Monday, April 20, 2009

introducing thailand and a nearby country personified...

thai is a young, handsome, slightly effeminate male frequently seen sauntering down a busy side street, cell phone and plastic bag in hand. In the bag is some sort of cooked meet on a stick covered in a slightly sweet, slightly spicy, sauce. His ring tone is set to a popular Thai pop song. On his head is a perfectly styled, perfectly hip, modern rock bandesque head of hair. His pants are slightly snug but it looks good on him because he is exceptionally thin and his shirt is simple yet slightly ironic in a witty playboy sexual innuendo kind of way.

Thai is a good kid who works hard but his job is in the tourist industry (just like the majority of his friends) and he finds it slightly infuriating. When he is feeling bold and willing to challenge his parents ingrained conservative view of work and life, he questions the point of focusing so much on a job that is meant to please others, but this thought is quickly pushed away by his hope to make his parents happy and desire to make money. He dreams of finding a good partner, girl or boy he is not quite sure, but either way he hopes they have work ethics that are similar to his own, conflicted thou they are.

The unspeakable place
This country is embodied as a couple. Personified, it is a young relaxed couple walking down the street, comfortably in love. The young man is slim and dressed in a tradition longyi and lose shirt. The young lady is beautiful in a youthful curveless sort of way with gold circles of sunscreen on her cheeks. While they clearly express this love outwardly and in public as he can frequently be seen gingerly placing his arm around her shoulder while she leans into him, no one would suggest they were publicly displaying inappropriate levels of affection. They are simply in love and can’t handle not touching each other. They are both quick to smile in a very genuine sort of way but this smile hides much pain. During the day they are exquisitely well behaved and act in ways that are deemed appropriate by their powerful ever-watchful government. Late at night they can be found attending secret rallies that speak of change, revolution and uprising, if only in whispers.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

things I didn't know or denied knowing

First, in Buddhist countries it is currently the year 2552. Buddists’ base their calendar on the day Buddha was born and therefore in this part of the world it is not 2009 AD JC style; it is 2552 AB venerable Gotama style. I feel like if we in the West would have known this simple truth in December 1999 we could have prevented a lot of the chaos and looming notions of the end of the world during the millennium. I know some of you might be thinking, "But Gwen the fear was tied to the computer systems and their inability to make the change over" and in response I would say, "Please! It didn’t happen here and I am either writing you from the future or we need to remember there is simply no such thing as an objective truth. Even time is only a notion."

Second, denial can be a collective state of mind, not just a defense. In the simplest of terms denial is the rejection or denunciation of an event or state of mind. Most commonly people can be heard rejecting that they behaved in a certain way when in fact they did do the alleged action. For example someone might say, "That’s a lie I didn’t steal her wallet!" when, in reality he or she did, in fact, take it. In Thailand and Burma denial isn’t just an optional refuttal to a claim – it is a literal state of mind. It’s as if you can close your eyes and believe strong and long enough and what ever you are thinking about actually becomes a truth. In some instances there is not even a word available to describe the denied event. For example, during our recent training we covered the topic of rape. According to our participants there was no word for rape in Shan. To them, the term rape means the same thing as sex. Even though they could eventually admit it did happen and was not the same thing as sex, some of them still continued to believe that "it doesn’t really happen." If we don’t talk about it, "it" should therefore not be a word, there was no need.

Third, I am really really bad at working with an interpreter. I talk way to fast and I have very little patience for not being understood. This really sucks for the interpreter because they not only have to try and understand me talking very fast they have to translate words that don’t even exist in their native language (let me take moment and give a little shout out to anyone on this planet who has ever tried to play the role of interpreter for me – I am deeply sorry for any unfair pressure I have placed on you; you did a great job).

Seriously though, I seem completely unable to slow down and yet I can still allow myself to feel frustrated when my point does not get made. Talk about ego-centricism – look at me calling the kettle black. And, although I keep saying I need to work on this if I am going to continue working internationally, I have somehow managed to not slow down in the least and only get more frustrated when I am not understood. All I have done is become more animated in the presentation of my thoughts with the hopes that by acting everything out, I will be understood. For that reason alone, I kind of suck and really should think about only working in Anglophone environments.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

one courageous group

The word courage arises from the old French work cuer, meaning heart. To be courageous means at bottom to be heartfelt. What I have come to understand in my time here is that if one understands courage when it comes to work, one will understand the Burmese and Thai way of life.

As you could likely tell from my first post about my experience here I did not have an easy emersion experience to this part of the world. The faces I attempted to read were unreadable and the first defense I typically encountered was denial. According to the people I interviewed there were no problems here; no crime, no domestic violence, no child exploitation – no problems, period. I may have been living with a community of displace Burmese who had been forced to flea their home country due to phenomenal human rights violations only to find themselves in a new country that was not that much more welcoming and frequently arrested people without cards and exploited vulnerables; there were no problems here, period, full stop.

I hate denial. Use humor, use minimization, use repression, use avoidance but please sweet Jesus don’t use outright denial. It’s an insult to you and it’s an insult to me and it enrages me. While accessing the human heart here felt downright impossible I knew everyone around me was in fact human and therefore I knew that, if only for that reason, they were also suffering. Accessing emotions took much more time and finesse than it had taken elsewhere, but with patience comes enlightenment.

Today Becki and I find ourselves at the tail end of a long week of training about mental health and trauma. When we started our participants didn’t know what mental health was, didn’t know what emotions were and didn’t know what counseling was.

I had a lot of work to do and until now I felt as if maybe they wouldn’t be able to do the work I was asking them to do. They were undimensional, flat, guarded, unenthusiastic and detached and it wasn’t clear if they wanted to be at the training, let alone engaging with me. Had I left on day 3 I would have continued to believe all those things and I would have been gravely mistaken. This group of individuals is not only none of those things, they are also very passionate about many things, including but not limited to helping their community.

Interestingly this community suffers from the exact opposite of what we suffer from in the West when it comes to work. Where our bodies can be present in our work while our hearts minds and imaginations can be placed firmly in neutral or engaged elsewhere, many people here seem to suffer from the exact opposite. Their bodies can be present in emotional affairs while their hearts minds and imaginations tend to be placed firmly in neutral or engaged in work. Work is everything, for good or for bad, it defines them. They are on time, they are conscientious and they are strategic to the core. Given we all tend to spend more hours at work then anywhere else, maybe they are more present than the most present poet or lover who has ever been.

While some may read what I just wrote and think the people I am speaking of are focused on the wrong things, I would respond by saying I think we need to take a closer look at work and our identity and how they are intimately linked. Once we have kindled our desire for something better in our work, we have immediately raised the stakes and although that can be profoundly terrifying it can also be deeply inspirational.

In taking our work seriously as an expression of our belonging, we hazard our most precious sometimes our seemingly most fragile hopes and dreams in a work that is more often than not associated with a hard and destructive bottom line.

Sitting here in this very simple, very primitive, very hot house I have begun to shiver due to an awful sense that I am suddenly about to play by different rules when it comes to work. If that ends up being true and I am able to remain present in my work for the long run I will need to thank my training participants and surrounding community for that.

If I am completely honest with myself my inner light of youthful imaginings about passion and feelings had been smothered by hard bitten adult notions of work. Work dominates our life in more ways than one and we need to work on preventing ourselves from one day looking back and realizing that our eyes were dimmed and our professional smile had been false and forced for more years than we would have liked to admit. Ultimately striking a balance between work and play is they most important thing we are ever asked to accomplish in the modern world. If I am able to do it, I will have my experience in Thailand & Burma to thank for it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

three books and a story

For the last couple of days I have been wondering the streets of an amazing city to the west of Thailand. Between meetings and stops to admire the sheer beauty of the local people and pagodas, I sauntered into local tea shops and sip on sweet tea while engaging one of my most favorite past times, people watching. Following my tea breaks I would wonder in and out of local book shops and jam packed alleyways. In one of these book shops I purchased 3 books. One is by George Orwell. One is an ancient weathered book by Cheiro about the 12 signs of the zodiac and the meaning of the number of each day and their influence on humanity. The third is about the teachings of Buddha.

Each book spoke to me for its own specific reason. I will skip the first because it is obvious and will try to explain the others. My senses were seduced by Cheiro’s book for many reasons. The first was tied to an olfactory memory of old books. Amazing this torn up old book across the globe smelled exactly like the old books I inherited from my grandfather, Paul Skelley. I was half way around the world but it appears old cherished books smell the same anywhere on the planet and I was taken aback by this memory trigger. For that reason alone I was going to buy it. I hadn’t fully processed what the book was about but as I lingered over the pages I realized the second reason I had to have it: it captured a part of my experience at a famous pagoda I had visited a few hours earlier.

According to legend Shwedagon is 2500 years old. The story begins with two merchant brothers who were blessed with the opportunity to meet the lord Gautama Buddha. He gave them eight of his hairs to be enshrined in a land of changed names. The two brothers made their way to the land they were directed to and found a hill where relics of other Buddhas had been enshrined. When the hairs were taken from their golden casket to be enshrined some incredible things happened:

There was a tumult among men and spirits ... rays emitted by the Hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell ... the blind beheld objects ... the deaf heard sounds ... the dumb spoke distinctly ... the earth quaked ... the winds of the ocean blew ... lightning flashed ... gems rained down until they were knee deep ... all trees of the Himalayas, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit.

Pretty amazing no? But I digress because this is not a history lesson, this my friends is a present lesson.

Today there are four entrances that lead up a flight of steps to the main platform of this famous pagoda. The eastern and southern approaches have vendors selling books, good luck charms, candles, gold leaf, incense sticks, prayer flags, streamers, miniature umbrellas and flowers. A pair of giant chinthe (leogryphs, mythical lions) guard the entrances and the base of the stupa is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and men can access so when I stopped to pause and admire the gold plated pagoda, I saw only monks and men ascending into the glistening gold tower (allow me to take a moment to bite my pink feminist tongue). The crown or umbrella of the pagoda is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies and the very top is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond.

Although all of this was undeniably impressive what enchanted me the most about this place were the fantastic rituals.

Visitors must remove their shoes before the first step at any of the entrances and once you reach the main platform you are encouraged to walk around the stupa clockwise. The day of the week you are born on will determine the planetary post you are to stop at. There are eight in all as Wednesday is split in two, a.m. and p.m and they are marked by animals that represent the day: galon for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday a.m., tuskless elephant for Wednesday p.m., mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and naga (mythical dragon/serpent) for Saturday. Each planetary post has a Buddha image and devotees are encouraged to offer flowers and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish. At the base of the post behind the image is a guardian angel, underneath the image lies a statue of the animal representing the day. By asking a young novice monk if I could look up my birthday in his book I discovered I was born on a Thursday and therefore I made a wish and poured 3 small silver cups of water, first on the buddah and then on the mouse of my planetary post.
I was surprised by all the astrology but I later discovered that astrology is at the heart of Hindu Brahmanism which was embraced by the awakened one before he was in a good faith of Buddhism. It is therefore no wonder the Buddhists where still adopt some parts of these old beliefs. For those who know me best know that I was thrilled to discover that people here recognize the day of their birth, such as Sunday, Monday, Tuesday etc. as very important as I would have to agree days of the week are noteworthy.

I also discovered that most people in this country approach an astrologer for something or another. Themes of consultation seem to be most frequently tied to whether or not one should go ahead with a move to a new house or get married or pass exams or engage in new business. The consulted astrologer does some calculations according to the magic formulas he alone knows and then he arrives at a certain conclusion. With this conclusion he informs the curious one if he or she is under the bad influence of a certain planet. To counter this information the client goes to his or her birthday planetary post and pours a certain number of cups of water on their planetary animal to symbolically counter the bad influences.

The rituals I did after praising my planetary post were fantastically strange. The following is a list of things I did in this beautiful house of gold with 12th century Buddha’s enshrined in colorful electronic halos worthy of a rave.

After visiting my day of the week shrine (and stopping by Tuesday’s to send her some motherly love from abroad) I walked to a small stage that housed a massive bell. According to legend this bell was to be taken back to England by British troupes but during a fluke accident while trying to move the bell to a ship, the gigantic bell feel from the British soldiers’ grasp and lodged itself deep into the sand of the shore. The British tried and tried but could not bring it up and were forced to leave sans the beautiful stolen bell. A few weeks later a team of natives quickly and easily moved the bell ashore and put it back in its rightful place. Now the bell is used to grant wishes to devotees. All you have to do is pound it gently three times with a rather large pole. I did as much and made a wish.

Following the wishing bell I sauntered over to the next platform that had a small piece of black jade sitting in front of another Buddha enshrined with a rock star hallo of electronic colors and flashing lights. The legend of this stone is that you are to knell in front of it and make your wish. After you complete your wish you are supposed to try and pick up the stone. If it is light and easy to lift your wish will be granted. If it is heavy and unmovable, it will not. Apparently Richard Nixon had knelt before this stone at the tail end of his vice presidency. Hum? I knelt down, furrowed my brows in wishful concentration and easily picked up the rock. Whew.

Next I made a brief stop at a massive Buddha that had a silk fan hanging above his head. According to tradition you are to take the belled rope and pull it three times to cool off the Buddha. While fanning the Buddha you are to make a wish. If you do a good job your wish will be granted.

Following my visit to the hot Buddha, I went to a cove to visit a large female statue. Legend has it that if you make an offering to her she will help solve an irritating problem. As I looked up there were plenty of offerings and she was remarkably ugly. Her face was shimmery plates of gold that were all wrinkly and folded. In front of her was a woman praying intensely with another woman quietly whispering in her ear. I was informed the whispering woman could channel sprits and she was helping with woman with her nagging problem.

So there you have it – a brief summary of the delightful little rituals and activities I did while visiting the beautiful Buddhist pagoda. The only thing I didn’t tell you was what I wished for during my 4 interesting stops. If any of them come true, I will let you know. It was an action packed and ever so slightly bizarre experience and yet with each strange ritual I felt more and more like these enlighten Buddha’s understood that life is, in reality, just a series of strange occurrences happening over and over again. After all was said and done I was a little bit converted to a faith that no longer felt like a faith but felt like a wonderfully ritualed but intentionally unstructured philosophy of living.

thailand and beyond

My journey to Thailand and beyond began 22 days ago. It has been everything that work and travel abroad can offer and the most consistent thing about this region seems to be its phenomenal contradictions.

In Thailand, the famous Thailand smile greets you everywhere you go, but what lies behind those smiles is a little less clear. For a week straight I unintentionally moved from one tourist attraction to the next while trying to get a sense of what this astonishingly beautiful environment would be like if you deleted this veil of tourism from the equation. For some reason I couldn’t. It was as if it all was all created and maintained for the tourist and there was no way out of the gigantic theme park that had no discernable entrance or exit aside from Suvarnabhumi international airport.

In some ways I felt like I was a character in Chuck Palahniuk’s book Choke. Now forgive me for any mistaken variations in my memory of this book (as I read it quite some time ago) but from what I recall the gist of it is this: A med-school dropout takes a job playing an Irish indentured servant in a colonial-era theme park in order to help care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother. The entire self-medicated staff blearily endures abusive bused in tours while hiding out from the world. Another side plot was that the protagonist was apparently a direct descendant of none other than JC. While fans of Palahniuk might say, welcome, once again, to the world of Chuck Palahniuk; I would say, add a few twists and turns and welcome, my friends, to Thailand. I don’t mean to be harsh and if you continue reading you will discover my feelings about Thailand have gradually changed and evolved since my arrival but I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t own up to the thoughts and feelings I had for the first 127 hours of this adventure. To be totally honest the only thoughts I was having during the first 5 days of this trip was ‘please dear Buddha get me out of here and if I happen to die getting on or off one of these tourist traps, please reincarnate me in Africa.’

It was not until late into a dark night on day 7 of my trip that I was offered the opportunity to see some genuine Thai personalities. Although it seemed to have occurred if only by a fluke mistake, I was glad it happened and I realized it might be possible to get out of the freakish theme park I found myself in. It was the end of a long day of hiking and our group was gathered around a camp fire during what was pitched as being a laid back ‘off the beaten track’ elephant trek, but was, in reality, a welcome ladies and gentleman, come one come all and get in line for a highly organized trip to a series of fake villages and some jungle strip malls. Did I enjoy it – sure; was it as contrived as contrived could be – no doubt.

It had been a day of beauty but it was an organized event and I felt like I was visiting Thailand’s version of 21st century Gettysburg. Villages were there and people were ‘doing’ things but it remained unclear if any of it was genuine. I sat sulking in the dark imaging the hundred of thousands of flongs (i.e., foreigners) who had trekked this trek already. I know it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. At the darkest moment of our ever so slightly elusive trek our guide and three young elephant tenders came out from behind a nearby hut with a guitar. They joined the circle around the fire and started, predictably enough, strumming out some familiar American tunes. Once a few of us joined in, they brought out a laminated karaoke-esque booklet and a few candles so that we would have no trouble reading the words to long forgotten hits from the 60s and 70s. It was laughable but I was finding myself in a slightly better state of mind because Noong, or trek guide, was a good musician and clearly enjoyed playing the guitar. I was still annoyed it was all for show and remained to be so damn organized, but I am and have always been a sucker for musicians and so I tried to stay focused.

A few songs later the crowd lost interest in the songs from the book and just sat back to enjoy the music. Given it became less structured and there was no pressure on the guys to play for us, the ticket holders, they started to play for themselves and began to sing what could only be described as Thai love ballads. A few of us became intrigued and our silent interest and curious positioning encouraged them to continue…..All of a sudden they were singing and enjoying themselves as if we were not there. It was unprompted and personal and would have been occurring with our without our paid entrance fee and I sighed one deep sigh of anonymous relief. I was no longer inside the theme park, I was sitting around a camp fire with a few other human beings enjoying some music, passing the time.

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