Facebook in Bhutan

After watching invigorating archery and giant dart matches in which men sang and danced after each series of successful trails, I proceeded to the Memorial Chorten and walked around its white dome until I got to a small enclosed meditation hall where a monk was carefully placing food offerings in front of an alter. I sat quietly in the back and looked at the beautiful hard wood floor, the statues of the Buddha and the traditional instruments set around the room.

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One of the wonderful things about Bhutan is that most people can speak very good English. This sometimes feels unreal. This morning I was walking around the weekend market and decided to have a meal of fried red rice there. The old Bhutanese man who worked at the small cafe spoke excellent English. Sometimes it feels like I am living in a dubbed documentary about Asia! The Bhutanese I have met so far are invariably polite and courteous. Combined with the amazing mountain scenery and the wonderful way time stretches here (especially since I have not had Internet here for the past few days), there is a feeling of magic that I try not to get to excited about lest it is disrupted by a jealous twist of fate!

Once the monk had finished setting up the offerings. He came and sat besides me. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Canada”, I said and smiled, happy at this wonderful opportunity to talk with him. We talked a little bit about the length of my stay in Bhutan, what I was doing back home and his life in the monastery. To my surprise, he pulled out a smart phone and showed me Canada on Google Earth. He told me about cranes who fly to his village every year from Tibet and stay there for the winter. He showed me their pictures. They were majestic beautiful birds.

Next, he asked me of a good program for translation to which I responded by showing him Google Translate. He wanted to translate something a friend had written him on Facebook. Before I knew it we were Facebook friends and he invited me to his Monastery which is about 8 kilometres north of Thimphu. He kindly offered me some tasty milk tea and as we sat there sipping tea and eating rice puffs, an older monk entered with a child on his back. My friend told me that he was a senior meditating monk. This was hard to believe as he put down the child and proceeded to play with him in a carefree and fun manner, giving him the ancient looking instruments to play with and teasing him with a loud brass instrument. I loved his fresh, childlike presence. After tea, I said goodbye to my new found friend and walked back to my apartment.

Printing Yoda

My first 3D printed object is an ornate Yoda head! The design is not mine and is from a website (Thingiverse.com) that hosts a repository of designs for physical objects. Our school has recently acquired three 3D printers (3D Touch from BFB) and I am lucky to have access to them. It took about 30 hours to print. Because of the cavities there were a lot of support material and it’s almost impossible to take all of them out. There might be a way to melt the support material but I don’t want to risk anything with my first Yoda yet!

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I would love to make a skin for Yoda’s head, perhaps one can be made out of resin. Combining 3D printing with traditional sculpting techniques would be very interesting and might make sculpting more accessible to amateurs like myself 🙂

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First Day in Bhutan

The flight from Kathmandu to Paro is one of the most exhilarating I have every taken. It’s a very short flight (about an hour) but within minutes of leaving Kathmandu’s polluted skies, majestic mountains appear in the horizon and soon you are surrounded by the world’s highest mountains. I was lucky to have a window seat on the left side of the plane with excellent views of the elegant peaks. There was a flurry of movement in the cabin as soon as the names of the peaks including Mount Everest were announced on the PA system and many cameras (including mine) tried to capture the magic of the view. I immediately thought of Malory and his intrepid colleagues who ventured here in the 1920’s. I could feel the addictive allure of the mountain.

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The descent into Paro is a great adventure in itself. The plane has to make many turns and twists in the middle of narrow valleys with views of remote Monasteries and houses surrounding it before landing on a short airstrip in front of a beautiful building that serves as the immigration and customs offices.

The driver from the TechPark I will be working out of for the next six weeks was waiting for me with a sign and friendly greetings. The drive from Paro to Thimpu takes about 45 minutes and passes beautiful rivers, traditional houses and makeshift stalls that sell … asparagus! There is one point where two rivers meet: one coming from Paro and one coming from Thimphu. At one point we passed many rosy cheeked children coming back from Saturday activity day at school. There were endearing signs on the road saying things like “inconveniences regretted!” and “It’s not a rally, enjoy the valley!”

Thimphu is by far the biggest city in Bhutan and yet feels like a large town. There are on going construction on the outskirts. As I heard later there are strict rules that buildings must follow traditional Bhutanese style, a style that is very beautiful and exudes a timeless quality, although having a explicit restriction might be an impediment to creativity.

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My apartment is very spacious and clean and has a Swiss lodge feel to it. There are two bedrooms and many balconies with views of the city. I have a flatscreen TV with many English, Bhutanese and Indian channels including BBC and Al-Jazeera. I have to turn on a water heater to prepare for a shower which immediately reminds me of my aunt’s old house in Iran where I had many fond memories and was fascinated by the process of preparing for a bath by heating the water first.

After leaving my luggage at the apartment, I meet the CEO of the incubation centre that I will be working at. Dr. Tshering Cigay Dorji is a courteous and friendly gentleman who welcomes me to Bhutan and invites me to a lunch of Bhutanese and Indian dishes in downtown Thimphu. Dr. Dorji has studied in Australia and Japan and has a PhD in Computer Science. He gives me information about the history and mission of the incubation centre as well as general life in Bhutan.

After lunch I come back to my apartment and although it’s 2pm in the afternoon, can’t help but fall sleep to the hypnotic sound of children playing, dogs barking and night descending on the city. I wake up a few times but stay in bed until 5 next morning!

Play with your food!

Before leaving for Asia, I spent a few days hanging out with friends and family. One of the fun activities was playing Pacman using vegetables as interface! We used two zucchinis and two cucumbers, each corresponding to a computer arrow key. This was made possible by the wonderful Makey Makey kit from MIT.

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A few days earlier I had played the same game with a slightly different vegetable set (four zucchinis, two of which were eaten before the second gameplay session!) with my two amazing buddies, Luke and Grace (ages 6 and 9).

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Other than them being a lot of fun to play with, using vegetables as interface allowed for a more collaborative gameplay. In both cases, players chose one or two vegetables and attempted to collaborate (with mixed results) with other player(s). Players soon would realize that communication, especially at the learning stage of gameplay was key and one of them would assume a leader role, saying (often shouting with excitement 🙂 ) directions to other players. After the game and a mock dance, the cucumber part of the interface was chopped and eaten!

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A few days later in Kathmandu, I saw various groups of men huddled over boards, consumed in games. I later found out most were playing a traditional Nepalese game called “Move the Tiger”. I am unsure as to what is the history behind this game or what are its rules but am very excited to find out when I have a chance. I wonder if it’s possible to combine Makey Makey with Move the Tiger to create an edible board game!

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The Silent Sun

SwayambhunathThe Swayambhunath Buddhist temple is an spectacular sight atop a hill close to Kathmandu’s city centre. Legend has it that once the Kathmandu valley was a lake and this hill suddenly rose in the middle of it (its name means “self-arisen”). After climbing its Eastern side and taking in the breathtaking architecture of it’s main stupa with the hypnotic and characteristic eyes on top, and after avoiding a few guides and beggars (it still amazes me how disorienting it is for people to hear I am from Iran!), I headed down to a path that goes around the hill and is lined with prayer wheels.

It was midday when I got there and most people, pilgrims, tourists and beggars, were avoiding the burning sun. Walking along the almost deserted path and turning the wheels as is customary, I was suddenly confronted by a half naked street kid coming in the opposite direction. His clothes were in tatters and his private parts were dangling from his torn pants. His eyes were empty, beyond sad, hopeless, silent, dead. I passed him and continued turning the wheels, numb but feeling a growing sensation of nihilistic pain in my guts. Finally, I had to stop and stare at the statue of Buddha, the serene wheels, the hypnotic eyes, the silent sun.

What are all these prayer flags for? These wheels and tales of heavenly ascent? I felt I was looking at the silent sun with my body half buried in mud. For a moment everything seemed empty and futile, roasting, drying, dying, disappearing. Then I started turning the wheels again. Life goes on, our prayers build a never ending staircase towards the sun that might not reach it but might reach something better: hope!

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Transience

Awake. Disoriented. What time is it? 8. PM or AM? PM, crap! My afternoon nap turned into a 6 hour sleep. The joys of being jet lagged. OK, what’s next? Perhaps if I brush my teeth I feel better. I do and also the tap I turned on with a vague hope for hot water actually exudes hot water. Shower? Sure. And I’ll shave now that I’ve started a hygienic routine.

Transience or rather an awareness of it is what makes travel so special for me. The fact that I will not be here tomorrow or next week or next month, that I will disappear from here, at the best of times, awakens a sort of mindfulness and mad lust for life in me that can be quite addictive. An urge to experience without fear of failure. To talk to strangers, eat unusual foods, dance and walk and swim until exhausted. I have tried to bring this feeling back to my everyday life and have been successful to some extent but awareness can not be faked. It should be lived.

Life is transient no matter where you are and what you do and yet living “at home” a lot of times slides us into mind numbing routines that postpone everything to next day or next week or next month until you feel your whole life is postponed. When growing up, I had good friends who were too polite to say “no”. Whenever they were offered something they didn’t want to do they said, “later”.

Arrival in Kathmandu

The process of getting a visa upon arrival in Kathmandu feels enjoyably personal. You hand in a couple of forms, a picture and money and a team of four officials hurriedly go over them, put a stamp in your passport and there you go! No bulletproof glass, no cold stares, no finger print machines and no cameras, I couldn’t see their desks but I almost suspect the clerks were actually writing our names in a big thick ledger!

 

The first thing I noticed coming into Kathmandu was that a significant number of people wear air masks. It took me a couple of minutes to breath in their reasons: incredible amounts of dust in the air and chocking exhaust everywhere. Kathmandu rivals big Indian cities in terms of noise and general chaos but the people seem more chilled out than in Delhi or Agra for example. While I saw a number of street children, many sniffing glue and looking wild eyed and wasted, there weren’t a lot of aggressive beggars and the few were quietly lying on the ground or beckoning from the side of the road. 

 

The area I am staying at, Thamel, is touristy but has an interesting vibe to it. There are many young people with spiritual, social and environmental interests travelling here. I met a couple of Belgian teachers in my rundown hotel last night and they mentioned there are a lot of people who come here to volunteer. There are many Japanese restaurants, European bakeries and supermarkets in this area, institutions whose very existence is a clear sign of the effect of foreign travellers on the fabric of society. These scenes start to look more and more similar to each other no matter if you are in Peru, Guatemala or Nepal. They cater to a specific category of travellers that I call “seekers”. 

 

Seekers don’t have a lot of money and are more interested in culture, history and art of a region than it’s luxury hotels or sumptuous meals, although they enjoy extravagance once in a while, especially after a long trek or desperate days spent in impoverished areas. They are interested in genuine human connections and love to talk about social change, spiritual and cultural experiences and how they incorporate their experiences (or not) with their life “back home”. While they romanticize the places they travel in (if they have not had too many disappointing experiences, they tend to categorize the young people of the third world as unfortunate angels and their elders as wise sages) they feel connected to where they come from and generally believe they can bring something back. 

 

I love these people and feel I am one of them too. I understand the contradictions that they face. For example, their disenchantment with Western consumerism and yet their obsession with small comforts such as pizza, coffee and hot showers; their sense of survival guilt that makes them more tolerant towards the faults and bad intentions of people from any culture other than their own; and their use of travel and spiritual experiences to boost their egos and justify the often dull life they have to go back to when they return. I don’t want to be cynical and the reason I mention these is because I feel I am part of this movement and as such feel responsible to make explicit its shortcomings as well as strengths. I believe that is the only way to evolve. 

 

On the positive side, seekers can bring about genuine positive change and foster true connections. Once in Guatemala, I met a man who was truly interested in my travel and work experiences as I was in his. We talked for hours about positive social values, Sufism, native spirituality, travel and culture. He was one of the most honest and respectful people I have seen and I will cherish this connection for ever. And this was one of many! I remember when I was a kid in Iran, living on the other side of the equation, I starved to meet someone from across the world to talk about their culture and experiences. 

 

The hustlers and crooks who fake interest in a seeker with the aim of using his or her money, body or influence should not embitter us about the value of cultural and social dialogue. Humans are a mix of light and darkness and as such we have a responsibility to play our part in an interaction and make honest choices. One of my hidden skills is somehow attract a certain kind of hustler and yesterday was no different. I met a young man who tried hard to convince me to hang out with him. After futile offers of being my guide, buying me hashish and taking me to see horsemanship competitions, he finally tried a very interesting line of argument: “let’s go have tea and exchange knowledge, I am from Nepal, you are foreigner, we have much to talk about”. I was surprised: even hustlers have awakened to the seeker’s desire for connection. I didn’t go for tea with this young man, as his other offers had put me off already but it was interesting to hear an argument for intercultural collaboration from a hustler, a sign that as always the streets are listening and the world is to a large extent our own reflection.

A Very Long Flight

It’s funny how time can actually fly you by! I flew out of Toronto on Monday night and arrived in Kathmandu two days and three flights later on Wednesday afternoon. I gave up on having an intuitive understanding of time and decided to ground myself once I landed on solid ground and had a chance to sleep properly for a couple of nights.

A good thing about being in transit for many hours is sometimes you can arrange to meet with old friends and transform the sterile atmosphere of an airport to a miraculous scene of a reconnection. I was lucky to fly through the Heathrow airport and see Mamily, a good friend of my parents and myself and a fascinating artist and activist. It was more than 8 years since I had seen him.

Mamily is an installation artist and sculptor who has lived in exile in England for many years. In the 60s and 70s he was a political activist and freedom fighter and was prisoned, tortured and had to escape the Middle East with his family. Once in England, he studied art and conducted a series of public space installations.

Despite everything he has seen in his life or perhaps because of it, Mamily is full of vitality and passion for life. What I admire most about him is that despite all the cruelty and betrayal he has seen during his time, he has not lost the childlike innocence and belief in humanity yet.

I was lucky to spend a few hours with Mamily and lunch with him in Heathrow. Mamily is in his 60s and In recent years, he has started to develop Parkinson’s Disease. One of the worst aspects of this condition is that it impairs his fine motor skills (especially in his hands) which are imperative for his sculpting and design work. He described to me that an important part of his work philosophy was to be engaged in every aspect of the work. For example, in some of his installations he had to weld pieces of metal together, while in others he had to use concrete and bricks. In the past he used to do all of these himself and did not have helpers or fabricators. However, in his most recent work, he created a piece by coming up with the design and commissioning a fabricator to make the parts. He had to supervise the process closely but it was easier and more practical to use this method, especially given his physical condition.

Because of his illness, Mamily has become very interested in Neurology and frequents a prominent hospital in London for check ups and also attends public lectures on the subjects. His fascination with the brain has motivated him to come up with the idea of a sculpture in the form of a brain for a public space near the hospital. He also has a number of ideas about installations that commemorate political prisoners who gave their lives for a revolutionary cause.

One of the things we discussed was the possibility of creating a digital portfolio for him and also I am thinking a video overview presentation of his work might be a good idea. I have asked him to send me the documentation of his pieces and hopefully we can put something together. I would have loved to collaborate with him or do an apprenticeship at his workshop to familiarize myself with his processes and methods. Sad that one’s life is short and limited! I wish I could get a refund from the lord of time for all the hours I spend on the airplane!