask the youngsters questions and they also ask me questions. At this point, the chalkboard goes white with scribbled thoughts. Arrows shoot from one side of the board to the other showing us how EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED and problems NEVER simply exist. They are always a product of many tiny details compounded together.

After breaking down the drug problem, one youngster pointed at the right side of the board and moved his hand to the left. He said "Madame, if the government stopped drugs in Phuentsholing [Bhutan's biggest border city and the port through which nearly all goods enter Bhutan] they would never reach Thimphu. There would be no drugs?"

I smile. This camp is indeed a “Camp for Leadership, Art and Hope.”

The youngsters are full of wisdom and insight. They know what is happening they just don't always understand it. They FEEL the effects of what could (most) simply be described as "tick tock KABOOM" they just don't always understand how to make those effects postivie…because they're only children.

The last two days of the workshop ended with 72 children singing "Blowing in the Wind" (a song by the American musician Bob Dylan) in unison. The group, made up of gang members, drug users, victims of domestic violence and more fortunate and innocent youth, sang louder as the chorus came. "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind...the answer is blowing in the wind."

I explained before we started learning "Blowin' in the Wind" that Bob Dylan changed the world of music. He sang songs of beauty to respond to an ugly war-one of the most violent and unnecessary war's the U.S. has ever been a part of. Rather than responding with anger and violence he sang beauty and the world heard him. I explained that when Dylan was interviewed about his music, reporters would ask, "Are you writing protest songs? Are you writing songs about the war?" and Dylan's response was always, "Na man...I just write about what I see."

I explained that Dylan simply told the truth. As his eyes saw it he sang it. He simply sang reality. The youngsters looked at me and nodded that hard and certain nod they rarely use.

As I looked at their faces it rang in my ears...the title of a book by Alex Kotlowitz I read long ago:
"There Are No Children Here."

But there are children here. They are children.


as always...there is more to come.

i send greetings from the ever-lovely Kingdom of Bhutan.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Changjiji GOODNESS!

we visited the site for Neighborhood Watch today. we've decided that we will be using the projections in the exhibition to blanket the buildings in digitalized rice paddy fields. below the projections, on the metal suddered doors, we will have a seperate set of projections that will stream interviews with the oldest generations of Bhutan, alternating with interviews with the youngest generations of Bhutan. These projections will only show mouths speaking. It is our hope that we'll be able to gather enough projectors to have at least 9 voice installations running at once. the stories they will share will blend into one voice...made of the voices of Bhutan that are falling farther and farther away from eachother as progress threatens "the great divide"'s growth.this particular projection will open and close the exhibition.

today, in the gleaming himalayan sun, tenzin dorji shared his memories of what Changjiji used to be. "This land was all the most beautiful paddy fields in Thimphu. It was green. When i was young we would drive on the road above and look down at the paddy fields. I lived just across the expressway, and when i would look there was nothing here except the old homes that you can see [behind and amidst] the new buildings." later on, as we are walking toward the expressway to get a cab back to town he says quietly, "i suppose cities always change..."

it is tenzin's memories of Changjiji that have sparked our desire to show Changjiji as it once was, using projection. Bhutan has changed drastically...those changes have been most drastic in Bhutan's capitol city...and, as Bhutan approaches development carefully, as I talk more with the artists who will participate in this exhibition I realize more and more that the Bhutanese truly hope to 'develop' respectfully and with dedication to the Bhutan that once was. Their land and values are indeed a part of them...and when I hear people reflect on the changes that have swept into Bhutan I can't help but feel frustrated and truly touched. Does anyone else speak of their land so beautifully and honestly? Is there any place left in the the world that is EVEN ATTEMPTING to approach modernization the way Bhutan is?

Tensin remarked, "when the buildings are built they don't actually think about it. they just build. there is no green left in changjiji...and these buildings have not even been planned for."

along with the tremendous visual presence this housing complex has, Changjiji is also Thimphu's most fragile neighborhood. It has fallen victim to the effects of rapid modernization...poverty, gang violence, drugs, general "youth problems"...all these issues, which didn't used to exist in Bhutan...are festering in Changjiji. With the help of the Royal Bhutan Police, a new law enforcement outpost has been built in Changjiji. the crime rate has fallen according to young children who Tshering Dorji talked with while we visited the site. however, "the gangs still fight on the other side of the housing complex, opposite the police outpost". theft and burglary are still a problem and the children of Changjiji are often found skipping school or performing poorly. unhealthy domestic situations are still present and presence of gangs (and their influence) is still an issue. along with work that will reflect physical change and the passage of time in this kingdom, work will also reflect the social changes that have occurred...

i share some photos of the sight with you all.

as always...there is more to come!

i send my most excited greetings from the beautiful Kingdom of Bhutan!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Neighborhood Watch

I've been hesitant to write about this because I haven't been sure whether everything would come together. After meeting with the (FANTASTIC!) artists from Dato Creative studio and Happy Valley, I am full of hope and excitement.

Thimphu, Bhutan (in collaboration with at least 10 other cities across this crazy planet) will be initiating its first ever completely public projection art walk project. "Neighborhood Watch:A Projection Walk" will be held in Thimphu BHUTAN, El Paso TX, Tampa FL, Austin TX, San Antonio TX, Seattle WA, Oslo NORWAY, Copenhagen DENMARK, Paris FRANCE, Melbourne AUSTRALIA and Juarez MEXICO (this one is pending on account of the current safety situation, but it is my hope that we can find a way to execute the project safely...fingers crossed everyone).

I'll give you all some background on the project:

eighborhood Watch was initiated by Chelsea Goodwin in Tampa, Florida. It was inspired by the “Lights on Tampa” exhibition. a group of graduate students from the University of Florida came together and began discussing the possibility of mixing classic American drive-in theatre, some delicious grass roots organization and the kind spirit that is naturally shared when we are members of a common community together to create a public work exhibition. the initiative was aimed at sharing art with the public using complete access as its method.

in 2008, Jaime Carrejo, who was an original member of the planning group in Florida, moved back to his hometown of El Paso to take a professor in residence position at the University of Texas at El Paso. it was there that he and I met and decided to take on the challenge of such a project.

along with projections, we installed three-dimensional work in participating neighbors’ yards.

in 2008, the project was coordinated between El Paso and Florida and was submitted to the VISION 08 Festival in Chicago that year.

the ultimate goal of the project was that every time an artist relocated they could initiate the project in the city where they were based. in this way the project was to spread to multiple cities across the U.S. with dedication to the spirit of sharing life through art.

the method:
digital images of art work are projected onto the exterior walls of homes and three dimensional work is installed in the yards of homes. everyone (the public, the artists and all inhabitants of the city and environment) is invited to watch and talk as they took a walk amongst the art work. the project hoped to spark conversations, questions, ideas and perspectives that could be shared in this process.

ephemeral art:
ephemeral art does not exist permanently. It lives for a brief moment, or perhaps a long breath and then it’s gone. this exhibition, by nature is ephemeral. it is installed in one day and it opens for a single night. the public is invited to join Neighborhood Watch in viewing, interacting with and discussing the art work that is exhibited. the art work, the discussions and the ideas that are raised during the exhibition flourish through the night and, if successful, the exhibition opens up topics of discussion and a sharing of ideas that will carry on after the exhibition has closed.

non profit ideals:
there is no monetary compensation for this project, only general wonderful feelings that come with sharing our work with our neighbors around the world.

Now,when i decided to come to Bhutan I had to be certain of what i wanted to do while i was here. i was going to work with youth. i was going to teach sculpture. i wanted to discover the many ways in which art can help us live alongside them. i look back now and i realize, that while the children at VAST have developed their abilities to think three-dimensionally, that lesson is perhaps a tiny shimmering flicker in a sea of very beautiful and booming stellar lights! with two months left in Bhutan, i smile. i believe that we took on this adventure together and we have all learned so very much. (we of course referring to the 200 plus young people i've worked closely with during my time in Bhutan...and some lady named xochitl) perhaps, when the time is closer for me to depart...for me to return... i'll share in more detail what precisely i have learned and what i hope they have learned.

right now, however, i will say that i only hoped i would be able to reach a point in the project to be able to introduce something like "Neighborhood Watch" in Thimphu. in all honesty, i've only just realized how much Neighborhood Watch, in many ways, has shaped my own hopes for art...and the hopes i have for whatever work i make in my life. the sheer thought of being able to offer Neighborhood Watch to these beautiful Bhutanese people gives me goosebumps.

Neighborhood Watch exhibits work that is a reflection of your time and place in the world. initially, the idea was that participating cities would have live feeds going down...and each city would be connected via cyber space. so...essentially, by attending one exhibition in your own city, you had a chance to attend the exhibits in the other cities. and if the work submitted is effective, you get to have a glimpse into the life of worlds you don't live in. unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, we've had a hard time making this live feed work. and now, considering HUGE time zone differences, live feeds will be difficult. however, we're working on getting a website operational so that whatever is missed due to physical challenges can be viewed on the website.

the project is incredible and often times, i have trouble even getting my head around the tremendous power of such an exhibition. in bhutan, specifically, i am truly overwhelmed with the potential of such a project. this exhibition will be the first of its kind in bhutan. my goodness!...this exhibition is Bhutan's 'first' in many ways. as i wrote in one of my first blogs, 'contemporary art' is a completely foreign entity in Bhutan. a great majority of Bhutanese have never seen a single piece of contemporary art--eastern or western. most arent aware of how art has shaped the art CAN shape the world, echo the world...make the world. considering Bhutan's present situation (the situation that involves the big huge world meeting Bhutan's protected safe and beautiful world) the work that will be created for this exhibition will be unlike any other work submitted...the potential for these participating artists to reveal so many truths about the world is tremendous! we've discussed briefly during our first few meetings the duality of Bhutanese existence. Bhutan is living in two worlds at once. Bhutan is living in two 'times'.

It is important to keep in mind, drastic and rapid urbanization is one of Bhutan's most significant issues presently. I suppose one could argue that is THE broad issue from which every other issue stems. For Bhutan's leg of the exhibition, I proposed we hold Neighborhood Watch in Changjiji neighborhood and the members of the collective here agreed that it is IMPORTANT and NECESSARY to hold the exhibition there.

I'll be "co-facilitating" a workshop in Changjiji (or Changjiji 'housing complex' as it is referred to here) in July. i'd like to share some of the background on Changjiji as it was written in the proposal i recieved from Sonam Palden, a teacher at Loselling Lower Secondary School in Changjiji:

"The Housing Complex is known for its diversity of social background and quite recently it has infamously captured the headlines of our national newspapers. The Royal Bhutan Police felt the need of outreach station at the complex to curb and prevent the diverse social problems and it soon opened an outreach police centre at the hub of the Housing Complex. The crime rate in terms of vandalism, car-hijacking and other stealing acts, etc. apparently has drastically reduced. However, the problems associated with drugs and gangs have virtually boomed. The number of early school-leavers seemed to have increased and their influence on our school children is quite staggering and pretty alarming. Within last three months the number of our students abusing cigarette, drugs and other psychotropic substances has inexorably escalated. The gang fights have frequented injuring our young children and nocturnal gang prowling has literally posed grave danger to the late night commuters. Due to the support of the hard-core gang- bangers (early school-leavers) at the Housing Complex, the amateurs in our school are questioning the safety of other innocent children. They are often bullied and extorted and very few of such cases are reported to the school management. This has really debilitated some of our children who often insist to play truant just to elude these gang bullies.

Through our survey study and analysis of the ground situation while closely working with our abusers and gang-members, we came to learn that the to learn that children as young as 10 years old are into abusing substance like marijuana, tablets, all kinds of tobaccos, other psychotropic substances and even precursors. We have wide range of abusers and gang members irrespective of gender and age. The findings of our school counseling division reflect that many of the abusers are low academic performers and directly or indirectly they have very close connection with the notorious early school-leavers
residing in their residential vicinity.

The school has done all it can to accommodate to the needs of children with special needs, but it has been an uphill climb, for the school does not receive any support nor cooperation from the parents since most of the time their parents are defensive of their children. The school is guardian to three students who are completely neglected by their parents. Students are counseled by the school counselors but are worried that the students might need more than a few hours of counseling. Through our close observation and thorough analysis of each individual abusers and gang member and other problems either by influence of senior abusers or available of the superfluous of unsupervised free time. Many of them lack parental guidance since many parents come from mediocre or low income group who often entail working late hours. It is also known that majority of our children with special needs are rooted to broken families and dependent on their relatives who often maltreat them. In 2008and 2009, we had two cases of suicide which had close link to the problem deliberated here. The problems mentioned here are further aggravated with the complete dearth of recreational facilities and avenues where children can positively take part and keep themselves aside from gangs and drug abusers. Though we have a outreach Youth Centre at the Complex but truly it is not able to cater to the needs of our children with such needs. In fact, it cannot and it is impossible since the youth population in the Housing Complex is extremely high and they go to almost all the schools in Thimphu bringing up with them their own problems and these problems are infecting our children causing the pernicious impact to our entire school population. Literally our children are in great stake and we strongly feel the need of some viable solution to combat these problems. It is not just the concern of the Changjiji Colony, but a concern of entire society since these children would have an invasive adverse impact on the future of our nation. It is our responsibilities and duties to prevent them from going astray and however if they are already plunged into these problems then we must think of ways to help them."

what will we all say to eachother?
(thimphu and the other cities...and of course all of you!)

what will we reveal?

what will we conceal?

what will we feel?

what will all this make us say?

the reception of this exhibition in Thimphu is unpredictable. i'm sure...well...i'm sure we'll just have to see!

i do hope, if you keep up with this blog, you'll join us on August 21, 2010 for "Neighborhood Watch:A Projection Walk.

as things develop i will happily share the exciting news with all of you. tomorrow, we will be meeting and visiting the neighborhood the name of positive progress and art!

as always...there is more to come.

i send my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"meeting and departing is natural phenomena"

thick clouds are swallowing the mountains again. soft rain falls and the occassional car drives slowly down the sloping road outside the window. there's a stillness and a silence laying itself over the city...and in my own calmness and stillness, i remember, "xoch...share!"

i have no idea where to begin! since i last wrote many beautiful things have happened in this crazy himalayan land. i'll focus on one particular stream of events...Freg flew away back to Australia on Saturday. i sat back trying to figure out what i was feeling having said goodbye to the second very dear friend I have made in Bhutan. The Reb stayed for four months and looking back it almost seems like she was only here for a blink. Freg was here for three months and i'm sure with a little bit more time, his time here will also seem like a blink. just as, i'm sure, when my time here ends i will feel as though it was also a blink (probably longer blink, but a blink nevertheless). the beauty about these blinks, however is that they're not like a regular blink. they're not the normal involuntary action our eyes perform to clean themselves. these blinks are the kind that allow your eyes to open back up to the sun. I would never say i was seeing darkness before all of this, but i can absolutely say that after having met both of those beautiful people i can see a little bit more clearly now. there's a little bit more sunlight behind this Himalayan mist.

the Four Friend's Theater Club had its final performance (collaborating with me and Freg) and it was incredibly successful! Her Majesty the Queen Mother Tshering Pem Wangchuck attended YDF's foundation day celebration as the guest of honor. Along with Her Majesty, His excellency Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley was in attendance as a distinguished guest. Ministers and heads of government were also in the audience as well as teachers, writers and a handful of young people. Her Majesty was very pleased with the work Freg and I had accomplished with the "Four Friends Theater" participants and bid Freg and I her farewell for the night with thanks, hugs and kisses. it was a huge honor to be able to show her what the 13 of us had accomplished first hand. I have to thank Tshering Tobgay, Bhutan's Opposition Leader for his participation in the performance...he did a wonderful job.

these last three months were the most touching, difficult, beautiful and powerful months i have been a part of in Bhutan. if there is any higher honor than to be given an opportunity to share our work with Her Majesty I would say, with confidence, it was my greatest honor to have the opportunity to work with such incredible young adults. having met the members of Happy Valley has revived my hope in the joy of sharing, learning and giving. the co-operative itself, faces a lot of internal issues. each member is an example of one or more of the many faces and levels of the "youth problem" in Bhutan. they haven't been paid in months, but they go forward clinging to the hope that the work they do will help someone and eventually provide them with a means of survival. since i've met them, they've lost two members of the co-operative and tshering, the blow horn, never fails to fall silent for a moment when he reflects on what may become of Happy Valley. i always only smile and reassure him that such beautiful things always way or another.

i could never be more grateful that they were willing to donate their time to working with me and freg through YDF. the more familiar i become with their situation and each member individually, the more i understand the sacrifice they made to make the project a success.

we spent three months together, thinking, analyzing, questioning, imagining and planning. youth issues were our main focus. we DISECTED the "youth problem" in bhutan as thoroughly as possible and to the best of our combined abilities. we pulled together our observations (which were incredible to witness as they came together, considering the different perspectives that were working together), we pulled together personal experiences and most importantly, we learned about each other's lives. the final product of the workshop was a drama depicting a group of four friends (honoring the traditional Buddhist story of the four friends, Thim Pha Pin Zhi) who were trying to start a youth co-operative in Bhutan. Considering the group of young people who were participating in the workshop-all Happy Valley members and the bright and engaged Sonam Wangmo-we were able to frame the drama accurately according to the problems Happy Valley has faced as Bhutan's first co-operative organization and according to the problems each participant was facing or had already faced at some point in their lives.

The four characters in the drama were the elephant, the monkey, the rabbit and the bird. Each character was dealing with their own issues...issues which were interfering with the organization of the youth organization. the elephant, who was given the task of recruting new members for the youth group faced substance abuse issues. the monkey was assigned the task of fundraising for the group, but failed to do so when he caved into materialism and the loss of a value system. the rabbit had trouble focusing on organizing the youth group because her circumstances forced her to seek work in a drayang (entertainment bar) which led to her exploitation as a dancer and singer. the bird, who was the leading figure in the co-operative faced obstacles working with the bureaucracy in Bhutan while he tried to help his three friends overcome the issues they were dealing with.

the performance was based upon forum theater, which you can read about in one of the previous blogs. each time the participants performed for an audience, we called on members of the audience to replace these main characters and make the choices that were necessary to change the outcome of each act for the better. thanks to support from YDF, the performance was offered to "Young Volunteers in Action" (another program intitiated by YDF)in Thimphu, Punakha, Bumthang and Tsirang. Each performance in the different dzongkhags had its incredible moments as youngsters acted out their own real life solutions to the problems we were presenting in the drama. there are, however, two particular performances i know i will never forget.

The Early Learning Center in Thimphu invited us to have a rehearsal performance for their students about a month ago. The elementary school is the only school in Bhutan educating its students through a value based curriculum. There are beautiful things happening at the ELC and the folks there deserve great commendation because they have taken the idea of Gross National Happiness and are educating their students with dedication to the principles of GNH. We were a little bit nervous, considering these children were younger than our intended audience of YVIA (young volunteers in action) members... but we were also very excited because the innocence of children always offers some of the world's most valuable lessons.

During the drug addiction scene, a young boy who was maybe about 8 years old took to the microphone with enthusiasm, replacing the naughty elephant. the elephants friend, who was overweight and glued to a video game, was the target for the elephants recruitment efforts on that day. whhen the young boy took the stage he tried to distract his friend from buying drugs using several different methods. finally, the clever boy grabbed the television and ran off with it. the overweight friend, of course, wound up leaving the video game parlor where the drug dealer was and chased the boy who was running off with his t.v. it was a beautiful sight to behold! such a simple act pointed to so many more complicated levels of the problem. the little boy understood that the environment was as poisonous as the drugs would be. he understood that by removing his friend from that environment he could more easily place him in a healthy environment.

i also witnessed a very beautiful moment in Tsirang.

after hours of acting out possible solutions for the scene which addressed drug addiction,the final solution that resolved the issue was meditation. a young man took to microphone and immediately refused to give his friend money to purchase drugs. he invited the drug dealer and his friend to join him in meditation instead. he sat down beside them, on their level and led them in meditation. the two supporting characters finally calmed down (they had been pushing the boundaries of their characters for a few hours...resisting the solutions the Tsirang students were offering). Within a few seconds, i looked around and realized that the entire room of 150 students had joined the meditation. the entire day had been filled with laughter and sound, and suddenly, the entire auditorium fell silent. as i write this nearly three weeks later i still feel goosebumps spread across my skin.

this solution was beautiful for a few reasons. the drama of that moment was absolutely breathtaking. this solution also silently addressed the idea that it is difficult to take help from someone who is not willing to place themself beside you but instead prefers to help you while towering above you. a young lady had tried the same solution but did not sit with the two young men. she stood above them and instructed them in meditation. when the second volunteer took the mic, he immediately sat between the two young men...and they immediately closed their eyes with him. The solution was also beautiful because it was a very Bhutanese way to solve the problem. a solution like this would probably never work in the U.S., but the moment i heard silence come over the room i knew...we've done it!

the remainder of our day in Tsirang was spent singing and dancing together. we were careful to select only the scenes that depicted problems that were relevant to each group of youngsters. in thimphu, all four scenarios are relevant, however, in smaller and more rural dzongkhags like tsirang, the only scenarios we felt were appropriate were substance abuse and materialism. the shortened performance schedule gave us an opportunity to split the group of 150 into smaller groups to discuss the issues they felt were most relevant to them. i was pleased to share a discussion with a group of about 15 youngsters who, by the end of the discussion, understood that the issues they are facing having many causes and effects. they understood that the issues they are facing are multi-layered and that it is important to understand the MECHANISMS that propel problems forward. each group was able to develop a short act on the issues they discussed. alcoholism, which led to divorce, which led to youngsters joining gangs was a common thread of issues. through discussion, the group i worked with proposed that perhaps, in order to stop the gang problem, issues of alcoholism could be addressed that would lower divorce rates and therefore lower gang membership. they proposed a law that called upon "owners and servers at bars to have a limit on the amount of alcohol they serve their customers. if a customer was already intoxicated, they should not be served more." HOORAAAYYYYY!!!!

after this, i jumped up and down several times and we made a slogan to help them think about things simply in the future (in case no one was around to think about things with them).

"what is happening
why is it happening
what do i want to happen!?"

we closed the formal portion of the workshop with all 150 YVIA members asking these questions in unison...and then came the fun!

the youngsters sang for us and danced and by the end of the day (nearly 10 hours later) they were asking me to teach them ballet. by seven o'clock in the evening, i stood before 6 brave kids, teaching them the basics of classical dancing.

after about an hour and a half, i decided to end the ballet class (so as not faint!) and go outside to enjoy the jungle. the night was spent with eyes wide open hiding within my sleeping bag. tsirang is warmer so there are bird-sized mosquitos in its jungle...iill avoid going into the details of the other flying objects i saw...but am happy to share that, with my AMAZING luck, i had the fortune of sleeping under a very confused very humongous flying object. for fear of it falling on me in my sleep i opted to stay awake. (a great portion of the morning was spent laughing at myself with the girls who were sharing their room with me).

the next morning we loaded ourselves on to the bus hesitantly. we did everything we could to prolong the goodbye. we sang more songs...we took photos...we told more stories and exchanged addresses. after some time i realized i should board the bus before any waterworks started going down, so i made my way for the bus door. as i approached it, beautiful young Jamyang approached me with a note in her hand for me. i held it tightly and promised i would read it on the road. hugs were had and we headed off, feeling full of hope and full of sadness that we couldn't stay longer...

as we made our way around the first bend...i opened up the note Jamyang had timidly handed me.

it read:

"Dear Sochi Sister:
I, Jamyang Sekar would like to thank you all for a wonderful programme. Yesterday we enjoyed a lot. Now I can make out what to do and what not to do. I especially enjoyed your dance (ballet dance).

As a saying goes "meeting and departing is natural phenomena". So have a safe journey and hope to meet you all soon.

We will be missing you all.

Love you, miss you
and please take care, Sister.


as always...there is more to come.

i send my warmest greetings from the ever lovely Kingdom of Bhutan...