Friday, March 04, 2005

Finally, A Post from Char

For the last few days Roger and I have been recovering from India by lolling about at our favorite little enclave in Bangkok called the Shanti Inn (very similar to Key West Florida if you've been there). The guests are mainly European, a mix of greying hairs and young backpackers. The owners are a feisty Thai mother and daughter duo who keep Roger in line!

We don't make good tourists since we're not into shopping and wining-dining like we used to be but I'll attempt to write something from the postcard perspective. Roger is very happy since he has had two, two-hour massages. I've finally slept off the unidentified respiratory fun that decked me in India. We're now transformed into Shanti residents walking around barefoot in the 80 degree weather with Roger wearing giant cotton Thai fisherman pants. We have been sitting most of the day in the orchid-covered open air café drinking yogurt lassies, eating Tom Ka and watching the seemingly infinite variety of people go by in the busy street nearby. Our conversations are very profound, for example: "Want to do anything?""Not really" etc.

In India we were at Mirik, a little village near Darjeeling in northeast India, at 6000 ft. with Portland winter weather. It was VERY cold whenever the sun was not out so we appreciated our long underwear and wool clothing. Often in the afternoon a cloud would roll in and cover over and soak everything. Fortunately things have been 'modernized' since we were last there so we could rent an electric space heater which was nice when the electricity was available and which, I confess, to using for steaming our towels and underwear ("dry" is truly a foreign concept in Mirik).

In Mirik most food is what we would call 'home cooked' which means you have to allow time for them to cook it and often (it seems) to go out and buy the groceries. After about half an hour we would often see the cooks smiling and returning to the restaurants with loaves of bread, porridge mix, etc. But everything is delicious and the menu includes traditional north Indian (typically palak or matar paneer, nan, masalla tea), Tibetan (momos and tomtuk), Nepali (dal and rice) and somewhat Western dishes (like omelets). Since usually there were no events in the early morning we were able to sit around by the heater and eat a nice breakfast in our room every day before bundling up and heading up the mountain (a 15 minute or so climb for which Roger rented a cab) to the monastery. A US dollar is now about 42 Indian rupees. The cab ride was 40 rupees. The prices for meals were 100 to 200 rupees on average. Hotel rooms were 100-350 rupees a day. This all seems a 'bargain' us but you can imagine the annual income of most people we met. As one of the few Western guests at our little hotel we had the opportunity to get to know ourNepali host family and their teenage son who patiently provided everything from morning tea to room sweeping with a little whisk broom (we tried once to do it ourselves on the sly and got caught). No surprise that Roger is now building them a website!

Usually when we are in Mirik we are there with a big group of mainly French and American fellow Buddhists and are attending planned events like seminars -- but this time it was a very intimate, somewhat impromptu event in a monastery retreat center without translation from Tibetan. The teacher is unknown to most people because he has been in retreat in Sikkim for most of his life but if you're familiar with Tibetan Buddhism it was Gyaltsab Rinpoche (a heart-son of the Karmapa) who is roughly my age. Our main difficulty was finding out when and where things were to begin. One of our Tibetan friends arranged for his cousin to give us a grand tour of the buildings new since we were last here, to help us have an interview with the monastery 'abbot' and to help us find the other people we knew. However, the cousin didn't know we were coming because she had left her cell phone with her elderly mother who kept picking it up and speaking to it -- but without turning it on.

Since we were last here two years ago cell phones have taken over -- with towers on seemingly every hill includng one right over the monastery. It's especially odd to see a monk in robes walk by not chanting mantras but talking on the telephone!

After a few days to help recover from jet lag (the time is almost exactly 12 hours opposite day/night of Portland) and a breif excursion to Darjeeling to see friends there and buy tea, we participated in a 10-day ceremony preparing people for meditation retreats. It was a nice-size gathering of 50 people with, in addition to the 20Tibetans, 30 or so people from other countries. In addition to the 2 other people from the US, the countries represented included Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim (India), France, Belgium, Taiwan, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Nepal, Australia, Israel, and Indonesia. There was no translation from Tibetan but with help from the one Swedish westerner fluent in Tibetan and English, and a list I brought along from a similar event in2001, I served as the "translator" for both the English speaking and theFrench people (I have yet to study Tibetan formally). Basically this meant drafting a list of what I thought was going to happen next and then checking afterward to see if I was correct. This is especially humorous since I only have a few words of elementary school French -- so, as each of my 6 or so French friends read the list I had written and burst into joyous exclamations at meeting a speaker of their language, I quickly burst that bubble!

The first day of the ceremonies was especially cold with a cloud rolling in through the (yes, open) windows and doors like a magic smoke. It's difficult to put into words why it is so wonderful to participate in this sort of thing. It might seem boring to listen to Tibetan for several hours but it not at all like that! As usual, I am working on the puzzle of how to bring what is so profound about Tibetan Buddhism into our regular life without becoming too weird myself (maybe too late...). It's a transfer and application project that has become more interesting to me than technology. More on that later no doubt...

So, in closing, I'm not yet sure whether I'm going to Nepal on March 7th. All the reports from people I've met who live there or have recently traveled there say that daily life is much, much calmer than it appears from the news. The language program I'm attending wrote to me yesterday to say they are going ahead. I'm not sure of the email situation there because of the recent communications cut-off by the King of Nepal but probably I'll attempt to write a next update from either Nepal or from home after March 7th. Meanwhile, looking forward to seeing each of you soon.


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Back in Bangkok

Safely napping the day away at the Shanti Lodge in Bangkok. We have a very small room, but it's air-conditioned and has a western toilet. Funny how one's sense of luxury changes as we get older. We arived at about 5:30 am and took a limo to the Shanti -- an extravagance that got us here quickly and into a bed as quickly as possible with the fewest unknown variables to deal with.

The rooms at the Shanti are a curious mix, but all very pleasant and inexpensive. The food in the open air restaurant is great and safe to eat. There are some, but relatively few western toilets. Like India, the bathroom shower is the entire bathroom. The walls and floor of the bathroom are tiled and the floors are sloped so that any water heads for the floor drain in one corner. A flexible shower head comes out of one wall for showers. The only problem is that the toilet seat gets wet unless you leave it up. A position I always thought was it's normal state, but Char has had other ideas until now. There's another little flexible shower head by the toilet. Thai plumbing does not handle toilet paper very well. I'll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions on the proper use of the second shower head which is mounted near toilet seat level.

Well, I'm going to check email and spend an hour deleting spam so I can read the important stuff. This is it for now. More tomorrow.