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.


  1. This is amazing Xoch and i did read every bit of it :)You were an inspiration and a great role model to these kids and the role you played in their lives in such a short span of time will never be forgotten..

    I'm glad to have worked along with you in this camp and the experience was absolutely worthwhile. The joy and the love generated from these kids at Chang Jiji will always hold a special place within myself.
    You will be greatly missed and visit us again soon :)

    Much love,

  2. it was my honor and pleasure, beautiful lady!!

    i'll carry everything from the last 14 months with me forever...thank you for all of your loveliness and kindness. the air was somehow lighter and brighter everytime i was in your company...

    i'll miss you...but i'll definitely see you soon too ;)
    (((((((((((((((hugs and love))))))))))))))))

  3. Far too kind with words:)and likewise, i had the similar feeling when in your company too~

    Yes, definitely our paths will cross very soon wherever in the world it may be.. Take care and keep spreading smiles wherever you go..

    You will always be remembered