Pilgrims, Pilgrims Everywhere (A Voyage to Tibet)

I was surrounded in a wash of dark red clothing, heavy yarn-laden braids of hair, smiling, toothless pilgrims deep in the Barkhor Circuit, in the highest city in the world, and it was everything I could do to not barf all over all of it. The altitude sickness had kicked in. It was as the travel guides had warned, but there was no time to acclimatise. One does this by arriving at Lhasa by train or jeep, thus giving them the time to climb to 3750 meters above sea level. As a tourist (I prefer traveller, but sometimes behave in a way that demotes me to tourist) one has to apply for permits – Alien Traveller’s Permit, sometimes a military permit, depending on where you’re arriving from. In my case, I met a man who goes by “Jim Beam” in a lobby of a backpacker hotel in Xian, where hefty sums of cash were paid for all the necessary travel permits, plane tickets, and guide fees (proof of which are required for aforementioned permits). It was with a sweaty upper lip I handed over the rest of my travel money to this character, with a hand-written note given back to me illustrating some vague transaction that had occurred. I immediately took this into the adjoining bar and drank to soothe my nerves- the hand scrawl with the dollar amount staring back at me.

Obviously I made it. The necessity to arrive by plane at Lhasa Gonggar Airport had its drawbacks, but flying just above the Himalayas was not one of them. I’ll take the immediate pleasure of looking down upon the highest summits from a comfortable flight over actually having to climb them any day. I pondered this, a drink in my hand, imagining my childhood hero Sir Edmund Hillary’s life and death struggle to surmount Mt. Everest, and was glad, no, giddy, to toast his efforts more than fifty years on, from a very comfortable height indeed. Cheers, Sir.

Lhasa city central was less than an hour by bus from the airport. In strict contrast to the rocky mountainous surroundings that can be seen by the plane, the lower lying brown hills offered a maze to be guided through in the packed bus. There were brief sightings of yaks and prayer flags which offered the first glimpse of any expectation that this magical land had promised. But soon after these landmarks presented themselves, we entered a city I could scarcely have imagined – it was pure unadulterated Chinese officialdom. Squared off banks, governmental buildings in the familiar awful pastel colours I had gotten used to in Xian and other cities that dotted the train ride from Beijing. It was the kind of sprawl that is offensive to the senses, but it had to be gotten through in order to arrive at my destination – the Yak Hotel, chosen not only for its name, but that it was the first choice in the budget column. Jim Beam had taken all of my money, and the few RMD left to me were for cheap meals and various offerings to the many non-admission palaces I was sure to attend. I had a guide, after all, and many, many Buddhist shrines awaited.

As I always do when travelling, I threw my bags on the bed and took a perfunctory look around the meagre room before heading off to see the streets. A quick peek into the bathroom revealed the squat toilet – more on this later. I knew enough of Lhasa from what I’d read that the Jokhang Palace was nearby, and that it serves as a centrepiece to the city. More than that, it is the centre of worship for the entire autonomous region, with the circling pilgrims orbiting around it. I found myself in front of the Barkhor Square, immediately mesmerized by the crowds of Tibetans. Monks, children and pilgrims intermingled to and from the market stalls. There were the worshipers, performing their complex and physically adroit bows to the face of the palace, which could barely be seen. It has been built upon so many times over the years that the original structure is completely obscured by layers of tin siding, blankets and framing. Surrounding Jokhang Palace are the elements that absolutely colour the city – vendors, markets, delivery bicycles and fire pits. Of course, shuffling amongst this are the pilgrims, chanting and spinning their prayer wheels.

At that point, though, the real became the surreal, and after only hours at this elevation the top of my head started to feel frozen, the edges of my vision were blurred and the chanting, fires and spinning prayer wheels all became garishly cartoonish. My legs were heavy and the airplane food threatened to make a sudden appearance, but I managed to drag myself into The New Mandala Restaurant where I did myself no favours by ordering up the yak dumplings and local beer. I followed that with the palaak paneer, cooked with heavy doses of (probably) unpasteurized yak butter. Remember the squat toilet I mentioned earlier? Suffice it to say the meal was delicious – beyond delicious, but exacted its price.

On the second day, the elevation sickness had not subsided, but the gentle beauty of the mountains and the people – from the monks at the foot of the Potala Palace, to the begging children that littered the streets, calmed me into acceptance. By mid-day it had become routine to deposit 4 RMD into every collection plate beside a smiling Buddha of some variety. I stopped paying attention to my guide, whose lacklustre descriptions and history lessons were reduced to no more than saying, ad nauseum, “This is the Buddha of the past, this is the Buddha of the present, and this is the Buddha of the future,” barely gesturing to the statues. I didn’t bear him a grudge. I can’t imagine being an educated Tibetan, continually watching not only a hostile cultural takeover of your nation, but being host to the throngs of ignorant masses that come to see this land, with little to no context or knowledge of the history. My guide, his face worn and eyes deadened, was going through the motions, not even trying to fake enthusiasm, as we shuffled along the palaces and museums.

It was Wednesday afternoon when I attended the monk debating sessions. Held in a small square tucked in behind the school – yes, a Tibetan monk school, the sessions are a weekly occurrence, and tourists are invited to attend. Within minutes of the students gathering, the cacophony of debating teenagers is deafening – coupled by the slap of hands together that invite a response from the seated rival. The square, a peaceful and walled enclosure is laden with white stones, trees, and a narrow walking ledge that circles it. The tourists are asked to stick to the ledge and not accompany the students on the square proper. I enjoyed bearing witness to a few tourists that were not aware of this step upon the stones unwittingly, and embarrassingly scamper off when asked to do so. On the other hand, and I took particular notice of a photographer of Chinese persuasion step into the square to get a closer photograph of his subjects ignore the wishes of the students that asked him to step off. He continued to blithely photograph the debating monks to be. I felt as though I were witnessing the Petri dish version of what was, and has been happening, on the National scale for over 50 years. The Chinese, middle-aged photographer thought nothing of the gentle invitation for him to leave – and rather took advantage of the fact that the practiced and preached tolerance of the students was their Achilles’ heel.

I watched for hours, mesmerized by the youth and determination of these people – unlike anyone I’ve ever met or known in the west. I was desperate to understand the point of it all – like many others that visit this land, I think we just want to see something that we know will not survive, but there I was – surrounded by the youngest Tibetan scholars, who steadfastly applied themselves with their teachings of peace, enlightenment and forgiveness, despite the many barbarians waiting just beyond the gates. This theme was echoed within the inner core of Lhasa, where it would regularly occur that a young monk would surreptitiously hand tourists information pamphlets with shocking statistics of how many monks are extradited, have been made to “disappear” over the years, most regularly across the border to Nepal or India. The young monks handing out the pamphlets were more like ninjas in the way they stealthily gave out their leaflets – and then quickly disappeared into the many side streets.

In meeting with the locals one cannot escape the overwhelming sense of despair for the loss of culture, the exodus of the devout followers, and the annexation of what once was a distinct and autonomous nation. By the time I boarded the bus to the airport I was fully acclimatised and genuinely sad to leave. Lhasa then appeared to me to be a cozy, small town. I recognized the regular beggars, the local mentally ill people doing their rounds, but most of all, the mesmerizing rotations of the pilgrims in the core of the city – it is as if they are winding a clock. They keep the city moving – they keep it alive.

Vietnam in Waves

“Is it vacation or travel?” asked the nice American woman.

We were waiting for our coffee at a small booth in Hanoi, both lured from hundreds of feet away by the large sign that read in English “Espresso served here.”

To her question I drew a blank and she went on to explain.

“A vacation is time off from work and is usually characterized by extreme relaxation, where you no longer even think for your self.”  She certainly sounded like an authority on the subject.  I stole quick looks at her well-worn khakis, form-fitted backpack – and was that a compass around her neck?  I quickly concluded she wasn’t on vacation.

She was handed a cup overflowing with foam, a double espresso to go, from which she took a sip and went on, “whereas traveling, you’re engaged.  You’re taking in new things, challenging yourself and looking for adventure.  You’re immersed, looking the locals in the eye.”  This last bit she emphasized, looking me in the eye.  I smiled a tight smile and added more sugar to my latte.  We took a seat together with a view of the street.  The motorcycles blurred with cars and bicycles on the busy thoroughfare and its relentless pace was somehow soothing.

“So which is it?  Vacation or travel?”  And with one passing glance at the camera around my neck, the latte in my hand, and perhaps the slightly worried look on my face, she knew what I was doing was not considered traveling.

“A bit of both,” was my, admittedly, lame reply.  The truth was I’d have to give it some thought.  I had a month to see Vietnam.  And in those precious days I planned to make my way from the north to the south, starting in Hanoi and arriving at Ho Chi Minh City, a simple enough journey, and one with otherwise no agenda.

The nice American woman wished me well and we departed.  She hailed a motorcycle in passable Vietnamese, jumped on the back and sped off, her steely eyes set on the challenges and adventures that surely awaited her.  I took a taxi to the train station where I would begin my journey and, along the way, decide whether what I was engaged in was vacation or travel.

It was the Reunification Express that delivered me from Hanoi to Hue, at speeds that rarely exceeded 15 kilometers an hour.  It was an overnight trip, and I slept off and on, woken occasionally by nondescript screams and unnerving laughter from somewhere in another car.  I awoke in the early morning to a battered thermos of warm water and a small package of dried noodles.  The employee serving the breakfast wore an ill-fitted wool, communist green uniform, which reflected her excruciatingly straight face as she asked for my ticket.  This would have been the fifth time I produced it for various railway employees since boarding the night before.  I had thought I might tape it to my forehead and save myself the anguish of having to look for it in my pockets each time I was asked, but only in jest, and certainly not after meeting the employees, who made everything seem decidedly unfunny.

I sipped at my noodles while gazing out the narrow window.  In the straining, early light, north Vietnam looked like a picture book of Vietnam: peasants squatted in the paddy fields along the red river delta, water buffaloes grazed in the distant fields, shrouded in mist.  I couldn’t look away.  It occurred to me then that we were being transported at the perfect speed.  Lying there in my berth on the comfortable side of the glass, my warm breakfast in hand as I floated through picture-perfect scenery, my trip had just then nudged closer to vacation, farther from travel.

I arrived in Hoi An, a perfect little stop with fantastic meals, which I took at great leisure, thinking of little else outside of my own relaxation and watched from a comfortable distance the sassy locals sashaying in front of photogenic and crumbling colonial reminders, as if they were aware of the dramatic backdrop and the spell it held over tourists like me.

It was at a bar in Hoi An that I had heard about a secluded semi-private and eco-friendly beach north of Nha Trang run by a famed French Canadian ex- pat named Sylvio.  It was a little off the beaten path and even though the only available bus would drop me off in the middle of the night, Sylvio assured me on the phone I could easily find transport off the National Highway No. 1 by way of motorcycle taxi, or to use the parlance, which I didn’t,  xe om.

As much as the train was relaxed and tranquil, the bus was terrifying and painful.  It was the middle of the night and I was in the back of a rickety bus, chock-a-block with large backpacks, live poultry, gas cans and other frightful passengers.  I sat with my knees pressed to my chest and the imminent danger of someone’s tuba falling on my head (Who carries a tuba across Vietnam?)

My only pleasure flew by in the form of government sanctioned folk art billboards of smiling soldiers next to smiling factory workers, children and loving (and yes, smiling) wives; with an ever-present hammer and sickle featured prominently in the foreground.  I found myself snapping photos every time the bus zoomed past these artworks – I thought my motion-blurred photos of communist kitsch, taken from a speeding bus would be delightfully arty.

The bus slowed, which was odd, prompting passengers to rise in their seats and see for themselves what was happening.  I was one of them, and although I would regret it, I saw the obstacle, ever so briefly.  It was a man on the road, sprawled out and bleeding, and quite clearly dead.  A woman near the front of the bus screamed, eliciting murmurs and chatter and then the bus driver, delivering a torrent of angry Vietnamese, simply steered around the dead man and his bicycle, before speeding up again to his normal dangerous speeds.  From the side window as we passed, we got a closer look.  We pressed our faces up to the glass, gasped and covered our mouths, before exchanging horrified looks with one another.

That was it.  I had had enough.  I got up to demand the bus driver stop and as I opened my mouth and pointed, we skidded to a stop and the tuba came crashing down on my head.  The bus driver turned around and looked at me angrily.  It was my stop.

I was relieved to find my feet on the ground again – my organs still intact.  But when the bus squealed away, (yes, squealed, a bus) I found myself longing to be back on it.  For the dust had then settled, and I had a good look around.

Despite Sylvio’s assurance, the prospects for transport off of National Highway No. 1 at 4:30 in the morning looked rather dim.  That is, of course the precise moment the motorcycles emerged out of nowhere and started circling me like lionesses in the Serengeti.  I raised a hesitant finger and cried out, “Jungle Beach”, my intended destination.  They shouted out prices (all gibberish to me, of course) while kicking up dirt with their tires.  They laughed at my uneasiness.  With what little light their searching headlights provided, illuminated weathered faces haphazardly swarmed around me with the menacing effect of projected ghosts in the night sky.

I eventually took a leap of faith and got on the back of a motorcycle chosen at random.  The driver, with his one-tooth smile, yipped and yelled as he peeled away into the dark depths beyond National Highway No. 1.  Clinging to the back of him, sleep deprived and horror stricken, was me.

We passed a shipping yard, a paint factory and various other textile and chemical plants while I slowly began to question the validity of a remote and eco-friendly little beach resort in the area.  I buried my face behind the back of the little driver and swore off traveling.  Just as I began to despair, the driver slowly lifted his arm and pointed vaguely in the direction of the sea, a dark mass of nothing to our right.  He shouted over his shoulder and through his tight-lipped grasp of a tiny burning cigarette, “Yungo-P! Yungo-P!”

Jungle Beach.  He was saying, “Jungle Beach.”  He turned a corner and his headlights revealed a stick gate that looked like it might have been tied together with hemp.  This was it, Yungo-P, Jungle Beach.

A bamboo door slammed, and from the dark emerged a little man in a sarong.  He shouted something in Vietnamese at the driver, before greeting me in a barely traceable French Canadian accent.  Relieved, I paid the driver in crumpled American dollar bills.  He mounted his motorbike and turned to wave goodbye.  With his one tooth gleaming in the light of the moon, he again, yipped and yelled and tore off into the night.  Sylvio and I stood by the hemp gate and watched as the red taillight slowly disappeared.

“Who was that man?”  I asked Sylvio, who shrugged a genuine shrug before leading me past the gate and into what he called, “his little paradise.”

Once inside, Sylvio offered me an organic cotton cushion on the floor.  He disappeared into another room only to return with a glass in his hand.  “Every day starts with our special lemonade,” he said with a slightly worrisome twinkle.  To this I smiled a brave smile, but as I was still in the dark in every sense regarding the nature of Sylvio’s “little paradise”, I could only be skeptical about an oddly behaved man in a country that seemed to keep its visitors propped on the edge of danger, with always the possibility of disaster and seldom a chance to escape.

With yet another leap of faith, and as I steadied my eyes on Sylvio, I tasted the “special lemonade.”  It was lemonade.  If, however, my path had just then been set and my fate sealed, so be it.  I was exhausted.  If Sylvio would successfully lull me into gentle inebriation and begin the long process of reeducation so as that I might one day resemble the figures smiling vacantly on a billboard alongside National Highway No. 1, then there was little I could do.  I remember looking for weird insignias on the wall, any signs of cultish memorabilia, but all I could see was what the environmentally-friendly low-wattage bulbs would allow:  Bamboo furniture and organic cotton pillows.  God help me, was my last thought of the evening as I climbed under the mosquito net and onto the bed that Sylvio had prepared.

Through the small window I could hear the waves crash on the beach in a hypnotic rhythm that soon took me away on a gentle journey of sleep and malcontented dreams.

I awoke in a sweat.  I could hear someone yelling and a small scuffle.  I jumped to my feet, got tangled up in the mosquito net and fell flat on my face, with a thud, bringing the mosquito net down all around me.  I was trapped!  I believe I may have screamed like a girl, as well.  Sylvio bounded through the door, turned on the light and yelled for me to come with him, all before he stopped to shoot me a quizzical look.

“What are you…”

“Help me get out of this thing!” I demanded.

As Sylvio freed me from the mosquito net he explained to me in a whisper that someone was on his property.

“Just stay behind me and back me up.”

The mosquito net hung over my face like a wedding veil and through it Sylvio read my anxious expression.

“You won’t have to do anything, just stay behind me.”

Outside, I could barely make out the layout of the property.  Large trees were rendered as negative space, backlit by an impressive moon.  I had no idea where the beach was, though it sounded like the waves were crashing on top of us.  I thought of how lovely it must all be in the daylight.

We stood in silence for perhaps a minute, as our eyes adjusted to the dark.  All at once we saw movement.  Silhouettes bounded across our line of vision, in two different directions.

With a shove Sylvio directed me after one of the figures while he pursued the other.  I was in my stocking feet, running through what I could only imagine was a garden, after someone who I could make out as either a child or a midget.  By the time I caught up to him we were running on the sand and on the horizon I could see the white crests of waves, illuminated by the nearly full moon.

I caught the kid in a dramatic leap that brought him to the ground, but I didn’t know what to do with him.  He wouldn’t stop struggling and I had to hold him tight to the ground.  It was when I turned him over that I saw the large whites of his eyes, and the stricken panic in them.  We were both breathing heavily from the run.  We could also hear that Sylvio had nabbed the other fellow, and was scolding him in Vietnamese.  It was perhaps this that scared the kid most of all, for I’m certain the expression on my face betrayed any authority I was supposed to have had.

I got to my feet and picked up the child by his arm.  In his hands were vegetables from the garden; some shriveled up carrots and a handful of peas.  My hands clasped nothing but bone.  The poor kid was starving.

I let go of his arm immediately, and for an instant we held each other’s gaze.  It occurred to me that I might have finally broken through some sort of barrier.  Here, in front of me was a local with whom I had shared something of an adventure.  As I regarded his frail face and scared eyes, I thought we may have reached some sort of understanding, him and I, and I was suddenly elated as if we had just then cemented a true bond of post-post colonialism, or something.  And then I looked a little closer, and saw through his wide eyes a large bus pulling away slowly, white faces pasted to the windows, looking horrified at the sight of something truly terrible.

We could both hear Sylvio approaching and the child’s eyes darted everywhere for an escape route.

I nodded toward the direction we had been running, with what I thought to be an honourable gesture of forgiveness.  I even smiled.  By way of thanks, the kid kicked me square in the balls.

I saw blinding white lights and collapsed in the sand.  I gasped for breath but none came.

For reasons unbeknownst to me then, the entirety of the conversation I had had with the nice American woman came back to me.  I was in a fetal position on the sand, gasping for air and clutching myself.
“A vacation is time off from work and is usually characterized by extreme relaxation…”

Another gasp for air, my eyes bulging, the pain shooting up through my spine.

“…where you no longer even think of yourself.”

I could think of nothing but myself and my poor, innocent, unborn children.

“…whereas traveling, you’re engaged.  You’re taking in new things, challenging yourself and looking for an adventure.  You’re looking locals in the eye.”

Never look them in the eye.  Never look them in the eye.

“So which is it?  Vacation or travel?”

For two days I lied on the beach with an ice pack.  I read trashy novels that had been left behind by other vacationers and happily ate whatever meals Sylvio’s wives served me in my private and secluded hut.  I washed these down with fruity, umbrella cocktails of varying names that spanned, “Sex on the Beach” to “Passed out in the Sun”, which I also did, several times.  I had no thoughts beyond myself and I stayed clear of any locals, and I certainly didn’t look anyone in the eye.

On the third day, I departed rather unceremoniously.  Still limping, I waved at one of the motorcycles that waited at the far side of the hemp gate.  As I slowly and carefully mounted the motorcycle I nodded goodbye to Sylvio, who was tending his garden.  He smiled vacantly and began to wave while his two-year-old daughter, Rain, clutched at his leg.  She pulled away suddenly and ran.  In her tiny fists was Sylvio’s sarong.

So, my single last and vivid impression of Jungle Beach is Sylvio, smiling and waving, stark naked in the middle of his organic garden.  He didn’t seem to mind.  He didn’t even flinch.  He just kept waving.