Monday, November 29, 2010

Luxury: The New Spirituality

Enjoy Nature Without Having to Deal With it

Our chosen route out of Phnom Penh.
A number of years ago I flew to Cambodia to meet up with two friends who were riding tandem bicycles around the world. This was to be my first trip to a country without any semblance of a sanitation department so naturally I was pretty excited.

I'd travel with them along a common route: Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and the venerable temples of Angkor. Our mode of travel would be something less than standard. On the first day we pedaled just shy of 100 kilometers, along undulating dirt roads cutting across tree-studded plains baking in the heat, with only an occasional village to keep us on the more pleasurable side of dehydration.

At breakfast (plates of rice and mystery on a wobbly table at a roadside shack) my cycling buddies poured small packets of oraange something into their bottles of purified water. ‘Electrolytes,’ one of them said in response to my inquiry. Pixie dust, I told myself. But okay. These guys were biking around the world, they needed a lot of electrolytes. I was only there for a week. And besides I was no hotshot cyclist, I was just a hotshot. Plain water was good enough for me.

At our guest house that evening, curled up and clutching my stomach, unable to keep down so much as a leaf of Cambodian lettuce, I pondered the real-life effects of cellular osmosis and how I might ask for electrolytes at a drug store in Cambodia.

But time heals all gastrointestinal wounds, and by morning I felt I might be able to keep up with my buddies. We cycled toward the river, then pushed the tandems through the crowded street and across the muddy, litter-strewn riverbank until we found someone to point us toward the boat to Siem Reap. I imagined kicking back on the deck, putting back a cold drink or two while watching the Cambodian countryside slip easily by.

We spent the next six hours squatting in the sun, packed in among four dozen other backpackers on top of a floating George Foreman frying skillet. Fortunately I didn't spend the evening curled up clutching my stomach. Instead I spent it standing in the middle of my room so nothing would touch me and start my freshly-sunburned skin screaming again.
"Hey hey! You folks enjoying your floating George Foreman frying skillet?"

Next morning we were up and out the door by four, pedaling through the darkness and settling down on a spot of grass facing Angkor Wat. The first glints of dawn pushed away the black blanket of night, revealing the outlines of tufted palms rising up at the feet of those iconic lotus-shaped turrets. The lilies on the ponds fronting the temple took on a slightly different color than the water. Slowly the grandeur of this immense 12th century wonder showed its details to the world.

Ten feet away three college-age mouths carried on a loud conversation replete with self-importance and laughing inanity. I wanted to shoot them.

With the sun shining bright we made our slow way toward the temple, over several hundred yards of huge cut stones transported by boat and by hand over many miles a thousand years ago. Soon we found ourselves standing at the base of a steep, steep staircase, one of several equally-steep paths to the interior of Angkor Wat.

Steps so steep you might even forget your friends'
names. Not that I did...
Why are the steps so steep? The question can be asked two ways: in the sarcasm of a guy from New Jersey who has just gotten over his lesson in cellular osmosis or in the manner of honest inquiry. I did both in rapid succession.

The answer, as I overheard a guide explain, was because this was a place of reverence, of spiritual reflection. Simply entering through a doorway, or even a staircase of normal proportions, would not require any thought about the significance of this place, and the experience would be lessened by one’s diminished perception of it.

Climbing these stone steps demanded attention from anyone not wishing to fall off them and die. Mental clutter (and the urge to take a selfie) would be stripped from one's consciousness, drawing him or her to a more meaningful, more spiritual experience. With the lingering effects of my electrolyte lesson and the skin grafts that seemed more a part of my future with each successive step I figured I was in for one deeply spiritual day.

‘Without effort, the experience is meaningless,’ I heard the guide add.

The United States National Park Service should be so reflective.

Back in the Fall of 1995, upon completion of grad school and a sadly unchallenging final exam, a friend and I drove cross-country to explore the richness of America's many national parks and microbreweries. Among our stops was Yosemite National Park, and while I don’t recall all the fine details of the state of the park at the time, I do know that there were few options for transport, camping and eating there in the valley. Most of the visitors we encountered seemed to be experiencing the park much like we were: maneuvering through the traffic along the looping road and jostling for parking spaces and unimpeded views of the beauty rising up all around us while wondering how long to stick around before barreling off to snag a camp site somewhere before dark.

I returned to Yosemite this past September and found a much different place. The loop through the valley is now largely one-way, with shorter two-way spurs to ease access to trailheads and certain popular sights. And while private vehicles are still allowed everywhere, most people opt to park in one of the sprawling parking lots and get around the valley using the free and efficient bus system. If the NPS had stopped the development there I would be applauding their efforts.

About a week prior to this most recent trip I tried to reserve a site in one of the campgrounds there inside Yosemite Valley proper. The summer season was officially over but, I was warned, spaces still went fast. As it turned out, there was nothing available and we ended up having to opt for Crane Flats, a campground 10 miles west of the valley. I was mildly disappointed – until I saw what had happened to Yosemite.

Check out the full story on Cambodia right here.
Destruction via Construction

It all centers around a mini-city called Curry Village, which refers not to the obscene amounts of foodwill be changing again.)
now available out there in the wilderness but to David and Jenny Curry who opened up a tent camp in Yosemite in 1899. I wonder what they’d think of how their $2/night operation has changed. (And, as we recently learned,

Today in Curry Village you can get a cabin with a private bath, a motel room or, if you are feeling adventurous, a tent cabin with (to quote the now-defunct website) 'custom insulating panels'. To make 'this unique and magnificent place to stay' truly complete, there are no campfires allowed, but there are 'plenty of dining options near all of our Yosemite cabins.’

I am not opposed to being comfortable. I have a problem with catering to people who are unable to appreciate beautiful places without being obscenely pampered. This may sound snobbish or overly critical, but a little time spent in this village in the wilderness confirms what the Khmer rulers and builders apparently understood.

What Ease Has Wrought

The skies over Yosemite were impeccable that day, I couldn’t wait to get out on a trail hike. But my inconsiderate five-month-old son hadn’t yet learned to time his feedings to my schedule and needed his milk. So off I ran to find hot water – or just water we could heat up on the propane stove. For better or for worse I didn't have to run far.

Various buildings sit infesting the Valley, many of them with log cabin facades on the outside to make you feel rugged and large plasma TVs on the inside to make you comfy as you enjoy Yosemite’s best while your ass stays firmly planted. Among these modern atrocities was a restaurant café pizza parlor palace of cavernous proportions. Inside people were standing around chatting and sipping from large paper cups with heavy plastic lids while others waited on a long line for their coffee or cappuccino or espresso. The only thing missing was the Starbucks logo.

Back outside things were no better. Waiting to cross the street I noticed a man and a woman walking toward me along a paved path. In their hands they held their oversized cups of coffee. Out of their mouths came a conversation about nothing related to Yosemite, or even the outdoors. Then the guy suddenly glanced up and asked the woman: ‘Hey, is that Half-Dome?’

Yes, I wanted to answer. That is half-Dome, the single most recognizable landmark in the valley and the symbol on every piece of official Yosemite literature out there, idiot, how long did you have to wait for your coffee?

‘Yes…I think so,’ replied the woman.

Official Yosemite Pamphlet featuring Half-Dome (you idiots).
My son fed, we made the 3-mile hike up to Vernal Falls and back. Along the way countless people ignored the surrounding beauty in favor of commenting to each other on what a tough walk it was and Who do you think will win American Idol? (I'm serious.)

We got on a shuttle bus and plopped down, my wife and I happy to enjoy a bit of the park without carrying our kids. At the next stop a group of no less than fifteen high schoolers piled on, carrying on with each other, oblivious to the world around them like any group of high schoolers would be, in any environment. A couple of them carried cardboard pizza boxes. Others fooled with their iPods. None of them looked outside until one of them shouted to the rest that their stop was coming up. They all peered out the windows like they’d never seen the place before.

Teenagers don’t have to be dedicated naturalists. But if my kid ever goes on a field trip to a place like Yosemite he’s leaving the iPod at home. If he even has one.

Leaving Yosemite to Get Away From It All

Driving out to Crane Flats that evening we caught a glimpse of a bear darting into the woods, having apparently just crossed the otherwise desolate road. (The only other wild animals I saw anywhere in the Valley were the three drunk women speaking slurred Russian as they pushed past my wife, baby in her arms, to get on the shuttle in front of her and take the closest empty seats.) Crane Flats Campground itself was perfect; no lights, no heaters and no cabins with insulated panels. People built campfires and sat on folding chairs, carrying flashlights to fetch water and go use the bathroom. There were no stores, no vending machines, no food except what people brought with them – and stored in heavy metal boxes provided to keep the bears from ripping open their car windows and camper doors because the bears in the area can and will do just that.
Crane Flats Campground. For those who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Yosemite Valley.

In the morning the drive back to the Valley rekindled my belief in the survival of Yosemite's beauty. From a distance we saw the sun rising over the immense peaks and rock walls carved by glaciers long ago. A hundred thousand pine trees stood like guardians to an ancient and magical place.

Down in Curry Village people busied themselves with coffee and café breakfasts and the morning paper. The newspaper! Yes, there are newspaper boxes here and there so anyone who came out here to get away from it all could keep up on the news, then maybe go look around a bit of the park if there was time before lunch at the Cabin.

Pop Quiz

In the afternoon my wife picked up a couple of postcards for my older son to send to a couple of his teachers back home. A nice gesture, I thought. And a learning experience for the kid. As she helped him write out a few simple sentences at a picnic table out back I waited in the expansive market and souvenir shop, watching over the digital camera I was secretly and probably illegally recharging through an outlet down behind a rack of genuine Yosemite shot glasses and coffee mugs (Made in China).

It was killing me, trapped inside among the revolving hordes looking at sweatshirts and stupid wall ornaments and a thousand other forms of kitsch. So I launched into a little game. I picked up a postcard with a panoramic scene of the famed valley entrance, one of the most photographed views of the vastness of Yosemite. Then I began asking people working in the store the name of the waterfall in the picture.

This was not a trick question. It wasn’t just a shot of some water tumbling down some rocks. It wasn't a barely-visible thin white hint of a waterfall among an expanse of trees and nothing else. There in full color was the most recognizable view of the entire valley. For anyone who had spent more than a couple hours in this place, there could be no mistaking which waterfall that was.

Or could there?

"You ever seen this place before? I'll give you a hint. You work here..."

‘Excuse me,’ I said to a man with a bushy white moustache and a name tag pinned to his green staff t-shirt. ‘Could you tell me the name of this waterfall?’ I showed him the postcard. He stared, eyes vacant, until he finally came out with what were clearly the first two names to pop into his head. ‘Oh, that’s Yosemite Falls, or maybe Nevada Falls.’

I thanked him and let him go.

Next I went up to a kid stocking shelves of canned food. ‘Hey man, quick question?’ He answered Yosemite Falls too, but then his buddy took a look and corrected him. ‘Nope, that’s Bridalveil Fall.’

I thanked him and left him to chide his can-stacking pal. ‘Figures you wouldn’t, you’re from Boston,’ I heard him say as I turned the corner.

The next green t-shirt, worn by a young girl who gave an impression she'd never seen dirt, also guessed Yosemite Falls.

Three out of four people living and working in Yosemite had now answered incorrectly. Another girl, twenty-something with a sharply-defined nose, shot me an impatient ‘Bridalveil’ as if I were the most stupidest person on the planet for asking. The next guy knew too, evening the score at three and partially restoring my faith in humanity.

The last test was the floor manager, a girl with a figure like an upside-down light bulb and a look of quiet panic in her eyes as she hurried back and forth between a service counter and the door to a back room. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, cornering her next to a display of cheesy picture frames. ‘Can I ask a quick question?’ And she saved the day with a correct answer and a desperate look over my shoulder.

The board out on the front patio of the pizza place advertised a Happy Hour special. The main lodge offered a humongous all-you-can-eat buffet for fifteen bucks - which, after ten days in a van with two little kids, constitutes an acceptable momentary diversion from the natural smorgasbord of Yosemite. The food was decent, the selection was adequate, and the atmosphere was entirely surreal. Nowhere in the entire valley were people’s eyes so full of excitement and wonder as when they were hauling their overloaded plates to their tables, not noticing when clumps of macaroni and chunks of turkey fell off onto the floor as they hurried along. This, I had to sadly consider, was the evolution of the intimate experience: stay nice and warm in your insulated tent cabin if not your hotel room, start the day with an extra-large gourmet coffee in the high-quality disposable cup and ergonomically-shaped lid, and spend a chunk of your afternoon feeding your face indoors. And don’t worry if you can’t recognize Half-Dome. If anyone asks how it was you can just point at the logo on your sweatshirt.

And It Ain't Just 'Murika

Two days ago I happened across an advertisement for Wildflower Hall, a luxury hotel located in the Himalayas. Indulge in the lap of nature, it says over a picture of an artificial-surface tennis court, somewhere on the manicured grounds of this former royal residence. This solitude includes wireless Internet access everywhere including the urinals, 24-hour business center, room service and personal butler service, and of course ‘extensive safety and security arrangements.’

Wilderness, courtesy of Wildflower Hall. Touching anything optional.
Indulge indeed. In the lap of nature? Not so much.

‘For centuries, the Himalayas have inspired awe and awakened spirituality in the souls of all mortals who encounter their greatness,’ the site goes on to say.

Yes, and for centuries people have discovered that spirituality through views of the Himalayas from restaurants, the Jacuzzi and the outdoor heated swimming pool.

To access this special retreat of solitude and spirituality get on the daily flight from Dehli to Shimla, the closest airport – or if you prefer you may charter a private jet. From Shimla Airport it is 90 minutes by limo service, available also from Shimla’s train stations. Once you’ve recovered from that grueling flight on your chartered jet you can visit the full service spa, or get crazy by venturing out of wi-fi range with activities ‘for the adventurous...white river rafting, mountain biking, trekking, billiards...’

Billiards? Absolutely! Adventure truly knows no boundaries at the Wildflower.

If someone offered me an all-expenses-paid trip to this place I’d say yes and have my bags half packed faster than the person could say teak wood floors. But if this is the definition of spirituality then obviously I’ve missed something somewhere.

Angkor's Preservation Strategy

When I visited Angkor in 2003 the site was on UNESCO’s Danger List for reasons stated here. The following year it was taken off, as the threat of destruction both intentional and otherwise had declined along with other factors. However, Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor now seem to be on everyone's bucket list, bringing those threats of destruction by millions of wandering Nikes back with a vengeance.

But the crafty Cambodians have taken a page from the USNPS. They've built up Siem Reap to the point where it resembles Orlando, Florida. They've even introduced something called Pub Street - created, I guess, with the intention of distracting the majority of visitors with coffee and newspapers and a general atmosphere of gluttony they might forego visiting the temples altogether.

''Specially in that heat, gawsh!"

"What did you think of Angkor Wat?" -- "Don't know, haven't made it out there yet. You want another margarita?"

In Closing, A Piece of Advice for the National Park Service

Want more people to appreciate the wonder and the beauty of America's National Parks? Start by razing Curry Village and building a long, steep staircase out of the rubble.

Thanks for stopping by, my friend. Check out more good stuff here.