Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Monday, March 30, 2015
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Friday, March 27, 2015
The only sound was that of a single oar pushing aside still water. A man stood at the bow, turning the oar in figure eights with his leg, the wood trapped in the nook between calf and thigh. The boat drifted toward a series of dark teak structures that would be my digs for the night, a semi-circular oasis surrounding a lush jungle garden. Once the boat reached the dock, all the forward motion of the previous ten days came to a complete halt.
To reach this stillness required a great deal of speed and noise. Motorbikes swarmed my car as it made its way out of Mandalay, nearly all the riders sensibly helmeted. One exception was a longyi-clad grandfather sitting cross-legged on the back, calm and composed as the driver raced through the intersection. The highway to the airport was brimming with life, as vehicles and pedestrians alike utilized this well paved stretch. A young woman sat with her toddler in the shade of a mile marker. A young monklet trailed a long line of older monks, naughtily dipping into his begging bowl.
My plane followed the hilltop pagodas to a landing strip currently being extended to handle the bigger jets to come. At the moment this Heho airport was quite small, and its name had me humming an old punk anthem by The Ramones. I found my driver and to my surprise was led to nice 4x4, from whose high seats I had a good view of the surrounding countryside. The houses here looked at lot sturdier than those of the lowlands, the brick walls offering more protection against the cold at this high altitude of 1200 meters. Eventually, the road led down through a series of S-turns, above which the hillsides had been horribly shorn of trees. The former military government had made a great deal of money from timber exports, and only 25% of Myanmar's native forest remains.
The road leveled out, and we had returned to the heat of the plains. But unlike further south, there was a richer color to the earth. A couple of new bungalow hotels spread across the open land, the back of their compounds fortified by spiky sugarcane fields. The colors deepened further the closer we got to the lake, arriving eventually at the bright green of newly planted rice.
I was led to a long pirogue fitted with a dragonfly's tail of an engine. It roared to life as I joined a procession of tourists in similar boats, completely ignored by locals and wildlife alike. My own boat was the only one to leave the main channel, as it cut its way through a narrow channel lined with grass. A lone egret stood still atop a high stalk. Pagodas and huts sat upon platforms built a few meters over the water. Beside them, men were hoeing their fields which were comprised of weeds and earth pulled up from the bed of the lake, then packed down into long rows. Beyond this, the Inle Princess Hotel rose up, and for a moment, I expected to be greeted by Col. Kurtz himself.
My own bungalow was at the very edge of the compound. I did very little for the next 24 hours but sit on my back deck, trying to read but constantly pulled away by the scenery. Plumes of smoke rose from the plains and high hills beyond, as the farmers burned off large swaths of former growth in order to prepare the soil for the impending rice planting. Some of these bits of black ash came spinning along the breeze and onto the surface of the pond before me. A cowherd was on the other side, sitting in the shade of a lone banana tree as his animals plodded along through the grass. A group of puppies was nearby, yelping and nipping at each other and their mother who was acting nonchalant. The air was rich with birdsong, including one with a particularly demented scream. At the high heat of mid-afternoon, all life seemed to disappear completely, leaving behind a silence near complete but for the rustling leaves of the banana tree, an almost butane hiss which almost seemed to contribute to the heat. I found myself feeling very far away from the world. There had been protests and mass arrests a few days earlier in Yangon, which had me keeping a single cautious eye out for further developments. But in a secluded place like this, it was easy to ignore all political problems. Rather than worry, I went inside to crawl beneath the mosquito netting for a nap.
The following day, my boat returned to take me out on the lake proper. It was of a far greater expanse than I'd expected, and breathtakingly lit by the sun of morning. Silhouetted against the purple hills were hundreds of men in their respective boats, fishing or dredging up weeds to build new seed beds. They stood in their narrow pirogues with the sure-footedness of water fowl, and equally muscled and lean. The women seemed to all be in the market, sitting on plastic sheets and selling their wares. A large majority were Shan, in their tell-tale colored blouses and head scarves. The only thing in motion were the foreign tourists, looking large and lumbering as they made their way between the shaded rows. The Burmese by comparison were all in the Phaung Daw Oo Paya pagoda that was quite busy this market day. A number of people were applying gold to the five gold orbs that no longer had any resemblance to the Buddha statues that they had started as. After seeing the gold pounders in Mandalay, I had no interest in joining them, so turned and made my way back to my boat, which bobbed alongside dozens of others in the still water of the canal. With a pull of the cable, the engine started with a roar, a roar followed by a series of subsequent roars, which led me all the way back to Kyoto, to my home, and to this very desk.
On the turntable: "Urgh! A Music War"
On the nighttable: Daniel Mason, "The Piano Tuner"
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Few things spur the traveler on like a difficult-to-reach place with a poetic name. That the name Mandalay was straight out of an actual poem by an actual poet added further zeal, despite the fact that the poet himself had never actually been there. As it was, my own road to Mandalay was essentially a water route, followed by a small-prop plane that traced a simple arc high above during its quick thirty minute flight. A fitting shortcut I suppose in an age where a quip holds far more weight than even the most masterfully crafted verse.
And on first glimpse, the city seems to be resting on its laurels. It was always a city prone to fire, and a series of fires during the 1980s wiped out whatever charm Kipling imagined it to have. It has been rebuilt by the subsequent waves of Chinese immigrants, along lines more practical than aesthetic. Even the great palace that was the city's heart was destroyed during the war, and it could be said that the final king who ruled from there hadn't a heart at all, having arranged for the murder of seventy-two of his relatives in order to consolidate his power.
Despite all this, the city still held it charm, in a way that a similarly sprawling Chiang Mai does. In both cases, the residents lived at a far slower pace than their brethren in the larger commercial centers to the south. It was a city of life lived out on the streets, of bicycles, vendors, and ambling monks. The subdued hues of the garb of the latter found a counterpoint in the young boys who were to soon join their ranks. These aspiring novices were ushered out of the world of attachment with great aplomb. Dressed in the finery of the ancient royals, they were paraded around the city in the back of pickup trucks, perched atop cheap plastic chairs. Their female counterparts were similarly dressed up in metallic pink, ready to undertake an ear-boring ceremony, the idea of which I found great ironic glee, at this Buddhist act of attachment.
Many of these pickups wound up at Mahamuni Paya, home to a Buddhist image supposedly constructed during the living Buddha's lifetime, which would contradict his very teachings. Regardless, this image was considered to be the most sacred in Burma. As at Golden Rock, men were allowed to affix small sheets of gold to the image, in the hope of accruing spiritual merit. Many generations of applied gold had given the Buddha a somewhat lumpy look, yet somehow, the ungilded face (lovingly washed every morning at 4 a.m. in a ceremony open to the public) has maintained its proportion to the body. Far more interesting to me were the unadorned statues elsewhere on the temple grounds. These were the ultimate travelers, having been carried from sacked capital to sacked capital, bearing such poetic names as Angkor Wat, Ayutthaya, Mrauk U. Rather than good travel stories, these statues offered the power of healing, with believers rubbing a spot corresponding to their own physical ailment.
We headed next to where Buddha's gold leaf was manufactured. It was a noisy place, due to three bare-chested men swinging their sledgehammers down upon small nuggets laid atop large stones. It looked to be brutal work, bent forward at the waist, their heavy hammers coming down again and again in perfect syncopation. Their foreman seemed oblivious to the noise, sitting nearby reading a newspaper. It was as close to a vision of slavery as I've ever seen, though I know that there are far worse working conditions out there in the world. I made my departure after only a few minutes, unable to take any more. There was a young woman out there, standing in the sun with her crying infant. She wasn't a beggar per se, and I generally don't give money to beggars anyway, but something in me made me hand her five dollars. The woman seemed positively thrilled. I wondered if, in the watchful eyes of the Buddha, my actions deemed me greater merit that affixing small pieces of precious metal to a goddamned statue.
While Mandalay had served as Burma's final royal capital, three former capitals had existed on the city's outskirts. The most impressive of these was Inwa, which like Bagan, was simply a mere collection of ruined stupas spread across a dusty plain. But there was a more lived-in feeling here, with small villages tucked between the brick towers, and the abundance of swamp and canals bringing more color to the land. Here too were the obligatory horse-carts, but here they served as traffic of their own, long queues spreading along the narrow lanes that wended their way through the towering brick pyramids.
Another capital was Sagaing, whose main feature was the temples spreading across the hillside, interconnected by covered staircases. I was most impressive with Umin Thounzeh, a narrow cave that housed a crescent of thirty Buddhas that was devoid of life but for a sleeping caretaker. It reminded me somewhat of other similar temples I'd seen on the Indian subcontinent, bringing home yet again just how Indian Burma was, little surprise considering that the British had ruled this country as a province of its larger neighbor to the west. A very interesting place Myanmar, with people somewhat resembling Thais, with an South Indian culture, and an undefinable Chinese element flowing beneath.
The third of the former capitals was Amarapura. The town has essentially been swallowed up by greater Mandalay, with little of the old capital remaining. Most notable was the U-Bein bridge, a masterpiece of teak stretching across the waters. I had been exposed to teak before on previous journeys to SE Asia, but it was here in Burma that I truly fell in love with it. One of the old Mandalay palace buildings had been recycled into a monastery nearby, and the carvings upon its beams and doors were truly magnificent. Here at the bridge, these carvings seemed brought to life, in the figures crossing its length, backlit by the sun. Watching the sun set behind its spans is quite popular here, but I'd already been let down somewhat by sunset the previous night atop Mandalay Hill, as the hazy air diminished its glory, unable to penetrate this dust globe that is the dry season in Myanmar.
It was far nicer to contemplate the sunset from the pool at my hotel, and the musicians warming up for that night's show somewhere beyond the swaying palms. To me, the name of Mandalay are syllables blown upon the wind, a whisper. And with a similar light touch, a bird suddenly swooped down to drink from the pool, leaving behind a handful of feathers to drift across the surface of time.
On the turntable: "The Library Of Congress Archive Of Folk Culture: Anglo-American Ballads, Volume One"
On the nighttable: Rory MacClean, "Under the Dragon"
Monday, March 23, 2015
The door of the plane opened with a burst of heat. On its heels came a sense of relief at being on tarmac again, for I am not a good flyer at the best of times, and had been a bit nervous to violate a maxim that had until today been etched in stone: 'Never fly third-world airlines.'
I had flown with the newest of Myamnar's nine (!) carriers for a short 90 minute hop out of the Yangon haze. The pilot seemed to be following the Irrawaddy north, and it was little consolation that his view of the river had been little better than my own. In fact, the sky over the whole country was filled with dust, and for the rest of my time in country the air never seemed to clear.
The sky above, the land below. All was a dull brown, with rainy season over two months away. The aforementioned heat was pretty miserable -- 38 to 40 degrees most afternoons -- an unfortunate reality around which my days were built. Rise early to take in a few sites, struggle through the endurance test that is lunch, nap through the afternoon, then back out for sunset. This first morning I made my way to Ananda Phato, considered the most important of Bagan's nearly 4000 temples. Over the 230-year reign of this first of Burma's many dynasties, it is thought that one new temple went up every two weeks, a rate perhaps met by the construction of present day Yangon.
Unlike the city down south, in Bagan, life moved at the pace of an ox-cart. Shops lined the corridors leading to the main Buddha halls, but their hawkers seemed too defeated by the heat to push their wares too brusquely. (The Burmese in general hadn't yet caught up with the rest of Asia in pushy sales technique.) One old woman sat on the cool earth, sucking a cheroot of a size that would impress Bob Marley. The towering statues within (and in fact all across Bagan) were newer, one pair from the 15th Century and the other from the 19th. The older ones had much kinder, more refined faces. No one is sure what happened to the original 12th century statues, but they may have been destroyed by the invading Mongols.
Bagan was infamous for 'vandalism' of a more recent sort. The 1975 earthquake did a great job in damaging the majority of temples, but it could be argued that the restoration had done greater damage in that many of the frescoes had been concreted over, and that the over 1300 stupas completely rebuilt from former piles of rubble (an admittedly admirable feat) are not necessarily historically accurate.
Vandalism of a more political sort has also occurred. To the eastern end of the plain stands a tall viewing tower that looks quite out of place, built by a former general and now completely shunned due to those same military connections. It is perhaps a subtle act of revenge for the abuses the locals have experienced here. Over the subsequent 700 years after the dynasty's fall, they had lived in and around the old temples. Yet with the restoration, they had been forcibly removed to the swampy river banks, an area infested with snakes. My guide had refused an offer to buy land here for that very reason, but was now kicking herself as land values have risen ten-fold over fifteen years.
Despite all this, Bagan is absolutely mind-blowing. It was well worth the time exploring those temples both famous and anonymous, and I was glad I had brought my torch in order to observe the subtle details of the artwork in the former, and to look out for the snakes that sometimes curl up in one of the latter to escape the heat.
Though at times I felt that I'd chosen the wrong season to come, that very heat contributed to some pleasant sights. Of a trio of sparrows squabbled in the shadow of a crumbling brick wall. Or the bamboo thatch shelters that offered shade to a cow herd, the young cuddling couples, and the foreigner enjoying a sandwich and a good book. Other foreigners made their way around the plain by rented bicycle or motor scooter, though the preferred means of transport by far was the covered horse cart, which of course, made its own mobile shade.
The rise and fall of that generator of heat helped germinate the best memories. For one sunset, I climbed atop Shwesandaw Paya, along with a few hundred other foreign tourists and monks. Most faced the river, snapping away, in particular the monks with their selfies. But the light to the east was even more spectacular, framing the temples far and near. The lazy shuffle of a bullock cart added the right touch.
A good alternative choice was to cruise the Irrawaddy up river. A few of the larger tourist cruise boats had moored while on their way to or from Mandalay. One boat had set up tables on a sand bank for sunset champagne. Amidst all this, working boats steamed upriver, the coal from their boilers adding streaks of color to the sunset. As I went along, I found myself once again comparing everything to what I have already seen on previous journeys, and wondered if I wasn't getting a bit jaded. As I tend to think of my life in Japan too as travel, I suppose I have been on the road for over twenty years. This thought made me suddenly feel weary, as I lazily rode the Irrawaddy's flow, atop water turned orange in the fading of the light.
But perhaps the best thing about Bagan was the balloons. To ride over the temples at sunrise is pure bucket-list material. The old buses we rode to the site added to the charm. These buses would also serve as balloon chasers, accompanied by young men in identical T-shirts. This was a massive operation, as each of the ten or so balloons had a team of at least a dozen in support. They cheerfully waved at us as our baskets lifted from the earth, their smiles helping me forget for a moment just how terrified I am by heights. But soon the views from 1000 meters helped sweep away even the fear. It was magical to swoop down upon a temple, or drift horizontally toward another, rising at the last minute above the poiny brick spires. The normal ride was about 45 minutes, but we wound up with 30 minutes more, having been forced into a low altitude well beneath the winds, due to the impending arrival of some government VIP at the nearby airport.
Upon landing, we were treated to champagne and croissants by our support crew. Our descent had also attracted various hawkers, who prowled about our seated circle, pressing, but never pushy. Some of them were quite young, picking up some additional cash on their school holidays. They seemed to favor T-shirts over traditional blouses, and their smiles were less the shy grins of their parents, and more the practiced, flirtatious grins of Hollywood.
Then they moved on, hard at work, going from place to place until regrouping again at Shwesandaw at day's end. I too, hard at travel, went about my own routine, which like theirs, followed the arc of the sun.
On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to Irish Folk"
On the nighttable: Emma Larkin, "Finding George Orwell in Burma"
Friday, March 20, 2015
How is it that a precariously balanced rock has become the symbol of stability for the spiritual life of the Burmese? Whatever the reason, the number of devotees here was incredible, many having come in family groups, with those unable to secure free lodging now camped all across the grounds, tucking into simple meals as the sun receded to the west.
I'd set off when that same sun was just making its way into the morning. After three days, I had been happy to be leaving Yangon behind. I had grown somewhat bored with the city's run-down look. To be fair, if my memory were better, I'm sure I'd recall a similar city-on-the-grow look to Saigon during my autumn 1997 visit, and the forest of cranes that had defined Shanghai earlier that spring.
It was the traffic though that really fueled my exodus. I didn't mind sitting still, provided it was on the cool concrete floor of a temple. I'd already had that privilege during a half-day meditation course the day before, one of the few people still sitting upright during the heat of late morning. I had followed the fall of my breaths while everyone else in the monastery had fallen into sleep in the cool of the concrete buildings scattered across campus.
So it was that my hired vehicle added to the morning gridlock as it crawled toward the outskirts of the city. Once free, I enjoyed the film entitled Rural Asia. It was the latest in a series of films I'd viewed many times before, but it always had a new cast and a slightly different mise-en-scene. Tall palm trees and huts of bamboo thatch. The pendulous movement of hips wrapped in longyi, a garment that seems to slow time. The animals moved even more slowly: the dogs completely still in the dust; boney white bullocks grazing lazily in the dust. Further on, a cow herd drove his animals on into a slow, bucolic stampede. Not much faster were the vehicles. A tall truck piled high with musicians and their instruments made its way to the next stop on the temple festival circuit. Young girls sat sidesaddle atop motorbikes, demure in their fresh flowery longyi, hands making light contact with the waist of their boyfriends. Small pick-ups packed their cargo beds with passengers. One vehicle contained only monks, their bobbing bald heads finding a nice parallel in the watermelons for sale in the makeshift stands that lined the road for dozens of miles. The vendors were without exception women, chosen perhaps to flirt with the male bus and truck drivers into making a sale. Most of these women were hard at sleep beneath woven fronds that formed roof and wall, a necessary escape from the heat of the day. Beyond the stalls, watermelon deemed unworthy of sale were left to rot and bleach white in the sun. And beyond further still, the golden chedi of Bago rose out of the dusty plain, and after a quick visit, receded again.
At the base of the hills leading to Mt. Kyaiktiyo I took a journey of another type. I was herded into a old dump truck of sorts, whose bed had been fitted with long benches onto which about 50 of us sat. Once aboard, the driver raced as fast as he could toward the top of the mountain, as if he was in a race with gravity itself. Our truck was a near loser, for a number of times the gears wouldn't catch, and after emitting a series of harsh metallic sputters, something would engage and we'd continue speeding along, our bodies whipped back and forth on the turns, praying that we wouldn't meet another of these vehicles moving downhill with gravity as an ally. It was a white-knuckle ride for sure, but that seemed okay, as this mountain Kyaiktiyo was a pilgrimage site, and in Asia, white is the symbol for purity. Then again, in Asia, white is also the symbol for death.
When the truck came to its final and complete stop, I headed down to my hotel, finding a simple room that was clean and offered a great view of lesser peaks rolling off toward the Andaman sea. It reminded me somewhat of my temple digs atop Taiwan's Shihtoushan, except for the French food and the nice Australia wine. I'd return to these later, and set off to discover how well the famed rock could compete with the gold of the setting sun.
I joined the flow of pilgrims through the simple hilltop town, which consisted of a dozen or so shops, and perhaps the same number of small hotels. In Burma, I was finding it difficult to tell rich from poor, since most people seemed to favor the same style of clothing of simple shirts or blouses over longyi. The majority of those around me looked like tourists off on a pleasant holiday. Nowhere were the usual cripples, beggars, or pariah dogs that tend to form a sort of society around similar holy sites across the world. There were a few exceptions to these generalizations, mainly in the Kayin women with their simple black silk garments and colorful scarves folded atop their heads. There were also a pair of curious well-heeled parties who came through separated by gender, the men in the lead, of course, accompanied by a dozen bodyguards who aggressively told us to clear the way. I was later told that the VIPs were high ranking members of the Thai government. As their women came past, a Burmese acquaintance suddenly leaned in to scold them for wearing socks, a pretty brash act considering the armed guards flanking them. Then again, my acquaintance was the daughter of a Burmese military officer.
I did my duty of pressing small sheets of flattened gold onto the stone, atop the narrow rock shelf that was the Rock's perch. Being tall, I stuck my gold high up on the rock, where I expect it to stay for all eternity, or at least until the rainy season. As it was, small flecks fluttered away in the evening breeze. It was only men who accompanied me in this act, with the women left to kneel and pray on the clifftop behind. Again, I was moved by the sight of the devotion, the hands of the old women pressed together in prayer, and entire families sitting quietly in meditation, as if oblivious to the thousands milling around them. I saw no holy men but for some Thai monks patiently taking turns to be photographed. There were also the obligatory young people wandering around in small groups, finding a glimpse of the opposite sex to be far more uplifting than that of an ancient holy boulder. A number of these younger people took photos of me on the sly, which I found amusing since I had been doing the same with the monks and the hilltribe women. If I caught someone in the act of shooting me, I'd quickly go up to them and throw my arm over their shoulder for a proper pose. One family even had me lift up their small children. I appeared to be one of the few foreigners around, but for a handful of Italians, and one poor woman nursing a painful spider bite. The perils of a barefoot culture.
The warm spiritual vibe here was beginning to lull me into a sense of peace, as it always does. Faith of this caliber never fails to move me, devotion completely devoid of any separation from daily life. The institutionalized zen and commercialized yoga that I occupied myself with for two decades felt quite hollow at times like this. And it is the search for similar scenes that drives me far and wide, walking ridiculous distances, or putting myself through punishing discomfort in order to seek the holy within the mundane. But why is it is that I've never been moved by the same sort of faith found in my own Catholic tradition? I've been told by high-level teachers from both East and West that doubt is important in spirituality, a sentiment that suits my somewhat non-conformist character. But now, perhaps I am finding that faith is simply a synonym for maturity, a weary acceptance of life in whatever form it takes.
On the turntable: "Mali"
On the nighttable: W. Sometset Maugham, "The Gentleman in the Parlour"
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
As my plane rolled the tips of its wings toward the earth, I saw the morning light flash from golden pagoda to golden pagoda, a sudden dash of color that burst from the dusty soil surrounding the city. This image, a single glimpse seen almost twelve years ago, was how I had ever since defined Yangon in my mind.
Today, however, if you were to say the name of the city, the first thing that would come to mind is traffic. Since opening up in 2012, foreign investment has begun to pour in, most notably from Japan. And Toyota appears to have led the way, as the majority of cars bear that logo. The affordability of these hand-me-down vehicles, coupled with the banning of bicycles and motorbikes from the downtown area, has clogged an already overwhelmed infrastructure. New streets were badly needed here, yet the labor and resources seemed to be instead going into the dozens of new high-rise hotels and service apartments being built across the city, dwarfing the quiet leafy residential areas below. But as the Japanese have a certain genius for turning yen into concrete, I doubt it will be long before we see the city's first elevated expressway.
I suppose if sitting for hours in traffic has an upside, it is that you can get a good look at things. Billboards announced business both new and upcoming, most of which were of Japanese or Korean origin, the Chinese money of the past thirty years lesser in evidence. I noted this as the taxi radio played a muzak version of "House of the Rising Sun," and boy oh boy was this city on the rise, lifted by cranes toward a sky that appeared for the moment to have no limit, potential wise. Ironically enough, the previous song had been a similarly watered-down version of "Yesterday," shades of which could still be seen. A few three wheeled bicycles puttered around, carrying a cargo of bottled water piled high, or transporting well-dressed women shaded by parasol and thanaka paste. Monks clad in scarlet strolled barefoot along pavement growing hot, carrying the morning's beggings in stacked silver tiffin. The drivers sped around them, along the right side of the road, where the Burmese have driven since 1952. The newer Japanese imports however steered from the right, which further added to the chaos. There was no apparent urge to conceal their previous owners, and my eyes took in small vans emblazoned with the name of a hotel in Kawaguchi-ko, or a former patrol vehicle from Suita; my ears caught a familiar high pitched voice telling me that the truck in front of me was about to turn left.
The buses were the worst however, beat up wrecks from which both limbs and parts protruded, looking as if they'd driven straight out of "Road Warrior." The doorways of these doorless buses opened directly onto the road, making for a perilous disembarkment. I smiled at the irony of the use of the honorific "U" in male Burmese names, since a large number of drivers would trace that same shape in the attempt to avoid a traffic snarl, but which would only cause them to become yet another obstacle. That said, there was a strange politeness to the driving here. It was the usual Asia chaos, though with turn signals.
We inched across a flyover, as a number of walkers strolled at a slightly faster pace along the railroad tracks below. Above them, a billboard written in the swirling curlicues of the Burmese script argued against the use of child soldiers in combat. (Nothing much was said about about the beating and jailing of student protesters not much older, though I wouldn't hear about that for another week.) Walled compounds marked where the moneyed generals lived, men who'd paved the way for the new wealth and the inevitable changes that this wealth would buy. A shrine outside one of these compounds had been spray painted with the words, "Hip Hip." Some of the newer apartment towers bristled with satellite dishes, encrusted with guano that served as a subtle comment on the quality of what was being transmitted out the other end. But I suppose it was a necessary evil in order to drown out the near constant honk of traffic below.
I decided to pass my first night at The Strand hotel, once a bastion of the colonials, and currently Chinese owned. I wasn't to enjoy its comforting aircon for long, before I headed back out into the heat, finding eventual reprieve at the Union Bar and Grill for lunch. Thus fueled, I wandered around what had once been the colonial heart of the city. Ironically this area was the most decrepit, as the previous military government had quite definitively turned its back on that period in the nation's history. The husks were there, and just when I decided that a building had been completely abandoned, a head would pop up in a window frame. Along the side streets, young boys played soccer in the shade, while the older men sat and gossiped. Those ages in between could be found in the Mahabandoola Garden, abustle with friends and young lovers on a holiday afternoon slowly cooling into evening. I moved beyond to the booksellers selling knowledge once forbidden, as the face of Aung San Suu Kyi popped up frequently within the stacks.
My stroll continued for the next couple of days, along a street that blended from Chinese to Burman, Indian to Muslim, the sidewalks ever crowded with stalls, as if the city itself was a vast market. Spices, flowers, incense, fish. The dull grey of jade, the bright palate of longyi. My feet and the overload only really came to rest within the confines of a temple: the rectangular neon gaudiness of Tin Hau, or the more circular chedi of Botataung Paya across town.
The crown jewel of course was Shwedagon. I made my way there as a full moon was pushing the sun out of the sky. Its tiled grounds were alive, yet bustle is far from the proper adjective. There was a slowness here as the people made their perambulations, stopping to pray at the altars corresponding to the day of the week upon which they were born. Small structures housed Buddhas of concrete and gold, before which the devout knelt, their feet bent out to the side like the fins of a fish. Smiley young monklets posed for smartphone cameras. Walking amongst this, I began to feel the place beginning to work on me, leading to the first true mental quiet I'd felt since arrival in country, as my own footsteps continued to slow and I let myself be washed over by the faith that surrounded me.
On the turntable: "Complete Keynote Collection"
On the night table: Norman Lewis, "Golden Earth"
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
In the past, I've posted excerpts from my unedited Ireland journals in order to mark St. Patrick's Day. Those previous entries can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
On the ride back to Dublin I realized that I'd been on the wrong side of the bus the day before. The view from this side was magnificent, of large farms, ruined churches, and the high towers of castles. This area was famous for breeding horses, and more than a few riders were galloping across the landscape. Small creeks bisected these massive tracts of land. Off on the horizon were the Slieve Bloom range, "towering" above the small farms and towns. In Kildare, a market was in full swing. I wish that I had had a chance to thumb through the CDs piled upon one table.
Back in Dublin, I crossed Ha'Penny Bridge's stack of steps, then cut through an arch onto Temple Bar. I again found the Porterhouse Pub, and tried a few of their stouts. I talked myself into an expensive trip to Christchurch Cathedral, which I'd foregone visiting two days before. Due to its age, I'd hoped for some pagan or Viking imagery, but found mostly the usual Catholic hits. In a far corner, there was a chained heart in a cage, brought back from France when its owner died. It was tradition in those days to let the body lie where it fell and bring home only the heart, giving birth to the expression, "Home is where the heart is." The crypt too was interesting, with its jagged posts of stone. In the back was a moving figure of a woman grieving over her fallen man.
Back on the street, I wound around the backside of the fort, peering through it's arched gates. I found a music shop back there, and had to be buzzed in. It seems that they had had to install this security system last year as the neighborhood was falling apart. I checked out the drums, none of which thrilled me, and blew a few notes on the low-toned flutes. The quality of the instruments attest to the fact that the shop supplies most of the city's top musicians.
The street led on to St. Stephen's, where I stopped to have a cappuccino. My body by this point in the journey had become used to a well-established pattern of coffee-beer-coffee-beer. Head abuzz, I admired the Georgian's lined up to frame Merrion Square, each identical but for door color, or the carving around them. Would be an easy mistake to enter the wrong one after a few pints. At one corner stood Oscar Wilde's childhood home. Across the street in the park was a statue of the man himself, in a slightly pervy-looking pose. Upon the base were some of Wilde's more renowned witticisms, no doubt said with a smirk similar to this one carved in stone. Rounded W. B. Yeats' house and headed down to St. Stephen's Green, where I sat and read from the book Trinity. Though the sun had come out today, it was still cold, a cold like that of Japan which sinks into you. I hadn't felt this over in Britain. To escape it, I pressed on, up Grafton, the newer tourist tat crowding out the few olde shoppes remaining. The street here was cobblestone and closed to vehicle traffic. A few side streets had small stands selling flowers or hippie clothes. At the top near Trinity College was the statue of Molly Malone, showing an awful lot of boob. A woman leaned against Molly's cart, playing a harp.
Nearby, I found Grogan's Pub, long time favorite of the city's artistic set. It was a true pub, quite old, and definitely not one for the tourists. Strangely, there was a wall running through the middle, with drinks being cheaper on the far side. Behind the bar was a beautiful stained-glass picture of the pub. I sat and eavesdropped on a few conversations, then wrote awhile. I was sleepy so nursed only a half-pint, but I felt self-conscious about it.
Moving along, I found a covered street which housed a warren of alterna-clothes and CD shops. Surprisingly, this was all non-smoking, despite being a proper street. Then back out again, through the now growing pedestrian rush hour crawl, in search of live music.
I found some at the Celt, but didn't stay long due to an somewhat unfriendly vibe. Around the corner was a place called Spirits, where I found a duo on a stage. I grabbed a pint and sat next to a framed poem written about JFK. The music was good, the first few numbers being simple acoustic ballads which spotlighted the voice of the female singer. There was an extremely drunk young guy seated on a stool beside her, who'd shush everyone, then clap out of time, or sing along to the wrong verse. It wasn't long before he was hustled off. What followed was a repertoire of covers -- Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, Jeff Buckley, Cowboy Junkies, and a lot of Dylan. I walked home through the busy streets, the pubs now releasing groups of young drunks in twos and threes, all holding on to one another and talking loudly in what was almost a parody of the drunk Mick...
On the turntable: "Kill Twee Pop"
On the nighttable: George Orwell, "Burmese Days"
Sunday, March 15, 2015
"True nature is something which is eternal. True nature will not be lost. And through suffering you can have direct experience of your true nature, how strong it is. Your true nature is much stronger than the suffering you created. True nature is incomparably greater than small mind. "
On the turntable: "California Ska-quake"
Friday, March 13, 2015
Sunday, March 08, 2015
Thursday, March 05, 2015
The forty five km I'd done the previous day had seemed to come easily. Or at least while vertical. When I lay down to sleep, the pain began, mainly in my right instep. There's a good reason I don't walk those kinds of distances anymore. But even more bizarre was what was happening in my mind. The brain was a-babble with a monologue without any real point, just adrift in the seas of the subconscious. I began to wonder (among other things) whether certain reflexology points in the foot are stimulated by long distance walking, causing, say, the pineal gland to trigger a fight or flight response. And the two glasses of a very fine Malbec weren't doing their job of shutting it down.
But a bad's night sleep isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the brain slowed some and I could keep a better focus on what was before me, rather than on lunch, logistics, and other distractions. It was easy then to note the birds warming up their voices, and the few flowers that, though potted, added not only a bit of color to the world, but offered a tease of the olfactory delights to come.
It didn't take long to walk out of Tsu, where I had stayed the night upon completing my Ise Kaido walk the day before. I was back then on the Ise Betsu Kaido, which I had begun walking last August. Hot and stormy weather had prevented me from finishing the walk then, but I had hoped to cover the final 38 km today. But already my legs were heavy, and the sore instep was beginning to worry me. Were those extra km I'd done yesterday in search of lunch coming back to haunt me?
I took a long rest on a river bank, sipping coffee, and watching a trio of men fish. It was about that time I decided that I would finish today at the walk's midway point of Matsusaka, and return sometime later in the year.
This seemed a wise choice as the last five km were spent trying to distract myself from the pain in my foot. One such distraction were the occasional stele denoting where the Meiji Emperor had stopped while on his own pilgrimage to Ise in 1869. What was going through his mind as he stood before the most holy of shrines to Amaterasu, his mythological ancestor? Much of the scenery I was passing through was right out of his own journey, as the countryside looks to have changed very little out here, in the old homes and reasonably unspoiled rural landscape. Yet I had comforts that the Emperor hadn't, in the form of a nice coffee drunk in a warm train carriage, and the view seen from the train window, of my footfalls rolling backwards.
On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to Tex-Mex"
Tuesday, March 03, 2015
It was a day too warm for February, and the birdsong was in the key of March. I'd wanted an early start, so had come down to Matsusaka the night before, in order to catch the first bus of the day. My feet hit pavement not long after 7:30.
The road on which we'd ridden out here to Kakinō was a busy one, but luckily I was walking a smaller road just above both it and a river that was quiet today. In former times, the latter must have raced through this gorge with great power, scarring and twisting the rocks in the riverbed into phantasmagoric shapes. These, and the mist hanging between the hills overhead, lent itself to the cliche of a Chinese landscape painting.
This smaller road was leading me through the remains of a post town, the location of the old inns designated by paper lanterns hanging in the eaves of what were now modern houses. The oldest house in the village dated from the Meiji period, but rather than lanterns, Christmas lights hung from its cracked and faded beams. This lingering holiday sentiment was refuted somewhat by the sight of plum blossoms that exploded into view a few steps on.
Before leaving the river, I climbed up above a Shingon temple whose twin waterfalls hinted at esoteric practices, to an overlook that was becoming hemmed in by the untrimmed pine branches that blotted out the view. I imagined an older priest here, no longer interested in undertaking tough manual labor for the sake of a dwindling number of parishioners. As the day went on, I noticed that the few temples I did pass seemed to be all Shingon. I was closing in on the Ise shrines, and imagined the pro-Shinto fever that must have purged this area of all signs of Buddhism as State Shinto raised its snake-like head in the Meiji Period. These Shingon temples had Shugendo roots, so were therefore deemed Shinto enough.
The river now behind me, I found myself walking a straight line throughout the day, village begetting village, with only rice fields between. Kadomatsu New Year's decorations hung from many of the doors, making it feel as if my previous walk in January was still going on.
Villages, farmland, villages. The one forest I did enter was flat, along a track that bisected a thick bamboo thicket that must be rife with snakes of its own in warmer days. At the forest's far end, I heard what I at first thought was gunfire, but was merely a pile of bamboo trees ablaze, their air-filled chambers bursting as the heat escaped.
Lunchtime came, and it brought with it hunger. In many ways this was a dream walk as the path kept me far out in the countryside. However, the walker tends to grow reliant upon the small cafes and convenience stores found just about everywhere across Japan. I eventually came to a small yakuniku place, but the owner told me he was finished for the day, despite it only being just past one o'clock. A bit annoying.
Earlier while walking the river, I had tossed a fist-sized rock into a pool of very still water. I was amazed at just how wide and for how long the ripples traveled. I thought this a good metaphor for those who complain that a single individual has no effect upon a large and complicated world. And in the same spirit, this fellow's refusal to serve me had ramifications throughout the day. The ripples of my initial annoyance growing eventually into full blown anger, as my energy waned and waned. I just couldn't find food anywhere. More than that, I wanted an excuse to sit awhile as I was now about 25km into my day.
Around 3 pm, I finally decided to detour off my track to a convenience store a few km away, not far from where the Ise Kaido meets a lesser traveled section of the Kumano Kodo that leads south toward those grand shrines. I finally got my lunch, and as I sat I noted that I was just on the outskirts of Ise City proper. Not long now.
When I rejoined the path, my laughter cleared out any anger I was still carrying when I came upon a food shop a 100 meters on. Then another. Spirits high, I walked on, trying to ignore my eyes made runny by the pollen that is always an unwanted companion to the welcome warmth of spring. The farm villages continued for an hour or so, then crossing a broad river, I was in Ise proper.
The kaido took me past the Inner Shrine. I debated going in, but it was past 4 pm now, with the light fading. Plus I'd recently paid my respects a few months before. So I carried on the last four km toward the inner shrine, which I found more important anyway.
This section was quite fascinating, as it had once been lined with brothels and inns. Had this been 150 years before, I expect it would have quite the lively scene. Today, all was quiet, just a few school kids cycling home. One of these inns was the scene of a multiple murder that soon inspired popular entertainment. But it, and most of the other inns, were now replaced by bland new suburban homes. Only Asakichi Ryokan remained, stacked up in a jumble of wood upon the side of a hill.
I hadn't expected that I'd finish this walk with a climb. Thanks to my lunch detour, I was clocking about 45 km for the day, far more than I'd walked in the last decade or so. But incredibly, I felt fine, with none of the aches I usually get after about the 27th km. But I could have done without this last hill. And along the descent down the far side I felt the pull of momentum, leading me through the mock Edo frontages that are a large tourist draw these days. All were shuttered and closed by now, the punters having moved on.
And at the far end, the bridge led over to the water to where the Sun Goddess awaited, just as her spherical form was beginning to leave the heavens.
On the turntable: "Skankin' 'Round the World"