Monkey King of the World

If you’ve chanced upon the Plum Village Facebook page in the past few weeks, you may have noticed that mindfulness has a new face. I’ll save you the trouble of going to look:

His name is Ngo Khong, or Realization of Emptiness, otherwise known as the legendary Monkey King. His feats in this and prior lives are too numerable to mention, so I’ll just throw in a little quote from wikipedia:

Sun Wukong (Ngo Khong) possesses immense strength; he is able to lift his 17,550 lb staff with ease. He is also extremely fast, able to travel 13,468 mi in one somersault. (Note that this is more than half way around the world).

Note also, that this beast’s go-to mode of travel is by somersault.

Last week he was charged with a Journey to the Northeast, whereby we were to take some monks to the airport and then pick some different monks up from a much later flight. I agreed to accompany him for spiritual support, and created a detailed schedule for the dead time between the two flights. We were to wander on foot around Bordeaux, performing spiritual wonders and converting the land to the way of the Buddhadharma. Of course fate had something else in store.

After a successful 5am drop-off at the airport, a great whirlwind swept up our van and placed it in the quiet beach-side village of Cap Ferret. As the sun rose, Ngo Khong peacefully composed a new plan to fulfill our mandate of bringing the light of awakening into the world.

One contemplative nap later, all was decided. We would build a great temple on this very spot, and when the local people saw the radiance and splendor, they would come and learn the Dharma. Ngo Khong somersaulted to some place in the world rich with the finest of building materials, and with his supersimian strength somersaulted back with a tarp and some bamboo. After a few false starts, our temple was erected.

What followed literally defies description, so I won’t even try to tell you about the great feats that took place in the refreshing lotus-blossom shade of that tarp. I can give you a hint and say that our practice of eliminating worldly desires was so successful that we almost arrived on time to pick up our monastic brothers in Bordeaux.

Here are a couple of watercolor sketches that came out of the day, some land art from Ngo Khong and a picture of some of the bunkers left over on the beach from WWII. Take care everyone.

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Art History Month Part 3

Ok let’s have a whirlwind tour of my last complete sketchbook and be done with this painful business. I started this one in December and finished it in May. These first sketches are from our Christmas performance evening. Phap Dan said that they look like people from the French Old Regime. Occasionally I throw some color into the mix, even though color is confusing and terrifying.

 

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I was pretty much melting down all Winter Retreat. It’s usually the most stressful and foreign-feeling time for me here, and I was heaping on all kinds of other unnecessary negativity to spice things up a little. I’ve learned to grab some time alone with drawing… even if I’m with people, to open up a little space. It’s not the same as sitting meditation, but it gives me something productive to do with all my energy.

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Ok I’ll just let the rest speak for themselves.

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Art History Month Part 2

I discovered that my sketchbooks are like weird journals. I go to look at the drawings, but I always find my emotional history, only legible to to me. It must be the best kind of secret language for a diary, so obscure that even the author doesn’t know what will be kept and retold.

Here’s the obligatory struggle page. Over the course of this sketchbook I discovered a lot more about what it actually means to draw. I’m not going to go all philosophical on you, but understanding is the key. Now I understand the function of a sketchbook differently, and that a good sketchbook should be full of bad drawings, drawings made when the intent wasn’t to make something beautiful, but just to understand what I see.

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2015 was a world-view-shattering year for me. It was a good thing, and a challenge. After our annual retreat season here in Plum Village, I headed home to spend some time with my family. I don’t really like the word burnout, but people keep using it to describe the state I was in. One way or another it was amazing to be with my peoples in Washington and to take some time to reflect. Airports are great places to draw, as are living rooms on family holidays. Oh and don’t be too shocked about the censorship here. There was a phone number written on one of the pages.

Scan-7 Scan-9 Scan-8Got some serious wisdom from spending time with my family and friends, and that got my gears turning about all kinds of things, not the least of which was my mysterious impetus to draw. What do I really want to do? Why do I want to draw all the time? I always thought of it as kind of a distraction, but it’s become increasingly important to me. When I came back to France I had a crazy meltdown in which I decided that making art is not an optional or secondary part of my life, so I’m still trying to figure out what that means for my life path. I try to get out of the monastery a couple of times a week to draw people in the market. There are all kinds of beautiful, interesting people at the open markets here in the Dordogne region. I’ve also taken to drawing during the Dharma talks, which is not exactly ideal practice for a monk. But the people are so still! How can I resist?

Scan-12Here’s a page with a drawing I’m actually pretty happy with. The anatomy and everything are all wonky, but I can feel the love between the mother and baby. Also there’s a little gem here from Pham Hanh, the Dutch monk who has a magical touch for mixing up English idioms. Please excuse the profanity.

Scan-14And just one more farewell image from sketchbook number 2. When I was back home, my new friend Emily somehow convinced me to check out a book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. The mere existence of a book with such a title suggests one of two things. Either people in this world are very desperate to make a positive change in their lives, or the book is gonna drop some legit wisdom on how to tidy up. The latter turned out to be the case. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but the key is appreciating your things. So in this vein I wrote a little thank-you note to my sketchbook on the last page.

Scan-15Until next time.

Wake Up Ireland I

I wrote this series of posts a couple months ago, just hadn’t posted them yet. Get ready for hiking, dancing, volleyball, meditation, and pretending to get work done. If you’ve read this one, check out part two or part three.

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We just finished a crazy awesome week here in Upper Hamlet. We hosted a crew of about 35 Irish people from all across the cold, rainy northland. They’re part of a group called Wake Up Ireland. What is Wake Up? Well, you aren’t talking to an expert, but as far as I can tell it’s a way for young people to organize meditation groups according to our tradition. For my first couple of years here I’ve avoided it like the plague, partially because young people terrify me, partially because I’m jaded against those youth spirituality movements that seem so desperate to be hip. I’m thinking back to a so-called modern translation of the bible I ran across in my teens that retold how the centurion asked Jesus to kick it at his crib. Well Wake Up Ireland is definitely not desperate to be hip. In fact, they broke hipness records all over Upper Hamlet during their week here. I should also add that they weren’t even all Irish. People move to Ireland from all over Europe to work for big tech companies, or just because they love it, and the group had some wildcards from Italy, German, and Spain.

On Friday they swarmed into Upper Hamlet like a… flock of sheep? Sack of potatoes? Celtic knot? I don’t know enough about Irish culture to make a good analogy. Most of the group arrived after midnight, racking up early point on the hipness meter. They all stayed here with the brothers, despite the fact that most were women.

CUT SCENE: Somewhere beneath Upper Hamlet, a robed figure passes through labyrinthine tunnels, lined with electrical conduit and rusted pipeline. Steam pours from a cracked coupling, and he disappears momentarily in the swirling mist. He pauses, glances back over his shoulder and then descends through a trap door. Now he winds his way through unnamed tombs and ceremonial chambers, finally arriving at a massive console cut into the dank limestone walls. Above the tarnished machinery, barely legible, read the following words: Upper Hamlet Chastity Defense System . He turns the great, red dial to “Overdrive.”

Luckily both man and woman alike fit right into our big family, and we did have some nuns come lend us their support. Wake Up Cork was one of the newer groups in Ireland, and in our first meeting it came out that they didn’t have a Sangha name, but they had an idea for one. They all arrived in France the day before their reservation here in Plum Village, and had scheduled a 6:00pm meeting for sitting meditation at their hotel, a rendezvous that none kept. Reflecting on their pure-heartedness and lack of follow-through, someone suggested the name, “Good Intentions Sangha.”

Well, they aren’t the only ones with this problem. We had a big group of brothers sit together a few days before the retreat. I think seven. We brainstormed a jam-packed schedule and figured, what the hell? Why not throw in some extras. Personal wake up calls, piggie-back rides to and from sitting meditation. Why don’t we use a single strand of goat’s hair to write their names on grains of rice, then fold them into slumped glass and hand them out as keepsake necklaces?. Mmm…. Love those good intentions. It turned out to be a pretty crazy week in Upper Hamlet. The big brothers were meeting daily to discuss which of the novices would recieve full ordination in May, and three of our committee members fell sick. Then we had new ideas for even better activities, rendering useless the printed schedules we handed out. Everyone was a good sport about it though.

I spent a lot of time with the Irelanders over the week, because they inspired me. They totally transformed this place. These people are building community out there in the trenches. They offer their time and money to create a space where people can feel welcome, make friends, and learn the joy of meditation. It’s just so damn wholesome! And they have fun doing it. By way of comparison, I live in a monastery. Meditation is served to me on a silver platter in between naps and bars of chocolate. Spending a week with people who pour their love into the practice while juggling a family, full-time job, or both… well, it gave me a chance to reflect on my practice and inspired me to do better.

I’ve got a boatload more that I wrote about this and more pictures too. This is just the warm-up.

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Welcome to France

This is another one of those wayback posts, from just after the end of the Winter. Three monks from our US center spent the Winter Retreat with us here in Upper Hamlet, and after spending the whole time cooped up here we figured it was time to go out and get some Europe in us. Uncle Sal, also known as Tai Sinh, masterminded the expedition. He’s Lebanese but moved to the US when he was young. Hien Tai, Quan Chieu, and myself are probably about half his age, but the dude’s got some serious energy. I don’t know which of the believe-it-or-not tales to recount about him. Maybe it’s enough to say that every year he takes a month off from food and just drinks lemonade. A MONTH.

Back in the day he was a union cameraman in Hollywood, so he can spin a yarn about the film industry, photography, art, sometimes a dash of celebrity gossip. Before we had left Bergerac we learned not only the technical specifications of an IMAX movie, but also how the machinery works and who invented it. I used to be a film junkie, so Tai Sinh and I launched into some shop talk in the front seats while Quan Chieu and Hien Tai had a normal conversation in the back. Pretending like you know a lot about something never gets old.

First stop was Beynac. It’s a steep, winding number with a feudal warlord style castle hanging over a cliff at the top. Sadly I don’t have a single picture that depicts it like that. But here are some very beautiful old stairs, and more importantly my monastic bros: Quan Chieu, Tai Sinh, and Hien Tai. That’s in left to right in order by face.

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Also we ran into a group of French kids and presumably parents as well. It wasn’t tourist season, and I guess that, like us, they were looking at getting some good old fashioned European history without the high prices and crazy crowds of the summer. Well they got even more than that. Here they can be seen demonstrating their newly acquired cultural competence in American. Courtesy of Hien Tai and Tai Sinh.

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Thankfully they kept their peace signs horizontal. I guess over here an innocent American “peace out” is the same as flipping someone off. Learned that one the hard way. Anyway, About the time we finished oohing and awing, it started to rain hardcore so we ran back to the car. Things weren’t looking good for our picnic. We continued on to Sarlat, and happily by the time we parked it was starting to clear up. Here you can see the interesting variety of reactions possible when the photographer says, “Pose!”

IMG_7917We ate straight out of a hotel-pan, like real homeless monks. Then we went wandering around and I was glad we didn’t come later in the year. This place is just insane during the summer. Having some quiet time, we found all kinds of beautiful little nooks and crannies. More in the gallery at the end. Living in Plum Village isn’t exactly like living in France. It’s “FrAsia” according to Phap Dan. So it was nice to get out with the boys and check out some more of the local culture.

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IMG_7938More or less everything was closed, and we really didn’t have much of a plan anyway, so the inevitable happened. We had coffee and croissants, and then left for home. But then inspiration struck! We were passing another historical town, and seeing as Hien Tai and Quan Chieu were just about to head back to the States, we decided to sally forth for one last chance to be tourists.

But it wasn’t going to be easy. Our first obstacle was a closed road right as soon as we came into town. Disheartened, we turned back, but thankfully we were so disheartened that we decided to pull over and eat a little bit to cover up our suffering. Now, thoroughly re-heartened, we took stock of our situation. The Universe had turned against us, but we were dead set for adventure and we needed an insight. Finally someone noticed an observation point, high up on the rocky cliffs surrounding the valley. The perfect objective.

Back in the car, we were up a winding valley road, and really putting my French to the test by asking for directions from locals. How do you say observation point again? I never found out. After flagging down a passing car and chatting up an elderly couple in their backyard, we determined that the way up was… down? Down a steep path that, as far as I understood, would spit us out somewhere with a view. As our journey continued, though, both myself and my companions became less sure. As tensions rose, the subject of my skills as interpreter became a favorite topic of conversation. They were praising me, I mean…

Finally we wound up almost where we had started, except for we didn’t have a car anymore, and we knew we had to walk up a hill. Then we saw a sagely old Dutch lady taking care of her garden far below. It seemed like a fated encounter, and knowing how these things work, we figured we only had three questions.

Tai Sinh went first, yelling, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes.” Golden. We’ve got this.

Then it was me, “Can we ask you a question?”

She looked at me like I was an idiot, and I definitely felt like one. “Well, yes?!?”

Then Tai Sinh again, “How can we get to the observation point?”

She paused and with somber eyes surveying us, this is what she said: “The observation point? Oh, you’ve taken a wrong turn. The way is up, around the bend. There, behind that house, the path turns. But I must warn you, the way is difficult. Normally… well, you need a guide. There are many obstacles. You can try, but… Yes, it will be very difficult without a guide.”

Awesome. We weren’t daunted.

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Well I’ll try and make a long story short here. We did find a lookout point, and from there we could see the whole valley. We could see all the way over to where the real lookout point sat aloof, about 5km away, laughing at our incompetence. Well, we had fun anyway. The evening was mild and beautiful. We took about a half an hour to sit, enjoy tea, and see who looked coolest standing on the precipice. Here Quan Chieu and Hien Tai are debating the results.

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And now for the obvious winner:

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That’ll be about all for now. Wishing you well from Upper Hamlet.

 

 

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La Breche de Roland

We monks enjoy a life of great simplicity… just three robes and a bowl, that’s all we own! You may wonder how we manage in the modern world, but you underestimate the power of the practice. Conference calls take place on the Plane of Enlightenment. We don’t need Wikipedia because we already know everything, and for quick travel we just disapparate, a term I’m flagrantly stealing from the Harry Potter franchise. Alright, when it comes down to it we’re not exactly rolling like the Buddha, who, I’m pretty sure, also forbade his monastic brethren from wearing underpants. Not sure how a life of virtue is undermined by a bit of extra suspension but hey, it’s been 2600 years, let’s give the guy a break.

The moral of the story is that monastics in our tradition have a little bit more gear than previous generations, and it’s definitely not standard-issue. Let’s take shoes, for example. Now, I don’t know how people are coming into possession of their footwear. Some people are definitely saving up their monthly allowance, weighing their options and investing in something that provides just the support, function, and style that a well-to-do monastic needs. Others are taking whatever is in the lost and found pile, which is usually brimming with forgotten gear after the big retreats. For myself, my brother Jacob took me to an outlet mall and bought me a pair of “Streetcars”. Aptly named, as they share the same shape as a San Francisco trolley and have about the same function: carrying the elderly short distances. Then again, I didn’t ordain for the sweet uniform, and slip-on shoes are a must in this line of business.

As an aside, I once made the mistake of leaving my shoes unattended during the Summer. This is a dangerous practice with anything at Plum Village. Within a few days I was receiving reports that Thay Phap Do had been seen sporting a suspiciously familiar pair of kicks. I made out to give him a little piece of my mind, but I had to hit him when he’d least expect it. He joined an evening tea session and left himself wide open. I played my Ace:
“Um, Thay? well, I guess.. you know those shoes you’ve been wearing around? Well, they’re the shoes… that, well, I’m the one… who usually wears them around… you know?”
“So?” was his response.
He was clearly on the run. I didn’t want to school him further in front of so many brothers, so I just drank my tea and tried not to look smug. The next day I walked right up to his office, looked around, and after making sure I was alone, left quietly with my shoes. Class dismissed!

Diverse and interesting as our monastic footwear is, what I’m trying to hammer home here is that most of us have shoes that are designed for people who spend their afternoons whittling in the garage, painting ceramic figurines, or watching Wheel of Fortune reruns. They aren’t well suited for scrambling up the side of a mountain. For our final day of hiking, we would be climbing up and down a mile in elevation. A pair of Streetcars just isn’t cut out for this, and other brothers weren’t so lucky. About halfway into the snowy section of the hike, Tuy Niem and I happened upon a sorry sight. Pham Hanh was literally dragging Thay Phap Ton up the mountain. Phap Ton’s Reeboks, in addition to being indoor soccer shoes, were about five sizes too big for him and he’s a bit of a lurch even on level ground. These were not good climbing conditions. As we passed he just kept saying, “This! My first time here! You support me!” Pham Hanh was singing a different tune. It sounded a bit like, “Dear brothers, will you please help me with Thay Phap Ton? He’s having a very difficult…..” But I was out of earshot before he could finish the sentence. Don’t think that I was ignoring their plight; I stopped on the next ridge to document Pham Hanh’s chivalry, and thanks to the wonders of digital image enhancement, we can almost see into the very minds of these two courageous monks.

Tuy Niem, my companion through the better part of the ice fields, went with the trusty socks-and-sandals combination, and though I don’t think it served him well, he was certainly doing better than Thay Phap Ton. He was still recovering from illness and I was constantly reassuring him that the high mountain refuge was just around that ridge up ahead. Eventually we came around that ridge, and instead of a refuge, we saw a sign that said, “Refuge 1 Hour ->”. It indicated a steep incline covered with ice, boulders, and chains for our climbing convenience.

I think Man Trung also rocks retirement shoes, but he lucked out with a temporary poncho lend from some other friendly traveler. Now nicknamed, “The Mexican”, he was looking pretty damn epic. I can’t quite figure out if he does Kung Fu or Tai Chi or what, but he seems pretty physically able and enjoyed jumping, spinning, and sliding recreationally on the ice. Impressive for guy who had never seen snow before. This picture seems at first to be about Tuy Niem and Man Trung: epic mountain climbers. But if we look just a little bit more deeply we can see the mad props owed to my blood sister Aimee, who knitted the gloves that both of them are wearing. And now that we’re at the bottom of it, let’s not leave me unrecognized: the guy who shattered generosity records by lending out both pairs of gloves for our arctic expedition.

Finally we arrived at the refuge, which sits at the top of a massive glacial valley. Inside, brothers had torn off as much soggy clothing as was appropriate and were snuggling around the wood stove. I arrived just in time to see someone pulling out their cheese stash, and jumped at the opportunity to build brotherhood. Just as I had taken a massive chunk of something orange and Dutch, I heard that we’d have to hurry if we wanted to make it to the Breche before the melting snow froze into impassible ice. The fearless were leaving that very second and, not wanting to risk tarnishing my reputation, I had to think fast. After swallowing a golf ball sized piece of cheese and a grapefruit sized piece of bread, I was out the door. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my hasty decision would affect hiking performance, but La Breche de Roland waits for no one!

A little bit about this breche I keep talking about. Breche is like breach, or gap, and the one in question was attributed to a dude named Roland. He was a knight who set about defending France (which wasn’t yet France) from the Moors that invaded from Spain. At some point in this epic tale he smashed a hole in the mountain, creating a new pass between not-yet Spain and not-yet France. I’m not sure exactly how this supported his defensive efforts. If I had to guess, I’d say he felt pretty sheepish afterwards. Either way, the Gap of Roland is a beautiful, 40 meter wide opening on the border of the French and Spanish Pyrenees. From the middle you can look out over a lot of beautiful mountains in both countries.

I was feeling pretty gung-ho about reaching the summit. To protect myself from the bitter winds, I tied my red paisley handkerchief over my face as I imagine Lewis and Clark might have as they summited Mt. Everest. Then I charged the snowy slope with a handful of brothers. I quickly realized that this was not a task to be tackled with gusto, and even less so one to be carried out dressed as a wild west bank robber. The handkerchief proved about as permeable as a plastic bag, and what little air reached my lungs was thin, mountain air. After just about passing out I removed my costume and proceeded on my way at a much more moderate pace. The going was steep but the payout was beautiful. Phap Tai was the hero, effectively sprinting to the top and back down in the time it took the rest of us to tie our shoes. Phap Luu won the Wild Child award by deciding that he’d summit wearing nothing more than a pair of woolen socks. After a stern talking to, we were able to convince him that he should remain clothed, but he still showed his stuff by stomping up the snowy incline in a pair of Vibrams 5-fingers. And just to be clear, the only truth in those last two sentences was the bit about the 5-fingers. On the way down, we showed our mountaineering savvy by sliding down the fresh snowbank on our bums, hooting and hollering in an attempt to ward off avalanche. A couple of wise, French hikers nodded their assent from the refuge.

On the way down, I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Phap Trung appear mysteriously from behind a pile of boulders. I saw him for just long enough to take this picture, for which he wins the “Most Like a Wizard” photo contest. When I looked again, he was gone.

And that just about wraps up our Pyrenees. Until next time.

Spanish Hospitality

We slept to the sound of pouring rain on the second night. We were in the attic and we could hear it loud and clear, whispering to us, “Maybe stay home tomorrow, huh? Who wants to go hiking in the rain?” Morning came and it was clear that some of the brothers were succumbing to that venomous drizzle. There were a few stalwart men who couldn’t be stopped. I’d like to say I was foremost among them, but as a monk I’m not allowed to brag. Actually I was also feeling pretty icky about the whole situation, and I was only partially comforted by the budget poncho that Phap Luu had bought for me.

Flash back to one week before the trip. Phap Luu and I were wandering around InterSport, weighing the rainwear options and doing some serious philosophizing.

“You see, the problem is that our society is facing an epidemic of consumerism.” he said.

“Mmm, you got that right,” I responded, nodding sagely.

“So what do you think about the poncho situation?”

“Well,” I said, “the ones on the rack are more breathable, but more expensive. There’s only about eight of the cheap ones left, and the green ones are child-sized, they’ll only fit the Vietnamese brothers.”

Phap Luu directed his meditative concentration to the problem at hand, and after a solemn pause said, “Ok, let’s just buy all of them.”

So we emptied the rack of ponchos, made a quick stop to survey the underwear section and veered toward checkout, discussing the recent trend of hiking umbrellas with many a “You don’t say!” and “Well, I never.”

So anyway, it was rainy and I was reluctant at best, but luckily for me I’m surrounded by greatness here, and the collective enthusiasm of the other hiking fans was enough to convince me to join the excursion. I was also intrigued by the prospect of today’s hike. Phap Luu was going to take us up to the village he used to live in. Once populated by over two-thousand people, it’s been abandoned for almost a hundred years; Franco forced people out of the mountains during the Spanish Civil War and into urban areas to work at factories. Now the Spanish Pyrenees are peppered with these little abandoned villages, and they’ve become a popular refuge for rural squatters.

We managed to get out the door, nine of us. Concerned that we didn’t already think he was awesome, Phap Luu told us he knew a super-sweet waterfall on the way, and it was right next to an organic coop run by a few of his numberless friends. I was already cold. The waterfall was raging and we were getting blasted in the face by some really wet winds before we even got close. I fell back, while the bravest of our number went in for the obligatory photo op.

Within roaring distance of the waterfall was the cooperative. After a warm welcome and firm insistence that all nine of us pile into the tiny living room, it was decided that we’d gather in the workshop for some herbal tea. We warmed up to the music of a Spanish conversation as introductions were spread around. Phap Luu had his work cut out for him, being our chief Spanish speaker. I can understand it pretty well but my speech is halting. Like, it comes to a complete halt. We admired their wood-fire bread oven, solar cooker, drying herbs and salt-cured tomatoes. The place is run by a group of passionate farmers who also happen to be serious rock climbers. They have a good chunk of veggies in their outdoor beds and greenhouses, plus the goats and chickens, which provide them with happy happy dairy. A sampling of goat cheese was offered, and this time my Spanish was ready for the job. “Por supuesto!” (Of course!

Two cheeses were brought out along with freshly toasted bread and our herbal tisane. One of the cheeses was a harder, aged chèvre, and the other was a fresh chèvre, stored in olive oil with the wild thyme that grows all over the valley. I did my best to position my body between the jar of cheese and our hosts each time I went back for more, vainly hoping that they wouldn’t notice what great quantities I was consuming. It was good stuff. After we were all sated, we wandered around for a bit of a tour. We met the goats, the chickens, and checked out their “meditation hall”, which was a really elaborate home climbing gym. We left with hearts full of gratitude or at the very least with tummies full of cheese. It’s pretty hard for me to distinguish between these two states.

By now it was almost noon, and we hadn’t even started hiking. We made a quick stop in town for goodies, and Man Trung showed his stuff by fearlessly wandering off in search of a bathroom. As his quest led him toward a nearby pub I hollered, “Bano!” to him. Next we spent a few minutes trying to sort out the confusion, because all non-Vietnamese sounds are the same to him. Phap Thang came to the rescue with a quick translation, something I could have done myself if I’d remembered that “Toilet” is the same word in Vietnamese. He went into the pub armed with the sword of knowledge, and came out victorious. The rain stopped, the clouds lifted, and on high we saw that the mountains were draped with the first snow of the year.

Honestly I kinda checked out for the hike up to the village. I saw what was happening as we walked: I had gotten myself all stoked up for this abandoned village and all the sweet pictures I was gonna take, and that’s where my mind was. We past lots of donkey-droppings on the trail, which suggested that there were still people living up there. Phap Luu said that, at least when he was there, they could only get supplies in by donkey. He had heard that most of the people he knew had moved on, so we were curious to see whether there was anyone around. The path bent around a low stone wall and revealed the village. The sound of an old terrier barking like mad told us that it wasn’t empty.

Meet Pepe, effectively the mayor of this beautiful old town. He invited us in for a cup of something soothing and a good sit. We crammed into his one room house and marveled at the warmth radiating from the wood stove. Naturally there was some catching up between Pepe and Thay Phap Luu, and my attempts to understand were earnest and futile. Apparently almost everyone had left the village, but Pepe and a few others remained. Pepe was the only one we saw over the course of the day. We got ready to offer our cheese and bread, but Pepe beat us to the punch with picnic supplies of his own. The house was filled with bags of nuts, drying herbs, and jars of homemade pickles. He seemed to be living a life of plenty and before we knew it our tea party had turned into a feast. The village has orchards that once provided for thousands. That’s a lot of food for the three or four remaining residents to eat. He was an enthusiastic host and we quit his company only when curiosity to see the rest of the village overcame us (or at least me).

The village delivered what it promised. Beautiful, old stone buildings in various states of disrepair, wildly overgrown gardens and orchards, a well-worn settlement slowly being reclaimed by the forest. Thay Phap Luu gave a guided tour, but I lost the group. I spent a little extra time taking photos from the old church steeple, and when I came down my friends were nowhere to be found. Thanks to the fresh rain, the ground was soft and made tracking my companions easy fare for an experienced woodsman such as myself. I followed their tracks, which were easy to distinguish because Thay Phap Luu was wearing those toe shoes. Passing a particularly muddy spot I was startled to see the eight distinct tracks merge into one set of hiking boots. As I wandered further and further from the village, the tracks became fainter, eventually disappearing altogether. Taking stock of the situation, there was only one conclusion. I had fallen victim to mischievous forest magic. If only I had eaten those berries Dai Tue had recommended! I returned to the town center and retired my woods-lore for the day. Now I relied on an even more ancient and mysteriously reliable tactic often taught to children in case they get lost in the airport: go to the last place you were all together and wait.

About fifteen minutes later I heard the group returning. They were coming from the opposite direction that my forensic inquiries led me, confirming my suspicion that there had been some kind of foul-play. We reunited happily and headed toward home. Pepe wouldn’t let us leave without giving a tour of his garden and yet more herbal infusion, our third of the day! This time it was a homemade blend of dried hibiscus, pear, apple, and raspberry. Again, good stuff. He also gifted us with a few gourds, prized items that caused division and envy in our normally harmonious group. We survived though, and thank goodness because the fourth day would be our most epic.

So next time, the magnum opus of our hiking expedition: The Breach of Roland.