Sunday, February 27, 2011

From the Rubble to the Ritz to the Rubble

Hi.  I used to blog.  Here's what's been going on.

My wonderful, amazing, supportive family (minus a few key members) came to visit and together we traveled through Cambodia and Vietnam for a couple weeks.  Life was grand!

Marble floors and staircases!  Then my family left and I went back to the slums.

It's unfair for me to really make any assessments on either Cambodia or Vietnam since I was in each for such a short period of time.  But I think Vietnam is winning thus far for both quality of food and craziness of traffic.

(If your desire for some feedback on the Cambodia/Vietnam experience isn't satisfied by the above, well you can blame Steven, Dale and Sarah, all of whom were offered an opportunity to guest-post on the blog, but none of whom took the bait).

The reality of traveling through Southeast Asia (with the exception of Myanmar) is that there are a lot, like A LOT, of tourists.  This fact is especially pronounced in Laos - where I currently sit - which has a much more back-country feel than its neighbors.  Right now I write to you from UNESCO World Heritage protected Luang Prabang, a magical old riverfront town of beautiful Buddhists pagodas, wats and gardens -- and guesthouses and restaurants serving hamburgers and pizzas.  There are a lot of safron-clad novice monastics wandering the streets, but they are vastly outnumbered by tourists.  I like to pretend I have some special justification for being annoyed by all of this, though of course I'm no different than anyone else.

My biggest gripe with the situation is that the local people are so jaded by all the travelers, that it makes it difficult to actually interact with them as real people, since they're usual content to play their role of "local" and stick you into the role of "tourist".  But I've developed two mechanisms for breaking down these roles and getting a little more of what I want out of the travel experience.  The first is to occasionally sit down and play some music with one of the acoustic guitarists that are ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia.  I've yet to find an Asian who doesn't get a kick out of a strumming/singing white boy, so sitting down to play is a good way to open them up to hang.  Although I've discovered that for the most part the only song I know how to play that they recognize (and as far as I can tell the only American song they know that isn't sung by Justin Bieber) is Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours".  So I've tried to be chill, but been so hot that I melted many many times in the past months.

The second way I'm able to really break out of the tourist box (though here this aim is really secondary) is to go dharma bum.  This, by far, is my favorite thing about Southeast Asian traveling.  The way this works is that I show up unannounced at the gates of a monastery and with my bags piled on my back I charade to the first monk I see that I would like to take up residence.  This monk than goes and finds an "English speaking monk" who speaks no English at all, and again I mime that I would like to sleep and meditate at their temple. I am then transferred to a third monk, this time the abbot, and after assessing my acting skills, he gives the okay.  The monks then set me up indefinitely with food and lodging free of charge (though of course you are expected to take on some daily chores and I always make a donation before leaving).

The most recent of such stays was at Wat Nakoon Noi, a forest monastery burried in the woods about forty minutes outside Vientienne, where approximately twenty monks, ten dogs, fifteen cats and fifty chickens make their home amongst the various wooden huts sprinkled throughout the trees and dried leafs.  The monks were kind enough to offer me a space to sleep on the floor of the main pagoda, although I must admit that between this simple "bedding", the monastic food, the outhouse toilets and the bathing facilities (or rather the complete lack thereof), this was probably my roughest accommodation to date, which is saying something.  But hey, it's good for the soul.  The all-expenses-paid package also included a daily 3:30 am wake-up call that began with the banging of a gong, and lasted a full half hour as every one of the seventy-five or so aforementioned animals responded to the gong and each other by howling, barking, screaming and crowing in their loudest voice.

Unfortunately, language is usually a significant barrier during these stays, and the problem becomes most pronounced during the time for meditation instructions.  The first reporting/question session at Nakoon Noi provides a pretty typical example of how this normally plays out:

Noah:  When I'm sitting and I feel discomfort or pain or agitation, I notice that my mind then adds another layer of irritation onto it.  Like all there is in the first instant is this not-yet-labeled sensation, then my mind creates an entire storm of agitation around it that very quickly manifests as actual physical discomfort in my chest. Actually, I see four separate moments that happen very quickly:  First, the sensation, second, my mind doesn't like it and labels it as pain, third, irritation arises which creates a physical manifestation and fourth I physically remedy the situation or squirm trying to fight the urge.  Although if I'm mindful enough sometimes I can catch the mind before it develops through the entirety of this process.  My question is, when I see the pain or discomfort, what should I do?  Should I make a mental note of it?  Should I continue noting it superficially until it dissipates?  What if it doesn't dissipate?  Should I dive into it deeper and really investigate what the sensation is itself, what it consists of?

English-to-Mandarin Translator:  [Smiles and laughs, nods head, speaks for forty-five seconds in Mandarin]

Mandarin-to-Laotian Translator:  [Speaks for twenty seconds in Laotian]

Monk:  [Speaks for about forty-five seconds in Laotian]

Mandarin-to-Laotian Translator:  [Speaks for twenty seconds in Mandarin]

English-to-Mandarin Translator:  "Yes.  Follow breath, in, out".

I mean.... all I want is some real words of wisdom!!  Something like "open up your mind and see like me, open up your plans and damn your free, look into your heart and you'll find the sky is yours, so please don't complicate, our time is short."