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30 December 2011

To Inner Mongolia

银川 Yinchuan


Cold water slaps the tiles at my feet. I find the soap and washcloth by the streetlamp light filtering in through my bathroom window. I expect the slightly chilled winter-time shower to be uncomfortable at best, but instead find it refreshing. I rinse and cut the water.

Lathering up my face, I wonder how effective my shave will be without any light. My headlamp is dead. Been dead for weeks. Dripping and naked, I scurry about the dark apartment until I ferret out a lighter with a small LED built in the backside and flick the switch. Ducking back into the bathroom I deem the pathetic beam grossly ineffective. Then a light goes off in my head (but not in my house). One more scramble and return and I have a beautiful orange glow radiating out from a candle stuck into a jelly lid. I happily set razor to skin and find the light source to be far superior to my powerless ceiling-mounted heat lamps. The mobile candle-stick can be variously positioned along my sink-top, for an unprecedented shadowless neck shaving experience. I am quite pleased.

Beita, North Tower, Yinchuan.
In two hours I am catching a train out of Yinchuan bound for Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. During my final stages of packing and preparation, my pre-paid electricity ran out and *poof* lights out. I foolishly hadn't recharged my electricity card (I hear Sabrina laughing in my head, "You are such a 猪头, zhutou! [pighead]) and had no time to go out and take care of it now. Ergo, cold shower and shave by candlelight.

A brief errand to school, two buses to the new city, and I meet Sabrina in front of the train station. "You know there is a new train station opening soon?" she tells me. I had heard something like that, and ask her where. "Just the next street over," she points. "Right next to this one."

Sabrina is seeing me off because all the tickets are sold out. She tried to get a ticket for me a week back since she lives much closer to the station than I, with no luck. So she rang her friend that works for the railroad, and told me he would be able to finagle a spot for me on the train, I just needed to be there. Sabrina has the 关系, the guanxi, the connection to the goods.

An Yinchuan sunset.
Over peanuts she tells me her friend isn't working tonight, but her friend's friend is going to help us out. She has his name. I am relatively unconcerned. If I can get on the train I'll find somewhere to pass the ten hours to Hohhot.

The electronic board signals that the train is arriving. We queue up and watch with amusement as my fellow passengers sprint to the platform to board. It doesn't seem that essential to take off at race pace to get on the train, but seeing as I still don't have a ticket we decide to compromise and approach at a brisk jog.

Sabrina spots the first available conductor and asks for her friend's friend. He points us further down the line of cars. We proceed. She asks the next conductor and he relays the news that her friend's friend is not working tonight. Sabrina politely explains my predicament. The railway man, though rushed and hastily dispatching a swarm of other passengers and their questions, tells us to step on the train and wait for him in the dining car. He'll be by later. Sabrina has the foresight to check his name tag before we board. 张建华, Zhang Jianhua.

在火车上 On the train

The dining car is well lit and a few of the kitchen and rail staff are seated within. Some are chatting, others are punching numbers and copying information into log books. I sit in an empty booth. Sabrina sits across the aisle, nervously checking the time. Departure time is 9:13 pm. We have eleven minutes.

Almost immediately a very large, box shaped man wearing white cooking clothes takes a fancy to me. The female employees surrounding him giggle as he pokes and prods me with inquiries and meaty gesticulations.

"Where are you from?"
"Oh! America! Excellent! You speak Chinese very well!" He thrusts a leg-sized forearm up into the air to demonstrate the level of excellence.
"No, no. Not very well."
"What do you think of China? Good or bad?"
"Extremely good."
"Yes, China is good." His square face and squinty eyes nod approval. "Are you a student?"
"No, I'm a teacher."
"How much do you make a month?" Sabrina tries to interject out of politeness, but it is typically the third question I am asked by everyone I meet, so I am used to it.
"Six thousand yuan a month."
"Not enough. Not enough." A deep frown creases his lined face and he shakes his head. "You're a foreigner, you should be making more."
"No I think it's enough."
"Not enough!" he barks. "How old are you?"
"Are you married?"
"No, but I have a girlfriend in America."
"You should get a Chinese girlfriend."
"No, no..." I begin to reply but he stops me short.
"Yes, Chinese girls are very gentle. Extremely gentle. Much more gentle than American girls."
"How do you know that?" A bit of incredulity creeps into my voice.
He slams his beef-fist onto the table for effect. I feel the aftershock several booths away. "Much more gentle!" Case closed.
After the S-waves have subsided, I add, "American girls are gentle too." Wenrou, loosely translated as gentle, is one of the highest virtues for a traditional Chinese woman to have. He looks skeptical.
"Are you used to Chinese food?"
"I am. I like it."
"How about mutton?" The region is known for its mutton.
"I don't eat meat."
"You don't eat meat!? Why not?" he demands.
"I'm Buddhist."

My forthcoming friend contemplates this for a moment then heaves his refrigerator of a frame out of his booth and crashes it into mine. He grips one of my hands that had been resting on the table and turns it over. He pets my soft palm with his coarse meat patty. Releasing me, he cocks his arm up, elbow on the table, and indicates he wants to arm wrestle.

"You eat vegetables. I eat meat."
I'm not sure how this plays into his proposition for a competition.
"Come on. I'm fifty-nine. You're twenty-eight. I eat meat. You're a vegetarian. Let's go."
"You're about the same age as my mom," I tell him. This seems to rouse his enthusiasm.

Meat. (photo from here.)
We clasp hands. He says something I assume regards the rules, so I nod. We begin. After a tense start, he raises an eyebrow and points to my other hand on the table, indicating I can't apply counter-pressure with that one. He clearly has his game face on. I maintain a reasonable defensive position for a while but it's clear from the beginning I don't have a chance. I stick it out for a few moments longer then fold. My large companion is pleased.

"It's because I eat meat and you eat vegetables," he adds his conclusive condolences. "You should eat meat." He hefts the refrigerator once more and throws it down in his original location, filling the booth with his mass.

During our match, Sabrina had walked over to the door, spoken briefly with a conductor, and returned. Now she sits across from me, looking more nervous and eyeing her phone every two seconds. We have five minutes. Conductor Zhang still hasn't shown and we are approaching departure time.

The white-garmented carnivore pulls a victory cigarette from a crumpled pack and offers me one.
"I don't smoke."
"Ah!" He exclaims approvingly. This particular abnegation passes inspection. "Chinese people. We all smoke." He lights up.

All of a sudden the station scenery begins to creep alongside us, pillars becoming mobile, platform a flowing river of cement. "Oh no!" Sabrina cries and runs to the door. She implores briefly with the doorwoman to let her off, but to no avail. The train left three minutes early. Sabrina's shoulders drop and she drags her feet back to me. "Oh shit." Her forehead is creased with worry, she nervously fingers her phone.

Sabrina reenacts her on-train frustration. Photo by Chris.

With various queries directed throughout the dining car Sabrina gathers that she can get off at Shizuishan, half an hour away, wait an hour at the station and catch an Yinchuan-bound train home. She'll get to her apartment around one am. I feel like an ass since she is here to send me off, to do me a favor. The fridge chef has continued his questioning throughout the ordeal, but I have turned my attention towards Sabrina, and the inquisition gradually loses momentum.

The train workers disband and go about their duties. We sit quietly for a few minutes. I try to reassure Sabrina. Conductor Zhang approaches us down the aisle and is shocked to see Sabrina there. She explains what happened, and he offers what he knows. He arranges a ticket for me. We thank him and make our way back to car 14.

We arrive and are escorted into the employees' car, which is quiet and dark. I am surprised and delighted. I deposit my belongings on my bunk, fold down the stow-away seat in the aisle, and plop down next to Sabrina. We chat in hushed voices until her stop arrives. We hug and say goodbye.

Uniformed and plainclothed workers file past me in both directions. I swing my legs back and forth to make room for their passing, smiling at their mildly shocked faces. I hear mutterings of laowai, and waiguoren, both words for "foreigner" in Chinese. One woman stops and asks where I'm from, and is quite taken aback when I answer her and continue the conversation. After our chat concludes, I hear the mutterings change to, "Wow, this foreigner can speak Chinese." I smile. I feel welcomed and privileged to be traveling in the VIP car.

The hard sleeper cars have three-walled, open cabins with six bunks per cabin, three lining each wall. A low bunk near the floor, a mid-bunk, and I high bunk squished up against the ceiling. I had slept in a high bunk once before and found it claustrophobic. The low bunks turned into communal sitting areas until the lights were extinguished. So I opted for the middle bunk for a bit more privacy without sacrificing breathing room.
Looking out of the West Tower, Baisi Kou, near Yinchuan.

Fortunately, the beds are long enough for my greater-than-the-average-Chinese height. Nice and firm, they are equipped with a thin pad, blanket and sand-bag pillow, bound in by a railing so itinerant sleepers don't end up assaulting their down-bunk neighbors. I strip off my multiple warm layers and settle in to sleep amidst the rocking of the train.

What seems like moments later, I am torn from sleep, the air rent by what sounds like a Paul Bunyan-sized weed whacker. The kind with the raspy, scathing pull-cord that never seems to get the motor started. Over and over the pull-cord saws through the cabin, through my ear drums, through my groggy brain. What the hell is that?

I roll over and gaze down through my sleep cloud upon a whale of a man, pasty white flesh flowing out of his bunk in all directions. His face is smeared along the rear wall and his limbs are twisted and contorted in a variety of extremely uncomfortable looking angles to fit in the narrow space. And I thought my bunk was tight. It's warm on the train and the Chinese Michelin Man has stripped down to his tight, white briefs, bulging at maximum capacity and threatening to burst and spray underwear shrapnel into oblivious victims' cubbies.

The swollen girth of my cabin-mate endows him with unusually voluminous snoring capacity. The titanic pull-cord tears through the otherwise still night air once more. I can't tell if it's the locomotion or the resonation that's vibrating the walls around me. With each heave of the cord, the metal, glass and plastic surfaces enveloping me shudder violently. I ponder if the structural integrity of the car will be compromised by this incredible force, shearing the protective shell in twain and sending us soaring into the night.

He tosses and the sawing abates. His nasal cavity must have cleared out the phlegmatic pileup that was preventing passage of oxygen. I too toss and bury my head in my pillow. Nodding off in the rediscovered tranquility, I wonder how Sabrina is doing. My rumination is shattered by renewed eruptions from the human volcano, shards of thought raining out of my middle bunk. I bury my head deeper and dream of easy breathing.

27 December 2011

Luang Prabang

Pink blossoms and bean pods hang from the leafless tree at the top of the hill. The golden pagoda that caught my eye from across the city sits majestically at the apex. Birds flit by in the afternoon air but I miss their tweets, drowned out by my heavy breathing. I turn over the cranks one more time on my faithful squeaky steed, before huffing to a stop, sweating everywhere. I deploy the questionable kickstand and await Erin's arrival, cooling off in the light breeze.

The multi-storied structure is captivating and unique. A stroll around the octagonal exterior reveals delicate flowers, relief carvings on doors and awnings, and expansive views of Luang Prabang. Upon entering, I am greeted by two nuns dressed in plain robes. They smile and welcome me in, asking that I write my name in their log book. I deposit my belongings along the inner wall and gaze at the paintings surrounding me.

The walls are covered with depictions of the realms of existence. Fiery hells, blank, barren expanses filled with wandering ghosts, our plane fraught with war, conflict, and starvation, limbo states, heavenly kingdoms. I walk slowly and deliberately, utilizing the technique Phra Sinlapachai taught outside of Chiang Mai: Heel up. Lifting. Moving. Lowering. Touching. Pressing. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Cognizant of each footfall and the relative positioning of my body.

Mindful steps guide me throughout the sacred space. I make my way through the lowest tier, taking in the rich displays of various realities, borne of one's karmic action forever propelling the spirit into future rebirths. I ascend to the second tier and find extensive murals portraying Buddha's life and travails on every vertical surface. Colorful displays of compassion and hardship, birth, life, and death; of pilgrims paying respects, travels and discourses. The reverence is palpable.

The older of the two nuns approaches me from behind as I am walking. She walks up and with kind disposition offers me a purple, braided bracelet. I present my left wrist and she obliges. Once the knot is firmly affixed, she gestures for a donation, and offering for her efforts. I immediately feel used, cheated of something greater. I begrudgingly hand over some money and she bows and hobbles back downstairs. I can't overcome this feeling of debasement, of a higher ideal being abused and sullied. Is it ever possible to separate the spiritual from the monetary, the mundane? I continue my walking meditation and do my best to observe my conflicted feelings.

A narrow stairwell leads up to progressively smaller chambers. The roof slants inward over my head and the aqua blue hue of the room creates an atmosphere of oceanic bubble essence. The scenes here are fewer in number and more abstract, amalgamations of geometric shapes and Buddhist symbols. The quiet is almost oppressive. Small portholes allow narrow beams of light passage inward, illuminating select spheres of artwork.

A final spiral staircase bears me skyward, into the last and smallest of the four levels. An alcove with an altar is tucked into the top spire of the temple structure. Several Buddha figures sit atop the altar in their lonely abode, with offerings scattered about the standing and seated forms. Tiny slits in the walls allow spare glimpses of the world outside. The complex panoramas from below are absent, the walls mostly void of decoration.

The space compels me. I hum, adjusting the bass in my voice until I find a resonating range that shakes the molecules all around me. I stop and absorb the fading vibrations. I repeat the exercise, approaching greater decibels each time, a smile growing on my face, my cells vibrating in unity with the air enclosing me. Fingering the bracelet on my wrist, I let go of the anger and frustration I felt. Although initially attempted to throw away this representation of the fouling of the sacred, I decide instead to wear it. Let it remind me to not be blinded by expectations. To be fluid in accepting when appearances and assumptions do not match reality. To not become too attached to this idea of "spirituality" and what that should mean, how others should act within my own framework of what is good and right.

I release the soft threads from between my fingertips and once more lose myself in universal vibrations.


It was the pizza. That cheesy, oily deliciousness smothered in greens, was the culprit. It had been so good. So satisfying. Gratifying in all its pizza-glory. Who would have thought the only Western food I've eaten in weeks would make me sick?

I lean over the toilet and empty my stomach once more. Erin is even worse off. I've been able to pull my sorry carcass out of bed and move about the bungalow, but she is fully bedridden. Moaning accompanies moving from within a tangle of sheets. I do my best to share some sympathy with her sad state. My last stomach illness had afflicted me in southern Thailand, keeping me from climbing, but this is way worse. Standing is challenging. Guts rebelling against verticality and locomotion, I push through their wrenching tightness and out the door, promising Erin I'll be back to check on her soon.

With concerted effort, I lean aggressively up the street toward L'stranger coffee shop, where I hope to ingest something nutritional and keep it down. I tote a copy of The Zahir by Paulo Coelho which I intend to utilize as an escape mechanism from the icky feelings permeating my body.

I sit in an comfy chair on their patio and order some green tea to match my green face. Food will have to wait. Whispering leaves encircle the porch, shading me from the hazy white sky. I crack open The Zahir.

He is troubled but doesn't know why. He wants to break up with her, but she accuses him of running. "... this scenario will simply keep recurring for as long as I refuse to risk everything for what I believe to be my reason for living..." (p. 21) Which for him is writing. Writing books. I hear a voice in my head saying, That's you, too. Stop waiting, making excuses, and follow your dream. You know what it is. I nod and read on.

He is struggling with a need for an individual journey of discovery, and a relationship that he is unwilling to give up on. "Esther, however, was the only woman in the world who understood one very simple thing: in order to find her, I first had to find myself." (p. 35) I find in his writings some insight and comfort toward the anxieties I am feeling about being away from the woman that I love. Seeking avidly, but unsure what I am looking for. Weighing being apart versus being together. Feeling sensitive to slight disruptions in our connections across tenuous lines, so distant. Unsure of the future.

I have been feeling anxious about Erin (my partner, Erin Fleming, not my traveling buddy) and recent conflicts in our communications. I feel clinging from both sides, longing for something neither of us can have right now. Intimacy. Unrealistic expectations. Are we too different to understand what the other is going through? What the other is thinking? "That is the Mongolian creation myth: out of two different natures love is born. In contradiction, love grows in strength. In confrontation and transformation, love is preserved." (p. 91)

I order a light breakfast of eggs, fruit and toast. I am feeling less green.

"I had forgotten that one has to continue walking the road to Santiago, to discard any unnecessary baggage, to keep only what you need in order to live each day, and to allow the energy of love to flow freely, from the outside in and from the inside out." (p. 230)

Letting go of unnecessary baggage... concepts of what should be, what could be... what love looks like and how it should be shared... if I deserve it, if I am giving enough... and to allow it to flow freely.

He explores an esoteric idea he refers to as the acomodador, or giving-up point. "This fitted in with my experience of learning archery - the only sport I enjoyed - for the teacher says that no shot can ever be repeated, and there is no point trying to learn from good or bad shots. What matters is repeating it hundreds and thousands of times, until we have freed ourselves from the idea of hitting the target and have ourselves become the arrow, the bow, the target." (p. 238)

Is this not like meditation? Repetition to purify the mind of conceptual separations? The giving-up point implies a threshold, one that can only be reached through practice and application, or some critical mass that demands release. Relinquishing preconceived notions, assumptions, expectations.

I am feeling a little less sick and a little less confused. But still an air of unease hangs about me. I close the book and put it away.

"My day was good, let night fall." (p.174) 

05 December 2011

爱运动 – Love sports!

It’s tangy and watered down, with a lingering aftertaste reminiscent of burped-up fruit. I stick out my tongue for better ventilation. The label claims “blueberry” but my taste-buds register cheap gin. 爱运动 (ai yundong), Love Sports, my choice of sports drink re-hydration after my late morning run down the Tanglai Canal. A stone’s throw from my apartment, the canal is a great place to be outside, shaded by the many trees that line the water’s murky edge. It also provides protection from the exhaust and clamor seeping from the city streets, which can’t quite penetrate the peaceful corridor.

Casually spinning the bottle in hand, I find a diagram that displays the primary activities that the drink is best suited for: running is first (I chose wisely), followed by yoga, breakdancing, shopping, KTV (karaoke with Chinese characteristics), and using the computer. That KTV is indeed an electrolyte vacuum.
Most striking is how many primary Chinese sports are left out.
The widely popular badminton and ping pong have their standard indoor following, with gyms and sports clubs dedicating large spaces to courts and tables. Some folks take their badminton very seriously here, and they will certainly crush you if you step up to the challenge. In the streets, mothers and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends, and school classmates will all take up a racket and shuttlecock to play sans net, batting around the birdie in the open air with glee.
Saggy but savvy old timer. Photo from here.
Parks and public squares often have outdoor ping pong tables that are free to use, just bring your own paddle and ball, and I rarely see them empty. In the new Karate Kid movie young Dre steps up to a pong table with an old-timer wearing a saggy white undershirt. The bespectacled old man begins casually, respecting the youth and inexperience of his opponent. That is, until Dre slams the ball over the net, with attitude, to impress a cute girl watching nearby. The warm-up is over, and the old man proceeds to pummel Dre relentlessly with excellent form and style. That scene captures the essence of the pong and badminton circles, where skill level and competitive ferocity far exceeds initial impressions.
Beyond these traditional games, the recreational Chinese sports scene gets a little more exciting and eclectic. Old men squat on small stools along the sidewalk to xia xiangqi, play Chinese chess. The pieces are blackened with hand oil from countless arthritic fingers and the grid is worn away from the vigorous “eating” of opponent pieces. Slamming an attacking disc upon your adversary’s with stout force is thoroughly encouraged, creating a very satisfying clap of thunder in culmination of your valiant act. And indeed much goes into each move of a street side chess game. A large crowd of variously aged male “experts” gather round the board to freely express their idea of what tactics you should employ. Only after carefully considering each piece of firmly delivered advice can you undertake your next move.
Typical Chinese Chess gathering.
I played once with my students at school during a break between classes. I had to slap their hands to keep them from moving my pieces for me. I would slap one hand and give them an ogre stare, but by the time my glaring eyes returned to the board, the student on my blind side had already moved my piece for me, silently nodding in approval. I don’t see this kind of interference amongst grown men, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
In the evenings, a cacophony fills the public squares. Drums and cymbals pound and clang from one corner, while music blares forth from cheap speakers positioned in the other. These serve the throngs of group dancers, which gather in great numbers in nearly every open space in the city. The majority of the crowds are women over thirty, though there are sometimes giggling little girls who jump in for a few minutes, and the rare, bold male. Most forms of dance have the participants arranged in an evenly spaced grid, going through coordinated steps in unison and moving in a square-like pattern. These styles follow the cheap speaker music. The drum and cymbal dance typically requires brightly colored flags and scarves that the performers wave about them, following the cues of a whistle-blowing conductor.
The dancing is a great social event, with many people milling about the perimeter and chatting, both elderly and young. Children romp about and their parents catch up with friends and gossip. There are also more traditional dancing events where couples spin each other about to music played amidst the summer evening air.
Some fishermen enjoying a summer afternoon.
Chinese city folk are particularly taken by the unique challenges associated with riding bikes. Bikes fill the streets throughout the day, with riders wearing everything from military fatigues to skirts and high-heeled boots. Most are absurdly large or far too small relative to their respective user. Nearly every bike in circulation appears far older than me, and it is the rarely cared for machine that has ever received oil or new brake pads.
Despite the mechanical deterioration and sizing setbacks, a variety of skills are painstakingly pursued. To showcase their brute strength, the local cyclist will often bear one or more people on the rear rack, who in turn may carry a baby or a sack of potatoes. If there is no person to haul, large quantities of fruits and vegetables, bamboo poles, bricks, and dogs will all suffice for the cargo.
In order to display their sixth sense of direction, the typical rider will spend frighteningly long periods of time not looking where they are going. There is always something more interesting than the road in front of them and the locals know this, so they are forever prepared for endurance rubber necking events in which they may keep their eyes entirely askew for a minute or more.

Children on lunch break from school raid a 24 Hour Fitness.
Bravery is also a coveted trait. Trials testing the fortitude of one’s will include running red lights, cutting across all lanes of traffic without looking, darting in front of large trucks, and slalom cycling on the sidewalks. Without a helmet.
Bike handling is a skill the local rider takes very seriously. To be able to best perform the above-stated maneuvers with appropriate efficacy, one must train rigorously. Skill specific workout sessions may utilize riding with one hand, the other engaged in smoking a cigarette, holding an umbrella, or talking on the phone. Graduating to the next level, one will incorporate one or more of the above mentioned acts into a single workout. Fortunately for the novice, the average speed of transit is at a near-walking pace and therefore crashes do not carry such severe repercussions. Unless of course you are run over by one of the larger and less proficiently operated vehicles on the street.
A mid-summer favorite of older gentleman is a noon-time breast stroke across the brisk Tanglai Canal, funneling water from the Yellow River through the city. Swim-capped heads bob up and down across the turbid, stool-brown, silt-laden water, as the current pushes them downstream and downtown. After their crossing they will drip dry on their walk back, speedos offering them maximum ventilation during the stroll.
A wonderfully unique staple on city streets here is what I call 24 Hour Fitnesses. They are basically playgrounds for adults, with a large variety of well-maintained exercise equipment for moderate stretching and strengthening. Elliptical machines, swinging leg stretching devices, pull up bars, parallel bars, shoulder motion wheels, butterfly presses; all free of charge and well-used. Throughout the day, it is rare to see an empty 24 Hour Fitness anywhere in the city.
Morning fan taiji from my kitchen window.
Morning taiji must also be mentioned, though the numbers pale in comparison to the other represented sports. Regardless how crisp the morning air, elderly practitioners will gather out of doors to execute slow, calculated, graceful movements through a series of postures and forms, sometimes wielding a sword or fan to enhance their practice.
High intensity, low duration workouts are all the rage in Western endurance sports preparation. Well, China has long known about the benefits of this kind of training. I have always wondered how the people here age so gracefully, and I have witnessed their secret. All-out sprints of grandparents chasing naked babies through the streets. And to really maximize anaerobic and lactate threshold development, both parties will laugh uproariously to limit their O2 intake. Quite ingenious.
My standard running and cycling get-up.
And in this way the people here stay quite fit to a ripe old age. The group dancing, taiji, chess, fitness centers, and ping pong tables keep the populace outdoors and socializing. Engaging friends mentally and physically in these activities keeps the mind and body healthy. I think our culture could learn quite a bit from this model as we age and become more reclusive, spending more time on the couch with a remote control than in the sun with a good friend.
The sun reflects off the last of my爱运动, reminding me of the final effort of my day’s workout. I grimace and swallow the last drops of the reputedly rejuvenating fluid. Though running is about as common as seeing a foreigner in these parts, (not common), I feel grateful to be partaking in the wonderful, widespread love of sports. Sharing yet another human love that needs no language to communicate is worth every drop of vomit-flavored sports drink in order to be able to do it again the next day.

28 November 2011

Magnetic Levitation

A little blip on the MagLev train from Shanghai Pudong Airport to downtown. The main star is my primary traveling companion Hinnie "Xiaoai" Fumbeggins, with cameos from Lena Zhang and yours truly. The MagLev, derived from magnetic levitation (how cool is that?!), literally levitates, being elevated and propelled forward by magnets at insanely high speeds. And since the train doesn't actually touch the ground, the ride is also silky smooth. Shanghai's MegLev has reached a top speed of 501 kmh (311mph), but on this particular ride we are moving at a slurping snail's rate of 300kmh (186mph).

I still think it's pretty cool.

21 November 2011

Floating the Mekong


Another slowboat passing us on the river.
A gray haired man teases a small Lao girl with a leopard puppet. The prowling hand-cat lurches out across the space between them and then retreats as the young girl giggles gleefully. Her brilliant white hat bobs back and forth as she mirrors the faux predator’s movements, leaning out into the aisle and then huddling back for cover. Mom watches with smiles.
Golden afternoon light cascades through the glowing cabin. Pale gold tassels dangling from drapes shift and shine in the breeze and reflected sun. The motor thrums in the stern. Eddies and waves caress the hull and return to the river.
A man works on his boat in the setting sun.
Women clean grains in wicker baskets at the water’s edge while their children wave frantically to boats passing by. Hamlets tucked beneath crumbling limestone walls appear cut off from everything but the river. The jungle swells around rock and home.
Small canyons and tributary valleys spit streams, tumbling waterfalls down stepped rock embankments and into the Mekong, the mother river.
Children roll down sand dunes in their underwear, then climb hand-and-foot back to the top to do it again. They tug at their friends and siblings, good natured pushing and shoving. They spin with flying roundhouse kicks and lift their shirts over their heads.
Water buffalo sleep in the sandy floodplains, their ears calmly and resolutely flicking away insects. Grazing cows navigate crumbly cliffs to get to the river’s bank and have a drink.
Bright red flowers adorn an otherwise leafless tree. It’s stark white bark shines out into the valley, an absence of color amidst a saturated landscape.
The reverie is intermittently interrupted as speedboats buzz by, their passengers’ faces cloaked in masks to keep off the foam, spray and wind.

A riverside golden abode.

Heaping sandbars pile up out of the water’s edge, the work of countless years of molding, carving, and transporting by water. Their steep flanks are pockmarked with prints of all the valley’s inhabitants, two-legged and four-, wild and domestic, as all flock to the river as a source of life, the central artery of existence.
An elephant lopes along the shoreline, his mahout treading behind him. Gray, fleshy, muscled legs carry his lumbering mass while sail-like ears flop and flutter in the valley breeze. The imagined thumping of his great flat feet syncs in time with the firing pistons of the slowboat engine. A wondrous mammal.
Bones, turrets, spines of dragons, molars and canines of rock jut up from the swirling waters. The boat deftly navigates the otherworldly obstacles.
The largest land animal lopes along.
White, yellow, black, and orange streaked karst towers erupt from the dense green landscape, crowning the horizons and crowding the river. A small temple with Buddha images is tucked into a large cave in a cliff. White washed steps lead up into and then past it. Monks wait in longtail boats below.

28 September 2011

The Beauty

Forty-five granite steps climb above the green to the temple’s face. Three segments of thirteen steeply inclined stairs make their way to the uppermost platform upon which Dabosa sits. Six more footfalls take the walker to the temple structure's great doors. Dark, thick bee sap falls from the awning and collects in a gooey splat, feeding hordes of well-nourished ants. Detailed paintings of Buddha's life adorn the interior walls, a story laid out beneath a ceiling saturated with lotus flowers. Finely carved wooden dragon heads spiral above the focal effigy of Buddha. Paper lanterns and flowers hang from the ceiling, white and pink and bright, hovering above the meditation cushions.
Looking down on the residence and dining hall from Dabosa
Dabosa is nestled amidst thick forest that clings to the steep Sobaek Mountains of central South Korea. Sandy bedrock cliffs jut out of the canopy like spots of skin revealed beneath the furry green coat. Small farms and a narrow road tuck in alongside the clear creek that carves the valley. All the eye sees is forest, rock, cloud and sky in all directions, the vista enveloped and protected by Sognisan National Park. The ear is treated to the almost electric whirring of cicadas from mid-morning on with the accompanying chorus of birds, bees, and breeze through the trees. It feels like a long way from anywhere, and indeed the bus ride here ferried me through endless landscape paintings of rivers and hills, sparse settlements and fields of crops three and a half hours from the capital city of Seoul in the north.
Eight times a day I ascend to the meditation hall, beginning pre-dawn under the starlight, continuing through sunrise and the heat of mid-day, with the final trip after nightfall as the cool mountain air permeates camp. The slow climb encourages a focused entry into the coming sit, a preparation for the internal work I am about to do. The even slower descent is a product of the radical pain flaring through my knee joints, a byproduct of sitting for long hours and releasing the hellfire from within (more on that later).
Yinchuan, China in May
At the base of the steps is a small lawn, partitioned into two for male and female usage. Upon this lawn the participants of this ten day meditation course saunter, stroll, pace, power walk, lope and do laps. There is no contact permitted between students. This includes speech, eye contact, gesturing and physical touch. We are prohibited from writing, reading, and engaging in essentially anything that would distract us from the work we have come here to do: sharpening and purifying the mind.
With all of these distractions removed, and still having free time between sits, naps, and eating, I delve into the rich life of my surroundings. Giant frogs, tree frogs, mini-toads, dragonflies, ugly-butts, cicadas, praying mantis, long-green-legs, ants, spiders, and bees. The small green metamorphoses into an insanely interesting and incredible insectorium filled with hours of entertainment and rumination.
A small cord bisects the lawn, keeping the (human) sexes segregated. The local dragonfly population has noted the perfect positioning of this line and its members sit perched upon it, using it as a hunting platform from which they can launch and devour their prey. I encounter one just as he touches down on the cord, the head of a sizable gnat in his mouth. The legs of his captive kick in constant struggle as he slowly munches away, jaw extending down and away from his oblate head and engulfing bit by bit the gnat’s entire body. Legs continue to flail as the transparent wings pop off as if they were connected by cheap, desiccated glue. The dragonfly works his mouth unhurriedly. The gruesomely fascinating display bolsters my recent decision to relinquish my own carnivorous habits.
Where do sunflower seeds come from?
I am particularly fond of the dragonflies. They are stunning creatures, clothed in a broad spectrum of spectacular colors, crimson flowing to burnt orange and radiating gold, amber speckled with jade, lightning bolt yellow across a body of black. And their relative ease with my proximity offers the opportunity for extreme close-ups and advanced scrutiny. Their head is quite large, and the neck by which it is attached to the rest of the torso surprisingly small. Their eyes are massive, dusty and opaque, the color of rust at the apex, and becoming increasingly metallic and mirrored toward the base. They have an endearing way of cocking their head to the side while they view you, somewhat like a dog does when it hears a perplexing sound, but considerably more buggy in character.
A much less aesthetic member of the lawn community is the ugly-butts, as I have so named them because they have ugly butts. They appear to be a blend between malnourished bumblebees and elongated horseflies, though fortunately with neither the biting nor stinging capacity of their unlikely relatives. They are hairy, with bristles covering the rear half of their body and sprouting from between their eyes. In flight their wings produce a sound like a giant mosquito, and their skinny little hairy butt rises up in the air akin to a scorpion’s tail preparing to strike. This style of flight strikes me as particularly ungainly and gross.
What I assume to be the males are infinitely occupied with finding a mate. They have a white film oozing from the tip of their rear, which is likely some kind of sperm/egg/or supercharged hormone they wish to swap with a member of the opposite sex. Perched upon a step, rail, or other elevated surface, they scout for ladies who may be huddling in the grass. Bullying is standard to maintain a good viewing platform, and fisticuffs erupt whenever one’s zone has been infiltrated by another.
At Seolleung Royal Tombs, Seoul
When finally a mate is selected, they link butts. This ritual grossly lacks style and grace, in stark contrast to the mating dance of the dragonfly. Stacked one on top of the other, the dragonflies both face the same direction and hover in unison, apparently enjoying their brief union. Grounded or aloft, the pair moves together as a unit. The ugly-butts apply no such form to their reproductive function. Facing away from their ugly partner, the only thing connecting the two are their hairy rear ends. When forced into flight, one dangles behind the other and struggles to flap its wings, producing a sickly dissonant hum as it flies in reverse. Most unpleasant to behold.
At the base of the stairway leading up to Dabosa sits a giant granite urn. Functioning as a cistern to catch rain-water for use by the residents of the grounds, the half-spherical stone goblet spills overflow into a smaller rectangular basin and then out again into a drain. At the very rear of the urn is a small hole, which I presume connects to a well that plunges into the bedrock below. Seeing no pump, I wonder if it is an artesian well. In that tiny hole lives a small frog, jade green and very cute.
My good friends Lena and Derek in Shanghai
She remains settled back in her niche through the heat of the day, but in the early and late hours when the air is ripe with insects to be plucked, she edges herself out to the brim of her abode and snipes unsuspecting bugs mid-flight. She is rather skittish and my multiple attempts to approach her have all been rebuffed. I’m guessing she’s already taken.
The next morning I come across a small praying mantis upon the white and black crystalline stone. Leaning close to deepen my inspection, I note how wobbly he looks when he walks, with such a wobble you could call it a hobble. He has none of the speed or precision of the little mantis from Kung Fu Panda, and I wonder why a world renowned martial art would want to emulate such an awkward looking creature. I briefly consider trying to roundhouse kick him to see how he may counter my attack, but seeing as that may distract the other meditators I decide to refrain. I watch him penguin-mantis walk a little further, as if on two peg legs that have been overly worn down and need replacing, and then leave him to his mysterious training regimen.
You are probably wondering what kind of “sharpening” and “purification” (heavy emphasis on the quotes) of mind I am doing when it seems that my only achievement is a reversion to a childlike simplicity of thought. But this in itself is part of the work I am doing: to be present in this moment. To be here now. To see the beauty and richness of that which surrounds us, and to dive in and relish it as a child would. To embrace the beginner’s mind, as Shunryu Suzuki describes it.
And when we begin to see the fullness of the now, the brimming juices flowing from every experience, we find that what we have is more than sufficient. That wonder exists in the mundane. That a walk to the store contains an epic poem beyond the Odyssey in scope, and that a slice of watermelon is so saturated with ecstasy that my roommate Dan can’t resist polishing one off in only two sittings (he’s a pretty happy guy). That we can find our own Eden in our backyard, in our everyday.
Friend and fellow meditator Sasha in Seoul

But these realizations take work. We have been trained out of seeing things with this vision. We wander aimlessly in the misty, tangled cloudforests of our past and the shifting new moon shadows of our future. We rush through our days to get to the next five p.m. clockout, weekend or vacation.
So we must work to retrain our minds, to remind ourselves how to be aware. There are a multitude of phenomena that reach our sense organs every moment, and produce unconscious responses in the body and mind. To begin to observe that flow of input and response is the key to gaining deeper insight into how we act and behave. To understand ourselves and our environment. As Deepak Chopra describes, our bodies are a “cosmic computer,” through which we can listen to the song of the universe. With such a magnificent melody forever engulfing us, how could we instead choose to don our i-Pod ear buds or let our smart-phone multi-media digital machines suck us in?
The work is not easy. To return to the aforementioned hellfire; I am beginning to gain some understanding of the commonly used Christian terms of purgatory and hellfire. They always appeared to me to be scare tactics to frighten the listener into living a moral life based on the effects in the afterlife. Sin and you will wander the barren plains of purgatory, somewhere between heaven and hell, cold and alone. Or worse, be scalded, boiled, burned, and tortured in the ever plunging circles of Lucifer’s inferno, according to your crime.
But to believe that we must wait until death to reap the fruit of our action (whether sour or sweet) is an illusion and disservice. Anger burns within this body, and the products of this fiery furnace, all soot, smoke and ash, absolutely manifest in my daily mental state and course of action. Buddha described anger as a hot coal in a fire that we have picked up, planning to throw at someone or something, the object of our rage. Yet the coal never truly leaves our hand, as the seething emotions are never truly delivered to their target, and we boil inside just as the hot coal burns flesh.
King Sejong the Great, who created hangeul, the Korean alphabet, seated in Seoul
When the anger is not observed and let go, it gets stored in our body, in our unconscious mind, as a habit pattern of response. The storage tanks of the unconscious are vast and deep indeed! So when I sit, and observe what I feel and experience in this moment, both in body and mind, the old anger bubbles up, boils up, and manifests as very real hellfire throughout my body. Oftentimes the flames of pain lick around my knees and ankles, shooting up and down my legs as if I am stewing half-submerged in a cast-iron cauldron.
I use anger here because it is my strongest negative emotion with which I battle. Others will likely experience other strong negative emotions that overpower them from time to time. And often our unchecked emotions push us away from those we care about, in the form of open conflict or through the more subtle workings of pride and envy. Ultimately we can even lose ourselves in these experiences, not understanding why we feel a certain way or being confused about an irrational act or statement. Why am I so agitated? How could I hurt someone I love like that? And is this not purgatory, wandering alone through life, without even the solace of the self, an understanding of our own inner workings?
The beauty and richness of life and the world we live in is here. We just have to start seeing. The light and strength and love are within all of us, we just have to start believing. And then when the path is revealed to us, we just have to start walking.
As S.N. Goenka says, “only you can work out your own liberation. No one else can do it for you.”

12 September 2011

A Wrinkle in Time

After deboarding, visa administering, and a gut wrenching race to the squat toilet, I am approached by a man garbed entirely in pink. Glowing softly in the afternoon light, he asks me if I want to buy slow-boat tickets to Luang Prabang, two days downriver from Houaysai. I say yes indeed, I need two. I unload what seems like an absurd amount of money, hundreds of thousands of kip, having just exchanged my Thai baht for the considerably more inflated Laos kip. He tells me to show up tomorrow at the pier west of town. I tell him I want a receipt. And then watch him run away up the street with our cash.
The slowboat that will take us to Luang Prabang

Mildly perturbed by his hasty departure with such a massive wad of our funds, I walk back to where Erin is lazing and inform her of the interaction. She appears unfazed. Something about the quiet river and her disposition and the air hanging about us just oozes with relaxation. So I succumb to this unseen power and plop down to await our fate.
The man in pink soon returns with the desired documents, bids us a pleasant evening, and wanders off on some further entrepreneurial endeavor.
Ascending from the riverside we come to what appears to be main street. A quiet avenue with shops lining both sides, people leisurely walking and talking, a few vehicles scattered about. The two story buildings along the narrow roadway show the gentle touch of time, built with native construction materials and indigenous architecture. A bucolic riverside town.
Laotion flags hang above the pier
There is also a stillness in the air; as if upon uttering a word it gets sucked into a vacuum and disappears. I find myself speaking in whispers so as not to disturb the tranquility, the soft silence. Chiang Kong’s previously pleasant hustle and bustle now seems harsh and strident, a bare cement room of rebounding acoustics compared to this comfortable den of throw pillows and drapes.
There is a profound feeling of having traversed back in years, the Mekong functioning as a portal between ages, a wrinkle in time.
We pass a brilliantly painted gateway marking the entrance to a long flight of stairs ascending a hillside. The undulating walls adjacent to the steps are forest green dragon torsos, their gaping white-toothed maws and wide-eyed faces spilling out onto the street where we stand. Young monks in bright orange robes traverse the upper reaches towards the dragons’ tails.
We continue on to seek lodging.
Dusk approaches and the serpentine barriers guide us onward and upward. Our feet carry us up the long flight of low angle steps while child monks play with cell phones and harass each other nearby. At the terminus appears a central temple surrounded by a courtyard and a ring of smaller structures. Some serve as living quarters and dining areas for the young inhabitants, and others contain golden images of Buddha, his disciples, and various figures I don’t recognize.
Dragons leading a large ritual vessel, Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang
Several of the buildings have intricate, striking paintings on their outer walls, linking traditional Buddhist images with animistic influences. Like many regions that Buddhism traveled to after leaving India, the pre-existing local beliefs were integrated into the new faith, creating a geographically and culturally unique strain of the religion. The elemental, protector, and malevolent spirits of Laos animism shape local belief systems, and more than half of Laos’ present population practices some form of animism. The artistic style of these paintings reflects a raw kind of pulsating energy, with bold colors and defiant figures. Quite different from the generally more subdued and refined art I saw in Thailand.
Erin and I wander separately about the grounds, taking in the various features of the temple surroundings. I amble around the front of the building and gaze upon the lazy Mekong below, breathing deeply as the red orb of the setting sun approaches the horizon in the distance. Suddenly, swarms of young monks come scurrying from all corners of the compound, answering the bell calls emitting from the center hall. I make my way toward the main entrance of the temple proper and look in at the young ones seated in front of a tall Buddha statue. Some fidget in the back while others settle onto their cushions toward the front.
An elder monk guides the congregation and they begin to chant.
Buddha images at Wat Xieng Thong
The combined voices rumble through the sacred space and pour out into the twilight. Their words carry weight, and I can feel them press over my body. I am moved to sit on a stone step at the temple’s edge and close my eyes, absorbing only the sound and shutting the other sense doors. The mutterings resonate through my eardrums and fill me up, an empty vessel slowly becoming saturated with warm vibrations. Aromas of incense and night time flow into my nostrils. I sway gently to the song of the youthful, the faithful.
A timeless trance.
When the chanting halts, I open my eyes. Unable yet to move from my perch, I mirthfully observe the interested and genuinely surprised stares from the children as they file out around me. Erin is gone. In time I stand and begin to walk slowly down the hewn steps. I glance once more at the hill top refuge and move quietly into the comfortable darkness.

03 September 2011

Crossing the River

Mountains and jungle, streams and plain blur by for hours. Small limestone escarpments jut out from the forest, tangled roots and vines leaping from the cliff tops to the forest floor below. Small villages and fields of assorted crops spring into being whenever the mountainous landscape subsides. Dusty roads bud off of the main track, wandering outward. Our put-putting bus crawls up and over steep mountain passes, and often walking seems like a swifter option.
Looking across the Mekong to Houaysai, Laos.
Having flown from Krabi Province to Bangkok, and then taken a night bus from the capital to Chiang Mai, I had yet to see much of Thailand’s countryside by the light of day. Rolling along through this lush landscape, I begin to fill the gaps in between the destinations, to better understand the makeup of the landscape and envision what the lives of the people must be like.
Chiang Kong is the final stop. The mighty Mekong cuts along the northern edge of town, and Laos begins on the opposite bank. The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and specifically the village of Houaysai, is our destination for the evening but lunch comes first. Having foregone any serious breakfast and it now being well into the afternoon, we are famished. We wander about until finding a small pair of tables and chairs under an overhang, bedroom visible in back, small kitchen spilling out into the street.
A lovely old woman offers us a seat and I take the final opportunity to indulge in some (more) Pad Thai while still in the dish’s motherland. Glorious rice noodles, bean sprouts, and lime! Erin laughs at the little dogs trotting the streets, adorned in extremely diverse size, pattern, and color sweaters. She has been fascinated by the absurd quantity of sweatered dogs since Chiang Mai (this is a tropical country), and has proposed several times to chronicle the Thai sweater-dog culture in a photo-essay. I offer my full support and she grabs her camera and chases out into the street for a coveted shot.
Our boatman prepares to guide us across the water.
Supplementing our extremely limited Thai with large smiles, we thank our hostess and move on. A final Thai Tuk-tuk trucks us to the boat ramp. Stamps and nods, passports in hand we hop into a longtail boat, my first international river crossing. This passage also marks my return to the Mekong and my fifth crossing of this mighty river, although the first along the water’s surface.
Three years ago, I undertook two separate journeys into the high peaks of northwestern Yunnan Province, where the Mekong (known in China as the Lancang Jiang) runs swift and narrow through the towering Hengduan Mountains, and along the eastern flank of the sacred mountain Kawagebo. Throughout this region, giant snow-capped peaks descend dramatically thousands of meters into narrow gorges where some of Asia’s greatest rivers rage in close proximity. The Mekong, Salween (Nu Jiang in Chinese), and Yangtze Rivers flow southward off the Tibetan plateau through this extreme landscape, running parallel to each other in a three hundred kilometer corridor. The region is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and protected area for its amazing topography and rich biodiversity.
Gateway to another realm.
Each crossing of the river was a unique and transformative experience. The first began with perceived threats from some drunken Tibetans with a club, a forced march across the prayer flag-laden bridge in the middle of the night, and ended with shots of baijiu (rice liquor), cigarettes, and chatting about Saddam Hussein in their military surplus tent on the banks. The third crossing was the starting point of the circumambulation of Kawagebo. I was left standing on the eastern bank, dropped by a bus in what seemed like the wrong place. Despite my misgivings, I traversed the footbridge to find three large waterfalls cascading down the walls of a narrow canyon cutting into the mountains, as if a gateway into another realm. Awe-struck, I left the churning Lancang Jiang behind and headed up-canyon on what became an epic journey. The fourth occurred while I was stuffed in the back of a multi-day bus, a stowaway amidst bulging, dirty baggage and sweating Tibetans, so I have no recollection of the actual moment we crossed the river. I was being smuggled out of a closed region of Tibet by my friends and guides I met on the pilgrimage, the final stage of that rigorous journey. The following morning I awoke at sunrise to look across the deep cleft of the Lancang River valley to the sacred peak I had connected so deeply with, shining white in the morning light.
The motor of the longtail fires up and our boatman shoves us off. Four weeks in Thailand come to a close. As the river surrounds us, I reflect on my shared past with the mighty Mekong, and smile at this infinitely more casual crossing of the calm waters, sitting comfortably with a friend, legally entering and exploring a new land, a new people. I run my fingers through the cool, muddy waters, and excitedly await whatever the opposite bank holds for me.

20 July 2011

Of Monks and Motorbikes

The fat, yellow moon fills my one open eye. A heavy blink brings temporary darkness, though the giant cheese ball remains imprinted on the back of my lid. The cool glass against my face feels refreshing after Bangkok’s oppressive heat. Though other oppression has followed me onto the bus. A rowdy, obnoxious mob of what I infer to be Israeli boys has taken the rear portion hostage, and are blaring music through crappy speakers, shouting, swearing, boozing heavily, and overtly harassing nearby passengers. The tension is palpable. As if it weren’t difficult enough to sleep on a cramped overnight bus, we now have these idiots throwing a rager in the rear. My foggy brain attempts to let go of its anger, and the bulbous sphere hovering on the horizon once more fills my thoughts.
“Do you climb?”
Erin aloft at Crazy Horse.

At first I don’t hear the question. I am so wound up with internal voices screaming at each other, that her soft voice is drowned out by the cacophony. The harsh light of the gas station convenience store adds to my general feeling of confusion.

“Excuse me, do you climb?”

I snap out of it and realize she’s talking to me. I slowly remove myself from my internal argument and look down at the smiling girl standing before me. I learn her name is Erin (serendipitous), that she is a climber, and like me, without a partner. She had noticed my Craggin’ Classic t-shirt (an annual climber’s party held in the US) and inferred my rock scaling, anti-gravity status. My hard shell begins to soften as we talk pleasantly in the cool mid-morning hours, waiting for the bus to fire up its engine.

After some deliberation, we decide to be buddies.
The wind and open road flush the exhaustion from behind my eyes. As does the uncertainty and consequent adrenaline associated with operating a motor vehicle in a foreign country. Getting out of the city had been a bit frantic, but now, with the countryside opening up around us and rolling forested mountains stretching off into the haze, my nerves begin to settle.

I had lied to the rental guy to dispel any concerns he might have regarding my gross inexperience operating a motorbike, but that lie did not quell our own worries. I’m nervous, and Erin knows it. She put a large portion of trust in her new, admittedly weary friend (our friendship is approximately 11 hours young at this point) by hopping on the back of a motorbike with him to head out into the unknown. But she is supportive, encouraging me when I do something well, and softly redirecting me when a plan of action appears unsound.

Getting to the crag where we intend to climb is no small feat. There are a number of formidable obstacles to be overcome before we arrive at our goal. The first, and most stark, is driving on the left-hand side of the road. A new and novel concept for my first international driving experience. Not such a big deal when going straight, but considerably more so whenever turning. Taking now more risky right turns rather casually, and then forgetting which lane I am supposed to enter into, until I face a head-on truck approaching at high speeds to remind me, is a very real problem.

The trucks are the second major hurdle. Very large, very erratic, with absurdly loud horns that nearly knock one off their bike by the sonic wave released. We have already thrice been nearly hit, and once almost forced off the road by a merging truck drifting off the shoulder and into the dirt, seriously compromising our position on the asphalt.

My new friend and traveling partner, Ms. Erin Babich.
The third is the ever-present pot-hole. Some merely uncomfortable to hit; others reminiscent of the giant sand-pit monster that Jabba the Hutt throws Luke Skywalker into in The Return of the Jedi. Minus the teeth and tongue, they are a little less frightening, but then again I have no light saber to defend myself with. I do my best to avoid these savage beasts altogether.

But whenever Erin and my lives are not being threatened, I begin to better appreciate my father’s love for motorcycles and their transformative effect on the automotive experience. I had tasted it before on the back of his Harley while we toured through the Catskills of New York, the road mere inches from our feet, with the soft green mountains rolling by in the golden afternoon sunlight. Everything had felt more real, more vibrant, when not enclosed by a box of steel and fiberglass. My memories of that ride are vivid and fond.

And now I am living it, at the helm myself for the first time. Captain of my vessel. Awake and alert upon my steed. And thankfully alert, as I dodge another motorbike-eating maw with too sharp of a trajectory adjustment, made known to me by Erin’s tightening grip around my waist. Struggling to regain stability, her large, gear-filled backpack becomes a highway-bandit that has mounted the vehicle from behind and is trying to pull her off. Its sheer size and excessive weight rocks and sways, bounces and jostles any time my novice handling skills make too sudden a movement. Erin also kindly head-butts me any time I decelerate too rapidly to let me know that I have made an error in my calculations.

With the help of these indicators I hone my craft.

Smoke billows out of the fields as farmers burn their excess chaff after harvest. The sky is thick with particulate haze, and the sun burns orange overhead. The mountains, indistinct in the heat and ash-cloud, begin to crowd in on us, and we spot our destination. A small buttress of limestone jutting out of the bamboo forest. Crazy Horse.

I grip the accelerator and thrust us onward.
The sun brightens the hall while we sit in silence. The rising sounds of morning fill the air outside. Birds chirping, chittering, squawking. Some totally unfamiliar to my ears, yet still uplifting and enlivening as any dawn birdsong.

After our morning session concludes, I walk outside into the courtyard to take in the new day. The fresh, glowing, solar orb is just creeping over the horizon line and the buildings are awash in warm light. The various representations of Buddha lining the northern perimeter of the square erupt in golden brilliance, their subtle features made bold and distinct in the low angle rays.

I am at the International Meditation Center, outside of Chiang Mai, during a four day retreat for foreigners. The course is run by monks from Wat Suan Dok in the city center, where the Mahachulalongkorn Rajvidayalaya Buddhist University (MCU) is based. No idea how to say that. Monks from all over Southeast Asia come to this university to study various aspects of Buddhism and earn academic degrees that they can then apply in their home communities. During a regular evening meeting called Monk Chat, Erin and I visited Wat Suan Dok and spoke with monks from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, who were all attending the university and eager to speak with us and share their experiences. The free sessions are an opportunity for monks to practice their English and for foreigners to learn more about Buddhism and monastic life.

Phra Sinlapachai at the International Meditation Center.
Our instructor, Phra Sinlapachai, was born in Chiang Tung, Burma and has been a monk for eighteen years. He is earning his Master’s degree in Buddhism at MCU and intends to continue with doctorate study in India. Phra Sinlapachai then wishes to return to Burma to help his own people, augmented by his stronger understanding of Buddhist scripture and theory. At present he is excited to help with the meditation courses for foreigners because he realizes many of us are interested in Buddhism and would like to learn more, but may not have the opportunity in our home countries. He believes many people suffer from materialism in our modern time, and wishes to help them however he can through these courses.

I am finding this course to be a welcome return for me to deeper spiritual practice. Learning new techniques in a peaceful environment with an opportunity for focused practice has been very grounding. It is part of a larger transition out of Colorado and into Asia, where I intend to continue shedding the excess from my life, and bring a smaller number of important things to the forefront of my focus. Coming to this course has been a major step toward that goal.

The stillness of the morning breathes calm into my heart. The life breathes energy into my skin. I walk slowly and deliberately, eyeing the intricate details of the golden statues, the buzzing bees visiting the tender pink-white flowers adorning the bushes along the walkway. Peace infuses this place, and the people fortunate enough to come here.
I am shocked and angry.

I try to remain aware of how I am feeling and let it pass, but my frustration builds despite my attempts.

Relatively well-educated, well-traveled, privileged people, who came here to learn, to experience Buddhism and meditation, are attacking their teacher. Verbal assaults are flung from all about the room. Our daily group chat sessions, supposed to be focused on the technique and any troubles associated with it, have metamorphosed into an outright siege on the foundations of this nation’s religion.

It has become West versus East; the Religion of Science versus the Religion of Buddha; Logic versus Faith. The farang (Thai for foreigner) have found Phra Sinlapachai’s explanations of Buddhist theory to be unsuitable, and now seek to deflate and expose it.

With extreme disrespect, the group follows the lead of a Brazilian man and a French man in aggressively seeking Western answers to Eastern concepts. But when Phra attempts to explain, they are unsatisfied with the answers and press further. Language barriers plague the exchange. English is many of the attendees’ second language, and few take into account Phra’s ability to cope with their complex questions.

Many of their queries could have been answered by their own personal study, and when Phra does not understand what they are asking I occasionally step in to offer what I know from previous readings. A few other meditators (in particular a woman from Australia and a man from Quebec) who have had previous experience in the tradition also add voices of reason to the debate.

But the overwhelming atmosphere is one of confusion. Emotions are flung while concepts are lost in translation. Travelers from the USA, Canada, France, Russia, Brazil, Australia, Sweden, Spain, and the UK are continually frustrated and unsatisfied by the responses our teacher gives to their pressing questions. Fifteen examiners to one defendant, the inquisition unfolds.

My anger continues to build over the days as our group conversations emerge as the most difficult and challenging aspect of the course for me.

The meditation hall at the Center.
The echo of misunderstanding reverberating through this hall dedicated to unity and internal peace is a disturbing one. The Eastern hand reaches out and the Western tongue lashes back.
Cruising through the city on our rented motor bike, we pass monks and prostitutes, temples and bars, farang and local shopkeepers. The old city walls and its encircling moat are now surrounded by traffic and all forms of combustion engine. Curry and incense hang thick in the air. Golden parapets and ornately adorned gates cluster around modern high rises.

Having gotten slightly more comfortable in the Thai traffic, I weave in and out of lanes, lights, and throngs of pedestrians. The cool morning air fills my clothes and my nostrils, my visor up and open. Erin casually watches the scene unfolding around us, intimately, as only a passenger on a bike can do. Fountains send airborne spray out of the moat. Multi-colored taxis and Tuk-tuks vie for position with horn and bumper.

We get lost among the narrow alleys, slanted side streets, and crowded corners one last time.