Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Getting a Job (sha na na na)

An unseasonable storm is drenching Bangkok as I write this post. None of the internet weather sites that I checked this morning had predicted this (although the dark clouds at dawn did offer a clue). But the three-hour downpour (so far) has filled the sois up to, and over, the high sidewalks. Dodging the waves generated by cars and motorbikes moving up and down the temporary rivers is difficult. Coming home from dropping off laundry and buying groceries, I waded across one soi with the dirty water almost up to my knees. Who knows what unholy microbes were swirling in that toxic mix! It has been cloudy and windy for the last few days and Jerry had warned me that rain in January was rare but possible. Mother Nature is acting up all over: record cold and snow in China, heavy rains in Tamil Nadu when I was there, and storms in California that are causing flooding and landslides. Why didn't we listen to you, Al?

It was hot enough yesterday to make me sweat through the new blue Oxford-cloth shirt I bought last weekend, part of the $100 wardrobe I purchased to appear presentable as a potential teacher. Besides the button-down long-sleeved shirt, I chose black slacks (Italian, on sale), a black belt (over-priced, but I was on a roll), comfortable black loafers and socks. Jerry gave me a Jim Thompson silk tie with an elephant design, perhaps a little wild, but I needed some sign of rebelliousness. Fitting a conservative image goes against the grain. But Pim, when we met at the end of the day, said that I looked splendid, the spitting image of a farang teacher in Thailand, even though the shirt was damp with sweat, the tie loosened and my sleeves were rolled up.

Earlier, Pandit, my friend the British monk, had taken me across the river to the undergraduate campus of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (also known as MCU or Mahachula) at Wat Srisudaram Woriwiharn (also known apparently as Wat Si) where we met Supo, a teacher in the English Department. Pandit, who studied there four years to get a bachelor's degree and who is now studying Buddhism and psychology in the master's program at the main MCU campus next to Wat Mahathat, had sung my praises there the week before and was told they would be happy to hire a native English speaker part-time. Although the head of the department was not in, I gave Supo my CV, and, with Pandit translating the trickier questions, we discussed work visas and permits.

We continued this discussion with other administrators after going back across the river on a ferry and walking a short distance past the amulet market to Mahathat and the international office for Mahachula. If all goes well, I will teach conversational English to the young monks at Wat Si for five hours twice a week. Since few of them have studied English before, and only a couple on the faculty speak rudimentary English, it should be a challenge. Plus the school is a good distance from Sukhumvit and will require taxis, tuk tuks, buses and river boats to get there. The next term begins in May. Once I sign a contract to teach for a year, that paper and a letter from the dean at the Mahathat campus should secure me a non-immigrant business employment visa. Then I need to get a work permit to complete the process. Renewable yearly, the visa and permit will enable me to stay indefinitely in the Land of Smiles, so long as I stay employed by MCU. Pandit told me that even though the government-supported Buddhist university is only for monks, many young men ordain temporarily to get a cheap education, and when they are finished they disrobe and look for a real job. Now I wait for my official interview at Wat Si which should take place, hopefully, next week.

On Monday I went to the Thai Immigration office in Sathorn, a healthy hike from the Sala Daeng Skytrain station. The large facility was packed with visitors from every country and it took me awhile to get my bearings and follow the required steps. Last July I bought three two-month visas from the Thai consulate in Portland, Oregon, and I was under the impression that each could be extended for one month without leaving the country. While that is true, I soon learned that only the current visa can be extended and I was on the last one. If I hadn't gone to India, I might have used two extensions, but since the third visa must be used within six months of issuance, there was no way all three could be extended (this nuance seemed to escape the nice lady at the information booth). So I took the single extension, paying the steep 1,900 baht fee, and now I'm legal until April 5. Hopefully by then I'll have the teaching paperwork in hand and can make a quick visa run to the border. I want to be back in Thailand for the Songkran holiday when the New Year is celebrated with in the streets with wild water fights. Hard to believe that I've been gone almost six months.

Before the visit to Wat Si, Pandit, Dr. Holly and I met for lunch to discuss future plans for The Little Bangkok sangha (little bang as opposed to the big bang; Pandit's humor is subtle). Since monks cannot eat after noon, it was actually a brunch, and since their choice of food is rather limited, Pandit ordered freely from the menu (monks also cannot handle money, so it was our treat). We talked about a variety of events, including movie nights (Pandit wants to show and discuss "Marjoe," the documentary about a child preacher prodigy who reveals the secrets of his unethical trade). Also possible are guest speakers, like Ajahn Sumedho, a friend of Pandit's, and study groups on topics like Buddhism and psychology, and the Buddhist suttas. Pandit is also considering "Introduction to Buddhism" talks for English-speaking tourists at various Bangkok hotels, and perhaps another six-week series of lectures similar to those he did last fall. Another possibility is a several-day retreat at the ecologically friendly Comsaed Conference Center in Kanchanaburi which he recently visited with David Holmes.

Holly and I had gone a few nights before to hear a talk by Ajahn Brahm, the British monk who leads Bodhinyana Monastery in western Australia. The former Peter Betts had received a degree from Cambridge in theoretical physics before coming to Thailand where he was ordained at the age of 23. A friend had described Ajahn Brahm's approach as "Buddhism light" and his talk before a huge crowd of mainly Thais in the large auditorium at the World Fellowship of Buddhists headquarters focused largely on happiness and bliss (he wants to reframe the Buddha's Four Noble Truths as a way to achieve happiness rather than just the relief of suffering). Much of what he said struck me as a Buddhist version of the power of positive thinking (a la Dale Carnegie or Norman Vincent Peale). Ajahn Brahm got lots of laughs from the crowd; if he hadn't been sitting in a lotus posture on a raised platform (with moving colored lights around the head of the large Buddha behind him), I would have thought him to be a stand-up comedian.
"Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow, because you might die tonight."

"There is no limit to the amount of happiness you can experience."

"You must exercise the body but keep the mind still to restore your energies."

"I wasn't born a monk. I had a girlfriend until I discovered I was more happy with meditation than with orgasms."

"Buddhism is a religion without punishment. You send yourself to hell."

"You have plenty of (g00d) karma in the bank but have forgotten your pin number. By accepting praise, you remember your pin."

"Compassion is more important than some of the rituals we keep."

"There were two chicken farmers. One collected the chickens' shit and stored it in his house, and the other collected their eggs. What are you collecting? Shit or eggs?"

"The past takes care of itself."

"Life is out of control."
On the way to Wat Si yesterday, Pandit, Dr. Holly and I visited the headquarters of an NGO empire established by Thai social and environmental activist Sulak Sivaraksa. I was very impressed with his critique of capitalism and globalization when I heard him speak at the Gross National Happiness Conference in November and I've just finished Trans Thai Buddhism, a small book of talks he gave at Smith College in 2004. Now 74, Sulak is the founder of the Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation, a network that includes the inter-religious Commission for Development, Santi Pracha Dhamma Institute, Wongsanit Ashram, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) and the Spirit in Education Movement. The NGO publishes a quarterly called "Seeds of Peace" after the title of one of Sulak's books. The founder has been in trouble with the government several times over his writings, forcing him to go into exile for a few years. He is famous for his argument that the name "Thailand," coined in 1939, be dropped and the original "Siam" be returned to its rightful place. There wasn't much happening at the compound, but we looked at a meeting hall we might be able to use for a sangha gathering, and we browsed in the impressive library where Sulak's collected writings in English alone take up a whole shelf.

From Trans Thai Buddhism, I understood that the author sees Buddhism in its universal form as an alternative to global capitalism. He believes the concept of "sangha," the name for Buddhist community, incorporates the ideal of a moral democracy. Buddhism can provide a model for what he sees as faith-based resistance to the travesty of democracy promoted by the corporate-controlled states, east and west. This alone makes me want to read more of his writing. Hell, I'm reading to move into his compound! (there are rooms above the offices for guests and we saw a carload of monks disembark while we were there to stay while attending a conference). And even more interesting, Sulak was a disciple of the late Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a monk who has inspired many Thai political and social activists with his ideas that Thai Buddhism should be purified of superstitious rites and rituals because he believed that all religious paths comprised one dhamma. I am currently reading his Handbook for Mankind, in which he writes: "Buddhism has nothing to do with prostrating oneself and deferring to awesome things." But rather, Buddhism "is a system designed to bring a technical knowledge inseparable from its technique of practice, an organized practical understanding of the true nature of things of 'what is what.'" In 1932, he founded Wat Suan Mokkh in southern Thailand near Surat Thani, and before his death in 1993 he established the International Dhamma Hermitage Center where a meditation retreat is held on the first 10 days of every month. When the seeker has "penetrated to the essential nature of his religion," Buddhadasa wrote, then "he will regard all religions as being the same." This universalism appeals to me, and that it could inspire social activism in Thailand is even more interesting. I want to look into the ideas of both Sulak and Buddhadasa more deeply.

The rain has stopped and Bangkok is now fresh and clean, the streets nicely flushed of dirt and garbage (although where it ends up -- in the river, I afraid -- I'm not sure).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yet Another Day in Paradise

The sirens and fire engines woke me around 4:15 this morning and I looked out my seventh floor balcony to see the street below filled with vehicles and flashing red lights. Any action, however, was out of sight around the corner. I watched through bleary eyes for about ten minutes, but it soon became apparent that it was a false alarm. I hope Siam Court might get that total response if smoke were spotted. So I climbed back in bed for another hour and a half of sleep, the fan keeping me cool.

When I got up again, I checked Google News to learn that Heath Ledger had died of a probable drug overdose at the age 0f 28. Already he is being compared to James Dean who crashed his Porsche at the young age of 24 fifty years ago after an even shorter career. Ledger clinched his reputation with the role as a gay lover in "Brokeback Mountain," but I also liked him as the swashbuckling "Casanova" and in the gritty film about heroin addiction, "Candy." He'd just finished playing the evil Joker in a new Batman movie, another part that clashed with his pretty boy image. R.I.P., Heath.

Talking about movies signals a return to normalcy and even domesticity after a month at an ashram in India and a week upcountry in rural Surin for a wedding. This potent image, of recruits carrying a statue of liberty across a miniaturized Vietnam, comes from Julie Taymor's fantastical new film, "Across the Universe." She borrows songs from the Beatles to tell a fairy tale about the 1960's ("I Want You" is used for a recruitment scene and "She's So Heavy" for the weighty trek across Vietnam.). The actors, whose characters are named Jude, Lucy, Sadie, Maxwell, JoJo and Prudence, all sing songs but they are assisted by Joe Cocker ("Come Together"), Bono ("I Am the Walrus") and Eddie Izzard ("Mr. Kite"). Sadie reminds one of Janis and JoJo of Jimi. Jude comes from Liverpool to draw cartoons for a underground paper in New York and Lucy, from upper-class stock, volunteers for an SDS-type revolutionary group. In lesser hands (Taymor directed "Frida," and, on Broadway, "The Lion King"), this blend of music with a simple story of love and revolution might have been sappy and trite. But through image and song, she seems to have captured the critical yet hopeful optimism that created both the hippie movement and a transformation in popular music. The Beatles were unique and their songs, set in the context of the 1960s, brought tears again to my eyes. Imagine "Strawberry Fields" as a lament for the blood shed in Vietnam, and "Let it Be," as a requiem for Martin Luther King's murder and the street violence that followed. And also imagine that all Jude needs is love and he finds it with Lucy.

I went to see "Across the Universe" with Pim, who only knew of the Beatles music as "old," and George, who was celebrating his 60th birthday. Jerry would have joined us but he was suffering from food poisoning (from a bad fish at an upscale restaurant on his soi). Pim came away from the film singing "All My Loving" (which she recognized), and we took George to dinner of sushi at Fuji's in the MBK shopping center. Still recovering from his separation from Cambodia and the stressful but rewarding job as a lawyer he held there for nine years, he looked tired. The movie, he said, reminded him of all the reasons he set out to work with the poor for social and environmental justice. But the work took its toll, and now he looks forward to rest and recuperation with his lady on a beach in Vietnam, an ironic twist on the forms R&R took in the 1960's and early 1970's. After Taymor's introduction to the music of the Beatles, now I want to show Pim the Beatles' two films, "Hard Day's Night" and "Help."

When the Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday, "Juno" was among the choices listed for best film and it's star, Ellen Page, for best actress. Thanks to the internet (we miss a lot of good films here in Bangkok), I saw it last night and was totally charmed by the story of a 16-year-old who gets pregnant on her first try and decides to have the baby. "Some people fall in love and reproduce," the smart-talking teen says at the end of the movie, when she sits down to sing a song ("Anyone Else but You" by the Moldy Peaches; anti-folk singer Kimya Dawson did the film's music) with the baby's father, played by the gawky and lovable Michael Cera from "Superbad." "We did it the other way." All of the characters, from Juno's wise-talking father (you can see where she gets her genes) and dog-loving step-mother, to her best high school friend and the yuppie couple who want to adopt her baby, are complex and mostly likable. And the dialog by debuting writer Diablo Cody is both funny and deep. This is a movie about people who love and support one another. Perhaps the ethic of the 1960's lives on in middle-class Minnesota where the film is set.

Yesterday I finished reading Richard Mason's classic novel of Asian life, The World of Suzie Wong. Jerry has a collection of Asia-themed novels in Surin and while there I read John Ralston Saul's thriller set in Thailand, The Paradise Eater, and began the story about Suzie, the prostitute in Hong Kong with a heart of gold. Published in 1957, the story has been made into a play, a hit film (which I hope to see soon, thanks to the internet) and even a ballet. It's the story of a poor artist who accidentally finds a room in a hotel used by girls from the bar on the first floor. He befriends them, paints them, and meets the beguiling Suzie. The book is significant in that it does not moralize, but rather describes the protagonist's struggle with his middle-class English value system. I loved it, and found myself barely able to read the last chapter through the tears. Does senility make you even more sentimental?

Now I'm settling in for the long haul. I bought an iron and a portable clothes-drying rack, and cleaning supplies for the bathroom which was looking pretty gross. On Friday I will have my teeth cleaned again, and I need to schedule a dermatology exam and see about getting a new prescription for asthma meds. Yesterday was shopping day and I discovered that Thais are not so in love with wall calendars as Americans where the stores are filled with theme calendars (Garfield, dogs and cats, nature scenes) around New Year's. So I bought a 2008 diary with the months and days in Thai and English, along with a pocket magnifying glass to help me see the increasingly tiny Thai letters. This month, for example, is ma-ga-raa (I have not yet been able to mix Thai and English characters here), and today, Wednesday, is wan put. I also bought a poster showing all the Thai consonants together with the picture symbols children use to remember them and put it on my door to help me learn the alphabet.

When I entered the country on January 9th, I used the last of my two-month visas which I'd purchased last summer from a consulate in Portland. It expires on March 6th. I'm supposed to get three one-month extensions for the original visas but I don't yet know if I can do that in Bangkok or whether I have to leave the country. Jerry has given me the name of a visa consultant whom I will see soon. After a conversation with Pandit when I got back from India, I have been thinking seriously about looking for work as an English teacher, preferably part time, with a university or school that could provide me with a work permit and, hence, an employment visa (multiple entry, renewable yearly). Dr. Holly and I talked about possible opportunities at Assumption University where she teaches in the graduate department of psychology. I scanned the course offerings from the religion and philosophy graduate department on the ABAC web site and was first intrigued and then excited about the possibilities. Most terms start in May which gives me time to find something and do the paperwork. I sent an email to the dean of philosophy and religion, an acquaintance of Holly's who studied in California. I've even begun shopping for a new wardrobe. Thais like their ajahns (teacher) to dress up. Shorts, tee shirts and flip-flops won't do.

And I am beginning to plan for the future. Wit, whom I met at the wedding and who works for a noodle shop in Silom, celebrates his birthday with a big party on February 2 and Lamyai will be coming from Surin to attend. Chinese New Year is February 7 and apparently the festivities in Chinatown are not to be missed. I'm looking forward to Songkran, the Thai New Year, which will be celebrated April 13-15 by the joyous (Jerry would say manic) throwing of water. Everyone gets wet, in Bangkok and upcountry. Next to Loy Krathong, it is Thailand's biggest holiday (but, as Pim says, Thais love to celebrate everyone's holiday, and Valentine's Day is also coming next month). Ajahn Brahm, the British monk who is now abbot of a monastery in western Australia, is coming to speak on several nights in Bangkok and soon the Little Bang Sangha will begin scheduling more events. I canceled my plans to go to Italy next June for the retreat with Cyprian in Assisi, and I've decided not to go to north India with Meath Conlan at the end of February. I want to stay here, with maybe weekend trips to Hua Hin or Krabi, and I want to stay for a long, long time.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Seven-Pig Wedding in Surin

"Be prepared to eat a lot of pork," Jerry said, when he invited me to a four-day celebration of the marriage of his wife's son Paithoon in the province of Surin, a day's journey by train from Bangkok, where he and Lamyai have a home. I didn't know what to expect and neither, it turns out, did he. Lamyai's English is elliptical and her explanations can often raise more questions than provide answers. No one else in her extended family of nearly thirty in the small village of Nong Thekean speaks more than rudimentary English. So Jerry, his friend George, who has just retired after nine years as a lawyer in Cambodia where he worked on land and human rights issues, and I, gave up our needs to understand and control and settled in for an exciting tutorial in Khmer culture (Surin borders Cambodia, the ancestral home of Khmer people, but their influence travels far into Isan, the northeast provinces of Thailand).

Bom, Paithoon's betrothed, comes from another Khmer family in a village nearly an hour north of Nong Thekean. The festivities, which involved more than 300 people, took place at both locations. There were tents, tables and chairs, mats on the ground inside and out for the complex wedding rituals, and elaborate sound systems outside both homes. Outdoor kitchens, staffed by family and neighbors, served up delicious non-stop meals of rice, vegetables and -- you guessed it -- pork, washed down with sodas, beer and whiskey (more like rum, made from sugar cane). I saw at least two pigs at the bride's house on Saturday morning and Lamyai reported that seven pigs gave their lives for the party. I only saw one butchered (thankfully missing the coup de grace) and presume that the rest were killed far away from the party. The meat was then roasted, boiled, stir-fried and barbecued into a variety of spicy dishes. I particularly liked the knuckle but not the intestines (one boy blew up a section of it for an improvised soccer ball).

But the pigs were more than just tasty eating. Their heads played an important role in at least three of the rituals, in each case accompanied by candles, incense and a cornucopia of culinary gifts. However, in the absence of a detailed anthropological explanation of Khmer wedding rituals, the heads' function, beyond being a questionably attractive centerpiece, must remain a mystery. The business transaction of a "bride price" several months before the wedding, and the exchange of gifts and symbols at the bride's house on Saturday, before the wedding there on Tuesday morning, and afterwards at Jerry and Lamyai's house, lead me to believe that, as in all indigenous ceremonies, potlach, or the display and exchange of wealth, is at play here. One gift was a mystery box that included such prosaic items as lip balm. As the family of the bride opened it and went through its contents, there was much ohhhing and ahhhing as if each found object was priceless. I think the gesture in this case was more important than the choice of trinkets inside the box. Jerry said that his marriage to Lamyai seven years ago was much simpler, and shorter, and he suspects that rather than follow traditional rules, the ceremonies are improvised according to the creativity of the families and the ajahns, the village elders who conduct the rituals (there were two for Paithoon's wedding, one at each house). Missing at this wedding, for example, were Buddhist monks who chanted for Jerry and Lamyai.

After the meeting of the families on Saturday at the bride's house, and what I think was the bachelor's party on Monday night, the wedding began early Tuesday morning with a caravan of trucks carrying Lamyai's family back to the bride's house where the groom and his two best men processed under pink umbrellas from the parking area to a tent in the front yard. After more rituals and exchanges in the house, the bride and her young attendant emerged under blue umbrellas. The moment of lifting this disguise was strangely moving. It was followed by the presentation by the bride of a glass of whiskey and two cigarettes to distinguished participants (which included myself and George, the two farang guests). Before entering the house, the bride and groom each extended a foot to be washed on the doorstep. Inside, they were seated on a miniature bed with pillow, and the ajahn proceeded to intone an elaborate prayer (my interpretation) over the pair which included incense and sprinkled water. One particularly strange moment (the whole service, however, was strange to this westerner) occurred when he placed their hands over the the money and gold which was paid by the groom's family to, in effect, buy the bride. Always subject to intense negotiation, in this case the "bride price" was 100,000 baht in cash and 70,000 baht in gold, or a total of about $5,000. No doubt that large amount had something to do with the fact that the groom's step-father was a farang who had built his wife a large and expensive house. George wondered why in some cultures the dowry is paid by the groom and in others the bride. Wai Wai, one of Lamyai's sisters is living with a lovely man named Chat who was unable to pay the agreed-upon price. Face was lost all around by this failure.

The wedding ended with a ceremonial tying of string. Here I am tying a thousand-baht note on Paithoon's wrist with some string. The necessary inclusion of money was a surprise for which I was not well prepared. I also was expected to contribute to the marriage pot after drinking the ceremonial whiskey earlier. Tying string on someone brings good luck, chok dee. Note the strings on my left wrist applied the night before by village woman (the yellow cumin rubbed off on my clothes). At the conclusion of the wedding, everyone in the room reached out to touch the married couple. Then yellow string blessed by the ajahn was passed around and all had a chance to wish the newlyweds good fortune in a very material way. The gifts of money included contributions to the cost of the wedding party at Jerry and Lamyai's house later that day. Lamyai's brother collected nearly a third of the party's estimated $3,000 cost (big ticket items included the pigs and booze).

There was yet another ritual held back at the groom's house that included a different ajahn, a gentle man with the palsy, more incense and sprinkled water, and another pig's head (or am I now just seeing them in my imagination?). Then the bride and groom distributed gifts -- bottles of beer, candles, and towels (a couple with the Spiderman imprint -- to family and villagers who helped with the preparations. Other gifts included silk sarongs, futons and pillows (one with a strange inscription in English that read: "The maple leaf is refined and styie in good taste...." (sic). Everyone seemed to get something, even the farang (for whom pork and copious quantities of beer were certainly gift enough). Finally, when the chants were concluded, the incense snuffed and the gifts distributed, the partying began.

Huge speakers big enough for Woodstuck propelled Isan folk music (mor lam and luk thung) and Thai pop tunes over the countryside (beginning as early as 4:45 am). An occasional hip hop tune would enter the mix, causing Jerry to grimace. During breaks in the recorded music, Paithoon and his friends played gentle ballads on a guitar. I was asked to sing the words to "Hotel California" and failed the test. While much beer and whiskey was consumed by the revelers, it seemed to have little effect on the quiet and gentle behavior of the Thai guests who seemed more interested in eating than in dancing and raising hell. The only drunk seemed to be an old man named Maitree, seen here with Jerry, a distant relative of indeterminate age, who had once been a championship muay Thai boxer for the police force. Now he carries on conversations that only he can understand, although he insisted on being front and center at all of the wedding events (Lamyai's sister Muapan had to drag him away from one involving only the immediate family). At the bride's house there was a man sleeping off t0o much beer in a pile of hay, and it was explained that every family in Surin has one such character.

The week in Surin gave George the opportunity to deprogram and recover from important but very stressful work in Cambodia where he went to court under the aegis of a German NGO to defend the poor and the powerless from a very corrupt government. It's a wonder that he survived without being killed for his efforts, Jerry said. George struggled with nightmares most nights and during the day while walking in the countryside said that he found himself on the lookout for land mines, common 50 miles to the south but not in peaceful Thailand (at least north of Surat Thani). During our walks in the country we saw women and men cutting sugar cane, villagers gathering firewood and herding cattle, and everywhere there were young eucalyptus trees edging the rice paddies. These trees have become the new fall-back crop. And the day before the wedding celebration began and the day after, we had an opportunity to relax and enjoy the country where Jerry greets the rural scene daily from a second floor balcony. From there we watched the cows go out in the morning and return in the evening, saw chickens and their chicks scratching food out of the dry remains of the rice harvest (one day a hawk kept them on their guard), and watched the many small children of Lamyai's two sisters and brother (who live on the compound) play on the new driveway installed since my last visit four years ago. Jerry, George and I discussed the problems of the world over coffee, tea and beer, our diminishing interest in the U.S., and, in passing, religion. George is a cradle Catholic who went to Catholic schools, but left his religion behind years ago (though his work for social justice would thrill my left religious friends). Jerry has no love for organized religion. I tried to remember my insights in Shantivanam but they seemed irrelevant here. What was I thinking in the shadow of India? Who was that masked man?

Jerry and Lamyai met in the bars of Bangkok. The eldest of nine children, she wanted to become a rice farmer like her father, but he told her it was no work for a woman. Now that he is dead, she has become the matriarch of a large extended family (and Jerry, by marriage, Papa the Patriarch) and the CEO of a large agricultural operation. She has two sugar cane fields and recently planted corn and peanuts at one end. She raises catfish from fingerlings and they thrive in several ponds. Besides the ubiquitous chickens underfoot, she raises frogs that live in a large walled compound to protect them from cats and snakes and has built for them pools and "condominiums" made out of old tires. Since my last tour of the farm, Lamyai has purchased cattle which now forage in the fields each day along with the cows of her siblings. There are new fences with barbed wire protecting her property. Tuk-tick, a young man from Ubon with dyed red hair, is her second in command. Jerry says she buys magazines on agriculture and livestock and the yard around the house is immaculately gardened and filled with new and unusual plants. Four puppies and three or four older dogs, unwanted strays in the neighborhood that she adopted, play or sleep underfoot. With all this to manage, Lamyai spends less time at their apartment in Bangkok. Local government officials gave every household in the village two large cement vats to raise fish along with free bags of food and so far only Lamyai has turned hers into productive aquariums (photo above). Everywhere we saw them unused or turned into trash receptacles. In some cases they became swimming pools for small children, like Michael and Helen shown here. The twins are the children of Pen and Graham, a retired butcher from England forced to leave the country when his disability pension (he cut off a finger) fell through because of his move to Thailand. Unable to support her children without help from their distant father, their mother, like many women in this small village, has chosen to return to work in a bar, this time in Rayong south of Bangkok.

It was a wonderful week, although I will abstain from pork for a while. And though I'm happy to be back in Bangkok, the memory of peacefully sipping beer on the balcony in Surin with Jerry and George, listening to the yelps of kids and puppies below, keeps me sane amidst the hurly burly of Sukhumvit Soi 4. George is off to Vietnam next week on the first leg of a globe-trotting adventure that will hopefully clear his head of the fear of stepping on a land mine. I've learned that marriage can be an expensive proposition in Thailand and, given my dwindling resources, is probably out of reach. But I was welcomed home with dozens of roses that my friend bought at the flower market this morning. And her smile stoked the fires of my hope.

Below is my wedding photo of the family:

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Videos From India

Here are four videos from my trip to Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, India, that I have put up on YouTube. I apologize for the quality; they were taken with my Nikkon digital camera.

The first was shot at Christmas Eve mass in the new (hopefully temporary) chapel at the Catholic ashram. The room was filled with parishioners from the nearby village of Tannirpalli and you can hear them singing in Tamil.

The second was taken during one of Br. Martin's 4 o'clock talks. It gives you a flavor of the way he teaches. You'll find more about him in previous and future postings.

The next videos were taken by Michael Giddings when we attended a celebration of Tamil men preparing to go on the Ayyappan pilgrimage the following week.

You can also look at a collection of my photos of pilgrims in India on one of my flickr pages.

This will be the last posting for at least I week. I am leaving on a train for Surin this morning to attend the wedding of Jerry's wife's son in a small village. It should be quite an experience.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

An Epiphany, of Sorts

Returning to Bangkok from India on the first weekend of 2008, I discovered that the official colors had been changed from yellow and pink for the King to black for his sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana, who died January 2 from abdominal cancer at the age of 84. Black could also represents the emotions of the ruling elite who are upset over the results of the December 23 election that saw supporters of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by the military in a coup last year, apparently returned to power. The implications of the vote, currently being contested ballot-by-ballot in the courts, are uncertain. Fortunately I have enough black attire to stay fashionable.

My homecoming was joyful, back into the loving arms of friends and enveloped in the sights, sounds and smells of the neighborhood I am coming to love. While less rough around the edges than southern India, Thailand presents one immediately with the exciting extremes of life that energize and vitalize. The bar girls and lady boys of Soi 4, along with the barber, the beggars, 7-11 clerks, international tourists, the guards on the gate at Siam Court, masseuses and fruit vendors, greeted me like an old habitué returned from the wars. And many of them were clothed in not-so-somber black. On my first night back, I feasted on steak and chocolate after a month's famine.

I celebrated New Year's Eve with a midnight mass in the Shantivanam chapel, surrounded by colorfully-clad villagers who had come for the spiritual refreshment along with the chai and cake served afterwards in the refectory. Some of the cricket boys snuck into the party and all wanted to pose with "the angel," Erika, the beautiful blonde six-footer from Germany. But while it might be 2008 now in much of the world,in India there is no agreement on dates. Fr. Paul showed me a calendar that showed months, years and dates -- all different -- in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, northern India, the West, and according to Muslim reckoning. How do you date a letter? I asked. He threw up his hands.

Soon after the New Year, a group of us traveled by pre-dawn bus to Trichy where we visited Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple (usually shortened to Sri Rangam), arguably the largest temple complex in India (experts have not yet agreed; it is certainly bigger than Angkor Wat which I have visited, one of the world's largest religious sites). The view here from the roof shows the golden domed inner sanctum which can be visited only by Hindus. The temple, dedicated to Visnu, consists of seven walled sections and 21 gopurams or gates. Construction is ongoing and the largest gopuram at the main entrance was completed only in 1987. It was less crowded in the early morning than it had been during my last two visits when walking across the hot sand one blistering afternoon burned my feet. Still, the rabbit-warren of corridors was filled with Hindu pilgrims in various states of dress (like the large group of ladies in bright red) and un-dress (like this holy man pictured, the one on the right). We saw the brightly-decorated door that is only opened once a year, which happened to be the week before, and therefore missed by days the free-pass to eternity that passing through it guarantees. The outer section of the temple is filled with merchants, a veritable city, where everything is sold, from cooking implements to calendars (with multiple dates), religious items, and flowers and food for pujas. Once blessed by the Brahmin priest, such food becomes sacred prasad, and a man coming out of the inner temple generously offered some of his to us. Sri Rangam dates to the 10th century, although many of the beautiful frescoes and carvings, like the horses and manifestations of Vishnu near the 1000-pillar temple (which was sadly closed), may be only half a millennium old. After the tour, Michael G. and I retired to the wild west bar at Jenny's Residency (recently taken over by the Breeze corporation and upscaled) for omelets and beer, a foretaste of secular life in Bangkok.

The first week of the year and my visit to India ended on the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration of the incarnation of Jesus, marked by the visit of the Magi at his birth and his baptism in the Jordan River which inaugurated his mission to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. With the help of Brother Martin (full name John Martin Sahajananda), whose perspective and insights have been collected in The Four O'Clock Talks, compiled by Carrie Lock and just published by Shantivanam Ashram, I had an epiphany. Perhaps the vision one night of hundreds of fireflies (aka lightening bugs) congregating at the top of the large Bo tree by the yoga hall, contrasting with the brilliant stationary stars behind them, helped push it along. "God" for me is LIFE (writ large). Not the mechanical descriptions written by science, but the indescribable essence and depth that connects all life, and even its inanimate neighbors, the rivers and mountains, into a vast incarnation of unity. Words provide only inarticulate gropings, fingers pointing at the mystery. Religions get much of it wrong. In Br. Martin's terms, I feel as if I have graduated from the Collective to the Universal level. Identities, like "Catholic Christian" or "pilgrim," no longer seem very important. Everything I've ever wanted to find is right here, at the heart of ordinary, everyday life, and if I just clean up my act a bit, I may be able to appreciate it a little better.

Not long before leaving, Michael G. took me on a bike ride through the countryside. The day was overcast (rain was threatened yet again, but it only sprinkled one night), making for a deliciously cool journey to the south of Tannirpalli, along paved lanes through a vast farmland of banana trees and fields of reeds which are used for weaving mats. We passed children walking or biking to school, goats and even a herd of ducks, farm laborers on their way to work, a funeral in one hamlet accompanied by clamoring drum beats, and we stopped off at an ancient temple with grass growing out of the brick roof. The circular route went through seven different villages and "Happy New York 2008" was chalked in the pavement at the entrance of each. Residents greeted us with smiles and vannikums (the Tamil word for welcome). At the conclusion of the ride, I meet Michael H. at the coffee circle and we set out for an hour's walk. Michael is from Texas and was a monk at the Hermitage in Big Sur before coming to India where he has lived at Ramana Maharshi's ashram in Tiruvanamalai for seven years. We talked about our appreciation for an eclectic mix of spiritual practices and our common experience with academic philosophy. Passing through one of the nearby villages, we stopped at a Visnu temple
where reconstruction was underway, and were given a tour of the vimana above the inner sanctum where a master artist (who has worked on a Hindu temple in Pittsburg, California) was recreating images of Vishnu and his consorts. On the way back we stopped at a small flower garden created by residents of Tannirpalli to demonstrate that unused land can be cared for in an ecological and loving manner (rather than turned into a repository for garbage). Michael G. and his brother dedicated a tree there to his father who had come to visit Shantivanam when he was 83. The sign wishes passers-by a happy New Year and Pongal, the harvest festival that is celebrated in Tamil Nadu on January 16.

After the bike and hike I was exhausted, and for a day felt like I was coming down with the dreaded flu that has disabled a number of pilgrims. A day after his arrival, Victor disappeared into his hut with a fever and blurred vision and was still there when I left a week later, cared for by Antonella, the doctor from Italy, and various pilgrims who have taken him water and rice. The population of pilgrims was constantly changing. It was sad to see people I had grown close to leaving for home or other parts of India. Gesa and Christian went to see Vanya in Ooty, Peter left for Singapore and Phnom Penh, Erika flew to Hyderabad to stay with her yoga teacher and Vibika returned to Tiru to volunteer at a school. Brian the walker remained; a teacher of Reiki, he had developed a unique walking meditation around the four-sided Jesus the Yogi in the yoga hall and could be seen there day and even night by candlelight. He plans to take a Thai massage course in Goa before going to Spain to assist pilgrims on the Santiago de Compostela walk. A day before I left, a group arrived from Berkeley, including Camaldolese monks Arthur and Andrew from Incarnation Priory. I will miss the ordination of John Robert next week and the visit of Ivan from Camaldoli and Cyprian from California later in the month. Indira returned from her short trip to Tiru and Meath Conlan came back with two ladies from England, one of whom lives in Highgate, and regularly eats breakfast at a restaurant I had visited numerous times with Helen, my host in London. Meath and I discussed traveling together in north India in April. (One decision my retreat at the ashram helped me make was to cancel my planned trip to Europe in June and spend my remain funds in Asia.) Each morning the pilgrims communed together around the veggie table, chopping onions, peeling garlic, grating carrots, and cutting up various unnameable delicacies for the afternoon and evening meals. The dance of solitude and society I found to be one of the (if not the main) joys of ashram life.

Last year my mind was on the tour group I was leading, which left little time to contemplate the spirit. Or so I thought at the time. This year I was alone. But in the chapel I found myself constantly yawning (a lack of oxygen or boredom?), and when I tried to listening to the words of the Psalms and the Bible readings, I found my attention wandering to the sunlight on the fodder field through the door or the calls of the birds and oming of the cows outside. In the afternoons, and sometimes in the mornings, I took a nap under the mosquito netting. I read novels, listened to music on my iPod, and watched movies in my laptop. When the villagers came to mass, I admired the women's colorful saris and the remarkable attentiveness of the children rather than paid attention to the liturgy (Michael H.'s duets with Sr. Sarananda were, however, wonderful). Sadly, my discipline was lacking. And this turned out to be a revelation. If "God" is life and love rather than an object to be sought and worshiped, then effort can be counter-productive. In the end, I found that Shantivanam was the door for me to life in its fullness (or emptiness, as the Buddhists see it).

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Lust and Anger in the Ashram

Shantivanam Ashram is an oasis of peace within the chaos of rural southern India, where loudspeakers begin screeching Tamil religious tunes from Hindu temples on both sides of the river before 5 o’clock in the morning. We can sometimes hear the rumble of trucks on the highway not far off, and the caw of crows as well as the ascending cry of the koel bird (dubbed the “orgasm bird” by one pilgrim on my first visit here). In the afternoon you can hear the lowing of cows and the “whaap” of the cricket ball along with the shouts of the young players at the pitch by the river. I have also heard the haunting whistle of a train and the loud squeak of squirrels that look as if they’ve mated with chipmunks. The other day I saw surveyors on the lane outside the ashram and I know there are plans to move the highway considerably closer in the not too distant future. But for now, the sounds are predominantly natural, and when I walk to namajappa before dawn the stars shine brightly through the palm leaves.

We are distant from the turbulence of the world on this remote refuge of coconut and banana palms, but the news does reach us in a copy of The Hindu delivered daily along with a Tamil newspaper to the ashram library. People queued up to read it on the day that news of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Pakistan spread throughout the compound. Rawalpindi is not that far off and trouble in the subcontinent’s Muslim half cannot fail to disturb India (they’ve threatened each other with nuclear weapons). No one knew quite what to make of it, but reading the paper is more popular than it was before her death.

Because, for the most part, there are fewer distractions here, the mind makes up for this lack by inventing fantasies. At times they take the shape of lust for an attractive female pilgrim, and sometimes they take the form of anger at someone for an imagined infraction of the unofficial code for ashram guests, or a personal slight. But because we are here to search our souls and “go to God,” as Br. Martin tells us, these momentary insanities are easily spotted for what they are. To give an example, one’s seat in the chapel and in the dining hall becomes jealously guarded. Because my knees are unreliable, I have a favorite position on a bench on the left side of the chapel. After three weeks I thought of it as “my” seat. But one day it was occupied by a newcomer. After a moment of rage, during which thoughts of murder and mayhem arose, I was able to see the anger for the brain fart that it was, and let it go. There are a limited number of stools in the dining hall and one had my name invisibly marked on it. But an elderly woman apparently could not see it, and I was forced to sit cross-legged on the floor like most everyone else. Again, the upset arose and passed away, like a wave on the ocean. Now if I could just get rid of my lust…(I hesitate to add that all feelings and desires are in the realm of the imagination and have not become manifest).

Br. Martin has been speaking to the eight seminarians in the morning and during the 4 o’clock talks in the afternoon. While he said, before the end of their retreat, “you don’t need to believe what I say, but only reflect on it,” it seems clear that he views religion as a stage that must be transcended. This must be difficult to hear if you’re preparing to spend your life as a priest. Religion, he said, should be a nest and the mother church should help the birds to fly on their own. But it has often become a cage and the authorities keep the keys. “Christianity has reduced Christ to another religion,” he told us, but “the churches are not in a position to understand fullness of Jesus’ message.” There is only one way to God, and that is to expand our ego, our sense of identity, taking us first into the universal and then the unitary consciousness, where we can know that “I and the father are one,” the advaitic experience of non-duality taught by the Hindu sages and Christian mystics. This task is the essence of every religion, and it was taught before Christ, Martin said. “You can choose any religion you want,” he said, but “it is not a matter of choosing a religion but of seeing beyond.” There is no one religion, which is a product of the collective mind, that can claim to be the “only way” to God. Hard words for Catholics whose Pope detests postmodern relativism. I find his perspective refreshing.

One day Peter suggested a bike ride, and so we walked across the highway and over the bridge above the canal to Tannirpalli where a toothless old woman let us take away two of the three remaining antique two wheelers (at 20 rupees a day). A couple of boys I recognized from the nonstop cricket match next to the ashram rode with us to see two of the half dozen temples in the small village. One featured two large horses outside and the other an image inside the building of a snake as its centerpiece. There a Brahmin performed a puja (blessing ceremony) for us and offered arati (fire) and ash for a small contribution. Outside one of the boys showed us a bush on which many of the long leaves had been twisted into a knot, “for good luck,” he explained. They insisted on having their photo take with us, and a collection of children drawn by our presence willingly posed for my camera. Outside the village, we rode on the main road alongside the canal as bus and large trucks hooted us out of the way. Bikes and motorbikes competed for the available space and we carefully maneuvered around the potholes, made larger by the recent rainstorms.

In Kulittalai, I showed Peter the location of the tiny room with three computers and we dialed up the outside world through the internet, with excruciating slowness. At the all-and-everything store around the corner, where had I purchased an umbrella and a bar of soap last week, I inquired about a “tongue scrapper” requested by Pandit and, yep, they had them. At three rupees apiece, I bought two. Outside, a man was selling ready-made forms for kolams, the designs outside the door of many houses to attract good luck and ward off evil. They are freshly drawn every morning and his forms would obviously streamline the job. A large crowd had gathered to see how it was done. Then I walked to the Gandhi weaving shop to find out the difference between a lungi and a dhoti. I have heard both words used for the skirt worn by men. Sometimes they are turned up to resemble shorts. The salesman couldn’t speak English but he understood these two words and showed me plaid and patterned material after I said lungi. I bought a plain blue one with red trim from what I thought was the dhoti pile, receiving a puzzled expression from the clerk. When I got home I found it was a child’s size, or perhaps a small shawl, which I will have to return next week. After Br. Martin’s talk, we returned the bikes and Peter bought me a cup of tea at the shop across from the bus stop. The owner was a master of the cooling process, whereby one cup is poured repeatedly into another. He also liked having his photo taken.

Before the prayer service one evening, the chapel filled up with a large group from France and Belgium. They were only staying the night and had the dazed look of “if it’s Tuesday it must be Shantivanam” about them. Somehow they were fed and bedded, and since I left at dawn for a trip to Trichy I missed their departure. I hope they absorbed some of the peace of this place, but I doubt it. After Christmas, the pace of arrivals and departures slowed. Ulla came from Sweden and Annette from France. Claudia and a friend arrived from Italy. They were all experienced pilgrims and were greeted as old friends by the resident community. Another newcomer is Vibika from Denmark by way of Tiruvannamalai . She has been staying at J.P.’s church where last January Cyprian and Raneiro celebrated mass on the porch, surrounded by our traveling sangha. Back at home she had taken classes in development at a “folk school” which sounds much like the free schools popular in the 1960’s. Her first trip abroad was several months as a volunteer in Ethiopia. I’ve been impressed by the many young women I’ve met here who are traveling alone in India, like Erica and Sidsle. It takes courage and is perhaps the fruit of the women’s liberation movement in the west. Where are the equivalent young male travelers? (As if the answer me, Victor, a young man from Holland by way of South Africa, arrived on Monday morning. By his very long hair and beard, and his dhoti, I can guess he is an experienced western wanderer in India.) Malka and Indira have left together for Tiru, but Indira will return in a few days because her train to Bangalore leaves from Kulittalai. The seminarians left this morning and suddenly there will be fewer hands to cut vegetables in the morning. Every evening Br. Martin greets the new arrivals by name and country, and he bids farewell to those who are leaving, thanking them warmly for visiting Shantivanam.

On my last visit, I vowed to leave my camera behind if I ever came here again. Obviously I did not. Taking photos keeps me squarely in the subject-object position, making it more difficult to feel interconnectedness. But this blog is my cherished form of expression right now and the illustrations I include seem essential. So here I am taking photographs of places and even people that I’ve photographed more than once in the past. One day a pilgrim, who shall remain nameless, wondered if I’d asked permission first before pointing my camera at someone. When she heard I’d put another pilgrim’s photo in my blog, she indignantly told me not to use her photo. We are friendly otherwise, but this objection was disturbing. Perhaps I should have my subjects sign release forms before putting their face in a blog with the word “Sex” in the title?

One evening Vanya gathered a group of us together by the ruins of the old chapel and large logs from the large tree that had stood guard by the entrance for nearly fifty years. Like every recent return visitor to the ashram, she was shocked and saddened by the demolition of the chapel, and she was particularly upset by the death of the tree. Vanya works in the hills west of here on ecological projects and feels a close connection with nature. There was no ceremony to commemorate the unexpected razing of the chapel (for reasons mentioned in an earlier blog) and Vanya suggested that we do something. I put together some photographs of the chapel as it looked during my visits in 2004, 2005 and earlier this year, and showed a slide show on my laptop to the assembled group. A man visiting for the day recalled a conversation with Abhishiktananda who built the chapel. The gist of it was that a church is more than a building. Gesa led a Sufi chant. Others spoke of their memories of the chapel and I said that I thought the tree was as much a part of it as the inner sanctum. As the sun set, we passed out candles and everyone chose a corner of the remaining floor to place their light. In the flickering light, which outlined the original building, we could see the nearby graves of the founders of Shantivanam.

Seven of us gathered at dawn one morning for a trip to Trichy to use the computer, buy train tickets, exchange money and visit Rock Fort. We got on a private bus this time and were treated to an hour of a Bollywood musical on the two television screens. In Trichy, a city of nearly a million people, we had a traditional Indian breakfast of sweet milky coffee and various breads with dahl on a banana leaf at a restaurant opposite the bus station. Temples were first carved in the giant rock which dominates Trichy (said to be “3500 billion years old” on one sign) during the reign of the Pallavas in the 7th century, and later rulers, including the British, made use of its strategic fortified position. There are now two temples, Sri Thayumanaswamy Temple halfway up the rock and inside it, and Vinayaka Temple, dedicated to Ganesh, at the summit. The lower temple is barred to non-Hindus, but Indira, who is half-Sri Lankan, passed by the guard easily. The entrance is on a main thoroughfare and after depositing our shoes and buying a ticket (cameras cost extra), we climbed the 400+ steps, past the elephant who offered a blessing for a coin, to the top. Most of the route is within the rock. At the top was a magnificent view of the surrounding city and countryside. We could see the huge 10th century Sri Ranganathswamy Temple, with its seven walled sections and 21 gopurams, or gates, across the Cauvery River. Next week we hope to visit it. Erica, who is a willowy blonde, six feet tall, was a big attraction, and visitors to the temple stopped to ask if they could get their photo take with her. From Rock Fort we took a city bus back to the main bus station. I noticed that “Gents” are required to sit on the left and women on the right. Afterwards, pilgrims on holiday, we feasted at the Femina Hotel coffee shop.

Walking down a crowded dusty street in Trichy on an early trip to the city, Michael G. and I discussed our love of India and our difficulty in explaining what it is we like about the country. Michael has been coming here for forty years since he was a student in sociology at a university in Madras in the 1960s (before it was renamed Chennai). It’s easy to say what is wrong with India: there are too many people, too much poverty (now contrasted sharply with pockets of wealth), the infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, transportation, even buildings) is tattered and worn, and there is garbage everywhere. Without sanitary facilities, people pee and poop openly by the side of the road. Somehow, all that doesn’t matter because of the energy and vitality that surrounds you everywhere here. Life, at its most basic, is in your face, without all the buffers and shields that protect and distance it from you from it in the west. Either you love this raw encounter with life, or you run screaming back to the lands of hot water showers and toilet paper, watered lawns and freeways.

As befits a country with a population problem, children are everywhere. And what they must get from their parents is an enthusiasm for living that is unrivaled anywhere else. In Tannirpalli, westerners are a familiar sight, but every time I walk through the village streets I am surrounded with smiling children asking my name and where I am from. They love posing for the camera. One day I took Gesa and Indira to the village to show them several of the temples. As we walked toward the horse temple, a crowd of children spotted us and shouted “HELLO!” They jumped up and down, overjoyed to see us, and called more friends to greet the foreigners who were visiting their neighborhood. They asked to have their pictures taken and we obliged. Walking back a man came up and addressed me as “William.” His name was Suresh and Michael G. had told him about me. “Please come have tea with me,” he said. I could not say no. While the women walked back to the ashram, I entered a yard filled with children, a cow and some goats. His wife offered me a cup of tea, and after a short conversation I was invited into a small hut and asked to sit on the dirt floor. It was only a few hours after I’d eaten breakfast, but I was offered pongal, a rice cereal with a vegetable dahl sauce. It was delicious. Suresh introduced me to his three daughters, and his young son who will be accompanying him next month on the Ayyappan pilgrimage, a journey to a holy mountain in Kerala. Ayyappan is believed to have been born from the union of Shiva and Vishnu, both male, and he undertakes the role of a protector. For two months prior to the trip, devotees wear black, grow beards, and refrain from alcohol, tea or coffee and sex. After eating, I excused myself to return to the ashram, but not before promising to come for another meal next week.

On Sunday evening, Michael G. and I accompanied Suresh to Kulittalai for a ceremony at the house of “my captain” who will lead the cohort to Kerala in several vans the following week. We walked along the highway, trying not to get run over, and through the town, stopping off at several temples along the way. At one, dedicated to a goddess, numerous children ran up to greet the westerners. We processed barefoot around the inner sanctum, nodding to the various icons, and were offered the holy fire, along with vibhuti and kumkumum for our foreheads by the Brahmin while a drums and Indian oboe played loudly. It occurred to me that the temple in India is the equivalent of a community center in America, a place for adults and children to congregate in the evenings. The captain lives next to a temple dedicated to Vishnu. Now in his mid 70’s, he has been leading an Ayyappan pilgrimage every January for fifty years. Since the devotion is of recent vintage, he must be one of the pioneers. Nearly 20 shirtless men, some of their sons and, surprisingly, two young girls, crowded into a small room made sweet by incense where one wall was filled with icons, religious objects, and pictures of gods and goddesses. The group chanted in a call and response format for about ten minutes. During the ceremony, the captain, balding and with a broad belly, threw flowers at a picture of Ayyappan and passed a flame around the other icons. A number of women gathered around the door to receive the flame and dab their forehead with gray ash and red powder. We had been invited as the official photographers and were afterwards were fed along with the children, seated on the floor and spooning rice and dahl into our mouths by (the right) hand. Later, walking home along the highway under a half moon, a young man from the village joined us to practice his English and wish us a Happy New Year.

So let me also wish my readers a very Happy New Year and a prosperous and fulfilling 2008. I might add that in Tamil Nadu it is the year 1417 until their New Year begins in April. In Kerala it is 1183 until August, and the Muslim calendar dates the year as 1429. Other parts of India call it 1929. And in Thailand, where they date their years from the enlightenment of the Buddha, it is the 26th century. Whatever your year might be, may it be an auspicious one.

[This will be the last of my blog postings from India. The final chapter of this pilgrimage will be posted next Tuesday after I return to Bangkok.]