April 2013


Monkey and Prayer Flags, originally uploaded by bexadler.

A couple of weeks ago I read an interesting article in The New York Times about “thin places,” which are places where the space between heaven and earth is said to be thinnest. Many of these places are famous religious places, where people feel more at peace than in their regular days. What I liked about this article, though, was that the author argued that thin places can exist anywhere and at anytime. They do not necessarily have to be related to something spiritual or to a religion. Instead, thin places are different for all people. The thing that is the same about them is the feeling that comes over you when you find yours, he writes. But you won’t know it until you find it.

I feel like I spent most of my life looking for such a place. When I was a child, I was a part of a very strict religion, but I always felt like I was part of a charade. I would sit in churches and temples and look around at all of the people praying and totally on board with everything going on and I would think, “Is there something wrong with me? I just don’t get it.” For years, before I finally left the church, I refused to say prayers in church or give talks during sacrament because I felt like such a fraud and I worried that saying a prayer or saying things in church that I didn’t believe in would somehow give me bad karma. Alas, I never did find a “thin place” in any of those churches or temples when I was younger and I had almost completely forgotten about those experiences until I read this article because the article reminded me of a moment when I did finally have that feeling. It happened in Kathmandu, Nepal, just a few months ago.

When I first arrived in Kathmandu, it felt just like any other big city in Asia – crowded, dirty, and polluted. Unlike other Asian cities though, it grew on me almost immediately. I attribute this to the friendliness of the people in Nepal, but I also enjoyed the quaint alleyways and delicious food I had been missing so much in my home in China. For the first couple of days I just explored the city and looked for information about going hiking in the Himalayas because I was waiting on my friend Mathieu to arrive from Switzerland and didn’t want to do all of the touristy things a second time. On my third day there, I was supposed to go to the airport to meet Mathieu, but he missed his flight and so would not be arriving until the next day. Having extra time on my hands, I decided to make my way to Swayambhunath, colloquially known as Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of monkeys that hang around it all day.

On my first night a couple of Aussies had told me it was easy to walk there, even though the hoteliers kept telling me it was necessary to take a taxi. I decided to believe the Aussies and got up early for the walk to avoid the heat. It took about 45 minutes for me to walk there, in part because of a detour (I have no sense of direction whatsoever), so the Aussies were correct. Walking there was no big deal, although you have to walk through a lot of filthy streets and past a bunch of stall owners trying to sell all manner of wares. The further I got from the tourist center though, the more people just left me alone, mostly because, it seemed, none of them spoke any English.

Swayambhunath is a Buddhist temple that sits atop a large hill. I knew I had arrived when I saw all of the little sellers carts selling random tourist kitsch. In addition to trying to avoid them, I was trying to steer clear of the monkeys, who were quite aggressive. One even started stalking me when it saw me opening my backpack. I assume he thought there was food in there. All the way up the 300 or so steps to the top, there were people selling things. As it was still my first days in Nepal a couple of them even managed to get me to stop and look. and one convinced me to buy a little carved wooden elephant for about 50 cents.

When I got to the top the hubbub was in full force. There were people doing their morning religious practices, getting marked with ochre on their foreheads, others circling the stupa in the clockwise direction to turn the prayer wheels. There were bells ringing, sellers hawking goods all around the square, and, of course, monkeys and pigeons everywhere. It was the last place on earth I would have thought I would have had a peaceful moment. But a peaceful moment, I did have.

I turned a corner and saw some steps leading down to another part of the temple complex. Sitting there was a man selling memory cards and batteries for cameras, and a monkey resting in the sunshine. Looking out, I could see Kathmandu lost among the haze of smog hanging over the city. After a few steps though, I was by myself with nothing to look at but the view and some prayer flags swaying in the breeze. I took a picture of the prayer flags and then stood there for a moment to admire the view. Standing there, watching the prayer flags, I suddenly felt completely at peace. I waited there a minute or two longer hoping the moment wouldn’t be fleeting, and as I was standing there I remember thinking, “So this is why so many people make the pilgrimage to Nepal.”

I feel like I spent the rest of my trip chasing that moment, hoping it would reoccur. As I was walking through the Himalayas I would stop regularly to admire the prayer flags and I always found them beautiful, in part because they reminded me of that moment. But I never did recapture that feeling. However, even now, looking back on it I can remember that peaceful feeling I had there and am grateful I had it.

Taking in the View, originally uploaded by bexadler.

I am what most people might categorize as a traveler. In the past ten years I have spent more time away from home than in it. This is true. I love seeing the world through a different lens and experiencing new cultures for myself, rather than just reading about them in books. Also, true. I don’t own much in this world that can’t be carried on my back, and I would quickly drop $1,000 on a plane ticket, whereas I would have to seriously consider spending $25 to go see a doctor for my regular checkup. Yes, my priorities are weird to most people. Those who do not live a traveling life often do not get me. It is something I have fought with friends and family over for years. I think many of us traveler types do.

But here’s a little secret: I hate being lumped in with all of the other travelers. I read travel blogs here and there. Sometimes they are interesting, and often they give me new ideas for places to go or things to see, but for the most part they just really annoy me. Travelers have to be some of the most pretentious assholes on the planet. They post these fabulous travel photos and write with exclamation points and flowery words describing the beauty of all of the places they visit, as if they’ve never had a bad travel day in their lives. They try to convince everyone that travel is the only way to live life, in the same way that so many people have tried to convince me that I don’t need to travel to enjoy my life. For realsies, to me, they come across like evangelical Christians trying to convert the masses to their way of life. There seems to be no sense of reality among the traveler types.

So let’s get real. If you are a long-term traveler, I guarantee that many of your days are either frustrating or uneventful. It’s carrying your pack from buses to trains to hostels to subways to more buses in heat and rain and snow and mud and crowds. It’s no air conditioning, no sheets, food you don’t recognize, no electricity some days, not being able to find drinking water, and taking cold showers. It’s making new friends constantly, only to see them move on to a new city a few days later. It’s feeling sad, lonely, frustrated, joyful, angry, confused, and lost. It isn’t always full of fun and glamour, as the pictures may suggest. I get sweaty and tired and irritated all the time – just like I do at home. The one thing that makes it worthwhile for me is knowing that every day is going to be an adventure, which is something I like. But I know that lifestyle is not for everyone.

It seems that other travelers have forgotten this. They seem to want everyone to be just like them, even though they get irritated by non-travelers always wanting them to be “normal.” I read articles all the time imploring people to travel because it is the best thing they’ll ever do with their lives and on and on and on. I agree, travel has been AMAZING for me. I would not go back and change any of it. But there are people, like my best friends back home, and my little sister, for whom travel means taking a two-week vacation every year to go visit family, or go to Hawaii, or visit the Grand Canyon. And that is OK. It’s more than OK. They are happy with their lives and I often envy them for being able to be so content with their mortgages and pets and children.

For people who are considering long-term travel, yes, you should go. Without a doubt, I think that if you have been talking for years about taking a trip around the world or taking three months off to travel South America, you should absolutely do it. You will always wonder what it would have been like and you may never get the opportunity to do it later in your life. Do not worry about money, or your job, or your other responsibilities. They will all be waiting for you when you get back. I promise. But if travel is not your thing, don’t let these pretentious travel types make you think that you are missing out on something. If travel is not your thing, picking up a backpack and going to some godforsaken place where you don’t really want to be is not going to suddenly turn you into a traveler. Instead, it will most likely confirm for you that you are not a traveler. Embrace your two weeks of vacation and make them fun and glamorous, and call it a day. I’m pretty sure most people don’t need to stay in a flea-ridden hostel in India to say that they’ve lived.

My Elderly Neighbors, originally uploaded by bexadler.

China, for the most part, is a homogenous society, as is much of the world outside of the United States. For this reason, foreigners here stand out like a sore thumb. In China, this is especially exaggerated because China was closed to foreigners for such a long time, and has only recently embraced tourism and the opening of its borders to foreigners. And so it is that if you have ever wondered what it would feel like to be an animal in a zoo, all you need to do is come to China. That is what I feel like at all times. People stare at me while I eat. They point at my hairy arms on the bus. They look into my grocery cart to see what it is I am buying. They nudge each other as I walk past on the street and ask each other, “Did you see the laowai?”

So it is no surprise that most people at my apartment complex recognize me when I am out and about. In the beginning I think they thought I was just here on vacation so they paid little attention to me (aside from the normal curiosity, as described above). But I’ve been living in this same apartment complex for nearly a year, and I think they’ve decided I’m sticking around, so they have begun to be friendly toward me. There are some real characters here and they are some of the few people who put a smile on my face in these dreary Shenyang days.

***

As you all know, I am a pretty hard-core runner. The Chinese do not run – at least not from what I can tell. And they definitely do not run when it is only 20F outside. This provides endless amusement to all of the residents in my apartment complex. When people see me they always say something in Chinese, which I do not understand, but I imagine to be, “Hey! You’re that crazy girl who’s always running around here, aren’t you?” I gather this from the jogging arm motions they make when they are talking to me and then pointing at me. I just say yes because I do not know what else to say. They seem satisfied with this response and move on.

Some of those who get the most amusement out of my daily jogs are a group of elderly people who I like to think of as my cheering committee (pictured above). These old folks, like many of the retirees in China, like to sit out in the sun playing cards and chattering on during the afternoons. Every time they see me come out in my running gear (and sometimes, even when I am in my work gear), they make the jogging motion and say a bunch of nonsense. Then they all laugh, and I go running. Each time that I pass them by, the old guy shouts something at me and they cheer. It makes me laugh and keeps me smiling throughout my run. I’m sure they are mocking me, but I do not care.

***

There are security guards at each entrance gate of our apartment complex. They wear camo fatigues and do military drills each morning. The drills are essentially them doing some jumping jacks and marching back and forth for 3 minutes. Each time that I pass them by on my morning runs, I cannot help but think how emasculating that must be for them (I’m sure it actually doesn’t bother them at all – they think I’m the crazy one). They have noticed though, and they always comment as well when I enter or leave the complex. If I am in my jogging attire, they make the jogging motion and are probably asking me how far I am going to run today, but I do not know what they are saying and so I just wave and move on. When I am in my normal clothes, they will say an exaggerated “Ni hao!” I assume it is supposed to be with a foreigner’s accent, but it sounds the same to me. I always say “Ni hao” back, and they, of course, laugh.

***

There is a little shop on the first floor of my building that is run by a husband and wife. They are THE sweetest people I have met here. When I returned to China after winter break, the first time I entered the shop, the man was so excited to see me, which is not a reaction I expected from anyone here, let alone the convenience store man. He grabbed my arm and led me to the back room, where I assume he and his wife live. I did not know what was going on, until he came back out carrying his brand new baby boy! He was such a proud papa and was overjoyed when I offered one of the few Chinese sentences I know: “Ta hen piao liang.” (He is beautiful.) While it is not correct at all, I think he understood my point.

In recent weeks, he has become the makeshift spokesman for my community, perhaps because they know I frequent his shop. For his role as the spokesman, he has begun picking up English words here and there and trying them out on me. I think he learns new phrases as the need arises. For example, one day I saw one of the security guys in his shop, and the very next day the shopkeeper asked me what I do for a living. I am sure he was told to ask me because everyone is dying to know where I am from and what I do. As I said, they are curious kittens around here. The funniest part about his little inquiries is that he always seems completely shocked that his questions elicit actual responses. Luckily, most of his questions are things that I am able to answer in Chinese as well, so when he does not understand my English responses, I can tell him in Chinese also.

***

This is what you find in China when you are in villages and smaller cities. These are the people when they are not too busy to be kind and too crowded to be polite. It is not often found in the stinking, polluted cities where most people have to live to work. But if you look hard enough, or stay long enough, a community does begin to take shape, and they are wonderful. When I look back on China, I hope that these are the people and the memories that stay with me.

*laowai=foreigner or outsider
*ni hao = hello