Sunday, July 27, 2008

Nashville Tennessean

Harding first graders make prayer flags for Mount Everest base camp

Student's grandmother hangs flags that spread messages of love, peace, kindness

Seven-year-old Megan Murphy described her creation quite simply.

"Well, it had a giraffe and an ocean and some grass. It was pretty. It was a blue flag. It had some peace signs and hearts," she said. "And that's about it."

But the flag she designed and made in her first-grade Harding Academy class last spring must be pretty special, as it, along with her classmates' creations, is hanging at 17,040 feet in a base camp of Mount Everest.

Megan's grandmother, Audrey Gonzalez, hung the international prayer flags during her two-month pilgrimage to Nepal and Tibet. Gonzalez was 68 years old and had just undergone a breast cancer operation at the time.

Read more...

And don't miss the photo slide show...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Wyoming Memories

In Jackson Hole, this early July, the hills are alive with the silence of snow. Wild flowers, goats beards and foxtail weeds rage in a rant across the sage-choked plains and the moose and elk are scarce, having suffered from too deep snow for too long a time. Winter is just creeping away. Sleeping Indian still has specks of white on the nose. And yet, some adventuresome folk with a climbing foot are head for the top of still icy Grand Teton with cleats on their souls. (Not me.)
At my friend Louise’s home in a rich green valley where geese and elk pass through to loll in the meadows tall with grass and the pond’s filled with algae, ducks and geese, pink reigns: rich smelling pink lilac dripping from shrubs, pink petunias overflowing from giant ceramic pots, shocking pink peonies opening under homemade birdhouses; pink quilts and pillows on company beds, and pink and green sofas inviting a guest to stretch out on the porch and watch the sun paint the sky over Glory mountain. At nigh the elk squeal like babies and wolves howl followed by a bark. But as yet, this trip, I have not seen a wild beast!
It seems each year, Jackson knits a new sweater - now the political issue is about building two or three story buildings around the town square (where famous arches of stacked elk horns are beginning to wilt and need repair) to make room for more condos and apartments, particularly for town workers who cannot afford the multi-million dollars estates that Jackson thrives on. (Workers must pass over a treacherous pass to Idaho to find reasonable rentals.) Sadly, construction is moving in - although there is a building moratorium - animals are moving out - there’s no place to lay their head and motor machines turn them into road-kill. Here is one area in the USA which has not hit foreclosure crisis ( nor has the Vail and Aspen and KeyStone areas of Colorado). Prices are so high they burn the eye because they seem ridiculous to pay that much for a large log cabin with view to spend a couple months a year inhabiting. But it’s fact. And the town wants more accessibility on its two main drags crammed with cars and trucks passing through at a snail’s pace.

I lived here two years - found a sliver of my soul, but not enough to nourish it for life. There were no poor people,(only a few homeless cowboys on motorcycles); the Indian reservations which I had hoped might be a valuable ministry zone were too far for a single woman to commute to in winter, and the state prisons were even further away, although there were two programs that I would have cheered to be able to work in - one had prisoners weaving belts out of horse hair, and the other was pairing the most violent criminals with the wildest range horses - each to tame the other. (There are less residents in this entire state than there are in Shelby County, but probably more horses and cows). Sadly, the local clergy didn’t "trust" deacons, demanded I start from scratch, ignoring I had spent ten years of tough ministry in Uruguay, and were not actually involved with the Indians and prisoners. I was insulted, I admit, and backed off from involving with that kind of mind set.
After much agony - and having tackled the Grand and some neighboring mountains with Jim (my Everest guide) and receiving a D minus at climbing school five years ago (although I was growing addicted to rock climbing gyms) I, dragging my tail, returned to Memphis four years ago to see if I could survive where my roots dug deep. It was a devastating time for me. Jackson had not been a reenforcing place to live alone all year around. I did write a novel (or complete it) here, learned about E-Bay, realized that snow on the deck was yellow for a reason, and experimented with New Age territories I didn’t need to include in my soul - although walking through them I picked up pointers on how to have a surer faith. For a moment, I stepped shoulder deep into world astrology through a fascinating Yoga teacher who had me standing on my head (wow! - I didn’t even do that as a child); learned about past lives - I was a Venetian Renaissance artist’s muse and later a rebellious slave saving others on the underground escape route, -questioned if colored stones on my chakra spots really could heal my tears (so I collected rocks, and washed them when the moon was full to keep them vibrant); found the most extraordinary Thai masseuse I’ve ever been twisted and stretched by in my life; trudged through six feet of snow for a Native American Indian "sweat" - where hot stones fired to red hot were placed in a tent - wearing a bathing suit you sit cross legged (ouch) on the ground in a circle - to make you sweat out all your pain and sorrows - while praying to the Great Creator for better times and healing for yourself and others; and I tested every kind of healing touch, hovering hands for energy production, rolfing dig and oil infusion offered in this valley, including frequent Tarot card readings because I was intrigued by the artwork.

Best was getting fit: working out almost every day in a gym with personal trainers, who proverbially pushed me up boulders and paths toward the Grand Teton peak, (Augie and Gary), and I was photographed as an example of aged grit training in a gym for the weekly paper encouraging folks to get fit for summer. I had an encounter at the top of Glory mountain with an eagle; ran off a mountain side to catch the wind and soar like an eagle paragliding; sifted up a few thousand feet in a colorful hot air balloon right in front of the Grand, got drenched by the cold sprays of Snake River rapids taking my grandson on a white water rafting excursion; froze in a sunny ten-below zero day as my family visiting for the holidays tried dog sledding that led us to a hot springs pool. No I did not learn to ski. I tried cross-country but my feet went numb and I hated that. I became a regular at Pearl Street Bagels (their Wild Tribe shake is addictive), at Nikai sushi restaurant, at Amagani’s spa (seaweed scrub in a steam I recommend), and my home was featured in two fancy Western magazines. I loved having wooden decks I could exit to from every room in the house and Sunday biscuits in teepees at Dornans down in Moose (yes, that’s the town’s name.)at the beginnings of the Teton National Park. When snow covered the Direct TV dish on my deck rail, I sloshed out on the deck with my broom and brushed it off to regenerate reception. It was also in lonely Jackson that I found my guard dog Brandy - a giant size mixed yellow lab and Husky - rescuing him from the local pound.( Pounds of dog from the pound.) He never budged when the earthquakes passed through making my log house shiver like a breath too deep nor had a barking fit when we encountered moose on our morning hike, which I did in crampons when there was snow and ice and felt accomplished.
Yes, 2004 was a wretched time for me as I pulled away from twenty years of happiness and success in Uruguay and tried to return to this country and pick up a feisty, relevant ministry and family relations, which I have done mas o menos in Memphis, but still I’m not where I need to be. I’ve made many mistakes. Jackson was a transition point, I guess, and so I can come back and salute it now and then for opening up thought pores and hidden spiritual strength. At least in my small garden on Bar X Road, I was able to grow delphiniums in every shade from pale blue to dark purple as well as lupines (those wonderful mountain flowers) the colors of raspberry and blueberry sherbet. With June arrived shoulders of daffodils to greet me each morning with joyful faces. Yes, the moose dropped in now and then for a chew on my willow trees, elk crossed the short fence in the night leaving footprints to wonder by, coyotes sang me to sleep when stars and the moon were as bright as day, and once a wild cat humped up in a golden "n" when I made the daily trek up the butte behind my house to build leg muscles and to salute the Grand Teton resting across the way on the multi- million dollar side of the valley.
Photos: The Grand Tetons; Cowboy Bar, motorcycles, elk horn arches; Lilac shrubs in the valley; pink peony in Louise's garden; Cowboy boots hang with toes up; goat's beard among the fox tail weeds; colorful lupines.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Colorado High

I’d do it again, zip-lining. It seems to be the newest craze. Take a long steel line, secure it between two points high over a canyon through which rapids rage. Hook up a connector on the wire and attach one human in harness and helmet securely to it. Then let her rip and gravity takes you for a ride. We did it six times, six levels of fear, south of Vail at Four Eagles Ranch. The first one, more a trainer, took my breath away as I tried to get the hang of controlling whether I go backwards or frontwards legs kicking the air. Sometimes the start meant running down hill, your toes hardly touching the ground, very similar to when I paraglided, and other times it was a jump off a wooden platform. The final run was 1000 meters not across a canyon but down it at breakneck speed, a rock in hand to try to hit a rusty barrel 30 feet below as I passed over, missed, and coming in with a stop chord to slow me down. Did I see the mule deer or the wrecked van? No. But I must say it was a blast, safe, and now I’m ready to seek out more. I’m told South America has the longest one.
We spent Fourth of July in Keystone, Col. watching Serena, Venus, Nadal, Federer on television, riding ski lifts up 11600 feet (and hiking up more height) and trying to deal with altitude adaptation; riding dude horses up a trail, and most excitingly, a white water raft trip down Clear Creek, which was a rough tumble through incessant waves, over rocks, and in a questionable yellow raft built for six. Wearing wet suits and wet shoes, we secured ourselves by sliding one foot in a covered slot and the other under the roll seat in front. For the six mile ride there was hardly a lull in "thrill" and paddling became the way Kelly, our sailor, kept us occupied, "two front," "one front," "now back" so that we would turn the raft wherever it needed to go to get over obstacles. We frequently had to duck under giant freeway overpasses built low and taking the mystery out of the scenery. But I could do this all day. The water was 45 degrees but a refreshing stomp when getting out of the yellow dinghy at the end.
At the huge tourist complex on Keystone ranch, which goes for miles and miles, loaded with condos and rooms filled in winter and spring with skiers since ski-lifts abound practically from room doors, blocks of lodges have names like River Run, Argentina, Arapahoe, Hidden River and they stretch out for miles along a feisty river called the Snake, although it’s no kin to Jackson Hole’s Snake River. I guess every mountain state has a snake to pour off melting snow. On the Fourth, decorations in red white and blue were given out to little children who had bicycles and plastic vehicles of various kiddie types, and then there was a parade. Wear your red star sunglasses, please, and the American flag wrist bands. We also went to the Activity Center and played putt-putt golf, kid’s bungie jumping, paddle boats, kayaks and stopped by the Colorado Chocolate Factory where a single dip of ice cream in a cup was just about four dollars. Daily I took Pilates classes and worked out on a Gyrotonic machine which rocked my muscles.
My family loved it here. I kept getting flashbacks visions of Annapurna and Everest, which are hard to forget. Next I’m off to Jackson Hole to renew my spirit, since there is where the mountain bug got into me, and to see old friends who helped me stay in shape mentally and physically when I lived there two years (2002-04) within view of the Grand Tetons and their side-kicks like Old Glory, my first major climb. I will also reunite with Jim and Sue who kept me kicking through the East Asia trip, which still swirls in my mind as I try to figure out what it meant to my soul. As in all travel, there is so much I’d like to replay.
Photos: Hanging on the Vail Zipline; going western; we are high; snow in shorts before the 10 peaks.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

And The Beat Goes On. . .

The hardest part about breaking the travel routine is returning to a city in such a tragic swamp it cannot lift its mudboots out of the slop. I hate to admit I live in a town of political virus and corruption, where each day someone is shot or wiped out by gang affiliates and each day the "city fathers" broadcast their salvation ideas in the media (God told me to.....), but shirk their responsibilities and collect their pay checks, evermore increasing.
Not only has the city government decided to slice in half the funds for city schools - which the state of Tennessee leaped upon and said, if you do that, then we won’t send the millions of dollars we fund for the city’s public schools either. But above that the Department of Children’s Service has cut all funding for the two prisons for juvenile delinquents that were filled to the brim in Memphis. Both were successful and useful enterprises. Thus now serious delinquents have to go to violent 201 Poplar, the disgraced city jail with a juvenile tank, or to Nashville’s state prisons for imprisonment, separating these children completely from their families. I found out the state girl’s prison offers only 34 beds - we had 24 occupied beds at our Memphis facility where I volunteered - remember the girls who made Christian prayer flags which I hung in the base camp zone of Mt. Everest? That’s them. Plus DCS is rapidly returning foster kids to trepedous situations by removing them from their foster homes (where they pay foster parents a monthly sum per kid) and tossing them back to incompetent or problem parents, which is why they were removed in the first place. As if that was not enough, our city mayor claims he is the victim and although he had promised to resign in July, assured us he could be reelected for a sixth term if it was on his mind to do so.
And the kids? Does anyone care about the kids? If things keep moving like this, teens won’t have a place to go to school nor a discipline facility when they break the law. Parents might even have to take responsibility for their children and help with their homework.
Maybe I should return to a simpler life where God surrounds you with hope and goodness and people care about and serve each other without labels or threats of racist mind-sets. I’m spoiled by the cultures I learned to respect in my foreign treks.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken a blog breather. I must shake off my political anger. My country is a mess. Gas is outrageous, tempers are high, everything is falling into an abyss that experts can no longer predict and the box is being tied shut with thick rope.
So cowardly as I must seem, although I had returned to a hefty exercise routine and volunteering at juvenile court, and had embraced my dearest friends, I flew away from the sweltering Memphis heat to mountainous Colorado with part of my family. We are hiking through sage and wildflowers - blue lupines, wild pink roses, wild columbines - a swell as sad pine forests deadened by an invasive beetle (they had this problem in Bhutan as well) and deep breathing cool cleaner air - although I must admit the mountains of Colorado have been scarred by construction, condos, and high living. The Snake River rushes in a hurry over our feet, and tourist crowd the streets of Brekenridge and I’m sure other hip towns like Aspen and Vail, to unload their hard earn vacation money in funky coffee shops, expensive restaurant (plan to pay one hundred dollars for four as a minimum for a sit down meal) and on lodgepole carved bears with smiles on their faces for you to put in front of your door. Real bears come down from the still present snow to raid garbage dumps, but it’s only hearsay. I haven’t seen one.
We are planning a horse trail ride (for which I have to buy a cowboy hat - again), a zip line ride, and a white water rafting ride interspersed with an occasional hike (alas, I forgot my poles.) and Pilates class. Oh, and one meal at The Dam Brewery in Dillon. (With a name like that, even when you don’t drink beer, it has drawing power. Breweries are major in these parts.) Snow plowed scenes are pretty, alright, but I have been to The Mountaintop (or close to it) and have the Himalayas and the Tetons in my soul. Everything else seems midget.
Just to note, there will be more blogs to come with overall re-thinking the incredible journeys I took between the end of May 07 and the first of June 08. Did I learn from these diverse adventures more about my soul, my struggles, and my fate? Does anyone care? Happy Independence Day.
Photos: The web woven gets tighter; a lot of praying going on; ooh mask found in a restroom in Colorado.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Following Faith: Part 2

Outside the capital city of Thimpu, on a Bhutan mountainside, a project is underway to build the tallest sitting Buddha in the world. It will be painted gold. And yet, Buddha doesn’t ask for all of this. He is not a demanding god, but one who points the road down which Buddhist travel in order to reach purity, which is called enlightenment. To them, it goes beyond the physical concept of heaven and requires the cleansing within of all earthy desires and passions. Buddha proclaims "Don’t look at me but to the enlightened state." Although his image is everywhere in various forms, the legend is the first anthromorphic representation of him was drawn on canvas from rays of golden light emanating from his own body. Although there are various manifestations, there has never been a historically identifiable person. Buddha has not been conceived as a punisher, nor a law maker, but Buddha offers blessings for whomever or whatever enters in his temple (remember, sin shoes.) If you give a gift to a Lama, for instance, he immediately gives it to the Buddha image in his holy room. Buddha owns nothing, and gives away everything, as do his servants. He is a guide to freedom from cravings and desires, to acceptance of a being just being. It’s a difficult humbling in faith which rarely appeals to the Western materialistic society. Being around it in its purest form invited me to clean out my own soul and re-think what we have made of the greatest man ever to walk the earth, Jesus. Do we allow him to be the Light of the World? Even Buddha said, "Be a light unto yourself."
The idea of incarnations - so n so is the incarnation of a certain manifestation of Buddha or a previous Dalai Lama or Karmapa - chains Asian religious history. These incarnations are inheritances of lamas who lead the faith much as the Archbishop of Canterbury does Anglicans of the world, and the Pope does for Roman Catholics. They are all representatives of the bigger One God. Hindus, on the other hand, believe what you got is what you got and you can’t get much better or worse no matter what you do, although you should spend your life trying to do better and give to the poor, worship cows and snakes, and please don’t forget to take off your shoes at the Shiva temples. The Hindus worship all sorts of versions of Vishnu and other scarey mixtures of man and animal. And if they really want something, they tie red and gold strings around the holy Boda tree, which, incidentally, is where Buddha was supposed to have been born and snudge red and yellow powders on strolling cattle and monkeys. Markets are packed with now artificial powders, gold and red handkerchiefs for carrying offerings of rice or food, to the temples of their heros and leis of flowers made fresh each morning when the markets open. Non Hindus are not allowed to cross the threshold of sacred temples. Animals wait outside the gates to be the sacrificial "lambs" and of course dead Hindus are cremated on wood piles for all to see at crematoriums edging the muddy Ganges River. Mourners wear white for two weeks.
In India, it’s in the north where Buddhism is strongest, being on the border with Tibet, because there sits the Dalai Lama and his exiled Tibetan government as well as the young Karmapa representing another of the three Tantric sects. The third incarnated holy figure is the Panchen Lama who, once he was identified, was immediately imprisoned in China even though he was a small child at the time and no one has seen him since. The outcast Tibetans struggle to have back their respect and their territory in Tibet, to be able to return in safety to their historical base from which the Dalai Lama fled for his life during the Mao revolution in 1957 that destroyed so much of China..India gave him refuge in Dharmsala.
In Ladakh and in Dharmsala the presence of Buddhist monks from the youngest to the oldest charms daily life. They appear better off than, for instance, the young monks in Bangkok who early in the morning carry their metal bowls around the markets to be filled with food for the day. In Bhutan, especially, Buddhism thrives and monks integrate into the community. There is no obligation for a family to offer a son to be a monk, but the education at monasteries is often superior to public schools. Choosing to follow a monk’s path at an early age does not mean that life is over. Many young men change their mind when they end their teen years and it’s okay, in Bhutan. Monks cannot vote nor get involved with the operations of the state, nor can they express political opinion. But the monk who is the religious leader of all Bhutan has equal the amount of power as the divine King. Both are adored by the people because citizens are taken care of with such charisma. The 28 year old fifth King was preparing for his coronation, since his father the fourth King (this is how they are referred to) stepped down so his son could inherit the throne as the country evolved into a democratic parliamentary system. Bhutanese had never voted in history. (They evolved from being a warrior nation to being an absolute monarchy in 1907. Bhutan was never colonialized.) The chance to have a say in the running of their country was mesmerizing for voters. Now they worry about how to make democracy succeed. Faith and government may be separated but when the Queen wanted to honor her husband for amazing accomplishments, she built 108 large chortens at the top of a high pass which is also draped in thousands of prayer flags. It’s quite a site.
There is a positive spirit in Bhutan, a feeling that less than 700,000 people are happy and content. The king promotes what he calls Gross National Happiness. No more than 20,000 foreigners are allowed across Bhutan’s borders in a year. No cigarettes allowed, the sale of tobacco strictly prohibited, even though the fourth king loved Cuban cigars. In certain months, no one can buy anything that must be killed - pork, beef, yak, mutton - so it’s vegetarian time, but every dish is flavored with hot chillis. No outsider can buy land nor even start a business, although if there is a Bhutan partner in the business, that is a possibility. Even foreign artists are not allowed to perform in Bhutan, although fifty per cent of the people are under 25 years of age. Everyone adheres to the national dress code - men wearing knee length skirts, women long ones. The King lives in a modest wooden home in the hills of Thimbu, and he works in an elaborate palace called a Dzong to which various elegant temples are attached.
In Bangkok, religious architecture is extreme. I’ve never seen so many different styles of roof tops, mostly pointed spirals and peaks. Gold, silver, colored stone and glass, mosaics and glitter adorn every religious and palatial structure. The King and his Wife are honored and adored throughout the city on giant banners and billboards, on buildings and streets, spelled out in lights on boats traveling on the busy rivers, and in giant gold frames on divans of principle streets. On Mondays, citizens wear yellow shirts (usually with an embroidered picture of the King where a polo player might be) to honor the fact the King was born on a Monday. On Tuesday, the color is pink and on Thursday, in honor of the Queen’s birthday, it’s blue.
Also in Bangkok, Chinese Buddhist temples so ornate you don’t know what photo to take next add another decorative element to religion. There are huge chortens covered in mosaics and dog and monkey men. There are ornate temples housing the reclining gold Buddha (as long as City Hall) or the only standing Buddha in East Asia. There are Buddhas sitting on nagas or snakes, and Buddhas sitting on pillows. There is the elaborate emerald Buddha (really jade) whose seasonal gold clothing the King changes with certain ceremony.
What impressed me most was the presence of Spirit Houses in just about everybody’s yard, in entrances to restaurants, and even in the enormous gardens of the villa in which I stayed. Because the day I was there was a special day, a huge tray of homemade sweets, fruits, incense, candles, and jasmine, orchid and rose flowers was placed to appease evil spirits who hopefully roost in these spirit houses and stay out of residences of the faithful. I asked who eats the food. There was sort of a non-answer - so I mentioned birds? Maybe. Or did the evil spirits really reach out their doors and feast. Hmmm.
Photos: site for future tallest standing Buddha in the world; a Thangka of a Budda manifestation; prayer wheels at a Dzong; Non-Hindus not allowed to see the golden bull; holy cow; a Hindu holy man; Bhutan monks at the market; the queen's 108 stupas to honor her husband; Bhutan friend Sonam with sewing students in national dress; marketeers in national Bhutanese dress; honoring the Thai King; a spirit house; the villa spirit house with offerings; close-up of offerings - all sweets.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Assessing the Faith - Part I

If there was a thread through two months of Asian pilgrimage, it was the foreign habit of religion. Did I want to pay tribute or to judge that my faith was better than the others? I discovered that we are all looking for the same things, worship one God, and that none of really know what is going to happen after death, but we have challenging theories. I was at the mercy of generous Buddhist most of my trip, and will ever be grateful. There were discouraging moments when I reached out for my faith, and usually found it in surprising places. Only in ex-British India did I even see a church, an Anglican church. At times I felt I was holding a candle in hurricane winds while being blistered by the sun. The Lord’s Prayer was surely my daily mantra. And I never doubted I was in the right place, in God’s place. So I took off my shoes, everywhere.

Unlike most Western faiths, displays of worship and prayer are not limited to a one day gathering on Sunday. It integrates every day, is common as boiling water for tea. It is like living beside Fatima or Lourdes full time. Everyone worships all the time in their gestures. Buddhist - and Hindus - rise in the morning with gifts in their hands - be it replenishing bowls of water, bowls of rice, fresh sculpted butter candles, wreaths and strings of marigolds, flowers, and offerings of every sort (including piles of candy bars, crackers, fresh made sweets and snacks). First thing to do is remember Buddha and his associates who can make or break a day. Truly, their highest power is God, but there is not the pandering, proselyting and preaching which can be so artificial or invasive in our lot trying to convince one to accept the Holy Spirit or to commit your life to Jesus - pass the offering plate - that goes on and on like a broken record player in America, especially across television screens. In Nepal, India, Bhutan, Old Tibet, you watch and admire how regular are actions of devotees of other faiths, whether it’s circling to the left the chortens and stupas or turning 108 metal prayer wheels installed in walls around important temples or putting red dot blessings on the foreheads of sacred cows, children and pilgrims wandering the streets of the cities. Hindus believe the most powerful offering before God is a flower in the hand.

In fact, Buddhism and Hinduism are mostly about giving and seeking peace, going through routines every day that express one’s faith whether anyone else is looking or not and without feeling one deserves credit for doing it. Each Buddhist home, for example, has a puja room or altar room where special visits by monks and lamas are made once a year to re-clean and re-bless and re-kindle the family spirit and home. In the early part of day before one goes off to work, streets are busy with those making wreathes and decorations from fresh flowers to place before altars whether of Vishnu or Buddha. Every town, burg, pueblo, or community is hung with prayer flags and provide a series of small to large chortens or stupas around which the faithful walk clockwise, often praying long strings of beads, whether on a steep trail or on a paved street. From the moment you leave the airport, there is no doubt you are in a Buddhist town because prayer flags drape bridges, flags flap on roof tops and in the trees are more prayer flags both horizontal and vertical looking like white and gray doves in flight. Temples stand out for their architecture and monasteries are identified by painted gold roofs.

There are monks everywhere, shaved heads, cranberry or mustard colored or orange robes, their feet in sandals, their possessions limited to the food given to them each day, ad maybe a cell phone. They hold their hands in prayer position and bow for a Namaste when they meet friends. Everyone copies that greeting. In Nepal and Tibet and India, Namaste is a given. In some parts of India the greeting is Jale. In Bhutan, the pose holds, but their greeting is in Bhutanese. In Thailand, everyone who serves bows in a Namaste position when they see you the first time or when you depart. It’s a thank you as well. But there is no particular word to say. Best is to smile, pose your hands in the prayer position, and bow joyously.

Lamas, who are approachable and are willing to preform ornate blessing ceremonies for a good trip or good luck, often have homes and families. Because they spend so much of their lives sitting in the Yoga position, they often have serious knee and leg problems and need help when walking to and from Temples. Yet, Buddhism, which is much cleaner and better organized to me than Hinduism, embraces all of East Asia, changing its ambience depending on which country you are in. In Bangkok was the first time Muslim mosques and covered women were noticed.
In Nepal, Buddhism is woven into community life, is communal in nature, and is comfortable for even the stranger. You are warmly welcomed or sent off with a neck full of silk kata scarves for good luck and good travel. Blessings abound no matter who you meet. Lamas and priest tie good luck strings around your neck as blessings and sometimes they make prayer packets for protection and those are tied around your neck as well. It’s all so simple and done with vigor and affection no matter who you are.

In the Khumbu where I trekked to the Everest base camp, there were endless chortens and stupas and giant boulders painted with the "Om" to be circle clockwise. In the middle of nowhere, there’d be an archway with a giant metal prayer wheel needing a turn. Even dinning areas were long wooden floors of red block tables painted with Buddhist symbols and protector gods and goddesses. Walls were lined with windows and benches padded with carpets. This is where exhausted trekkers fell for a rest, dumping their gear beside them as they sipped tea from giant thermoses. Walls were hung with copies of religious thangkas (like formula icons.). Sometimes mythological stories were painted directly onto the wall. There was so much simplicity and humility in the daily lives of the Nepal faithful, that the ornateness of the puja rooms and the temples give surprise: golden Buddhas, elaborate yak butter candles made to look like flowers, ancient texts stored in cubicles, all sorts of brocade and silk fabrics hanging from walls and ceilings. But the monks and lamas invite you in while they chant or eat, often revealing their senses of humor. Making offerings, hanging prayer flags, inhaling incense and drinking yak butter tea are as normal as a bow.

Of course in the big cities, like Bangkok, there is more wealth, more gauche display, more opportunity for pilgrims to chant their prayers before statues of their favorite Buddha forms. Worshipers can even buy sheets of gold to attach to already gold statues of Buddha. I was overwhelmed by the reclining Buddha, whose feet at one end were larger than a Mac truck. The entire long statue was in gold and on the passage way along his back side, 108 pots were lined against a wall. Pilgrims could purchase 108 coins and drop one coin in each pot. I tried, walking reverently, thanking my own God, slipping one little coin at a time from my fingers. But if I stopped to take a picture or notice something amazing about the huge statue, I lost count and somehow came out with about eight extras which I just dumped in the final pot. I noticed it had more coins than the others, so I wasn’t alone.

Photos: Sitting Buddha in Bangkok temple (photographs allowed here, but not in other countries.) A worshiper; a Hindu monster smudged; Thai monks; Lama Geshi blesses all of us with many katas; rocks and flags to acknowledge; a puja room; Reclining Buddha from his soles; a Buddha statue pasted with gold leaf offerings; dropping 108 coins in 108 pots.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Bangkok Smiles in the End

Bangkok is the city of smiles, as it claims, of spirit houses, hanging helaconia 10 feet long, canals and rivers for public transport jammed with floating water hyacinth (weeds), extreme moist heat, shocking pink taxis and electrical three wheel ones, magnificent shopping malls where one floor alone the size of Wolfgate is dedicated to world famous jewelers and watch makers (like Cartier Piaget, etc.), theatrical elephants you can feed sugar cane, admired royal family with their images on skyscrapers and, on Mondays, yellow polo shirts fans wear each Monday in honor of the King’s birthday,(He was born on a Monday) and of all things Starbucks. Yea. I had my first frapaccino in two months and beside that, they took my Starbucks card.(they wouldn’t do that in Chile.) Heaven had descended on Bangkok.
To go with this are massive traffic jams on super fine highways and byways, barges at least three stories high and dinner boats with colorful lights blaring Long Live the King passing in front of my very Thai styled villa - if you can see through the hanging plants, orchids, lotus blossoms and vines - and a public transit system that includes besides taxis and buses, a sky way train, a subway train and of course a boat of every size and description, including a taxi boat you catch depending on the color flag it carries: watch out jumping up onto the dock. It’s in a hurry.
With all the orchids, the ginger flowers, the palms and holy Bodi trees wrapped in sashes and string, (Buddha was born under the Bodi tree - also from a lotus blossom, I’m confused), you are embracing a tropical paradise that’s a center of international business. There are skyscrapers for miles as the city spreads out in fingers surrounded by water. It is a Buddhist land, but completely different from the practices in Bhutan, India and Nepal. Here temples, and many houses have pointed tips on their roofs, looking like curved lightening rods and diving dragons, but they keep evil spirits from resting there. Monks wear orange and ochre and carry metal bowls as they stroll through markets and street fairs where they will be fed by merchants.
Here also is great adoration for the King and Queen, who have as many if not more offering places than Buddha. The Grand Palace and Temples with its Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha (really made of jade; the King personally changes Buddha’s gold attire each season) and the pure gold ship of state in another temple on the grounds is something you have to see to believe. We missed the crystal Buddha - areas were roped off for the deceased Queen Mother who has been lying in state almost a year. There are so many abutting towers and cantilevered roofs, so much extraordinary ceramic and mosaic work and colored glass and gold, gold gold in the temples and rooms guarded by giant monster dogs who stand as people, that you forget about how hot and sweaty you are and that you need to sit down, which you do at a simple table and eat street food cooked on the spot.
Even Chinese pagodas (red paper lamps, dragons all over the place, fu manchu type concrete statues, compete with other Buddhist stupas, chortens and displays of faith throughout the city. We stopped at one so I could light incense for my girls in prison, and take pictures, which they allowed. But then, the stupas to end all stupas are here like tall cones seen from miles around, highly embellished on the outside with repetitive marble and concrete figures colored in ceramic and glass mosaics. I climbed up steep stairs of the Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and took so many photos my battery died.
Temples of gold allure and red roofs are everywhere including your own back yard. Along the canals, almost every little poor man’s house has a spirit house, highly ornate, about the size of a doll house, with strings of flowers and other offerings placed on it everyday, and statues of Buddha and whoever one calls to keep the bad away. These little spirit houses are residences for evil spirits, so they are precious. Keep the evil spirits outside the house by giving them a house of their own. Hmmm. Not a bad idea.
Remember, Thailand is/was Siam. It is where the King of Siam or The King and I found roots. I keep looking for green faced monsters in gold attire with crowns with turrets, but nowadays, that is confined to cultural shows. Most Thai are hip as anyone in America, in fashion, in flipflops, and in sun glasses. The young people dance in hip hop competitions at malls, and dress in blue and white uniforms for school. No more costumes, so to speak. It’s a fashion and fabric free-for-all. Teak houses still grace the canals and inside, if you are able to go inside one, are usually rooms with rims you have to step over to get in and out, and incredible wooden wood carvings of heritage scenes from history, and on display swords and thangkas of a different style, and of course enormous tangled gardens of the best of the tropics. Thai thangkas are scenes of a Thai-type Buddha ( he wears the gold pointed hat rising from his skull cap) with more landscape and small figures than the large apparitions of his many manifestations and companions found in Bhutan and Nepal thangkas. You can still buy giant gold buddhas on the sidewalk, but the paintings depict other aspects of life than his companions and saints.
A stroll through the markets before the sun rises (the humidity turns you into a paper doll in a second) introduces me to strange fruits like mangostien (a purple fruit) and rambatan (red with green hairs all over it) and even stranger but yummy sweets which we buy from the hawkers. Some are sticky jello, others are sponge cakes in shocking colors, then little green blocks of marzipan, and a sweet gold colored pastry in syrup. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as we say. We stopped outside one temple for a typical Thai sweet served in a bowl: corn kernals, Thai black jelly pieces, huge tapioca, pink, green and yellow thin vermicelli condensed milk, coconut milk, then a pile of crushed ice, all mixed. (Gotta eat it fast or it melts.)
One of the most interesting outings was to a fish emporium, really a Las Vegas sized restaurant called "Sea Food: If it swims we have it." I’m surprised someone has not thought of this in America. You enter, are given a table with three or four servers, then you get a basket and stroll along a long long display of every kind of fish, fresh or frozen, and seafood known to man. Lobsters are bigger than my thighs. Fish are so fresh they are flipping in the air. There are also displays of Thai vegetables, fresh, and exotic fresh fruits like the Dragon fruit, guavas, you name it, it was on the rack.
Afterwards we took a dastardly taxi ride many miles to the other side of the city for the Siam Niramit, a stage production in an enormous entertainment center with a set claiming to be in the Guiness Book of World Records as the highest stage in the world. I don’t know about those details.It didn’t appear as high as Circus de Soliel stages. The production was elaborate and noisy and in the Thai language and it took viewers through Tai history with elaborate sets of boats floating on water, the Khmer stone castles, and Ayutthaya, once a capital city, There were war scenes, fiery hell scenes, mythological scenes in the Himapaan forest, and heavenly scenes with angels flying around on pulleys to reproduce Daow-wa-dueng, the second level of heaven where Indra, called the greatest diety of all, presides. It gave you a tip about the culture and heritage of the Thai people and their skill at theatrical production. But my favorite part was when the two elephant crossed in the aisle in front of me. Their trunks properly curled up in the air on cue. After the applause (it was not a full house), and we exited the enormous place, the elephants had been disrobed and I had the chance to feed one of them sugarcane chunks at 30 bhat for four sticks. The elephant was feeling my arm for more, more, but we had to give way to another. I have now bonded with elephants in Nepal, India and Thailand, where they are highly loved and respected. Sigh.

Photos: Temple of Dawn at night from villa; check the shocking pink taxis; various Stupa tops; a three wheeler; two monks admire motorcycles; lighting incense for the RA girls; Chinese pagoda entrance; a spirit house teak style; dog and monkey protectors on the Grand Palace walls; mangostien fruit; a plate of sweets; a lotus blossom; feeding a Bangkok elephant.