PART ONE: Dec. 24-Jan. 6. My best recollection of India was being curled up in a fetal position on a tarp, sorrounded by thousands of monks rhythmically chanting for hours over the the sound of the striking of a hollow wood block on the sound system, while heat stroke continued to take its toll on my fading thought processes. I fell into a soothing dream state.
Bodh Gaya, hundreds of kilometers south of the border with Southern Nepal, is known to Buddhists as the holy place where Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and reached meditative understanding. Not far from Gaya, a larger town nearby, Bodh Gaya houses elaborate temples constructed by nearly every country in Asia that counts Buddhism as one of its major religions. It's also a town of cheap hotels, bad food, dirt and dust, and countless aggressive beggars constantly at your elbow, continually polishing their decades-old scams.
A companion thought that the sickest scam was kidnapping Nepali children, breaking their legs and twisting them into grotesque angles, and then gathering in the alms from religious visitors as the children dragged their broken bodies across the thick dust and desbris of the broken pavement. For many, a trip to Bodh Gaya means the start of a respiratory disease, and it's common to see visitors wearing masks or holding shawls over their mouths. Many report that much of the rest of January is spent getting over various illnesses and trying to erase the negative aspects of the trip from one's mind.
We were in Bodh Gaya for the 5th anniversary of the death of Choeje Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, one of the leading Tibetan Buddhist scholars of the 20th Century who regards Guru Rinpoche as Buddha, having brought the teachings of Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th Century. While there were monks in attendance from all over Asia, the largest groups were from India, Nepal, Taiwan, and Singapore. Practicing Chinese medicine, a Taiwanese doctor decided I had had a minor stroke, and prescibed a powdered water drink to make me well. It didn't. (to be continued)
Asia Diary: The Task, Jerry Barrett
PART TWO: Dec. 25-Dec. 26. The task: drive 3 busses and 2 SUV's of Bodh Gaya pilgrims from Nepal hundreds of kilometers over Napoli mountains higher than Denver, Colorado to India for a Buddhist celebration. Then hundreds of kilometers more of lowlands to the border between Nepal and India, and an additional couple of hundred kilometers to Bodh Gaya, India, the site of the celebration. The busses were expected to do it in one twenty hour period; the SUV's, carrying Buddhist leaders and a few Westerners, broke the journey into two 10 hour days, with overnight lodging at the border. The problem: the latter half of the trip would take us through sometimes hostile territory, as the governments and the Maoists continue their off again, on again battles for control. It's not unheard of for Westerners to be captured, threatened with bodily harm, or held for ransom in the name of the impovrished people of the region.
We're hoping that the Buddhist elders in our SUV will be able to protect us from such eventualities, but remind ourselves that we're traveling through territory mostly Hindu, the rest Muslim. In Nepal this area is known as "The Terel," and harbors nearly half of the 2.5 billion inhabitants of this mountainous country between China and India. Actually, there's little difference between the people and geography of this region, so it's not surprising that Buddha was actually born in Nepal, prior to one of many border shifts. The Buddhist elders in our SUV are hoping that the presence of Westerners will speed up the trip, since government soldiers are mostly interested in stopping and searching the vehicles of Nepalis and Indians. This generally proved to be the case, although one stop could have been particularly nerve-wracking if we had a clue about what was hapening, We mistakenly ran a checkpoint and, once stopped, watched as soldiers searched some of our luggage while others suspiciously looked on, their automatic weapons held ready for action.
The selected border crossing, little used by Westerners, looked like a scene out of a 30's movie about a war in China. A chaos of busses and trucks mingled with rickshws and people on foot, hurridly crossing the connecting bridge in the dark. Nepalis and Indians moved freely across the border from one country to the other, but Westerners were expected to find Visa offices, closed at that time of the night, fill out forms, pay money, and get passports stamped. It took several exhausting trips back and forth across the border to find the right officials, open the offices, and get them to agree to the correct entry process from Nepal into India. As the evening wore on, we were able to find a hotel on the Indian side, and as we settled down for the night we were entertained by a brass band on elephants passing by below, celebrating a wedding or some such festive event.
It should be said that the best meal during our entire stay in India was enjoyed that night. We asked the man behind the desk where we could get a meal. He sent us a block up the darkened street with a young kid as our guide. The kid suddenly made a right turn into a suspicious alley and took us down a half-block of narrow passageways to a restaurant which consisted of one large room, filled to the brim with swarthy men eating their food, which seemed to consist of two or three different versions of vegatarian fare that came on metal plates. The dimly lit place had the feel of a working man's restaurant serving peasant food. Naturally, we stopped traffic when we walked in. Imagine two Westerners coming into such a place and sitting down against the wall, joining four puzzled men at the last available table. What? Where? Who? Using the tried and true finger pointing system, we were able to order plates similar to those being eaten by our new, amused friends. I'd be happy to take you there, but have no idea where it is.
Asia Diary: Cold December in a Land of Many Miseries, Jerry Barrett
PART THREE: Dec. 26-Dec. 28. Within 24 hours my best meal in India was followed by my worst. Worst because it made me sick and started me on the downhill path that led to my stroke. Like the first day in Nepal, but this time in India, we spent endless hours on bad roads with few rest stops. Junk food filled us up from around 10 pm the previous evening until around 3pm on the afternoon of the second day. In the poorest area of India, the Northeast part of the country, we finally stopped at a country restrurant featuring Indian food. An overweight, middle-aged man in a nondiscript uniform of grey work clothes opened its door for us, and loudly clicked the heels of his clunky combat boots, offering an ancient British military greeting typical of old fashioned Indian restaurants. In the empty restaurant, I ordered my favorite, Buttered Chicken, only to receive a brass serving dish of chicken bones and gristle, covered by a plaster of mild mocha goo. I later learned I had been served other, microscopic stuff as well.
We eventually reache Bodh Gaya after sundown, and after a sleepless night of grinding back pain, the result of the trip, I faced the new day in a strange land. Severe back pain has been the second most typical result of the journey, next to respiratory disease previously noted. It turns out that many of the pilgrims from Nepal have a love-hate relationship with Bodh Gaya. They love visiting the holy city to celebrate the Buddha's experience under the Bodhi tree, but they hate the various illnesses and memories of bad social experiences that result. The grimy streets are filled with throngs of very aggressive rickshaw drivers, vendors, and beggars, willing to go to great lengths for your money. The tone of the city is neither placid nor religious, but hectic and uninviting. One pilgrim opined that the other holy cities in India connected with the Buddha are no better.
On the first full day in Bodh Gaya we visited the home of Kyabje Penor Rinpoche when he's in town. Rinpoche is the revered head of a branch of the Nyingma tradition, a sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He was expected to arrive from the Gaya airport at around noon, and hundreds of monks and pilgrims lined the long driveway to the house, holding flowers and katas for his blessing. (A katai is a long white scarve, a traditional Tibetan offering to a Lama who returns it with his blessings by placing it over one's neck.) I was able to film the activities of Kyabje Penor Rinpoche's arrival, complete with the rhythmic pounding and snapping of drums and the dissonant, otherworldly blare of groupings of brass horns. A placid, elderly man in maroon and saffron robes, he arrived in a Mercedes SUV under guard, smiling through the glass of the windows, and whisked into the house under fairly heavy security.
Although I had anticipated filming Rinpoche's public reception where the katas were blessed and exchanged, symptoms of my illness from the previous day's restaurant food had already begun, and I dizzily staggered down the long driveway and quickly took a rickshaw back to the hotel. By evening my initial bout of stomach illness had passed, only to be followed by severe back pain that was relieved, somewhat, by a massage. Another sleepless night ensued, reinforced by spending it in a cold December room in Northern India with a broken space heater.
Of course, I was hardly alone in my misery; a number from our group were going through their own version of human suffering that Buddhists remind us is pervasive. In the hotel next to ours, a gang of thugs forced their way into guestrooms, taking whatever they could. One woman in our group had her clothing, money, and passport stolen, and in order to return to Nepal was forced to cancel the end of her stay and travel a day to New Delhi for document replacement. My my own sudden need for a passport came a few days later. (to be continued)
Asia Diary: Stroke of Midnight, Jerry Barrett
PART FOUR: Jan 1-Jan 6. I should have known that something was really wrong when I was complaining about the coldness of our Budh Gaya, India hotel room, while Christine was saying it was too hot. I should have known that something was wrong, since I was eating little and drinking bottled water even less. While I attributed my condition to the generally unappitizing tourist food in Budh Gaya, I thought little of the fact that always thirsty, I began carrying bottles of water wherever I went. (I tend to ignore physical synptoms of questionable health and just keep going.) Anyway, there I was in the hotel, New Year's Eve, shivering in my intermittent sleep, when the midnight cannons heralding a new year exploded, and I realized I was exhausted and my physical condition had deteriorated since arriving in this physically and socially uninviting town. That's when Christine said, "Tomorrow, you're seeing the Taiwanese doctor."
The Taiwanese doctor, subsidized by a wealthy friend of Taiwanese Buddhism, was treating all pilgrims free of charge in his second floor rooms at the Taiwan monastery, a half block from the huge Mahabodhi monument and grounds dedicated to the Buddah's spiritual awaking under the bodi tree. It was right behind (I'm not making this up) China's Buddhist temple and monastery. The large and roomy Taiwan monastery was ground zero for the adminstrative activities needed to run the Choeje Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche anniversary celebration, which brought thousands of monks and Buddhist pilgrims from all over Asia and beyond. While the Pharping, Nepal group had its coordinating offices down a first floor corridor, turning out lamenated ID badges and colorful bannars and the like, the lobby was filled with teams of Taiwanese women creating massive groupings of artificial flowers for the Mahabodhi monument and grounds. The monastery was a swirl of activity as pilgrims arrived from Taiwan and elsewhere each day of the celebration to fill its many rooms.
My appointment to see the doctor finally arrived on the evening of the second day of the new Year. The western-clothed doctor, a kindly, middle-aged practicioner of Chinese medicine, spoke no English, but welcomed me, held my hands in his, and looked into my eyes, as his younger associate translated what we said. Both men showed calm and concern, but unbeknownest to me, the associate passed a note to Christine as the doctor looked into my eyes and spoke in Chinese. He reached behind him to a large table and picked up two pint-sized, yellow plastic bottles filled with powder. After tearing off the labels, he handed them to his associate, and I was told to take 2 tablespoons of a mxture of the two bottles with a glass of water four times a day. My regimine began immediately: two tablespoons of a sawdust-like muxture were shoveled into my mouth, and, gagging, I poured water through the medicinal blockage to get it down. We were told to give them a progress report in a few days, and we left.
In the days that followed, my thirst was severe, but I didn't have a fever. My nights continued to be cold and sleepless, and the solace during the days came at the Mahabodhi monument, curled up in a fetal position on a tarp covering the hard clay ground, sorrounded by thousands of monks rhythmically chanting for hours over the the sound of the striking of a hollow wood block amplified over the sound system. My illness continued to take its toll, and I would fall into brief periods of soothing sleep under the sway of the hypnotic sound. The end came on the next to last day of the celebration while walking onto the Bodi grounds. I mentioned to Christine and a Nepoli friend that I couldn't seem to keep a thought in my head. My mind was a jumble of incomplete sentences as it groped for words to describe forgotten ideas. Frightened, Christine told me that the doctor's associate had given her a note suggesting that I had had a mild stroke. I was told that they didn't want to alarm me, and decided that my symptoms should be observed over the next few days. Days later, my symptoms indicated I was in physical danger, and I had to get out of Bodh Guya as quickly as possible and get treatment elsewhere. That turned out to be easier said than done. (to be continued)
Asia Diary: Surfing For Buddha, Jerry Barrett
PART FIVE: Jan 4-7. It was essential that I leave Bodh Gaya as soon as possible and receive medical attention for what had been diagnosed by a Taiwanese doctor as a mild stroke. The Pharping, Nepal group had decided to take a midnight train out of Bodh Gaya in two days, arriving at Varanasi, India, at dawn, driving two more hours to a nearby airport, and taking an Air India flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. Christine and I decided that I should forego another grueling journey like the one that brought us to this inhospitable place, and go to Bumrungrad International in Bangkok, instead. In the heart of Bangkok, Bumrungrad is a large, modern, well-organized hospital with the facilities needed to treat my condition: I was sleepless, with little affect, cold and thirsty, and thinking and speaking haltingly. If the diagnosis of the Taiwanese doctor was correct, my condition could very well deteriorate. In that case, permanent brain damage was not out of the question.
How to get to Bangkok? Although the nearby town of Gaya had a modern airport with runways large enough to handle commercial jets such as 747's, we were told that booking a flight was not immediately possible, since the internet was down and had been for days, and that was the way airline bookings were made by airlines such as Air India and Thai International, who had offices at a nearby hotel. When we told our hotel manager of our situation, he said he had a friend at Druk Airlines, a small airline run by the government of Bhutan, and would contact him and see what he could do. Later that evening he told us that his friend could get us on a flight to Bangkok in two days, on the afternoon of the 7th, the day after the Choeje Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche anniversary celebration was scheduled to end. We gave the manager the money needed for two one-way tickets to Bangkok, and, sure enough, we had our actual tickets in hand the next day. Things seemed to be turning around for us, and we decided to attend the afternoon/evening session of the last day of the Buddhist celebration at the Mahabodhi monument.
The Mahabodhi monument and grounds would be a city block if it were in a city. Instead, rickshaws, tuck-tucks, sedans, suv's, and buses travel up the main street of the town, passing hotels, restaurants, shops, and all manner of humanity, disgorging passengers a half a block from the large archway to Mahabodhi. Near the archway, one encounters the usual assortment of carts, street sellers, and beggars one finds at Buddhist tourist attractions. Go through the archway and the press of humanity thickens into a cacophony of larger shops devoted to religious trinkets, books, travel deals, food, and con men and beggars hounding you every step of the way. Turn a corner, walk down a long courtyard, take off your shoes, and you're finally standing at the front of the entrance to the four story, strangely Mayan-looking monument tower that serves as a reminder of the Buddha's meditative awakening under the bodhi tree. The bodhi tree, or a hundred year old cutting from it, is behind the monument, which is easiest reached by turning right before going under the archway and walking down a long, walled path to large gates taking you onto the Mahabodhi grounds from the rear.
Through the gates, you find yourself on the top level of the four-level grounds, the upper two levels serving as wide walkways that go completely around the entire huge space. The lowest level also surrounds the monument and is populated with religious dignitaries and monks of higher rank and their followers. They sit under the large, spreading bodhi tree and chant prayers over the sound system. Arrangements of colorful artificial flowers, cryptic, three-dimensional ritual objects, called "torma," and flashing neon images of stars, circles, etc. in wooden boxes surround the monument, itself. The second level from the bottom is taken up with the rest of the monks, which numbered over a thousand, a special section for the laity, including a group termed "foreigners," and a special, colorful group that could be called "religious surfers." Gatherings of 25 or so have taken up spaces around the grounds, sandwiched between the third-level walkway and the second-level practitioners. Side-by-side, bodies spread out on their waxed "Buddha boards," pads on hands and knees, they spend hour after hour, scissoring their bodies back and forth from a prone position on their shiny, wooden boards to compressed, kneeling balls of flesh and bone.
As afternoon turned to the dusk of evening, then darkness, the colorful christmas lights strung in vertical rows throughout the grounds were turned on and everyone was given a lit candle or butter lamp to join in the final ceremony of the festival, a feast of lights. At this point we had been at the front of the Mahabodhi monument, so we walked around the grounds on the top level in order to observe the procession of the dignitaries and monks of rank out of the grounds, through the gates, and up the walled path to the outside street. Half of humanity seemed to have had that idea at roughly the same time, and what began as a normal crowd of celebrants holding lit candles became a mass of bodies as more and more people with not much sense of personal space pressed into the crowd from the rear, only to be pressed further by the newcomers behind them. Claustrophobic, I tend to avoid crowds, and finding myself squashed in the center of hundreds with nowhere to go put me on the verge of panic. Not being able to go forward or back, Christine and I were lucky to squeeze sideways to the wall and we slowly inched back, eventually to an open space, as even more worshipers with lit candles were pressing into the back of the growing crowd. Retreating, we made our way around to the front of Mahabodhi and took that alternate route to the street. (Next: The revolt of the beggars and Gross National Happiness.)
Asian Diary: Revolt of the Beggars, Jerry Barrett
PART SIX: JAN. 6 and 7. Prior to the festival of lights at Mahabodhi, during the waning light of late afternoon, the tsog feast had been offered. Many Tibetan Buddhist religious events end with a tsog feast, where everyone is given a little plastic bag which eventually is filled with small boxes of juice, candy, oranges, apples, cookies, crackers, cheese puffs, and other snack food. When we arrived on the grounds earlier, a large space on level two had been taken up with high mounds of boxes, truckloads of packaged food and drink of the type found in convenience stores throughout the globe. By the time of our festival of lights crowd experience, all of the food and drink had been distributed. Since this was the last day of the celebration, the normally aggressive beggars became even more aggressive. As we walked down the walled path to the rear entrance, a woman holding her child as though it were a rag doll refused to leave us alone, leaning against Christine and holding onto her arm, rapidly speaking in her dialect in a high-pitched voice. Not taking "no" for an answer, it took a nearby guard to remove her grasp and allow us to go on our way.
While we sometimes give alms to the infirm and the elderly, our experience is that Bodh Gaya tourists, religious and otherwise, were generally reluctant to give beggars anything, knowing about the various scams and having seen trusting tourists provide alms, only to attract crowds of beggars pushing and shoving around the giver and following her down the street, berating her for not giving them alms, also. We had tested this generalization, that some may find cynical, by giving a bright, 12 year old local boy who spoke good English enough money to buy a dictionary, which he said he would place in the library at his school. (In Nepal such school kids simply ask for your pen.) We said we'd go with him to see him give his school the book, and we bought the book for him at a nearby store of his choice. Then he and his student friends took us away from the main street, deeper down rutted roads, until we just gave up, fearing the worst. The next day when we saw them again and refused to give the boy more money, he told us that he sold the dictionary back to the bookstore, since he knew he couldn't count on us for more money, and it was our fault that his school library didn't have a dictionary.
As we walked through the archway to the Mahabodhi grounds on the way back to our hotel after our festival of lights crowd experience, a growing group of beggars began to gather around us, eyeing Christine's plastic tsog bag. We struggled through the crowd over to a nearby rickshaw and, as the beggars began to push and shove to get closer, blocking our exit, Christine threw the bag over her head as far as she could. The crowd fell over each other chasing the bag, and we went on our way. Later that evening, a mild-mannered woman described her similar experience. She said she was alone and the beggars were closing in on her, tearing small holes in her plastic bag and trying to pull things out. Mild mannered, she apologetically told us she swung the bag around her like a weapon in order to give herself some space. A man passing by jumped in and, together, they were able to fend off the mob. The woman threw the bag in the air as far away as she could, and the beggars, men, women, and children, trampled over each other in pursuit. Of course, children begging on the streets is not just a Bodh Gaya problem. An official sign at the Kathmandu airport suggests that begging children not be given anything.
By 9 am the next day we had checked out of the hotel and were on our way in a taxi to the airport, about 10K out of town between Bodh Gaya and Gaya, with our Druk airline tickets and passports in hand. (Druk Airlines, owned by the government of Bhutan, provides the only way to get into the country by air, and offers flights from many major cities in Asia. One has to be specially trained to fly into mountainous Bhutan, due to dangerous flying conditions and the desire to prevent unregulated tourism. Situated between India and China, the approach to Paro, the only viable commercial passenger airport in this country of 700,000, forces today's commercial jets to fly sidewise between the towering cliffs of a mountain pass. Wikipedia tells us that "Due to its largely unspoilt natural environment and cultural heritage, Bhutan has aptly been referred to as the The Last Shangri-la. While the Bhutanese are free to travel abroad, Bhutan is seen to be inaccessible to many foreigners....However it is the high tourist tariff [one must hire a full-time government guide] and requirement to go on packaged tours that makes Bhutan an exclusive tourist destination."
Relative to its neighbors, Bhutan has a high standard of living, primarily because unlike Nepal, which the Bhutanese don't care to emulate, economically or culturally, the government has created hydroelectric power and sells it to India. The King of this small, self-isolated, Buddhist country, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, wants to use his growing economy to uphold traditional cultural and spiritual values, calling the result "Gross National Happiness," which he considers more important than GNP. A 2005 survey reported that only 3% of Bhutanese reported being unhappy, while the number was 13% in the U.S. "The Happy Planet Index estimates that the average level of life satisfaction in Bhutan is within the top 10% of nations worldwide.")
We shortly arrived at the large, recently-built Gaya airport, a three-story, white stucco affair, sitting in the middle of vast, flat farmlands, with landing strips that go on forever: a snap for Druk Airline pilots. The large parking lot was fairly empty, suggesting that its primary purpose was to service Bodh Gaya tourists, not locals. The airport had an underused feel to it, with little activity on the roadways and entrances. Four commercial passenger jet flights were scheduled to leave during the next few hours, so we anticipated flight crowds would eventually form. We anticipated being in one such group. (Next: Gross Local Unhappiness.)
Asia Diary: Gross Local Unhapiness, Jerry Barrett
PART SEVEN: Jan. 7. We walked past the smiling guard at the entrance to the passanger terminal at the Guya, India airport and found ourselves in a three story high white room the size of a basketball stadium. It was pretty much an empty space: cavernous and filled with echoes. An x-ray station to the right to pass our four bags through, eight long rows of bolted-down, uncomfortable steel seats to the side, and in the rear across the wide expanse of empty marble floor, three lecturns with interchangeable airline signs in front of a long conveyor belt for luggage. A wide expanse of glass doors and wondows to the right had signs posted, advertising shops and a restaurant yet to be built. A similar set-up to the left was where passangers went to be searched by security and sent into the large passanger waiting room beyond. While there were four flights on three separate airlines going out this afternoon, only the Air India flight to New Delhi was listed at the moment, and a short line of passangers had formed next to its lecturn.
While our baggage was sent through the x-ray machine, we were directed to perch on the small, steel benches. After going through the machine, one of our bags was selected, opened, and thoroughly searched. We watched this process being followed by those who arrived after us as I groggily waited for our flight to be announced. 20 minutes later, a sign was slipped into the slot in front of one of the lecturns: "Druck Airlines." We walked over and stood in front of the unoccupied lecturn. Fifteen minutes later, Christine walked over to the Air India lecturn and inquired about our missing counter attendant. Ten minutes later a well-dressed English speaking young man appeared. We showed him our confirmed and paid for flight tickets and our passports. He looked at a sheet he unfolded and informed us we could not go because our names were not on the list of 30 or so passengers on the Guya to Bangkok flight.
At that point I looked around the vast floor of the room to find a comfortable place to collapse and give up. Running on the fumes of optimism for the past 24 hours, thinking I finally was able to escape this place and receive the medical help I desperately needed, the realization that I might be doomed to spend another day in Budh Gaya was too much to take. I felt totally drained, physically and emotionally, and despair was settling in to stay. Our circumstance had not changed some fifteen minutes later: since we weren't on the flight list, we could not leave, although the paid for tickets and our documents were in order. With Christine pulling all stops, the young man finally confessed: he was an Air India attendant, not a Druck Airlines attendant. The Druck Airlines attendant was "on his way," and perhaps he would think of something. An hour from the time the Druck Airlines sign was posted, he arrived, looking very official, and simply took out his pen and put us on the flight list.
After what seemed to me to be an eternity in my state, we made our way through security, a very thorough search, given the state of Northern India, with its bands of Maoist insurgents even tougher than those in Nepal. Finally, we found ourselves in the actual waiting room, another vast cavern filled with maybe two hundred people on uncomfortable steel benches, many looking stunned, quite a few appearing tense. I fit right in. We found empty seats in the far corner of the huge, three-storied room, right next to the rest rooms. Pacing the floor, I took the opportunity to phone Bangkok friends about our late evening arrival, speaking with time gaps between the words, an obvious effect of the stroke, if that's what it was: Hi.....this is.....Jerry. I'll.....be......arriving.....this evening.....at.....the.....Bangkok.....airport at....
I made it back to my seat in the corner and, as if in a dream, found the Taiwanese doctor and his translator talking to Chrinstine. He looked me over with gentle concern in his behavior, as though he were observing a delicate egg, and assured me that if I wished I could come to Taiwan and he would continue to treat me. I thanked him for his kindness and assured him I would, if need be.
Since I entered the airport, I seemed to have fallen into a semi-hypnotic state. Both my speech and body movements slowed down perceptibly. I finally realized what it was: the music. For nearly two hours, the same spacey dirge had been playing in the background through the sound system, over and over. It was a short Buddhist song of refuge, sung by a small choir at a snail's pace with lots of echoe. It was the perfect accompaniment to my fragile state in this cavern of echoes. Compared to this funerial dirge, Bryan Eno's MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS was ragtime. Here's what was sung for hours, over and over, from the time we entered the airport to the time we left:
buddham sharanam gacchami
Nearly another hour went by, and our large Druck Airlines jet with capacity to hold a hundred and fifty people was ready to take on passangers. A bus took our group, 40 or so, across the tarmac to our waiting plane. We entered by a stairway attached to the tail of the plane, and found ourselves in a new, modern, empty plane. We spread out, since there were many more seats than passangers. It was pretty much an empty plane. The quiet, reserved female flight attendants wore native dress, served a wonderful meal, and didn't seem bothered at all as small children ran up and down the long aisles of the aircraft during the nearly 4 hour flight to Bangkok. The super-modern Bangkok airport was its usually efficient self, and we were soon on our way by cab to Bumrungrad hospital's spacious, up-to-date facilities. A quick freeway ride from the airport to Sukhumvit Road, than a few blocks past all manner of stores, restaurants, bars, and high rise modern hotels to Soi Nana (Nana Alley, which is really a very busy street) took us to the heart of the Arab district, where the hospital was located. Since I was an out-patient, Christine was able to get us an excellent, inexpensive suite at Bumrungrad's nearby, upscale guest hotel. I was starting to feel better already, in spite of my continued hesitant thinking, but I needed to learn more about my stroke. (Next: Bangkok's Corridor des Mortes)
Asia Diary: Corridor des Mortes, Jerry Barrett
BANGKOK EIGHT: Jan. 8-15. The week of our stay in Bangkok was filled with city explorations, punctuated with out-patient visits to Bumrungrad Hospital to determine the nature of what the Taiwanese doctor in Bodh Gaya termed a "minor stroke." While I've spent little time in my life in hospitals, I can honestly say that Bumrungrad was the best hospital I have ever been in and, hands down, the least expensive. The buildings and its facilities are modern and up to date, and the entire large staff is efficient and well-trained. Most importantly, the attitudes of the people who work there are caring and careful. My first visit consisted of filling out the usual paperwork and providing blood and urine samples for testing.
On my second visit two days later, my assigned doctor, a Chinese neurologist in his late thirties who spoke fluent English and had taken his internship at the Baylor University Medical Center in Houston, took me through a battery of tests and found nothing out of the ordinary, including the results of the blood and urine tests, except for my continuing hesitant speech patterns. He decided to order an MRI brain scan, which was to take place two days later. He was surprised to learn that the Taiwanese doctor determined that I had had a "minor stroke" on the basis of an interview with no follow- up physical tests, but he discretely kept his opinions to himself.
Our inexpensive suite at the hospital's guest house nearby featured a warm environment of modern blond furniture, soft, creamy fabrics, linens, rugs, and drapes, and a TV that provided channels of films in English, International CNN and BCC, and sports other than cricket. An elevator took us to the roof for a free American breakfast in tasteful, quiet, modern surroundings, and a large pool on the roof patio soothed our aching muscles. The main building of Bumrungrad, a half block away, had the feel of a luxury hotel, rather than a hospital. With a large Starbucks on the main floor and a McDonalds, Au Bon Pain, and a Japanese restaurant on the spacious mezzanine open to the main floor, the foreign visitor was made to feel at home. An ironic Thai touch had a life-size plastic statue of Ronald McDonald at the top of the escalator performing a wai.
I was pleased to be back in Bangkok to show Christine around, since she had never been in Thailand and has seemed reluctant to visit. Perhaps Pico Iyer put her opinion best in his novel, THE LADY AND THE MONK (Vintage), which was one of the most interesting books I've read this year:
"Bangkok...bustling by day and dazzling by night, alive to business and pleasure, struck me as the ultimate urban intoxication; yet it also seemed to encourage the abandoning of vision for mere fantasy. It was hard to imagine reading there, or thinking, or leading any kind of life that would engage the deepest part of one. The place invited one to surrender to reality, not to lead a life so much as to be led by one. And where people came to Japan, very often, to pursue something, they came to Bangkok...not to do so. Thus spicy, sultry, vivacious Bangkok sent me back with renewed affection for Japan. Thailand, I thought, was the girl at the edge of the temple, beckoning one away with a smile."
At any rate, I took Christine to some Bangkok haunts that I had found just a few short months ago, prior to going to Nepal: the Love Restaurant on Soi 23, with its excellent, blazing Thai food, an early- evening/late-night hangout for Soi Cowboy show girls and their swains; the truck bar on Soi 23, a small bar on the back of a pick-up truck, with four stools and unusual Chinese drink recipes, such as snake blood and brandy; and the street vendors throughout the city, featuring all kinds of exotic food, including crunchy insects. Just point and eat. Soi (3) Nana from Bumrundgrad guest hotel to Sukhumvit Road is filled with Arab restaurants, as is the next Soi (5) to the southwest, branching off Sukhumvit. (Picture Sukhumvit as the trunk of the tree, with the numbered Sois its branches.) So there we were, Just off Sukhumvit on Soi 5. Christine patiently waiting for a street vendor to cook skewers of chicken gizzards for her, me standing in a nearby doorway. An attractive young woman walked up and asked if I'd like to spend some time with her. I explained that I was accompanying the woman standing in front of the nearby grill, but wished her luck. She smiled and went on her way. May-December couples featuring beautiful, generally well-dressed, young Thai women are regularly seen on the streets and in the restaurants and shops around Sukhumvit.
Both sides of Sukhumvit, from Soi 3 to Soi 23, is the upscale heart of the Bangkok "entertainment" district. The Sois are a warren of hotels, expensive and otherwise, both accommodating "short time" and "long time" escorts, restaurants, bars, massage parlors, and street vendors -- food, DVDs, CDs, clothing, trinkets, rugs, comic books, brass knuckles, switch blades, bayonets, automatic pistols, Uzis, etc. -- all out to make a buck. Each Soi seems to have a character of its own: Arab, Australian, Japanese, Thai, disco, hip, fashion, sex, and tourist. During our stay we found Hotel Chic on a back street, a boutique hotel with beautiful rooms and an American breakfast in a 50s setting; Thai Kitchen, Christine's favorite, featuring authentic Thai food, and the patio of the Landmark Hotel on Sukhumvit, a fine place for sandwiches and deserts. (Walk inside before you take a table to see the choices.) Crepes & Co. (French Mediterranean) on Soi 12 has a marvelous outdoor garden, as does Lean on Tree (tamed Thai) on Soi 24, across from the Rembrandt Hotel [see next paragraph], which features Mexican and upscale Thai restaurants, neither of which we tried.
Sukhumvit above Soi 23 becomes more genteel. We visited The Emporium, a luxury shopping mall with international designer shops and an Apple store, restaurants and a cinemaplex on the seventh floor. A favorite Soi in this part of town has numerous bars and restaurants named after French Impressionist and Twentieth Century painters. Another Soi features Japanese establishments, but many of these announce they're for Japanese only. I also took Christine to the usual tourist attractions, such as the reclining Buddha, the jade Buddha, the Siam Society, and the royal palace; you can read about them in the travel books. Since Christine wasn't into nightlife, having gotten into the habit in Nepal of going to bed early, we missed Nana Plaza's ladyboy shows on the other side of Sukhumvit, and Hillary III's on Nana, a great rock and roll bar featuring cover bands, not American politics. On my next Bangkok sojourn starting April 1, I want to check out Ana's Garden on Soi 55, featuring "spicy hot Thai food and sweating beer glasses," and Vientiane Kitchen on Soi 36, dishing out "hallucinatory" Isaan soul food and a maw lam (native) band. (For an inexpensive guide to Thai food and the Bangkok restaurants that serve it, you can't go wrong with NgCheong-Lam's NOT JUST A GOOD FOOD GUIDE: BANGKOK, Marshall Cavendish Editions). Oh, and folks tell me to try the famed Bamboo Bar in the Orient Hotel, a holdover from rubber plantation days, featuring jazz groups, now. Other places I want to visit for jazz include Saxophone Pub and Brown Sugar. And I haven't even written about Pattaya's laid back Jomtien Beach and Angel's Guest House, my favorite places on the gulf when I want to get away from Bangkok for a while.
Now about the "corridor des mortes." We're talkin' motorcycle taxis. Rough Guide says don't even think about it; Lonely Planet uses that universal Thai catch phrase: "Up to You." One thing for sure, sitting on the rear seat of a motorcycle going 50 miles an hour down a narrow space between the curb and stalled trucks and busses is not for the faint of heart. I've never done it prior to my first visit a few months ago, and only did it because it was so commonplace with the people I was with that it was assumed that everyone did it. Since I didn't want to end up standing around in the middle of gridlock, watching my friends quickly fade into the distance, I hopped on, hung on to the seat bar behind me with both hands, and stared directly at the middle of the driver's neck, as he sped, veered, and leaned through and around narrow, gridlocked traffic. Since then, I've taken a motorcycle taxi as needed, although others have had accidents and display the bandages to prove it, and see it as a way to avoid rush hour doldrums. The cyclists take their job seriously, wear special jackets with numbers on them, usually provide a helmet if you ask, and charge as much as a regular taxi. I'm amazed to see women on their way to work in business suits and heels, sitting sideways on the seat, one hand casually holding the bar, the other a bag or purse. One of these days I expect to see someone doing her nails, legs crossed, as she whizzes down the corridor des mortes.
The day finally came when the MRI scans were read by the doctor, and he could give me a final diagnosis. We looked at x-rays of my brain together, and he saw no damage. He concluded that I did not suffer a brain stroke, minor or otherwise. Instead, he chalked up my condition to the results of a heat stroke. Montezuma's revenge led to dehydration, my upset stomach rejected food and drink, and things snowballed from there. With no excuse to stay in Bangkok any longer, Christine booked a next-day flight on Thai Airlines, and we were back in Pharping, Nepal in no time to continue our work on the Buddhist Center's guest house, which we're living in at the moment. It took me a month to get over the after effects of my heat stroke. During the month of January, I lived in a mind mist. Then one day I woke up and realized my mind was functioning in its usual fashion. What a relief!
This past month we've edited my latest feature film, NINETY PROOF, aka GUN 4 HIRE. I'm planning to screen it in Bangkok next month, where I'll be until May. Then back to Austin. This will be my last episode of Asian Diary until then. Thanks for reading and responding, and many thanks for your notes and phone calls of concern. Happy trails! -- Jerry
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