Monday, February 26, 2018

For Jordan


I was on a train when I heard about Jordan's passing, and I spent the rest of the ride trying and failing to keep myself together. 

I was headed to Shigaraki, and it reminded me how J and I used to seek out similarly small and remote places, often in winter. I climbed up on a high rock and sat awhile with the view, as we would have done. And a wave of memories washed over, and I was amazed at just how much we did together, at how he was present at many milestones in my life, at how he was a sounding board for so many important life decisions. 

And I thought awhile on the nature of friendship. How different friendships are, when made young. Later on, friendship is limited as time is consumed with work and families. While young, there is more time to go off and do things together. Younger friendships are occupied with time shared together; friendships made later in life are occupied with the myriad of things that happen outside that sphere of friendship.


On the turntable:  Howlin' Wolf, "His Best"
 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sunday Papers: Ingmar Bergman


"A bird on the wing finds something, while those who sit still only find death."
 --Virgin Spring


On the turntable: Grateful Dead,  "Euphoria Ballroom"

Thursday, February 22, 2018

On the Great Eastern Road IV




The passage up to Seki is filled with lingering snow.  I'm riding what's called the Shinobi Train, geared to tourists, with the word "shinobi" written in Roman letters, though only a Japanese speaker would know what that means.  

I pick up where I left off in December, just on the outskirts of town.  Seki is perhaps the best preserved post town on the Tokaidō, yet just off this main street of machinami row houses, a new housing development is being laid out on a tell-tale grid a la California suburb.  Before long I come to the torii gate that marks the start of the Ise Betsu Kaido, the connective tissue to the grand shrines of Ise that I'd followed a few years ago.  From here, the true machinami begins. 

With the wind and the faded paint of the old buildings, I feel like I am a gunfighter strolling into a frontier town of the Wild West. The bank is constructed in a nice classic look in keeping with the rest of the town, an effort that won it the Mie prefectural architecture award.  Directly across the street, incongruous to all is a restaurant that despite a traditional frontage, announces its specials in a garish neon scroll.

I time the start of my walk to coincide with the opening of a pair of old homes that now serve as historical museums. They contain the usual artifacts, though I do learn a few things, namely that the post road system ended in 1872. One museum has done up a room with a futon and a set of lacquerware to display the hospitality a traveler could expect during a sojourn down the old road.  The real charm of these places, and others, is the architecture, all solid beams and darkened corners.  The best displays actually can be found in Seki's guest house, decorated with items from the previous century: telephones and motorbikes and a long row of sake bottles.  As I am examining the latter, I notice a odd form not far from my left foot.  A guest has been given a space in the hallway, his bearded face barely visible in a sleeping bag tightly cinched. Seki must have been busy this holiday weekend. And cold.

I brave the latter as I continue to wander the town.  They've down some nice things here, in creating small parks, sitting spaces, and a balcony overlook from where you can enjoy a different view upon the town.  While my initial impression of the Seki was that it was a bit of a sterile museum peace, the more I poke around the more it charms me.  I begin to see that the residents have gone to great lengths to preserve the history here, the usual blemishes aside.   But they have also found ways to engage with the life of its current residents.  In that way Seki is different than the truly preserved post towns of the Kiso Valley, where there is little to do there but admire the pretty look of things, and one finds oneself quickly getting bored.  But here there are ample cafes and abundant galleries, including one fossil shop.  It is interesting to see how they have adapted these centuries-old spaces.  The best perhaps is the flea market held in the open courtyard of Jizo-ji temple. Other temples and shrines similarly offer their vast environs for the good of the community, and I find the sight of a new children's playground on the grounds of a shrine refreshingly optimistic. 

It was easy to see why Seki was chosen as a barrier station, as the tall jagged mountains ringing this narrow valley offer good natural defense.  I move toward them now, as the sky darkens and threatens rain.  I feel a drop now and again, and I want to believe that the weather will hold off as the gods debate awhile just what form the precipitation will take on such a chilly day.  The forecast had promised sunny skies, but the current temps are near freezing, especially with the strong wind that keeps up a constant tattoo upon my face.  In fact it was the forecast itself that had encouraged me to leave the house at all.

The weather finally compromises on frozen rain.  This goes on for awhile but at one point I notice my shadow moving out in front of me again.  It points me toward a trio of walkers just ahead.  From the way they keep glancing at their book I know that they too are walking this old road.  Tokyo-ites, they have been walking the Tokaidō in stages for over a decade.  The oldest man in the group is interesting to talk to, and we discuss awhile the old road and its best sections.  The woman, probably his daughter, is merely interested in the usual inane questions about where from and how long.  The guy I take to be her husband couldn't be bothered with me at all.  So I push on.

I parallel a small river awhile.  It is lined with an array of viper warning signs, compliments of the PTA, which I presume are more about keeping schoolkids away from the water. The clouds ahead to my left look equally vicious, and sadly I am heading into their waiting jaws.   Just ahead, I notice a small rise lined with 53 posts, each emblazoned with the name of one of the stations on the Tōkaidō.  Near the top of the rise is an beautiful old building that still serves as the community center.   A guy is working in the garden out front, in a light sweater vest, bearded and pony-tailed.  I greet him and receive a smile in return, and though I never break stride, I am half hoping that he'll invite me for a warming cup of tea.  I am curious about him, for beards in Japan generally signify an interesting character, one who has opted out of the comfort of mainstream society and found an alternative way to pay tribute to their dreams

I am alone now, moving steadily toward Suzuka Pass.  I nearly follow the wrong trail marker when I forget for a moment that I am not taking the Tokai Shizen Hōdō today.  As I am puzzling out where to leave the road and enter the mountains proper, I see a couple just up the road, carrying the same guidebook as me.  Now set straight, I move into forest and take a side trip to explore the ruins of a shrine.  The road steepens from here, and I find out later that this is one of Japan's 100 passes.  Whatever that means.  It was always considered one of the hardest sections of the Tōkaidō, sharing infamy with Hakone in the East.  Though hard going, all is peaceful in the light falling snow, and upon arriving at the top, I find myself surrounded on all sides by rows of freshly dusted tea bushes.

Going downhill now,  the weather too.  The roads remain free, but the countryside, and more worrying, my clothing, are coated in white.  I think that if the storm worsens that I will call it a day, but I don't really have an escape plan as there are no trains or buses nearby.  The steady traffic tempts me to hitchhike, but I convince myself that the weather will improve once I am out of the mountains.

A long walk through blowing snow brings me to the beginnings of a town.  I cross the bridge that appears in Hiroshige's corresponding woodblock print, and rather than the cold I would happily settle for its title, "Spring Rain at Tsuchiyama".  Over the bridge is the sprawling Tamura Shrine, atmospheric with its stone bridges over twisting brooks.  It holds a close second in interest to the thought of lunch, for it is getting late in the day.  I find a convenience store nearby and as I warm myself inside, the sun comes out, to accompany me for the rest of the afternoon.

This section of the Tōkaidō through Tsuchiyama is over two kilometers long, and even as it leaves the town proper, it will maintain its distinctive traditional look for the day's remaining 10 km.  I imagine that this is how things had always looked back then, and as my overall distance on the lengthens, this thought keeps my spirits high and my body strong.  I nearly forego a detour to the Tsuchiyama's Tenmakan, which appears at first to just be a simple rest stop for walkers, but has secreted away a pair of incredible exhibitions on its second floor.   One room has prints of Kurogawa Shigekazu's "revisionist" print series on the Tōkaidō, and in front of each of the 53 prints is plastic replicas of the food best known from that particular town.  In the opposite room hang Hiroshige's prints, the scenery of each reconstructed in a bonsai-type bowl by a local pair of confectioners.  Once again I will express amazement at such simple but unsung works of art hidden away in the recesses of this country.

The lateness of the afternoon and the waning light spur me onward.  I match step with another walker, who will finish his own Tōkaidō walk tomorrow in Kusatsu.  Later, an old man begins to talk with me as he walks to a neighbor's house somewhere up the road.  On the outskirts of Minakuchi, a quintet of aging Zen monks do their begging rounds, their age dictating the use of a flute rather than the usual deep resonant chants of their younger counterparts.  Two young children in happi accompany them as they go.  Rows of tea bushes fill the gaps between houses.  And finally then the train line, serviced at irregular intervals by a single old rattling carriage.  Today it is filled with young riders, a completely different demographic than expected.   I am the oldest person on board and must look it, as I shuffle aboard on legs weary from 27 km and sub-zero temps.


On the turntable: Greg Brown, "In the Hills of California"
On the nighttable:  Joseph Conrad, "Rescue"

  

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

(untitled)





Resolution found,
As the bickering weather gods
Settle on snow.


On the turntable:  Gorillaz, "Demon Days" 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Papers: Aldous Huxley


"Admirers of India are unanimous in praising Hindu ' spirituality.' I cannot agree with them. To my mind ' spirituality' (ultimately, I suppose, the product of the climate) is the primal curse of India and the cause of all her misfortunes. It is this preoccupation with ' spiritual ' realities, different from the actual historical realities of common life, that has kept millions upon millions of men and women content, through centuries, with a lot unworthy of human beings. A little less spirituality, and the Indians would now be free-free from foreign dominion and from the tyranny of their own prejudices and traditions. There would be less dirt and more food. There would be fewer Maharajas with Rolls Royces and more schools. The women would be out of their prisons, and there would be some kind of polite and conventional social life-one of those despised appearances of civilisation which are yet the very stuff and essence of civilised existence. At a safe distance and from the midst of a network of sanitary plumbing, Western observers, disgusted, not unjustifiably, with their own civilisation, express their admiration for the ' spirituality ' of the Indians, and for the immemorial contentment which is the fruit of it. Sometimes, such is their enthusiasm, this admiration actually survives a visit to India."

--Jesting Pilot, 1926


On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "Dick's Picks Vol. 33"

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Imbibing Bibliophile #49



The Lacquer Lady, by F Tennyson Jesse
Hakuba Pale Ale, Hakuba Brewing Company


On the turntable:  Gogol Bordello, "Voi-La Intruder"

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Indo IV: Varanasi & Calcutta





Bodh Gaya to Varanasi

...road stop on the Grand Trunk Road.  Drivers and travelers having their lunches in a small food court.  A Thai monk gets his meal in fifteen minutes before his noon fasting deadline.  A rather well-to-do Tibetan teacher comes in with a western student.  A couple of other Westerners sit with their guide, and behind them, a quartet of Burmese aunties, tell-tale due to the style of their sarongs, and the shape of their faces and eyes... 

...So many photos taken, so many more missed.  Rushing through the landscape in the frenetic roadshow that is eternal India...  


Varanasi 

...Varanasi at dawn. Silhouettes of dogs and cows against the housefronts, backlit by strands of Diwali lights.  Shadow against the wall of a tonga and its sleeping driver...

... music and chanting at Asi Ghat, small groups of women sitting waiting to board a boat.  They are taking part in a Chhath Puja where they fast and ritually bathe as prayers for the long life of their husbands and the overall.  All through our journey, we've run into these women, dipping into the Ganges wherever we met the river, from the Himalaya to Calcutta...   

...an elderly father is being led gingerly over the broken cobblestones on the way to the bathing ghat..  Women bathe discreetly between boats.  Young boys splash and dance around naked...

...benches overturned for no other reason than sheer vandalism.  Shiva at work...

......looking forward to a beer after a dry week, only to find a sign in my room telling me that alcohol is prohibited in town.  Sigh.  Life is suffering...

...people sometimes touch cows as they pass, presumably for luck...

...near the sati stone at Dandi Ghat is graffiti brushed in 1995, to emphasize awareness about missing and murdered women... 

...at the nighttime puja of Ganga Aarti, young people clap on each of the four beats, while the old timers clap every other, on the one and three.  Foreigners too busy to clap at all, their hands busy photographing with their phones...

...the strange silence during a dawn walk along the ghats and the river...

...drifting slowly down the river, as Tania lays her husband's ashes to rest, fulfilling a decades old promise...  

...the timelessness of approaching the Manikarnika funeral ghats by boat in the dark...

...on TV at the airport, a Bollywood film that has kung-fu type action.  During the actual fight, a message scrolls across the bottom of the screen, showing a telephone number to call to complain about content, meaning here perhaps, the violence...

...and I leave India with a controversial confusion.  Over a decade as a yoga teacher, I was immersed in elements of Hinduism, which naturally inspired me.  Admittedly this inspiration was second hand, as I feel one has to be born into Hinduism (a sentiment I would extend to Shinto, which John Dougill calls the "religion of being Japanese").  But what inspired me wasn't really Hinduism so much as what came before it.  I always found that ancient spirituality as a beacon of sorts, and looked not directly into the light's glare but outward at what that light illuminated.   Yet after this long hard look at the country, I wonder now if spirituality still exists in India.  Certainly religion does, absolutely, for religion is everywhere in India.  But what I didn't find was morality.  Religion as practiced seemed to be defined by the usual problems that religion causes:  caste prejudice, misogyny, religious violence.  Nowhere did I see the beauty and benefit that a rich spiritual life can bring. No love, merely division.  Again, these thoughts aren't meant to be offensive, but are simply a longing to understand...     


On the turntable:  Genesis, "Seconds Out"

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Indo III: The Buddhistic Holylands



LUCKNOW

... Lucknow seemed a good place to start, so we started there.  To most, the city represents liberation of a different sort, one that was nearly pulled off during the Rebellion of 1857.   The city is bustling as tomorrow is the start of Diwali, the streets crowded, the movement ceaseless beneath the crumbling faces of the Raj. There are more Ambassadors here, all in very good shape, many sitting in queues leading to petrol stations.  We drive to the old British Residency, now just a park dotted with piles of bullet-flecked brick.  I tend to equate brick with Queen Victoria, and much can be seen throughout, namely in the grand clock tower.  The open square from which it extends has dictated the building styles of the modern city, where some massive out-of-scale structure has been plonked down amidst an area of vast space.  The boulevards that bisect them are broad and traffic free, and upon one of these we head east, into the regions historically related to the prince who became the Buddha...   


SRAVASTI

...the ruins are circled by monks from four countries.  The group of Thais include laywomen, and with their designer bags and sparkly bling they would certainly win the best dressed award.  Their men show no respect for chants or prayers and will step directly in front of people to get a good photo.  Two monks with iPhones exchange gassho, phones pressed between their phones.  A group of monks is lined up in meditation along the ruins of the Jetvana monastery, the begging bowl of the youngest and cutest piled the most high with the overflow of cash.  Lay people affix gold leaf to the bricks throughout the park.  One man holds his head to the stone, eyes closed, quiet.  Other monks sit in the morning sun.  Begging boys greet people in Chinese...

...I climb atop the ruined stupa near Angulimala's cave and am asked to takes a dozen or so photos with a group of Indian tourists.  They eventually depart and I am left with the sun and the maroon robed Burmese chanting on the steps below. When they cease, all we can hear the soft voice of a girl with a baby, who sings beautifully as she pumps her harmonium...

...The lineup of Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan monasteries.  In front of one, a monk chases a dog with a stick. ("Does a monk have Buddha nature?" Smack!)... 




KAPILVASTU


...sitting beneath a large ficus near a group of monks who are receiving a sermon in its shade.  At first I meditate but the heat and the soft lilt of the teacher's voice make me sleepy, so I lay back to doze.  After they drift away, I move toward to ruin of the stupa baking in the afternoon sun...  





 THE ROAD TO NEPAL

...brick workers live in homes made of thatch.   A Muslim village, one man sits reading in a plastic chair.  A goat kneels in the dust nearby as if in prayer.  There are children around, following their parents as the prepare for Diwali, the traffic through these market towns slowing due to the stalls selling flowers and sugary food, which have extended into the road .  (Nearly everyone we'd meet in India would advocate having only a single child, but then again most of those were of a certain demographic. That said, I never failed to be amused by the prevalent signs for Staylong Condoms.)  Cows were indeed gods, their proud heads raised and oblivious to traffic...

... Route 1A leads us east, kissing the border along the way.  It can hardly be called a road at all, rutted as it is.   It's as it it had been paved in 1956, then forgotten.  Some of the most unkept buildings are the biggest and most beautiful.  One of the nicest buildings I saw in India was an old school in Sravasti, colorful yet shuttered and abandoned...     



NEPAL, LUMBINI

 ...at the border,  an immigration officer fails to return a smile, and begins to examine more closely the contents of his nose. Maybe if he freed his hand for some actual work, he might clear some of the trucks waiting at the border, stretching south for three or four kilometers...

...the houses are bigger just over the border, but as we get deeper into the countryside, the poverty begins to show itself.  Small tea lights begin to appear at dusk.  A crowd is gathered in a grove, surrounded by stone elephants.  All is quiet, less chaotic on this side of the border.  Even the drivers appear more mellow, less speedy and aggressive.  A ditch-digger has a T-shirt that reads, "More Money More."  

...the serenity of our bungalow at the edge of the large garden as the sun rises.  Melted tea lights anoint the bases of all the trees, the garden having been awash with light for Diwali the night before.  I could spend a week in this oasis...

 ...one of the first things I see in the morning is a woman kneeling Thai-style in the shade at the side of the road, flanked by a Thai flag and a picture of the late king. The mystery will be solved later when we are told that a member of the Thai Royal Family will be visiting the birthplace of the Buddha.  Yet each person who tells us this gives conflicting information:  Is it the King? The Queen?  A Princess?  At any rate, we are at first refused entrance, but are able eventually to talk our way in.  But the usual tongas won't be running, so we have to walk in the rising heat.  It isn't far to walk anyway.  I wander over to a small golden statue of the baby Buddha that had been donated by the Thai royals on a previous visit.  It reminds me of Billiken, the "The God of Things As They Ought To Be,”  which is about as un-Buddhist as it gets.   I return to the main temple and am told I have less than 10 minutes.  I take a quick look at the sacred tree, and go meditate awhile beneath the living Bodhi Tree, putting it between me and the group of worshipers gathered beside the pond where the Siddhartha's mother washed herself after giving birth. Above me, a rainbow of prayer flags flap in the light wind...




 KUSHINAGAR:

...The ugly architecture of Shakyamuni's grave.  Buddha in a tin can.   Vietnamese monks chant as they circumambulate with a long yellow cloth that will replace the one currently enshrouding the reclining Buddha statue within.  Another set of Vietnamese, lay people this time, chant another set of sutras as they sit ringing the statue itself.  Local kids play in the ruins around the site, some looking homeless...

...At the cremation site nearby, a dozen or so Sri Lankan monks are hints of maroon amidst the the grassy green of lawn.  They stand at intervals that are almost too perfectly irregular to be random, taking photos of themselves and each other.  Does a monk have selfie nature?..



MOTIHARI

...into Bihar proper now, which I've been dreading somewhat due to the extreme poverty and infamous violence.  But things have calmed with a drastic change of political regimes, and the new order has brought paved roads, free education, and less crime.  Still the poverty here is pretty extreme.  Not as hellacious as the urban poverty of Delhi's slums, but of a milder rural character.   Which brings the question:  Where else but India could a doctrine like Buddhism arise, with its suffering worn so openly on its sleeve?...
   
...I ask for a detour to Matihari, to see Orwell's birthplace.  None of the townspeople seem to know where it is, but my guide stubbornly keeps asking street vendors and people who had absolutely no contact with tourism.  I duck into a western-looking hotel to ask, but no luck.  The guide lends me his phone to check.  My guidebook says that a museum is being built, but I am unable to find it.  I pull up to the neighborhood that at least appears on the GPS. Unfortunately the car quickly gets bogged down in the bardo of post-holiday traffic, when everyone in the city seems to be heading out shopping on streets clogged with temporary stalls.  The guide and I jump out and flag a tuk-tuk which can dodge the traffic, but soon it too is snarled.  We sit sweating in the back, and the incessant honking of a hundred cars blends and overlaps to become a single tone.  I get out, wandering onto some quiet side street to flag another tuk-tuk that is at least in motion.  We arrive in the vicinity of the Orwell house, arriving eventually to see what is nothing more than a shell of a building in the shade of some trees, beneath with some sketchy looking guys are doing some sort of business.  Nothing to do but burst out laughing.  Another tuk-tuk runs us back in the general vicinity of the van, but they aren't where they should be and the driver isn't answering his mobile.  He and the guide had been fighting earlier, and I worry that there is some sort of skirmish going on.   Eventually they turn up.  LYL and Tania had hoped to go buy saris while I went on my mission, but they had been stuck in traffic the entire time.  The mood is sullen as we head south again.  I feel stupid and guilty, and remember the conclusion I came to during a visit to China 20 years ago, about how travel in these types of places is about diminishing returns, and how going out of your to see something never seems to work out.  You're generally pretty lucky of you can fulfill 3/4s of your intentions...




KESARIYA
 
... A Tibetan monk suffering in the heat, pulls his robes up over his head.  Another does prostrations in the grass, a few more squat in the shade of the stupa.  I greet them with a "Tashi Delek" and one of them breaks into song, repeating that same refrain.  Near the Shiva temple around back, a man leads me away from the stupa and out onto the parched earth, then turns me around to show me the headless Buddha statues higher up...

...ample signage promoting education in Bihar.  And more newly paved roads.  They are obviously putting a lot of money into the infrastructure here, after decades of rampant corruption that kept the state in crushing poverty.  But the symbols of old India still exist here.  The country is changing fast, and I suppose I've been lucky to not have seen and experienced things I''d read about, or had heard from friends who had passed through even as recently as ten years ago.  Though it feels a little less romantic.  (That said, I'm sure that things like dysentery on an 18 hour bus ride rarely feels romantic at the time.)  Until Bihar, I have been travelling through nicer, or at least more polished parts of India...  

...cow herd stops to pee on a wall, and meanwhile his animals wander into the road and create havoc with traffic..

 ...a boy sleeps on the street, using a campaign poster for his mat.  I try not to disturb him as I step into the shadow of a crumbing wall to pee.  Boars and piglets play peek-a-boo through the gaps, as they explore the ruins of a house giving way to jungle.  My ophiophobia quickly appears...

...half built building and bridges all over the country .  Are they in the process of construction or destruction?  Only Shiva knows...

...crashed trucks simply abandoned in front of houses...




VAISHALI

...walking through a small village to the ruins.  Stalls selling pomelos and Buddhist bangles.  There is little to see at the ruins itself, a dead hulk amidst the life that continues to pulse through the artery feeding it.  Life is suffering, but life somehow goes on... 
 
...people out in front of their homes in the crepuscule,  enjoying the last of the light before retiring into darkness...  

...the dread of driving the back roads of Bihar after dark, something I most wanted to avoid.  Up until recently, bandits killed travellers on these roads.  Even our driver seems anxious.  Tania, a very large blonde, chooses this particular time to sit in the shotgun seat, and asks that the internal lights be turned on so as to video something or other.  I think of anglerfish, and predators, as we ride on like a beacon in the dark...




PATNA

 ...pulling into the city on a Saturday night over the Gandhi Setu, the longest river bridge in India.  The passage is an anxious one, as entire sections of the opposite lane have crumbed into the waters.  Arriving safe in the city, to a world of colorful and bright, after days in the dark of the countryside.  It is the final day of Diwali, and Christmas lights hang everywhere, draped over the highest apartment blocks in alternating strands of blue and yellow. Traffic clogs the streets, bringing up yet again the eternal India question:  "Where are all these people going?"  It all throbs to the music of intermittently placed DJs .  Speakers in India rarely go below "11."  Young men celebrate by dancing behind a statue of Lakshmi being pulled by a tractor.  They've all taken great care with their hair and fashion, quite reminiscent of Halloweens parties in the Castro.  Except that the dancing is far worse.  They don't dance as much as pulse, in herky-jerky movements of head and body that suggest the odd time signatures of more classical Indian music...

...a serene Sunday morning with hundreds of cricketers in the park.  Further out in the villages, boys play the game with makeshift equipment in the jungle...



NALANDA

...the road into Nalanda is a dusty affair, rubbish strewn along its entire length.  The ruins are some of the most impressive, towers and stairwells that defined this once great university.  Its labyrinthian turns couldn't keep out the invaders who burned what was possibly the largest library in the world at the time. Funny how ignorance seeks its own level.  The guide we hired here is a personification of the opposite, a former professor whose depth of knowledge can't mask the man's suffering in the heat...



RAJGIR TO BODH GAYA

...I set off alone to explore the baths of Rajgir, being led by a Brahmin in white lunggyi toward a pool that is more a flooded brick basement, open to the air.  It is filled with sari-clad women and I don't want to intrude.  But the heat is apparent from the steam, which isn't exactly welcome on such a hot day.  More sensible are the kids playing in the pools next door.  Due to the heat, we opt for the chair lift to the top of Vulture Peak, rather than walk.  I feel disappointed later to find that I'd sailed over the cave where the Buddha had sat prior to giving his sermon here, a place visited by my Beat heroes a half century ago.  Still I suppose it was a consolation to see all those older sari-clad woman as they rode the chairs up the hillside.  Not as pleasant are the monkeys, especially the one that aggressively charged me.  I move over to some graves at the edge of a drop, one of which is for a former Japanese priest here.  I meet his successor in the temple itself.  He is at first surprised by my Japanese ability, and before long we are complaining about Abe and the current political climate.  I am amused that this fellow, who has spent decades living atop this mountain is so informed.  But of course the internet will have changed that, and no place is really isolated anymore.  It, and social media in particular, truly make us one with everything...


...the motorcycle mafioso at the Devi Maa temple caves outside Gaya frighten us off, as we are flanked by a dozen riders when we try to walk toward the hill atop which the Buddha sat before finally coming to the conclusion that such austerities weren't necessary. At least he wasn't surrounded by aggressive biker touts...

...the marvellous landscape leading toward Barabar Caves, the low hills like dozens of elephants lying on their sides atop the dusty plains.  They were almost sculpted these hills, none more so than at the Caves themselves, the walls inexplicably smooth, like polished marble.  The refraction of sound is less like the roar of what we heard in David Lean's A Passage to India, but more like a deeper echo that builds upon itself.  I try out a round of Om's which loop and invert like a cosmic Row Row Your Boat.  Some kids enter and begin to chat with me, the voices of the four of us grows to be like the murmur of a crowd.  A shame I didn't try to say "walla," but that has a different meaning in India...  

...Sunday is market day in Gaya, creating a bottleneck, vehicles passing inside and out, creating a 6 lane juggernaught of unmoving hulks.  When we finally did move, I noticed the bobbing heads of a busload of foreigners a few vehicles up.  LAter, i see that the police have arrived to create some sort of order.  It's all like life, everyone racing after their own self-interests until someone shows up to sort things out...   
 

...Siddhartha Gas Stand on the final stretch to Bodh Gaya.  Lone Tibetan monk walking the dusty highway.  A man in the distance with arms stretched out like he's doing Tai-Chi, but a closer look reveals he is cutting a switch to herd his goats.  Truck driver does his morning tongue cleaning exercises amongst the rubbish heaps of Gaya. Long thin prickly pear cacti raised from the dry earth like the head of a cobra. Better dressed men sit in plastic chairs before their shop, reading newspapers.  A beggar squats in the dust, reading his own.  Young girl in a dress kneels beside her house, shaping cow pats.  Advert for Iceburg 9000 beer which can no longer be legally sold in the dry state of Bihar.   (The only icebergs to be seen are the empty plastic bottles clogging the rivers.) Cows begin the morning shift, standing with self-importance at the side of the road, tails whisking flies...




BODH GAYA 

 ...I awake to see a dozen government vehicles in the hotel carpark, which hints at why we were suddenly asked to change rooms the night before (which we refused to do as we'd already settled in).  A boy at breakfast is dashing about, off leash, amidst people carefully balancing their trays as they come from the buffet. He dodges and feints like a basketball player, nearly knocking into me and my hot coffee...

...on the drive out of town to Senani, where Siddhartha was given milk by Sujata. A car has tumbled off the road into a rice field, long ago now, and it's rusting hulk is being used to post adverts. ( I'll later see a truck similarly overturned.)   People walk across the bed of the Falgu River, now dusty and near dry.  School is letting out and I circumambulate the stupa in conversation in Japanese with one of the teachers, whose brother lives in Yokohama... 
 
...playing connect the dots with the temples of town. The massive and powerful Tibetan monasteries.  Crowds at the Japanese Big Buddha.  The faded history of the Sri Lanka Temple of Anagarika Dharmapala, whose efforts not only restored the Maha Bodhi temple to its glory but also could be said to have inadvertently created the market circus just outside its gates.  The empty and silent Bhutanese temple, an oasis shared only with multicolored lions...

...woman chants a sutra, and upon completion, turns to spit on the ground...

...meditation at sunset beside the Maha Bodhi temple.  There certainly is a power here, and I drop in nearly immediately, lost to the crowds that are rapidly fading into the dark...

...circumambulating the Bodhi tree, a leaf drops nearly into my hands.  Others scramble for leaves as they fall.  Groups of devotees like sports teams, each distinctive in their respective traditional garb.  Many sit on the ground beneath trees. Westerners prefer the low wall that rings the temple. Many have tattoos with Buddhist iconography, and one is done up like a Goth Buddha.  Priests chant through loudspeakers in a half-dozen languages, the words overlapping and unraveling into nonsensical sound.  There is more peace to be found in the grassy area between the temple and the Muchalinda Pond, which a group of Indians attempt to destroy by roughly tossing coins onto a stone basin.  On the other side of the temple, there is the brute physicality of the prostrating Tibetans, thrusting themselves forward again and again across rough wooden boards laid over the stone floor.  Amongst them sits an old Thai monk, sitting quietly, peacefully, his back stooped from a life-time of meditation...

...a return to sit at dawn.  Again, the sitting is solid and steady.  But ultimately all the movement overtakes me, and through my half closed eyes I begin a meditation on passing feet.  The chanting is quiet this morning, the microphones silenced, and as the light comes into the sky the only sound is the roar of birds, awakened in the expanse of branches in the Bodhi tree above...  

... I've heard it said that Buddha was born in Lumbini, but Buddhism was born in Bodh Gaya. But this is wrong, a Buddha was in fact born in Bodh Gaya, and Buddhism was born with his first sermon in Sarnath...



On the turntable:  Grand Funk Railroad,  "30 Years of Funk"  
On the nighttable:  Richard Ford, "Canada"

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Indo II: Rajastan




...Not long after the trains pulls out of Delhi, we find the dining car and sit down to dinner.  Outside the windows are some of Delhi's worst slums.  Silhouetted in doorways are women cooking over small fires within, which serves as the only light.  Their children merely stand beside, watching trains.  One by one, each of the passengers pulls down their blinds... 

...The disembodied weirdness of arriving in a city after an overnight train ride.  It's a bit like flying in a way, where there's no interconnection with the landscape, between points A and B...

...In India, the mood of your entire day is dictated by the quality of your stool...




JAIPUR

...teased by the Palace of Winds, which we can photograph, but don't actually get to enter.  The assumption must be that the pax couldn't handle the close confinement inside, but I feel cheated and wished I'd been offered the choice...


...elephant ride up to the Amber Fort, which plays out exactly like a description I once read, as if the animal has eight legs, all moving in different directions.  After lunch, I curl myself into a stone window and doze, as the hot wind brushes over like a caress...

... I read in the heat of the bus while the rest of the group is shepherded into a carpet shop.  Kites fly over the adjacent neighborhoods, swirling and spinning in the sky, as the Red Fort looms beyond.  A man squats beside the road to pee, and pee, and pee, like he'd been holding it for days.  A motorbike pulls up to an adjacent shop, the rider handing over a duck which goes straight into a cooking pot...






RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK

...shy tigers of the reserve offer only their impressive footprints.  It's a delight though to drive through the cool air of morning, up and down the hills that open out onto forever.  Just through the crumbling old stones gates of the park, a troupe of monkeys bare their asses as a way of saying farewell...



UDAIPUR

...bucolic day by the lake, lazily punted out to Taj Lake Palace for tea in the courtyard.  Lunch in the old Palace beside the lake, followed by another doze in a bay window...

..."Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end."  Usually attributed to John Lennon but apparently was actually an old Indian proverb...  




CHITTORGARH


...sunset visit to the old fort, which sprawls along the hilltop.  Peaceful in spots, busy in others, a riot of monkeys that watch the clusters of tour groups come and go.  Funneled into a ruined amphitheater to see a light show that never happens.  Never mind, I'm enjoying people-watching.  Far more colorful...


...mobile phones everywhere.  Probably the only way to be alone in such a crowded country as India...

...Large numbers of domestic tourists everywhere.  This, and the obvious improvement of quality of life, hints at a rapidly developing country.  Indians are hungry, and the middle class is rapidly expanding.  I predict that the first half of the century will be China's, and the latter half all India, if their religious differences can be sorted out, or at least ignored.  In the past, being Indian meant to repeat the life of your parents. But that is rapidly changing...

...India is becoming more like the US, and vice-versa...


JAISALMER



...the kids greet us just off the bus, singing Frère Jacques to the beat of an Indian tune...

...the temperature maxes out at 49.2 degrees C.  The guide tells us that if it had hit 50, he'd have called it a day...

...the fort town immediately becomes my favorite city, its narrow winding lanes, the Sufi temples, the airy courtyards of the merchant homes.  Then again, I always love places at the extremes of geography.  But would have preferred less of the motorcyclists zooming around...

...camels much smoother to ride than elephants.  Exciting to be this close to the no-man's land of the Pakistani border.  Beers and a sunset chat with the Scottish Trio, mainly about the complexities of raising children...



JODHPUR

...the fort here the best of the lot.  Somehow feels less trafficked, the blue city below gorgeous.  LYL and I ponder a repeat visit, fewer trains and overnight instead in palaces...



AGRA


...dawn tonga ride through Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, refreshing in the cool and the quiet, but I am still smarting over not having seen tigers last week... 

...Red Fort impresses with the open courtyards, and views of the Taj.  Wash off the dust with a quick swim in the pool at Clarks Shiraz Hotel, trying not to think about the quality of the water that gets in my mouth...
...And the Taj itself.  What else can be said, since Tagore has already had the last word, with his 'teardrop on the face of eternity.'  Even the most jaded traveller such as myself is overwhelmed.  The Taj is far more breathtaking than expected.   I had long ago planned to propose to LYL here, though it becomes more of a postposal since the wedding has already been planned.  The act is complicated by the distractions of people, who keep wanting to take photos with us.  I finally pull her away for a half second to slip on the ring, and mere moments later, we are no longer alone...


RAILS TO DELHI

...happy that this night is the last on the train, as it is nearly impossible to get a good sleep.  We all walk around in a daze through the hot afternoons.  I wish too that we had had a little more time to ride during the daylight, and watch the countryside roll on.  I missed somewhat the liminality of the journey... 
...final dinner, with the Scottish Trio as usual, which is always a delight.  The English have all found their usual comfort in the confines of their familiar social spheres.  We five are the only non-English, and thus joke about our social ostracism, about ours being the domain of former colonists...
On the turntable:  Govi, "Your Lingering Touch" 
On the nighttable:  William Dalrymple,  "City of Djinns"

Monday, February 12, 2018

Indo I: Delhi & Shimla








Sketches from a one month meander through India last October.


DELHI

...a man crossing the street is nearly taken out by a motorbike in front of the Nizam-ud-din Shrine.  We wander the warren of lanes, trying to memorize our way back out.  The water in the ghat in the middle of this maze is filthy, yet is busy with bathers.  The shrine grounds are packed for the Thursday night qawwali.  A young bespectled student type asks for a voluntary donation, which we give.  Nearby, a dwarf plays with a group of children, in a safe and uncrowded corner...

...chubby man coming down the steps of Jama Masjid quite gingerly, wearing an "Endurance College" T-shirt.  Obviously he flunked out...

...why is there a picture of Gandhi on all the police stations?...

...city bus with an advert for Uber...

...the mosque at Firoz Shah Kotla, is segregated even in ruin. Through the shattered brick walls I spy a handful of kneeling men, bowing forward again and again in waves... 

...a dawn visit to the Red Fort.  A black dog follows me for an incredibly long time, as if he'd adopted me.  Men futilely rake a massive and incredibly littered space out front.  Low-lying Chandni Chowk, like a groove in the city, as if everything in the city rolled away and came to rest there.   I have the Fort to myself, arriving even before the Chatta Chowk bazaar opens.  The fort has seen better days, but still has features that surprise, namely the throne backed by Italian marble (though I suppose the greater surprise would have been had by those executed here).    

...the driver I've hired for the day warned me off walking through the old city, claiming it was too dangerous.  He was happy to arrange a tonga though, but I'd already done that the day before, me eventually taking over for the rider who looked exhausted.  (And rightly so, it is no joke bicycling through the heat and smog of the labyrinth that is Old Delhi.)  There is an uncomfortable moment when I tell him to wait for me at the car, as he seemed to want to act as guide and remain at my side.  It has the feeling of telling a dog to heal, and I don't like myself much. But he mothers me a little too much, and seems anxious when I wander away in dodgy neighborhoods.  In time I realize his concern is more a masked phobia of Muslims. He also seems to have bad eyesight, which makes his navigation of traffic a little too interesting...

...I visit Purana Qila.  There is a zoo next door, but what's the point of a zoo in India, when all you had to do is look out the window. Lots of couples on the open grounds of the Qila, cuddling in the shade.   Now and again a guard will come through and separate them with a holler.  But all is 1950's innocence here, the boys laying with their heads in their girlfriend's laps... 

...a hijra slinks in a feline like way through traffic and up to my car window, palm then rapidly extended.  As I shake my head softly no, I get a nonchalant smile and she sashays away...

...I'm given a boxed lunch on the bus, which I don't particularly want.  I decide to give it to a beggar, but despite my best efforts, I can't find one.  I walk and walk, laughing that I am unable to find a beggar in India...
   
 ...a large gang of monkeys, most of them newborns, dig through a pile of rubbish behind the Secretariat Buildings...

...horses standing around Shahajahanabad's Turkman Gate, adding to the old-timey vibe...

...Connaught Place.  I've been warned to take care here, as it is a haven for the untrustworthy.  Apparently shoe-shine boys will flick shit onto your shoes in order to coerce you into a shine. The ear cleaners too are apparently pretty pushy.   I trace the ring around Connaught a couple of times, the shops closed, yet people are making their way to work.  On two occasions a man will fall into step in order to start up conversation, mainly to tell me of a relative living abroad. Neither of these encounters is threatening.  The second time, my driver pops up out of nowhere.  He's apparently been watching me, and thinking the man is pulling some kind of scan, begins to argue with him, the latter pleading to me to call him off.   I eventually duck down a side street toward the Oxford Book Store, stopping for a chai to kill time before it opens.  It is a little slice of hipster India: tie-less, short sleeved young men with perfect hair hunch over their Macs.  The bookshop too is hip and neon bright, with a young staff and a coffee bar attached.  I find the Kipling section and pick up a Penguin India copy of Kim. I figure it would make a nice souvenir, and it is only 200 rupees.  But then I remember the street kids, and think how much the same 200 rupees would mean to them.  I replace Kim on the shelf...

...a short walk from Connaught Place leads me through quiet neighborhoods to Agrasen ki Baoli, which immediately becomes my favorite place in Delhi.  This step well has all the look of a ruin, yet acts a peaceful oasis from the city, all young couples and a few Asian tourists.  While I wait for a couple of girls to go through their selfie rituals so that I can get a photo, I talk to a trio of boys sitting in front of the old mosque at the top of the steps.  They alternate between friendly and teasingly aggressive, so I leave them.  They later follow me out, still mocking, teasing. I make eye-contact with a long-haired and sympathetic looking taxi driver, and make the international gesture of toking a joint, as if the boys are silly and high.  The driver immediately perks up and asks me if I want to buy some pot.  Shit.  I laugh and walk away shaking my head...     

...protests in front of the main Police Station, with an "interfaith" theme.  But even this demonstration for religious tolerance grows heated, so I quickly leave Jantar Mantar before the swelling crowds cut off my escape. Along the way, I notice a hearse standing by...

...A Stroll through the quiet of the Lodi Gardens.  Stopping short to see a family repairing the walk, the children carrying bricks.  The youngest girl must be around my daughter's age, mud splattering her little dress.  I walk away to the shade of Sikandar Lodi Tomb, fighting back tears...

...approached by young men (always young men) to take a selfie inside Shish Gumbad, then step out the other side to a riot of schoolkids.  Beyond them, a group of people perform extreme yoga poses in matching T-shirts.  I wander away toward Safdarjung Madarsa, quiet but for a few girls chatting in the shade.  As I depart, I wade through a large group of schoolkids on a field trip, and my hello creates a roar of children greetings that echo beneath the stone, as their teachers try to quiet them down...

...returning to the hotel, and the body of our tour group.  A number of them tell how brave I am in wandering Dehli's streets, but I feel the opposite, a little sorry that they hadn't... 

...the peaceful oasis of our Maurya Hotel which resembles the Ranganathaswamy Temple of India's south, above the canopy of trees that spreads away in all directions.  Gazing out over the forest it is easy to see why Delhi is considered one of the world's greenest cities.  Beneath the canopy are all the embassies and the villas for government ministers, parliamentarians, and diplomatic corps.  If you limited your sightseeing to just this area, you'd think Delhi one of the most beautiful places in the world...

...the blood red sunsets over the haze...


    
ON THE TRAIN TO SHIMLA

...train pulling out of Delhi, offering a full view of the slums, the worst I've ever seen.  Cows and wild boar eat the garbage strewn everywhere.  Lots of people undertaking their morning ablutions at this early hour, squatting in full view. (I'd be surprised to see many men also squat to pee, but only if they are wearing kurta.) Woman squat too, though a slight distance from the men.  Boys simply stand, bait and tackle free in the breeze...

...on the train, each of the Englishmen is reading a newspaper, as if doing the daily commute back home. Over time I notice that the boldest font is used for tragedies in places that none of us have even heard of...

...a fellow passenger, a very old and dignified Indian woman with white hair, dark face, and a box of freshly jarred marmalade, which I lift for her onto the overhead rack, her cautioning at the fragility.  Life at either of its extremities certainly simplifies what truly is important...

...the fresh wheat cut on the Yamuna plain is stacked into domes that resemble the tops of minarets. Harvested rice fields are burned into tan and black stripes. The simple and tidy earthen farmhouses, many with a satellite dish. One has a massive advert for "Hero" bicycles painted on its side... 

...the uniform white of Chandrigarh in the distance, like bleached bones...

 

SHIMLA

...Shimla's roads and arteries like pasta spilled down the hillside.  The fainter traces of trails like lacework....
 
...Away from the traffic, Shimla is like a college town, with its lovely little pedestrian mall lined with shops, cafes, and cheap hotels.  I admire the church from afar, and later kick myself for not going in after I heard that Kipling's father designed the stained-glass windows...

...road works done by white-garbed Sikhs in bright orange vests...

..The drive down to Chandrigarh. While Taiwanese drivers are considered the world's most dangerous, Japan has the worst, and India the most foolish.  Buses overtake on blind curves through the mountains at speed. Apples for sale everywhere.  Shimla's now closed airfield like a plaster on the hillside. A man on the roadside pulls his chainsaw toward his sandalled foot.  Traffic slows to a crawl due to a puja.  A man nearly gets left behind by his bus as he pees obliviously on the roadside, and upon noticing, races uphill after the receding vehicle. (I certainly hope that he had finished his business first.)  A fleet of Mercedes overtakes the entire flow of traffic, some political bigwig aboard, flanked by bully-boys who scowl and gesture at the drivers to pull the fuck over. (Most of the worst traffic snarls or delays I experienced while in India were due to politicians moving from point A to B.) Lone bicyclist with a Czech flag rides through the dust swarms as he ascends slowly. Driver on a mobile makes a half-assed attempt to pull off the road, fouling four entire lanes of traffic.  And the fundamental disappointment that Chandrigarh's railway station is eight km outside town.  I was hoping to get a glimpse of the town that La Corbustier designed, India's first planned city.  I've heard the city called both stunning, and hideous.  Next time...


On the turntable:  Gypsy Kings,  "The Very Best of the Gypsy Kings"
On the nighttable: Rudyard Kipling "Plain Tales from the Hills"