Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Three-Quarter Moon in Ko Pha-Ngan

This is Haad Rin Nok (Sunset Beach) on Ko Pha-Ngan, ground zero for the Full Moon Party, and the next one is happening on Saturday. My local guide,Thim, and I headed for the Big Buddha pier this morning on the back of Weela's motorbike taxi to catch the 10:30 ferry, the Sea Flower. When you're on vacation you can't be choosy about the weather and it was stormy and overcast when I opened the curtain. At the pier there were hundreds of backpackers waiting to board under dark skies. There were white caps on the ocean. The boat looked old and creaky but mai pen rai. In this good Buddhist country you take what you can get. Our plan was to go over for a couple of hours, check out the scene, and then return on the afternoon boat.

While waiting to board, I struck up a conversation with a pretty scarey looking guy in full biker threads. Turns out that Jonas was from Sweden and has been in Thailand for seven years, and he is now teaching English in Surat Thani. He's lived in San Diego and we talked about the glory days of San Francisco rock in the 1970s. Jonas doesn't drive a Harley (he says there are some knockoff Harley Davidonsons on the roads here) but rather a Honda and he's the member of a biker club called the Asian Nomads. Besides riding all over Thailand they do charity work and helped out with the recovery from the tsunami. His look doesn't bother the Thais, he said. But back in Sweden it would be a problem. Jonas has a five-year-old son with his Thai wife but they're separated and the boy is now living back in his home country.

Jonas comes regularly to the full moon party and he met a group of tattooed and pierced friends at the dock in Haad Rin. But before we parted he recommended a restaurant for lunch (the boat was almost an hour late probably due to the overcrowding), andThim and I walked to the Cafe Hiatus where patrons were seated on comfortable cushions on the floor. I had a chicken sandwich, surrounded by young farangs (the Thais were mostly behind the counter).

Haad Rin is a backpacker's paradise, with the all the accoutrements of such hangouts elsewhere in the world (like Pai, which I visited last year). Bars and restaurants were showing soccer from Europe and the latest movies on big screen TV sets. You can get a tattoo or your hair beaded, take a long boat to a remote bay on the other side of the island, or drink a Guiness in an Irish pub. The main beach is beautiful, and it was crowded with beautiful bodies. The surf looked rough but people were in it and looking happy. Others were playing volleyball, or paddle tennis. Some women were lying topless in the sun. In just a few days there will be many thousands on the same beach, partying to dozens of DJs with loud soundsystems as the moon makes its trek across the sky.

The idea of a party at the full moon took hold in the late 1980s. There is now even a "black moon" party as well as a half moon party at different beaches. But there are also Buddhist holidays that occur at the full moon four times a year and there have been rumblings of protest from the religious communities. I was amazed at the stream of young people with backpacks pouring off the ferry, and the handful of passengers on the return journey. Where do they put them all? But of course there is construction everywher, and the island, which still has dirt roads most places, shows signs everywhere of prosperity.

I noticed a number of restaurants advertising Middle Eastern food. I met an Israeli in a wat the other day, and driving through Chewang this morning I spied a restaurant advertising kosher food. There was a man on the boat trying to keep his yarmulka from blowing off. And on the dock in Haad Rin I saw a man wearing a Muslim cap. On the way back to Lamai Beach in Ko Samui we passed a Catholic church next to the Tesco Lotus Mall and I'd like to be able to attend mass next Sunday.

The weather had improved for the ferry ride home and we could see considerably farther in the distance, although it was still hazy. I looked for porpoises but saw instead schools of sardines or anchovies, flashes of silver, jumping out of the water as the boat sliced through their territory. On the boat there was a pregnant woman who looked on the verge of giving birth. I wondered how the baby liked the jumping, lurching and heaving of the boat.

At the Big Buddha pier we called Weela, but he said he would be a half hour. So I went in search of coffee and found Vinny's Coffee and Tea. Curious about what this guy was doing in a little hut on the beach, I learned that he had built it himself in the last few weeks. A Londoner, Vinny said he'd been coming to Thailand for 15 years and had finally decided he wanted to live there permanently. He said he was 42 and that he was living in a small room for 4000 baht a month (no hot water or A/C), about $125. He made me a decent cappuccino with caramel topping, using coffee from Harrod's in London (he also offered Twinning's tea). There were no other customers and he said he was doing everything himself, working 8-10 hours a day, 7 days a week, harder than he'd worked back in England. But he said he loved every minute of it. Weela showed up and we were off home, but I told Vinny I'd come back some day soon and see how he was doing.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Ah-Hahn at Home in Thailand

One serious advantage to hiring a local guide and translator is the entree it gives to a world of Thai food culture rarely glimpsed by an outsider. Thim regularly goes off to the market and brings back a cornocopia of culinary delights. I wish I had names for everything, but Thim is a better guide than translator. I now have four different Thai-English dictionaries and instruction books and it's still an upheld climb. Ah-hahn is the word for food and variations of it are part of the words for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This early evening meal includes a whole fish, a kind of paste that I think is composed of vegetables, a coconut, and the spicy noodle dish called pappa something. There was also sticky rice (more common in the north where Thim is from) and a variety of greens including cabbage that are torn into pieces and used as a kind of organic edible spoon. There was also a purple something in juice that seemed to be a cross between a fruit and a potato, sweet but not too.

I've eaten an incredible variety of fruit which includes the recognizable watermelon, mango and papya, but also the sticky tamarand, and a white melon with black seeds and a red exterior. Add to that the humble orange, and I'm still only barely scratching the surface of all I eat. Thim eyes by prodigious stomach and decides I need more food, and it's all I can do to say "im laa-ou" (I'm full) to stop the the feast. Much food, I'm sorry to say, has been wasted.

We eat ah-hahn Thai or ah-hahn American at our meals. I've found a place that will serve me scrambled eggs and toast (with tomatoes on the side, an obscene addition by the British). This morning my coffee at the Thai place was instant with cream powder and sugar added, but with a little effort I can get a good cappuccino. The fruit shakes on the beach are out of this world.

Today was another slow day. The dry cough that started a couple of days ago has progressed and I am beginning to wonder if I should take the remaining antibiotic pills. If it's a viral infection, they will be useless. If bacterial, it could nip an incipient bronchitis or pneumonia in the bud. Thim looks at me, listens to me cough, shakes her head and says "mai sabai," sick. I still have a few vitamin C pills to chew, and my spirits are good, but lying in bed is not my way to enjoy paradise.

After our early dinner seated on the balcony (photo above), I turned on the TV to find C-SPAN coverage of the anti-war rally in Washington on Saturday. It was good to hear the angry words, particularly those of Maxine Walters and the mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky something. Jesse Jackson sounded woefully low key. Somewhere along the line he lost his passion. Or at least it isn't apparent in the public appearances I've seen or read about. I couldn't tell from the video how many people were involved.

I finally figured out that "tumulo" is not a place but Thim's mispronounciation of tomorrow. And tomorrow we are planning to take the fast boat from Big Buddha Pier to Ko Pha-Ngan for a few hours at Hat Rin beach where the wild full moon party will be held on Feb. 3rd.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Learning Thai on the Beach

This is the view from the balcony of the new wing of Amadeus Bungalows, completed just a month ago. Today I moved up to the second floor where my room has a better view of the beach and bay and, because it's on the corner, also of the main street of Lamai. I'm at the southern end and this is looking north. You can see a sign for the Coco Bar where I met Thim last Sunday night and you can also catch a glimpse of the 7-11 up the street.

Today was a lazy day. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and coffee at the juice bar up the street, run by the Thai lady with glasses whose computer had a French keyboard ("It's my boyfriend's and he's French"), my guide and I headed to the beach. We've become regular's at Georgio's Bao Bob Restaurant ("The Best Pizzeria"), and the lounges and umbrellas are free for customers. Yesterday we ran into Georgio and his assistant buying supplies at the Tesco Lotus Mall. He said he closes down one day a month and that was it. But today he was open. I changed into my bathing suit in the restaurant bathroom and lay down on a lounge to contemplate the state of my world.

Instead of reading escapist mystery novels, I'm studying Thai. I had thought that it would be an impossible language for me to learn, because correct pronounciation requires the ability to hear five different tones, and my hearing sucks (certified by an exam a couple of months ago). But on the contrary, with the aid of my Lonely Planet phrase book and a new dictionary I bought, I'm finding it fairly easy to make myself understood. Of course practice makes perfect, and it helps to have a native speaker to correct one's mistakes. Thim, on her part, would like to learn English. She bought an instruction book at the book store in the mall yesterday and the two of us have been trying out phrases on each other. Jerry thinks I should try and get a job teaching English in Bangkok, and this is a way to try out the job to see if it fits.

I swam in the warm water of Lamai bay between lessons. The waves were a little less rough today and I've learned where to swim in order to avoid being pounded unexpectedly. This little corner of the south beach was crowded with tourists and the free lounges and umbrellas at Bao Bob and the two restaurants next door were full. Women trudged up and down the beach trying to interest the vacationeers in a massage. Other vendors displayed art works and jewelry to the captive audience. I listened to the broken English they used and tried to convert it to Thai. There are neither tenses nor articles in Thai which seems to make it simpler, but the pronounciation makes my mouth feel like it's full of mush.

Afterwards, from the balcony of my new room I watched the jet skis race up and down, and marveled at the courage of parasailors who hung high in the sky from a parachute pulled by a speed boat. Courageous or stupid, I couldn't decide. Dark clouds shifted over the mountains and a quick afternoon squall threatened the towels drying on the balcony.

Mai pen rai, which is Thai for: Who cares.

Dead Monk, Waterfall Bathing and a Mall

Not dead SKUNK (the Louden Wainright song), but dead MONK. He's ensconced at Wat Khunaram on the southern tip of Ko Samui which we visited today on our second trip around the island. The place was swaming with tourists taking photos, but he didn't seem to mind. Maybe that's why he was wearing shades. I thought he looked kind of like Ray Charles. His name was Luang Phaw Daeng and he's been dead for over twenty years, but his corpse seems to resist decay. The clock at the left mystifies me. When we visited Wat Plai Laem yesterday, a fairly new Buddhist temple complex not far from Big Buddha, there were two clocks on the main altar, neither telling the right time. I asked a man who spoke English and who seemed to know and he said, "no reason, just a symbol." Of time, I suppose. At Wat Pah Nanachat, which I visited three years ago, there was a corpse to remind people of death, and a baby in brine to remind them of birth. The Buddha in front of the late Luang Phaw Daeng is not immediately recognizable as Gautama Siddhartha, but looks rather like some local monk. Again, I asked the knowledgeable fellow and he didn't seem to know either. Perhaps any icon in a meditative pose is a Buddha. At Wat Plai Laem, where a giant happy Buddha (my favorite, since he resembles me) is being constructed, Weela bought food for the catfish in the large pond surrounding the Wat and dropping a few pellets into the water brought on a feeding frenzy that even included a turtle. (Ko Tao, the nearby island famed for its diving and snorkling, is named after the Thai word for turtle).

Outside the dead monk's quarters, a live monk was greeting the tourists and delivering blessings, with three taps of a water stick on the head followed by the tying of a string around the wrist. I've got three of them now, and should have a dozen before this idyll on Ko Samui is over. There was also a large gong with a sign in English that said "Make me Cry." A number of people were trying and failing to get a sound out of it by rubbing the center with their hand. Finally, a Thai driver for one of the groups succeeded. The trick was to wet your hand first. I tried and got a squeak out of the gong if not a cry.

I had no idea where we were going when we started out. After a Thai breakfast of rice and pork, I dropped off my laundry and we got on Weela's motor bike. Last night there had been a short but heavy shower, soaking all of the clothes I had left drying on my balcony. Today there were some ominous dark clouds, and an occasional sprinkle. I didn't think traveling on the back of a motorbike over wet roads was the best of ideas, but Weela is an excellent driver and very careful. Again I got to see much of the countryside. And this time I was struck by how many of the advertising signs are in English as well as Thai. Although most of the tourists whose voices I've overheard were speaking languages other than English, English seems to be the universal currency, just as American rock and roll is the universal musical currency.

First stop was at Hin Do Hin Yai, the strange rock formation south of Lamai Beach that distinctly resembles genetalia, and the locals have dubbed them grandfather and grandmother. We took a few pictures, had a few laughs, and in one of the shops along the path to the shore I found a pair of white pants similar to the ones I bought in Khao San road in Bangkok three years ago. I wore them as pajamas, but the bottom wore out and I had to throw them away. Along with the pants, I got a nice white shirt.

After about a half hour of windswept driving, I discovered our destination was Hin Lat, the other major waterfall on Ko Samui. There is also a wat nearby with the same name. The falls are not as nigh as at Na Muang, but there are some large boulders around which the water burbles, and downstream there were tourists trekking on top of elephants. Thim had decided that washing in the waterfall was an experience not to be missed, so she bought some soap and shampoo, and I discretely stripped down to my underpants behind a boulder. In the water she gave me a scrub worthy of the best masseuse. Once clean, I took a swim around the pool under the falls. Afterwards, I dried off with the shirt I'd been wearing and put on the new one I'd bought at Hin Do Hin Yai.

Our last stop on this trip around the island was another cultural icon of a sort, the Tesco Lotus Mall. There we ate pizza, along with the unpronounceable Thai dish with peppers, Papa something, and drank Pepsis. Down the hall was a Cineplex showing the latest Thai historical drama that opened when I was in Bangkok. I watched an advertisement for "Dream Girls" with Thai subtitles and made a note to go see it when I get to Bangkok on the 5th.

In the Tesco Lotus Mall, I spied a nun but before I could think to ask her about where Catholics go on this island, she had disappeared. Weela wore a shirt yesterday under his "Taxi" vest that said "St. Joseph's Ko Samui," but when I asked him if he was Catholic he did not seem to understand. I'd like to be able to go to mass on Sunday if a Catholic church church can be found, and as I was loading a photo and looking at the map I spied one not far from the airport. Now I think I'll google it and see if I can find out times for mass. In Bangkok I've been to mass in Thai several times at a church near Sukhumvet presided over by Passionist fathers.

I've been thinking about my spiritual journey and how this hedonistic romp in Ko Samui fits in. No easy answers come. But I believe that each one of us is on a unique journey and I can't turn it into something it isn't. I'm not going to become a monk. And my orthodoxy is certainly under suspicion. What I've realized here is that I was more lonely than I knew, and now that a different door has opened I am beginning to reevaluate my life in all its dimensions. Praying to the Buddha at the temples with Thim has reminded me again that there are an infinite number of paths to union with God, and that the Spirit flows where it wills.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Waterfalls and Big Buddhas

This morning we hopped on a motorbike driven by Weela (much laughter over the similarity to Willie) and headed for a waterfall. My guide and translator Thim promised that I could go swimming so I brought my bathing suit. I figured the waterfall would be up Tumelo, the name I think (Thim's English is a bit weak) for the big hill to the north of Lamai Beach on Ko Samui. But Weela turned south and we were off on what became a round-the-island tour by motorbike. It was incredible. Once you leave the tourist hustle and bustle of Lamai, there are small towns and villages, uncrowded highways, acres of coconut palms, and tantilizing glimpses of the sea. I'd read about some of the falls in Lonely Planet's guide to Thailand's Islands & Beaches, and was happy to find our destination was Na Muang Falls in the center of the island and described as the most scenic. There were few visitors when we got there this morning and Thim, Weela and I walked up to the foot of the 30m falls. It's not much compared with some of the falls I've visited in the U.S., even at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, but there was something about them being in the heart of this island that I found delightful.

We walked over the rocks and through the stream to the pool at the base of the falls. Thim watched as I slipped into my suit and dove into the warm water. Weela stayed a respectful distance. Not far below, elephants were walking in the water with paying passengers on their backs. I decided not to take the highly touted "elephant trek."

After the refreshing swim, we headed out of the park. It was only when we turned right that I realized we were going to continue around the island which I believe is about 70 kilometers. I lathered on some sun screen over the slight burn I incurred yesterday, and we were off along the island's major highway. We passed the Samui Aquarium & Tiger Zoo, which seemed to be closed, and another place where monkeys were trained to perform, and drove by a number of buffalo fighting stadiums which, at midday, were not doing big business. It sounds too much like a trained animal show to me. Everywhere I saw new construction taking place, hotels and businesses taking advantage of the influx of tourist income. But outside of the most populated few places, Ko Samui still has a rural feel.

Halfway around the island we came to Na Thon, the main city. Many of the ferries from the mainland at Surat Thani arrive at several docks here and as we drove along the waterfront I saw dozens of backpackers walking into town. Na Thon seems quiet and a bit sleepy despite its location. From there we headed to the north shore, the road traveling close to the coast. I was surprised how small the waves were compared to those at Lamai and could see no reason for it. There were lots of restaurants along the coast road but few customers. We stopped for lunch at a small place open to the outdoors and Thim helped me order chicken with pineapple and rice. We drank Pepsis and she offered me tastes of her sticky rice and an unpronounceable dish (that sounded something like "papa do ron ron") with some very dangerous hot peppers to be carefully avoided (Jerry told me the hottest were tiny devils called "rat shit.") There were locals eating with us and a few foreigners. I would never see this or eat here if I were on my own, and I thanked my guide and driver profusely.

From the relatively undeveloped northwest corner, we traveled through the larger and quieter communities of Mae Nam, Bo Phut and finally Big Buddha, so named for the huge statue of the Buddha looming over the harbor where numerous fast and slow boats travel north to Ko Pha-Ngan (which could be seen in the distance) and Ko Tao. The large image at Wat Phra Yai was built in 1972 and I spotted it last Saturday as my plane from Bangkok flew low over the island toward the airport. We walked up the steps and walked around the platform ringing the temple bells as we went. Then we descended to a section of shops at the foot of the stairway and found a monk in residence. Thim is quite devote. We visited the temple at Lamai twice, and here was another opportunity to incur merit. This monk took his time. The ritual involved candles, incense, water, and chanting. When it came time for him to tie a yellow thread around my wrist, he made sure I was familiar with the five precepts. Yes, indeed. Thank you Carolyn.

We skirted the central area of Hat Chaweng, the most popular and most devloped area of the island. Weela made sure I got a photo of the wide sweep of bay from a scenic point high on a hill to the south. Finally we descended into Lamai Beach, five hours after our morning start. I was windblown and a bit wiped out from the sun, but very happy. It was an incredible journey and a priceless opportunity to see Ko Samui in a way most tourists miss.

In the next few days I hope to take a fast boat to Hat Rin on Ko Pha-Ngan to spend a few hours on another island. I think I will pass up the opportunity to stay up all night at the Full Moon Party on Feb. 3. That's a young man's game. But a sea voyage and a nice lunch in a new place would be delightful. I still haven't decided on taking an all day trek to Ang Thong National Marine Park, where "The Beach" was partly filmed," and I'm also considering a trip to Ko Tao on the other side of Ko Pha-Ngan where the snorkling is said to be out of this world.

My adventure in paradise continues...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Happy Feet and Elvis

Surely Jimmy Buffett has a song about this, but I'll try to put it together in a coherent, though less musical, way. From my balcony in room T1 at the Amadeus guest house in Lamai, Ko (sometimes with an h, sometimes not) Samui, I can hear America's musical history of the last 30 years. This afternoon it was John Denver singing "Country Roads"; this morning it was Norah Jones intermixed with some unidentifiable hip-hop (I need Nick for this). Oh, and of course some songs from the Eagles, a little rock and roll, a little reggae. The music blares out of speakers in front of cafes on the sand.

My hangout now is Georgio's Bao Bob3. It is down a steep drive from Orchid Suites, my first home, and a short walk from the Amadeus. Georgio is from Switzerland, the Italian side, and he's been here for 10 years (I keep meaning to ask him what Lamai Beach was like in the old days, not that long ago). Georgio told me he had a daughter in Los Angeles who owns a restaurant in Santa Monica, the Via Veneto, but he's only spent two days in the states. His customers are almost all farangs from all over the world, but I suspect there are few Americans. They seem mostly absent on this trip, probably because of fears after September 11. I've seen quite a few families with small children, even infants. Lots of couples, many of them fat and in their prime (like me, I suppose). A few topless women (a no-no, according to the Lonely Planet, but then western tourists frequently ignore local mores and customs). Georgio named his restaurant after a tree found in Africa, not Thailand, and I told him there were a few in Santa Cruz (there's a Baobab lounge on campus at Merrill College).

This morning my local guide and translator, Ms. Thim Meesin, and I got a pedicure, manicure and massage from two ladies traveling up the beach in search of customers. I was resting from my first battle with the surf. The waves are small but relentless, leaving little time to catch one's breath, and the undertow is a bit fierce. My old trucks have lost their elastic and I did my best to keep them up in the roiling of the waves. Just as I was settling in to catch a few rays on the lounge in front of the Bao Bob, the ladies gave us an invitation we couldn't refuse. It was incredible. Since I can no longer bend over easily, my feet got much needed attention, and the massage was incredible.

But what does this have to do with Elvis. Last night, after dinner at Mr. Samui's, a combination restaurant and art gallery, we went to Sir Winston Churchill's, a British hangout, where an Elvis impersonation show featuring Ricky Newton was advertised. Since Jerry is winding up his research into the post-death Elvis phenomenon, I figured I'd do a little research for him. What was an Elvis impersonator doing in Lamai? Ricky was sitting near the bar in his outfit when we entered. "Elvis!" I observed. He nodded his head. The backdrop for his show was a tee shirt with Elvis on the front. Behind that was an drum set, unusued, and on the wall a large painting that pictured James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart. Ricky was a stocky fellow in a flashy suit but he lacked the moves of the king. His voice wasn't too made, and he used a backing track for a medly of Presley's hits. But his timing was disturbingly off. There were about a dozen people in the audience, from a variety of European countries (Ricky asked), but the Russians got up and left in the middle of the set. The rest of us clapped our hands and sang along, although some of the hits were not that familiar to me. I was never an Elvis fan.

I'm getting to know the main drag of Lamai pretty well. There are quite a few stores that sell ugly clothes from Versace and Armani, although I suspect they are copies. And I'm beginning to notice lots of bird cages with a sparrow kind of bid inside (poor caged things). Many of the restaurants and bars cater to Aussies and Brits and when the soccer games are not playing on all the TV sets, the tennis tournament is. Rock and roll clone bands play in a number of bars.

This morning I caught a bit of Commandante Bush's State of the Union speech on Fox News. I was horrified and appalled to find Fox on the cable channel (with only BBC to make up for this lapse in taste). Hasn't somebody said something to the media moguls here? But then Ann Coulter has a column in one of the Ko Samui English rags. Bush's speech seemed somewhat tame, and he appeared to got applause from members both parties. But I despair of any bipartisan solution to Iraq. I fear the Democrats will cave, unable to extract the US while soldiers remain under fire. So, I turned the channels and found: cock fight! Yes, live (I think) on Thai TV. Another sport popular here is water buffalo fights. Apparently they are not all that bloody, and families are encouraged to bring their children.

My guide and translator, Ms. Thim, is showing me a side of Ko Samui I wouldn't see on my own. We've been to the market around the Buddhist temple several times. The Thai bubble tea is a delight. And we lit candles and incense to Buddha and received white threads for our wrist from the resident priest. Sticking the little gold square on the three Buddha statues was a little difficult and I ended with some on my face.

Tomorrow we go to the falls on the mountain north of Lamai. Our transportation will be a motor scooter taxi. I'm thinking about renting a scooter myself, as I did in Pai last year, but Lonely Planet says it's dangerous business. Plus I'd have to remember how to drive on the left. Learning how to speak Thai with Thim is hard enough. Perhaps I should stick to one major life experience at a time.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Knock Outs in Lamai Beach

Paradise is beginning to take shape, but then it's never quite what you expect. This is a scene from the south end of Lamai Beach on Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. The other day (the days are starting to blur together and I'm losing track) I took off my sandals and hiked down the beach to a group of rocks that the Thais think resemble a man and a woman's private parts. They call them grandmother and grandfather and there is much giggling as people take pictures.

Last night was the big muay Thai boxing match at an arena in the center of town. They were advertising it heavily, with posters all over and from loudspeakers on a truck traveling around the main street of Lamai. After a good dinner of pad Thai at the Bauhaus, I found the arena and joined mostly young farangs (foreigners) on the seats above a boxing ring. There were three sections of seats: VIP, which included big stuffed chairs; ringside, or seats at tables next to the ring, and the cheap seats to one side, but still with a good view. I bought a Chang beer and settled in a cheap seat for the mayhem. The fight began with the screeching horn music that sounds to me like disonant Scottish bagpipes.

To say that the four fights I saw all ended in knock-outs is an understatement. With a combination of gloved fists and whip-fast feet, the winners devastated their opponents. One held his eye as if it had been knocked loose. Two others practically had to be carried from the ring. They looked totally disoriented. The punches and feet kicks were so swift that I barely saw them coming. Clearing the losers didn't either.

I found all the ritual surrounding the fights fascinating. The boxers came into the ring wearing coloful robes. garlands of flowers around their necks, and a kind of headwear that looked like a tennis racket without strings. There was much bowing and kneeling at all corners in in the middle of the sides as well while the horn screeched and the announcer shouted to all in an indecipherable Thai rap about the opponents. Most of the fighters were small, while the referee was quite tall and easily separated them in a clinch.

After the match, I walked back to the Bauhaus bar where I'd seen an advertisement for a "foam party," with photos from past events showing participants up to their neck in suds. But when I got there, the suds were foaming, but no one was jumping in. I guess it doesn't happen until later when the beer is flowing faster than the foam.

Today I got a large Thai-English dictionary and I'm going to take the time now to learn how to talk my way around. Wish me luck (and lots of sun screen).

Monday, January 22, 2007

Hung Over in Paradise

Even though Jerry is in Pattaya with Baron, enjoying a suite at the Hard Rock Hotel and all the charms of that seaside city, I thought last night I could keep up pace of my friend's beer drinking. Wrong. Jerry's a pro and I'm just a neophyte. This morning I've been trying to crawl back to normalcy with a head the size of all outdoors. Now, at almost noon, the aspirin substitute I bought at the Bangkok airport is starting to take effect.

The picture above was taken from the beach a short walk from my bungalow on stilts at the Orchid Suites Hotel. I'm staying at Hat Lamai on the eastern shore of Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. I booked the room in Bangkok to make sure I had something when I arrived yesterday, but it's the equivalent of $50 a night, way too expensive for a two-week stay. Taking the advice of my friend Sheila's son Joe, I hiked down the beach to White Sands, a classic backpacker's hideout. Their crumbling bungalows just off the beach are $4 a night which includes a mattress and a mosquito net. The toilet/shower is a hike through the compound. I paid for the weekend, my second set of rooms. But overnight I had second thoughts. A man my age and stature in the world needs a certain degree of comfort. I'm not a backpacker. So this morning I went to the nearby Amadeus, recommended by Lonely Planet, and was (easily) talked into booking a 1000-baht ($28) room in a new wing, with 10% off for a week's stay. It has a bathroom, TV, and a lovely view of the bay from a balcony. I can be comfortable there and read my books in relative peace (the bars are not far down the street). There might not be a pool, but the beach is a short walk down a dirt path.

So, here I am in paradise. It's not quite what I pictured. At the Ko Samui airport I thought I'd landed on the big island of Hawaii. Same feel, same palm trees, but the statue of Qwan Yin was a nice addition. I quickly got a mini-van to Lamai with a dozen others. The two blondes from the plane I thought were Russian joined me and turned out to be Swedish. I learned that the infamous full moon celebration on Ko Pha-Ngan is Feb. 3rd, a couple of days before I leave. I'm probably too old for that scene, I told them, and they were politely complimentary about my youthfulness. After all, I'd made it this far. They had not reserved rooms in advance but were looking for a friend and had the driver drop them off at McDonalds in Lamai. Later that night I saw them with another girl pass by the terrace where I was eating dinner. At least we're not in Chaweng, the most popular beach on Ko Samui. We drove down the main drag there which was lined with every kind of fast food and tacky souvenir shop, along with the usual travel agencies, ATMs and "resorts." I suppose I should have known that paradise just about everywhere is paved over with parking lots, etc. (thank you, Joni Mitchell).

Last night I sat at one of the open-air bars and talked with a coal miner from Australia as we waited for the Thai boxing match featuring women fighters at a ring in the center of a ring of bars. He was in his late thirties, a fourth-generation miner, and he'd been coming to Ko Samui since 1989 when the roads, he said, were all dirt tracks. We talked about the relative demerits of Howard and Bush and the benefits of a socialism that has never been tried, while all around us the bar hostesses shouted to the passing parade, trying to drum up business. I talked with one whose name sounded like "Juan," and she told me that she had come here from her home in Issan a month ago. She was thirty and had a young daughter back home "with mama and papa." She introduced me to a bar game that combined tic-tac-toe with tiddly winks. The object was to get four in a row and she consistently beat me. The only time I won was when she was distracted by another customer.

By the time the crowds had packed into the hundreds of plastic seats around the boxing ring, my eyes were beginning to glaze over from the Chang and Heineken beers I had been drinking. I tried to focus on the two women kicking and smashing each other to the cries of the crowd, but it was mostly a blur. I'd even contributed to the winner's pot. Fighters sponsored by each of the bars were to compete until a champion was chosen. A men's Thai boxing match will be held at the main stadium on Monday night and there is a a gym around the corner from the Orchid Suites where the boxers work out. I might go, sober this time.

The gardens of my resort are filled with various kinds of statuary that is vaguely Buddhist. Below my balcony is an elaborate shrine where this morning I watched the birds eat the food that was put out for the Buddha. If I didn't know Buddha had dropped out of the cycle of death and rebirth I might think that he was reincarnated as one of the black birds with white bands on their wings that are so common in southeast Asia. The pool is not heavily used but I enjoyed a dip late yesterday afternoon following my first foray into the wilds of Lamai Beach. This morning, desperately in need of coffee and something in my stomach, I went early to the breakfast laid out on the terrace for guests, and found a cheese and ham omelet and some pineapple slices to encourage recovery. Last night I had an excellent pad thai at the Bauhaus restaurant and bar (which advertises "foam parties" on Monday and Friday nights -- whatever the hell that is), but the six or more beers that I subsequently drank did not help the digestion.

The Thais have managed to combine a beautiful south sea island beach with all the joys of shopping, not to mention what happens in those hundreds of bars clustered in the central area. Now I have to look at my definition of paradise and see what it really is I'm looking for. Sounds like material for a Jimmy Buffet song.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Too Crude for the Steakhouse

The hostess at the New York Steakhouse in the Marriott Hotel looked me up and down when I asked for a table last night. "I'm sorry," she said, "but we have a dress code. Would you like me to make a reservation for you at another restaurant?" I thought I looked pretty good in my Chaco sandals and Hawaii shirt, but apparently I was too crude for the restaurant. And I had my heart set on a rib eye steak. Actually, I'd arrived over an hour earlier, my taste buds a-tingle, only to be told the restaurant opened at six. Nothing about a dress code. So I whiled away the hour taking a Skytrain to Siam Paragon, the luxury mall, to watch the wealthy at play. You can buy a Ferrari or a Lambourgini on the third floor, and a perfume called Philosophy on the 2nd. On the fifth is an Imax theater showing some American animated film that would bore me on a small screen. After returning to the Marriott and getting turned down for my looks, I went right next door to Bully's Pub and got what I wanted, along with friend calimari rings.

This is being written on a free internet in the Bangkok Airways lounge at the new airport as I wait for my flight to Paradise (Ko Samui). They really know how to treat their passengers. There is also free coffee and food (sticky rice and dried fish). I got another look at this gigantic new airport from the taxi. It's supposed to be the biggest in Asia, but Jerry told me that they're already having problems with overcrowding and may reopen the old airport for domestic flights. It seems pretty empty to me, or at least not overcrowded like Chennai and even Heathrow in London. As I sweat in the not quite cool enough lounge I recall reading this morning about huge winds and cold weather that killed people in Europe, and also the unseasonal frosts in California that have destroyed the citrus crop. And all I can think of is the two weeks ahead of me on a beach in beautiful Ko Samui.

This morning I had my usual American breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon at the Majestic Suites Hotel a couple of blocks from my guest house. I discovered it on my first visit here and now indulge myself. Earlier I'd returned to Cabbages and Condoms for a cappuccino and discovered that they had a "Condoms and Computers" room with free useage. The computer is a sales lead in Thailand.

It's wonderful not to have news about George Bush crammed down my throat. The guest house TV gets BBC but most of the news is about Asia. I've read the International Herald Tribune a couple of times so I know that Bush has ordered MORE troops to Iraq rather than a pullback. There was a column by Henry Kissinger (is that man going to live forever?) who called Bush's decision a "bold move." This from one of the architects of the debacle in Vietnam. Will they never learn? (from Seeger's "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?")

It rained last night. I noticed that the cars were covered with drops but the pavement of Soi 8 had already dried by the time I went out at 7. Even without rain, the humidity is probably at 90 percent. The neighborhood, however, was refreshing from the wash and relatively quiet in the absence of morning traffic. I guess it doesn't really get going until after 9. I found myself talking broken English to the taxi driver, mimicking his basic sentences, and then realized how ridiculous this might sound. Must work on that.

I've mentioned that the owner/manager of the P.S. Guest House likes "deep thoughts." Framed in my room is the aphorism "To make your dreams come true -- wake up." In the elevator is a framed version of this: "Don't walk in front of me -- I may not follow. Don't walk behind me -- I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend." It's signed, Albert Camus. Not bloody likely. The existentialist who wrote "L'etranger" would not exactly support those thoughts.

The ride to the airport through Bangkok gives no clue to how this huge city is laid out. There seems to be no real center from which everything else radiates. The high-rises and skyscrapers are spread out, rather than clustered. And much of the buildings consist of mildewed cement. No color, just gray. That's the dominant color of buildings in Asia, I'm afraid. The mildew must eat away all color.

I learned that my email problems were caused by too much storage. I was at 109 per cent of my limit, and so incoming email was blocked. I think I've cleared the problem up.

I was supposed to only be on this computer for 10 minutes, so I'd better for wait for my plane to board. Next stop, Ko Samui.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Conspicuous Consumption, Thai Style

I used to think that Americans had cornered the market on conspicuous (i.e. gross) consumption of consumer goods. But that was before I came to Thailand (and, come to think of it, Buenos Aires). Yesterday, while Jerry worked on the final chapter of a revision of his biography of Elvis (everything that has happened since the King's early death), Baron and I set out to do the tourist boogie in this wild, crazy, intense and very modern Asian city. We ended at MBK Shopping Center (pictured above, along with significant traffic flow), Bangkok's most popular mall, but one of MANY well apportioned malls in the Siam Square area of the city.

Baron, who took photos of every significant music artist in the 1960s and early 1970s, brought a camera along. I just point and click my little Nikkon. He helpfully pointed out for me angles that avoided light and telephone poles with unsightly wires. He has an eye for color that I miss and was quite taken with the many colored taxis of Bangkok. "Let's take that pink one," he said when we were leaving Khao San Road for MBK. We took each other's photos by the giant reclining Buddha in Wat Pho, Bangkok's largest and oldest (16th century) temple, and promised to each digital shots when we got home.

The trip began with the Skytrain at Nana station near where we are staying in Sukhumvit. I'm always impressed by Bangkok's transportation options. The elevated Skytrain is modern and clean and offers great views of the cityscape. We changed trains at Siam and rode to the end of the line, Saphan Taksin, where we could catch the Chao Praya Express boat to Ta Thien, the dock closest to Wat Pho. The day was warm but not yet oppressively hot. If you don't look too closely at the water, the river ride is refreshing. There are views of temples and churches as well as luxury hotels like the Oriental and Shangri-La, high-rise condos and office buildings, and the aging docks of Chinatown. The express boats are packed with tourists, students and Buddhist monks.

We joined the throng of tourists at Wat Pho and slipped our shoes off to enter the giant hall that contains the huge Reclining Buddha. There are paintings on every wall illustrating stories of The Buddha, and the large feet of the Reclining Buddha, with designs and illustrations in mother of pearl, are fascinating. People were taking photographs left and right and Baron and I joined the queue to get our grinning faces next to the Buddha's. We wandered the grounds of Wat Pho, by sacred trees, sculptures large and small (the ferocious guardians at each gate are impressive), and saw even a bunch of wild cats, no doubt criminals working out their past lives. There was a monk carrying a small monkey (figures) that attracted small children and a curious dog. Exiting the temple, Baron bought a hat to keep the sun at bay, paying 400 baht, a reasonable amount we both thought. A few blocks away he spied the same hat for 49 baht. It hurts to be cheated so blatantly, but the hoardes of unsuspecting tourists are a fertile opportunity for hard-working Thais.

We walked past merchants and food stalls to the entrance of the former palace of the royal family and Wat Phra Kaew, the temple housing the Emerald Buddha which dates from the 15th century. I visited there three years ago, but by the time we got there yesterday the heat was rising and we opted not to pay the 250 baht entrance fee. I took Baron down the street, past the large university and the amulet market where Buddhist and Hindu icons, large and small, are on sale, to the S&P Bakery, a clean chain restaurant with a site on the river. The food was great and the freezes (lime for me and watermelon for Baron) were refreshing. After a little R&R at the S&P, we walked past the National Museum through the Sanam Luang parade grounds to the Banglamphu section of the city, taking a tuk-tuk three-wheeler for the last few streets to Th Khao San, the backpackers heaven that was featured in "The Beach." The short street is filled with cafes, internet stores, travel agencies, used book stores, clothing and food stalls, and people braiding hair. Most of the customers, pedestrians and shoppers look Western. We sat at an outdoor cafe and looked at the passing parade, waving away the roving vendors who thought we were a likely target. I got my fix of daily cappuccino and Baron drank a coke.

From Khao San, we decided to take a taxi to the shopping paradise at Siam Square rather than return via the river. The air-conditioned pink cab took us east through the city, giving us a chance to see something not easily accessible by Skytrain. I was constantly amazed by the contrast between ancient and modern; behind a concrete and steel castle you could see tiny lanes lined with old wooden houses,a canal or two, and the street life of a Thai village. The afternoon traffic was not bad until we got near the shopping centers. Later in the evening Baron noticed an almost total gridlock on Sukhumvit, a major thoroughfare. The traffic flow is not so chaotic as I saw in India but here the cars far outnumber motorcyclists (of which there are many, who frequently take shortcuts by driving down the sidewalk past surprised pedestrians) and bicyclists (of which there are far fewer) and a variety of three-wheelers. The taxi let us out at a Skytrain stop and we climbed up to the second level where there are entrances to all the major malls.

I'd not been to MBK before, and the first thing I noticed was the the shops were small and lined a maze of aisles, looking more like a street bazarre than a modern shopping mall. There were sections for various goods, like cell phones. We were both parched and sought out the Food Court on the 5th floor. It turned out to be huge and luxurious, with acres of tables. We ordered smoothies (mine was kiwi based, and Baron's mango) and watched the shoppers, a mix of Westerners and locals. Afterwards we roamed the six or seven floors which included video game sections and a movie theater showing American films. Christmas decorations were still in evidence. The Thais apparently love Santa too. After I proceeded to get us lost, Baron asked directions and found I was turned around and heading the wrong way. Without windows, there are few directional cues.

I wanted to show Baron a different kind of mall, and once we found our way outside, and after stopping to observe an outdoor rock concert that turned out to be an advertisement for a hair salon, we headed across the street via the Skytrain mezzanine to what I thought was Siam Paragon, the newest mall which opened right before I arrived in Bangkok a year ago. The stores in Paragon were spacious and the basement featured a full-sized aquarium. But the Skytrain route led us only to the Siam Disovery Center, yet another mall. There we found an Asian Books outlet and shopped for Jerry's latest publications. I bought Asian Aphrodisiacs and Baron got his two books with collections of stories and interviews about Bangkok and Thai life.

I'd hoped to be able to show Baron the fascinating Erawan Shrine on a corner next to the Erawan Grand Hyatt Hotel. An astrologer determined that the foundations of the luxury hotel had been built on an inauspicious day. To correct this mistake, a shrine to the Hindu god Brahma (rare even in India) was erected here and activity goes on non-stop. There is a small orchestra and a troup of dancers who perform pieces for pay as gifts to the god in thanksgiving for favors received. People light candles and incense and place them along with flowers around the diety. It's quite a sight, in the shadow of so many consumer pleasure palaces and hotels. The modern and the traditional coexist nicely here. But both of us were exhausted after seven hours of touristing and wanted naps.

In the evening, Jerry took Baron and I to Soi Cowboy, one of the several "entertainment" areas in Bangkok that feature dozen of bars and many, many go-go dancing girls. Soi Cowboy developed during the Vietnam war as a place for GIs on R&R and the short street then was still surrounded by rice paddies. Now the Sukhumvit area has grown up around it and the street of erotic dreams was filled with tourists, mostly male, from all over the world. We began with dinner at the Old Dutch, and then went in search of Jerry's friend Paul, a British filmmaker who works as a camerman in Thailand. Paul, a young man in his thirties, learned to speak Thai, a rarity among even expatriates, and his home away from home is the Rawhide bar where he is a friend of the owner, Mint, who got her start as a flower girl on the street corner before working her way up to the ownership of two bars and a hotel. Paul's first suggestion was the Baccara, a bar that was filled with Japanese men who apparently liked the two-level show. On the bottom were about 20 dancers in bikinis who mostly looked bored, many of them chewing gum. Above them were about a dozen girls in schoolgirl outfits in skirts with nothing underneath. The Japanese were all craning their necks upward and would be customers for a deep-tissue Thai massage later. From there we walked down the gaudily neon-lit street, assaulted by touts and scantily-class ladies on every side, to the Rawhide, nextdoor to the Long Gun which Mint also owns. Both bars rare in that they feature shows with costumes and choreography and a range of talent that was, ah, unusual. One young lady, who had obviously been doing vigorous kegel exercises, was able to pop balloons with darts, and blow out candles in an unusual display of erotic creativity. Others took a bubble bath in a large improvised tub, ending with a shower. And there were a variety of dances with costumes that didn't stay on for long.

Jerry explained that each entertainment area has a different police force and that regulations regarding explicitness differed. At Nana Entertainment Plaza there was not total nudity; dancers wore pasties reminiscent of the 1950s in America. But Soi Cowboy businesses were apparently allowed to be clothing optional, although Jerry said the shows now were much tamer now than we he arrived 12 years ago. He told one story to author Tom Robbins about frogs that was retold in Villa Incognito. Most of the dancers, Jerry said, come from Issan, the terribly poor region of northeast Thailand, and they send most of their earnings back home to support their parents and sometime children. When bar hours were cut back by a morally conservative government several years ago, there was an economic crisis in Issan when the flow of assistance from Bangkok was cut back. In Bangkok the girls work seven nights a week and share cramped quarters with other bar girls a long commute away from their employment. I talked with one, Ann, who told me she was 35 and had a 9-year-old daughter who lived near Kon Kien in the north with her family. Her daughter called her daily on her mobile phone wondering when she was coming home (not until May, she told me). She didn't like Bangkok and wanted to go home, but there was no work to be had. Dancing and prostitution are desperate career choices for young women who seem more innocence than hardened by their difficult work.

Jerry and Baron left today for two nights in Pattaya. They are staying at the Hard Rock Cafe Hotel in that beachside party town because Baron, whose photos of rock stars Like Janis, Jimi and Jim Morrison hang in several Hard Rock restaurants around the world, managed to get free accommodation. I leave tomorrow morning for Ko Samui and what I hope will be an idyllic vacation. Still no word from the pilgrims to India who should have arrived back home several days ago. But at least I received no anguished cries for help. Thank god for small mercies.

The scene below is of a street vendor on Soi 8, Sukhumvit.

To my faithful correspondents: I seem to be not getting all mail sent to cruzio for some reason, so please email me at my yahoo address until further notice.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Rock and Roll Reunion in Bangkok

My friend Jerry Hopkins was a writer in Los Angeles for Rolling Stone in the early years of that publication. He's been in Bangkok now for 12 years and is married to the lovely Lamyai who is currently at home in Surin, harvesting her sugar cane crop. Today we were joined by Baron Wolman, the first photographer for Rolling Stone and a long-time friend of Jerry's. We met at Baron's hotel and walked to Cabbages and Condoms for lunch. This wonderful restaurant was started by the king of condom manufacturers in Thailand and displays throughout the large facility in Bangkok illustrate his work to prevent AIDS. Here, Jerry (left) and Baron pose in front of a display of figures, including Santa on the right, made almost entirely out of condoms. These little rubber items are quite versatile, preventing babies, AIDs and providing fodder for art works. I had the chicken and cashews, Jerry had fish, and Baron had some unidentifiable dish that he thought would include noodles but instead featured rice (you have to read the fine print in the menu).

Jerry and Baron hadn't seen each other in years, although they'd kept in touch by email. Baron moved from the Bay Area to Santa Fe five years ago and continues to market his photos of the early days of rock and roll (www.fotobaron.com) in stores and art galleries. This is his first trip to Asia and he seemed to find the cosmopolitan chaos of Sukhumvit exhilarating. Tonight we go out to sample the night life hereabouts and tomorrow I'll take him sightseeing while Jerry works on the revision of his pioneer biography of Elvis Presley. Tomorrow night we may go to a Thai boxing event (hard to call it a performance when the fighters threaten to beat each other to a pulp). Jerry told us stories about his interviews with those who are keeping the Presley image alive. Besides the Elvis project, Jerry recently published Asian Aphrodisiacs, the fruit of his research into the erotic properties of...everything. Last year he published Bangkok Babylon and Thailand Confidential. His No One Gets Out Alive, a biography of Jim Morrison and the Doors, with additional material by his friend (sadly deceased) Danny Sugerman, has been in print for years. Last night the DJ at a club we visited begin playing Doors songs as soon as we walked in the door. Strange Foods was republished last year as Extreme Cuisine and it describes the different strokes for different folks theory of food, with illustrations. Anyone for snake, medium rare?

I'm still trying to catch up on my sleep with afternoon naps. This morning I bought a round-trip plane ticket to Ko Samui and paid for two nights in an upscale hotel, the Orchid Suites, on Lamai Beach. Not that I want to stay there for long. But it will give me a base of operations to scout out a $4-a-night hut on the beach with a hammock in the shade of palm trees where I intend to spend the next two weeks reading mystery novels. The plane was a necessary expedience. Life is too short to spend 12 hours traveling south on an overnight train or bus. I deserve a little comfort in my old age.

I'm still waiting to hear if the pilgrims from India returned safely to San Francisco, despite the threat of a strike by British Airways employes. That strike, if it comes, may foul up my plans to fly home from London on the 9th of February. I may have to make a last minute change. I'm still looking forward to two days in Paris before I leave. Hopeful the winter weather will permit a nice leisurely stroll through the capital city. But until then, I am enjoying the heat and chaos of Bangkok (while hearning about the record cold weather back home in Santa Cruz).

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sawatdee to Thailand

I had been waiting at the airport for four hours and the plan was half an hour late in boarding. It was after midnight and I was tired. But as I entered the Thai Airways plane, the willowy stewardess in the long dress softly said "Sawatdee ka," welcome, and I was instantly transported out of the chaos of India and into the gracious hospitality of Thailand.

It was easy to fall asleep for most of the two and a half hour flight, and when I awoke we were landing at Bangkok's brand new Suvarnabhumi international terminal at Nong Ngu Hao east of the city. When it's fully operational, it will be the largest airport in Asia. The halls were gigantic and could easily accomodate many times the passengers that were arriving on pre-dawn flights like mine from all over the world. I changed some dollars into baht and passed smoothly through the immigration and customs desks. The first thing I saw was a giant Christmas tree, three storeys tall. The Buddhist Thais love Christmas and when I was here a year ago all of the stores were fully decorated.

Since I knew my room at the P.S. Guest House would probably not be ready at this earlier hour, I decided to hang out in the terminal. I had coffee and an omelet at the Bluecup Restaurant (I'd slept through a meal on the plane, but God knows why they wanted to feed anyone in the middle of the night). Then I found a bookstore and bought a copy of the Post, one of Bangkok's two English language dailies, and the International Herald Tribune. I took the papers down to another coffee place, ordered a cappuccino and set up shop.

The news was not good. Cabin personnel working for British Airways had voted to go out on strike. And I left behind nine pilgrims who were supposed to take a 4 AM flight on that airline to San Francisco via London. Were they stranded? I'm still trying to find out. Last night at the farewell dinner in the Radha Park Inn in Chennai I received a bouquet of compliments from the pilgrims for my enthusiasm and grace (i.e. smiles) under pressure. On my part, I thanked them for the opportunity to serve, and for the chance to share my love of India with them. Now the thought of them stuck in Chennai brings me almost to tears. I feel like I abandoned them. The reason I left before they did was I found a half-price flight to Bangkok but it left four hours before their flight. Penny wise, poud foolish?

Some of the other news was disconcerting. Apparently bombs were set off in Bangkok on New Year's Eve, killing three people and injuring over 40. Last September the military ousted Prime Minister Thaksin in a coup and the Council for National Security (CNS) has ruled the country since then, at the wishes of the King. According to the Post, the bombings may have been conducted by disguntled soldiers and not the Muslim rebels in the south. Also there are rumors of a second coup by the military which is apparently disenchanted with the civil servants it put in charge. Eventually, there are supposed to be elections. Thaksin, a wealthy businessman who has been accused of corruption, was enormously popular in the countryside where he spent lavishly to win votes, and was elected in a landslide. But he was unpopular in the cities and the military took their cue from discontent among the elites. Or at least this is how I understand it.

The papers also contained news about the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Allahabad where millions are gathering on the banks of the Ganges to wash their sins away. Yesterday was astrologically the most auspicious day and some five million, many of them naked sadhus, stepped into the river. I saw a documentary about this event, which occurs ever seven years, and thought it would be amazing to witness. But I failed to hear that it was happened while I was in the vicinity. Perhaps Cyprian, up in Delhi to meet with folks from Mount Madonna including Baba Hari Dass, will drop in on the festivities and report back to us. Another story in the papers here and in India reports that women whose livelihoods were devastated by the tsunami have been selling their kidneys in record numbers, despite laws designed to prohibit trafficking in human body parts. And in souther Malaysia, floods have stranded thousands who are not getting sick from water-born diseases. And finally, George Bush and Dick Cheney have ordered an increase of 12,500 U.S. troops in Iraqi while the Democratic-led Congress wrings its hands. Clearly the Executive branch is out of control and something must be done. But from here it seems very far away.

I took the express bus from the airport to Sukhumvit and get a look at the huge construction project for the airport and related business and services. Acres and acres are still empty, but the giant chrome and metal terminals, with roof sections that look like pieces of geodesic domes, dominates the horizon, along with the tall control tower. Everything is new. The road towards Bangkok is quite new and contains statues of Thai guardians every few yards. What a contrast from the roads of India, with their uneven surfaces, absence of sidewalks, and throngs of people. The contrast between the two countries is stark. One has a billion people and claims to be contesting with China to become the economic leader of the world. The other is a royal kingdom, presently ruled by a military dictatorship, but with an infrastructure worthy of a first-world country.

My room should be ready in a couple of hours and I'll check in for a much needed nap. This evening I hope to get together with Jerry. It's been a year since we last got together and I'm looking forward to his perspective on the changes since then. I've already noticed new business and construction on Soi 8 off Sukhumvit where Jerry lives and my guest house is located. But the lane still has a multilevel feel, high rises for wealthy residents and small stalls serving street eats for village people.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Eyes of Mamallapuram

The eyes of the dancers riveted my attention despite the competition from mountain goats that were scampering in the twilight across the cliff behind the stage, above the magnificent 7th century carvings of village life, "Arjuna's Penance." It was a spectacular setting for the performance of South Indian classical dance on an outdoor stage in the coastal village of Mamallapuram. Although I didn't catch their names, I did hear that the dancers were sisters and that they had been performing for over twenty years. Their red costumes were elaborate and even their feet were made up. But the eyes -- their eyes were outlined in black, and the stories their dances told involved expressive eye movements, along with subtle movements of fingers, arms, waist and feet.

The dancers were accomanied by a small band of musicians and singers, all seated at stage left (there was a garlanded figure of Nataranja, the dancing Shiva, at stage right). Bookended by a violinist and tabla player were three women, an elderly woman who played flute and two who sang. The music was rhythmic and infectious. When the dancers first came on stage they touched the ground before each musician to show their respect, and they did this gesture again at the end of the hour and fifteen minute show (there are two performances but we only stayed for the first).

I had been looking forward to this for three years, since my last trip to India with Russill and Asha Paul. I recall the dance festival, which is held annually in December and January, as one of the highlights of the trip. When our pilgrimage was being organized, we were scheduled to attend on a Thursday night. But I saw in an ad on an in-flight magazine that the dance festival was only held on the weekend. So we modified the schedule to include a stop in Mamallapuram on the way back from Pondicherry to Chennai on the next to last day of our two-and-a-half week "Hindu and Christian Ashram Pilgrimage" in India.

We arrived early enough to have a late afternoon snack at the hotel where we ate lunch several days before. The snack included lime sodas, a treat we've grown use to at various eateries. The concentrated lime juice is poured first, followed by soda water and then sugar syrup to taste. The treats included small balls baked with dahl. Yum. We arrived at the performance area, a stage in front of the carvings, early enough to secure good seats on the plastic chairs in the second row, close enough for camera shots.Since it was dusk, we all liberally applied mosquito repellant to all surfaces. While we were waiting I heard a roar from a small engine and saw a cloud of smoke. Soon I saw a man holding what looked like a leaf blower which was pushing out a stream of smelly smoke. DDT. The entire area was gassed and all mosquitos of miles dropped like flies. Good thing we'd all had our children. Soon the chairs began to fill up. We were in the expensive (Rs. 100) seats but there were plenty for the general public, and some sat on the cliff with the goats. Gypsies I remember from my last visit sold cheap bracelets and necklaces to the tourists. When the performance began and the lights went up there was a jockeying by the photographers for the best angles from which to capture the dancers and musicians.

Happy Pongal!

After the performance, which was stunning, a fitting end to the programmed portion of the pilgrimage, we climbed back aboard the bus that has been our home on the road for five days and headed north to Chennai and our luxury hotel. Some of us dozed, others looked out the window at our last extended view of Indian street life, this time in the dark, a dark illuminated by a thousand flourescent and neon lights. I saw signs that said: "Accident Prone Area, Drive Slowly." And in order to encourage this, the traffic authorities put barriers right in the road which the bus had to avoid by driving into the lane of oncoming traffic. Some way to avoid accidents! The suburbs of Chennai spread out for miles and the road was lined with pleasure palaces (an imitation Disneyland complete with elephants) and hotels, restaurants and shops. I saw lots of people carrying tall stalks of sugar cane. Eventually I connected this with Pongal, the harvest festival that began on that 13th and ends tomorrow, after our departure. It's primarily a village festival in Tamal Nadu, but you can't take the village out of the urban resident and Pongal is celebrated here as well.

Pongal in Tamil means "boiling over" and it is symbolized with a clay pot in which rice is cooked with milk until it boils over. It celebrates the harvest of sugar cane, coconuts and rice that we saw everywhere on our travels, but it's also promoted as a time to buy stuff, at least so the newspapers said. On the sidewalks next to the beach in Chennai there is a contest being held to make colorful kolams and some of our pilgrims went by for a look during their shopping spree this afternoon. They didn't get to the government crafts store, however, because the driver they hired refused to take them there. "No parking," was one excuse. But he did take them to several art stores where he no doubt received a kickback. When I hired a car for the day during my visit here three years ago I was likewise taken to a high-priced antiques store where I browsed the merchandise and then made a run for it.

Only a few more hours left in India. I've received word that the missing bags of Sr. Barbara and Sr. Michele finally turned up in San Francisco and have been delivered to them at their houses in Santa Cruz. So British Airways redeems itself, somewhat. The bag Michele brought here, which didn't make it all the way from London, was apparently delivered to this hotel while we wandered the byways of Tamil Nadu, sampling ashram life.

We didn't leave the guest house in Pondicherry (some thought it was more of a hostel) until 2 pm yesterday when I learned that checkout was noon. The desk clerk wanted an additional day's rent. I gave the him the mobile phone number of Mr. Ganesh, the manager of Marvel Tours, and wished him luck. Our documents from Marvel indicated that the guest house meals were included, which was not the case. We spent more on food (good food!) than an additional night's rent (which, if I heard correctly, was Rs. 150, about $4). All of the rooms were named, and mine was "Resolution." I'm trying to decide if my resolution is to lead a tour here again, or not. The name of the room could have been "Indecisive."

On Sunday morning, after morning prayer in the ashram guest house meditation room, we walked a few blocks to Notre Dame de Anges for the mass in English. I wanted to eat at the cafe mentioned in Life of Pi, which I'd visited on my last trip, but there was a big hole in the ground where I remembered it. After breakfast at the Bread Company, a place that would fit right in among Santa Cruz eateries, we spread out to shop and sightsee. I returned to the Ganesha temple and watched the elephant give blessings to the crowd. A number of people handed the beast their prasad of grass from the temple and one man gave it a handful of sugar cane. The pachyderm managed to hold everything, including coins, in the tip of his trunk. A couple of children were allowed to climb up on its back. I'm told there are a declining number of temple elephants in Indian. But it seemed to me he was well treated.

By the time our bus set out from Pondicherry, we were accustomed to the sights and sounds of India we could see from our windows. A man stopped his motorcycle and peed against the wall, in full view of passers by. A group of malnourished puppies played on the corner. The dogs here seem owned by no one; they are more scavangers, jackals, and only the very fittest survive. Cats, on the other hand, seem to be pets, but I've seen very few. Cows of course -- along with water buffaloes, Brahma bulls and oxen -- are sacred and stroll the streets at will.

On the road north we passed many temples all lit up with electric lights, full of people, and we saw tall statues of Hanuman to mark some. We noticed the signs on houses that we've learned indicate various political parties. A leaf is most common. Every surface is covered with advertisements, walls, sides of houses. But billboards were few, and they usually contained semi-pornographic ads for clothes featuring buff guys and gorgeous women, obviously a scandal to village-raised traditional people. The roads are filled with vehicles, two, three and four-wheelers of every stripe, weaving in and out in a dangerous display of chaos; somehow our bus driver maneuvered his large hulking vehicle through the traffic without killing any humans or animals. Everywhere were beautiful women in colorful saris, often containing gold thread (and we saw these expensive, and heavy, saris being woven in the basement of a silk shop in Kanchipuram). and there were fence posts made of slate because wood is scarce, and the outdoor laundromats on every river bank which presented a riot of colorful drying clothes. Against this were the green of rice and sugar cane fields, and the tall slender grace of palm trees, not to mention banana palms and pineapple plants. Tamil Nadu seems a very fertile place (the numbers of people and the abundance of babies were saw certainly attest to that).

India, I bid you adieu.

Monday, January 15, 2007

New Wine in Pondicherry

Early this morning I read the story of the wedding at Cana during our prayer service in the meditation room at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram's New Guest House, under the watchful eye of large photographs of Aurobindo and his chief disciple, the Mother. It struck me that the new wine created by Jesus from purification water was the wine of divinity, of the Spirit, that Rumi speaks of when he praises the lover who drinks to excess. At first Jesus is reluctant, for he says it is not yet time. But his mother persuades him to help the wedding party when they run out of wine. And it is this gesture of help that moved the presiding priest at Notre Dames de Anges, where we went to the 8:30 "high mass" in English, to speak of the sins of globalization and the needs of the poor.

We leave Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it is now officially called) in an hour for a short drive north back to Mamallapuram to attend the classical dance concert held outdoors next to Arjuna's Penance, the dramatic bas relief of everyday life here that was carved 1300 years ago. After the concert we return to our luxurious hotel in Chennai, the Radha Park Inn, for a final night and day in India before the pilgrims go their separate ways, most home to San Francisco, but me to Thailand and Kay back to Shantivanam. I've just received email from Sr. Barbara and learned that British Airways lost ALL their bags. Sr. Michele's missing bag turned up at the Chennai airport but her new bag with a complete new Indian wardrobe has now gone missing. The security checks get worse and the airline baggage service declines drastically. The Terrorists need not lift a finger to hasten the collapse of Western civilization!

We've had a delightful time in this bastion of French culture, taking walks along leafy tree-lined boulevards (all named "rue" this or that) past elegant villas owned no doubt by retiring French civil servants. The promenande along the waterfront, high enough to escape the 2004 tsunami's force, is lined with pleasure seekers, especially at sunset and dawn. This morning I went out for a walk at 6:30 and encountered hundreds of people at the south end of the promenade doing yoga and other exercises. People walking by greeted the rising sun with a namaste, holding their palms together.

The last two evenings we have banqueted in style, passing up the basic (and cheap) guest house fare for delicious meals in two different rooftop restaurants, Madam Santhe and the Rendezvous. At Satsangha, where we ate an outdoor lunch of omelets and veggies, we perused the "whine menu," and at the Rendezvous last night Sylvia tried a glass of the local white while Jerry, Ziggie and I opted for Fosters (usually its only the local beer, Kingfisher, that is available).

Our guide for Pondicherry, Chitra, met us at the guest house Monday morning. We soon learned that a tour of Auroville, the experimental community started by the Mother in the 1960s, was not going to be possible. The Matrimandir, a space age meditation hall where devotees sit under a huge crystal, was closed for construction and could only be viewed from afar. Residents of this utopian community do not take kindly to tourists, we were told, and that only left the visitor's center. So instead, we spent a fascinating half day in Pondy with Chitra. In addition to history, she told us of her arranged marriage to an Indian now working in the French Navy. As a seventh generation Catholic, she was married in Sacred Heart Church, a large red and white gothic cathedral we visited at the end of the tour. And in a month she will join her husband, who she has seen only a vew times since the July wedding, in France at their home in the Pyranees.

We began our tour with a visit to the paper factory operated by the Aurobindo ashram where we learned that workers made only 35 rupees a day, less than a dollar. "How do they live?" Radha asked our guide. "They have to manage on that," she replied. Then we went to an area of temporary housing erected by the government for fishermen and their families dispossesed by the tsunami. Many of the roofs had holes in them, and we were invited into one by an elderly woman and saw a large picture on the wall. It was of her son and he died in the tsunami, she said, beginning to cry. Penny wants to figure out a way to help these people and we'll see if Catholic Relief Services are involved. They apparently purchased boats to replace the fishing fleet destroyed in Mamallapuram.

The Aurobindo ashram has taken over much of Pondicherry near the ocean and we visited the samadhi of Aurobindo and the Mother, tombs covered with floral arrangements and surrounded by barefoot devotees, kneeling or meditating. From ground zero of the ashram we walked two blocks to the Mamakula Vinayagar Temple dedicated to Ganesha. A large elephant stood by the entrance, blessing worshippers who placed coins in his trunk. The temple contains dozens of friezes on the wall depicting Ganesha in various forms. The streets around the temple were filled with vendors and Chitra helped me to see that the poorest were indeed Dalits, the untouchables, and the disdain of people passing by was apparent. These are the same dark skinned (darker even than the darkest Tamil Nadu Indian) people that Russill and Ash referred to as tribals.

Our tour bus took us to Sacred Heart Church where we got into five pedaled rickshaws for a ride around the perimeter of the city, past the Botanical Gardens and into the narrow and traffic-jammed city streets.
We stopped for a journey through the Goubert Market, past piles of fish, heads of goats, an infinite variety of vegetables and through the flower stalls where garlands were being woven for different celebrations. It was claustrophobic and exhilarting, the most animated and chaotic street market I have ever seen. People were friendly, were constantly saying "hello" and "where you from?", not just to sell us something but because we were genuinely welcome.

I felt while walking down the streets of Pondicherry that this is a place where I might like to spend more time. It's cosmoplitan, but small enough to be manageable. Everywhere are signs saying "Keep Pondicherry Green" and the streets are remarkable clean. There are bookstores and cafes (the cappuccino at Cafe.com I had on the first afternoon was exceptional), and the promenade along the Bay of Bengal brings the familiar smell of salt air. Occasionally we hear the call to prayer from the mosque, as well as the angelus from the three different Catholic churches. I've learned that the black spots we've seen on the cheeks of babies are supposed to ward off evil spirits. And the knit caps that many people are wearing keep them warm during this, the coldest of seasons (which seems quite hot to us). I love the Ganesha temple and the spirituality of Aurobindo devotees is a bit New Agey but nevertheless inspirational. So if I return to India, this might be a good base of operations.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ascetics at Play

After days (weeks! months!) of cold showers, squat toilets (and no toilet paper), intermittant electricity, and sitting on the floor while eating with fingers (right only, the left hand is a substitute for the above omission), the pilgrims from Sangha Shantivanam arrived by bus in paradise on Wednesday, the Mamalla Beach Resort in Mamallapuram. We were greeted by a herd of porters bearing cups of coffee and tea and (for some mysterious reason) pukka shell necklaces. Asceticism is certainly all right, in its place, but there is nothing like a hot shower and television, even if all it telecasts is Bollywood MTV.

Those pilgrims not on their death beds (like yours truly), had a marvelous time in Tiruvannamalai, guided by the intrepid Michael who was once a monk in Big Sur. He arranged for a tour of the magnificent Arunachelaeswar Temple, pulling strings to allow non-Hindus to make pujas with the priest under the eye of the monkeys who guard the temple. The temple is in the shade of Arunachala, the sacred mountain of Shiva, and the object of Ramana Maharshi's pilgrim when he came to Tiru as a young man. The ashram that grew up after his death in 1950 plays host to thousands of pilgrims, many from western countries, and the sight of light skinned psudeo-sannyasis, gone native and strolling down the street, was a constant amusement to me.

Our group, split between an ashram guest house and the Sheshedri Ashram next door (which received very poor marks from those staying there), ate most of its meals in the large dining room where brahmins served food on banana leaves to hundreds of guests at an assembly line pace. When I was able to eat, I prefered the small "German Bakery" near the guest house where I could drink a lemon juice with ginger and honey and eat a cheese and mushroom omelet for breakfast. The bakery's facilities appeared to be made out of bamboo, and a rare cat could be seen underfoot. In the morning the chef fed a club-footed peacock and said it had been coming for over a year. He had to chase the dogs away from the bird's meal. There was a flock of peacocks in the neighborhood, one of them a relatively rare white one.

Cyprian and Michael made arrangements with J.P., a Lutheran pastor, to hold mass on the front porch of his church a block away. I missed Sunday services and Monday evening, but was well enough to attended Tuesday evening, liberally dosed with the strongest DEET repellant. It only seemed to make the mosquitos more aggressive. Three little girls watched the service and the oldest crossed herself as we did. Both Cyprian and Raniero now celebrate the Eucharist Tamil-style, seated at a small altar and including flowers and fire along with incense. The caterwalling of crows and peacocks, along with the buzzing of skeets, served as a backdrop to our celebration of the Lord's meal. It was quite powerful.

Some of our pilgrims hiked to the top of Arunachala and others visited the caves on her side where Sri Ramana and others have lived. Other pilgrims undertook the several-hour pradakshina (circumambulation) of the mountain, on foot and by three-wheeler. The four days spent in Tiruvannamali provided an illuminating contrast to our time in Shantivanam and added depth to our understanding of spiritual practices from both traditions. The God in Jesus is almost indistinguishable from the God in Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, and the devotee who worships Krishna is not far from the disciple of Christ.

We said goodbye to Michael and J.P. on Wednesday morning and boarded the large bus that will carry us for six days on the last leg of our journey. Khan from Marvel Tours, a young man with an earring who told Cyprian of his desire "for an American wife," ("Should I keep him away from Barbara and Michele?" he wondered) came to escort us to Kanchipuram, a city of many temples southeast of Chennai. I thought it would be a short two hours, but Khan said the trip would take at least four. "Very bad road," he told me. The problem was construction of dozens of bridges to facilitate irrigation, and every few hundred yards there was a "digression," a detour of such bone-jarring intensity that some of us were seasick from the rolling motion of the bus, an ancient vehicle that was probably new in Gandh's time. While the journey contained some fascinating scenes, particularly the many brick-manufacturing areas, by the time we reached Kanchipuram, a large dusty town, we were exhausted.

We were greeted by Geeta, a tiny woman of indeterminate age (she is "very old," Khan told Cyprian). She walked with a limp and gave orders like a general. Cyprian could not have biryani at the A/C chain restaurant (with a branch in Sunnyvale) where we ate lunch but had to have to talis with everyone else. If there is a Hindu version of a Jewish mother, she would be it. We all loved her instantly and Radha said she learned more from Geeta about Hindu practices than she had in a lifetime of study. Geeta was to be with us for two days, and after filling our bellies with food and lime sodas, we told her to skip the temple tour and take us to the resort.

I developed an "extended" tour last year after participants said the less than two weeks India was not enough. Because I had been to Mamallapuram and Pondicherry with Russill and Asha's group three years ago, I asked the tour company to include an extra five days. Unfortunately, Lewis and his 20-year-old son Emmanuel could not join us for this, and left by car for Chennai from Kanchipuram. Lewis, a skilled accupuncurist and chiropractor, had done wonders for me and left behind a pile of pills; I shall always be grateful. Emannual was a poised and curious young man and fit right in with this group of elders. I think his life will forever be changed by India. Sr. Barbara and Sr. Michele left us after Mamallapuram. On their final night, Michele's passport and a large amount of cash seemingly disappeared. This resulted in prayers and high levels of anxiety on the part of all. But the missing items were found, tucked into the bed covers, and the release of fear and stress was exchilarating.

The Mamalla Beach Resort is similar to the GRT Temple Bay Resort where I stayed three years ago, with a pool, beach area, outdoor dining, and a variety of wildlife, such as white geese and white doves. Their charm was offset by loads of bird poop on every surface. The pool was wonderful and I used it liberally. Others walked the beach into town, carefully navigating the people poop.
Geeta arrived on Thursday morning and gave us a wonderful educational tour of the carvings of Mamallapuram where 7th century artists created masterpieces of bas relief and temple structures out of single giant stones. The tradition continues and today every other resident is carving pieces large and small, religious and pornographic, for the temple and tourist trade. We had a lovely lunch in an upscale hotel and ended our tour at the 8th century Shore Temple, now a national monument and world heritage sight. It's one of the earliest temples constructed in India and is a model for all other temple architecture. It also contains both a reclining Vishnu and a Shiva lingam; all other temples are dedicated to one or the other god, but not both.

I visited in the Shore Temple in January of 2004. Less than a year later the tsunami struck Sri Lanka, Thailand and India, killing thousands. I saw a photo in the newspaper of the Shore Temple surrounded by water. Today it is back to the way I remembered it, with wide grassy grounds. In fact, there has been new construction of walkways and the land all around is a national park. On the day we visited there were large groups of school children in identical uniforms, and various pilgrims, including the omnipresent men in black outfits with beards who are bound for Ayappa. There was also damage from the tsunami at the beach resort but no one there was injuried. Waves dragged a freezer from the kitchen out into the road and overturned a car. Al the first-floor rooms had to be repaired, and the pool looks brand new. Those who walked down the beach reported damage obviously caused by the giant wall of water.

Now we are in Pondicherry, two hours south, and we're staying in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram New Guest House at the south end of town in the French district. More later.