Monday, March 24, 2008

Crucifixion is Harmful to Your Health

Easter is a non-starter here in Thailand. The Thais embrace just about every other farang holiday. They celebrate Halloween and Valentine's Day, and I even managed to get a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. But the Easter Bunny could be just another creature in the petting zoo. In the Philippines, it's another story. According to newspaper reports, 19 men in a poor farming community yesterday underwent a real crucifixion: steel nails were pounded into their hands and feet while at least 2,000 tourists watched the bloody spectacle, which is frowned upon by the local Roman Catholic Church. Each volunteer hung on the wooden cross for about five minutes before being taken down. Nearby, other men whipped themselves bloody with strips of bamboo attached to strings to atone for their sins. Philippine health officials advised participants to check the condition of the whip before lashing their backs; dirty whips and nails could lead to tetanus and other infections. The Church had cautioned the penitents to take anti-tetanus shots first and to sterilize their equipment. The crucifixions were organized by the village council in San Pedro Cutud, with help from the national government's tourism department. More than 80 percent of the population of the Philippines is Catholic.

Years ago, atop the dam in Sierra Madre Canyon, next to the two-story cabin in which I lived with a handful of other twenty-somethings, we attempted to reenact the crucifixion one drunken Easter weekend. To be on the safe side, we used rope instead of nails. I don't recall anyone encountering the Holy Ghost. But in the Sufi tradition, wine is divine, so I suppose the ritual was sanctified. It's a miracle no one fell off the dam.

I didn't go to church yesterday. After attending the Palm Sunday service at Holy Redeemer, I reluctantly concluded that the Christian myth no longer had a hold over me. It was just a nice fairy story, depending on your interpretation. Judging by the event in the Philippines, it certainly has its hooks into others. And that cowboy evangelical in the White House has proven its destructive power. I miss the loving community that shared beliefs (even when mistaken) can create. If I had been in Santa Cruz last night I would have attended the evening vigil mass and the baptism and confirmation of the catechumens would have brought tears to my eyes. I don't see this as a question of "truth" (whatever that is), but of meaning. If the Easter bunny story is meaningful to you, then embrace it, share it with friends, and find in it something to guide your life. If not, move to Thailand.

So on Saturday when, according to tradition, Jesus lay dead in his tomb, I gathered with my Bangkok Buddhist tribe, the LittleBang Sangha, to look at "Marjoe," the documentary of a preaching prodigy who decided to expose his manipulative techniques for the camera. About 20 gathered at the Tai Pan Hotel for a buffet lunch followed by the screening in a room upstairs. Jacques, an American who once lived in Aptos, told us of his strict upbringing by a father who shared Marjoe's Pentecostal creed. Now retired in Bangkok, the memories clearly retained their pain. We discussed whether Marjoe, trained and ordained at the age of four, was a victim of child abuse. And we explored the psychology of the religious experience in the revival tent meetings that were filmed for the documentary, which won an Academy Award in 1973. We spoke about Marjoe's obvious respect for the believers, even though he was not one of them, and of the ecstatic joy on the faces of the people moved by his charismatic Mick Jagger-style of preaching. If he was conning them, the worshippers were complicit. Besides Pandit Bhikku, the guiding light of Littlebang, we were joined by monks Phra Mick and Phra Nick, both from Australia. Toward the end of the film, Marjoe mentions that he finds religion "addicting." It is certainly that for me, despite my disbelief and skepticism, and many of the sangha members expressed a similar fascination in the different varieties of religious experience. We will have another movie gathering in the not too distant future.

The big news in Thailand is that people are stealing metal fixtures and selling them to scrap metal dealers. Thieves stole the nuts and bolts in a power pylon and it partially collapsed. Hundreds of manhole covers are missing in Bangkok, along with metal gutter grates. They have even pilfered water gauges and faucets outside houses and the residents awake to find water gushing out of their pipes. The poor must be resourceful and in Thailand this takes the form of larcenous creativity. Today I read in the paper that rice farmers in the central region are rushing to harvest their crops before they're stolen. Because of the escalating price of rice, apparently the thieves have been sneaking into paddy fields at night and making off with the crops.

Strawberries are almost as expensive as Ben & Jerry's ice cream in Thailand. I brought a few from a street vendor but they gathered fuzz before I had a change to eat them. They are available in all the markets. And some strawberries are imported from Watsonville. I've seen Driscoll's strawberries in South America as well as in Asia and it always makes me feel a bit proud, even if I can't afford to buy them. Another familiar brand here is Martinelli's apple juice, in the apple shaped bottle. I remember going there on a school field trip with my daughter years ago. The other day in Villa Market, I took a sample cup from a clerk, thinking it was lemonade. It fact it was corn juice, and it tasted just like buttery corn. I'm a traditionalist and prefer my corn chewed on the cob. Liquified, it was disgusting.

I've been feeling a bit frustrated lately by gadgets. The ethernet connection I use for the internet became unreliable and my access to the world of information I've grown accustomed to was severely restricted. I grumbled and frowned, and Pim encouraged me to cultivate a "jai yen," a cool heart. Thais do not like to see expressions of anger and frustration. Letting it all hang out is not a Thai habit. The simplest of chores seemed to taunt me. I remember the time I put a dent in my car when it refused to understand my commands. Of course, it's not technology, but rather something else.

In two weeks, when my visa expires, I'll fly to Vientiane, Laos, for a few days to get a new one. I liked the tiny capital when I visited there last fall, and look forward to French bread and cappuccino and strolls along the Mekong. The following weekend, Pim and I are taking a getaway holiday to Chiang Mai and up to Pai where Eric and Get have recently opened a new hotel. It will be her first airplane trip. The Songkran festival is April 13-16 and we'll miss the worst of it in Bangkok where laughing Thais, Jerry tells me, are known to dump barrels full of water on a farang. Songkran marks the end of the year for Thais. Besides going to the wat, Thais celebrate it by throwing water at each other (and unsuspecting tourists).

After dinner with Mark Levy, and Bob and Vivian Vaughan, they headed for beaches in the south. But I've been able to keep up with their travels by reading Mark's very interesting blog, which includes some wonderful photos. Julie Esterly from Santa Cruz, and her friends Kate and Julia from Portland, have just returned from a spiritual retreat in Bhutan. In Bankok on the way there, we toured the city together, stopping at the Golden Mount and Wat Pho before taking a trip down the Chao Phraya River. I hope I get to hear their stories about Bhutan, which just held its first election, before they leave for home. Dr. Holly played host to her friend Crispy this month. He got off a boat, his natural environment, to come here to Bangkok for major teeth repair. I met him last at a party in Glen Ellen where the lovable Lee lives. He recovered quickly, with the aid of copious quantities of local beer, and when he smiles he will give testimony to the Bangkok as the capital of dental tourism. George returned to Bangkok this week after a period of recovery on the beaches of Vietnam after retiring from his stressful job in Cambodia as a social activist attorney. He will be here until his around the world voyage begins next month.

Turning on the TV the other day, I happened upon the Dirty Harry sequel made by Clint Eastwood in Santa Cruz. I watched the chase down the old pre-earthquake Pacific Avenue Mall and enjoyed the scenes from the Boardwalk. Eastwood no doubt chose Santa Cruz because it was an easy commute from his home in Monterey. I seem to recall that Peter and Diana were in the scene on the Mall but I didn't spot them or any other familiar faces.

The news from the U.S. is always entertaining. The governor of New York gets caught with his pants down and his successor, a legally-blind black man, confesses that both he and his wife have had affairs. Bush brags about five years of success in Iraq on a televised address that I happen to catch live on CNN. That man destroys any "jai yen" I have managed to cultivate. The papers in Asia are crowing that the American century is over and they are probably right. Perhaps the dollar will never recover (which means I will be dependent on the piddling amount I can earn teaching English to the monks), and maybe even Social Security will soon go bankrupt, its funds plundered to kill terrorists. I've heard good reports of Barack Obama's speech about race and saw and read enough about his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to realize that his views and opinions about the U.S. were right on target. I would be happier with Obama were he to embrace them in his campaign.

1 comment:

littlebang said...

In NZ theives stole 100+ kilometres of defunct telephone wire after underground fibreoptics had been installed. (7 years ago)
In Britain it has always been common for theives to steal lead from rooves - to enormous damage at some churches. 2 miles from my home someone lost his legs stealing power cable to the local sewage processing plant. Things people do for greed.