I sit at a round table near the door. When patrons enter or depart cold air rushes in, fast. I order a Reuben from a waitress who wears an orange sweater, her hair tied up - it flops out the other side of the rubber band like a horse's tail in wind. Her eyes are kind, anguished, responsive. She is taking through them, inadvertently but without inhibition. In order to lighten the impact of the Reuben I order vegetable soup instead of fries. There really is a cowboy wearing a firearm at one of the tables. He wears his revolver gunslinger style in a holster and belt studded with bullets, yet his clothes are handmade and Amish like. In unselfconscious innocence he eats with wife and baby and looks to be barely twenty-one. The other ranchers wear flannel and blue-jeans. The handwriting of the waitress who talks with her eyes is affectionate, her Thank You on the bill written in looping circles, the A, O, U and even the K and N hugging big bunches of air. The ranching men are lean, wiry, high cheek-boned, taciturn and in the next turn grinning. The Reuben plus soup costs $7.95 and the coffee a dollar and a quarter. The male waiter has a protruding belly and calls me "friend" when he asks if I want more coffee. Each table is loaded up with plenty of basic supplies; salt, pepper, sugar, napkins and Sweet-n-Low. Everyone here, about sixteen people, is speaking at the same decibel bandwidth, low enough, almost hushed, so that the refrigerator hum carries across from the kitchen and the cold gusts of winter air that enters with the patrons can also be heard. The sidearm on the cowboy looks as safe as his baby's rattle. The coffee cups here are all mismatched; mine has a trio of ducks on it. I walk slowly up to the cash register, eavesdropping with my peripheral vision on the customers I saw previously only from a distance. The overhead fans spin. It's winter. I pay my bill and also purchase a bottle of homemade hot sauce branded "4th Street Inferno." I walk out the door, already wondering, anticipating, when I'll make it here again.
I first visited Phnom Penh in January of 2005. A city with few functioning traffics lights but with traffic that moved so languidly it didn't need them. Thousands of small motorcycles navigated intersections like fish adept at their instinctual migration. Markets dense with vendors who could sit patiently all day in twelve square feet of floor space, surrounded by mangoes. Young monks with glowing innocence wandered semi-abandoned temple grounds. Through subsequent trips to Phnom Penh I gradually met a circle of friends, simple people who worked the streets of the city that I encountered and got to know on my daily walks. One of them was Amoi.
Among the legacies of Phnom Penh's colonial period include the extant secondary schools and government buildings the French built as well as the many street vendors who still sell French bread. Small loaves of bread - noom paang as it's called in Cambodian - can be found and bought fresh for twenty-five cents throughout the city. Amoi was one of Phnom Penh's noom paang vendors.
I met Amoi while I was learning Khmer, the Cambodian language. Once she got used to me saying hello and asking if I could buy a loaf of bread she became fond of correcting my Khmer pronunciation. I would part from her, for instance, by saying the Khmer version of "See you tomorrow." Amoi would gleefully attack my limp pronunciation of tomorrow, psa'aic. I wouldn't say it loud enough, aspirate adequately or put in a proper glottal stop. Amoi would tutor me until I did, insisting I say psa'aic five or six times until I got it right and as the smiles and laughter between us grew.
I'd encounter Amoi every morning, after I'd taken breakfast and on my way back to my guesthouse. Amoi worked in front of an elementary school and knew the young women who worked as teachers or secretaries behind a counter that opened onto the street where Amoi parked her bicycle and sold her bread. The teachers spoke English and helped me get to know Amoi and her story. Her story was not uncommon for people of her generation. Essentially all her relatives died during the Khmer Rouge era and Amoi had fended for herself for a long time, selling bread under the hot sun for eight hours a day, six days a week. She had no safety net but her bread and the stamina to sell it.
Amoi was probably in her late fifties, wore decent dresses, and still had good teeth. Her hair was gray, her smile fierce, radiant and winning. She was an attractive woman, perched between good health and looming old age; an orphan on the streets of Phnom Penh, a dot of human light in a city indifferent, populous and growing. Amoi sat on a plastic stool behind twenty or thirty loaves of bread and occasionally shut down her roadside shop to fetch more noom paang from whatever local bakery she purchased it from. One day, improbably and suddenly, she asked me if I would take over for her while she made a bicycle run for bread.
Thus I was momentarily hired into my first and only job in Cambodia, a crazy baraang (foreigner) with blonde hair and Ray-ban sunglasses selling French Bread on Phnom Penh Street #143. For the next twenty-five minutes I did pretty well. I knew enough Khmer to ask how many loaves a customer wanted, count change and say thank you. And customers did stop. Men or women on motorcycles loyal to Amoi's few square feet of concrete, who saw me and must have thought they wer hallucinating, yet urged on by habit and the desire for bread they stopped. I sold six or eight loaves, garnered many laughs and made a couple of dollars for Amoi.
When Amoi returned she was nonchalant and loaded down with noom pang. She offered me several fierce smiles, but otherwise no thanks and no pay. When we parted I could at least pronounce "tomorrow" correctly.
It was Piseth who accompanied me as we explored the grounds of Wat Tadong. Here was blessed quiet, a breeze and magnificent shade trees. This wat had the semblance of a ghost town: nearly deserted, buildings uncompleted, and a handful of young monks, the oldest fourteen years old but most of them only ten. These boys stood straight in their orange robes and did not smile. Their heads shaved they looked serious, even astute, but also forlorn and uncertain. As if their childhood had been snatched.
The boys, at Piseth’s request, led us into the shine hall. The high cement walls had not yet received the frescoes that illustrate the life of the Buddha and adorn all temples in Southeast Asia, but their gray expanse only added to the gilded group of arhats and Buddhas who made up the shrine, itself lit by candles as tall as the boys and put in their charge to keep burning day and night.
The shrine emitted an unsensed fragrance of the invisible world, a palpable essence of the suchness we usually keep so far away. I wanted Piseth to stop talking, even as his questions and eventually my own got the boys to begin smiling, finally very widely, to become boys. The group recited their names and ages and said, “Yes, we do sleep here in this room together.” Asked if they were all friends, without hesitation, one replied, “Between some but not all.”
This group of the youngest possible monks lived in what must surely be one of the least-supported temples in the area, remote, close to the rice fields but no doubt meager itself of rice. We went to the back of the temple to meet the thirty-two-year old monk whose charge they were under, who ran this orphanage. We found him smoking cigarettes and holding forth with four local men. One half expected to see them playing cards and drinking beer.
The monk received us from a chair and behind a small desk that displayed only his cigarette pack. The rest of us sat on the floor. The monk had eyes and offered questions that examined us, tested us, displayed humor but not real warmth, only caution and a certain shrewdness. He did not seem like a father figure or one who might inculcate discipline, but more like a slightly charismatic and vaguely delinquent older brother. But then, who can tell? He told of the problems they faced, the lack of funds to finish the buildings, the poverty of the area, the lack of jobs. He, too, seemed to be caught in a static world, both luminous and sad.
We drove east, outside the Republic of Boulder, toward Hudson. Though only forty-six miles away I’d never even heard of Hudson, much less been there. We crossed Highway 287 and then past wheat fields, corn fields, a tree farm. The road became an arrow piercing the farmland and then we were in Weld County and before long Fort Lupton, one of the towns Kathleen and I considered visiting when I suggested a Sunday afternoon road trip east instead of west. Instead of Peak to Peak Highway to Estes Park why not go where Boulderites never go - i.e., Hudson?
When we reached Fort Lupton it sported among other sights the Taqueria Los Cazos, a Dollar Store and a detour that took us by a multi-football field sized open-pit mine with a massive red, white and blue Donald Trump Make America Great Again sign attached to its chain link fence. Part of our reason for driving east was to be in Trump country; to be in a red county rather than a blue one, to be where we were singular and the others were other. Strangely the only other presidential-race sign we saw all day was one for Hilary Clinton.
Twelve miles east of Fort Lupton we hit Hudson, a town perched on the off-ramp of Interstate 76 but whose epicenter was perhaps otherwise little changed from 1906, the construction date of the only bar in town, at least the only one on Main Street. We parked in front of the End of the Trail bar, with is hand-painted sign, steel-bar protected windows and nearly rotten plywood siding. Though the Budweiser King of Beers sign said “Open” and though intrigued we were reluctant to enter and instead walked. Walked past the post office, the hardware store and the railroad tracks. We walked around the entire downtown and five minutes later we were back in front of the End of the Trail bar.
I figured one Corona would put me at ease and so talked Kathleen into venturing inside the End of the Trail at 1:30 pm on Sunday afternoon. The first creature I saw was a bulldog with a studded collar. Rosie the bulldog turned out to be blind in one eye and full of licks rather than snarls - an old girl and as much a regular of the bar as her owner, Sean. “There’s no squirrels here,” Sean said, a few minutes into our conversation. He said it again, “There’s no squirrels here.” I figured he meant the squirrels had all been shot for target practice but instead it was the owl. “It’s because of the white owl” Sean said, and then repeated that, too, “It’s because of the owl that lives over by the freeway."
The End of the Trail bar had a pool table, a condom dispenser in the men’s room, a Harley Davidson poster, a bikini-clad girlie calendar, a vintage mirror above the Jameson and Johnny Walker Red bottles and a Broncos game playing on the flatscreen. Sean wore a Bronco’s hat and assured us beyond any doubt that he was a Broncos fan. Kathleen later said Sean’s eyes were sad, and so were Chevy’s, another man we spoke to. Chevy had deep creases in his face, matted hair and a short pony tail - he looked 68 or 70 though was probably only 56 or 58. Chevy was at least three drinks into his stay at the End of the Trail bar. Chevy was talkative, gentle, funny, and near drunk, but still able to remember both our names when we excused ourselves to leave, whereas neither of us at that moment could remember his.
Touch is the Vehicle of Spirit
There aren’t many trees on the grounds of the Denver Coliseum, nor grasslands, ponds or the meandering creeks that once flowed here. There are weeds, concrete, parking lots, a maze of buildings, and on January fifteenth 2017 the National Western Stock Show. On display were nearly all the domesticated animals in America, save the house cat. It’s a working show that includes men and woman ranchers out to buy bulls and heifers for up to $5000 a cow, and gawking tourists, neophytes and even those, presumably, who are vegetarian or leaning that way (like Kathleen and I). Acres of Cowboy hats and boots were on sale, many John Deere tractors, and at one both packaged toy versions of SWAT team gear: assault rifles, clubs, face shields and teargas bombs. Near the entrance vendors sold BBQ turkey legs for $13 (seemingly the most popular purchase) and slices of pizza for eight (the most I’d ever paid for pizza, the worst pizza I’d ever eaten). Black breeding bulls, inconceivably massive, seemed the most highly prized mammal at the show. They were washed, sprayed, groomed and ultimately vacuumed so as to remove even a trace of a stray piece of hay or an out-of-place hair. Kathleen and I spent the most time with the sheep. All shorn, buffed and muzzled, held in five-by-five pens, sometimes lashed by the face to the pen’s bars or attached by the neck to braces that held them upright, like dressage horses, so as to produce the posture most likely to fetch the best auction price. Apparently their next stop would be the butcher, but for now they were treated somewhere between pets and slaves. Kathleen was communicative and affectionate toward them as she moved from sheep to sheep, petting heads and muzzles, letting them chew her fingers with their lips. “Touch is the vehicle of spirit,” she said on the bus home, echoing her conclusion and empathy.
I go an online to search for bars in Golden, Colorado. I want to stop at the Ace-Hi Tavern, advertized on Yelp as a “dive bar,” but it doesn’t open until early evening and I’m looking for a bar at 2:20 in the afternoon. So I follow the GPS to the Buffalo Rose Saloon.
I sit down at the outdoor bar, encircled by bar stools and four other customers.
“Did you vote?” a customer with a shaved head says to a biker with a foot-long goatee. “Yes, I did, the biker answers. “That’s all the counts,” the man without hair replies.
Their conversation continues. “This is not normal at all. It’s almost Thanksgiving and we haven’t had a wink of snow,” the goateed biker says. I agree. I’m sitting at the outdoor bar of the Buffalo Rose, awning covered. It’s November 14th, slight breeze, seventy degrees Fahrenheit. Been this way since early October.
A fly lands on the counter and then my hand. I take four sips of my Corona and settle further into the barstool. The bartender scoops ice into a plastic cup, adds a shot of Jim Beam and fills the rest with Coca-Cola. Gives it to a woman wearing Ray Bans who flirts with another biker. Clouds move toward the sun.
When it’s time to leave I give the bartender a five, expecting change, but one Mexican beer costs five dollars here. I step away from the bar to the sound of a Harley Davidson rider revving his engine. The sun has vanished and the breeze has become a wind.
There is something about a train ticket that excites me as an object, is something I’d like to collect. I didn’t save my ticket from Arad to Budapest but I still remember the sensation of standing on the train station platform. I still remember the train that arrived – green and rusted along its rivets. I remember the sensation of boarding it, the poignancy of leaving Arad.
Curiously, Arad was one of the more compelling place I’ve ever visited; my walks along the river, crows overhead, live chickens and peacocks in the Saturday market. A town on few tourist maps, slightly derelict, beautifully decayed, invaded by one McDonald’s Restaurant but otherwise remarkably out of globalization-time, a little-known Romanian town on the way to Budapest.
The history of Arad is a history of the world: invaded by the Mongols, conquered by the Ottomans, captured by the Austrians, ruled by the Habsburg monarchy. Eaten by time and the communist era, the Arad train station lacked elegance or surface beauty. Drab, chilled by the November air, unilluminated by a cloud covered sky, thin of passengers.
I waited on the platform and stared at the railroad tracks as one typically does when waiting. I made sure my ticket was snug in my coat pocket, I felt the faint anxiety of leaving one place and going to one I'd never seen, of leaving one country and having my passport stamped in another.
A month later I was in Paris, walking the streets with my friend Dominique. I spoke of Romania and Arad and in that moment felt a subtle and fleeting sensation. It ran down my spine and caused the hair on my arm to lift. A flickering ecstasy that told me I should return to Arad, that a return was a necessary link in a life dedicated to following those intangible links, which is the life of any life.
Passenger Ferry to Bursa
I took a passenger ferry from Istanbul to Bursa. I thought I purchased a window seat but what I ended up with was a seat against a wall, below a television monitor and facing the other passengers. One of the passengers I could see was a woman cloaked in a burqa. It was not just the woman's dress but how she held herself that contrasted so greatly with the woman beside her, attired without elegance and slumped in her seat.
Putting aside the complexities and furor of debate about the burqa (which exist everywhere, including or especially in Muslim countries), and how difficult it is to confront from a feminist perspective (my own), in that moment, for that moment, I envied her. What an experience to be invisible to others and thus take up no social mask, as well as be freed from having to engage in small talk.
I studied her as best I could because she impressed me in other ways and my potential to judge or dismiss became instead to inquire: this woman was an individual human being and therefore, as we all are, a mystery comprised of complexities who ultimately thinks like no one else (not even herself).
Soon after the ferry embarked the woman opened her Quran and read it for the entire journey. To read something that demands contemplation is itself a form of contemplation, and potentially to be admired.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey, dismissed Islam and once claimed the entire "Turkish nation resembled those who commit the Quran to memory without understanding the meaning of a single word and thus becoming senile." Atatürk's view was materialistic in the way Lenin's was and set one wave of history into motion.
Removed from historical-political generalizations, I sat in the anecdotal: seat 324 of the Yenikapi-Bursa ferry, and observed the other passengers. The woman in the burqa carried a potency, a high-frequency focus, quite ennobled. Her clothing extended to her hands, the black gloves she turned the pages of her Quran with.
Phnom Penh. I went for dinner after the rainstorms. Waitresses assembled at my outdoor table like a gang of football referees, trying to understand just what I was saying in Khmer. I ordered chicken with rice and a beer. The latter is served with icecubes, irregular hunks chipped from blocks men deliver on the back of flat-bed trucks, exposed to the sun – the ice laughably vulnerable (symbols of Cambodia everywhere). Young women called “beer girls” represent particular companies – Tiger Beer or Angkor – wear tight-fitting dresses, deliver ice cubes, will sit down and talk with you, work in a kind of quasi-prostitution of availability depending on the restaurant.
To my left was a table of solders; four woman and three men. Civil servants like soldiers, policemen and public school teachers are paid horribly little in Cambodia, which creates systems of dysfunction and graft. The soldiers were good-looking in their uniforms, heftier than most Cambodians, carousing, half-drunk, eyes showing desires and frustrations under the languid influence of beer expressed with increasing inaccuracy and blur. The owner of the place sat at another table with a similar scene of men and women, several beers and sexual innuendo edges. The young waitresses and waiters giggling, innocent, curious and smiling tenderly by contrast.
A young mother entered the scene with her baby at her breast, her clothes blackened by filth; she seemed nearly as small as her infant, standing there at the tables, begging. Alternately brushed away or given 100 riel. An outlandish but understandable custom – coming as it does from centuries of rural life where table scraps were fed to the dogs, chickens and pigs, and plastic had not yet been invented – is that dinner napkins (toilet paper kept in small dispensers) and every other discard from the table is thrown to the ground with impunity. At the end of a meal the floor under a table might be ankle deep in beer cans and trash (as laughable as the ice cubes).
A young man arrived with his baby and sat at a table in front of me. He plunked the baby right down on the tabletop and moved its occupants – a toothpick dispenser and two bottles of hot sauce - in front of his daughter while he offered her smiles and loving adoration. The baby girl, just old enough to sit upright, sat like an enlightened emanation - Buddha-like, she sat perfectly, seemingly without tensing a single muscle to keep herself upright. Her ears, cheeks, eyes and head all cheerfully round. She handled and examined the objects offered to her as if they were scepters from a former lifetime. Eventually she upended the toothpick dispenser and a stream of toothpicks spread across the table. The father reacted with tender humor befitting his daughter and this kind of thing went on without the slightest trace of impatience or gap in affection between them. As I left, I stopped at his table and said konya s’aat – beautiful baby. Whether she understood or not, the baby smiled at me in an instant, almost knowingly, as if she was expecting me to arrive there.
The magpies here in Rome are bigger than the ones we know and are brown where ours are white. They’re more cautious, more to themselves, gathering on the edges beyond where the pigeons feed. Cappuccino is considered a breakfast coffee, though frivolous, something the tourists drink. Whatever the time of day, the real drink is café. In two syllables you stand at the bar and say it, café. The bartender replies, café. He slams the strainer down twice to empty it. The wet grains accumulate in a garbage bucket, feral as a magpie nest. He snaps a lever twice to fill the strainer with coffee and slams it down twice to pack it. While you wait for the steam to express he puts a saucer down near your elbow and on it a spoon, very small. Magpies all over the world are social birds, yet sparing of conversation and ritualistic. When the cup is put down you say, grazie and the bartender says, prego. Add sugar if desired. The café is dark as engine oil. Dark as a magpie wing. You finish café in two or three sips. Anything more lacks grace. Magpies congregate then scatter. As you do. There is almost no liquid to the experience of this coffee. It is like medicine and in some ways you hardly feel it, the caffeine. There is a moment before and one after, slightly more bracing.
My first car was a 1966 Volkswagon Beetle. My parents gave it to me in 1972, the year I graduated highschool. They gave it to me to leave home in, which I soon enough did. Perhaps I never asked them what it felt like to see me drive away in my new (used) car. I didn’t know what the VW costs or how to repair it, but thanks to John Muir I was soon enough changing the oil, adjusting the rotor, installing new spark plugs. Muir wrote How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot. The book was in most hippie’s collections, was staple reading for the counterculteralist (that I was/am), was one of the most popular books in the Whole Earth Catalog (the true bible of the counterculture). Muir’s book was hand written, hand illustrated and wry - and without intending to began the stream of “complete idiot” books to follow. The first two sentences of Muir’s book are telling: “Your Volkswagon is not a donkey but the communication considerations are similar. Your car is constantly telling your senses where it’s at: what it’s doing and what it needs.” Nowadays automobiles talk to sensors and onboard computers. What little can be discerned by the empirical ear and eye can nonetheless only be rectified in the mechanic’s garage, also fitted with computers. I still remember the feel of the dirt as I sat in it and took torque wrench to spark plug. Inept at first, I cursed the dirt and oil but gradually became competent at tuning the thing up, and more. Simplicity, utility and equality - the VW Beetle dominated the parking lot of college campuses. I took the passenger seat out of my car and filled the cavity with San Francisco Chronicles, which I delivered at 4:00 am seven days a week in Eureka California. I drove with one hand and tossed papers with the other. The morning was dark and my aim was good. That was my two-hour a day job. My rent was $30 a month. My meals vegetarian, my hair long, my reading material Carl Jung, books on Chan art, Carlos Castaneda. I built my own furniture and except for the paper route hitch-hiked to save gas and diminish pollution. Humanity was freer then, to say the least – or at least the choice was there to take. The VW Beetle offered stoic affection and clad one in the desired identity; the like minded were called a “head” and the term for “sweet” was “out-a-sight.” My VW lasted me three years or so. Took me to Eureka, back to Tahoe and over to Santa Cruz. It died an electrical death; the wiring harness caught fire one morning and totaled the car. I guess that was a harbinger of things to come: a darker age, a less self-sufficient age, an age with less and less simplicity, utility, equality.
I lived in Cambodia for up to five months at a time. Coincidence and then a spiritual urgency brought me there and back again. All I mostly ever did was write and practice meditation in my room and then wander around. I took two-hour walks and befriended the young men who worked in the guesthouse I stayed in. It was through my walks and talking to the young men – Sitah, Satcha and Ra – that I gained an understanding of Cambodian Politics. I read books about the Khmer Rouge era and about the history of Buddhism, but the more vital learning was, for instance, that the young men who worked in the guesthouse worked seven days a week and up to twelve hours a day. Most of them slept on the top floor of the building under a tin awning with no walls (in a way it was a paradise up there, with heat and weather and breezes penetrating the sleepers). There were rules against working such long hours, but when government inspectors showed up, if they did at all, the owners gave them some money and that was that. The politics of Cambodia are that those in power stay in power, those with money make the money, those with connection operate with impunity. Once I saw the home of the minister of taxation – a virtual palace alongside the shambles of the poor. Though the average person stands few chances of getting ahead there were advantages to be something less than middle class. Some might think it romanticism to say the poor have the joy and the rich have the money, but that is apparently true in Cambodia. The hand-to-mouth life is immediate and existential and the moment-to-moment decisions of life are carried out the aplomb, élan and wicked senses of humor. Satcha called me Papa, a greeting that always made us both laugh. The politics of a smile goes a long, long way.
The Chinese Shrine
Every morning I go to a Chinese shrine on Street #1 in Battambang, Cambodia. The shrine is not on the tourist map and I've never seen anyone else inside it, save for the shrine attendant and once, three small boys. I discovered the shrine a week ago, walking along Street #1, walking along the banks of the Sangker River. Harvested rice fields had been burned the night before and the morning sky was thick with smoke, the sun a dull orange globe when it rose above the market and lit the banks of the river. Through the haze I saw the shrine beckoning me. I crossed the street and entered.
The shrine attendant, a short man who had the innocent look of a school boy but who I later learned has three children of his own, showed me exactly what to do, which was to offer precise numbers of incense sticks to six shrines and the entrance gate. Twenty-eight sticks in all. When I offered incense to the main shrine the attendant hit a drum and a gong many times. A clamor filled the room and the moment of offering became very real. I couldn't wait to return the next day.
I don't know anything about this shrine, really, and the attendant and I can only exchange a few words in English or Khmer. All I know is what my eyes have told me, and from the feelings I get offering incense. Each time I've offered it has become clearer what each shrine is - a station for the ancestors. This is the most obvious or cliche notion we have about a Chinese shrine, yet the phenomena is real. Without anticipating it, each time I offer I sense my father and mother. Through participation, these shrines have become a place to acknowledge and intangibly meet my departed parents, and other long-dead relatives. After visiting them I feel stronger.
. . .
I went back to the Chinese shrine this morning. As usual, the shrine attendant was mopping the floor. I don't know his name. I took off my sandals and walked across the wet tile, my footprints evaporating as I left them, the mop bucket parked with sudsy water by the front gate. The neatly bundled twenty-eight sticks of incense lay waiting by the donation box, each bound with a rubber band. I dropped a dollar in the box and picked up an offering bundle. I held the incense above a burning candle and lit each stick. I walked back to the entrance shrine and faced the street. The Sangker river was out there, due east, barely moving and green as a frog pond. The incense wafted toward the river. More rice fields were burned last night and the smoke from the rice fires was almost as think as the incense plumes. The sunrise muted and diffuse. I felt gratitude for the view I was seeing now as if for the first time.
I was thinking about the Chinese shrine when I went for my afternoon walk. It would be locked now, as I walked through what remained of this morning's market. The morning vendors had all gone home, most of them anyway, and the street I walked on was clear of pallets, stools, trays and overhead umbrellas. All that remained were fish scales, furiously scrubbed away this morning and covering the asphalt, translucent and now being ground into the hot tar by motorcycle tires and my own footprints. Later I walked through the pagoda I visit each morning, Wat Pippitharam, and came across another small bonfire, smoldering on the fuel of fallen leaves, rotten newspapers and limp plastic bags. No one was tending it and the smoke smelled delicious; pungent and wafting the remains of various species of tree leaves skyward. The fish scales and bonfire smoke alone were enough to make me glad I'd taken this walk. Even the smell of the sewer coming from the storm gates at traffic intersections was welcome and alive .
. . .
My trip to the shrine this morning was the same as the other days, in other words, unique. As Kierkegaard taught, by limiting ourselves we become more creative. I wouldn't soon tire of the precise limitation of twenty-six sticks of incense. Or of six shrines. Or of the conversation I have with the shine attendant each day, which consists of Hello, How are you? and See you tomorrow.
Prayer, as Other
I first visited Istanbul in January of 2015. As always, my first foray was a long, long walk. I headed for the bridge that crossed over to Ayasophya and Sultanahmet, all those minarets I saw from the bus, but overshot and ended at the final bend of the Golden Horn, looking out through a chain-link fence at the Bosporus, wind-lashed with boatmen and docks, a water of blue ink. I angled over to the bridge though more labyrinthine streets and merchandise. The men delivering afternoon tea were out, walking alleys with trays of teapots and tiny glasses already poured.
I glanced up and saw the dome and minaret of a beautiful mosque and headed instinctively for it. An old man in the courtyard indicated, Yes, I could go in. Removed my shoes and entered the room, smaller than I’d thought from the street. Three men were sitting on the carpet, occupied within themselves. By the mirab there was a stand of prayer beads, the carpet had a motif of rectangles, each large enough for a man to pray, and above it electric lights and a domed ceiling. It was warn inside, not a piece of furniture, and the atmosphere, inward. Very energized, I sat. No images, no carved saints or sepulchers, no pews or prayerbooks and no zafus on the rug.
Suddenly the call to prayer blared from megaphones across the city and men began, one or two at a time, to enter the mosque. I felt I should leave but I couldn’t. Nor could I just sit there, so I joined them when prayers began, doing what they did from behind the last row. Sometimes thumbs at the ears as if to pry them open. Each time my forehead hit the carpet I felt devotion, surrender even as I felt illicit, perhaps on the verge of being thrown out. The Imam walked to a microphone inside the mirhab and began to chant the Koran most beautifully. Echoes up and down the dome of his deep, resonant voice. Now the men gathered closely in the front rows, shoulder to shoulder. I wanted to but didn’t join them. More thumbs to the ears, more times down on the knees and forehead. Then a man tossed a set of prayer beads across the carpet in my direction. I just let them lie there.
The Imam, intelligent and handsome turned to us, then continued chanting. He wore a takke with a band of red circling it. What was he thinking of me? What kind of disrespect did my presence mean? What about the prayerbeads? Throughout the service all the men partaking of that inwardness, sincere, solitary yet communal. I felt at home in it. Then it was over, maybe twenty minutes. Some of the men took each other’s hands. One man took mine and looked warmly into my eyes with brotherhood. Then the Imam also shook my hand and looked at me without a trace of critical scrutiny.
I tied my shoes with the others and then I was out on the street as if I’d been ex-rayed or initiated, and now only four blocks from a bridge crossing the Bosporus. Fishing poles, wheeling seagulls thick as the wind, huge crowds on the bridge’s ample sidewalk, ferry boat horns, diesel smoke. The bluster and continuous movement of Istanbul, when did it end or begin? I asked myself rhetorical questions that had no answers and I was half-way across the Galata Bridge, in a headwind of rain and the furious seagulls.
Kuala Lumpur. Sri Paandi Indian Restaurant opens onto Jalan Pasar street. Ceiling fans keep the air moving. Eight dials control the fans and eight men, dark and wearing lavender shirts, cook the food and serve it. Fluorescent lighting makes the stainless steel tables shine. There are no napkins and the dinner plate is a banana leaf. When eaten with the hands food is less mediated, there is less elbow movement, no rifling through a newspaper, more stillness. Sandals slap the floor tile, the fans whirl, dosas hit frying oil, music blares in a high female pitch, the forks and spoons of Chinese patrons clang. There are those sounds, but little or no talking by the customers of southern or central Indian descent whose fingers scrape up mixtures of dhal and idli. The silence between these men and women is not the vague discomfort cloaking an absence of anything new to talk about that accompanies the meal of some married couples, but is a natural and profound silence born from an unsevered earthly connection that makes a person look stunned by a silent wonder, as if they've seen a gust of vultures land by the fire extinguisher. This gaze is also carried by the waiters and cooks, the men in lavender shirts. Whatever else they know, they know this food and how to serve it, and they serve with as few words as possible. There is no room for fawning, ingratiation or even conversation when ordering in Sri Paandi Restaurant. Just order, just eat. A breakfast of dosa, idli, dhal, chutneys and two glasses of chai costs one dollar and twenty-five cents. A framed bas relief of Ganesh, hung with flower garlands and lit with butter lamps sits near the cash drawer. When the waiter steps into this alcove to make change, he slips his sandals off, as is customary at any shrine.
Tony owned a Fender Stratocaster and a Ford Mustang that went 75 mph in first gear. I hardly remember what Tony looked like or what his voice sounded like or what he wore to school, only that he owned a Mustang and a Fender Guitar. That was a difference between us - I walked around with a book in my pocket and thought about what the English teacher said, whereas Tony could drive people to the hotsprings. I rode with him one night. I don't remember who else was in the car, just as I don't remember what Tony looked like except that his hair was black and the car was full. Tony had stripped the carpet from the floor so our feet rested on the metal of the body that rested on the chassis that moved with the wheels moving and the loose asphalt gravel sprayed up and hit the underside like rain on a tin roof. Tony put in manifolds and bored out cylinders and made his Mustang go 75 mph in first gear and in fourth gear the Mustang went 110 easily. I saw that myself. From the backseat I saw the speedometer needle move to 110 and it glowed red like our cigarette tips. Tony drove sections of Luther Pass at 110 mph and when we returned from Grover Hot Springs he still drove as fast on Hwy 6. He took some curves at 80. We all drank as much beer as Tony did and we barely knew him. Tony wasn't popular, just some guy known for his Mustang and guitar and girls didn't go out with him. But we rode with him anyway because that was what happened on Friday nights. Tony drove us to the hotspings and showed us how fast he could go and we offered him our lives.
We sat on a couch, next to a large window running from floor to ceiling. Outside, a small boy trailed behind his mother - a street vendor pushing her cart - and waved decorously to us, like a politician. The alley, with its machinery, trash cans and back-ends of buildings could have been anywhere, Denver, Europe, Brazil. A spotlight cast a cylinder of red light onto the center of the couch. She sat nearer the light; when she moved closer her face was bathed in red, erasing the fine features of her skin - lines, blemishes, coloring - leaving only the contour of bones and muscles, the dark brown of her eyes. A half eaten blueberry croissant and cups of coffee sat on the table before us.
She told a story from the first grade. She'd learned to write her name, Karen, the year before in kindergarten using only capital letters. She began the name with a "K", then an "A". She thought the capital "R" was really a face with two legs, so she wrote it that way, with eyes. She added and "E" and finally an "N". Her name held a person inside, symmetrically. Her first-grade teacher told her an "R" wasn't written that way, didn't have a face, and so the person had to leave. She was left wandering inside an uninhabited alphabet, and later dropped the name Karen altogether, using only her last name, Chance. We finished our coffee.
Another child walked past the window, a Chinese girl with a wide forehead, two ponytails and a huge tee-shirt that made her seem to be without knees. Her mother walked quickly, had already turned the corner.
My son Devin and I traveled to Berlin in October 2010. It was a little over three months since my father died and we used inheritance money to travel together, first to Istanbul and then to Berlin. Berlin was somewhat a random choice; I was on my way to Paris and Devin back to New York. We chose Berlin for efficiency of travel and some unknown reason that soon became evident, at least for me, in walking through vestigial landmarks of my own mediated history: the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag. Berlin in October had fallen leaves, remnant WWII bullet holes in the walls of buildings, some of the world’s best graffiti. The history was my father’s history, his interest in history, his desire to be a history teacher, his knowledge of and participation in the Second World War. This history entered me through him and our television set: newsreels of Kennedy’s famous Berlin speech, the Iron Curtain, Afghanistan. My father favored democracy but understood the Cold War pitted two empires against each other more than it did good and bad. Devin and I first stayed in the former East Berlin, more dismal and with some buildings unimaginably bleak, Communist era concrete. The buildings went well with the bullet holes. One day we walked into a Turkish quarter, older and more squalid and emanating Istanbul, which we had loved. We drank good beer from the tap and ate Sauerbraten and sausage and an echo of my father’s life moved through us.
In the year 2000, I took a train to Granada, the place the Nationalists assassinated the poet Lorca during the Spanish Civil War. I was conscious of Lorca and his death, had read many of his poems, but the real reason I went to Granada was to see the Alhambra, to continue my tour of Andalusian Spain. Upon arrival, I disembarked from the train and made my way to a district that had many inexpensive hotels, but my usual luck did not hold - not a one of them had vacancy. I walked away with my suitcase in tow, semi-desolate because I was tired, semi-enthused and confident because I was in Granada and something would happen as it always does. After walking a few blocks, a man approached and accosted me, politely but firmly. He spoke no English, wore poor clothes and gestured to me with his hands and body, and I knew right away he had a room for me. Inadvisably I followed him, curiosity overrode caution and he had somehow captured me with his boldness. Eventually we turned down a side-street, down an alley, through a construction site, under a corrugated metal fence, and there it was: a hotel made out of scraps, an illicit, hidden-away temporary boarding house with dirt floors, six or eight rooms and, improbably, running water in the toilet. Only later did I realize it was a gypsy hotel (that Granada was home to many Roma). The man took me to my room, a plywood rectangle with a bed and a window. He unpadlocked the door, showed me inside, then left. I contemplated my fate. What if someone broke into my room or padlocked me inside during the night? What if I was robbed or beaten, raped or further misled? I had disregarded the advice of any guidebook and any common sense. There was an orange tree outside my window and a view of Granada. I went to dinner, slept through the night, left my suitcase in my room, toured the Alhambra, returned the next night and prepared to depart the next morning. During the thirty-nine hours of my stay I saw no one else in the hotel. As I prepared to leave there was no check-out desk, but the poorly-dressed man improbably but exactingly arrived just as I was rolling my suitcase out the hotel. I stood there with apprehension, I had no idea what he was going to charge me, but the price, by American standards, turned out to be next to nothing. I retraced my steps out of the alley, onto the main streets and made it back to the train depot. I had avoided any misfortune. Synchronicity or some similar force had seemingly guided or protected me. I had encountered the goodness of humanity. I had a story to tell. I was like some soldier who went to war but had not even encountered a battle.
Tarantula. A leap from the roasted grasshoppers I ate in Bangkok - bypassing the cockroaches - to a palm-sized arachnid. I buy it on the way to the banks of the Mekong/Tonle Sap (it is these rivers that have arrested me), on that most lovely named of streets, Sisowath Quay. I buy the tarantula from a heap of others. An eight-year old girl sells it to me. I kneel down and she allows me into her world of barter without flinching. Takes 700 real. Puts it in a bag.
The Tonle Sap is bordered by Sisowath Quay, the Mekong meets it further down, beyond the city center. Here the rivers spread and the sky opens. Clouds heaped into the distance, violet, a trace of pink, ominous grays. It rained minutes ago and will again. I eat two legs - mostly the taste of salt and chile powder. Brittle. I bite half the thorax off; a mealiness, I feel hesitant. Mild nausea. Anything animal we don't know hints of chicken and I notice that here.
Across the river tall coconut trees are silhouetted like unusual mushrooms or minarets. I've stared at this water throughout the last eleven days. Often in the morning, before coffee, with the soft stillness of 6:30 a.m. As painful as seeing the garbage dump and the people living there was the sight of water infected by sewage. Whole parts of town, shanty buildings erected besides such waterways, are forced to create such waterways. The water black, opaque as engine oil. A stench. The water is a negative mirror. An injury. Something that shouldn't be. A sinister shadow of our choices. A heartbreak (it does empty into the rivers before me).
Such a complex current, mesmerizing elegance under the softening sky, losing it's color as the sun sets. I eat two more legs, the increase of salt and spice welcome after the second bite of the thorax, more ample in my mouth than I expected. Tough. The back of the head is semi-hollow, sweeter. Finally the eyes, the jaws, remnants of the legs from the bottom of the bag. I feel stable and confident.
It was near here that I saw an Indian, a sadhu it seemed, two mornings in a row. Hair tied back, matted, in orange robe, dignified, to himself, untroubled, he leaned against a flagpole as I am now, expelled stale air, yoga-wise, from each nostril. Stared at the Mekong in the distance. His eyes like the captain of a ship, responsible to himself. He assumed a full lotus and took up his overt spiritual practice while everyone else went on about him. He inspired me.
The tarantula would taste much different unsalted and uncooked. I know village people in Cambodia today rely on insects for a significant portion of their diet. During the Khmer Rouge era and its starvation, many people, especially the city people, were reduced to eating insects raw, secretly.
I will miss the sight of these rivers, and look now so that memory records them indelibly. There are surprisingly few commercial craft on the water, none of the stream of barges loaded with stuff you see in Bangkok, just a couple of tourist boats and tiny fishing boats, powered by ancient engines, trolling with nets the size of a bedsheet. You can sit along the river on the granite topped stone embankment that runs for many blocks. Beside it, a wide sidewalk, then grass, then Sisowath Quay. It draws the population to it, and people of all economic persuasions are gathered here, always.
Stories by Bill Scheffel