Arts and Culture

Americanface, Episodes 53-56

Story So Far: Lhasa is in flames, but my ass is freezing.

By Andrew Struthers 1 Mar 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew Struthers is a filmmaker and writer in Victoria.

53: INFILTRATION

That second night at Rongbuk was like a whole season in hell.

First, my lips went numb and I thought I was dying of mountain sickness. One of the adventure tourists from the Jeep was an Aussie doctor named Greg. He checked me over and said I was fine, the mountain sickness was all in my head.

Which made me feel paranoid and delusional. Greg's toque had little ears on it, and his scruffy red beard made him look like a fox. Why take advice from a fox? I whispered to myself. Tricking people is their job.

Time dragged, then stopped completely. In the dead of night I shuffled outside to the crapper, a black hole with an icy hurricane blasting from it. As I pinched une grande baguette into the darkness below, there came a hideous slurping sound. It completely unnerved me.

Back in my monk's cell, I huddled on my stone bunk and sang pop tunes to pass the time. Then there came a long, deliberate scratching on my door. Now I had to decide whether to open the door and face whatever had made that sound, or wonder what it was until I went mad.

I chose Door Number One. Behind it stood a big black temple dog, reeking of adventure tourist shit. It climbed right up on the bed and lay across my feet, and lulled by the stench of death and the warmth of puppies, I fell into a deep, delicious sleep.

54: CONVERTING THE MAIDEN

Nepal first gained renown as the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, a prince of the Shakya people, and progenitor of the Middle Path. Wandering through those mountains, it's not hard to guess how Prince Gautama stumbled upon the path to paradise.

The place is so incredibly gorgeous it's like a chunk of heaven that has fallen on the earth, which is why it became the Mecca for adventure tourism in the 1970s, and by the late '80s it was a pleasure sinkhole, and there was no alternative because 97 per cent of Nepal's hard currency came from tourist dollars.

It was disturbing to see the sort of paradise this legion of liberal intelligentsia had built with their travellers checks -- a kind of sadomasochistic Disneyland for adults, where for a dollar a day you could hire a local to carry all your stuff, like a little pony.

I just couldn't do it. Partly because I had only one small pack, but mostly because of the pony thing. Yet carrying my own load made things even worse, because now I was filling up the landscape and not even spreading the wealth around, so there was a constant disgruntlement levelled at me by the locals.

Which I fully understood, hailing from Tofino.

55: ABUNDANCE

Despite a massive influx of tourist dollars, the average income in Nepal is about a dollar a day, the third-lowest on the planet.

Yet even the humblest tea house had a giant glossy colour photo of the King and Queen. These impoverished hill people gushed about the royals every chance they got, just as the Tibetans had gushed about the Dalai Lama, as if this emotional connection somehow allowed them to share in their rulers' wealth.

Or perhaps these symbolic heads of state provide a binding agent, a symbol that unites the culture. In a sense that's what World War I was about: the wearing-out of those symbols, like an old pair of breeches. It eventually happened in Nepal, too, but not until 2001; and perhaps because it took so long, the changeover was extreme.

Dipendra Shah, scion of the Nepalese royal family, was born a prince like Buddha, but took a different path. After his marriage plans were thwarted by his father, King Birendra, he took two sub-machine guns into the palace, shot his dad, mom, brother, aunt, and six others, smoked a cigarette on the ornamental bridge in the garden, then blew his brains out. He was a regipatrimatrifratrisuicidal maniac. Should've stuck to the Middle Path.

And after the gun smoke cleared, the peasantry, suddenly bereft of their binding symbol, fell victim to a Maoist doctrine so extreme that even Beijing has tried to distance itself.

56: TREKKING

Buddha's big breakthrough came in a dream. He starved himself for months until he passed out, and in his stupor thought he heard a minstrel singing:

The string that's o'er tight snaps, and music flies The string that's slack is dull, and music dies Tune us the zither neither low nor high

This is how he came upon the idea of the Middle Path.

But Buddha's zero-sum philosophy had the unfortunate side effect of negating the world. Since everything is maya, illusion, it doesn't matter if you are starving or living in a palace.

Buddha tried both. He walked the walk. It worked out well for him, but the Buddhist negation of the world may be the root of India's poverty. The West has the opposite problem. By casting out poverty like a demon and never embracing any part of it, we end up needing 10 whole worlds of stuff, and still people are so unhappy they feel the need to fly planes into buildings.  [Tyee]

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