A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

“Take this,” he said. I refused.

In Travel, Writing on February 21, 2013 at 6:00 am
Mystery Doll of Cusco

Mystery Doll of Cusco

The roof over my office where I write is being replaced. I’ve noted this word “office” before. Office suggests a place where serious business is conducted. There is little I conduct, serious or otherwise, in this space, and such a laden and infused word feels at odds with the spirit of the place.

The building is old, like much of the Old Port, and even five flights up my space has a fireplace and a bold heavy mantle. The fireplace is no longer functional and I doubt it ever was. Who would carry wood up all those stairs? Atop the mantle I keep trinkets from travels. I have a Buddha from Thailand, another one from Tibet, still another one from India, and a beautiful silver Bodhisattva from Bhutan. A room cannot have too many Buddhas. I also have a cast-bronze dragon, long and lean, that I picked up in a market in China. It’s mouth is open and the tongue appears as fire. I just now realize that a fist-size piece of amber I bought in a village in Ecuador is missing. It had a wasp suspended in it, Jurassic Park kind of stuff. I must have lost it in a move. Most unusual is a lead doll. It stands about two inches tall and rests surprisingly heavy in the hand. I was having a restless night in Cusco, Peru, and decided to walk into town. It was dark and the square at the Cathedral of Santo Domingo was empty and I was sitting alone and enjoying the coolness when a man approached me. He was holding a small pouch which he handed to me. “Take this,” he said. I refused. “Please,” he asked. I told him I was just getting some air, that I didn’t have any money. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I came to give you this.” His English was good and he was nicely dressed. He opened the pouch and removed the doll. She is silver and naked and quite beautiful. The man disappeared into the mist. The doll rests in a place of honor on the mantel. Someday I hope to understand what happened that night.

On an opposing wall I have a little shrine, for lack of a better word, to my once-companion, Maggie. I have a couple of pictures of her and her collar. She was often a subject of these pages. Next to her, I’ve pinned a photo of my friend Michael, also now gone. There are other things in the space that I cherish, many of which I’ve attached to the walls with thumbtacks. There are my stamped entry papers to the Annapurna National Sanctuary in Nepal, as well as a thick strand of yak hair my guide, Ram, gave me. He knew I was concerned about a mountain flight scheduled for the next day. The previous day’s plane had slammed into a cliff, killing all but three. The yak hair was to protect me. It did. I have several photographs hung as well, most of them remaining inventory from the gallery I once owned.

I said they are working on the roof over the space, and today upon entering Lucy and I determined that it was not a good day to hang out there. She could not nap on the futon as normal, not with the pounding directly overhead, and I couldn’t hear myself think, not that thinking is always exercised, but it helps. We repaired to home where I write this, noticing, the effect, or lack thereof, an office will have on one. (I note the previous sentence and blame the folks at Downton Abbey.)

On My Mind

In Books, Life, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life on February 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

A few odds & ends, things I’ve been contemplating recently:

I read about 50 books a year. I am 57. Let’s say I live another 30 years. That’s: 30 x 50 = 1500. Fifteen hundred books in front of me, given the assumptions. That’s a focus I need to get my head around.

* * *

There are 196 countries in the world. To the best of my recollection, I’ve been to about thirty-five of them. That’s about 18%. I would like more, but am satisfied. Fifty seems a nice round number, though. If wanderlust is your thing, you might want to check out The Art of Non-Conformity, Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work, and Travel. I met Chris, the unassuming force behind The Art of Non-Conformity, here in Portland a year or two ago as he was passing through on a book tour. He’s on country 193.

* * *

I’m a baby boomer. I was raised in a Mad Men world of: More, Bigger, Faster. That hasn’t worked out all that well. The future is: Less, Smaller, Slower. Not everyone agrees with my assessment and that’s fine. Eventually, however, more people rather than less must embrace the future mantra, Less, Smaller, Slower, or there will be no future to experience–or rather, no species to experience it. This is a hard thing and I worry we’ll not pull it off.  Wm. James:

“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

There is a blog I follow, Zen Habits, that might be of interest if you want to think more on a Less, Smaller, Slower lifestyle.

* * *

Alan Watts writes that the Zen mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything but absorbs nothing. This image has dogged me since I first encountered it. It seems much of what remains difficult, in politics, in business, in life, is the result of that which has been absorbed–what the Buddha called attachment. What is the cost-value ratio of that which we have “absorbed?”

* * *

Dostoyevsky wrote: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…” Our recent snow storm prompted memories of my fondest childhood experiences: towering snow drifts, King of the Hill battles atop snow mountains, bundled neighborhood friends. I said recently that, as a species, we have no calling to a natal stream, no return to a territory; yet, perhaps the territory of memory is our blessing-curse natal shadowland. There is comfort there, but like a strong drug, memory over-use is addictive and ultimately debilitating.

* * *

The world remains a wonderful–and wonderous–place. There is not so much effort required to make this observation, though it does not come freely. I subscribe to a modest discipline to maintain this perspective: “Develop your legitimate strangeness,” said poet, René Char. The world would rather we not take this course and remain with the herd. You know my thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading and your continued interest in “…the house I live in….”

Birth of a Pilgrim

In Adventure, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 6, 2013 at 6:00 am
Mountain Man, Jeremiah Johnson. (No Robert Redford.)

Mountain Man, Jeremiah Johnson. (No Robert Redford.)

I am fond of the word pilgrim. For instance, I used it here just yesterday: “Travel, for a pilgrim on the road to the examined life, can be as important as the books you’ll read.” Recently I closed a correspondence with: “I’m not sure if any of what I’ve said is true or even accurate–I’m just a pilgrim.” The first time I recall hearing the word used not in conjunction with Thanksgiving was in the Sydney Pollack movie, Jeremiah Johnson. That was 1972 and I was seventeen years old. It is meaningful that I remember. The movie had a profound impact on me. In it a grizzled old mountain man named Bear Claw Chris Lapp (played perfectly by Will Geer), upon first meeting Johnson (Robert Redford) says, “You’re the same dumb pilgrim that I been hearin’ for twenty days, and smellin’ for three!” And later, toward the end of the movie: “You’ve come far pilgrim.” To which Johnson replies: “Feels like far.” Bear Claw asks, “Where it worth the trouble?” “What trouble?” Johnson replies. (The movie is based on the life of mountain man, John Garrison Johnston–or, as he was better known, Liver-Eating Johnston.*)

I was so captivated by the landscape portrayed in the movie that I sat through the credits to note where it had been filmed. I had to go there, wherever there was. The Unita Mountains of Utah. The following summer I took my first plane trip, leaving home in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and landing in Salt Lake City, where I made my way into the mountains. Consequently everything changed for this pilgrim. Everything. A life of curiosity pursued was hatched.

As an aside, the word pilgrim is related to the word peregrine, from the Medieval Latin, peregrinus, meaning wanderer, or migratory. It is the word we attach to our fastest falcon and is, in my imagination, a visage of feathered purpose and ability.

George Santayana said, “The mind of the Renaissance was not a pilgrim mind, but a sedentary city mind, like that of the ancients.”  This captures the spirit and intent of the word for me. The “sedentary city mind,”  it would seem, is a mind that knows it’s place, recognizes the task at hand, and moves toward accomplishment. That is how things get done. The mind of the pilgrim, however, is restless and its profile is one of longing, of motion, perhaps aimless motion, advancing toward a grail of the imagination. To the kid  in the theater in Ft. Wayne, the message was clear: You are not a Renaissance man, you are a pilgrim, and it is time to cast off the fetters of suburbia and its expectation of confinement.

My worldwide perambulations have tapered off, but the mind remains unfettered and still roams widely. There is no rest for the pilgrim. Perhaps, I hope, you understand this?

_______________________

* Johnston as scout led a party through Crow sacred territory. (Some accounts say it was Sioux territory.) Consequently, the Crow Nation declared war on him and sent its best warriors to kill him. Despite repeated attempts, year after year, the Crow braves failed in their mission. Johnston killed them all. The legend holds that he would slit open the dead warrior, remove the liver and take a bite out of it, leaving the organ behind, his intimidating calling card. The movie depicts the transgression, depicts the attacks, but fails in complete veracity by leaving out this business of liver snacking. That’s too bad. I would have liked Redford to show a bit more belly fire in his roll. If this sounds too Hollywood, it well may be. The very nature of mountain-man Johnston’s life is such that pinning down the truth is near impossible–a fitting end to a pilgram’s tale.

The Road from Machu Picchu

In Adventure, Memoir, Travel on February 5, 2013 at 6:00 am
Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Travel, for a pilgrim on the road to the examined life, can be as important as the books you’ll read. For some, travel trumps everything. I understand that, and for many years practiced it accordingly.

My daughter, Allie, a kindred spirit, lived in Peru for six months in 2006. At the end of her job there I flew down to visit and travel with her. I hired a guide and we made the pilgrimage through the Sacred Valley, stopped in Cusco, then took the train to Rio Urubamba, the village at the foot of Machu Picchu. I thought you might be interested in this little vignette from that adventure. I found it in a journal of that period, a recovered memory.

Allie, the train to Rio Urubamba

Allie, the train to Rio Urubamba

______________________________

The bus back to Rio Urubamba from the summit of Machu Picchu carries about thirty people. It is a precipitous journey from the summit. The road switches back along the dusty 8km route maybe 15 times, plunging here, leveling there before dropping again. The trip down takes approximately thirty minutes.

We–Allie and I–arrived at Machu Picchu for sunrise. Our guide ushered us through the ruins and, four hours later, after

Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu

the tour and Allie´s summit of Huayna Picchu, we took the bus down the mountain. I looked over my shoulder at the receding ruin and could not help but think that I would never see it again. Dark mood.

At the first switchback a group of young boys waved at the bus and hollered. We waved from our seats. They were dressed in bright orange capes, traditional-looking outfits, and shook their arms in the air. They were animated. The bus trudged on leaving them in a cloud of dust. They closed their eyes and covered their mouths. At the next switchback one of the boys reappeared, again shouting and waving his arms. I thought it curious. The bus continued down the mountain. Then again he materialized, seven or eight minutes later at the next switchback–and again, appearing out of the forest, waving, shouting, then rushing downhill into the jungle, an orange blur. After maybe a dozen turns and untold vertical feet we came upon the bridge across the Urubamba. He darted out from the left racing against our flank and rushed in front of the bus, charging across the single-lane wooden bridge, arm extended as the bus roared on. Alas, on the other side, the driver stopped, the young boy jumped aboard, not even breathing hard, and shouted into the bus. He extended his purse. We bus passengers, amazed at his feat of running down the mountain, chasing and beating the bus, dug into our pockets and dropped our coins into his hand. I held out a candy as well. He looked at me and smiled. His eyes were big and brown and he snatched the candy and moved past us down the aisle. He sang goodbye and disappeared into the crowd at the station to a round of cheers and applause. This is the stuff of travel, I thought.

Since I’m whining about travel…

In Travel, Writing on January 23, 2013 at 6:00 am

Since whining about travel yesterday, I went to a few old journals to see how bad it really can be–or not. I found this note from 2005 and thought you might enjoy the following:

The Potala

The Potala, home and palace of the exiled Dalhi Lama.

I arrived in Bangkok last night after an exhausting travel day. It started at breakfast in Lhasa (Tibet), when I ordered hard-boiled eggs, which, when they arrived, exploded as I peeled them, being rotten and stinky. The waitresses in the Cafe where mortified and, ever so cautiously, attempted to dab me clean. I was less troubled by the mess than the stench.

From Lasha I flew east three hours, to Chengdu, China.

I’d made arrangements for a guide and was picked up at the airport by a driver and Maggie, my guide for the day, a bubbly little Chinese girl with dancing eyes, who was bound and determined to make sure I saw everything the city had to offer. She ran me ragged, feeding me some of the best food I’ve ever eaten–Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan Province, need I say more?–to imploring that I go to the Chinese opera, which I declined.

Streets of Chengdu

Streets of Chengdu

Leaving Chengdu around midnight, I flew three hours (across one time zone) and arrived in steamy and noisy (even at 2 in the morning) Bangkok, hired a taxi and asked for the Oriental Hotel. The driver didn’t speak English, despite a well-practiced greeting. Road-bound he tells me “No, no, Ort Hotel.” “Oriental,” I say, swaying from side to side as we bound across lanes. I take out my guide-book to Bangkok, pointing, then pounding on the page, describing it as one of the most famous hotels in Bangkok, maybe the world. Oddly, I want to shout “Graham Green,” as if that should somehow register and mean something to either of us. He shakes his head as he looks at the guide-book, while driving, car horns blaring, then hands it back to me, again shaking his head, handing me his cell phone. Me, exhausted–which doesn’t make me happy–and about to explode, hand it back to him, this time I’m the one shaking my head. 

At last he places a call at sixty something miles per hour and hands me the phone. I

Bangkok by tuk tuk

Bangkok by tuk tuk

pronounce “Oriental, Oriental” into it, hand it back to him, at which time he talks to the person on the phone, then pronounces, “Ah, Oriental…” We make a sharp move across traffic and twenty minutes later roll in, about 3 am. I am greeted at the door by three porters, proclaiming, “Ah, Mr. Bruns, we’ve been waiting for you,” as if I was someone to wait up for. A very welcome sign, indeed.

Water taxi, Bangkok

Water taxi, Bangkok

Bucking the hint of intimidation, as Bangkok certainly is to this traveler, and getting a full night–and some of the day’s–sleep, I leave the Oriental and walk the block to the dock where I hire a water taxi–10 Baht (about 20 cents)–and head up the Mae Nam Chao Phraya, switching boats mid-river (neat trick!) and on to the Wat Ra Kang dock, setting out on my most favorite of things: aimlessly walking the streets of a new city, camera in hand. At day’s end, after making my way back via land taxi(s) and rickshaw, I enjoying a killer meal of Pad Thai (as you might expect) then settle in for the night, as the rest of the city, amid serious grid-lock of taxis, motor bikes and rickshaws, marches to decadence (which has been offered, though declined), lights, and clammer. I call it a day.

Travel Bitching.

In Travel, Writing on January 22, 2013 at 6:00 am

Airports are such an interesting microcosm, everyone rushing around, on their phone, clutching a boarding pass between their teeth while towing an overstuffed bag on wheels. The airport is a kingdom of singular self-interest. Can I get past this stationary person on the moving walk-way? Why does the TSA agent single me out for a pat-down? When will the queue move? Will there be overhead storage left for my overstuffed bag on wheels?

Travelers are tribe nomads without the communal grace of a tribe. Travelers are myopic in focus: get from A to B with the least amount of hassle. Most travelers are blind to other members of the tribe, even the ones in need of tribal support, the elderly, the young, the confused.

The airport is the place where the most cherished of human attributes, joy, enthusiasm, compassion, are too often left curbside along with drinking water, guns and knives. The result is not Lord of the Flies, but it is sometimes close.

I try not to give myself up to this hopelessness, but usually fail. I admire the agent who pushes the elderly lady to her gate, smiling and chatting her up. There is much to learn from the pleasant young lady who wishes me a good day when I buy a pack of gum, her daily grind being so, well, very grinding.

It seems the airport microcosm is where self-interest most prevails and the better edges of human nature are chipped away by the press of elbows and bags and the mounting pressure of advancing departures. Should mother nature grace this scene causing delays the tribal nomad retreats deeper into the tent. There stored deep in the darkest corner is collected the garb of anger, outrage, and the cloak of self-righteousness.

This sounds so very upsetting, yet the experience is not necessarily so. Granted travel is hardly fun for most of us. The travel situation is nonetheless electric with the tension of anticipation: I am going home. Or, the mystery of a new venue awaits me. Or, I will soon be united with those I most love. Or, can I close the deal?

The tribe will put up with most anything for the reward at the other end. My personal problem with that notion is the fashion in which one gives of oneself to the future and suffers in the immediate. I don’t have a fix on such things, but I know that such practice betrays an ignorance of the present moment–a value I hold dear despite the unpleasantness. I believe the present is where I most need to live despite the occasion of wishing otherwise.

I reflect on this–and then, in the air and almost home, I look out the window and see the surging blue of the North Atlantic, the ribbon of land I call home, and my pulse begins to race. Look there, a lighthouse! And there, a lobster boat cleaving the water! My heart sings! “Why do men travel rather than sit still?” wondered Chatwin. Because the view is so very wonderful! Because without it, home is less marvelous!

I  leave the tent and fall into the embrace of my tribe.