Backstory

In this post I’ll see if I can bring the story up to date a little. Right now we’ve just crossed the Arizona border from New Mexico.

There’s a ghost town a while back called “Shakespeare”. They say the only law in the place was that if you killed a man, you had to dig his grave yourself. It kept the murder rate down pretty good.

Anyway I’ll just jump back in time to the end of the AAR, where I left off any sensible narrative. From here on, things might get a little rambling ‘cos, well, it’s rambling country.

Chandra and I grabbed a cab out to the rental yard to pick up our RV. A modest little vehicle, all things considered, but still filled with things we’ve never used – TV, DVD, microwave and so on.

We were supposed to meet our friends at U Alabama, Tuscaloosa, for the Buddhism in Motion seminar at 4pm for a 5pm start. But there was a racing meet at Talledaga speedway, and a lot of RVs were just coming back in. Ours wasn’t cleaned and ready, so by the time that happened, and we went through the legalities and formalities and such, and by the time we went down one wrong road, or two, and took a wrong turn off the right freeway – well, it was after 6 when we actually showed up at the seminar.

I did my thing, as one of a series of presentations – and gosh! I’m thinking I clean forgot to introduce the very people who made this all possible: Ruth, Amy, Kalzang, Paul, and Meredith. They are a group of young academics and PhD students, some studying with John Powers at ANU. I met Ruth at last years AABS conference, and she later invited me for the AAR. Amy and Kalzang teach at U Alabama, among the very few dealing in Asian/Buddhist studies. They did all the organizing for this end of the trip, as well as arranging sponsorship to help with the costs. They looked after us fantastically, and it was a pleasure getting to know them over this short time.

And back to the seminar; it was great to connect with these students, most of whom had some background knowledge of Buddhism, but had never seen a monastic before. The next day I spoke to another class, again with knowledgable students, and I spoke on the Vinaya backgrounds of the different schools, which was related to a test subject they had coming up.

I could see how striking it was for the young people to see just a possibility of a different kind of living spirituality. Christianity is of course very strong in this “bible belt”, but, at least overtly, it doesn’t seem to have much depth to it. All improbably smiling faces and unlikely promises, with a barely concealed threat underneath.

Okay then, off we went south to New Orleans. We got a good tip: if you can’t find a place to stay, you can always park the RV at a Walmarts. Which is exactly what we did. We arrived too late, the RV parks were closed, and anyway we needed to pick up a few bits and pieces, so our first night was spent soaking up that rich cultural ambience of Walmart.

At the checkout, the girl asked, kinda indirectly, whether I was wearing a dress. I think that would have been far more acceptable, cos when I said I was a Buddhist monk, her eyes went real wide.

Chandra laughed and said, “Now you’re going to go home and tell your friends you met a Buddhist monk”.
She said, “You know, I was just thinking that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”

Next morning, driving over the bayous of the Mississippi delta, coming into New Orleans. There were visible signs of flood damage everywhere. But the culture was still alive. We could only stay a short time, but I loved the place. Bright painted houses, people on the streets, live jazz. It still felt like its own place, with its own very complex and rich history and sense of itself.

I got ready to go pindapata in the French quarter. But I thought to check when midday was, and we were only half an hour short, just enough time to grab a quick lunch.

That’s been the bane of my plans for pindapata on this journey – not hostile or incomprehending locals, but simply having no time. We’ve made much slower progress than planned, for no specific reason other than everything takes time, especially in an RV. You’ve got to aim to arrive at your destination by 4pm, because you’ve got to search around and find a site, and most of them shut at 5. Then there’s setting up and all the little things. If you need to park in a town, it’s a big deal. So mostly we just get lunch at a little roadside Mexican place or similar.

I’ve also given up on being able to make it for the Western Monastics conference in Santa Cruz – it starts tomorrow, and we’re still near the Mexican border!

So there we go, out of New Orleans and driving for a couple of hours before finding a place in a horse training place in Baton Rouge. Like Tuscaloosa, it was a whole big football thing. And horses. And a river. And thousands of little black birds that swarmed in the sunset like the bats of Sydney, except, y’know, not as cool as bats.

Next day we tried to catch up some time, and made it to Port Arthur, just inside the Texas border. Huge bridges and factories. I’m getting used to the landscape, with gigantic engineering marvels scattered casually about the place.

Over what appeared to be a vast bridge servicing a tiny place, we went to “Pleasure Island” and found an RV camp. The manager, a Vietnamese fellow, told us not to worry about the fee, as we were only there for one night. We got settled, I went for a walk, and Chandra chatted with the manager some more. Who then decided he had to go and pick up his pregnant wife, buy us some dana, and come and see us. They came later that night; it was a special moment. They were so happy to see a monk. They brought a little replica of the jade Buddha, which they had seen touring recently. I chanted the Metta Sutta and we sat quietly for a short while.

After, Chandra and I were talking about how kind everyone had been. Chandra realized he had been wrong for 25 years. In the mid 80s he had driven from New York north, and had come away with the impression that Americans were rude and rough. But we’ve seen nothing but politeness and kindness – together with a few askance looks, to be sure. I’m definitely quite conscious of being looked at, something I don’t notice in Sydney.

Onwards, and this time over increasingly barren terrain to a little town called Brady. We stopped in Austin for lunch and some bits of business, and were planning on going to San Angelo, but didn’t make it. But Brady was great. A tiny nowhere that prided itself as the “Heart of Texas”, it has a little reservoir with a few RV parks. Deer and fish (and feral cats) abound.

Then down to El Paso, a bi-national city whose Mexican half, Juarez, has the dubious distinction of being the most violent place on earth outside war zones; a victim to the increasingly deadly drug wars. We stayed in a little RV park just off the big I-10. It’s all huge malls, vast carparks. Suburbia gone mad. Downtown El Paso is tiny and undeveloped, surrounded by a few traditional Mexican-style streets, where the kids play in the streets and the old folks sit on their porches taking it easy. It’s poor, human, and warm; a far cry from the brutal bitumen acreages of the shopping malls.

Then we’re off, and now we’re here! I’m loving the desert – it reminds me of home, except lumpier. Tonight we’ll probably be staying somewhere on the west side of Tucson – we’ll see when we get there.

2 thoughts on “Backstory

  1. Sounds like quite an adventure! Thank you for keeping us up to date. I always enjoy reading your blog and think you’re a crackerjack writer, and now I suspect you’d be an entertaining TV host of your own travelogue show. (“Travels With Bhante”?)
    Cheers!

  2. Hey Chandra, don’t be too hard on yourself. If you started to travel from Battery Park today up West Street (pretty much due north – how does that work?) you might still get the same response…although metta can work miracles…

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