Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Just a short note today about a worthwhile project I'm involved in.  In a few weeks a group of friends and I will be going to Vratza, Bulgaria to work on the rehab of an orphanage.  The project was set up by Jeannie Hatcherson and Tabitha, a Bulgarian NGO that has done some wonderful work with the country's orphanages, among many other things.  Read more about it at Hatcherscene, Jeannie's blog.  And please follow the link to the fundraising site - small donations add up to big results.  Thanks!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Road Trip to Shantiniketan


We had a couple of reasons for taking a couple of days away from Kolkata.  First, we wanted to get out of the city to see a little of the tribal village life in West Bengal.  Second, Maura told us of a project in Shantiniketan that sounded interesting.  So we left our hotel for the Howrah Railway Station for my first experience on an Indian train.  I expected nothing in particular, but I had in my head an image of boxy, antiquated rail cars so stuffed full with people that they were hanging on the doors and riding on the roofs.  This wasn’t exactly accurate, at least not on the Eastern Railway train that we took.

We drove over the Howrah Bridge from the Kolkata side and I looked more closely at the huge red brick building along the other side of the river.  We’d seen it from a distance many times, but I was more impressed with its size the closer we got.  Amazingly, we were able to drive up without too much trouble, probably because we’d missed the daily morning influx of a million people who come in from outside the city through this station.  The station is like many European-style stations, except for the size.  You walk in through a gate and through the building, emerging on the other side into a cavernous covered yard where all the platforms are lined up.  I think I heard a train called for track 70, which gives an idea of what I mean by “cavernous.”  It was crowded – this is India, after all – but not terribly.  Every announcement over the public address system, and they came one after another almost without a break, was preceded by a strange chime, like an electronic harp chord being plucked.  It reminded me of Blade Runner somehow.  People and long two-wheeled handcarts darted in every direction, so I was constantly watching my shins for low moving objects.  And there were people selling things all over, too; piles of apples, bananas, and other mysterious fruits; cooked things, trinkets, drinks, and newspapers.


We found our platform, then after a long walk, our train car.  We had reserved seats in the “2S car,” which turned out to be bench seats like we have at on Metro North trains.  It’s a second-class car, but apparently there are different degrees of second class.  I looked into other cars as we walked past them.  Some had individual seats ("Chair cars"); some had bench seats along the sides with open spaces in the middle.  Some compartments within a car had no seats at all.  Other cars were labeled “sleeper” or “pantry car.”  All of them were on their way to being decrepit.  Ceilings were stippled with patches, windows were lodged crooked in their frames, paint was worn, and rivets missing.  But the cushions, though a little lumpy, weren’t torn and the car was swept.


We got settled, and the train left on time.  Then the variety show began.  In seats next to ours was a group of young people who immediately pulled out a small drum and tambourine and began singing folk songs.  They were quite good.  Then came the little kids begging.  These kids were grubbier and tougher than any we’ve seen on the streets.  They had open sores around their nostrils and scars and scabs on their heads.  Skinny and aggressive, they stuck their hands in our laps and faces and whined at us relentlessly.  After a bit, a train conductor came and made threatening noises, but he had little effect on them until they decided to move along on their own.  Then came the holy man with a little stringed instrument that he plunked and twanged while he keened a song.  He had large, splayed buckteeth and a longish stringy beard.  He was pretty grubby, too.  When he finished, he stood in the aisle expectantly until a couple of Indian passengers dug out some small change for him.  Then came another performer, this time a boy with some kind of castanet that he clicked as he sang.  He collected a coin or two, also, before moving on.  All the while, vendors of everything from tote bags and purses to office supplies strolled the aisle.  It was a non-stop parade of entertainment, commerce, and begging, pretty much like any place in Kolkata.  As were on an express train with only a few stops before the long run to Shantiniketan, this activity died down in a little while when they all got off to board trains going back to Kolkata.


During all this, some of our group got out a couple of Danny’s games to play.  This drew a covert surveillance from the singers in the next seats.   They initially demurred when Danny and Brittany asked them if they wanted to play, but their interest in Brittany quickly helped them over their shyness, and they were taking pictures of one another by the end of the trip.  They were apparently headed to work on a movie shoot somewhere near where we were going.  They piled into a small SUV when we got to the station in Shantiniketan, as we did, and we waved good-bye.


The project we went to visit is called Suchana and it’s located in the village of Sriniketan in West Bengal.  It’s a community support society that draws on all the resources of the local community to provide basic math and literacy education to local children, 80% of whom belong to the indigenous Santhal and Kora tribes.  Most of these kids don’t speak Bengali, which is the language used in government schools, and their parents are often illiterate, so without this chance to learn they are up against some huge obstacles in life.  The curriculum focuses especially on basic literacy in Bengali as well as reading and writing in their own tribal languages.  I also saw laptop computers, a great little library, art supplies, and basic sports equipment.  They improvise wherever they can, using common found objects.  They have a building that Kirsty and Rahul, the couple who started the program eleven years ago, designed and built.  Suchana runs alongside the government school system.  I was very impressed with their emphasis on self-help and resourcefulness; this is a project designed to be supported long-term by the community itself.


We had originally planned to work on one of the kids’ art projects for their upcoming annual music and dance performance, their signature event, but a change in the government’s school schedule somehow torpedoed that.  We took a walk around through two of the local villages that the project serves, through fields of mustard plants and dry rice paddies.  All we could hear was crickets and an occasional shout of a happy kid playing – such a welcome change from the din of Kolkata.  The skies are wide open, the land is flat, and there are stands of trees here and there and a river to break up the expanses.  It was probably in the 70’s and sunny, an extremely pleasant and lazy-feeling afternoon.


Brittany swings for the fence
But the kids who Kirsty invited to the center weren’t interested in lazy.  About 50 of them showed up to see what was going on.  We hauled out Danny’s games, and they quickly caught on to the tic-tac-toe game.  We held the tote-bag races.  The soccer game was a wild success, too.  But best of all was the cricket that they taught us.  They had a small field adjacent to the school building, and we watched some of the kids playing as we were doing other things.  Soon, though, they invited us to give it a try.  I learned the following:  (1) the guy who throws the ball is not a pitcher, but a “bowler;” (2) one does NOT drop the bat before running after hitting the ball; (3) the three sticks behind the batter are not a backstop but are a “wicket” that must not be touched by the batter or the ball; (4) the guy who stands back there is not a catcher but - obviously - a “wicket-keeper.”  But best of all, I learned how to hit the ball with a bat that resembles a kitchen mixer attachment of some kind.  My first two swings were tremendous whiffs.  Then someone kindly told me that I should think of batting as protecting the wicket rather than hitting the ball.  Surprisingly, that did it.  I started reading the bounce of the pitch (or is it bowl? throw?) and reacting in time to knock it right, left, and center.  After one impressive shot I was informed that I’d scored six runs even though I had not moved an inch.  Jeannie was even better at it than I.  Just when I thought I was pretty good, Kirsty’s 13-year-old son Akash informed me that real bowlers hurl that ball at you at around 60 miles per hour.  Thanks, man.  We hung around until dark, until I couldn’t see the ball coming at me as I took a turn as wicket-keeper.  I may even watch this game on TV when I get home.  Or maybe not.


Bike!
The next day we visited Visva Bharati, the university founded by Rabindrinath Tagore, the Indian Nobel laureate.  Our guide, and by now our friend (and also a fearsome bowler), Ritwick, found a local who got us access to the interior of the campus.  In many ways it’s like any university.  There are students and professors around, and an air of the learning going on.  We saw several works of art done by students on the campus.  The grounds are shady and quiet, and well maintained.  There isn’t much grass, maybe because it’s dry season, but the hard dirt areas are swept.  There’s a beautiful formal garden to mark the spot where Tagore’s father sat and was inspired by the beauty of the place.  Though Tagore was born in Kolkata, he returned here to build the university.  One odd detail is the five houses that Tagore built here.  They are in different architectural styles, none of them are very big, and they’re lined up around a kind of cul-de-sac.  He lived in them randomly, according to his mood.  He also used them to house visitors, which included Gandhi.  It is here, supposedly, that Tagore dubbed him the “Mahatma,” (or “maha atma”), which means “great spirit.”  Inside the houses are photographs of Tagore with his distinguished visitors.  He is an impressive figure, and he’s especially revered in West Bengal.  He seems to be enjoying a bit of renewed interest, if the Asia Society in New York is any indication.  Jeannie and I recently went there so see an exhibition of his drawings.  He was an artist, a poet, a musician (he wrote India’s national anthem, among many other pieces), a writer, and a philosopher who made a deep impression on the west in his lifetime.   He died in 1941.  The university he founded is one of the most esteemed in India for arts and culture.

mosaic and sculpture
It was tough to leave this tranquil place.  Before we did, we strolled by – you guessed it – a shop or two selling things.  These were carts that held an amazing inventory of objects – fan-like displays of gods and goddesses with arms writhing, key chains with Tagore’s image etched on the wooden fob, little wooden dolls strung together like popcorn chains, and other fanciful things.  I did spot a beautiful painted clay Buddha head, which turned out to be the only one there was in any of the carts.  It’s now mine and will remind me not only of the peacefulness of Visva Bharati but also of how much I love the very Buddhist Laos.


We got into our two cars and rolled into the town of Shantikinetan, through an incredible mass of cyclos, motorbikes and pedestrians that crowded the narrow road to the train station.  Mid-day, the train was pretty empty, so we had room to spread out and take window seats.  The now-familiar variety show again played for us, but I found that the window-gazing worked pretty well to make them lose interest in me.  Brittany did buy some oreos from a vendor and I had a little taste of home.  It was a beautiful afternoon and golden light lay on the flat plain.  There was a haze on the distant fields and occasionally there were trees silhouetted against it.  Out here, between villages, it was remarkably uncrowded, though there was never a time when I didn’t see at least a few people in the fields.  There was a cobblestone walkway that paralleled the railroad tracks on the other side of a ditch, and people strolled along from one village to the next.  I had the window down and a cool breeze played around my face.  It wasn’t long before I nodded off in the rocking train, too lazy to hold my camera.

Monday, January 16, 2012

An Afternoon with the Family

We knew as soon as we got to the gate in Bangkok on our way to Kolkata that we were on our way to India.  As soon as the gate agent made a move to the counter, the crowd jumped up and charged the door.  Inside the plane was chaos, too, with people jockeying for overhead bins space and arguing over seats.  With much gentle prodding, the flight attendants got everyone seated and persuaded them to put their seats back into the upright position and close their tray-tables.  The second the wheels left the runway, the madness started again.  The flight wasn't full, so the seat claiming and baggage moving had to be re-done.  All during the flight, people were up and down the aisles, socializing and blocking the food carts in the process.  Overwrought Bollywood movies played on seat-back screens.  

When we began our descent into Kolkata, the infinitely patient flight attendants cajoled the passengers back into their seats and got us ready to land.  No soon had the wheels hit the runway than people were out of their seats and into the overhead bins again.


Inside the terminal, we non-Indians went to our special passport control line and had to face the stern and implacable K. S. Dutta, who slowly and critically examined each page of our passports, occasionally glaring up at us, before he ceremoniously inked his stamp, slammed it down on the passport page, and slapped the passport down on the counter without a glance.  In India (as in many parts of the world), a man with a stamp is a man to be reckoned with.

At the time of evening we arrived, traffic was not manic but simply chaotic, and we made it to our home in Kolkata, the Fairlawn Hotel, in short order.  The Fairlawn deserves an essay all to itself.  Staying here is one of the highlights of our trip.  Most of the staff have been here for a long time, so we've gotten to know them over the last four years, and seeing them again is like seeing old friends.  The hotel is a part of Kolkata history, and fortunately it retains all of its unique character.  And if the building is a living piece of history, Mrs. Smith, the proprietress, is its heart and soul.  We got in early enough to see Jennie and John Fowler, who manage the hotel, but Mrs. Smith had retired for the evening.  We'd have to wait until the next morning to see her.

During our stay last year, Mrs. Smith turned 90.  There was a truly jubilant party for her that we were invited to along with her friends of many years from different parts of the world.  After a somewhat peculiar magic act, the band got rolling and everyone danced the night away, and I mean everyone.

While I was standing at the lobby desk the next morning, Mrs. Smith made her entrance.  She descends the stair with a helper on each arm in a procession that one reporter described as "a slow motion coronation."  She stopped and smiled when she saw me, and did a few dance moves right there on the step.  There's a party for her 91st in a couple of days and she's ready.

Will and Green
Then we started off for a visit with another family.  There's a home called Prabartak where sixty mentally challenged adults live and learn together.  Most of these people have only rudimentary speech, though they can make sound.  They're people either whom no one wants or whom poor families can't take care of.  The three-story home is on a quiet street and is slowly being renovated with new tile and plaster.  They were waiting for us as we drove up.  I think of them as kids, as they're sweet and child-like.  They hold each others' hands when they walk outside, and they help each other with tasks they do.  They grasped our hands with endless "hellos" and pulled us into the house.  Others stood in the windows waving and calling to us.  The program today was to have them draw a small picture and then to make a frame out of popsicle sticks in which to mount the drawing.  This turned out to be a very interesting project.  Some of the kids have very good fine motor skills and artistic ability, while others appear autistic.  But the teachers have worked with them so that nearly all of them were able to make a drawing of some kind.  There there's Green.  Green actually is a child and is the youngest resident at Prabartak.  When they found him, he'd been living in a dark, five-by-five room, where his caretaker (Mother; who knows?) kept him so he wouldn't wander away.  He's maybe ten years old, but could be older.  He's very small.  He seems to have some degree of autism, but the staff have got him to interact with the others and his environment.  He was paired off with Willson, the youngest member of our little group.  Willson does not possess the best fine motor skills himself, so the ensuing activity yielded a drawing that was half drawn on and half glued to the floor.  Green also managed to do some of his drawing on the back of my shirt while I was distracted with my guys' artwork. 

Danny, another member of our group, brought along some games that his father had made out of ordinary stuff that you can find around the house.  The kids' eyes light up when the see what a few pieces of fiber-board and some nails can become; these kids will not be buying shiny plastic games from Hasbro anytime soon.  This time, Danny brought this game: three canvas tote bags are tied by the handles and a long piece of string to wooden dowels that can be grasped in both hands.  We put a full water bottle inside each bag for weight and then spooled out the string across the floor.  Three people competed; each grabbed one dowel and the contest was to wind the string around the dowel, pulling the bag across the floor, the fastest.  The kids got this right away, and every one of them wanted to try it.  The runners-up always cheered the winners, and the winners were pictures of pleasure and pride.  

We finished the afternoon with music.  Again, some of these kids are very musically talented, particularly a young man who carefully pulled out a set of tabla drums.  He struck a rhythm and another young man started blowing on a harmonica.  With just a little coaxing, the kids got up and danced, a couple at a time, and they were good at it.  It wasn't long, of course, before they were pulling our group out to dance, too, which really gave them something to laugh about.

Saying good-bye to these people is a little hard for us.  They're thrilled that we came to visit them, and they do get visitors from time to time.  I have to believe that even though we come for an afternoon and then disappear, we're helping them to develop their communication skills - Green surprised everyone, even his teachers - and sharing with them an afternoon of fun.  The thing that sticks with me is how people who are marginalized by society can live with dignity and respect.  I don't think I've ever seen such candlepower in a smile, either.         



Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Road to Savannakhet


Priscilla, Queen of the Mekong
Room for eight?
It’s our last day in Vientiane, the day we leave on the overland route to Savannakhet.  There are eight of us, and with our luggage we didn’t think we’d fit in the small van we’d been using for touring, at least not comfortably.  Nou said we could get a slightly larger van for today’s journey.  I guess “slightly larger” has a different connotation in Lao than it does in English.  We walk out of our hotel into the parking area and beheld a behemoth that we quickly dub “Priscilla, Queen of the Mekong.”  This beauty can seat at least 45 
people, and with the air conditioner blasting away, it’s like a meat locker when we board.  At 8am, we rumble off through Vientiane and to the east on the main road.  This road is a two-lane affair, not badly surfaced, but interrupted from time to time with washboard sections.  Priscilla rolls over these like a mattress on wheels.  The road runs in long straight sections through a flat valley bottom for the first couple of hours.  There isn’t very much traffic – lots of motorbikes and scooters, some minivans (smaller than what we see in the US), similarly miniature pick-up trucks.  There’s a mountain range off to the northeast, and the Mekong is some distance away to the west. 
   
Buddha's Footprint
Every few kilometers we come into a small village, where storefronts, repair shops and houses sit close to the roadway.  There are fields, though they don’t seem to be under cultivation now, perhaps because it’s the dry season.  Occasionally, a rubber tree juts up from the open fields.  Elsewhere there are stands of deciduous trees.  In the villages and on their outskirts we see buff-colored cows and darker water buffalo roaming.

After about two hours, we come upon one village where, on one side of the street on a large field are set up hundreds of tents.  There’s a gate through which we can see a temple and a stupa.  Nou tells us that this is the site of the Buddha Footprint, a formation in the rock that Buddhists believe is an impression left by the historical Buddha’s foot.  We walk in through the gate and down a shaded lane to a small plaza.  On the left is a gate the arched top of which holds a replica of a temple and through which are the festival grounds.  To either side of the archway is a long table under an awning where offerings can be purchased.  For 1000 kip (about ten cents) we buy small bundles of flowers, incense sticks and candles.  We turn and walk back towards the large stupa and beyond to the temple that houses the Buddha’s footprint.  Inside the temple there is an extremely ornate case, about four feet tall and measuring perhaps ten by fifteen feet.  Inside, on the ground, is the footprint.  Lamps inside the case illuminate it and it glows a pinkish color.   All around the sides of the case are trays to hold the offering candles, and here and there are pots for holding the incense sticks and flowers.  We kneel, light our candles, and melt some wax into the tray.  With a little help from Nou, we set the candles.  Next, we light the incense sticks.  I notice that Nou is praying.  He holds the bundle of small flowers and incense sticks between his hands and bows.  I take a minute or two to clear my mind a little, to step away from a voyeur’s perspective and into some kind of communion with the aura around me.  I can only manage a glimpse, but it’s very much worth the time. On the way we pick up some sticky rice wrapped and cooked in bamboo shoots.  Nou shows us how to peel back the outer husk of the bamboo shoots and get at the rice, which is contained by the thin inner membrane of the bamboo.  Sticky rice is a staple of the Lao diet.  It’s very good.  Back on the bus we get comfortable.  After a while of rolling along, with the sun coming in through the windows, we spread out and some of us nod off for a nap.  I open my computer and I’m soon lost in writing.  Then, suddenly, something feels odd.

I glance up from my computer and it takes a second to register that the bus is full of smoke.  I turn to look back to where Darla is sitting in the furthest back seats, and I can’t see past a couple of rows.  The smoke is billowing towards the front of the bus, and no one notices it at first.  I jump up and call to Darla – for a second I’m afraid that she’s been overcome – but she wakes up from dozing and shrieks.  I run back for her and grab her hand to pull her out.  I push her past me towards Ben, who is just behind me, and I bring up the rear as we run out of the bus.  I jump down the steps, wondering if flames are licking at my heels.


But a look around is both reassuring and a little disconcerting.  I realize that the smoke is white – more like water vapor - and doesn’t smell oily or acrid, and it seems to be blowing out from the engine compartment.  It’s likely that Priscilla is just overheated.  But I look around, and we’re in the middle of nowhere.  The brush on either side of the road is thick and prickly and dry, and stands slightly more than head-high.  In the sun it’s hot.  Traffic comes by from time to time but only slows for a look before rolling on.  I know that we can’t be more than a mile from the Mekong but it seems a lot farther.  Then I realize that there’s cell service all over, and sure enough, the driver is already on the phone to the office back in Vientiane.   He leaves the engine idling with the air conditioning turned off, and after a time the smoke clears and all seems normal again.  Rather than wait three hours for another van to come, we decide to keep going on this bus without the air conditioning, as it is comfortable today and we can open the driver’s window and the two rear windows to get some airflow.  So, quite calmly, we re-board and start talking about where we’re going to get lunch.  Ben even sits in the last row where the best breezes are.  Darla, on the other hand, plants herself in the front row, closest to the door, with her passport and bag right next to her, ready to jump.  Soon we’re rolling alongside the river again, past carefully kept vegetable garden plots and small villages and every so often, a cell tower.

While we get lunch at a roadside restaurant, I see the driver with a toolbox and a long fan belt.  In twenty minutes or so, he’s got Priscilla’s back end buttoned up again, and we’re off to Savannakhet. 

Please pass the salt
Just after we arrive in Savannakhet we take a turn down a dusty dirt road that goes into what looks like scrub.  In the oddest part of the trip so far, Nou is taking us to see a salt mine.  I have no idea what to expect – a lot of guys with hardhats and headlamps?  A dark tunnel deep into the ground?  Well, not quite.  The operation is pretty ramshackle and pretty automatic, too.  A small, grumpy-looking man – I mean about four feet tall – in a military uniform comes out to see what we’re up to, and after Nou puts him on the phone with the tour office, he warms up and tells us about the operation (Nou translating).  They pump water into a salt deposit under the ground and flush the salt water to the top.  It goes into large drying ponds where it crystallizes in the sun.  They scrape it up and bag it.  That’s about it.  Enlightened and amazed, we get back on the bus and in a few minutes we’re at our hotel.

We have to say goodbye to Priscilla, which we kind of hate to do.  She’s going back to Vientianne tomorrow and we’re getting a slightly smaller van.  Priscilla’s so big and beautiful and comfortable and . . . orange.  A fiery redhead?

 We end the day on a nice note.  It’s Patti and Rob’s 39th anniversary, and Jeannie had Nou call ahead and arrange a cake and champagne at the hotel.  They’re surprised and pleased and we sit around the lobby and eat cake and drink the bubbly, which isn’t bad at all.  The staff gets some cake, too.  Tomorrow we go the rest of the way to the Laos/Vietnam border at Lao Bao, then on to Hue.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hue


We left the Imperial Hotel this morning in a grey drizzle for Hoi An, about three hours south, and we hope, better weather.  Yesterday we were very lucky to have the first sunny day in over two months, according to our guide, Thong. 

We spent the first part of the day touring the Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City.  We took a river boat to the site.   Much of this complex was destroyed in the 1947 war with the French, and then again in the 1968 Tet offensive during the Vietnam War.  Some of the buildings have been restored, and many more are under restoration.  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The last emperor abdicated under pressure from Ho Chi Minh in 1945.  For such an important site, the grounds were surprisingly and pleasantly empty of tourists.  The official government buildings occupy the central part of the complex, with the emperor’s private complex of buildings behind.  Around this core are buildings for the emperor’s family and his concubines.  One of the emperors had a stable of over 500 of these lovelies.  I think he died of exhaustion.  Thong says that when the emperor dies, his concubines and eunuchs were executed to guard the emperor’s privacy.  As a measure of respect and gratitude, though, they were offered a choice of death by sword, by poison or by hanging.  What a deal.

We spent the rest of the day touring a temple, arriving there by boat on the Perfume River, and then two royal tombs.   The tombs are located in what to our eyes look like parks.  The grounds are manicured, but not in any obviously fastidious way.  They’re wooded with ponds and stone walkways.  The tombs are like mausoleums, set up from the grounds on well-proportioned raised enclosures and guarded by stone statues that represent the emperor’s mandarins.  The last of these tombs is located about 20 kilometers west of Hue along the Perfume River.  On the long rutted dirt road out to the site we saw working elephants, which Thong assured us were very cranky creatures.  We pulled alongside one of these beasts, which was as tall as our van was high and had a driver perched on its neck, and slowed to its pace so we could take photos.  The elephant seemed unable to decide whether to bolt for the brush or charge the van.  Mercifully, for the elephant and for us, we pulled ahead and left the elephant driver to deal with the grumpy beast.

As we wandered around the tomb, we came suddenly upon a middle-aged woman standing by her two bundles of firewood, a long stave resting across the tops.  She was fanning herself with her hat and looked tired and generally wretched.  She glanced at us but did not acknowledge us, and we certainly noticed her but likewise didn’t greet her.  Thong spoke up and pointed her out to us.  He told us that she was gathering firewood either for her family or to sell, and that she might earn $4 or $5 dollars for the load that she’d have to carry for six kilometers.  By now we were all looking at her, and she at us.  By gesturing, I asked her if I could try to lift the load and she nodded.  Thong warned me that it was heavy, and told us that the woman had scars on her shoulder from the weight.  On cue, she pulled her shirt collar down over her shoulder to show me, and there was an ugly scar there.  I pulled the stave up and squatted under it so that it lay across my shoulders, and then tried to lift it.  I could hardly budge it.  It was like doing a squat lift with way too much weight.  I stopped myself from a greater effort; a little voice in my head reminded me that I couldn’t afford to throw my back out.  Then Ralph gave it a try and he was able to stand upright with great effort.  At this we all started to feel sorry for this woman’s lot and dug into our pockets for some dong notes, maybe $2.50 each, to give her.  She gratefully took the money, then hoisted this incredible load onto one shoulder, and started off into the woods.

Later, some of us admitted to being suspicious of this set piece, elaborate though it would have to be.  The story seemed a little unlikely and a little too orchestrated.  But for $2.50 each, we didn’t mind being played.  I’d be very interested to go back today and see if she was there again.

Last night we went up to the rooftop bar of our hotel for a drink and to look at the city lights.  It was fantastic, though the wine I ordered was underwhelming.  I never learn – don’t order wine in Asia.  We discovered a stairway up from the outside bar area to an even higher roof, where there was a spirit house and a statue of a female Buddha figure.  Inside the spirit house were offerings of cigarettes, soda, noodles and other small things that the spirits might need in the afterlife.

We then strolled down towards the river, in what Thong referred to as the “backpacker area,” and had a drink at a corner bar, out on the sidewalk.  There were a few street vendors selling watercolors or offering cyclo rides, but they were not aggressive or even all that persistent.  We walked home past the French restaurant where we had eaten the night before.  I almost went in again for one of their unbelievably good banana-chocolate crepes, but we headed back to the hotel, walking along the Perfume River, to get some sleep before our drive to Hoi An.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Heart of Darkness, Laos


You may recall my earlier post about how during nearly every journey there is a moment when you confront the Other, the Not You.  My moment came last night.

We were in Vientiane, having returned from Luang Prabang earlier in the day, on the way to our hotel.   We had stopped to visit the truly amazing Lao Textiles shop on our way and were debating whether we wanted to take a sunset stroll along the Mekong or just hang out at the hotel bar.  As we turned into the drive, we saw the sign for the visitors’ center for an organization called COPE directly across the street from the hotel.  Jeannie had read about this organization and wanted to visit.  COPE provides prosthetics and physiotherapy primarily for people who have lost limbs when unexploded bombs (UXO) from the Indochina war go off. 

We walked into the center to the sounds of a boisterous sports contest of some sort going on in the gymnasium.  There was a sign on the building’s door – it was a sports center for disabled people.  A couple of young men, each missing a leg, came across the yard on crutches.  We entered the visitors’ center, and another world. 

Casing full of bomblets
The center itself is not large, but it’s well organized.  There’s a large mobile sculpture of a cloud of bomblets when you enter from the office and shop.  Each bomblet, which is dispersed by the hundreds from a single bomb casing, is the size of a tennis ball.  On a small stand is a copy of the field manual used by professional bomb clearers to identify all the different kinds of ordnance that they might run across.  The book must be four inches thick, with diagrams and specifications of each kind of bomb.  On the walls are laminated storyboards that cover the history, not of the war, but of the suffering after the war and the efforts to undo its disastrous consequences.  There are heartbreaking drawings with short descriptions done by village children who witnessed the jets screeching overhead, strafing and bombing their homes and blowing their relatives into pieces.  The immediacy of the narrations makes you choke with grief.

Most Americans of a certain age know something about the Vietnam War, but many do not know about the CIA’s “Secret War” in Laos.  While the Viet Cong were moving to overthrow the puppet South Vietnamese government, the communist faction in Laos, called the Pathet Lao, were fighting a revolution against the Lao monarchy.  The CIA’s interests were (1) to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, over which the Viet Cong supplied their troops in the south, and which ran through Laos, and (2) to prevent the Pathet Lao from installing a communist regime in Laos.  The CIA’s secret war involved the US Air Force and the Hmong tribesman of northern Laos, who were persuaded to oppose the Pathet Lao.  The USAF dropped an estimated 2 million tons of bombs on Laos during the war, including 288 million cluster bombs, between 1964 and 1973.  The USAF launched nearly 580,000 sorties (bombing raids) over this period, which works out to an average of one bombing raid every eight minutes around the clock for nine years. There is a map of Laos on the wall in the center.  From USAF records, they have placed a small red dot on each bombing raid target.  From the northeastern highlands, where the Pathet Lao were based, through the eastern part of Champassak – basically the route of the Ho Chi Minh Trail – is solid red.  Of all this ordnance dropped on Laos, about 30% did not explode and remained, and still remains, to cause future death and suffering. 

As if this weren’t dangerous enough, the poor of Laos, often children, scavenge for scrap metal to make a living.  They also use the scrap metal from this ordnance to make household utensils.  One of the displays in the COPE center is a life-size replica of a Laotian village hut.  The sign outside tells you that every metal object inside but two are made from pieces of ordnance, and challenges you to find the two.  I couldn’t.  Cooking pots, brackets, hoes, hand tools – more things than you can imagine – are made into household items by resourceful hands.  Even though children are constantly warned against handling metal they find, the fact that such stuff ends up in their houses in innocuous usage makes them less afraid.

After our tour, which included a well-made video that profiled one young amputee, we went outside to the Karma CafĂ©, which sells ice cream and drinks.  We recognized the CEO of COPE sitting at the small bar, and struck up a conversation with her about the organization.  She graciously stayed with us for half an hour after the place closed.  After a slow start, they now run the organization on about $500,000 per year that they reliably get from several sources.  There are still about 300 cases a year of new injury from UXO. 

In yesterday’s Vientiane Times there is a story with the headline, “Bulldozer driver nearly blows up village.”  It relates that a bulldozer driver, excavating for a road, ran his blade several times into an object that he suddenly realized was a UXO.  When a nearby agency team came by to investigate, they identified it as an American-made 2000-pound bomb.  They told the driver that if it had exploded - and it was a miracle that it hadn’t - it would have destroyed everything within a two-kilometer radius, including a Buddhist temple.

The horror, indeed.

Friday, January 6, 2012

First Day, Vientiane, Laos

Green Park Hotel, Vientiane
We arrived in Vientiane four days ago after nearly 24 hours on three flights, through Dubai and Bangkok.  We stepped off the plane into a warm, humid night.  The air had the familiar and comforting third world smell of wood smoke and exhaust.  The Vientiane streets were quiet and nearly empty as we drove to our hotel, which turns out to be an oasis on the bank of the Mekong River.  The bar was closed, so we grabbed cans of Beer Lao from the mini-fridges in the rooms and sat in the darkness by the pool to toast being together again in a foreign place.  Nearly opaque green lizards snagged moths on the stucco wall behind us, and in the distance Ralph swore he heard monks chanting.  We walked around the pool, trying to get closer to the sound.  I figured it was a nightclub somewhere nearby - we finally gave up and agreed to disagree.  After we finish the beers, we could barely keep our eyes open.  Back in the room, on the firm mattress, under the mosquito netting, I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The next morning, after indulging ourselves with a breakfast buffet that stretched along two walls of the dining room, we met Nou, our guide.  It was a short van ride into town.  Traffic was surprisingly light and orderly.  I was ready for something more like Kolkata, where everyone drives with one hand on the horn and no one pays any attention to the rules of the road.  Vientiane is neat and clean and quiet.  Vientiane is the second capital of Laos, the first being Luang Prabang.  In the late 19th century, the entire city of Vientiane was destroyed by the Siamese army, and the people taken back to Thailand as slave-workers.  Only one temple survived.  The rest of the city was rebuilt in later years. 

Buddha figures at Vat Sisaket
Naga
We went first to the Sisaket Museum (Vat Sisaket).  Aside from the temple itself, the striking feature of this site is the collection of Buddha figures that line three of the four walls of the courtyard.  There are over 10,500 Buddha figures, two each in small alcoves cut into the walls, in addition to dozens of larger Buddhas.  On the porch that surrounds the temple building there is a device used to bathe the monks.  It's a kind of long, pipe that's intricately carved into the shape of a naga, which is a snake-like creature with a dragon's head.  There is a door in on its dorsal side, near the end of the tail, and the pipe inside runs to its mouth, several meters away.  Because no one is allowed to touch a monk, and women are supposed to keep a certain distance from them, this naga allows women to pour water into the tail end that runs likes a shower out of the mouth under which a monk can bathe.  I'd love to have one of these in my house.

Hands of a Buddha figure at Ho Phra Keo
Across the street is Ho Phra Keo, which was once the royal temple of the Lai monarchy.  It housed the Emerald Buddha, which was taken from Vientiane by the King of Siam when his army conquered and sacked the city.  Now it's a museum that holds Buddha sculptures and artifacts.  One of the Buddha figures is standing, but the bottoms of his feet are turned toward the viewer.  Jeannie said that if we saw that on a medical trip we'd conclude it was rickets.  Nou told us that it symbolizes that the Buddha hides nothing.  We bought a pamphlet that explains 45 different poses of the Buddha.  Right after that we saw one that wasn't in the guide.  When we asked Nou just how many poses the Buddha had in him, he laughed.  He doesn't even know.


Next we made a short drive to That Luang.  Inside this temple, or stupa, is a smaller stupa that is said to contain some of the ashes of the Buddha.  In the plaza next to this temple we saw several people holding small wooden cages in which small birds were fluttering around.  We thought at first that they were selling them to eat, but Nou told us the following story.  There was a monk who had the gift of seeing the future.  A boy who was a young novice asked this Master if he would tell the boy his future.  The Master agreed, and after a minute, said to him, "you will die in seven days."  The novice, after telling his mother this disturbing news, decided to spend those last days at the monastery.  On his way there, he passed along a river that was very low because it was the dry season.  He came upon a muddy flat in the riverbed where several fish were thrashing, barely alive for lack of water.  The novice gathered them up and carried them to where the river still flowed, and dropped them in.  He spent the next days at the monastery, and after the seventh day, he was still alive.  The puzzled Master, trying to understand why, asked the novice what he had been doing since his future had been told, and the novice replied "nothing," but then remembered what had happened with the fish.  When the Master heard the story, he said, "you gave them life, so you also have been given life."  What you do, Nou told us, is to buy the caged birds and then set them free as a way of reenacting this story.  Ralph bought each of us a cage.  One at a time, we pulled up the bars and let the birds fly away across the plaza.  This was actually more moving than you might think.



Our last stop of the day was a somewhat odd place called Xiengkuane Buddha Park.  It's some distance out of town, along the Mekong River.  It really is a park, and it's filled with statues of the Buddha as well as of several Hindu gods.  The oddness is due mostly to one thing, a spherical structure in which you walk from hell to nirvana.  The ball is three stories tall, and seems to be made of concrete.   You enter through the open mouth of a monster that is affixed to the side of the ball.  A hallway runs around the interior circumference, and on the inside of the wall are small windows through which you can see a room at the interior of the sphere.  On the ground floor, this room is full of contorted and grotesque figures representing suffering in hell.  Partway around there is a narrow stairway through the ceiling into the next level.  This level also has a hallway around a central room.  This room represents earth.  It has happier figures inside it.  There is a doorway into this room, and in the center, a very narrow and steep stair to the next level, which represents heaven.  From this top room is an even narrower stair that leads out onto the top of the sphere through a very narrow opening.  This opening represents the way to nirvana.  Ralph, Rob and I wriggled through it but nothing seemed any different.  The only conclusion I can come to is that we were already in nirvana. 


Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Jitters

I've been traveling for many, many years.  Not as many as some people, certainly, but often enough to know most of the ropes.  So why do I get the jitters before a big trip?  Among the worries that crop up are the usual suspects - have I packed everything I need?  Did I leave anything undone at the office?  But these are things that are easily remedied; you can buy what you need almost anywhere these days, and a phone call or email can deal with office problems.  I wake up at 4:30, then 5:30; my mind races again through what I want to take with me.  Even when I'm sure I've got it nailed, I have some undefined anxiety that keeps me from my usually imperturbable sleep.  So what is it?

Nearly every trip, in some way - maybe small, maybe great - is an encounter with the Other.  There is very likely something waiting for you that you don't anticipate and that you wouldn't know how to deal with if you did.  It could be driving on the opposite side of the road, food you don't recognize, an incomprehensible language, weird toilets.  Or it could be much more profound, something in yourself that you don't recognize; you could be a modern Marlow chugging up the Congo to confront Kurtz.  The horror!  Sooner or later, you will have to deal with something completely outside your experience; you will confront the Not You.

What we do when we travel is to go, in some degree, beyond the familiar.  If we don't, then I'd argue that there isn't really any travel involved (see my prior post about the difference between travel and tourism). I'm hearing it just tonight as we sit in the kitchen talking about the upcoming trip.  Kira is remembering that two friends who came with us to Kolkata last year had been apprehensive about wandering through the New Market, a vast covered warren of shops of all kinds, from jewelers to butchers, where you're hectored and cajoled at every turn.  It's neither dangerous nor unfriendly, but it's a sensory onslaught.  They went.  "Yes!" I think, "they were traveling!"

On this trip, which starts tomorrow, New Year's Day 2012, we'll be traveling in Laos, Vietnam and India.  It finally occurs to me that the jitters come from being eager to be on my way; once I'm out the door, they melt away.  It's the waiting that makes me jittery.  I'm not apprehensive about being in any of these places - even Laos is pretty much on the beaten track - but I'm sure that the Other is waiting, and I'm anxious to meet it.       

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Power

So I'm home, tucking into my second bottle of wine after a meal of reheated take-out from last night, and trying to figure out how to shoehorn a little bagatelle about the big Northeast power outage into a blog ostensibly about travel.  Let's see . . . I had to travel from my office to get home; being without power for three days is a kind of journey . . . The journey is a sturdy metaphor; it will surely bear the weight of this silly note.

We lost it last Saturday, a little after 1pm.  The snow was a distraction.  It was coming down like freight containers - fat heavy flakes that stacked up on anything that was even vaguely horizontal.  And the novelty, too - this storm came before Halloween.  I wonder if the kids struggled with this conundrum; candy or snow.  It kept coming and piling up, and after a while we came around to grudging admiration for the weather forecasters for getting this one right.  (There is little that compares to the manic glee of the weather forecaster who breaks the news to you that your life is going to get miserable).  And at a little after 1pm, everything electric died.

No worries, we thought.  It isn't like a blizzard.  It was concerning, though, that every snow-coated tree branch was pointing down at the ground.  Then came the popping and cracking of branches being stripped off their trunks, and the thuds of next year's firewood hitting the ground.  Maybe this was going to be a bit of a problem after all.

Without TV and internet, we had no idea what was happening outside our own backyards.  We went to bed in the dark and didn't think about it.  It wasn't until Sunday morning, when we woke to still no power, and the coffee jones impelled us towards Starbucks, that we pushed open the front door into a weird snowscape.  Jeannie said it looked like Hollywood had sprayed everything to make some other season appear to be winter.  After we shoveled the driveway - and this, in October, was keenly irritating - I took my car around the local streets.  At least I tried.  Everywhere branches were strewn like splintered tinker-toy sticks; uprooted trees leaned against power lines, forked branches hung from them; I slithered my car under cables that drooped low across the street and forged ahead until I came upon a huge tree laid across the whole roadway and had to turn back.  And all this within a half-mile of the house.

It was no better anywhere.  I drove to my own house through the storm's bizarre aftermath.  I made it down several streets that were open only because the police hadn't had time to close them all yet.  In my chilly family room I lit the wood stove and took stock.  I had lots of wood in the garage.  I had, by chance, bought a case of spring water the last time I ventured to Costco.  I had a gas range, and matches.  My son had already buried stuff from the refrigerator in the snow on the deck.  And there was plenty more snow to melt for water.  What I also had was a generator that has never worked when I needed it to.  I last ran it during Irene, and it fried nearly everything electronic in my house.  This, too, was keenly irritating.

Jeannie and Will drove up later with a pot of fantastic soup she had made the day before.  We heated it up and ate in the light of a bank of candles.  The wood stove raised the temperature to 60 degrees, and the glow of the fire and the candlelight made the whole scene pretty pleasant, like camping inside.  But Jeannie and Will left for home, and reality set in as I piled the dishes in the sink under the faucet that didn't work.  I sat by the fire until I couldn't see the point of doing that anymore, and then went in to get ready for bed.

By now, my room was about 45 degrees.  Fahrenheit.  I thought briefly about just getting into bed fully clothed, but I really needed to wash my face.  Washing your face with Poland Springs 1-liter bottles is probably about as expensive as going to the spa, but these were uncertain times and I needed some comfort.  Mumbling curses, I shivered into my hi-tech Patagonia underwear and socks, got under my down comforter, and slept like a baby, a baby that could have seen its breath had there been any light in the room.

I woke at dawn.  The room had actually warmed to 48 degrees, thanks to the wood stove as it waned during the night.  Still.  I wandered into the kitchen, grabbed one of the big pots, and stepped out onto the deck to fill it with snow.  I lit the range, and in fifteen minutes I had a pot of warm water.  My bath was drawn.  This next bit I will not describe in detail.  I will allow that I've seen people on the sidewalks of Kolkata doing approximately the same thing as I did over the next few minutes.  I should add that it is usually at least 70 degrees in Kolkata, and I have never seen anyone's teeth chattering there.  Once I finished this spastic facsimile of bathing, I dried myself and scrambled into my clothes.  I brushed my teeth as I do in far-flung places, using bottled water, and little of it.  And finally, hoisting the garage door carefully so as not to injure anything, I backed the car out, closed the door, and headed off to work, down the tree-strewn roads that looked no better than they did the day before.

All day Monday, while at my office, I checked the utility company website for news.  I discovered their "outage map" that showed my state divided into all 169 towns.  By floating my cursor over any town I could see how many customers the utility had in that town, how many were without power, and the percentage that the unfortunate ones represented.  The towns were color-coded by how badly off they were.  I noted glumly that my dark-shaded town was 91% without power.  In the southeastern corner of the state were a number of pale mustardy-yellow towns, where the number of customers without power was in the single digits and the fractional percentages had to go out several decimal places.  This was a source of some anxiety for me, as I watched my town's numbers for any movement.  There was none.  Somewhere, 9% of my neighbors were watching TV in their warm homes and taking hot baths not from pots of snow-water.  What had I done to displease the electricity gods?  Was buying my generator a kind of punishable idolatry?

I picked up take-out on my way home.  I made a fire in the wood stove when I got into my dark house. I lit a few candles, opened some wine, and ate in the wavering light.  This was not as magical as it had been the night before.  My son wasn't home; he had lit out for a bar with food, lights, heat - all the goodies - so I tried hard, unsuccessfully, to imagine that my solitude was somehow romantic.  I piled my dishes on top of the ones from the night before, under the faucet that not only still did not work, but mocked me with a gasping sound when I turned it on out of habit.  I sat in front of the fire and read The Snow Leopard (written by another guy pondering reality without a hot bath) until my flashlight died, and then went to bed.        

By Tuesday morning I was getting a little wild-eyed.  The pot-bath thing had lost what little charm it had.  At the office, I followed the outage map grimly, watching the numbers shift in the right direction, then in the wrong.  What were these guys doing?  Fixing stuff and then blowing it up again?  Late in the day, I figured out how to query the website for my own street address.  It responded that it knew of no power outage at that address.  I fought the urge to hope.  Might it be true?  At 4pm I rose from my desk and started home.  It was as though I'd set in motion a chain of events that couldn't be stopped until it ended in either success or disaster.  I gave no thought to stopping for food.  I plunged on inexorably towards light or darkness.

When I got off my highway exit, I saw that the traffic light at the end of the ramp glowed green.  My heart beat faster, but as soon as I turned I saw that the houses that lined the road ahead were all dark.  I took a breath and sought the zen mind as I rolled down the long hill.  Still no lights.  A mile further on, I turned again, and there they were!  Shaded lamps glowed behind half-closed curtains.  Driveway lampposts gleamed.  I was in the land of electricity.  I scarcely breathed all the way down the road that leads to my house.  When I made the final turn, and saw more lights, I knew that heat and hot water awaited me.  And so it was.

Surprisingly, it's not so easy to move on from this little side-trip away from the creature comforts I take for granted.  At least not tonight, in the first hours of their return.  What I keep thinking about is the guy on the sidewalk in Kolkata, bathing with his pot of water.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Livestrong - Hill Country Roads

Sunrise at the staging area
In the chilly morning half-light, I'm straddling my bright red road bike, trying not to shiver.  On either side of me, and in long lines before and behind me, are 2400 or so other cyclists, all of us impatient to get rolling.  Roger Hanks Park, in Dripping Springs, Texas, is transformed into a festival of tents, streamers, vendors and volunteers for the 2011 Livestrong Challenge.  I hear, but can't see, a DJ and some local poobahs up on the stage somewhere talking about what a great crowd we are and how important our fund-raising is to the fight against cancer.  I believe this, too, but I want to get moving and wish someone would just say, "GO!"  Then Lance speaks briefly, and he and his cohort are off.  I think wryly that they'll be finishing the 90-mile ride about the time I reach the third rest stop.  As I look around at the crowd, I vaguely sense a weight on my back and realize that I am still carrying my daypack full of sneakers and other things I want handy after the ride is over.  There's a bag check somewhere, but I have no idea where it is.  This is like the bad dream where I'm about to take an exam and realize I haven't been to class all semester; I have to tamp down my nerves.  I ask my son Matt to hold my bike and I hobble off in my bike shoes to find the bag check.

Not the ideal start, but minutes (seems like hours) later, I'm back just in time to hear, for real, the "GO!" I've been waiting for.  And in a slow shuffle, then gaining momentum, the mass of cyclists picks up speed and rolls out of the park.  Now I'm shivering helplessly.  I know it will get to 90 degrees later on, but I could really use a preview right about now.  There's a cool mist, like a fine, low cloud over the countryside.  The trees and fence-posts are soft-edged silhouettes against a gray background.  Cyclists all around me chatter among themselves.  Gears click and cassettes buzz like metal-voiced cicadas.  The first few miles descend gently down narrow roads, and the riders jockey and dart, the faster ones around the slower ones.  Occasionally we swoop down quickly into an arroyo and across the smooth concrete-slab bridge at the bottom.  The water is a mere trickle now, but vertical signs marked off in one-foot increments that stand next to the bridges indicate how deep the water can be during a flash flood.  A little farther on I hear a cry go up ahead; we've come to the first of a number of cattle grates - sets of parallel pipes across the road - that are only slightly less unfriendly to cyclists than they are to cows.  On a bike, you have to hit these straight across or risk going down in a heap.  In the mist, they're wet, too, which makes them even more slippery.  I don't see any casualties.  At ten miles or so, we come up suddenly on the first steep grade.  It isn't long at all, but most of the riders have been lulled by the level roads and are taken by surprise.  They slow and wobble, and some even have to stop.  I veer over to the far left of the roadway to keep up my cadence.  It's the first taste of "the burn" for the unprepared, and I wonder how they'll do later in the course when the climbs grind on and on.

I pull over at the first rest stop to fill my water bottles and grab some food.  Over the next few hours I know I'll burn nearly 5,000 calories, so I have to to eat every chance I get.  Rest stop food on this ride is great - PB&J's, bananas, orange slices, trail mixes, power bars, gatorade and water.  Okay, it isn't haute cuisine, but it tastes just as good.  I think about the start of the ride, when a doctor got on the microphone and made the shortest but most important speech of the opening ceremony:  "Sunscreen, eat, hydrate."  I smear on some more specially-formulated sunscreen that I bought the day before at the Livestrong village - it carries some organization's ranking as the best on the market.  It goes on like toothpaste, looks like warpaint.  Feeling sunscreened, fed and hydrated - and so very virtuous - I clip in and start cranking.  The crowd has thinned out some now, and I can get into my groove without risking a pile-up.

(photo by Matt Yerkes)
 (photo by Matt Yerkes)
The morning mist is thinning out and I can see a round hot sun peering through the fog that remains.  One of my water bottles is for drinking, the other is for dousing my head and back.  Not yet, but soon.  Right now it's comfortable.  I zoom down tree-lined roads that run along ranches.  Every so often I pass the end of a long driveway, flanked by gateposts that support an iron sign with the ranch's name.  Sometimes a family is sitting in lawn chairs at the end of the driveway, and they clap and ring cowbells and cheer as I ride by.  Some are set up for the day, with a cooler full of drinks and a tailgate picnic.  I feel a little self-conscious waving back to them, but they are the real deal in their enthusiasm.  Why would they be there otherwise, I ask myself.  I feel a warm thrill of connection with them for a second when I realize that there is surely someone they know or love whom this ride could be benefiting.  My legs feel fresher whenever I hear the cowbells clanking and the cheers.  I'm on top of the world.

Dedication wall . . . In Honor of . . . In Memory of . . .
In the quiet stretches I think about Theresa, my late wife, who died of cancer four years ago.  I've been riding in this event longer than that, but it surely means something else for me since the disease broke into our lives and stole so much.  I've come very far since those first heartsick days.  This ride is a joyful way to honor her memory and to help others in their heartsick times.  I see amazing things here, people undergoing chemo who walk or ride, entire families riding, a team that rode all the way from Calgary to get here.  Spirit and community.  It's both humbling and inspiring.

I arrive at the 37-mile rest stop, where riders who want to go 90 miles must get to within three hours of the start or be diverted to the 65-mile course.  I'm there in plenty of time and graze the food tables for a while before starting off again.  I know that the next 30 miles have some long grades to climb, and the roads are not the best.  At least they weren't in prior years.  Let me pause for a minute and tell you about chip seal, or chip and seal, roads, in case you are not familiar with this farm country version of a road surface.  First, a thin layer of asphalt is laid down, and then it is covered with fine gravel and compacted with a roller.  I quote from Wikipedia:  "The rough surface causes noticeable increases in vibration and rolling resistance for bicyclists, and increased tire wear in all types of tires."  That is a good, basic description.  The adjectives "tooth-rattling" and "muscle-numbing" also come to mind.  Not to mention what the incessant buzz does to your more sensitive parts.  The first 37 miles of the ride have been more or less all on this surface, and the prospect of another 53 miles of it is something I put out of my mind.  Imagine the thrill I feel when shortly after taking off again I reach an intersection, and the road I turn onto is freshly paved with beautiful, serene blacktop.  I hear the other riders within earshot moaning in almost sexual bliss, as I just have, as they hit the glass-smooth surface.  Pickup trucks and cars roar by on this main road, but they give us wide berth and I don't care at all about the noise or the buffeting as they pass.  This road is a gift.  It lasts until we are 65 miles in. 

Fine facilities
The 65-mile stop is the western-most outpost of the course, in the town of Blanco.  The countryside is in full, blazing sun now, and my tingling skin reminds me to smear on some more sun-paste.  The gang manning the stop is rowdy and ready for fun and I feel even better than when I started.  The cold mist seems like a memory from another time and place.  I notice that there are no lines at the porta-potties here; people are not following the good doctor's third commandment.  I must be, since I have to use one.  I look at my watch and have to look again; how can I be making such good time?  I thank the county again for the newly paved road, and eat and drink, then eat and drink some more.  I recognize some of the volunteers at the food tables from the village yesterday.  They're members of Texas 4000, a group of University of Texas students that does a ride from Austin to Anchorage every year to raise funds for cancer research.  Each member of this team raises $4500 dollars, one dollar for every mile ridden.  I thank them for volunteering for Livestrong, and they seem a little embarrassed to be acknowledged.  Their attitude says, without saying it out loud, that it's the least they can do for the cancer patients they're raising funds for.

Haulin the last 25 on chip seal
My spirits are high as I get on the bike again, but the legs are starting to ache now.  This 65-mile point is always the hardest mentally for me when I'm riding a century.  We're back on the old chip seal again, but I keep the vibration to a minimum by riding where car tires have compressed the surface the most.  This part of the course is a testing ground of rolling hills - a long way up, a long charge down - over and over.  The worst part is that you can see the uphill climbs coming from a long way off, and at a distance they look almost vertical.  After a while, I feel pummeled.  Oh please, not another one!  But I've got a new strategy since last year.  When I train, and in years past when I ride an event, I try never to drop out of the big chain ring.  It means I exert a lot more muscle power going up hills, but I go faster in the bigger gear.  This year I'm using the smaller ring on the long climbs and keeping a steady cadence (revolutions of the pedals).  It requires less muscle effort but I roll along more slowly.  Unless I can work a fast cadence to make up for it.  And it works.  My legs like the fast steady pace better than the shorter, brutal assaults, and I think I make better time overall.

I begin to recognize the scenery again, as the last part of the course retraces the roads where it started.  It's in bright sun now rather than the cold fog, and I'm riding it in reverse, so the climbs are now descents, and the descents are now climbs.  And now I'm nearing the end, and not facing the whole course as I was this morning.  My legs are complaining, but I know I'm nearing the end of the course.  I come onto an electronic highway sign that warns drivers of a "Special Event Ahead," and shortly past that I see the crowds and the finish line.  It's an inflated archway over the road.  I enter the chute.  Local high school girls in Livestrong T-shirts and skirts jump around like cheerleaders (maybe they are!) and an announcer welcomes me across the finish line, telling the crowd my name and that I come "all the way from Connecticut."  "Not very many riders from New England," he comments, as I turn out of the chute towards the cool-down area.  I coast to a stop, unclipping my shoes and straddling the bike for a second while I get my bearings.  A woman points me to the cool-zone, a little inflated structure with mist-sprayers that you go through like a car through a car-wash.  A girl on the other side hands me a small towel soaked in ice-water that I drape around my neck, and this feels impossibly good, even better than the smooth road did.  I greedily take another icy-cold towel for my face.  I have that complete, mind-body giddiness of accomplishment and exhaustion and relief and pleasure.  (Yes, I know what that sounds like, and this is the next best thing.)  I open my eyes, and I'm back in Roger Hanks Park.

Matt is there waiting for me, having already used his ticket for a free beer.  [This turns out to be something called Michelob Ultra, which is as far from beer as I can imagine.  How is it legal to call this stuff beer?]  I check my watch and I'm astonished to see that I've beaten my previous best time by 20 minutes.  Whose legs are these, anyway?  Can I keep them?  I leave my bike at the corral and swap my riding shoes for my sneakers.  Matt and I then go off to the food tent for some incredibly good tacos, rice and refried beans.  I'm not worried about eating another big meal in a couple of hours.  Our traditional post-ride meal is at the County Line restaurant, where we dig into barbecue and beer and watch a Hill Country sunset.  This is just one more reason why we go all the way to Austin for this event.  People sometimes ask me why we go to all the effort to fly down there, take our bikes apart, ship them, put them together again, and so on.  There is a Livestrong ride a lot closer to home than Austin.  It's in Philadelphia.  Philly.  Think about it.

I won't feel the ache in my legs for another two days.  I'm on a cloud after the ride.  We collectively raised over $2.4 million for the cause.  I rode my best time yet.  Everything feels like the best - the cold towel around my neck, the food, the drive back to town, the Austin skyline in the late afternoon light, the long hot shower, the first sip of a cold long-neck, horsing around with my son, the spicy ribs, the cool sheets I fall asleep between.