Monday, November 30, 2009

Life in a Taxi

When one lives in a large city like Bangkok, much of the traveling is done by taxi. This city has five and a half MILLION registered vehicles (unregistered are probably many tens of thousands), and I must have seen most of them. Whether going into town, traveling to or from work, bringing a load of groceries home, or trying to get to a friend's house, taxis are one of the most popular and--by western standards--economical ways to get around.

Instead of attempting to describe the emotional roller coaster ridden when in the unpredictable Bangkok taxi, I am listing a number of texts sent by Kat and me to each other at various times in the past several months. I think you'll get an idea of what it's like:

  • "Taxi hasn't moved in 25 mins. Driver keeps opening his door to huck lugies into the street--it ain't pretty."
  • "Fell asleep...Oh no! Wrong turn!"
  • "Can I get a 'Sitting on my Ass in a Taxi' award?"
  • "Driver going wrong way and he won't listen to me!"
  • "Grid f***ing lock!"
  • "Can't find a taxi. What the hell?"
  • "Oh no! They're fixing the bridge, traffic galore, pouring rain, I'll never get home! Wah!"
  • "Just got kicked out of the taxi. Guy decided it was going to take too long and he had other plans."
  • "Wow, Sammakee is flooded, worst I've ever seen. I may have to walk. Sh*t!"
  • "Traffic crawling...trapped like a rat!"
  • "Got kicked out at Soi 72--I guess he picked up the wrong fare."
  • "This driver is 200 years old and babbling."
  • "Still babbling."
  • "Have beer ready."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Special Place

Lately, I was thinking about sense of "place" and recalled a moment last summer during a trip to Iowa. As I relaxed on a friend's porch at sunrise, the cool night air still resisting the impending heat of the new day, I thought of how beautiful and serene the setting was and realized at that moment, it seemed perfect. Cares melted away as I watched a woodpecker going about its energetic business in the woods and ducks paddling on the glassy pond. I then pondered the question, "If I feel this good here, why did I ever leave?"

Perhaps we all spend most of our lives striving for that perfect place, our retreat, the sanctuary, a paradise. For some, it is a cottage nestled lakeside in the rolling Iowa hills, for others it is a cabin in the Cascades, a townhouse in Boston, or simply a home in the neighborhood of one's youth in a small town.

For me--and happily, for Kat too--it is the Maine coast woods. It is the only place where I have felt completely nurtured by nature's rhythms. But that is me. It is futile to extol the virtues of one's Nirvana in hopes of convincing others to love it, too. We probably do it for selfish reasons: We want those we care about to move closer to us. I think it is better to celebrate a sense of place and be grateful for the opportunity to live in our designated retreats.

The world is full of beautiful and fascinating places. How wonderful it is to have so many friends living in their chosen sanctuaries, and to have the chance to visit each other, sharing in the pleasure of friendship and enjoyment of each other's special place.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sidewalk Images

Every day I pass scores of people living a simple life in a not-so-simple city. Their stories are often told without words: In the way they live, in their faces, and in the day to day basics that help them survive with dignity. This man carries his shop with him, slung over his shoulder as he moves from street corner to street corner. Notice the eggs he is cooking on a woven basket! Bangkapi, Bangkok.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Visit to a Bhutanese Monastery

High on the mountainside of the Punakha Valley in Bhutan sits an aged monastery, which is home to one hundred boys of various ages. In this isolated setting, the boys attend a classical Bhuddist monastic school where they study to become monks. Surrounded by the lushness of the jungle slopes, the serenity is palpable; the silence a perfect backdrop for meditation, prayer and reflection.

As we entered the grounds, an air of peacefulness greeted us. Met by the head abbot, Guru Tshewang, we walked through the grassy courtyard where novice monks of all sizes flashed warm smiles and waved. Sitting in the reception room, we chatted for an hour or so with Guru Tshewang, getting a brief history of the monastery and learning about the school. Very personable, Tshewang paused often to ask us for the correct English phrase to use. Although Dzonga is the official Bhutanese language, few people like to use it, and all learn English from an early age. It is the language of instruction in Bhutan schools.

After a basic but hearty meal, we went to different classrooms to teach an English class. My class of advanced English speakers met in the sanctuary, whose walls were decorated with brightly painted murals of Tibetan guardian spirits and golden statues of Buddha. The class consisted of me answering questions about myself and America (“Tell us about your schools.” “What is New York like?” “Have you been to Los Angeles?” “Do you like Bhutan?”), and them relating to me what it was like to live in the monastery. They were even eager to learn a bit of Thai, meager though my level happens to be. It was a delightful hour and a half. Most surprising was the length of their workday. Up at 4:30 each morning, they spend 18 hours studying with time off for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a half hour of CNN and BBC news (a satellite dish sits incongruently on the side of the monastery). We slept comfortably on cushions in the reception room, awakened briefly in the middle of the night by a chorus of baying from the guard dogs. When I asked the abbot about it in the morning, he said, “Probably leopards. They come by occasionally, but won’t come near the dogs.” That was comforting.

I was awakened by a droning sound that my sleepy brain eventually interpreted as human. As I stepped into the soft morning light, I saw scores of red robed boys sitting cross-legged on the ground, their prayer books in their laps, and all chanting in that mysteriously enticing monotone of meditation. I was transfixed by the scene, and sat for a while, listening to the lulling sound, gently rocking like so many of the young chanting novices. A rich scent of cedar smoke and incense hung in the air as the sun rose out of the mist.

Later, we walked the grounds and observed the many chores and creative arts projects that the novices were engaged in each day, such as classical Tibetan Buddhist music and making mandalas from butter for prayer services. All too soon it was time to leave. Although brief, the visit left me with a greater understanding of Bhutan, its history and religion (Tibetan Buddhism is different than Theravada Buddhism practiced in Thailand). It endeared me even more to this peaceful and beautiful country. We most certainly will return.