24 November 2009


Ah, the spirit of generosity. Tis the season. I am always grateful for the abundance of our rich culture and also, especially this time of year, anxious – will the funds come to meet our operating budget? Every day, I see the generosity of good people unfold. I know my donor base fairly well now, after two years Friendship Shelter, but people invariably surprise me, stepping up to give more because they know the need is great. Or, apologizing because they cannot give more but wish they could. I know how they feel.
I understand the delicate balance between the need and the response, much like the balance in nature in all things, and certainly in humanity. I truly believe that most people, even in America, strive to do their best and live by some sort of personal code. I believe more people are misguided and misinformed than unkind and I don’t much believe in evil, only the degradation of the human spirit. I avoid the fear mongering and just plain nasty media, which is most of it these days, in favor of NPR and PBS. These are the only sane media choices, balanced and observant, and endlessly interesting, well beyond the “news.” Still, stories are often so bleak. 25% of homeowners in danger of losing their homes. 40 million without health care and not all of them will be covered, despite so-called reform. Boys and girls dying every day in Afghanistan et al. Pro-life fanatics using health care to further their ends. Democrats and Republicans posturing and politicizing the most basic of human needs. Locally, social service providers jockeying for position, defending turf and pointing fingers instead of seeking meaningful solutions. Children dying daily because of abuse or drunk drivers, or languishing from neglect. Middle school kids beating up on peers because they have red hair. Elderly more concerned about death panels than quality of life.
I could go on and on. I won’t.
Instead, I retreat, as I often do, into the world of fiction. No picnic there, of course, but one has the benefit of that willing suspension of disbelief that serves as a buffer: the land of pretense that makes even the most realistic of stories fiction. Richard Powers, a favorite of mine, has just published a stunningly intelligent and engaging story about a woman who is endlessly happy: “Generosity.” His protagonist, a refugee of unspeakable horrors, is so caring and forgiving that she is unfathomable to those around her. They must study her. Investigate her true nature. Reveal her Achilles heel. The psychologist proposes a bi-polar mania. {Powers responds that of course this must be the case as the whole of society is now bi-polar – certainly Wall Street would bear that out.] The writing instructor is intimidated by her ability to transcend the usual maudlin quality of poetry and entrance all readers. The geneticist seeks the answer in her DNA. The media sensationalizes her story, turning her into the modern day equivalent of the bearded woman. The blogosphere seeks her identity and the lonely seek her blessings. Perhaps there is a Christ-like figure in this beautiful embodiment of the generosity of spirit, although this author rarely explores the spiritual – a realist and humanist, he prefers to peel back the layers of nature versus nurture. In “Echo Maker” he examined the power of memory. In “In the time of Our Singing” the essence of race relations. In “Gain” the conflict between big business and personal freedom. I love this writer. He makes me think, he makes me laugh, and sometimes cry, but never manipulates my emotions. No escapist fiction, rather an intelligent exploration of human potential, and failure, ever so much more meaningful than the harsh reality of harsh reality.
So, at this time of Thanksgiving, I am grateful not only for my health, my divine daughters and their good health and good lives, my wonderful friends, important work, fresh air, sunshine and blue waters always on my horizon, a sense of personal safety and the simple pleasures of music and the arts, I am grateful for a way of rising above what ails us every single day and remaining steadfastly devoted to the half-full glass. The generosity of giving, and a giving heart, has the potential to heal all wounds.
Generosity is a true blessing.
Post Script: Words to think about from "Generosity" by Richard Powers:
If a reasonably alert person wants to be exhilarated, she just has to read a little evolution. Think of it: a Jupiter flyby, emerging out of nothing. A few slavish chemicals producing damn near omnipotent brains... That discover is better than any drug, any luxury commodity, or any religion. Science should be enough to make any person endlessly well. Why do we need happiness when we can have knowing?

21 November 2009

Asia Journey The Finale: Vietnam

We depart lovely Laos for Vietnam, flying on Laos time which means an hour late, and arrive in bustling noisy Hanoi. A long ride from the airport traverses streets lined with factories and then with a series of 4-5 story narrow buildings, many separated by empty lots, like NY brownstones but even narrower. The reason: taxes paid based on frontage, so lots of narrow lots in and around the city.
At first I think I won’t like Hanoi. Almost impossible to process the mélange of images, sights, sounds, smells, a real assault on the senses. Wide boulevards intersected by so many narrow roads, packed with walkers, mopeds, and stuff, lots and lots of stuff. Shopping streets are defined, and often named, specifically by their wares – silks, shoes, blouses, ties, lanterns – rows and rows of stalls of similar wares and again, as in other markets in SE Asia, just so much stuff its mindboggling.
As I am running late, I rush to meet Byron and Gerry at the poolside bar at the Metropole, an old world posh hotel like something out of a Somerset Maugham novel. They look so relaxed and welcome me with open arms – what a thrill it is to meet up with dear friends in a foreign place. Gerry takes us to a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant [Le Vertical] run by a French chef that occupies a whole building. On the entry level is a spice shop, filled with hundreds perhaps thousands of little jars of spices specially mixed, and the air deeply scented. On the second and third level are the dining rooms so that you feel as if you are dining in a private home. The food is rich and beautifully presented, and for a couple of hours I feel as if we are in Paris.
Traffic in Hanoi: I repeat, like NYC or Hong Kong on crack. Makes Rome look like a village. Only a decade ago, everyone was on bikes, now they drive mopeds, some cars, taxis of course and buses. Most motor-bikers where masks, made of colorful fabrics, nearly to the edge of their eyes, making them seem all the more mysterious. Children are frequently wedged between parents, some wearing tiny helmets. Many of the many roads are the equivalent of 4-5 lanes, if there were lanes, and almost no traffic lights. While there are cross walks, pedestrians do not have right of way – this is not California, no one stops. So the good counsel of our tour leader, which I take seriously, is to step off the curb and walk at a steady pace – no sudden stops, no speeding up – so that the traffic can continue around you, which it does. This is not the place for country bumpkins, nor the feint of heart.
I leave the boys to have a day together and enjoy my last day with the tour, although it is a free day and I take off on my own to visit the Temple of Literature, an homage to Confucius, where PhD students where pale blue full length aprons and serve as guides. Down the street I take my life in my hands to cross a crowded boulevard to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, where I am one of only two visitors, as this place is not on the tourist highlights list which favors the prison or Ho Chi Minh’s palace. A quiet place in a large colonial style mansion, most of the collection is interesting but not exciting, until I walk into a room of Buddha porcelain statues painted in the 18th century, so humanistic that I am moved nearly as powerfully as only last year by the Pieta. One particular, whose expression of sadness, likely for the state of the world, even then, is palpable, and I find myself in tears.
I head over to a café for lunch that our tour leader has recommended – one of three run as a non-profit to train street teens in the food trade. Young men and women are dressed in their starched white jackets, proudly preparing food in the open kitchen, while others manage or take orders. The food is excellent and while I there I chat with a woman from Chicago who teaches science at the American school in Jakarta, and previously in other foreign cities, and often takes a long week-end somewhere else, a wonderful way to devote herself to her profession while seeing the world.
People belch loudly and often, likely the sign of a satisfying meal. They crowd the sidewalks at lunch time with their small plastic tables, stored between meals. They can also be seen crouching to pee or eliminate on the sidewalk or in alleys. Vietnam, like the other countries I’ve traveled on this trip, has not had the pleasure of evolving slowly over time, despite their ancient histories. They have been catapulted from primitive to emerging to a modern world. Culture is still tribal but guided by television and Internet and cell phones. Like a toddler who leaps to high school. Will we ever understand a culture in the throes of warp-speed rapid advance.
Our last group activity is the water puppets, a charming operatic performance, and then the farewell dinner at the top of a building overlooking the lake and the lights all around that mark the center of the old city. I have always excused myself after dinner while the younguns of the tour head to the bars, but tonight they insist that I join them and we head to the Funky Buddha, a bar with strobe lighting and DJ and funky cocktails and have a great time together one last time.
Byron and I leave in the morning for Halong Bay where we board our three layer boat to explore the Bay of Tonken for a day and a half. The berths are of higher quality than most of the guest rooms I’ve stayed in, and the meals a feast. In a bedside basket, there are scrolls filled with hand-written bedtime stories. We enjoy the company of a delightful French couple, and also an interesting Australian my age traveling with her two grown children. The boat nearly drifts through this amazing bay of 3,000 islands, glacier formed, once the site of severe military action with the Chinese and now utterly serene. I kayak through caves into lagoons with water the color of jade. A cave is climbed. Some swim off the boat in the late afternoon while I relax on the upper deck with a book. We drop anchor for a totally quiet rest and peer at a sky filled with stars. At last I drink some good wine. The perfect conclusion to this long and amazing journey.
On our last night together back in Hanoi, we walked along the lake, lit so beautifully and surrounded by charming stone sculptures. Groups even at 9:30 PM are doing aerobics or yoga, rollerblading with children, or simply staring at the few stars that penetrate the haze. The markets are active late into the night, hoping for yet another tourist to purchase something, anything, that one purchase that will likely support a family for at least a day.
The next morning I leave at 5 AM to make my flight. Hanoi at day break is a city of shadows, the calm before the everyday storm. The city is still dark, the streets just coming to life. A few motor-bikers have precariously attached to them large plastic bags filled with the wares they will sell that day. At the early morning markets, strings of pin lights point to stalls and they are already crowded. Women are already cooking the traditional morning meal over petro-stoves: noodles in broth topped with a poached egg, although my taxi driver munches on a baguette filled with what looks like ham and cheese. I find myself torn – happy to be heading to the comfort of home, sorry to leave these fascinating lands. The very essence of travel.
For those of you reading, thanks for joining the journey with me.

15 November 2009

Asia Journey Part III: Laos - 2/Ventiane

Ventiane. The capital of Laos. Pronounced wen-chen. 200,000 population. Feels so much larger than the villages we’ve visited on the way, but also small, a small city. Right out of Graham Greene. Provincial, colonial. Lots of temples, of course, the oldest of which, 3rd century, is a compound of beautiful small buildings. Wonderfully serene. Another, c. 15th century, all gold leaf. My travel mates call it the bling temple.
Again, lots of mopeds here, also cars. Traffic is slow but steady. And again, little extraneous noise. A mini-de triomphe, installed by the French during their occupation, has the added flourish of dragons on the upper cornices.
I forgot to mention the morning walk of the monks in Luang Prabang. 5:30 AM they make their pilgrimage to the hillside temple and people line the walk to offer them alms. It has sadly been polluted by swarms of tourists who are only interested in taking photo’s and thus disrespect the monks as they go, who ignore them. I arrive early on a side street and have the good fortune to see them pass, without interaction, and before I see the circus it has become, but I’m told it’s better some mornings than others. Photo above.
This is the most sophisticated Lao city I’ve seen, by a long shot. Shops with wares different from other places, the kind of shops that might be fun to work in. Elegant. The café’s offer more for a more sophisticated palette, and environs more suited to travelers, with large bars and outdoor seating areas. Much more Western in style. I sit one morning in a bakery café with dark wood tables and chairs, beautiful pastries in the glass case, pizza, quiche and artisan breads on the menu. Around me mostly Brits, Germans, some Americans. Feels more European here. Latte’s on the tables. Students immersed in their laptops.
Last night we had an especially enjoyable, festive dinner on the upper terrace of a café that served Lao, Thai and Indian food, plus burgers and pizza for good measure. I’ve noticed that my comrades now and then seem to need a fix of western food, especially pizza, but I find comfort in the indigenous menu’s, prepared to order. Lao food is less spicy than Thai, but servers always offer an option: “you want spicey?” Chili peppers and oil always on the table just in case. Koni [short of Konrad, our Swiss tour leader] offers to share a half bottle of wine with me. I haven’t had wine at all on this trip as this is not the land of wine, mostly beer. In fact the group has been crazy excited about Lao beer which I taste and even I, who has no taste for beer, finds smooth, almost buttery. I see the appeal. However we’re told it doesn’t travel well, so drinking in the country is best, like most micro-brews. We split a carafe of Merlot, nothing of note but fun to have a wine glass in my hand. Everyone was in especially good spirits, enjoying hot water showers and higher level civilization, but also the relaxed pleasure of this city.
I take a long walk around the neighborhood and dawdle in a bookstore – the first real bookstore I’ve enjoyed, others merely stalls of used paperbacks likely left behind by tourists – lots of Grisham and such. This store, Monarch Books, has sections in English, French, German, Thai and of course Lao. I feel very much at home here as I always do in bookstores. However the national library, which I enter with great enthusiasm, turns out to be more manuscripts and political documents than books.
Lao women all wear long skirts [ankle length] and often with a striped border at the hem. Always with crisply pressed blouses with sleeves usually to the elbow. Display of shoulders, chest or knees is forbidden. Even little girls on their bikes are in long skirts and school children always in uniform. Modesty is a virtue for women, men are suitably conservative, while monks once again in golden orange robes off one shoulder. I must remember to research the origin of this uniform. Women to are also expected to wear closed shoes, no sandals, but children wear flip flops. Their hair is usually shot, no longer than shoulder length, or pulled back with lovely barrettes. All conform to codes of conduct, so I’m told.
A river borders the city, once again, and there is little development on the river, but I see several signs signaling preparations for new buildings and centers, coming into the new millennium. I hope they don’t ruin the view.
Food is delivered as prepared [did I mention this before?] Always fresh and hot. So that a party of ten, which we often are, might have some of us half finished before the other half begins eating. One learns to eat slowly to try to maintain the balance. I’ve not liked being served first, but better than last.
I would have liked more time in this city. We will leave Laos for Vietnam too soon. I’m not quite ready for a big bustling city, which I’ve been warned Hanoi is. And I’ve come to appreciate the general tranquility of Lao culture. I find myself wondering what it would be like to live here for a while, teach English. I could see myself here as well as in European cities. And they definitely are in need of English tutoring.
On a prop jet from Ventiane to Hanoi, the sound of the motor brings tears to my eyes. One of the sounds of my childhood, on those rare occasions when we flew to Virginia for summer holiday, rather than drive. So much closer to the ground, above squares of green conjoined to slivers of road, rivers, lakes. We fly so near the clouds one might reach out and touch them. This is flying as it once was, exhilarating like driving a stick shift car, a throwback to another time. As is Laos.

14 November 2009

Asia Journey Part III: Laos - 1

Total population of Laos is roughly 7 million, fairly equally spread across this tiny land-locked country. Compare this to 9 million in Hong Kong. 80 million in Thailand. 100 million in Vietnam. A country still largely agrarian. The most bombed country during the VN war because the Viet Cong hid there. Laos never in its entire history went to war, despite numerous occupations. A peaceful people. Reserved. Kind. I fell in love with Laos, almost from the first moment I looked across the bank of the Mekong River from Thailand to the misty hillsides there. A small boat carries us across from Thailand to Laos, a distance less than the expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge. Visas are issued. Currency exchanged. In Lao Kip I am suddenly a millionaire, in cash!
We remove our shoes when we step onto the barge that will take us down the river, as this boat is the home of a family, who will escort and feed us on our journey. Floating down the river for a day and a half, there is surprisingly little traffic. Fishermen in coves, an occasional motor boat speeding those in a hurry to get to a city. Tiny primitive villages perched on the hills. Natural terraces of limestone, caves carved into tall rock. The captain of our long wooden vessel navigates with great familiarity around every one of the many rock outcroppings, avoiding too shallow waters. He sits tall in his seat, his prowess clear, the family watching proudly when they are not in the back preparing a feast. Sisters, roughly 3 and 4 play with each other all day, inventing games, laughing loudly, silent only when they fall into their nap on their mother or grandmother’s lap. Tiny beautiful children, the elder is playful with our tour leader who permits himself to be chased him around the boat to squeals of delight. These children have no guile. They have no toys I can see except a couple of skimpy dolls. No television or video games, not here on the boat where they spend so much time. They invent play. They enjoy each other and others. They are a reminder of another time when the imagination was sufficient.
Miles and miles of river pass with hardly a town or village seen, no development. Trees, hills, tiny natural beaches. An occasional oxen. The area is remote and largely pristine. Rock formations are lined with the striations of sediment, perhaps volcanic, as if the ancient wrinkles of a civilization. Large billowy clouds soften an increasingly hot sun. A small statue of Buddha is perched just to the right of the navigator, keeping us on course and in the moment. This journey is like an extended meditation. I can’t imagine a river in the US that hasn’t been marked by industry; then again, I never floated down the Mississippi. One of my comrades remarks that in the western world, at least one spa resort would have been built here by now.
This trip is a good respite from the active sightseeing we’ve completed in Thailand, and all the more soothing for the gentle waves lapping in our wake. Lunch, a six course meal each day, is hot and hearty and largely vegetarian. On the second day, we slow down near the shore to purchase a fresh fish hooked on a rope in the water off a family row-boat. While we cannot understand what they say, it is clear they are negotiating, and the women take the lead on this. They prepare the fish in the back of the boat, in tiny quarters, and serve it freshly fried with ginger and garlic to accompany vegetable soups, noodle and vegetable stir fry’s and of course, the obligatory bowl of rice. None of the family eats until we have completed our meal and they hope that we eat most of what we are served [which is nearly impossible] so as to be assured they have done well.
First, we overnight in Pak Beng, a village of no more than 1/3 miles, with a charming guest house on a hill. The town consists of one single street flanked by stalls, restaurants, a few guest houses and an organic market replete with buffalo hooves. At a family owned restaurant, where the owner proudly tells me that his English teacher is from LA [and he is one of the few Lao I will meet who speaks decent English] we drink shots of Lao-Lao, a rice whiskey. The tradition requires an expression of gratitude with each gulp. Our tour guide expressed thanks for fresh water. A fellow traveler for a safe journey. I express thanks for good health.
In the very early morning, a cacophony of music marks the nearly rising sun – roosters, birds, geckoes and barking dogs. There is no electricity in the village, only generators, so the lights come on at dusk and stay on only until 10 pm, and then again early mornings for the little bit of hot water and such. Food is cooked largely over wood fired grills, and large kettles of water are always boiling to steam rice. We visit a small monastery where two monks are in residence plus three novices. They walk down the street from one end to the other twice a day – at 6 AM and again at 6PM - calling residents to prayer. Houses along the street are largely one story shacks, with one large room divided in part by tatami mats. And even in these primitive surroundings, as darkness falls, families gather together and sit on the floor to watch TV [from Thailand.] However, our local guide, Wan, takes great pride in Lao culture as differentiated from Thai – these countries so often intertwined over centuries at last apart. Thailand is a democracy, Laos socialist {PDR]. We stop once to climb into a cave filled with thousands of small Buddhas and once to visit a remote hilltop village where the families living there have not yet been visited by westerners and they watch us carefully, without fear or hesitation but with definite curiosity, especially the beautiful teenage girls who are giggly over Rob our young stud on the trip. One of the village dogs has given birth to puppies that scamper over our feet, among pigs, cats and chickens, and the essential rooster who surely will announce the day. I’m told the children take boats to a school down river, and that the girls marry very young.
We land in Luang Prabang, a charming small city bounded by two rivers, and surrounded by rural areas. The French influence here is still evident, although not as much as in the capital Ventiane, which will be our last stop in this lovely country.In Luang Prabang,as in many places throughout SE Asia, they believe the spirits of the past reside in the earth. Thus, no one individual may own the land outright and one must always acknowledge those who came before when they settle. They build a spirit house, like an ornate mailbox or birdhouse on a post, so that the spirits have a place to live and keep the peace. They are beautiful sculptures [you’ll see a few in the photos] and I find them enchanting. Someone should do a book about this [Byron please take note] as each is different and all beautiful. During festival seasons or on special occasions, they place flowers on the spirit house and on the one morning it rained while here, someone had perched an umbrella on top for protection from the elements. Note – The Photo above is a spirit house store in Thailand.
This city has a warm and bright aura. At the night market, no one hawks their wares or asserts themselves more than slightly at passers by – they perch at the back of their mats, covered with colorful goods, and smile, hoping for your attention. Farmers sell their produce off the back of small trucks, piled high with potatoes, onions, dragonfruit and such. Curfew is midnight here. As there is no word for no, the word “bo” pronounced with emphasis means not, and is recommended for use to say no to drugs, which of course exist everywhere.
We travel to a gorgeous waterfall where natural swimming pools are formed at several levels, pale aqua in color and not too cold. This place is a lesson in peace – people of all colors and faces line up to jump on the rope hanging off a high branch and into the deepest of the pools. They cheer each other on. Lao’s do not wear bathing suits – they swim in t-shirts and shorts – and women must always cover shoulders and knees. Many western visitors are unaware [or disregard] this cultural modesty and wear bikinis, but there seems no offense. Everyone is young, enjoying a Sunday in a magical spot.
City sounds here are largely motors, like the soundtrack to an old film. A few cars, motorized Tuk-tuk’s, motor bikes/mopeds, small trucks turned into taxi’s,
all old-fashioned hand-cranked sort of motors. Rarely do you hear loud music or loud voices. It is the quiet of restraint. Through the night, silence, until the rooster crows. What I imagine small towns across America once sounded like. Perhaps some still do.
In what is my favorite guest house on the trip, a fully equipped western bathroom
with a toilet that produces a sort of sonic boom every time I flush, as if an airplane is taking off! One day, walking the perimeter, I find myself terribly overheated. I can not make it to a restaurant, so stop at a nearby market for nuts and juice and more water, and OMG, a cup of ice-cream in a freezer there. Maybe the best ice-cream I’ve every had!
Flowers are constant. Everywhere, large clusters of flowers. Trumpet vines, frangipani, hibiscus, orchids. Lantana grows wild along the road. Many unusual blooms in odd shapes. Lots of purple, although I haven’t seen any hummingbirds.
We travel in a van across the mountain to Veng Vieng, a village with dirt roads that has become a way station for backpackers. Like an old American western town, lined with storefront grocers and bars. People are poor here, likely uneducated, although there is a-big new school at the end of the town. However, when I purchase some water and whip out my canvas tote to carry back with me, the clerk smiles broadly and says “Very Good – plastic bad.” They are educated enough to be kind to the earth. Perhaps one of the positives of a tourist based economy, learning the new norms of a larger world.
However, nowhere in SE Asia have I seen recycling bins. Thousands, likely millions of plastic water bottles and soda cans fill garbage bags to overflowing and who knows where they go. Hateful to think of garbage dumps or landfills in these otherwise pristine surrounds, yet cities, even this small way-station attract more and more visitors. Seems to me recycling companies could provide a small local incentive to locals to save plastics and tins for pick-up, employ locals to make those pick-ups and establish recycling centers, selling the by-product for the many other uses these days. A new industry that might help the economy and the earth.
Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of this place and even harder to place in perspective of my own western life. How do we reconcile poverty here with the riches of our lives? How will these people come into a more modern world, beyond internet café’s and CNN? Seems to me, South East Asia is encapsulated to a sleepy elder world while its more aggressive neighbors, China and Korea, take the lead.
At dinner at Mama Lao’s cafe we have the most amazing sticky rice pudding with mango – cooked in coconut milk and cream, it is divine. I have the recipe.
On to Ventiane in a separate blog. SE Asia makes me more loquacious than usual!
Note: If you haven't yet enjoyed the photos from the trip, see the link in previous blog entries. Enjoy.

07 November 2009

Asia Journey Part II: Thailand

Bangkok. More throngs. More traffic. Different faces. The Thai are said to be kind, to wish to please. Saving face is of huge importance, I’m told, which, just in the knowing, seems to diminish any possibility of anger or confrontation in favor of conciliation. This is evidenced on arrival at the Royal Hotel, a gloomy shadow of what must have been a glorious past, where I’m expected to share a room although I’ve booked my own. There is a genuinely pained expression on the face of the front desk clerk, even as she remains steadfast that I am committed. Mediation by the tour leader is required, although frankly I was more interested in the process than the outcome, as I knew it would be resolved at some point. The Thai never say no, they only divert. Natural public relations professionals.
We dine at a dive off an alley, a place I would never have ventured had it not been for the calm authority of our Swiss tour leader, and the food, fresh and hearty, is excellent and incredibly cheap. We are a group of just ten and start to get to know each other.
BBC news on the TV at night, the only English speaking show I find, is too sobering, and I resolve not to watch [a resolve I keep most of the time.]
Food stalls crowd sidewalks with everything from voluptuous fresh fruits to deep fried foods on sticks. In between stalls, between scents of ginger and peppers, is the unsettling odor of rotted vegetable skins and trash. People plop tiny plastic tables, the size used for kids, everywhere and anywhere on the sidewalks to eat, creating an obstacle course for walkers.
We stay mostly in the old city, where temples and the national palace share space with parks, 7/11 shops and ATM’s. We walk to a pier where we board a couple of canoe shaped motor boats for a canal tour. On the way, I discover an encampment of homeless families, laying under a bridge on makeshift mattresses. When I inquire, I’m told it is rare, as families take care of their own. The guide tells me that sometimes, family ties are broken, and people come to Bangkok looking for work. Sounds familiar.
On the canal, filled with intersecting pathways, wooden houses sit above rotting caissons, next door to temples and elegant homes. Pots filled to overflowing with beautiful flowers are everywhere, even in front of the dingiest shack – frangipani, hibiscus, bougainvillea, others unknown. Lush, colorful, abundant, they dress up somewhat squalid conditions. Dogs resting on rocks or decks watch us go by. A man slides plastic bags of light white bread [like challah] to tourists in boats to rip into chunks to feed the catfish who are huge and rush to the food like sharks to their pray. These, known as bottom feeders in other places, are protected, forbidden to fish, only to feed.
At the temple of the reclining Buddha, large sumptuous buildings are decorated in mother of pearl and gold leaf. Incense burns everywhere. Shoes are piled high outside the many temples and when sitting inside, before the Buddha, one must sit lotus style or in a child’s pose, toes must never point in the Buddha’s direction, an insult. Good to know.
Monks dressed in orange robes [which will be true in all three countries, the same robes] are always given a wide berth, as to be touched, even the slightest brush by a woman, is a sin, punished by 3 days of isolation and prayer. I always step aside, and often a monk smiles at me in thanks, a sage semi-smile, and while part of me in indignant to be considered in this way, I respect tradition and I respect Buddhists.
There are also nuns, but they serve the monks. Surprise.
Throughout Bangkok, large boulevards are capped by statues and fountains, while side streets are filled with narrow alleys leading to restaurants, shops, massage parlors. I’m told of the seedy side of downtown, which I’ve read about, and avoid.
We take an overnight train to Chiang Mai. I’ve traveled in this way only once, as a small girl with my mother to visit my aunts in Pittsburgh. The story goes that my mother saved every penny to buy us a sleeping berth, but I sat up all night too excited to sleep. On this trip in Thailand, I sleep well, the steady motion of the train a tonic. Sheets are stiff from starch and the pillow small, but I fit comfortably and I negotiate with one of my comrades for the lower berth so I have the window, where I watch the sun rise over farms and fields and then steadily observe the increase in houses, temples, buildings as we enter Chiang Mai, like watching urban development unfold on fast forward. I realized on the train that I had embarked on a very different kind of journey and was totally high – close to the ground, no frills, an opportunity to experience the culture.
Chiang Mai. Byron calls it a cross between Tijuana and Laguna, but I find it more interesting. A smaller city, largely devoted to tourism, a mix of old and new. The old city entry points are marked by large elegantly carved gates, one each at the 4 points on the compass, and bounded by the river. Our guest house is old-world with simple modern amenities – a teak platform bed, lattice dividers between spaces, and on the TV is CSI Miami!
On a morning walk in the old town, I stumble into a seminary where one of the monks speaks to me in halted but literate English. There I find a sign engraved in wood that says “We are never too old to mend.” I know this well. In the evening, we attend a grand hillside temple, 250 steps to the top, and there I am blessed with holy water by a monk with a big smile who wants to know my name. His assistant ties a rope to my wrist for good luck, and I am told to let it fall off on its own. It remains there still. On the large wrap-around terrace, 12 huge brass bells, all slightly different shapes and sizes, are lined up and if you make a wish and bang on the bell, we’re told that the sound will take your wish to heaven. I wish for just one place, somewhere on earth, to be truly at peace.
People do not smile much, nor do they go out of their way to engage foreigners, unless they want to sell you something, and then quite aggressive. But while they are not interested in engagement, neither are they threatening or arrogant in any way.
I stop for a foot massage at one of the many massage place, like nail shops here, plentiful, and the women there are so pleasant, although again, very little English.
The night market is huge and also bounded by roughly 10 square blocks of stalls. So much merchandise, much higher quality than expected. I remain amazed by the sheer volume of stuff always for sale and the throngs of people always browsing, locals as much as tourists.
Animals are revered – images of dogs, elephants, dragons of course. I watch 2 dogs follow a monk, on alert, awaiting his commands, and when he signals to them without looking at them, just a nod of his head and a movement of his hand, they follow. The dog whisperer monk.
At the elephant conservation center, these animals look you in the eye as if they know you. Gentle but commanding, a tribute to their Zen environs. A hospital here treats sick elephants at no charge. A Mahout training course prepares guides/protectors, each assigned to one elephant for their stay. The rides are fun, but the best part is bathing hour, where elephants and their mahouts, and volunteers who have paid for the privilege, splash around playfully. Two elephants paint on canvas, carefully taking the brush in their trunk and dipping into the paint – one paints an image of elephant, one a vase of flowers, and it is inexplicable, even though I’ve seen it on 60 Minutes.
Just before we leave Chiang Mai, I lunch at a little restaurant, The Cottage, at the end of an alley near the guest house, that serves organic farm grown foods. I order a veggie burger, which arrives with a selection of fabulous chutneys, followed by a complimentary plate of mango chunks and fruit tea. Women cook and serve with an obvious desire to please. As I leave, I press my hands to my heart to thank them and they seem gratified that they have served me well. I leave a big tip. Total price: $3.
Chiang Khon. We ride a van 4 hours to this little river village, important only as the embarkation for Laos. Along the way we stop to photograph a gorgeous temple, in the middle of nowhere, carved out of glass and stone by an artist in the 15th century. We also stop at a market with 25 types of cashew nuts.
Here in the northern hills, early in the morning, the sun peeks through a deep mist, reflecting a swatch of light across the water. On the opposite bank: Laos.
Technology is a frequent subject of conversation among my fellow travelers, who are all under 35 except one 42 year-old from Texas who is a gourmet cook who wants to try every food and spice possible, he’s fun to watch when he scours the menu. We are from England, Wales, Ireland, Australia, India, Canada, Switzerland. All English speaking thankfully, all better traveled than I despite their youth, and two have just begun their year around the world. They travel simply but they are of the modern age. They have phones with sim cards for each country. They compare apps, discuss phonebook options from itunes to Google, the cost of text messages, the price of new iphones. Cameras are an endless source of interest. They call family far away without hesitation. We are never alone. They stop at internet cafes often. I am enjoying the disconnect and will only check in every few days to email the girls. Not that my friends aren’t on my mind – I want to share every experience – but my journal is close at hand.
My last morning in Thailand, I have learned to take cold showers without shuddering, and aim the hose at myself so as not to totally blanket the bathroom with water, as there is no shower stall, only the hose on the wall and a drain in the floor. Gekkos climbing the walls of the bathroom don’t bother me, in fact it is a prize to have one in your room as they eat other bugs. The sounds of this very foreign language are becoming more familiar. I keep toilet paper with me at all times and have learned to squat low and not mind leaving used paper in covered bins rather than clog their narrow pipes. In the end, it is of little consequence against the backdrop of this world. One has to respect their ways, and letting go of western creature comforts is wonderfully liberating. Like a weight off your shoulders.
So while we move around a lot, and I rise with the light every morning ready for the day, I feel great, and I send an email to Dana thanking her for urging me to get out of my comfort zone.
All photo's at http://picasaweb.google.com/maple57/Asia2009#
Please note: These are all my pictures, plus Byron's shots of Hanoi, which are easily identified as the better photo's!
Stay tuned for Laos and Vietnam. xx

04 November 2009

Impressions of Hong Kong

Women with parasols in pastel colors. Laundry hanging to dry outside windows throughout the city, strung precariously on extended hangers as high as the eye can see. They hang totally still, like sculptures, as little wind penetrates the narrow gulf between buildings.
Skyscrapers all, hardly any low roofs to break the sight line, clumped together like giant vertical lego's, all shades of gray.
A glimpse of green hillside in the distance. A mountainous screen saver.
Whole portions of the city created out of landfill, and more of the harbor soon to be sacrificed. One might expect at some point that only a small channel will remain for boats, ferries perhaps obsolete to bridges.
Kowloon, where Byron and Gerry live, once dirt and slum, now an elegant choice to city center, with apartment complexes offering resort-like amenities and amazing views of what we think of when we think of Hong Kong. [Photo above taken from their terrace.]
High overhead walkways between newer buildings at business centers, connecting work stations with malls of high-end shops and restaurants. All neatly constructed, as if blueprints sprung to life.
High tea at the Peninsula Hotel downtown, a remnant of colonial rule and old-world European charm There is little left here. Beautiful abundant food, one of the few vestiges of British rule.
Junk boats fill sections of the harbor, awaiting duty – almost all the color of rusted metal, with only the occasional red or blue speed boat mixed in, a splash of color on an otherwise dreary canvas. Water, sky, buildings are all gray, blending into each other. Haze and pollution blanket the scene.
Street markets overflowing with goods of all kinds, piled high into small stalls.
Streets teeming with people at all times, people of every Asian variety from Chinese to Vietnamese. Asians all but the contrasts in facial characteristics clearly delineate the differences, and they all know their own. The lower classes – Philippines, Indonesians – are employed largely as house workers, diminished and tightly controlled, and often subject to stern scolding on the streets over any perceived or invented disrespect.
Sundays at Causeway Bay, a highly commercialized beach area, where house workers on their one day off congregate together with pot luck lunches, always clustered with their own, chattering like birds on migration, a few hours liberated from their near-slavish lives. Byron and Gerry take better care of their “maid” who is as much companion now to Byron as housekeeper, a fantastically good natured soul with little to look forward to.
Poppy, their beautiful golden retriever, frequently frightens people on the street or in the elevator only because she is a dog.
Fishmonger storefronts downtown with giant bottles of shark fins floating in murky water, lined up in windows like a poster display.
Warm smiles of working people but only when you smile first.
A taxi driver laughing loudly at our accented directions.
Trucks, buses, taxi’s all bombarding up against each other on narrow streets, fighting for every inch of road.
Buildings mostly flat facades. Institutional, utilitarian. Little molding, trim or shutters. A sea of windows between which are often seen the stains of heavy rains. Roofs adorned only with cisterns.
Rarely a tree-lined street. Parks few, largely hidden.
Constant 10-hour days of construction, with the requisite drone of saws and drills and engines whirring. The ubiquitous crain. The only sound to penetrate the din of a busy city is the occasional trill of a bird singing alto voce as if determined to compete. “Listen to me” it pleas and that might be said of the 9 million or so making their way through Hong Kong every day.
The Hotel Intercontinental in Kowloon, opposite HK island, a gorgeous glass enclosed bar just above the harbor provides a stunning view of boats and the skyline, which lights up like Disney at 8:00 PM, each building in sequence. Light scatters across buildings and across the water. A most western style place, gorgeous food and service, one might be anywhere, except for the view.
There are 60,000 Americans living in HK, as many and more other expats. They congregate in western style places, bars high above the skyline, living well in this fantastically expensive city. An apartment has just been sold for $50 million. I imagine HK competes with Shanghai and Dubai, perhaps Seoul, for the most modern over-the-top cities of the world. HK is Tokyo on crack. Tokyo is New York on crack. New York seems small, even quiet; then again, it is my home.
People of HK are a people of purpose. Completely focused, immersed in what they do, from shopping to work. By day, they seem serious souls, although after hours, or occasionally caught off guard, Byron tells me they are easily amused and good-hearted.
If in fact Hong Kong is the jewel in the Chinese crown, the model for all other cities to come, they are on warp speed to modernity. Old buildings are demolished for new, no restoration or renovation, only temples are sacred. I have seen only swarms of shoppers, workers, passers-by. I’m told there are shanties of sorts under bridges and in selected corners, but I’ve not seen them. They likely are not meant to be seen.
Even on a Sunday afternoon, forging through the many open markets, they are intent on fulfilling their mission, on the search for just the right item. Frequently dressed in black, they rarely make eye contact, at least not with me. Is it no wonder they will dominate the world?

More photo's at http://picasaweb.google.com/maple57/Asia2009#
Please note: These are all my pictures, plus Byron's shots of Hanoi, which are easily identified as the better photo's!
Stay tuned for Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. xx