Bugs in a Bowl

Han-shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled
Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:

We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day
going around never leaving their bowl.

I say: That’s right! Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.

Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.

Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for your self.

Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.

Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice bowl!

— “Bugs in a Bowl” by David Budbill, from Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse

Sunday Salon 5-25-14

Time: 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

Place: At my main computer, enjoying the very quiet morning. Most days at this time would be dominated by cars warming up and little dogs yipping at one another.

Reading: This morning I finished Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. It was a long, diffuse, but quite fascinating story of a group of college students that, under the influence of their classical studies, wind up committing a couple of murders and endeavor to keep them secret. Both the characters and story were really compelling, especially appealing for the more bookish among us. Now I’m anxious to move on to Tartt’s most recent book, The Goldfinch. I’m also close to the end of Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, which has so far helped me considerably in identifying the problem areas in my life, even though the solutions haven’t become evident yet. I am now at that wonderful stage when I can decide what I’d like to read next. I don’t know if it will be fiction or non-fiction, art history or biography or novel. As I’m fairly sure I already own more books than I will ever be able to read in this lifetime, at least I’ll have a range of choices!

Viewing: Two Criterion Blu-rays were the extent of my movie watching this week. Autumn Sonata, oddly enough, I had never seen before. A typically claustrophobic Ingmar Bergman drama, it was just the thing for me at the time. Ingrid Bergman, in the only time she worked with her namesake Ingmar, apparently came into this production overly prepared and spent the first couple of days of shooting overacting terribly. But Ingmar intervened, and now the exchanges between Ingrid and Liv Ullmann (who remains for me one of the most fascinating-looking women ever in film) are pretty mesmerizing. Also viewed was another much-praised film I had somehow missed the first time around, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, which managed to combine rather dark, personal subject matter, a whimsical storytelling style, and vibrant visuals in an entirely wonderful way. Amazingly, this is the first Wes Anderson film I’ve ever seen. Now I must seek out more.

Listening: Not much in the way of music listening this week, other than a few odds and ends on YouTube.

Blogging: Yesterday I posted the final installment of my southeast Asia travel journal, documenting my trip this past February through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This project also provided me the excuse to go through the hundreds of photos I took, many dozens of which appear in the journal entries. The journal has its own tab at the top of my website now, so access to it is quick and easy. Now that the journal, which dominated several weeks of my blogging, is done, I have to figure out what to do next.

Pondering: A week ago today I broke up with my girlfriend of several weeks, or rather she broke up with me. Little else has entered my pondering recently. Instead of this Salon you’re reading now, I had originally written a long, extremely personal piece about the woman, the relationship, and the breakup. But after seeking out some friends for advice, making that essay public came to seem like a bad idea. So I will keep it to myself, for now at least. While I never actually got a chance to talk with her about what happened, my best guess is that I was looking for a passionate romantic relationship, and she was looking for someone nice to go places and do things with. We were on different life courses. I might have been able to moderate my emotions to be more in sync with her needs, but then I wouldn’t have been true to myself, would I? Nevertheless, I’m still filled with regrets and longing.

Anticipating: Another trip to San Francisco for some art, music, and baseball may be in the offing. Otherwise, though, my thinking has been too dark to do much anticipating of anything.

Gratuitous Rainer Maria Rilke Quote of the Week: As I was in the midst of my emotional tumult of the last couple of weeks, looking through a Rainer Maria Rilke anthology provided me great solace. More than once in my life have I had the experience of opening a Rilke book, sometimes quite at random, and finding a quotation that seems directly relevant to me and my life. The following one was my big discovery for the week. My Facebook friends have already seen this. Perhaps it will hold some meaning for you too.

“It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate.”

SE Asia Journal: Days 17-19

Tuesday, February 25, 4:10 p.m., Bangkok

After this morning’s writing I caught a tuk-tuk and went to the Angkor National Museum, which provides a very nice summary of Cambodia’s ancient history. Their presentation started with a short summary film and the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, a collection of Buddha images in stone, wood, and precious metals from throughout Khmer history. They were arranged by posture, time period, and material. While the many small images arrayed along the walls weren’t really accessible or visible, the larger ones were in full view. A fine, meditative space.

The remaining galleries traced Cambodia’s history, from its pre-Angkorian history in Funan, through the different belief systems – Hindu, Buddhist, and to a lesser extent folk religion. Then the major Khmer kings like Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII were profiled and their works listed. Two galleries were devoted to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom; the latter was actually the more extensive. Stelae detailing Khmer history and language were followed by the concluding gallery dedicated to clothing styles as revealed in ancient Khmer sculpture, and a final section on apsaras, which I didn’t realize had so captured the imaginations of both Cambodians and tourists.

Day 17 Bayon apsara 2

Pretty females doing sensuous dances will do that. I barely looked at the sometimes extensive texts provided with the individual images, relying on the larger summary texts and the very good audio guide (featuring a voice I’m certain I’ve heard in other museum audio guides).

Then it was back to the hotel for the bus, a flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok – and now I am back in the hotel that started all this. My plan is to set this journal aside for tomorrow, then return to it back home for some final thoughts. Dinner on the river ensues in an hour.

Thursday, March 6, 5:35 a.m., Reno

On the morning that I’m finally getting back to my daily routine of walking, meditating, writing, and so on, it seems appropriate to return finally to this journal to wrap up the final, painful day-plus of my trip. I should start by mentioning that when I returned to Bangkok, my hotel room was in fact larger than my home. Two bedrooms, three baths, three televisions, and much walking space, all just for me.

The farewell dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok was quite nice. Once again there were plenty of vegetarian options for me. Along the river were all manner of noteworthy sights – other ships large and small (many tourist-oriented), large hotels, brightly lit stupas and temples, a very attractive modern bridge spanning the river, and amidst it all a few stretches of older, in some cases decrepit, buildings that hinted at what the river might have looked like in times past.

Day 18 Chao Phraya River

Along with the scenery, pleasant views along the river, and food, there was much pleasantness and picture taking with my fellow trip members. I said goodbye to everyone, and got some addresses and information from people. How lucky I was to be traveling with such nice people who also proved to be up for anything and everything the trip offered. I had two beers that night, which was probably one too many given that I had to rise at 3:30 a.m. for the following morning’s flight. Read more

SE Asia Journal: Day 16 part 2

Tuesday, February 25, 7:35 a.m., Siem Reap

In around half an hour I will be heading out to the Angkor National Museum for a visit. Before that, however, I want to recount the events of yesterday afternoon.

We started at one of the gates of Angkor Thom, the great (3 km by 3 km) city of King Jayavarman VII.

Day 17 Angkor Thom entrance

Day 17 Angkor Thom causeway

At the center of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, the state temple for Jayavarman’s Mahayana Buddhist faith.

Day 17 Bayon 1

Day 17 Bayon 3

Compared to the immensity of Angkor Wat, the Bayon is quite small. Yet R, our guide, finds the Bayon to be his favorite of the Angkor sites, largely because of the 200-plus smiling faces – of Avalokiteshvara, the great Boddhisattva of infinite compassion, and Jayavarman VII simultaneously – on each of the four faces of the 54 temples, each representing one of the regions of Jayavarman’s kingdom. Those faces smile down on you from every direction.

Day 17 Bayon three faces

Day 17 Bayon more faces

Day 17 Bayon face

The remarkable bas reliefs, in much greater relief than those at Angkor Wat, provide a portrait of daily life at the time. Scenes range from fishing to childbirth to cockfighting to a huge naval battle, presumably against the Cham from south Vietnam that took over Angkor briefly from 1177 to 1181. Read more

SE Asia Journal: Day 16 part 1

Monday, February 24, 1:20 p.m., Siem Reap

During a break between this afternoon’s temples, I have a chance to get a few thoughts down about Angkor Wat, which was as amazing as I was expecting.

As we were approaching, our guide R shared a few facts. The building process for Angkor Wat took 37 years, and involved an estimated five million tons of stone and 200,000 to 300,000 workers. The stone was quarried some ninety kilometers away, and was transported to the site by water, then by elephants. Location was key: Angkor Wat was at the center of the Khmer Empire, as well as adjacent to Tonle Sap Lake – a good source of water for agriculture and fish – and on soil that was good for large-scale building. As the funerary monument for King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is the only Khmer temple that faces west, toward the setting sun.

Since it faces west, our guides were smart to have us enter via the far less busy east gate, which afforded both a wonderful view, with good light for photography, and vastly fewer people than we would have seen at the main west gate.

Day 16 Angkor east entrance 1

Day 16 Angkor east entrance 3

Towering above us was the central representation of Mount Meru, the hub of the universe and home of the gods.

Day 16 Angkor east entrance 2

We got to see our first apsaras, celestial female figures, of which there are something like 2,000, all unique, within Angkor Wat. Read more

SE Asia Journal: Day 15

Monday, February 24, 6:10 a.m., Siem Reap

Yesterday was a long day full of experiences, and I wasn’t quite up to, or didn’t have the time to, recount it all yesterday. So here I am writing this down, first thing in the morning, just a couple of hours from seeing Angkor Wat!

We started yesterday with another look at small village life, a feature of this tour that has been extremely welcome.

Day 15 Building

Banteay Srei, our main destination for the morning, is nearly an hour away from Siem Reap, and along the way we stopped at a couple of places. Rice is, of course, a three-times-a-day staple of most diets here. Once upon a time, grinding the rice into flour and making noodles out of it was a treat saved for a single instance a year, on the Cambodian version of Thanksgiving Day. Now it’s much more commonplace, and we saw the traditional process by which the noodles are made. The rice is ground and soaked and pounded into a dough, which is then pressed through a fine sieve into long thin noodles that are immediately cooked.

Day 15 Pressing noodles

They only stay fresh for one day. I tried some, and they were great. The young woman that prepared them was very attractive, and, apparently still unmarried at the late age of 28. As her mother lamented this fact, I thought, briefly, about offering her marriage and a trip to the U.S., but feared this might not go down so well, culturally or personally!

Day 15 Pretty noodle maker

Most Cambodians don’t have access to electricity, and it was common in these villages to see car batteries employed as a source of power for televisions and for charging cell phones (which are ubiquitous here as everywhere else).

Day 15 Car battery and TV

We also visited some basket makers. Using long strips of rattan and a little colored plastic, they create beautiful baskets of all sizes to order for middlemen that then sell them. It, like the noodle making, brings in a little extra income for families that largely make their living from farming.

Day 15 Baskets

The same goes for the candy makers we met later in the day, who use the fruit of the sugar palm tree, the national tree of Cambodia, to make liquid sugar that is formed into tasty treats. I bought a couple of baskets of these for work and home.

Day 15 Making candy

Then it was on to Banteay Srei!

Day 15 Banteay Srei 2

Day 15 Banteay Srei 6

Built in 967, much of it has remained in excellent repair due to the use of hard pink sandstone. Some smaller buildings around the central temple weren’t in such great repair, but even there one could admire the intricate carvings and sophisticated construction. Within the temple, the level of detail is amazing. Read more

SE Asia Journal: Day 14

Saturday, February 22, 6:15 p.m., Siem Reap

As today was largely a driving day, there won’t be a whole lot to report. But I’m sure I’ll make up for it over the next two days in Siem Reap. We said goodbye to our Phnom Penh guide T, and welcomed our guide for Siem Reap, R. He seems very nice, and has strong feelings – positive ones – about the state of Cambodian politics and society. It was nice to hear him point out that his country as well as Vietnam and Laos are tired of warfare and killing, and want to move on to a future of prosperity and self-determination. He also mentioned that the people increasingly reject one-family rule, nepotism, and corruption. None of that sounds so different from where Thailand is right now. I hope we’ll hear more from him on these subjects in the next few days, although I have a feeling we’re going to be in a more historical mode during that time.

We got to see several hours of the Cambodian countryside during our drive today – not perhaps as lush as we saw in Vietnam, but similar insofar as the land was mostly dedicated to crops and farming, with occasional, fairly small towns and villages.

Day 14 Cambodia countryside

A stop we made that will likely be memorable for everyone involved was at a small village where some of the people are dedicated to capturing, selling, and cooking and eating tarantulas. Our host showed us how she finds them in small holes a few inches underground. She quickly defangs them – with a nail clipper! The tour members didn’t seem especially fearful, and a few had them crawling around on their arms and torsos. Later she showed us how she cooks them, killing them first with a little squeeze to the midsection, then frying them with some garlic in oil for a few minutes.

Day 14 Cooking tarantulas

Verdicts on the taste were pretty positive; I contented myself with a photograph.

Day 14 Me and tarantula

This little excursion was made especially delightful by the dozen or more kids that greeted us and followed us around. They were incredibly cute and unaffectedly friendly. I wish I could be as unreserved with people as they. I suppose all young people are great looking, but Cambodian kids, with their big smiles, do stand out. Much fun!

Day 14 Kids 2

Day 14 Kids

We had lunch a couple of hours later at a huge resort that may one day be a real tourist haven, but which today was sadly almost deserted. A nice place, though. After some more driving we got to the next stop of interest, the Kampong Kdei Bridge, one of several dozen built by King Jayavarman VII, or rather at his direction, as part of his massive building project of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries (also of course including Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and the Bayon, which we’ll soon be visiting!)

Day 14 Kampong Kdei Bridge

Day 14 Kampong Kdei Bridge 2

A couple more hours driving, and we arrived in Siem Reap – a city of 1.2 million, I was astonished to hear! They welcome over four million visitors each year. We stopped briefly at the Royal Residence, where I got to hear a few minutes of wonderful music, presumably Cambodian traditional and/or court music, at the nearby Buddhist temple. From there we made our way to the very comfortable Angkor Home Hotel that will be my home for the last few days of the trip.

SE Asia Journal: Day 13

Friday, February 21, 5:00 p.m., Phnom Penh

We began a largely somber day with a slow, rough ride over in-the-process-of-construction roads to Choeung Ek, one of the largest of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. T, our guide, detailed some of the complex machinations that led to the ascendancy of Pol Pot – the much-loved presidency of Norodom Sihanouk from 1955 to 1970, then the overthrow (with the support of the United States) of the King by his general Lon Nol in 1970, then the ousting of Lon Nol by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in 1975. This began the three years, eight months, and twenty days of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. At first their ascendancy and victory over Lon Nol and the Americans was greeted with joy by the people. But that lasted only a short time as Phnom Penh was soon evacuated, the people put to hard manual labor, and the intellectuals and dissidents systematically tortured and put to death.

Day 13 Sign

Large open pits mark the Killing Field of Choeung Ek – although, quite disturbingly, one trods on bones and bits of clothing that continue to emerge from the dirt on the paths around the site.

Day 13 Bones in ground

Piles of clothing and bones symbolize the bloodshed. Wristbands adorn the memorials, one of which is the killing tree where children were held by the legs and bashed to death.

Day 13 Killing Tree

Day 13 Wristbands

There seemed to have been no restraint in the behavior of Pol Pot’s minions, who were brutal and direct and bloodthirsty – and would have been put to death themselves if they weren’t. A large memorial building holds the bones of some of the 9,000 or so whose remains have been recovered at Choeung Ek – a tiny fraction of the two million that died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in under four years. Read more

SE Asia Journal: Day 12

Thursday, February 20, 5:25 p.m., Phnom Penh

It was a bright and early 5:30 a.m. rising today. Shortly after 7:00 we boarded a boat to take us on a short trip along the Mekong River to a floating fish farm, where the splashing of the catfish and tilapia took everyone by surprise with its vigor. At that point we said so long to D, our fine Vietnamese guide, and boarded a motor boat for a five-hour ride further up the Mekong to Phnom Penh, with brief stops for both Vietnamese and Cambodian immigration. For the duration of the trip I was content to sit below, take the occasional photo of fishermen or homes or temples, enjoying the fact that I was once again on the fabled Mekong!

Day 12 Ships on Mekong

Day 12 Mekong buildings 2

It wasn’t an eventful ride, but definitely a meaningful one. Sadly, because of sitting on the left side of the boat, I got half a sunburn on my left side. But it’s not painful and I’m not stressed.

Day 12 Mekong temple

From the entry at the pier, Phnom Penh certainly looked like a busy modern city, on a much larger scale than Chau Doc. Our new Cambodian guide, T, says that the population of this capital city is about two million, versus the nine million of the entire country.

Lunch was at a local restaurant, proudly announcing on a sign at the front the presence of “Mr. Toilet Public,” sponsored by the World Toilet Association (glad to know there is such a thing!)

Day 12 Mr. Toilet Public

After that we went to the Royal Palace, the home of Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni. The King was on a trip to China to seek medical care for his ailing mother, so the Cambodian flag was not flying. We got splendid views of the Royal Residence, the Throne Hall, the Moonlight Pavilion, and some smaller palaces. Mostly built in the 1860s and early 1870s, the buildings are elaborate and magnificent.

Day 12 Royal Palace 2

Day 12 Temple gable

Day 12 Royal Palace 3

We couldn’t enter the Throne Hall, but got a glimpse from the outside of the throne itself and the huge paintings within.

Adjacent to the Royal Palace is the Silver Pagoda – Wat Preah Keo Morokat, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Day 12 Royal Palace

Its name comes from the 5,329 individually crafted silver tiles that cover the entire floor. The Emerald Buddha itself may or may not be made of actual emerald; it may be some kind of crystal, but of course that isn’t the point. In front of it is the great solid gold sculpture of the Buddha of the Future Maitreya, adorned by 2,000-plus diamonds, the largest of which, in the front of its crown, is 25 carats. Hundreds of other Buddha figures large and small are on display, a few accessible – and touched gently by people for good health and long life – but most in glass cabinets. It wasn’t appropriate to take photographs within the temple. Back outside, we also got to see the beautiful but, sadly, heavily damaged fresco paintings of scenes from the Ramayana, which are only about 110 years old but are still in very poor shape.

Day 12 Damaged frescos

On our exit from the Royal Palace complex, a small Cambodian band was playing, on traditional instruments, what sounded like a Cambodian variation on “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Day 12 Cambodian band

Back to the hotel for a laundry drop off and these notes, before a remok (Cambodian tuk-tuk) ride and dinner. Yes, I’m in Cambodia!

Day 12 Phnom Penh in window

SE Asia Journal: Day 11

Wednesday , February 19, 5:20 p.m., Chau Doc

There won’t be too much to write about today, as most of the day was spent in the bus driving from Ho Chi Minh City to Chau Doc. The most noteworthy part of the day was simply seeing a few hours worth of the Vietnamese countryside and a bunch of smaller towns, many of them in the Mekong Delta.

Day 11 Tributary 2

We saw long green fields, towns that looked like the rustic areas heading to Cu Chi – shops lining the streets, beautiful mansions right alongside tiny, barely standing shacks – and many, many tributaries of the Mekong River.

Day 11 Shack

Many of the buildings were up on stilts to protect them from the Mekong during the rainy season.

Day 11 Tributary 3

Even now, as I’m looking out the window of my hotel in Chau Doc, I’m seeing a few of those shack-like shops and roughly paved roads. I do hope, however, that the loud radio or television that I’m now hearing will subside later tonight.

During the several hour drive we made a few stops, including an impromptu one to see incense sticks being created.

Day 11 Incense making

Day 11 Incense

The major stop of the day was at the Cao Dai temple, the home of the recently founded religion (early twentieth century) that embraces elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, and others, while adding its own distinctive symbolism and mysticism.

Day 11 Cao Dai interior

Around two million of the eighty million people in Vietnam follow Cao Dai, and the number is growing. I can see the appeal of its open-minded syncretism, and am kind of curious about some of the symbolism – for instance, the ubiquity of the eye.

Day 11 Cao Dai eye

Chau Doc, where we now reside, is a city of around 150,000. We seem to be on the outskirts of the city, or at least away from the city center. I don’t have much of an impression yet, and I don’t know if we’ll be here long enough for me to form one. Our hotel, the Dong Nam, is fairly basic but fine, with readily accessible internet. Dinner is still ahead, which I hope will be relatively short and simple as I’m tired and the wake-up call is scheduled for 5:30 tomorrow morning!