Albatross, Bear Print, Broken Jar, Hermit, King’s Horseman, Empty Road

A year-ender on my lucky travels east and west, north and south in 2007

December 31, 2007 in THE KITCHEN SINK | Comments (0)

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Journalists seeking time off for the holidays file long summaries of what they covered during they year. The year-enders, as they are called in characteristically unimaginative journalese, fill space in the absence of news. But like long family letters in Christmas cards they usually attract only those readers who are mentioned in them.

As the year two-thousand lucky seven draws to a close I am compelled by journalistic habit to write a year-ender about the wonderful places I have seen this year – Santiago, Bangkok, Katmandu, Ushuaia, Punta Arena, Yellowknife, Iqualuit, Pangnirtung, Penang, Malacca, Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and the ancient walled city of Lo Montang. But I will spare you (and your atlas).

Instead I want to remember a few images from my travels, most shared with my partner Pat Kvill: An albatross. A print of white bears. A broken jar. A cave hermit. The king’s horseman. The empty road.

As a wise old American Indian is supposed to have said, you never learn anything traveling east and west. We did that, but mostly we went north and south. The albatross was south – about as far south as any tourist normally gets. It is the ghostly figure on a monumental construction made of laminated steel plates – the steel of hulls built in a Chilean shipyard – at Cape Horn. It is a figure of an Albatross in flight, cut out of the steel. I thought of Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Surely the designer knew the symbolism because the monument is dedicated (by the Chilean Navy) to the thousands who died there in the chaotic meeting of three oceans at the tip of South America. About 800 ships have been lost at Cape Horn since the 15th Century.

As the Cruceros Australis rounded the Cape and then rounded back we stepped into the control center, the bridge, where the captain on his high seat and his officers were sailing the 200-foot expedition cruiser. It was not a scene from Coleridge or Conrad. The sealed room was silent except for the white noise of GPS computers, radar, sonar and such. Modernism. . . .

The print was north, the high Canadian north at the Arctic Circle. The artist, Andrew Qappik, sat at his table in the coop studio in the Inuit town of Pangnirtung in a fiord on the west side of Baffin Island. He was pounding out the stencil print in blue and white. It shows a mother polar bear and two cubs hunting on the ice. They blend so closely with the white background that their distinct blue shadows seem more real than they do.

The polar bear is about to become endangered because of the late freezing and early melting of ice, on the edge of which the species breeds and feeds. Climate change in the Arctic is apparently so rapid that the polar bear will not have time to survive by reverting to the land skills of the species from which it evolved, the grizzly. You can’t doubt global warming in the Arctic. We visited an old whaling station where 150 years ago in the time of Melville ice-edge bow whales (now nearly extinct) were abundant. Now, in mid August, there was no ice in the cove, no glacier on the mountain heading it. Our guide, Johavee, has seen it all disappear in his lifetime. A photo from as late as 20 years ago, taken at the same time of year, showed the cove jammed with ice.

Our objective was to backpack a few days in Auyuittuq National Park, a half hour’s boat ride north of Pangnirtung. When we picked up our permits the ranger in Pang laughed at our question about polar bears on that side of the park. “You stand a better chance seeing a polar bear at the Toronto Zoo,” he said. Next morning he ate his words. The sighting of a young bear hunting on land far from any ice had forced him to close the park. We got Johavee to take us to the park entrance anyway, and on the walk up the tidal plain, fresh in a line in the grey mud, were the biggest animal tracks I had ever seen – big as dinner plates, with claws. Prints of a white bear — searching, trying to survive in an environment without the usual ice. On the way to our flights home I bought Andrew’s print of white bears. It hangs in my Crestone cabin. . . .

The broken jar was on the edge of a crater on the Plain of Jars in northern Laos, unlucky target of American B52’s in the early 1970’s. The ancient jars, placed in groups like cemeteries on hills, are big enough to hide a human. And it is said that Viet Cong soldiers jumped in them when they heard the planes. No scientist that I’m aware of has proved the origin or purpose or the mini-monoliths. Who made them is a mystery, although how they were made is implicit from half-finished jars in a quarry. They were probably made from boulders, carved out like a pumpkins. A hollowed boulder is practically unbreakable. But the broken jar by a crater on a hilltop had been shattered in recent times. The crater was from a bomb, a boy standing by explained to me. A cluster bomb. He pointed out the small pit at the center of the crater – dug by a local farmer retrieving scrap metal, he said.

That was a dangerous business. And still is. The casings opened and just above ground and released hundreds of baseball-size “bomblets,” as they are called by the international Mine Advisory Group. Those that did not go off as designed remain buried around and in the craters that still pock the hard red soil of the arid plain. They are dangerous. The MAG has estimated more than 100 Lao people a year, many of them children, are killed or injured by the explosion of UXO’s (unexploded ordinance). President Johnson halted the bombing of North Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968, but it’s hard to stop a war machine – so the B52’s and some fighters were diverted in what has been called “the secret war,” although everybody in politics knew, or should have known, about it.

The war escalated in 1970 when President Nixon, with Henry Kissinger whispering in his ear, adopted the devious strategy of secret peace negotiations in Paris and an apparent cease fire in Vietnam coupled with bombing the hell out of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Plain of Jars is said to be the most bombed piece of real estate on the planet. People tell of their grandparents living in caves for years, daring to come out to farm their fields only on moonless nights.

I got to walk along a length of the trail (the old driver remembered it, and at one point we saw the carcass of a Soviet battle tank). It was a dirt track beside a river where farmers worked with hoes in the flood plain. No comb craters. Apparently the B52’s dropped their loads – like someone “sowing seeds,” one famous quote goes – on more obvious targets. I wanted to think they avoided areas that might be inhabited, notwithstanding the documentation that Kissinger wanted to destroy the “social support,” meaning villagers and villages, of the Viet Cong carrying supplies by night through the Plain of Jars.

But I run on. The point was an unbreakable broken jar at the edge of a crater in a hilltop cemetery of jars hit one day not long ago by a tall steel seed of destruction that gave birth to bouncing baby bomblets that keep on killing. My tour guide found me talking to the boy at the crater. The guide grinned and told a story. A farmer was visiting a friend in a neighboring village. The friend showed him his perfectly circular pond full of fish. “Who,” said the visiting farmer, “told the Americans to stop before I got a fish pond too?”

The Hermit (above) was in a cave high on a canyon wall in the Kingdom of Mustang, an independent province of Nepal dangerously near the Chinese border at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. My wonderful Sherpa guide, Kusang, with whom Pat and I have been traveling for a decade, knew about the strange holyman, a Buddhist monk, in the way that Kusang seems to know about everything. Kusang Sherpa has friends everywhere, even in Mustang, which was closed to visitors until 1992 and is still limited to 2,000 tourists a year. The limestone cave was up a tributary of a wide deep canyon off the upper Kali Gandaki river. We walked up a steep trail, then rock stairs, to a wall built under an overhang. Kusang knocked on the wooden door, and there was a faint response. We entered to find the monk, sitting cross-legged in meditation. He was a lean and muscular old man (about 73) with cropped hair. He wore the traditional monk’s colors, red and yellow, but in patched sweat pants and a frayed sweater, more suited for the cold than a traditional robe. The cave has long been considered sacred because of limestone formations suggesting Guru Rinponche and others. The monk had been living there alone for more than 20 years, supported by local villagers who brought him bags of rice and other provisions.

He directed Kusang to the marvelous figures in the cave. It was obvious he could not guide us himself, it was so painful for him just the stand. I suspected arthritis brought on by years of sitting on the cold rock floor. After our tour of the limestone figures I found myself, at Kusang’s bidding, sitting cross-legged on the cave floor, face to face with the monk — a proverbial holyman in a cave in the Himalayas. And I didn’t know what to ask him! What is reality? What happens to you when your body dies? How can you remember past lives? Does a dog have the Buddha nature? Can the Buddha escape causation? He was swaying a little on his mat and waiting. Kusang stood by to translate.

“How are you?” I said. The monk answered, with a palm to his jaw, that he had a terrible tooth ache. He had been suffering for several days, and it was getting worse. I asked Kusang if there was a dentist anywhere, and he just sort of laughed. In the ensuing conversation the monk told how he lived: hauling pure water from the stream in the side canyon, splitting firewood that was brought to him by villagers, cooking on the small cast-iron stove. It was a clean, well lighted cave. He said his favorite time of the year was, not summer, in the winter when the sun was low. It stayed warmer then in his south-facing cave. We left him sitting there alone.

The King’s horseman was a happier man. He sang, as almost everybody does in Mustang. Their songs are prayers. Women carrying five-gallon jerry cans, going for water in the stream outside the Lo Montang walls in the morning, sing. Porters walking alone on a trail, with a load in their basket too heaving for any Westerner, sing. In one kitchen a member of the royal family, a brother of the king, sat with a prayer wheel in his daughter’s kitchen, singing. In another village on a warm afternoon Kusang sat us down on a bench in a court yard where a young man sat twirling his prayer wheel, singing. His repeated song went on tranquilly as a woman led a cow to the village tap. Two teenage girls, laborers hired from a another village, were washing at the tap. The woman with the cow screamed at them, and they walked away, indignant. She continued her loud commentaries as she watered the cow, then a horse, and returned to her house, paying no attention to the man and his song. Or so it seemed.

Some call it chanting, but to me it was sweeter than that. What I heard, without knowing the repeated words, were prayer songs. Now, the king’s horseman also sang. He appeared one morning with one of the king’s tall horses, which Kusang arranged for one day in a mysterious exchange with his friend, a prince. As we rode out the old man – he was about 80, he said – pulled my scrappy old gray gelding as if I were his assignment. He pulled on the halter rope and screamed Tibetan epithets at the horse. In his other hand he held a whip, which he used furiously until the horse came up to speed. Then the king’s horseman would sing – beautiful quiet prayers as we rode out in the morning to see the ruins of monasteries. Two personalities. Tough horseman, devout pilgrim. That seemed to describe the people of Mustang in general.

It struck me that in Mustang I was seeing the world’s purest island of Tibetan culture as it existed a half century ago, just before the Chinese invasion. It is an agrarian society, generally innocent of modernism: no motor vehicles, mass media, electric grids, sanitation, medical science, chemical fertilizer, democracy, public schooling or non-governmental agents of change campaigning to correct these deficiencies. Irrigation cooperatives and communal government (I saw the population of one village sitting in a field, arguing.) seem to work well. I don’t know if traditional Tibetan medicine, which is still taught and practiced, compensates for the absence of Western medicine or if the dark, decaying monasteries are reasonable substitutes for public schools. The modernization of traditional societies will still be perversely debated when there are no more traditional societies. Mustang is perhaps among the last of them. But it has its satellite dishes and students home from boarding schools in India or Katmandu. The aging king stays in Katmandu where he can get Western medical treatment. Modernism is inevitable where people can afford it. The only question is whether it will be Chinese modernism.

See, the empty road I saw is in Mustang. It is from China. The easiest access to Lo Montang is from the Tibetan plateau. The road is not much, yet, but it is the first road in little Himalayan kingdom. Chinese bulldozers from the north bladed it a couple of years ago along contours surveyed through canyons and over 14,000-foot passes. It contouring along mountainsides and through valleys from the border south to where the Kali Ghandaki becomes a mile-wide flood plain pouring into India. The road has the potential to connect two thirds of the ancient kingdom. There’s no traffic on the road now because there are no bridges, which are costly. But it’s start. People don’t use most of it because it was designed for motor vehicles – a grade too gradual and slow for walkers and riders. Still, some vehicles arrive in Lo Montang from towns across the Chinese border, delivering merchandise. A Chinese Coke is half the price of one from Nepal because of transportation costs. Near Lo Montang we encountered a motor bike with Chinese license plates. The rider pulled aside and waited so as not to spook the horses. But I doubt this respect will hold in the future.

I end the year in gratitude for what I have seen – from pole to pole and hemisphere to hemisphere. I would like to see how it all comes out – adaptation in the arctic, post-modern assimilation in Mustang.