Tucked away in the rocky hills of southern Lebanon is the town of Qana. It is a place where, while buying a bottle of juice in a tiny store, a conservatively dressed Shia woman and her children may come up and ask where you are from, and then tell you about their uncle in Dearborn and how happy they are to have you visiting Qana. It is a place where you walk out of a store feeling welcomed.
In the modern era Qana is best known for tragedy. Long ago, however, it was better known for a wedding miracle. Carvings in rock on the edge of town indicate that early Christians believed this to be the site where Jesus turned water into wine. The fourth century church historian Eusebius seems to have considered this the place too (there is a competing site in the Galilee region of Israel). The area is beautifully kept, with a pretty path and flowering plants, and on the day I visited it was the epitome of peacefulness.
There was, however, this sign you see in the photo above. It marked the entrance to the path, and it seemed a little...well, overstated. Did sacredness really not begin until sometime in the first century? (It's a sad thought if true.) And does sacredness really require some spectacular act? At least on this day, for me, sacredness began a few hours earlier, when I was interacting with the Shia family while holding that fruit juice, smiling and sharing, connecting through words and a mutual reaching out. I felt a joy and wonder there, and I experienced a kind of love that enlivens the soul and leaves you ready to risk all.
So while I recommend a visit to this site, I don't think I like the sign much. And I wonder if Qana, with its miracles and massacres and kind mothers at the store, might want to consider putting up a line from Wendell Berry's "How To Be a Poet" instead:
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
The U.S. Coast Guard would be appalled, but drinking while adrift is a daily scene off the coast of Nha Trang, Vietnam. The "floating bar" is part of a popular all-day boat trip to outlying islands and it works like this: Shortly after lunch, a crewmember swims maybe 100 feet away from the boat with several bottles of (very cheap) Vietnamese wine. He is followed by a small horde of travelers, all of whom are hungry for this novel mix of alcohol and the sea. Within a matter of minutes the bottles run dry, plastic cups are gathered, and everyone hauls themselves back onto the boat so that we might chug toward the next destination (I think it was snorkeling). While the floating bar says little about Vietnamese culture, it says a lot about Vietnamese entrepreneurial skills.
There are at least as many reasons that people drink as there are nationalities in this picture. In “Pray Without Ceasing,” one of Wendell Berry’s characters is said to have “stood, letting the whisky seek its level in him, and felt himself slowly come into purpose; now he had his anger full and clear.” Another character, this one in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, explains:
But now I discovered the wonderful power of wine. I understood why men become drunkards. For the way it worked on me was – not at all that it blotted out these sorrows – but that it made them seem glorious and noble, like sad music, and I somehow great and reverend for feeling them.
As the people in this photo leapt from the ship to the sea to swim to the Vietnamese sailor with spirits, I don’t think anyone was doing so with the intent of being great and reverend, or to feel their anger full and clear. Maybe the Vietnamese guy in the very top of the photo said it best. Swimming back to the core of the group for a refill, he saw me still on the boat and yelled, “Joel jump, its so fun!”
With George Bush now back in Texas, bathroom stalls in backpacker hangouts in cities such as Bangkok and San Jose will never be the same. The political graffiti his eight years in office produced was immense. Scribbled across many a door and wall, the one-liners and paragraphs were seldom insightful. But never did I tire of reading what anonymous folks, while using the toilet, had to say about my President.
Other times—though almost never in a bathroom stall—I would stumble across more provocative messages such as the one seen here. Written on the seawall in Singapore's Esplanade Park, in the shadow of the city's financial district, I wondered who wrote it and why. Unlike political graffiti, its motive and meaning were a mystery.
Odds are, I suppose, that someone young did the writing. But it reminded me of something old, namely the idea of commitment, of the knowledge that there would be an end, of the work involved in shaping one's life with that fact in mind. I'd later remember this splotch of graffiti while reading Wendell Berry's book Hannah Coulter. In it Hannah, narrating from the twilight of her life, says, "Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes them clear. Maybe it is the truest way of knowing this dream, this brief and timeless life." Reflecting on her husband's passing, she later goes on to say:
I was changed by Nathan’s death, because I had to be. Our life together here was over. It was my life alone that had to go on. The strand had slackened. I had begun the half-a-life you have when you have a whole life that you can only remember. I began this practice of sitting sometimes long hours into the nights, telling over his story, this life, that even when it was only mine was wholly Nathan’s and mine because for the term of this world we were wholly each other’s. We were each other’s chance to live in the room of love where we could be known well enough to be spared. We were each other’s gift.
In the mountains surrounding the Panamanian town of Boquete, there is a rather phenomenal coffee farm called Hacienda La Esperanza. It is run by Jose Pretto, a Panamanian citizen of Italian descent seen in this photograph.
We met two hours into my walk down a curvy two-lane highway, where I was on the hunt for good pictures of the region’s coffee harvest, now in full swing. Jose called out to me from a dirt road leading off of the highway, inviting me to wander through his fields and photograph his pickers at work. I thought I would stay for ten minutes; I stayed instead for four hours.
To summarize: Jose, who once flew commercial jets, has thrown his life into an organic coffee farm, and his love for the land is contagious. He showed me his chicken coups, scattered about at key points. The chickens, which provide eggs, also spend their days pooping and scratching the soil under the coffee bushes, providing nourishment and aeration. Orange trees also dot the farm, providing shade for the bushes and dropping delicious fruit to the ground (which workers and the occasional visitor can then pick up and eat). A beautiful stream rushes through one side of the property, and Jose is in the process of relocating his workers (who live on the property) a few hundred yards away so that the water remains unpolluted. The farm even has a couple mules, imported from the U.S., so that the workers don’t have to carry full sacks of coffee on their shoulders as they do on most other farms. And this is but a very small glimpse of the place!
During my visit, Jose also received several unwanted visitors: officials and lawyers who are hoping to take much of the water from his stream. The water is needed, they say, as more American retirees flood into Boquete and build homes and condos that demand the area’s natural resources. Jose, who has invested thousands of dollars to fight this, minced no words as he spoke about the short-sighted stupidity of developers (who are passionate about money, not about a right relationship with the environment) and of society in general (which poisons its food with chemicals). It seemed fitting that when we said goodbye, we were standing beside the billboard seen above, which Jose put up along the highway to share his message that, when we don’t consciously care for the land, we may very well destroy it.
I suspect Jose would find a kindred spirit in Wendell Berry, who writes a lot about the land and our relationship to it. In an essay entitled "In Distrust of Movements", Berry says:
Well, all of us who live in the suffering rural landscapes of the United States know that most people are available to those landscapes only recreationally. We see them bicycling or boating or hiking or camping or hunting or fishing or driving along and looking around. They do not, in Mary Austin’s phrase, “summer and winter with the land”. They are unacquainted with the land’s human and natural economies...In fact, the comparative few who still practice that necessary husbandry and wifery often are inclined to apologize for doing so, having been carefully taught in our education system that those arts are degrading and unworthy of people’s talents. Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink, clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself also to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?
In my previous post, I left out the final two paragraphs of the Wendell Berry excerpt. Here they are:
But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remembered now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.
Your life, as you lived it, is way back yonder in time. But you are still living, and your living life, expectations subtracted, has a shape, and the shape of it includes the past. The absent and the dead are in it. And the living are in it.
The woman in this photograph is Hmong, and she can be found wandering around the streets of Sapa, Vietnam (I say the latter because another traveler, upon seeing this photo months afterwards, said he had seen the same woman; she keeps active!). Her face hints at a thousand stories to be told, and her eyes somehow sparkle with an unexplainable youthfulness. I simultaneously found her beautiful while also imaging a defensive lineman who has plowed into time and taken some hard hits. And I could only imagine how she saw herself, and the world.
There are no icebergs in the Gulf of Thailand, but at any given moment there is, in this and many other seas, someone thinking about the Titanic—or at least about Leonardo Dicaprio.
I almost didn’t take this photograph. For most of three hours I had been lying on a bench on deck, seeking out that elusive position where a severely herniated disc wouldn’t make me wish there were icebergs in the Gulf of Thailand. On top of my physical pain, there was the psychological terror of knowing I still had 20 hours before I reached Bangkok – 20 hours of ship, bus, and train, some of that with 75 pounds of cargo hanging from my shoulders. Only the day before did I come out of a 17-hour gala of agony in which it felt like a herd of elephants had collapsed on my lower back. The possibility of returning to that state somewhere between here and Bangkok was all too real.
I was alone on this portion of deck except for two German university students on a three-week holiday to Thailand. Feeling eight times their age (and almost eight times my own) as I navigated my bad back on the bench, we didn’t engage each other that much. But when the girls turned giddy as they conspired in German to reenact the Titanic bow scene, I eased myself into an upright position and grabbed my camera. The bow was off limits to passengers—I don’t think the girls knew this—and I thought the expression on their faces would be priceless when the captain roared out the window from the bridge above us.
But the better picture, I think, is the one I’m posting here. Taken three seconds before the captain got the bridge window open to commence his roar, I love how it seems to capture the feeling of youth, freedom, and lightheartedness. It was a fleeting moment in time that will never be repeated.
By the end of the week they would be back in university, and the week after that I would be on an operating table in Bangkok. A year has passed since then, and I imagine their Thailand experience, like my pain, now feels pretty distant. As the wise narrator in Wendell Berry’s book Hannah Coulter says as she looks back on her life:
You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind.
And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.
In a story by Wendell Berry entitled “Making it Home,” there is the following line:“And now, though he walked strongly enough along the road, he was still newborn from his death, and inside himself he was tender and a little afraid.”Berry was writing about a man returning home from the carnage of World War I, but the words well describe any experience in which a person has peered closely into his or her own fragility.
This photo was taken on one of many steep grades on Ko Phangan, a Thai island home to the famous (at least in the backpacker world) Full Moon Party.It is also home to hundreds of motorbike accidents each year.
The day after taking this picture on a good portion of road, I went against the advice of my guesthouse manager, the lady at the massage shop, and the local hair stylist, venturing down the infamous road to Thong Nai Pan.For the full story click HERE, but suffice it to say that half an hour into my journey I flew headfirst into the jungle.
In the end, scratched and with a sprained ankle, I made it to the beautiful bay at the end of the road to Thong Nai Pan.The water was so quiet, the beach nearly empty.As I walked along the water’s edge I felt the beauty but also the fragility of life.I thought of how there are experiences in addition to motorbike accidents – a shocking turn in a relationship, the loss of a home, the news of one’s failing health – that can leave us tender and a little afraid. Like the road to Thong Nai Pan, life can feel steep and rutted.