Category Archives: Notes Backpacking Asia

Dancing at the Tip of Shiva’s Trident

Standing there in the middle of the smoke of the dozen burning pyres

watching the men of the families of the dead do their death rituals

feeding the flames with straw and powder

I feel the life and light of the world around me

in the bodies of the living

in the life of the fires

in the spirits that lift up to heaven in the smoke

leaving the body behind.

It doesn’t matter, it is just matter.

This is life looking death in the face and singing, “Rama nama satya hai!

until their throats are sore

dancing the body with drums and woodwinds down to the Ganges

these people choose to cry at home

then sing and dance in the streets, leading the body of their love down to this river

then spend three hours quietly feeding the flames

using their own hands to take care of their own dead

until there’s only a bit of bone left to be raked into the river that outlives us all.

So many things strike me about Varanasi

so much beauty surrounded by so much poverty

making the beauty more beautiful and the poverty more impoverished.

The sight of a little boy flying a baby blue kite deep into the blue sky

high above the burning bodies below

the men bathing down from the burnings, washed in smoke

the cows basting in the smoke

probably the only place in the world where cows lounge in people smoke

sitting around as if at their cow barbecue, waiting to eat.

India is a dream.

The Monk and the Marlboro Man

I got on the ferry when I saw my first monk.

Now, you might be wondering, why Thailand?

Why Asia?

Well, there were a few reasons

mostly I wanted to see what I had read in The Way of the Tao and the I Ching

I wanted to see how people lived having been breast fed these truths and legends

it was like I believed in Santa Claus again

and I was looking for every way I could to tug on his beard.

My first tug came with that monk

dressed in the customary maroon and gold of the Thai-monk, shaved head

and smoking a cigarette.

I studied his every inhale and exhale

as though he knew something smoking that cigarette that I didn’t

some secret that has been locked away in this orient

far off in the heart of the jungle

the secrets of life

written in a book in Thai or Sanskrit or some other language that I would learn

so I too could read and know what that monk knew.

I’m sure he never knew how disappointed I was to see him flick his cigarette butt over the

railing and into the sea.

I figured he would have kept the butt somewhere in his palm or robe

or little orange rucksack he carried with him.

That was the second thing to strike me about the monk, his rucksack.

I wondered what could he keep inside?

It wasn’t very big, maybe big enough for a couple books and his pack of cigarettes.

I felt foolish stumbling off the ferry

with the weight of my knapsack, guitar and skimboard, causing me to lose my balance

while the monk, carrying his little bag, walked slowly and evenly past me

cause he carried less baggage.

I caught another boat to Ko Sumet.

getting there after a few hours

paying fifteen dollars for the ferry ride to the island.

I would pay three dollars total coming back a week later.

Amazing how much wisdom a week can bring.

The Temples of Khajuraho

The people are all dead

the architects, the kings, the queens

and all their tireless sculptors

dead

there have been so many spins of this karmic wheel

that the slaves who built these temples are probably dizzy being kings themselves today

their souls are free

but the body of their work remains here in Khajuraho

where their sandstone scenes stand tall

their Shivas and Vishnus and elephant faced gods

and horny nymphs still breathe

and orgy all around these temple walls

that can withstand the winds and monsoons of a millenium

and never sleep and never swoon

and all the king’s power has become but a footnote

on a sign outside the gates of these temples he had built.

The artist’s chisel which etched out the dreams of the gods

awake our ages to the dream of a thousand years.

Reincarnated as a Tourist in India

Walking next to the Ganges River steaming in the mean June heat, walking until I found myself lost in the middle of Maniknaka ghat, the largest burning ghat of Varanasi. I watch the bodies burn, wondering if Shiva has whispered his mantra of moksha to the dead and allowed them into heaven. Thousands of pilgrims come here to die for this very purpose, to please Shiva.

The entire city of Varanasi rests on the tip of Shiva’s trident, it is where he will destroy the world; it is the city Shiva loves so much he will destroy it first. It is the city he so hated to leave, he erected the first shivalinga here as a way of staying both in and out of the city simultaneously. This duality of the shivalinga, the penis coming out of the vagina, representing the very god who tamed Mother Ganges, washing her with his hair, so she could fall from heaven as rain to free the souls trapped in their sarcophagus made of flesh and bone.

I stood watching the men attend to their death ritual, feeding the flames with straw and powder, I felt the light of life surround me, in the bodies of the living, in the spirits lifted up to heaven in the smoke, leaving their bodies behind, it didn’t matter, it was just matter.

This was looking Death in the eye and singing, “Rama nama sata hai!” while carrying the body down to the river, dancing all the way. And I thought, even if they’re all wrong, and Rama’s name wasn’t true, and there was no Shiva, no moksha, no heaven, still, these people have found their peace with death, singing and dancing, and banging their drums all the way down to the river to spend three hours to feed the flames until there’s but a bit of bone to be raked into the water.

This river runs through so much beauty and so much poverty, making the beauty more beautiful and the poverty more impoverished. The sight of a little boy between the pyres flying a baby blue kite up up up to be swallowed by the big blue sky high above the burnings below, and the men bathing down river, washed in smoke, next to cows basking in the smoke of burning bodies. Varanasi is probably the only place in the world where the cows lounge in the smoke of people, as if at their cow barbeque, waiting to eat. India floats by like a dream.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

It’s like following the path where every one goes

and down that path you can’t see five feet in front of your nose

but, you keep on walking with the faith that you will find

where those footprints go behind your mind.

Like you can’t find any new land

looking down and seeing another’s footprints in the sand.

So, you keep on walking with the faith you will find

where those footprints go behind the next pine.

And the pine will take the rain from outside to inside

with roots deep under ground, branches reaching for the sky.

The same truth is found in you,

with eyes closed, the same truth comes to view.

So, we all walk down the path,

some take religion others without a map.

But, you keep on walking with the faith that you will find

we share the same roots inside our minds.

The English I Read in Asia

* We take purses and wallets of foreigner free of charge. (Service offered at the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi.)

* Porn Hotel. (Hotel in Thailand.)

* Try To Eat Restaurant. (Name of restaurant in Malaysia. I tried. I couldn’t.)

* Charles Dickens French Restaurant. (Restaurant in South Korea. Only thing French about it was the bad service.)

* Fried rape. (Read off a menu in Thailand. You can imagine, I was afraid to order.)

* Temple authorities request people to pray to their ancestors earlier to avoid traffic jams on all souls day. (On a temple wall in Malaysia.)

* Join the Disorganized Workers Meeting TBA (painted on a park wall in India.)

* Our toilet is clean and hygienic! Come in and take a look! (Restaurant sign in Thailand. I took more than a look.)

Eating Sacred Cows

Koreans have three languages. They speak Korean, English and Konglish, which is a bastardization of English and Korean. Like, for ‘browsing,’ we’ll say, “window shopping,” Korean’s will call it, “eye shopping.” Or, we call dog, “man’s best friend,” they call it, “lunch.” It’s all personal taste.

Some are offended by that. “Oh, you can’t eat a dog! It’s part of the family!”

Really? The dog is part of the family? Did you let Grandma shed on the couch? Did you put Grandma down after one accident too many?

And don’t you know every time you bite into a sirloin steak some little Hindu in India loses his wings?

Eating steak to a Hindu is like eating God. “How dare you diet on my diety! Do I go to the church, pull Jesus off the cross and bite off his head? Umm, this is delicious Jesus! Have you tried the Baby Jesus back ribs?”

We need to accept that one man’s pet is another man’s appetizer. This I have no problem with.

I do, however, have a problem eating bugs. A lot of people, don’t, including the nice Korean woman who was so excited to have three Canadians drinking at her little restaurant, that she ran back to the kitchen to prepare us a nice snack. When she returned, she presented us a bowl of bugs. A bowl of deep fried grasshoppers.

“Service! Service!” she says, Konglish for, ‘on the house’.

Being polite Canadians, we each dip our hands into the bowl of deep fried grasshoppers, thinking, ‘You don’t have french fries?’

Then, in the middle of the bowl of grasshoppers, I find an ant, a black ant and now I’m wondering, ‘Is this some rogue ant that found its way into the bowl, or, is this Korean trail mix?’

My Fortune in Your Language

Never go to a fortune teller in a language you don’t understand, especially if accompanied by your girlfriend, who does. Especially if the fortune teller knows what she’s talking about. This is a valuable, yet, bitter lesson I learned outside a Buddhist temple in Busan, Korea. Fortune tellers are 10 won a dozen outside temples in Korea. I’d never been to one, though I’d seen many. With Young Sue, I thought it would be fun at ten thousand won a throw.

The fortune teller did me first. She sat across from us at a table, with a big book in front of her. She spoke to me in Korean. Young Sue translated. “She’s asking your birthday.” Young Sue would be the go-between bridging my English with the fortune teller’s Korean. The fortune teller bowed her head to the book and proceeded to read off over five minutes worth of information about my future. When she finished reading, I asked Young Sue what she had said.

“She says you’re going to be rich.”

I wait for more. Young Sue looks at me, smiles. “And…” I prompt.

“And, that’s about it.” Young Sue shrugs. Worst translation ever.

“Ask her how long I live.”

Young Sue confers with the fortune teller. “Eighty-seven.”

“Really? Well, a guy in India said eighty-nine, so tell her she’s off by two. Why don’t you go?”

“Ok,” Young Sue tells the fortune teller her birthday setting the fortune teller to look up then read her fortune. Young Sue goes from sitting up, hands folded beautifully in her lap, to sinking deeper and deeper into her chair. It is obvious that the fortune teller has hit a nerve. Young Sue is close to crying. She gets up, slowly, painfully, and walks from the fortune teller’s table. I follow.

“Are you ok?” I ask, wrapping my arm around my girlfriend.

“She knows me. She knows me.” Young Sue is deeply disturbed by this.

“What did she say?”

“I can’t tell you. Not now. But, she knows me.”

That was the first time she hurt me. It wouldn’t be the last. She broke up with me a couple weeks later. Do you know how much of a kick to the ego it is to get broken up with by a woman who knows more about you than you do? Like, Young Sue had a chance to look into the future and see what I am going to become and say, “No thanks.”

Young Sue, if you’re reading this, please, it’s been ten years, give me something. What else did the woman say? Did she perhaps mention how I’m going to be rich?

The Legend of Jean LeLouis De Le Pepe Le Peu

I taught English in Korea for two years. I was not your traditional teacher. I encouraged drinking in the class. I should explain, I taught adults. I wasn’t abusing children. I was abusing adults. We had fun. I learned more than my students. First of all, you learn a lot about a culture spending up to eight hours a day in their classrooms. Secondly, I couldn’t teach. What did I know about teaching English? I didn’t even know what an adverb does. Sure, I knew you did well not you did good, but, I couldn’t tell you why. Students would ask: “Teacher, what is the present perfect?” My stock answer: How are you at this present time? Perfect? Present perfect, next question.

To make up for not teaching, I did my best to be entertaining in the class, hence, the encouraging of the drinking. The night classes basically turned into a night club act, and each seat in the classroom came with a two drink minimum.

I improvised all my classes. I had to, like I said, I didn’t know what or how to teach. One of my best improvs came inspired by hearing Hye Sun tell the legend of the first Korean. See, there was this bear and a tiger that go into the cave with nothing to eat but onions and garlic for 100 days, and then, if they never leave the cave for the 100 days, they will be turned human. Well, the tiger bolts after 50 days, apparently he couldn’t endure the bear’s breath. The bear sticks it out for the 100 days, and zap! The bear’s turned into a beautiful Korean lady.

After Hye Sun had finished the tale, she asked if Canada had any such legends. I couldn’t think of any, so, I made one up.

“Sure we do,” I said. “Probably the most famous is the legend of Jean LeLouis De Le Pepe Le Peu, the most famous lumberjack in Canadian history. Jean LeLouis De Le Pepe Le Peu clear cut all the way from Montreal right up the Gaspe all by himself. Incredible lumberjack. Until, one day Jean LeLouis De Le Pepe Le Peu was captured by a cannibal tribe of Iroquois Indians, who tied Jean LeLouis De Le Pepe Le Peu to a stake, threatening to make steak of him. First, though, they offered him one last meal. Jean LeLouis De Le Pepe Le Peu asked for his filet mignon, with a starter of escargots, and French onion soup with a chocolate eclair for dessert. The Iroquois only had bannock, a dry bread made from corn. Jean LeLouis De Le Pepe Le Peu found the bread dull, and asked to get into his rucksack where he had a syrup made from maple trees that would go well with the bannock. And when Jean Le Pierre De Le Pepe Le Peu poured the syrup on the bread, the first pancake was born. And that, class, is why our flag has a maple leaf in the middle representing syrup and the red and white represent the meeting of native and European cultures, and the two red stripes represent the bloody pancakes the natives made out of Jean LeLouis De Le Pepe Le Peu. Any Questions?”

I never told them I was joking.

Reflections on Top of the Mountain

Fear is not a snake, it’s a shadow in the mind’s eye.

We can’t choose everything that happens, but we can decide how to deal with them after they hiss at us. I chose to fight my way to the top of this mountain, what did fear give me? Nothing but an increased heartrate and jumpy fingers. Fear wanted me to give up half way and go home defeated by shadows.

Snakes are real, God knows, He made them, but, so are my eyes and reflexes. So, it was only fear, not the serpents in the trees that brought cowardice to my knees.

And now I sit here, looking over this canopy of jungle, eyes lush with emerald leaves, I must remember those same slithering shadows wait for me on the way down.