Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Strange Bewildering Time...




The flight traced the Himalayan skyline, along the row of peaks sacred to local and mountaineer alike.  I misidentified Everest as Lhotse at first, then was quickly corrected when I saw the former's familiar shape. It's been said that the peak isn't even particularly beautiful, but I disagree, as its grandeur lends itself to beauty. 

Kathmandu itself was barely visible in the haze of early spring.  The farmers were busy with their burning to prepare the soil for the planting.  And since the quake, masons were frenetic with their baking of bricks, which further muddies an already murky sky.  My first impression wasn't the best, of a city sprawling out of control. 

The mind of the traveler is fickle.  No matter where you go, someone will have gotten there first, and never fails to tell you how much better the place was back when.  Yet your own experience is valid in that it is your own.  But for the second time in my life I was feeling that I'd arrived too late. (The previous was with Cambodia.)  I'd thought about going to Nepal about 15 years ago, but friends had suggested I wait out the Maoist insurrection.  Not that my security would have been at stake, but because one of the true beauties of Nepal was the character of its people, and the Nepalese had been under extreme duress at that time.  And as the years passed during my waiting, refugees from the volatile countryside flooded the city, which grew and sprawled and lost a lot of the charm it had had.  Then of course, came the quake...

The affects of this were immediate as we strolled Patan, and it seemed as if every third building had  
collapsed into piles of brick, and every other remaining building was propped up with timber.  The already narrow lanes became narrower for this, and progress was ever impeded by a motor bike racing through.  The Durber Square was more or less off-limits, the museums and palaces still closed three years on.  This scene would be repeated over the next few days, as we moved through the city, all the monuments in critical condition.  

I was amazed that nothing had been rebuilt, until I was told that this was due to its World Heritage status, which handicapped them into rebuilding exactly according to the original materials and design.  And UNESCO doesn't provide money for the upkeep, it simple adds the name to the list.  The optimist in me wants to believe that the government had put their resources into rebuilding the lives of the people first, which is of course the proper course of action.  So we sat atop a balcony restaurant and pondered this, as below us a pair of temples took form as mere piles of brick.    

The more important temples were in better shape.  The Ashoka stupa courtyard was bright and open and ringed with prayer wheels, under the watch of multi-story apartment blocks.  The Banglamukhi Temple was undergoing repairs, but kids still frolicked in the plaza outside, and local women drew water from the step wells.  The Hiranya Varna Mahabihar was the true gem, and was hosting a festival where shorn young boys were celebrating a rite of age.  Bells rang, priests chanted, and mothers fawned with their selfies.  I immediately got a sense that the religion of the Newar people was different than the Hinduism of India, diffused as the former was with elements of Himalayan Buddhism.  (A topic for further study.)  There were also a few training temples, now seemingly abandoned.  They reminded me somewhat of the madrassa of Central Asia, though with much less adornment.  These open courtyards were now being used by local men and sleeping dogs.  

A festival of another sort was underway at Shree Chandeshwori Mai, its narrow grounds filled with musicians and men chanting.  A few minutes before we'd been passed by a handful of young men dragging a headless goat carcass back to their hotel.  The temple was the scene of the sacrifice, a stone before the altar stained a bright red.  I've never seen a red so red. 

  The following day we expanded our circle to outer Kathmandu, beginning with the perpetual circles around Bodhnath.  The ring of cafes and shops was almost Roman, and I intend a return here, to spend an afternoon on one of the balconies to watch the wheel of dharma take human form.  I underwent my own circuit, distracted most non-buddhistically by all the bells and whistles. 

Nearby Pushupatinath was much more open, more serene somehow, but that is befitting this place of burial ghats.  We moved quickly past the ruined temples to the river, and spent a few quiet moments watching the journey of others.  A trio of saddhu were sitting on one bank, bodies whitened with ashes.  A couple of other saddhu looked more polished, these being retired sannyasi, renunciate households moving quietly through bifocaled later life.  

A short drive took us part way up Swoyambhunath Stupa,  its lower grounds filled with young couples, its upper deck the playground of monkeys.  The central round stupa was off-set by the ziggurat of winding lanes leading up from all directions.  More young people enjoyed the views of the city through the haze, while the older generation revolved and spun and muttered prayers. 

Our driver dropped us off at the renowned Yak and Yeti, where we had a mediocre lunch served by a numerous and therefore non-attentive staff.  I wanted to see the famed casino here but it was under heavy restoration.  So we ambled over to Durber Marg and looked through the windows at what Kathmandu's leisure class might be buying. (I also learned two new verbs: shirting and suiting.)   Hanging a left at the Narayanhiti Palace (post-abdication, now a museum) and over toward Thamel.  The way was lined with outdoor shops aimed at trekkers, many selling knock-off brands, which presents certain dangers.  Finding a proper North Face shop, we bought a few last minute items for our upcoming Kailash kora.   

The length of Thamel was a carvernous tunnel of low-hanging prayer flags.  Legendary and infamous in the way of Bangkok's Khaosan.  It was busy with backpackers and punters shouting about goods and services. ( I'd have loved to have based myself here ten or twenty years ago, but sadly I am getting a little soft and pampered.)  We detoured a street over to Vajra books, on Tshering's suggestion.  He'd emailed ahead, so the owner was waiting for us.  Luckily I wasn't in a buying mood, as I could have spent a whole afternoon here, both perusing books and taking with the owner.  Yet another reason for a return.     

We found a locals only counterpoint to Thamel in Asan Tole, a spiderweb of lanes running into a market buzzing with dinnertime shoppers and motorbike commuters.  We braved all this, moving down Indra Chauk to Durbar Square.  Here too was a ruin, with couples and families sitting happily amidst the wreckage.  We paid our admission despite just passing through toward the opposite side.  It was humbling to face so much destruction, and reminded me of my visits to a shattered Kobe in the early months of 1995. 

UNESCO is doing absolutely nothing here.  The US and the Chinese offer the most assistance, the latter of course to counter the balance of long-term patron India (whose own influence is on the wane, mainly due to their embargo of petrol to Nepal not long after the quake, which paralyzed an already devastated economy.)  The Chinese influence can be seen as responsible for subtleties like more governmental pressure on Tibetan refugee communities, and may take form in the tangibilities of a railway that is expected to cross over from Tibet and perhaps eventually reach as far south as Delhi.      

Beyond the Square was the legendary Freak Street, still pretty grotty but today punctuated with internet cafes.  We ducked into the Snowman Cafe, closing a circle that began at Istanbul's pudding shop one year ago.  These two places were the internet of their time, providing travelers with relevant information before they embarked on a journey along the hippie trail.  Today, most in attendance were young Nepali hipster types, but the bearded old fellow serving up lassi looked like he'd been behind the counter since the 60s.  And he probably had been. 



LYL took the following day off as I broadened the circle outward to the perimeters of the Kathmandu Valley.  Roads muddied from the previous night's rain led us beneath newly sprouting deciduous trees toward Namobuddha.  This old monastery was clean and tidy compared to those of Bhutan, hinting at a funding by the Westerners who come to study with the renowned Rimpoche.  There were a few French here who appeared to be on retreat, quiet, glassy-eyed, and wrapped in pashmina.  

It certainly was quiet place, high above the surrounding villages that stretched themselves along the hilltops.  I wandered along the high ridge between the stupa and subtemples, then dropped down a long flight of stairs shaded by prayer flags, where an old woman was chastising a young couple who'd overtaken her.  At the base was a stupa and a small temple, along with a small set of buildings that served as cafes serving cold drinks.  As people circumambulated they stirred dust that swirled into the into the air.  All very wild west.

We backtracked to Bhaktapur, where we had lunch on a balcony overlooking the quiet Tachipul Tole, the light music coming from somewhere adding a fair amount to the atmosphere. Taumahi Tole was bit busier, on the day following a battle between neighboring shrine floats.   Foreigners had staked out all the tables of Nyatapole Cafe, so I climbed up Nyatapole temple itself to sit awhile and get into their photos.  We meandered down a narrow lane where I bought a kukri, then continued over to Potter's Square where most of the work was being done outdoors, many kilns and shops having fallen in the earthquake.  Durbar Square suffered the most, with only a few people sitting before the now shuttered museum. 

Our final stop was up the hill at Changu Narayan, a World Heritage site that hardly looked like one, and thus was mercifully spared the crowds.  The temple approach was through a hilltop village that would have been at home in Tuscany.  The temple seemed to have undergone no renovation at all despite its great age, the buildings looking simple dignified.  The grounds were a veritable museum of Vishnu statues, represented all of the gods many incarnations, as well as one stone dating back to 464.  There were only a few people around, namely two girls playing badminton sans (Indra's) net, and a curious trio of Chinese who appeared to be Hindu, who diligently went through their rites.

The drive back took us past the airport.  People were lined up and looking in, little surprising as people do that throughout the world, watching the flights come and go.  It was only at my hotel that I read that a plane had slid off the runway onto the grass in a non-fatal accident.  This would take on greater significance the following day as we checked in for our flight to Lhasa, to find that all the passengers from flights cancelled the day before were flying out today.  Longs queues extended every which way, but hey, at least there were queues.  I thought upon arrival a few days before that certain countries seem to impede their own advancement and modernization as their top-heavy bureaucracies create policies that seem to do little but create havoc.  How many security and bag checks do we actually need?  



And there was one more journey on the other end, after we crossed the border from Tibet.  We'd been warned about the road down to Kathmandu, one barely deserving the name. Leaving Tibet was easier than entering Nepal, and the passage between was over a pile of rubble that was once a bridge.  We banged and bumped over stone and brick, moving at a pace only slightly faster than the walking farmers and their livestock.  This area had been seriously hit during the earthquake in 2015, and its is miraculous that the road was open, though only just, as nothing at all crossed the border before October last year.  Nearby villages looked far better than the city of Kathmandu, though there were a still the odd collapsed house.  

We meandered along a track clinging to the hillside, many offering incredible views when one was brave enough to look down.  The hill towns looked as extensions of terrace fields; those in the valleys stretched laterally along rivers.  The scenes along the way were a wonderful encapsulation of rural Nepal.  Road crews were busy in pushing dirt around.  They were often paired off, one shoveling, and other pulling a string attached to it, for some reason.  There were also people planting rice, mainly women, bent at 90 degrees, moving steadily.  Old men sat in front of shops and smoked or dozed, women squatted in colorful skirts and played with babies.   

There were also the checkpoints.  At each one we'd have to unload and open our bags, as the police searched for smuggled gold or pieces of snow leopard or red panda.  The cops proved to be as bored with this as we were, so a few times we would leave a bag or two in the back of our 4x4.  We were told that there would be as many as fourteen checks, but after four or so they merely gave us a quick glance and let us through. Our driver laughed and told us that they would only search those with Chinese faces from here on.    

The 130 km journey took us nine hours.  Each of those hours brought adventure in some form, mainly in the form of a stuck vehicle, or a crash.  Most fun was the muddy hill that sent vehicles skidding and motorcyclists sprawling, all watched over by the townsfolk on the hill above.  And again and again we sit and wait, never certain for so long. 

Which brought its own joy.  The journey was the sole event of the day, and it never failed in being colorful.  And there was peace in all this uncertainty, which reminded me of how I used to travel:  never quite sure when I'd arrive somewhere, but sure I'd eventually will.  This took off any pressures around time or expectation.  That lack of expectation was the most profound Buddhist experience of the entire Himalayan journey.  

After the jarring journey sleep was easy.  Just before leaving the hotel the next morning, I noticed a tidy structure nearly hidden in the corner of the grounds.  It was a shrine, but it wasn't even real, just a conglomeration of images and icons cobbled together.  But still, standing beneath its clean lines of brick and polished wood, something strongly resonated in me.  I need a return to this culture, to these people.  After a few more years, and a bit more time to rebuild, I know I'll come back.


On the turntable:  John Coltrane: "Live in Japan"
On the nighttable:  Patrick Leigh Fermor, "The Broken Road"
   

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Back to Bhutan






The trip in seems a repeat of the previous entry, with an overnight in Bangkok, and an in-flight conversation with a Western aid-worker.  I didn't know it at the time, but this man acts as a Greek chorus of sorts, and many of the things he mentions returned to me while in country.

There are no yaks off my wingtips on approach this time, but it is equally exhilarating, bumping from cloud to cloud, the wings waving as if greeting the houses that dotted the hillsides.  (I remember the quip of one Himalayan pilot, "Our clouds have rocks in them.")

Our guide Pema meets us in the usual fashion, by draping scarves over our necks.  Much like with Pacific Island leis, it is always awkward to receive them, as the visitor is never sure when exactly to remove them.  Luckily the brevity of the first drive dictates this for us, and emerging shortly afterward at Jangtsa Dumtseg Lhakhang we are thus unencumbered. The temple presents the Bhutan I remember, a squat stone structure rising upward in a thick tower, with prayer wheels running along all four sides, and the usual group of traditionally clad worshippers endlessly circling the grounds like film extras.  The hillside above is topped with prayer flags, and the hill itself is nearly covered by tiny white chortens, which I find out later are made of clay mixed with the ground down bones of the departed. After going one round, I climb the ladders inside the temple to view the paintings within, as the scent of butter lamps hangs thickly in the air.

The drive to Thimphu is also as I remember, along a road that clinging firmly to the riverbank.  The trio of chorten are exactly where I recalled, protecting the confluence of rivers, rooting out the bad mojo that tends to accumulate there. A grisled old cowboy sits before a general store.   India-style road signs lead us in, each with a quip whose level of wit must surely amuse the average 10 year old.  The wind too pushes us onward, whipping through the narrow valley. 

Arriving in the capital, I am amazed at the building that has gone on since 2003.  New buildings are of a number that could rival only that of the ones currently going up.  Traffic too, pedestrian and otherwise, seems heavier than before, and while Thimphu can hardly be called a city, it has certainly become a town abustle.  I don't recall this many cars moving along the main thoroughfare; my memory tends toward dogs sleeping on the irregular sidewalks.  We move along these, to buy books, and a series of traditional outfits to wear during our week in country.

At dusk, we visit the dzong, which I'd been prevented from entering in 2003 as the King had been visiting that day.  Today, there are a number of tourists about, taking selfies beneath wooden ladders and white stone. Fifteen years ago, I'd only seen one other tourist group during my 12-day stay.  No surprise really as at that time, only 7000 tourists or so were allowed in.  Today that number has grown to 180,000.  Another change is that the locals no longer need wear their native dress.  Many still choose to do so, but there as many people walking around in jeans and T-shirts.  Thankfully baseball caps aren't all that popular yet.

Our friends and hosts live nearby, and we enjoy a lovely dinner as the shadows of the dzong lengthened under the arc lights.  Tshering works for the royal family, and as such, he is a fount of information about a country quite curious to the outside world.  Providing an astounding amount of facts and insider knowledge about the kingdom, he is in many ways the man behind the curtain.  And his wit and conversation help shorten the long car rides in the days to follow.

Body on Japan time, I awake early, so walk over to the Memorial Choten.  A few dozen worshipers precede me, and are already undergoing their circumambulations.  A small structure has been set aside for the lighting of lamps, a practical decision in a region that often loses temples to fire.  Beside this I notice a small bit of paper decorating a rock, which reminds me of a little of Shinto.  I attempt to take a photo but am quickly scolded by a guard.  So I join in on circling the chorten, doing a series of rounds before sitting off the one side to meditate awhile.  I'm finding this difficult of late, as the passage of feet in motion tends to present a metaphor for my own life at the moment, movement dictating the current tempo.

Far less physical though than the trio clad in maroon undergoing full-length prostrations.  This facet of Vajrayana continues to puzzle me.  So different than the dignified quiet of shikantaza in Japanese zen, "just sitting."  Is the idea here to use the body in order to deny the body?  And if so, isn't it a little bit absurd, like someone who spends far too much on a fine automobile, then has no money left over to actually go anywhere.  

But we at least have places to go.  We begin with a quick trip up to the Tango Buddhist college and its marvellous paintings.  The walk up at high elevation proves good training for Tibet later, as a parade of monks descends toward town, and at the top, a group of workmen continue the restorations beneath the snow-capped Himalayan foothills.

I'd heard that Thimphu's beloved Swiss bakery had closed, but Ambient Cafe proves a fair substitute.  Here is best exemplified what I most love about Bhutan: the random encounter.  During the course of a single lunch we meet a renowned explorer, a Welsh lama, and Tshewang Dendup, the lead actor in the film, Travellers and Magicians.  On Tshering's mischievous prompting, I ask the latter two my question about Detachment vs. Compassion.  Dendup is in the midst of answering when he stops and says, "Actually that's a pretty stupid question."  And I agree with him.  Getting too caught up in dogmas is a distraction from reality itself.

We arrive in the Phobjikha Valley just past dark, and immediately light a fire to warm our cabin.  Morning dawns brighter and warmer, so we set off on a long hike along the hilltops that define the valley's eastern edge.  It is refreshing to pass through a healthy forest, the path laden with pine needles.  In one village, a trio of men is moving timber into place for a new roof.  A dog adopts us and follows us for an hour or so until reaching a bridge.  There he suddenly turns back, having reached some sort of invisible internal barrier of his territory.

A spur of land provides an overlook.  Some benches provide a perch for which to muse.  The valley spreads out below, and its silence fills us.  We humans all share the same ability to recognize beauty in features.  There is a commonality in what we find beautiful about an anomaly in the landscape, in a passage of music, in art, or even what we consider the perfection of the human face. Where does that come from?

This valley of course is renowned for its beauty, and even more so for what it represents, as the winter migration grounds for Siberian black-necked cranes.  The birds appear to recognize beauty themselves, as they partner up for life.  How much sadder then the fate of Karma, a crane living alone at the nearby Visitor Center after having one wing permanently disabled by dogs.  And how miraculous to see another crane feeding alone out in the nearby marshes, as if staying behind to accompany its mate?                  

We retrace our drive back too Wangdue.  Unlike Japan, only a few farmhouses we pass look abandoned, no matter how remote or impossible the terrain.  Our digs for the night is another cabin, this time at the Eco Lounge that overlooks the ruined dzong, destroyed by fire in 2012. Ironically, I now find myself on the opposite side of the view that I had enjoyed on my first morning here in 2003, when the dzong had been intact.  Large turbines spin on the hill above us, as Bhutan experiments with its first wind power generation.  It is pleasant to sit in the sun on the balcony and watch the temples in the peaks above disappear with the light.

We break the drive to Paro with lunch in Thimphu at Hotel Druk.  There we meet Karma Wangmo, who'd guided us in 2003.  As we await the meals, Tshering and I dash out to buy books around the corner.  We'll stop again later to cross the iron bridge at Tachog Lhakhang.  The temple itself is privately owned and in a corresponding state of disarray.  I appreciate most the run-down nature of these nondescript places, one unlikely to continue as such due to a cafe being constructed in a side valley just below.

In Paro again, we climb the hairpins to the end of the dirt road where Tshering's own temple is. The views of the valley below are incredible, on a bare promontory wrapped in forest.  The runway of the airport stretches seemingly to our feet  I doze in the room offered us, then am awakened to be told that we'll be returning to the valley since there is a problem with the water system.  Our replacement digs are equally nice, in a refurbished farm house that has a bath warmed piping hot by heated stones. 

The following day, our last, we take slow.  The original idea had been to climb up to Tiger's Nest, which I'd visited during reconstruction (and our guide Pema had been a workman there at the time.  This former yak-herder had some interesting stories, the funniest being about trading cordyceps with irate Tibetans).   But as that is an A-list destination, it would keep for next time. Tshering instead suggests a hike up to Dzongdrakha Monastry nearby.   It is a pleasant stroll under spring sunshine.  The temple is known as Little Tiger's Nest, as it has a similar imposing cliff-face location, yet this one is privately owned and the lack of UNESCO funding adds to its rustic charm.  Snoozing dogs can't be bothered to greet us, but a few little kids are up and about, helping their parents with chores.  I smile when I see that one has an inflatable REI pillow.  

The walk builds up a thirst, so it is fitting that our next stop is a new craft beer brewery run by Tshering's cousin.  A notorious partier in college, he is now channeling that experience into a marketable skill, namely in the production of the world's first beer brewed with red rice. The affiliated taproom is a few weeks from opening, but his cook does us up some food, which match the beers amazingly well.  I am in my element, gazing down at the quiet airport runway, all flights finished for the day.

As we eat, Tshering mentions a property he thinks might be for sale, so we have a look in the sake of interest.  Nestled not far from the foot of Tiger's Nest, this former farmhouse has been haphazardly opened as a folk museum, a handful of exhibits strewn within the crumbling facade.  It is a beautiful location, set off the road amidst a small orchard and within two hours hike to one of the best loved temples in Asia.  Though the structure needs a lot of work, LYL seems serious about buying the place, and we again wander the rooms, discussing what we can do with them.    

At such moments my mind kicks into the 'what if' game, and I begin to imagine time spent there.  Meals at a large table out in the garden, within the security of the high wall.  Slowly building a library of books on the Himalayas and Vajrayana Buddhism.  Leading friends up the steep trails to Tiger's Nest.  The joy of having one's own temple, a base for resuscitating my own Buddhist practice.  Bicycling down to Paro and becoming one of the recognizable features in town.  Most of all, I feel it was destined somehow, as the beams of light I that had noted during my meditations just up the road at Kyichu Lhakhang in 2003 seemed to fall on this very spot.   Of course, there are also the cold winters to consider, plus the anxious and dark walks from the car, worrying about cobras and tigers.   (We cling to this vision for a couple of weeks, until the impracticality of it all awakens in us.) 

After a quick change back at our inn, we climb the bumpy road up to Eutok Samdrup Chholing Monastic College.  At our wedding party a few weeks before, we had asked guests to offer a donation in lieu of gifts, so as to donate to this temple.  The monks are either orphans or from broken homes, and unlike boys on loan from families for the purpose of becoming monks as a means of acquiring merit, these boys have few other chances in life.  The money donated will go to a water heating system for the temple, as the cold water tends to reek havoc on health and hygiene.  The head priest is of course delighted to receive us, and the feeling is immediately reciprocated, the man radiating such a calm yet solid presence.  (At the height of my Bhutan resident fantasies I imagine studying under him.) He leads the young monks in a blessing for LYL and I, the boys rocking back in forth as they chante, thigh-bone trumpets blaring up the line.  A Thai monk visiting from Bangkok keeps up a similar strong presence at the other end of the hall.  When it is finished, we are shown the paintings and treasures on the upper floors, among which is an empty room used for English lessons.  Then we are asked to take one of the snack offerings on the main altar, the goddess of compassion beaming down upon us. 

After another bumpy ride back down the mountain, I find Dorjee waiting for us back at the inn.  It is brief visit, but a joyous one, the young man who'd guided me in 2003 now a full grown man with a more filled-in life.  I suppose we can all make the same claim, as can Bhutan itself, having moved from a small country on the periphery of the modern world to one taking cautious steps on a path of its own making.


On the turntable:  Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, "Facing Future"
On the nighttable:  Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, "From Emperor to Citizen"


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Papers: Robert Louis Stevenson



"Natural talk, like ploughing, should turn up a large surface of life, rather than dig mines into geological strata. Masses of experience, anecdote, incident, cross-lights, quotation, historical instances, the whole flotsam and jetsam of two minds forced in and in upon the matter in hand from every point of the compass, and from every degree of mental elevation and abasement--these are the material with which talk is fortified, the food on which the talkers thrive."

On the turntable:  Huun-Huur-Tu, "The Orphan's Lament"
On the nighttable:  Mizuki Shigeru, "Kitaro"

Monday, May 07, 2018

Seven Hours in Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit


Back in the pre-internet days in the 'Nog, I had little access to 'outside' culture (which had its own kind of charm.)  When traveling in Asia, I'd try to break up flights with long lay-overs in in Bangkok, so as to head down to the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road to buy cheap clothes, stock up on books, and watch a film or two at a sidewalk cafe.  Over the years it was a bit sad to watch the place gradually lose its charm, as more and more foreign chain stores drove up the rents.  Upon my last visit in 2009, I hardly recognized the place.  

The following details a half-day spent during my return from Bhutan in 2003.  

Bangkok!  What a different rush.  Got a ride into the city with the craziest cabbie in Thailand.  He talked as fast as he drove, a wild mixed mumble, as he cut into traffic using all lanes twice in a half mile.  (I tipped him well, then regretted it.  If he thinks driving like a madman will make him rich, then he's sure to kill some farang or himself.)  The only sign I saw welcoming me to Thailand had a Ronald McDonald on it (a Thai in whiteface).   A Thai model on a billboard looked like my wife.  On to Wat Po.

Went immediately to the massage area, greeted by a sexy girl in a clingy white dress, but massaged by her granny. (A transparent M.O.) But I appreciated the latter's experience.  She seemed to intuit where I had tension, though after two weeks away I had little.  It was about an hour but felt much longer, laying there clad only in surgical-type shorts on a yellow bed under lazy ceiling fans. 

Wandered the wat awhile.  Dogs lay asleep in the shade.  I entered a courtyard where I remembered a group of old women, but today it was only Buddhas and playful cats.  The Buddhas all had individual expressions, some were black and others had streaks of gold on their hands and foreheads.  I entered a building with a towering Buddha, stretched into a pagoda-shape and covered with jewels.  In another room was a tall Buddha whose escorts seemed to be in need of a touch up, their gold flake fluttering in spots due to the spinning fans.  I walked amidst the jewel encrusted towers and smiled as a fat monk who passed by.  I floowed him to a fountain where many old people sat and chatted, in a place made cooler by sitting near water.  On into the pavilion with reclining Buddha, once again vast and incredible.  A group of monks were taking photos of his feet. rounding his heels, I head a strange sound, which turned out to be old women dropping coins in what in Japan would be altar bells.     

Coming back out, I watched a security guard hassle some Western women about their attire. Rounding the corner of the palace, a friendly man greeted me and offered his advice on what to see in Bangkok.  I appreciated it but really wanted to head over to Khao-san Road quickly.  He wanted nothing from me, no stinger was attached, but he got kind of pushy, pulling over a tuk-tuk and fixing a price.  I got in and rode off, a hot noisy ride through the city.  At the lights, it was like a drag race, all revving engines.  One chubby boy threw water as we passed (Songkran?), but he only got my legs.  

I was let out at a Thai plantation/wat.  I watched a group of monks chanting.  When they finished, they paired off and seemed to bless one another.  In other rooms around the wat, younger monks were being given a lecture by a monk at the blackboard.  I walked intot eh main building, black and imposing against the sky.  Forgetting to take off my shoes, I was scolded.  Embarrassed, I quickly moved to the center of this building, part southern plantation, part Roman temple.  It was built on five levels, each being pillared with long even rows with Buddhas sitting at the end.  A few cats slept on the cool tile floors.  I climbed the central spiral staircase (on legs quaking from the recent massage) to the roof for great views of the city.  Dark clouds were moving in.  

Outside, the oncoming storms seemed to be led by a glowing corona.  I've never seen anything like it, real end of the world stuff. I walked toward Khao San Rd. for a couple of blocks, passing a few homeless people sleeping on benches, and dozens of young women selling what looked like lottery tickets.  On K.S. Rd I ducked into a cafe for a couple of juices to beat the 34 degree heat, and watched the world pass by.  Many farang walked slowly past, eyes straight ahead in a n effort to look cool, to impress.  As I sat, the skies finally broke open, and the street vendors burst into action, covering their wares within seconds.  I wandered the street for a couple fo hours.  Things had changed a lot since my first visit in 1997.  There were fewer cafes and many more shops. Vendors had increased too, their stalls facing both directions now.  The street itself seemed cosed to vehicle traffic, people walking freely down the middle despite the rain.  One section had been rebuilt into a mini-mall type of upscale chain shops. There again was Ronald, hands in a wai, the bastard. The backpackers themselves looked young, and I felt more out of place than last time.  When entering shops, the keepers greeted me in Thai.  Did they think I was an older expat, adapted into life here?

I bought a few things and settled in at a cafe to watch the street traffic.  A big Irishman in a cowboy hat sat at the next table and harangued me with his adventures, detailing especially the fights and the drugs.  I can't say I was very interested.  Another lonely guy on the road. 

As he chatted, one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen sat at the table below me.  And what followed was one of the most aggressive flirtations I've had in years.  Married as I was, I'd never act on this, but I did enjoy the attention.  Yet through it all, I was never sure if she was a pro.  Today, like last time, I noticed many young Thai girls with older Western men.  Though not surprised, I wonder at the extent of their relationships.  Did this woman like me, or see me as a mark?  Upon paying, either she noticed my wedding band, or noticed me bum a few bhat from the Irishman.  The ye contact stopped immediately.  It was time to go the airport.  


On the turntable:  The Hold Steady, "Boys and Girls in America"
On the nighttable:  W. Somerset Maugham, "On a Chinese Screen"

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Sunday Papers: Robert Byron


“A spiritual necessity…travel must rank with the more serious forms of endeavor. Admittedly there are other ways of making the world’s acquaintance. But the traveler is a slave to his senses; his grasp of a fact can only be complete when reinforced by sensory evidence; he can know the world, in fact, only when he sees, hears, and smells it.”

– First Russia, then Tibet (1933)


On the turntable:  Harry Connick Jr., "Easy to Love"

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman XII


May 25, 2003

Awoke to the sound of crickets winding down and a few birds starting up.  It was peaceful, like the warming up of an orchestra.  At the airport just past 5 a.m.  The amount of security and paperwork was insane.  This was to leave the country.  We even had to go out and identify our luggage before it was let on.

We flew our incredible takeoff through a system of valleys, our turn beginning just as we left the ground.  Once above the clouds, a few Himalayan peaks popped up, the beauty of Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest, and later Chomolungma, aka Everest, as unspectacular as said, sitting rather uninspiring among a crowd.  Our plane's shadow was haloed against the clouds, bracken style.  

Dhaka too looked as expected, tree filled villages dwarfed by rice fields.  Canals were everywhere, barges chugging along some of the bigger rivers.  The few roads teemed with bus and truck traffic.  The land looked wet, fertile, almost sexual.  A recent rain had left the broken down stuctures soaked as well.  This was very third world.  On the ground, the plane began to fill with passengers of a more South Asian type, and a guy scratched himself for as long as he took to refill the petrol.  Flying out, Dhaka city sprawled, small identical buildings looked like thousands of die rolled on a green felt.  

Sleepily, drifting dreamlike into Yangon, the chords of the Beatles "Flying" going through my head.  Lush jungle, winding rivers, and rice paddies that look like a cubist painting.  We were definitely in SE Asian again.  Gold stupas lean against lush forests.  Shacks line river banks, figures in the canals.  The roads hold bike traffic and slow moving figures.  (And why does this former British colony drive on the right anyway?)  The airport is golden.  As I watch its workers I try to remember the limerick, "There once was a man from Rangoon."  The Japanese start to get off and have to be told that we aren't yet in Bangkok...


On the turntable: Hayseed Dixie, "Kiss My Grass: A Hillbilly Tribute to Kiss
 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman XI


May 23, 2003

Early start to Tahksang.  Drove into a beautiful pine forest then walked over a fence ladder into a clearing and up to a house that looked of Josie Wales.  A bow maker lived here, in this dark wood and stone shack surrounded by wooden fence posts.  

We rode for the first half of the trek, on little pack horses that weren;t much bigger than ponies.  Mine was well behaved, but the others stopped repeatedly for no apparent reason.  The trail went through a forest awhile then broke into an exposed forest road.  While no a horseman, I felt really good up there, at one with my animal.  At the prayer wheel, I was happy to get off the small wooden saddle covered by a single thin blanket.  The horses too seemed relieved. Exhausted, panting, they lay in the ground and rolled in the dust.  

The Japanese coupke from Thimphu showed up around then, guided by a small black dog they called "Kuro."  I walked with them and Clarke, stopping occasionally to look up at the temple, majestic against the cliff.  I got a good look at the moss hanging from the trees,  Up close it looked like Tibetan writing.  

At the top was a temporary village built for the men working on the temple's restoration.  Clarke gave a balloon to a little girl and I played shakuhachi, drawing a crowd of workers of their luch break.   We continued on a little but had to stop at the police post and wait for Dorjee and the permit.  I played shakuhachi a bit more, read Milarepa poems and basically stared in awe at the structure across the ravine.  In front of me was sheer drop of hundreds of feet.  Looking down made my balls shrivel, avertigo certainly a side effect of Ken's death.  What was worse was watching the young workmen on break, playing around on the roofs above a certain fatal fall.  A waterfall cut the crevasse that enabled this temple to be built.  (Later I saw the falls dropping far below the temple.  Even now, I write this beside a small stream in the valley, no doubt of the same source.)  

When the permit arrived, we dropped down a shale staircase, broken in some places, into the crevasse, prayer flags between us and the drop. Passed the waterfall, the force of which turned a prayer wheel, then up the steep opposite side.  The front of the temple was an unfinished structure, and workmen pounded noisily on the roff above the main entrance.  Clarke burned a fire in a brasier which filled the narrow passage with smoke.  There were only four shrine rooms, all of which seems new with no thankhas and only a single figure in front of a simple altar with butter lamps.  These rooms were around narrow sets of stairs rather than open courtyards like in dzongs.  We sat in the cave where Guru Rimpoche meditated, definitely the best preserved room.  We read a blessing spontaneously by Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche when he stayed here.  He describes a few geographical features of this area.  I had expected to find power here, but it was the least focused meditation of the entire trip.  I guess it was too built up and Id expected too much.  We stopped in one final unfinished room where four deities were being sculpted.  There were wires where limbs and nails will later be attached.  There were squares cut into the chest, through which treasures will be passed to fill the empty cavity.     

Descended in a light rain.  Past workmen lugging and shaping stones.  I peed about a foot from a sheer drop, the urine hard coming since my balls were near my throat.  As I did, I heard a series of shouts and was nearly thrown over the edge by a bucket rushing quickly along a cable that brought up supplies.  Heart racing I moved on,  again followed by the black dog with a single white paw who'd followed me most of the way up.  Dropped quickly down to the cafeteria that marked the midpoint.  I sat and watched a mist come in and coat the mountain, leaving the temple the only thing visible.  Across the valley, sunlight filled a small patch, in the exact same point as yesterday and throughout the afternoon.  Yuun Kenshō?  (悠雲見性、my late son's Buddhist name, meaning small glimpse of enlightenment through the clouds.)  

Had a quick lunch and et an Indain couple from Delhi currently on a trek.  This place had a trek lodge feel, with mountains and rain and bells rung by a water-spun wheel.  The rest of the descent went quickly, punctuated by occasional views of Tahksang.  A few women had set up blankets of souvenirs to catch tourists on the way down.  A symptom of Japanese tourism no doubt.  

I sat at the bottom, listening to a little stream and watching cows and dogs pass by.  One calf was unusually interested in me, grazing close enough to touch.

At dusk we drove up to Drukyel Dzong.  From the end of the road I looked up the valley, Tibet a mere day's walk away.  We walked around the ruins, above the ever darkening valley.  Through a gate then into the dzong itself, turning brown and quite overgrown.  At this time of day and in this light, there was an air of mystery, especially with the proximity to Tibet.  I could feel the age of the earth and just how old humanity is.  I passed through a standing gate, graffiti scratched into the walls.  the courtyard was covered in grass, trees pushing through the remaining buildings.  A group of small structures, probably monk's quarters, lay in a row of ruin.  I climbed up on a crumbling wall of the highest tower and looked for a long time into Tibet.  At the other end of the wall, some prayer flags hung limp, tattered and torn.  A meditation on impermanence.  After nearly two weels of viewing Bhutan's splendor, a culture vibrant and alive and mystical, to finish this trip at dusk against ruins was the perfect metaphor.  


On the turntable: Andy Partridge and Harold Budd, "Through the Hill"
On the nighttable: Noel Barber,  "From the Land of Lost Continent"