Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Notes for Another Essay on Vientiane

First thing, I go to meditate at the wat. But the monks are ready for a chat. “Tip” is a novice monk, he’s 21 and he’s in his first year at the monastic college, studying Buddhism and mathematics. Tip’s got a weedy little moustache. Instead of his upper robe, he’s got a hot pink towel around his shoulders. He wants to know if I think Lao girls are beautiful.

“I think everyone’s beautiful,” I say, helplessly.

Inside the wat he teaches me how to ring the gong -- not by striking it, but by rubbing the metal center to produce a tone. I show him how devotees prostrate in India and he teaches me the correct way to bow in Laos. It is a much quieter, less dramatic, motion that an Indian or Tibetan prostration. He shows me how to kneel, where to place my hands.

Tip’s called away to help with offerings up front. The monks seem to assist more than officiate. It isn’t like Hinduism or Catholicism – the monks aren’t middlemen. Devotees do most of the worship themselves.

I am grateful to be left alone. Lately it seems I cry all the damn time. Every single happy thing, like learning how to bow.

The legless man on the board with wheels greets shoppers pleasantly as they enter the international market. He’s wearing a shirt with a collar and parts his hair in the middle. I wonder if he has ever passed through the automatic glass doors to the market, where there are 16 varieties of olive oil for sale. 50,000 kip for sea salt and vinegar kettle chips from London. 45,000 kip for red lentils from France. And the gentleman on the board with wheels is strenuously grateful to anyone who tosses him 500 kip – five cents -- on their way out the door.

As usual, I am entirely backwards. At 18 the poverty of India hardly fazed me at all. I am getting more outraged as I go along.

The international market has a full array of produce -- at ten times the price outside. There is not one single thing that can be touched. Even a carrot comes between plastic wrap and Styrofoam.

The privilege of wealth is to be removed, to remain on the other side of the glass. Especially as the world heats up, becomes poisoned, falls to war, and falls apart. To be removed: to drink from plastic and eat from plastic, to move from one air-conditioned room to the next, to exfoliate with tiny plastic beads before applying moisturizer with sunblock, to wear a condom, to die, be burnt, and be put in an urn.

That is why the scattering of ashes is such an important ceremony: for a lot of folks it’s their first time out of the box.

Lek is doing one of the most important jobs I can imagine: he’s a diplomat on behalf of the Mekong River, working to create agreements between the 6 countries on its shores. Travels the world to educate people about erosion and sedimentation and pollution. “Except the countries do not care,” he says. “They don’t care in the least. Not even a little. Not even when it’s their own people. What they want is money. The NGOs are useless. The UN is absolutely the worst.”

Lek works for the UN.

“But – it’s for the river. What better way could there be to spend your human life?” I can’t help saying things like this – I attended a New Age university.

“I’m going to quit my job and get another,” Lek says. “In two weeks I’ll hate that one too. What I want to do all day is fuck. When my dick gets tired, I’ll go to the gym for awhile. I’m finding out that life is short.”

I sit writing notes at The Pizza Company, eating a Hawaiian Pan Pizza. It’s so cold I wish I’d brought a parka, one of those puffy ones that resemble beehives.

Every day there is less of me and still there is far too much. Moments rush through me like trains through a tunnel.

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