Category: China, 2012

Orchids in the Rain, then Back Home

November 14

Last day in Singapore was a full and tiring one, the latter due in part to it being the end of a long trip, in part to a lot of running around and in part to the hot, humid weather. Best aspect was the chance to spend a lot more time with Rinpoche.

Breakfast at the hotel with Antonio Eraso, a Singaporean architect who I’d met and spent some time with on my second visit to Bhutan, when he was planning to do a major renovation of Rinpoche’s monastery, which has not taken place. Antonio is in and out of Singapore a good deal in his work, and describes Singapore as a kind of aircraft carrier for him. Rinpoche joined us for the second half of the breakfast, but then had to leave for a meeting.

I walked to see the Jewish synagogue, which serves about 500 people. The building is gated and there is a sign that says no admittance, but when I asked to go in, the guard asked where I was from, whether I was Jewish, inspected my passport and let me in. I was shown around by another guard, who told me about the synagogue, which was founded by an Iraqi Jew. (Note: my Singapore photos are clearly a reversion to snapshots that document the trip. Time and conditions didn’t allow for much more, and I was pretty-much photographed out after taking well over 3000 in China.)

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Walked farther down the same street to see the bustling Chinese Buddhist and Indian Hindu temples, both of which were crowded with worshippers.

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From there I took a taxi to the Peranakan museum, which Esther Tan had told me about. This was a really fascinating museum about the history, customs and lives of people of mixed breeds, formed when traders passed through the straits and married Malaysians. Very well done and interesting.

Taxied back to the hotel where I had very over-priced and mediocre mini-burgers in the famed Long Bar of the hotel. Well, one does need to see the Long Bar. Went up to my room, finished packing and stored the luggage for later.

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Had arranged to meet Rinpoche at the place he teaches in Singapore at 2:30, and he’d given me directions and location, but not an exact address. I was to contact him through the new WhatsApp he’d introduced me to, and he’d come downstairs to get me. Only trouble with that plan was that I didn’t have the wifi connection I needed for the App to work. So, when I got o the area, I wandered into a fairly seedy hotel and convinced the guy at the desk to phone Rinpoche. No answer, so I left a message as to where I was. Tried again 15 minutes later and reached him, so he sent the other rinpoche I’d met yesterday, Chung, down to meet me and bring me up to the modest sitting area, kitchen, bedroom and class room that constitute Rinpoche’s Singapore headquarters.

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As Rinpoche was busy, I spent twenty minutes talking to Chung, who, at 29, is three years Rinpoche’s junior, and clearly looks up to him as a mentor. They studied at the same school in the South of India under the same master, who died shortly before I met Rinpoche for the first time. They now study under the same Chinese master, about 79, whose recent visit to Singapore is what drew Rinpoche and Chung to come there now. Both Rinpoche and Chung have traveled to China to study with this master, but not dressed as monks. As the Chinese do not take kindly to monks coming to study there, traveling there to do that was dangerous.

Chung was very friendly, but the level of his English makes him more difficult to understand. He is the third of seven brothers, four of whom are reincarnates. Three of the brothers live in Nepal, where Chung also spent several years. As a young boy of seven, he left his family to become a monk and rarely saw/sees them. He would like to come to the States, but that is very difficult to arrange.

Rinpoche rejoined us and told me that the hotel I’d stopped into to call him was a “love hotel.”. Having watched the clientele register, this does not at all surprise me. Rinpoche showed me around the headquarters. The altar in the classroom contains statues, flowers, fruit, other offerings, candles and photos of his former and present masters. He introduces me to two women students (disciples), who are very friendly. They drive us quite a distance to the famed botanical gardens, as Rinpoche and I planned to walk around them, particularly the orchid garden. The other woman says to call her when we are finished and she will pick us up and drive us back.

It’s pouring, so Rinpoche, Chung and I have coffee, then wander around the gift shop. The rain lets up some, Rinpoche borrows a couple umbrellas and we walk around for forty minutes in the light rain. I qualify for a senior admission, but Rinpoche is denied thatvrate, despite his wry plea that he is 450 years old. Rinpoche shows me how to use the panorama feature of my camera, which is quite neat, and I take several panorama photos. Rinpoche is interested in cameras, too, and has a Canon (but not with him; he takes photos with his iPhone). He likes to photograph flowers, the moon, various natural settings. I tell him that I’m far more interested in photographing people. He says that, as a rinpoche, he can’t photograph people, because that would not be in keeping with others’ expectations of proper behavior for one in his position.

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We are picked up and driven back. Rinpoche has a dinner that he tries to shift to tomorrow, but can’t, so we agree to meet back at the hotel later and walk around the Arab area. I’m dropped off at the architecturally interesting Arts and Science Museum, which has a major photography exhibit that Esther had told me about. The museum adjoins a huge, modern shopping mall, which I have to walk through. I like some of the photography, but not others, though it’s certainly worth seeing.

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I walk back through the shopping center, stand in a long, but fast-moving taxi line and return to the hotel, where Rinpoche had suggested that I could use the spa. Though I’ve checked out, there’s no problem in doing this, and I use the steam room, shower and feel refreshed. I head down to a small lounge off the lobby for a club sandwich and a beer. A very good piano player is performing.

I use my new App to contact Rinpoche to tell him that I’d love to see him again, but that the thought of going out in the humidity and getting sweaty again before flying out is more than I can handle. He agrees to come over to the hotel and we pend another hour and a half talking, mainly my asking him about his reaction to the dialysis and kidney transplant he had. The experience has had a profound affect on him, and he is committed to two new projects because of it: getting more dialysis machines for Bhutan (there are only six in the country) and providing help to sick people whose needs (physical and emotional) he thinks are being ignored in too many cases. He is committed to building a shelter at the main hospital in Thimpu to house caretakers for these patients.

We talk about other things, as well. He will be going to Indonesia soon, because there are people there who are interested in building a monastery and school in Indonesia, modeled after his in Bhutan that they want him to run. He seems interested in doing this so long as he can be assured that the operations of the monastery will not be controlled by the funders. He also needs to get back to Bhutan in a few days because an architect from the World Heritage Fund who is interested in helping with his monastery is coming to visit.

He walks me to the front door of the hotel, where my car soon arrives to drive me to the airport. It was terrific to be able to spend so much time with Rinpoche, and to catch up. Staying in touch now, with the new WhatsApp, ought to be easier. Everything goes very smoothly at the airport. I spend a couple hours in the “important peoples’ lounge,” and I’m now winging my way towards Tokyo. Though it’s a long haul home, 6 1/2 hours to Tokyo and over 11 to Chicago (not including transportation to and from airport or airport time), everything goes smoothly. Business class helps the comfort level, and for the first time, I took an Ambien, which allowed me to sleep for 6’hours en route to Chicago.

The time spent before Guizhou, with Evan Osnos in Beijing, and after, with Esther Tan and Rinpoche in Singapore, made really interesting bookends to the trip. And staying at the Mandarin and especially at Raffles were a great start and finish. Only wish Carol could have been along.

If you’re game for another adventure, Carol and I will meet you in Myanmar (Burma) in January. I’ve appreciated the many kind comments and emails I’ve received in response to the China blog. It’s been fun to have you along. As much as I enjoy traveling, it’s very comforting to be in touch with friends and family along the way. I think this China trip would have seemed particularly lonesome without this ability to communicate, because of the fact that Carol was not along, because of the remoteness of the area to which I was traveling and because of being away for the presidential election.

Orchids in the Rain, then Back Home

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