Thursday, February 15, 2018

Tourism Times Ten

It was simply a wondrous day. First off, the sun was out and the weather turned warm and I felt like a dark-dayed-winter-bound Finnish person thawing out in the Spring and flowering into some long-buried version of myself. Secondly, I was completely done with my third class and had the possibility of switching to “nothing in particular to do but savor and enjoy the moment” mode. Thirdly, I stumble upon a delightful informal group sing in a park along the river (nice to see water), the kind of simple event that warms my heart. And most remarkable of all, I saw the most astounding live Chinese lion dance—heck, one of the most astounding dances period!— I have ever seen in my life.

This the old style of travel that burst open my heart, mind and imagination in the late 70’s, when traveling to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and beyond meant entering worlds resplendent with centuries of cultural development about as different from my Leave It to Beaver New Jersey childhood as a world could be. In the southern state of Kerala, India, awakening in the midst of an all-night performance of other-worldy costumed dancer-actors acting out an ancient story from the Ramayana quite different from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, with musicians singing with clanging cymbals in ancient Sanskrit and two drummers playing staccato unfamiliar rhythms on two drums I never new existed and then going off to the edge of a field to pee and finding an elephant lying down sleeping there. Well, let’s just say I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

And so it continued as I came to know Rangda, the child-eating witch in Bali, watching people in trance stab themselves with sharp swords with all their might and the blades not penetrating, witnessing a cremations ceremony, walking through the monkey forest with the monkeys trying to steal my bag of fruit. Not exactly like a stroll through downtown San Francisco. And on to the eerie Noh theater of Japan, folk dancing in a Bon Odori festival honoring the ancestors, feeling transported by the rock gardens of ancient temples and Buddhas everywhere instead of Christ.

And throughout it all, no expectation that people would speak English (except India), the pantomimed communications, the incomprehensible written scripts in train stations with no English translations, no communication with back home beyond those thin-papered blue Aerogrammes, no familiar music played in restaurants, not a single recognizable brand-name store, all of this before Starbucks was even a gleam in the CEO’s eye. It was occasionally maddeningly difficult, but by relying on the kindness of strangers, who almost always came through, our own instincts and the constant surprise of serendipity and the way the world seemed to lean in our favor, each day was alive with excitement, possibility, promise. It simply was glorious.

Now English-speaking hosts take care of my every need, every hotel has wi-fi and hot water, I spend my workshop days with my own familiar material in worlds of my own creation, I can choose an afternoon Starbucks frapuccino, I ride in cars or Ubers or taxis. At the temple yesterday, with hundreds watching the lion dance, I realized I was literally the only white-skinned Westerner in the crowd and nobody cared— a big contrast to the ongoing stares, the hawkers, the beggars and children screaming in India of 40 years ago.

Well, the world has moved to a different place and there was nothing I could do about it and like all changes, something is lost and something is gained. But the Lion Dance was a perfect example of an old tradition (which ironically, is actually a part of the American San Francisco culture and something we’ve done with the kids at my school) kept intact and performed at a level that just had to be seen to be believed.

And I am grateful that I saw it.


It was simply a wondrous day. First off, the sun was out and the weather turned warm and I felt like a dark-dayed-winter-bound Finnish person thawing out in the Spring and flowering into some long-buried version of myself. Secondly, I was completely done with my third class and had the possibility of switching to “nothing in particular to do but savor and enjoy the moment” mode. Thirdly, I stumble upon a delightful informal group sing in a park along the river (nice to see water), the kind of simple event that warms my heart. And most remarkable of all, I saw the most astounding live Chinese lion dance—heck, one of the most astounding dances period!— I have ever seen in my life.

This the old style of travel that burst open my heart, mind and imagination in the late 70’s, when traveling to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and beyond meant entering worlds resplendent with centuries of cultural development about as different from my Leave It to Beaver New Jersey childhood as a world could be. In the southern state of Kerala, India, awakening in the midst of an all-night performance of other-worldy costumed dancer-actors acting out an ancient story from the Ramayana quite different from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, with musicians singing with clanging cymbals in ancient Sanskrit and two drummers playing staccato unfamiliar rhythms on two drums I never new existed and then going off to the edge of a field to pee and finding an elephant lying down sleeping there. Well, let’s just say I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

And so it continued as I came to know Rangda, the child-eating witch in Bali, watching people in trance stab themselves with sharp swords with all their might and the blades not penetrating, witnessing a cremations ceremony, walking through the monkey forest with the monkeys trying to steal my bag of fruit. Not exactly like a stroll through downtown San Francisco. And on to the eerie Noh theater of Japan, folk dancing in a Bon Odori festival honoring the ancestors, feeling transported by the rock gardens of ancient temples and Buddhas everywhere instead of Christ.

And throughout it all, no expectation that people would speak English (except India), the pantomimed communications, the incomprehensible written scripts in train stations with no English translations, no communication with back home beyond those thin-papered blue Aerogrammes, no familiar music played in restaurants, not a single recognizable brand-name store, all of this before Starbucks was even a gleam in the CEO’s eye. It was occasionally maddeningly difficult, but by relying on the kindness of strangers, who almost always came through, our own instincts and the constant surprise of serendipity and the way the world seemed to lean in our favor, each day was alive with excitement, possibility, promise. It simply was glorious.

Now English-speaking hosts take care of my every need, every hotel has wi-fi and hot water, I spend my workshop days with my own familiar material in worlds of my own creation, I can choose an afternoon Starbucks frapuccino, I ride in cars or Ubers or taxis. At the temple yesterday, with hundreds watching the lion dance, I realized I was literally the only white-skinned Westerner in the crowd and nobody cared— a big contrast to the ongoing stares, the hawkers, the beggars and children screaming in India of 40 years ago.

Well, the world has moved to a different place and there was nothing I could do about it and like all changes, something is lost and something is gained. But the Lion Dance was a perfect example of an old tradition (which ironically, is actually a part of the American San Francisco culture and something we’ve done with the kids at my school) kept intact and performed at a level that just had to be seen to be believed.

And I am grateful that I saw it.

(Feb. 13) 

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