20 December 2014

On the Way to Buddha's Tooth


The day-long bone-jangling train ride to Kandy began in the morning with a puja for the opening of a new luxury hotel in Mirissa. The owners (who also ran our more modest tourist lodgings) gave us, the lone foreigners, first crack at the lavish buffet while the locals stood in dubious reverence, and the presiding monk droned on, and coconut palm shards flamed on the floor.

light at the end of the tunnelWhen Osnat and I had gobbled our fill of the world-class local curries, we had to grab the tuktuk driver away from his plate and the start of another puja session, to get us to the Matara station on time. We rode along the coast with its mostly undeveloped stretches of rose-red fine sand and gentle waves, to Colombo to catch the connecting train to Kandy, this one a faster one clacking furiously through the rice fields, and up into the hill country, through tunnels carved by British engineers (with their presumed hordes of slave laborers, Tamils from India) to deposit us almost train sick at the end in Kandy in the dark, at our own Majestic Hotel with its high ceilings, hot water, and meals at twice Mirissa prices for half the portions.

Temple of the ToothThis hotel is practically empty, its owner tells us, because tourists are afraid of violence around the upcoming election. He proceeds to fill us in on Sri Lankan politics. The ruling party is communist, and like a dictator the president has been eliminating opposition journalists with secret police, disappearing them. But the streets are clean, thanks to the 25,000 Rps fine for littering, with citizens encouraged to snitch on offenders.

The war (1983-2009) is over now, but in its midst, in 1998, 400 kg of explosives were detonated at the temple holding Buddha's tooth. The temple was restored, and today we are warned only to beware of the "road boys" (did he mean, "rude boys"?) prowling the temple environs who will perhaps try to rob us, or at least to sell us inflated tickets to the cultural drum and dance event.

The dogs with their barking kept us awake in the night. In the morning the buzz of the weedeater spoiled the sweetness of these ancient hills. We wrangled over the itinerary, legs of train connections, hypothetical busses, room bookings and cancellations, pickup arrangements for a botched computer, airport arrival, tour options for today and next week.

On the way to Buddha's tooth, many tuktuk* drivers called to us offering their services (*tuktuk: chainsaw engine on three wheels). We refused, and let it all go, glorying in the perfect climate, the days ahead to explore. Waltzing down the road to town, Osnat quipped, "This is heaven" - and promptly collapsed with a cry, stumbling over the broken pavement.

At the screening area in front of the temple, we failed the costume police, who wanted legs and arms covered. We reverted to town. Creepy guys stalked us, just as advertised. A trembling beggar sat hunched at Osnat's feet while she ogled a beach bag in a shop window. We milled with the crowds to the train station, bought two tickets we would never ride, like lottery options to possible worlds. In the 1840s hotel we enjoyed the best buffet ever, Sri Lanka riding to the top of the pack, yes better than Indian, Thai, Mexican or (almost) Italian cuisine.

Temple of the ToothPilgrims and tourists piled into the temple, eager to sit beside the elephant tusks [drum video], more imposing than any Buddha's tooth which in any event was secreted out of sight, perhaps no longer even on the grounds, if it ever was. Possessors of the relic held power through its veneration and their guarding of it, just as princes here once trained to capture and control wild elephants, thereby also to fill the populace with awe.

The dancers in the drumming show were similarly arrayed with gems and precious finery, to display the wonder of riches won through centuries of conquest, intrigue, patricide, slaughter. The lake in Kandy was excavated by the last monarch to rule before the British took over. That project was won at the price of a rebellion of local chiefs whose people were exploited to do the work, and put to death on stakes in the new lakebed for their resistance. The monarch had his way: until the British promptly arrived, to complete a conquest which neither the Portuguese nor the Dutch before them could manage. Talk about karma.

buddha in a boxElephant tusks, Buddha teeth, the worship of graven images everywhere, when the teacher himself counseled looking within to simple silence. Cases of books, the most ancient, collecting palm leaves laboriously scripted over centuries with the words and commentary of the master's messages. Could it be that complicated, that arcane? And after all, shielded behind glass - like the boxes Buddha sits in everywhere here, hermetic, zooed, specimened, packaged, his image preserved as he presumably was, once long ago.

On the way to Buddha's tooth, we faced all manner of device malfunctions. Osnat's tablet, bought just before leaving Victoria, suffered from trackpad and swipe malfunctions and more seriously, a failing capacity to charge. Her phone, also bought at a bargain price from eBay, was proving a lemon in every conceivable way. Her camera, its malfunctioning lens fixed only last spring in Dharamsala, now suffered a cracked screen and again malfunctioning lens, thanks to being dropped on the dock when departing our resort in Thailand. Everywhere we wrestled with faulty Internet connections, intermittent even with the router extender we'd brought along; and funky power adapters and cords, often too unwieldy to stay plugged in, with holes too tight or too loose.

For my part, my trusty laptop, once already having survived a brush with impermanence, a near-fatal fall to a tile floor in India, now suffered a critical system crash our last day in Thailand. Trying to complete a rush of editing jobs, I madly attempted to back up the data prior to a clean restore, holding the machine open for as long as power would permit in restaurant, taxi, dentist office and airport. At the final step in our dumpy hotel in Colombo, I botched the restore, my backup CDs failing to read, so resorted to a trip to Osnat's tablet service center for help. Amid abortive attempts to resolve her issues, they restored my system in a few hours.

While waiting, we found a shop to handle her camera repairs, and another shop to fix her phone. Never mind the virus that got transferred via the phone's memory chip to her backup files on my computer; or the fact that her data and phone service still didn't work. At least we had one working computer, camera and phone between us. In Kandy we would finally get my own camera repaired, with its own lens problem, and someone to figure out that her phone just needed, go figure, her passport number.

Patience, grasshopper.

violent filmsI divert my attention from ancient artifacts to current events, now that digital access has been restored. In the face of abiding compassion for all sentient beings, the next world war looms: another proxy deception, all of Congress hoodwinked in the bargain with the devil, clearly the military-industrial-financial matrix. We live in a mafia world ruled by Pigmen (not to be confused with pigment). No corner of global commerce untouched, this glutton of mass control holds sway over the mainstream trunk of human society, and like the mighty elephant the natural human species goes down in chains.

Here in the heart of the old kingdom of Kandy, where the imperial British before came to run their operations, I sit after a long sleep, reflecting in turn on the dominant paradigm of this private life, in its current mode, the domestic and rather bourgeois life of the traveling couple. Spending untold hours researching accommodations, deciphering train and bus schedules, packing and unpacking, sitting in restaurants waiting for meals...

The literary self, finding itself in a personal cold war, lobbies for independence and freedom, wants to conquer all to its domain, reform the corrupt world to truth and reconciliation, and to do so, slash and burn the warm company of a lover, set the clock to rise from the connubial bed, get to work. To close the heart and focus the eyes on its demented array of symbols... like the monks of old hunched over their bloody parchments, exorcising their demons in the form of another mass deception, religion - a created universe of meaning, morals, menacing gods, frightful acts of vengeance and judgment; enforcing hierarchy, demanding discipline, giving all to God... Is such also the mammon of literature, the dream of success, the artful constructions of the otherwise mortal human ego?

Ego and empire alike seek no compromise, in whatever realm - from bedroom to bookroom to boardroom - but utter dominion.

What is truth? In the making, an enterprise of scribbling, digits tapping on plastic squares, light emanating from a screen of silicon. To such truth are all the masses now mesmerized across the world, fixated on apps and entertainment, the chitter and chatter of social buzz to keep distracted from the life around, to forget the pollution and poverty and corruption, to dance in the aisles of frivolity, to render useless and impotent the politics of the street. By occupying nothing, one survives, for a while, pushed to the margins of the wage slavery society, content to play the pyramid racket of crumbs from the table of the elite.

Our hotel owner has given us a glimpse of his ambitious president, not alone corrupted in the political world by his very own power, and like all suffering souls driven, unhappy, addicted; conflicted even at the top of the heap by the base human desires taken to excess and glut, at the expense of others. Once on that wheel of self-perpetuating power, never satisfied to return to the common humanity the owner himself now settles for, with "enough money, enough to eat, and simple life" with his wife.

Thus does this observer of buddha-nature sit in judgment in a rented room on a hill in the old kingdom, ranting and ruminating, stewing over his own choices and the fate of the world.

reclining Buddha

On the way to the botanical garden, we were accosted by a tuktuk driver just outside our hotel. Our plan was to walk to the park, then hire a driver for 500 Rps to take us to the gardens. This driver offered us a package deal of 1500 Rps for botanical garden, elephant orphanage, herb and spice gardens, and tea factory, 3-4 hours, 35 km. Finally rested and refreshed with a long sleep, we were vulnerable, said sure, let's do it. Smelly exhaust, shabby roadside shops, traffic on the narrow roads, we stopped at a fruit stand and stocked up with pomelo, watermelon, papaya, avocado, bananas, three bags full.

marketOn to the tea factory for a tour there, and a cup of orange pekoe with jaggery; but then the elephant orphanage was not the one we were looking for, the main one, rather a smaller one where you could ride and wash the elephants paying 2000 Rps each. Forget it, we said. The larger one was much farther, cost 2500 each. On to the herb and spice farm, just down the road. Again a disappointment, the same tour we had already in Unawatuna, with the pricey dispensary at the end and a hard sell. I skipped out early, back to wait by the tuktuk and read on Kindle till Osnat was done. More fumes and chuggery ride back toward Kandy, we stopped for lunch, at a fancy hotel with a grand view and a deluxe buffet for 850 Rps each. In this spot all the sins of the road and the day were forgiven, the price to pay for unexpected grace and grounding. Back to the road-grind, however, it was two o'clock by the time we passed the botanical garden and, finding again that the price of admission was 1100 Rps each, and already in the heat of the day, burnt out from the ride and from the aimless adventure, we passed on this last, and our first objective of the day.

"Just flowers and trees," the driver said.

He dropped us off at the hotel, disgruntled that we refused his offer to tuk us to Dambulla the next day, a two-hour drive each way, for 4000 Rps. And drove away with our three bags of fruit still sitting behind the passenger seat, in a box, atop his three bottles of vodka.

We ride to Dambulla in relative comfort, in an air-conditioned minibus, plying the same crowded roads through towns for half the route, dodging oncoming traffic, nearly ramming into startled pedestrians. Along the way, strange graffiti of signs:

Red Sea Restaurant

Y2K Gypsum Board

Who flies not high, falls not low

Bob Marley: Don't forget your past

On the bus, Osnat converses with a local psychiatrist. Jung, he says, a Swiss Jew, became a Buddhist and mystic after a near-death experience. A Jungian scholar I know has informed me that for Jung the Temple of the Tooth was "his temple."

For myself, I'm becoming brain-dead riding these tacky thoroughfares, finding no inspiration on the side of the road. Not content to dissolve my ego desires for the sake of the pilgrimage, I mourn the loss of five hours of travel for a half hour of sightseeing atop a long flight of stone steps, to take snapshots of the ancient relics of a bygone age.

Golden Temple

Finally we arrive at the kitschy Japanese Golden Temple and fake cave. The theme park version of Dambulla fronts the foot of the real thing, which may have been kitsch enough in its own day, centuries before. And yes, it still impresses: lavish art in five caves, reclining gold Buddhas, dozens of carved statues sitting along the cave walls, ceilings covered with innumerable more saints and boddhisattvas, amid assorted stupas and a few kings.

Maybe it was all worth it, just to gawk. And breathe, relax, accept. There is no ivory tower, no sacred cave for literature, or even saintly meditation; those old caves have been filled with gilded buddhas now, to be captured endlessly by streams of tourists from around the globe, flickering in and out like fireflies.


27 November 2014

Back to the Tropics: Arriving

Waking together in our Bangkok guesthouse this morning, I use my companion's washcloth glove to scrub my smelly feet. She carves papaya while I shave.

A random bird cuts through the urban noise like a revelation--unusual in this buzz of motorbikes, laundry women, taxi men, whirring fans. There is nature somewhere around, beyond or even in this sweep, sweep, sweep of the broom on packed dirt and concrete.

We untangle cords to charge our multiple devices--two phones, a tablet and a laptop, Kindle and iPod, all promising slick neuronic bliss of continual stimulation, but in reality balky, glitchy, imperfect machines of human striving. All of yesterday I attempted to get my cellular data plan working, in the end remembering the clinching move, reboot. The tablet fails to download transmissions from afar, with dodgy local Internet. The 5-star hospital, where we went to take advantage of tests on a budget, proves incapable of even the most basic step, logging in to their WiFi system. My laptop limps along with its open wound in the upper right corner, now duct-taped; its mouse and trackpad spotty, temperamental (solution: reboot).

When last here in 2008 I spent a fruitless day in Bangkok, more days on the island of Koh Phangan, wrestling with a failing device, a Blackberry, trying to squeeze a data plan out of it, to enjoy the best of both worlds. Then, too, eventually I managed to make it work, enough to check email and transfer documents. All my flood of recent business has been Asian, having finished the last big job upon leaving BC for a client in Victoria. After addressing Cowichan sweater appropriation in the Vancouver Olympics, I've been handling gender issues in street protests in Taiwan; kidney organ transplants; an application to a doctoral program in biostatistics; the pros and cons of globalization. A Korean student is praising the notion of playing with a Samsung in New Jersey. My last day on Koh Phangan back in 2008, I ran into a friend from Victoria, who handed me a hardcopy manuscript he needed an editor for. Swim globally, edit locally.

Technology, our savior and bane. The film on the plane, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, explores the topics expertly, tying together issues of good and bad motivations within each camp; impulses of revenge, bloodlust, personal glory and power, loyalty to family and tribe; animal nature and humanity, brutality and kindness. How to trust, ultimately, "the works of man"?

Yet I continue, typing on this machine of glory and doom, widening the circle of connection and inclusion, of investigation and distraction. The breath continues, bringing always the bottom line of what's real to the fore. Refusing to delve too much into mind matters, theories, prevarications.

On to the beach! One last item to buy, decent coffee to take for our week's retreat on the remote island of Koh Wai. Our bus and ferry tickets secured, we bypass the street markets and head to the tourist haven of Khaosan road, find an upscale café in a back alley run by a young Korean woman, and score 300 grams of fine Thai highland grind. Elated by our free sample espressos, we call this grace and serendipity "being in the flow."

* * *

Koh WaiHard lessons today, en route to the island, in social propriety, trust and self-righteousness. Losing, in the process, my illusions about the well-oiled operations of Thai tourism, and of my own judgment in a pinch.

Arriving on the bus at Center Pier for a connection to the Laem Ngop pier, skies are balmy and our spirits are high. But the agent at the ticket desk, a portly, self-possessed Thai woman, informs us that there is a storm and our speedboat isn't running. We will have to divert to Koh Mak or Koh Chang instead for the night, a room arranged for 3-400 Baht, and take the connecting ferry from there tomorrow, another 400 Baht.

I nod, sure, no problem.

Holding up the line of backpackers bound for Koh Chang, Osnat protests: this is outrageous, we already have a room booked for the night in Koh Wai, we have paid in full to go there today!

The agent is adamant, there is storm, storm, storm madam.

I intervene, telling Osnat to sit down, calm down, I will deal with it, it's okay. Apologizing to the agent, saying no problem, we go next day, we take the other room and ferry.

Osnat demands my phone to call our resort. At first I refuse, will not speak to her or listen, until she can cool her jets... Like shutting my three-year-old daughter in her room, until the tantrum ends. Or the New World Order saying you play by our rules or we will marginalize you, brand you terrorists, wipe you out--the message of the movie on the bus, made from a Stephen Hunter political thriller. The others in the waiting room are giving me the eye. Why me?

A few more calls to the resort, and it becomes apparent that the speedboat is indeed running from Laem Ngop, there is no storm. I pull back my extra ferry payment from the desk, but am told again, still, we will have to take the detour. So I take out the phone to call once more to the resort to reconfirm, and at last the agent capitulates: Okay okay, speedboat run today, you go speedboat to Koh Wai, taxi take you now to Laem Ngop.

What was the deal? Not enough passengers, they were trying to cancel our booking with a bogus excuse? We give thanks, at least, to my working phone, providing the last word from the destination resort.

It appears Osnat was right all along, at least in her suspicious instincts bred in the Middle East, and I betrayed her with my alliance with the scammer, for the sake of my Anglo propriety, good solider. Not wanting to create a scene, I played my own role of sheepish complicity to the hilt. Not wanting to credit my partner's exaggerated perception of a problem, or worse, deception, I tagged her response as problematic. Only later recognizing, with humility, my own gullibility and rush to judgment.

After discussing all this in the morning, coming to forgiveness and resolution, we soften and walk by the jade water and white sand, on the jungle path to a private cove, and rest under the palms, content.

* * *
The storm finally arrived last night, blowing hard and raining steady, with lightning flashing in the distance over the mountains, thunder rolling. This morning the calm waves lap to shore once more, the crickets providing the constant soundtrack. Before coming awake I dreamed of a symphony of shakers.

We settle in chairs on our veranda, no neighbors on either side, the gorgeous scenery all to ourselves, the perfect sandy beach, the warm water... What more could we want? Nothing like this, right by the ocean, even in Maui. Bungalow by the sea, the dream of every bourgeois, complete with personal harem of, okay, skip the drama, one lover.

The tour boats come throughout the day to the Koh Wai Pakarang (Coral) resort, delivering their zoos of tourists from France, Russia, Germany, Australia, Britain, the US. We hang like locals, or notice it's all relative as we skirt the more remote Koh Wai Paradise next door, with its chummy expats settled in for the winter in their $200-a-month wooden shacks with no electricity. One of them, wide and shapeless, wanders down the sand, stepping but going nowhere, slow. Another, a scrawny and stooped golem, creeps over the rocks at the end of beach.

* * *

Each day we mess with the jumble of cords, in digital limbo, a severe case of device-itis. The router extender teases with its marginal boost in bandwidth, while the primary Internet feed in the resort's restaurant plays us like a yo-yo, on and off, on and off, leaving us unconnected. Nothing much else to do here but loll in the turquoise water, imagine. Power cord number three bites the dust, no matter. The waves lap at sunset, another day gone by, and it's not even Mercury retro, or is it, we can't even know without our precious connection. In the end the air is too languid, the breeze too sultry, the colors just too bloody pastel to bother with all of the networking that in northern climates we take for granted, with full-time high-speed Internet access, that we consider the normal stuff of life, of everyday business and commerce, the obligatory fabric of our contemporary society, all wired.

No surfing here... just placid jade waters over beds of dying coral, with swarms of small striped fish that creep up behind you and hardly scatter when you turn and find them all around your limbs. At first I was amazed, never having seen fish this tame, this bold, and almost wishing I could close the inch of distance they always kept around my fingers and face. Then I felt a few pecks at my back, and suddenly felt a different urge, to flee these marauding predators before they nibbled me to death. The truth, not so dire, but a warning, be careful what you wish for.

Yesterday I sat on this balcony fifty feet from the water and watched Terry Gilliam's Zero Theorem, in which a modern-day man, a functionary of the cybernetic matrix, bemoans his meaningless existence and takes refuge in virtual reality scenes at a beach just such as this. "Come away with me," his voluptuous pursuer coaxes, back in drab London, but he remains fixed to his task, the machinery of his supposed deliverance. In the end he rebels, gives it all up, but too late, and finds refuge on that ultimate sunset dream beach, alone.

We awake this morning silent, me to the water after my yoga practice, she to her meditation. The waves lap, incessant, amid chirring of insects and birds, the warp and weft of nature. The mountains poke all picturesque above the horizon behind the photogenic palm at the water's edge, the morning's pale colors not yet lit up for the tourist junkets. In the water I notice the jade disappears, dissolving to crystal clear, the paradise wash of greens and blues gone to plain water, just sand. Ironic that this awakening, past the glamor and hype, to the elements of what is here unadorned, means finally arriving, when previously the concepts and hyperbole and social shares and blogging efforts and digital renderings--"Paradise"--just got in the way of the thing itself.

The thing itself asks for no description, coaxes no boatloads of gawkers, yields not to pat snapshots and catalogues of palette choices in hexadecimal flux as the light shifts, the mood strikes. The thing itself is not amenable to autobiographical analysis, unraveling of brain-folds, sliced cells of microscopic dialogue, presumed intention and unrepentant one-upmanship, or woman.

Maybe woman is the thing itself. Maybe the thing itself is this, not that. Maybe maybe maybe, baby baby baby. The waves lap, the insects chirr, the sunlight creeps across the bay, coloring what was pale and limpid, both brighter and richer with a luminous blue.

On the otherwise praiseworthy beach, just under the frame of the capture, a three-foot jagged stump from a coconut tree protrudes, intrudes, claims an excised history in this narrative box. I will not go there; I nudge the frame just large enough to include the hacked remnant, then click.

12 October 2014

Travel Writing on the Edge

God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, by Richard Grant
-- review by Nowick Gray

nightlifeThis book was my introduction into the work of the travel writer Richard Grant, a Briton who ventures out of the comfort zone of ordinary humanity into such death-defying circumstances as “the lawless heart of the Sierra Madre” and (in his other book I started simultaneously) Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa. Grant joins the first rank of travel writers I have encountered, including Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen, and Pico Ayer, with Henry Miller joining from the classic side, where you would almost include Hemingway, and Jack London. Hunter S. Thompson (and William S. Burroughs) also figure prominently in Grant’s modus operandi, with their hard-living habits as "gonzo journalists" among guys determined to get as wasted as possible on every substance available.

barsThese real-life tales of harrowing adventure fall into the category of men’s (non)fiction, following the observed trend that men prefer literature that is true to life, in contrast to women’s fiction that leans toward the imagined romance. I might as well add Elizabeth Gilbert to this cabal, however, for her charming treatment of travels in Italy, India and Bali (Eat, Pray, Love), and Southeast Asia while exploring the theme of matrimony in the sequel, Commitment.

machismoAs it happens, the central theme of Grant’s foray into the heart of darkness in Mexico turns on machismo and its dominant force in the culture. Near the end, before his actual harrowing scrape with would-be murderers, Grant nails the origin of Mexican machismo in its history beginning with the conquistadors (and further, the Arab attitudes about women that transferred through the seven hundred years of Moorish rule of Spain), with a nod to the patriarchal indigenous customs the invaders overtook.

Comparing these adrenaline-fueled chronicles with my own tamer touristic exploits recounted in this blog, I am struck by some fundamental differences in approach. Most notable is the means of penetrating the culture on a personal level. Grant applies the time-tested method of drinking, along with whatever else, with the locals. If personal inclinations toward health and sanity steer me away from bars and debauchery, then I am a mere suburban voyeur, confined to my neuroses about safety, convenience, cost and planned itinerary.

wine bottlesGrant and his swashbuckling kin ride bareback, so to speak, into the wilds, throwing caution to the wind as they consort with society’s low life, criminals, misfits, prostitutes, drug addicts, drunkards, crazies, hit-men and, along the way, respectable people who live among murder and corruption, violence and abuse, and somehow, sometimes, find ways to survive. I don’t like hangovers, or throwing money away in bars; sleeping outside exposed to cold, mosquitoes, scorpions, snakes or thieves; sketchy roads leading nowhere, in vehicles that break down; food poisoning, untreated water.

Last night after finishing this book I dreamed I was back in my old mountain community, homeless and hungry, scrounging a baggie of nuts from the post office shelf and wondering where my next healthy meal of vegetables would come from.  Woke up, and today is Thanksgiving. Grateful, comfortable, at home.

06 June 2014

Snapshots of the Malecon

Puerto Vallarta, a holiday Friday night, my last day in Mexico:

  • A man standing with a big balloon, holding it by the end and thwacking it rhythmically in the air, bouncing it off his wrist.

  • A young man standing with friends, in normal dress except wearing a pink bunny hat.

  • Club Row, each with high ceilings, dark interiors, pounding with music, everything from techno to fifties, lit each with a different hue of low lighting, red, blue, pink, each vast cavern occupied by only a couple or two at 9:30, against the giant flashing video images, though the Malecon was thronged.

  • A tall Viking goddess jogging past the crowds in spandex and bare feet.

  • Random people crossing, or standing about in clutches, on the Malecon or sidewalk without regard to the predominant flow of people, as if they owned the space. Oh wait, they do.

  • A couple of middle-aged Mexican men walking down the sidewalk, the heftier one in bright yellow tank top and shorts.

  • A couple of stylish Mexican women standing on the corner in conversation, interrupted by a wiry, weathered blonde tugging a tiny dog on a leash who gets tangled up in one of the standing ladies’ ankles. She glowers at the gringa, who chides her pet and tugs it away.

24 April 2014

"Go to the Jungle"

san cristobalWhen I was in La Paz and told my neighbor, a former anthropology researcher, that I was going to San Cristobal, she said, "Go hang out in the jungle."

Hmm, I told her, I already did that in the Amazon, back in 2005. (Not to mention Costa Rica, where I'd more recently cut short a month's stay in a dark, locust-infested cabin).

Another friend emailed me saying, "Go to the Indian villages." And do what? I asked. "Visit the churches there."

Hmm, I thought, I already lived in Inuit villages for three years, spent a week in an African village. Been there done that. Not to mention churches, all over southern Europe (as well as all over San Cristobal itself).

But what the heck, I can go on horseback with a guide and it'll be an adventure. One sunny morning I showed up at the tour office at 9, waited half an hour for the guide, and finally the tour operator apologized, "The caballero doesn't answer his phone. Maybe another day?" I declined, figured it wasn't meant to be.

Still, cooped up in my one-room apartment for a month, I thought, I probably should go visit the Mayan ruins, or maybe the lake district. Even though I'd already climbed the pyramid at Teotihuacan, toured the Aztec ruins in Mexico City. Even though it gave me the creeps to read in the guidebook about the grisly purposes of these archaeological wonders.

chiapas sunsetSo I came to my final week here, and ventured out in the rainy night to book my tour. The 15-hour trip to Palenque and the waterfalls was too much of a stretch, beginning at 5 a.m. The shorter trip to the Tonina ruins needed 4 passengers, which they didn't have. The third option, the 13-hour trip to the lakes, was still doable, but the rainy season had begun now and why would I want to ride a bus all day and evening to look at a lake in the rain for two hours?

Not that I'm complaining. I actually felt relieved. What I most wanted to do was stay in another day and work on my novel. Not very glamorous, I know. No pictures to share, no tales of exotic flora and fauna, no passing scenes of roadside forest, quaint lunch stops, colorful fellow travelers. Just, upon some later release, imagined scenes from an imagined world that never did and never will exist, except in the writer's and reader's imagination. Talk about virtual reality...

black christThe thing is, what does it really mean, to "go to the jungle"? Am I going to paint my face and learn, in an afternoon or a week, to hunt tapir, or talk with jaguar? Am I going to weave and pray with the natives?

When I did go to Peru and "hang out" - for a week of solitary retreat, punctuated by nightly group ayahuasca sessions - what came to me (apart from the archaic visionary mosaics of the night) to fill the empty space was, like jungle growth filling the vacuum that nature abhors, plans and schemes of a literary nature.

The point being, "jungle" is a concept, to be interpreted as one needs. It could be learning primitive survival skills. Anthropological or ethnobotanical research. Plain tourism. Escape from urban congestion. Vacation. Relief of boredom: something to do, somewhere to go. Sheer curiosity. And that's all good.

courtyardOr, it could be: being at home with oneself, the jungle of one's own being, the ecosystem within one's own world of activity and potential. This primal realm risks encroachment from all sides by industry, tourism, urbanization, commercialization, technology, population growth. Inside the jungle of one's own being - bounded in my case, it now appears, for a full thirty days - the wildlife can be studied in depth; the native plants cultivated, nurtured; the language purified; the sense of home honored.

Yes, "go to the jungle," indeed, and hang out there. And please, report back on what you find.

Postscript, 26 April:
All that said, I did manage finally to "get out" of town, an hour-long trek into the hills. The skies were clear and the temperature perfect. Destination: Arcotete, a nature reserve featuring sculpted limestone. There is nothing, I realize with senses awakened, as intoxicating as the aroma of a highland pine forest, especially when clarified at 8000 feet. And nothing, after all, to substitute for the peaceful clarity of a mountain stream, or the craggy beauty of a natural cavern more sacred than any Gothic cathedral. All this, it turned out, for the invigorating effort of an hour's hike, ten pesos and a handy taxi ride back to town ... for a parting treat of Argentine lasagne and Italian cappuccino. Hasta luego, San Cristobal!

San Cristobal de las Casas

For more "Forest Walks and Other Exercises," see my new book just published this week:
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08 April 2014

Why I May Not Visit the Mayan Ruins

Yeah, it's a trip out of town, through the fabled Chiapas jungle. The ruins are touted throughout the tourist world - lost cities of the ancient Mayans, those creators of the calendar that ended our old paradigm in 2012 (didn't it?). But I did see the other great pyramids of Teotihuacan, and, well, I climbed to the top, and... I saw the chambers in the square of Mexico City where the blood was spilled and... I see the pictures in the guidebook and read about the proud rulers who built by conquest and slaving and human sacrifice and... I wonder, where is the glory in all that? Why make a pilgrimage to sites of such barbarity?

A deeper question follows: Is it "cultural bias" to judge such civilizations and their works? Where do I get off in supposing a higher moral stance, me with my aviator shades and plastic credit, burning carbon and fiddling while the world slides to ruin?

Yes, it's a cultural phenomenon, awesome in its scope and longevity. Yes, we may gaze on the sheer wonder of these stone constructions somehow conjured out of jungle soil without metal tools or wheel. We may put aside all judgments altogether in the benign, objective acceptance of all that is, without prejudice. We may get over our own political correctness and realize the pitfalls of assigning labels of evil to others doing what they were equally convinced was correct.

So, we can go or not go. We can burn more carbon to see more evidence of human slaughter, and say, "It's all good." Or, we can sit at home with hands on lap, forgoing the effort of excursion, and say, "It's all good." For that matter, we can choose to go and judge, raging at the senseless waste of life and resources; or stay home on the same basis.
What will I do? Even with the possibility of the all-embracing forgiveness of all-that-is-and-was, I believe it's valid to hold certain standards for conduct: "Thou shalt not kill." You might say that it's not my place as another fallible human to judge, or even forgive. Fair enough; but neither am I obliged to respect or gaze with all-hallowed objectivity on the works of mass murderers. So maybe, instead, I'll go to the village where they make textiles, or to the lake in the ecological reserve.

Enough about me and lost civilizations. What about our current day and age, our present administration of works and policies. Do we accept and support, or judge and protest? It comes down to what is real within, what is truly felt. Then we will speak and act with that conviction.

Here is my piece, for today. What is your truth?

10 March 2014

Last Stop / Next Stop

La Paz, Sea of Cortez, Baja California Sur: A long journey come to rest:

A quest ending... in failure or success? It depends on one's perspective. If the goal of the journey with my partner was to find our mutual home, it didn't reach the desired goal within the limits of our endurance. If the quest was to embark together and explore, discovering what showed itself along the way, evaluating and responding, resonating or not, and finding out who we were, where our inner homes were at the end of the process, how could it not have been a success?
In the meantime we were grateful for the many signposts and synchronicities which got us through some tight spots with rays of unexpected connection.
1. Croatia

In the ferry lineup in Vis, Osnat met a woman she spent time with in Abadiania, Brazil. A pretty Irish lady, suffering from a shoulder ailment, and a chill remove in her manner, as if encased in an aura of protection. Osnat gave her an astrocartography session and then, under the gaze of the burly Croatian men at the neighboring table playing poker, stood like an ancient healer doing hands-on energy work on her shoulder.
2. Italy

We arrived at 6:30 in the evening in Vernazza with no reservations, as the plan was hatched last minute, after researching that renting a car was a poor option without an International Driver's Permit. So we dragged luggage into town on the cobbled streets, down to a wave-washed harbor replete with tourists, and found only a couple of available rooms at 80 Euros per night. We walked back up the street again, paused to consider calling from a list of accommodations we got at the train station, only to discover the cell phone reception here was nonexistent. At that moment an American couple walking up the street greeted us saying, "Are you needing a place to stay?"
The woman was dressed in flowing colors, her smiling round face a beacon of light. They were leaving next morning and thought we might arrange to stay in the same house, an AirBnB rental that turned out to be in a house whose foundation, they said, dated from 400 A.D.; two floors with full kitchen and cliffside terrace overlooking a spectacular seascape. They phoned the landlord, an actor in Rome, and suggested we offer him $60 per night - when they had paid $120 - since otherwise it would sit empty this week. Reached by their phone, Frederico accepted. Meanwhile a man who earlier had offered us a room for 80 Euros passed us and came down to 65, so we had a place for this night as well.
Amid the bustle of the tourists in the narrow streets, this grand old apartment served for three days as a cool refuge, a haven of old-world charm. Burned once at the exorbitant harborside ristorante, we could cook simpler, authentic fare with local fish and vegetables amid the copper kettles of our kitchen, and sit gazing down at the ever enchanting waves.

3. Portugal

Headed toward Mooji's ashram in the Alentejo, we stopped for the night at the Banos near Monchique. We figured the next day we could find lodging near the ashram in the village of San Martinho das Amoreiras. No such luck, the tourist season had passed and the village was all boarded up, a few geezers and crones remaining in a couple of blighted cafes to turn us away with sour looks of impassive defeat born of centuries of decline. What to expect from a land whose inhabitants forever had left their countryside to venture the seas of the world to plunder others? In any case, we felt our chances might improve by connecting with others at the ashram.
So driving the road to the entrance, we encountered two women walking, one with piled curls familiar, again, to Osnat from her stay in Abadiania: Anita. She greeted us warmly and straightaway mentioned another woman, Brigette, who had a cottage rented nearby and was wanting to leave a week early, so we could probably take over the rent. We ended up staying a week, one of those precious respites from the travel route; and it was luckily sandwiched between two of the only satsang weekends Mooji offered here this season.

4. Ecuador

Giving up quickly on coastal Ecuador, after two noisy nights in a hostel in polluted Guayaquil and another impossible night surviving the boombox surf town of Montanita, we headed for Vilcabamba, booking on AirBnB but not receiving confirmation before taking our flight from Guayaquil, nor afterward on the way to Loja by taxi for the connecting bus. What the heck, though it was 6 in the evening already, we caught the bus and then, settling into our seats, finally got an email from the hosts confirming our booking. When we arrived by taxi at their small farm outside Vilcabamba, Phil looked at me and right away said, "Are you Nowick from Argenta?"

Though I didn't immediately recognize him despite the characteristic Kootenay frizz of hair and grizzled beard, it was an acquaintance with whom I had shared memorable experiences playing music for trance dance (he played didge), as well as further personal connections with watershed issues in the Slocan valley where he had a homestead like mine in Argenta. Now he and his partner Suzanne were two years into a full-scale permaculture project here, having sold their land and most of their equipment in BC and moving the rest of it here (in eleven suitcases and a large crate). So we had a lovely place to stay in the lower floor of their house for a month while also being well introduced to the community with their network of friends and activities.

In Vilcabamba, on Osnat's 60th birthday, we walked to Madre Tierra for dinner. Sitting at the bus stop at the bottom of the driveway a young woman saw us, stood up and said to Osnat, "I think I know you. What's your name?" She was Jenny, from Wales, whom Osnat had spent a week with in Koh Samui at a detox retreat 5 years ago.

5. Mexico: San Pancho

A Rat-Sized Chihuahua Named Lancelot

A magical day out of time. Arranged to visit Stephanie in San Pancho in the afternoon. On the way the collectivo (group taxi) made a stop in Lo de Marcos, and in the first block we saw the dundun player for the African group carrying his big painted barrel drum on his back; then, up the street walking one by one, the other drummers, with their instrument bags, on the way to some practice session no doubt.

Wandering the world, scouring the Internet for drumming, and somehow we missed until now the live connection. The drums advertise themselves.

Arriving in San Pancho, we felt right away an affinity, a resonance. The quiet, tree-lined streets, just the right size town: not too big, not too small. Like Goldilocks, we wandered past French cafes, bakeries and cappuccino bars, yoga studios and surf shops. Gaily painted storefronts, friendly English-speaking vacation rental agents, mellow hipsters strolling the cobblestones. The beach stretched Goa-smooth along the coconut palms, surfers idling on boards awaiting bigger waves. We walked back into town for a pastry before finding Stephanie.

While her 11-month-old Theo napped, we caught up on each other's lives, got the scoop on San Pancho as a place to live. A founder of Cirque du Soleil had moved here, teaming up with an American woman to convert an unused warehouse to a community arts, education and recycling center. Today was the middle of a 5-day African dance intensive class; those drummers would no doubt be on hand tonight. After unmatched mahi-mahi burritos at the natural juice restaurant, we headed to the arts center for a tour. Theo well entertained in the 0-5 toddlers' play area, and my energy waning - after three full-moon nights of life-path soul searching, emotional partner dynamics and little sleep - we said our goodbyes and headed for the highway.

Or did we want to hang out at the beach for a bit before heading home? Not really, but I said okay and we reversed direction. Before one more block, though, I realized I was at the end of my reserves, crashing fast. "No, actually, let's catch the bus and go home. I just want to sleep." Dragging then back towards the highway in a fog of exhaustion, we passed a house with a sign: El Sobador de San Pancho: Total Body Alignment, Pain Relief, Hypnosis, Spiritual and Chakra Cleansing, Massage. Osnat the healer paused, intrigued.

Just then a car pulled into the driveway. A small white-haired man emerged, saw us and said to me, "I can see a pain in your body."

"Oh? Tell me more."

"Yes, it's in the toe, and also in the shoulder."

True, I had an old injury in my right big toe and a recent flareup of chronic tightness in the shoulder.

Osnat chimed in, "Plus he's really tired. And he thinks too much."

"Oh, tired, I can clear that up in two minutes. Also the pain. And your mind will be clear."

We agreed to begin right away, with a session offered also to Osnat for her various pains diagnosed with similar accuracy, a two-for-one deal.

"And do you smoke, if we have a joint first?"

"No, I gave that up."

"It might help you relax and release the tightness and pain, and also the overthinking."

"You're the doctor."

Attending our interview was his little pooch, a rat-sized chihuahua named Lancelot.

This Mexican Merlin pulled and tweaked and de-torqued all the joints of all the limbs, pulling and stretching through the back and shoulders, neck and head, till everything was loose. At least, looser than before. With the heightened awareness of the pot I could sense fully where the residual tension lay, the boundary of resistance.

When Osnat was done we agreed to come back the following day for a followup session, and walked away. My posture was totally reformed, my energy refreshed. Osnat felt free of chronic tightness in her shoulders and lower back. At this point in the day, however, we could not take the bus because she had a scheduled meditation coming up in fifteen minutes. And nearly 5:30, the air was getting chilly. We decided to head back to Stephanie's for a quiet spot to meditate and maybe some borrowed layers to keep us warm for the trip back home; we'd return them tomorrow.

At Stephanie's another younger couple was there on the palapa, as she'd arranged them to babysit while she went to African dance. They had driven from Ontario, their second time here, after discovering the place by serendipity last winter. On arriving at the beach, they were greeted by a young woman who invited them to a party and to hear her band. They had a great time, were inspired to return and then this year on arriving headed first to their favorite taco place. Not five minutes later, the same young woman appeared around the corner and said, "Oh, hey, welcome back! You're just in time for the Christmas party I'm having." So it goes, on the travelers' trail.

They have been up and down the Pacific coast, all the way to Costa Rica and back, and this was the jewel that stood out for them, with the right mix of people and amenities, that certain vibe that calls to return and stay longer, to build on connections, to find your way by word of mouth and serendipity to just the right apartment when the time is right.

"The power of manifestation is so strong here," said Chris, "that you have to be careful what you wish for. The key is to be specific. We looked for a week and couldn't find anything. Then we sat down and made a list of what we were looking for in a rental. The next day we went to the juice restaurant, and met a guy there, who knew another guy who just happened to show up with the keys in his pocket, and we saw the place and it was perfect, with everything we were looking for at the right price."

So we left with just enough time to catch the end of the dance class, we thought. On arriving, though, we only heard the soft balaphone music of cool-down, and never did locate the entrance door, so headed to the highway to wait for the bus. We must have just missed one because we stood in the cold for almost an hour. Near the end the drummers arrived, and I was able to make a connection with the sangban player and get an invitation to play for the next night's class. Full circle, from my meeting of drummers here my first day in town, to catching the performances on market day, seeing them on the way to San Pancho and finally again on the way out.

We came home cold and hungry but energized, to a small but symbolic feast, a pair of homemade steamed crabs, Baltimore-style.

6. Mexico: Zihuatanejo

In Zihuatanejo we ran the gamut from fortuitous connection to intolerable disappointment and escape. Our first stop there, the Hotel Amueblados las Salinas, proved less than perfect, with the usual change of room after the first night, the second one proving worse with an ineffective and noisy AC, but the owner happily allowed us to leave short of the third night with money refunded. Meanwhile we had run into an Albertan woman running a shoreside table for Sailfest who turned us onto the Hotel America, $600 per month for an apartment, and we actually agreed to a month for $480, and put a $40 deposit down.
Right next door, however, Osnat was enticed to inquire at the Ada Guesthouse, and we found a nicer apartment with full kitchen and balcony for only $80 more. So we phoned and arranged to take it right away, met with the Hotel America lady who graciously refunded our deposit, and moved in. Later a lunch and then, finally hit that beach: calm waters, 28 degrees; Osnat finally relaxed enough without wetsuit. Warm enough to wade in, getting wet gradually, no shock, no painful adjustment, just welcome. Stay in as long as you like, swim with ease.
On the beach we met a middle-aged Canadian couple, from Naramata, BC. It turns out they were old friends of a friend of mine from Argenta, a woman who had come to BC from Denmark years before and began with a teaching job at the same little school where this couple worked - probably forty years ago.
But then: what a difference a day (and a sleepless night) makes. We spent a delirious, humid Saturday night unable to sleep for the music downtown all night long, till 6 in the morning. Even at 3 or 4 there was an interlude of some male voice crooning at the bar next door, between the episodes of harsh rock, guitar and drums and the ever-present pounding bass. My thoughts obsessively went to the discussion we would have with the hotel owner, to try to get a refund of our month's rent, so we could escape to yet another stop down the road, Costa Rica (and save our flight change fees in the process).
I am back to despairing, or resigning myself to the improbability of ever truly finding this home that we have spent five months and a small fortune questing for, burning also our emotional capital and even our zest for life, our appreciation for the travels for their own sake. Always an insufficiency, the no-seeums around the ankles at dusk, the chatty Quebecoise on the neighboring balcony or the Albertans gabbing at the tables of the Hotel America below; the stench from the streets undergoing sewer repairs; the murky water making snorkeling impossible. All of these negatives lined up on the other side of the blissfully tepid and baby-calm seawater, the charming russet architecture in the town and on the hillside, the cheap and tasty local Mexican food either from markets or restaurants, the relaxed vibe throughout the day, the pure blue skies, the forgiving budget allowing two to live for the price of one.
What to do? Keep moving on. Meanwhile, the local band below graces the evening, again with its mellow constant temperatures and gentle breezes, Simon and Garfunkel rendered with guitar and Andean pan flute. I enjoyed a pair of tasty tamales, chicken with red chile, for dinner for two dollars. The head cold threatening to take hold dissipates under the onslaught of raw garlic, red chile mole, rest in the afternoon, relaxation with our fate one way or another.

7. Costa Rica

In La Legua - not even a town, just a bend in the road - we rented a sweet house for a ten-day retreat of sorts: nothing to do, nowhere to go; catching our breath from noisy Mexican towns and hectic travel arrangements, in a peaceful, beautiful, isolated valley between the highlands and the coast. Next door, greeting us while our AirBnB host was away, lived a couple from Baltimore, who had lived in a house right next door to the school I attended in 1965.
As always, our house reviews would be mixed. This one we called "the musty palace," due to the pervasive smell of mold in the bathroom and one of the bedrooms. We opened the windows and cranked up the fans, and moved to the other bedroom. It was odd, coming to a country and then spending a week and a half going nowhere, lounging in the spacious living room, walking the manicured grounds, catching up on writing projects and meditations. But the bus schedule was problematic; we came prepared with a load of groceries from town; and the sprawling ranch-style "palace" had a priceless view. Costa Rica, the snapshot, "pura vida."

8. La Paz, Mexico

Todos Santos is promising at first, recommended by a few friends, touted as funky, spiritual, laid-back. I have come to Baja traveling solo, after a parting of ways in Costa Rica. The mutual quest, unsustainable, is interrupted, divided; the search for a temporary home goes on.
My first morning I go exploring, found a health food store to replenish essentials: toothpaste, sunscreen, echinacea. I pick up a local map and check the notice board. A friendly young woman behind the counter has been traveling also 7 months including BC; she alerts me to a monthly rental just opening up. When I go there it's not what I'm after, rather a kind of hostel in a house, more communal space than privacy. In fact the town itself, I discover in two days there, proves not as advertised or expected. Yes, a cutesy little version of Sebastopol (California) south. The recommended café, a graveyard of scattered expats gazing into laptops. A reflection of myself?

Later back in La Paz, my neighbor, from Quebec and California, hears my take on Todos Santos, says she went there ten years ago and loved it; went back recently and... never again. She wrinkles her nose. "It's great, if you like rich white people."

I walked through, walked on. The sea, a wild and cold Pacific, raging and roiling. And at that, a forty-five minute trek from town, no taxis.

I returned to La Paz, a basic but cheap hotel. Went right for the beach, a forty-minute bus ride, to check out the main attraction. It took my breath away. Dry air, parched scenery, calm water, utterly clear. Hardly anyone there. It was low tide, so you could walk way out to the water deep enough to swim, and there it was just cool/warm, refreshing; like the best of BC ocean swimming on the hottest summer days. I was hooked.

Setting out in town this morning, I marveled at the perfect cool/warm dry air, blue sky. This place was for me. I started with the hostel, but too expensive. The tourist information place guided me to a hotel, ditto. On the main street I saw a realtor, dropped in and asked about weekly or monthly rentals. He made a couple of calls, connected me with a woman whose tenant, also from Victoria, had just moved out today. On the way I checked out the language school, which arranges homestays for you if you sign up for classes. The house I was going to see was right next to it. Just what I needed, at the right price, I took it on the spot. For now, home.