Finding Nemo

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Forgotten Ones

Beijing Airport, smog thick enough to cut with a knife
Next to me on the plane ride from Boracay to Manila a well-fed black man from Louisiana sat cheerfully.  He was traveling back to his home in the Philippines, worked on a military base at Yokohama, and had a Filipina wife on Cebu Island.  It is such a nice surprise to hear an American voice when you are far from home, and we exchanged earthquake and radiation stories, we agreed that the Chinese staff at Beijing Capitol Airport were shockingly rude compared to the Japanese.  I asked him why he moved here of all places.

"You kidding?  I got the run of the place.  Back home in the states, I'd just be another regular Joe.  But here, I live like a king.  Got a pretty girl, real nice house, a maid.  Its good livin'."

I told him my sister was an ex-pat and loved the lifestyle.  We talked about Manila a bit.

"You're staying in Malate?  Hoo boy, you betta be careful son.  Last time I was there, I was outta the cab for no more-in 2 seconds before a bunch of those little street kids come up.  Before I knew what was goin on, he reach up and pap! grabbed my sunglasses right off my face.  I tackled him but he tossed 'em over to his friend and that was that.  I coulda pounded the little kid, but I heard that them Filipino boys would get you back.  You'd just be walking home and then *crrrrit*."  He made a motion like being stabbed in the lower back from behind and a gurgling sound to go with it.  "They were expensive sunglasses too.  Sumvabitch."

A Very Hard Life
With this warning floating in my head, I left the airport and took an annoyingly overpriced "special airport taxi" to my hostel.  I got out, and there they were.  The dusty urchins, looking at me and my backpacks like a haunch of freshly roasting pig.  I quickly went into the hostel.  My $7 dorm was up 4 flights of stairs, my torn foot and still swollen knee gulped in distress.  When I opened the door I noticed a few little Asian men sleeping in their not-so-tidy whities.  Then that familiar smell came... that dorm smell you get when you find a cheap place in a big dirty city.  Sweat, filthy socks, damp used towels, body odor, bad cologne, and a few other spicy unpleasantries were being pushed around the room by a barely working fan.  Outside, a jackhammer broke rock on a new high-rise foundation and Britney Spears thumped from a cheap restaurant.  I was dripping with sweat and my achilles was on fire again.  It would be one of those nights.

Later one of the perpetual day-sleepers finally awoke.  He was from China and was trying to get into Manila real-estate.  I asked him why he was in such a dingy place like this if he was a businessman.  He said the business was just getting started, but soon he would be rich.  I looked at his ragged clothes and broken glasses.  He wore a gold watch that told the same time all day.  A young woman in the bunk next to me whispered to me that her brother had just died.  She had a tube in her heart and needed surgery but couldn't afford it.  I hadn't even said hello to her.  It occurred to me how traveling opens people up in a way that would never happen back home.  The knowledge that you will never meet their friends or family, and that they will never see you again brings a certain freedom and intimacy to a traveler's conversation.  I looked sadly at her, the pain in my now chronically sprained achilles tendon was suddenly not such a heavy burden.

That night at a club I ran into a few pretty local women.  They said "Come on back to our place."  My brain went on high alert, and so of course I said, "Ummm... sure."  Not sure how it had happened, I found myself in a cab hurtling in the dark towards an unknown fate.  The prettiest one took me to her room and we fooled around for a bit.  I looked up and noticed that all of the other girls were watching.  "You very handsome!!" said one, and she moved forward with her mouth open.  I bolted upright and got myself together.  "I should probably go, I ... um... uh ... I have a flight to catch."

"No no stay!  We want play with you."  Another came up and said, "I show you surprise.  Feel these."  She grabbed my hands and put them on her ample breasts.  They were entirely made of padding.  "I Lady-Boy!"  My eyes re-focused and adrenalin shot into my brain, breaking me out of the night's fog.  "Want see my pee-pee?" she, or rather he, offered.  I declined but he dropped his shorts anyway.  A large bush with something that may or may not have been a very small penis appeared.

The tiny cute one in the corner that I was absolutely certain was a girl came up and said "I lady-boy too!  I like in the butt.  Want try?"  She/he was so tiny that I couldn't believe it was a man.  He bent over and began dropping his skirt as I said firmly "No!!" and crossed my arms in an X.

Girlie review... or more correctly lady-boy review
I wished I had asked them some questions, like if they were gay or not, or if they were doing it only for the money.  What drove so many to become lady-boys?  I had been accosted almost every night going home in Boracay, jumping out from dark bushes or alleys, all promising a suck and dropping their pants even as you averted your eyes and ran away.  These poor creatures were lost, damned to a hell that I could not imagine in my darkest nightmare.  But instead I ran outside and got a taxi.

The next day, on my way to the airport, we got caught for a moment in the traffic.  I noticed a beggar coming our way.  She had a kind face, wild white hair, dirty rags for clothes.  Her face was very old and weary, perhaps in her 80's.  But then I realized that maybe time lied on the homeless, perhaps she was only 50 or 60.  Where was her family?  Why was this grandmother, at the end of her days, forced to beg scraps from passing cars in the street?  I wondered what she was like as a little girl, perhaps laughing, full of promise.  I reached in my pocket to get some pesos, but before I could get anything the traffic opened up and we drove past. For a moment, our eyes met and we looked at each other, her eyes pierced my soul with guilt.  Guilt for my life, for my luck to be born where I was.

The images swam in my brain.  The ragged filthy street kids, roaming the streets like a pack of starving dogs.  Where were their parents?  The Asian entrepreneur without enough to afford decent clothes or a proper hotel room.  The young woman who might soon die of heart failure, crying into her pillow at night.  The desperate lady-boys who did the unthinkable for a few pesos.  The old grandmother, ending her days as a street beggar, fate laughing cruelly.  I thought back on the Untouchables in India, sleeping, without shelter or even clothes sometimes, one after another in the open streets among the sewage and garbage.  The street urchins who in India were missing hands or eyes, the better to bring pity and money from the heart-broken foreigner.

They were all the Forgotten Ones.  Tragic doomed souls that God, after making them in His image, had abandoned.  These were the vast hoards Buddha spoke of when he said that Life is Suffering.  The next day I went to the doctor in Makati and he confirmed that I would have to cancel my Nepal trek.  He gave me some "special European anti-inflammatories, better than Celebrex!" and said I should find someplace nice to rest up.  And I knew that no matter how bad a turn my trip had taken, or how long I would be trapped here in the Philippines with my injuries, that I lived a truly blessed life.

Cliff Diving for Idiots

I wiggled my heels a little further back so that they were hanging over the abyss.  Raising my arms I yelled, "How about a little encouragement?!!"  The crowd duly went wild and cheered and clapped.  Liquid courage and a crowd yelling makes a sane man do things which, in retrospect, perhaps should never be attempted.  I jumped into a backwards swan dive, falling, guessing when I should tuck.  The platform was about 6 meters high, twice the height of your local neighborhood high-dive.  I waited a second, then lifted my legs to flip... but it was too late.  The water came up and my face impacted into a cement sidewalk.  Underwater, I waited for the shock to subside and then the pain came.  It was a King Kong bitch-slap right in the lips.  I lingered underwater, letting it soothe, then finally came up.  The noise of laughing and clapping above, along with a shout of "Woah dude, are you OK?" confirmed that my jump had been well-received.

Face Down Ass Up
The place was about a 45 minute ride by boat, you round a corner of the main island of Panay and suddenly you see a set of huts and platforms, artistically perched on cliffs above a calm clear blue-green lagoon.  It is protected from the wind and the water was glassy and beautiful.  You walk up stone steps through a dark cave and suddenly emerge into a little wonderland of palms, cliffs, huts, and secluded little picnic tables scattered in the greenery.  The DJ came on, the bar opened, a fantastic buffet was spread on the tables, and the party started.

We had our little pack of Frendz from the hostel, but there is something about the fear and hilarity of watching people jump off cliffs, arms rolling frantically like they are desperately trying to roll up a pair of broken windows, and then impact into the water in all manner of painful styles that instantly bonds.  Soon everyone on the boat were best friends and chants of "Jump, Jump Jump!!" rose in the air, egging on each new cautious contestant.  The highest platform was maybe 10-15 meters, it is hard to tell.  But its high enough that doing flips was completely out of the question.  You are in the air long enough to pray that you don't land on your back and that your health insurance is in order.  Our friend James had filled his tank with Red Horse and was fueled for liftoff.  He jumped from the high dive, and quickly it became clear that he was leaning back, leaning back... his arms flailed like out of control windmills but it was useless.  CRAAAACKKK!!!  A collective "oooooooooooo" came from the crowd.  James came up, his face in a grimace, one hand on the back.  On dry land he proudly showed blood oozing out of his skin.  "Mate I just couldn't breathe... oh I'm shattered!"

Dave and Pat, actual size, surrounded by their fans
The finale came a few minutes later.  Dave came up to me and handed over his camera.  "Nemo, just put it in video mode and start filming.  Trust me."  A few minutes later people behind me started whistling and cheering.  A naked man with one hand covering his twig and berries came hurtling towards me.  It was Dave.  He stopped in front of the camera, raised his free arm in a salute, and yelled "For England!", and then jumped off the platform.  I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Patrick, equally naked, was simultaneously jumping off the other platform.  They hit the water perfectly synchronized, obviously having practiced this many times before.  The crowd of Japanese and Chinese girls were giggling in shock and covering their mouths and the men hooted wildly.

I had never realized Cliff Jumping could be performance art.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Quest for a Happy Horse

The smiling Santa
The bartender rushed back to me and announced, "Yes, we have one.  Here!"  My eyes widened with disbelief and I howled in delight over the booming of the disco's beat.  My friend Dave from England next to me started smiling and shaking his head.  He couldn't believe it either.  Even the bartender was in shock, she confided it was the first she had ever seen.  We had been looking for this exotic artifact for over 2 weeks now, our 6-man English party crew had gone through at least 300 bottles of Red Horse together.  She handed it to us, we gingerly looked it over carefully, religiously, like it was the golden idol in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It was indeed a Happy Horse.  And I was finally granted the power of its luck that night.

Backpacker Bonding Ritual
It all started rather innocently, Frendz Resort was the best-rated hostel on White Beach, and all the internet savvy and deal-hungry budget travelers found their way here eventually.  Thus, I was finally back in that happy backpacker coven you find so easily in places like Western Europe, Oz, and Thailand.  I was surrounded by hilariously witty English, cute Norweigen girls, Swedes, Swiss, Germans, Canadians, Aussies, and the rare American.  Over the requisite card games the backpackers told their funny travel stories and bonded in preparation for a Big Night Out.  One of the English guys who would become our guide, Dave, told us casually of the Legend of the Happy Horse.  Supposedly in every crate of Red Horse there was one bottle that was twice the alcohol and had perhaps some other illicit ingredients.  The solemn Red Horse was replaced by a giggling one.  But if that was so, someone was hiding these supposed Happy Horses, for we asked night after night, and bartenders dutifully looked and then always came up saying "Sorry Sir".  I decided it was Santa Claus, a good story to market a product that didn't really exist.

Another day ends, which really means it is just beginning
White Beach is a strange place.  Its blindingly beautiful and insanely touristy at the same time.  An hour long massage on the beach was an incredibly cheap US$7, but a beach-front room at the Red Coconut could cost over $100.  You could pay whatever you wanted to spend.  My kiteboarding days were done, my knee had swollen into a grapefruit with my stupid antics on the windy side of the island.  So each day was spent haggling for a cheap boat trip around the island or looking for a low-priced authentic Flipino restaurant, lazily reading, swimming in the clear water, trying to avoid getting burned into a red lobster.  But it was really all just a way to kill time until the evening Olympics started.

2:1 happy mango time can be dangerous
This was the daily announcement from the Captain:
"Attention all Frendz crew,
Please listen closely for today's beach party itinerary.  Roll call will begin promptly at sometime around 2 in the afternoon.  Maybe.  This will be followed by the daily pledge of never drinking again, quickly followed by a cold San Miguel Pale Pilsen.  Next, Nemo will explain to poor Rafi why noone was awake in time for the private boat hire. Again.  But we Promise to be there tomorrow.  The afternoon activities will consist of a 2 hour hot stone massage, swimming in the crystal clear water, and poor attempts at book reading.  Sunset 2:1 happy hour cocktails begin at 5pm sharp at Cafe del Mar.  The evening meal today is coconut shrimp salad with fresh mango... Tonight the world famous Mint band will perform at ... The Mint.  Drinking games at the hostel will commence at 10pm, followed at midnight by Ted the Dance Machine starting a break dance circle at Club Epic.  Rain will start at 1am, dancing in the rain is strongly encouraged.  The hunt for the Happy Horse will begin at 3am, hooking up and snogging at 4.  Skinny dipping and sunrise watching on Bolabog Beach is set to begin at 7am.  Good luck team and may the mango gods bless you with their fruit.
Your captain"

As we danced at Club Paraw at 5am, I held the Happy Horse high overhead, it was the Island's Totem.  Another night in Boracay turned to dawn.

Philosophy Part X: Spinoza, the first of the Fab 5

Descartes: You aren't real!  Go away!
Well, that's it.  All the nuggets along the way have been gathered and examined, we are now at the doorstep of what is called "modern philosophy" and about to get to the Fab 5.  Leading up to Spinoza are some 1-hit wonders: Montaigne traveled outside the cocoon of Europe and realized that, instead of booming proclamations from an ivory tower, philosophy should perhaps include something called "tolerance"; Descartes quipped: "I think, therefore I am", which actually means nothing since he concluded everything outside his skull was just a dream; Pascal wagered that even though God probably didn't exist, he better believe in Him because the consequences of being wrong were pretty nasty (ahhh... another victim of that manipulative Fear of Fire).

Spinoza in happier times
Spinoza was a troubled man.  He was a free-thinking Jew who, like most poor saps who use their noodle, was excommunicated.  (Jewish excommunication can be done apparently.)  He spent the rest of his unhappy life grinding lenses and died at a fairly young age from the inhaled dust.  Spinoza claimed that all individuals are part of the same substance, which is also God.  Thus our sense of isolation from one another is an illusion.  For those who have been reading along, I'm sure you will notice the striking similarity of this idea with previous ones like Brahman and Tai Chi.  Since this One Substance has always and will always exist, we are guaranteed our immortality.

How many people today claim to see The Light during near-death experiences, calling them "home"?  I have to admit, the idea of some glorious final synthesis with that Something Greater upon my death is a very appealing idea.  What would it feel like, that moment where you merged with the Ultimate?  It would be the greatest high ever, like dropping 10 tabs of ecstasy all at once and staring at the most incredible supernova imaginable, all while climaxing during sex.

Its getting hot in here
(Check out this bizarre website!)

But then the image vanishes.  Its just too good to be true.  Maybe we just "die" and after that flash of warm light, it goes dark.  Forever.  I know that as a good scientist that's what I should really believe.  And even if I did merge with The Ultimate, what then?  If my "illusion" of individuality is wiped away, what do "I" become?  All my mortal labors on the Earth to carve out my own little piece of contentment were wasted.  Will I just become another drop of water in the Vast Ocean?  That doesn't sound so fun.  I suppose I want to merge but somehow still maintain my sense of who I am, otherwise, what was the point of being alive in the first place?

Then again, perhaps these are silly questions that my dumb animal brain asks only because I couldn't understand the Answer anyway.

Deep Thoughts
Deep Thought: "The Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is .... 42."
Seekers: "42???!!!  What kind of crap is that?"
Deep Thought: "Look, I checked it very thoroughly, and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you is that you've never actually known what the question was."

Spinoza was perhaps the first philosopher to recognize one of the most important keys of happiness.  We want what we cannot have, while being blind to the fact that we already have what we need (namely, union with each other and the Highest Power).   This epiphany is trite today with its adoption by every self-help guru and immortalized in Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want.  But perhaps that is because it rings of truth.

Spinoza claims that by rejecting our daily passions we gain control over our lives and eventually we can get to a state of "acceptance."  And just like Buddha claimed, this mindful awareness leads to the emotion of "bliss."  Spinoza may not have been directly influenced by Indian yogis but he certainly mirrored their ideas.  Perhaps glimpses of truth come naturally to any great thinker, no matter their origin.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Philosophy part IX: Man's Dominion over Nature

Good old days ?
One of the questions that philosophers love to poke at and good Adam Smith capitalists love to gloss over is the proper role of mankind in the world order.  In the Old Testament God promised mankind absolute authority over all the animals, and this divine-sanctioned right to rule the Earth reached a peak during the period of Manifest Destiny in the new world.  Native Americans were sub-human obstacles in the way of the God's chosen, buffalo existed to be slaughtered, natural prairie to be plowed over and planted.

Francis Bacon (1521-1626) proclaimed that the new science was "the ultimate dominion of humanity over nature, as promised in Genesis, and as a study of God's works".  Like Aquinas, he viewed science and nature as just a legitimate source of revelation as the study of God's word.

Now just think about that for a second.  Science was no longer a threat to religion, it was actually elevated to be equal to scripture!  It was the dawn of the Age of Reason, the birth of the Enlightenment.  For someone like me, it was also when philosophy finally became really interesting.  Why?  Because, for the first time, it wasn't OK to just guess, to speculate and proclaim "truths".  Now, it had to be backed up with actual evidence or rational thought.

The new invention of smog
But at the same time, the authors also sound a warning--the Enlightenment also led to the Industrial Revolution and the modern world, where humanity has finally achieved Bacon's vision.  Today we truly do have "dominion over the earth" as promised by God.  We have in our hands the power to destroy ourselves and almost all life on Earth, to give birth to machines which could one day enslave us.  And to all but the most blind conservatives, scientific consensus has established that we are heading towards irreparable damage to the Earth's oceans, forests, and fauna.

Unfrozen cave man engineers
We have been granted the power of the Creator, but we are stuck with the wisdom of mere human beings, essentially chimps with a slightly better processor glued to the front of our brains.  After all, we have been "human" for 200,000 years, but modern technology arrived virtually just an instant ago (the transistor has been here for only 60 years).  How can our primitive brains possibly evolve fast enough to cope with these new developments?

It is this that modern philosophy fears most.  They view themselves as the antidote to the Enlightenment, the nervous voice of wisdom and caution in an age of exponentially advancing technology, multiplying out of control like a global plague.

The antidote has been found, ironically, in indigenous races that for all intents and purposes have been exterminated by the industrialized West.  The madness of a people destroying the cure to their own illness still goes on today, as untold medical compounds are eradicated every day in rain forests and the underwater jungles of coral reefs.  (About 7000 medicines prescribed by Western doctors are derived from plants.)

Alien Eden
The Native Americans and their belief that all things are sacred, that man must live in balance with nature, that each living thing should be killed only as necessary and honored as a gift, is the theme explored in the popular Avatar movie.  These beliefs about our intimate connection to nature and the inherent spiritualness of all life is also found in African tribal religions, Jainism, and is reminiscent of Lao-Tzu's Tao and Chu Hsi's Tai Chi.  In other words, this "secret" keeps getting rediscovered only to be immediately trampled under the boot of progress.  As the Earth gets bulldozed into a wasteland, when will the day arrive when it turns around to squash us instead?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Philosophy Part VIII: The Supreme Ultimate

"Luke, use the Tai Chi.... er, I mean, Force!"
Philosophy tackles all the Big Questions, like "Where did we come from?" and "Why are we here?", but I think the only one of these that can be satisfactorily answered is this: "What is the right way to live?"  This is not just ethics, like Aristotle pursued.  Ethics are only interactions with other people.  A good philosophy should also cover one's relationship with the rest of the world.  It is for those reasons that I like Tai ChiChu Hsi kept the idea of the Tao alive and expanded it.  Li is the "nature" of each thing, the category it belongs to and what gives something its common characteristics.  Ch'i is each things vital, physical aspect.  Ch'i is the internal energy of a thing, not quite a "soul" but it does impart uniqueness.

The Supreme Ultimate, or T'ai Chi "is the basis upon which all things are related; ultimately all things share in the same principle."  This reminds me again of Buddhism and Brahman.  The "divine spark" that gives something its drive, its life force, its essence.

The T'ai Chi is also the basis upon which human beings can obtain enlightenment.  Our physical natures obscure the t'ai chi within us; but the goal of enlightenment is insight into the t'ai chi.  Evil comes about when one is motivated by selfish desire, but insight into the t'ai chi overcomes such selfishness.  One becomes more compassionate, and thus more ethical, because one grasps one's unity with all other beings and things.

His Holiness, looking trim and happy
When I read this passage, it struck me how similar these ideas are to the words of the living Dalai Lama.  A common message he stresses is that in order to be happy, one must first cultivate understanding (which he calls empathy) of what motivates people.  As I've stated before, its the common desire of all humans to reach happiness.  "Happiness" here is not temporary pleasure, instead the Dalai Lama is referring to that deep feeling of profound contentment and satisfaction that only comes from achieving your goals and living the right way.

When one views others from this perspective, one doesn't categorize a stranger by their country, culture, or religion.  Instead one views the person as a human being, just like yourself.  Someone who wants the basic things in life, perhaps a spouse and children and a place to call home.  In other words, just like you, they want happiness.  Based on this perspective, stereotypes and divisions fall away and a deep connection can be made with any new person that comes across your path.  Thus, one can live life bonding with everyone they meet, even if only for a brief moment.  Even enemies can be viewed as beneficial, as they are an opportunity to cultivate empathy and understanding under the most difficult conditions.

I often consider this when I think of the thieves who robbed me in Costa Rica and left me stranded for days in a place I had come to hate, without any money.  At the time I wanted them dead.  I was incredibly angry and violated; I wanted revenge.  But, as time passed, I realized that those thieves were living a poor life.  How could one really be happy living as a parasite on others?  To have to resort to stealing to survive means that they couldn't find a way to live with honest work.  They would never have the profound contentment that is the true goal of life.  So today I only feel compassion for them, my enemies.

Philosophy part VII: The Dark and Dumb Ages

Science is cool, dawg
The book then gets into the medieval period where a series of studious monks, blinded by God's light, come up with a string of bloated proofs of His existence.  Philosophy definitely went dim in the dark ages.  Luckily Thomas Aquinas came along to lift up the blinders.  Aquinas said that since the natural world was also created by God, that the study of nature, aka "science", was a window into the mind of God Himself!  Thus science was resurrected from the dumpster and deemed compatible with religion.

This theme of studying nature to find insight into the spiritual comes up again and again, from Lao Tzu to Aquinas to Emerson.  And I whole-heartedly agree: its the greatest idea in all of philosophy.  How can one stand before the awesome power of Iguazu Falls or stare up at a brilliant desert night sky, the universe staring back at you, and not feel something?  Meditating on the awesome infinite smallness and bigness, the scale and complexity, the beauty and order beyond imagination or comprehension leads, for me at least, to the inescapable conclusion that the universe is too perfect to be an accident.  But if it is, its the greatest and most incredible accident that one could ever fathom.

psst... yo dude, don't listen to that guy
Johann Faust was a German magician who sold his soul to the devil in return for knowledge and power.  This Faustian Bargain captures another theme that comes up repeatedly, especially relevant today, and a favorite point of the authors.  And that is the idea that the modern world is doomed to destruction because of its willingness to sacrifice virtually any other value in its quest for wealth and scientific advancement.  I couldn't help but think of books like 1984 and movies like the Matrix and Terminator where we are enslaved or exterminated by our own creations.

Ok, ok, I swear I'll get to my Fab 5 philosophers soon, but there are just too many glittery nuggets laying around on the path to Spinoza.  Its a shame not to pick some of them up.

Philosophy Part VI: Mysticism and the Middle East

Click here for the beginning of this series

Sufis: Spin to Win
A fantastic part of the book that ended too quickly was the sidebar on mysticism.  Islamic mystics called Sufis describe their entire spiritual quest in terms of Love!  How refreshing that Jesus' primary teaching is kept alive and well in an Islamic sect.  They believe that God created the world from Love, an overflow of His own being.

Pseudo-christian mystics called Gnostics had an alternative belief system that I like.  Unlike Catholicism and much of Protestantism for that matter, Gnostics taught that the divine spark was in everyone, and that enlightenment or Henosis (union with God), could be achieved through esoteric rites.  It reminds me of the Indian religions where Brahman is in everyone.  The only catch was that access to the secret knowledge was by a series of progressive initiations, which smacks a little bit of Scientology.

The Fearsome Demiurge
One idea the Gnostics believed in which got them branded as heretics by Rome was that God was an Imperfect Creator, the Demiurge!  This Fallen One controlled the fate of the world, being descended from a far removed spiritual plane of higher mysterious beings.  I find it amusing that these Gnostics thumbed their noses at the idea of an all-knowing perfect God.  The mistake-prone Demiurge better suits the random and chaotic world in which we live.

Al Razi: physician and philosopher
The authors then get to Islam, which in its heyday was ironically much more liberal and open-minded than the Christian church.  Its very sad to read about the old Islamic philosophers freely debating the need for reason and rationality in the world.  Al Razi, a Persian philosopher, argued that only through reason could truth be revealed, and if reason conflicted with revelation than revelation should be abandoned!  Pretty stunning.  If Al-Razi lived today he would be the target of a hundred fatwas and gone in a week, but in his time he was an esteemed writer.

My mind is one with yours
Out of the Jewish tradition a philosopher named Maimonides promulgated the idea of a Common Intellect.  "Every gain in human knowledge becomes part of our Common Intellect, and so, even if we ourselves do not survive death, our knowledge lives on in humanity."  I love this beautiful idea of immortality.  Even though I reject the idea of a fluffy white heaven where angels sing "Hallelujuh" until your eternal ears bleed, I do believe in Maimonides idea.  That you live on in the memories of others; that the knowledge you passed on to children, family, and friends survives.  And for the rare individual, the contributions they leave to society.  We pass through the world, leaving ripples in our wake that can travel great distances, long after we are gone.

Asian Airplane Drill

Suddenly as one all the passengers at Beijing Capital Airport jumped up and began queuing.  I looked around in amusement... there had been no announcement for boarding.  What had happened was that the plane had arrived and passengers were disembarking.  This was enough to trigger a few people to stand up, and like a herd of startled goats, the rest began gathering their things and standing as well.  It is almost as if Asians are programmed to stand in line at the slightest trigger.  I relished the newly empty seats next to me and lounged and stretched my legs.  It would be another 10 minutes before anyone was allowed on.

Finally the boarding announcement.  There was no priority for business class, elderly or parents with young children.  Instead it was a mad scramble to get on board ... and as I finally stood up and walked onto the plane I realized that it was I that was the fool.  Every overhead space was crammed with bags, backpacks, and purses.  I would have to carry my backpack stuffed with books on my lap for the full five hours to Manila.

Eventually the plane landed and slowed as it approached the gate.  Before the seatbelt sign went off, a few people unclicked their seatbelts, and the Pavlovian trigger quickly shot through the cabin.  Everyone immediately unbuckled their belts and simultaneously stood up.  I looked around from my seat at the masses of people banging their heads on the overhead bins just to able to join the herd.  The scrum to get out of the plane was elbow to forehead, I passed on the chance to push ladies and children aside to enter the line.  As it petered out, I finally got up and gathered my bag.  Behind me, the plane was already vacant and the stewardess looked at me strangely, trying to figure out what was taking so long.  In the space of 3 minutes the plane had gone from full to empty.  The Asian Airplane Drill was complete.

Gliding in Paradise

Far away from polluted cold Long Beach

I hovered above the crystal clear green water, my face only a few inches from the surface, fingers dragging happily on the smooth surface.  Below me corals and fish flew by, further out small wind waves crashed against the low-tide reef.  The water inside the reef was calm and I was kiting alone in a stunning bay, with limestone rocks jutting out from the seafloor, the white sand beach in the distance fringed with palms and the bungalows of the kiting schools.  The wind had blown all day, and the rest of the kiters were resting and waiting for their evening session when the wind would pick up even stronger.

strong wind, flat water
But I've found that sometimes light wind can be a pleasure, it doesn't cause excess chop and its generally much smoother than strong gusty winds.  With my foot and lingering knee problems, I was more than happy to just cruise around and take in the beautiful scenery.  But the water was too flat and glassy, and I noticed that the beach boys were watching to make sure I could back up my claims that I was a competent kiter.  I couldn't resist, and soon I was boosting airs, doing little kiteloop transitions, and then bigger backroll kiteloops, and finally I started unhooking and throwing Railey's and S-bends.  It was not the smartest move for a gimp, but I was having the best time I'd had on the entire trip.  The adrenalin was surging in my veins and that goofy happy smile that comes from kiting in a beautiful new place was slapped across my face.

The wind picked up and soon the other kiters roused from their afternoon slumber to join me on the water.  The tide dropped further and the water was only an inch or two deep in many places, glassy as melted butter on a hotplate.  I was overpowered and when I boosted I hung in the air for long seconds ...  In the air the view expanded to the palm tops and the little mountain that formed the north end of the bay.  Its a thing that perhaps only kiters and parasailors experience, but for some weird reason the higher you are the further down in the water you can see.  And on these big floaty boosts I could see the blue-green seafloor as clear as if I was diving on the bottom.

Bolabog Hop
The local shredders came next, it was finally good enough for them to justify the effort to get on the water.  They dropped their set of tricks near the shore for the girls who had come to watch, blocking it from out-of-towners like myself.  But I was a surfer, and was used to locals claiming their turf; it didn't bother me.  I cruised upwind, playing in the little waves and ollie-ing bits of dry reef that popped up unexpectedly in the wave troughs.  A large rock island, in the low-tide like a bulbous mushroom on a narrow stalk, formed a narrow passage that I thought I might be able to traverse if I kept my kite high.  I cruised through carefully and found myself in a whole new bay that was empty of kiters but just as pretty.

The sun began to set, the kiters began to come in.  Reluctantly, I joined them.  It had happened to me again, as it so often does when you travel.  It was another Perfect Day.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dreams of Wind and White Sand

The jet's wings dipped and then I saw it: a tiny island with long white beaches and beautiful turquoise waters.  It was Boracay, finally.  The plane deposited us unceremoniously on the tarmac, and after grabbing my bag out of the scrum I walked off the runway and onto the street.  It was the smallest airport ever.  After paying for my boat ticket and tricycle ticket, I knew I was set.  The tricycle dumped me off at the ferry dock, but I couldn't board yet.  Apparently I hadn't paid for the dock fee.  After getting that ticket, I was denied again.  Ahhh, the environmental impact fee hadn't been paid.  I gave my 4 pieces of paper to the lady, and after proving the importance of her job by stamping each one, she tossed them into a bin and let me pass.  Philippine bureaucracy at its finest.  I jumped on the boat excitedly, I was here!

Little Jewel
The ride to the hotel is one of the most uninspiring routes in the world.  Hundreds of sputtering, buzzing, smoke-belching tricycles crowd a narrow road, pushing and passing one another at every little opening.  It is Asian traffic at its worst.  I was dumped off on the street.  "Frendz Hotel here."  After paying the ridiculous tourist price for the ride, I walked down the little path.  After a couple minutes, suddenly, the walls parted and I stepped out upon paradise.

White Beach, delivering on its name
What hits you first is the sand.  Many beaches claim to have "white sand", but few can truly back it up.  I took off my sunglasses for a brief moment and was almost blinded.  The sand was a true white, pure and unbroken to the water's edge.  Green coconut palms flanked the perfect beach endlessly in both directions.  A vast turquoise sea went out to the horizon.  I took off my shoes and squiggled my toes in the sand.  It was fine and powdery, like only a few places on earth.  I instantly thought about those other 2 places I'd been that had true white sand: Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays and Zanzibar.  This was on par, although of course no place on earth makes that squeaky sound you get at Whitehaven.

But then, I looked around a bit more.  There were mobs of Asian tourists walking around, banana boats cruising in the water, para-sailing speed boats, and a navy of sailboats awaiting tourists parked just offshore.  A few minutes walk down the beach brought me resort after resort.  Masseuses plaintively meowed "Massage Sir?", an army of children and boys asked if I wanted a mango or sunglasses or a boat trip.  Boracay was not a lost paradise.

This was the legendary White Beach, and it was indeed worth being here.  But I already wanted to escape to the other side, where dreams of wind and kiteboarding over clear water and corals awaited.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cock-Blades of Death

Death's slow embrace
The cock wobbled in a pile of feathers and blood.  It sank, ever so slowly, as its life seeped from its body.  Its head lowered, its wings fell to the floor.  It slumped to the ground, and finally, its head lolled to the side.  Noone but me was watching, the fight had officially been long over, the men in the arena were chatting on their cellphones, awaiting the next combatants.  I watched the bird take its last few breaths as it died.  For a few minutes, it simply laid there in its own blood.  Finally, disgusted perhaps, his owner came over and picked up the bird.  Only then did I see that its belly was torn apart, the guts spilling out as it was picked up and carried off.  Cock-fighting was indeed brutal.
Mortal Kombat!
Only a few minutes before, this was a proud bird, with glorious red and green feathers.  His owner stroked and soothed the bird, to calm it before the fight.  Then, the "fluffer" was brought, this bird's job was to peck the fighter a few times to get him riled up and ready.  The fighter's mane of feathers lifted around his head in a threat display, he wanted to rumble.  The pre-fight ritual continued... both owners held their birds by their tails as the cocks ran at each other, feathers spread wide in anticipation.  This was partly to get the birds juiced, and partly for the fans to see the relative sizes and ferocity of the fighters before making final bets.  The owners then tucked the birds back in the arms and unsheathed the blade.  The blade is about a 2-inch long razor, attached to the hackle of one foot.  It is so heavy and long relative to the light bird that the cock actually limps a bit when walking.

Attaching the blade
At the last minute, the cockpit arena gets loud as the bet-takers wave at the crowd for final wagers, gesturing and yelling.  The crowd yells back and signals to lock in their bets.  And then, the arena is cleared and the cocks are released.  You would think that they would run at each other, but in fact, many times the cocks are so far apart initially that they stroll absently towards each other.  Sometimes, comically, one or both will peck the ground for worms.  But when they get within a few feet, everything changes.  Suddenly the cocks flare their feathers and lean towards each other, and then, in a flash of flapping and pecking, they charge.  One may fly over the other, slashing with his feet, while the one on the ground pecks up.  Often this may result in the cock on the ground getting his throat slit.  But more often both cocks leap and flap, legs locked in a death embrace, slashing at each others belly.  In an instant, the crowd yells and its over.

The death stroke happens much too quick for a novice like myself to even see, but the veterans in the crowd know it and the ref will often stop the fight.  He picks up the fighters and holds them towards each other.  If both chickens are unable to peck, its a draw.  They may both be mortally wounded.  But usually, one chicken will peck the other.  If he can do it twice, he is the winner.  The champion is returned to his owner, who is often smiling and pumping his fist in triumph.  The losing bird is usually left to die.  The owner of the losing bird must give it to the winner as a gift.  There is no point in him hurrying to check on it.  It will be cooked and served that night anyway in a victory feast.  It is left on its own, and death takes it slow time.

I will admit, I did gamble on 3 fights.  And I lost them all.  Perhaps it was a lesson for me: I should stick to just eating them instead of trying to figure out the winner of chicken mortal combat.

Whale Shark Bowling!

The large pack of snorkelers swam frantically, trying to keep up with the enormous whale shark cruising slowly beneath them.  Unbeknownst to them, several more boats were maneuvering ahead of the pack, ready to drop their own payloads.  Bombs away!  Two more packs of snorkelers dropped ahead of the scrum, and much to my amusement, I saw what was coming.  The 20 snorkelers, heads down and swimming frantically, had no idea that another mob was swimming right at them, also with heads down, swimming frantically.  I watched the water explode with loose fins, masks askew, heads popping up like gophers as the groups collided head on.  It was a strike!  Ahhh, whale shark bowling was great.

Whale sharks are amazing creatures, and they had remained an elusive unmarked notch in the belt of my short scuba diving career.  I knew that even snorkeling with them was well worth the painful journey to the small town of Donsol in the southern tip of Luzon.  A flight, followed by a long uncomfortable van ride through the curvy hills, stacked like sardines with locals puking on all sides, then a stint at cheap hotel, followed by an early morning over-priced tricycle ride, and then I was there.  I met up with a few other Westerners and soon we had the necessary 6-person quorum to hire a boat.

But first we had to watch the most comical video in the history of educational videos.  The video went on about the majesty of the whale shark, then showed how only 1 boat was allowed per whale-shark, and only 6 swimmers.  Each was to maintain proper distance from the shark.  Extra distance was required for the large powerful tail.  We hopped in our boat, and immediately headed toward a large pack of 10 boats surrounding a poor hapless shark.  I suppose at least everyone was getting their money's worth.  We got dropped in and the mosh pit approached.  The captain yelled, "Its coming!  Dive!"  The ocean was milky white from the thick crush of plankton.  Suddenly, a dark massive shape approached, and then it appeared.  Its mouth opened wide enough to swallow me, I quickly swam out of the way.  Incredible!!

I swam quickly, hitting slower swimmers with my fins.  It was eat or be eaten out here.  I barely kept up with the shark, most fell behind quickly.  It was unconcerned, apparently used to the commotion surrounding it.  I dove down and saw it looking back at me.  I thought back on that connection I'd made to those curious dolphins in Costa Rica.  But there was none of that here, this was just a big dumb fish.  Disappointed, I looked over its long spotted body, complete with interesting ridges along its length.  Two parasitic fish swam just ahead of the mouth, looking for scraps.  It was so big and the water was so thick with plankton I couldn't even see all of it.  I slowed enough to let it start to pass.  The huge dorsal fin came into view, and then the tail, lazily swishing back and forth.  It was a big docile monster, no bark, no bite.  I wanted to bring him home as pet.  But first I knew I would have to ask Mom.

I Miss Japan (but my wallet doesn't)

Things I love about Japan:
1) Japanese people: sincere, nice, friendly, shy, geeky, polite, efficient, clean, helpful, hard-working.
2) Heated gadgety toilet seats!
3) Culture: ancient side-by-side modern
4) Fashion: obsessive and awesome.  Skirts and boots on every girl under the age of 30, neon colors, outrageous hair, comically safe attempts at being punk, all contrasted with the sea of sararimen in their uniform suits.
5) Onsen!!  Fabulous.

Things I won't miss:
1) The flames shooting out of my wallet
2) Checking the geiger counter and wind report twice a day
3) Vending machines and hawkers selling souvenirs inside sacred temples
4) No public trash cans.  Where do they put their trash anyway?
5) Nigerian pimps

Top Japanese Myths:
1) They are extremely xenophobic to Westerners and hard to get to know.  I think this is a common misconception that comes about from their shyness, except when they drink!
2) Stoic, unemotional, no fun.  Just head to any Izakaya to see the opposite.
3) Karoshi.  Yes the Japanese are extremely hard-working, but the few times this subject came up, all the Japanese I met assured me that this is very rare and only something that happens in places like Tokyo.  Osaka is much more laid-back for instance, and in the countryside its pretty unheard of.
4) Overcrowded and old.  Yes the Tokyo-Yokohama megacity is pretty insane, but Japan is also a land of countryside, mountains and islands, where there is plenty of open space and scenic beauty.  As far as the age, I'm sure the demographics don't lie but there seemed to be no shortage of young people partying in Kyoto.
5) Conformity.  I think this is perhaps the biggest myth, constantly perpetuated by every 2 cent journalist who comes to Asia to do a Reuters story on pandas.  First, I will say there is of course a lot of truth to it, Confucius' legacy is alive and well.  But there is an undercurrent of youth that is rebelling ... just take one walk down Takeshida St in Harajuku and you will see it, boiling under the surface.  The youth want change, they want their individual freedom, but its a new frontier for them.  They are hesitant about it, and you will never see the lone punk walking down the street--he will always be in his pack.  But things are changing with the next generation.

The verdict?  Japan is pretty mind blowing.  I absolutely have fallen in love with the place.  I see why so many Western guys stay and marry Japanese girls.  Its not just that Japanese are "nice" and "polite," although I'm sure that's a part of it.  Its that the foreigner just doesn't want to go back to where he came from.  Back to some country where, in my case at least, street crime exists.  Graffiti covers city murals.  Trash cans overflow with garbage.  There is no atmospheric sense of tradition or culture.  The Western world, compared to Japan, feels so chaotic and disordered.  Despite Hollywood films that abound in Asia, I still can't imagine what a slap in the face it must be for a Japanese person to land in Los Angeles or Rio.  No wonder they travel in packs in air-conditioned buses, its to insulate themselves from shock!

Tokyo invites so many obvious comparisons to New York: they are both expensive, uber-dense, hyperkinetic cities full of fashion-obsessive sophisticates.  But the differences are also striking.  Tokyo has no graffiti, no street-crime, hawkers and hustlers (aside from the few Nigerians) are polite!  I was trying to find my way to a small subway station one day, obviously lost, when a ragged man approached.  Instead of asking for coins, he asked where I was going.  He then walked me all the way to the subway station and even helped me punch my ticket.  Only then did he ask for a couple coins.  Now that's the kind of begging I like, he earned it!  One day a man at my hotel walked up to me and announced he had his wallet back!  He was bursting to tell someone his story... it fell out of his pocket on the subway.  Three days later, a man walked into his hotel with his wallet.  The stranger had found the wallet and somehow tracked him to the hotel, returning the wallet with all the money still inside.

There are no guns and finding a homeless man is like hunting for a snow leopard.  Everything works, runs on time, and is efficient.  Gadgets abound.  Its a fuzzy Disney-fied version of New York, and I see why Japanese flock to Disneyland.

I realize that I'm falling into a common trap of travel writers.... when someone experiences something new and fun, they are so excited about it that they tend to gloss over or forget the negatives.  So yes, just as in all societies there is a dark side to Japan: the obsession with teen girls, the weird hentai world, the incredible gore found in manga, the xenophobia that seems to also abound Korea and China... these things are well known and have been written about extensively.  It is weird to think about these things when you see a tidy Japanese man in a suit on his way to work, expensive shiny watch, shoes shined, every hair in place.

But from what I've seen at least, Japan will be a place that I will never forget.  That first time I walked into a Filipino restaurant, I had to admit I was a little saddened not to hear a hearty chorus of "Irashaimase!!!"

Manila: Faded Glory

The Grand Manila Hotel
There she stood, a little shabby perhaps but still proud.  The paint had faded from the sides of the building, but the grand front entrance was still kept up to standard.  Flagpoles that should have held banners from many nations were empty, only the national flag of the Philippines flopped lazily in the breeze.  The Manila Hotel, symbolic of all that I felt about this wounded city.  I walked up to the front door, and two tall men in crisp white uniforms and turbans opened the doors.  After a quick show of a pat-down (after all I was a Westerner), they let me in to the main room.  It was all that one would expect of the fanciest and most historic hotel in the Philippines.  A huge row of gaudy crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, large slow-moving palm fans cooled the room.  Wafts of smoke from the businessmen, smoking shisa along with their beautiful consorts, drifted in the air.  Faint classical music floated to my ears, I looked up to see a tuxedo'ed man at the end of the hall playing on a grand piano.  Nice touch.

I wandered around and soon came to the Champagne Room.  A white tuxedo'ed butler with white gloves looked at me with askance.  Apparently my headband, torn shorts, and sweaty T-shirt weren't regular attire for this spot.  I peeped in to see white linen, rows of cigars behind glass, and more butlers staring at me with disdain, eyebrows raised.  I gave up and wandered to the bar, deciding to see how much lunch would cost.  Surprisingly, it was only $5 for spring rolls and $3 for a beer.  Well, I was the famous Nemo after all!  Might as well blow some cash and live it up at the world famous Manila!

I didn't make it to the Collection Room, where apparently there are signed photos from Bill Clinton, a lean and spry Dean Martin, and other celebrities from the golden years.  But today, the world has moved on from Manila for good reason.  The Philippines has a tortured modern history, much like many other territories around the world that were pawns of the global game of Empire.  Magellan met his ignoble end here, and the Spanish ruled for 300 years before they got booted by the Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

MacArthur wading ashore at the Battle of Leyte
On Dec. 8, 1941, 8 hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began their attack on Manila.  General Douglas MacArthur was in command of the US forces, which quickly withdrew to Corregidor Island to defend Manila Bay.  MacArthur was ordered to abandon his troops and withdraw to Australia.  He famously declared "I shall return!"  The US troops were vastly outnumbered and the island fell 4 months later.  The troops were marched 63 miles to a prison camp in the infamous Bataan Death March, during which 10,000 soldiers died.  MacArthur did finally return in 1945, and thus begun several incredible naval and land battles: the Battle of Leyte and the Battle of Manila.  The Battle of Leyte was the largest naval battle in history, after which the Japanese Navy was effectively destroyed and the US had their final staging post for launching an assault on the home islands.  The Battle of Manila was even more brutal, the US employed heavy artillery directly in the civilian populations and razed the entire city.  Over 100,000 civilians were killed and the city was flattened.  The historic heart of the Philippines, the walled city of Intramuros, was wiped off the Earth.  The loss of life and scale of destruction was comparable to the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Manila razed to the ground
From Wikipedia: "Filipinos lost an irreplaceable cultural and historical treasure in the resulting carnage and devastation of Manila, remembered today as a national tragedy. Countless government buildings, universities and colleges, convents, monasteries and churches, and their accompanying treasures dating to the founding of the city, were ruined. The cultural patrimony (including art, literature, and especially architecture) of the Orient's first truly international melting pot - the confluence of Spanish, American and Asian cultures - was eviscerated. Manila, once touted as the "Pearl of the Orient" and famed as a living monument to the meeting of Asian and European cultures, was virtually wiped out."

So it was with mixed feelings that I wandered up to what is now called Intramuros.  About all that is left are some crumbling walls and some rebuilt churches.  The rest of the historic area is just a collection of ramshackle nameless buildings and the usual clutter of any modern Asian city.  Manila certainly has some nice areas, like Rizal park and the upscale neighborhood of Makati, filled with shopping malls.  But like LA, it was a city without a heart.  Sadly I wandered along the smelly waterfront back to the neighborhood where I was staying.  At least it had a Starbucks.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Return To Fuji-San

With great regret, I knew it was time to move on from Kyoto even as the cherry blossom buds ripened.  My foot problems were getting worse and I knew I had to put my dogs up on a beach soon, plus I was looking forward to waking up and not rushing to read the geiger counter report.  I had some choices to make... visit Nara (more temples), visit an amazing Onsen built into a river down south, or head back to Tokyo early and roll the dice on getting good weather at Fuji.  I rolled the dice.
Back on the Bullet
Like Paul Theroux, I absolutely love riding trains, and so it was with great anticipation that I jumped back aboard the shinkansen to Tokyo.  As the train approached escape velocity, the plains of the Kansai gave way to southern tip of the Japanese Alps, and I wondered wistfully if my trip was doomed from the start.  How was a foot supposed to heal on a budget backpacking trip?  Nepal and trekking in the Himalaya was only 3 weeks away.  But I put the unthinkable out of my mind and instead thought about the promising forecast in Fuji.

The Alps turned to the Edo foothills, and after a particularly long tunnel the train emerged onto the endless suburbs of the Megacity that is called Yokohama-Tokyo.  I like how Paul Theroux uses the train as a moving picture, a window that provides brief snapshots of local life.  Clothes drying on a line.  A family of 6 on a moped.  Men sitting outside in an alley playing a card game, smoking.  Each image a snapshot that instantly vanishes as the bullet train zips through the endless plains of 5-story gray buildings.  I was reminded of my other train rides in India, of men hauling prodigious loads of food goods on tiny 150cc mopeds, camels pulling propane tanks in a cart, colorful turbans of every neon color.

Aside from the obvious, there is something so very Japanese about a ride on the bullet train.  The conductor bows twice when he enters the car, says "Thank You" four times and bows twice again as he leaves.  The doors open automatically with a quiet Star Trek "shisssh".  The train itself is quiet, a little clean space capsule rocketing through the land, a jet flying at ground level.

Soon the shinkansen pulled into Tokyo station, and I hopped the subway over to Shinjuku, walked directly to the Fuji express bus, and was on my way.  Back to Fuji-san.  As I sat back in the bus and relaxed, I smiled at my previous attempt to find this bus, walking in circles around Shinjuku for an hour with my packs, sweating, gesturing in tortured Japanese, slapping my forehead.  Ah, the gift of experience.

Good to see you again, my friend
I got to Fuji late, and it was covered in high cloud like my last trip.  But this time, I had two full days and the forecast was good.  I awoke too late to catch the sunrise, but the forecast was better the next day anyway.  Instead I walked to the cable car.  The sky was clear, and as I approached the hill Thar She Blew.  The top of Mount Fuji, lording over the town, against a clear blue sky.  Excitedly, I jumped on the first cable car.  The mountain is hidden as you ride the trolley up the backside off the hill, but the shot of Lake Kawaguchi is fantastic.  At the top, I walked the few feet across the platform to the Fuji side.  It was quite a sight.  From this viewpoint, one can truly appreciate how Mount Fuji rises so picturesquely alone from the surrounding plain.  Free-standing cone stratovolcanos like Mount Fuji are perhaps the most dramatic mountains in the world.  I was reminded of the much larger Mt Kilimanjaro rising miles above the plains of Tanzania.  Unlike the lazy Kilimanjaro, however, Mount Fuji has a 45 degree pitch and is nearly perfect in its symmetry.  There is nothing to block the view or take away from the grandeur.
A perfect cone
Indeed, the top of Mount Fuji symbolizes the perfect Buddhist meditative state, or zenjo.  Its ideal circular form is seen in this Wikipedia .gif on the left.  At 3776 m (12,389 ft), its very impressive rising directly up from sea level on its southern flank.  Even Kawaguchi-ko where I was staying is only 830 m.  Its the subject of countless artworks in Japan (this one is worth a look), and is the abode of several sacred figures.  Of course, being a sacred abode didn't stop 300,000 (!) people from tramping up to the top in 2009.  But it was out of season, and with my foot the way it was I was more than happy to view it from afar.

But enough staring for now, I was itching to get back to the Onsen and soak up the view, literally.  I grabbed a bicycle and rode around the lake up to another more scenic Lake called Saiko.  Yes it is pronounced Psycho much to my delight.  Lake Saiko has a Saiko bat cave (I pictured a bunch of foaming bats carrying knives) and so I quickly peddled on up to an ice cave recommended by my sister.  On the way I realized I was passing through the infamous Aokigahara Jukai, or the "Sea of Trees".  It was still officially winter, and the forest was dark and spooky on either side of the road.
Disturbing hardly describes this place
As I passed by the main path into the forest, I noticed several police cars and an ambulance.  It was then that I recalled what made this forest so famous: it was the most popular place in Japan to commit suicide.  Up to 100 people a year came to this forest to "camp", only to be found by authorities hanging from a tree limb.  It was creepy and disturbing.  The fact that cops were watching people enter the forest made it real enough, and later I learned that there are actually cameras mounted to prevent suicides.  This link to a blogger who went into the forest is worth a read... he stumbled upon more evidence than he wanted, culminating in a rope hanging expertly from a tree with artifacts from the perpetrator scattered around.

What's cooler than cool?:  Ice Cold!!
The Narusawa Ice Cave is a nice little break from the rest of the Fuji area.  It was formed by a lava flow that came down through a tube, then ejected into the nearby lake, forming this icy hollow below ground.  The chambers had great names like Fun, Slippery, and Hell Hole.  The ancient samurai lords would use it for forming ice blocks for refrigeration.  The cave was cold as expected; what was not as expected was the fact that I had to get down on all fours and crawl through one of the tunnels!  The Japanese love spicing up the ice stalagmites with lighting effects, which makes for good pictures.  Of course, a little shinto shrine in the bottom overflowing with Yen coins was not entirely a surprise.  Its a nice diversion, although to be honest it has nothing on the stupendous ice cave of Eisriesenwelt in Austria.

After surfacing, I looked around at the gloomy Sea of Trees in which the ice cave rests, like a portal to hell in a witch's glen.  There were several paths roped off heading deeper into forest--these were the paths that the blogger had wandered off into.  I decided I didn't feel like stumbling onto a corpse or being interrogated by police, so I hopped back onto my bike and pedaled off to the Yuyari Onsen.

It was good to be back, and even better to sit contentedly, naked and steaming on the deck, staring at Mount Fuji in full glory.  (Yes, I'm talking about the volcano.)  Ahhhhh.....   3 hours and 1 nap later, after carefully avoiding the foot torture device, I pedaled back around Lake Saiko with the sun going down.  Fuji's west flank was taking on a golden hue, the gold magnified and reflected in the water.  Fisherman stood on the lake shores, canoes and picnic tables on the stone beaches.  Relaxed from the onsen, I had that high one gets from exercise and fresh air, and the view surrounded and infused me with natural energy.  I was one with everything, content.

The next morning, I woke at 5am and looked out the window.  I saw a few faint stars, a very good sign indeed.  I pulled on all the spare warm clothes in my pack, layered all of my T-shirts, and jumped out the door.  I noticed the sky getting light in the East, and ran as fast as my crippled foot would allow across the bridge.  A guy I had met the day before said you could climb this little hill on the far side.  In the dark, I scrambled over a barbed fence, up the hill, and found myself in a forest.  I walked up further and realized the guy was full of ramen, the "view" was filled with nothing but branches.  So instead, I rolled and stumbled back down the hill just as the first rays of the sun hit the peak.  Finally I reached the lake-shore.  The waters of the lake were calm, and the faint pink of the first rays of dawn striking Mt Fuji's white shroud were somehow even pinker in the lake's reflection.  I set up my little tri-pod and waited, quietly.  Just as the pink colors peaked, several ducks began swimming my way.  I had frightened them earlier, but now, sitting quietly, they decided I was a friend.  At the perfect moment the last of the ducks cut a V in the water in front of me, and I snapped a picture of the other twin V's: that of Fuji and its reflection.  Thank you, little ducklings.