Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Hangzhou Diaries (Year II) - Circular Reference

One fine morning, it just comes together. You wake up just like any other day, and that little voice in your head firmly grasps you by the shoulders and gives you a vigorous little shake – “finish what you started, and do it slowly, with intent. Not in fast forward mode. But with Being, your full Being”. And you know your life has come full circle in one single year. So all you can do, then, is close the loop.
And you awake, to reaffirm and to return.
Obviously, an entire year has slipped us by, and it’s not as though things didn’t happen or there were no travels. But I felt I should complete the circle here. Finish what I started, before filling in the gaps over the months in between.
So on yet another cold day in February (Feb 14th to be precise!), I decided to go back to the Fajin Buddha temple in Hangzhou, for all the things that had me kneeling there in front of the Buddha Amitabha (Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Pure Joy – how apt is that?!) last Spring, and for all the things I now needed to kneel for.
A single, heartfelt prayer that has come to fruition, a fistful of burning incense, luminous gratitude that has taken months in the kiln to acquire the shape and form of today (and will take more than words and silent tears to articulate), and a strange sense of infinity.
When you ask for wounds to be healed, it is sometimes best not to ask for the prescription med that you think works best on you. Sometimes it just works to let the Universe decide, and an off-chance experimental new drug can often take you by surprise! And so it was that last year, at the height of all my loss and longing, for the first time in my whole life, I did not objectify the antidote. I just asked to be whole again - this time, without setting any boundaries, and I burned the prescription, scattered away the ashes, and purposefully forgot the name while I was at it, too.
And what came to me, from that single prayer last year, was so vast and so beautiful, that I had to go about furiously making space for the new. My hands were full. But this time, so was my life, and my heart. At last. So here I am again – this time to say “Thank you.”
And sometimes, the acknowledgment is the hard part. Saying “thank you” as it were, proved to be a lot more grueling than last year’s casual stumbling upon this temple on a painting workshop jaunt, and an accidental sense of having found Divinity that speaks (then again, does anything in life ever really happen by accident, casually enough?).
A drizzling, grey rainy day, the wrong time of the month, and a complete lack of public transportation meant that we had to hire and ride bicycles all the way from the Hangzhou city centre to the top of the mountain which housed the temple – a 10-km ride each way. Ok so I chose the wrong day and should have paid more heed to the weather report! But I was a woman on a mission, and nothing could deter me – so coaxing and cajoling Edo from Shanghai (my painting-workshop buddy from last year) and another friend, we set off in the morning. And all they said to me was “oh, for the love of God, woman!” Ironic, that.
A 6-course traditional Chinese lunch en-route, much rain, bad weather, and a lot more discomfort later, we were painfully snaking our way uphill through the crazy and comprehensively callous holidaying traffic, on our slow cycles, to finally arrive at Lingyin temple at 3 in the afternoon. Fajin temple (MY temple) was further uphill, to the back of Lingyin temple, on the other side of the mountain. Oh dear.
Ominous clouds, more rain and dusk-fall threatened. So, off we went without a break, stopping only to check out the interiors of a new, three-floored wooden cottagey B&B (located on the paved cobble-stoned road that led up to Fajin temple), with sweeping views of unbroken sky, hills dotted with tea plantations in all shades of green, and little blue streams water-coloring the landscape, Monet-style. (Mental note to myself: stay here next time, and hide from the world, when hiding is needed…I am a firm believer in the fact that everyone needs at least two hiding places in the world, preferably on two different continents).
Saw the “Eat, Pray, Love” sign in the window of the café yet again and was reminded of a brighter, sunnier day last Spring with new-found friends, sitting on the patio of the café and drinking Longjing tea and discovering that THIS is what bliss felt like.
Nothing had changed at Fajin. From the yellow façade of the temple boundary wall to the smoking incense burners and the golden Buddha in the inner sanctum sanctorum. There was a happier change in the form of a new and very engaging (read, talkative) temple attendant with a strange accent – who looked like he was from the north, most likely Mongolia. Almost Nepalese, almost “shaab-jee”, almost another time and place!
Lighting up a fistful of incense sticks whose flames shot up against the slated grey stone tiles of the temple roof, I did what I came to do. And I knew then, why they call him the Buddha Amitabha. No other name becomes him as much.
 Back up to the painting spot as last year, and a Tai’chi class was in progression, into which, my excitable friends eagerly followed suit, while I watched the red lanterns, the yellow temple wall and a grey-blue rainy day, against the low, slow chanting of the monks floating up from the temple below. Life was stilling itself down, and the Tai’chi added to the slow pace of the moment. If a rainy day could be perfect, this would be it. Slow-motion-rain-dropping on my palms open to the sky, and I am receiving – at last.
In this moment, I am infinite.
On the way back, we stopped for Lonjing tea at a tea house inside a traditional Chinese home, where the tea was freshly plucked, roasted in giant, wrought iron skillets, and then treated and brewed for us, all fresh from the fields right ahead of us, in an elaborate little tea ceremony. Sometimes, when a day goes right, everything lines up. My discomfort must have been apparent by now, and the day-long clammy drizzle with my rain-soaked jeans and boots sticking to me, wasn’t helping. The lady pouring out the tea asked me gently if instead of the green Lonjing tea, I might prefer a strong black one. They say reading tea leaves is another form of divination, but this was a bit much! I nodded happily, and my face lit up with a smile. How on earth could she tell??
She went inside, scooped out a cup full of the tea leaves from her kitchen inside, and set me aside an entire pot for myself. A good cup of tea can warm the insides of your soul. Thus warmed, we rode back on our cycles to the West lake boulevard, with prayer beads from the temple, blessing amulets, and packets of Longjing tea leaves packed tight in my flower basket of a cycle – I was the girl in boots astride the red cycle with a flower basket - of us three; can’t imagine either of the two men on a red bicycle, can you?
The climb down was less arduous and took us about an hour or less perhaps? This time, we stopped for regular, brewed American coffee at a bistro which, while it looked invitingly ambient, smelt strangely of coffee and piss, and was extravagantly expensive! A bit ughh. And a bit grotesque for the ambient smell… I certainly like my coffee virgin, not spiked with piss, thank you much!
The actual coffee was good, though. At least they had my favorite – Jamaican Blue Mountain blend. The coffee would keep us going till we reached our hotel. It was now time to find a Four-Hands massage at a good spa, followed by a soak in a hot tub back at the hotel.
We rode our cycles on the banks of the West Lake in silence, against a day that was slowly drip-dipping into the monochromatic lake, as dusk fell, and the lights on the bank came on, one by one, setting the water on fire.
And I realized I had already taken the right turn off into the alley, away from the ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, as it were, long back. Right at the corner of ‘Hope’ and ‘Closure’.
As my day brought me back to the “now” and I closed the loop, I thought – “this is how limitless feels after all… “
Flying, falling. Soaring, swimming – into this land, into me, and into you.
My slowly developing monochromatic black-and-white photograph of a life is coming into focus, and in one unexpected corner of it, there is a burst of spring light and plum blossom that breathes life into it.
As they say, every picture tells a story, or ought to. A few decades in the making, but mine may just be starting out. And the prelude to my story?
It is this, here, now.
Namo Amituofu.

Monday, 9 April 2012

V. The Major Fifth and my day of Hallelujah

And so it is that I woke up to Jeff Buckley's rendition of "Hallelujah" playing on some sort of an endless playlist in my head. Two perfect days in the remote mountains will do that to you.
All the wiser for the gluey porridge (which could also have been some sort of painting medium on second thought!), the unanimous vote for breakfast on Day Two was a stop-by at a Starbucks on the way to Hangzhou’s West Lake, for a morning of water-colors on canvas (now that we were done with fruit and trees to last us a lifetime of drawing!). Never has a franchise coffee chain with its standard-issue baked goods looked so appealing! J
So we packed up our bags, checked out of the monastery, thanked the smiling Buddha for his blessings and waved to women washing their laundry in the clear blue mountain spring running along the hill-side.
I have to say I have now gotten this “being-in-the-moment” thing down PAT. And so in savoring the moment, the gorgeous morning, the little bridges and walkways and drooping willows, and taking time over some fabulous portraits of yours truly by Alex, Alex and I managed to comprehensively lose our way as we tail-ended the rest of the group, who were off out somewhere. Circling the perimeter of the lake, we at last saw the covered wooden pagoda of a bridge and the stone steps at the far end of the pagoda, leading down to the water’s edge, where people were busy setting up their easels and water colors, as crowds of curious holidaying locals stopped to stare. Yes, just stare.

Just in case you were not paying attention, the bridge and the water walkways had signs at regular intervals, warning against the dangers of slip-sliding into the water. My favorite was “Carefully slip, pummeling.” Umm…would you like us to pummel as we fall headlong into the Lake, or would you like us to slip carefully into it – like a gracious ballet dancer? I mean, I possibly can’t do both at the same time, you know? J Of course it goes without saying that my clumsiness is legendary, so pummeling most definitely is up my alley! Who writes these signs??! For all the clairvoyance in the world!

Finally, as we set up our easels and got started to become watercolor artists of some repute, we are all excited about painting the lake and the wooden bridge and the mountains beyond. Or so we all thought.
But, hey, Boeb wants us to paint the hotel beyond the bridge! The H-O-T-E-L, Boeb?? Like, really? Where is your sense of poetry! But wannabe-amateur-painters do as Boeb says. Paint a hotel, I do. My hotel is somewhere out there - suspended in mid-air in the clouds. Regardless of that, WE PUMMEL ON.
I promise you my disappointment at Boeb’s desire for us to become hotel brochure artists has NOTHING to do with my knocking over my paint bucket onto Boeb’s easel, which fell smack right on his head without any prelude. I will STILL blame it on the gust of wind! J which sent my plastic bucket of colored water flying into the air from my hands, splattering my brand-new pair of most favorite jeans with splotches of white and aquamarine blue-green paint, some of it landing on the canvas of my lovely and forgiving friend from the remote Island nation in front, before the plastic bucket attacked Boeb’s easel, which struck him squarely on the head. Somebody should start filming my clumsy antics soon – I am slated for fame, I tell you/ Well at least my clumsiness is! J

Boeb – beware of the wrath of Paint-bucket Gods. Next time, maybe you need to think twice before messing with them and ancient tradition, in favor of a modern-day hotel!
So, we are done – and getting restless, as Eduardo starts practising Tai’Chi on the stone steps behind my back, out of sheer boredom, and little kids come to stand next to us, like REALLY REALLY close, noses touching the canvas,  as we paint. My half-finished masterpiece will have to wait for another glorious Sunday at Hangzhou, in the indefinite future.
Lunch is at a quaint little open-air bistro place, stacked up with graffitied wooden tables and flat benches made of distressed old wood, almost set bang in the center of the tea plantations up on the hillside, surrounded on all sides by pink and white plum blossoms. Only the kitchen is covered by tarpaulin cloth. Rustic as rustic gets. Yet it feels like a fully-served and waited-on picnic in the middle of the tea plantations and blooming plum trees, with clear mountain springs running alongside us. What an afternoon this has been!
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour...”

When you are sitting in a meadow with plum blossoms all around you, drinking fragranced tea from the freshly plucked and roasted Lonjing tea leaves, squinting at the lazy Spring sunshine fingering your back deliciously, Time itself stops, and everything becomes fluid and limitless, doesn’t it? I think I now understand the true intent of these words by William Blake.

In the midst of all this serenity and ethereal-ness, some jerk drives his BMW screeching up the narrow cobble-stoned road, almost running over a pink-cheeked tiny little girl, her frock fluttering in the wind, as she intently looks for pebbles and plum flowers on the road. With our table at the edge of the meadow / field bordering the road, Eduardo and I are both quick to react. I pick her up quickly, as she sits squatting on the road still engrossed in her plum flowers, and pass her over to Eduardo, before giving the finger to the BMW jerk-ass.
What do you call a jerk in Italian, I ask him? I mean give me a REALLY passionate cuss-word, will you! J
The trouble with English cuss words like F*** or C*** is that these two-syllable words are over even before you are done saying them! Like you start saying them, and you finish – but your frustration is still seething inside you! THAT, my friends, is why I love Italian – the language! Never mind their food and their passion for life and love, and undying devotion to their mothers, and of course their ability to make every woman feel as though God made just one of her and broke the mould, Italians KNOW how to infuse passion into their cuss words too!
So he says - how bad, do you reckon? 
I don’t know – start with something that involves the male organ, you know? He grins and says “Cazzo?”
Ok but you know, you can do better than that. I need a 5 or 6-syllable cuss-word that EXPELS all my angst, like, really! How about Cazzo-head, Edo? Like Head of the Cazzo or something?
He looks at me and says “Unbelievable. Are you always so demanding, woman?” I don’t need to answer a question which answers itself, do I?
Ok so he is having a go at me now, and doubling over with laughter. And says “you know you could be good at languages, if you tried! Ok, so I present you the Italian word for Head – Testa.”
And voila – I have my cuss word of the YEAR – Testa de Cazzo”.
Ladies and gentlemen, next time, someone dares to screw with you, or f***s up your happiness in any way at all, utter this word with all you’ve got – draaaag out the "Caaazzo" sound (pronounced Gaaatzo), and I promise you this: glory will be yours. I think you get the picture?
Gracias, Edo – for the cuss-word of the year, and a very enjoyable Sunday afternoon, cool Tai’Chi moves happening at my back whilst painting, notwithstanding! J
And this is how the most fabulous of weekends ends – a wondrous letting go of all things, a single day that turns my life around full-circle, plenty of laughter, new friends, brilliant Spring sunshine, a tan that will take me at least a couple of weeks to wear off, and a man that falls asleep on the shoulder of the road, next to a tree trunk that looks like the "Cazzo" equivalent of the tree kingdom.

Bearable lightness of being. At last.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

IV - Crossing Over

We stopped at a diner close to Hangzhou’s West Lake area - the terribly touristy spot.
Crowds of civilization and a rude yank away from the sublime experience we had been having thus far. We quickly finished dinner (seeing as how most of the squirming objects swimming about in plastic buckets near the entrance door started suspiciously landing up on our dinner table at an alarming speed!), and decided to walk down the pier along the water, with drooping willows hanging low over the water, lots of people just ambling along, vendors yelling from the usual souvenir shops, and Chinese junk-style dragon boats floating on the lake.
I got some churros packed to go, yes, Mexican churros to kill the taste of whatever squirmy stuff we just had for dinner! (Although I have to say, San Churros in Bandra beats the shit out of these Hangzhou churros ANY day!).  Churros with some gelato like ice cream, and all was well again with the world!
In the dying light of day, we took some more pictures of what has been the perfect day in a long long time. And then dusk fell. We walked on some more, and soon we were all walking away by ourselves, in smaller groups, talking, not talking, ruminating, staring away into the distance, sharing oddities, suddenly sharing things about our lives it would have taken us months to share otherwise.
And as we walked along the pier, lost in conversation and thought, the water in front of us came to life.
The lights went up and the water fountains sprung to dance on one of Andrea Bocelli’s famous Arias, booming out of seemingly nowhere.
Eduardo was just about to say something trivial, and we all shushed him “Don’t say a word now. Just Be.” I thought -
We stood and watched the performance in complete silence, mesmerized by the dance of the water. This was certainly not the first time we had seen a choreographed water dance. But by the love of God, it was the most magical thus far. A silent half-moon night, on a quiet waterfront in Hangzhou, lit only by old-world-looking gaslight lamps, with Bocelli’s soulful voice somewhere all around us in the air, and just a handful of us scattered around the waterfront, watching in silence. If every Aria were a prayer to the God above and within, then ours was surely being heard loud and clear in the heavens tonight.
At long last, with thoughts of a day most beautifully spent and new connections forged, we started to walk away – to spend yet another cold night in a monastery’s silent dorm.
We came to a wooden bridge and stopped. I had the sudden urge to say one of three words of Italian I seem to know. I turned to our effervescent Italian man, Eduardo, and said “Attraversiamo!” He looked at me with pride and joy, as you would at a child, and clapped his hands, and said “Brrrava, Brrrava!” As much to my solitary Italian word which was literally and metaphorically right for the moment, as to Bocelli’s final crescendo.
And so we crossed over. The little wooden bridge.
And beyond all the things that had been haunting each of us in our lives so far.
I now let You, and all things go, as I cross over.
 “Attraversiamo”-  indeed.  Tomorrow IS another day.

Part Trois: The Tree of Life


And the sound of the tinkling bell tells us it is back to our drawing boards and easels.  That’s right! Boeb was carrying a small carved brass bell that he would strike gently with a wooden staff every time he had to signal that it was time for us to re-group. This was meant to be in keeping with the monastery and the mountain’s qi (energy, in other words). Like Qi-gong, yeah? Never mind my own private joke to myself.
Boeb announces “now we shall complete our apple with shading” to the loud, collective groans of 11 people, heavily overdosed on a diet of God’s forbidden fruit, since morning! I tell Eduardo (standing next to me), “if I have to draw one more apple or melon or any goddamn fruit today, I am personally going to unleash “Angry birds” on our collective fruit basket here – including on Alex’s apple”, which, by the way, was so F A T, it looked like it was really high on cocaine, enough to give the Empire State a run for its money!
Boeb decided it was wise not to proceed down that path, and told us instead “how about if you all watch as I finish our Apple, and also draw a cheetah?” We nodded ascent happily. Please go ahead and draw the entire fruit and animal kingdom, if you will. Have the cheetah eat the bloody apple for all we care! But Boeb's apple sure was a far cry from my own!  The lovely, languorous lunch and the afternoon sun was, by now, casting its spell and all we wanted was a lie-down on the grass, or a cup of tea in that tea house down in the pagoda by the garden, as Boeb sketched away,
Halfway through the cheetah, he urges us to unleash the power of “imagination” and to start paying attention to bringing “movement” alive on paper, and that we ape his cheetah. Obviously, I am in no mood for any movement at all by now – either on paper, or one that requires me lifting any body part from its horizontal status on the grass. I mean with this gorgeous day, the yellow-ochre monastery at our back and chinese lanterns hanging from every odd skeletal tree branch, who wants to IMAGINE a cheetah's movement?!
So I ask Boeb “Hey Boeb, how about we paint something REAL for once, and not an imagined apple or a cheetah, or something that will not run away in the next two hours? Like I don’t know, maybe this tree, in front of us – which looks like it is FIRMLY planted on solid ground and will be for the time we are done painting it?” J Two hours lying about in the sun, and my imagination is about as alive as the last brontosaurus that walked the earth. Everybody acquiesces and we start painting the skeletal tree in front of us. Each, her own version of it. Boeb’s incessant urging on color blending and shading, notwithstanding. We are such poor students and Boeb so desperately losing control of his class!
Finally, at about 4PM some, we are all done and the day light swiftly fading. My tree has gone from a skeletal tree with Springtime buds to a fully flowering summer day’s tree with a thinking man sitting underneath its shade. I suck at drawing but, well, I tried. My best. I really did.
And just as we are wrapping up our drawing and folding up the easels, a monkish looking old man, very Yoda-like walks amongst our group and inspects everyone’s drawings and says something weird and personal to each one of us. Like the Lord’s messenger on his secret mission! Yoda-man stops at mine and says “you have a child’s spirit in you; you have something special to offer to those whose lives intersect with yours, and your heart is young, but you have heart trouble.” At this, I furiously try to recall the last time I had an ECG done at an Annual Physical, and he says smiling “you know,” love” trouble. Pray to the Buddha, to heal your heart and your soul.” And he holds both of my hands in his and smiles the most beatific smile, one that shines with some sort of divine light.
I have to try all I can, to not start bawling like the child he claims I am. Even so, my eyes mist over, as my heart fills with gratitude over unexpected blessings such as these, and I think “Buddha has started to heal me, already”. On my way back to stash away the drawing gear, I knelt and said a prayer again, this time, of gratitude and not one borne of need and misery and desperate longing to do something about this erstwhile hole in my heart.
Eddie Vedder, move over. My wishlist is coming true - just yet.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Hangzhou Diaries - II (Willow Talk, anyone?)

Up the stone steps we climbed, with our easels and charcoal pencils and pencils made of willow bark, to the back of the monastery at the top of the hill – which housed a single tea house sitting snugly, as the 8AM sunshine snaked around its many secret corners, and lay to waste the night’s mysteries.  
And from there, it was a clear view of the mountains dense with pine trees and fern on one side, and the bright yellow monastery gates and distant Lonjing tea plantations along the hillside on the other, all of it fingered deliciously by the lazy winter sunshine, the flirting-teasing kind that leaves you wanting more.
And in between setting up my easel, watching Coco set up hers, fumbling as one of my screws fell off the easel, and Eduardo’s big warm genuine smile as he helped set my easel right, something happened. Something rather simple and unexpected.
Happiness struck. That is all. All these months of seeking H A P P I N E S S as THE GOAL and here it was – presenting itself to me, out of nowhere, rather unceremoniously, but without apology – like a child late for class picking up earthworms along the way, but too self-contained to apologise about it.
What you seek is seeking you.” Rumi’s words. And suddenly they struck home. Here was Happiness – seeking ME and waiting for ME – all the time. Where the fish was I??
Anyway, let us now turn to Bob. Our painting instructor – and all of 17. Well, Ok, not quite 17 but he looked 22 and actually is 27. Unlike the Occidentals, one cannot always tell with the Orientals and the number game, no? So, as Boeb (we shall call him Boeb from now on, as all the French and Italians in the group did!) says - Our first assignment today is sketching an Apple. And Boeb says he is nervous because his English is not where it should be. And I tell him “Hey Boeb, I am nervous too – my apple is not where it should be!”  I don’t think he got the joke.
Why an apple, you may ask? Good question! Apparently, an apple or an egg is the hardest thing to draw! So if you can crack an apple, chances are, you could be giving Monet’s “Water Lilies” a serious run for the money!
Guess what, for the next 2 hours we kept at the APPLE. It had now become venerable as “Her Highness, The Apple”. Mine had too much heart in it. As Boeb said, you need an apple that looks like it is waiting to be eaten, not one that loves you right back! Ok, Boeb I get the picture! My heart is happy today, after months and months of being not-so-happy – are you going to give me grief about my “hearty” apple?
  So we drew and drew the apple with charcoal pencils and willow bark with a 3 o’clock and a 5 o’clock and a whatever clock shadow, until I wanted to beat the shit out of it, and drink up some apple juice. I was going nowhere.
Needless to say, I lay my canvas down and smiled up at the sun and lay down on the grass, as the monks chanted away in the background down below, and the sun made everything strangely techni-colored and over-saturated in the clear mountain air – this was THE MOMENT.
I was HERE. I was NOW. I was HERE NOW. Not thinking of anything but the sun and its warmth on my face and how life had found me at last, or I, it. After that languorous time, my responses to any question were various intonations of “hmmm! Or Mmmm? Or Hmmm-snort-grunt” – I mean, like really, do you guys not know the power of this word! Unleash “Hmm” on the world, I say!
11:30AM and it was time to go down to the local village for lunch – which had PROPER (read non-gluey) food and PROPER Chinese bistros serving Hangzhou cuisine (mostly fresh water fish steamed and then dropped in a big bowl of oil and vinegar and broth, swimming with Sichuan pepper and burnt red chillies, but DIVINE!). But NOT until we made good use of the MODERN loo next to the tea house, complete with a FLUSH. Joy to the world!! J
I have to warn all you folks though, that if you EVER travel in offbeat places in China, please carry your hand-sanitizers or some form of soap AND tissue – most places have neither and just a large tap or two for washing hands.
Walking down to the village along stone paths flanked by coniferous trees, and women roasting Lonjing tea leaves the old fashioned way (in deep iron pans) on the sidewalk, we finally stopped at a bistro which led to a ‘secret’  wooden veranda/deck on the other side facing the clear mountain stream and the distant blue mountains, away from the street – for special “laowai” folks (in other words, foreigners)!
I tell you – when God gives, he opens it all up. An afternoon of perfect sunshine, clear mountain air, the bluest of Spring days, plum blossoms opening up, the company of like-minded people from everywhere in the world (including a lovely French woman from the Reunion Islands – I mean that was a dot on the map for me till now!) all getting to know each other- amidst charcoal drawing misses, picking bones off of the fish from the catch of the day, chants of monks in the background, and much laughter.
Eat, Pray, Love – Indeed.
Thank you, God in the heavens, for my cup runneth over today.

The Hangzhou diaries - Day One

The beauty of life is you never know, literally and metaphorically, what lies ahead of you in the next bend in the road. And that was it for me. One weekend. One weekend was all it took to change my life and its travails, and perspectives about living and traveling in China. Almost as though my life spun about a full circle on its axis, and wiped the entire slate clean as it swept the cobwebs off.
Walking into a large temple courtyard at 11pm at night, lit only by two large square glass flame-holders, with warm orange flames burning in them, throwing strange shadows around, that made the whole thing look like the night scene from The House of Flying Daggers, complete with the sound of swaying bamboo trees in the night sky… and all the gloom from my life suddenly fell away.  Wonderment!! Is that a word? This IS what all those Chinese movies are about! IT EXISTS! These places EXIST!!
So we walked to our quarters – women to the women’s wing and men to the men’s. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (no Sleep, mind you!). Monastery, chastity and all that!
But wait, more wonderment was speeding down the high-speed train our way! We were going to sleep in a dorm on iron beds with fat mattresses with no heating, and two huge duvets for each bed. Let’s add some more excitement to this, shall we? How about no hot water in the taps (and I am talking early March winter in Hangzhou), and no bathrooms as we know them in the modern world. Attached baths? Umm what does that mean, I wonder!! But then this was a temple monastery (Fa Jin Tse) in the middle of the mountains in Hangzhou, and who cares about modern plumbing, yes? J You want modern plumbing, daily turndown  service for your room, and a towel that is a sitting duck on your bed, make yourself at home at the Four Seasons in Hangzhou. For the rest of us migrant workers, a temple monastery will do just fine, thank you!
All of a sudden, we all began mentally calculating our amount of food and beverage intake that day and for the days to come, how much tissue paper we all had amongst ourselves, if we had any soaps or alcohol hand-wash or hand sanitizers even. However, after the initial horror had settled in, we sat down on our beds and just laughed and decided to make the most of it! I am surprised constantly by the human capacity for tolerance and adjustment. None of us had seen a dorm room in probably over 20 years and here we were in one, in rural China, with no modern plumbing in the loos, no hot water or heating in temps of close to zero degrees at night, and all we cared about, really, was being able to wake up at 6:00am the next morning, and Painting Class 101!
By the time we tossed and turned in our respective creaking beds trying to get warm despite going to bed in our jackets and two layers of socks, it was 2:00 am. And by 4:00am the monks were up, chanting and praying in the monastery below!
6:00am and dawn was breaking. A new day was dawning and well, one has to catch the day while it is still untouched and pure. Can I just say that splashing freezing cold water on your face on a cold winter’s morning until you can’t feel your nose from your forehead or your mouth from your cheeks, is the most wonderful way to be wide awake in under one minute?!
Breakfast was well, glue-y to say the least. Some porridge like thing which neither tasted, nor looked like, nor smelt like porridge – more like glue. Maybe some snotty concoction of something. I thought some sugar would make it better. So I went asking the kitchen staff for “tang” (not tang as in Tang-o, the dance form, but tang with the flat “a” “hung” sound). Of course with the tonal intonations, tang also means heaven or soup or sugar. First I was given a vigorous shake of the head to articulate that “no, you CANNOT have heaven in your porridge!” Then I was asked if I wanted more soup or more porridge. Finally, having exhausted all the “tang” sounds, somebody inferred that Maybe, just MAYBE I wanted some sugar! Voila! My day is made! J
Outside, the temple workers were up, cleaning, ash-sweeping, lighting up the flames for incense burners (more like torch burners – going by the number of incense sticks the pilgrims had in their hands!), and lighting up, themselves! Yeah, like let’s torch it all down all at once! The sun was filtering through after the previous night’s rain and we have a crisp, clear blue Spring day! The Gods are happy indeed, and look, Mama, Buddha is smiling on His birthday! It was the birthday of one of Buddha’s incarnations, we were told. 
My gloom and doom was now going to be a thing of the past, I was convinced! Hereonward, I refuse to be the gin in the gin-soaked boy (girl in my case) anymore.