Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Tibet’

Tibet

In Photography, Travel on February 23, 2013 at 6:00 am

Last week we walked the streets of Prague. Let’s put on our hiking boots this Saturday and head up the Tibetan Plateau.

Two young monks at Barcor in Lhasa

Two young monks at Barcor in Lhasa

Yarlung Valley, Tibet

Yarlung Valley, Tibet

Sacred Mountain Lake

Sacred Mountain Lake

Yak Herder

Yak Herder

The Potala, home and palace of the Dalhi Lama.

The Potala, home and palace of the Dalhi Lama.

Monastery Tower

Monastery Tower

Monk with Cane

Monk with Cane

Goat Herder

Goat Herder

I was in Tibet in 2004 and returned in 2005. Though beautiful and with a degree of magic one would expect, I found the hardship of the people too much to bare. If you want to better understand what occurred to the native American Indian–the land-grabs, the disenfranchisement, the poverty, the world-loss of a beautiful people and their culture–then Tibet, now sixty-plus years since the Chinese invasion, is the place to study. Frankly, I found it too depressing to ever return.

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.

On dying

In Death, Dogs, Family, Life, Memoir, Writers on July 8, 2009 at 11:00 am

I think the first sentence of Jim Harrison’s novel, The Road Home, is sublime: “It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs.” Harrison’s observation puts a twist on an old adage, reminding me that my pace to likely oblivion is a crawl compared to the terrorized sprint of my faithful Maggie. I was reminded of this morning after spending muchof last night on the floor next to Maggie’s bed trying to comfort her during a thunder-storm. A dog afraid of a storm is a slave to demons. At one point she attempted to climb the vertical drawers of an open closet to seek refuge amongst the sweaters and tee-shirts. Maggie has tremors when she’s afraid and her whole body is racked and frozen except for her pulsing nerves. Her tail drops and draws in around her vitals. Her ears lay back along her skull and her eyes bug out eerily. She turns to stone. It used to be that only thunder upset her. Later, lightning too began to torment her. Perhaps she made the connection that lightening is followed by thunder. Now, even a rising breeze prompts an anxiousness from her. I wonder at it all. I doubt dogs have the cognitive powers to associate a storm with anything other than noise and flashes of light. They can’t draw conclusions, presumably, and certainly not arrive at metaphor. A storm is a storm–nothing else, for a dog.

 We anthropomorphize animals, our pets in particular. We don’t even know we’re doing it most of the time. Dogs aren’t called our best friends for nothing. But stories about dogs easily grow maudlin and that does not interest me. I choose not to write about dogs at all, but about death–that would be storm as metaphor. As Julian Barnes recently wrote: “If you fear death, you don’t fear dying; if you fear dying, you don’t fear death.” Some medieval thinkers, arguing for the existence of the soul, posited that humans are aware of death, animals are not and there, in our self-conscious awareness, is evidence of the soul, and, by inference, the lack thereof in our animals. I don’t believe in the soul, but if I did, in my cosmos Maggie would have one too. This proof of the soul poses an interesting converse. What if the concept of death, escaped us–perhaps through injury to the dopamine system of the cerebral cortex whereby the ability to conceptualize death was lost–would we consequently have no soul? The more interesting question is how would we live, if like our dogs, we were unaware of the outcome? Of course, the outcome, death, does not escape us–but the consequences of the outcome remain a mystery. Therein lies the riddle.

* * *

 My daughter, Alison, is in nursing school. I understand this to be a wise career choice for these troubled times. She visited home yesterday and talked about her “clinicals.” The clinical practice of a student nurse is the “field work” as it were, the opportunity to put into the hands of the young healers the requisite tools to do their work. She is doing a good job, but is, as she said, “Just waiting.”

“Waiting for what?”

“Waiting for someone to die. I’ve never seen a person die,” she said. “And I’m upset at the thought.”

 There is not much a parent can say to this. Dying is part of the cycle? Death is natural? It’s the yin and yang of nature–and all the rest. Drivel. It doesn’t help. No one knows how they will react to observing death the first time. I’m fifty-three and recently saw my first dying person. The pallid riddle was laid out for full inspection. I have to admit, as bad as it sounds, watching the death of my cousin was a curious, even interesting, thing. That was my reaction at the time, at the bedside. I thought it odd then, my reaction, and still do. That was six months ago and I find myself thinking about it often, though the spectrum of reflection has shifted. Curiosity has ceased and contemplation has set in. Her death was a study; now it is a meditation. So much has been written on the subject, indeed, everything has been written in the shadow of death. I cannot add an iota of originality to the subject, but I have a few observations.

 I will start with the death of my mother two years ago. I was out of town when my mobile rang. It was my parent’s number and it was eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. My heart skipped. My father was on the phone. “Oh, thank God I got you,” he said. “I’ve got terrible news.” I listened quietly. I recognized the voice as his, yet it was acutely different. “Your mother died last night.” My reaction to this news was immediate dull numbness. Conversely, I was suddenly and intensely aware of my father on the end of the line.

“Dad, are you okay?”

“Yes. Oh, this is terrible.”

“I’m in New York. I’ll be there in about three hours. Carole and Jeff will come over.”

“She’s in her chair. She went in her sleep. In her chair.”

“That is a good thing. A peaceful way to go, Dad.” He was quiet. I was quiet. I could hear him breathing. Then he broke the silence.

“Last night was something,” he said.

“What about last night, Dad?”

“Last night your mother and me we sat and just talked. We never even got around to turning on the TV. She was in her chair and I was in my chair and we just talked all evening, maybe three or four hours. We haven’t done that in years. Then it was bedtime and I got up and kissed her and went to my room. She never woke up.”

 “Dad,” I said. “Listen to me. That is a wonderful story. Each of us someday will close the book on our life and what we all want and could only wish for, is exactly what you and mom did, to spend a few hours with the one we most love and kiss them good night.” I don’t know how much he heard of what I said. It was a remarkable exit on my mother’s part. Precisely what I expected.

Months later he told me that mom came to him in a dream. He said to her, How you doing? With that she slapped her hands together and laughed out loud, declaring, Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. He said he was embarrassed by the dream. I don’t believe in dreams or ghosts or visits from the dead, but as Montaigne famously stated, “What do I know?” I told him it was a wonderful dream and was nothing to be ashamed of. He has since shared it with some of his contemporaries. They no doubt appreciate knowing that good times lie ahead.

* * *

 I have never been preoccupied with death. I have been over occupied with life on occasion, which is perhaps the same, only sort of inside out. (“What I really wanted was every kind of life,” wrote Susan Sontag.) I think about it, death, more than I did as a younger man. Even then it was evidently part of consciousness. I recall my eighth birthday. The sun was shinning and I was full of myself, walking from my back yard to the yard of my best friends, brothers Rick and Jeff. Someone had just mowed the grass. I am big now, I recall thinking. Then I was blindsided with this thought: If I die tomorrow, I want my life to be full and without regret. It is admittedly a bizarre thought for an eight year old. Where it came from I haven’t a clue. There was no death in my family to preoccupy me. I wasn’t scared of thunder storms, though we got wild ones in Indiana. I am still thankful for the thought. It was as if someone had unrolled a map on a table in front of me, such that the dotted path to the treasure was laid out without mistake. X marked the spot. I realized the path which lay in front of me and I set out determined to follow it. My life was to be examined and rich and nuanced. I once documented a plastic surgeon at work. He asked of another surgeon during a surgery to build a man’s mouth lost to cancer, “How is he going to eat?” It is an important question: How is he going to live? How am I going to live? The question became my mantra at eight and is now deeply entwined into the fabric of my double helix. Some of the answers I have discovered are contained here, in these ramblings.

 There is a practice in Tibet where it is recommended one go regularly to the burial grounds. There, among the dead, one cannot escape the inevitability of extinction, or perhaps a more pleasant variation on that theme. It is a way of becoming less like our dogs, forgetting our death (though forgetting implies we actually knew (of) it, could point it out in a crowd, could say, I–almost–knew it then) and more like a human being living in full consciousness of it. Can you stubbornly ignore death in a grave yard? That sunny morning beginning my ninth year of existence I began my trek of the dotted line to the treasure. I vowed to see the world, read the right books, laugh with friends richly, love deeply–in short, live the necessity to fulfill the epiphany I had experienced.

 My cousin said to me a few weeks before she died, “When I come back I’m going to do it differently.” We chuckled over this. Sadly though, it was her confession of remorse, an admission of disappointment over the life she had lived–at least I think that was what she was saying. (The latin from which remorse is derived means literally “to bite back.”) The prescient eight-year old can discern a lurking disappointment of the most serious nature and will avoid it. I am drawn to the idea of living life in preparation for its end. In some traditions this complex notion is reduced to something so mundane as a rote ideal, a doctrine, in the most extreme instances, denial. I guess there is nothing wrong with that, though mass consumption of rote ideals never seems to turn out as hoped. I am self-taught at everything so am stubborn as a result. I can’t accept a doctrine so much as rush down a blind alley, take a U-Turn or be lectured to. The big questions generate itches only I can contort to reach.

* * *

 It is afternoon now and we have enjoyed a pleasant day of sunshine and warm spring breezes. But there is cloud cover encroaching from the west and Maggie is starting to act weird. Her tail is down and she’s got a hang-dog look, appropriately. If another storm hits I will give her a tranquilizer to calm her. As I write this, my phone rings and I see it is someone who seldom calls and I take the call, interrupting my time here, and my friend tells me of the sudden death, this morning, of a mutual friend, a man I didn’t know well but liked for his quiet unassuming presence. The man had a headache on Wednesday, then a sinus infection according to his doctor on Thursday and called in sick Friday, felt worse still late in the day and went to the hospital where he died the next morning of spinal meningitis.