I just made my second trip to Myanmar. Or Burma, as the country was once known. My sister Pam and I spent a grand weekend exploring just a few of the thousands of temples at Bagan. [1, 2] Most date back to the 11th – 13th Century.
Along with the temples that seem to grow out of the ground everywhere you look, Bagan is a major center for traditional art forms including lacquerware, sand paintings and wood carving.
On previous trips Pam has purchased hand carved figures from a local artist. We went in search of his shop, and a figure known as a spirit guide accompanied me back to Germany.
Khim Maung Zaw creates and sells from a small shop. He graciously signed the sandalwood figure I wanted, and allowed me to photograph his art.
I am delighted to recommend Mr. Zaw and his beautiful carvings.  His shop’s address is:
I hand-carried lacquer ware and my spirit guide for the long 24 hour journey back home. When I removed all the bubble wrapping he seemed surprisingly alive. I gently unwound the cloth strips, feeling anxious.
I was delighted that he’d survived the trip intact. A spirit guide now stands in my home, pointing the way towards the path to enlightenment. 
We’ve come to Paris for a quick getaway, and Stuttgart is less than 4 hours by direct fast train. As we think about what we want to do and see, we realize neither of us have ever visited Chartres.
Uwe and I go out of our way to see sacred places around the globe. (See my posts The Cult of Bà Chúa Xứ or The Music of the Heavenly Spheres for some photos and tales from other sacred spots.) Energies gather in some unlikely places. Sometimes I stand in famous spots and am disappointed, while a place less known for religion makes me feel the presence of the divine.
Chartres. I’ve been trying for days – weeks, actually – to summarize the “facts” about this site. It was built 1140-1260 and the labyrinth was laid in the first decade of the 13th century. I wonder what to mention about Chartres’ 1,000 years as a pilgrimage destination, or the female energies of the cathedral and their tenderness. Mary’s tunic, the Sancta Camisia worn at the birth of Jesus Christ, was brought here by Charlemagne. The king in turn had been given the relic as a gift during a trip to Jerusalem.
When the earlier church building burned on June 10, 1194, the Sancta Camisia miraculously survived. Chartres remains an important Marian pilgrimage center, and the faithful still come from around the world over to honor it.
Chartres is one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals on Earth. Back in my college days at the University of Oregon, Professor James Boren in his Chaucer and Medieval Literature classes explained Chartres as literally turning the architectural form inside out. For the first time the ribs holding up the entire structure had been placed outside, allowing the inside heart of the structure to soar up into the Heavens, seemingly without limits. The support of flying buttresses was necessary because of the unprecedented size and heights of the stained glass windows and the nave. Professor Boren’s face glowed; this stern and learned man radiated as he lectured about a place that he said changed him when he saw it. That lecture and the look on his face stayed with me. Chartres: someday I would see it.
Chartres Cathedral contains one of the few remaining medieval labyrinths. It’s large with a circumference of 131 feet, almost exactly the same size as the West Rose window.
In the Middle Ages, French church labyrinths were the sites of Easter dances involving clergy and the tossing of a leather ball. Sadly, the labyrinths were destroyed, covered over, or hidden by Church authorities suspicious of their powers and pagan beginnings. (Labyrinths, including Chartres’, traditionally had an disk or placque of Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur at their centers. In fact, another name for a cathedral that contained a labyrinth was the “Domus Daedali” [House of Daedalus], a nod to antiquity’s Daedalus, designer of the labyrinth that held the Minotaur in Knossos.) *
But, Chartres’ labyrinth survived. I learn that while it’s covered by chairs most of the time, the labyrinth is made free for visitors to enter on Fridays. My one request to Uwe for our trip becomes, “Please let’s go to Chartres on Friday!”
So here we are, entering one of the holy pilgrimage destinations in Christianity.
Chartres. Once inside, the cathedral’s beauty immediately takes my breath away. I am so deeply moved that in the next moment I’m close to tears. Whatever I expected, this sacred soaring space is beyond all imagination. Light streams in through the windows and illuminates the visitors, pilgrims, and the simply curious. All of us are suffused in colors.
For a while I just walk around. Uwe’s already moved off with his camera, ready as always to use his art with photography to capture in images what my brain grapples with in words.
As the minutes pass I grow more and more stunned. And I remain dangerously, or is that gorgeously, close to breaking into tears. There is an energy to this place, a sense of the holy and the really, really blessed, that I have seldom felt anywhere.
The Schwedagon Pagoda in Burma comes to mind. It is the most important pagoda in the country, and I felt the top of my head buzz like it was going to blow off from the concentration of religious energies. Or a back pond in the Adirondacks with only my family as fellow witnesses: loons with a pair of chicks calling in low cries to one another as they eyed us but didn’t swim away. Or a tiny Greek Orthodox church in Thessaloniki, supposedly built on the site where Apostle Paul preached. I attended on Sunday with my friend Cynthia and our Greek host Fotis, who led us up to an altar surrounded by burning, hand-dipped wax tapers. Fotis insisted we take bread from the common basket. Tears streamed on both our faces; I finally felt the deeper meaning of breaking bread in fellowship.
All of these places’ sacred energies are present in Chartres. It is so much more than I deserve or had awaited. I take a deep breath to center myself, and move forward to stand poised at the entry to the labyrinth.
“A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. …
“A labyrinth is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. … It is a metaphor for life’s journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and place and takes us out of our ego to “That Which Is Within.” At its most basic level the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to the center of your deepest self and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who you are. …
“A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is like a puzzle to be solved. It has twists, turns, and blind alleys. It is a left brain task that requires logical, sequential, analytical activity to find the correct path into the maze and out. A labyrinth has only one path. It is unicursal. The way in is the way out. There are no blind alleys. The path leads you on a circuitous path to the center and out again.
“A labyrinth is a right brain task. It involves intuition, creativity, and imagery. With a maze many choices must be made and an active mind is needed to solve the problem of finding the center. With a labyrinth there is only one choice to be made. The choice is to enter or not. A more passive, receptive mindset is needed. The choice is whether or not to walk a spiritual path.” – Dan Johnston, Ph.D. at www.lessons4living.com
While I walk the labyrinth and contemplate the mystery of the sacred**, Uwe photographs me. When I see his photos later I’m surprised, and glad.
NOTES: * Another name for the eleven-circuit labyrinth is the “Chemin de Jerusalem” or Road of Jerusalem. Walking the labyrinth in Chartres or other places could be made instead of making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
** I haven’t even tried to talk about the lunations of the labyrinth. Their meaning is still debated. A celestial calendar? Esoteric design of the deeper mysteries?
Walking a Sacred Path. Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. Dr. Lauren Artress, Riverhead Books, 1995.
The scent of floating roses is the first thing I notice. The smell comes from the pots of flowers set in front of a deep tub. Eventually I smell a burning stick of incense. The bamboo walls don’t reach the ceiling, and smoke simply wafts up and out to the palm trees outdoors. Only later when the sun goes down do I detect a burning mosquito coil.
My therapist here on Java is named Bu Tami Juguk. Bu Tami asks me to remove all of my clothes and lie on the low bamboo bed covered with batik sheets. Since the temperature is about 30 degrees Centigrade (86 degrees Fahrenheit) I don’t mind lying naked without a drape. She goes to the tub and turns on the taps. The sound of running water is in the background during the entire massage.
Bu Tami is 41 years old, and the Bu title is the shortened version of Ibu, a term of respect used to address an older woman. Bu Tami doesn’t speak much English, but has wise hands. Indonesian massage knowledge passes down through the family, and Bu Tami learned massage from her mother.
She starts at my feet and massages me with a press – push – squeeze routine. She doesn’t forget to massage my abdomen. Her strokes go deep and radiate, always leading inwards to my navel. She finishes by massaging my head with sweeping strokes. She grasps at the roots of my hair and her hands draw out to the ends with an unusually firm grip.
She uses sandalwood oil, flowers cooked into it for their essence. This oil is only for the initial part of the massage, though. As I lie there, Bu Tami takes a clay jar down from a shelf. She scoops out a greeny-yellow substance and slathers it onto my body.
I am being covered with lulur, an exfoliating scrub derived from a Javanese plant combined with rice meal. Lulur may include ginger extract, tumeric, sandalwood, jasmine oil and water. This lulur treatment is utilized as a beauty peeling for everyone except babies. Jogjakarta city still has the special status of a sultanate, and lulur was first used by the women at the Kraton, the sultan’s palace.
Javanese men and women use lulur before marrying. Lulur is traditionally applied at home on each of the 3 days preceding a wedding ceremony. The lulur sloughs off old skin and makes both bride and groom more radiant and beautiful. I learn that a Javanese plant called kunir is also used, and on the island of Sumatra people use a plant called param.
The lulur is slightly gravelly, and cool on my skin. I turn over and Bu Tami lulur-s my back, buttocks, legs and feet. Then we head towards the tub. She has me sit at the small recessed foot bath. Bu Tami fills a bowl with water dipped from the tub and rinses me off. Another bowl is dumped on my head and water runs off me in streams.
Bu Tami reaches for another pot. She lathers my head with the shampoo and washes my hair. Her strong, sure hands massage my scalp at the same time – heaven! She squeezes my skull with more strength than I am used to for head massages, but it does not feel too hard.
She rinses away the shampoo with more bowls of water. Bu Tami has me stand up. She takes a bar of soap and lathers my entire body front and back.
“I feel like a baby being washed by her mother!,” I say.
“Yes, baby and mama,” smiles Bu Tami. She doesn’t speak much English, but she definitely understands.
The soap is washed away; another bowl from the shelf is selected; and now the first real surprise comes. Bu Tami smears me with yogurt. The yogurt calms and softens the skin after the purifying effects of lulur. She slathers me completely from head to foot in the yogurt, then rinses me off one final time.
She turns off the taps of the full tub and points for me to climb in. I happily comply. Bu Tami gathers handfuls of the roses from the big bowls. She crumbles them and strews the petals over the warm bath waters and me.
Bu Tami returns with a glass of fresh-pressed orange, banana, and papaya juice. She leaves me to soak. I lay in the tub swishing flower petals around my body.
A male voice begins to wail. His voice rises and falls. It must be time for sundown prayers. This, in turn, must mean that I have been in this sumptuous massage treatment for 90 minutes. Sunset is abrupt in the equatorial tropics, and occurs punctually at 6:00 every evening we’ve been in Indonesia. My massage session began at 4:30, so I can time the treatment with certainty by the calls to the faithful sounding outdoors.
As most buildings have roofs of bamboo and rattan – or walls that don’t reach the ceiling, like the walls in this massage room – it is impossible not to hear the muezzin’s voice. I lie floating in my heavenly bath and listen to rhythmic wailing calls in Arabic. I am certainly in another country, and I would call it Paradise.
Some time later (5 minutes? 10 minutes?) Bu Tami returns. I climb out of the tub and she towels me dry. The session is not over, though. I lie back down on the low bed, and Bu Tami rubs a rose and hibiscus lotion into my skin. This ends my two-hour session, and I slowly get dressed and leave.
At the attached restaurant a young man stands with a menu in his hand. He is asking the receptionist about the massage advertisement on the second page. “Could I get a massage tonight?” he asks.
“I just got one of these massages!” I tell him. “Go for the 2-hour session. You’ll literally come out smelling like a rose. I’m a massage therapist myself and the only thing I regret is that we’re leaving Jogja tomorrow, or I’d come back for another!”
“Really?!,” the young man answers. “A bath would be perfect! I don’t have a hotel room here and I’m taking the all-night train to Jakarta tonight. I won’t be able to clean up before I leave.”
“You’ve come to the right place. The massage will set you back 100,000 rupiahs, about $13. It’s worth every penny.” As Uwe and I leave he’s booking his appointment with Bu Tami. I just know he was in for a special treat.
Like most tourists, we stayed in Jogjakarta in order to visit Borobodur. Jogjakarta bustles with a marvelous mix of becaks (rickshaws), taxis, bicycles, cars, pony carts, and motorcycles. We either ride in becaks like the natives do or walk in the quieter side streets with their surprising gardens and yards.
Occasionally I spot women walking along with buckets or plastic bowls balanced on their heads. In the buckets are bottles and jars containing different colored herbs or fluids. These are jamu women, the native herbalists who go from door to door carrying their apothecaries with them. A jamu woman will mix up an elixir for her patient on the spot. Jamu products are produced commercially as well, and over 100 million Indonesians take jamu daily.
We discovered the massage center on a side street lined with restaurants and smaller hotels. The boss at the Lotus Garden Restaurant and Hotel had noticed how many visitors carried in their luggage with one hand, while the other hand held onto sore backs or legs. He decided to offer massage. We visited Indonesia in 1999, but a look on the Internet indicates the restaurant still exists. I whole heartedly recommend the massage services.
NOTES:  “Jamu is the Javanese word for any of a great number of traditional Indonesian herbal medicines and health concoctions…There are about 100 jamu recipes in use, but only a dozen or so are really popular.” Fred B. Eiseman, Jr., Bali: Sekala and Niskala. Volume II: Essays on Society, Tradition, and Craft (Periplus Editions Ltd. CV Java Books, Indonesia, 1990), p. 299.