Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Papers: Robert Louis Stevenson



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

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

Monday, May 07, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Sunday Papers: Robert Byron


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

– First Russia, then Tibet (1933)


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

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman XII


May 25, 2003

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman XI


May 23, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, April 23, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman X


May 22, 2003

Sat up front for the ride to Paro, through scenery reminiscent of northern New Mexico, with long red valleys over rushing water and high pine hills.  Passed three chortens built at a confluence, a temple with a large cave below, and a house, high up on a hil.  A new house was being built at remote twist on the river.  A couple of funny signs, one saying, "Leave early, arrive early,"  one sped bump looking like a swollen anaconda, and "Wang's Wood."

We drove down Paro's wild west main drag, over the bridge and up the hill to the museum built above the Dzong and formerly acting as its watchtower.  A curved building, we started near the top and wound our way downhill through the seven floors.  Some of the walkways were crooked and rickety.  At the top was a temple with a 3D mandala of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.  There was a large collection of Bhutanese stamps.  In the basement were a variety of weapons, some incredibly long.  The clothes too were beautiful, their patterns getting more elaborate over the centuries.  perhaps the Buddhas were most impressive, in varied sizes, types, and materials.  One Shaka was winking.

I finished my visit early, so I sat on a grassy area and looked at Paro below, its density lessening up the valley, until it was just a few houses whose white walls winked in the sun.  Down the hill to Paro Dzong.  No much going on, probably lunchtime.  In the temple, a couple dozen young monks sat in front of their prayer books, swaying and chanting.  I sat in the back and closed my eyes to meditate.  More monks must have come in during that time because the sound began to build and strange harmonies developed.  A very profound experience.  Out in the courtyard, a cat was playing around a small stupa, teaching its kitten a few things about life.  On a veranda nearby, a few monks were painting mandalas. One tried to hide a magazine when he saw me walk up.

After a delicious lunch in town, we drove up to Kyichu Lhakhang, identical to Jambay Lhakhang in Jakar, except much smaller.  Repeated was the lazt western feel, of dusty courtyards, shade trees, and people slowly working through manual labor.  A monk chased a cat out of the main room, and showed us the four beautiful statues of Chenrezig, with incredibly detailed arms.  All the figures were beautiful and all seemed to grow quieter.  One person had apparently been so moved that there were foot indentations from all the prostrations.  The figures in a small antechamber had amazing power.  One Shaka seemed to be crying.  The front of Manjushri was blackened with the years.  Another figure seemed to be tilting.  A cloth wheel hung above the altar, spinning continuously from the heat of the flame below.  Walking back into the the bigger room on shifting floorboards, I found a quiet spot to sit awhile, in front of colored pinecones.

We entered another room across the courtyard.  Here was a room for Thangtong Gyalpo (?), his statue placed to the left of the enormous two-story Guru Rimpoche.  To the right was a picture of his reincarnation, the young boy we met last week.  We performed a small service, me in front of an elephant tusk, near the foot of Guru Rimpoche, nearly as big as me.  As I chanted I looked up at him, sunlight streaming through a spiderweb onto his forehead.  As we meditated I began to cry.  Why?  From the remaining energy of the boy lama?  I can;t figure it out.  But as we came out, sun streamed into a small valley further up the mountain.  As I spun prayer wheels along the temple's walls, my eyes kept going to that place.

On to Chhoeten Lhakhang, a hallowed out pagoda of a type I'd seen the last two days.  This one had no light inside sothe detail and color of the paintings was astounding.  The blues in particular really jumped out.  We walked the rounded center, up two more floors on rickety stairs, incredibly steep and shifting with each step.  A brilliant Chenrezig was in the doorway.  

I walked the kilometer or so back to town.  In the river, a few kids were swimming and an old woman washed clothes in the faster parts.  The area stank of manure, but as two girls walked by, I got a quick whiff of chewing gum.  i walked up the main street, looking in shops not unlike those in Thimphu.  Row after row of general stores.  Two young dogs frolicked in a dusty parking lot, and I ducked into a cafe for a coffee.  There was a cute nepali girl behind the counter, who had an endearing head wobble.  Western music played from somewhere.  Three Indian guys flirted with the girl. They seemed to be laborers, their sweet spicy scents filling the shop.  I drank my coffee to the sound of three languages mingling.  

I walked back up the street. Two monks left a temple at the edge of town.  A dog slept in the median.  Another dog, ravaged with mange and with crusty ears, shivered toward death. People spun prayer wheels mounted before a shop without breaking stride.  Young mothers carried babies in a sling on their back, their older children playing nearby.  Old women sat on the sidewalk working their malas.  Indian women wearing sari as they gossip in the shops.  Young men take their gho from their shoulders.  A puppy tries to follwo its mother across the street but gets scared back by a truck.  A girl gets smacked by her mother and howls.  Two tens kick a soccer ball up and down the street.  Men play some board game in a back alley.  A drunk sleeps it off.  An old guy holds court in a park.  Dogs roam in gangs.  Himalayan peaks peek through the clouds, down upon all.

We drive up ti the hotel which sits atop a high hill.  from my balcony I can look up the valley to Tibet.  I think I see Tahksang atop a mountainto my right, its whiteness fading with the light.  in the valley below, some kids play soccer in front of a small sapartment building.  A boy on the next ridge does his homework at a picnic table.  His friend calls down from a trail across the valley.  The hill in front of me is cut with trails, nearly treeless.  Prayer flags wave from the crest.  A woman, her son and white dog come out of a house on the ridge and walk toward more lights further up.  Three women move slowly up another trail, carry loads nearly as big as they are.  I sip tea and listen to the river far below.  Magic...


On the turntable:  The Del Fuegos, "The Longest Day"


Saturday, April 21, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman IX


May 21, 2003

Had a bath to take the edge off last night's headache.  Terrible breakfast, nothing out, or prepared, everything cold.  This hotel has no character, like a chain.  Last night, the front clerk got snooty with some Nepalese.  Despite that, this morning I am surrounded by posh English accents.  The best hotel in town they say. 

We go to the Memorial Chorten, very similar to yesterday's temple, with a 3D mandala for body, speech, and mind.  In fact, it will probably look like this in 50 years.  The carvings, as ever, are exquisite.  One figure, under foot, had such a pathetic look on its face.  Clarke told of a gay Naropa student who made a yab-yum mandala.  A vase contained fake flowers with plastic drops.  One small figure was wrapped in newspaper.  Outside, townspeople would circumambulate three times on their way to business.  

We had a coffee and Berliner at the Swiss Bakery before going to the Dzong.  We couldn't enter since the king was there, so we went to his house instead.  It was alongside a river with a long, low Japanese wall and Chinese gate.  Beyond this, cows grazed among the trees.  I half expected the wall to hide archers.  A single rock stood before the wall with a clear outline of Fudo Myo-O, or so I thought.  I guess I've been looking at too many thangkas.  

We spent the rest of the morning going to thangka galleries.  Beside one, students were rebuilding the art school, working hard at working little.  After lunch (With uninspired waiters.  Even a city this small has attitude problems), we rousted a tailor on his day off to mount our thangkas.  Then I was free!

I walked along the broken main street of Thimphu, the concrete being smashed by Nepalese workers with sledgehammers and poles.  One young boy was trying it out.  I popped into a few shops, and down along side alleys.  There seemed to be a fair amount of Indians working some shops.  Here and there were small booths big enough for one, and usually there was a beautiful woman inside.  And of course some young Romeo was out front in his best gho.  Up the entire length of the city, the shops seemed to repeat themselves, the same seven types again and again.  I popped in when something caught my eye, often surprising the shopkeeper.  Women walked down the street carrying babies, and kids in identical uniforms walked home from school.  

I walked to the end of town, then followed some side streets back, passing small modest homes and a few multi-story structures with laundry drying over the balconies, and people hanging from the windows, gossiping.  I ran into Dorjee briefly, then went back to the Swiss Bakery for coffee.  I lingered awhile, and in that short time, three groups of people came, ate and drank quickly, then left.  

I went back to my hotel, passing Dorjee in his car.  From the window of my room I could see both archery and soccer in the feilds below.  Near the target, eight girls were cheering their heroes by doing a dance with identical steps.  Later, I went out to the plaza in front of our hotel and chatted with some kids doing Jackie Chan moves on each other.  Dorjee and driver Karma were sitting on another bench, getting their fortunes told by a sadhu-looking character. 

Dinner was at Karma Wangmo's place, a typical Asian middle class home, packed with photos, souvenirs, etc.  She laid out an incredible amount of food and drinks.  Karma's son, a tulku, was playing a wrestling video game with his cousin.  As we ate, the TV was on in the background, and I saw footage of our actual plane landing over a week ago.  The program was highlighting a the official visit of the president of the World Bank.   After dinner, I tried on one of Karma's husband's gho, and incredibly tight traditional shoes.


On the turntable:  Illinois Jacquet, "The Complete Illinois Jacquet Sessions 1945-1950"