Rude paintings of scenes in the Master’s life hang from the eaves. It is dark and solemn, but the Buddhas sit on their great lotus leaves in the gloaming like gods who have had their day, and now neglected, but indifferent to neglect, in their decaying grandeur continue to reflect on suffering. The end of suffering, transitoriness and the eightfold path. Their aloofness is almost terrifying. You tread on tiptoe in order not to disturb their meditations and when you close behind you the carved doors and come out into the friendly day it is with a sigh of relief. —Maugham, Gentleman in the ParlorI had that feeling again today, walking to the upstairs level of a teak museum. At its center, on a pedestal, was a sculpted lifelike monk, with flesh-toned skin, maybe made of wax. These statues have this austere serenity that makes me shiver. I went back downstairs.
We’re in Chiang Mai, exploring temples and dodging tourists on bicycles.
In the last month our itinerary has been:
Khao Yai National Park, 8 Mar - 9 Mar
Pak Chong, 10 Mar
Udon Thani, 11 Mar
Nam Sohm, 12 Mar - 18 Mar
Udon Thani, 19 Mar
Chiang Mai, 20 Mar - today
So I’m a bit exhausted. Or not. It just feels like exhaustion, when I’m still on this elaborate bumming evasion. When K. first asked me, ten years ago, what I wanted to be, I answered: a bum.
And then today, in the museum where I was scared, we read about one of the forest monks, who spent 11 years “wandering.” Just “wandering.” We see them, sometimes, at the train station, these monks. Toothless, in faded orange, leaving their stuffed brown bags on the bench to crouch and smoke cigarettes. I love that just wandering alone can be some kind of virtue. It’s a virtue I aspire to, and a virtue I tire of.
I tire of trying to write about it, too, when all my observations seem sour and Therouxian. I love that Paul Salopek, one of my favorite five bloggers, says honest things like this, in a recent post:
I descended to camp in a foul mood. But as I came closer to the hissing gas stove, to the tarp spread on the sand, I heard my friends laughing. The presence of soldiers did not disturb them. They were telling stories, lying on their elbows, sipping tea. And within perhaps 30 steps, my mood reversed. My heart had turned over. These fellow travelers were my Saudi Arabia. Not the desert. I was glad we were together. Even our watchers. We all were journeying together, as we always do.I love this story, I love his story, I love that he is traveling at the same time as I am, I love aspiring to be and write like him. We are all journeying together, you at your desk, me in my barren hotel room, typing on our computers. Just as humanity exoduses out of Africa, the journey that Salopek follows. We met a Dutch guy the other night, going to an eight-day massage training in a hill tribe. He said he loved backpackers. He said we are a unique tribe.
Why do I twist my mouth at my own brethren?
Anyway. These are the things I’m having a hard time writing about, although reading my sister’s compendium of fart jokes helps, and reading other writers who admit they fall behind, who admit that they are weak and have foul moods. Good God do I have foul moods. Travel is the worst kind of pressure cooker.
Salopek’s been falling behind, and he admits it:
There are more stories to tell. Older stories. They have been piling up at trailside for days. The final trek through Jordan. The looting of the sprawling necropolises there. The goat tunnel near Jericho. The young Bat Mitzvah girls dancing in leotards to hip-hop, like some misfired hallucination, in the sun-ironed wasteland outside of Bethlehem. The Israeli soldier-settler-painter who negotiated a “studio time truce” with Palestinian neighbors. And, of course, the first sight of Jerusalem—stone walls seen from a wooded hill, on a morning pale and clean as paper, as an eggshell, some 2.7 million footsteps away from Herto Bouri, Ethiopia.I have more stories to tell, too, older stories. Of course he has more excuses than I do, namely that he’s busy walking 21,000 miles, while fighting the flu. And his stories are a lot more interesting than mine. But he persists, and inspires me.
My sister, another of my favorite five bloggers, on her brilliant blog from (can it be?) seven years ago, the same that possesses the web’s most brilliant coprophiliac humor:
Now, before I decide I'm too tired to finish this blog and save it in some Word file where I will never end up finishing and posting it, because it will seem too embarrassing and awful when I reread it, I will just get this blasted thing up. Maybe one of these days I'll go back and post all those pieces of poop for you to get sick on.