The rain started last night and continues to this morning. I lit a light to thank Rain that cleanses, hydrates and heals. Then I thought of the animal shelters that flood during downpours. My mind went to the street animals having to brave the torrents on their own.
So I asked Fire to give them warmth and keep them dry.
Although I tended to incense and candles in the taoist temple of my childhood where my grandfather was caretaker, my friendship with Fire as an adult only began when I lit my first tea light in the Notre Dame Catheral in France.
After that, I lit my first tea light in Singapore at the grotto of the Church of St Peter & St Paul at Queen Street to support a friend who had to put down his dog, Socks.
Then I found out I could also meet Fire below the image of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus at the Church of St Mary’s of the Angels.
In my 40s, visits to Patan and Boudha in Nepal brought me closer to Fire. Aging has somehow given me a porosity that allows me to soak up the illuminating presence of Fire at the prayer rituals I withessed there.
And so certain am I of Fire’s loyalty that one of the first thoughts that comes to mind whenever loss or hardship befalls me or my friends is to raise a lamp to shine a path out of fear and confusion.
After all, my favourite catholic saint, Francis of Assisi addresses Fire as Brother Fire in “The Canticle of the Sun.”
So on a cold and wet day such as today, may we invoke the Fire within to keep ourselves and others warm and dry.
Shopping alone gives me time to study things and sometimes learn life lessons from shop staff.
Whenever I’m at Fortune Centre I would make it a point to navigate the maze of escalators to visit an incense shop tucked away among the eateries on the 3rd floor.
The shop sells incense from Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, and other ritual and aesthetic items for spiritual and leisure purposes.
The shopkeeper, whom I addressed as “Uncle” out of respect, would be watching comedies on his phone while I browsed and asked all kinds of questions about his products.
“Uncle” was always patient and allowed me to touch the prayer flags, tangkas, dorjes, incense burners and inhale the incense samples without asking me to buy anything.
Having travelled to many places in his youth before retiring as a keeper of his sister’s shop, he had learnt to always be kind to strangers.
“Always be nice to strangers,” “Uncle” once told me. “Don’t think only of your own family. For example, when you fall down outside, it’s a stranger that calls the ambulance. The ambulance driver is a stranger. The nurse attending to you is a stranger. Lot’s of things are done for you by strangers even before your relatives arrive at the hospital.”
Yesterday I was at the shop but “Uncle” wasn’t there. His sister whom he spoke fondly of was standing in his place.
“Take your time to see what you need,” the sister extended the same hospitality to me.
“Uncle” had passed away last year (December 2019). He had lived well and went peacefully.
Seeing the incense was like seeing old friends again. Every thing I touched was imbued with the kindness of the old man who was no longer there.
Before I left the shop, the silver haired sister weaved a bracelet of sacred threads from a tibetan monastery and set a turquoise bead on it. It was a gift for my mother to protect her in all encounters.
“Here, you take these. They are made by the lamas,” she spoke softly, as she placed an auspicious symbol of infinite wisdom and the union of empathy and knowledge woven in yellow thread in my hand.
I took 2 hardboiled eggs from the breakfast buffet and slipped them into the pocket of my winter top.
We were travelling down the hills of Nargakot to stay one night at the Airport Hotel in Kathmandu. It was 2017 and Nepal’s election year. All roads would be close to vehicles on the day we were flying back to Singapore.
I kept the eggs in case I came across a hungry dog or cat, or even a child. It can be traumatic for some of us to meet a hungry animal and have nothing to give. But instead of feeling sorry and helpless, I decided to fortify myself with food. Eggs in their shells proved to be most hygienic and practical in a situation like this.
Down the valley, the hotel check-in went smoothly. Then I rested while my travel mates headed out to Patan for some last minute exploration.
We would meet for dinner.
Dinner was still some time away when I woke up from my nap in the Nepalese winter.
The eggs I brought with me in the morning had become my sustenance till dinner time.
As I sat by the window gazing out at Tribhuvan Airport in the setting sun, it became clear to me that “what we do unto others, we do unto ourselves.”
Thus have I experienced that the giver is also the receiver.
The “chuba” or “chupa” is a Tibetan word for an ankle length robe worn by Tibetans. Slight variations of it are worn by members of the Sherpa community and a number of cultural and language groups across the Himalayan regions.
Even though I had passed by many chuba shops during my visits to Nepal, I took my time about buying one. I didn’t want to treat someone’s actual clothing like a costume or a quaint souvenir.
Apart from its wearability for celebratory occasions in Singapore, I wanted a chuba as a visual reminder of my encounters in Nepal. From the Nepali friends of the Newari, Tamang, Rai, Gorkha and various culture/ language groups, I’ve learnt what it means to be generous and resourceful at ALL times.
So after thinking about it for about 8 years, I finally bought my first chuba from one of the shops at Boudha in December 2019.
Little did I know that a month after that purchase, Covid-19 would affect all human interactions & put a stop to trips abroad. In Singapore the Circuit Breaker measures kept people housebound, affected jobs, schools and gatherings of all sorts.
It looked like my chuba from Boudha wouldn’t be required for a while I figured. But I was wrong.
This May I received my first ZOOM birthday celebration invitation. The birthday celebrant is an avid traveller & photographer. Travel restrictions had affected her birthday plans.
So that night holed up in my little flat with my cats, I put on the chuba as it was purposed for.
And the birthday lady, being the good sport that she is, turned up on ZOOM in lapis lazuli blue and a strand of turquoise around her neck.
As the fireworks went off in her living room, while her parents looked on in amusement, her dogs in puzzlement, and ZOOM guests cheered, I felt that although we were physically “grounded,” our spirit was free.
The chuba from Boudha has also become a pleasant reminder that the darker the times are, the more brightly we can try to shine, and the less we have, the more deeply we may experience abundance.
Today I wore my necklace of turquoise stones from Nepal to an animal shelter in Singapore. My friend had invited me to join her for some volunteering work there.
Turquoise is called the Sky Stone by Tibetans. It has many healing properties. By having turquoise on me, I wanted to remind myself to constantly project vibes of health & vitality, and not pity on the animals that I saw or touched. And of course I also wanted to look good and dress up for the cats and dogs.
Like most animal shelters, this one is located in a fairly remote part of Sg. Volunteering is a commitment that requires planning, time and travelling.
Not one to take such an opportunity lightly, we decided to dedicate today’s work at the shelter to my friend’s late brother. He had set an example of kindness to animals for his younger sister during their growing up years.
When he was studying in JC (Junior College), he rescued a kitten. He was the first in her family to persuade their parents to adopt a dog. And because of him, their home has become a refuge for a number of animals over the years.
Upon our arrival at the shelter we met a young man who was there on his own. Daryl had just completed JC and wanted to spend his time helping animals.
So the morning went by with us unwrapping metal frames, hooking them to each enclosure to increase vertical space for the cats, and slipping pillow cases over the frames to form beddings for the feline occupants to sleep comfortably above ground.
A few were trying to climb onto their midair contraptions even as their “housekeepers” were still making their beds.
When the beddings were secured, the cats took to their mini airmocks with gratitude.
Meanwhile, the rain came, followed by the glorious sun.
Towards tea time, every single cat that was visible to us was acknowledged. Eye contact, smiles, head rubs, cuddles and wishes of healing were given & received.
And the kitties in hiding would have felt our goodwill, for the whole shelter was bathed in a golden afternoon light when our mission was completed.
After the shelter, we stopped by a cafe for some needed hydration & reflection. The cafe was located in a garden nursery with very strong balinese landscape features.
We took pictures with the balinese stone carvings of dancers and frangipani, and the Rainbow showed up to join us. Of course there are scientific and technical explanation for its appearance in the photos. But we were thrilled with the unexpectedness of it all, as if we had been bestowed some divine blessings even as we were simply having fun.
When I got home later in the evening I checked a text that was sent from Nepal during our time at the shelter.
The text came with a picture.
It showed my Nepali host, Reena, holding on her palm, one half of the turquoise earrings that matched the necklace I wore today. I had lost that earring last December in Nepal.
And just this morning I was wondering if I would ever see the missing half of my earrings again.
The surprise emergence of a little turquoise after being lost for months seemed to be showing me that what is spoken or thought of with love can never be completely lost.
And this thought encourages me to dedicate whatever remaining time and energy I have to seemingly “lost” causes.
It also strengthens my habit of performing deeds of relief in the name of people and animals that have left this earthly realm.
Like the Rainbow that arches over us, we are constantly held and supported by the sacred presence of those we love.
This December was our 8th year at the Tribuhvan Airport to catch our flight from Nepal to Singapore.
After a long day of queuing & waiting, we finally made it to the gate where we would be bussed to our plane.
It was evening. It had been drizzling all day. I was looking forward to the comfort of a SilkAir seat when a young woman from the ground staff appeared in our transit area.
She announced nervously that our flight was cancelled. The incoming flight crew had exceeded the stipulated flight time. For safety reasons, the flight had to be rescheduled to the next day, and the timing was still unknown.
Like a movie on rewind, we plodded out of the transit room and trudged back to the counters to have our pass ports stamped “Flight Cancelled” and dragged ourselves to the dreaded check-in counters to return our boarding passes.
Passengers with connecting flights from Singapore were understandably more vocal in expressing their anxieties, but most of us were able to contain our frustrations.
More standing followed as we waited for clearance and further instructions. Some staff were on the phones, some staring at computer screens, and all trying their best to avoid eye contact with irate passengers, and clearly no one was in charge.
In the midst of all the above, a young man, maybe in his late twenties, left the counter where all his colleagues seemed to be milling about and walked among us.
He was a good looking man, but he had an arrogant air about him as he looked at people as if through his nose. But he seemed the only one who was actively managing the queues. When he saw me, he pointed to the chairs & said softly, “You can sit. Sit down.”
For a moment I couldn’t match the kind tone to the cold face. On hindsight, I think appearing detached could just be a defence mechanism when facing a bunch of tired & tense people.
Some time later he came to ask me to sit down again.
When the buses to take us to the Crowne Plaza Hotel where we would spend the night arrived, they were quickly filled up.
A group of us had to wait for the next one.
By now, night had deepened, we hadn’t taken dinner and the winter drizzle seemed to be gathering power.
As I was wondering just how long more we had to stand in the open cold, I saw Cold Man speaking animatedly to his suited superior standing by a hotel van, presumably to ferry business class passengers.
In the stone cold silence I still had no idea what was going on except that Cold Man kept gesticulating at me as he spoke to his mustachioed boss. When his expressions got more earnest, it dawned on my frozen brain that he was trying to get me on the hotel van so that I need not wait a minute longer for the bus!
Thanks to Cold Man’s persistence, some of us had a pleasant ride in comfort to our destination where hot showers and dinner awaited.
I never learnt Cold Man’s name, don’t know his position except that he broke ranks to make things a little easier for someone in need. And I’ll always remember how passionately he persuaded his boss on a cold rainy winter night to care.
On our second day in Nepal (6 Dec) , a little vase on our table at the Third Eye Restaurant in Thamel caught our eye with its simplicity. It stood humbly among all the grander looking cuisine serving utensils.
Holding a single stalk of marigold, the brass vase reminded me of the Velveteen Rabbit which held a sprig of holly between its paws on christmas morning.
As it looked very ordinary we thought we should be able to find it at any of the shops in Thamel or Boudha.
We were wrong.
We also forgot to take a picture of it.
And in the midst of all our activities, we soon stopped looking or asking.
On our final day day in Nepal, it drizzled. After checking out of the hotel, we went back to the Third Eye Restaurant for lunch.
This time we asked a member of the staff where we could get the vase. The young lady was very happy with our interest and quickly gave us the details to the location where we could buy it.
So two hours before we were taken to Tribhuvan Airport for our flight back to Singapore, Ron & El rushed to Ason Market where the locals get their homewares. There they bought 2 pairs of the exact vases like the ones from the restaurant.
It was still drizzling when they returned from the market. I received my pair as if they were archaeological discoveries.
I know there are hundreds of such vases around. But ours will always be special because it took some effort to get them. Furthermore our enquiries had made a Nepali girl happy, seeing that her country’s traditional wares could still be so charming.
With its chaotic traffic, massive swirls of wires hanging above ground, crumbling buildings and air pollution, Kathmandu is not a place that readily comes to mind when one is thinking of retreat and rest.
Yet, in the midst of the valley’s madness, intricately carved and perfectly symmetrical woodworks & stoneworks adorned doorways and windows, creating an air of unmatched serenity and inspiring me to seek alignment from within.
From this valley of unpredictability, where power cuts happen regularly unannounced, craftsmen go about calmly setting semi precious stones against impossibly detailed & highly decorative silver works of filigree.
Perhaps this constant practice of melting, cutting, shaping and welding metals to minerals to create objects of beauty has alchemised in these workers a high tolerance for the ugliness of difficult customers, exploitative employers and other hardships.
Then there are the buddhist arts (tangka) drawn free hand in such breathtaking precision and with such a pleasing balance of colours that the seller has to keep reminding us with great pride, “this not machine made…this MADE BY MAN,” as we stared in mute wonder, at the scroll he unveiled before us while cars honked impatiently behind us.
Like the mangy fur of a dog that holds a clean heart, Kathmandu has shown me that using observable evidence to appraise someone’s inner world or history may be convenient and even natural, but it’s still not the truth.
Kathmandu forces me to cover my nose, slap on sunblock, drink only boiled water and take other safety precautions, while liberating me from prejudices and insularity at the same time.
I’m deeply honoured to have been allowed to visit Nepal year after year since 2011.