Monday, May 17, 2010

over one hundred thousand selves of we.

the land of the thunder dragon is roaring. the sky is crying on the land, making music against the metal roof of the building where i sit and write. i am of the desert. the thunder there whispers hints of a roar from miles away. the clear vast nothing that stands in the way of its voyage carries its whisper gently until it is above my head rumbling and cracking. the journey of the desert dragon is one i can see, hear and feel on my skin as the thunder moves like a long train toward me. when there are storms in el paso, i sit one block away from my mother's home on the edge of an arroyo. lightening crumbles the distant sky and the rain descends, cracking hot air with water. the ground cools as its heat rises up my spine. the gobernador that blankets the arroyo sighs with relief and releases its magic perfume into the air. this is the smell of the desert rain. the desert begins its dance, erasing the heat and the tense thinness that lives in that desert air.

in bhutan, the world lives on the edges of cliffs. there is nothing mild here. sounds contradict one another as silence carries distant dogs' anger and mad drivers' signals. bark bark honk bark honk honk.

there is nothing mild here.

the mountains boom above me...erasing me from any map that may exist within the eyes of stars. clouds consume the mountains and their booming shape flattens into dense white softness. evidence of eager winds flaps in scripts on squares of color. the earth surround me as it protects hides and reveals the details that dwell in my soul. in moments like those i wonder, "does this place really blanketed with such tremendous peace and calmness?"

i remember the distant suffering that recently dug its cave into my finger tips. they have only tin and holes above their heads. they live within walls of woven bamboo and brittle plastic. the light and shapes in this place crash into the telescopes of my eyes as i wander through this valley. clumsy memories do not stand a chance against this world that lives on the edges of cliffs. in my skilfull moments, clumbsy memories finally move out of sight, retreating into their land of smoke and mirrors...and the contradictions of this world within mountains crash into the telescopes in my eyes.

there is nothing mild here.

the rain has picked up its pace. blankets of water fall now, hurrying and begging. the sound of rain on metal overpowers the fumbling voice in my mind. all sounds are overpowered by the persistent rain. the soft rhythm of my music fades away and this shhhhh is loud and constant.

the desert flooded once. my brothers and i walked down a slippery slope to see a river madly flowing through the arroyo. the city fell to pieces. rivers carried buildings and the mountain down down down toward the river into the growing sea of smooth desert mud that filled the valley furiously and relentlessly. rivers swallowed streets and carried unpredictable boats down down and away.the desert must have been so thirsty. but these mountains, in the land of the thunder dragon...are they also thirsty? are they so angry? this loud and constant shhhhh is not born of an angry cloud. it is simply born for these spaces between high earth. this loud and constant shhhhh is meant for this place.

the rain's pace has slighty slowed. i hear its grip release from the metal roof. the dragon discourages the slowing of the rain with another roar. i hear it bounce between the walls of the valley, but the rain continues as it wishes. one more roar bursts down from the clouds and the rain is at the mercy of the dragon. the wind advances in fast circles and the rain begins to argue. its pleading with the dragon let it slow down.

the desert's dance is different. it slithers slowly, gracefully, happily along as awkward water falls from the sky. that grace is only interrupted by the sound of thunder rising sharply from the flatness of the earth...i don't think it booms down from the clouds in the desert. the sun shines in the distance running from clouds that are begging to burst at their seams. the clouds are tall giants carrying symphonies. they chase the sun light away. they're trying to soften the desert.

i remember when the hardness of the desert got me. there was a time i fought with my mother. i ran out the front door in bare feet chasing madness (as i used to do). the sun was beaming that day...screeching with heat. the black asphault the men had laid down only days before was glimmering with wicked laughter. it carried the sun's torturous song in its tar. my feet ran fast at first. i didn't feel mind followed the sounds of the stillness that madenned and steered my course. around one bend around another... the asphault got me like a snake! it sent needles into my feet begging me to stop. i stood in the shade of a telephone pole...angry. i should have heard the snake long before it got me. (in the desert you learn the sound of snakes as a mini.) i paused, regretting my temper and kept running. the asphault ignored the melting souls of my feet. i took to shade again, perched atop the diagonal firm shadow of another stark and straight telephone pole. i reached home and my mother stood within the shimmering grey light of the house waiting. i teeter tottered up the walkway and left my feet soaking in the blue bath tub of her bathroom. the desert has no mercy.

merciless sun exists in these mountains too-dancing upon slate in your bare feet also makes their souls melt. but here, the sun's heat vanishes as quickly as it appears. while the sun shows no mercy the clouds certainly do. when the thunder dragon begins to roar not even the sun is brave enough to stay. he commands the tense strings in the air to fall. he carries the rain within his belly and spills his insides magnificently over one hundred thousand selves of we.

the rain's complete conscious tenderly sleeps over the valley now. the roar with which it came skillfully and delicately disappears and the rain settles in its motion. the sound of wheels over water whispers thank yous toward the sky. it will rain into the night.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"the blow horn"

along with the previous post that shares an article featuring Happy Valley, i also wanted to post this profile. Drukpa magazine also wanted to do a profile story on one of Happy Valley's founding members, Tshering Dorji. this young man is incredible. often times, when freg and i speak with him we leave the conversation wondering where in the world he is ACTUALLY from. he is full of insight and he has a really incredible understanding of the way things function, they way the should function, how he wants them to function and how to get them to function that way. he scorns the meer thought of passing judgements on people, truly believes in democracy and equality and always ends his paragraphs with a joke and some laughter...even if he is discussing the heavy duty nature of the details of the Bhutanese youth situation.
on several occasions he's told me and Freg, "the situation is a very frustrating one in Bhutan. things are just this way...they shouldn't be, but the system functions in such a way that its very difficult to fix things....especially if you're young and don't work for the government." the look on his face tells me he wishes he could fix it all, but the words he uses tells me he knows all he can do is work with the opportunities he is given...and try to make new opportunities everyday for Happy Valley.
Freg volunteered to write a profile on Tshering. I also wanted to share that with you all...

Tshering Dorji was born in 1981 in the village of Jagarthang just outside of Paro. He graduated from high school but received poor grades- an experience that he feels strengthens the argument for having creative as well as academic career paths available to young people in school:
‘That’s why I feel bringing more art and drama into Bhutan would be so useful, to provide a pathway for people like me that are meant for this discipline, rather than a more academic path. It would also be wonderful to convince parents and others that by choosing performance as a profession, their child could contribute to society just as much as if they were a doctor or engineer’.
Tshering had a passion for acting from an early age, but did not pursue the profession immediately upon leaving high school- instead he began work as a tour guide. Working as a tour guide he was able to earn enough money in three months to buy a car. But at the end of a day of quick earnings, fancy dinners and fancy hotels, he would go to bed feeling that this wasn’t what he was born for. But he is thankful to the profession for giving him the financial base to pursue his passion for theatre- and having a car is very useful for dropping off fellow performers- without one it may have been much harder to convince them to stay for late night rehearsals!

In 2005 Tshering took up an opportunity to receive training from visiting Fillipino drama specialists in a workshop program organised by Tshering Gyaltshen- the result of the training program and subsequent performance tour, sponsored by ‘Save the Children’, was ‘The New Theatre Company’. Tshering is grateful to Tshering Gyaltshen for providing this initial spark for street theatre in Bhutan, and continues to admire the new ideas and social messages that Tshering Gyaltshen promotes in both his films and theatre work- the beneficial impact of this work in the lives of youth in Bhutan is an inspiration for Happy Valley’s own activities.

Tshering’s first cinematic acting role was in the movie ‘Layngon Bum’. He had learnt during his time studying drama of the differences between live drama and film, but only came to truly understand this distinction by experiencing it. He has subsequently decided not to pursue a further film career until he writes a film of his own, but is still very grateful for his first onscreen acting experience. As he describes it:

‘Life is a field of experience- wealth will go away and friends and family will die but experiences and memory will always remain- until you get dementia at least’
Tshering lacks the legendary temper of his fellow Parops, and this evenness of temperament has assisted greatly in dealing with the daily difficulties of working in a co-operative. In Tshering’s opinion, so many youth groups have fallen apart in Bhutan because of the failure of members to move beyond ego clashes and petty disputes:
‘‘If you argue with another person, don’t hold on to your anger. Next time you see the person, let your mind be blank, and start anew- how else can you expect to be able to work together?’
This pragmatic approach is essential in a co-operative, especially a theatre co-operative, where creative disagreements are a daily occurrence. But if ego is put aside, creative clashes can be a spark for unexpected and exciting ideas rather than personal vendettas.
Tshering had an opportunity for further education, an acting course in Pune, India, early on in Happy Valley’s development, but he made the choice to commit to the group rather than pursue his study options.
Before his training, Tshering had thought he could be the best actor in Bhutan or the world- but once exposed to training, in his words, ‘you realise your cup is so empty- that you can always learn so much more.’ Having started off his career just wanting to act for its own sake, Tshering now realises the profession can also be important for society- live performance can be a uniquely powerful medium to spread social messages.
‘I have seen so many workshops, lectures and public moments where people are just sleeping in the audience,’ Tshering explains, ‘But when we do our street theatre performances, the audience might jeer and heckle, but no-one is ever sleeping!’
The novelty of street theatre in Bhutan has led to plenty of difficulties: taken aback by the confidence of the group, audience members have approached the Happy Valley troupe after performances to ask whether they have been drinking. But despite the jeering and misunderstandings, these street theatre shows do offer moments of genuine connection with the audience, and it is in these moments that Tshering gets that surge of fulfilment that his tour guide work never gave him.
He first felt the sensation whilst performing in the first street theatre in Bhutan, at Yangchenphu Higher Secondary School. He felt this feeling again when Happy Valley did their first performance together, a social advocacy show on HIV/AIDS sponsored by the Ministry of Health. He recounts how one of the shows messages was that the common myth that wearing two condoms is safer than wearing one is not scientifically correct- the friction between the condoms is more likely to break them. People jeered at the risqué subject matter, but the fact that the performance got such a strong reaction was evidence enough that the audience would remember the message. Tshering describes these moments with the fondness and fervour of a performer who recognises both the beauty and power of his craft:

‘When I look at the eyes of the people I can see the ideas that we are trying to give sinking into them. Soon after the show is done I get an immense feeling of satisfaction- it is giving me a sense that I have found the purpose of my life.’

Happy Valley "where happiness is shared"

recently, I've been a busy bee! i do apologize for having neglected to share recent developments of my adventure with you all.

i wanted to share an article i wrote about the Happy Valley Youth Co-operative for Drukpa magazine with you all. this month's theme for the magazine was art and entertainment. the issue aimed at showing the progression of art in Bhutan during the last few decades, from very traditional forms to more modern ones. (the modern end of it explains why entertainment was an appropriate area to include. the film industry in Bhutan is booming!)

i happily volunteered to write about Happy Valley as Freg and I have been working closely with them in the last month or so. the group is more inspired and engaged than any group i've worked with in Bhutan and most groups i've worked with back home. they are moving beautifully and admirably forward on the right track...and considering Bhutan's current situation, co-operatives like this are essential. please do enjoy.

Happy Valley
Where happiness is shared

A soft drizzle falls at the Centennial Farmer’s Market. Spaces that are normally packed with people have emptied. A few people wander through the ghostly and empty air. The market is surprisingly silent. Suddenly, the sound of feet moving quickly, voices singing loudly and children begins to bounce through the vacant spaces. The Happy Valley Youth Co-operative is preparing a performance for the SAARC Summit.

Young children watched with excitement and curiosity through the windows as the members discussed the traditional and contemporary steps they were incorporating into the performance. The children listened to the story they were building which spoke of the environment and man’s interaction with and impact upon it. Elder passersby stood at the windows, watching and listening. Some of them curious, some of them smiling, and others seemed to try to discern the unfamiliar combination of modern and traditional dance the Happy Valley members were choreographing. After some time the children began to join in the dancing. In that moment, the impact Happy Valley could have on the promotion and development of a generation, culture and society is evident.

Happy Valley as an idea was conceived when Sangay Rinchin, Sonam Rinzin and Tshering Dorji, who had all done junior high and high school together, met and agreed upon the concept of setting up a youth organization based on a system of fairness and equity. “Our main intention was and continues to be to help others. We wanted to initiate a business with a different purpose,” said Sonam Rinzin. Happy Valley uses a non-profit co-operative approach to tackle social issues by engaging youth and calling upon them to initiate their own participation in society and specifically, social advocacy campaigns.

“Our Kings have been so kind to the people and everything has been provided for us. We wanted to teach young people that they must do things for themselves now and only take help from the government when it is really needed. We wanted to help young people accomplish things that they could call their own,” said Tshering Dorji.

Happy Valley employs youth in a positive environment that is geared toward participation in the positive development of Bhutan. Presently, the majority of Happy Valley’s social advocacy work is delivered through open-air street theater. Its café serves as another employment option for youth.

It was Sangay Rinchin who suggested a co-operative as the best model to achieve this. In developing the framework for the co-operative, the group of young men followed the guiding principles of the International Co-operative Alliance.

The first principle is Voluntary and Open Membership which specifies that Co-operatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial or religious discrimination.

The second principle concerns Democratic Member Control. Co-operatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organized in a democratic manner.

The third principle establishes Economic Participation from Members. Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. Part of that capital is usually the common property of the cooperative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

The fourth principle ensures Autonomy and Independence. Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.

The fifth principle dedicates the co-operative to providing its members with Education, Training and Information. Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.

Co-operation among Co-operatives is the sixth guiding principle. Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.

The final principle promises Concern for Communities. Co-operatives work toward methods of sustainable development of their communities through policies proposed and approved by their members.

The three young men were revolutionary in their thinking as this youth run, co-operative based system is the first of its kind in Bhutan. The framework for the co-operative was adjusted in such a way that made it uniquely applicable for Bhutan specifically and the trio began to recruit members. The three young men had ties to the New Theater Company in Thimphu and when they decided to resign from the company, five other members opted to resign as well and join the co-operative’s effort. As they considered who they wanted to recruit, the founding members held true to their dedication toward providing youth with a platform and tools to contribute to and participate in Bhutanese society positively. They visited drayangs and observed the environment and the talent the performers had. They offered them membership in the co-operative to provide them with an alternative performance opportunity that carried great dignity with it on both a social level as well as a personal level. Other targeted recruits came from backgrounds of alcoholism, drug addiction, video game addiction, materialism, emotional instability and gang related activities. The co-operative began to take form and gained momentum as every new, eager and hopeful member joined forces with the initial trio.

At its height of membership, Happy Valley consisted of 35 members, however since its inception eight months ago membership has decreased to a core group of 17 members. Each member brings to the table a unique talent. The members’ range of talents is dynamic: there are singers, dancers, actors, cooks, painters, sound technicians, videographers and photographers in the co-operative. Tshering Dorji , Sonam Rinzin, Tandin Sonam, Sonam Rinzin, Kuenzang Thinley, Elvis Namgay, Bonic Tsokey Dorji, Karma Choden, Tshering Palden, Karma Wangmo, Dechen Dema, Chokey Dema, Dechen Wangmo, Kuenzang Lham, Lungthen, Yeshey Wangdi, and Krishna now form the Happy Valley Youth Co-operative. The members of Happy Valley have experienced both the excitement of performance and the difficulties of life as performers, but they have stayed true throughout to the co-operative’s profit share principle. The co-operative members have only been able to pay themselves in three of these eight months, and even then only with assistance from the Ministry of Labour.

Along with these hardships Happy Valley’s members also faced great adversity in finding a proper space for ‘Happy Valley Food and Drinks” and a place to rehearse for performances. Presently, renovation of ‘Happy Valley Food and Drinks’ is under way on the top level of the Centennial Farmer’s Market. Lyonpo Pema Jamthso, the Minister of Agriculture, supported the group in getting this space at the centenary Farmer’s Market, and also provided accessories for the kitchen. Lyonpo Jamthso has also connected them to funding sources. The group thanks Lyonpo Jamthso humbly and acknowledges that without his support, the success they have had to date would not have been possible. Lyonpo Jamthso’s support was also supplemented by the Youth Development Fund who provided them with the few assets that the group currently has, such as sound and kitchen equipment.

While the café is beginning to come together and performances have been successful to date, the group still lacks a proper space to rehearse their advocacy-based performances. Usually, the group develops their performances and rehearses them in open air outside of the space they have reserved for the café. The space has its benefits. Firstly, it gives them a place to meet. Secondly, it allows the performances to serve as a learning tool for the public, giving observers an opportunity to be an active part of a learning process.
“With the advocacy work we do it’s a good place to be. So many people especially the underprivileged people visit the market often. It is a useful and important place for such a campaign,” says Tshering Dorji.

While this is a positive sight for the surrounding youth to see it has proven to cause some difficulty and misunderstanding. Tshering Dorji goes on to explain, “the exercises we do to dance are strange to the Bhutanese so we do need a space where we can think and work in private. The creative process that is required for a performance co-operative will always be strange because it has never been used, especially not in public in Bhutan.”

The creative process Tshering refers to is one that is fueled by the group’s desire to mix traditional Bhutanese dance and performance with contemporary dance and performance in order to create a new form of theater ad performance art that is contemporary but retains the essence of Bhutanese tradition and values. While many young Bhutanese enjoy the pleasures of the hip hop culture they see on television, few actually strive to learn the technique that forms the foundation of contemporary and modern movement. The group does not aim to adopt westernized dances, instead they hope to learn contemporary movements that might be blended into traditional Bhutanese dance with grace and respect. In this way, they feel these dances can help supplement the social issues that form the basis for their scripts in a manner that connects with all generations in Bhutan while moving the culture forward without abandoning traditional values.

This insightful and thoughtful approach to their craft has been commended by Fregmonto Stokes, an Australian university student who is a visiting intern with YDF and has worked extensively with Happy Valley. “Happy Valley is equally as talented and considerably more inspired in its aims than any equivalent group I have been involved with in seven years of theatre work in Australia. They have resurrected my faith in socially committed theatre and I can’t wait to return to Bhutan to collaborate with them further,” said Stokes.

Despite the obstacles Happy Valley has faced and the scarcity of profits to be shared amongst them, the system of profit share they use has fostered a strong egalitarian bond in the group, where every member is held accountable for what they have spent, and every member is equally vigilant in regulating the group’s finances. It is an ideal system to prevent corruption, and encourages a sense of self-motivation and purpose amongst a group of young people from often underprivileged backgrounds. The intention was always that Happy Valley be an organization where members were not just working for someone else, but had an equal voice and equal responsibilities in the co-operative. This they feel strengthens their dedication to democracy, while giving them a unique edge in business practices since many businesses in Bhutan are hierarchical and family run.

Presently, Happy Valley offers performances to the public, free of charge, every last Sunday of each month in the Centennial Farmer’s Market. In past performances they have targeted such social issues as environment, waste management and unemployment. Their goal is to develop and create thematic performances that target specific issues Bhutan’s youth are facing as well as the issues the country is facing as a whole.

In 2009, the group in collaboration with local talents Namkha lhamo, Lhamo Drukpa, Tshering Phuntsho, Kunga Tenzin Dorji, and Susma participated in a performance organized by the “Global Choir” that featured 198 countries singing John Lennon’s “All You Need is Love” in unison to raise awareness and financial support for people afflicted with HIV/AIDS in Africa. “It was such a noble cause we were singing for, and our main purpose is to help others. We were thankful to be able to be a part of it,” said Dechen Dema.

Along with this performance Happy Valley performed for the distinguished delegates of the SAARC summit during a closing banquet that was hosted by His Excellency Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley. It was during this performance that the Prime Minister took notice of the group and asked them to prepare a performance for the 2010 Annual Journalism Awards. In that performance they called upon journalists and the public to take on the challenge of promoting, supporting and providing responsible media to a developing Bhutan. At the close of that performance Happy Valley members were well received by the audience. The members wished to “thank the Prime Minister for taking us seriously- his passionate support has boosted the group’s internal energy.” That support, they feel, is difficult to come by in the sometimes hesitant and careful Bhutanese climate.

Happy Valley still has a long road to travel. Enough money to sustain them is hard to come by, support from outside sources can be difficult to gain and momentum is difficult to maintain in the face of challenges. They continue to move forward, gaining support and interest from the community and government officials. Happy Valley continues to work toward one day expanding its system of co-operatives. In its initial stages the group envisioned a large scale system of co-operative businesses. They would like to diversify into many areas, developing co-operatives of farmers, designers, shop-owners, construction workers, car washers, caterers, bakers, and plumbers, to name just a few. The group also hopes to initiate a second NGO called “Happy Youth” that will aim to promote Bhutan’s artistic tradition through the arts. Along with this, Happy Valley plans to begin developing a student theater that will reach out to young people and provide them with workshops on performance. The youngsters who observe them on a regular basis in the Centennial Farmer’s Market are the first group they would like to engage. A proposal has been cast for “Happy Youth” and plans are in the making for the student theater program, however, the co-operative waits until Happy Valley is functioning at a level that will allow them to take on new ventures.

Though the road can be rocky Happy Valley’s members carry on positively. One member, Elvis Namgay shares “Before I joined, I took drugs and got in gang fights. My old friends used to respect me, but as a bhai (an Indian term equivalent to a mafia don). Now people respect me, but as an equal. Despite the difficulties we face, Happy Valley has given me hope, and changed me as a person.” While attitudes like Elvis’ solidify the bond the group has, the members agree that a single morning will always help left them up in the face of the challenges they will certainly be presented with in the future.

In their darkest hour, Happy Valley was granted an audience with His Majesty the King.

“Among all the Kings in the world, I think our king must have the most difficult time. His Majesty’s character lends itself to having concern for His people individually and personally. We wanted to tell His Majesty that the youth in His country were changing. We wanted to tell Him that we could make His duty a little bit lighter…that we were ready to do that for Him and our country,” says Tshering Dorji.

The discussion lasted three hours and when asked by the King what assistance His Majesty could give them, the Happy Valley members replied that they did not want assistance, but only His blessings. Instead of asking for His assistance, Happy Valley wanted to act as a living testament to the youth’s ability to demonstrate their value to Bhutan and their potential to assist His Majesty and the Royal Government of Bhutan in carrying the burden of future development.

The members of Happy Valley have heard His Majesty’s call to the youth and are ready to answer. Happy Valley informed His Majesty that they would take the gift of democracy His Majesty had given them and use it to their full potential.
By the end of the meeting both Happy Valley members and His Majesty the King had tears in their eyes.

His Majesty informed the co-operative that their meeting had made that morning one of the happiest mornings of his life.

As always...there is more to come. i send my warmest greetings from the Kingdom of Bhutan.