Siam I Am

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Siam Chronicles 20 - What She Learns as the World Burns

The world is burning. Everything is on fire. It is the hot dry season. This is different from the rest of the year in that it is hot enough to roast live chickens on your forehead, and there is not a cloud, spot of shade, or rain for relief. This month, March in English, is for the Lao the month of fire. Some say it is simply the timing of the seasons, with the slash and burn agriculture of the surrounding hills needing its start now to be ready for the rainy season approaching in three or four months. It may have started with that, certainly the mountains are suddenly dim with disemboguing a flood of smoke, obscuring the yellow flash of fire below. But it has become over time something more atavistic, a ritual. Every house is burning trash instead of depositing it into the communal bins, plastic bottles and wrappers melting into bonfires, or raking together leaves and torching them, or holding huge barbeques of whole animals with their sightless eyeballs boiling and dripping into the flaming oil-drums the people use instead of ovens - everything is on fire.
I walk every day for an hour or two, along the rivers and into the depths of the sprawl. It is so hot that I walk at dusk now, when the sky is bright red behind the blurred blue smudge of mountain. The air pollution from the smoke is so bad that the sun is scarlet, slipping into the Mekong in red waves, searing its way through an angry crimson sky in the heat. The sunset has no direction, the whole sky is inflamed - the world is on fire from beginning to end. As I walk there is flame on every side, people burning their lawns, their refuse, just burning - a pulsing corridor of orange and smoke. The sky is thick with black bits from the incineration, like slow snowflakes dancing on the current of the bloody ether, and soon you are covered in them as they settle, until you are suited in soot, dark as night. I walk, and have asthma attacks though I don't have asthma. I'm in a fever dream though I'm not sick. My eyes expunge black tears and are red as stop-signs. I walk until the moon rises, huge and carmine refracted in the smoke, like an inferno mirroring the earth below.
I've been in my own personal hells on a few close-kept occasions, and I've lived many places with a multitude of lives, but this is the first time I've encountered the hallmark idea of hell. The burning sky, the columns of fire, the intense heat, the choking smoke leaving you gasping, drowning but yearning for water to cool your skin… my own hells were much more intense so I am left in ashes crying black tears, wondering what the tourist should make of a holiday in Dante's imagination.
I wonder this each day as I walk, suppressing the desire to catch the black snow flakes on my tongue. But this is not hell, there are donuts. But the donuts are dry and tasteless, maybe it is hell. I am feverish and bleary.
I walk past the many wats emitting drifts of incense, more smoke sucked into the already saturated haze. Some feature elaborate paintings of a Christian hell across the entryway - men with the heads of goats dancing in fire and pulling out tongues or testicles, flaying flesh and bone. I had wondered about this since the SE Asians consider Laos to be the high cathedral of Buddhism, with Luang Prabang as its holiest tabernacle. Hell is a Christian idea, antithetical to the Buddhist teachings as I understand them of reincarnation in Samsara, the cycle of suffering - basically if you don't behave you come back as a rat, there is no interstice of a plane of pain. They also believe adamantly in Hinduism here, and mush it into Buddhism without qualm, and in Hinduism what wrongs you do will come back to you in this life via karma - again no hell dimension. I was incredibly curious. I generally avoid monks myself, especially the big cheeses, since it is proscribed that women should be physically lower than them. Since they are all four feet tall, and the city has more monks than mosquitoes, to respect this I'd have to crawl around on all fours like a dog all day. I'd slouch about, but that would still leave me with a good foot to go. So instead of offending, I cross the street, and try to hide my height in the trees. I acquire a good amount of massive spiders and biting red ants while I am doing this, so don't think I don't make an effort. But Alex teaches everyone in town, everyone, he's a local celebrity (not the least because we had our picture taken on an elephant, which became the front of a brochure for the biggest local travel agency), and he teaches a great number of monks. So I sent Alex as my emissary to inquire about how fire and brimstone stir into their religious stew.
He reported back to say that they shrugged their shoulders, said that this is what would happen if you were a bad person, and asked him if he would like to hear them chant the Buddha. These pictures of hell share wall-space with a depiction of the cycle of Samsara, and Hindu deities. This is Laos. This is what I have learned - that although Christian ideals are in direct opposition to Buddhism or Hinduism, the Lao take all into their religion seamlessly with respect. If the idea of coming back as a cockroach holds no impetus to behave, then maybe karma will. If karma doesn't then maybe hell will. It is simply a means to an end, a flip and easy thing to say, but for me the idea of an entire devout populace practically applying this platitude to religion is staggering. The incongruities of dogma do not concern them. These are people who are still animist, even the monks, a beautifully simple religion like that of the Native Americans wherein we are all spirit living from the land and vice versa. Buddhism was a graft, Hinduism was a graft, Christianity was a graft, but hold no contradictions for them. The only thing that is important is the intersect, the limbo of their ancient religion mingling with the upstarts, and this is what they are taught, this is what they believe. There are three laws for the layman and three hundred for the monk that are tenants of all major world religions. They exist happily this way, and theoretical arguments on differences are non-existent, as is their bloodshed in the name of religion.
I have learned while I walk through the inferno that our beliefs and our actions become more empirically kind, more essentially sanctified, when they are not tied down too tightly to one path, but when they instead become a crossroads. When you live in the center of the a crossroads amidst the fires of an apocalypse, the man from the north, the woman from the east, the boy from the south, and the girl to the west are all the same, each just human, equally hazy in the pall of smoke.


At 12:39 PM, Blogger ~Elise~ said...

This is by far my favorite of all your posts. Both personal and otherworldly, with a beautiful conclusion.


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