Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Surrounded by Captain Clueless

(Though the following photographs were taking while trekking around Bagan’s Htilominlo Temple, the writing is about the frustrations of returning home to Taiwan and life abroad)
The last straw came while changing apartments in Taiwan. There are these little shopping carts that each apartment guard station has and when you move-in, they load them up and push tthem to the elevator. Watching these guards pack the shopping carts is total comedy until it is actually your stuff. There is no thought process at all. They put a box clearly marked water glasses on the bottom and toss a wooden chair on top, or throw a sports bag on the bottom and then stack a tettering box on top hoping to return and get the ten smaller boxes one by one instead of just taking two minutes and packing them properly for one trip.
Because it means more to do twice the work and look busy, don’t you know that?
Oh, by the way, did I say last straw? Let me go back…the following events all happened to me during a 24 hour stretch of time while changing apartments here in Taiwan.
That first morning, I got into a taxi and the driver pointed to a little sticker on the dashboard reading: Buckle Up, or Pay Up! (There is a fine of almost 250 U.S. dollars for not buckling up) He taps the sticker again with his finger then pokes me in the ribs. I look over and the driver is not wearing his seat-belt. “What’s that?” I ask the man in Chinese. “HUH?” He grunts back. I tap on the sticker and poke him back in the ribs. “You,” I say in Chinese. He taps the sticker again. “This is for passengers!”
I look at the man dumbfounded.
I get out of his taxi and go to the one behind it. He won’t let me inside. He points at the taxi in front and says, “There’s a line. You must take the one first.”
I flash him my money and ask him politely if he’s working. He shakes his head.
I go to the third taxi and he won’t let me in.
I stand on the curb watching three couples get into the taxis ahead of me then wait for the fourth cab to pull up, open the door and get inside. The driver is fiddling with the dashboard TV, the sound is so loud it’s deafening. I give him the directions, but he’s now messing with the GPS. The meter is running and he is trying to type in the address. I’m literally crossing the street with two suitcases I don’t want to carry. It takes five minutes while I’m simmering in the front seat. Finally he turns to me, apologizes for not being able to figure out the GPS, floors it, and clips a passing motorbike with the taxi grill.
Because I’m surrounded by people without common sense, don’t you know that?
The elevator in my new apartment building is so dark I can’t see the buttons on the wall. Here in Taiwan, apartment holders carry small key chain locks that must be swiped against elevator scanners before it can be used. This means I have to always fish around for the thing in my pocket then bend over to find my floor, straining my eyes in the pitch black dark.
Because that’s style. Style is more important that substance, don’t you know that?
Late for school, I ran into the Starbucks for a quick breakfast sandwich. The guy behind the counter looks at me, follows my finger down to the croissant, takes it out with tongs and tries putting it into the oven… “Nope! Here’s my money on the counter. I don’t need a receipt. In a hurry!” So he turns and walks all the way down…and I mean… thirty paces out of his way all the way down to the delivery tray and lays it there for me. All the while I’m following him saying, “No, please just put it in my hand…right here…Hey! I’m here, remember…”
Thirty paces later I have it in my hand.
Because that’s the take-out counter, and it says in the Starbucks rulebook that customers pick up their orders at the take out counter, don’t you know that?
The laundry room on the outside balcony of the new apartment has a built in dryer/washing machine, which is nice, but once again screws me. Why? Well, it cannot be opened during the dry cycle. If you set the dryer for twenty minutes, the door can only be opened after that time runs out. All the buttons are in Chinese as well…which… confounds me. Let’s say you want to pull out a pair of socks half way through… you can’t.
Because that’s the rule, and you have to follow the rules no matter what, don’t you know that?
I made the classic Asian blunder that afternoon and stopped in a department store. People who have traveled here know what I’m talking about. Surging relentless mass of black mopped heads. Elbows flying. People gawking. Blocking escalators mid-conversation with friends. Standing in front of elevators in groups of ten checking what floor they’re on. Banging you with their shopping cart and not apologizing. Walking with their head sideways staring off into space and running over your kid. Totally clueless. I mean, you have never seen a more collective cluster of mindless sheep, than visiting an Asian department store.
My favorite moment was this cleaning man who had managed to somehow push his little cart into the massive sardine packed crowd and laid two cones out for sweeping. People were banging into him, knocking him over, walking on his toes, pushing him aside, yet he continued to sweep up nothing. I mean, there was nothing on the floor for him to sweep but there he was, head down, just going through the motions.
Why…? Because that’s his job and he has to do it, no questions asked, don’t you know that?
(The following photos were taken at Thatbyinnyu Temple)
The electrical outlets in the new apartment keep shutting off. The west wall is connected somehow to the hot water on the east wall shower which is also connected to the dishwasher in the southern kitchen. (Oh yes, I have a dishwasher!) Which means, that if at any time a lethal combination of somebody taking a shower plus a dishwasher load plus anyone plugging a cell phone charger into the wall means…all power in the apartment is shut off.
Because, as the electrician pointed out to me, this keeps people from using too many home appliances at one time, don’t you know that?
The guards at the new apartment are really swell. I’ve been coming in and out with bags full of things…a shoulder duffle bag full of laundry, a paper bag of groceries…and every time I do, they rush to help me carry it. Doesn’t matter that I don’t need help, am moving at full speed through the lobby, or that it has twice caused us both to trip and drop my groceries on the floor, breaking my milk carton.
They continue to do it.
Because they are the guard and they must help me no matter what, don’t you know that?
There’s no hot water in the apartment. Nope. A breaker in the electrical board keeps snapping back like there’s a busted circuit. I’ve been living here three days. So I call down to the front desk because I’m irate and they send up the technician. It’s ten o’clock at night so I know they are serious. This dude proceeds to bang on my door, step into my apartment without saying a word, pass by me toward the balcony with all of his tools, then start smashing these circuit breakers with a hammer. Oh yes, he’s wearing a tunnel flashlight strapped to his head so he looks very official. An hour later there is still no hot water, but he does step into my kitchen and take a phone call, screaming into the receiver and laughing and carrying on some private conversation at the top of his lungs at eleven o’clock while I’m standing there pointing at my daughter’s bedroom until… yep, you guessed it. He wakes up all three of my bleary eyed girls.
Because he’s on the job standing as a guest worker in someone’s house in the middle of the night, why not scream into his cell phone, they’re not his kids, don’t you know that?
So that was my day in Taiwan, pretty awesome. Oh, and by the way, the temples of Htilominlo and Thatbyinnyu were awesome too.  Sounds like I need another vacation, doesn't it?

Mandalay Flickr Pics!

Oh yes...while touring Bagan's amazing temples... my heart, like Kipling, is still in Mandalay. Enjoy some pics by clicking the link to the right. Have a great day everybody! -Hartenstein

Gawdawpalin Pahto Zedi: Bagan's Best Temples, Pagodas, and Stupas

Touring ancient Bagan's series of thousands of temples tucked between trees, we come to Gawdawpalin Pahto Zedi.
There are so many temples (over 4,400) that it is virtually impossible to see them all, and many of them are prohibited due to falling construction, restoration, or preserving the Buddhist frescoes inside.
Gawdawpalin Pahto is a great place to visit because you can enter through the front door and check out some sand painting artists in the cool shade and warm sunlight, then angle your way up the tiny stair case (bring a torch or headlamp because it is very dangerous and steep and totally in the dark) and end up on the roof for some marvelous views.
Gawdawpalin Pahto is not the highest temple in Bagan, but it is a good starting point. The rooftop is circular and can be navigated in circumference by the mildly daring climber.
And once you are up in the air, you get an early sense for what the day's sites lay waiting in store for you.
Another cool thing about Gawdawpalin Pahto is that in the mid 1970's it was nearly destroyed by an earthquake and has been lovingly restored, allowing the traveler to see some ancient techniques in modern action.
You know, I've been to many of these holy places and breathtaking sites throughout Asia, to Angor Wat and Beijing's Summer Palace to the cherry blossomed tea houses of Kyoto to the temples around Ubud...and Bagan stacks up nicely.
There is really so much to see... but yes, you do get a little burned out touring from temple to temple.
Best to just go with a partner and talk the day away. Treat it like a day hanging out with a cool friend. That way, your senses don't overload, you can laugh at the halfway treacherous climbing steps, and you can pick your spots to be amazing and refreshed.
As for me, I'm just getting started touring these stupas and temples... it's back to the horse carriage. Oops, where did I leave my shoes? I'm back on the road!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Day Trips Through Bagan: Shwe Zigon Zedi and the Woman who Threw my Shoes Out of the Temple

Hoped on the back of a little horse buggy and rode out through the dusty roads toward the massive sprawling fields of Bagan's Old Temple District
The first stop was the golden domed temple: Shwe Zigon Zedi.
Ceremoniously I was greeted at the gate by a bevy of scarfed women...two quickly pinned butterflies on my chest, officially claiming me as "their" tourist. Oh, and they took my shoes and socks. (No footwear in Burmese temples...which is hilarious, because they are covered with dirt, cigarette butts, trash, yucky discarded food, and in many cases, crazy screeching wild monkeys)
I then follow my nose toward the temple, through the gauntlet of postcard sellers and junk shops...toward the inner courtyards of beautifully ornate buildings.
We got an early start, which was a good idea, though it was a little chilly, there were few crowds and locals were on their best behavior as the common belief of striking a favorable deal with the day's first customer as sign of a good day to come... is still in use.
I was also surprised that many of junk shop sellers were also interested in making trades rather than just accepting cash. Nail polish, rings, make-up, English books, pocket calculators, Rolex watches... (seriously, Rolex's?)
But no matter what, make sure the money you bring is crisp and sparkling...and I mean totally pristine. The Burmese make a point of not taking any note that has even the slightest blemish...which is insane because you will be squatting in filth and feces swatting away enormous flies trying to buy a Coke and ten Burmese will be standing around passing the perfectly good note back and forth from your bank shaking their heads... "Nope! It's not good."
But Shwe Zigon is cool. There are numerous golden domed temples like this of the same name spread out all over Burma. The most famous is in Yangon (See other posts on this blog) and it gets a lot of foot traffic. I had this sneaking suspicion that our horse driver had to drive here first due to government regulations, but still, it was well worth it.
One of the strangest encounters happened when leaving. I mistakenly stopped at a trinket stall to haggle over some little lacquer jewelry boxes for my daughters and was accosted by the women who pinned the butterfly to my chest. She was irate and disgruntled that I dared shop at another vendor when she had "pinned" me first. Throwing my shoes out the temple door, she ripped off the little colorful pin and started screaming at me, shaking a finger in my face.
I laughed it off, I mean, what else are you supposed to do when a group of French tourists are smirking at you for getting caught cheating on the farmer's daughter... but it made a nice start to a day kicking the dirt around a couple of thousand year old temples, and I'm sure, as that old woman's day went downhill fast, she regretted it more.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Eden Hotel, Bagan Burma

Finally Bagan!
This is the mystical city that is supposed to rival Angor Wat, with over 4,400 Temples, Pagodas, and Stupas, it is meant to dazzle the senses. Yet I arrive exhausted in the dark and dusty street on the back of a truck with a bandana over my face... check into the dingy room, the water comes out brown and murky... kick off my boots, and fall helpless on the bed.
Tomorrow I've arranged a horse cart to drive me through the dirt and dust toward...well, I don't know... temples I believe, which I've come to see along with all the others.
I'm such a creature of habit. I dump my pack on the busted up bunk and roll up my t-shirts one by one and air out my socks and organize my little shaving bag all laid out next to my journal and flashlight and ziploc bag of medicine. Organization keeps me straight. Without it, I'd be lost in my own head too much.
There are always so many things I keep to myself. So many little secrets, I guess everyone has those too. I know there are so few people we tell things to, the really important things. It's easy to go through your life not telling anyone anything. So I sat down in the little bare lobby tonight under the naked light bulb watching moths dance and the horse carts roll by and I could hear the woman in the kitchen scrubbing pots and, well... what happened next was...

Growing Up on Farms and Church Pews

I grew up in the dirt.  Yes, muck and mud up to my elbows.  Bucking hay, weeding gardens, shucking beans, mixing cement, digging trenches, and cleaning stalls.  From Monday through Saturday, there was always a dirty job that needed doing.  Yet that changed come Sunday.  Oh yes, come Sunday morning, I was the cleanest kid in town.
You see, growing up on the farm in Colton, I’d rather be scalped by a wild savage than sin by my own accord. I was a good Christian kid who memorized Bible verses about faith and fruit and forgiveness and fortitude and those were just the “F’s.”
So terrified was I of … you know, “H. E. Double Hockey Sticks,” that I wore itchy woolen britches to Sunday School in the winter and starched shirts in the summer to Vacation Bible Camp. Suffering was a necessity to the truly devout, and yes, years of making Crucifixion Depictions out of macaroni shells and earning Caravan Merit Badges for Nativity Scene Dioramas has a weird effect on a kid.
Another byproduct of being a Super-Christian farm kid was that I memorized the Ten Commandments. You know, those stone tablets Moses carried down from Mt. Sinai only to find his punk kid brother building a golden calf to worship and so Big Moe was like, “Come on chosen people… you’re chosen to suck!" And so he smashed the original tablets... becoming the greatest sinner in history (you know, because he broke all Ten Commandments at once...haha...I told you, years of Sunday School, huh?)
Now, I understand that nobody follows the Ten Commandments anymore. Try telling a Starbucks or Wall Mart employee to, (Number 4) “Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy,” or some of the kids I teach whose parents are meth addicts to (Number 5) “Honor Your Father and Mother.” It just doesn’t seem relevant anymore, or does it?
Of course, growing up, I used to stare at this picture in my boy’s Bible of the Ten Commandments. There was Moses looking all Charlton Heston-like with his wispy beard and Roman numerals etched in stone. To a boy, rules like (Number 6): “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” or (Number 2): “Have any Gods before Me,” are easy. I mean seriously, who am I going to kill? My younger brother? Erect a God? What, like out of Lincoln Logs? And (Number 7): “Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” Have you seen Mrs. Alfred next door? She has a hump back and liver spots.
But the doozy was (Number 3): “Do Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain,” this was a tough one. As a super-Christian kid, I wouldn’t be caught dead uttering phrases like, “Oh my… Big Guy Upstairs” or “God… Big Water Structure the Little Boy Sticks Finger in!” It’s just not my way. But I did have friends that tried to get around it… you know, the whole, “Swear by Mumbling” thing. They would caw, “Oh my Gaaaaaah…” Which would make even the heathens in the room pause and shriek like fingers on a chalkboard. “Did you just say, ‘Gaaaah’? What is that?”
Later in high school, there were all these great 1980’s movies that came out like “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club,” just funny and serious and all around excellent. One of my favorites was Nick Cage in “Valley Girl.” And this popularized the “Oh my God!” bubbly air-head who twists her pink gum and stands dumbfounded with one hand on her hip. But I still didn’t do it. Couldn’t. In the same way I still wore fresh clean white underwear to Wednesday night prayer meetings.
Fast forward twenty years and I am stuck in Asia… I say stuck but…let’s face it, I love it here. Among Asians, one of the most common phrases you hear is, “Oh my God!” People say it almost as a reflex to studying English all their life. Walk into 7-eleven and the store is out of milk, clerk will slap his forehead and exclaim, “Oh my God!” Little Boy passing me on the street and his bicycle runs over my foot, laughing he speeds away, “Oh! My! God! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Standing on the corner a careening bus almost kills you and your family, the driver screams out the window in relief, “Ohhhhh Myyyyy Gooooood!”
I suppose, it seems to fit, but it still leaves me jarred.  There are just some expressions I'll never say.  I just don't take the Lord's name in vain.  I won't.
I guess even in lands so foreign and bizarre, where methods and customs baffle and delight, I'm still just the same old farm kid as I ever was... of course, I threw out the tightie-whities a long time ago.  Thank God!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Leaving the Way I Came

The thing is, you walk this world, you see things, and they stay with you and make you who you are.
You squat down in the dirt next to an old woman who is smoking and she laughs a toothless grin at you and you both watch the river float by... and that stays with you forever.
You climb on top of a train in India or make a nun blush in a cafe outside the Trevi Fountain or eat street kebabs in the Muslim quarter of Beijing...and you somehow feel different about the world.
Grander.  Larger.  Blessed in ways that normal people cannot grasp.  You've acquired something.
Travel intermixes in your DNA and reforms you, makes you a super mutant with extra-sensory powers of perception and grace.
Well... maybe not a mutant... but definitely some other worldly thing.
You know you're not alone either because there are so many others.  Crisscrossing and passing your way.  Living right under your nose.  Zipping by you in blurs.
But every traveler has the same thought.  They know they are witnessing magic.  They know when the moment is special, and most of all, they know... that when it is all over, they will return home while the people in this land stay, leaving the magic for another to find and keep for themselves alone.