Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Wonder of Angkor

Today I am disappearing into pictures from Cambodia. It's cold today, and Memphis finally got some snow (very dusty, powdery stuff). As I reminisce, I realize that I never wrote a post about the Angkor Temples. For something so wondrous, and vast, and well-known, it surprises me that I didn't blog about this part of my trip. I want to improve my reporting skills, going back in time to report events that already occurred, instead of only writing things down as they happen. I have a lot to learn and improve upon. In Cambodia, and in my processing of experience in Cambodia, I caught myself up in the recent history, the tragedy of genocide, the hatred and the bloodshed. 

Journalist Joel Brinkley attributed a lot of Cambodia's current, utterly corrupt state of affairs to part of an ancient culture of tribute made to kings, lords, rulers and so on down the line of power. Those in the king's favor won land, titles and wealth, mostly in the form of commodities like grain, which was always in high demand. Mr. Brinkley argues that this was how Pol Pot (the genocidal leader of the Khmer Rouge party) and his cronies, and how the current leadership "gangs" still function today. He makes a very convincing argument.  But there's more to ancient Khmer culture than just warlords and cronies. There is magic that exists today, still painstakingly preserved, in northern Cambodia.

 Something major is missing from the current political structure, aside from humane treatment of constituents and fair voting processes. Little regard is left for ancient cultural and religious traditions--at least in the government halls--that helped to grow the Khmer empire into the most expansive kingdom in southeast Asia long ago. The beauty is lost, but thanks to extensive restoration and preservation efforts by the colonial French, the Angkor Temples tower over the Cambodian countryside today, testifying to the sacred wonder of a glorious bygone era.


 Angkor Wat
View of the main temple complex from the lily-padded lake.
























Angkor Wat is the most famous of all the Angkor Temples. Its renown and majesty is comparable to El Castillo, the famous Mayan pyramid, if you're familiar with Mexican heritage. But Angkor Wat was built to honor a Hindu god. When the empire later converted to Buddhism, new statues were built to honor these gods. If you ever go to Angkor, get a guide for Angkor Wat. The other temple structures are less detailed and far more open, leaving you free to wander at your own leisure. But the stories that are packed into every stone of Angkor Wat demand that you understand them to appreciate the temple's full worth. There are usually English-speaking guides standing outside the main entrance to the temple, and they wear beige shirts and carry books of photographs. (And if my memory serves me correctly, my guide wore a name badge around his neck as well.) These men are well trained and extremely knowledgeable. You can negotiate a price, but I believe I paid mine $10. He will also take you all the way up to the top of the temple, which allows you to see for miles around and stories below, a breathtaking sight. 

Bayon Temple
Do you see what I see? These sweetly serene faces are carved into the peaks at Bayon temple.



Bayon temple, a little ways away from Angkor Wat, is much 
more open and ruinous. In fact, I think we just wandered in to this one. Bayon has not been as neatly preserved, but that makes for much of the fun. You cN wander in between the half-open hallways and climb up and up until you come to the rooftop. These smiling faces greet you, but don't let the photo fool you; each one stands several hundred feet high. 

Bayon is part of a long strip of open, ruinous temples where you can wander. Many are just as grand in structure and purpose as Angkor Wat, but not nearly as protected. 

When you hire a tuk-tuk driver, as you must (because the temples are located some 20 km outside of town), ask him to take you to Bayon temple and to wait for you. Take your time, and don't allow yourself to feel rushed. As a thank you, you can buy him lunch at one of the conveniently located tourist restaurants erected in the fields across the way :-)

Ta Prohm, aka "The Tomb Raider Temple"








This was my personal favorite. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie (so did everyone else, probably). Ta Prohm temple's level of preservation falls below Angkor and Bayon, and for good reason. No where else in the world have I seen nature attack man-made structures so violently and remain such a powerful presence. The root structures of Siemp Riep's trees have split the bricks of temples during centuries of abandonment, creating a space so magical and other-worldly, you can't believe your own feelings. Just take a look at some of the effects of mother nature having her way:









Exploring these magnanimous temples, I felt eight years old again, as if I were wandering through the woods behind my house, feet muddy, streams trickling behind me, everything quiet save the crunch of twigs beneath my shoes. Nothing compares to that feeling. If I could, I would spend a week just sitting in these temples, breathing in the ancient mystery, pretending I'm on a quest for a hidden treasure. Who knows, there very well could still be some buried underneath these giant trees, waiting to be unearthed :)

References and Further Reading:
https://sacredsites.com/asia/cambodia/angkor_wat.html
http://www.amazon.com/Cambodias-Curse-Modern-History-Troubled/dp/1610391837

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sticking (Or Playing With Words)

We stick together like glue,
We, who don't know what to do.
We wander, or dance, in dimly lit halls,
Entranced in mirrors
Looking askance
articulating
expressionism
Acutely certain of myself.

Don't think too hard--you'll hurt yourself--
When you smile until your face cracks.
Forget the facts;
stretched like rubber bands,
truth dances on wire.
we stand, arms erect,
with fishing nets
below.

(Just let it fall
until you find
what you are looking for.)

To walk through the door
like we did before
when we were young
takes a monster's courage.

Picture taken in the Angkor ruins, Siem Riep, Cambodia

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas In Vietnam


Typical motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo credit:Noemi Agagianian

I'm really sucking at Christmas this year.

Most people in my neighborhood have already finished their Christmas shopping, sent cards and letters, hosted parties, strung lights and cozied up by the fire place at least thrice. I, on the other hand, bought a handful a presents last week that I forgot to wrap, haven't written a single Christmas card and have forgotten that Christmas lights are a "thing." But it's not my fault, I swear.

Last year, I spent Christmas in Vietnam.

While most folks at home were baking pies and watching Christmas specials, I was buying plane tickets and booking hostels, reading up on sites to see and haggling for discounted bus tickets. 

View from the former South Vietnam's HQ.
After a twelve hour overnight bus from Siem Riep to Bangkok , I flew again from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon. And yes, I refrained from singing "One Night in Bangkok" the whole time!) on December 22, 2014. We arrived late at night and took a taxi-van to our hostel. I had already noted the few Catholic churches in my guidebook, because I like to go to Church on Christmas eve. We passed a few on our way downtown, brightly decorated with blue Christmas lights and little nativity scenes. Maybe Ho Chi Minh city would be a nice place to spend Christmas, after all, I thought!

We spent the next two days touring the city, visiting the War Museum (formerly, and aptly, called the "Museum of American War Crimes"), the former president of South Vietnam's headquarters, a densely packed textile market, the Cu Chi war tunnels, a few islands in the Mekong Delta, and quite a few coffee shops. Ho Chi Minh city is bustling and couture mix of French architecture, sundry shops, restaurants, opera houses, and markets, all sandwiched in between thousands of motor bikes whizzing around pedestrians and traffic stops.

Typical traffic outside the Cathedral
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian
On Christmas Eve day, we wandered around the city, drank coffee and took lots of pictures. Like most cities I've visited, we ended up walking in circles for several hours until it finally got dark and we got hungry. I was craving Western food, perhaps because of a timely longing for home, so we found a cute little "Italian" shop (though it was Vietnamese owned) that sold everything from curry to pizza to gelato. I ordered a caprese salad, which turned out to be cheddar cheese, basil, sliced tomato and olives, and a pasta dish. My friends ordered curry and a burger. Ho Chi Minh is cosmopolitan that way!

With my capricious caprese salad (forgive the pun..)
After eating our fill, we headed down to the Church for the Christmas Eve service. But we didn't get far before we started pressing ourselves against the crowds of local residents gathered in the Church courtyard. They weren't really concerned that a service was happening inside; a sea of red and white Santa costumes in sweaty bodies swam and danced around. Young people laughed, took selfies, and sprayed each other with snow-in-a-can. Snow-in-a-can. It was a big shock. Yet as shocking as all the Santa costumes and snow-in-a-can were to me, I still imagine the sight of three tall American girls was even more shocking to everyone else. People screamed, laughed, took pictures, and sprayed us with lots of fake snow.

One of many little boys out for Christmas Eve
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian
I was surprised at how many families were out so late at night. In my mind, Christmas means spending time with family in the home, cozied up on the couch, braving the winter weather. Obviously, you don't need to brave winter weather in a tropical country. Babies, little boys and girls, moms and dads all posed for "groupies" by their motorbikes, laughed, chatted, celebrated.

That Christmas Eve was certainly memorable. I lost my friends, found the Chapel, and got covered in lots of wet foam. But I learned something important: Christmas, and every other American holiday, is not the same anywhere else. In my home in Memphis, Christmas is a big deal. In my family, Christmas has religious significance; it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But somehow, that message has gotten lost in translation. The message of Christmas that managed to make it to Vietnam was not so much the birth of Jesus Christ or the quiet peace of "Silent Night," but the red and white costumes, the snow, the jingle bells, and Santa Claus. It was difficult for me to spend my Christmas in a part of that whirlwind; those things were never part of my Christmas. 

Looking back, I see now that spending Christmas in Vietnam taught me to cherish what I hold to be true about Christmas: Christ was born to save the world. Family matters. Peace on Earth cannot be lip service. I understand not everyone feels that way, and that's fine with me, because as Ani DiFranco said, "I know there is strength in the differences between us." There is strength in difference, and there is value in celebrations. We become stronger when we can celebrate our own holidays differently. It means we accept that there is more to a day then the presents, or the food, or the way we hold our services.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays. May you and yours be blessed and joyful, wherever you are in the world and however you decide to celebrate.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Memphis Time: On Slowing Down (A picture book)

I took a walk on the Mississippi River and saw a fisherman in his boat.  I watched him circling around the river, directing his floating chariot, unaware of passersby or stalkers like me, content to float downstream.

Memphis, Tennessee

I thought of the fisherman in Myanmar fishing, alone for hours. The water might not be as blue here, but I suppose fishing in Myanmar has the same basic objective as fishing in Memphis: to catch a fish. 

I sat by the Mississippi, letting the wind kiss my face and creep up my shirt. It took me back to boating on the Inle Lake and the wind ripping through our hair. We spent hours on that boat, getting sunburned, watching the chorus of fisherman dance their way downstream, casting nets with the grace of ballerinas.  

Inle, Myanmar
The scenery is certainly different in Memphis; it's very flat. But the company is more consistent. Maybe because of that, life feels tangibly slower. It's definitely more predictable, which I always thought I would hate, but I'm starting to see the wisdom in a slower way of living. It's not nearly as stressful because you know what to expect. You get a lot of time to snuggle with these:





It's difficult to stop planning my next move. But who knows, it may come sooner than I expect. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Are Christians resigned to wander?

"'They straightway left their nets and followed Him' (Mathew 4:20). The Apostles did not grudge leaving their nets for the Lord's sake, although they were perhaps their only property...we, likewise, for the Lord's sake, ought to leave everything that hinders our following Him...all the many and various nets in which the enemy entangles us in life.'"
St. John of Kronstadt

Are Christians bound to wander?

I heard this a lot growing up. "Christians are just...different. Being a Christian means you are different from the world." I never really liked that feeling. I didn't want to be different from anyone else at school, awkwardly saying prayers before lunch, skipping half days to go to Church on Great Feasts, not eating pepperoni pizza at a friend's birthday party because it was a fast day. Perhaps that was too much for me, too many rules for a little wandering soul to understand and pray about.

Even though I fought the Church inside, and I warred with it for many years, I never stopped being different. Orthodox Christianity stopped being how I differentiated myself from others, but other things replaced that "label" or frame of mind: my love of theatre, my being "Mediterranean," my being from Boston, et cetera, ad infinitum. It never stopped, because I never stopped intentionally separating myself from a group.

Thinking about it now, it actually seems like I looked for any excuse to drive a wedge between myself and others. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Maybe it was just me having unrealistically high expectations for my life.

But this isn't what the Church actually teaches us. It teaches us to bind ourselves to Christ, and by so doing, loose ourselves of whatever else is standing in the way--tools of the enemy. But it doesn't say to demonize those things or those people, because we can only "worry about the log in your own eye."

Worrying about twigs up North.
Yet when I turn my gaze inward at the giant log in my eye, I feel the urge to run again. Not from God, but from everything around me that is casting me in a fishing net into the sea. I thought somehow that, by coming back to Memphis, by linking myself to one physical space, I would seamlessly melt into the fabric of this city, of Church life, of family and relationships. But that isn't really happening. And I wonder if this has a little to do with the distinctions between Orthodoxy and other denominations of Christianity. Now please understand I am not a theologist or an apologist or any kind of "ist." But it just seems to me that in the Orthodox Church there is a constant emphasis on the ephemerality of our current life, almost on a daily basis. The whole Church calendar goes from birth (Nativity) to death (Crucifixion) to eternal life (Resurrection and Ascension) and beyond in the course of one calendar year. And we celebrate those transitions every single year. So every single year, we are born, we die, and we come back into life with the Church feasts, the fasts and songs and celebrations. It's so beautiful, but at the same time...it's shaking. Because when you connect the fasts and feasts to the meaning behind them and the constant reminder that "there is a war for our souls" going on, it's very, very easy to feel afraid and shaken.

I know in my head and a corner of my heart that those things are overcome, but still, life is a war for our soul,  a journey towards Heaven. And yet at the same time the world starts whispering little things about family and assets and job security. Now, those are wonderful blessings, which I pray that I might actually have on day if I live that long. But right now I feel slammed by voices that are telling me that I don't belong, and I'm listening too much. Because, what am I trying to belong to? Christ, or the world? And does the former require me to stay in one physical space?

I wonder if any of my Orthodox Christian friends, whatever age or phase of life, feel that same shakiness and urge to run, because, in the end, that's not what life is really about.

Or maybe I really am just that different.

Or, perhaps, we are made exactly as God intended us to be, unique and "quirky" and constantly asking too many questions.

Friday, October 16, 2015

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Challenge

My new adult-like job has kept my thoroughly busy and happily distracted from the pangs of reverse culture shock I find creeping up at night alone or when attempting (and failing miserably) at small talk with strangers. So I haven't been blogging consistently like I always intend to, and part of that reason is I think it is more difficult for me to drag myself into exciting situations now that I'm "home" and everything seems "familiar." I'm becoming lazy and starting to understand the term "binge-watching." I don't like those things.

The days are getting shorter, colder, more Northeast USA-like..
I miss the Northeast. And I miss Bangkok. And I miss Europe. And I miss my friends very, very, very much. So I spend a lot of time feeling sad and then starting to feel sorry for myself.

I don't know what my future holds. I don't know if I'm ready to call off my travelling or if Memphis is where I need to settle at all. Right now I am enjoying my job, enjoying the crisp fall air and welcoming the sights and smells of Autumn. But I'm a bit anxious about how long that feeling will last. I'm hoping to find deeper attachments inside myself, with God alone.

I started this blog over four years ago, before I had ever been to Israel or even New Jersey. I started it at a time when life felt weightless, bottomless, and oppressively overwhelming all at the same time.

I'm not a good blogger. I don't use social media all that well, and I suck at online communication. I don't do a good job of "building my audience," but I do hope that I can reach whomever stumbles over my words with a dash of humor or, even better, a twinge of understanding. I like writing, like I like travelling and meeting new people, for the connections and the similarities.

That being said, I'm signing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The challenge is to write a novel in one month, from November 1 to November 30. The goal is to reach 50,000 words. I'm not much of a fiction writer, but I learned to my delight that I can still participate as a Nano "Rebel." My project therefore will be non-fiction, probably some type of memoir or personal narrative about my travels over the past few years.

I hope this will be a fun way to relive some of those adventures and to really curl up into them again. I've been feeling sad lately, and empty, and wishing I had attachments. I'm hoping that this adventure, one happening in my own bedroom, will take me places I yearn to go and teach me new things about life and myself and other people. Those are the best adventures after all.

I'm going to use this blog and the NaNo website to track my progress starting November 1. If you're a writer, or aspiring to be one like I am, I hope you'll consider joining me on this crazy quest. If you've already been doing NaNoWriMo, I need your help! Find me at nanowrimo.org/participants/mmstanek.

There is no competition here, only good spirits and encouragement to put one foot (or finger, in this case) in front of the other and keep on going! I'll be "prepping" for the next two weeks, and then the big day starts November 1! I hope you'll join me! Let me know--I would love to hear from you.

Mel

Friday, September 25, 2015

On Being Home, Awake

One of the biggest life lessons I keep coming back to from all of my travels is that life hits you in the face when you least expect it, and it hits you in a very big, very real way. Life is uncomfortable. Travelling is uncomfortable. It's new and different. It can be very strange.

People have always been afraid of what is different. I don't know why. Perhaps it's a "chicken and egg" conversation: which came first, the fear or the stereotypes?

I'm living in Memphis now. But I'm not living in the same Memphis I grew up in, and sometimes, I feel really ashamed that I never knew my current Memphis when I was young. My Memphis is Black; 60 percent African American to be precise. But that's not the Memphis I knew growing up, which evidences the other reality of my current Memphis. My Memphis is segregated as hell.

Why didn't I see it before? On some level I think I knew, but I never thought deeply about it, nor cared enough to do so. My school was white, my family was white, we were all middle class, we were all the same. So what did I have to be afraid of?

Injustice hit me like a brick to the face the first time I saw the terrible cement wall separating Israel from the West Bank. That's injustice, I thought. A cement wall. Well, we don't have one cement wall in Memphis, but we have a lot of little walls. They're called neighborhoods. They're called schools. They're called 201 Poplar.

It's not fair that I got to go to a great school and get in to college, when the average ACT score for this city is 17 and the percentage of those in poverty is almost 30 percent, with 45 percent of all children in Memphis living in poverty. Memphis' poverty statistics are shocking. Why didn't I learn this in school? Maybe I did. I just wasn't paying attention.

What do we do about it? What did I do in Israel? What did I do in Thailand? What do I do here?

Of course there is injustice everywhere. But knowing that, accepting that, and letting that pass unaffected is only perpetuating that injustice. Compassion necessitates action.

Why am I struggling so much with this right now? I think because suddenly I feel responsible. I know I'm not personally responsible for the systemic racism in this city, but I feel a sense of responsibility towards my city and everyone in it. It's easy, when you're living abroad, to pick and choose what injustices to invest your time in, because there is so much that is unfamiliar. You can use that barrier as an excuse to hide away. And as I'm learning, there is still so much that is unfamiliar to me about this city, this city I grew up in and so arrogantly thought I had figured out. I don't. I don't. I can't.

But I can try. I can get outside my comfort zone, like I've done before in other places. I can keep going outside of my own yard to see new things, experience knew events, meet new people from different backgrounds. Isn't that life, anyway?

My goals for my time in Memphis (however long that may be) are these: first, to learn more about the social injustices in the city and to get involved in active solutions. My current job is a great place to start, but that's only a little of myself. We can always go deeper. We just can't ever give up. Second, I want to explore. Build a bike, ride the MATA bus, and get out and about. There is a lot of beauty in this city.

Just because I'm back in the same place doesn't mean I'm the same person I was when I was last here. I'm not. I hope I'm not. I'm still only one person with no answers and irritating questions, but I'm still going. I hope you'll help me along.