Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cultural shock, my ass...this is a complete upheaval of the senses.

The following is the beginning of a collection of posts, hopefully posted in a timely manner. It follows the two weeks that Christopher and I spent in Thailand last Christmas - 2007. This is my first entry - enjoy!

Traveling to Thailand for Christmas vacation has been, so far, one of the great experiences of my life. Not only has the secular and spiritual part of this holiday been completely obliterated, it being a Buddhist nation, but the grandeur of beauty and historical importance of this country leaves me in utter awe. I find that my eyes and ears overflow with the splendorous allure of cultural differences, so much that I'm at a loss to find the proper words to describe how I feel about this country. I'm left with only tidbits of recollections from each place we visit, and each person we meet. I can only write what I've seen, with the hope that it will evoke a definite feeling later.

Arriving at four in the morning last Monday after three plane rides totaling a day's travel, Chris and I fell asleep quite soundly and without a problem. We woke early to the sound and smell of unfamiliarity, only to regret that the night wasn't longer. We suddenly belonged nowhere, strangers in a strange land. Awaking in a new place is always a bit alarming at first. The feel of the bed, the angle at which you're used to seeing the first light of a new day, the smell and taste of the first big gulp of air as you come to consciousness. The immediate ease we felt was due in part to the security and comfort of our accommodations, and more specifically, our hosts: Chris's parentals - who we hadn't laid eyes on in the five months since they'd moved there. A brief visit with his family - Mom, Dad, and Wendy, his sister - and we were out the door -travelling literally up the street to the Temple of the Golden Buddha. It just so happens that the city Chris's parents are living in for the next year and a half, Pattaya, has a temple located conveniently nearby that houses a ginormously large Golden Buddha statue in meditation pozish. Native Buddhists, locals, and farangs alike converge to take a peek, pay their respects, catch a glimpse of the monk that waits in the wings for the next parishioner making their way towards the enclosed shrine-like temple located adjacent to the statue.

Looking back to this morning, it was the first of many that included the witnessing of Buddhist tradition, prayer, and very noticeably, the first sighting of many - countless, in fact - statues of the Buddha. All the many likenesses in statue, painting, paperweight, postcard, and keychain form are in more abundance in Thailand than I ever could have imagined. And in an admirable, not annoying, way. The Buddha is everywhere. He is in peoples' homes, in their temples and holy grounds. He is in markets, convenience stores, businesses, bars, and front yards. His image and meaning are honored in every way, and the mere image is only where it begins.

But, I'm branching out a bit here.

That morning, our first in that foreign land, was spent in part daze from jet lag, and part awe of the visual spectacle that awaited as soon as we opened our eyes. Over the next two weeks, we witnessed quite a barrage of sights and sounds on such a level of incomparable galore. But that morning, seeing the Buddha depicted in Thailand for the very first time, stands erect in my memory and has since made landmark there. As we walked throughout the grounds, the five of us would scatter a bit, letting the newness take us where it would. I walked immediately towards a small, yet open-aired, teahouse inspired one room enclosure containing a shrine of statues and relics in the rear. The window along the back seemed to faintly illuminate the statues, and I almost became too entranced by their gaining brilliance to notice the Siamese cat sprawled out catching some shut eye on the floor beneath them. How poetic! I couldn't have written the damn cat into my story better if it hadn't really taken place - it was very appropriate for the setting. After a few photo-ops and some subtle gawking, a Thai woman approached the kneeling pillow and took advantage of it. She began to pray. I backed away, not quite sure of the etiquette involved in bearing witness to it all. As I reached the threshold where I began, the Man-in-Orange appeared out of nowhere and sat himself on the stoop above the praying woman and began an almost silent dialogue with her. That was the first moment I'd ever laid eyes upon a Buddhist monk.

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Although I stood a distance away, I caught a healthy glimpse; he was every bit the bald man in a drape that I've seen in pictures, and even more humble than I could have imagined. In a few swift movements, he shook the small broom-like brush full of holy water towards the woman, and upon fulfulling his duty of blessing her, picked himself up and exited the room. I almost wanted to cry at the sight, but my mood had become more a flicker of awe and wonder. I was still sleepy, a bit in and out of alertness; but simply witnessing this transaction awakened me from my acute open-eyed slumber. Eyes and ears open, I was ready for more.

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Moving in and out of the sunlight from room to room, the air was calm and welcoming, although a bit warm for morning. This is their cool season, reaching only into the 90-95 degree range (Farenheit) on the hottest of days. I remember now that we only experienced one kind of climate and weather type during our visit: warm and sunny, just cool enough in the shade. No rain.

The top of an elongated staircase made way to an outdoor gallery, at the very top of Pratamnak Hill, lined with extensive gardens and small praying rooms. Front and center sat the statue of the Golden Buddha, in meditation position. Flanking this centerpiece is a lineup of a smaller variety of depictions of the Buddha in seated, standing, and reclined position. In front of all these statues sat the remnants of recently burned candles, broken plant stalks and flowers, only humbly disrupted by the burning of more candles and the addition of more flowers by the occasional passerby yearning to pay respect to their deity.

Chris and I walked among the statues, occasionally meeting each other's eyes, and at times, only caught glimpses of each other's profile in our peripherals. It was really to be taken in, not gawked at, talked about, or trivialized with banter. We'd smile at each other, stare open mouthed to certain sights, and a few times we'd laugh at the playfulness of a Thai child or stray animal roaming around the grounds with the same fleeting nonchalance as us. We had left Philadelphia 24 hours before, and had arrived in another culture, and with that, another planet of thought and priority. We had nowhere to be but where our eyes took us. Waking up, going to work, coming home, and repeating the process was a thing unrecognized for the next 2 weeks, and maybe never looked at quite the same again.

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