I just spent a few weeks visiting my sister and her family in Hong Kong. I was there in May, ahead of the rainy season. It’s already hot and humid, only a hint of the weather to come….
It can’t be a coincidence that this time of year is also the birthday of Tin Hau. [1, 2]
She’s the Goddess of the Seas, patron saint of sailors and fishermen throughout China and Southeast Asia. Her festival is always held on the twenty-third day of the third lunar month of the lunar calendar. This year her birthday fell on May 11th. My friend Weiyu flew over from Beijing, and we had the good luck to see a dragon parade. 
Lin Moniang (don’t forget that Chinese put the family name first) was born during the Song Dynasty on Meizhou Island in Fujian, China. Her dates are 23 March 960 – 4 October 987. She was the seventh daughter, an excellent swimmer, and wore a red dress. No matter how bad the weather was, Lin Moniang stood on the shore in that red dress in order to guide the fishing boats back home.
Wikipedia’s description of her legend is so good that I’ll repeat it verbatim here: “Lin Moniang’s father and brothers were fishermen. One day, a terrible typhoon arose while they were out at sea, and the rest of her family feared that those at sea had perished. In the midst of this storm, depending on the version of the legend, she fell into a trance while praying for the lives of her father and brothers or dreamed of her father and brothers while she was sleeping or sitting at a loom weaving. In both versions of the story, her father and brother were drowning but Moniang’s mother discovered her sleeping and tried to wake her. This diverted Moniang’s attention and caused her to drop her brother who drowned as a result. Consequently, Moniang’s father returned alive and told the other villagers that a miracle had happened.” 
She was deified shortly after her death. There are many reports of miraculous sightings of Tin Hau by sailors in distress. Chinese who immigrated often built temples once they arrived overseas to thank her for the safe journey. Each year a major festival is held on her birthday.
One of the most spectacular is in Yuen Long in the New Territories. Weiyu and I headed out early to reach the town (an easy trip on the MTR, the wonderful regional transportation system). We left the metro station and immediately saw bright colors and a crowd of people. As we got closer, firecrackers began to go off! We’d arrived right on time!
This village had just begun to parade their dragon. They circled the lot a few times accompanied by a loud drum and cymbals. There was another loud bang, more firecrackers popped, and everyone followed the dragon as it headed into town.
We arrived at another square where more dragons waited.
They took turns weaving up and down the main street, curling and snaking, rising and falling in an intricate dance. Sometimes two dragons danced at the same time.
People’s shirts indicated which village and dragon they were with. There were groups of old women waving fans, and children in costume, and lions.
Flags and banners waved around the Fa Paus, ornate towers with paper flowers. Huge elaborate placards wished for luck and prosperity.
Offerings included entire roasted pigs.
I recognized those instantly from the worship of Bà Chúa Xứ in southern Viet Nam. It can’t be a coincidence that her festival starts at the beginning of the rainy season on the twenty-third day of a lunar month too…
NOTES:  Tianhou (天后) literally means “Empress of Heaven”.  She’s also known as Mazu, Tian Fei or A-Ma. The Buddhists conflated her into a reincarnation of Guan Yin, Goddess of Compassion.  She has over 90 temples in Hong Kong alone.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazu
On the island of Lombok we’re literally at the end of the road. We look at a map and decide that where the one road going inland up in the mountains stops, we’ll stop too. We end up in a small village called Tetebatu.
We walk through Tetebatu along the one street and everywhere people stand or crouch. They sit in the open thatched huts built on stilts to keep people off the ground when it rains. It rains every afternoon, non-stop torrents for 3 hours, and the shelters are full then.
Clean water for homes is provided by fountains and wells. The locals wash themselves, their clothes, and their animals in them. But I see an ancient looking woman in a sarong carrying a flat woven basket full of rice. She kneels in front of her house and washes the kernels in the open stream that runs in a gully down the side of the street. Tropical medicine experts estimate that 80% of the Indonesian population have guts full of parasites, and it is evident to me why this should be so.
She looks up and gives me a smile so open, so beautiful, that I am temporarily blinded.
That afternoon a Danish couple accompanied by an Indonesian man and boy check in. The couple take the room next to us, while the Indonesians stay in the next bungalow. We exchange smiles and hellos, but nothing more. We’re at the end of the road on the other side of the world, and I savor the sense of isolation from the familiar and known.
The air is significantly cooler up here in the mountains. For the first time in our trip to Indonesia we both wear jeans. Uwe puts on a jacket and I pull out a sweater. That night the Indonesian in the next bungalow comes out on his porch. He has wrapped himself in the blanket from his bed against the chilly air.
“Good evening!” he says, and comes and stands by the little low gate that leads up to our bungalow.
Uwe and I sit under the porch lights reading and chewing on bags of nuts we’d bought at the coastal market a few days earlier. We pull up another chair and ask him to join us. His name is Udin. He lives on Gili Meno, a little island northwest of Lombok. He’s in Tetebatu as guide and translator for the Danish couple we’d exchanged nods with earlier.
The Danes are medical researchers investigating the local plant life. They are asking the native Sasaks which plants they use for healing and in what capacity. That afternoon we’d seen the three of them, Udin’s son trailing a few feet behind, walk around the grounds and stand by various shrubs and trees and bushes on the property. Since everything is unbelievably lush, and either flowering or bearing fruit, I had not thought twice about their activity. The fecundity of the landscape is a wonder. I keep stopping too, to crow over some gaudy flower or vivid tree.
“From here we will go to visit my mother,” Udin says. She lives in a village further south on Lombok. Although on a map the two locations are within spitting distance of one another, it’s too expensive for him to make the trip more often. He hasn’t seen her in over a year.
This is the first time in his life that he’s been in a hotel room. Udin feels very fortunate to have hooked up with the Danish couple. He switches from talk about himself and asks us about ourselves with the innate charm and politeness of the Indonesians. What are we doing here? Where are we from?
Udin looks alert when I say I’m a massage therapist.
“I have great pain here and here,” he says, and points to his calves and the small of his back. “I worked since I was 8 years old carrying sacks of rice weighing 60 kilos from the rice fields. Then I worked on a fishing boat. I was wet and cold all the time. Now that I am older I ache always in these places.”
He tells us about the hard life on Lombok. “Bali is rich. Here, you might earn 2,500 rupiahs for a day’s labor. But then the economy collapsed. A kilo of rice has gone up in price in the last 2 years from 500 rupiahs to 3,000.” He mentions again that his body aches from the hard labor he’s done all his life.
“Would you allow me to give you a massage?” I feel sure that this is what he wants to request, without being so forward as to actually ask.
Udin promptly says yes and moves over to stand in front of me. I am a little concerned. It is now night and I am about to do massage on someone standing on a porch in the middle of nowhere. Also, if Udin is from Lombok he must be Muslim. I recall the occasional male patients I can’t treat in the medical clinic back in Stuttgart.
“Is it permissible for me as a woman to touch you?” I ask.
“Of course, it is no problem,” he answers.
Compressions and cross fiber friction, I finally decide. I start to work. Udin’s muscles are ropy. He has no extraneous fatty tissue anywhere after a lifetime of hard work and rice. Udin grimaces once or twice, but remains standing. I work on him for perhaps 20 minutes and stop. We talk a while longer. Then Udin excuses himself and heads to bed.
The next morning Uwe and I have coffee on the outdoor patio of the hotel. The Danish couple and Udin come up for breakfast before leaving. To my surprise the Danish couple head straight over to our table and shake our hands.
“I hear you’re medical researchers,” I say, intensely curious about them.
“Yes, and we hear that Udin got a massage last night. He’s always working,” they answer, and begin to ask us questions. The acknowledgement from them is rewarding and sweet.
Udin sits with us for a few minutes. “How are you feeling?” I ask.
“I feel well. I am well for the first time in many years. I am without pain!”
I’m inexplicably moved, and glad I took the time the night before to help this man. Maybe, I think, maybe I earned us some good travel karma.
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.
We love travel. I refer to traveling to new cultures and places as connecting the dots. With each trip I feel a little more connected to the world at large and to the various dots that make up my picture of this planet and we who inhabit it.
While in Burma, we took a boat up the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Mingun for the day. Yet another fallen kingdom, Mingun is reknowned for the largest functioning bell in the world. It weighs in at 55,555 viss (90,718 kilograms or 199,999 pounds). The sound is a deep claaangg, rung by thumping the bell hard on the lip with a mallet. Mingun is also famous for the king who bankrupted his people with an attempt to outdo every shrine-builder who’d ever lived: King Bodawpaya wanted to build the huge stupa known as Mingun Pahtodawgyi.
It would be the highest in the world, a magnificent 150 meters tall, dwarfing everything built
prior to it.
Work began in 1790.
King Bodawpaya never finished his religious edifice. He ran out of funds; or, halted construction due to a prophesy that his realm would end when the building was completed; or, that completing the stupa would signal his death. An earthquake on March 23, 1839 dislodged the huge bell and damaged the structure beyond saving. The Mingun Pahtodawgyi became the world’s largest pile of bricks…
The structure stands, all semi-finished 50 meters (150 feet) of it, roughly a third of the original planned height.
It’s a holy place and the faithful still come to worship. And the curious come to climb it [enter Jadi and Uwe, stage right]. Now, at any sacred Buddhist site, you remove your shoes at the base of the structure.
And you climb the stairs, barefoot, and then clambor on the ruins, barefoot, for one truly awe-inspiring view of the Irrawaddy River and the surrounding countryside.
Shan pilgrims in traditional outfits had also climbed the stupa and gave us the gift of their smiles and waves.
It was a magnificent afternoon and yet another highlight of our 4 weeks in Burma.
It wasn’t until we were safely home again that I got a good look at Uwe’s photographs.
There was a photo I had taken, too.
All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. And click on the final image to enlarge it for an even better idea of how damaged the site is.
More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.
Pieter was right: the temple massages at Wat Pho really were awesome. Lisa wasn’t surprised by how crowded the site was, because it was dazzlingly, exotically beautiful. All of the palace buildings had golden roofs that gracefully swooped down and curled back up towards the heavens. Guardian demons held up columns or stood with watchful eyes. All of the surfaces were covered with encrusted diamond shapes of colored glass, or tiny mirrors. Throngs of tourists wandered with cameras and guidebooks, admiring the buildings that glittered in the bright Thai sun. “It’s almost as if this entire site is winking at us!” Lisa exclaimed.
Lisa and Babs wandered with their own cameras until they found the traditional massage school. An attendant asked them what kind of session they wanted (how long? what style massage? rather from a male or female therapist, or no preference?) and assigned them numbers. Babs’s number was called first and she looked nervous as she vanished out of sight with a therapist. A few minutes later Lisa heard 32 announced. She stood up and a young Thai woman led her to a different building.
The slats of the rattan walls in the low open structure let in both light and air. Lisa was led to the back of the long room, filled with low mats to the left and right. All around her fully clothed people lay on backs or stomachs as Thai therapists pulled at their limbs. Her therapist pointed for Lisa to lie down, and Lisa watched intently as the Thai girl put her palms together in front of her chest and whispered a prayer. She took one of Lisa’s legs in her hands, and Lisa forgot everything around her as the therapist smoothed away the knots of travel.
In the tropical climate Babs’s own long blond hair had gone completely limp. Babs was miserable. She was pretending she wasn’t shocked and frightened of the foreign megalopolis. Thailand’s capitol city might be a short plane ride away from Singapore. In reality, Bangkok was light years distant from any sanitized, orderly place. Babs knew Lisa admired her for what she perceived to be Babs’s sophistication and worldliness, her previous international travel experience. But just a few days in Bangkok quickly forced Babs to admit how terribly narrow the contours of her worldly knowledge were.
She was terrified of the jostling throngs and afraid of the foreign faces hurrying down the streets. The Bay Area consisted of lots of ethnic groups, of Americans. The jumble of nationalities here was far too authentic. If one more sticky brown body brushed against hers, she would have to scream.
At the temple Babs had been unable to relax despite the massage therapist’s coaxing, dexterous fingers. She had lain fearful and stiff, horribly awkward as a stranger touched her. Babs left the temple with an uncomfortable awareness of how uptight she was and no idea of how to release it.
Her sinuses were clogged with humidity and the aromas of overripe fruits and other odors she couldn’t identify. The stench from open food grills just made her want to gag, while the sly, half closed eyes of the Buddhas in their strange rich temples frightened her. They watched Babs, and on all accounts they found her wanting. The glittering Thai world was simultaneously far too blinding, and contained far too much clarity.
Lisa noticed nothing of how scared Babs was. Instead, Lisa charged head first into the contradictory experience of the crowded streets and serene, glittering temples. Babs was dismayed first by her friend Lisa’s surprising lack of fear, and next by her startling physical transformation. For the first time in their friendship she was discerning a little stab of jealousy against plain Lisa.
– from my short story “Banged Cock” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.
(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)
More pictures from our trips to Thailand, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.