Bhutan, Meditation, Bread, Learning, Friends, Family, Music, Books, MT

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Ya Bike

Meet Letho. He runs the fantastic Ambient Cafe in downtown Thimphu. If you want authentic espressos, steaming hot ginger and honey tea, or delightful apple cake, then head there. You can often find the wise Welshman, Lama Shenphen.

Like me, Letho enjoys getting out on his bicycle. Unlike me, he is fit and fast. He slows down for me. He also has a relation in every valley we have been to. This means a welcome stop for breakfast or a cup of warming tea.

Because Letho has to get back to open the cafe, we have been heading off for our Saturday rides as soon as the sun rises, at 6:30 am. There are few cars around, so the roads belong to us ... and the occasional cow or dog.

So far we have ridden up the Thimphu valley to the foot of Cheri Monastery and on another time, to Dechencholing Monastery. Heading across to the next valley, we ventured to Jemina for his uncle's Buddhist puja. Last week we tackled the early part of the ride to the mountain pass, Dochu La.

The rides have been very pleasant. The espresso back at Ambient Cafe is a fitting end.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


My Christmas Day started off like Christmas when I visited my sister's house via Skype. It was post lunch, but the profiteroles were being constructed. Dad was there, and was looking and sounding very good. It was fine and sunny in Christchurch, and it was nice to chat with everyone. A real family.
Ugyen was asleep when that was going on. It was only 6:30 in the morning here. Still dark. Not one person said Merry Christmas from my Bhutan family. They were too busy with their normal day. Unconcerned with my needs. There were a few messages from some Bhutanese and Indian friends. 
I went downtown to buy some special treats, and returned with some pork sausages. What to do with those? I made toad-in-the-hole. Not quite a turkey, but something a little different to chilli and cheese. I also whipped up a small pavlova with cream and topped with some blackberries from a can. Nobody else here seemed all that interested in trying to make Christmas, so I ate by myself. 

They were prepared to eat the chocolate coated almonds that I gave them on Christmas Eve.
I passed the evening in bed reading Zugzwang, by Ronan Bennett. Brother Matthew had very kindly sent that to me for Christmas. I am enjoying it very much. 
Oh, I nearly forgot, "Merry Christmas."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

School is Out

Yes, the school year is over. And I did not write much. Here are some pictures to fill in some of the details.
 With teachers leaving at the end of the year, it was time for some picnics. These are great events, with everyone chipping in to help prepare wonderful dishes. The Dzongkha lopens specialise in rice and emma datshi (the famous Bhutanese dish of chilli and cheese).

Sir Roy is a wonderful friend and excels in a wide range of Indian cuisine. This was an exceptional channa dish. Chickpeas, that is.

Sir Prajeesh and Aashish were chopping onions. My job was to distract them.

Jon and Roy managed a game of chess in a quiet spot.

Joe and Jenny were two of the leavers. The mittens, hat and diary that they kindly left me will be treasured. And they will be missed.

My first class was the 12 Commerce students. They finished the year with their external exams. These are the first and second place winners. I enjoyed teaching them all, and wish them all the best. The picture at the start of this post has some of the boys from the class.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Loafing Around

After the inspiration from Gérard, I headed to the kitchen. Gently stretching the balls of dough into perfect ovals, then tenderly rolling them up ... with minimal movements and Zen-like timing ... I formed two boastfully beautiful bacchanalian batards.
Then, an innovation (copied from others) ... I covered the loaves with a baking tray before placing them in the oven. This cover kept the steam surrounding the bread as it baked, thus improving the rise in the oven. 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Picasso's Wife

Don, sent me a book. I like people that send me books.
Have you sent me a book yet?
My last post was about my wife, which reminded me of a quote in Ralston's book...
Somebody was saying to Picasso that he ought to make pictures of things the way they are – objective pictures. He mumbled that he wasn't quite sure what that would be. The person who was bullying him produced a photograph of his wife from his wallet and said, "There, you see, that is a picture of how she really is." Picasso looked at it and said, "She is rather small, isn't she? And flat?"

Saturday, August 21, 2010


I love Ugyen very much.
She does do some funny things, though.
The other day, she opened a can of what she thought was pineapple juice, carefully piercing a hole on either side of the top. When the juice had all gone, she went to throw out the can. She noticed that there was still something inside the can ... the can of fruit salad.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Baguettes or Batards?

Gérard Rubaud is a French baker. A very good one.
Mark is a New Zealand non-baker. A very very bad one.
You can meet Gérard Rubaud here.
Or watch him shape batards here.
Gérard says that real men eat batards. 
Which is why I am now working on making a decent batard.
My small oven limits the size. I improvise the steam injection with a small plastic bottle with a spray nozzle. There is no baking stone. 
My first attempt ended up with a burnt bottom. The loaf, not me.
But last weekend I got what I thought was a nice looking batard.
One day, there may be a loaf good enough to present to Jon, who told me that batards are his favourite bread. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Nepal 2

Right, get the Nepal visas.
The immigration office was a stone's throw from where we were dropped off. It is lucky we did not throw a stone though. Things were still going to be pretty bad. There was a tall muscular man wearing a baseball cap. He was behind the counter. He shoved some forms our way, with nothing being said. Oh, well. They may employ mutes in the office. We filled out the form. I had a passport photo, but not Daniel. I handed my passport over.
"Where is the Indian visa?"
I showed the transit visa. A nice colourful sticker. The one we had paid for at the Indian embassy in Thimphu.
"Yes, but it has not been stamped in India."
We had not got it stamped when we went across the border in Jaigoan, and we had not got it stamped when we left India. The bus had not stopped.
"Do I really need a passport photo?" Daniel asked.
The officer, the tall one built like a Cyclops, but with an extra eye, did that head nodding thing that Indians do. You would have seen it in Bhutan. Sometimes it is circular, a yes and a no. That is what he was doing.
Daniel was confused, so he asked again.
The same response.
Nar came to our rescue, suggesting to Mr Cyclops that he should treat foreigners better. Up until then he had looked like a Nepali, and with his Nepali name, he had hoped to get through without showing his passport. But he let on that he was a government official from Bhutan.
Cyclops did not react well to the reprimand. He grabbed Nar by the arm and hauled him towards a small office out the back. He was talking now. Shouting angrily. Nar did not translate. He was white with fear. Nar is about 5 foot tall. A dwarf. It was like he was being spun around and around by the giant.
Daniel stepped in before blows were landed. He was brave. I watched from a safe distance. Two other men in civilian clothes came over. I am still not sure what there job was, but they helped to calm things down.
In the end, we headed back to India to get our passports stamped by a rather confused Indian official. He could not see the stamp from when we entered India. Neither could we. I was worried that we were going to have to travel all the way back to Jaigoan. And once there, they would ask us for the Bhutan stamp from leaving Bhutan, which was also not in the passports. The Indian just muttered under his breath, and kindly stamped our passports.
Then we walked back over the bridge to Nepal. I forgot to say that Cyclops had shouted to Nar that he was not going to be allowed in anyway. Before attempting to get our Nepal visas, Daniel had to get a photo. Nar too, as now he was having to get a visa. I opted to wait by the immigration office while they set off. A local guide who was touting business gave them directions. They headed off, and the guide starting working on me. He was very plausible. His father was a Limbu. That is the cast that makes up the army. He had a hotel in Kathmandu that was in the Lonely planet. Highly recommended. His uncle was the head guy at Bhadrapur airport. He could get a good discount for us on the flight to Kathmandu. Guaranteed tickets. Seats together and by the window. He gave up, and left me to wait. I started to worry that I had lost Nar and Daniel, and would be left to fend for myself. I was thinking that my decision to come was not a good one after all. I should have trusted my intuition.
Then Daniel and Nar appeared. Cyclops had calmed down, and gave us our visas. Nar was charged more than he expected. But he was wise enough not to quibble. We were not given a receipt, so Mr Cyclops must have made a pretty profit.
Then we headed out to catch a taxi to the airport. Mr Limbu reappeared. The price he quoted was about twice what we expected. But Nar had checked other travel agencies, and they all had the same price. Limbu promised a discount. Quietly. He did not want the other touts to hear what he was offering. Probably because they would offer lower. But he told us that he was the boss and he could not let others hear how low he was going. Just for us.
We got in the taxi, and headed to the airport. After 20 minutes we were still in the taxi, and there was no sign of any airport. We did reach a bunch of travel agents though. One with Yeti Airlines on the window. Limbu went in to the office with our passports. Phew. Things were improving. Then he told us the details. We had just missed the flight, and had to wait until 6pm for the next flight. What was worse, the next flight was from another airport that was another 90 minutes away, by taxi, that would be another 1500. We were a little angry with Limbu. But we had little choice. There were no hotels around. Limbu said he was very sorry, and would pay the 1500 for the taxi. Daniel huffed and said there must be quite a profit on the tickets if he could still pay the taxi for us. Nar had to pay the same as us. Later he would find out that he should have had a much  cheaper rate. The local rate.
Back into the taxi and off to Biratnagar airport. We were not looking forward to another 90 minute drive. But we were a little consoled by the fact that we had lots of time for the journey, and that we would be in Kathmandu fairly soon. Originally we had planned to spend the night in Bhadrapur. Things were not so bad. Apart from poor old Nar was was feeling like an animal after being manhandled by Cylcops.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Nepal 1

The Bhutanese people are very superstitious. It was surprising that Ugyen never told us that we were leaving for Nepal on the worst possible day to start a journey. Things did not go well. The road down to Phuentsholing, the border city with India, was open. Only just. Large slips, from the deluges of rain, narrowed the road. We were buffeted off the road by huge Tata trucks careering towards us around blind corners. The fog was so thick that we could not even see the hundred foot drops beside us. No hope of seeing any oncoming traffic. Still, we made it. 
The six hour ride across India was sardine-like. At least the day was overcast, with spots of rain. The tea gardens beside the road provided a pleasant enough view. The talk of a strike across India was forgotten. Until, after 4 hours of bone-shaking riding, we were stopped by a group of ruffians telling us to turn back. The driver decided to continue. If stopped, Daniel was going to give his rendition of a man in the early stages of death, and we were going to claim to be an ambulance. The reason why twenty other people were accompanying Daniel was still to be worked out. We were not stopped though, and made the Nepal border. Next we just had to get our visas and catch the plane to Kathmandu.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Make that five

Here are a couple of squid recipes for Dave and Jackie. Others are welcome to try them out too. One is for barbeque squid with chilli.
Anyone got a spare barbeque? I do have the chilli.

Three posts in one day!

Hey, I wrote three posts in one day.
Rats, it is four now.

Run down

Does anybody out there (both of my readers) have a spare Sony NP-FE1 battery?
The one I use for my camera is stuffed. Without the battery, there are no photos for this blog.
If you do have one, please let me know. Then send the money for me to come and pick it up.
Alternatively, buy me a new camera. I like the look of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 with the 20 mm aspherical pancake lens. You can see some shots taken with that here.

Hopes dashed

There was a call from the delivery people. They got to the school gate, with my jacket. Ugyen was not there, but that was not the problem. The school would not let them in. Sounds crazy? Not really. Schools are government places, and Bhutanese are required to dress accordingly. Trousers are not appropriate, unless you are in the police. The police are permitted to be inappropriate.
Damn, damn, damn!

I wrote a fairly snarky letter suggesting that they either wear a gho (traditional male dress), or phone Ugyen when they get to the gates. She can then go and collect my jacket. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hope for my jacket

The jacket I ordered on 23rd May has not arrived yet. Several mails to Evans Cycles, in England, where I ordered the swish new rain jacket had not led far. They sent me a tracking number. Some progress, but the UPS site showed the parcel had been sent promptly from England, and travelled to Bangkok airport. It was scanned in there two months ago. There was no sign of a departure scan. Was the package stuck on a shelf at the airport? Or had someone decided to use my jacket?
Today, I got an email in my junk box. There have been a lot of requests for me to join "friends" on Facebook, or messages leading me to ads for Viagra. So this message was nearly deleted. This is what it said...


Kindly note,we hv pkg in ur name kept fm long time bk many time contact to ur address but all time old women pick up 
call and reply iam alone no one. So we are unable to get ur proper working address for delivery.
Therefore, Pse contact us to our delivery person..."

I did, and they said they would deliver it to my wife's school tomorrow. There is just one possible problem. Ugyen will not be at school tomorrow, as she has to attend a puja (Buddhist ceremony) for her late nephew. That is another story.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Meet Nar and Daniel

There have been hundreds of requests to write about my new friends, Daniel and Nar.
All from Nar!

Nar works in agriculture, here in Bhutan. That is how I met him. He was supporting Russell, the Kiwi that was here to help with chicken breeding. We had a meal together and the relationship has bloomed. Nar introduced me to Daniel.

Daniel is working at a private school in the next valley. He teaches meditation, yoga and English. When the swimming pool is finished, he can teach swimming. The school pool is slightly behind schedule. Daniel was a monk in a previous life.

Since meeting, we have eaten out many times ... at restaurants and on river banks. Now we are planning an expedition to Nepal in early July. Nar will play the part of Tenzing Norgay, Daniel (being the tallest) will be Ed Hillary. I get to be the mountain, as my stomach has expanded to Everest proportions from all the eating out.

Shopping Update

No jacket yet. 
This morning I sent an email to Evans Cycles.
We have had quite a bit of rain lately, so I have been getting wet. 
The waterproof Rockport shoes that Matthew kindly donated have proved to be waterproof. However, the water runs off my legs and inside the shoes. Because the shoes are waterproof, the water remains there.
Still, my skin is waterproof too.
 Any suggestions?

Sunday, May 23, 2010


My brother, Matthew, keeps us informed of his shopping exploits: see here and here.
Not to be outdone by the wee chap, I had to respond.
The rainy season has arrived here in Bhutan. With that has come the rain. It is not a heavy monsoon rain, but is still rather wet. I have never been a big fan of swimming. But warm rain is something I can get used to.
I have a nice cycling jacket which I bought many many years ago. It was on sale ... a second for some reason. Made of GORE-TEX, it keeps out the rain, and lets out my perspiration. Very useful as I slog up the long hill home every school day. As I lovingly placed the jacket over the back of my chair at home, I noticed that the inner layer had perished. The layer that stopped the rain, and breathed my hot air.
I had a nice cycling jacket!
After many enjoyable hours searching all the online bicycle shops in the world, perhaps the universe, I finally placed my order this morning.
Evans Cycles is in the UK. Unlike the Book Depository, their free Worldwide Delivery actually includes Bhutan. Or so they say. Let's see if it gets here before celebrating.
In the meantime, the old jacket will have to suffice.

A Mathematician

The Fields Medal is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics. Did you know that there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics? Any ideas why?
The young (you cannot be over 40 to win the Fields) Russian mathematician, Grigory Perelman, was offered the medal in 2006, along with US$15,000, for his solution of the Poincaré  Conjecture. He refused, claiming that "if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed." In March of this year, he rejected the Clay prize, a mere one-million-dollars. This time he said that he had all that he wanted. What a nobel person. 
Karma Thinley recently asked me what the Poincaré  Conjecture was about. I told him that it was about mathematics. 
If you want to know more about Perelman or the Poincaré  Conjecture, try the following article, which reviews a biography of Perelman called "Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century."
He Conquered the Conjecture | The New York Review of Books
The writer of the review, John Allen Paulos, has written numerous books on mathematics for the non-mathematician. I will write more about Paulos later. Unless I forget.
If I were offered the Fields Medal, I would also turn it down. Not only do I have all that I want (apart from money, a house, a decent job, and the rest), but I am over 40.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Here, in Bhutan, there are horns. Yaks have horns. And cars have horns.
Cars with horns are not uncommon in NZ, where I come from (in this life).
Most drivers there are used to seeing cyclists. Not so used to seeing people walking on the road. Or cars coming towards you in the middle of the road.
Drivers have to use the horn more here. As well as informing pedestrians to move over, it is used as you round a sharp bend. Hopefully and car coming the other way will watch out. Even more useful if the approaching out-of-sight vehicle is a large Tata truck, careering along at full speed.
When I cycle the Thimphu roads, I hear the horn a lot. It amuses me that they think I cannot hear them coming. Most drivers would not have ridden a bike. The trouble is that I am used to the horn being blown in aggression. My immediate interpretation is that. I forget that they are just politely letting me know. I am slowly adjusting. Sometimes I get a little angry if a car passes without blowing its horn. How impolite!
Other times, like the other day, my reaction is to turn around and glare. An aggressive response from this meek and mild Buddhist wannabe. Or even give the fingers. 
I glared the other day when an approaching car repeatedly blew its horn.
"I know you are coming. What is all the fuss about?"
The approaching car was the Royal Body Guard vehicle that leads the way for His Majesty.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Spring Sprang Sprung

Thank you to Tomoyo for the spring photos from Japan.
Spring arrived here some weeks ago. There are none of the beautiful cherry blossom trees here, but the fruit trees provide some lovely sights as I cycle to work.
The school where I work did have a visit from a Japanese delegation. They had planned to give us some cherry trees to plant. Something went wrong with the logistics and another school got the trees. They did promise to put some trees on the next plane to Bhutan when they got home.
Obviously they have not got home yet.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


I am currently working on a new electronic device called...
the iWant.
Place your orders now.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

An Inspiration

Graeme Eng!
Leading the pack up a steep climb.
Sure, he does have a great bike, but it takes a damn good pair of legs and lungs too.
Graeme has been a friend since I was at high school. There, he taught me English. Graeme was one of those teachers that teaches more than the subject. I liked the fact that he did not wear a tie; he was on the protests against the Springbok rugby tour; he acted on stage with the students; he encouraged differences. And lots more. Graeme was always training. He cycled to school. He ran around the school track after school, puffing like a steam train. Once I met him when I had just ran up on to the Port Hills on a blistering hot day. My first ascent. He told me I would not be up there again. I thought he was wrong. He was right.
Way behind Graeme you can see younger guys, in more fashionable lycra outfits, riding lighter bikes. I would like to go for a ride with Graeme. He would be civil enough to wait for me.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Sometimes my wife gets a little angry with me. She is not angry in this photo.
I think you will agree that she is rather beautiful.
We come from very different backgrounds. It is amazing that we ever met, considering how far apart we started. Was it a long series of coincidences? Ugyen's first husband dying. My first marriage ending. Ugyen moving to Thimphu and a job at Motithang. The position in Bhutan teaching mathematics that I applied for and won. Then the long romance by mail and email. I since discovered that it was one of Ugyen's friends who was writing some of her replies. That was a surprise. Ugyen assures me that she meant what her friend said.
Or was it karma? Karma is not easy to fathom. It is something that Westerners hear of. We misinterpret it. It is reassuring to know that the bad things happening to you are due to a cause. And that the suffering is helping in some way.  The pain can even be reduced.
The cause is yourself. At least, your actions. Your actions are not you.
I am not sure if meeting Ugyen was due to good actions or bad actions. Then again, good and bad are just my interpretations. When I will I free myself from such dualistic thoughts?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Best Job

The Best and Worst Jobs in the U.S.
Admittedly, this is just in the US, but the top job is mathematician.
That is someone who "applies mathematical theories and formulas to teach or solve problems in a business, educational, or industrial climate."

Hey, that is me. I have the best job in the world.

Then I read more about being a mathematician:
Income: $94,160
Let's convert that to Ngultrum ... Nu 4,280,984.41
Divide by 12, to get my monthly salary ... Nu 356,748.70
My boss is ripping me off!
The only comfort is that this poor history teacher, fresh from the US, gets treated worse:

Thursday, March 11, 2010


One of the great things my parents did for me was give me the opportunity to play music. Playing the recorder and singing were part of the education system. The piano and trumpet lessons were care of Mum and Dad. They were both very keen on music, being members of a local choir. There was also a collection of records. If the radio was playing music, it would have been the classical station. Martin, the elder brother, moved away from the classical side of things, but I stuck to it.
One of the highlights of my orchestral career was playing in the Messiah along with my parents singing in the choir. The glare from Dad's wide grin as he watched me playing must have been a distraction for the audience. A small compensation for the years of forking out money and time.  I hope I am not responsible for his loss of hearing.
During my first days at high school, we were given a musical aptitude test. I got enough right to be selected for instrumental lessons. I had to choose which instrument. I chose the clarinet. There were none left, so I took up the trumpet. Ralph Simpson was a NZ champion cornet player and my first teacher. Soon after I joined trumpet lessons at a Christchurch School of music. That was Saturday mornings gone for many years. As well as group lessons, there were orchestras and wind bands to play in. Later I had private lessons from a wonderful teacher called Vere Smyth. As well as being a very accomplished player, Vere was a yoga teacher and had a doctorate in maths and physics.
The trumpet is not the best instrument to have in your house if you are not playing it. It is only now that I consider the pain the rest of my family had to go through. And the neighbours. One time I was doing some long note practice. Long and loud. During a pause I heard a cry from a house a few blocks away.
"Shut up!'
Good call. It probably made me a little self-conscious for a few days. It is interesting that a rather shy and withdrawn fellow such as me ever took up such an outgoing instrument. When I joined the local symphony orchestra, I was known as the trumpet player that did not drink and make lots of noise.
If I stopped playing the trumpet for a few days, there was a rapid descent in ability. Thus, I developed strong discipline. This transferred across to other areas of my life. Well, some of them.
There was another incident worth telling. I inherited my father's big teeth and Mum's smallish jaw. Not a good match. The teeth buckled and twisted to fit in. Mr Orthodontist came to the rescue, removing a few pre-molars and adding a wire to straighten things out. The day after getting the wire out, I was playing a game where I was blindfolded and Matthew was leading me around the house. I tripped and hit my tooth on something hard, chipping off half of a front tooth.  This was before I started up the trumpet, and did not seem to hinder things. Years later, the tooth was repaired. That was when I had a problem. The extra bit of tooth meant changing the position of the mouthpiece. 
When I headed for Japan, I decided to retire from the trumpet. Living in apartment buildings would not be a good environment for a trumpet. Besides, I had given up my part time job as an orchestral player. That was too much to keep going with the demands of life as a teacher. It was a sacrifice though. One of my room-mates in Japan, Peter, was a trombone player. He brought his trombone and soon got complaints from neighbours.
A year ago, I returned to NZ. Matthew's shed held the remains of my first life. Boxes and boxes of books. Lovely books that I would love to have with me. Rubbish bags full of clothes. The jewels of a large CD collection. My Italian racing bicycle. A suitcase full of Bhutanese weaving; the gifts that had been given to me when I left Bhutan in 2000. And my trumpet.
I pulled the trumpet out, and began playing again. What a terrible sound that was. But my love affair with it was rekindled. Now, when the rest of the house is engaged in conversations that I cannot understand, or watching Bollywood movies that I don't care to watch, I move into my bedroom with my second girlfriend. My trumpet talks to me.
Ugyen pulled out the Bhutanese weaving, and it made the journey back to Bhutan.
Restarting the trumpet as an adult has been quite a different process. I am much more aware of things. As a child, I did not question things. Maybe that was a better way. But I cannot help thinking that if I had had the same questions when I first started, I would have made better progress. Only now am I started to see patterns in the music which were hidden. Being classically trained, led me to reading music. Now I want to escape from that more. Listen, even.
Thanks, Dad. And Mum, if you are reading this somewhere in another life. Were you that fly buzzing loudly as I did my long note practice last evening?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

School Opens

Friday 5th March, 2010. Pelkhil High School had rimdros (pujas) performed by Ven Tang Rinpoche. (A title given to a highly respected Buddhist lama, meaning "precious one".) An offering of prayers to help get the school off to a good start. These ceremonies are integrated into Bhutanese life. Seeing people with doctorates in science from Oxford involved in this kind of thing made me think about my beliefs. Rather than a paradigm shift, it was a conciliation of two different views.
The photo above shows the staff lined up, ready to welcome Rinpoche. Those in Buddhist costume are wearing ceremonial scarves. We are all clutching on to long silk scarves, called khata. These were to offer to Rinpoche. There is a certain way to do this. For a new-comer, a daunting process. First the khata is folded up like a concertina. One end is held firmly between the fingers of the right hand. To present the scarf, you thrust this hand over your extended left arm, then elegantly unfurl the long whiteness as you straighten the right arm. All going well, that is. I had other visions. The scarf flying off into the mud, or even worse, the right hand veering into Rinpoche's face.
"Buddhist master killed by clumsy Kiwi"
After giving the khata to Rinpoche, he promptly returns it to you as a blessing, wrapping it around your neck.

The prayers were conducted before a makeshift altar in one of the classrooms. Again, there is a lot of etiquette involved. I know some of this, but rely on going near the end and following what others do. The Bhutanese people are always quite accepting of my strange interpretations or whisper advice loudly when I am about to offend. While sitting down, I nearly turned my back to Rinpoche. At least I did not attempt to eat the uncooked rice which was meant to be tossed into the air as an offering to the local spirits.
Let me introduce some new faces. Zeb and Jon are the "whiteys". They have just arrived in Bhutan from America and will be teaching at the school for a year (possibly more ... possibly less). I was very impressed when they ordered emma datshi (chillies and cheese) for lunch. Even more impressed when they ate it without any sign of water in their eyes. It was a bit much when they ordered seconds. Jon already speaks more Dzongkha then me, and Zeb looks like he has mastered Dzogchen, the highest form of meditation.
They both have their own blogs, which I am sure you will enjoy. My view of Bhutan seems rather stale and boring in comparison with these fresh young eyes.
Zeb's is here: Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom.
And this is Jon's: Happy Ending Offer.
Promise to come back here, though.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


In my mailbox there are 489 emails from Don. And that only goes back to September 2008. I know when I met Don. That was in late 2006, at a workshop on a new mathematics text book for Bhutan. Don's wife, Marian, was the main person behind the book. Don came as unaccompanied luggage. At the time, Don was a mathematics professor. Over the course of the workshop, we had a few conversations. Later, Don and another mathematician came over to Thimphu. They generously shouted me out to a meal at a posh hotel. Don still has notes he took on his napkin. We talked more. Meditation came up. Other things came up. Not the food. We exchanged email addresses. The emails started soon after. Daily.
When we agreed to send each other an email every day, we thought we would soon run out of things to say. These mails are not small twitters. We are not twits. It was fascinating for me to get a real insight into the thoughts of a working mathematician. Teaching mathematics is not the same as doing it. Don teaches it too.
So, we can talk about mathematics and maths teaching. We found there was much more that we had in common. Spectacles. Reading. Cycling. Walking. Computers. Spirituality. Learning. Music (Don plays the flute). It was as if Don was another version of me. A higher level though.
Just to test himself, Don uses a different keyboard layout on the computer. He changes that every few weeks to keep up the challenge. He has been working on speed reading. Now he is learning the piano, still with the normal piano keyboard. I have read about the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman; Don has worked with him. At least in the same building. While I try to teach my classes how to write equations, Don is inventing new ways to solve them.
If not much happens during our days, we have to resort to writing about rather humdrum matters. Today's post from Don had a very long paragraph about buying a new pair of waterproof boots. The thing is that his writing about such a mundane event can be so riveting. Not that the rivets came in to the story. If one really pays attention to the small details, there will be something interesting. For example ...
"Friday I decided I needed waterproof boots but the boots that were not watertight were too wet to use. They get very cold when they are wet and also they feel smaller. It is very unpleasant to put them on. Think of putting
on a wet bathing suit. Something like that. I found some boots of Marian's in the closet. They are watertight to well past the ankle. They looked unused. They are a bit big on me. I thumped as I walked and I thumped to the mall and bought waterproof boots."

Did I say that Don was Canadian?
I have a truly marvelous proof that Don is the most interesting person I have ever met. The margin is too narrow to contain it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Above Average

Last night I was talking with someone. Someone younger than me. In Bhutan, there should be respect for someone older than you. I like that when I am the elder one. If I am younger, I go back to my NZ habits. That led me to ask what is the average age of people on the earth? How many people should be showing me more consideration because of my more mature years?
Instead of Googling the answer I Alphaed it. Or should that be Alphed? Wolframed? Wolfram|Alpha started up with a fanfare on May 15, 2009. It was going to be the next greatest thing in search engines. Wolfram was a name I had come across. They make mathematics software. When I have a maths question, I use their site. Alpha is not the same as Google though. Not worse. Not better. A different kind of beast.
I typed "average age of living people in world"  and I got back this:
"Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure how to compute an answer from your input"
Using Alpha can be rather frustrating. 
The language you enter does not have the same flexibility as Google. But I did get some hints and quickly pulled up some numbers.
All countries average age. (Click if you want to see)
The median age of people in the world is 27.5 years. That is 867,200,000 seconds. Monaco was the country with the highest median (45.5) and Japan was second (43.8). Uganda was the lowest, only 15.
That puts me well above average. For once.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Meeting Matthieu

I first met Matthieu Ricard's photos in a book called Journey to Enlightenment. A book about one of Ricard's Buddhist teachers, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Ricard, born in France, started his career as a biologist, then made a paradigm shift to become a Buddhist monk. His father Jean-François Revel was a prominent philosopher. They wrote a book together called The Monk and the Philosopher. It is about a monk and a philosopher. I read that some time ago.
His book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, did not have very good photos. There were no photos, apart from a picture of his face on the back flap. The words were great though. The book contains valuable information on how to be happy, and some startling results from scientific research into meditation. Some people believe that we need to experience some sadness and suffering to make us appreciate the good times. Not me.
Early in 2008, Ugyen and I were waiting in the departure lounge at Paro airport, on our way to Bangkok. Ugyen told me not to put this photo as she looks "sagay". That means like the village idiot. Ugyen's affectionate name for me is "sagay". If you pronounce it differently it has a different meaning. At least, that is what Ugyen told me.
As we lined up at the baggage counter, I noticed the wine-coloured maroon of monk's robes in front of us. Not so uncommon here. This was a large white monk though. He looked a little like the man on the inside flap of that Happiness book. Before making a fool of myself, I checked the name on his travel papers. It was the man on the flap. With the rest of the body.
I introduced myself. He did not know of me. Yes, he was happy and looked about 40 years old. Some people would say that if you spend your life in a monastery just having to sit around saying prayers and meditating, then you would be happy. Not me.
He has a new book out titled The Art of Meditation. My birthday is coming up.
The following link has an article by an initially skeptical writer discussing happiness with Ricard and Lord Layard, an economist. The happiest men in the world - Times Online.
You can find some of Ricard's photos here.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Meet the Meat

Yesterday we went to get chicken.
The meat shops have improved since I was first here.
But still the meat looks like animals. A useful reminder.
"Om Mani Padme Hung."