Thursday, December 24, 2009

A prelude and reflection – part 1

“A weed is just a flower that’s misunderstood.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m on the road again.

Many of my friends at law school asked about what I do while traveling. I suppose before I restart my travel blog, I can offer a short snapshot.

A year ago I was at Bakong Temple in Battambang, Cambodia. I met a group of Khmer kids from a nearby highschool and they told me about a cave below the temple. They asked me if I wanted to join them, and we headed down the side of the mountain to find it. With cellphone flashlights and candles, we plunged into the depths of the cavern, squeezing through tiny passageways, the pitch darkness only rarely broken by the cracks in the ceiling. Rays of light danced in the swirling smoke of various incense altars scattered along our winding path, like ballerinas flittering in and out of existence. We finally found the main open cavern. A single string of golden sun hung down from the roof. A small shrine lay before us. We turned off our lights and lit the few candles by the altars. The cool, dampness hung on my skin, but instead of coolness penetrating within, it was a warmth from the candles, from the Khmer kids whom I talked to in a smattering of Khmer and English. The silence consumed the air, and this moment became truly sacred.

I travel to find moments like these. It’s not about the pictures in front of Chitzen Itza or the Great Wall, but those rare moments where something magical and sacred happens, something that can’t be caught on film but only carried around as some deep part of you. It means taking time to leave the beaten track, find the random and mysterious, even if it takes days or weeks to discover those few memories.

Over the years, I’ve collected many of these moments: finding rocks to juggle for Tibetan kids in the Sea of Bamboo near Yibin in Sichuan, China, or watching the sun set over the mountains in Hsipaw, Burma, sharing tea with the lone monk in the temple on the ridge. It’s teaching Khmer girls around Ta Phrom how to dance to heavy metal music, or loosening up street kids near Angkor Wat’s Roulos Group with juggling until they make you a necklace of flowers and present it to you. Or having tea with Taureg’s for Christmas night in Timbuktu, under the glistening canopy of stars.

It’s squeezing into the cramped cave full of worshippers near Uspatan, sleeping in monasteries in Burma, and hitchhiking on construction rigs out to the Baia de Gatas in Cape Verde. It’s having locals in San Antao give you grogue to keep you warm on a cold night as you struggle with the last stretch of a hike or trying to learn Bambara from kids in Mali.

And it’s juggling in parks in NY and meeting kids and seeing the joy and wonder on their faces. Because magic, real magic, exists all around us, and while traveling isn’t necessary to find it, it sometimes reminds us, reminds me to keep looking, to keep seeing the world anew.

One of my favorite Japanese artists, Yoshihiro Suda, would finely sculpt every day plants and weeds, and place them in hard to find locations in museums. Discovering art – which was often merely a finely crafted depiction of the common (and sometimes common nuisances) – would become a magical experience, an experience we could replicate if only we could peel back the scales on our eyes. Then we can find the romantic poetry in order and the every day, like Gabriel Syme in G.K. Chesterton’s theological masterpiece, The Man Who Was Thursday. Or as Alan Moore commented in The Watchmen:

“But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget... I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from the another's vantage point, as if new, it may still take our breath away. Come... dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg. Come, dry your eyes. And let's go home.”

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