Clear blue skies. Fresh air. Runs along the river. Wide open spaces. These are a few of my favorite things.
I did miss Austria.
I landed in the land of Mozartkugeln and Wienerschnitzel a month ago. My sons Robert and Marco met me at the airport and our very first stop was to a burger joint. I do love this country.
But in this final post about my adventure in Asia (the first of many), I just wanted to share a bit about my last day in India.
So, I organized a Bollywood themed going away party for myself as a thank you to my International Office Asia colleagues for being such kind hosts. And as a show of appreciation, I even wrote and performed a Rich Raja Rap for them (first time performing in a kitchen …. well maybe not).
We Americans love big things – big cars, big buildings, big ideas.
So it comes as no surprise that when it comes to our Buddhas, we like’em big – real big.
Over the last few weeks, I have been on a final whirlwind tour of Asia – Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka – and along the way have visited some impressive Buddhist temples. But the one that took my breath away was Wat Pho in Bangkok, where you have the golden statue of the reclining Buddha.
I went there thinking, okay, quite large reclining Buddha statue, but I didn’t expect it’s head to be the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float and for it to be as long as an America football field. Quick stats on the reclining Buddha: 46 meters long, 15 meters high, 5 meter long feet decorated with mother of pearl. If you search for ‘world’s most amazing Buddha statues’, it’s in the top 10.
But this description is all very un-Buddhist like (at least from my little knowledge of Buddhism). I think for many of us, looking at Buddha transmits peaceful energy. Maybe the bigger the Buddha, the bigger the Zen blast. In his meditative pose, Buddha is calm and tranquil as he basks in a state of pure enlightenment. I asked a few people why Buddha’s eyes have that dreamy, half-open look, and the only explanation I got from one close Zen Buddhist friend is that when you meditate, you sometimes gaze toward the end of your nose. If that is what Buddha is doing, it’s a good thing he’s not going cross-eyed – would not look as cool.
A reclining Buddha shows him at the end of his life. He is not dying, I’m told, but he’s now achieved the ultimate godly state and will simply cease to exist. No need to be reborn or reincarnated. Game over. Mission accomplished. For us humans, Buddhism states that we keep being reincarnated to keep learning life lessons until we achieve nirvana (love that word, love the band). On that journey, good Karma moves us forward; bad karma sets us back.
With Buddha everywhere, I felt peaceful in Bangkok. It’s the most modern Asian city I’ve visited. I lived on Pad Thai and grilled seafood, experienced jack and dragon fruits, and drank a lot of Singha. What surprised me is that even though there is so much traffic, and you have to walk through crowded streets, no one honks their horn. You’re walking in the street and a motorbike is behind you and the driver is chill and waits for you to go without a peep (I think they should pass a law in Delhi outlawing honking). It seemed fitting in Bangkok to buy a pair of Bob Marley pants as a souvenir.
My next stop was Sri Lanka, where I continued to visit Buddhist temples, including one of the holiest, the Temple of the Tooth in the city of Kandy. Wars have been fought over that tooth of Buddha, which came to Sri Lanka from India hidden in a princess’s hair ornament. I think of all the places I’ve visited, Sri Lanka was truly paradise – long stretches of undisturbed beaches, rolling lush green hills and big mountains (again we Americans like big). A perfect sunset every time (and I’m sure sunrise is perfect too). And friends and friends of friends went out of their way to make me feel welcome and show me their style of Asian hospitality. Cambodia is still heaven, but I found paradise in Sri Lanka.
Hey, after four months, this is my last day in Asia. I fly out tomorrow from Delhi back to Vienna. I’ve spent the day having lunch with an SOS mother and the Faridabad village director, playing carrom with the kids and taking selfies, and cooking a bit extra for the two stray dogs in the village. I’ll tell you more about my Bollywood-themed going-away party next.
I‘m sitting under the veranda of the Harmony Hotel, a family run lodge in the village of Ghandruk nestled between the Peaceful and Mountain View hotels. I‘m at the foothills of the Annapurnas, one of the most majestic mountain ranges in Nepal – and I can’t see a damn thing.
My Nepalese colleagues told me Ghandruk, in the Annapurna Conservation Area, was a must-see. But the snow-capped mountains and valley are totally obscured by dense clouds and fog. The rain is relentless. I am trying not to take it personally – a reflection of my state of inner peace and enlightenment. After all, it is monsoon season.
Still, I am appreciating the beauty that’s close to me: the view of the slate rooftops of the nearby traditional Nepali villages; a young mother playing a Nepali version of ‘Trot trot to Boston’ or (in Austria) ‘Hoppe Hoppe Reiter’ with her baby boy; the bright greens of the rice growing on the stepped landscape; the local donkey delivery service making its rounds.
At the Harmony Hotel, I struck up a conversation with the owner, 72-year-old Shankar. The place is actually called the Milan Hotel but he told me ‘milan’ means ‘harmony’ in Nepali (as you can imagine, it helps attract a lot of Italian tourists). Shankar says he doesn‘t need to travel much because the world – mostly Europeans, Americans and Aussies – come to him. But for now, the hotel is empty besides me and my colleague, Bharat. This is the offseason and for good reason. It’s not just because of the rain, but also the forest is full of blood-sucking leeches. As you’re hiking, leeches sense you’re coming and fall down from the leaves or attach to your skin from the grass. Usually, the first person signals the leeches and those at the rear become lunch. Just the thought reminds me of that scene in African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Gross!
A little bit about Shankar. He was born in 2002, he says, according to the Nepali calendar (right now it’s 2075). Like many people in this area, he came from a family of farmers growing seasonal crops such as rice, millet and corn. Some 50 years ago, when tourists started to come to Ghandruk, he thought it would be a good idea to start a small lodge. Back then, he had the market cornered running one of the only lodges in town. But others took notice and suddenly his place wasn’t the most popular. That’s when, around 1970, he bought a piece of land perched even higher on the hillside and built the ‘Harmony’ Hotel, which he runs to this day with his wife, Bel Kumari.
“Here the life is very simple: simple thinking, simple eating, simple staying,” says Shankar when I asked what he loves about this place (which I can’t fully see). “Everybody wants to move to the city – Pokhara or Kathmandu – but me I like it here.”
“I want peace,” adds Shankar. He likes to read “peaceful books” – religious ones and books on yoga, which he practices daily. He’s devoted to healthy living (vegetarian, quit the booze and chewing tobacco years ago). What‘s his secret? “You have to think positive all the time – positive about ourselves and other people. … I try to be happy and at peace, like Buddha. You know Lord Buddha?” he asks.
“This is very hard, thinking positive.” Yes, I can relate as I am trying to stay positive about the weather, praying to the Goddess of the Night to clear the clouds and deliver sunshine by dawn.
Wrong Hindu god I guess. In the morning, the rain continued. I could see outlines of the rolling hills but not much else. Bharat and I said farewell to Shankar and Bel Kamari and made our way down into the valley where we’d meet our ride. But as we descended, we learned that the main trail was impassable. We took another route and ultimately had no choice but to scale down a hill through the forest. A fellow who was carrying a basket of goods led the way, and of course, he signalled the leeches that some fresh Austrian-American blood was just behind him. Oh no! African Queen flashback!
As we emerged from our short jaunt through the forest, I rolled up my pants to find leeches (about a quarter to a half inch long) attached or crawling on my ankles. I plucked about ten of them off of me, revealing dots of blood (I’m told the bite can stay itchy for up to a month). Well, like Shankar, let’s be positive. It wouldn’t be a Nepali wilderness adventure without a good attacked-by-leeches story. And the good news is, in the peak season, the leeches are underground and the skies are usually clear! Who wants to come back with me?
In India, there’s a lot of pressure to get married (not for me, just in general). In a culture where there’s little sense of personal space, people are often probing about your marital status. Of course, my curiosity about arranged marriages has led me to ask some probing questions myself, like how does it work and why do people do it? The topic seems to be on the tip of everybody’s tongue.
Take the woman I shared a rickshaw ride with after our salsa dance class (I switched to salsa after I mastered Bollywood). After a few pedals of the bike, she was already unraveling details about her upcoming nuptials with an Indian-American salsa dancer from California – an arranged marriage. Unfortunately, the Cali salsa king had backed out. Now, she was taking salsa lessons with the hope of winning him back. Before the ride was over, she was inviting me to visit her family in Kolkata.
Other friends I know go the dating route to find their perfect mate. But when their relationships don’t lead to marriage, moms usually offer to intervene to find a bride or groom, or they might simply seek the blessing of a Hindu pujari, or priest, hoping the gods of matrimony will help the process along. For a woman and her family, it can also be a costly proposition. In some parts of India, a family is expected to give the husband-to-be a tidy sum of gold for marrying their daughter (as well as other goodies like a car, AC, washing machine etc, not to forget hard cash). Some young people are rebelling against all this. But still a huge number of times people are in love with someone but are forced to marry according to their parent’s wishes.
I’ve heard a number of arranged marriage stories. In a bar, one guy in his early thirties explained how it works. When men reach their mid-twenties, it is the ideal time to start putting out signals through a matchmaker that they’re looking for a bride. There is actually a marriage dossier which includes family details and birth charts commonly referred to as a janampatri, which is circulated. The matchmaker could be someone close to the family or more distant like a neighbor. For men, the marriage dossier contains more information about their ability to be a good provider, their work history and annual income. Women emphasize their more ‘homely’ attributes, namely cooking and caring for the home. ‘If a woman is more docile, not one to create waves, that’s a plus,” my bar buddy shockingly revealed. In addition to the matchmaker, there are even matrimonial adverts in the newspapers (all brides, it seems, must be tall, slim and beautiful).
From the whole dossier, the first item to be sent is the photo. In the case of my friend, he liked his potential wife’s large brown eyes. Once the couple is ready, a big meeting is arranged between the families like negotiations for a merger and acquisition. For my friend, only at the end did the families give him and his future wife 10 minutes to be alone. That’s when you can really ask questions, like: Are you in love with someone else? He just asked her simply: do you want to go ahead with the marriage? She said yes.
Why do people do it? From what I understand, there is a strong feeling of duty for young people to start a family. There’s also peer pressure, societal pressure, and the fear of being alone. Plus there are a lot of boxes to check: same caste, social status, religion. Rather than using Tinder or Match.com, or hey, just finding a person to gaze up at the stars with, they cut to the chase through an arranged marriage. And in India, marriage is really for life – the divorce rate is in the single digits. Does my buddy want his son to do the same? I think he realizes that norms are changing quickly in India. I asked him when did he fall in love with his wife. He said that one does not expect you to be in love when you get married. After a rocky start, he says they’ve found a “good way” together.
I kind of like the approach of my friend and yoga guru, Nambi. His daughter came to him and said she and her boyfriend wanted to marry and Nambi and his wife – with the groom pre-selected – started the pseudo-arranged marriage process. We all need a good love story to tell.
And speaking of love stories, the woman from Kolkata got quite good at salsa and is back on with her fiance. My trip to meet her family was quietly cancelled.
There’s one word I’ve been hearing a lot in Cambodia: ‘bong’.
Most conversations and phone calls begin with the word ‘bong’. In people’s phones, the names in their contact list sometimes start with ‘bong’.
Of course, my first association with ‘bong’ goes back to my youth. But this word takes everybody higher.
Bong means brother. It also means sister. In my travels these past days, I’ve noticed that when people start a conversation, from a work colleague or friend to a tuk-tuk driver or parking attendant, you begin the conversation by calling them ‘bong’.
As the oldest of five bros, I love the idea of calling everybody brother.
That is if you don’t call them Pu, which means little uncle (usually for an older person or maybe your boss) or Ming, little auntie, for a woman. For an older person you feel close to, like a revered aunt or uncle, you would call them, more profoundly, Om (as in a meditation).
But my favourite word is ‘Oun’, pronounced like ‘own’. Oun and Bong are the same, but Oun is more endearing, like to your real brother and sister, or even to your lover, boyfriend or girlfriend.
I think this says something about the warmness of the Cambodian people. Maybe it is the Buddhist culture, but people generally seem peaceful and positive – and have a knowing connection to one another and the natural beauty around them.
Bayon Temple at Angkor Wat
I really love Cambodia. I can’t get enough of the lush greenery of the landscape, interrupted by stretches of watery rice fields. I would love to one day live in one of those wooden houses on stilts and finish my book. I love the lightness and subtle tastes of the food. I’ve been ooohing and aaahing with every mouthful here (though I’ve not tried the more off-putting dishes, like the fried snake and crispy spiders). And on this trip, I also had the chance to visit Angkor Wat, a 12th-century temple complex in Siem Reap which is one of the most magical places on Earth. You have to go!
When they were calling my flight for boarding from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh some ten days ago, the guy at the airline called out, ‘Boarding for Phnom Penh’ and he sort of looked at me and said, ‘Heaven on Earth’. I doubled-back to smile at him. You know what? He was right.
This post is my chance to share my photo gallery of cows. It is one of those scenes in India that I haven’t gotten used to – the sight of cows walking in the middle of traffic and grazing on the grassy medians of roads and highways. In the Hindu religion, cows are sacred. That is why you can’t get a real burger or steak in northern India (although the substitute here is buffalo and goat, which is quite tasty). Cows are revered partly because they’re associated with motherly qualities, giving people milk to feed their children, not to mention to mix in their chai and make a number of milky deserts, as well as their yoghurt-like side-dish curd. Dairy products, I’ve read, are also used in Hindu worship. There is even the bovine goddess, Kamadhenu, considered the mother of all cows.
So, this holy designation somehow entitles cows to just roam free. You don’t see them in downtown New Delhi per se, but when I get a ride from neighbouring Faridabad to Delhi, there are a lot of cows lounging in the median, rummaging through garbage, or literally slowing traffic as they walk across the street. ‘Kamadhenu’ forbid, you run into a cow. I learned a disturbing fact this week that there are mobs of cow vigilantes who will either extort money or even murder a driver who kills a cow by accident (apparently, to some zealots, a cow’s life is worth more than a human life). The government is trying to crack down on people taking the law into their own hands (which makes me wonder how severe the official punishment is). Therefore, unlike most things in India, people do brake for cows.
To add to my confusion, this veneration of cows is only true in northern India. In parts of the south, they do eat cows and India is one of the world’s leading leather producers. But overall, we in the West should learn from the Indians and start showing our love for cows by eating far fewer of them for the sake of the planet. Last thought: I wish there was a god of dogs in Hinduism because dogs are not treated well in India. Maybe we can get a campaign going to create the god Kommissar Rexahenu or Lassieama.
There’s some strange military activity going on at the India-Pakistan border.
Every evening, near Amritsar, the border patrol forces of the two countries have a sort of theatrical showdown as they lower their respective flags. Military brinkmanship meets performance art in this ‘show’ of force that plays to packed audiences nightly on both sides of the border.
What is going on here is hard to imagine. There is a long-simmering tension between these two nuclear powers. But with no real reason to go all out and attack one another, they instead have a nightly military-style dance-off.
Crowded into two amphitheatres, Indians and Pakistanis shout patriotic cheers as their security forces march up to the border and deliver kicks as high as the Radio City Rockettes. Through their stylised movements, the guards taunt one another, striking a pose and flexing their muscles in a show of choreographed bravado. They do everything but flip the finger.
With a master of ceremonies leading the cheer, the Indian crowd goes wild chanting, ‘Long Live India’ and ‘Pray for the Mother Land’.
I came to watch this spectacle at the Wagah Border on my recent trip to Amritsar. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like this play of aggression only serves to fuel the animosity between the two populations. Indians I spoke to love it. They feel so patriotic to see their border forces in their rooster-red fan hats getting up in the faces of their black-hatted Pakistani rivals. One rather demure lady I know told me that when she sees the show she gets so riled up she wants India to just storm across and reclaim the disputed territory of Kashmir (India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir since the countries were partitioned in 1947).
“These two nations are at loggerheads all the time,” says Rishi, a fellow who tried to explain the scene.
“The degree of the aggression (in the show) keeps on changing. Sometimes it becomes more aggressive when there is tension between the countries, and sometimes it softens. Nowadays it is average,” he tells me. Pakistan just elected a new celebrity prime minister – a former star cricket player – so let’s see how that plays out on the border.
I asked Rishi if he could imagine if the border forces from each side ever get together for a cup of chai or a beer after the flags come down. No, he says. At most, they have occasional meetings and do the customary exchange of sweets and gifts on certain holidays, like on the independence day of each country, Pakistan on August 14th and India on August 15th.
Naively, I came to the Wagah Border thinking the two sides would, in a sign of cooperation, strut their stuff together in a joint military revue. Well, maybe someday.