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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.

07 July 2011

Independence Day

A flickering projection on a dissipating screen.
Once strong, distinct, pure.
Now vulnerable, alone, true.
Unthinking choices constructed of old assumptions
Throw an image at the sky.
With nothing to project upon
The night eats her illusion,
The shimmering stars empty and hollow.

Open the door, walk inside
The furnishings are absent
The pictures of her past life are shadows frozen in frames.
The walls are gone,
The beams are rotten.
Standing on the floor now standing on the earth.
Inside the house is the forest.

Charging blindly onward
The thorns tear at flesh.
Stepping carefully backward
The soft under-side of the leaf
Caresses the nape of her neck.

She turns about and the forest is gone.

Who is now is not who was,
She tells herself.
Confuses herself.
Scared she does not know
She weeps.

The tears are not.
She does not wipe them.
They roll off her face
Fall away to the earth.
Dry salt upon her lips.

The silence behind the tears
The quiet behind the eyes
Choicelessly watching the air pass over her wet
Now dry and flaky.
Her face falls away
Shedding skin, shedding body.
Molting in the moment.

The space around blurs
As she expands into it.
She touches and becomes,
Breathes and is.
Not doing what she did,
Only doing what she does.

Pale starlight fills her.
She fills the sky.


03 July 2011

Shiver me Limbs!

The end of June, 2011.

I meet Phil in the early morning hours after buying some fruit and fried breads. We cruise through the already bustling streets en route to our bus, which will take us up to 三关口 (Sanguankou) our climbing destination for the morning. We arrive at our stop, and entertain a number of taxi drivers and pedestrians by our mere presence. They quickly endeavor to assess our equipment, its integrity, and how much it cost us. Hands begin passing over bike frames, checking the suitability of the padded seat, honking horns and ringing bells, gauging the value of each item as if they were preparing to auction it off in a few minutes time. Several men cycle through to lift and assess the weight of each (conveniently undertaken after we’ve already taken off our panniers). 不太重 (bu tai zhong), “not too heavy” is the verdict.
Phil and I prep the bikes to go under the bus, which he informs me may not happen at all if the driver is feeling particularly prickly that morning. Seats down, wheels off, bags off; all amidst the constant banter and questioning of our audience. They want to know where we’re going, what we’re doing, what everything cost, if we’re married. We try to keep track of our dismantled components in the crowd, all the while trying to put back a 包子 (baozi) or two, steamed buns with a variety of filling. This morning I went with the 韭菜 (jiu cai) a garlicy oniony vegetable that’s quite tasty.

My buddy Richard and my bikes on the road.
The bus screams up and the ticket lady ambles off  to appraise the situation. Phil and I quickly dive under the bus, rearranging all the luggage to suit our needs. Ticket lady laughs as I sprawl prone in the belly of the beast, shuffling this bag there and that sack there. Soon we establish a sizable alcove and stack our bikes underneath. We leave our peanut gallery on the sidewalk to harangue the next passing 外国人 (waiguoren), foreigner, that passes by, of which there are few in the city of 1.5 million.

On the road, we settle sleepily into our seats, passing idle chat and the remaining 包子 between our teeth and along our tongues. Phil regales me with harrowing adventure tales of gnarly whitewater and flipped kayaks in the Alps, round-the-world airport scrambles, and a Guatemalan bus station that defines the word chaos. I enjoy the tales as the 贺兰山 (helan shan), Helan mountains, climb into sight, capped in cloud.

The 西夏王陵 (xixia wangling), Xixia tombs, one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions pass into view on the scrub plain. Mausoleums constructed over a thousand years ago to safely encapsulate some dead ruler or another, the earthen beehives are a stark contrast to the surrounding flats (“a pair of muddy nipples,” according to Phil). I watch them float by against the overcast backdrop as the bus banks westward to the mountains.

Standing atop the Great Wall at sunrise.
Soon we pass through the old Great Wall, stamped earth that has lasted since the Ming Dynasty constructed it in these far western reaches of their empire seven hundred years past. And then we are off the bus, in a cold gusting wind blasting down from the mountains. Clad in shorts and t-shirts, us mountain hardy fools neglected to bring much of anything warm. To add to the fun, the clouds are descending upon us, and drops begin to fall from the sky. We smile stupidly and hop on our steeds.

The headwind is large, and we could walk faster than we are pedaling. With only a couple kilometers to go before turning off the pavement, we bend our heads into the breeze and will our legs to work. They fight back. They refuse. Muscular mutiny. And I just fed them! Ungrateful bastards.

At our wash winding out of a steep canyon, we turn onto the sharp cobbles and debris and pedal shakily past goats, sheep, and a farmer/shepherd before finally dismounting when pebbles turn to boulders. Lock the bikes to a tree, grab our bags, and we’re off!

Dodging a few rocks kicked down on us from the local fauna, we wind up canyon around sharp dry bends in the river bed and arrive at our cliff. Phil’s crag is quite nice, being so close to the road and rather accessible. He and his compatriots are likely the only hands and feet to have scaled this wall, and he affectionately tells me how he has named several of the climbs after a busty friend’s cleavage and crack.
Sunset east of the Yellow River.
The hike up has warmed us, but it is by no means comfortable. The warmth quickly evacuates our bones as we harness up and eyeball the wall. I offer to lead a climb, and am soon awkwardly scaling a crumbly, dusty crack with two questionable pieces of gear, sharp rock, and dirt in my eye. I love it. As I pull out of the dihedral on broken rock, with little behind me that would remotely catch a fall, I am shakily reminded how and why I love climbing so much. I slowly set up an anchor at the top and peer back down at Phil, still belaying me, and wrapped in a brilliant neon pod from head to toe. Ordinarily functioning as a waterproof cover for his bike packs, he has converted this blindingly bright shell into a kind of cocoon, and looks quite happy about it. Dancing around in the canyon bottom, trying to stay warm, with a huge shit-eating grin on his face, I can easily see how he and I would naturally become good friends.

A bit more grabbing and high-stepping later (technical terms for climbing), and it’s raining. Sideways. The wind is now punching across the mountain side, left hook, right jab, right up my shorts. We decide it might be a reasonable time to head home. So we scramble back down the slippery rock to assemble our gear and say goodbye to the crag for the day.
Camp along the Great Wall.

We wheel our bikes back to the road, mount up and begin our initially slow roll down the hill. Phil crams the last of his 包子 into his cockpit and we begin to pick up speed. The drenched asphalt could have bred concern of hydroplaning, but instead Phil and I glimpse an opportunity of reduced friction to go as fast as we possibly can to get the hell down to some warmer pastures. Whirring wheels and water sailing through the air accompanies our rapid acceleration to 60 kmh as we play leap frog with freight trucks coming down from the mountains.

The air warms rapidly and we are soon too hot. Back in the flats we resume casual conversation as we pedal toward a noodle joint for some sustenance for our ride back to 银川, Yinchuan, our home. All in a good morning’s fun.
P.S. As usual, I forgot to take photos this trip, so the photos posted are from a cycling trip a couple weeks prior.