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JoeRohde.net

 

Mustang is a remote region of Nepal, actually a part of the Tibetan plateau that was absorbed by Nepal in the 1700s, retaining semi-autonomous status until the end of monarchy in Nepal about a decade ago. When I first went there, almost nobody had ever been. For example, my permit to enter the region was the 64th ever issued. There were no good maps, no guidebooks. I was led by a pair of horsemen in Tibetan robes with red yarn braided into their hair, as we travelled from fortified town to fortified town. Of course, I sketched and painted as I went, in some cases, being invited to sketch where photographs were forbidden.

Recent feature on Ojai Quarterly, regarding the trip to Mongolia for Snow Leopard Conservation, here's a preview, click here for the full spread. 

Before I settled into my current kit of sepia-toned ink and recycled paper, I used to travel with a watercolor set, and painted little paintings. This was done, long ago on a trip to Nepal. We were traveling through an area called Nupri, one of the most untouched places I have ever been in my life. There was no glass in any window, no running water, no electricity, no corrugated metal roofs, very few mass produced goods at all, barely an old Coke bottle, and the people made their own homes, made their own clothes, grew their own food, and used no money, but instead, traded for what they needed. There was no blacksmith, and so they had to trade for metal. It was as if they were living in the Neolithic era.

However, this isolated valley, inhabited by people who lived in dry-laid stone longhouses, roofed over with huge rough-cut slabs of wood, a place where wealth was measured in yak wool, and wood-smoke hung like morning fog in the air, was one of the main evacuation routes out of Tibet during the years of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard.

Because of this, the tiny humble monasteries and gompas of the valley were crammed with absolutely beautiful, stunningly ancient and very important works of Tibetan art. These pieces have been smuggled out of Tibet to prevent them being destroyed in the fervor of the cultural Revolution, and were left behind at the first safe place the refugees had come to. We were allowed inside these beautiful little spaces, in this case, in a hamlet called Namru.  But I felt it was irresponsible to make an image of works of art which could be considered very valuable, and even worth stealing, so I focused instead on a papier-mâché ritual mask that was hanging from the beams of the ceiling. Masks like these come in a fantastic array of shapes and colors. This one more or less a kind of wrathful deity. More hung in grape-like clusters back in the darkness surrounded the jeweled Buddhas from Tibet.

As far as I know, at least some of the treasures are still tucked away in these tiny, unremarkable buildings, scattered through this beautiful, now slightly less untouched valley. Much has happened since then. Nupri was one of the hotbeds of Maoist rebel activity through the nineties. But these Maoists were local grown and less hard on the monasteries that their ideological brethren across the mountains had been. So I've heard. The bigger threat is probably from capitalist-minded collectors bribing the locals into selling the pieces.

The hike in has gotten easier in the years since I went. It would be a thing to do, to go back and see whether these objects, rescued from one form of human folly, fell,victim to another, or if they are still there, resting for a few short human eras, in the chapels of Nupri.

Like many adolescent boys, I was fascinated by motorcycles. It was an exciting time for motorcycles, as both the urban chopper and the rural dirt bike were undergoing rapid dynamic changes. I think I must have been twelve or thirteen when I painted this. Acrylic. My enthusiasm was dampened in eight grade when I had a minor bike accident in Baja California in which the nut of the rear wheel of a Yamaha 150 ground its ways into my ankle for what I'm sure was actually just a few moments. It got infected, mainly from hobbling back to a distant cantina outside Estero Beach in septic, gooey mud. Anyway, I quit bikes. Perfectly happy to do so. Don't give me any of that, "Get back on the horse" stuff. I was thrown downhill onto gravel and cantaloupe-sized rocks by a 13-14 hand quarter-horse, biggest horse I've ever ridden in my life. I got right back on. Motorcycles?...just not motivated.

Borobudur is pretty cool. It's a Buddhist monument left over from a time when Java was ruled by Buddhist empires not unlike the Khmer kingdom in Cambodia, the guys that built Angkor Wat. Java today is sooooo not that place, but once, there was enough heat behind a project like this that Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. Built around a natural hill, it's a gigantic, stepped pyramid of walkways, carved narrative walls, stupas, stairways, and statues, surmounted by the ruins of a really big domed stupa that once had a big seated buddha in it. Once, it was covered in sparkly, mica-infused plaster, colorful paint, and gold leaf, but that all disappeared when it fell into such ruin that it looked like a jungle-covered rock pile. It was excavated and restored during the Dutch colonial era, so, now, it looks something like it once did, minus the bling.


The most interesting thing about Borobudur, for the student of narrative placemaking, is its manipulation of space and sequence as one travels from the bottom to the top. The monument forms a giant mandala when viewed from above. (Look up "mandala" so I don't have to digress here.) As with a lot of mandalas, the outermost parts are squared and the innermost parts are circular.

The journey up the pyramid mimics the process of gradual enlightenment. One is supposed to circumambulate the monument one level at a time. (Look it up, we're moving on.) As devotees would circumambulate the stupa, walls to their right, they would pass by carved imagery representing the lower levels of spiritual existence. From the first levels, one could not perceive the upper parts of the structure. All one saw was what was immediately apparent. As once ascended, the imagery carved on the walls becomes more elevated, yet still wordly. The upper regions of the stupa are circular, and these are only revealed as one passes out of the squared levels, as if one is entering a higher consciousness in which the summit of enlightenment is now perceptible and reachable. The upper regions never had carved imagery, which is, after all, the quintessence of illusion. There are, however, a series of carved seated Buddhas. These were once covered by domed stupas pierced by little openings, limiting the pilgrims ability to percieve the Buddhas. Another metaphor.

Nowadays, a visit to Borobudur is a bit more frenetic than it used to be. Hordes of school kids clamber over the ruins, mixing their excited voices with the amazed chatter of international tourists. Guides intone descriptions in a dozen languages. Wimps complain about the tropical heat. But, it is spectacular to stand near the summit, close to the symbols of compassion, peace, and enlightenment and to gaze out, like the stone Buddhas, at this, our beautiful but temporary world.

Here I am kneeling by two works of art, a large crucifix and a tribal mask. They're made of papier mâché. Papier mâché is cheap and easy to work with, perfect for a kid like the kid I was. I went to Maryknoll, a Catholic School across the street from the prestigious private school, Punahou, on the island of O'ahu, in Hawai'i. When I started, in first grade, the school was constituted mainly of old, wooden, barracks-like buildings dating back to the very early Twentieth Century, still furnished with lines of connected wrought-iron desks with holes for inkwells, the kind of desks you now see only in antique stores or on Masterpiece Theater period dramas. These thin-walled classrooms sat beneath sprawling acacias, across an asphalt playground from a brownstone church that would not have been out of place in Cincinnati.

During my tenure, the school underwent a massive remodeling, the old bungalows giving way to impressive, white, two-story classrooms with amenities like recessed lights and acoustic ceilings. The crucifix was for one of the new public spaces the school had built. I think my parents were trying to invent projects for me to keep me engaged. My dad and I had already made a papier mache Tyrannosaurus head with a movable jaw, which I had cruelly used to terrify my younger brother. Dad and I worked on the mask and the crucifix at the same time.

I am certain that the crucifix has long, long since succumbed to termites, mildew, and decay. As for the mask, it was one of the things we left behind when we moved from Honolulu to Los Angeles. But the ideas within these objects stayed with me. I remain convinced that realities stir beneath us, deeper, richer, and more significant than the follies with which we occupy our days. And I am convinced that these ideas need nothing more than the simplest tools, like water, old newspaper, and flour to be evoked.

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