Sunday, June 5, 2011

160,000 Words

Out of the four-thousand plus pictures I took during my little trip, I've posted my one-hundred sixty favorites as a Facebook album.  So if we're Facebook friends, check that shit out.  If not, and you're curious to see what some of these places look like, don't be shy, friend away!

Or maybe you can just click here and view it.... not sure if that works if we're not friends, but give it a shot.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

All Over The World Hearts Pound With the Rhythm

But it was the end of the road, at least in a manner of speaking (although, as the cliché goes, every end is also...), as after two-hundred, forty-six days and ten countries, I now sit back in the good old badlands of New Jersey. 

Home.  The United States of America.  Where I can flip the switch at any time of day or night and the lights will come on.  Where there will always be internet access or a television to turn on or music to listen to.  But the luxury isn't without cost.  Because here I won't be spending any nights learning new card games by candlelight.  I won't be having nightly dharma discussions trying to wrap my head around emptiness or theorizing about pure lands or commiserating over the truth of suffering.

Here in America not every purchase is a fight.  No bargaining is required to take a taxi or get a haircut or buy a bottle of water.  But if I want a new shirt, I may end up paying sixty dollars for something that cost four bucks to manufacture, because it's the "right" price.

I can get anywhere I need to go on a smoothly paved road, without sharing my seat with an unknown child or a slumbering Nepali.  But I won't be flagging down a flatbed truck in the middle of the night, riding through the nighttime wind on top of bags of grain under Southern Hemisphere stars.  I won't be - wouldn't be allowed to be - riding on the roof of a minibus, watching Asian mountain peaks pass me by as I share a lift with the thirty-five people below me, packed into a bus for made for twenty.  I'll have a hard time hitchhiking out of a desert or into an airport.

Downstairs is a refrigerator filled with fresh and chilled food, a ridiculous assortment of available things to eat.  But here I won't be pointing to an unreadable language on a menu, playing meal roulette and gambling that what is delivered to my table will be edible.  I'm going to be hard-pressed to find authentic injera.  And even in New York City, it will be impossible to chow down on a legitimately delicious Indian Curry (believe me, I've tried).

In the US, I can relax in the comfort of the concept of personal space.  I can walk down the street or sit at a table alone in peace, without being yelled at, grabbed onto or subjected to an inquisition.  But no one here is going to be taking an hour out of their day to escort me to a train station, conversing only in hand gestures and smiles.  No strangers will be inviting me into their home to share a coffee or offer what little food they have available.  No one will be saying hello, only to immediately follow their introduction with a request for my email address in the hopes we can be pen-pals.

Here at home I have a family, people who care for me, who know my history, who will take care of me if I get sick or hurt.  So that's nice.

I've enjoyed writing this little web-log.  I can't really say what's coming up for me in the next few months or years, so who knows, if you're bored enough to check and I'm bored enough to write, maybe we'll continue to have a virtual meeting of the minds in the blogosphere!

Back at Kopan Monastery in Nepal we learned to end virtually everything - days, meditation sits, teaching sessions - by dedicating to the benefit of others the fruits of whatever we had done.  Now seems like a good time to do a little dedication of our own, and so below I share my favorite dedication prayer (and also the favorite dedication prayer of His Holiness... we have so much in common!).  Enjoy, meditate, roll your eyes.... whatever makes you comfortable.

Thanks for following along!

From Master Shantideva's "Bodhicharyavatara" (a.k.a."Guide to the Bodhissatva's Way of Life"):

May all beings everywhere
Plagued by sufferings of body and mind
Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy
By virtue of my merits.

May no living creature suffer,
Commit evil, or ever fall ill.
May no one be afraid or belittled,
With a mind weighed down by depression.

May the blind see forms
And the deaf hear sounds.
May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored on finding repose.

May the naked find clothing,
the hungry find food;
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.

May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy;
May the forlorn find hope,
Constant happiness, and prosperity.

May there be timely rains
And bountiful harvests;
May all medicines be effective
And wholesome prayers bear fruit.

May all who are sick and ill
Quickly be freed from their ailments.
Whatever diseases there are in the world,
May they never occur again.

May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed;
May the powerless find power,
And may people think of benefitting each other.

For as long as space remains,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then may I too remain
To dispel the miseries of the world.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The End of the Road

"Bot-ter, Bot-ter, Bot-ter". The children's plodding chanting is out of rhythm with the swiftness of their feet, moving in a run towards the dirt road. I lean forward to yell into my motorbike driver's ear:

"What does 'botter' mean?"

He turns his head, the whipping wind carrying his voice back to my end of the cycle. "They say like 'faranji'; 'white person'."

Well, I think, it's better than the typical Ethopian greeting of "you". "You" which can be employed singularly, launched from the mouth of a passerby on the street, like a wad of spit, "YOU", or, in multiplicity, running like a word train in one long breath out of children's mouths: "youyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyou.....". Smiling, I turn around and wave at the crowd of kids who pursue us through the dust.

The driver slows up, pulling off to the side of the road. We've made it to a village of the Ari people, one of the multitude of distinct tribes that populate the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. Walking away from the road, the driver leads me back into the bush, where a women steps out of a small hut made of sticks and mud to greet us. She is stunning, beautiful in the way that make Ethiopian women the most gorgeous on earth (with apologies to the Argentinian and Burmese): sharp, Arabic features and dark, African skin.

She speaks. The driver translates into his own broken English, "Are you medicine?"

"You mean a doctor? No."

"Her baby is sick." The woman says some more, showing off her beautiful smile at the end of her sentence. "She says her baby is like faranji; white skin."

He means the baby is pale. I smile. They take me inside. Sure enough, there is a child of about four years old laying ill in the hut.

"Malaria. She took to clinic, but medicine too expensive. She buy this" - he shows a package of pills - "but it is not work."

My brow furrows. They both smile. The driver slaps me on the back. "This is Africa" he says. I'm unable to return their light-heartedness. Is it an invented sob story for the benefit of the money in my pocket? Possibly. We share some coffee cooked over a wood fire inside the small home. I say my goodbyes and hand over forty birr (about $2.40), an amount I determine to be generous by Ethiopian currency standards, but not innappropriately so. What can I say, I'm a sucker for a pretty face and a seriously ill child.

A night passes.

The next day I've made it out to Key Afar. From the window of the hot and overly-populated bus I spot my first of the Banna people. Standing by the side of the road with his Kalishnakov draped across his back, he is nude except for a short wrap around his hips. And, of course, his jewelry. So much jewelry. Leg and wrist and arm and neck and head bands of brightly colored beads. Brass bangles on forearms and bicepts. The front half of his head is shaved, the back half pulled back in tightly braided cornrows. Each earlobe is pierced three or four times, big holes with colored plastic stuck through. He is colorful and tribal and alien and alive and it is like nothing I've ever seen in person, the sight calling out like a neon sign: "This is it; the end of the road."

Later, once the weekly Key Afar market has kicked off, there are more. Many more. Women too, in goatskin skirts with backs hanging down between their legs like tails, and hair tightly braided and dyed a maroonish red by clay. The market is overwhelming, my circuitry nearly cutting out. I struggle for a mooring, searching for adjectives to make some sense of this: "native"; "colorful", "exotic", "indigenous". I wander amongst the people perched on the ground selling seeds and fruit and clothing and, for better or worse, right or wrong, less flattering, more judgmental adjectives enter my mindstream: "primitive"; "savage".

Eventually, after some hours, I walk away from the market, out into the fields and a local boy/wannabe guide asks if I would like to see the village. I accept. Climbing over a perimeter fence, I walk towards a simple home and am introduced to an older woman and her family. But something is off, the situations just doesn't feel right. I duck into their home, the tiny structure of sticks where they lay down at night on a thin sheet of goat leather. This just feels wrong. I try to establish a rapport, pulling out my arsenal of finely-honed, English-free relationship-building gags. But I can barely elicit a smile. The destended-bellied children look on with blank stares, flies buzzing in the corners of their eyes and the cuts on their legs.

No. This is not right. I am ready to leave. But first, the moment I've been dreading ever since I first contemplated coming south to see some of the tribes. My boy guide says it: "Take some pictures."

No. I am uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.

He looks confused and insists. I hem and haw. He implores. Finally I succomb to his urging and the dark side of myself that wants the shot. I snap some pictures. Then hand over more birr than is required, trying to soothe the rash of my moral failings with monetary balm.

We leave the village. My chest is hollow with self-loathing. Because though the lens of my camera points only forward, adjectives are bi-directional. And reviewing the paid-for pictures in the viewfinder of my digital camera I see those words whose arrows are pointed back at the photographer: "intrusive"; "voyeuristic"; "exploitative". Never again, I resolve, not like that.

Another night.

Today is a special day for one Banna boy. Today he partakes in the right of passage known as "bull-jumping." His extended family has come from all over the valley, walking up to eighty kilometers to be there for the celebration. You hear them coming twenty minutes before they arrive. Mouth horns blaring, loud singing. Finally, stumbling into the small village covered in sweat, they kiss each of their relatives three times before sitting down to rest.

I spend six hours in the midst of the celebrations. There is simply too much color, too many goings-on to describe. Too much unabashed nudity and beaded jewelry. Too many gag-inducing (for me) concoctions shared out of communal drinking bowls. Too many songs and dances. Far too many rituals.

Although two specific ritual traditions stand out, begging to be described. The first is, of course, the culmination of the whole affair, the actual bull-jumping. The cattle are all herded together by a circle of chanting, singing, bell-ringing, yelling, extended Banna family. Around fourteen are caught, each one held in line with the rest by two Banna men, one on the horns, one on the tail. The fifteen year old boy of the hour strips naked in front of the crowd, and in this clothes-less state, he runs towards the bulls and leaps onto the back of the first in line. He doesn't stop, he runs right across the line of bovines, leaping down from the last on the other side. A five second pause. And then he turns and runs back to where he began. Back the other way. And a final return. Four times across their backs, until one of the bulls squirms loose and the boy is told he is done.

You know, bull-jumping.

The second ritual which cannot go unmentioned is the whipping of the women. It sounds horrible, and going in, I'm not sure I want to see it. I envision cowering women shreiking and crying in pain as they are mercilessly beaten by Banna men. But this vision could not be farther from the reality. The point of the inflicted beatings is that the women closest to the bull-jumper, his mother and sisters and cousins, ask to be whipped so they might adorn scars showing how much they love the boy. The women are singing and chanting, taunting the designated whippers. Eventually the boys come out and the women are wild, they are chanting, grabbing at the boys, trying to get a hold of the long thin sticks that are to be slapped across their chests. Finally the boy raises his arm and the selected woman stands in front, singing, stamping her feet. The boy's arm flies forward, the stick whipping into the woman's front and arm. She doesn't cry. She doesn't yell. Usually there isn't even a whince. Instead she dives forward trying to grab the stick. She grabs at the boy's shorts. He runs away through the crowd giggling. The woman keeps taunting. The tone of the affair is more like an adolescent pillow-fight then anything you could call a beating. I find myself smiling and laughing and wondering if the whipping actually hurts at all. And then I see the blood running down one of the woman's arms...

Six hours. Six hours I spent with the songs and foot stomping and bell ringing and strange rituals and eating and drinking and, yes, whipping. Six hours of the most...

No. No more adjectives. Mere words of description do not encompass what this is. Because accurately conveying this is a matter of scale. And to see what this is, really what this is, we need to zoom out. Out and back. Out across space and back across time. Back before the Magic Machine of Metal that will pick me up miles into the sky and transport me to the otherside of the planet in a matter of hours. Back before the Polish shtettles of the eighteenth century that are still reflected today in the Hassidic neighborhood of Mea Sharim in Jerusalem. Before those sanctified biblical times of two-thousand years ago, whose architecture is preserved in the Middle East and whose dress of shawls, staffs and crowns survives in northern Ethiopia. Even before the five-thousand year old Vedic rituals which can still be witnessed at the ghats of Nepal.

Because before all that, before the blink-of-an-eye that is the latest five-thousand years of human history, this is what there was. Everywhere. For - as far as human existence is concerned - virtually forever. It is our heritage and history. Our shared origins. Animism. Subsistence living. Paganism. Tribalism.

This isn't the end of the road. It's the beginning.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Naturally Protected and Unexpected Treasures

The guidebooks try to warn you.  Staring up at the final few meters of the ascent up to Abuna Yemata Guh, a church carved into the the very top of a rock mountain in a remote area of Ethiopia, I remember Lonely Planet's words:

The last two minutes require nerves of steel - our hands are sweating just thinking about it!

Well, I don't have much of a choice now, do I?  I already hopped into the car with my new friends Nick and Amy - a British couple on one very long road trip from London to Cape Town, South Africa - and made the journey out into the dusty Tigray valley on dirt roads that are much more dirt than road.  I've already agreed to pay my share of the price for this makeshift guide who seemed to grow magically out of the dust as soon as we stopped our car, as they always do.  And then the hike up here, fifty exhausting minutes of vertical climbing in the mid-day heat.  I've taken off my shoes and socks in order to have a better foot-grip for climbing the rock face.  We've woken up the slumbering priest, who we found simultaneously guarding the key to the church and sleeping in a cave in perched in the sky.  I've walked past the old shallow rock tombs which display human skeletal remains, some of which still maintain larges sections of flesh.  [Nick, Amy and I debate - how could the flesh still possibly be preserved?  The altitude?  The dry air?].  Can I really turn back now??

This is me swallowing my fear.

In quarter-steps I approach the rock face and set my intention not to look to my left, towards the two-hundred meter plummet that awaits if I happen to slip.  I lean into the rock and place my hands in the shallow indentures.  I lift my bare feet into the first of the small footholds.  Then I move my right hand.  Then left hand.  Right foot.  Left foot.  With what I am sure is too-deliberate movements, I creep up the mountain in the least graceful dance of all time.

As I reach level ground, I am surrounded by nothing but air, but still, there is no room to breathe.  It is a rock landing maybe four square feet around, surely I will not stumble and fall off, but at this height, with nothing but certain death awaiting on all sides, I am too afraid to stand.  I crouch and use my hands to walk over to the ledge.

Twenty feet separate me from my final goal of the ancient prayer-room.  This very last push involves a ledge measuring maybe thirty inches across.  On one side a flat rock wall.  On the other, a drop I will not even take a peak at, for fear of being overcome by vertigo.  I lean into the wall with such intensity, a passive observer might think I was having a love affair with this fine piece of volcanic cliff.  I shuffle along until I finally am able to dip into a cave.  Exhale.  Safety.

The priest unlocks the door.  Nick is first to enter.

"Oh my God" he says.

I dip my head and enter the cave.  Nick's exclamation reflects my immediate impressions as well. For at this height, at the top of a mountain that you must risk life and limb to climb, the ancient peoples of Ethiopia have carved out an unexpectedly large and ornately painted church chamber.  The walls are adorned with colored paintings of Jesus and Mary.  Portraits of the apostles adorn the ceilings.  How?  Why?  HOW??

We sit in silence.  Amy asks how old is the Church.

"Fourth century" our guide says.

We are floored.  Speechless.

I spot an old book lying on the ground amidst a pile of different sized texts.  I pick it up and flip through the pages.  Old Semitic writing stares back at me on pieces of Torah-like parchment.  "Ge-ez" my guide explains, an ancient language, written on animal skin.

"How old is this book?"

"Same as church."

"This book is one-thousand, seven-hundred years old?!?!?"

"Yes" the guide says impassively.  The priest who cannot understand our English conversation nods his head in apathy.

My fingers take a decidedly gentler approach to the pages of the book, which our guides tells us is the Old Testament.  I hand it over to Amy who turns through the pages in awe before placing it back on the pile of seventeen-hundred year old books.  The priest lifts another of the texts and, taking it out of its leather case, shows us a beautiful painting of Mary and child that adorns the first page.  The priest offers to chant a few lines.  We listen in silence.  Then we sit.

We hate to leave, but Amy speaks up and we agree... it's time to go.

"That was incredible - one of the highlights of our trip" Nick tells me.  The same goes for me, one of the more memorable and magical experiences in eight months of memorable and magical experiences.  Still at the top of the mountain, I imagine how I might translate this past hour into words and sentences so I might share it with my friends and family.  Impossible, but I resolve to try.

Of course, to be able to do that, first I must get down...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tim & Kim

I wasn't looking for Tim & Kim.  But it's not the first time during my trip that a very fortunate circumstance materialized out of the ether.  Once again, one seemingly meaningless decision, one small turn of luck, led to a series of events that drastically changed the course of a few days for the better.  This time I happened to decide to go off to the little visited village of Gorgora, a small community on the northern end of Lake Tana.  I happened to meet up with Yosef and his five students, who were in the process of hiring a boat to visit the island monasteries of the lake.  Because Yosef happened to be Dutch, the boat operator happened to mention to him that there was a Dutch couple – Tim & Kim - that ran a community-based resort nearby.  Yosef happened to decide to visit the resort rather than the monastery that was supposed to be the final stop on the lake tour.

And so it was that I arrived at Tim & Kim’s Village, which sits seven hundred and fifty meters off the dirt road that is the main drag of Gorgora.  The scene is picturesque.  Eight or so stone cabanas – rooms built almost exclusively by Tim’s own hands – dot the hillside that tumbles down towards the lake.  Tim shows me which room is mine and advises that I need not use the en suite showers, as a more suitable bathing option might be to hop into the blue waters of Lake Tana.  Taking his advice, I walk the dirt path down to my very own three thousand square kilometer bathtub, take off my clothes, and go in for a dip.  As the sun begins to set over the surrounding mountains, I wrap myself in my towel and return to my room to get ready for dinner, a meal I share with Tim and Kim alone, as today I am the only guests staying at their little slice of paradise.

Turning this piece of Ethiopian dirt into this beautiful resort did not come easy for Tim and Kim.  As Tim put it, he and his wife are "survivors".  Literally.  Tim has had malaria nine times.  Kim three, once to the point of being so ill that she had to be admitted to the nearest hospital's intensive care unit (two hours away).  Tim's been stung by a scorpion, which he likens to having his arm on a barbecue for twenty-four straight hours.  They've dealt with hyenas, rabid dogs and thieving employees.  They've slept with chickens and cows and spiders and rats.  But mostly, they've learned what to me seemed like a painfully frustrating lesson on working with the local Ethiopian community.  Nearly every item in their resort - the lamps, the windows, the tables, the light switches, the beer, the sugar - came with a different story of disappointment or incompetency, of things being built incorrectly or not delivered as ordered or being overpriced due to senseless government price caps.

Beside a bonfire, Tim and Kim tell me these stories insisting they are not frustrated, that they have survived by adjusting their expectations.  But their tone tells a different story.  They seem genuinely disappointed to reveal that they no longer harbor any hope - as they once did - that someday they will turn over the resort that is the fruit of their hard labor to a local Ethiopian.  Instead, they say without a hint of embarrassment, they are quite sure that their replacement will have to be a faranji, a foreigner.

And no wonder.  The local schools are hardly able to provide the type of education we in the west are accustomed to, the type of education we would like to think is a right - not a privilege -  for any child.  Before Tim and Kim there were few school supplies.  There was no kindergarten.  But thanks to their effort there is now.  And someday soon, thanks to their organization's sponsorship, there may even be foreign educated teachers to pass on the knowledge that those in the local community have never before had the opportunity of obtaining.

What Tim and Kim have accomplished is amazing and inspiring.  They have installed a water tank, drastically improving the health and lives of nearly all of Gorgora's five thousand residents.  They sponsor a local swim team, giving the Gorgoran youths a sense of purpose.  They employ seventeen people from the local community, providing a steady source of income and self-esteem.  They even administer a very haphazard kind of health-insurance for their workers, pooling all tips from guests into an emergency fund.  On the day I left their resort, Tim was accompanying one of his worker's to southern Ethiopia, as the couple's non-profit organization had raised enough money (around $800) to perform a life-saving cleft-palate repair operation on an employee's child

Sitting under the Ethiopian stars, I listen to Tim and Kim in awe and admiration.  But I am worried, and I share my concerns.  What happens when one of the workers gets too ill and their insurance fund cannot cover the treatment?  What happens when their seventy-two year old worker is no longer able to work?  Will they not feel a sense of responsibility?  Will they not be stuck paying out of their own pocket for these people who have come to rely so heavily on their help?

The couple ponders my point in silence.  Finally, Tim speaks up.  If their modest insurance fund cannot cover a sickness, the worker will die.  If the seventy-two year old former beggar can no longer work, he will go back to his life on the street.  "This is Africa", Tim says.  "We don't have the luxury of planning for contingencies.  If an emergency comes up, we deal with it if we can.  If we can't....  well, this is their reality."

Maybe it is because they recognize the limits of what they can do that Tim and Kim tell me about their various projects without a hint of pride.  To them, they are only doing what anyone would do if confronted with the reality they face everyday.  And they know that in the end they are merely plugging holes in a dam that is gushing with leaks.  They tell me that more important than the individual projects is that they are able to establish a self-sustaining business that can benefit the community for years to come.  Tim and Kim's biggest hope is that one day the locals will be able to stand on their own.

My hope is that they don't lose hope.

Monday, April 25, 2011

How Blessed Is This Day

It's the night before Easter in Addis Ababa.  The walk to the Holy Trinity Cathedral for Midnight Mass is not one I would want to do alone.  During the day, the streets of Addis are teeming with all sorts of sweet, savory and unsavory (often it seems mostly unsavory) characters, but at night they are empty, and the dusty, unlit roads radiate a sense of desolateness that is eerie.  There are no neon signs, no pedestrian promenades, no commercial centers, no rows of restaurants or stores, no tall modern buildings to light up the sky.  Addis has none of these.

The gate to the church is guarded by a mass of humanity.  In the shadows of night they have no faces, no arms, no legs.  They are a huddled stack of blankets, wrapped up to guard against the surprisingly chilly night they will spend on the street, as they always do.  As we walk through a hand reaches out and shakes slowly, inquiring for alms in the international language of jingling change.

We enter the church grounds, following the sound of the distorted voice chanting in Amharic, booming across the city from the top of the church spire.  We round the corner, and there they are.

There are hundreds, no thousands, each and every one wrapped in a long white shawl.  Some hold long wooden staffs, some burning candles.  They are old and young, some obviously wealthier than others.  I assume they fill the entire inside of the church, but I can't confirm.  I can barely get near the door.  They spill out onto the steps of the church, onto the platform below, around all sides of the church, filling the church grounds.  They sit on blankets like it was a rock concert.  They lean against statues and trees, they sit between cars.  Some are standing, some are sleeping.  All are perfectly quiet.

The priest's chanting slows to a beautifully gentle speaking voice.  Every twenty to thirty seconds it pauses and the worshippers chime in with an equally soft melodic murmur.  They stand up and prostrate.  At one point they applaud wildly.  It goes on and on into Easter sunday.

I am new to Ethiopia, but there is something in the service that feels unique and uniquely Ethiopian.  It is definitely Christian and definitely African, and yet the dress and the melody and the setting lends a Semitic feel to it.  I wonder where else in the world can it be like this.  Somalia?  Sudan?

At some point there is a massacre.  I don't know when or how, but when I wake up on the morning of Easter Sunday the street corners are stacked high with goat hides and it is not so uncommon to see someone walking the street with a bag of meat or a severed goat head.  The fifty-five day vegetarian fast has ended, and they are celebrating the return to the eating of flesh.

This day is a quiet day on the streets of Addis.  Nothing is open, no stores or banks or internet cafes (the few that exist), only the ubiquitous coffee shops, selling what is regarded as some of the world's best java.  The minivans with the howling conductors come by only every few minutes rather than every twenty or so seconds.  It even seems there are somehow fewer homeless on the streets, as if they too are taking the day off.

I like Addis this way.  Tomorrow it will go back to the roads crowded with people and old vehicles spewing black smoke, the pickpockets, the disabled and dirty asking for change, the prostitutes with their supposed fifty percent HIV infection rate, the homeless and filthy children, the near post-apocalyptic reality that can be the day-to-day street scene.  This is how Addis is, at least as it seems to me, in my very brief encounter.  It is something I will always remember, something I could never forget, even if I tried.

But of course, even on the normal days, there is more to it than that. They are here somewhere, those devotees, behind closed doors, that quiet amidst the madness.  I will remember them too.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Impressions of the Middle East

People get ready for that [taxi] to Jordan.

Lodged between the rugged cliffs of the Jordanian desert is Petra, a valley that was home to a B.C. city and that now bears the remains of hundreds of deep and sometimes ornate tombs carved into the rock.  It's dope, I'm into it.  I'm especially into the long day hikes up into the surrounding mountains during which you might stumble across the occasional Bedouin goat herder who invites you into his simple home for tea.  Some hot tea, some soccer with Bedouin kids, some goats, some fantastic views across the rocky desert landscape... like I said, into it.

I don't have much else to say about Jordan.  Really, the point of this post was to drop the Curtis Mayfield references I've been storing up for months in preparation.

Since this is the Middle East, I guess I can provide some political commentary.  You ready for it?  Ok, here goes...

That there are entire swaths of the planet that I can't just stumble around meeting people and exchanging handshakes and smiles is stupid.  That there are whole portions of the city of Jerusalem or entire villages in Israel where I can't go without fear of getting harassed is stupid.  That I can't even come to a tourist center like Petra without experiencing (very slight) undertones of fear and animosity is stupid.  Hey world, grow up.

Really took you to school there, didn't I?

Anyway, tomorrow I leave Jordan to do what any respectable JewBu (Jewish-Buddhist) does after a pilgrimage to Asia and Israel.  Travel through Ethiopia, duh!

Here's a (long exposure) picture of the Treasury at Petra at night.  That shit's just carved right into the rock face.  Not bad, huh?

Talk to you from AFRICA!

Monday, April 11, 2011

This is Israel

"Allahu Akbar."  I stir on Friday morning, awakening to the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer, the Muslim's voice booming from the loudspeaker sitting atop the spire of the nearby mosque.  This is Israel.

I am in Cana, an Arab village a day's walk out of Nazareth along the "Jesus Trail", a Christian pilgrimage route stretching across the Galilee, the land of Jesus' ministry.  I am nervous and excited as I have a lofty goal for the day: to walk thirty kilometers, turning the hike from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee - normally a four day trek - into a three day trek.  Rolling out of bed I pack up my possessions into the bag I am to carry on my back, and walk into the living room of the Arab-Christian guest house that lodges the various hikers and pilgrims who pass through Cana as they walk the trail.

"The Kingdom of God is like a Jesus Trail marker.  If you know where to look, it is always there to guide the way."

Entering the living room of the home-stay guest house I am confronted with eighteen Christian pilgrims, seventeen students and a professor, from Eastern Mennonite University in Pennsylvania.  Sitting in a circle of couches, the class conducts their morning session as each student takes a turn to complete the sentence "The Kingdom of God is like..." with something they had seen on the first day of the walk.  Grabbing my breakfast of hard-boiled egg, pita and hummus, the professor kindly asks if I would like to join, and though I politely decline the invitation, I continue to listen as the students share their analogies.

"The Kingdom of God is like a field in the Galilee.  It may be obscured by trash and pollution, but the beauty is always there if you know how to look."  

I smile to myself.  This is Israel.

By 8:30 a.m. I am on the trail and hiking out of Cana, into the beautifully forested hills of the Galilee.  Seeing the Arab town of Tur'an after less than two hours of walking, I note with pride that I am making great time.  Pleased with myself, my mind begins to wander into complacency and when I return to mindfulness, I realize I haven't seen a trail marker in at least ten minutes.  Time for some navigation skills!  Looking at a map, I realize I now have two options:  (A) backtrack at least ten minutes uphill and pick up the trail wherever I had lost it or (B) hike towards the highway I can spot in the distance and walk along the road until it crosses the trail, a route that will shorten my total walk for the day.  Option B it is!

Hmmm, I soon realize.... walking along a busy highway is not fun.  And, those clouds... yep, and now it is less fun as it has started to rain.  So, okay, we're at a crossroads.  Do I to continue to hike in the rain, for another two kilometers on a busy highway, and as a reward for making it off the highway, possibly have to trudge my way through the mud for another twenty kilometers, or is it better to cut my losses, swallow my pride and hop a bus to Tiberias, the nearest Israeli city of significance?

Reasonableness wins this battle (don't get used to it fella!), and within a half hour I had found a bus going my way.  Sweaty, wet and muddy, I pay my eleven shekel fare and sit down next to a green clad Israeli soldier, passed out in his seat and clutching an automatic rifle in his lap.  This too is Israel.

Ok Noah, time to regroup, here's the new plan: arrive in Tiberias, rent a car and drive north exploring my way through the Galilee until I reach my friend's couch in the Golan Heights, then spend the next day hiking the Golan.  Thrilled with the new itinerary I send my friend a text message and then drive to the Christian holy spots I had hoped to hit on the trek.  First was the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes, a small and tranquil church commemorating one of Jesus' supposed miracles.  Next, a short walk over to the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter, a Franciscan church set right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee on the spot where Jesus transferred leadership of the church to Peter.

It's a beautiful walk downhill through gardens towards the water and the church.  The sun is bright, the weather is warm, and, well, I begin to hear heavenly music.  Okay, I know I'm visiting some pretty holy sights here, but really, am I having visions (hearings?) now??  As I round a corner the chanting grows louder, and nearing the church, I see that the singing is coming from a group of Franciscan pilgrims, fifty or so Catholics dressed all in white, performing an outdoor mass in a shaded area overlooking the Sea (sanity, you are mine again you beautiful son-of-a-bitch!).  Backed with two nylon string acoustic guitars and a softly tapped conga drum, the Christian's voices drift across the grass and out into the sea, speaking out wonderfully moving and beautiful minor melodies giving praise to the Lord.  Does the setting sound too good to be true, too fantastic and idyllic, out of a movie or a story book or a Christian propaganda film?  Well, this is how it is, I swear, it's true! (unless I really am crazy).  The service is mesmerizing and beautiful and I sit until the mass culminates in the Eucharist, the priest distributing the blood and body of Christ directly into the mouths of the followers.  Uh-huh, this is Israel.

I hike up to the Mount of Beatitudes, the overlook where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount  ("Blessed are the..."), to see unparalleled views across the Sea and hills of Galilee.  And then to Capernaum, the home base for Jesus' ministry over two thousand years ago.  It's now 4:30 and I check my phone to see my friend in the Galilee has responded to say that her couch is not available for the night.  So once again a decision must be made.  Looking at a map and giving it little thought, I decide to go to drive north to Tsfat, a hilltop Orthodox/Hassidic/Kabbalistic/Artsy/Bohemian Jewish community and spiritual center.

My trusted Lonely Planet recommends a place called Ascent as the most affordable option in Tsfat, so, not reading past the price line, I head there looking for a place to spend the night.  Walking into the "guest house" at 5:15, Ascent is a whirlwind of activity, as the staff and guests prepare for the town-wide (and country-wide) shutdown that is to come in a few hours as Shabbat begins.

"Hi, do you have a bed available."
"No reservation?  Um, ok, it will cost 195 Shekels for a bed in the dorm."
"195 Shekels?!?  My book says 45...."
"It's Shabbat.  It includes meals and services and the courses."
"Oh, I don't need all that.  Just a bed is fine."
"  no.  You do need it.  You want it.  There is no option."

So it turns out that had I read further in the guidebook, I would have seen that Ascent is not really a hotel, but a Chabad house, a Hassidic center for housing Jews and teaching them in the ways of the Jewish tradition (and in Ascent's case, the Hassidic and kabbalistic traditions).   And so it is that by the time night arrives, I find myself in the center of a circle of orthodox Jewish men, holding hands with a black-coated, black-hatted, bearded Hassidic rabbi, spinning each other as we dance to the sounds of the Jewish mystics.  Oh yea, I laugh... this is Israel too.

My last stop for the night is Shabbat dinner at the home of the Leiters, a Hassidic family of eleven children (to date) and thirteen grandchildren (to date).  As Rabbi Mordechai walks me to the home of my hosts, he asks how it was that I heard about Ascent and ended up in Tsfat that night.  I begin by telling him it was an accident, and then relate my story about the hike, the lost trail, the rain, the text message from my friend, and at the end Rabbi Mo laughs, slaps me on the back and with a smile in his eyes like he was party to his own private joke, tells me it was "quite a fortunate accident."

And my dinner with the Leiter clan....?  Delicious food, noise, confusion, family, prayers, caring, more delicious food, stories, interruptions, spiritual discussions, even more delicious food.  Everything you might expect, plus an extra dose of intensity.  This is Israel after all.


Monday, March 21, 2011

I Get My Kicks Above the Waistline, Sunshine

Ladies and gentlemen, do not, DO NOT, adjust your monitors, you have in fact just witnessed a Murray Head reference. I usually find big cities kind of whatever - you know, being the big, bad and jaded New Yorker and all - by I'm pretty amazed by Bangkok.  And I gotta say, being back in real civilization, well, it ain't so bad.

I don't know what it is about Thailand - the beaches, the lady-boys, the massage parlors, the all-but-legal prostitution, the 7-11s - but something about this place attracts a very unique kind of tourist you don't really get anywhere else.  I typify the guy I'm talking about as muscular dude with a ponytail, wearing a tank-top in order to show off his tattoos.  He is EVERYWHERE.

Now, I know what you're thinking:  "Noah must dig the shit outta that place, it's just his scene, man."  Well, at least that's what you're thinking if you're one of my seven regular readers - my parents, my sister and my four grandparents - all of whom know all too well about my affinity for Thai prostitutes and regularly use the phrase "dig the shit outta, man."  Well, yes, but somehow I was able to pull myself away from the brothels and into an eight day meditation retreat at Wat Umong, a forest monastery outside Chiang Mai.  On the Saturday of the retreat the Wat became flooded with Thais whose sons were being inducted as new monks that very day.  The families were picnicking, talking and laughing, visiting the temple's lake to feed the fish and release turtles, as all the while the new monastics smiled on with excitement and nervousness.  It was a day of celebration, like a summer graduation barbecue we might have in the states.  It was a joy to be around and made me remember, riiiigggghhhttt, this place ain't totally twisted after all.

So yea, Thailand, I can dig it.

Writing this post reminded me of a party I was at in New York a few years ago.  We were all having a great time and one of my friends - let's call him Andy - well, he had a few drinks.  Waking up the next morning remembering only bits and pieces of the night before, Andy checks his phone to see he has a missed call and a voicemail from his grandmother who lives in Florida:  "Andrew - did you send me a texting message last night at 2:00 in the morning??"  Uh-oh, Andy thinks,  he has some vague memory about his phone going missing the night before, and so he looks back into his text history.  Sure enough, text to Nana at 2:34 a.m.:  "Let's get weird!".

Now Andy has a good sense of humor, so he couldn't help but smile, but still he was slightly irked that someone had crossed this line with his family and wanted to know which of his jokester friends was responsible for the offending text message.  So he starts an investigation.  I don't think I'll ever forget the time I was subjected to the inquiry:  "Noah, did you ask my Nana to get weird last night?"

Andy asks around, but none of his friends will fess up.  Confused - I mean, who wouldn't want to take credit for that brilliant piece of texting - Andy finally gives up the search.  A week later, Andy is relating the story to a female friend, when the truth comes out.... "Um, Andy, I was there in Peter's room with your phone when this text message was sent.  And so were you.  You sent it.  And you thought it was hilarious."

Yep, it turned out that the prankster who sent the enticing invitation to Nana to get weird was none other than Andy himself!

I'm pretty sure that story isn't  funny unless you know Andy, or you're the kind of person who enjoys a good Murray Head reference, or you've just spent eight straight days in silence staring at your navel.

Anyway, big news in terms of the whole trip thing I'm doing.  Tomorrow I leave Asia.  That's the bad news.  The good news is that the trip isn't over just yet, as I am flying not back to the US of A, but instead to the biblical land of milk and honey.  ISRAEL!! The great news, at least for you my dear reader, is that perhaps this means that I'll be writing about something other than Buddhism/monasteries/meditation, trekking and death.  Maybe.

Also, I don't actually have an affinity for Thai prostitutes.

Peace out Asia!  Stay weird!!

Monday, March 7, 2011


Method #3:  Just get the fuck off the main tourist route.  Big fan of northern Laos.  Huge.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

From the Rubble to the Ritz to the Rubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Burmese Days

Why did I go to Myanmar?

The obvious reason was for tourism.  Without exception, every traveler I had met who had been to Burma said that it was one of the peak travel adventures of their life.  Many talked of the amicable people, the rough transit and the traditional dress, describing an "authentic" (read: most closely conforming to idealized imaginations) travel experience.

A second reason I went to Myanmar, or so I told myself, was to bear witness.  In 1962 the military took control of the Burmese government, initially to establish peace in a country descending into civil war.  Since then the military leaders have ignored and/or rigged election results, refusing the Burmese people's wish to self-govern, and have instituted a rather repressive regime, restricting the citizen's freedoms, jailing political opponents for inhumane periods of time, utilizing forced labor, etc.

In 1996 the leaders of the Burmese democratic movement, along with certain human rights NGOs and western governments instituted a tourism boycott on Burma in an attempt to isolate the country and hope that regime change would come from the inside.  Though not all tourists respected the boycott, for fifteen years Burma received few visitors when compared with its South East Asian neighbors.  I myself was torn over whether or not to respect the tourism boycott, as there has long been considerable disagreement as to whether it had been an effective means of instituting regime change.  In contrast, it had most certainly contributed to the suffering of the Burmese people.  But this past November the National League for Democracy, with the support of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, lifted the boycott for "independent" travelers, hoping to inform the world of the conditions in Burma.  For me, the ethical dilemma had suddenly and unexpectedly been removed and I was at the Myanmar Embassy in Kathmandu within days.

A final reason to go to Burma was to study and practice meditation.  Burma has a reputation for teaching meditation as practiced by the Buddha, a kind of "pure" technique.  Obviously there's a lot of dispute about this, but no one argues that the Burmese method has produced some amazing masters and teachers.

Throughout my time in Myanmar these three aims - tourism, a kind of psuedo-humanitarian interest, and meditation - were at play and often in conflict.  Would I spend my days in Sagaing visiting the various monasteries or meditating?  Should I stay and relax amongst the inspiring plain of pagodas in Bagan or go out to a more remote village to meet the people and spend some money?  How much time out of my twenty-eight day visa should I put aside for a serious meditation retreat?  It was a constant and difficult balancing act.

That said, I'll spend just a couple sentences on the tourism aspect, to say that the two major tourist destinations in Myanmar - Bagan and Inle Lake - are absolutely spectacular and it's pretty remarkable how relatively little known they are.  Also, I cannot overstate the incredible friendliness of the people of Myanmar.  I wish I had more time to relate just a few examples of times when someone went far out of their way to make sure I was okay, taken care of and happy, without any hope or expectation of being repaid for their kindness.

I'll spend more time on the second point, fulfilling my responsibility to relate what I could see of the everyday impact the repressive military regime has on the Burmese people.  I was amazed how eager many of the Burmese were to voice their unhappiness with the political situation, considering the danger they put themselves in to do so, with nearly every taxi driver or bus companion mentioning the great difficulty their family and country must deal with on a daily basis.  Since I'm not a journalist and certainly wasn't doing any investigation and am not equipped to deliver analysis, below I pass on just a few stories of the people I met and things I saw along the way.  Obviously these are only the most superficial observations and the sufferings of the Burmese people goes much deeper than I would know.
  1. On top of Shwedagon Paya, the spiritual epicenter of Burmese Buddhism, I met a former university history professor.  At the age of sixty-four, after an entire life of in the classroom and one year away from receiving his pension, the professor was fired from his job and was replaced with someone who would teach a revisionist version of Burmese history.  Now the highly educated man, without any source of income or manual skill set, had been forced to sell his Yangoon apartment and was looking to become a monk, relying on alms for sustenance.
  2. In the Yangoon bus park a man was kind enough to lead me to the proper bus which would take me to Mandalay.  The Burmese was a journalist and when I asked whether he worked for a good newspaper he responded with an unequivocal "no."  It seems all newspapers in Burma are censored by the government, the people unable to read any news of the world that has not previously been reviewed and approved by the military.  This seemed confirmed when just a few days ago I found a newspaper in the English language that spent two entire pages on various casualties taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan (highlighting the evil of democratic governments), but not one mention of the protests and regime change that have been disrupting the Arab world.
  3. In a three-day trek across the northern mountains, my guide was an extremely intelligent man in his early twenties who would undoubtedly have a job using his exceptional mind in nearly any other country in the world.  When he saw my copy of Thant Myint-U's The River of Lost Footsteps, a fabulous book on the history of Burma that had been banned by the government, he was incredibly eager for me to give it to him when I had finished reading it.  It seems that at the risk of perhaps decade-long imprisonment, him and his friends share a small library of material censored by the government, including not only books with a real history of their country, but also titles such as George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984.
Obviously there are plenty of other examples.  In addition, the results of years of international sanctions and government corruption have led to a  poverty and daily struggle amongst the Burmese which is obvious and pervasive.

Being fairly uneducated about the situation I hesitate to give an opinion, but can't resist saying that it seems pretty obvious to me that calling off the tourism boycott for independent travelers can only help the plight of the Burmese who, without exception, were desperate and thrilled to see both me and my dollars.  Also, it's pretty clear that the international sanctions have not worked and have only served to deepen the suffering of the common Burmese, a position that both Obama and Clinton seemed to be taking during their respective campaigns, but which I don't think has yet materialized into a change in policy.  Finally, while the international political and media treatment of Myanmar tends to focus on Aung Sang Suu Kyi and a call for democracy, there is a lot more going on here including long-running armed conflict in border regions, and I for one am not convinced that a sudden transition to democracy can work in a country with a long history of geo-ethnic based divisions and violence and virtually no educated middle class (sound familiar?).  But what do I know.

I spent the last seven days in Myanmar at Mahasi Meditation Center, the country's most famous setting for the study of Vipassana, the Theravadan meditation method.  The retreat was drastically different than the western-student-oriented course in which I participated in Nepal.  Here it was just two Koreans and me being the only foreign male layman yogis attempting to follow the monk's daily schedule of eighteen hours of meditation a day as best we could (obviously I was not quite able to do it).  While the meditation was extremely rigorous and difficult, it was ultimately very rewarding.  Although I echo my buddy Pete who stated that after his Vipassana experience his body felt as if he had been beaten with hockey sticks (yep, he's Canadian).

So that was Myanmar. I realize that some of the last few posts have taken a kind of heavy turn, I didn't intend it and my trip really hasn't been dark at all, actually quite the opposite, but it's been the most interesting stuff to write about.  I had written a fun post about my stay in Sagaing, but the internet connection in Myanmar cut out before I saved it.  Maybe I will try and recreate, but if not, I promise to lighten it up a bit in the near future.  In any case, I promise not to depress you with today's visit to the Cambodian killing fields.

Here's what some of Myanmar looks like:

Sunday, January 30, 2011


On a stopover in Bangkok to connect flights on my journey from Myanmar to Cambodia I was able to call my parents for the first time in about a month only to learn that they had put my dog Layla to sleep the night before.  There were no signs that Layla was sick when I left the states four months ago, so I can't remember specifically saying goodbye to her, though I'm sure I did.

We don't really do many things with our pets.  We sit with them and pet them.  Occasionally we walk with them.  But we can't really share a meal with them.  We can't have meaningful conversations with them. We can't celebrate or laugh or cry with them.  We must simply Be with them.  For me the deep sadness one feels when losing a pet underscores the truth that what matters most in our interactions with others is not what you do with them, but simply that you Are with them.  Even when you're far away.

Layla, may you have happiness and the ultimate causes of happiness, wherever you are.