Thursday, March 03, 2005

On my way home

Tomorrow I lug myself and all my crap to the airport and start the long journey home. It's a good feeling, calm and largely unaffecting. I've run out of money, I've collected too much stuff to carry, I don't want to repeat my name, country, state, occupation, how long I've been traveling, how my trip has been, or my political affiliation once more. And I'm tired of haggling for cheap tuk-tuk rides. Yes, it's time to go.

The simple pleasures of home are calling me--or is that my parents? Both, I suppose. I'm looking forward to my own bed in my own room, cooking some food exactly as I like it, and speaking to friends I've known for more than a day, or a week.

Despite these personal homecomings, I'm struggling with what it means to return to my country. While, on the one hand, I'm relieved to reenter the land I've grown up in and culture with which I'm most familiar, I feel a bit ambivalent about the implications of returning...

Notes from my self-absorbed, triumphant last journal entry (listen for the blaring trumpets toward the end):

Travel abroad, if anything, teaches one so much about their own country--it's fears, customs, idiosyncracies. I'm not looking forward to the monied and politically allied news, the fast-moving freeways, the general level of paranoia, the sprawling cars and sprawling cities, impatience, arrogance, and empty sidewalks.

Although life in every country I've been to has been different, with class, gender, tradition, and circumstance playing huge roles in one's attitude, there are some cultural characteristics that have held true everywhere, which I think we could greatly learn from. Namely,

A widespread reliance on bikes and motorbikes;
a less demanding insistence on personal space and comfort;
more rice in the diet;
smiling without provocation;
respect for one's elders;
acknowledging the inherent value in afternoon tea with friends and family.

On the other hand, I really look forward to returning to a culture with a defined and respected notion of privacy; a culture with an informed understanding of basic hygeine (i.e., cockroaches aren't food); a culture with profound resources and possibilities.

Really, the one thing I really look forward to is reuniting with my family. I feel incredibly lucky to have, and to have recognized the basic goodness of, mine. After that, I giggle nervously at the tthough of reuniting with the passionate, smart, loving people I've made friends with in the past few years. What a group: poets and athletes, students and professors, activists and musicians. All of them working hard to do whats best for their lives, for their friends, and for the world--an inspirational bunch.

And even though my attitude about my culture in general is ambivalent, it created all these wonderful people, and it bore my ability to have the experiences I've had; for that I am grateful. Because I came from it, was molded by, and seen off into the larger world, I now feel a responsibility to take an active part in continuing to shape it for the better; to expand what it means to be an American.

Despite the glamorous, contented life of so many expatriates, despite a president hellbent on continual war, despite the Patriot Act I & II, and despite the freeway races, I look forward to returning home to the people and the opportunities I have grown to love. I accept the challenge of reframing my role as a global citizen living in a powerful country, staying mindful, dissenting when needed, and smiling unprovoked.



(Now if only those damn democrats would stop screwing up our perfectly good wars. I know I need to respect my elders, but hey, that one was asked for. wink wink)

Sunday, February 27, 2005

My last few days in Laos

On the bus to Vang Vien, I met a Dane named Hanukke who was also traveling alone, and who was also uninterested in tubing drunk down the river lining the approaching town, which is what everyone seems to go there to do. We decided to stick together and steer clear of the drunken heathens by going kayaking instead. After much deliberation, we choose a canoe trip down the Nam Ik river, which would eventually pop us out near Vientiane, the capital of Laos and the place we needed to be.

The trip was mellow. I'm sunburnt and my arms are sore.

Now I'm in Vientiane, the last stop before heading back to Thailand, and then, home. By now, I feel at ease with the traveling process--funny it should come right before my trip ends. Maybe that's why it's here. I don't know. I just know that my patience is good, my pace is slow, and my worries are few. I'm not overly interested in getting anything done, on seeing any sights, or fretting about how to spend my time. I'm at peace with slowing down and eventually, lifting off.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Thoughts on Nationhood and Walking

Laos isn't really known for much. I'd say what attracts travelers, besides the cheap eats and friendly folks, is the natural scenery, virtually untouched by the steel hand of industrialization.

I wanted to go a bit deeper into the countryside, and get off the main path of the 1-week-in-Laos traveler (I've got an impressive two). I ended up heading north to Nong Khiew, a sleepy mountain village bordering the Ou river. The electricity is sparse and the only running water, while I was there, was the river itself.

Mexai guesthouse, advertising "you are always welcome with us" on big yellow signs, proved good enough for my needs. My upstairs room boasted one hard double bed and a huge mosquito net, as well as a window opening up to views of the surrounding hills, all for a mere two bucks a night.

There was little to do in Nong Khiew, besides lie on the beach of the river and let local children show off their English to you. You could swim; you could read a book; you could drink beer Lao. I managed all three, but not at once.

There was, however, some really fantastic caves about 2km from the village. The walk there provided something out of a travel photographer's Asian fantasies: bamboo huts on stilts standing in the middle of hedged crop fields, women balancing two water buckets over their shoulders with wooden sticks, dramatic hills with limestone cliffs. The occasional villager would slowly pedal by on a barely functioning bicycle. Besides that, there was nothing but a whole lot of silence.

Silence helps when pondering things like war. The caves were used during the Vietnam war, although I never figured out if by the Americans or the Pathet Lao. There were some signs posted next to big craters in the ground, now overgrown with thick tropical foliage, where 800 pound American bombs were dropped.

I wrote that Laos was the most bombed country in history, but I didn't write that that designation reigned in 1973. I'm pretty sure it's been passed up by now by an oil-rich country in the Middle East, but I could be wrong on that one. One of the reasons it was so heavily bombed during the war, I read, was because Thailand wouldn't let the Americans land with a full load of bombs. So, after runs into Vietnam, our pilots would drop the extra load onto the Laos countryside.

It's really a trip to be in this area of the world, for many reasons, but most of all because recent history is quite tumultuous and hard to ignore. There was, of course, the Vietnam war, disastrous and dumb as it was (hey, did you hear we lost that one?). There was the genocide in Cambodia in the 70s, thanks to the Khmer Rouge, which was actually triggered by the Vietnam war, and ended in over two million deaths and massive displacement. The country's infrastructure, as well as its intelligentsia, doctors, teachers, and critical thinkers, were wiped out. Poof. Gone. China's recent 'Cultural Revolution' adds a bit of somberness to the region... and what else? Myanmar? Don't get me started.

One of the things I've realized since I've been here is how sheltered I've been from recent world history, and indeed, all news of life outside of the United States. I'm repeatedly embarrassed in conversations with Europeans, Australians, and even Canadians, by my lack of knowledge on the happenings in the world... whether it be about Gorbachev, Falun Gong, or cricket. Luckily, I've been catching up on a lot, and have gained an intense interest in all the things I should already know about. It really helps to give substance to things that, in the past, were only ideas.

While in Nong Khiew, I had dinner with a riotously funny mixed group of travelers, one of whom was an older been-round-the-globe sort of Dane. He was in Beijing in April 1989, and saw what happened in Tianenman square firsthand. Talk about a reality check. I've had meals with South Africans who speak of apartheid; learned about China's one-birth only policy from a spunky, drunk Chinese feminist; listened to Russian yuppies complain about the depressing state of Moscow. It's been good to learn.

I've read somewhere that only 14% of U.S. citizens have passports. I hope this isn't true.

One other benefit I've gained from being over here is perspective on wealth. I used to call myself a "poor student" or some other crap name because I was on food stamps, or I couldn't buy my friends a pitcher of beer at Pay N Take, or I wanted a new carbon fiber road bike and couldn't afford one. What a joke. Now, I feel incredibly lucky and priveleged to have things I once took for granted--a college education, a ton of books, a few bikes, not to mention the ability to up and fly around the world, even if it is a "budget" trip. Furthermore, having as much good food as I could possibly eat, and a warm home to sleep in every night, with electicity and running water, is very lucky. The rest of the world doesn't have all this.

Also, I've taken on a new appreciation for my health. India and Laos, especially, don't hide their sick and old folks away to make the scenery safe and comfortable for the rest of us. One thing that is so easy to forget is our own mortality and the fragility and fleeting nature of our bodies. Sometimes, when I'm sitting alone having breakfast, or out walking down a busy street, I slow down enough to feel myself breathing, and appreciate how nice it is to be able to stand up straight, to walk quickly and smoothly, to breathe with strong lungs. It really makes my worries about my unhip haircut or smog-induced pimples seem, well, ignorant. And futile.

Anyway. Long story short, it's good to travel and see these things. I highly recommend it.

To sum up the last few days, I headed back down to Luang Prabang for a night after getting enough of Nong Khiew. I really love the city--the French architecture, when mixed with traditional Lao homes, is really lovely. When I'd get tired of touring around on my bike, I'd head to this one alleyway in the middle of town where food vendors were hawking all sorts of gastronomic delights--pig faces, pig intestines, dried snakes, grilled fish, and a bunch of other gross crap I could barely look at. There's a "vegetarian food" stand, with 8 different sets of noodles, veggies, and rice to choose from, which you pile onto one plate and then the woman fries it up on a little wok and hands back to you for 50 cents. Mmmmm. I miss it already.

I left Luang Prabang for Vang Vien, or Ven Viang, I still don't know what its called. This is a backpackers dream town, that is if you like to sit around low-tabled cafe's and eat lots of pizza and pineapple pancakes while old reruns of 'Friends' are shown on the requisite big-screen in the front. I left after a day, but only after succumbing to a new movie called "The Incredibles", which kept me glued to the screen in drooling delight for a couple hours. It was really wonderful to step back into a safe little world of TV after being gone for so long. The whole experience is much more enjoyable when it's not a daily affair.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Mmmmmmmmmm

I've heard those who persevere long enough to make it to the middle of Laos are delighted with the payoff; once again rumour proves true. After a breakfast of fresh french bread (did I say colonialism was all bad? Naaaah) and ginger tea, I rented a sweet ladies cycle for $1 and rode around in pure bliss. It's been nearly five months since I've saddled up, and my body was nearly convulsing in the delights of a familiar high.

Me and my trusty one-speed cruised all over Luang Prabang, past ancient Buddhist temples, homes made of rotting wood and corrugated tin, and century-old buildings with colorful shuttered windows and stuccoed walls, courtesy of the French. We rode to the Nan Keng (I think that's the name of it) river and stopped to watch children playing under the thick gardens terraced onto the hillside... we rode to the banks of the Mekong where chubby Lao women with huge smiles sell freshly made fruit shakes for about 30 cents a pop... and we rode down the alleyways full of hidden suprises and renegade chickens.

I stopped at one temple to take a few snapshots with my cheap India-bought Kodak, and met a young monk trying desperately to learn English. After a half hour of trying to decipher his garbled notebook code, I gave up and waved goodbye. I did manage to get a picture of him in his bright orange robes, under this spreading tree with clusters of wispy orange flowers, next to this huuuuuuge statue of a golden standing Buddha under a heavily ornamented pagoda... I felt accomplished.

Now, when I go into Buddhist temples, I know how to behave. I silently giggle when I watch other foreigners go in and duck self-consciously, as if a head monk with a ruler is going to originate from behind the donation box and slap their praying fingers for not doing it right. I go in, prostrate three times, once each to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha (Buddha, teachings, and monks, respectively), and elicit curious stares from other Westerners wondering who the pompously self-assured one is. Hahaha.

So, this was my day. I took care of a bunch of little stuff that will prepare me to venture out further into the countryside; changing money, buying postcards, copying my grad app onto the internet. Oh yeah, did I mention that? Yet another benefit of being in a good mood, is getting stuff done. I wrote the 5-page essay this morning over breakfast.

And for dinner: some gooey sugar/cashew net contraption wrapped in banana leaf, with a side of the yummiest coconut pancakes imaginable... eaten on the sidewalk, watching Lao women selling their handicrafts and piles of tropical fruits... For now I can't complain.

Tomorrow I head to the Pak Ou, some limestone caves carved into the cliffside. I think there are some Buddha images/relics inside, but I really don't know. I just know I'm going at 8 in the morning, via slowboat, upriver to check out some curious sites. More on life in quiet, delightul Laos soon...

Thanks for tuning in.

Life and death along the Mekong

After I got tired of walking around Chiang Mai with a dumb happy smile on my face, I decided to get out of Thailand. My visa was to expire in a couple days, and I wanted to escape the glitzy expatriate centers of Northern Thailand. One long minibus ride later, I arrived in Chiang Khong, a border town where boats taking you down the Mekong to the heart of Laos originate.

I had heard that the slow boats were difficult; the seats were hard, the ride could be freezing, and you're cramped in with too many oversized Austrailians looking to fill up on Beer Chang for the 8-hour journey. I wasn't really prepared for just how cramped the space, and how hard the seats, but my meditation high has continued long enough to keep me patient amidst a bunch of grumbling, hypersensitive 3-week backpackers.

Ten hours of floating down the Mekong could have been more glamorous on the first day; the scenery was blighted by a thick smog that wouldn't quite lift, and the passing speedboats marred the chill-out factor. Also, the drunk Ozzies were really quite annoying, and after a few hours of them running all over the boat screaming "fuck off" whenever we had to slow down for anything, I wanted to chime in with the sighs of the Thai drivers and other passengers.

It made arriving in Pakbeng, the midway point and our resting place for the night, that much more rewarding. A tiny village built right on the banked hills of the Mekong, Pakbeng had one street, no electricity (save what some industrious Laotians could squeeze from some generators), a bunch of wild squaking chickens, and enough good food and cheap rooms to house all of our tired and sore tushes. I fell asleep early in a small guesthouse room complete with a fan and mosquito net; I couldn't have been happier.

The morning brought a thick fog that settled into the Mekong valley and gave an extra eeriness to the roosters wake-up calls. I decided to take a walk as far up the one road as I could before breakfast, and ended up reaching a point where there were no other travelers, less homes than dense forest, and the Laotians were suprised to see me. Despite my solitary presence in a culture completely alien to me, my comfort was remarkable. I really felt at ease wandering around at dawn, nodding to the monks, murmuring "Sabai Dii" (greetings) to the children who shyly followed me.

After a breakfast of hot lime juice and sweet coconut in sticky rice ($1.50), I bundled up my bags and headed to the shore for another long day on the boat. My mood was good already, but I had to let a huge sigh of relief to see the boat for the second day was much bigger, we had bench seats to ourselves, and the Ozzies were too hungover to speak. Yes! Impermanence comes back for a kiss on the cheek.

The second day was beautiful. The fog lifted to show off impressive views of the hills cradling the river. When they weren't covered in terraced vegetable gardens next to villages, they were covered in lush green forest. I saw some of the hugest leaves this side of Hong Kong on some of those trees. Rocky outcroppings and sandy beaches where children would scamper down to wave at us passed by... as well as the needle boats boasting fisherman and slow banana boats heading upriver.

Laos is an incredibly beautiful country. It boasts one of the highest percentages of untouched forest in the world; indeed, I believe it's the least catalogued of all countries. It's not all peaches here, though: Laos also boasts, according to my Lonely Planet of 2002, being the most bombed country in history, thanks to that nasty little U.S./Vietnam skirmish a few years back. I hear death and disfigurement is high in the countryside due to still-working cluster bombs that children keep stepping on.

Speaking of children, four out of ten of them here are undernourished. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average yearly per capita income of about $260. Ever since France pulled its colonial fingers out of Indochina mid-century, and the country eventually turned into the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic its had a hard time finding income for its people--and I don't think the socialist government helps a bit.

Anyway. Like I was saying, the second day was beautiful. We did happen to float by a dead, bloated human body though. It awarded a few interested stares and some Lao people quietly talked among themselves for a minute and shrugged. I felt unaffected--partly, I think, because the realities of mortality became so evident in India--I saw numerous motorcycle accidents, disfigured bodies, and dead beasts--and partly because my understandings of the Buddhist teachings of impermanence had really sunk in during the retreat. Death is a necessary condition of having life, of having a body; we can't escape it, we might as well not hide from it.

To make a long story short, the rest of the trip was lovely, we all arrived in Luang Prabang ready for some hot snacks and soft beds, and we were greeted with a mellow little town of 16,000, the second biggest in the country. Welcome to Laos.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Meditating for Three Weeks

or

The Story of My Experiments With Truth

or

Staying Mindful despite an Assful of Pimples


No, really, its hard to try to be witty and light after undergoing such a huge, wonderful transformation. Now, I'm overwhelmed by the thought of explaining what just happened.

I'll try to keep it short. Doing so will not be giving justice to everything that has happened in the past 19 days, but I'm hungry, I don't want to be online, and I still have much to do here.

I was hesitant to do this course--especially for three weeks. Its hard to commit yourself to strict temple life when you have limited time in a big, beautiful country. To correct my previous posts, the schedule goes like this: wake up at 4, meditate, eat breakfast at 6, meditate, eat lunch at 11, meditate, talk to the teacher for 5 minutes, and meditate until 10. No sleeping during the day, no mindless talking, no food after noon (a real tuffie for me), no killing (even ants or mosquitos), no lying, gossiping, swearing, no divertification (meaning when you're in your room, you meditate... and when you're out of your room, you meditate).

Let me say that this was one of the most difficult times I've been through. Really, there were moments where I thought I was going crazy and there was no looking back. I went through stages of homesickness, anger, craving, self-hate, boredom, physical pain, and frustration unparalleled in daily normal life. Going through all this, though, and learning how to watch my reactions, watch my habitual responses, taught me so much about how my mind works and how certain patterns in my life keep repeating.

Vipassana literally translates into "to see clearly". That it did. Besides helping me to work through a bunch of personal crap that I've been struggling with for a lifetime, I saw clearly what I need to do with my life, at least for now. While in the middle of the retreat, I made a landmark decision to try to get into a certain grad program I've been eyeing for some time. This Fall. Whoa. A big deal, considering the application date has passed, I'm stuck in a temple in the middle of Thailand for another 10 days, and I'm not supposed to email, make phone calls, or write anything down. Talk about learning how to "stay present" the hard way.

It's okay though. The program I'm trying to get into is an M.A. in Contemplative Psychotherapy at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired school in Boulder, Colorado. In a moment of weakness I emailed the admissions counselor to learn that they still have space, but I need to get ON IT, fast. So that's what I'm doing, and that's why I have much more to do online. My confidence with this decision is strenthened daily, as the results of the meditation and mind-study become more and more evident. I haven't been this excited or even felt this right for a long time.

I don't know if I'll get in or not. It's a competitive, expensive program that I'm applying late for. I have no background in psychology. But I know applying is what I need to do right now; the results are nearly irrelevant. Its the decision, the energy, and the confidence that is teaching me now.

I have little else to say, for now. If there is one thing I can convey in this post, its that change, self-realization, clarity is always possible--we just need to know how to get there. I highly recommend everyone sign up for a Vipassana course, especially if you're in transition, depression, or feeling stuck.

I got out today. My relationship to the world, at least for now, is different. The smile on my face hasn't faded yet (although I know it will, as all things in life are up and down)--and it's been really, really good to experiment with how to relate to my surroundings.

Now, I think I head to Laos for a week or so. I'm tempted to go staight back into the 10-day Advanced Meditators course upon rearrival in Thailand, but because I have 3 weeks left and much application work to do, I'll probably hold off. Besides, it's really quite exciting to be out in the world, to learn how easy it is to relate to people and find magic in your surroundings when you stay present.

Peace to all of you. Thanks for reading. I'll update more soon.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Heavy breathing in Chiang Mai

I have a few hours before I strap my backpack on, catch a red taxi truck to the top of the hill outside of town, and walk the 300 steps up to the temple where I'll be stationed for the next 3 weeks. We'll see how long I last, waking up at 6 every morning for chanting, a light breakfast, a couple hours of meditation with the monks, lunch, and 10 more hours of individual meditation. For 21 days. Hehe, we'll see how that goes.

No blogging in between. Farewell for now, cyber comrades.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The circus of Th Khao San

Where to begin, where to begin.

Perhaps because I've just left a culture that demands so much attention, the differences in Thailand are striking. Partly its the tourists, partly its the Thai people, partly its the fashion and the lack of cows and beeping horns. To sum it up, I've been letting out one huge siiiiiiiiiigh at the ease of being here--a relief tempered only by a curiosity about why its so easy to be here; its not all natural, I don't think.

First, the tourists: for the first time in months, I'm surrounded by Americans and Canadians. I'm recognizing subtle cultural cues that set them apart: the Chaco sandals, the incessant "like" insertions, the pathetically unhip sense of style and determinedly practical sunglasses. There were so few North Americans in India, at least where I was at; I've heard that 95% of them are holed up in Sai Baba's or Amma's ashrams in the south, but I'm skeptical. The whole thing is puzzling to me--why do so many of my compatriots choose Thailand, but not India? I mean, yeah, it's easier, the tourist infrastructure is rock-solid, and theres more beach than stink, but... the numbers don't add up. I wonder if its something inherent in our culture, we're more afraid of the unknown, the dangerous, the ugly, or the unaffected.

Anyway, there aren't only North American tourists here, there's also a ton of Israeli's (not as many as in India, though), Germans, Italians, English, Dutch, Indian, Swiss, Japanese, Korean, among others I haven't met yet. Basically, there's just a ton of tourists. Sandwiched between the Von Dutch rip-off clothing stands and "Irish" pubs, travel agencies plaster their storefronts with pictures of idyllic beaches and mountain waterfalls, tour packages and scuba diving courses.

Today was the first time I've succumbed to an official guided tour on this trip, and I was quickly reminded of why my aversion to such activities is so strong. Packed into an aging minibus with 10 other foreigners, we lumbered along to the "floating market" on the canals of a small town southwest of Bangkok. It would have been great if it looked like the postcards did. You'd think, great, a bunch of Thai vendors selling each other mangosteen and cabbage out of their skinny boats, complete with their pointy hats and all the other stuff that makes the "Asian experience" . Nahhhh; think instead of tons of Thai vendors in their pointy hats pitching pre-packaged spice kits and teakwood elephant carvings to boatloads of tourists videotaping the event with their $500 cameras. Despite the mixed company, I had a hard time finding anyone who was as outwardly shocked and cynical about the whole thing as I was. There were NO Thai's there to buy and sell to each other; it was all for us. Like a great big frickin Disneyland ride, where you don't even have to get out of the cart to buy your mouse ears. What is it we're taking pictures of, people? Something that used to be; a phantom of the past. A relic of a culture that is learning to sell an idea of itself to the time-pressed foreign consumers with Orientalist dreams.

But I get ahead of myself. Besides the disapponting tour, I've enjoyed witnessing the whole spectacle. The street I've shacked up on really is a circus, complete with 24-hour Run DMC and Jack Johnson serenades, glittery cycle-taxis, spontaneous breakdancing troupes, open drinking, crossdressing prostitutes, shirtless and fat drunk Austrailan men, hordes of wandering and wide-eyed young backpackers, Pad thai stands, cocktail bars made out of old Volkswagon busses, and even a Spiderman suited freak intent on raising money for tsunami relief. The last few days has been some of the best people-watching of my life.

I met a few other people, and had two separate invitations to join them for travel; one, a Mike from Canada, probably as interesting as a "Mike from Canada" could possibly be, invited me to go fast with him on the island of Koh Chang; his friends, English teachers in Taiwan, were heading south for the legendary full moon party at Ko Phangnan, begged me to join in after they realized I can dance. I turned them both down, although I did have some great time wandering the streets with them, lost in the stomach-turning deliberation process I always have such a hard time with. An island of Ecstacy or an island of detox? hahaha, neither for me, thanks.

What else... I stumbled across this tiny jade museum in the middle of nowhere, and got an impromptu tour with an expert excited to show off his English skills. It was fascinating, and now I'm well versed on the intricacies of the stone. These are the things in travel I live for; the unexpected discoveries. I never thought I wanted to know about jade, but now I'm glad I know a bit. And if anything, it reminds me of all the little stuff that there is to learn about, the stories and knowledge we never bother to learn until it's stuck under our suprised and delighted noses.

Besides that, I've worn myself out walking to various temples, been shocked at the culinary tastes of Thai's (they eat scorpions, crickets and white wormy things that look like big roasted maggots), lost sleep due to the incessant techno outside my thin-walled guesthouse, and gotten massages (foot and thai) and spa services (face mask thingy) for about $2 an hour.

I think that's enough of an update for now. As a side note, Thai people are lovely, so I'm not suprised that Thailand is nicknamed the "land of smiles". Youth culture is fasionable and industrious, very few touts are aggressive, and there's soap in the bathrooms. Yes! Yes.