Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Blessed Life: Buddhist Edition

If you've ever asked yourself -  Just what is the nectar of the gods? - you've come to the right blog. The answer is...wait, what am I doing? If I just tell you, you might not read the rest of the blog. Well, smartypants, I'm not going to tell you until the end. How do you like that? Get your mouse off that scroll bar.

For this edition of Blessed Life we travel to the Buddhist nation of Thailand.* 

Step one: Walk to the nearest temple. Tourist traps are not as plentiful as they are near Hindu temples, so navigation can be done easily and inconspicuously. Also, no one cares what color skin you wear.

Step two (optional): Purchase flower necklaces, elephant statues, or various fruits to leave in exchange for your blessing.

Step 3: Recruit a gaggle of adorable children to guide you through the prayer process. Payment optional. Ice cream is an acceptable form of compensation.

Step 4: Remove shoes before approaching the alter.

Step 5: Light four sticks of incense with the lit candles in front of the alter.

Step 6: Place the incense between your two palms (prayer position).

Step 7: Kneel in front of the alter.

Step 8: Bow your head to the incense for X number of times. (Warning: If you're busy taking pictures of your colleagues attempts at prayers, you may miss the specifics on appropriate bowing numbers).

Step 9: Stick incense sticks in the big urn filled with sand.

Step 10: Grab the Yahtzee dice tube that is filled with small wooden sticks. Shake the container at chest height (still kneeling) with the opening facing away from you. Shake until one of the sticks shakes out. Give your stick to a child-come-guide.

Step 11: Child-come-guide will hand you a piece of paper with your blessing/fortune on it.

Step 12: Hand it back the child for translation because the blessing/fortune is only written in Thai and Chinese.

Step 13: Several children will read aloud your blessing/fortune - in Thai. Listen politely anyways.

Step 14: Ask them if the blessing is good (thumbs up) or bad (thumbs down). Allow children time to argue this point.

Step 15: If the answer is good, fold the blessing/fortune and stick it in your pocket. If it is bad, allow the children to take it away and then later retrieve it while they are not looking.

Step 16: Put your shoes back on and say goodbye to the child guides.

Now, for the answer to the nectar of the gods question. As far as I can make out, it's Orange Fanta. Straw preferred.**

*This account is written as an amusing account of this outsider's experience with a religion that she knows nothing about. It is written more to entertain and less to inform. It is not in any way meant to trivialize the religion.
**Actually, as it was explained to us, the offerings are allowed to be any widely-available foods or drinks by design, so that all people are freely and cheaply allowed to worship.

Blessed Life: Hindu Edition

For twenty-nine years, I have been a run-of-the-mill, Midwestern protestant, and I will likely remain as some form or another of that for the rest of my life. For twenty-seven of those years, I really never had cause or opportunity to explore other religions. Here, where the government officially recognizes five religions: Islam, Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, and Hindu, all* religions are observed and appreciated. There are outbursts of intolerance - church burnings, riots, and revenge deaths blamed on religious difference - but mostly people are comfortable knowing you hold some belief in God (or several of them as the case may be). People are actively curious about the practices of other religions, especially when those practices happen in beautiful, tourist settings - say, for instance, on the island of Bali. So, just for example, if one were to have a business trip to the island to interview Tourist police, and one happened, by chance, to have some extra time on his or her hands, it's perfectly acceptable to educate oneself on the practices of the local culture.

A work/religious exploration trip to Bali might look like this:

Step 1: Travel to a famous Hindu temple. Tanah Lot - one of seven sea Hindu temples forming a chain along Bali's southwest coast - would do nicely. 

Step 2: Pay the required entry fee. Navigate through the gauntlet of tourist traps lined up strategically between the parking lot and temple. The trick is not to make eye-contact.

Step 3: Pose for photos with other tourists in front of temple.**

Step 4: Go past the cave with the poisonous snakes who guard the temple. Donations accepted.

Step 5: Pose for photos with other tourists in front of temple.**

Step 6: Wash hands, feet, and face with the holy water coming out of a bamboo pole from the center of the rock.

Step 7: Be sprinkled with holy water by temple man number one.

Step 8: Allow man number two to press rice to your forehead.

Step 9: Allow man number two to put a flower behind your ear.

Step 10: Pose for photos with other tourists in front of temple.**

With coworkers: Freshly blessed.

 Step 11 (optional): Stop at one of the tourist restaurants for a refreshing coconut.
* All in this case only refers to one of those 5 religions.
** May only affect those tourists wearing white skin. Can be avoided by wearing a permanent scowl in addition to white skin, but this is discouraged and may void the blessing.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Trading Bungalows for Bikes

I believe in the adage too much of a good thing - chocolate, menu options, goals, boyfriends, etc. And I discovered that even sitting on the beautiful beaches of Bali can also fall into that category. Take a dip, read, snooze, gaze at the waves, snooze, read, take a dip, watch sunset....rather, rinse, repeat. It was broken up with an (failed) attempt at surfing, and some adorable little girls trying successfully to use their powers of cuteness to get me to buy their bracelets. But over all, after a week and a half, I was beginning to sound like these guys. So I was grateful when a Fellow friend suggested trading in our bungalow for motorbikes and exploring Lombok, Bali's neighboring island. I've always been more of a playitsafe kinda girl, and the thought of a semi-unplanned (we still had the guidance of a good friend and our internet-capable phones to fall back on) trip was very alluring. Three of us packed up our gear and boarded a boat just after New Year's to let come what may.

First came the zombies. As our boat ran ashore in the harbor, half a dozen old, leathery men closed in on the bow of the boat with wrinkled hands out-reached for luggage. Baaags....baaags....The young Californian girl in front of me sternly chided a man in a Mets shirt as one of the zombies grasped his small, red bag. Baaags....baaags.... No, no don't let him....now they're going to charge you....baaags....baaags....

Then came the rain. We, in our excitement to get out of Dodge, hadn't really considered the fact that spending lots of time on motorbikes during rainy season would results in us getting wet, really wet. After finding a shady "International Hotel" and renting two bikes, we stopped at a road-side store to buy Jen some rain gear (see picture right).

Rain gear and motorbike helmets make perfect bank robbery outfits, so Jen decided to do that next. Jon and I waited outside the bank while Jen walked in with full gear, unable to ever lift the broken visor on her helmet. This alarmed the guards.
Guards: Please take off your helmet.
Jen: (lifts visor) What? I can't hear you, I have a helmet on.
Guards: Hahahahahahaha
(Jen, Jon, and Jackie get on bikes and exit stage right)
Guards: Hahahahahahaha.

We made a clean get away and headed east across the center of the island. Our goal was to get to the Northeast coast before dark where our friend, Jess, had called in a favor at a local's homestay. An hour and a half in, not even our rain gear could hold back the cold and wet, so we stopped at a road-side restaurant to get something hot to eat and drink. We were well into our delicious rice, veggie, and chicken meals when the man with an automatic assault rifle walked in. This alarmed my travel companions and I, who had been periodically passing the time by reading aloud a book about Indonesian military and police human rights atrocities against innocent civilians. We all shoved food into our mouths with one eye slanted toward the man with the gun. He and his companion were not there to kill us after all, though. They waited for takeout, and left with a friendly nod in our direction.

We continued. I called Jess for more directions on how to get to the homestay. Go to the end of the island, turn left. Pass the Jurassic-Park like trees, go left around a really big curve, and over the bumpy road. You'll see a blue sign on your left. Right. When asking the locals resulted in even less help, we just decided to drive on. Remarkably, we found the place.

The next morning, we boarded a sea-worthy vessel - we were pretty sure - with three young Indonesian men and a guitar. They took us on a short ride out to three small islands, each only big enough for a few fisherman huts and farmers. The first two islands only took about 20 minutes to walk the perimeter. The snorkeling off the coast of these islands was spectacular. Blue star fish, hermit crabs, Nemo and his friends, and much more laid just under the water off the coast. We explored to our hearts content, and then explored some more.

Sea-worthy Vessel - probably.

Hearts contented.
With Northeast Lombok conquered, we packed up after one night's stay and headed to the South, to Kuta Beach. This time, we lucked out with the rain and only got half-drenched during the morning hours. By the time we got to the South coast, we were dry and lost, instead of wet and lost; an improvement, as being lost anywhere along the coast in Lombok results in amazing views of bright blue bays laced in vibrant green palm trees. This is where a brave Jon let me take over control of the bike and navigate the windey, but empty roads - just a few dogs and cows meandering on and off the road. We didn't crash, and I got to live out my dream of driving a motorbike somewhere around Southeast Asia. Thanks, Jon! I handed back over the controls as we entered the more tourist-populated area of Kuta Beach. We stopped to eat lunch on a white-sand beach and re-group about what to do next. While we ate our authentic Mexican food (probably) two young boys of about 11 or 12 approached us.

Boy 1: You want a ticket to the moon?
Jon: A ticket to the moon, eh? What do you mean?
Boy 1(holds up a plastic bag full of mushrooms): You eat these, and you go to the moon.
Jon: Oh. What do the police think about me going to the moon?
Boy 1: The police are happy when they eat these. 
Boy 2: Ticket to the moon! 
Jon: Ha. I don't think so, but thanks. 
Boy 2: You can put them in your food. Pancakes. Burritos. Gado-gado. You be happy. 
Jon: Oh yeah? You're such a good salesman, but no thanks.

After avoiding our little hawkers and potential imprisonment (hey, I've seen Locked Up Abroad. No, thank you), these guys walked in front of our chairs. And with that, we decided to leave Kuta. 
Based on this one time when Jon saw some pretty Google images of Southwest Kuta, we decided to get back on the bike and go there. I used my smart phone to find accommodations on yet another island off the coast called Gili Gede. I talked on the phone with Peter Jones, an American originally from Columbus, Ohio who likes to jam with his flute. Peter agreed to reserve his one remaining room. So we went. And we saw this along the way:

Crystal blue bays.
Beautiful rice terraces.
Stunning harbor views.
Untouched lands.
Eight to nine hours total on the bike, and we were ready for bed by the time we reached Peter Jones' Secret Island Resort on the edge of Gili Gede. We politely excused ourselves from a jam session, and watched one more spectacular sunset in silence; I guess there is one thing you can't have too much of.
We had nearly circumnavigated the island of Lombok over three days, on motorbikes that cost a total of $26 - and that's including the cost of gas. The next day I headed to the airport; a sore bum, my suitcase full of putrid smelling clothes, and thoughts of a vacation well-played turning up the corners of my mouth.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Here's to you, 2012

Robyn Brown - of Allyn Street fame - used to ask me every birthday, "What was your best moment of the last year?" Since the world didn't end, I thought I would speed things up this year and reflect on the question as the ball dropped (and ask everyone else as well because I wanted to pass on the warm fuzzies that come with reflecting on all of your happiest moments). Before I dug deep into my memories of 2012 - which is a difficult task for someone who can't remember what she ate for breakfast - I had to define happiness. I came up with this definition: A feeling of complete satisfaction, wholeness, love, and the absence of any sadness or worry. The longer I dug, the more I came up with. Here are some noteworthy ones in no particular order:

- Landing in LAX in June and walking through immigration in the "Citizens" line after two days on an airplane. Had the following conversation with the immigration officer:
Where are you coming from?
How long have you been there?
Ten months.
Welcome home, Ma'am. 

- Ok, this one was actually 2011, but it was noteworthy and close enough: Going to visit my cousin at her house around Christmas time last year, and catching her parents outside just as they were leaving. Standing in the brisk night air, I passed presents of Indonesian chocolate bars through the window of their truck. I can't remember just what words were exchanged, but I remember feeling so loved at that exact moment.

- End of the Bintan triathlon in June. Surrounded by hugs and friends.

- Random but awesome cha cha with a guy from Columbus.

- Bike ride with Lo through Rocky River near Cleveland.

- Reaching the top of Mt. Rinjani.

- Sitting with My Mo and her handsome lil' man at her house and at DnDs diner in good ol' East P.

- Driving

- Running the 3 mile trail through the woods near my big brother's house in VA.

- Coming in from the above trail run to the sounds of my two little nieces running and screaming, "Aunt Jackie's back!!"

- Getting 'lost' during hide and seek with a handful of Indonesia teenagers and listening to them holler their feelings of freedom in the middle of a field, on the edge of a cliff, just across the creek, on the other side of the world.

Here's to you, 2012.