Next morning we elbowed our way around a crowded and litter-strewn riverbank looking for someone we could trust to tell us where to go to catch the boat up the Tonle Sap to Siem Reap, the de facto base town for Angkor day-trippers. The boat ride was magnificent; the inside of our barge-esque vessel was stuffed with food and other such necessities for the locals all over the countryside which meant we tourists were offered by default an unobstructed rooftop view of the surrounding fields of wild grass and water buffalo for the four-hour trip that is equally fascinating whether you put on sunscreen or not. (The consequences don’t surface until later.) Once in Siem Reap Garryck followed his nose to a guesthouse where we could drop our stuff and take a meandering look around the town, which I found surprisingly and pleasantly serene. Where were all the day-trippers and other assorted backpackers? Left to explore the dirt roads and side streets in solitude I was not going to complain. Until my sunburn began screaming.
Next morning we were up at three for the ride to Angkor to watch the sun rise. We settled down on a spot of grass facing Angkor Wat, by far the most famous icon in all of Cambodia, and watched as the first glints of dawn lifted the black blanket of night, revealing the outlines of tufted palms rising up at the feet of 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 a trio of 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 stepped through the stone entrance to the grounds of the Wat and made our slow way toward the temple – or funerary palace, as some scholars contend. The crowds were light; my system had returned to a state of semi-equanimity. Walking several hundred yards over huge cut stone transported by boat and by hand over many miles we found ourselves standing at the base of a steep, steep staircase, one of several equally-steep paths to the interior of Angkor Wat.
The answer, as I overheard a guide explain, was grounded in the idea that this was a sacred site, a place of reverence, dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual reflection. Simply entering through a doorway, or even a staircase of normal proportions, would not require any thought on the entering person’s part; thus the mind could remain occupied with other matters and the meaning, the significance, and thus the experience of this place would be lessened by one’s diminished perception of it. Climbing these stone steps demanded attention from anyone not wishing to fall off them, stripping away the clutter of the outside world from a person’s consciousness, drawing one to a fuller, deeper, more intimate experience. I figured with my electrolyte lesson and my upcoming skin grafts added to the mix I was in for one deeply spiritual day.
‘Without effort, the experience is meaningless,’ I heard the guide say.
The US Park Service would do well to put this concept into practice.
Back in the Fall of 1995, upon completion of grad school and passing the almost sadly unchallenging final exam, a friend and I drove cross-country to explore the richness of the US’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 in a couple places 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 heartily applauding their efforts.
About a week prior to our trip I tried to reserve a site in one of the campgrounds in 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.
It all centers around a mini-city called Curry Village, which refers not to the obscene amounts of food 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. 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, and I quote the website here, ‘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 at all 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.
Skies were impeccable, I couldn’t wait to get out on a trail hike. But Seiji, at five months, 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. Among the cluster of buildings with log cabin facades and plasma TVs mounted on the walls inside for viewing Yosemite’s best while your ass stays firmly planted, I spotted a restaurant and café and pizza place combination food palace. 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 a man and a woman were walking along a paved path, holding their oversized cups and talking about nothing related to Yosemite or even outside. Then the guy suddenly asks 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, how long did you have to wait for your coffee?’ Instead I kept quiet.
‘Yes…I think so,’ replied the woman.
|Official Yosemite Pamphlet featuring Half-Dome|
On the drive 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 wild animals I saw anywhere in the Valley in three days were a group of three drunk women speaking what sounded like slurred Russian as they pushed past my wife, baby in her arms, to get on the shuttle 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. In the morning the drive back to the Valley was magnificent – the sun was rising over the immense peaks and rock walls carved by glaciers long ago. 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.
In the afternoon my wife wanted to get a couple of postcards for my older son to send to a couple of his teachers back home. A nice gesture, and a learning experience for Yamato. Meanwhile I waited in the expansive market and souvenir shop, watching over the cameras I was secretly and probably illegally recharging. (Okay, my vicious reliance on modernization surfaces.) It was killing me, trapped inside with the revolving hordes looking at sweatshirts and shot glasses and a thousand other forms of kitsch. So I decided to play 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, and began asking people working in the store the name of the waterfall in the picture. Now, this was not a trick question; it wasn’t a shot of just some water tumbling down some rocks, nor was it 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, and I am proud to say on just my third day in Yosemite I could confidently name that waterfall. Which, as I half-suspected, was more than some of the people working and living in Yosemite Valley were able to do.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, approaching a man with a fantastic bushy white moustache and a green staff shirt and name tag. ‘Could you tell me the name of this waterfall?’ I showed him the postcard. He stared for a moment, eyes vacant, then came out with what I guessed were 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. Next young girl guessed Yosemite Falls, by now the established default answer. Three out of four people living and working in Yosemite had now answered incorrectly. Next 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 a 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 when I had finally timed my slow, unsuspicious circle right and cornered her near 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 next to the patio of the pizza place advertised a happy hour special of some sort; 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, was admittedly hard to resist. (Strike two against me.) The food wasn’t bad, the selection adequate, and the atmosphere 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: eat until you burst, stay nice and warm in your insulated tent cabin and start the day right with an extra-large gourmet coffee in the high-quality disposable cup and ergonomically-shaped lid. 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.
Just today I happened across an advertisement for Wildflower Hall, a luxury hotel located in the Himalayas. ‘Discover solitude in the lap of the Himalayas’ it says under a picture of this massive 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.’ Yes, this is the very essence of solitude. ‘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 with a visit to the full service spa there are activities ‘for the adventurous...white river rafting, mountain biking, trekking, billiards...’ Billiards? Absolutely! Adventure truly knows no boundaries at the Wildflower.
Now, 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.
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. If Angkor has a similar problem in the future I think I’ll tell them to build a Curry Village; this way the majority of visitors will be so distracted by the coffee and newspapers and general atmosphere of gluttony they might forget about the temples altogether. ''Specially in that heat, gawsh!' In the meantime I’m going to petition the National Park Service to raze Curry Village and make a long, steep staircase out of the rubble.