Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East (and a catch-up note)

June started out so promising: four blog post in the first two weeks!  But then life got busy.  I am now down near Savannah searching for a place to live as I am moving back (after nearly 3 decades) to the land of heat and humid and sand gnats, but also some of the most beautiful low country marsh you can imagine!  And I'm excited about the new opportunity.

Tiziano Terzari, A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East  (Nook Edition, English translation 1997)

     In 1976, a year after the fall of Saigon, Terzari, the late an Italian journalist who lived much of his adult life in Asia, was told by a fortune-teller that he should not fly during the year 1993.  Although he didn't believe in fortune-telling, the specific warning stayed with him and as 1993 began to draw near, he decided to spend the year traveling on the ground.  This book tells of his journeys that year as well as bringing to life the richness and the challenges of Asia as the 20th century drew to a close.  Having travelled along many of the same paths two decades later, I was fascinated with Terzaris insight, saddened by some of his findings, and amused by his humor.  
     Terzari experience in Asia as a journalist included being one of the few Westerners to have experienced both the fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam.  His life almost ended at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  He was being set against a wall in Poipet to be shoot and it was only at the last minute, through his basic knowledge of Chinese, that his life was spared.  In 1993, at the time of elections in Cambodia, he once again visited that wall. (275)  Terzari began his year on the ground in Cambodia reporting on the United Nation's investigation of Khmer war crimes.  Having stopped flying, he was replaced with another correspondent who was in a helicopter crash.  Luckily, no one was killed, but the news of the crash gave Terzari a moment to reflect on the possibility.
     I was drawn to Terzaris idea of traveling on the ground for so long, especially after having travelled overland in Southeast Asia in 2011.  However, at first, I was taken back when Terzari seemed to build his trip around visits to fortune-tellers in Asia.  Every place he visited, he sought out a fortune-teller and began to compare notes and fortunes.  Unlike the West, Terzari says, Asia remained superstitious long after the West.  Communistic governments often tried to stamp out foretelling, even though as Terzari notes, many top officials even consulted foretellers before making major decisions.(85)  He even suggested one of the West's failure in its counter-espionage efforts in Southeastern Asia came from its lack of understanding the role astrology plays in Asian decision-making.(87)  From my own experience, I remember being shocked of Korean Christians consulting shamans for the best date to get married (although such a practice may not be any worse than picking your date based on the availability of the best banquet hall). 
     Terzari, I should note, outside of not flying in 1993, doesn't put much stock in the advice he receives. "One shouldn't put too much faith in fortune-tellers, at least not where details are concerned," he writes. (331)  He is interested in the different ways the art is practiced which makes his travels informative.
     Terzari spent most of 1993 traveling from his home in Bangkok.  He headed down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore, wandered his way around in Miramar/Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, China.  He then took a train from Asia to Europe to visit his home in Italy and took a freighter back to Asia.  Along the way he gains a renewed appreciation for travel:

Insights into travel; Travel is an art; and one must practice it in a relaxed way, with passion, with love.  I realized that after years of going about in airplanes I had unlearned the art-the only one I care about. (123).

Ironically I read the above quote while on an airplane!  Along the way, he often laments the changes going on in this part of the world.

Tibet, to protect its spirituality, for centuries forbade anyone to cross its borders; that is how it preserved its very special aura.  There it was the Chinese invasion that broke the spell; in the name of moderation, of course.  One of the most disturbing bits of news I have read in recent years is that he Chinese, to facilitate (what else?) tourist access, have decided to "modernize" the lighting of the Potala, the Dalai Lama's palace-temple, and have installed neon lights.  This is no accident: neon kills everything, even the gods.  And as they die, the Tibetan identity gradually dies with them.  (31)

While traveling on a container ship, he laments the lost of ships shapely elegance, and how technology has stolen poetry from a life at sea. (366, 368)
     He often employs a dry sarcastic humor.  Reporting on the work of the United Nations in Cambodia, he speaks of the various nations with troops there and their own baggage: "Indonesians responsible for massacres in Timor, Thais who have murdered unarmed protesters in Bangkok, and the police from various African dictators. (262)
     Terzani appears concern that the Chinese are dominating much of Asia (it's an age old battle as Chinese have outposts all over the region).  When visiting a Malay fortune-teller, the man told of his past life.  When asking for details, the man said:
That I do not see...  The great majority of my clients are Chinese, and if I started talking about their previous lives I would go bankrupt.  The Chinese do not care about past lives, only this life; they are interested in making money, and what they want to know is how far they can go in cheating their customers and deceiving their friends." (347)

Terzani suggested his fortune-teller friend was "another victim of the prosaic character of the times, and of the diaspora Chinese!" (347) I wondered if Terzani bias had something to do with having once been expelled from China.  Yet, in Malaysia I did see how the local Malay people were fearful of the Chinese as they tended to be the minority with the money and influence.
     Another change he finds troubling is how Western Capitalism is changing the culture.

Projecting itself as the only true model of human progress, the West has managed to give a massive inferiority complex to those who are not 'modern' in its imagenot even Christianity accomplished this, and now dumping all that is unknown in order to adopt all that is Western...  (64-65)

At another place, he laments finding karaoke (Japanese capitalism is essentially western capitalism) in the middle of a Burmese jungle and I was reminded of my own experiences in a karaoke bar in Mongolia. (366)  Terzani also calls Singapore the "Bethlehem of the great new religion of consumerism." (171)          Although Terzani explores religious beliefs along the way and compares them to the faith of his childhood, he never seems interested in religion even though he does end his question with a boot-camp on mediation that was taught by an ex-CIA American Buddhist. (376)  He seems to have a great appreciation for Buddhism and likes how the faith tradition prohibits bragging about one's progress in mediation. (384) 
     I enjoyed this book and (although a bit dated and at times Terzani can be a little condescending) recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Southeast Asia and the role various forms of fortune-telling plays within society there.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Rolling a kayak

Where's Sage?  He's underwater!  What's he doing there?
Sage rolling a kayak near a boat launch (the boat behind me was waiting to take out)
 A few weeks ago, when I paddled the stretch of the Thornapple that ends at Thornapple Lake, I decided the water had warmed enough for me to attempt to roll my kayak.  I took my shirt off and handed my camera to my friend, Jerry, and found a place where there were no weeds and over I went.  I was like riding a bike as my paddle moved into position (an upside down high brace) as I pushed my knees into the deck of the boat and swung my hips and the boat popped back up.  Just to make sure it wasn't a fluke, I did it another few times.  It was just like riding a bike!

Coming back up
When I was in college, I used to paddle a lot of white water in kayaks and rolling was a necessity.  Glad I can still do it as it is also a good way too cool off on a hot day.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Tribute (or memories of an Ex)

Debbie 1987
A few weeks ago, I learned through Facebook that Debbie lost her battle with cancer.  I started to collect some memories of my time with her and finally got around to finishing them… Hey, this month isn't half over and I've already published more than any other month this year!

Debbie was beautiful.  She turned heads with her broad smile, big eyes and hardy laugh. She wore flowing dresses with heels that clicked and gave shape to her calves.  And she was the Deans secretary.  I was in my first year of graduate school and I never thought she would have been interested in me, but a month before school ended for the summer, she invited me to Sunday evenings dinner.  Wanting to make a good impression, I brought along a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse.   I learned she seldom drank, but she did seem impressed and suggested we open the bottle and celebrate. Then there was the problem of a corkscrew.  She didn't have one in her apartment and suggested she might borrow one for a neighbor but I told her I thought I had a solution and ran out to my car.  Ever the Boy Scout, I had a Swiss-army knife that had a corkscrew attachment in my glove compartment.   

On Easter Sunday, I was invited to dinner with her family on Pittsburgh's Southside.  When we arrived into her parents home, her brothers were watching a documentary on a race car driver. Elliott Forbes-Robinson.  Although I had never been a big fan of racing, I actually knew him.  When I was working for the Boy Scouts, he was an assistant Scoutmaster on a troop on Lake Norman.  I recalled the story of meeting him, at a scout camp.  When he told me he was a race car driver, I asked if he raced at Hickory speedway.  Hickory was a step up from the dirt tracks of the South, but most of the drivers were still amateurs.  No, he said, I have not raced there.  Where do you race? I asked.  He started listing off an impressive list of cities with Cam-Am and such races and I stood there thinking, "Yeah, right, and I'm Daniel Boone."  I later learned that he really was a race car driver, although at the time he didn't drive NASCAR, he did drive those fancy cars and was one of the top drivers in the world.  He had a boy in scouts and as he wasn't racing at that week, had camped out with the troop.  Telling the story, Debbie's brothers learned that I really wasn't a racing fan, but they were impressed that I had personally met one of the greats.

Over the next few weeks, we began having lunch together in the dining hall and went out every weekend.  I suggested a Saturday afternoon baseball game and she was up for it.  When I arrived to pick her up, she handed me two tickets!  I didn't know what to say, but as a poor student was thankful.  Then I looked at the seats and was humbled.  Her brother worked for one of the high-end hotels in Pittsburgh and they had tickets that no one had claimed so he gave them to Debbie for us to enjoy.  We sat directly behind home plate, five rows up.  It'd never had such good seats for a major league game, nor have I had such good seats since.  You have to love a girl whose brother arranges to cover the expenses of the date. 

Later that evening, Debbie and I walked up a hill and held hands as we watched the sun set.  I felt as if I was the luckiest man in the world.

Debbie was close to her family and on another weekend, she and her brothers had given their mother a evening ride in a balloon across Southwestern Pennsylvania.  When the mother got in the basket with a few other sightseers and a pilot, we raced along the countryside following the balloon until they finally set down in a cow pasture and we retrieved her mother.  This would be a lot easier today, with cell phones, but this was 1987.

The day I left school at the end of the semester, we had breakfast together at a local King's Restaurant.  I wanted to do something special and had purchased some of her favorite perfume, hoping that as she used it she would remember me during the summer.  She seemed pleased and we even talked about her meeting up with me in Delaware Water Gap as I hiked the Appalachian Trail.  Although we were not in a committed relationship, we talked about picking up where we were at in September.  After breakfast, I drove to my parents in North Carolina and a week later, I started my summer hike from Virginia to Maine.  At first, she wrote and seemed excited when I called, but as I continued to hike, I heard less and less from her.  I knew something was up.  Even though I had started hiking with the thoughts of coming back to her arms, I realized this was not going to be the case.  When I arrived back at school, I was on cloud nine, having just finished my summer hike, essentially completing the Appalachian Trail completed (I still had a 25 mile section to do).  That first day everyone seemed concerned about how I was going to take being dropped, but I had given up on her mid-way through the summer.  I learned she had connected with someone at a summer wedding (they may had known each other before) and was engaged.  One of the kindness things that happened was the Dean inviting me out to lunch.  He, too, was concerned with how I was handling things, but we mostly talked about my hike as my head was still in the mountains. After a summer of hiking, our short romance seemed light-years away.

A few years ago, Debbie sent me a message and a friendship request via Facebook.   A quarter century had passed as she left her position as the Deans secretary shortly after I'd returned from hiking the trail.  We chatted a few times and I learned her marriage had been horrible and she had spent most of her life on her own, but that she was blessed with a couple of boys who are now adults.  She apologized for having treated me horribly.  I thanked her for the apology, but told her my life had continued on and was going well.  Then she told me about the breast cancer.  Over the years since that chat, I would occasionally learn through Facebook about how each new treatment was less effective.  But she was strong in her faith and always maintained a positive outlook, but at times she'd ask for prayers and I would pray.  In early May, the disease finally took her and I found myself shedding tears.  She was a beautiful woman who was so proud of her boys (her sons and her brothers).  I felt a small piece of their pain.      

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Remember Mattress Police? Rob Kroese published a sci-fi comedy

Rob signing my copy of Starship Grifters
I am sure that some of you remember Diesel who used to blog at Mattress Police.  It was one of the more humorous blogs around.  A number of years ago, Diesel (whose real name is Rob Kroese) shifted his focus from writing blogs to books.  I reviewed his first book, Mercury Falls, Mercury is an even more unlikely angel than Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life.  He’s been sent to earth to bring about Armageddon, but decides he likes life here too much that he stalls for time.  Rob has done well as an author.  His first book was self-published and has sold over 60,000 copies!  Since then, Rob has published a number of other books, having been picked up by 47 North , the science fiction publishing arm of Amazon.   He has also moved from California to Grand Rapids.  On Friday evening, there was a grand kickoff for his newest book, Starship Grifters (a sci-fi comedy).  As the ballroom at the Amway Grand was already booked (this being wedding season, after all), Rob held the shindig at the condo’s clubhouse and enlisted his mother to prepare the snacks (wonderful meatballs).  There was also a good beer selection which naturally drew me up to the big city for the gathering.   Congratulations, Rob.  Keep us laughing!

By the way, Rob reportedly sold the domain for Mattress Police to an inspection service within the mattress industry…  

Friday, June 06, 2014

Spring Scenes Along the Thornapple

I've taken six trips along the Thornapple River in my new (used) kayak during April and May and decided to post a number of photos.  Here, you can watch as the trees slowly over themselves with leaves and see some of the animals I saw (those I was able to capture through the lens of a camera).  Enjoy.

Charlton Park is at the west end of Thornapple Lake.  The created "village" serves as a museum of the way things use to be.
In early April, there were tons of turtles out sunning themselves.  Now you don't see quite as many.