Tuesday, August 10, 2010
“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.
Saturday, August 07, 2010
Three days ago I returned, after five years, to
On the left side there used to be a river.
I guess it’s back there somewhere, though you can’t see it from the road anymore. The river has moved away.
Five years ago I wrote an essay about
Walking down Th Fa Ngum I find myself suffused with disapproval, sneering at my fellow travelers, fully half of whom are engrossed in the worship of their chosen form of technology: laptop, iPad, palm pilot, hypno-phone.
I am an insufferable snob.
I must take care not to become intoxicated, lest I ask someone, “Why can’t you just drink cappuccino, eat TexMex, surf the Web, and stay home?” One punch from one of these sturdy European boys would lay me flat. They are very sturdy these boys, gym-toned, ornamentally rugged. They’re absolutely dreamy.
These tanned and stubbly, dusty and hunky white boys are too gorgeous to resent for long. One look from them and I am ready to throw up my hands. Oh, what the hell -- colonize me too! Merge me with your vast foreign conglomerate!
Jacob, painter and wanderer, sits on the patio at the Mixay Paradise Hotel, gathers his long yellow-gray beard into an elastic, and says, The
It does not appear any restoration has been done at Wat Si Saket since I was here last. However, I did find some repairs underway. Green tin sheets cover the roof of the wat and workmen clamber over a few nailed-together boards. My tally: nine workmen, one pair of sneakers, eight pairs of flip-flops, one helmet. The workmen are cheerful and welcoming: they grin at me and shout down from the roof.
I stop waving to them. I don’t want them to wave. I want them to hold on with both hands.
Wat Si Saket is the oldest wat in
Wat Si Saket was built in 1818, its oldest buddhas date from the 15th century. Ideally, this wat would receive as much attention as the new Chinese-run guesthouse where I stay, where the floors are always immaculate, despite the steady traffic of backpackers here in rainy season. At my excellent guesthouse there are never fewer than eight staff people present to ensure that one does not nick an extra packet of Nescafe.
Ideally the restoration of Wat Si Saket would be done with the same level of care and expertise granted to espresso bars on the riverfront.
The foreman holds his ledger over his head to keep from being hit by falling tiles. It’s a good idea – one smashes just a few feet from me. Immediately I begin to twist the ethical arithmetic: if one of these old tiles hits me – can I keep it?
At the bar, just shy of , a Danish entrepreneur explains his business plan to me. He would like to provide steady work for the disabled. In telemarketing. In telemarketing you need a really thick skin. The first few weeks can be really rough. People are nasty. It’s ideal work for the disabled – people are nasty to them already. They’re used to it. Telemarketing is just more of the same. Gives them a chance to support themselves. Also it is ideal because disabled people don’t have any other options.
What a snob! Do I expect the youth of the world to suffer properly, with no luxuries permitted beyond an occasional banana pancake? Do the hard working employees of NGOs not deserve their Belgian beers? Do I disapprove also of antibiotics, of aero planes? Do I think that it is good to be inconvenienced?
I guess I am suspicious. I live in
All right, full disclosure. I do not mean to excuse my action, only to unburden myself, and to maintain a level of honesty with my audience.
I went to the TexMex restaurant. Which I criticized previously. In my opinion, a TexMex restaurant in
You see, I have a weakness – Cousin Isabel might call it an obsession -- for TexMex. Even, or especially, bad TexMex. I have eaten some of the very worst TexMex on Earth. In places like
The nachos were only deep-fried disks of white flour. Nonetheless, I enjoyed them. The guacamole was avocado, garlic, lemon – also very much enjoyed.
I ought to have been eating vegetable noodle soup, or laap with sticky rice. Instead I was eating TexMex. Please understand: my father is in the process of selling the family’s most beautiful orchard. I was acting out.
I do not intend in any way to excuse my action.
As I sat drinking BeerLao, contemplating the demolition of my nachos and the farm, in fact as I was writing this confession, a dark shape hurtled beneath my table, jack-knifed across the patio of the TexMex bar: a crippled man.
A cripple myself, I am a student of cripples, and never have I seen a man crawl with such agility and speed, despite his two useless twisted feet. He slithered across the floor, over a moped and onto his makeshift wheelchair. He circled the block once and, as he passed the bar again, he let out a loud fierce maniacal cackle, which caused the TexMex patrons to all look up -- and then smile nervously at each other.
Avenging fury -- he seemed as much a spirit as a man.
That night, no matter how many times I woke up, I returned always to the same dream. To the same hotel. A vast and luxurious hotel, large enough to serve, almost, as its own world. A perfectly convincing British pub occupied one floor and on another there was a sushi bar. There was a Thai place, and a Swedish place: authentic meatballs, loganberries. There was a place for golf and a place for sex and a place for video games. The hotel was so large there was even space for riding horses!
The elite, such as myself, spent their lives at this hotel. It was immense and offered so many environments, no many luxuries, so many eating experiences.
This was a very good thing – because the world outside the hotel was terrible, and getting worse all the time. Outside the hotel was a wasteland at war, where the poor lived out their lives in terror and hunger. Where the poor lived with ever-increasing anger.
Meanwhile I lived in the luxury hotel, moving from one floor to the other, sliding down the bannisters, considering myself both adventurous and sophisticated. Still, there was always the fear of the world outside. I’d been there several times -- never for more than a few minutes. A terrifying place.
Anyway, now was the time to enjoy the hotel. I ought to immerse myself in it now, while I had the chance. The hotel could only last so long. The world outside was increasingly desperate. The outside wanted in.