Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Tiger's Tale

I booked the trip to the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Tiger Temple at the same place on Soi 11. The ladies were nice, they picked me up on time, the guides were wonderful, and it was easy. Later, I was glad I did because some other friends tried to go direct with a Bangkok taxi, and they never made it there. The taxi driver got lost. We left Bangkok at about 7am and ended up in a caravan with several other vans. We all had booked different tours, and the guides kept switching us from van to van, depending on where we were going.  I was amazed at how smoothly it all went, and I don’t think they lost anyone.
Our first stop was the cemetery honoring Dutch, Thai, and English soldiers who died in the Japanese POW camps by the river. I read some of the plaques, and watched some of the older men relive the moments for a bit. I was glad it was a short stop.

Next, we drove to the museum of the actual camp. It was a strange museum filled with photographs and mementoes of war.  I had not really planned to go in, but it was so interesting I ended up taking pictures of the soldiers, very young guys, hanging out in the camp. Even though I wasn’t even born, it was strangely nostalgic because of all the old movies I’d watched as a kid. My dad was a big World War II movie fan, along with John Wayne westerns; and I had probably seen scenes from these pictures as a child. There was also a very unusual letter from Hitler to the Japanese command. Again, I almost refused to read it, but the idea of actually reading something written by that bastard was too intriguing. The strangest thing was it was a letter like many other letters written by pompous men regarding the rules for other men, rule that usually those same men exempt themselves from following. I then took a walk to through the tourist trap town, walked over the railroad crossing, looked at some jewelry in the many gold shops, and waited for the next stop.

We were about one and half hours outside of Bangkok, and the countryside of Thailand was so much like some parts of Hawaii. I was reminded of how many times I had driven over the Pali on Kauai to Hanalei and felt like I was back in Southeast Asia, and it was not my imagining. Driving through Thailand was like being home, with Palm trees, papayas, mangos and lush greenery by the river. We drove on a dusty road down to a train station right out of the old English Empire days, out in the middle of nowhere. The train pulled up and we all got on an old train with wood seats and open air windows. It was a bit like the little tour train we have in Lahaina. My niece will laugh when I tell her the Thai train was very similar, but a lot more interesting! We had a good ride on the train, and I spent the time checking out my fellow passengers. We were going on an ancient track over very high mountain passes and very rickety rails. I thought these might be the people I spend my last days with. The old white guy with his gnarled hand resting on the knee of his very pretty, young Thai companion. The German couple; a fat loud little man and his old wife who was dressed like an Amsterdam whore in very short shorts and a tight top stretched over her layers of white fat. The interesting family with the adorable little boy with his Thai mother and his young white father. I tried to figure out the family dynamics. Was that his mother, with her pursed, disapproving lips who seemed to have no interest in amusing the baby boy?

The highlight of the trip, of course, was the actual bridge over the river that was built by prisoners in the harshest imaginable circumstances. My friend later reminded me of the actual tune they whistled in the movie, and I can hear it as I’m writing this. After the train ride ended, we drove through more bush and bramble to a restaurant on a boat for lunch. We walked down a long ramp to the boat on the river, took off our shoes, were served rice, fish, and vegetables; and ate on the barge out in the river watching river boats cruise by slowly and water taxis speed by with Thai men guide them with wooden tillers. It was an idyllic scene, and although it was a bit awkward being on my own with all these other strangers and couples, I managed to enjoy myself.

After all this, I was getting pretty tired and we still had a bit of a drive to the Tiger Temple, which was my main focus for this trip. I was a bit apprehensive because I had read some reviews online, and some negative stuff about how the tigers were drugged, and the monks and handlers abused them. To be really honest; I don’t know enough about how tigers in this situation should be handled to know what is abuse, and I didn’t have much qualms about them being drugged while I was around having my picture taken with them. I also had a very good friend who really wanted me to see live tigers on this trip, and I was determined to do this for him. 

We pulled into a very large dusty parking lot with many vans and several buildings, and then walked down a very long road into the monk’s compound. I was already very tired, and wished I had come here first, but I was able to push my energy up because it was a very unique experience. This was not an amusement park or a zoo. It was very primitive, and not like anywhere I’d been before. We walked to down the road to a kind of grotto surrounded my small hills. There were European and Thai handlers controlling entrance to the place where about 20-25 tigers lay in the dirt. A very abrupt English girl was telling everyone the rules; while this very silly English lady tried to go around the line and straight into the grotto. She was stopped and led back into line. I had a nice chat with one of the handlers about negative stuff on the internet. She tried to convince me that the tigers were not drugged, “they are just well fed, and don’t need to be aggressive in this setting.” I wasn’t buying that, but was fine with them not being aggressive while I was there. I was led by the hand to each tiger, and assured told where to sit and where I could pet the animal. I used my own judgment and basically kept my distance. I don’t care what they are given or what these handlers (who are mostly young kids) say; these are wild animals and will never be predictable. I posed with the tigers while another handler took pictures. It was very organized and there were probably 30-40 tourists all taking pictures at the same time in that grotto.The funniest thing was watching that same English lady with her red face posing in her safari hat while ignoring the handler and putting her face right up to the tiger to stroke the tiger’s head as if she was trying to enact some genetic fantasy of being a big game hunter in the wilds of Africa.

I walked up a steep hill to where the baby tigers were supposed to be, but they were being fed and were not available. Then I continued down the dirt road to a wood platform where a tiger was being held by a monk, and two very young handlers were placing people for pictures. I stood waiting patiently while many people had their pictures taken and walked away. I was standing there deciding if I wanted another picture when suddenly the tiger stood up and strained on the lease. I could tell the monk was surprised, and the tiger was growling and straining toward the road. The handlers were trying to figure out what was upsetting the tiger, when they saw a family from India with their very small children heading over on the road. The tiger was very agitated, and the handlers finally yelled over to the family to walk quietly away around the building with the children. They ignored the young people and kept walking toward us while I could see the monk was having a hard time holding the tiger. Finally the monk yelled to them, “the tiger wants to eat the children…take them away.” Finally the father looked as if he understood, and shooed his family away. The tiger was pacing on the platform, while I stood watching this like a scene in a movie. Finally, the young boy said that I could come have my picture taken and that the tiger was fine. They were both encouraging me to come have my picture taken; that the tiger was fine. “I don’t think so.” I looked at the monk who tightly held the leash on the tiger who had finally laid back down stretched out on the platform, probably dreaming of a snack on a child or two.  “I have to follow my heart.” I patted my hand to my heart and the monk laughed, nodding his head. 

The next enclosure was a narrow path through a maze with one very angry monk and a bunch of tourists squeezed together in front of a very large tiger, who kept getting up to move away from the crowd. Another French lady was following the tiger, reaching out to stroke his back and even patting his head. She completely dominated the event, and it was evident other tourists were getting irritated that they couldn’t take pictures themselves. I was at ease because I didn’t really care to have any more photo opportunities with these animals. It was amazing to watch this young girl following this tiger with no regard for her own safety, as if the tiger was a cartoon. The monk was getting angrier and angrier, but for some reason he did not know how to control the situation. She finally lay down on the ground with the tiger, and then this other silly lady did the same thing and pushed her away. I finally left them to their mad enactments, and walked until I found the temple. I walked through a herd of water buffaloes that were a bit intimidating, especially the large bull who snorted at me; but once I walked up the steps to the temple and saw the monks scrubbing the temple floor, I felt a peace. I sat there in this wild place in the middle of Thailand with two monks scrubbing the tile of the temple and the breeze blowing through the open pillars remembering to breath and “be here now”, and after about ten minutes it seemed as if the monks knew I was there and blessed me.

I got up and walked back down the road past the other enclosures to the exit, where I had a few minutes when I thought my bus had left. A guide found me and led me back to another bus back to Bangkok. On the way out of the park I saw a young biker with a jacket tagged from Thailand. I wanted to take a picture for my friend on the Big Island, but we were leaving and I was a bit shy. I’ve never met an unfriendly biker myself, but I’d had a long day and was really tired so I didn’t feel up to any new encounters. The coolest thing was, he had two small boys with him, and they all three got on this Harley and drove out of the park. I haven’t checked my pictures yet to see if I got the shot, but it will make a great poster if I did.

On the way back to Bangkok we stopped at a waterfall. It was a really Hawaiian scene, with Thai families spread out over the riverside on blankets surrounded by containers of food. There were children running around in and out of the water. It was a lovely, laughing riverside scene, and was so much like home. We walked up to a large rock waterfall which you could climb up to take pictures. It was very slippery and I was very tired, so I took pictures from the bridge. It really did remind me of home, and the good old times I’d had with my husband and friends at the waterfalls by Camp Maluhia in the West Maui mountains, the falls above Camp Keanae near Hana, and all the grottos and pools Kent and I went to in Hana and on Kauai. I got very nostalgic and a bit tearful. It’s funny how you can be all the way around the world and come to a place that seems just like home. 

We ended our very long tour arriving back at the hotel safe and sound at about 8pm.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bangkok Tours; Temples and Tigers to come...

It's been a long while since I've posted, and a lot has happened. I will have to cheat and check out the pictures on my camera to refresh my memory of the first trip to Bangkok, but I will do my best to catch up to where I am today.

I've had really good luck picking tour ladies in different countries to help me plan things, and several times it has been easier and more economical than trying to do everything on my own. I've been willing and able to spend a bit more to take the easier, softer route; which I hardly ever did when I was young. It worked out great in Kerala, and here in Bangkok, again I was walking down the street and got a feeling and walked into this place and talked to these ladies and they helped me book my few days of tours; including one whole day of temple tours, and a trip to see the tiger temple. They picked me up at the hotel and my guide was a young lady who I found out later was a history teacher who had taken this job to improve her English. She was very well versed in the history of Thailand, and had a lot of interesting stories to tell. I visited the Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Sutat, (Great Swing), and the Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha). I'm not going to expound on the history and stories, as you can look all these up for yourselves, if you are interested. What happened for me, as I went around viewing these incredible sights was a serious of vignettes with monks and other visitors. The day I toured was a holiday and there were a lot of local people visiting the temples, which was really special because I was able to experience special offerings and prayers that would not normally be taking place. 

The first temple was the Golden Buddha, and as I walked up the steps to the temple could see the whole city of Bangkok. I entered the temple after removing my shoes and sat with a group of Thais making offerings. It was a holiday and all the temples were full of petitioners and monks in prayer. As I left the temple I went and threw some money in the large bronze bowl for good luck. As much as I deplore the negative effect organized religion has had on human history; there is something wonderful about churches,
temples, places of worship. It is an aspect of the very highest that we strive for, communion with the best parts of us. It is also an reflection of the very worst; corruption, greed, and the use of funds to build golden Buddhas inside walls while outside there are children living on a bowl of rice a day. Overall, I'm not sure how much good or bad religion does for us all, but I do understand that it is a basic need that we seem to have to explain the mystery of existence. I'm met very few people who, when faced with death, choose to believe in nothing.

As I walked around amidst the holy bells with orange robed monks strolling by or knelt in prayer, I was also surrounded by merchandise and hawkers of souvenirs. It was a juxtaposition of the highest human aspirations, elevation of the spirit; and the most base human elements, commerce and greed. Somehow, because of my mood, my guide, the experience overall, or the influence of the monks and petitioners; I did not feel offended or disconcerted by any of it. It all felt perfectly natural to see monks received, alms, mostly from elderly Thais, who offered them packages of food, bread, blankets, and other necessities. My guide explained that the monks were not allowed to work or do common labor, so all of their needs were provided for by offerings. In turn, they chanted, prayed, and lit incense for the people.

I could gush on about the immense lying Buddha or the awesome golden Buddha, or the incredible detailed panels which were carved to tell the complete life story of Buddha. These are all amazing sights, and I am grateful to have visited them twice in my life, because I did see them when I was here in the 70's also. But what affected me even more, and what touched my heart, was the small boy who had a bag full of change and he went down this long line of bronze bowls for offerings and he put some change in each bowl, and his bent head and small hands were so intent on the rightness of his offering, and I was so touched my the purity of his actions. The tiny old ladies kneeling in front of a row of seated monks with their colorful wrapped offerings of food and goods. The monks in their robes, both old men and very young boys, lining up and taking the packages as they bowed to each soul requesting their prayers. Sitting cross-legged in a crowd of people in front of an immense statue of Buddha with the smell of incense and the ringing of bells in the background with tears in my eyes, feeling this strange connection to all those around me. Watching the lady slowly put one 20 baht bill in the offering box, then seeing her lips move in prayer, then she put another bill in the offering box, then her lips moved in prayer. She did that for many 20 baht bills. The line of bells in the palace with small delicate girl child standing while her elderly grandfather held her hand and explained to her, I presume, what the bells meant. My guide, with her lovely young face and her almost perfect English telling me a story of each figure and each temple; telling me how much they loved the king who is now 84 years old. I later found out that it is a crime not to love the king, which put a different slant on how respectful everyone was in the palace, but did not change the immense feel of a country with tradition and heritage which has been pushed around and shoved into a changed world, a world vastly different from their ancient teachings.

I spent a full day visiting temples and then the grand palace, which I was less impressed with, although it was built to impress. The King is not there. He is in the hospital, and the palace is beautiful but it is only one of his many palaces. I did love it when visitors were taking pictures of the solder in front of the palace, and my guide asked me if I had seen the soldiers in front of Buckingham Palace. I told her yes and they looked very much the same, the young Thai solder standing tall with no expression while tourists stood beside him, laughingly having their pictures took. The day I toured was a holiday and there were a lot of local people visiting the temples, which was really special because I was able to experience special offerings and prayers that would not normally be taking place. Next stop...full day trip to Bridge over the River Kwai and Tiger Temple!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bangkok, baby…Days and Nights

End of India…last days in Chennai.

I spent a week in Chennai, and only left the hotel once to go to a meeting. The drive from the airport and my one evening out were all I needed to see of Chennai. The main impression I had of Chennai, outside of the Sheraton Park Towers, was a smaller Bombay. It was pretty clear that I was ready to leave India. I also got a killer flu, and was sick in bed for three days; so the last few days I just hung out by the pool and watched movies in the room. I was very grateful to be in a nice hotel while I was sick, even though it put a big dent in my savings.  The staff was wonderful, and I was very blessed to be so well looked after. I’ve also come to realize that when you are on a trip this long, you just can’t be a tourist all the time. It’s exhausting, and sometimes you just need to stop and do nothing.

I left Chennai on a midnight Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. The airports in India are amazingly disorganized, messy, unhelpful, and make you feel like there is no chance that you will ever get on the right plane going to the right place with all your stuff. They are building a new airport in Chennai, and the pictures look wonderful. The flight was filled with Indian men whose main goal was to drink as much free booze as the Thai stewardesses would give them, which was annoying at first but then I felt so sorry for the stewardesses that I got over being annoyed for myself. It was only a three hour flight, and landing at the airport in Bangkok was like a time warp; “back to the future”.  Everything was efficient, modern, with easy to read and follow signs, and everything going as smooth as Thai silk.

I took a long taxi ride to my hotel, which is in Soi 11. It is a brand new Aloft, and is perfect for me. It has all the basic amenities, is very modern, and has a pool table in the lobby. I checked out the pool deck on the 23rd floor, and plan to spend a day hanging out there. My room is awesome for points and $30.00 a night. I have free Wi-Fi everywhere, a huge rain shower, and a 46 inch flat screen TV. As my sisters will verify, us Robinett girls love a good hotel room. It’s in the blood. We are nomads at heart, but we like a nice cozy tent wherever we go.

I don’t like to compare countries, because each place is unique and deserves to be respected for its own culture and society. It is also pretty clear to me that there are some places I feel better than others. Bangkok is a city of 12 million, but it is amazingly clean for such a large city. The traffic is really bad in the central city, but it is organized; drivers actually use the lanes, there are lights, and very little honking; unlike India, where no one uses lanes and the constant honking creates a cacophony of mind-numbing noise. There is a great sky tram which takes you all over the city, and transportation is easy and available. The air doesn’t stink. There are not piles of refuse lying around. There are not people yelling at you to buy their stuff. People on the streets are not shoving, pushing, and bumping you out of their way. People actually smile at you, which almost never happened in India, except in Kerala. I could go into a long rant about the Indian economy, the abundance of wealth that is being thrown around, and the boasts of taking the world into the 21st century. I will spare us all, but what I will say is that India has a long way to go before I will take it seriously as a leader for the future of humankind. Taking care of basics like having clean toilets in International airports, and treating all people with respect and consideration would be a good start.

It has been thirty-six years since I was last in Bangkok. I won’t go into the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriquez script involving mad Chinese drug dealers, a friend who betrayed me, the flight home from hell, the DEA welcome committee at SFO, and the end result long term stay at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Facility; that is a story is best savored at another time. It never occurred to me to be worried about getting back into Thailand until I was on the plane, and then I had one of those speed drill paranoia runs, “will they still have my name after all this time, and what is the statute of limitations in Thailand”; with additional footage of me being led off to explain how I had the nerve to return after all this time.  I let that go on for about three seconds, and then realized all would be well. All has been well on this trip and all would be well. And it was. I’ve been clean for 29 years, I’ve paid my dues over and above, and I’m a new person in a new world. It was a good feeling walking through immigration being me.

I slept until around 2pm, then I got up and took a walk around. I’m in a great location right off Sukhumvit Road in one of the main Soi’s. There are restaurants, bars, shops, and stores everywhere. I went to a cozy, plant filled outdoor place called Zanzibar’s and had the best steak I’ve had since Paris. So much for going Vegetarian. It was fantastic. Not cheap, but a great meal especially after almost of week of not feeling like eating at all. I went back to the hotel and played a game of pool in the lobby. It’s been years since I played, but it did start to come back pretty quickly. Kent and I used to play together at Koho’s in Napili. We had so much fun trying to beat each other, and telling stories about the old days when we were pool sharks (ha!). 

It was a full moon, I’d slept most of the day, I was in Bangkok, and after being in a hotel in Chennai for a week; I felt like getting out and about. I decided I would go find some live music. I spent about two seconds wondering if I should be leery about going out on my own, then I went to my room, took a shower, put on some makeup, fixed my hair, sprayed on some Channel #5 from duty free, put on some black jeans and a fancy top, got the address to some live music joints, got a cab, and ended up at the Witch’s Tavern. I also put on some attitude, which I felt I needed to pull this excursion off. I’m a 62 year old woman going out on the town where all the men are here for one thing, and one thing only. Young, nubile, sexy, Thai women. I could easily let that undermine my sense of myself, and my own confidence, and I was determined I wouldn’t let that happen.   I had originally thought this place would piss off some remnant feminist part of me, but most of what I’ve felt is that life is very hard, and whatever comfort anyone can find they are welcome to it, as sad as it may seem to me. I did wonder if there wasn’t a Bangkok for old women, and if so, where was it? It was a long ride from my hotel, so I had time to think of all this stuff, and wonder if I could find my way back.

Let me note here that it has been a very long time since I have hung out in bars. I don’t drink, drug, or do one nighter’s anymore, and normally would not go unless I had a very good reason and an entourage. My very good reason was…I wanted to have some fun in Bangkok! I’ve had a serious, difficult time, a very sad time, and I have been on a very long trip, and I just wanted to go somewhere and hear some live rock and roll and have some fun. And I guess I also wanted to see if I had the nerve to go out on my own.  So I did. The Witch’s Tavern was a dark two-story bar with not a big crowd. I sat at a table near the stage and drank a coffee. The band finally came on, and basically they rocked. Heard some Stones, some Lady Gaga, and some Bruno Mars. The girl lead singer really rocked. It was some lady’s birthday, so her and her party kept the place lively. I drank a soda, grooved to the beat, and basically felt pretty okay in my own skin. The band was as good as bar bands can be, the place wasn’t packed, it wasn’t rockin’, and basically bars are boring if you don’t drink; but it was an adventure, and I did it. I got bored with it all, went out and flagged a cab, tried to find this place called Mojo’s but the cab driver couldn’t find it. I was tired, so I decided to try the sky train back to the hotel. It was easy, only two stops. I walked back to the hotel feeling pretty good, played another game of pool, and crashed.

Today, I slept late again. Got up and booked the afternoon tour on the river. That was really nice. Took a boat and then a rice ferry all up and down the river. Remembered Kent telling me about him and his friend, Bob, taking that trip when he was in Bangkok. I thought of him as I was going down the river. I think of him often, but it does get easier to remember the good times. I am grateful I am so good at being on my own, because if I wasn’t it would be a thousand times harder to lose the love of my life. And it was hard enough as it was. For those worried about the flooding, there are not many signs that I have seen so far here in Bangkok. They have done an incredible job of clearing things up here. I just realized its ten pm, and I have to get up at 6:30am for the full day tour of the temples tomorrow. Doing Bangkok, doing good.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Fort Kochi, Kerala India

I am sitting in a Tea Shop, which is filled with the the owner's many-hundred collection of old tea pots. I can hear the combined sounds of a children's school across the road and modern jazz playing throughout the shop, children laughing and talking waft through the mellow rhythm of jazz, and then there an added under beat of drums for a parade of some kind. It is the music of Kerala, new and old rhythms. Last night I went to a sitar concert. Today I am planning to submit my application for the writing fellowship at Stanford. I had almost talked myself out of it; it seems like such a long commitment (two years), and I can't imagine what I want to do when I finish this trip. But then, again, I had made a promise to myself to at least apply. What happens after that is out of my hands. If I do, by some miracle, get accepted I'm sure it will be a great possibility; and two years in California would not be all bad. (Update: application submitted--will know in April 2012, which is when I am scheduled to return to Maui).

Just a note on the teapots, because it is an exceptional collection. There are many sizes of old metal teapots (bronze maybe) with scrolled designs, along with plain metal ones. They sit on wood cabinets, in glass-covered cases, and hang from hooks down from the ceiling which has rectangles of open sky showing through. The light falls into the shop in misty layers on this strange and wonderful gathering of pots. There are hand-painted English teapots, from the very tiny one cup pots to large pots for full settings, and they are all hand decorated vines, flowers, colorful garden scenes, and even a few sprites for good luck. Then there are novelty pots, like the one my friends Sue and Lilia would love; a huge pot shaped exactly like a big fat black and white tabby cat with sparkling green eyes. It is the most amazing collection of tea pots I've ever seen.

The mind is a strange recollector also and so I had a memory surface, in this shop, of how Kent loved to collect specific things and how beautiful they seemed to him even though he lost the ability to display them the way, I think, he would have liked. Then my thoughts when to how torn I am between wanting to get rid of all possessions, having seen in the past few years filled with the deaths of family, how really no one wants your old stuff except you and maybe one dear loved one. Then desiring, on the other hand, to create a lovely space for all my memories and stuff, a wish to surround myself with all the stuff I have to remind me of the life I've had. I'm not sure which direction I will go. Either to get rid of everything, and live a simple life (be here now), or surround myself in a cocoon of lovely remembrances. My thoughts also strayed to how it is some relief to be out here on the road during the holidays (teapots-homey-home-holidays). When you share eighteen years worth of holidays with someone who is no longer there, it can feel better to be somewhere where there are no holidays, than to be surrounded by others. Close family and friends do make the hole seem larger, and although I'm very grateful I had friends and family to spend holidays with the past two years, spending this time out in the world is a kind of relief.

I have been in Fort Kochi for about eight days now, and will probably be here another week. I am staying in a Home Stay referred by Matthew from the Yoga Retreat. It is a lovely house where I have a sitting room, bedroom, air conditioning (which I only use at night), a small fridge for water and stuff, hot water, and even HBO (depending on reception). I have clean sheets and towels daily, and am surrounded by a home filled with plants, a beautiful fish tank, and very friendly owners. It is safe, comfortable, and a great place to hang out for a bit. All for about $30.00 a night. I am doing my best to conserve money for a bit, as I really went over my budget in the first part of my trip. I can eat great food for less than $20.00 a day, and I can walk almost everywhere I want to go. I can rent a bicycle for $6.00 a day, or a scooter for $12.00. There are a million little shops, restaurants, teashops, bookstores, churches, and sights. There is a park in the middle of town, a wharf with Chinese fishing boats, and a unique ferry system to Ernakulum (Cochin). It's a near perfect place, although it is very hot and humid; the place is starting to fill up with European tourists for the holidays.

I just want to add a note on the general snobbishness toward "Americans" that I've encountered during my travels, especially from Northern Europeans. Thankfully I've not experienced any "hate" vibes anywhere, but there is a general snootiness. I've noticed it all over Europe, in Turkey a bit, Dubai definitely, and in India mostly from foreign travelers. I actually expected it to be worse in Paris, but it was friendlier there than I had expected. The only real exception was Holland, where everyone was generally friendly and welcoming.
I can't read people's minds, so I'm not sure what it's based on, if people are aware they are doing it, or if it is just a reflex reaction. I would even consider that I was imaging this, except that I've experienced it before when traveling, and had time to review the incidents enough to be fairly sure my instincts were correct. It's hard to put a finger on the specific behavior, and it displays differently in different situations; it's just an overall expressed disdain, mistrust, or condescension. I detach myself from it, and generally go about my business without responding to it. There have been times when I knew fun was being made of my "Americanism" that I even went so far as to ignore people's behavior as if I didn't "get" that they were poking fun. I am not a nationalist, but I have a fondness for my county and it's people. I also think divisions based on religion, nationalism, gender, race, or sexual preference are superficial and ridiculous. I'm not interested in any of that nonsense. I want to know what we are going to do about all the people on this planet; how were are going to feed, cloth, house, and care for them. I want to know if we are going to go out and explore the universe we live in. I want to know if we are going to find inner peace, all of us. I want to know who the next great scientist, artist, poet,musician, writer will be. I want to know what is the next great discovery. I don't give a fuck about people's daily silliness, including my own! But, as a writer, I do feel obliged to document what I perceive.

Another thing I've noticed here in Fort Kochin is that everyone is traveling in pairs. It seems as if everyone is
in couples; young and old. Even women and men traveling together are in pairs. I've seen very few people traveling on their own. I had kind of expected that I would meet up with people to travel with, which happened when I was here before, but that was forty years ago. I've had to accept that it is much easier to meet up with people when you are twenty than when you are sixty! I am okay with being on my own most of the time, and am well aware that being on my own has definite advantages. At times I wish I had someone to share all this with, but that implies a real "someone", not just a stranger on the way. Those feelings are to be expected, and don't cause me as much pain as in the past few years. I think, gradually, I am healing healing healing...

My day starts usually about 7:30a or 8:00a, with a pot of coffee, then Yoga/meditation, then I go to town and do errands, shop, find new places to explore. In the afternoons I go back to my place and hang out in the heat. At 4:00p I do Yoga again, and then go back to town for dinner and a stroll. It's a very simple, easy life for the most part. I also go to the Internet place, the post office, the bank, the goods store for supplies,
watch some TV, read some books, write, think (not too much), and keep myself clean. That, in itself requires consistent effort. Everywhere is dusty and dirty, along with the heat which means constant sweating. So everyday, at least several times a day, you need to wash yourself off and clean your feet. It is a must, really, although at times it is tempting not to do it. It is hard to wash your feet when you know you will walk out the door and they will be dirty and dusty in two seconds! But staying clean is essential for good health in Asia, and I am vigilant about my health here.

I thought about taking some more tours, and maybe later I will regret that I haven't, but honestly I just needed to sit still for a bit and have a time of regular daily life with no travels and no new adventures. Although, everyday here there are some little adventures that happen just being in India and every once in a while, like at the sitar concert last night, I could pinch myself and say, "really...you are in India listening to a sitar concert!" It is pretty amazing that I and whatever spirits or powers that may or may not be have let this happen for me (again!). I have also had time to look at my life and see that, in so many ways, I have had a remarkable time here, and have been blessed to experienced both the highest and lowest of what life
has to offer. That, in itself, is a gift that is not opened by everyone.

It's several days later, and I've had to change my flight from Chennai to Bangkok because my visa runs out December 16th. The only flight I could get using my old ticket is December 8th, which is fine because I'm ready to move on, except I still have not received any of my mail! I'm very frustrated with the India Post Office, and the way things are done here in general Which brings up a funny story. I was talking with someone here about how I've traveled all over the world, but haven't been across the United States. His response was, "why would you want to travel the States? There is nothing interesting there. They have no
culture." Then he went on to compare the thousands of years of Asian culture with the nothingness of
America (in his view). Now, I am far from being a flag waving zealot, but I felt a bit offended by his ignorance. My response was, "there is a culture in America, it is just a younger culture." I went on t describe pockets of distinctly American history and culture, but he was unimpressed. His response was that it was just a hodgepodge of borrowed cultures from other places. At that point I realized that pointing out to him that all human endeavor was "borrowed" from somewhere else would be futile, and it wasn't a conversation I was even interested in.

So today, when I was in the post office dealing with the impossibility of receiving a package sent two weeks ago, and received three different answers about where that package was currently according to one tracking number, and saw the chaos that is the India postal system, and added to that my experience of the bad roads, terrible buses, trashy streets, along with the common sight of well-dressed men casually taking a piss anywhere they please in public; some wellspring of no-culture American seething in two hundred years of genetic heritage from the back hills of West Virginia and the coal mines of Harlan County, Kentucky and the badlands of Hollywood and the beauteous land of Hawaii spued out of me, and I thought to myself, "if this is the result of thousands of years of culture, they can bloody have it!" I am, after all, a member of the human

So in this entry, you've got the good, the bad, and the ugly which is a fair example of what it is like to travel in India. Some days are magic, and some days are pissing in the wind. I think, even with meditation daily, this is a fair indication that it is time to move on from India, which I will be doing in another week or so.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Yoga Retreat - Matthew- Mundax

I spent one night in Fort Kochin, and arranged with my travel agent friend that he would drive me to the Yoga Retreat. It was another four hour drive. It's strange how much I am trusting my own judgement and the universe. I found this retreat online, and then reviewed it on TripAdvisor. I knew nothing about where it was, or how it really was. It was a big risk but I was determined that I needed a retreat.

Also, the tour agent was a friend of the lady travel agent I met in Goa; and because of spending time with his driver, I trusted him. I am just very fortunate that I have been guided to wonderful people on this trip so far.

Amir and his brother picked me up in an air-conditioned sedan (a treat), and we left early in the morning. They didn't just drive me, but spent the whole trip telling me about the rubber tree farms, the local flora and fauna, life in Kerala, and about their family. Amir's brother is in the Merchant Marines, and his wife designs materials for saris.She was in Chennai planning a showing of her saris for Christmas. We went to their
beautiful home for lunch with his aunt, uncle, younger nephew, and his mother. His father died only four
months ago, and he was worried because his mother didn't want to see anyone or go out.The family was taking turns staying with her. I spent some time holding her hand, and assuring her she would eventually feel better. It was a very touching moment, talking with another widow in another land, and understanding each other perfectly in not perfect language. It seemed as if I was being asked to share my experience with another family who was grieving,and I did my best to do so.

Amir's family were rubber plantation owners previously, and he took me to their family home which was built, I believe, in the 1800's. It was so beautiful, as was his father's home. All the ceilings were carved cedar, with some rosewood (which is now protected), and everywhere there were carvings in wood and icons (Christian) and beautiful hand-made house items. There was a huge rice bowl at least 4 feet across, carved of some old wood, and made to feed the whole family in the times when they all lived on one compound. Both the homes were furnished for comfort with fine couches, and lovely rooms filled with tapestries. There was a upstairs sundeck in the father's house, and many bedrooms for all the family.

We also visited the shrine and tomb of Sister Alphonsa, who is the first Indian woman saint. She was a nun in Kerala, and performed healing miracles which were confirmed by the Vatican. There were a large crowd of Indian woman at this site, and I went in with them to kneel by the tomb. I was the only European who actually went in and knelt by the shrine,but I am baptised and confirmed Catholic, so I felt I was allowed. I placed my handson the tomb, and prayed for Amir's mother, my family, my friends, and Kent.Tears rolled down my face as I felt something I can't begin to describe. A gentle lightness and warmth of being. The women and I filed out of the tomb close together. I keep running into Christian saints here in India, but I think it is also because Kerala is very Christian; whereas Bombay is Hindu and Muslim, and Goa is a mix of Hindu and heathen. And it could be because (if I must find meaning to every event) I have an affinity for saints, and Kent who proclaimed for years to be atheist or agnostic, in the end sought comfort in all types of
religious symbols including pictures of saints. The specter of the end does have a way of converting or at least inspiring even the most cynical, when faced with the ultimate and inevitable vast unknown.

We finally made our way slowly up the mountain until we came to a very small rustic village. We had been calling and receiving calls from Matthew regarding our ETA, and Amir thought he knew Mathew's family which turned out to be the case. That was reassuring, that someone knew where and with who I would be staying. When we turned into the gated drive toward Matthew's, we saw a huge, beautiful white stone house; and Amir said, "that's probably not the place." I believe he was thinking, yoga retreat--hippies--mud hut, or something. Well, we pulled up to this beautiful house, and a very nice tall Indian man came out and welcomed us.He toured us to my room, which was a spacious, beautiful room with a door to a red tile
porch which had a view of mountainside garden from Eden. This room was my home for the next five days, and it was as comfortable a home as I've had in a very long time. I loved my room at the IstanbulInn, and I loved my room at the Yoga Retreat. It was cool enough in the mountains that I hardly ever used the ceiling fans, I had hot water, and the only negative was a very hard yoga master bed, which I did eventually get used to.

We had tea with Matthew while he introduced himself, and him and Amir agreed that they had friends in common in Kochin. He advised me that I would be the only person staying. He had two rooms in his HomeStay, and he took only a maximum of five people at one time. Of course, here I was in the middle of Kerala mountains miles from anywhere going to stay for five nights in a house with a complete stranger; so, yes, I did have some moments of "look what you've got us into now, Ollie!" Matthew was, I'm sure, very sensitive to my feelings and did everything he could to reassure me right away that I was in a safe, caring
place. It took me about half of the next day and a couple Yoga sessions, to feel completely secure
and by that time, I had "turned it over".

My routine was up at 7:30am with coffee on the upstairs lanai overlooking the mountains. Yoga at 8:00am. First a session of quiet to connect with my energy/center. Then a series of standing exercises. Then a rest lying flat on my back. Then 10-20 minutes of meditation.We would then have breakfast of eggs, roti, fruit, yogurt, honey...all fresh local foods.There was a shy little man who cooked, and all the food was prepared deliciously. We began at the first meal talking. Matthew encouraged me to share anything that was on my mind, and he shared about his journey to this place in the mountains. We had some very personal and helpful talks during meals. At first it was a bit awkward opening up to this new person, but I had made a deal with myself to be completely open to this experience, and to gain all I could from where my journey had brought me, which I knew was no coincidence.

The rest of the day I spent reading, writing, reflecting, doing chores, napping, taking walks, and sitting on the lanai. I had no Internet the first few days, no TV, no distractionsreally. Just me and yoga.We had lunch at 1:00pm, with more conversations and sometimes just a quiet meal together. At 4:00pm another Yoga session exactly like the one in the morning, with dinner following. Dinner was Kerala rice, different kinds of roti's including a special Kerala one made of rice flour that I really love, fresh green beans with coconut, okra with coconut, cabbage with coconut, vegetable curries, vegetable masalas, and apple bananas. It was the best
vegetarian food I have ever had, and was never boring or unappetizing. I did not miss meat,
chicken, or fish while I was there.

It doesn't sound like a very exciting way to spend five days, but it was one of the fullest times in my travels, and was exactly the time and space I needed to catch up to some intense feelings of grief I was still having. I also think I was just over-whelmed with all the people, places, events, and traveling I have done in the past few months. It has been a lot of changes, and it was time to stop for a bit and catch up to myself. The first few days I had several times when I started crying. I was so grateful when Matthew was completely at ease with my feelings, and shared some of his own personal experiences with health issues, and loss. In one Yoga session I actually started sobbing during the meditation with memories that came back from the past.

Slowly and patiently, every session he repeated, "be here now, pay attention to your breath, let go of the past, let go of the future, just experience this moment." And by the third day when he asked me how I felt, I could answer that I felt lighter, freer, and the knot of sorrow in my chest was lifted. I feel as if pockets of sadness that had settled in the nooks of my body were released. The rest of the days I spent feeling more and more centered and whole. So much more happened during this time, but it was all very internal and very personal. I have not made any promises to myself about continuing the routine, but so far since I have returned to Fort Kochin, I have done the same routine every day at 8am and 4pm. Matthew helped me copy the exact body movements in words on my computer, so I can remember them, and I have been doing them. I feel better, and am able to "go with the flow", which is a must in India and for the rest of my trip in Asia. I also feel this centering has allowed me to let go a little bit more of my past, and move a bit more into my own present.

One of the things I loved most about the time I spent with Matthew was that he was not in any way pretentious or striving to be "spiritual". Be where and what you are, gently move yourself in new directions. I was very impressed by this approach, which did was not a doctrine or self-righteous rant. I never once felt like I was a lesser being, or that I was being "taught". My views, needs, and limitations were completely honored and valued. One of the things I noticed is that my sadness causes me to be irritated. It's a general
type of irritation that comes out or flares up randomly and equally at people I love and strangers. I had noticed this before, all during Kent's illness and after when I was grieving, but no matter how much writing I did, or letting go of specific resentments...this general irritation continued. It was very clear to me during these days of reflection that I was irritated because I was sad. I hated being sad, and that irritated my spirit. Then it was like a hot coal only waiting for a slight wind to flare into fire.

Another epiphany I had was that I still felt some guilt over two incidents that happened during Kent's illness. They were both very minor incidents, but ones which I couldn't let go of. I was finally able to repeat what happened and again, forgive myself for being human and remind myself that I had done all I could lovingly to be of service. It'samazing how hard I am on myself, and how little credit I give myself for the good I do. It
is also amazing how determined some thoughts are to stay stuck in our consciousness, and it is usually the most damaging thoughts that are the hardest to release.

A lot of time was spent talking about the mind, and how thoughts are not reality. There is more to reality than what we think in our minds. Learning how to discipline our thoughts, which I've already spent many years doing, is one of the most valuable tools we have in order to have clear, peaceful, and real communion with ourselves and the world.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rollin' on the River...riverboat ride, Kerala.

Benny and I rode for about five hours down from the peacefulness of Munnar back into
the hustle of main street, Kerala. We were on our way for me to board my riverboat for
a night's stay on the waterways of Kerala, which is referred to as the, "Venice of the East".
Finally, we went over a long bridge and I could see the interconnecting wide inlets of
waters. We pulled up to the docking area, and Benny introduced me to my boatman. I asked Benny
to keep my luggage in the truck, so I could just take my small bag on the boat.

The boat was, honestly, like something out of a very old Hollywood movie. The entire
boat was shaped like a large canoe with a house covered in palm fronds in the center. When
I stepped on board, there were cane chairs with footstools set up in the front behind the
boatman where I sat watching the river roll. There was a full dining table with a plate of
fresh fruit. My luggage was placed in a private, enclosed bedroom with it's own bath. And,
in the back of the boat, was the kitchen area where my meals were prepared. There was
the boatman, his young assistant who spoke moderate English, and the cook who I never saw.

Once I'd settled in, changed into my comfortable dress, and bare feet (I forgot to bring my
flip flops!)...the boat motor started up, I settled into the cane chair, and we headed down
the river. I can hardly describe how beautiful this area of Kerala is, and much like Munnar
every view is spectacular. I remembered Kent and I watching the movie, "African Queen" with
Bogart and Hepburn; and I felt as if I was in that movie, only I had to imagine Kent there.
The inlets widen like big rivers, and then narrow. I saw a man kneeling in a small ketch as herded
hundreds of ducks in the water. Women with long black hair and colorful saris pounded wash
on rocks by the water..thonk, thonk, thonk...the sound of the wash echoing up and down
the waterway.

I was served a delicious lunch of vegetable curry, very fresh river fish, hand made chapati.
When they asked if I wanted an Ayurveda massage, at first I said no because I had had one the
day before; then I decided, when would I get this chance again. Honestly, I love the massage,
and I even like the oil on my body, but I am not all that fond of having oil poured all over
my head and face. It's just not my favorite type of massage. But the place was a tiny house
on the river, and the lady was very intense. We went in the room, once again I stripped down,
and she gave me a very thorough rubbing. It was a little hard on my still sore shoulder.
At this point, I had had some many different experiences and people in a very short time,
and I was beginning to have traveler's overload. I rinsed off with the hot water she brought
and was glad to relax back on the boat. I had some weird vibes from her that I didn't
tip her enough, and that set me off on this worry about how much to tip the boatmen, and
along with being tired and lonely, was not a good combo for my brain.

Luckily, the best was yet to come...and I was headed for a five day yoga retreat, which would center me and give me the tools I would need to continue on the next four months of my journey. Whoopee!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Mountains of Munnar-“God’s Country”…Kerala, India

Well, here’s how it happened. I was walking down the street in Goa thinking to myself, “I must leave Goa.” I had already taken a long bus ride to the capital of Goa and gone to a travel agent there, who said he would call or email me with plans for trip to Kerala and then never did, but at the time I was walking I didn’t know he wouldn’t contact me. I just saw this sign for a travel agent on my walk, and went into this nice little office with two women. I explained to them what I was doing, my trip; and what I wanted to do – go to Kerala. They were so nice and helpful, in the next few days they had booked my airfare, hotel, and driver for 5 days in Kerala. They made the suggestions, and I told them what I could afford, and we worked together.
We have a saying, my friends and I, “don’t quit before the miracle.” There have been several times during this trip where I have considered going home. The first time was in Budapest, Hungary where I felt very alone and in a not friendly place, and then again in Goa because I felt like what the f**k am I doing here. Each time, I made a decision to move on, and each time I moved on I encountered a new and wonderful experience.
I flew from Goa to Chennai to Kochi on India Air. Sad that Kingfisher Airlines is in money trouble, because they are a much nicer airlines than India Air. One of the nicest things about booking a tour is having someone waiting at the airport, holding a sign with your name on it, and ready to drive you to your destination. This is when I met my driver, Bennie. We then went on a four hour drive from Kochi to Munnar. Munnar is in the mountains of Kerala, and is one of the most beautiful, special places I been to in my life. As we were driving up the mountains and I saw the waterfalls and lush forests which so reminded me of Hawaii, I knew I had made the right choice and come to the right place. Benny lives in a small town in Munnar, so he knew all the special places there to show me on the way. I met his wife who works in a fabric shop, and on my way back to Fort Kochi, we stopped so I could meet his very young son who was going to school. Benny and I became friends during our four day trip. The people in Kerala are so different from anywhere else I’ve been. They are friendly, and funny, and very kind; at least the ones I’ve met so far.
Let me go back to my first impressions of Kerala. After Goa, I could not believe how clean, modern, efficient, and organized Kerala is. The roads are better, the food is delicious, the towns are cleaner; and everything seems to work well here. There are hardly any foreigners here, and the ones that are here seem to be mostly young trekkers, and older European couples.  In short, I have decided for now to spend the rest of my time in India here, at least as a home base. They have places here called “home stays” where you can stay in a home with meals for a very cheap price. Kerala is a bit more expensive overall than Goa, but it is absolutely worth it. Everything I have done here has been amazing and wonderful.
We arrived at my hilltop resort at the very top of the Munnar Mountains at about 5pm. The resort was small duplex bungalows in the midst of lush greenery, with trails and water flowing throughout the property. I had a nice room with bath, and an incredible view of the forest.  The dining room where I had a buffet of Keralan dishes (some very hot and spicy) was this cozy, warm candlelit room with a glass dome. I could sit at my table and look up through the glass to see the tall green trees surrounding the roof. It reminded me of the special dinner Kent and I had at Volcano House for Valentine’s Day one year. An especially romantic place, and except for one bohemian lady with her two noisy children, all the rest of the guests were couples. I had a few tearful moments there, but overall it was calm and peaceful and the food was delicious.
I had a long day, leaving Goa at 4am for the long taxi ride to the main airport; and then to Chennai to change planes after going through customs twice, then one to Kerala and the five hour drive up the mountain, so I went right to sleep and slept very well. I felt so much better, safer, more at peace since I reached Kerala than any of the time I spent in Goa. The energy in Goa is not for me. It reminded me a lot of the end of the Haight, or the last wonderful days in Amsterdam, and Kabul before the Russians, or even in some ways, Maui now for me…places that were wonderful until they became corrupted, either by outside influences or by my own personal experiences.
The next day in Munnar, Benny had a full day planned for me. I told him I really wanted to go on an elephant ride, and he was able to include that in the day. In one day we drove by a monkey sitting in a tree, visited a special bee reserve that is protected by the Kerala Forestry Department. There are five or six bee hives on each tree, and the hives are as large as a regular desktop. Long, hanging combs with thousands of bees hanging from them which I stayed well away from as I was taking pictures because I am deadly allergic to bees. We went to the main dam for Munnar Mountains, which is a popular site for Indian tourists. There are very few foreign tourists up here right now, which is actually pretty nice. Then we went to the Elephant riding place which was filled with families and excited children. It was really a fun experience, even though it wasn’t like a real “elephant riding through the jungle” trip. I had fun talking with the Indian women, and it seeing the children ride the elephants. The ride itself was pretty awesome. You only think you know how big an elephant is. You have no idea how big an elephant is until you have actually sat on one. Also, we went down a small slope, and that was the only time I had a small twinge of fear, going downhill on the top of that huge animal.
After the elephant ride, Benny took me to a small place in a small, dusty village for a traditional Ayurveda massage. It was a bit weird at first. I had to strip off all my clothes in this dusty, cluttered room and the young girl put only a little cotton strip over my privates. First I sat on a stool while she poured warm oil on my head, and massaged my head and neck. My shoulder is still sore from my scooter fiasco in Goa, so she paid some special attention to that area. Then I lay on a long carved wooden table and for one hour I had warm oil massaged all over my body, and I mean over every nook and cranny of my body…this is serious massage, and they rub and oil every part of you, including between your toes and in your ears.  I was told the massage included a steam treatment, but I was so surprised when that turned out to be a large wooden box which opened in the front. I sat on a wooden bar, and then the doors were closed with my head sticking out of a hole in the top of the cabinet. It was a tiny, individual sauna. The steam was coming from the bottom of the cabinet; from hot coals and herbs. I had been getting a bit chilled during the massage lying on the wood table, so the heat felt so good. After too short a time, the girl took me out and wiped me all over with a small cloth. My oily hair was tied up. She told me to wait a few hours, and then shower all the oil off. I went back to the Treetop and had a rest. Later, I showered, took a walk through the property, had another delicious meal, and went to bed thinking how glad I was that I had made the decision to continue my trip to Kerala!
I also visited a tea factory where I was shown the whole process of making black tea from tea leaves, and visited the museum of artifacts from the tea plantation in the early 1900’s. The British who lived up in these remote mountains have all left now, but there is much evidence of their stay in the local communities.
I only had two nights in Munnar, and then we had to get an early start for another four hour drive back to the river so I could board my riverboat for a ride through the “Venice of the east” waterways. On our way down the mountain, Benny took me to a spice farm and I had a tour with the fastest talking Indian ever who knew absolutely everything about every plan on that farm. Of course, my video had run out of battery, so I was unable to film him but I did get some good pictures. He told me stories about the origins of tea, ginger, cardamom, pepper…did you know there are three types of pepper (black, white, and green) that all come from the same plant. The plant is just processed differently. Americans and Europeans use black pepper, Chinese use white pepper, and Arabs use green pepper. Indians use all three. It was an amazing tour. At the end I bought some spices to send to my friend, who has been such a good friend to me in the past few years. She is a cook, and she will love these fresh spices from India.
I was sad to leave Munnar, and I definitely would love to return. It was an eventful couple of days filled with such a variety of sights and experiences. I also loved the scenery, the people, and the food; but most of all how much it reminded me of home in Hawaii and how serene I felt being in such a beautiful place.