July 25, 2015

It took us 11 hours driving time from Thimphu to Taktse. We did take a detour to go to a college ceremony in the Panakha Valley a few hours east of Thimphu, but much of the road itself was arduous, something like an obstacle course. There were long patches of deep, rocky ruts and narrow, muddy passages with huge boulders scattered throughout the road. Many places were only one lane with two-lane traffic and people passing on the curves. The condition of the road was compromised by the fact that it is being widened by chopping vertical slices out of the mountains, but there were also places of recent mudslides. Mercifully, we travelled on a day when there was no work being done; otherwise we would have encountered roadblocks that could have required several hours wait.

We arrived in Taktse about 8:30 at night, so it wasn’t until morning that the splendor of the place revealed itself. Mists and clouds drifting through mountains and moments of pristine blue sky alternate. The locals say there are four seasons in every day.

Classes begin on Wednesday, and I am entrenched in preparations.

Paro, Bhutan — July 14, 2015

Photos to follow.

Thick clouds blanketed our crossing of the Himalayas, so it wasn’t until our plane gently swooped into position for the landing that a panorama of lush green and misty wisps of cloud took my breath away. Houses sit amidst terraced gardens of rice and vegetables. All is quiet but for the drizzle of rain on shallow puddles.

Bhutan at last — towering forested slopes in the clouds.

Helga, Jude and I trundle off to a guesthouse on the Royal University of Bhutan — Paro campus. A window opens to the rushing river. We go off in search of dinner and find red rice, chilies, and a cilantro chicken.

In the middle of the main street, a group of about 8 cows had decided to bed down for the night oblivious to the cars navigating around them. I am so tired after 3 days of travel, I am tempted to join them.

Thimphu, Bhutan – July 15-19

Photos to follow.

Forty-five minutes of switchbacks and roller-coaster roads east of Paro is Thimphu, the densest urban concentration of the country. Every building is a work of art, painted with Buddhist symbols, geometric figures, animals, or — in a few cases –penises (

Nearly all people wear the traditional garb of gho (wrapped knee-length jackets) for men and kira (long, wrapped skits) for women. I am required to dress similarly while teaching, so we spend entire afternoons going from one fabric shop to another to buy the hand-woven lengths of material for the skirt and coordinating fabric for the jacket (tago) and its lining (wanju). The decisions are exhausting as there are hundreds of patterns to choose from and finding color and pattern schemes that seem harmonious are mathematically staggering. At last, we are laden with bags of material and head to the tailor’s shop where we beg to have the garments sewn quickly before we leave the city on Sunday.

Through the rain, we drive about the city from one administrative office to another securing visas, work permits, telephone numbers, bank accounts, and duty free cards (which allow expats to buy alcohol from the duty free store). Many, many hours are passed waiting for forms to be processed, required documents to be procured, and signatures to be scribbled.

The city is a quiet one, but for the myriad songs of birds. Sidewalks are full of bustling pedestrians. Flowers and trees proliferate. The city seems more of a busy park than a metropolis. Tobacco is illegal, so there is no one smoking. The air is delicious.

Going home

At Tripoli airport at last on my way to NYC for Christmas with my kids. The process of acquiring the visa for getting out of Libya took nearly four months and it wasn’t until two days before my flight that all the paper work was in order. Other foreigners were not so lucky; one young man – newly wed to a girl in India – had to fork out 750 USD to get a rush (probably illegal) visa to visit her in the hospital where she is quite ill. Another guy is having to reschedule his flight to London hoping that he will have his visa in a couple of days.

I am giddy with a sense of relief at being able to get out of the confinement of the school compound. There have been moments when I believed once out, I would not return, but I am sure I will be back after my week’s respite. I wonder if this is a case of Stockholm syndrome. The commitment to those kids is overpowering, and my colleagues are the best bunch I have ever worked with. They are from all over – Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Canada, the U.K., and a couple of us from the U.S. All have a good deal of experience teaching internationally, and they are well-grounded individuals. The intensity of working under the conditions of chronic mismanagement, daily outages, mysterious emergencies, and essential restrictions have bonded us rather tightly. Our Libyan counterparts are quite wonderful as well; the panache with which they cope with their country’s staggering growing pains is quite phenomenal.

So I will return from my R&R with little Statues of Liberty, I Love NY tee-shirts, Michael Jackson CDs, teacher planning and grading books, and as many kids’ books as will fit in my luggage as I promised. Plus all the hope I can muster.

The Gas Crisis

The lines of cars queuing up at petrol stations go on for miles while the ports are besieged by groups pressuring the government to acknowledge autonomy for eastern Libya, a region that includes the militias of Ben Ghazi where American teacher Ronnie Smith was gunned down on the street last week. The Libya Herald  reports P.M. Zeidan saying that the ports will open tomorrow, but there are no details of a deal that would ensure that. Meanwhile, cars are abandoned on the streets, and there is growing tension about the situation. I have heard that contraband petrol can be had at over 100% increase in price from a few weeks ago. 

So tonight the explosions began about an hour ago —  around 9.30 p.m.. After my bedroom windows rattled alarmingly, I went outside to ask our guards about it, and they were adamant that there is no threat to us living at the school. They say that people are stealing petrol from the station down the street. Mish mish kalha (no problem), they insist. Libya is hard to understand, they explain. They tell me to go to sleep and have pleasant dreams.


Quotes from some parents of our Libyan students

“Libya is my mother. She has raised me and cared for me. How can I leave her when she is sick?”

“(Having guns) is like a glass of water that has spilled; once the revolution was over, there is no way to gather back what has been distributed.”

“I am embarrassed that foreigners are here to see my country like this.”

Jets and mortars

I am sitting on the rooftop of the school where I live on the top floor. To the north and east, there are mortar explosions punctuated with rapid fire. Puffs of black mortar discharge float in the turquoise blue Libyan sky. Then there is silence for a few minutes before another burbing crackle of gunfire and the thud-thudthudthud-thud of mortar. A distant explosion now comes from the southeast. I can see nothing of the exchange, but the sounds are ominous.

The lads are playing football (soccer) on the field below me, undaunted by what has me quietly fretting. There is a nonchalance among the people who have been living with events like this for two years.

A jet suddenly rips through the air. I see it speeding in an arc around the city and then back to the north – the Mediterranean. It is quite low and close; I can make out the Libyan insignia on its wings as it swoops around me. It makes another pass above me, like a solitary missile frightening in its powerful fracturing of the sky.

A building is now on fire to the north. I can’t see the building, but a great mass of black smoke is billowing into the air. As the jet makes a third pass, gunfire increases.

Flocks of white pigeons are escaping to the west, but now the sound of mortar fire is coming from a wider perimeter.

A colleague reports that the news on France 24 has picked up on the disturbance. A militia from Misrata had fired on demonstrators in the city. Cars on a nearby highway are honking their horns.

Suddenly, there is quiet. The sun is setting, casting long shadows across the garden walls.

Still, occasional rounds of fire puncture the beautiful Libyan evening.

November 8…

There are the voices of children playing in the street outside my window, but in the distance are the periodic bursts of gunfire continuing the mayhem that began last night in Tripoli.  Here on the near-outskirts of the city, we are advised to not leave the compound.

Responses to the militia conflict that took a life and injured a dozen or so bystanders are varied. the groundskeeper at first denied (lied) that there had been an incident last night (even though we could hear the blasts), and then he shrugged it off by saying that these things have been happening for the last two years, and not to worry; it will pass.

A fellow colleague philosophically mused that what happened last night is only as serious as one wants to take it. Foreigners aren’t being targeted per se, and the only direct impact will be that some parents may not bring their children to school on Sunday. (Our school week runs Sunday to Thursday, Friday being the Islamic holy day.) 

The Libya Herald  reported that residents dragged barricades across the roads leading into the city in the wee hours of the morning to block the resupply of munitions into the city, further testament to staunch initiative individuals must take in the absence of a government. 

I feel like I am living in a 19th century frontier town in the American West when guys with guns would face each other down in Main Street and all the townsfolk would flee to safety. Only here, the weapons are not six-shooters and there is no sheriff.

Every moment a microcosm

October 24, 2013



After several weeks of no Internet connection, suddenly we have it. There are any number of reasons why the foreign teachers have had such a sporadic and weak Internet service.


The first possibility is that the mechanical devices are flawed or damaged, and there is no one in the city of Tripoli who is capable of repairing it properly or who cares to do a professional job of fixing it. Maybe there IS someone, but he (yes, he only) realizes that the longer he can ineffectively patch the damage, the longer he has a job and can bill the company for services not performed. Probably no one in the administration would notice.


There is the likelihood that the Internet provider bill has not been paid – for a long time. Always, always there is always “bukara” (tomorrow) and the condition “Inshallah” (God willing) to any request for anything here. Will the TV repairman come tonight to make my TV work? Inshallah. I wait for hours, and he never shows. No one is surprised.


Maybe “someone” does not wish the foreign teachers to have access to the outside world through the Internet, and that “someone” is intentionally keeping the service from working. Maybe one of the foreign teachers is thinking to get the hell out of the country and book a ticket to Malta – and never come back. It has happened here more than once; teachers have disappeared without a word to anyone and without a backward glance at the consequences of making the staff even more short-handed.


I can understand that seemingly selfish impulse. If not for those few motivated students among the mass of mostly undisciplined, disrespectful, and lazy children who go to this school, I would have left the first day. If not for the possibility that there are two or three of those students who will make a crucial difference in the future of this country, I would quit this vale-of-trash-strewn roadsides and perplexing inefficiencies.