Monday, August 18, 2008

I once left a spare passport and a no-longer-binding wedding ring in a two star hotel in Prague. The spare passport I’d left with the front desk to guarantee payment for the room service meals and champagne I'd bought for the girls. After a week, I felt sunlight for the first time in seven days when I left from the hotel I settled the bill half in cash and half by negotiating a price for the old passport. The ring, I expressly traded for an arrangement with a girl that was for me gratifying, enough, and for her fiscally rewarding, on some level I'm sure.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bolt Holes: Katmandu and Mindfulness

"But mindfulness has many definitions, so it cannot find application in all aspects of our lives." My Nepali business associate was telling this to me while we were in the process of finalizing a supply and demand transaction. Negotiations depended upon interpreting winks and nods.

We'd met in a simple dining room, lit by single light bulb and candles on every table. The pub is a local westerner hangout where the tinted windows complemented the need for privacy. I'd ordered beers and bowls of dahl baht. The street vender's name was Hari. Hari had just come from his morning puja; on his forehead he wore a fresh orange bindi made from red turmeric and sandalwood ash.

I'd asked him about his puja just trying to make polite chit chat before we got down to the sealing of the deal.

He told me he'd spent an hour that morning in meditation, and, so, I'd asked him about something called Vipassana Meditation. I tried to sound as brightly interested as I could.

This sort of luncheon jibber jabber was meant to do more than demonstrate for Hari my worldy knowledge of Hindu rites and rituals. It was my way of following the necessary steps to go about establishing a framework for this fairly simple Asian business transcation, which meant I had to obliquely get it through to Hari that I wasn't fresh fish and that I knew local market prices without his losing face.

"Practicing mindfulness," he said to me, "can take on many different levels."

"Uh-huh," I said.

"Mindfulness should not be a struggle. It shouldn't take years or even months to learn.

"Yeah, you got a point," I supposed. It annoys me when I'm talking and the other person is not really listening, but Hari didn't seem to notice or to mind. He'd finished his rice and lentils, but had barely touched his beer. I began to fidget. Outside, on the street below, I saw two teenage girls in school uniforms walking by laughing, sharing an ice cream cone.

Hari looked to be sincerely concerned to draw out of me some sort of deductive conclusion that might open my eyes (to what? I hadn't a clue) or at the very least make him feel better about the nature of our business relationship and his purpose for meeting me in a pub just after his morning puja.

"Lookit," I said, "I'm in a bit of a hurry, so if it's OK with you, maybe later we can talk more."

He paused, lost in his thoughts, quiet as though he'd just figured out that a tree falling in a forest with noone around to hear it, still makes a sound. He smiled and said "of course." But there was something about the way he said "of course" and it was in his eyes, it was that "I'll keep you in my prayers" look you get when you ignore some Salvation Army Santa on the street pestering you for spare change.

I caught the waiter's attention by making the international sign that asks for the check by scribbling in the air.

The bill came, I paid it, and left a tip emptying all the coins in my pockets. This had been a simple business courtesy, this ritualistic meal, but Hari walked ahead of me, didn't thank me for the meal, just headed down the stairs a few brisk steps ahead of me, then out the door and onto the clatter, clutter and chatter of the street scene. I followed close behind him, almost breaking into a run to catch up. A rickshaw bicycle trailed after us, trying to overtake us, and a mangy dog trailed after the rickshaw. The street was lousy with backpackers, hawkers and touts.

In those days, whenever I had a two-week leave from work, I would bolt to Katmandu twice a year. Before that it was Amsterdam. Then Prague twice. After that it would be Bangkok a few years running. Then later, Cambodia.

This time in Nepal it was December, a week before Christmas, when the winds and rain of the summer turn to days that are warm and clear with cloudless winter skies. I always spent my first week in country embracing the life of a lawless white devil, a vagabond in the urban wilds, checking out in equal parts the intricate tangle of back alleys and temples. The yin. The restless. The darkness. Erratic. Oblivious.

The following week, I would head north to Pokara where I would arrange for a six-day trek through the rhododendron forests and ridges of Mount Annapurna. The yang. The placid. Illumination. Rock steady. Aware.

Hari and I made our way through the Thamel district. Touts offered to "change money" or to sell "smoke, smoke?" or "tiger balm" "You want guide for trekking" "You want massage?" "You want lady?" Here and there men walked the streets playing the tinny Nepali violin, the sarangi, its music both sweet and grave, like the voice of a lonely, hungry cat.

At the end of the main street opposite a Baskin Robbins, we headed down an alley then began to wind our way through several more alleys that smelled like beer piss and dog shit. Each alley was narrower and darker than the last. I tried to spot landmarks to find my way out again. On one corner, a small, round woman sat on a plastic chair preparing vegetables in a large pot. A scrawny brown baby cried from a basket next to the pot. I took note of a group of children playing with sticks in the gutters; children, I thought, who would grow up illiterate.

We eventually made our way into an overlooked niche that opened onto a courtyard surrounded by tall, narrow houses, each of which looked as though one good earthquake could turn the alley into a pile of crumbled bricks and broken bones.

In one of the houses we were met by an old woman wearing two wool sweaters, a colorful headscarf and a cummerbund around her hip. Her face, a bright and gentle moon, lit up the dank room with warmth and hospitality. She offered me a milk tea, which I declined, shaking my head and waving her offer away. She nodded her head, never breaking her smile then she led Hari and me to a small back room closed off only by a curtain, a room no larger than a pantry. A single candle lit the room. In it there was a tin tub, probably used to bathe babies or maybe to douche and a thin mattress on the floor covered by several layers of home spun blankets.

There, behind the curtains, Hari slipped me a tin foil packet. I handed him three ten dollar bills, and he left the room without saying goodbye. I took off my shoes and waited no longer than half a minute then from behind the curtain a couple of dark skinned girls entered giggling. They had plate faces and Chinese eyes and could have been taken for Mongolians or Navajos. Both had shiny hair, long, straight and black. Either could have each been in their twenties or thirties--it was hard to tell in the dim light. They carried tools of the trade including towels, water bottles, one had a bottle of a strawberry scented non-toxic lubrication; the other carried condoms, a bar of anti-bacterial soap and minty mouthwash. I handed them each ten dollars--the rate Hari had negotiated prior to our meeting. They accepted the bills, smiling, no indication of a loss of face; they both touched their hearts with the money then put the bills in their skirt pockets.

In unison, neither wasted time and quickly they undressed. In an instant they were standing there naked except for their socks, earrings, bracelets, anklettes and their caste strings tied around their wrists. They nodded for me to lose my clothes, and as I did, they sat on the mattress, unashamed, impassive, whispering to each other about something, recipes perhaps? or an update on a soap opera? Where to have lunch? How goes the revolution? The market value of residential properties? Whatever they were discussing,it had nothing to do with me or what we were about to do.

The experience was worth the money; both girls were competent and efficient. Everybody in the room had been through this sort of thing before, many times before. There was no blushing awkwardness. I was entertained by their team spirit and by their unique, individual talents.

As for me, there were a few times when I was distracted, kind of detached. Still, for the most part, I successfully put it out of my mind, but the thought kept drawing attention to itself like a minor burn.

I didn't appreciate Hari's sudden aloofness--so different from the "I am at your service and here to please" salesman who approached me the night before, whispering "smoke? smoke? You want lady?" It was the way he'd left the bar, a few steps ahead of me. His silence. His not saying goodbye. It was though he had intentionally tried to deprive me of some of the pleasures he'd promise in the package for sale. He'd managed to take away a small piece of what I needed in order to put out of my own mind the rights and wrongs of a secret life I liked to keep under wraps.

I suppose I could have pretended to be more sincere and let him go on about mindfulness a bit longer, feeding him bland questions and drawing bland answers from him, as though I really wanted to learn something that he thought I and everyone else should know about themselves and the value of mindfulness.

What was it that he wanted me to be more mindful of? that he wasn't a pimp or hash dealer who just happened to be a good Hindu? Or did he want me to be aware that he was above all else a Hindu, a devoted one at that, and that I should know that he was in this business because he had no choice. Did he have a wife to feed I should know about? Maybe children of his own? Daughters? Sisters? Had he wanted me to be mindful of the poverty of circumstances in his country, my bolt hole, my escape, my incense bearing stately pleasure-dome?

When I first asked him about his puja, he must have mistaken me for someone who gave a damn, a white devil but with a golden soul.

I never ran into him again, although I did keep an eye out for him because there was something about me I wanted him to know.

For the most part, I have always tried to consider both the inner and outer angles of awareness, taking into account first my needs, then followed closely by the needs of others, all the time trying to remain mindful within limits but still being capable of excluding lucid thinking and moral accountability to suit the situation. So long as all parties acting together in any shared transaction remained unhurt and that all involved in the matters of supply and demand on some level reached in equal measures personal gratification on one end of the deal and a nice profit margin on the other end.

Others, I'm sure, see it differently.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Stray Cats and Astray Pasts

There is only one Sharjah Feline Friend on call this summer. We're actually an adjunct to Dubai Feline Friends as that's who first gets the calls seein' how we don't have a website yet. They pass the Sharjah calls on to me. Then it's to the cat mobile. We rarely euthanize--FIV or Fee-Leuk positive only. Otherwise, if we trap an abandoned, non-feral furry one, we foster then home. If it's a feral furry one, we trap/neuter/release.

So,my post-Laos summer has consisted mainly of four time consuming activities.

One is Body Attack. It balances out my unrelenting snack attacks.

Another is writing an article about language teachers and bolt holes which I'll submit either to an inflight magazine or a Larry Flint publication.

Another has been taking video lessons to learn how to play more melodic phrases using octaves ala Wes Montgomery, playing licks over free downloads of backing tracks.

(Me at the American University of Sharjah Semi-Annual Scholarship Fundraiser)

M'Mere fed her young on Wes Montgomery so that even when I swayed towards rock and roll, I always knew what a really good guitarist could do and as much as I idolized and idealized Keef Richards, I've also always been keenly aware that he couldn't play for shit compared to real players like W.M.

So, in between making another attempt to ascend my own Everest of guitar playing, that is to learn how to sound more like a jazz player using cool jazz octaves on the deep resonant front pick-up of my orange hollow body Gretsch knock-off, I've also been taking calls to turn off the amp and leave my home grown studio to go out and try to rescue not-so-cool cats in distress, schlepping my traps around town, crawling under cars, sneakily climbing up and down dark stairwells, waiting out my prey near stanky garbage bins then after a successful trap, coming home with numerous bites and scratches--all the while hoping that the ancient Egyptians were bang on about the sanctity of felines (thus securing my seat at the right paw of the almighty).

So, for all my efforts, here's an "ahhhhh".

Two weeks ago, I picked up a totally blind kitten who had nothing but a pink coating where his pupils should have been, took him to "Jim the Belgian Vet" and asked "Jim the Belgian Vet" to give me five days before giving this pity kitty the quietus juice.

I sent out despairing kitten-in-distress Emails to the Dubai Feline Friends mailing list, most of whom are still on "hols". I knew my Emails were like the same hopleless flares bursting over the Titanic. On the fifth morning, with no response, it looked like we had us a dead cat walking on the Green Mile the morning after the monster's ball.

Then, as the clock ticked towards the cat's last breaths and moments of darkened consciousness, I got a call from a good Christian Filipina who had seen the Emails, seen the photos and spent the weekend blubbering to her husband that she wanted to adopt the cat. "I hope I'm not too late, sir," she said. (Filipinos have an annoying propensity to punctuate every sentence with "sir" or "madoom").

I hurried her off the phone, called "Jim the Belgian Vet" and asked if the kitten was still among us in this sweet old world. Yup. "Jim the Belgian Vet" was in the middle of his morning surgeries and had scheduled to perform the mortal deed in an hour or so.

"Hold off! I found a home!" I, um, reprieved.

I wonder how much bad karma I've burned off on this one? Not as much as the woman who homed the cat--who is, as I've stated a good Christian and doesn't need to burn off any bad karma as she probably has a full house of good karma already. But for me, maybe now I have one less former college co-ed I hope to run into in order to make amends because I lied about not having a girlfriend.