A blog about geographical and spiritual mysteries.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Off the Map

I have pictures, bathed in light, from a land that lies off the map, and after I left, sparkling letters still reached me. They were letters written in such charmingly flawed English that it seemed a crime to correct them, even though the students begged me to.
I hope you are quite well. I am in the very pink of health. I would like to write so many about but my English is very poor. Therefore, may I stop here.
Even though it was some years ago that I visited, I clearly remember one day in particular. We start the day by squeezing into a Jeep which strains to climb a mountain. We cross wooden plank bridges and pass local people on bicycle and foot, toting burdens on their backs or across their handlebars. Our destination is a community of nuns who runs a distant boarding school high up in the mountain. The purpose of the boarding schools, with their dirt floors and outhouses and lack of electricity, is to provide an education for the most impoverished and isolated children in the rural areas, who might have no access to education otherwise.

“They’ll try to feed us, but I’ll tell them we brought our own food,” our guide tells us. “They are too poor to feed us.”
When we arrive, the nun who welcomes us at the door looks bewildered, and she says something startling.
“I didn’t dream you were coming.”
She notices our confused reaction, and explains. “I always dream when visitors are coming, and we prepare for them. But I didn’t dream about you.” She shakes her head, perplexed, as if her own mystical version of e-mail is growing unreliable.
“I’m glad you didn’t dream we were coming,” our guide chides. “Because then you would have prepared us a meal.”
The nun still proceeds to cut open some fruit for us, and children who attend the boarding school draw us by the hand and lead us down an overgrown path to the outhouse. This school is the most isolated and impoverished place I visit, and the crude bamboo structures and sweet children and hardworking nuns are even more diminished by the soaring mountains and roaring rivers that surround them. Struggling nuns and hungry children seem to spring from this wilderness like fragile wildflowers, as unknown to the outside world as they are humble and holy.

On the way down the mountain, the Jeep breaks down three different times. Each time it clanks to a disappointing stop, we pour out onto the road. The final time we emerge, it’s growing dark. We’re on a narrow road in lush forest, and the mosquitoes are starting to hum. A folk remedy for malaria involves scraping the flesh on the neck until raw, red stripes decorate the sufferer’s throat.
“Why do you scrape your throats that way?” I ask.
“The pain of this scraping experience causes you to forget about the fever of malaria,” a student cheerfully explains.

This “remote rural region” is absurdly busy. Passers-by on foot and bike, instead of passing by, stop to inspect our plight. An increasing number of men gather around the Jeep’s engine, poke at it, and make conversation. The women and children gather around us. I can’t understand a word anybody says, but everyone smiles a lot. I have no idea where all these people live, because there is only forest all around. After a while, a man and his elephant walk past. The elephant is draped in chains, and I wonder if it could tow the Jeep. The elephant, though, disappears from sight, heading into the mountains in the gathering gloom. At some point it is agreed that this time, the Jeep is not going to budge. Our journey is stalled.
We are stuck in the mosquito-ridden jungle with our only means of transport a majestic, mournful elephant that is headed in the wrong direction. I’m haunted by the disappearing elephant because I know where he’s going. I’m aching to ride into the mountain darkness, into that nun’s dreams—because anyone can see she dwells with God. As an outsider, with virgin eyes, I saw immediately that this nun was a shining treasure in God’s heart. But the nun and I are separated by an impossible distance—for one thing, I have volunteered to be here. She has not. I’m just flitting through-like a bird, or a bug. She is more like a sheltering tree--this is where she was planted, and this is where she will die. Still, just by passing through this place, I’ve caught a glimpse of God-- the God who dwells on mountaintops with struggling nuns, who dwells with hungry children, who dwells with the abandoned and the forgotten. It’s time to hike out of the jungle, so I turn from the mountains, and we start walking down the road to town.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Searching for the Spooklight

Sorry for the pause in blogging, but I got lost on Spooklight Road. Yes, there is a mysterious light which haunts a deserted dirt road on the Missouri-Oklahoma border known as Devil’s Promenade. I first visited it many years ago as a child. The road was narrow, with spooky overhanging trees. I distinctly remember seeing that burning yellow light hover over the road like a floating bonfire.

Or did I? Since then, I’ve often wondered what it was I actually saw.
Recently, I had a chance to visit it again at a family reunion when we set out at dusk in the 95-degree heat in search of the Spooklight. The Spooklight has supposedly been roaming the area around Hornet, Oklahoma since the time of the Trail of Tears in 1836, and there are stories of it passing through cars, chasing people, and moving at lightning speed. It has been investigated by the Army Corps of Engineers, and shot at by farmers. Theories about what it is range from marsh gas to minerals to earthquake lights to refracted car headlights from Route 66 (although the Spooklight preceded Route 66). Numerous legends are connected with it, including that it is the spirit of two young Quapaw Indians who died there; that it is the torch of either an Osage Indian chief or a local farmer who was beheaded there and is still looking for his head; or that it is a miner’s lantern as he searches for his lost children who were kidnapped by Indians. I have heard variations on these stories, including that the miner is looking for his lost love who fell into a shaft, and that a motorcyclist is also looking for his lost head (although the Spooklight also preceded motorcycles). Whatever the truth, when visiting the Spooklight, it’s important to remember these Spooklight Rules: Rule Number One is this: You will get lost. Rule Number Two: If you look for it, it won’t come. Rule Number Three: If you don’t expect it, it will pop right out. Rule Number Four: If you take a picture, the picture won’t come out.

I remember three excursions to the Spooklight in my youth, but only one was successful. One of the unsuccessful trips involved six adults and six children in a ’67 Pontiac station wagon: three men in the front seat, three women in the backseat, and six children in the rear end. We were searching for the Spooklight based on my mother’s childhood memory. We drove around and around on dirt roads, following her directions, which consisted of, “This looks like the right road…No, this doesn’t look quite right.” Dirt roads in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night on the Oklahoma-Missouri border look amazingly similar. And every single one of them looks like it could harbor the Spooklight.
Eventually, the overloaded station wagon bottomed out on one of those dirt roads, tearing off some crucial piece of the car in the process. I recall at one point waking up to see one of my uncles outside the car holding a piece of the car while the other uncle pushed and my dad steered. Later I woke up and my two uncles, still outside the car, were now running, terrorized by snarling farm dogs. I saw many interesting sights that night, but I never saw the Spooklight.

I made a third trip in my teenage years with my cousins, which involved looking around at the deserted road and surrounding woods and noticing that we were basically sitting ducks in a Friday the 13th type situation. It was just a matter of time before we were picked off one by one by Jason—but not by the Spooklight, which didn’t show.

So years later, at the family reunion, my cousin Jamie offered to drive my sister and I out to Spooklight Road. He had grown up in the area. He knew the way, he claimed. He would take us straight there. It was only a few miles outside of Joplin, Missouri, not far from “Truck Town,” a massive truck stop area just off I-44. We passed by Truck Town and set out for the Oklahoma border in the growing dark. Jamie kept insisting that Spooklight Road was now paved, but I didn’t believe him. How could Spooklight Road be paved? Jamie said it was now “developed” and I imagined the poor Spooklight being crowded out by the suburbs. After a while, though, two things happened: I noticed that Jamie’s gas tank was low, and he sounded suspiciously like my mother had all those years earlier: “This looks like the right road…No, this doesn’t look quite right.” Maybe Spooklight Road isn’t paved, I stubbornly argued, and that’s why you can’t find it. But the changes of the past decades had involved a lot more than just paved roads—Jamie, dangerously close to running on empty, finally got out his i-Phone and looked up the directions to the Spooklight on the internet.

And voila—we were there. We had been in the general vicinity of Spooklight Road, endlessly circling on the wrong roads, at risk of becoming lost forever like some Twilight Zone (or Blair Witch) episode. Except that getting lost on the way to the Spooklight has been rendered obsolete by the internet and the i-Phone.

As Jamie kept telling me, Spooklight Road is now paved. However, the spooky trees still crowd the road, and although there are more houses, the area is still rural. It was a Monday night when we went, and no one else was there. We stepped out of the car and Jamie said, “I saw it. It just crossed the road.” I thought it was a joke, but I turned, and there it was, a small fiery ball hovering over the road. It flickered and floated and split in two and reunited. We walked toward it, but at some point, we got too close, and it disappeared. When we retreated, it appeared again. My sister tried to capture it on her camera phone--but it didn’t turn out.

A few nights later, we took several carloads of cousins and relatives to see the Spooklight. There were lots of other tourists there, too, including a group sitting in their lawn chairs in the back of their pick-up drinking beer. One of them said, “If I just have one more beer, I’m sure I’ll see the Spooklight.” But sticking to the Spooklight Rules, the Spooklight refused to show itself to the mob.
That is, until everyone else had gotten back into their cars and left.
“Look!” I said. “It just came out!”
It did its little dance across the road, sliced and diced itself, and re-assembled. A few last stragglers saw the Spooklight that night—but of course nobody else believed us, and nobody got a picture. The Spooklight seemed smaller than I remembered it being, but maybe I was just bigger. Some people also say the Spooklight is not as active as it used to be, it does not roam the fields like it used to, does not chase cars anymore, and is gradually burning itself out. Or maybe it’s retreating from the encroaching crowds and traffic. Whatever the case, I’m glad I saw it before it disappears altogether.
To get to Spooklight Road, take I-44 west out of Joplin toward Tulsa; at Truck Town, take Exit 4/Missouri 43 south to Iris Road; turn right on Iris Road until it dead ends; then right on State Line Road, and left on E50 (also known as Spooklight Road). At least, I think that’s right. Be sure to fill up your tank before you go.
Also posted on Writers Rising

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Loy Krathong

The Loy Krathong song begins, “In the twelfth month on the full moon…”
By the Western calendar, the festival actually takes place in November, but by the Thai lunar calendar it’s the twelfth month. Not only are the months counted differently, but here in the village it’s actually 2542, since the original Year of the Buddha occurred 500 years before the first Year of Our Lord. I feel as if I’m a time traveler who has been transported 500 years into the future.

Loy Krathong วัน ลอยกระทง is the second-most important celebration on the Thai calendar, and this presumably means the village will go all out. But when the celebration begins, I’m surprised at the dignity and restraint of the celebration. Unlike the prolonged and frenzied partying of the Songkran holiday, this harvest festival chiefly involves launching floating candles across the water to carry our sins away. No Las Vegas-like stage shows, no throbbing outdoor movies, no wobbly carnival rides.
Instead, after dark, we carry our modest krathongs (floats made of banana leaves and bearing flowers, candles and incense sticks) down to the village reservoir. The vast, placid reservoir is already fringed with flickering krathongs, which are bobbing near the shores from which villagers have launched them. It’s a windless night, so not many of the village’s sins have floated out into the middle, except where villagers are splashing and making waves to send them on their way.
Floating our boats of sin away is actually only one of several explanations I’ve heard about this festival. I’ve also been told that the festival involves giving thanks for the rains that irrigate the paddy fields. And in a combination of those two strains—expressing gratitude for the rains and asking forgiveness for sins--I’ve heard we are specifically asking pardon from the water gods for polluting the water. That’s a tad ironic, since the festival involves littering the waters with dozens of krathongs, some of which have come to include Styrofoam.
Still, it’s undeniably a lovely sight when the rivers and lakes of Thailand become oceans of flowers and fire this one night of the year. Perhaps the most spectacular celebration takes place in the ancient city of Sukothai, but the nearby Mekong River becomes a stream of candlelight as well.
But for this festival, the village has plenty of water and floating beauty. And of all the different explanations I’ve been given for Loy Krathong, it’s the asking-for-forgiveness explanation that I like the best. For me, this makes the ritual of Loy Krathong something like a sacrament, a visible expression of God conferring invisible grace. Or, as one definition says, “a rite in which God is uniquely active.” Amen to that. So I silently ask Jesus to forgive my sins before launching my krathong. My Buddhist friend, Maliwan, is crouched beside me, and she pauses before launching her krathong as well. “Now,” she murmurs, “we pray.” She also bows her head. Our candles burn with remorse, our incense sticks send up a fragrant plea for forgiveness. Our sins set sail softly, sadly, but when our sin and regret stall a few feet from shore, we smack energetically at the water, sending the floats outward on concentric ripples of water. All my students are milling around, exchanging greetings and smiles. The whole village is out, and the feeling of a fresh start, a new beginning, is in the air. It’s a beautiful sight, as dozens of candles flicker on the dark water.
Later, three of us from the village straddle a single motorcycle and ride to Ban Dung, where a krathong contest is being judged. Here is the lavish celebration I have grown to expect in Thailand. These krathongs are not modest—they are huge and elaborate, constructed of hundreds of tightly woven banana leaves, sculpted into royal birds and royal palaces and bedecked with festive lights.
But not only are the floating beauties of the water being judged—local beauties of the human variety are also competing for a crown. Beauty contests are another feature of Loy Krathong, and one young woman after another parades across the stage. As she crosses, pauses, and twirls, each woman’s measurements are pronounced over the loudspeakers to fervent applause. Also posted on Writers Rising

Monday, June 7, 2010

Night of the Grasshoppers

The night of the grasshoppers begins at Khruu June’s house. Villagers start showing up with lamps strapped to their foreheads like miners, hauling empty bamboo baskets. We climb into a pick-up driven by June’s husband and set out through the deepening dusk. The sunset is spectacular, with thunderheads glowing an icy pink-and-blue in the darkening sky.
The truck rattles past the reservoir, leaves the lights of the village behind and heads out into vast, dark fields. After a while, even in the dark, I can see that the fields we have reached are full of sugarcane. Abruptly, the pick-up shudders to a halt and everyone pours out. A gate that leads into the sugarcane fields is tightly padlocked. The truck can go no further. Everyone begins to climb under or over the gate, so I do, too. On foot, we pass a shack with no electricity. The three children who live there are standing out front in the pitch dark, silently watching us slip past by like a throng of ghosts rustling the sugar cane. We pass a pond, and we are still tightly clumped together. And then, as if a secret signal has been given, the group scatters in all directions.

The sugarcane towers above us. Most people wear headlamps or carry flashlights. Some carry flickering candles, which they hold up to the sugarcane stalks, in search of grasshoppers. When a grasshopper is spotted, it is plucked from its perch and thrust into the basket. Sweat pours down my body and heat lightning flickers in the distance. The basket I carry grows noisier as the night goes on, rattling with the sound of grasshoppers hopping madly inside. Somebody’s candle starts a small fire which somebody else stamps out. Among the boys, there seems to be a competition for who can capture the most grasshoppers. We roam the fields, which seem endless. After a couple of hours, I begin to feel claustrophobic, trapped among the towering sugarcane, yearning for open space, for a place to stop moving, to rest, and cool down. I’m wondering if we will ever find our way back out again.
Then a quiet young village girl comes and takes me by the hand. She leads me gently and doesn’t bother speaking, as if I am a deaf-mute. Now she parts the sugarcane stalks, bends over and peers inside. She turns and smiles up at me, beckoning. I bend over and peer into the thicket of stalks. Three baby birds are nestled in a row on a stalk, serenading us in the night. We pause in our attack on the grasshoppers and listen to their delicate, trilling chorus.
The reward for all this labor comes later, back at Khruu June’s house. It does not involve money, but food. Baskets upon baskets of grasshoppers are dumped into woks sizzling with oil. The taste is salty and crunchy, similar to popcorn. Some of the villagers won’t eat the grasshoppers until they’ve pulled their stomachs out, because the stomach tastes bitter. I learn, after a few tries, that I won’t eat them until I’ve plucked off their razor-sharp legs. Also posted on Writers Rising

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Night of the Raining Stars

Today in the village I hear discussion among teachers about a star that’s falling on Thailand tonight. I envision a giant meteor racing toward the earth, headed straight for--by coincidence--this tiny village. It can’t be true. No star is going to slam into Boonsong tonight. I’m sure I’ll still be here, trying to teach English, tomorrow.
“Oh, yes, it’s true!” Khruu Aria insists. “It’s coming tonight. Everyone is going to stay up and watch for it. It happened last year, too. We saw it with our own eyes.”
Wait a minute. You mean this meteor has crashed into Boonsong before?
“Yes,” Khruu Aria replies. “Stay up tonight and watch for it with the rest of us.”

It’s midnight, and I’m ready to rise and join the rest of the village. They have made a believer out of me once again. Ghosts, dragon fire, hurtling stars—the villagers are usually right about all of it. The problem almost always lies in my incomprehension. In this case, it’s my incomprehension of Thai grammar—in particular, the lack of plural nouns. Fon tok means rain. Daw means star. Khruu Aria wasn’t telling me about a single falling star. She was telling me about a night of raining stars. She meant the Leonid Meteor Showers. It really is Khyyn Fon Daw Tok, or the Night of the Raining Stars.
I shuffle across the wat grounds like a ghost. It’s completely dark and silent. The entire village is supposed to get up and watch this, but I don’t see signs of anybody else up but me. I step onto the dirt road, and a single dog in the nearest house barks. I walk past the next house, and that dog barks, too. Soon my steps are accompanied by a chorus of frenzied barks. I have awakened every single dog in the village, but where are all the people? I feel a strange tingle on the back of my neck. Why have all the people—though, oddly, not the dogs—disappeared? Or maybe I’ve disappeared and I don’t know it yet. Maybe the dogs are barking at me, and I can’t see a living soul, because I am now a ghost, ala The Sixth Sense. What a fate that would be, to join the throng of ghosts that haunts Thailand—underwear ghosts, banana tree ghosts, dead lovers, dead snakes--and hang around the village, in spirit, forever.
I arrive at my friend Yooping’s house and knock lightly on her door. She opens the door, carrying a flashlight. No one anywhere seems to be stirring for the impending firestorm. We climb down the ladder of her house together and walk to her sister’s house. I’m tiptoeing and trying to whisper, already feeling sheepish about having agitated the dogs, but Yooping begins to bellow: “We’re here to watch the raining stars!” She thunders repeatedly, at the top of her lungs, “We’ve come to watch the raining stars! We’re here! Come down! We’re here to see the stars fall!”
Gradually, lights flicker on and we hear voices. A small crowd filters down, armed with pillows and blankets. They turn on the outside fluorescent light and settle down beneath blankets to socialize. The glare from the fluorescent light makes it difficult to see any stars falling from the sky. I follow everyone else’s lead and kick off my shoes before stretching out with blankets on the raised wooden platform beneath the house. We wait patiently, chatting, but nobody sees a single falling star. All I can see is the humming fluorescent light. After two hours of this, I give up. My ears are tired of trying to track the conversation, and I’m cold. I reach under the platform for my shoes, but they’re not there.
“My shoes are gone,” I complain. This news leads to a flurry of exclamations and an excited search. Did my hosts move my disgusting sandals—which are rotting here at the end of the rainy season and which stink to high heaven--to a more suitable place for shoes? Maybe I still don’t understand everything about shoe protocol. But the other star-watchers search dutifully and discover their shoes are missing, too. We’re all confounded. Finally, one lone shoe—mine—is recovered, half-gnawed, from a dog’s mouth. While we gossiped and stargazed, industrious dogs carried away our shoes. Why they would do that, I have no idea. I stand to leave, too tired and cold to care. Strangely, in the distance, other dogs begin to howl. Everyone chuckles and says to me, “When the dogs howl, the ghosts come out.”
I limp home wearing only one shoe. I’m unafraid of ghosts, but glad to be living in a village that dispenses warnings about them. We will all live to see another day without being crushed by a meteor, and I’m glad about that, too. And at last, as I reach home, I see one bright shining star streak across the sky.

Also posted on Writers Rising

Friday, April 23, 2010

Speaking of Strange Islands

We made the mistake of taking the slow boat, thinking it would give us a leisurely tour of the spectacular island-strewn waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Leisurely it was, so much so that after hours of winding our way among sharp, jutting rocks and lush green islands, we were now sitting in the pitch dark on a creaking wooden boat that had no running lights—well, that had no lights at all. Instead, a boy had climbed to the front of the boat with a flashlight that seemed to have faulty batteries. There were no lights anywhere around us, either, except for our own lonely light, which the boy had to shake occasionally to revive. The islands and rocks were invisible in the inky blackness until we were already upon them. I was recalling warnings in some of the guide books about pirates occasionally preying on tourist boats in Ha Long Bay. If there were any pirates in the area, we were surely easy pickins—although they would have had to locate us in the dark first. I wondered how much the captain of the boat could see—did he have cat vision, or bat vision? I could only hope he knew this area like the back of his hand, because floating dreamily through a labyrinth of tropical green islands by day had turned to navigating menacing rocks by night.
Full Disclosure: You can also (perhaps wisely) hop a fast boat and reach Cat Ba Island in one hour. The island has seen a dramatic increase in hotel construction in past years, mostly funded by overseas Vietnamese. But at the time we visited, things were still a bit more rustic, which made for more adventure as well.
Ha Long Bay (which supposedly means Descending Dragon Bay) in north Vietnam is dotted by, according to some estimates, 2,000 “islets”—which is to say, miniature islands of widely varied shapes and sizes. The scenery is stunning, and gliding through it on a slow boat can be an otherworldly, hypnotic experience. Our somewhat rattletrap wooden boat chugged along with a small number of passengers, including my sister and myself, as well as a French family. The boat operators used the small on-board space efficiently, cooking up a meal for us in the engine room as they piloted the boat. Old tires were scattered about the boat which appeared to be our life vests. On the way to Cat Ba Island, we passed floating fishing villages where entire communities spent their lives living on the water. After it turned dark and the boat plowed blindly on, a French passenger timidly asked, “Is this safe?” At that point, it didn’t really matter—the only way left was forward.
When we fortunately reached the island, a bus arrived to take passengers to our various hotels. Whenever the bus stopped, the driver put a cement block in front of it as a parking brake. When we finally entered our hotel room, ready to collapse after a long day, we noticed the sheets were dirty…as if someone had slept in them with muddy shoes. When we inquired about this, the proprietors responded by taking us to another room. The only problem was that in this hotel room, somebody’s possessions were still there. Unnerved at the prospect of other guests returning in the middle of night to find us sleeping in their beds, we requested a third room. In this room, the only problem was a non-flushing toilet, but otherwise it was clean, and completely empty of extra guests. I remember looking out the window into the alley below and seeing a sleek, fat rat the size of a medium-sized dog devouring something (probably a medium-sized dog.) Maybe it was some sort of water rat/native creature, but whatever it was, it was huge.
As you can tell, at that time, Cat Ba Island wasn’t about luxury accommodations. However, it was and still is about dramatic scenery: waterfalls, forests, hills, cliffs, caves, lakes, and sandy beaches tucked here and there among the otherwise rocky coastline. But the best part of Cat Ba Island is probably the breathtaking and nerve-wracking experience of getting there.
Also posted on Writers Rising

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mystery Island

Somehow, in the middle of this wide, landlocked plain, we have made our way to a tropical island.
An Italian volunteer named David is visiting the Thai village where I teach English, and he has come with Pen, Kanjana and I in search of this strange little island. I’m on the back of Pen’s motorcycle and David is riding with Kanjana. We’re tearing along back roads, surrounded by acres of rice paddies. We’re like ants struggling to cross vast, green tracts of earth. Pen and Kanjana have both been trying to explain the significance of the island to me, and I am struggling to understand their Issan-laced Thai as they shout over the sound of motorcycle engines and wind. David, meanwhile, is shouting to me in his Italian-accented English. I’m shouting back to him, in American-accented English, passing along whatever spotty information I can glean about this elusive island we are racing toward.
Kanjana and Pen shout a mile a minute over the wind and flood me with tantalizing, incomprehensible details about the mysterious island. David says to me, “What did they say?”
I reply thoughtfully: “I have no idea. Something about an island.”
Pen steers her motorcycle off the road and we putt-putt to a stop. Ahead of us is a small wooden bridge, which we’ll cross on foot. And I see that all that they have been shouting about is true: In the midst of this barren plain sits an oasis, floating like a dream. We dismount the motorcycles at the edge of a serene green lake. In the middle of the lake is tethered a compact little island, every square inch of it bristling with towering palm trees. The palm trees that cloak the island are unique, Pen and Kanjana explain. They grow only here, on this small island, in the middle of this desert, in the middle of nowhere.
“This is the only place these trees can be found,” Pen insists. “They won’t grow anywhere else. They have tried to transplant them elsewhere, but they failed.”
The impossibly tall trees look thick and ancient and strange, nothing like the youthful, slender coconut trees I am used to seeing scattered gracefully across the rice paddies. What they are trying to tell me, I realize, is that this island is a mystery. These trees are a miracle. Why does this thicket of trees grow only here and nowhere else on earth? Of course, I have no way of verifying the fact that the trees grow nowhere else. It seems a little suspect, but I cheerfully agree with them and enter the realm of the mystical.
We leave the motorcycles in the parking lot. We cross the footbridge whose handrails on both sides, I notice, are a long, unfurled serpent complete with scales. But serpent handrails are not an uncommon sight in Thailand when leading to temples. The naga (which I believe was a 7-headed cobra) is widely revered for sheltering the Buddha while he meditated on his way to enlightenment.
Pen lowers her voice and passes on another mysterious bit: A story about a Thai man who was hired to show outdoor movies on the island all night long. The crowd who gathered to watch the movie was silent and odd. The man showing the movies had to be out by 4 a.m., he was warned, or he might never leave the island. When the man went to leave the island, he had trouble finding his way out. He eventually made it off the island, and the strangely silent movie fans, he learned afterward, were ghosts. I’ve heard many American versions of the encounter with the stranger who turns out to be a ghost, but I like this Thai twist on it.
We step onto the island and instantly sink into hushed, dense forest. The light above us filters weakly down. A Buddhist monk slips silently past us, and Pen, the lone Buddhist among us Christians, leads us reverently along a twisting path deep into the trees. At the heart of the island pulses a silent spring. Here is the heart of the mystery. The four of us lean over the deep, green pool and peer in. The water is murky, and the well is, perhaps, bottomless. I can’t be sure, but I am looking for the giant snake that dwells therein. In Buddhism, of course, snakes don’t have the sullied reputation that they have in Christianity. In fact, they often represent the sacred. A giant, sacred snake dwells in this pool, and there is a whole, elaborate story about how it got here. Pen is unraveling the tale and I’m struggling desperately to understand her Thai. I hate the way the details escape me. Who knows what I’m missing?
But I understand this much: This is why the miraculous trees thrive in this arid plain. And this is why the water in this well contains curative powers. Because of the special, sacred snake coiled down below. Pen leans forward and cups some of the water in her hands. She drinks it deeply, and anoints her own head as well. She urges us to do the same. But I can’t help it: I’m not afraid of the snake—I’m afraid of the murky water. Pen’s immune system is up to the challenge of local water, but mine is not. Maybe the waters really are mystical. But I am not Buddhist or even Thai. So will these opaque waters heal me or afflict me? One part of me is intrigued by this spooky spring, and the strange story, and the unsettling possibilities that this whispering island contains. But I am also feeling intensely practical, so I decline to drink.
Long after leaving the tiny island and the village, I learn (or confirm) the details. We had visited Wat Kham Chanot วัดคำชะโนด. It’s considered an “entrance to the water world”, or maybe the underworld--the dwelling place of a sacred serpent. The monks inhabiting the island are devoted to revering the special serpent, and the locals do indeed consider the area sacred. My memory of that day is that almost no one else was around except a stray monk or two. The flat rice paddies surrounding the island were also empty. There was indeed something otherworldly in the air, although maybe the moody atmosphere was due to the dense forest and deep well.
Some say the serpent has a “hiding place” on the island. On that day, Pen and Kanjana clearly believed the snake was hiding at the bottom of the well. Or was the well the entrance to the underworld? No matter—I comprehended their Thai well enough to get the picture, and the eerie locale is still with me to this day.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dragon Fire Festival and Other Thai Mysteries

The full moon often scalds the Thai landscape with strange surprises, and I find myself holding my breath to see what crawls from the shadows. Who is this emerging from the fields at this dead hour of the night? What is that strange shriek, in a place where no shriek ever has an innocent explanation? I have become a believer--the countryside is riddled with ghosts. And in a small town not too far away, dragon fire erupts from the Mekong River, but only in October, and only when the moon is full.
The fire-breathing dragon apparently spends the entire year resting on the bottom of the Mekong and emerges just once, to show off, on the banks of the chosen town of Phon Phisai. Thousands of locals turn out to wait for the dragon’s breath to rise from the Mekong River. Pink lights burst out of the river on this one night and arc silently into the sky. The town celebrates the dragon’s spectacular display with Bung Fai Payanak (บั้งไฟพญานาค) or the Dragon Fire Festival. The Dragon Fire Parade drums its way down Main Street during the day, and at night a river parade of lighted bamboo floats glides past, to keep the dragon company. This legendary spirit, which some say shielded the Buddha from the rain and sun while he meditated, stirs to life each year at the end of the Buddhist Lent, breathing celebratory fireballs into the sky.
Our journey began on the overnight train from Bangkok to the city of Nong Khai, in a second-class air-conditioned berth. A ticket buys you a private, curtained berth with a reading light, pillow and blanket, and the joy of waking in the middle of the night to clacking train wheels and a star-spangled sky shimmering through your window.
For those who want a tad more adventure and a little less comfort, try the second-class berths with a fan. I enjoyed the warm wind and smells of cooking food and burning wood as we rolled out of Bangkok and into the dark night, but porters came round soon to pull an ugly metal grating down over the window which obstructs all view. I also woke the next morning covered in a fine layer of soot, and the restrooms, which are only marginal to begin with in the air conditioned section, are even less appealing in second-class fan. First-class compartments are perfectly affordable for many western travelers, but a cautionary note to women traveling alone: One woman I know who traveled in a first-class compartment spent the night listening to some drunken male passengers rattle her locked door. Second-class air conditioned berths are quite comfortable and much less isolated. Of course, third class also is available for the budget traveler or truly adventurous—it’s cheap, it’s open-air, and you sit up all night.

When I visited, there was only one hotel in Phon Phisai, the aptly named Hugs and Kisses, which favored hourly rates to nightly ones. To be fair, more extensive options may now exist. But a better option for sleeping accommodations is in nearby Nong Khai, where we de-boarded after our overnight train ride from Bangkok. Nong Khai has numerous guesthouses and even luxury hotels. My favorite is the Mut Mee Guesthouse on the Mekong River, one of the secret pleasures of the northeastern Thailand experience. (www.mutmee.com) My room was simple and un-air-conditioned (fan only) with a communal, cold-water bathroom, although air conditioned rooms with a hot water bathroom are also available. Even if you don’t get your reservation into the Mut Mee in time (and with thousands of people descending on the area to watch the dragon rise, you’d better plan ahead), it’s still a great place to stop for a few hours and rest. Travelers gather round wooden tables in the outdoor dining area beneath thatched roofs and ceiling fans, surrounded by tropical foliage and an expansive view across the wide Mekong River into Laos.
Visitors to the Mut Mee can choose from numerous excellent Thai dishes, and the delicious western menu can be hard to come by in this part of the country, providing a welcome break from the sticky rice and searing spices of northeastern Thailand. In particular, the banana pancakes, French toast and thick, crisp bacon are a welcome sight for many travelers who have been living on rice soup or noodles for breakfast.
By day the atmosphere at the Mut Mee is languorous, with travelers dozing in hammocks or reading paperbacks with feet propped up while the river moves sluggishly past. By night, the dining area takes on a more festive air as more travelers pour in, order beer and swap tales late into the night about the islands in the south, the elephant treks in the north, and the perils and rewards of venturing into neighboring Laos. It’s also an excellent place to gather advice and information from other travelers and the friendly staff about where to go and what to do. When you’re ready to depart for the Dragon Fire Festival, a shuttle service will take you to Phon Phisai, 40 kilometers away.

When we arrived in Phon Phisai in the afternoon, the boardwalk along the river was already bustling with people. Vendors hawked dried squid, speckled bird eggs, cotton candy, balloons, grilled chicken, soccer-sized grapefruit, roasted bananas, beer and soda. Wooden boats dotted the tranquil waters of the Mekong, and opposite us shone the lush green coast of Laos.
We ate at the Khaw Soi 18 Restaurant, which offers virtually every Thai favorite imaginable, from the spicy Issan peasant dishes of som tam and laap muu to the northern red curry dish known as khaw soy, to the well-known staples tom yam and pad thai. Seven of us ate there around tables beneath thatched-roof gazebos overlooking the Mekong River.
After eating, we staked out a spot to sit on the riverbanks, and at dusk we heard a piercing whistle. Was it the sound of the dragon rising from the murky Mekong to breathe fire into the sky? No—it was only the introductory fireworks for the evening. In fact, the entire evening was filled with fireworks, from start to finish—enough to frighten any lurking dragon away. Once it was dark, the river parade of floats began (this also can be viewed in Nong Khai). White lights, and in some cases dozens of candles, covered bamboo structures designed to look like ancient Oriental sailing ships and other marvels. Vendors moved through the packed crowd selling noisemakers and coiled dragon puppets with red battery-powered eyes. Paper lanterns drifted higher and higher into the night until their fiery glow vanished. To add to the mystery, the electricity powering the vendors’ stalls along the river kept going off throughout the evening.
I asked one Thai woman if she “believed” in the dragon fire we all were waiting to see.
“I believe,” she said cautiously, and then cracked a sheepish smile.
A group of Thai schoolgirls handed me a survey in English. Do you believe it’s a spirit? the survey asked. Do you think it’s fireworks? Natural gas? Do you think it should be researched?
“By all means, research it,” I agreed.
An excited roar suddenly rippled through the crowd. People stretched and craned their necks to see.
“Mai mee arai,” people murmured all around me in Thai. “Nothing, it was nothing.”
“Do you believe?” a Thai woman inquired, turning the tables on me.
“When I see it, I’ll believe it,” I replied, and everyone around me burst out laughing.
It was wall-to-wall people and this was a genuine local event, nothing Westernized about it. Moreover, it was fun. The real spirit of this festival lies in the spirited roar sweeping through the crowd every time a light—any light at all—feebly flickers.
And now a deep rumble began to grow in the crowd as people pointed and cried out. At last, I saw it—small red lights, arcing into the air like emergency flares or Roman candles, minus the sparks or smoke or sound. I zeroed in on a tall American with a camera.
“Oh, sure, I believe,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s definitely something.”
“You mean those little red lights?” I asked skeptically.
Were the lights coming from the shore of black, spooky Laos? A controversy erupted one year over the claim that Laotian soldiers firing machine guns into the air created the lights. But the fireballs look too big to me to be tracer fire, and besides, where is the sound? More perplexing, why did I suddenly see the lights of a motorboat in exactly the spot where the fireballs were a moment before?
“Police inspectors,” one Thai solemnly assured me. “They are making sure no one is out there. They are inspecting for fakes.”
This charming detail seemed completely in keeping with the zany, good-natured spirit of the evening—police inspectors in motorboats racing from one spot to another, to ensure that the dragon fire erupting from the deep waters was the real thing. And in the end, it’s authentic local culture and an as-yet-unexplained mystery.

Numerous other events take place in Nong Khai in October, as the weather cools and the rains subside. The Thai-Lao Rowing Festival in mid-October includes a street festival and parade of illuminated boats on the Mekong River. Later in October, the Chinese Dragon Festival sports a parade of Chinese dragons, bamboo-pole climbing contests, Chinese opera, and a five-night festival at the local Chinese school.
And for tourists willing to extend their stay into November, the festival of Loy Krathong is the second-most important celebration on the Thai calendar. This harvest festival involves giving thanks for the rains that irrigate the paddy fields by releasing floats of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense on the water. There are more spectacular celebrations in cities such as Sukothai, but if you’re already in the area, the Mekong River in the city of Nong Khai becomes a river of candlelight for this one night of the year.

Push open the screen door of this little shop, and the aroma of incense along with exotic strains of Oriental music fill the air. Around the corner from the Mut Mee Guesthouse, the Wasambe Bookshop is tucked into a quiet sidestreet, next door to an art studio and across the street from yoga classes. Inside the bookshop, colorful batiks in bold reds and blues adorn the walls. Outside, a rooster crows though it’s midday, and somebody is cooking rice.
“The idea for this bookstore came to me in a dream,” explains the tall, serene African-American named Michael (born in West Virginia, raised in Detroit) who wound up in this remote part of Southeast Asia, selling books to wayfarers. “From conversations with travelers, I’ve made choices about what to buy.”
What travelers favor includes an eclectic and thoroughly satisfying mix of classics (Anna Karenina), thrillers (Hannibal, The Beach), Agatha Christie and Patricia Cornwell mysteries, biographies (the Dalai Lama) African-American literature (Malcolm X), as well as books on yoga, meditation, Buddhism, adventure and travel (Into Thin Air, Swimming to Cambodia, Riding the Iron Rooster). There’s even a children’s shelf with folk tales from around the world.
“I believe our outward journey is a reflection of our inner journey,” Michael explains. “Why do we leave our own country? What are we looking for?”
If you’re looking for more than books, the store also features incense and body oil from India, beautiful Chinese tapestries, Thai clothing, postcards and e-mail service. It’s a pleasant, peaceful place to browse for a book, which you can then read over a pot of hot tea or a pitcher of cold beer at the Mut Mee Guesthouse on the banks of the Mekong River.

I’m trying to picture barefoot Buddhist monks dangling from rope and bamboo scaffolding at dizzying, deadly heights to construct the narrow, winding walkway that I find myself on.
Near the city of Bungkhan, in Nong Khai province, visiting the Buddhist temple of Wat Pu Thock involves an unnerving hike up a mountain on wooden planks seemingly suspended above nothing but air.
The temple is situated on a massive sandstone outcrop that juts up from the surrounding landscape.
The outcrop contains an intricate network of caves and offers increasingly stunning views as you climb. The mountain is climbed via a seven-level series of stairs representing the seven levels of enlightenment in Buddhist philosophy. Rustic monastic residences are sprinkled around the mountain, tucked away in caves and on cliffs. As you make the somewhat strenuous climb, each level feels cooler than before. Indeed, when my friends and I, hot and perspiring, reached a resting place, we were enthralled by the fresh, cool breeze blowing over us. Across the plain, I spotted a waterfall that was miniature from this distance.

The hike definitely gets your blood pumping, but isn’t overly arduous. If you’re afraid of heights, this isn’t the outing for you, but if you’d like to combine a vigorous nature hike with an authentic Buddhist meditative experience, this is well worth the effort.
(also posted on Writers Rising)

Willing to Wander

I’m a big believer in pilgrimages and mysteries—whether it’s to the Mekong River to watch for “dragon fire”, or a mountaintop in Spain where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared, or a dirt road in rural Missouri where a “spooklight” dances, or the deep silence of the woods around a Trappist abbey in rural Oregon. My own understanding of a pilgrimage is that of a quest—I try to take a route I haven’t taken before to a place I’ve never been before, where an answer to a question may or may not be waiting. I’ve discovered that risk and openness usually bring a surprising gift.
When I visited the Trappist abbey recently, the weather was perfect, the hiking trails lush, and the sounds of forest creatures and burbling streams and wind sighing in the tree tops a welcome relief from the concrete and traffic of Seattle. The monks started singing at 3:30 in the morning, punctuated the rest of the day with prayer and singing, and finished chanting at 7:30 pm. I tried to sleep as late as 6:30 am, but with bells ringing and other retreatants rising early, it was difficult. It’s only a place you should visit if you’re willing to enter into the “monastic rhythm”—and it’s a little jarring at first coming from the hyperactive outside world. My favorite time of day was the 7:30 pm prayers and songs in the candlelit chapel as a monk pronounced, “Brothers, we are now one day closer to our eternal home.” That comment sent a shiver down my spine, reminding me that we are all pilgrims, and each day is another mile in the journey. Every day is a new mile we haven’t traveled before—and we don’t really know where our wandering will ultimately lead or what our destination city will look like. I guess that’s what travel used to always be like. Now, we tend to be fully informed and completely connected over the internet before we even take our first step. Yet adventures still await those who are willing to wander. After departing the abbey, I just started driving in the general direction of the Pacific coast. Along the way, I spotted hand-made signs and arrows proclaiming simply, “Monastery.” Naturally, I had to follow. The signs led me along deserted stretches of two-lane highway. I was just about to turn around when I reached another arrow pointing to an unpaved road. The unpaved road dead-ended, and when I stepped out of my car, a beat-up old tom cat came racing out to greet me. Maybe the monks’ silence left the cat starved for conversation. I had arrived at the only Brigittine monastery in the world, where cloistered monks chanted and made chocolate. I took a few moments to pray in the “Our Lady of Consolation” chapel and, of course, I bought some chocolate. For some reason, the winding roads on this little pilgrimage kept depositing me on the doorstep of those hidden ones who are devoting their lives to praying for the rest of us. Apparently, even cats can be cloistered.
In future postings, I’ll share about some other pilgrimages—and mysteries—that have captured my attention, and taken me as far afield as southeast Asian and Spain. (also posted on Writers Rising.)