19 December 2004

The numbing of the relentless desert heat

SAN PEDRO de ATACAMA - I call this the numbing of the relentless desert heat. Neruda aptly calls it the fierce noon sun with its sharp spears. It is pervasive and there is no respite, no shadows, except in the canyon. Goodness knows how the llamas and the beconias do it. It is like a life without seasons, with nothing to look forward to except the relentless heat.

Of course I don't regret this trip to the desert but I doubt I can live in such harsh conditions for long. The conditions are so extreme - dry and hot in the day, cool in the night and subzero in the altitudes. Am I glad I didn't have the balls to sign up for any altiplano treks!

One gets tired and afraid of this sun. What a sanctuary this little cafe is. There must be a 3-4 degree Celsius difference between indoors and outdoors. Of course that is why they can charge S$7 for a glass of milk shake. For a small town like San Pedro, the people here sure knows how to cater to tourist tastes.

I am not sure if that is a good thing. At the town of Machupa, the llama meat seemed almost too readily available by being all ready-BBQed on skewers. I guess I am a difficult tourist to please. On the one hand, I shake my head at the crazy bone-rattling journey to the El Tatio geysers (what my Israeli roommate said about being in a washing machine is such an apt analogy!), but on the other, I don't like things too prepared. I like to stumble on llamas and tall phallic cacti, but not be led like a donkey to the water.

The geysers this morning were spectacular as one might expect, but my experience was compromised to some extent by some altitude sickness (at 4200m) and the subzero cold. It was something that one must do in one's lifetime - to feel the power of pecha mama (mother earth) in the mountains, the desert and the exploding geysers, but the rawness of her power is something so unforgettable that it does not need re-verification again...


SALT CANYON OF VALLE DE LUNE - 坐在盐谷(salt canyon)中的这块大石头上,顿时,“万籁俱寂” 现了更深一层的意义。听着盐谷中的盐柱(salt columns) 噼里啪啦热胀冷缩的声音,人终于在沙漠的怀抱中体会到自己的渺小。

声音到底从何处来?当你望头看这儿时,那儿已开始响起。 是部盐柱的交响曲吗?或许沙漠并没那么有诗意;这些只不过是沙漠的呼吸声(又或许是叹息声?)而已。

但叹息声的包罗万象,使我觉得沙漠所具有的,并不是单一的嗓子。我更相信的理论是沙漠住着许多山神;山神各具特色、性格,呼吸与叹息声也不一样。山神有时藏隐深山中,有时齐聚一堂,由 llamas 等动物守候着:

坐在这 Valley of the Moon, 你不由得承认:人的力量到底是单薄的。造山、创海之人究竟是谁,是怎样的一股力量?古人的多神主义信仰到底是原始的,还是有远见的?把世界的崇山峻岭都看 尽了,我们是否能体会这其中的真谛?若不能,人像攀爬最高峰的无尽欲望又是为了什么...?

18 December 2004

Of waltzing and monogamous flamingoes

ATACAMA SALT LAKE - A nearly sleepless night in Santiago because of all that noisy partying in the hostel but that all seems so far away sitting on a stone bench in the middle of the Atacama salt lake, watching brilliantly pink flamingoes fly by. The wind is blowing my hair wild (ahh, La Chascona!) and at some points, the noisiness of the wind reminded me of when I was skydiving.
It is impossible to look at this landscape and not feel little. I recall The Japanese Story, the sense of being alive and mortal at the same time. Can one go through life just watching flamingoes take flight around the world? Set against the salt lake landscape and the Andes, these beautiful waltzing flamingoes must have one of the most carefree lives in the world.

Three types of flamingoes are found here: Chilean (pink without black tails), Andean (with black tails) and the James ones which are smaller. Three of the five types in the world. Apparently the minerals (potassium, lithium? I couldn't figure out the heavy Spanish accent) and iodine help them in their pinkness.

So the guide says flamingoes are monogamous and have a sex life lasting 5 glorious seconds* and producing one glorious egg. Is it true? I sometimes wonder if humans invent monogamous stories about animals because they find so little faith in their own species now...

* At one point, we thought we might have spotted that ethereal 5 seconds of love-making between them but it was so fleeting we could not be sure!

17 October 2004

Musings on train to Geneve

TRAIN TO GENEVE - So much land. What does one do with so much land? I felt the same awe at the vast amount of empty fields when I was on the Eurostar between Paris and London in June. I am convinced that it does something to the psyche of the country's inhabitants. I wonder if it also makes them more generous, the way land-scarce Singapore might make its inhabitants more calculative?

The green fields have now begun to metamorphose into imposing Swiss Alps and serene lakes. I remeber from the Musee Swiss visit just now that most of Switzerland used to be glaciers, hence the great variety of landforms.

As the train approached Lausanne, there was even a rainbow at one point. But it vanished before I could spot the pot of gold. Or are the Swiss already so blessed with bountiful nature that to give them a pot of rainbow gold would just be too extravagant?

It is easy to be thankful for life in Switzerland. Things that are too beautiful, I often fear that they are fragile, so I try to give thanks for my good karma to encounter them, and (selfishly) hope that they will continue to remain. There is a Tibetan Buddhist prayer that beseeches the great lama teachers to remain in the samsaric world, even though they have attained enlightenment, so that they can continue to teach us stubborn beings. I always thought this was somewhat self-centred, but in view of our great needs, I guess the enlightened teachers will just have to understand!

16 October 2004

The etymology of "picturesque"

ZURICH - The best things in life are often stumbled upon. Take Honold for instance. It was a tea room I darted into to gain some respite from the cold. It turned out to be a charming place where Zurichians spend their Saturday mornings with children and dogs. (Indeed the Swiss love their dogs - the abundance of them at the airport!)

First day in Zurich and I am beginning to think that the etymology of the word 'picturesque' is Swiss in origin. Especially in the Old City, there is so much to discover. I walked almost 4 hours at one go today depsite the cold and my high-heel boots. Every time my legs signalled stopping somewhere, my eyes insisted on pressing on even as they saw the storm clouds and the temperatmental drizzles of fall. So much to stumble upon. Look at this charming shopping alley, that little boy with blond tussled hair... Listen to the sound of the German language, those footsteps of the rain breeze... My aging Fuijicam, lethargic from the cold, clicked on.

By the time I hit a natural stop - the Zurich lake, it was 4 hours. Voila! There is a flea market. Clothes, piles of postcards, phonecards, old records, jewellery, china, German philosophy books (is it only in Europe that there is enough critical cultural mass to constitute a demand for philosophy books?) , conch shells, dolls in prams, a stuffed elephant sitting on a four-hob full-size gas cooker(!)...

I decided to take a lake cruise. 5.40 francs for 1.5 hours. By far the cheapest thing I have come across in Zurich.

Sitting on the deck of the water taxi, you start to wonder: can there be anything more peaceful than this? To wish for more would seem like an intolerable sin of greed. Everything is peacefully gentle here. Fathers and sons fish at the pier, toodlers watch in awe the swans swimming in the lake, Swiss houses await their occupants to return home... Even the engine of the water taxi is afraid to hum aloud. You can hear the lapping of the water and the flapping of the gull's wings. (Even with my bad hearing.) If not for it, I would probably be able to hear the breeze blowing past the Swiss Alps that embraces the lake all around.

As I sat on the deck sipping a cup of earl grey my fellow passenger kindly bought me, I thought: it must be easy to attain nirvana here. If one could not even attain enlightenment in this cool weather and tranquility, what more in the fly-swatting hot weather of India...?

Post-script: Unfortunately, Swiss tranquility began to end in the supermarket where annoyed samsaric cashiers took over. There, I realized that 'tsk' was a universal sound, even in nirvana land!