Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Wide Awake

I'm quite proud of myself -- I went to bed at 11p.m. and slept (... in the loose sense of the term ...) until nearly 5a.m., a very respectable close-to-six-hours, and a definite improvement over yesterday's going to bed at 1a.m. and getting up at 3a.m. Overall, though, I'm substituting coffee for food and sleep this week.

And a few more pictures ...

A look at Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. The harbor separates Hong Kong's central district from its Kowloon district, and is a spectacular sight at all times of day. At the time this picture was taken, I was standing on the porch of Hong Kong's museum of art.

... and another one. Notice the forest-covered hills in the background? In reality, these are less than half an hour's walk away. (And yes, I admit, it's very hard not to fall in love with Hong Kong.)

A glance from the top of Mt. Koya -- nothing but rolling (and increasingly steep) green hills and bamboo forests for miles and miles. The picture was taken around midday, but by early afternoon the evening mists begin to drift in and lend this beautiful area a profoundly ethereal character.

Thai temples are centers of all manner of learning -- at Wat Pho, probably Bangkok's most famous temple, the monks have set up a number of life-sized dioramas of the Thai geological composition that sprinkle the templegrounds and offer a nice counterpoint to the colorful excess of the temple itself. Here's one, covered with plants and figures of Thai gods.

Tiananmen Gate, entrance to the Forbidden City, the former royal palace, fronting Tiananmen Square, the current epicenter of the Chinese political empire. Like most of Beijing, the Forbidden City is undergoing heavy renovation at this point ...

... and for good reason. The powerful pillar you see here is really just a log of wood covered in many layers of red paint. As you can see, the laquer is cracking and peeling faster than the reconstruction crews can cover over it. Hmmm.

From the Mr. Fuji area, a tip of the nip to all my California friends :)

... and one more sign of the times for the geeks among us. The unremarkable house in Kyoto to which this sign is attached in indeed the place where Nintendo, initially a humble playing card company, was born. It's not been officially declared a place of worship yet ;)

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

A Minor Foretaste

Here are a few, a very few, of my Asia pictures. A more comprehensive spread is in the works, thanks to savvy friends of mine.

The Lakes at Mt. Fuji.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

Prayerrequests tied to the branches of a tree at a Shinto Shrine in Kyoto

Sunrise over Tokyo, 5:30a.m. See, the crows didn't wake me up for nothing.

An image from Beijing's forbidden city. The lion is one of a pair that shows up quite frequently in Chinese art and architecture. This one's the male of the pair, holding the world under his paw. The female has a cub under hers whom she's said to protect.

Gravemarkers in the river at a Buddhist graveyard at Mt. Koya. The wooden boards are supposed to mark the graves of nameless aborted children and drowning victims.

The Kyoto Train Station -- a controversial architectural marvel.

A young mother with her child lost in prayer at a temple in Bangkok.

Leaves at a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Top Ten Things I Appreciate About Being Back in California

5. Creature comforts. Hot shower? Check. My own room? Check. Car? Check. Grocery store within easy walking distance? Check. Internet connection from the privacy of my own home? Check. TV? No check, but that's because I've never been enough of a TV-watcher to justify the expense. This, folks, is the lap of luxury, and half the time I don't even realize it as the blessing and curse that it is. I'll try to hold onto the sense of childlike wonder at not sharing my living quarters with several rodents and a family of cockroaches.

4. Southern California Anything -- the weather, the pollution, the traffic ... none of it is as bad as it seems from a purely local perspective. Plus, as Morpheus would say, "there is no humidity."

3. A personal library (and several public ones less than a block away!) that I don't have to carry on my back wherever I go. That "2 books/week" habit is hard on the spinal column.

2. A new academic quarter! Excuse me while I happily geek out here for a bit. Now, if I can just stay awake through my evening seminars ...

1. The People. I missed y'all, you know? :)

Top Five Things I Could Really Do Without

5. Britney et al. At the airport, I misguidedly picked up a copy of People Magazine. The front cover proclaimed that it contained "Britney's Wedding Album" or something to that effect, which made me realize that I never, ever, EVER again want to hear anything about Britney, her wedding, her private life, her deep-dark secrets, her pet-Alsatian's dietary habits etc. Ditto for the swarms of low-talent, high-drama "starlets" that populate the popular media.

4. Management Fads. I came across the "Six Sigma" series of management books at the airport as well. My first thought was that my pastor, whom I greatly love and appreciate, must never find out about them :P

3. The Stress. I've spent a month in a foreign continent, with poor public hygiene, little privacy, less than 6 hours of sleep/night, no healthcare and an eclectic and dangerous selection of cuisine ... without so much as a headache?! Methinks there's something to be said for stress being the number one disease-causing agent.

2. Jet Lag. To paraphrase a certain band -- "It's 4:30a.m. on a Monday morning. It doesn't get much worse than this. In beds in little rooms in the middle of these lives which are completely meaningless." Anyone who claims it's all mind over matter, ought to try to get one's mind to overpower the unusually awake bodily matter of a lump of protoplasm moved several thousand miles across the international date line. Now, Starbucks over matter -- that I can buy :P

1. Election Coverage. Why couldn't I just have come back a few weeks later? It's not merely the networks, the newspapers and the search engines -- the blogosphere has gone mad with election fever! Let me be the first to state the value of being informed and casting one's vote (... or votes, for those living in the Chicago area ...), but the selection of a nation's top official does not justify a year-long muckraking, mouth-foaming display of petty partisanry ... especially if no one is paying you to do it. I've seriously come to believe that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was nothing other than his feverish passion for politics, and that scores of his disciples are following into his footsteps today.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

I'm home.

I sleep now. Or rather -- I try to. Blasted time difference.

And tomor--er ... later today there shall be pictures.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

0 Minus 40 Minutes

Alright, friends, I'm once again -- for the last time for at least a little while -- in the Hong Kong airport awaiting boarding. When I booked a 36 hour lay-over in Hong Kong, I figured I'd not bother to arrange a hostel for that night and would just wing it -- and indeed, I winged (wung? wang? ;) it. Hong Kong, being a rather wealthy city, is terminally short on hostels offering dorm-style accomodations: After a few phone calls, I settled on a room at the YWCA -- a single with shared bathroom for a very reasonable price. I have to note at this point that after a month of low-privacy living, it felt rather odd to have a bedroom to myself -- and perfectly natural to share the shower. (The logical conclusion here is that I need to start sharing my sleeping and bathing quarters once I return to the U.S. Interested parties may submit resume and recent picture to my e-mail address. ;)

The day itself, much of which was spent in the bowels of Kowloon, especially the remarkable Jade market, are another post entirely, but suffice to say that when I arrived at the airport a couple of hours ago, my person and luggage were subjected to scrutiny just short of a cavity search. Whether it was my attire (on the far end of "casual"), my attitude (suspiciously serendipitous), my behavior (randomly sproinging in line) or my passport (European -- no comment necessary), *something* about me screamed "potential threat to the American people." The end-result was the removal of a pair of nailclippers from my carry-on bag into my checked backpack; no grave loss, although my ability to fly the friendly skies free of potential hang-nails has been greatly diminshed. Let's hope that this constitutes *all* of the searches I'll have to put up with for this flight -- otherwise I'll have a fair bit of explaining to do once I get to L.A., thanks to some of the requested and un-requested presents I'm carrying ;) In eotjer case, God willing, I'll be in California by Saturday evening, and back in circulation by Sunday. Cheers to you!

Friday, September 24, 2004

The Beginning of the End

Friend, Readers, Fellow Bloggers ... I'm in Hong Kong, and will be on a plane back to America in a matter of hours. I may see some of you on Sunday night, and I'd love to see all of you -- by appointment, I'm afraid, since the next week will be an exciting one. Expect pictures to be posted in the next few days, as well as some catch-up and post-mortem entries by next week.

And so ... travelling mercies to me, and a particularly good beginning of the weekend to all of you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Pad Thai & Circuses

One might make an argument that the fact that the only two white chicks surrounded by a sea of surly Asian men at a Muay Thai boxing match are both lawyers reinforces some ugly, ugly stereotypes. :D

Personally, I suggest America change its national sport from baseball to something a bit more ... contact-oriented. Speaking of contact, I forgot to mention that Buddhist monks are not allowed to touch women in any way whatsoever, even accidentally (... the book on the monastic rule for Buddhist seems to suggest that "accidental touches" are ok, as long as the touch was undesired and unintentioned. There, of course, you get to the question -- is a woman's touch *ever* undesired/unintentioned?!) I've been drawing a wide berth around the golden robed guys -- subjecting them to lengthy purification rituals on account of my clumsiness just doesn't seem fair. I was thinking, though -- a couple of slightly more mischieviously spirited girls could wreak serious havoc in one of these monasteries. All it takes is a simple little contest to see who can make contact with the greatest number of these men of Buddha -- let's call it "Monk Tag" (patent still pending ;)

Merton & Mindfulness

"Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In a little while I leave the hotel. I'm going to say Mass at St. Louis Church, have lunch at the Apostolic Delegation, then on to the Red Cross place this afternoon."
-- Thomas Merton, December 8, 1968 (last journal entry, 2 days before his death)

Outside, a thunderstorm rages and hundreds of shoppers on Khao San road are about to be drenched. I'm hiding out with a bottle of water I'm fervently hoping is actually not going to poison me and a dastardly slow internet connection -- the combination is costing me $1 and providing a roof over my head during the storm, so I can't really complain.

Khao San Road and the market that by now covers not just the street itself but the entire neighborhood is Bangkok's backpacker heaven, providing everything that the budget traveller might need: The street vendors alternate Birkenstocks with pot-pipes, silver jewelry with T-shirts, illegally copied CDs with fruit and sweets. The shops behind the stalls cater to the more sophisticated customer: Backpacks and bridal dresses (... never have I seen weddings be an industry quite like in Asia ...), tatoo parlors and hairdressers, bars and massage salons. There's much smoking and even more haggling, all against the backdrop of the National Palace, some of the city's most famous and solemn temples, the democracy monument and the national museum. Much of this tension is of course illusory -- the garish beads on display in the market are reminiscent of the colorful spires of the temples, the persistent smell of fruitpulp and charred meat carries right into Bangkok's holiest halls, and the pushing, shoving and general thronging of bodies and vehicles ebbs and flows throughout the city like tides. At night, the city looks like something out of the Matrix -- sick with rain, the cranes continue to rotate, the cement mixers continue to turn at the construction sites until the wee hours. Traffic never stops, the wheels of the taxis turning as ceaselessly as the prayer wheels in the temples.

I spent this morning at one of the smaller wats -- a minor Buddhist monastery* where writer and theologian Thomas Merton died in 1968, 30 years to the day he entered the Trappist monastery where he spent most of his life. I feel personally, spiritually indebted to Merton, and wandering the grounds on which he died was a moving experience. Merton has singlehanded contributed more to the Catholic/Buddhist dialogue, and more to the renewed appreciation of monasticism in the 20th century than any other person -- his is a name that's simple impossible to circumvent when reading a book related to monasticism, the spiritual disciplines, meditation, inter-religious dialogue ... and that from a man who for 30 years barely left the grounds of the Gethsemany Abbey in Kentucky and spent most of his final and most fruitful days in complete solitude in a cabin in the woods. His passionate writings and corespondences, and his voracious appetite for literature -- and life! -- are humbling and inspiring.

Merton's last decade of life was in part consumed by his love and passion for Asia, a continent that he was allowed to set foot onto for the first time only months before his death -- and a prosaic death it was: Electrocution by a faulty fan. During my own journey, I haven't consciously thought to re-create Merton's travels -- while he desired to go to Japan and had made plans to travel there after Christmas of 1968, our routes didn't overlap, and yet at the end of mine as well as his road into Asia, I find myself in Bangkok (... I have high hopes for making it out alive, though, assuming this shack of an internet cafe is actually protected against lightening. ;)

Before I left nearly a month ago, various friends and acquaintances told me to anticipate clarity and insight into questions I've been facing, and at various points during the past few weeks I have, publicly or not, prodded the recesses of my consciousness for answers. To say that realization is rising from the dark waters like icebergs would be an overstatement, but sometimes I can sense -- feel rather than see -- a peak clear the surface. I'm as encouraged by this as I am disconcerted -- how did it get there? Why wasn't I aware of the gentle shifts and drifts pushing this tip from the sea up into the nightair? How much lies beneath, and will I ever lay eyes on it? Do I even *want* to lay eyes on it?

The rain, for now, has let up, and it's time for me to venture back into the streets. Less time to think, more time for my conscious to work beneath the surface, I'm afraid. Ah well.

* I am deeply gratified to report that Buddhist bookstores are as obnoxious as the Christian counterparts. It's all there: The rows of sermon tapes, the children's corner (... albeit, minus the corresponding Veggietales characters ...), the journals and blissfully irrelevant-yet-edifying texts (... "The Fabulousness of Klimt" is, I think, my favorite ...), the obligatory corner of foreign languages books, where I spent $2 on some enlightening materials I'll be distributing amongst my nearest and dearest. For example, I foresee George benefiting greatly from a Buddhist Sunday School curriculum ;)