Theravada Travels

Painting by Marisa Darasavath

January and February of 2011, we spent our days walking along Yunnan back roads; paths intersecting the tea fields of Xishuangbanna, literally a stone’s throw to Myanmar; the dirt roads and jungle paths (barefoot, oh the leeches!) of northern Laos where we paid local Tong a week’s pay in advance to take us into the mountain tribes’ villages but after two days he said his wife, Nin, lost the money (when meanwhile all this Lao Lao moonshine and opium kept showing up and oh yeah, the brand new motorcycle our trusty guide rode back to his house leaving his poor and ashamed wife to lead us back through thick forest and streams); headed down to a Satanic island on Thailand inhabited by perpetual partyers where I was invited by an old high school friend who acted like she didn’t know me when we showed up to “The Sanctuary”; camped on beaches and in bamboo huts in rice fields, and occasionally a good fellow would invite us into his home.  We spent my birthday (which I shared with the Buddha) drinking on the streets of Bangkok, dancing ‘The Chicken Strut’ (The Meters) sounding from our miniature boombox, and met up with tranny Sonya, with whom I’d become friends on the train from the border to Bangkok but caught the evil eye from her when I jokingly insulted their king.  “He is a good king, he has a bad son,” she firmly corrected.
Despite walking and meditating and being so close to God, my immediate environment outside the meditations was usually harsh and filled with all sorts of people who held the truth in their gripped fists, anxious to ram it in whoever karmically crossed their path.  It was mainly the “We are one” doctrine where love is the cosmic force that binds us.  Maybe so, but it’s one thing to mentally know something and quite another to live it out, for if they were such gurus of this paradigm-dissolving philosophy, then why do they have such a desperate need to violate everyone else’s inner journey?  If it were so cellularly the real way of all of nature, then wouldn’t we all already be doing it, like breathing and shitting?  And forget mentioning to any of these masters salvation or redemption or absolution.  One learns real quickly in this perennial tropical climate that there is no need for winter.  Their all-encompassing Way is not so inclusive after all.

Then, Joshua went to Kathmandu and I decided to return to Chengdu to teach at the same school I had taught the previous spring.  On my way back north, outside the Chinese embassy in Vientiane I was stopped by a white SUV while walking toward the airport from which I was supposed to fly to Kunming the next day.  They were Chinese, and one Laotian, Kham, who spoke Chinese.  I spoke Chinese and we were all friendly.  I got in the car and they let me stay at their beautiful rented house where all three meals were cooked by a native woman.  A blessing, since I had less than fifty dollars and with the bureaucracy of border-crossings—the baht, the kip, the yuan, the dollars—were going fast.  They were the Guangcai Group out of Shenzhen, in Lao’s capital on important business, silver and ferrous ore mining, railroad-building, however they could exploit their untouched neighbor to the south.  They said I could accompany them (ah, it was all so cordial as it goes with the Chinese, but did I have a choice?  I’ll never really know for sure that answer.  They didn’t trust me.  I was interrogated three or four times in mixed English and Chinese by different members of their group over noodle soup and fresh fish.  What was I doing there?  What was my line of work.  I had fun with it all, changing the answers all the time.  “Spirit quest.  Ministry.  Volunteer.  Teacher.  Poet.”  I didn’t really know answers to these seemingly simple questions.  Yet every one I gave was true.  They even treated me to a wonderful massage at one of the many salons in town.  So a kidnapping, one might infer…) into Phou Khao Khouay National Park.

A shared smile with a passerby

And we are transcended there

Skeptics, abandon your tired ways

Not for your sake but for mine

For this lake, it needs to flow

And your dam impeding, must go

Along with it, in the end, to the sea…

We came from different colors

But we all enjoyed green mangoes after breakfast

Sour and delicious.

They were on an expedition for rare earth metals, and if I thought the hike with Tong and Nin was tough…We got the seventy year old village chief (who asked the night before under the stars around the fire, why Westerners, Europeans in particular, have such bad eye sight.  And, “How strange it is the only one they use, the only one they trust!”) and his wife to be our local guides and the hillsides were so steep (think, Guilin karst formations) we were climbing no-paths using tree roots and jungle vines.  The Chinese geologist Mr. Wei, wearing a Ronaldino sunhat and office-looking clothes, was a chain-smoker and weighed I’d guess two-twenty.  I don’t know how he ever did it.  On the treasure hunt the men all depended on their sticks and tried to get me to accept one.  As usual, ha.  The hike took about five or six hours, one-way, but the team found promising samples and the chief made us all bamboo flutes which we played on the hike down.  I finally took off my shoes and my feet were so sure and happy, going down the sheer mountain feeling the rich soil, the earth massaged by bare soles; Kham soon followed my intuition.

Look down at a tree from the sky

See its first core, then its many

Scattered in a stippled design of abandon

About that first point.

Yet maintaining cosmic equilibrium,

Like the infinite, sourcing from your eye

Moving in strength against the whims of the weather

Fashionable, political climates

Tempestuous, galactic temptations

They grow.

Still.

And their leaves may dance with the great storms

And they may fall

To be faraway stars

At rest by their roots

Behold such magnificence!

Behold it in your eye

Where it all begins.

Who knows what happened with the extraction of the minerals on national parkland?  Anything is possible with the clever Chinese.  During the six days and nights I ended up staying with the Guangcai Group, Zhou (the youngest member who spoke English) and I wrote a letter to the prime minister of Laos requesting strengthening ties and amnesty between China and “His Highness’” good country.  Try railroad “ties.”

The roar of the city once again after a train north, missing Joshua terribly (was I in love with him or with God?) and loneliness seeping out in anger bursts.  When was he going to come around and follow God with me forever?  I pray for Brother Zhou, remembering that last night at the house in Vientiane.  Kham’s lover, Pim the cook, chopped shallots and zapped mosquitoes.  They were embarrassed by my forthright gratitude for everything they’d done and only hoped that I mention the good hospitality of Chinese and Laotians in an article.  I guess that was their conclusion about me: a journalist.  I didn’t have a camera, but whatever.  Zhou and I sat and chatted eating watermelon slices while telling me his father writes papers on relieving pressure slowly and constantly for maximum social benefit.  His father loves his country but does not write the truth.  “He’ll wait till he retires to concern himself with that.”  But Zhou is curious about God and wants to believe.  I was there to have this discussion ‘from the grail,’ which we recognized the source by the end and shared a reverent silence.  If only I could inform my interrogators that I knew the final answer.

©2014, Amaya Engleking

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