Sunday, May 29, 2005

When will my body feel good again?

Songpan, China -- Northen Sechuan

"When will my body feel good again?"
-Benjamin, last night

In the past week, we've ridden on a crappy bus for 12 hours; spent the night 'illegally' in a national park, secretly sleeping in the home/defunct guesthouse of a Tibetan family; hiked many miles over the course of 2 days in Jiuzhaigou National Park with nothing to eat but peanuts and Oreo cookies. We've ridden on horses for three days in the mountains, camping in canvas tents at night under thunderstorms and hail; worn the same clothes and underwear for too many days to mention; spent time with Israelis, Australians, Chinese, and a German. In short, it's been a busy, painful, tiring, and amazing week.

The scenery up here is incredible -- velveteen hillsides of emerald green, sable mountains, Tibetan villages, taunting gray clouds that fight with blue sky, snow capped peaks of cloud-kissing mountains, rivers and streams, clear turquoise lakes, waterfalls...

There's much too much to write now... we've just returned from our horse trek and we're burnt! A hot shower, a real bed with a pillow, and a few hours of rest is what we need to recharge. Tomorrow we head south, back to Chengdu for a few days of R&R before we head off to climb more mountains and sleep in strange places.

More to come...

Monday, May 23, 2005

Train Meditation

Sometimes there are moments, stolen from time, found in the in-between places of travel -- a rooftop in India, a bathroom in Bangkok, a train in China... They happen when I'm alone, with a quiet mind, with nothing but the company of my own thoughts. These are the moments I yearn for. With them comes a peaceful state of reflection, introspection -- a sort of soul searching that I've experienced in the past, back at home, so I know that these moments are rare and should be savored when they happen. Like gauzy remnants of a happy dream, they fade as quickly as they come on, life is too busy to stay there forever... but the heady feeling they leave in their absence is too strong to be forgotten.

In between cars, on a train from Xian to Chengdu, the rhythmic sound of wheels against track and the sight of the verdant countryside passing by the window lulled me into one of these meditative states. Perhaps it was the beauty of the landscape, the ancient age of the mountains, and artifacts of man, marking his existance in nature, that led me to this state of mind on this particular train...

From the window, I saw China at my own pace, despite the speed of the train. The skies, full of cloud and hanging mist are dreamy, mystical; the landscape is green, so full of the color that it feels as if it might burst; the hills are thick with vegetation, the mountains studded with trees; shallow rivers wind and gurgle over rocks; terraced hillsides curl in gentle arcs; village homesteads dot the land with structures of wood, brick, and rammed earth; farmers work the fields in straw hats; tidy rows of crops pop out of the ground: tall, squat, leafy, stalky, bushy, delicate; narrow footpaths lead to simple piles of gray stone that serve as grave markers; clouds peak out from behind tall, dark mountains.

I'd come here, to the tiny space where the train cars connect, to escape the din of my neighbors, one cabin over. They were drinking whiskey and playing cards, with enough loud cheering, fist pounding, and laughing to almost make me forget I was on a train in the first place. One of the partyers was actually our roommate (4 bunks to a cabin); he returned to our little room and immediately began to ply Benjamin with Chinese whiskey and peanuts.

In my place of solitude, taking in the beauty outside the train, I was struck by the need to absorb every detail, to make my mind a porous sponge. I realized that I have a fear of missing something, losing out on the 'now' in thoughts of the future and the next place... or thoughts of the past, memories of places I've been. There is a fear of seeing too much to remember. There is a fear that I'll return from my travels to the place I left, mentally, emotionally, and in the day to day. I reflected on my purpose, the reason I am here, the journey I have been on and the one that is to come. There is something melancholy in sentiment and something joyful in an unknown future. As fast as the scenery streaks past the window, thoughts of goals, desires, hopes, and dreams -- met and unmet -- flood the mind.

The beauty of these stolen moments is that the contemplation of life and purpose comes without stress. It's like exercising in water... the results are the same as doing it the hard way, but the work to get there is pain free. These moments always lead me to the same place... in the end, I learn to just 'be'... just existing is enough.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Do you speak English?

The Chinese have a few expressions that Benjamin and I have adopted to answer the outgoing souls who try to converse with us. Benjamin favors, 'it's like asking a blind man for directions', and I'm partial to this one: 'it's like climbing a tree to catch fish'.

Of course, we don't actually say these phrases to our would-be Chinese friends. We can't speak Mandarin and they can't speak English. Instead, we open up our Lonely Planet and point to the expressions written in Chinese. This is how we're getting by, as mutes with a guidebook as our only means of communication.

It's not like we haven't tried to learn Mandarin, the offical language of China. They call it Putonghua, meaning 'common speach'. An ironic name, if you ask me... Mandarin is a tough language to learn. It's based on pictographs, and although an educated Chinese knows 6 - 8,000 characters (I've read there are up to 56,000 in total), I have only mastered recognition of one. And if you're wondering why I am learning the characters, it's because that is our sole way of coummincation. I copy Chinese words, in Chinese characters, from the guidebook on slips of paper and hand them to people instead of speaking. I feel like one of those deaf people who come into a cafe with a stack of cards that say, "I am deaf. Please donate money." He passes them out in silence and usually walks away empty handed. Luckily for us, our slips of paper work. They have gotten us to the train station, obtained train tickets for us, they've ordered us food, asked for 'left luggage'.

So why don't we just speak to people? Learning new languages is part of the challenge and fun of travel... Let me explain:

While there is a system for writing Chinese words with the Roman alphabet for Westerners to understand, called Pinyin, most Chinese don't really use or understand it. It's primarily used on maps and for names of people and places in our guidebook, and would help us speak Chinese words if only the phonetics matched up with the letters, but the pronunciations are all off. An 'e' sounds like 'uh' and the letters 'zh' sound like the letter 'j', plus there are all sorts of sounds that aren't 'normal' for vowel combinations... and on top of it all, there are 5 tones in the Chinese language, subtleties in the pronunciation and emphasis placed on sounds that affect the meaning of the word. It's a complicated system and each time we've tried to figure out how to say a simple word, no-one ever recognizes it.

In India, we didn't need to learn a new language. Most everyone spoke English well or well enough to get by. Our first morning in Kolkata, I asked the waiter how to say 'thank you' in his language. He looked at me expressionless and replied, "thank you," in English. And that was that. We had no reason to learn Hindi, so we got lazy and stopped bothering to learn. But here in China, things are different. Outside of the big cities and the more touristed places, not a soul speaks English. Lonely Planet recommends a phrase book for this reason, but we didn't read that sentence until we were already here, stuck in our hotel room frantically giving ourselves a crash course in Pinyin (to no avail).

It was our first evening in Luoyang that we realized we could be in some serious trouble. When we arrived there in the morning, we somehow managed to get ourselves on a tour bus without problem. All we had to say was, "Shaolin," and we were escorted to a bus next door to the train station. Simple. We didn't necessarily want a tour bus, and in fact we didn't even know it was a tour bus until the second stop, but we made it to Shaolin and back. No problem.

We returned to Luoyang in the evening. It was dark and raining. Wandering around the streets, a little tired and hungry -- looking for a hotel we picked from the guidebook -- we were 'rescued' by a gang wearing blue blazers, the staff from another hotel who were out prowling the streets for people to fill their rooms. They spoke to us in Chinese. We replied in English. They continued in Chinese. It happens like that... people will keep speaking to you in Chinese as if suddenly, by a stroke of luck or miracle, you will comprehend. They had a brochure with a price written on it. The place was close. I suggested to Benjamin that we go check it out and with no actual words exchanged, the next thing we knew, we were in a nice, clean room and out of the rain. Easy.

We had shelter. So we went out to look for food. There was a restaurant next door to the hotel. Convenient. We were beckoned in by a smiling man out front -- he was all too happy for us to come and dine in that little hole in the wall. I figured they must have a picture menu if they wanted the forigners in. But no, we were handed a menu in Chinese and the waitress was impatient to take our order.

"English?" I said meekly, with a smile. She stared at me with a blank look on her face. "I guess not..." I said to Benjamin, "now what?"

With her standing there, we didn't have time to confer, to come up with a plan on how to handle the situation. It was a first for us; the language barrier had never really gotten in the way of anything until this moment. We were helpless.

The waitress said something that sounded like 'chicken' and pointed to something on the menu, something written in Chinese. I wasn't sure if she actually said 'chicken' or something in Chinese that only sounded like 'chicken' -- or maybe she was calling me a chicken (she was a bit surly). Having no other options, I said, "yes, we'll have that."

I figured we would deal with whatever showed up on our table when the time came. She brought back something that was chicken, all of it: bones, organs, and who knows what. Meanwhile, the table next to us had a plate of green beans and pork delivered to their table, so we pointed to that and gestured that we would like one too. The girl was frustrated with us, though, so she sent her father over and this resulted in yet another dish that Benjamin ordered by pointing to something in our guidebook. In actuality, none of this happened as easy as it sounds written here, so we weren't really sure what all we'd ordered until it was all there on the table.

While we ate, the annoyed waitress walked by our table and spit on the floor in front of us. Maybe she didn't like us or maybe it meant nothing. Everyone in China spits on the floor, even in a restaurant. When we finished our enormous meal, we were overcharged -- we were first given one price, and then another... all done with a calculator as language was a no-go. Without the benefit of language, it's hard to argue over the price, so we paid. We left, glad to have the whole awkward experience over with and shy about entering the premesis of another restaurant. Our next two meals came wrapped in cellophane and cardboard, eaten in the confines of our hotel room. A pitiful image, I know. But thank God for instant noodles and bread... Nevertheless, we knew we had to come up with a plan or else we'd starve when instant noodles became unbearable.

And that's when I got the pen out and began my English-Chinese translations by copying Chinese characters for words we couldn't prounounce successfully onto paper. Although the food section of our Lonely Planet was meager, it was enought to get us by. And we never would have gotten train tickets the next day without our little slips of paper with our destination and date written in Chinese. I made 5 of those, options in case our first train wasn't available... and good thing, too, as we used 4 of them before getting the tickets.

We are now eating fine and moving forward. We have mastered the language of China in our own way. And now that I'm getting familiar with writing the characters, I'm in search of a caligraphy class... one with an English speaking teacher I hope.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Shaolin Si

In the first week of courtship, almost every guy I've ever dated has asked me the same question. It was apparent that the future of our relationship was hinged on the answer I provided, and the 'right' answer was always obvious: "But of course! I LOVE Kung Fu." It's a myth that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. From my experience, it's through a shared love of Kung Fu and video games.

I didn't always like Kung Fu movies. In the 'old' days, the mention of Kung Fu called up nasty memories of my brother's tube-sock-clad-foot in my face as he practiced his moves; the static on a tiny black and white t.v. in the cold basement, where late night Kung Fu films flickered in the darkness; the preposterous eyebrows of old men that creeped into my dreams and gave me facial hair nightmares. But mostly, I just saw a bunch of Chinese guys fighting. And neither of the two things interested me.

Fast Forward to Present Day....

Before we arrived in China, Benjamin mentioned that he couldn't come here without making a stop in Shaolin, the birth place of Kung Fu. If he didn't visit Shaolin, he reasoned, he was not a 'real' Kung Fu fan. Of course I didn't argue with him. Not only was I concerned for his ranking among the legions of Kung Fu fans around the world (and especially in the Bay Area, amonst his friends)... I also wanted to go. We even talked about taking a one day class at the school and I was excited to pick up some moves...

The legend of Shaolin is unclear, but the story goes that an Indian monk founded the temple in the 5th century. Several decades later, another monk by the name of Bodhidharma showed up and began teaching Zen Buddhism. According to some reports, Bodhidharma was denied entry to the temple and took up residence in a nearby cave remaining upright, in prayer for 9 years. His shadow is said to be permanently etched onto the cave's wall. The legend goes that Bodhidharma's students would perform exercises based on the motions of birds and other animals after long hours of meditation. Over the years, these exercises turned into a form of physical and spiritual combat and Kung Fu was born. It's said that the Shaolin monks intervened in the many wars and uprisings in China's history... of course, they were always the 'good guys', just like in the movies.


We took an overnight train from Beijing to Luoyang, a city near Shaolin... two hours by bus. Soon after arriving in Luoyang, in the early morning hours, we found ourselves on a mini-bus to Shaolin -- a surprisingly easy task considering not one soul in Luoyang speaks English... but Shaolin is a popular tourist destination -- especially for Chinese tourists -- and the guidebook warned that it was a tourist trap.

As always, the bus ride was an experience in and of itself. We were finally on the road after a slow take off, an hour later than when we were told we'd depart (we had to swap busses in the parking lot, pick people up from a hotel, return to the bus parking lot, troll for people to fill the vacant seats, etc...). The guy who sold us our tickets was on the bus -- not unusual for bus 'conductors' -- and he was speaking loudly the entire way -- not unusual for Chinese. Benjamin and I started snickering when he took out the megaphone, halfway into the trip, to describe something about the landscape to our right. He was loud enough to begin with, especially considering there were only 10 of us in a small mini-bus. I thought a megaphone was unnecessary, but some people like to hear themselves talk, you know? It was curious, but I ignored it and put my headphones on.

We should have known then that we'd managed to get ourselves onto a tour bus... but we didn't figure it out until after the first stop at a temple that was not Shaolin. We waited in the parking lot there for a good half hour with a German couple wondering where we were, why we were there, and how we would get to Shaolin. We thought about splitting a cab but there were none. We argued with the driver, but with the language barriers, it didn't last long. After a while, the German guy concluded that we were just making an extra stop on the way so we waited and sure enough, we were back on the bus in a half hour. It wasn't until the second stop at a temple that was not Shaolin that we figured out we were on a tour, so I dug my camera out of my backpack and joined the group.

We finally made it to the Shaolin temple, too tired to pursue the Kung Fu classes. It's possible to stay there overnight, but the guidebook was right: it was a major tourist trap, complete with an amusement park atmosphere. It was not the quaint, quiet, forested temple of my imagination. The place was overrun with tourists snatching up souvenirs and posing for photos with old monks who don't look like they've Kung Fu-d in years.

As we left, I asked Benjamin if seeing what the place has become will make it hard for him to watch Kung Fu movies, now that the magic of Shaolin had been shattered. In the style of a true Kung Fu fan, he turned to me and replied, "For me, it's more about the philosophy of Kung Fu than the reality of it... so... I'm good."

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Hangover Enlightenment

Walking the streets of a foreign city with a hangover is a good way to break free from the 'traveler's daze'. The 'daze' is best described by making a comparison to driving with fatigue -- eyes wide open, hypnotized by the passing landscape. All of a sudden, an hour has passed... and you're 60 miles from the last place you remember being. It's as if your vehicle entered a time warp. It's all a blur. You have road amnesia.

Today, in the fog and fumes of last night's drink, I experienced a certain sort of enlightenment -- unusual, as hangovers usually put my mind in a vegetative state. As I was moving through the Sunday crowds in the Hutong near our hotel, I realized that some time during my travels, I had become desensitized to the fact that I am actually traveling... very, very far from home. Arriving in a new place lost its zing. It's become commonplace. Things have felt familiar, whether they actually are or aren't.

I'd walked down the streets of the Hutong every other day this past week, feeling quite comfortable and familiar with the surroundings. But today, everything was louder. Sharper. Crisp.

I noticed the stares. The music blaring from the clothing shops sounded alien. The ankle-height, nude pantyhose all the women wear looked funny. The bare bottoms of toddlers with split-seamed pants took me by surprise (apparently there are no diapers in China). The men and women strolling the streets in their jammies caused me to look twice at my watch -- yes, it was noon. The featherless, beakless duck heads in plastic display cases looked like clay sculptures. The organ meet for sale on sticks made my nose crinkle. The delicate woman who noisly shot a giant loogie onto the ground startled me.

All these things had always been there, on these streets, but somehow I didn't notice them. Or maybe I noticed them, but paid no heed. They didn't seem out of the ordinary until I walked around today with a hangover, with my fragile mind.

We were headed to a KFC, as every hangover needs to be fed greasy fast food as ritual. I asked for meal #2, using my finger sign language to make up for my deficiencies in speaking Mandarin. I was still given the picture menu so I pointed to #2 instead. As Benjamin and I were eating our lunch, I looked around at all the Chinese people (no Westerners but us) and was surprised to be surprised that I was in a very foreign place. It makes no sense, but perhaps I've just grown accustomed to the feeling of being in a strange land... so used to it that I've forgotten what it feels like to feel out of place, unable to communicate, to be a tiny island in a vast ocean.

I'm glad to have had the hangover, and you'll never hear me say that again. It woke me up from my traveler's daze. I feel foreign again. It's a little uncomfortable and while scary might not be the right word, it feels a little scary and a lot exciting. It's why I'm traveling, to feel these things. Tonight we head out of Beijing, out into the unknown -- where I'm told no-one will speak English and things might be difficult... I wonder how we'll fare.

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Great Wall

"Are you OK? Do you need help?"

Why did she keep asking me this? Was it my heaving chest, the coarse panting of breath, the buckling of my legs, or my weaving, lunging walk of a drunk? We were told the locals would make sure we were 'safe' on the wall, but she said she was a local farmer and wanted to sell me a t-shirt.

"No, I'm OK," I replied each time, eyes set on the next incline with hundreds of giant steps up to the next tower -- after 30 towers, I would reach the 'finish line'.

Yesterday we hiked the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai, 10 KM and 4 hours of steep slopes and steps along the ridge line of jaggy mountains with the Mongolian border to our left, China to our right. It was a strenuous rhythm of climb and descent the entire way along this less-touristed stretch of the Great Wall. I had to remind myself to stop and gaze upon the amazing scenery and take in the fact that I was standing on a piece of architecture that can be seen from the moon. At all other times, my mind was set in concentration to ignore the pain and watch my step along the crubmling stretches of the wall that has fallen in disrepair.

The sky was hazy, a thin veil of fog clung to the mountain tops as tightly as the wall itself. Off in the distance, the towers that are strung along the wall intermittently jut upwards to the sky, silhouetted against a disappearing horizon. The gray color of stone winds a lonesome path against dark green vegetation.

At the end of our walk, my legs were jello -- quads and calves felt as if they would burst from my skin with each stair. The hike came to an end at Simatai, where I chose to zip line across a small river to a boat which would take me to the parking lot and finally, to our bus. I was looking forward to the three hour drive back to Beijing. I needed a rest. Benjamin, feeling less adventurous or maybe a glutton for punishment, chose to walk another 15 minutes.

Ni Hao from Beijing

The flipflops, toe ring, and ankle bracelet from India are in 'storage' -- we've gone from the vibrant colors of India and the neon flash of Bangkok to a palette of black, red, and military green. Beijing is cool, a relief from the heat and sweat of the last several months on the road. I had to dig the jeans, long sleeves, and jacket from the depths of my backpack. We awoke on our second morning here, several days ago, with cold temps, gray skies, and light rain... but it seemed perfect weather for Beijing. The interiors of the old buildings with dark wood screens and red lanterns have a cozy, wintry feel. And outside, white fuzzy 'liuxu' (willow catkins that come with Spring) float in the air giving the impression of snow.

Our first morning here, we struck out into the Hutong alleyways -- the Hutong are the 'old streets' that criss cross Beijing from East to West, originally built in the Mongol Yuan dynasty, after Genghis Khan's army sacked the city. The alleyways are lined with courtyard homes, where life is lived much like the old days. Nowadays, many are disappearing as modern Beijing continues to grow, especially with the 2008 olympics in sight, with large tree lined boulevards, mirrored skyscrapers, and glitzy shopping malls.

I was surprised to feel at home; walking the Beijing streets felt familiar. The old streets remind me of China Town back home, and the new streets remind me of any modern city. Before arriving, we'd been 'warned' that few people in China speak English, but so far we've had no problems and when language is a barrier, there is always sign language... which works best when asking for the price of something. However, in China, the method for counting on fingers is a foreign language as well, but an easy one to learn. For example, number 10 is communicated with two closed fists, each with the index finger extended, one crossing over the other to form an 'X'.

Since our arrival on Monday morning (I'm writing this Friday a.m.), we've walked close to 25 miles -- falling into bed the last few nights, exhausted, at 8 p.m. We've run ourselves ragged. There is A LOT to do in Beijing: Tianneman Square, the Mao Zedong Mausoleum (his dead body is on display), The Forbidden City, The Great Wall, The Summer Palace, The Temple of Heaven, Hutong tours, and more... We've been to many in the list and tomorrow being our last day in Beijing, we are finding ourselves with too little time to do everything on our agenda.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Gerald Goes Bye-Bye

Soon after arriving in Bangkok, Gerald reared his ugly head again. One morning, right after breakfast, Benjamin suddenly doubled over -- every muscle in his face flexing as he grit his teeth. I'm sure he would have made a hideous noise if only his face wasn't twisted up in a tight knot of pure agony.

"Gerald's back," he said in a tight voice, the kind stoners use after a big hit on the bong -- you know, in the movies.

Benjamin spent the next three days in bed self-medicating with drugs bought in India but not used. He was waiting for Gerald to make one more appearance before taking the Tinidazole -- that's the 'fail safe' method we devised, a rule if you will, for self diagnoses of medical problems -- and in particular, problems like Giardia, which are known to come and go. Waiting for Gerald's return was our scientific method of fact checking. Benjamin did try to give me a stool sample to test for parasites, but without a lab and protective gloves, I refused. We had nothing but time and patience to use as tools in making a positive ID...

After a few days on the meds, Benjamin still wasn't feeling right. I asked him if he thought maybe we should go to the doctor. I suggested that perhaps his problem wasn't Giardia after all.

"I don't know what else it could possibly be," he muttered while stroking his chin. He had the air of a doctor who's built an award winning career on the study of stomach disorders.

"It could be anything," I laughed, "It's not like we even knew what Giardia was before we read about it in Lonely Planet. Do you think maybe there's a small chance there are other parasitic diseases or problems we don't know about? Hmmm?"

I left him in bed one night and came to the internet cafe to do some research. We had questions about the correct dosage of Tinidazole. The guy who sold us the medication said to take two pills a day for three days, one in the morning and one at night. But the Lonely Planet said to take 2 grams (4 pills) at once, a single dose, one day only. I found the same inconsistency on the internet amongst a number of sites (I also found a 'Giardia Club' which I have enrolled Benjamin in). So I went to the pharmacy down the street and bought some more Tinidazole, a pack that came with English instructions. Turns out Lonely Planet was correct, so Benjamin downed 4 pills before bed one evening and woke up as good as new.

I asked Benjamin to write a good-bye letter to Gerald to publish on this blog, but he's still working on it... I took a peak over his shoulder the other night and saw the first sentence:

Dear Gerald
I'm not normally one to write 'Dear John' letters, but in this case, it just seems so damn appropriate...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Finding the Sweet Spot

Before getting settled for a long afternoon nap in the sun, a dog will choose his spot and then slowly circle it a few times... stopping every now and then as if giving it a second thought, "Roh, do I really want to sleep here? Maybe there's too much foot traffic, right here, smack dab in front of this kitchen door... Roh, why can't I ever make up my mind?"

But he'll continue on, thinking it best not to doubt himself. He is used to following orders, after all. He'll circle the spot some more and *just* when you think he's going to finally lay down -- in fact, he is lowering himself to the ground -- he'll pop back up and circle the spot a few more times, maybe even change directions. I imagine the reason he ever lays down at all is that he's tired himself out with all that circling.

Kitties do it, too. They may circle their target napping spot with a bit less dedication than Roofus... actually, it's probably not so much that they're less dedicated, rather, kitties are just more decisive. It doesn't take them as long to make their pea-sized little minds up. Once settled, kitties still have some energy left so they 'knead dough' to wear themselves out.

People do it, too. But not when they're getting into bed -- no, people have the tendency to know what they want when it comes to picking a spot and laying down to sleep. They practically fall into bed or onto the couch, having barely enough energy left to make it there in the first place. There is no circling or kneading needed.

People do it when they are writing. Holding their pen above the surface of the paper, they'll stab at the air a few times, as if they are taking 'practice shots', before actually putting pen to paper to write whatever they are going to write. I've noticed people even do this when they are simply copying information from one sheet to another -- even though there's no necessity of thought required to compose a sentence or to think of a word, they'll still hold their pen in midair, stabbing an invisible victim to death.

I've thought about how much time all this wastes... the circling, the kneading, the stabbing... Why do we (dogs and cats included) do it?

I figure we're all just trying to find the 'sweet spot'. That's what we do. We seek out comfort and the things that will make us most happy in life. Even if that includes award winning penmanship -- I'm speaking on behalf of the pen-stabbers here.

So that's what I'm up to in Bangkok -- trying to find the 'sweet spot'. It seems that time has stopped and the days drag on. I'm getting bored. Maybe it's because Bangkok is too easy, it's too familiar, too 'Western'. Especially in comparison to India, which feels like ancient history. And China seems a million years distant. Bangkok was never even on 'the map' and here we are, going on a week -- the longest place we've stayed still in all of our time on the road.

Of course, it's not necessarily by choice that we've taken temporary residence in Bangkok. We came to receive a package and until having box in hand, we could not make onward arrangements. China is in the throws of a week long Labor Day holiday anyway, and it's not advisable to travel there during this time as it's a busy travel week for the Chinese and things are either fully booked or closed. We were lucky to show up at the China Embassy in New Delhi when we did, at the end of April -- the Visa office is closed from May 1 - May 8 in honor of the holiday! We've even had a hard time finding seats on flights from Bangkok to Beijing, so we figured we'd just leave on the 8th, when things have returned to normal... which gives us several more days to kill in Thailand.

So I'm circling, kneading, and stabbing away... looking for the 'sweet spot' so that my time here in Bangkok amounts to more than what I've been considering it to be, thus far, 'a waste of money'. It's not that we're spending a lot... well, not since the first night in Nana... but it's not a place I've ever wanted to be. It's not that covetous spot in front of the kitchen door that I'd like to settle down in for a while. Like a bumper sticker somewhere in America proclaims, "I'd rather be traveling."

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Passing of Time

I was surprised to feel melancholy... a dull presence of emptiness... as I buckled up for the flight from India to Thailand. I looked at Benjamin, who had a broad smile on his face, and told him, "I feel sad, but I don't know why."

He was excited to move on from India, but I felt confused to already be 'missing' it, a place I didn't think I would ever 'miss' in the full sense of the word. Sure, we had plenty of good times... fun times, but they all came with a healthy dose of hardship. Perhaps the 'good times' were only 'average times', but sweetened by the trials of getting from one place to another or in getting things done. The pay-off could be nothing but Awesome for the mere fact of having completed the task with some success.

So why was I sad? I wasn't feeling sorry to leave India... It's difficult. A lot of things don't make sense. India is not a country built on logic.

Take the issues with garbage and pollution. We read in the Bangkok Post the other day about how a court passed a ruling to ban cows from wondering the streets of New Delhi. The court cited several reasons for the ban: 1) they get in the way of traffic and 2) they pull garbage from the dustbins.

I never saw a trash can myself -- Benjamin says he saw one or two in all of India -- be it a rural village or a big city, garbage is casually tossed on the ground. Once we hired a car to take us sightseeing in Rajasthan. Benjamin had finished a bag of chips and when the driver noticed him neatly folding the bag to place it under the floor mat for the time being, he asked that Benjamin throw the bag out of the window. Benjamin said he'd throw it away at the end of the day, when we got back to the hotel... but the idea of filth in his car was too much. The driver insisted the bag should be tossed from the window... out into the unblemished beauty of the countryside.

Garbage is strewn along the sides of roads to the point where it becomes invisible, it becomes a part of the landscape. In some streets and alleyways, the trash collects in massive piles too wide and high to walk or drive around. This is where the cows like to hang out; they feed on the garbage. These 'holy' cows are eating India's trash and suffering from plastic bags that get wound around their intestines, causing a painful death. If anything, the court should ban littering rather than the cows, but that would just make too much sense.

As for the traffic... while cows do get in the way, so do the rickshaws, oxen-drawn carts, pedicabs, automobiles, delivery trucks, busses, motorcycles, bicycles, goats, pigs, dogs, and any other vehicular object one can imagine. If its mobile, it can be found on the street. And then there's all the people. There are no sidewalks except in the big cities, and even there people walk in the streets. There are no discernible traffic rules, whether driving or walking -- it's a chaotic malay of moving objects, resulting in the neverending sounds of honking and beeping as people lay on their horns to keep from colliding with something or other. Somehow it all seems to work, though -- I never saw one crash or one crushed foot... but that's not to say it's a good system.

If that court in New Delhi wants to fix the traffic, they shouldn't blame it on the cows. They're the slowest moving objects in the street, and because of their holy status, attention is made to avoid hitting them. In my mind, they serve as a sort of cheap 'speed bump', at times keeping the pace of traffic sane and providing a shield for the blind or elderly. While walking behind a cow might be prove dangerous -- cow paddies are probably slippery -- at least the bovines can be used as 'protection' from the traffic for the less daring pedestrians.

But other than the strange logic, garbage, and traffic, there's much more to frustrate a person traveling in India...

It's impossible to get a straight answer. Everything in India is either 'not possible' or 'no problem'. There seems to be no answer in between, like one that consists of more than two words, details, or specifics.

There is no concept of 'rude behavior'. It's a country where the sound of loogies could be its soundtrack. Men pee on buildings along the side of the road; people burp and fart without embarrassment; everyone gawks and stares at anyone and everyone not like them (in other words, at us... the people with white skin).

Oddly enough, it's the things that don't make sense in India... its ironies, foibles, and flaws... that make India lovable in its own particular way. Lovable in the way that a child's nervous tick or bad habit, such as nose picking or bed wetting, makes them endearing. Lovable in the way that an evil seductress in a soap opera keeps an audience tuning in week after week to get angry and yell at the TV. Lovable in the way that we root for the bad guy in movies and laugh when we see a clumbsy friend trip on a curb or stumble from a crack in the sidewalk. It's not always the pleasant things that make a person or place unique, and it's their unique qualities that makes them special to us.

These things make people smile, whether they love them or hate them, whether they're right or wrong. These things keep life interesting and give people something to talk about, or at least something to complain about. These things bind people together in the way that only humor, sorrow, and disgrace can.

But that's not why I was sad to leave India... this point of view is the kind of thing that takes time to appreciate... and I was only on the plane... still on the runway... not even out of India yet!

I was sad because endings are sad. It's a given. Like a death, a good book that you don't want to end, a breakup, or an empty bottle of wine... endings are sad. Endings move things from the here-and-now and place them into memory, turning them romantic and sentimental and fragile, for some day the memory might disappear.

But more than that, I was sad to have completed the first leg of our trip. Normally I am happy with 'completion' -- it means I've accomplished a goal or will get paid for work I've done. But in this context, completion means I'm moving toward the end of the trip... and odd feeling after so many years of moving towards the trip. And even though it's only been 2 months of the 9 months (or 12) we plan to travel, I can't help but think about the passage of time, how quickly it moves... how quickly my 'big adventure' will come to an end.

I remind myself, however, that with every ending there is a beginning... the start of something new. And this particular ending, leaving India, was a little one in the grand scope of things. And there are many beginnings awaiting me in the future -- and beginnings are way more exciting than those sad endings. What do I have to worry about afterall?

Like the silent space between songs on an album... that is the space I occupy now. I'll stop thinking about the future and the eventual end I'd like to avoid... For now I'll live in the moment and not mourn the passing of time, but embrace the coming of time, I still have many months to go.