Resurgent Useless Knowledge & The Joy of a Burning Brain

Vishnu and Pals

Hey, I remember you guys!

For many years, my grandfather would constantly tell me, “That’s one thing they can never take away from you. Your education.” I never asked who they were, although the way he said it implied that they were very intent on taking anything and everything else, and that also maybe they were waiting just outside. And if they were the kind of people who wanted to mug me, that maybe they would also take a bat to my head and there goes my education.

But I got his point.

My grandfather was an exceedingly generous man, and as his only grandson he was endlessly proud of everything I did and every dumb thing I ever said. I think, sometimes, that this statement was meant to be reassuring to me through my university years and the ones just beyond. The years where I realized that I had studied a lot of things that weren’t going to be terribly useful to life or gaining a career.  The years where I started to get a little academic’s remorse, as I considered my future and how the words “Starbucks barrista” fit into it.This statement was meant to encourage me to find my education fulfilling, as I would surely be sustaining myself on a pulpy milkshake I could make from old manuscripts and printer ink.

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Hey Guy, Check Out This Sick Prayer

Overall, most of the people assembled for the Hindu self-mortification ceremony were very into Will’s dancing.

Rooftop Party

Sorry. Was this a private function?

We had stumbled, as we often did, into something rare and special and probably not meant for us. Boisterous and expanding across a rural roadway, we heard loudspeakers and shouting and joyousness, and we buzzed closer like moths driven to a technicolour flame. We had taken the ferry away from Yangon to Dalla for the day, and each rural roadway so far had proved fruitful and interesting and unexpected. We were drunk on sackjuice and adventure, and the sound of a party lulled us in.

I spied the goddesses long before we saw the hooks. I pointed out Lakshmi surrounded in parasols and bright orange petals, and then I pointed out the gentleman on the rickety wooden kitchen chair. Iron crescents slid in the skin of his broad, dark shoulders, and he grit his teeth and stared into the distance. Maybe he was on sackjuice as well. We realized instantaneously that this was probably a private religious ceremony, something sacred and honourable. Our baboon presence, with our flip-flops, DSLRs, and SPF-60, was at best ancillary to the nature of the celebration. We turned to go.

Hands grabbed at us, dabbing paint on our faces, smearing our palms with ruddy brown and red. Everywhere townsfolk reached out to shake hands, ask how exactly we managed to stumble into a Hindu religious festival in Myanmar. We shrugged, as while this situation was kind of becoming a custom for us, it was probably not for the residents of Dalla. We motioned towards the exit, which was the dusty road from whence we had first walked, and the people around us scoffed and waved. A pshaw, as though saying, “So soon? But you haven’t even seen the best parts!”

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Walk, Scoot, Gawp; or, the Bagan Templesplosion

Pagoda by Night

Bagan. There are pagodas there!

The sun rose in Bagan, as it often did, over a sea of ancient spikes.

I had only a faint inkling of quite how large this sea would be as our night bus pulled up to the bus station. After attempted fleecings by the attendant taxi drivers, we piled into a cab and took the long road into old Bagan, grumpy and only half-rested and feeling curmudgeonly about the price of our ride. We were prepared, as one often is on the road, to let the petty things dampen our mood.

Bagan quickly stamped on this impulse, as prickly temples and jagged pagodas soon sprouted from the ground all along the roadside. Holy places were thick as tumbleweed here, brick and mortar and metal and stone jutting everywhere into tiny and enormous structures. Along the roadside, like fireworks stands or ragged old taquerias, were dozens of spires aimed skyward.

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Dalla Days: Hey, Check Out This Self-Mortification

Tromping Dalla

Time for fun, sun, and sackjuice.

Burma. It occupied a special slice in my mind, one murky with half-remembered news headlines and foggy recollections of local military history that had been looked up and forgotten. Other travellers talked about Burma as though it were a secret hidey-hole, a hidden place accessible only with great cunning and with great effort. The ability to enter Burma required the cleverness of the djinn, the swiftness of the Pegasus, the strength of the minotaur. According to backpacker legend, controls on tourism had only recently been relaxed, and entry past the border necessitated unmarked, non-sequential US currency in a pristine leather valet case, several hidden bottles of high-quality foreign whisky, and the rights to your unborn children.

In actual fact, going to Burma involved booking a ticket, then talking to Jane, the nice lady at the travel agency, and handing her a neat stack of yuan for my visa.

My feet hit the ground and still I felt a tiny swell of pride, the surge of self-assurance that I was achieving something. Sure, our plane was packed full of Korean tourists and missionaries, but wasn’t I still something of a ground breaker? Forging into new lands? As always, the myth is more endearing and enduring.

As we woke on our first day in Yangon, our friend declared that he had already seen much of the city, and wondered if we might explore what lied across the river on the opposite banks. The journey was simple: bypass Sule Paya, veer through the verdant park just beyond, and ride the ferry to bucolic quaintness.

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Songs from Under the Boughs of the Bodhi Tree

Stone lotus

The stone lotus.

We leave our shoes at the gate. Attendants brush past with long wooden brooms and keep the stones swept for the thousands of feet that press over the surface, that slip around the grounds. Lotuses bloom, and tiny flowers, yellow and orange, bob in minuscule cups brimming with pale sugar-water. The air is sweet and moves as though gently pushed.

It is past dusk, and there is a chill. The path below us is cold to the touch, it shivers through our feet and into us. The temple ahead is well-lit, a grey and purple beacon against a black banner of horizon. High above is a smattering of stars, tiny pin-prick holes in a sieve containing the light of the sky. It is a clear night.

There is chanting everywhere, everywhere. Loud-speakers pump a bass grunt, the voices of men, intoning in some difficult and throaty tongue, thrumming through the air. It hits us in the abdomens, it suddenly synchronizes with the deep noises in our bodies, the natural rhythm of heart and artery. There are other sounds in this distant ring of the grounds, in this peculiar orbit: bells; murmurs; the shuffle of dozens of pairs of feet moving in dainty, respectful gait. A dog’s bark, a baby’s cry.

Closer to the centre the music grows sweet. Monks and the lay gather in unison, in song. To my right, bald men in saffron lead dozens in Thai verses, more delicate and crisp than I have ever heard the language. I realize: it is a language that is meant to be sung, to be put to rhythm and harmony. A tinny radio accompanies them, by static and the scratchy percussion people shifting through the pages of their lyric sheets. Some gather to listen to their voices in the night, they sit along the balustrades and tilt their heads and are content.

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The Pyre and the Labyrinth

Sunrise cruisers

We have almost found our way back to the guesthouse. The alleys near the ghats of Varanasi are narrow and slender and impossible to navigate. The walls seem to reach towards each other as they climb upward, almost intertwining at the peak, revealing only the faintest sliver of dark sky. It is night, and we convinced one reluctant cook to keep his restaurant open for us for an extra ten minutes, but when we exit the alleys are black. We try to retrace our steps, turning at half-remembered marks of graffiti, backtracking to statues, making long, winding journeys.  We stumble upon one thin pathway completely blocked by a stolid, immovable bull, who grazes his two horns against opposite walls, who stares us directly in the eyes.

There is another path, another slick stair, another bull. We climb up and we climb down, and our fingers run over advertisements painted directly onto brick and concrete. At long last, we find a turn that looks familiar, a sign that calls us home like a clarion. We turn to move.

“Stand back,” a man remarks, waving us off the path. “They need room.”

We look, and a procession staggers past us. The men each are old and grey, their shirts are too big for them at this age, yet they are still strong and purposeful. Their arms are wiry and shaped by decades of work, they strain and haul like steam-powered machinery. Across their shoulders is a stretcher of thin wood, and on the stretcher is the body. He is wrapped in an orange veil from head to toe, swaddled like an infant, and these men will carry him to the water and will carry him to the pyre.

The fires burn all day and all night. We can hear a crackle in the distance, the snap of tinder consumed by flame, the hushed murmur of elegy. Much of Varanasi this close to the river smells like woodsmoke. The sky is heavy with grey.

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Da Nang and the Church of Our Lady of Giant Floating Eyeball

Buddha of Melting Rocks

Marble Buddha and his stalagmite buds.

Ty has grown obsessed with the idea of a scooter. Of riding one. Of owning one. Of being on one. Of being adjacent to one. In his mind, I imagine there is a vision of him with a black helmet, a coat with a scorpion embossed on the back, of an epic steeple chase across the continent. On his initiative, we decide to spend a day scooting, although both Faith and I are reluctant to drive them ourselves. Faith’s concern is probably just nerves, and they ride together on one scooter to save on costs. My concerns are more realistic, as leaving me alone on a scooter means I would almost certainly crash it, break both of my legs, and somehow end up tangled in seaweed.

We set off in different directions, Faith and Ty on their scooter, while I ride on an impressive motorcycle owned and driven by an elderly Vietnamese man who refuses to tell me his name. I look out to the horizon: the first stop has to be the Marble Mountains.

They make marble things there.

The mountains are notable for the expensive rocks contained within, but also for a hiking trail leading into and around the biggest mountain, as well as two caves lodged within.

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