Grand Slam Yoga

awkward_pose_3-001The problem with an addiction, as any smoker, alcoholic, or licorice lover can attest; is that you need more of what you crave just to maintain.  If you want to bump up your high, you’ve got to increase the dose.

Although I love sweets and have to curtail my Coke Zeros to two a day, I never really thought of myself as an addictive personality until I started taking yoga seriously.  Five years ago a ninety-minute Bikram class left me feeble and famished, but once the sweat evaporated, I was euphoric. I went every day; I loved my groove.  There were so many opportunities to deepen my practice, my craving kept in line with my healthy addiction.  Somewhere during year two I would have classes that left me feeling good, but not great. Occasionally, I’d have a bad class; I’d walk out sore instead of shimmering.

I took to the occasional double –which always rekindled the magic. Then last fall I decided enough of the heat and the pain and I transferred to CorePower.  CorePower is more gentle, more fun, more holistic, more integrated yoga.  But it’s less sweat. It helps me feel good, sometimes great, but never euphoric.  Until yesterday.

CorePower offers four types of classes and yesterday my asana buddy Tyler and I took them all. I started with 6:00 am Scuplt, yo-robics led by the indomitable Shira. Despite being retired, I set my alarm every Monday and Tuesday morning because Shira’s workout beats mere sleep any day. Tyler joined me for 7:15 am C2, which is a 95 degree, steamy intermediate yoga class that varies by instructor. Yesterday Malissa was all twists and shoulders, much needed since the snowy, freezing winter has made us Cantabridgians uncharacteristically tense. My experience of these classes was not unique – pairing these back-to-back is my usual Monday routine.

Mid day I got a text from Tyler – he’d gone to the 9:30 a.m. Sculpt was up for rounding out the CorePower curriculum with two evening classes.

Hot Power Fusion is my favorite of all CorePower classes; like Bikram without the anger. When I set up my mat for the 5:30 p.m. class I didn’t expect it to be different from my usual HPF; it had been more than eight hours since my morning classes.  But the flexibility I earned in the morning lingered past dark.  Each pose was a little deeper, a little smoother, than my usual practice. The 104-degree heat wasn’t a challenge; it was a lubricant. I felt so mellow after class the only thing I wanted to do was more yoga, so I did.

Actually, I drank a lot of water, more than half a gallon, before settling back on my mat for the final CorePower class – C1, fundamentals. My logic in doing C1 last was that it’s the easiest, but it wound up being my most mentally intense. After three hours in the hot room, my body was putty; striking the poses was nothing.  But my mind was in a perpetual sauna; every thought beyond my mat and the mirror steamed out of my skull. My practice was fluid and deep.  When the final sabasana ended I didn’t feel the least bit tired. I could do it all again.

But I didn’t. Tyler came over for food and beer and ice cream and we talked until midnight.  But I still set my alarm for my Tuesday morning date with Shira. I groaned when the alarm went off, but once she put me through my paces, I was strong and alive once again.

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30 Tweets in 30 Days

vitruvian_man-001This is an article recently published in WBUR Cognoscenti http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/2014/03/04/learning-to-think-in-140-characters-paul-fallon

The marketing director of my architectural firm set up a Twitter account for me.  She explained how social media connections fit into the firm’s marketing strategy and described how to employ hash tags and ampersands. I tweeted whenever I spoke at a conference or published an article; I created automatic tweets whenever I posted a blog essay, but I never checked my Twitter feed.  After two years, I’d posted 88 tweets, I followed 19 others and 21 followed me. Considering over 100 million people check twitter every day, I was irrelevant.

“You’re doing this all wrong,” a writer friend told me.  “Don’t just tweet when you’re selling something, and never just tweet a link.” Elizabeth embraced the power of 140 characters. She explained how twitter exposed the American raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, announced the capture of the Boston Marathon bomber, and that Obama tweeted his reelection victory. She advised me to capitalize on the medium: post unique tweets; expand my twitter universe; promote less; tweet more; and for goodness sake, be funny. I decided to test her advice; I posted a fresh tweet every day for thirty days. With a month of regular tweeting is behind me; what did I learn?

1. Twitter is not facebook. Raves about my six-year-old nephew and pictures of snowmen may be the essence of facebook, but they don’t cut it on Twitter. Forget that Katy Perry has more followers (50+ million) than President Obama (41+ million); an imprimatur of gravity prevails. When I tweeted Just ate a bowl of #kale chips; maybe I’m doing too much #yoga; a so-called friend told me it was a lousy tweet.

2. No tweet is an island. Twitter is supposed to be conversational.  A tweet composed of mere text is a dead end. The more hashtags and ampersands I inserted, the more traction I got.  By the end of thirty days, every tweet had a link to an article or video. When I attended a lecture about Big Data’s affect on Journalism, I didn’t tweet journalist Paul McMorrow’s obvious quote that “the chart is the new nutgraph.” Instead, I was witty, statistical, and earned a retweet as reward. At #MassINCBigData conference – 200 people, 190 smart phones, 64 laptops, 8 pens + 1 reporter @paul_mcmorrow with pencil in his ear.

3. A 140-character worldview.  I find the hyper-abbreviated format of many tweets hieroglyphic; yet did not find 140 characters limiting. Within days, the idea that any situation had to be described in 140 characters evolved into the notion that any situation should be described that way. Eventually, the search for the perfect nugget trumped deeper exploration.  Twitter statistics, a burgeoning field of fine-grain chafing, report that tweets with links attached are retweeted 86% more often than those without. That may be true, but personal experience dictates that few of us actually hit those links.  The 140 characters imposed by the medium define the message. Though I included a link to my blog essay about the Columbia MD mall shootings, for most people, Shootings at #Mallincolumbia put bullet through 50 year old #americandream, says it all.

4. The search for content stirs curiosity.  More than once I was getting ready for bed when the groan on conscious reminded me that I was tweetless. Determined not just to post, but to post something relevant, I’d scan the newspaper or Internet seeking inspiration. Every tweet had to be about something that resonated with my interest. Sometimes the search for a tweet took me to unexpected places. I enjoyed profound sleep the night I penned, The most eloquent melding of life and death I’ve ever read. Ashes to Ashes.

The immediate question after a month of tweets is, do I have more Twitter followers?  And the answer is a resounding, yes – 2!

Although growing my following to a less-than-respectable 23 people is not indicative of success, I choose to analyze my experiment in a different way. After a month of tweets, my wariness at beholding the world from a 140-character point-of-view and embracing the triumph of clever over content are eclipsed by the fact that I enjoyed my twitter-filter. Just as a person with a camera sees the world differently because he’s constantly framing what’s included and what’s excluded from his view, so too I came to appreciate twitter’s restrictions. Sometimes it may oversimplify or distort, but more often twitter helped me clarify.

I’ll never have a big following; I’m neither a celebrity nor an expert. My tweets are as broad as my interests, and therefore too diffuse for a medium that celebrates focus. The value of them comes from the exploration they stimulate before I hit the send button. After that, they’re out of my control.

 

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The Slow Boat from Battambang to Siem Reap

vitruvian_man-001There are two ways to get from Battambang, Cambodia to Siem Reap. The bus through Sisophon takes about three hours and costs $5.50. The boat along the Sangker River takes seven to nine hours, costs twenty dollars, and requires a five dollar tuk-tuk ride from its remote dock into town. A simple cost-benefit analysis favors the bus. But that would be a mistake, because the boat ride from Battambang to Siem Reap is a memorable journey.

The boat is scheduled to leave every morning at 7:00 a.m. from the dock near the Pharmacy along Route 156, just north of Battambang’s Route 5 bridge. It never does. My daughter Abby, who lives in Cambodia, took the boat in October, when water levels were high, yet passengers were bussed downstream and didn’t embark until 8:30 a.m. We took the trip together in mid-December, and despite reduced water levels, the boat left from town by 7:20 a.m.

Many Battambang hotels and restaurants sell boat tickets, but often charge $1 to $5 more than the $20 fare. We bought tickets dockside a day in advance when we were strolling along the river, but tickets can be purchased the morning of the trip. No matter how crowded the vessel, Cambodian’s never turn away a paying customer.

The boat is about forty feet long by ten feet wide with a metal canopy roof.  There are three areas to sit.  Below board, doublewide benches line each side of a center aisle.  Forward seats are preferred since the rear engine is very loud and the adjacent potty is odorous.  A few people squat on the open bow.  But the best seats are on the roof, away from the noise and in the breeze.

Cambodia was unseasonably cool last December, but Abby and I climbed on top and claimed a choice spot where the roof cants up to clear the engine below, thus creating a backrest. We were cold for the first hour, but once the weather turned warm we had the best perch.

Leaving Battambang, the Sangker River (also spelled Stung Sangke) is well defined. In December the houses on stilts sit high above the water, but the remains of structures washed out in rainy season litter both banks. Houseboats with canvas covers resembling covered wagons float near the shore.

The vessel is advertised as the fast boat to Siem Reap, but it’s not fast at all.  The boat stops often to pick up passengers or drop off packages. It’s the lifeline of the river dwellers. As we approach a hamlet, the captain horns a loud bellow, announcing a delivery. The boat slows and then treads water while a local paddles out to retrieve their sack of rice or vegetables.

Elegant banyan trees define river bends; the banks gradually diminish, until dry land sits mere inches above the water’s surface.  Houses on stilts give way to tents that local citizens pitch along the river and relocate as water levels change.  Some houseboats are attached to fantastic bamboo fishing derricks that lower giant nets into the shallows.

We stopped for snacks at Prey Chas. Back on board, every structure downstream hovered above the water. Each house had stairs that descended to floating docks and canoes. It was warm by now. We shed our sweatshirts and applied sunscreen; many other passengers joined us on the roof.

At one point the channel ran through a dense stand of trees; we all laid flat to avoid getting struck by the branches. Abby couldn’t remember that portion of the river, until she realized that in October she floated above the thicket. Within two months the water level had dropped many feet.

It took hours for the river merge with the open waters of Tonle Sap Lake. Banks receded to swamp and then to marsh, partially submerged trees testified that land was not far below. The rooftop passengers grew chatty. We met folks from Australia, Germany and Britain. Cambodian passengers remained below, except for a small boy who entertained everyone with his antics.

The final hour across Tonle Sap Lake was like crossing a watery desert. The horizon was so flat and the sky so vast.  Tiny images appeared blurry in the distance; fishing boats shimmered, elusive as the sleek fish they sought to catch.

A singular hill appeared to the north.  Abby announced, We are entering the insanity that is Siem Reap; folks who live in Cambodia don’t relish this giant tourist town.  Before we even docked, hungry salesmen hawking tuk-tuk rides jumped aboard and glued themselves to potential fares.  Ten dollars, eight dollars, six dollars.  Abby spooked them by replying in Khmer. We fetched a ride to our hotel for five bucks. The peace and reverie of the river was behind us, but not forgotten.

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Along the banks outside of Battambang

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The boat docks for a break.

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Fishing derrick.

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Navigating between trees.

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Floating Village

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Arriving on Tonle Sap – the hill to the left marks the distant shore and Siem Reap.

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The Visitor

usa-001When The Visitor slouched into theaters in 2007 (a film that opens on four screens total does not arrive with force) it earned a respectable niche.  The Visitor got good reviews, some indie awards; and Richard Jenkins (most famous for Six Feet Under) got an Oscar nod. The film evokes that dreaded word, ‘compelling’ because it works its way under your skin until, without realizing it; you care about these four people.

The middle-aged widower professor meets the flamboyant Syrian drummer and his wary Senegalese girlfriend when he shows up at his rarely used Washington Square coop only to find some never seen huckster has usurped the place to harbor illegals. Eventually the drummer’s iron-willed mother rounds out the quartet. Each of the characters is drawn deeper than these few adjectives describe; each is attracted to the other as a human being yet cast against the other according to the arbitrary borders of our world. The three illegal characters embody the elemental sprit of America; while the protagonist is so unmoored from meaning he is numb to the advantages of American citizenship, affluent ease, arcane intellectualizing, and a nifty Manhattan apartment that he owns but never uses.

There was too much of me in the Richard Jenkins character for me to like him. I kept rooting for the three immigrants, each so angry, talented, funny, and full of life. I wanted the romantic comedy touches to play out; for everyone to form the big happy family we deserve. But The Visitor is not a comedy; it is a mirror on the world as it is.  And so, in the end, the fate of the three immigrants is tragic, while the hapless American gets what he wants, an ending all the more prophetic because, if not for the three sojourners who showed him the way, the lost soul would still be breathing but barely existing in Connecticut. The white American male always wins.

Which brings me to the title. Who is The Visitor?  Is it the illegal who gets tossed back from when he came, the middle aged woman who arrives mid-way through to sear the hole in Richard Jenkins heart, or is it Richard Jenkins himself, who happens upon souls who are truly alive through the serendipity of a deed. He is the person made whole and new.

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The Visitor

 

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Yin Meditation

awkward_pose_3-001My daughter and I spent a week at the Hariharalaya Retreat Center in Bakong, Cambodia. Everyone staying there hailed from North America, Europe or Australia; most on extended sojourns to a patch of the world where a sabbatical year is cheap and exotic. Hariharalaya’s campus is funky, the staff warm, the vegan food good, and the daily rhythm rich: yoga and meditation interspersed with free time.

Abby lives in Cambodia, I was visiting, and Hariharalaya allowed us to infuse our sightseeing with some reflection. Abby is a regular yogi but wanted to refresh her practice, as she has no partners in the small village where she lives. I just finished a four-year stint of daily Bikram and was seeking a broader yoga expression.  However, I had little meditation experience, and was anxious at the prospect of sitting silent and cross-legged three times a day.

At the first evening’s meditation I sat up straight, but my mind wandered.  In proper meditation, if there is such a thing, thoughts flow but don’t stick. Unfortunately, the minutiae of my life littered my brain like syrupy shards of glass in a recycling bin.

The following morning we chanted.  I should clarify; they chanted. All sorts of Om’s and Hari’s.  It seemed so juvenile I could have laughed, but I didn’t out of fear that Abby got something from all this. I was so glad when the annoying noise stopped that my focus during silent meditation improved. I sat quiet, breathed deep, and if my mind stuck on an old argument from work, I persevered.

The next morning’s chant produced more odd Hindi vowels that I didn’t utter. The final chant, however, was in English. It was so absurd I couldn’t help but join in. Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

At first I sang quiet, then I swayed a bit, then I jumped among the rounds.  The sounds formed in my mouth, bounced off the inside of my cheeks, and exploded forth. I realized this nursery rhyme is an excellent chant, simple and cryptic and fixed in the present.

Once cracked open, I was receptive to the dharma talk that followed. Meditation is like rowing your boat. It requires work and surrender, effort and flow.  If all we have is effort, then we push against everything, even ourselves.  We tire out.  We need to flow with the current, to follow the path of the stream.  But if we just flow without effort, we get pulled into eddies or stuck along the shore.  We become lazy, we never reach our destination.  Meditation is the same.  It requires effort, concentration, focus, and presence. At the same time, it requires surrender and flow.

The next day, Amy, Hariharalaya’s yoga teacher, led us through yin postures in preparation for the evening meditation.  For a man steeped in the Bikram tradition, yin is a revelation. Simple postures, held a long time, at good depth, inducing regular, conscious breathing.  After an hour of these poses, my breath was so calm and expansive I didn’t tense up when Amy announced a forty-five minute meditation.  I just kept breathing.

I breathed loud, at least in my own head. I drew my ribs up on the inhale and, in defiance of physics, they continued up on the exhale. My core ascended and floated like a balloon. I didn’t count the breaths but they continued without measure, each containing a long, sustained life of its own.  Light flickered within my third eye. Perhaps it was the dwindling twilight; perhaps it was a synapse ricocheting in my brain. I rooted into my sits bones; consciousness escaped my head; it flooded the hollow of my belly.

I lost time and space.  My breath became enormous; it smothered any intruding memory or fantasy. I could have hyperventilated, but didn’t.  Unconscious breaths took an eternity to draw in and spell out. I’m hallucinating, I thought.  And as soon as that concept formed, my ecstasy deflated. When I abandoned the mind, my being soared, until instability triggered specific thoughts that grounded me again.  The gong chimed.  Forty-five minutes passed in an instant.  There was distant noise. People rustled about. Amy spoke.  Nothing registered in me.  Aha, I realized as my mind reengaged, this is real meditation. But the more I tried to remember it, the less I could reclaim.

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Hariharalaya Retreat Center

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Abby at Hariharalaya

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Chinese Noodle

vitruvian_man-001During a recent trip to Cambodia my daughter and I visited Battambang twice – en route from Abby’s home village of Kra Kor to Siem Reap, and on our return trip. During those two brief stays we ate at Chinese Noodle five times.  According to Abby there are other good restaurants in Cambodia’s funky second city, including the well-known White Rose next door, but we never crossed their thresholds. Whether it’s lunch, dinner or take-out, Abby’s heart belongs to Chinese Noodle.

Chinese Noodle is a storefront on Street #2.  The metal grate rises early in the morning and stays up past midnight.  Customers walk past a half-height wall with a glass shield where the chef creates his magic for the entire street to see. He pulls dough into strands like taffy, then rakes it into long noodles or cuts it into small discs, which get dolloped with pork or vegetable and then are pinched into a dumpling shaped like a Hershey’s kiss but twice the size. Next to him is a giant pot of broth that simmers all day. The prep line ends at the portable hot plate where his wife pan-fries dumplings or scallion pancakes.

Inside, tables for four line each wall.  Each table has an assortment of sauces in squirt jars. The chef’s wife, who doubles as waitress, delivers a pot of tea and hands out a simple menu sheet. Abby doesn’t need to look at it.  She orders us a dozen pork dumplings, a scallion pancake, a pork soup bowl for me and a chicken bowl for her.  By our third visit I protest that we don’t need so much food, and we forego the pancake.  But when our neighbor gets one and we remember how delicate and crisp it is, we order one anyway. Occasionally we mix it up with vegetable dumplings or a fried noodle entree. I have never tasted such light and flavorful pasta.

Almost every dish costs $1.50 U.S.; a few cost less, none cost more.  Chinese Noodle has a refrigerator case where customers can buy a cold beer or soft drink. A can of Angkor costs a buck, but most meals we just drink tea, which is free and plentiful.

One evening we run into one of Abby’s fellow Peace Corps volunteers at Chinese Noodle. Battambang is the primary escape for volunteers in northwest Cambodia who need a bit of urban life, and Chinese Noodle is their unofficial headquarters. Although a few Cambodians frequent Chinese Noodle, most the clientele is twenty-something ex-pats.

There doesn’t appear to be any line between the owner’s private life and Chinese Noodle. Their young daughter skips among the tables and charms diners.  One evening I needed to use the facilities, and they directed me a toilet room that required I walk through their bedroom. If I had known in advance I might have squirmed a bit longer, but they didn’t seem to mind.

The only downside to Chinese Noodle is that its two hours away from Abby’s home village, and she can go a month or more without a visit to Battambang. How to assuage her Chinese Noodle cravings?  She gets delivery.  The bus system in Cambodia part public conveyance, part postal service, part UPS.  Abby calls Chinese Noodle, orders a dozen dumplings, gets it bicycled to Battambang’s bus station and delivered to Kra Kor.  She admits that four-hour cold dumplings are not as good as the ones hot off the skillet, but when her taste buds have been deadened by rice, rice and more rice, they’re still very tasty.  What does such elaborate delivery cost?  About thirty cents.

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IMG_0480IMG_0186The wonders of Chinese Noodle

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Cambodia Today – A Generation After the Killing Fields

vitruvian_man-001Thirty-five years ago, Vietnamese marched into Phnom Penh, liberating Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, who’d ostensibly liberated the same people a mere four years before. The Khmer Rouge’s short but devastating regime capitalized on the Cambodian people’s reverence for nation and authority; the same attributes that ancient kings harnessed to erect the mammoth temples at Angkor. Thirty-five years is a useful timespan to consider how Cambodian society continues to subsume individual identity and whether it can prevent future killing fields.

I recently visited a rural home near Pursat where my daughter Abby lives with an extended family while serving in the Peace Corps. Two parents, two children, and seven boarders share five rooms, outdoor cooking and sanitation facilities. All are industrious, earnest, and quiet. They maneuver through well-established routines and eat mostly in silence, tolerating my visitor’s banter but dismissing personal or political questions with nervous laughter.

Abby’s Cambodian mother and father survived the Khmer Rouge and a Thai refugee camp. They returned to their home village in 1991. Now, they rarely leave. Nor do they speak of that time.  Instead, they speak of order and authority. They do not bemoan Cambodia’s ongoing struggles or question why this beautiful, fertile land is still one of the poorest on earth. These survivors appreciate the peace of Hun Sen’s reign and seek nothing beyond their simple plot.

Abby’s Cambodian brother is a 25 year-old high school physics teacher who sleeps in the same room as his parents. He owns a moto but little else. He uttered no words during my visit.  He never countered his parents. Yet he occasionally flashed eyes at me while his parents spoke, intimating that not all values of the father are automatically transferred to the son.

Cambodia’s history centers around two seminal periods. Ancient Angkor dominated Southeast Asia for over four centuries circa 900 to 1300 AD, while the Khmer Rouge’s bloodshed occurred within four years of enforced isolation during the 1970’s. Before and after, Cambodia’s enjoyed brief periods of independence, but foreign influence or occupation by France, Thailand, Vietnam, and others, has been the norm.

Twelfth century Angkor Wat supported over a million people; it was the largest city in the world. While Europeans built gothic cathedrals taller, wider, and more delicate, Cambodian serfs dug ever larger moats and sculpted endless stone relief. Over four hundred years, Angkor’s techniques of construction and sculpture never changed; they just got bigger. Cambodian craftsmen replicated what they knew rather than stretch their capabilities.

Over the next seven centuries Europe experienced enlightenment, revolution, colonization, massive war, and finally social democratic states while Cambodia continued to be a subsistence society whose abundant rice enriched extortionist rulers. The French hailed Cambodians as the most obedient people in Southeast Asia, and rewarded their exemplary behavior with the highest taxes in their colonial domain.

Little wonder that beleaguered citizens embraced the Khmer Rouge’s promise of a native Cambodian state. They couldn’t foresee Khmer Rouge’s radical transformations: abolishing private property, money, religion, and family. Still, they abandoned their cities and lives on nothing more than a revolutionary order to obey. The most baffling image at the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum is a photograph of fleeing émigrés. Remarkable for what’s missing.  The Cambodians carry few belongings. No armed soldier pushes the crowd. They march into the unknown without resistance.

In less than four years, the Khmer Rouge killed more than a million Cambodians, as if by eliminating a population equal to Angkor’s glory, the regime could erase history itself.

Which in some ways it has. Khmer Rouge atrocities are so grotesque they cannot be discussed.  For the older generation, the pain is too great. The younger generation is unaware because Khmer Rouge is barely taught in school. It doesn’t fit into any narrative of Cambodia’s Angkor glory or its fundamental values of family, ancestors, and Buddhism.

Left to its own devices Cambodia might choose to forget the Khmer Rouge, and thereby risk repeating it. But one unanticipated consequence of the killing fields is the international attention Cambodia’s attracted since the atrocities were revealed. Thirty-five years after the fall, there are simply too many NGO’s, Lexus, Camry’s, and foreigners like Abby, for the country to ever be corralled by such an insular vision again.

Today’s older generation deserves to live out life in quiet peace. But the new generation has lively eyes.  They honor parents and tradition, but also Google and pizza.  Their challenge is to preserve Cambodia’s gentle nature without succumbing to submission.

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Abby’s Cambodian Father with the house of his ancestors

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Abby and her Cambodian mother at the village market

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A formal portrait outside the village Pagoda

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Personal Hygiene Tips from the Developing World

vitruvian_man-001One thing American’s dislike about traveling to developing countries is dealing with other, presumably lesser, standards of hygiene. After two weeks in Cambodia I not only got used to how this poor country deals with bodily functions, I came to believe that in many ways, their habits are superior to ours.

Toilets.  There are two kinds of toilets in Cambodia: ones that look like ours, and ones that look like an upside down rabbit face, otherwise known as squat toilets. Toilets that resemble ours are easy, we sit on them just like we do back home, do our business, and hear a satisfying swoosh when our waste slides into the water.

Squat toilets are less obvious. A ceramic rectangle sits flush with the floor. It has a single round hole and a pair of ovals defined by a raised ceramic bump.  We turn to face away from the wall and put our feet into the ovals that resemble the rabbit ears. Then we squat and deposit our stuff in the void. It’s a bit unnerving because you’re not sure how much flight your projectiles are going to enjoy.  Sometimes you hear them land with a definite thud and try not to picture what they landed on. Other times they descend without a sound, in free fall forever.  As I child in New Jersey I imagined things falling deep into the earth sprouting up in China, but in Cambodia, I envision myself fertilizing a Florida orange grove.

The biggest challenge with the squat toilets is what to do with the clothes that dropped from your waist. A conventional toilet bowl keeps them out of the way, but when you’re squatting, your clothes can drift back and catch, well, stuff that smells and stains. It’s ridiculous to take your pants and underwear off, there’s never anything so useful as a hook in a Cambodia toilet stall, if you’re lucky enough to even be in a stall. Instead I developed a new yoga pose.  Drop to a full squat, then place you hands between your thighs, grab the back of your belt and pull your clothes forward. It’s actually a cool balance, but I don’t recommend showing it off in public.

So far nothing I’ve described seems superior to the way we go to the bathroom in the good old U.S. of A. The improved sanitation occurs after release, when our custom is to grab a wad of thin paper and smear telltale remains all over ourselves. Without the luxury of toilet paper, Cambodian toilets come equipped with a small spray hose that you aim and shoot.  Instead of rubbing it in, you wash it out. Think about it; it’s a much better way to go. The first few times I did this I worried about wetting my clothes, since no one that can actually see where they’re spraying except maybe a contortionist from Cirque du Soleil. But the spray hoses are accurate and reliable and humans have a sixth sense for strategic body parts.  After a few successful hosings, I realized how much cleaner I felt after a spray than after a wipe.

One word of caution.  You can’t spray and go.  You must linger in your squat for a few moments to let things dry out. Otherwise you might make a telltale squeak as you walk away.

Once finished, and dry, you stand up straight, rebuckle your pants, and realize another nice thing about taking a dump in Cambodia.  Your hands remain relatively clean; they never get up inside of yourself. However, it’s still a good idea to wash them, and here again Cambodia has figured it out better than us.

Sinks. The American standard is to use the toilet, leave the stall, wash our hands in a sink that has either a reliable faucet or demonic sensor control, dry our hands, and then open the door to exit the public bathroom. What’s wrong with this picture, as anyone who’s ever witnessed the pile of paper towels right next to a public bathroom door can attest, is that we wash our hands and then immediately touch a door that thousands of others touch.

I never saw a public bathroom in Cambodia with a sink in it.  The sinks are outside the rooms. You do your business, fix your pants, open the stall door and the main door, and there’s a sink, maybe even a vanity and a mirror, in an alcove. Once you’ve washed your hands, there is nothing more to touch.

There are so many things to love about Cambodia. The country is beautiful, the food delicious, the prices cheap, the people delightful. They love Americans.  But I also applaud their sanitation habits. They may be unusual, but they’re hygienic.

140211 Restroom sign in Battambang, Cambodia

Cambodia also has cool restroom signs

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Same Same But Different

usa-001I recently visited Cambodia and received foreign travel’s twin satisfactions: a deeper appreciation for others and a sharpened perspective on my own country’s strengths and flaws. I also snagged this souvenir T-shirt whose cryptic puzzle leaves me wondering how we are actually the same and how we are different.

Cambodia is littered with people wearing the same T-shirt.  Locals wear it; ex-pats wear it; children and adults wear it. White block letters spell out SAME SAME on the front, BUT DIFFERENT on the back. My daughter Abby, a Peace Corps volunteer, says its based on a Khmer phrase. The SAME SAME part makes sense, Cambodia’s one of the most ethnically homogenous counties on earth. BUT DIFFERENT upends my perceptions of a place where people look so similar and are famously compliant.

The physical stuff – what people see – is easy to categorize. We’re all mammals, all humans, but we come in different heights and widths, ages and genders. Like snowflakes, people are easy to identify though no two look alike.

It’s our ethnic and cultural affiliations – how people see themselves – that are more challenging.

The Harvard Institute of Economic Research created a cool map that illustrates the homogenous / heterogeneous range of every country on earth. The researchers didn’t ask people to describe others; they asked people to describe themselves. The closer someone’s answer matched their neighbor, the more homogenous the community. Disparate responses within the same country indicated heterogeneity.

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According to this map, Japan is the most homogenous nation on earth; the countries in Central Africa, where tribal identities still run strong, are the most heterogeneous. Cambodia is high on the homogenous scale, a poor nation with a long history of racial and cultural continuity but few immigrants. SAME SAME. The United States is dead center in the homogeneous / heterogeneous spectrum. That may seem odd, since we come from all over the world and look so different. Yet Americans are not as diverse as we look because ethnicity is a social construct based on perceptions rather than physical traits.  Although U.S. residents look more different than people from many countries, the more we identify ourselves simply as American, the less our skin color, food preferences, or grandparents’ country of origin define our ethnicity. Our SAME SAME is that we’re American.  (Although I wish we could find another term to describe us, since most people from the Americas do not live in the United States).

BUT DIFFERENT seems self-evident; the polyglot of cultures that intersect in the United States is unmatched.  Yet, diversity doesn’t differentiate Americans so much as it defines us. The United States is not roast beef or empanadas or rice or chocolate, it’s roast beef and empanadas and rice and chocolate. One reason the rest of the world emulates us is that everyone can find something to like – and dislike – about the U.S.  Our cornucopia of identities feeds our penchant to label everyone. We’re not only black or white, rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight; we’re Afro-American or Irish-American, 1 percent or 99 percent, Gen X or Greatest Generation, queer or metrosexual.  We carve ourselves into unique identities. I find it exhausting.

Such fractional labels are less common in Cambodia. I’m sure the same range of traits exists, and provides gossip fodder among the garment-working majority. But fixating on labels that divide is a pastime for the affluent. Poor people must rely on each other, and are less inclined to fuel the friction of accentuating differences.

My T-shirt with its lettering on front and back, has taken on two different meanings for me. In the Eastern hemisphere SAME SAME proclaims Cambodia’s cultural glue; BUT DIFFERENT acknowledges human variation and accepts it with a shrug. In the West, SAME SAME acknowledges genetic similarities; BUT DIFFERENT proclaims each person’s self-definition.

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Yoga Cross-training

awkward_pose_3-001I attended twelve yoga classes last week. Excessive? You bet. But I found benefit in every one.

Since I stopped doing Bikram last September I’ve expanded into doing a variety of yoga styles.  My home base these days is CorePower Yoga. CorePower offers four different kinds of classes. C1 Fundamentals is a 60-minute class at 85 degrees with a set sequence of postures that cover yoga basics including flow, balances, inversions, and core strengthening. C2 Power follows the same guidelines at 95 degrees but includes a greater variety of poses since each teacher choreographs his own class. Sculpt is yoga-influenced aerobics; the class includes cardio, squats, bicep, and core work with light weights. Hot Fusion is modified Bikram; the 26 Bikram poses in a 104 degree room, held for shorter periods with some flow in between. Last week I went to 4 C2, 3 Sculpt, 2 Hot Fusion, and 1 C1 class.

I also attended two yoga sessions with Santosh Karmacharya, the Nepalese owner of Om Namo, an alternative medicine and bodywork center that offers therapeutic yoga.  Santosh teaches a distinctly different approach to yoga.  He doesn’t focus on building strength, as Sculpt does; or balance, as C2 does; or flexibility, as Hot Fusion does.  Santosh’s approach emphasizes postures that use an array of muscles at equal intensity. He arranges students around the perimeter of the room with our mats perpendicular to the wall, and then uses the wall as a support for many positions.  During 75 minutes I never stress any particular area, yet when class is over I feel every part of me massaged and enhanced.
It’s been six months since I moved from monolithic yoga (Bikram every day) to a cross-training approach.  I don’t experience the same benefits I did from Bikram; I don’t feel as light, I’ve lost my body temperature sensitivity, I catch colds (never sick a day in four years of Bikram), and I rarely have those intense mind/body/consciousness moments that Bikram’s intensity fosters. However, I feel better rounded and I enjoy the process of yoga rather than simply it’s end product. After more than a thousand classes, Bikram was simply too hot, too repetitive, and too grueling. The mental stamina that got me into the hot room has evaporated. I used to feel great after yoga, now I feel great doing yoga.
I also love the variety, and having fewer expectations for each class. I woke stiff this morning, after shoveling out ten inches of snow yesterday.  My C2 class was rich in plank/chaturanga/upward dog/downward dog flows that helped firm compress, and expand my spine. It was the perfect way to counter the hundreds of pounds of snow I hauled. Tomorrow perhaps I’ll want to work with weights or build a heavy sweat.  When you do as much yoga as I do, it’s good to have options.

karmacharya_santosh_thumSantosh Karmacharya

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