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September 2014

To Mourn in Marble

We see it from across the water and it doesn’t look real.  Its white marble dome glistens in the midday sun, winks at us from the main reflecting pool and seems to have sprung massively to life from third grade textbooks and half-watched documentaries on the Discovery Channel.

The stiffness in our bones, courtesy of the four hour mini-bus ride from New Delhi to Agra, graduates into just enough ache and pain to remind us that we are not dreaming.  That all that separates us from Emperor Shah Jahan’s elegy for his dearly departed third wife is an immaculate Mughal garden and a hasty stop to wrap our shoes in soft material so as not to scuff the 350 year old marble of the Taj Mahal.

I am joined by five other journalists who blink just as rapidly in a dual fluttering against disbelief and double-vision.

We have escaped the Indian handicrafts fair we have been invited to report on to visit a city with almost as many people as there are in Namibia’s entirety and who each seem to have sauntered into the street to stand, sell or simply stare.

Though we know majesty awaits us somewhere in this mire of humanity, what we see of Agra is a slum.

Its faded billboards lead the way through its shabby streets and the greenish brown water that edges its buildings and roads is made of something we prefer not to imagine, though comfortingly there is no smell.

Our mini-bus surges forward.

It races past numerous Coca-Cola signs featuring the same long-haired, light-skinned model that I imagine is a well known woman of adolescent dreams, pale aspiration and relentless refreshment.

If it is all told, there are also cows, monkeys, bicycles, rickshaws and vendors selling everything from pomegranates to cauliflower but most of all there are men.  Mustachioed and mellow, they seem to be everywhere and nowhere as they stand idly on roadsides and in doorways engaged in quiet congress.

Perhaps it is this abrupt ascent from Agra’s chaos to the spotless hall of the red sandstone Darwaza-i rauza (The Great Gate) that makes our first glimpse of the astonishingly opulent Taj Mahal seem so surreal.

This feeling of fantasy begins to trickle into reality when our green-shirted and garrulous guide takes me by the shoulders and places me in an opportune spot which causes the Taj Mahal to move slowly towards me as I take ten steps backwards.

“Stand here, lady. Stand here.” he says. “Let me show you the magic.”

His name is Dharmendra Kumar. He owns a small tour guide outfit called Fly India Tours and he busies himself with the task of whispering wonder into our ears while taking larger than life tourist photos of the Taj Mahal reflected in our sunglasses, suspended from our hands and squared around our shoulders like a photo frame.

The walk from the Darwaza-i rauza to the base of the Taj Mahal is a contemplative one.  I think of the 20 000 artisans and 22 years it took to build Mumtaz Mahal’s tremendous tomb and I wonder about the might of  a love that must be immortalized in marble and has the power to draw over 3 million visitors to its resting place every year.

Like anything as priceless, this love is cosseted.

Armed guards watch us put a protective layer over our shoes and as we enter the tomb hastily stowing away our cameras, which are forbidden inside, they press their whistles to their lips and let out a series of sharp blasts to hurry us around the piercework Jali screen surrounding Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaphs.

It is after a particularly insistent whistle blast that Dharmendra, our guide, jumps into action. Shining a torch light on the red carnelian stone of a lotus flower, he shows us how it glows before pointing out the rich blue of lapis lazuli both worked in the ancient inlay technique of lapidary work.

Though there is still much to be said and seen, Dharmendra looks at us helplessly as another whistle blast rips through the dark tomb and an old man steps suddenly out of the crowd and points at the ceiling.

He seems to have appeared from nowhere and even though we are part of an exclusive tour, he gestures for us to listen as he shouts up into the ceiling.

His brief bark scares a black bird out of its resting place and out the archway and his voice seems to dance across the interior of the dome in a way that makes a simple song out of his scream.

I turn to thank him for his advice on the acoustics but he is gone and in his place a guard looks down on us sternly and I feel Dharmendra’s hand on my shoulder pushing me purposefully forward.

We walk out of the octagonal inner chamber and into more hallways just as cool and beautiful as the last while marveling at the intricate effort that engulfs us.

From the outside the Taj Mahal’s beauty graduates into the realm of the ethereal.  Its minarets jut high into the sky and the mausoleum’s walls are an artisan’s vitrine of elaborate  flora motifs and arabesques worked flawlessly in stone inlay, paint, stucco and carving; each element adhering strictly to Shah Jahan’s insistence of symmetry.

Standing there in the blinding marble white there is much to see and even more to feel but what can be put into words is the sensation of being desperately dwarfed by the utter size, beauty and the unbridled outpouring of emotion that is Shah Jahan’s dirge for Mumtaz Mahal.

After taking a few photos we make our way towards Darwaza-i rauza. And as each step takes us further from the stone sadness, we do not laugh and we do not talk like we did before.

Instead we glance over our shoulders at intervals, quietly carving the crown palace onto the back of our eyelids to be seen again in sleep…and silences.

@marth__vader on Twitter

A Guest is God in India

I’m sitting in the back of a cab amidst the thirty minute drive from Indira Gandhi International Airport to the Double Tree Hilton in New Delhi and I am pretty sure I’m about to die.

I know this because my liaison has seen fit to have me collected by a lunatic cabbie who is currently cutting in front of rickshaws, dodging cattle and darting between the parade of heavy vehicles going Ganesh knows where in such abundance on a Sunday night.

As my life flashes sepia across my eyes, Tahrir, the cabbie, inquires as to whether I am American, married and happy in my profession, quite unaware that his queries take on a sinister hue as the incessant Hindi music transforms his gregariousness into the grotesque.

When I finally come to terms with the fact that Tahrir is fighting an accomplished and winning battle against the complete chaos that is New Delhi traffic, I gradually begin to relax and take in my surroundings.

Though I cannot see the stars in the sky or any of the buildings the city is famous for, New Delhi takes on a bustling beauty that I am sure will soon steal my heart.

Slowly I begin to see that in and amidst the madness there is a racing rhythm.

Its notes resound in the discord of an auto-rickshaw all but crashing into a Tata Indica on the left while the tail of a beautiful woman’s bright pink sari flies high into the sky as she envelopes a motorcyclist deftly weaving his way in between massive trucks, humble bicycles and silent sedans.

Suddenly it is a harmonious cacophony and though I have been gripping my bag and silently beseeching my creator, I eventually feel so safe that I give in to the hours spent flying nervously over Africa and across the Red Sea and wake only when we pull up in front of the Hilton.

At this point is hard for me to distinguish between dreams and reality because though  a glance in the reflective surface assures me that I am myself,  everyone seems to be bowing and smiling as if I am well known and highly regarded.

This strange behaviour continues as I check in, as I stagger into the elevator and as I carefully close my door on a bellboy whose ceaseless beaming is doing much to exacerbate my mounting migraine.

This is the start of my great Indian adventure and as my time there stretches into hours and days, I come to know that the outlandish, grinning hospitality I feel self-conscious enough to pay 200 rupees for at the Hilton is simply an omnipresent manifestation of the Indian idea that ‘a guest is God.’

Things remain just as godly when I venture out to go shopping and I find that the practice involves being led in off the street and seated on the most comfortable chair in the building while a salesman brings me clothes and cloths in every colour and creation I can fathom.

The same is true when I find myself braving the New Delhi Metro and I am all but melting in a stew of ten thousand men, many of whom inquire as to my well-being after I forego ridding someone of their seat.

This is the way of things.

Though people warned me that skin as dark as my own may be subject to ridicule in a country that has practiced the caste system,  the feeling of welcome and indeed some kind of worship is almost uncomfortable in its abundance.

In-between this deluge of decorum, I visit India Gate, the Taj Mahal,  Chandni Chowk, Delhi Haat and Connaught Place.

And when my plane finally returns to African soil and I am greeted by a sleepy clerk at the international transfer desk who never cracks a smile and does his utmost to make me feel like a fugitive of the law my thoughts are simply this…

“Oh, Africa.”

@marth__vader on Twitter

Children at Midnight

I meet Max at a bar called Loco Elvis.

A Thai guy in blue John Lennon sunglasses is singing ‘Last Nite’ like he’s Julian Casablancas and Max walks in, heads right for me,  smiles and says “Yo, chocolate!” like he heard it from my mother.

Then he challenges me to a wrestling match.

He slams his elbow down on the table and says if he wins I have to give him a 100 Baht and if he loses I have to buy two of the malik garlands he’s selling at 20 Baht each which brings the cost of the whole thing down to a real rip-off.

Max is ten years old.

It’s about 23:30 in Chiang Mai and he and his buddy Burn are selling roses and  Arabian jasmine to the patrons slowly slipping off their bar stools.

Though I know it’s none of my business, I look around for some kind of Fagan.

A shady Dickensian character hovering around to make sure the kids don’t try any funny flower business but I don’t see anyone who looks like they’re a pimp for a gang of children selling potpourri.

Still, Max and Burn are alone in bar at night.  Max has a lazy eye that must be a real boon in the pity trade and both their young brown eyes look a little shinier than I find normal but no one bats an eyelid so I play along.

I ask them a few questions about where they’re selling that night and get my arm wrestled to the ground  before buying  them each a piece of chocolate cake which they  fling into their mouths as they run out into the street.

High on sugar, the night and who knows what else.

A few minutes later I meet their friend Pozo who has just missed them. I ask him if he’s friends with Burn and Max and he nods, places his flowers on the counter and sits down next to me at the bar when I tell him they’ve just left.

The soccer’s on.

Germany is playing Portugal and Pozo says he hopes they win before sizing me up out of the corner  of his eye and deciding that I look like the kind of sucker who will buy a whole bunch of roses and garlands.

Even though I already have two strands on my neck, ten strands hanging in my bathroom and two roses in a glass on the bar top.

Pozo is right. I cough up for three malik garlands and drape them over my growing flower arrangement on the counter and he grins at me and runs his hands over his buzz cut before watching the game for about fifteen minutes.

While he does, I smell the flowers. The Arabian jasmine smells like lily of the valley and the roses don’t smell like anything at all. They’re bright, beautiful and everything a rose should be but I get the feeling they’d be a big disappointment to Shakespeare.

The next night, I meet a musician who knows Max well and tells me his going to be the greatest little con artist the world has ever seen.

He says he’s run into the kid by day and that his mum is a fit looking Thai woman with a boyfriend and that Max lives in the area with his grandmother.

He says it matter of factly and answers my questions about their safety and it being a school night, with a look that implies: “Honey, your life has been a cakewalk and a bag of chips, hasn’t it?” and in words he says: “It’s safe, it’s school holidays and they need the money.”

I can’t argue with that and neither can I drink 100 baht cocktails and not spend 20 baht on their flowers so I buy some every night I see them amidst cheers of “Hey, chocolate. Thanks, chocolate. Chocolate, can you buy me some chocolate?”

The three of them are the cutest things I’ve have ever seen.

They are males with flowers and they are impossible to resist and I’m romanticizing the whole thing to a friend at a superbar called ‘Zoe in Yellow’ after Pozo has spotted me and I’ve given him twenty Baht for a garland.

“You know he’s drunk as fuck, right?”

I don’t associate the sentence with the little kid who has just walked off so I look around at the many drunks I can choose from in Sodom and Gomorrah and ask who?

“Your little friend.”

“Pozo?”

“Yeah, they use that money to buy rum and drink it at the back of the bars and sometimes they even get paid in it.”

I stare after Pozo and, as if feeling my eyes on his back, he turns around, walks back to me and asks me to buy him a burger. I take in the glassiness of his eyes and ask him how much it is and he says 55 baht.

I’m starting to doubt him but I think it best he sobers up so I give him the money to go to the street food sellers outside the club and tell him he has to come and show me the burger. He nods.

About 30 minutes later, I’m giving up on him and trying not to look at my friend’s smug face when a burger gets shoved in my face and is made to do a little burger dance that says: “I told you so.”

It’s Pozo.

He has ketchup in the corners of his mouth and he grins at me, says ‘Thank you’ and runs off into the night.

I head home.

I open the door to my little apartment and I pause in the doorway because I smell something.

Something strong and sweet and familiar.

It’s the Arabian Jasmine in my bathroom.It scent seems strengthened by the night and it’s like a presence in the dark room.

A presence that says “thank you.”

And smells like children at midnight.

@marth__vader on Twitter

Saturday Night Feverless

I’m not as perturbed as I should be about The Rapture.

In fact, as we drive through the abandoned streets of Swakopmund on a Saturday night, I’m pretty excited about raiding forsaken stores of all the Twix I can carry before fighting off inevitable zombies with the cheap Thai laser I’ve been shining up into the sky interspersed with entirely appropriate shouts of “Luke, I am your father.”

Willem looks over at me as if I’ve been infected.

Soon, I’ll have whatever it is that has the whole town shut up behind closed doors minus the brave souls who venture out for a piece of schnitzel at one of the brightly lit restaurants humming heroically in the sprawling darkness.

With a little laugh, I assure him that I haven’t joined the ranks of the undead and he rolls his eyes before parking across the street from a place called Kücki’s Pub.  We hurry towards it like moths to a flame and, as we tumble in out of the fog, our bustle and dissimilarity draw the attention of the people eating in the main room.

Like an ignominious post-colonial cliché, Willem’s white and I’m black and walking into an ocean of pale faces we are unsure of  whether we let in the cold as we rushed through the door or if it was there all along.

Our moment of hesitant consideration in the village square is cut short by friendly manager who directs us to a room in the back under the stairs where a trio of ten year old girls have chosen to run amok like  there’s no such thing as sit down and shut up.

The effect, I suppose, is that of going over to a long suffering and virile neighbour’s house whose food just happens to be fantastic.

Willem eats a pig’s foot and I order the chicken schnitzel.

While we munch we watch a series of segments advertising Swakopmund’s exercise classes, make-up artists and bed and breakfasts playing on loop on a flat screen near the door.

Though it’s been blindly pieced together, it’s mesmerizing the way only ordinary advertisements about ordinary distractions can be and Willem kills himself laughing at some anonymous rube fighting a losing battle against Adobe Premier somewhere out there in the darkness.

We don’t stay long.

We feel dulled by the endless montage of mundane and we have this vague and pregnant idea about being young and it being a Saturday night.

We pack up, tip our waiter much less than his weight in gold, climb into Willem’s Toyota and sail out into the emptiness looking for somewhere to be young and restless.  Blasting past dark storefronts between brightly lit oases, we wonder at the complete lack of people when there seems to be so much to do.

Condescending city slickers that we are, we can’t help but contrast the seaside stillness with Windhoek’s comparative triumph over seasonal adversity.  Clearly the allure of sex, risqué conversation and alcohol flushed down the gullet to aide in the former is too much for Windhoekers to resist on nights far colder than this.
Unlike Swakopmund’s real or imagined women of the night, vaginas-for-hire do their thing on Independence  Avenue come rain or shine and, in a seedy up-yours to frost bite,  bar owners can count on a decent size of the population huddling around  their bars while passing the hours paraphrasing that morning’s newspaper.

Here that instinct has been dulled by the fog. There isn’t a stray dog let alone a stray man
making his way towards a wild stab at entertainment and the degenerate in me imagines there must be an obscene orgy in the desert somewhere that we simply have not been invited to.

We end up at the first indication of irresponsible life and we are intrigued by its sign that tells us it is  a maniacal mash-up of a laundry, arcade and entertainment centre.

Inside is the emptiness we have come to expect but we get a kick from the seventies style laundry  and then a little depressed by  the hopeful attendant at the busted up arcade who looks so forlorn about me not coming in to play, I feel like giving myself carpal tunnel on Space Invaders.

As we leave, one of the two women at the bar beseeches us to come and sit with her.

I have my camera out so I tell her, I’m on my way to work. She asks me where and I tell her “The Namibian” and she looks at me like I’ve spoken to her in Elvish  before drunkenly mugging  at me and imitating my utterance with more than a little nastiness.

Her friend’s heard me just fine though. And as she does her eyes grew wide, she nudges the mugger and says “It’s that newspaper.”

Quietly, curiously and with a look more suited to the idea that I’ve sauntered in from the moon.

Follow me on Twitter @marth__vader

#1BAG – Malkovich

Curfew’s just been lifted in Bangkok and I’m trying to hear Malkovich over a trumpeter and a gang of Chinese men punctuating shots of tequila with assorted yells, backslaps and calls for the waitress at a club that wouldn’t know jazz if it came by to introduce itself.

He’s just in from Milan fresh from working on an album with FunkPrez after spending a week in Turkish Cyprus where he inched past sniper turrets to see his Namibian girlfriend who dumped him for his trouble.

Bangkok is where he goes to press pause. He wakes up at the crack of dawn, streams Phil Hendrie while he checks his email and then listens to the same beat over and over and so loud you can hear it through the hotel room walls and down the hall.

No one complains.  The beat is either so good that they enjoy it or they’re not willing to piss off the big, black guy who has that kind of bowl-you-over bass playing on loop.

Inside Malkovich is editing the first episode of #1BAG, dispassionately watching himself on screen as he walks around Famagusta in what will be the inaugural edition of his web series.  A multimedia travelogue by the nomadic rapper fueled by epic beats, social media and the singular stories that come with finding talented producers on Twitter then moving to their countries to live like they do while revivifying rap music.

Malkovich edits for while, let’s me hear his cousin singing over a track  he’s working on for his Asia album, saves exactly two beats from the scores sent that morning  and then wisecracks a little before we step out into the Bangkok heat.

To walk.

We’re not going anywhere in particular and it’s a billion degrees outside but we walk. Past shops, through malls, down side streets and up walkways taking it all in to a soundless beat produced entirely by Malkovich which I soon realize involves the sight of dogs, hobos, inebriates, street vendors, crumbling constructions, festering laundry swinging in a ghost of a breeze and assorted items burning casually in the street.

Though I look longingly at tourist traps and places with air-conditioning, he’s not interested in the superficial circus. He ignores the fanfare and glaring attractions and angles his camera and his mind towards anyone and everything that has taken a hit but is still struggling to survive.

A man born without legs crawling towards his beggar bowl, a once grand hotel reduced to health hazard, a woman asleep on the street and a transsexual cabbie who lays out his whole life in a ride from Khao San Road to Sukhumvit.

We meet up again in Malaysia a few weeks later.  I have some trouble at the Thai  border, get stuck in  Hat Yai and Malkovich calls  DJ Squigz who’s willing to pick and put me up just because  they met on Twitter and are making music together cross country.

When I finally arrive, Malkovich intersperses the Phil Hendrie with Steven Wright between interludes of Fats Domino, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.

But we still walk as though the answer to everything is just one more step in a pre-destined direction and he still occupies indoors like he’s chained to the table. Ever glancing at the exit after devouring a bowl of soup in 90 degree heat as if it’s the first meal he’s had on the outside and the last one he’ll have until he makes it major.

And then he works.

He switches you off and turns his creativity on with the ethic that created the cache of rap albums he’ll be dropping non-stop from now until 2020 and a focus that sees me disappearing so totally, I check my hands to see that they aren’t fading to nothing like Marty McFly’s at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance.

The next day we get into a serious conversation about Falkor, this lucky rope dragon I’ve written about in the press, as well as the hordes taking goofy pictures in front of the whimsical 3D street art in Penang.

He doesn’t get it.

Not when there’s so much bullshit going on and cerebral artists talking about real life aren’t being read or played or talked about on a global scale.

It’s a fantastic farce and it fuels the fire in American Requiem, Lies and Bedbugs where Malkovich decries the system and waxes existential as he makes his way through the world seeking talent, truth and the thing that will turn it all around…

Panama hat on.

Passport pages to spare.

#1BAG.

Watch the first episode of #1BAG here. Download American Requiem and Great Expectations.  

free.

Peculiarly,Penang

I’m being very careful not to step on the ghost money.

It’s burning in little leaps of fire or disappearing in graying piles of ash and, whether I believe in ghosts or not, a shiver still snakes down my spine and I still scurry to catch up with James whenever I spy even the slightest scrap of joss paper smoldering in the street.

Call me crazy but I bet bad luck doesn’t get any worse than accidently trampling all over some one’s offering to appease the devil which is why I’m hopping, skipping and jumping over the burning bribes and scampering past brightly lit shrines while trying to pretend that Penang’s Hungry Ghost Festival isn’t about the Chinese’s dreadfully departed out here on some kind of supernatural furlough from hell.

While I’m sending up prayers, silently screaming at shadows and trying not to be ushered into the afterlife by George Town’s ogling motorcyclists,James has stopped in front of a puppet show.

The stage is beautiful and the effort is commendable but we leave after a few minutes because one of the female puppeteers is clearly visible on stage. And looking very much as though she would like to end herself.

Right there. Right then. For our viewing displeasure.

Luckily, George Town isn’t always this depressing. I know this because a few nights later we’re sitting at Restoran Kapitan on Chulia Street and a freckled Australian woman is telling a man who may or may not be her grandfather that George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Though she’s clearly within her rights to be ecstatic, she’s saying it like they just won some big prize which turns out to be the sky opening up and pissing all over  them as they walk out into the street. As an avid eavesdropper and because James insists on aggravating the itch, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that little gem of knowledge and sophistication thrown into a conversation.

All a little alarmed by George Town’s multi-ethnic population of Indian, Malay and Chinese people making their way through crumbling British colonial structures, past Indian temples, Chinese shophouses and buildings literally sprouting plant life, tourists seem to cling to this phrase like a life preserver while trying to survive walking in a city that seems to frown on sidewalks.

What George Town has instead are stray dogs. Stray dogs, languishing Indian men and food.

Delicious, abundant and affordable Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine which ensures you have a hell of time deciding whether to be seduced by the smell of chicken satay, piping hot char kway teow or  rounds of decadent cheesy roti canai which are all an integral part of Malaysia’s celebrated street food landscape.

After drinking our way through the backpacker bars and lively liquor spots in and around Chulia Street, James and I stumble into Restoran Jaya at around 4am to sample some of these venerated victuals on my first night in town.

And this where I eat the butter chicken and  roti canai of my life. The next day is just as glorious. We eat breakfast at a place called The Mugshot Cafe where the barristers think rapidly talking about pulling espresso shots and actually pulling espresso shots  is the same thing and then we head to George Town’s famed clan jetties which are no less than century old wooden houses on stilts over the Strait of Malacca.

Though it’s awfully awkward walking past people’s homes, peering in and seeing them watching television, drinking coffee or dying a slow and dignified death, the Weld Quay Clan Jetties are incredibly preserved and look out on a bright blue stretch of sea that does much to calm our restless souls. As do our minibar sized slugs of Johnny Walker and Smirnoff smuggled past a shrine and a woman selling beer on her patio.

At some stage James and I part ways and get some work done. For me this means walking around George Town looking for Ernest Zacharevic’s street art trailed by a Korean couple who follows me around like I have the slightest idea of where I’m going.

This while I fend off an endless parade of Indian men who have clearly never  seen a black woman in the cinema or on the street. Wanderfully and when not being stalked by Koreans or Indians, I’m lucky enough to let the beauty of George Town suck me in.

From the old trishaw paddlers using their last breath to ferry overweight tourists around the old city to the absolutely surreal sight of Chinese temples next to old colonial buildings sporting modern day street art and graffiti.

Though the streets are busy and buzzing, the architecture speaks of a religious harmony and personal freedom that isn’t quite mirrored in the world waging war beyond Malaysia’s borders.

And as I duck into a 7/11 to a dodge a mustachioed Indian man who has been following me half a block, I feel grateful to be privy to this pleasant though peculiar meeting of Indian, Malay and Chinese food, culture and architecture that endlessly astounds and continuously makes me think…

”Okay, seriously where the f*ck am I?”

Follow me on @marth__vader on Twitter

Two Travellers

Some people travel to reassure themselves that the grass growing in their backyards is as green as the stuff growing anywhere else.

They compare the cut, the colour and the fertilizer of where they are with where there’ve been in the hope that they will find that, out of 196 countries in  seven continents, their little patch of Earth is just a little better than the next place.

After spending thousands of dollars on plane tickets, tours and taxi fares, they leave their homes in search of what they can see on an average day in their average life and find themselves dreadfully disappointed when things are faster, slower, dirtier or simply different to what they are used to.

The three German men behind me won’t shut up.

It’s 11pm on a bus to Surat Thani and for the last two hours they’ve been complaining about the efficiency of the Skytrains, the checks at Suvarnabhumi airport and even the cheap seats on this cheap bus are a little too cheap compared to the German standard of squalor.

I don’t know why they’ve come.

They hate the spice in the food, they hate the traffic in Bangkok and, in the most ironic utterance of the evening, they hate that there are so many tourists around in the tourist hot spots.

As they kvetch and cavil deep into the stifling night, I have to resist the urge to tell them to go home.

Firstly because nobody likes an eavesdropper and secondly because I’ve had just enough lack of sleep to saunter clear off the reservation and start insulting German national treasures like bratwurst, lederhosen and Jagermeister in defense of  Tom yum, novelty shirts and SangSom.

Their tirade goes on.

It ebbs and flows past temples, ladyboys and glowing Buddhas and eventually I get to thinking that there are two kinds of travelers.

The first are like these German men.

They leave home hoping to find something just like it somewhere else.

Their logic is that people in other countries can look different and speak other languages but when it comes  to what they eat, how they travel and how they use the bathroom, this type of traveler’s enjoyment of the country grows proportionate to any perceived similarities rather than in celebration of difference and discovery.

Essentially, they pay lots of money to do a comparative study. And when they touch down ,their happiness increases relative to the number of Starbucks’, Burger Kings and McDonalds they can find in a 1km radius.

The second type of traveler has come to be somewhere else.

They’ve stepped out their door a million miles away because they know there is more than one way to live life and they are bent on seeing what this world has to offer in terms of taste, ideology and smiles exchanged across language barriers.

They’ve seen their own world and take pride in it but, rather than talking about how wonderful it is, they ask the locals what they love about their own country.

They ask them where to go and what to eat and instead of experiencing a new place in the soft, packaged form peddled by travel agents, they jump off the plane and into this new space with only their whimsy and  wits to lead the way.

In Thailand, they eat Thai food, they use the bum guns and the Skytrains and they do everything in their power to shake off their old self and forge a new incarnation that can be happy and inspired wherever they are.

This kind of traveler immerses themselves in any and many versions of the new country and tries to figure out why different people do things in different ways and hen they get home, they have brought a bit of the place with them in the guise of recipes, philosophy or a talisman that reminds them that there is more than the ordinary and the every day.

And it’s only some saving, an open mind and a night flight away.

As I listen to the Germans grumble, I understand that I can be better about this.

I realize that even when I get home, I can do so much more about letting people be more like them and less like me and I feel any vestiges of homesickness fall away with the promise to be present and accept my travels for the novel and exciting gift that they are rather than wishing anything was more like home.

Namibia isn’t going to up and leave.

It’ll be just as bright and beautiful as I remember when it’s time for me to head back and, even though I would kill for a braai, some  feta cheese and a day that doesn’t mean certain death to a dozen mosquitoes, I promise that I will stop looking for home in a place that is similarly wondrous but nothing like it.

Not better or worse.

Just different.

@marth__vader on Twitter

A Monastery Moment

Dor has come to detox. He’s a pill popper and an alcoholic who looks 29 going on 40 and who sneaks out of the monastery to down five beers and watch a Netherlands game before returning to the temple on the back of a truck. Ashamed. Sauced.

And reeking of Burger King.

Harry’s here nursing a loser complex.  Weighing in as a tubby, four-eyed Canadian who’s surprisingly tight fisted with his bug spray, Harry drunkenly fell off his motorcycle the night before and has checked into the monastery to think about things. And not end up dead somewhere.

Pilar and Sara are sisters.  They’re playing Mother Theresa all over Asia, volunteering to work in halfway houses for junkies and cripples with the money Pilar made from cutting marijuana at weed camp in California in-between waiting for a settlement from the big Colombian construction company that didn’t fill the hole Sara  fell into and which left her paralyzed for three years before an assortment of shamans, miracles and psychedelic plant life reduced her paralysis to a limp.

Julie is from France but Algerian by heritage. She’s my first friend here and one night we get so giddy on starvation and chanting we giggle right through the Buddhist Reflection of Loving Kindness and feel so ashamed we really put our backs into chopping up the rotten fruit the monks use as fish food during chores the next day.

Three days before I know any of these people, I’m standing on the side of the road 2kms from the monastery after a death trap of a minibus has dropped me off in the mad middle of nowhere and the bus driver has gestured in the general direction of a winding road that disappears into darkness growing darker before speeding off into the night in a fit of carbon monoxide.

When the mini bus lights are well and truly gone and standing right where I am seems like more  of a threat to continued existence than  beginning the trek towards the monastery, I clutch my overnight bag to my chest and take my first step down the road.

According to my sister I have to keep walking for about 2 kilometers before I hit a gate then a gazebo and then I should walk in the direction of the chanting.

As I replay her instructions in my head, I realize that I have well and truly lost my mind.

I’m afraid of animals and I’m afraid of the dark but, for some reason, I’m standing in the middle of forest Thailand in the pitch black hearing the sounds of Big Foot, El Chupacabra and a whole menagerie of mythical creatures moving in the river rushing by and in the thick tangle of trees made monstrous by the lack of light.

Still, I walk.

I walk and I cry and I walk some more because the whole thing has started to feel like a bad dream and I get it into my head that the only way out is through.

Through the black, through my fears, through the growing idea that something is going to jump out of the trees and maul me beyond recognition.

After eternity set to the slap of my flip flops, I catch sight of the gazebo. A large banner welcomes me to the monastery and everything is silent until it isn’t.

Until a chorus of voices floats towards me on the breeze in a chant that is no choir of angels but which is the most beautiful sound I have ever heard simply by virtue of it being human.

And then they come.

A bright white line of people walking quietly over a bridge like a procession of glowing ghosts headed towards an assortment of wooden dwellings I can just see as large brown spots in the dark.

After my first night there, I come to know that I arrived at the end of evening chant.

Evening chant which is after free time which is before chores which is preceded by three hours of walking, standing and sitting meditation which is after lunch which is after another three hours of walking, sitting and standing meditation after breakfast but not before a rice offering to the monks and early morning meditation at 5am.

We do this every day.

The monks are on some kind of enlightening loop and every single day is the same as the next and for the first two days, I don’t communicate with anyone besides some frantic text messages sent to my friend James whose reassurance involves cautioning me against “period-sniffing bears” when I tell him I’ve started menstruating in the freakin forest.

This after being assigned a kuti with a toilet that is nothing more than a hole in the ground for pee, poop and dignity.  Add this to the fact that we have to swop our clothes for white pants and a shirt and it’s all set to be a bad time far beyond the gecko that falls on my head during evening chant, the fact that we only get two meals of rice and vegetable curry a day and we aren’t allowed to eat after 12pm but we do spend two hours a day “mindfully” cutting up food for the fish.

While we’re mindfully starving to death.

Incredibly, it gets better.

Yes, the place is filled with drug addicts, alcoholics and broke backpackers who can’t afford rent anywhere else and who swop the endless demand of meditation for two hot meals a day while they wait for a deposit from mommy but there are also a whole lot of people like me.

People whose heads are never quiet. Who’ve made a career of over-thinking and who feel enslaved by a world that demands that you think, analyze, update, photograph and compose something witty and envy- inducing every minute of your mostly miserable life in a world bent on blowing itself up.

The monks call the antidote to all this Vipassanā. It means ‘to see things as they really are’ and they teach us that we can do this through meditation.

Strangely and though many of us are beginners, the monks seem distant and don’t say much. They seem to exist on another frequency and they tell us to breathe in and out while being mindful and aware of our thoughts until we reach a state of knowing which offers respite from the endless inner stream of recollection, prediction, thinking and agonizing which is the root of all suffering.

They tell us to be still, to watch ourselves from inside ourselves and they tell us to practice peace, loving kindness and wisdom.

It’s as simple as that. Every day is as simple as being aware and not giving into negative mind states. Rather observing our thoughts as they arise and dispelling negative and destructive patterns to reach a positive and peaceful mind state.

We do this quietly walking around the immaculate grounds, over bridges and up mountains. We meditate sitting still on mats as our legs cramp with inactivity and finally we do this lying down, stretched out but not asleep.

This is every day and pretty soon it becomes hard to imagine anything else. Beyond the monastery, beyond the pristine gardens and, one day, as we’re walking, I catch sight of myself from above my body.

Mindfully putting one foot in front of other in a long line of people in white clothes following the monks in bright saffron.

Doing this over and over and over again and suddenly, I laugh out loud because  I’m sure I’ve finally cracked and that I’m not in a monastery … but a mental hospital.

And, in a way, I am.

Like anyone who snaps under the worry, the weight and the war of this world, I have come to heal my mind.

I’ve come to learn how to use a tool just like Dor and Harry who don’t want to use booze and drugs to silence their demons but who’d rather find the answer to it all inside themselves. Because they have a feeling it’s in there somewhere because the only antidote to ourselves is ourselves.

Now I’m not saying I’m a vegetarian and that mosquito genocide isn’t my life’s work with or without the prospect of reincarnation, I’m just saying I know to be mindful.

I know to watch my thoughts and my negative thought patterns and I know that we all need a little break from ourselves every now and then.

In monasteries, in Thailand…or maybe just in our own mind.

@marth__vader on Twitter

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