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Khaling, Bhutan 1987-89

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

In 1987, I was hired by the World University Service of Canada to teach English in a high school in Khaling, a small eastern valley in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. I had not intended to go to Bhutan. In fact, when I first applied to WUSC, it was to teach in southern Africa, so when a voice over the phone asked me if I would be interested in teaching in Bhutan, I had to think for a minute.

“Sure,” I said, “Sounds like fun.”

I hung up the phone, went to the public library and tried to find some information about Bhutan—like, where was it? Somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps? The public library had no information, beyond a few encyclopaedia articles, so I drove to the nearest university library. They had some information, but all of it very dated. Bhutan, it turned out, was in Asia, not the Middle East as I had suspected (I had been thinking about Bahrain), and according to the sources I discovered (all of which were about ten years out-of-date), was the poorest country in the world with the highest rate of infant mortality. What was I getting myself in to? I wondered.

As it turned out, going to Bhutan was the best thing I ever did. Sure, living conditions were primitive by Western standards, but I quickly discovered that human beings are remarkably adaptable and that something that would appear unbearable in Canada, like the lack of electricity or running water, or cooking on an inefficient kerosene burner, soon became a normal and unremarkable part of daily life. Indeed, I also soon discovered that there was a pecking order in the volunteer service, and that one gained merit points for the ruggedness of one’s posting and especially for the number of gastrointestinal problems one had encountered and survived.

Khaling Valley was in the eastern and less-developed part of Bhutan. It was a long, narrow valley and very wet in the summer monsoon. The high school was at the upper end of the valley, where the vehicle road crossed the river. The school was ten years old when I arrived, founded by a Canadian Jesuit, Father William Mackey. It was still run by Jesuits and Nuns when I got there, though they were all kicked out a few years later by the Bhutanese government in a growing campaign of xenophobia that swept the country and continues to plague it. There were (and still are) few paved roads in Bhutan; most of the time, you got from place to place by walking on well-maintained trails. Walking was a revelation for me. I had never been much of a long-distance walker before, but I became a convert. Whenever we had a school holiday, I was out on the trails, exploring, sometimes by myself, but more often in the company of students and other teachers.

Because most Bhutanese lived in small, scattered villages in isolated mountain valleys, most of the schools were boarding schools. Mine was no exception. Teaching therefore was a twenty-four hour a day job, since it involved more than just classroom instruction; you were also dorm mother, dining hall superintendent and head gardener. The students were a pleasure to teach. They were polite, respectful, and helpful to a fault. We were spoiled and many of us found it very hard to readjust to life in Canadian classrooms when we returned.

There was a shortage of teacher accommodation when I first arrived, so I was quartered in the change room of the school’s gymnasium. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but it was very public and very noisy—especially at 6 a.m. when the boys’ basketball team was practicing. I eventually found an empty cottage in a nearby village and arranged to rent it. The village was on a small plateau above the school, about fifteen minutes away. The village was called

Khaling Gompa and consisted of ten small stone farmhouses with thatched or metal roofs, surrounding a large Buddhist temple. The central feature of the village was an ancient cypress that grew beside the temple and which was visible from miles away. The legend of the cypress was that the temple’s founder, a monk from Tibet, stuck his staff in the ground at this place and declared, “Here I will found my temple.” From his staff sprouted the present tree.

I found myself living in two worlds: the world of the school and the world of the village. I was doubly fortunate. Village life was governed by age-old rhythms—by the swing of the seasons and the agricultural year and by the festivals of the Buddhist calendar. From the plateau on which I lived I could look down upon the valley and see the river, the small, enclosed fields, the whitewashed villages, the steeply forested valley sides and above them the grassy upland pastures. It was like stepping into a painting by Pieter Breughel.

I was very happy in Khaling for the most part. Though I had to cope with culture shock, I actually found that the shock of returning to Canada was much more difficult to bear, and I found myself homesick for a place that had never really been my home. It has been thirty-four years since I left Bhutan. In that time, I have taught in China and the Canadian arctic, have become the chief administrator of two public libraries, have married, and become a parent three times over, and yet, not a day goes by, but I think of Bhutan and wish that I were twenty-six years-old and could do it all over again.


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