Saturday, September 13, 2014

Shopping for Buddhas by Jeff Greenwald

I added many spoilers to the text. Please skip it if you don't like it. You will also find images of Nepal added for visual vignettes - not part of the book, borrowed from the internet. I got carried away by the beauty and magic of Nepal. Pardon the many photos added to the text. I simply could not help myself!

Best-selling author Jeff Greenwald traveled extensively all over the world, writing stories, sending them back home to America, when technology was practically non-existent. That in itself became an adventure. The travel bug originated from his mom and the restlessness was a genetic favor from his dad. He wrote several articles for a variety of magazines and acquired valuable experience for his later work.

He worked as a photographer and journalist during the Seventies and Eighties when the transition took place from fax machines, to slow internet, to the super-fast information highway and had to adapt to the challenges it brought to the survival of travel writers.

He realized that he had to find an angle in his books that would make them unique from any other format available. He settled on writing a travel story, in which he writes his personal experiences around a central theme, and at the same time provide historical, cultural, geographical as well as political information about the country that will satisfy the traveler to the place too. His story would have a beginning, a middle and an end. And since he never ended up writing the novel, he decided to add a touch of character development to the people he share his travels with. And what characters they were! Intelligent, funny, innovative, diplomatic, mysterious. 

Shopping for Buddhas proof to be exactly what he set out to do with the book. It is the story of his personal growth and development, while travelling to Nepal in a quest to find the perfect statue of a Buddha. He also had to write an investigative article on the international illegal trade in artifacts. 

His personal mores and values clashed with the lifestyle of the people of the country, he visited more than once, and the more he returned there, the more he had to address the conflict it created within himself. 

'Every time I get off the plane in Kathmandu—right after climbing down the roll-away stairs and stepping onto the runway at Tribhuvan International Airport—I let out a whoop of jubilation. Something in the air is so immediately exotic, so full of the promise of liberation from the veneer of bullshit slopped onto my soul by Life in the Western World, that the moment of contact releases a shock of energy. I see it now as a kind of grounding: like touching a brass doorknob after shuffling around on a rug.
Shopping for Buddhas also provides valuable information to shop for quality products. It opens up the art scene, antique as well as modern, and provides the reader with fascinating tips on what not to buy and what to pay. 

He wanted a specific Buddha: "That pose: Buddha in full lotus, his left hand resting in his lap, untrembling. Fingers of the right hand gently grazing the ground. That was the pose I wanted."He wanted to discover a Buddha that made him sigh with a feline growl of primal longing. 

The real inhabitants of the country, in all their splendor, good and bad, is part of the story. He becomes part of the furniture himself, observing the superficial world of the tourist traps. This element in the book distinguishes it from just being a sterile travel manual and makes it a much deeper experience in the end. 

The political turmoil is discussed from the author's point of view: the outsider, looking in. He observes the power at play and the manipulation and window-dressing applied to impress the outside world.

By now, at the eleventh hour, the “improvements” had expanded to a level far beyond a simple revamp of the city’s surface area. I noticed, as I bicycled down the street, that all the familiar cripples, the ragged men who scoot around on little carts or pull themselves along the ground on pieces of tire rubber, were mysteriously absent.

They’d been “relocated,” I was informed—but to where? And where were the infamous rickshaws, with their barefoot drivers, garishly painted cabs and pathetically skewed awnings? Had they, too, like that ill-fated car within eyeshot of the King’s motorcade, been taken off to some “lonely place”? p.110

The cows, of course, remained; but even they seemed somehow manicured, deodorized and freshly shampooed. It was as if the entire city were being given a gigantic enema!"
He lives among the Nepali people, make good friends, adapt to the local diet, and blend in with his new environment.
 "We shared one of those perfect cohabitations that occurs maybe once every two or three lifetimes. I remember it as a constant stream of intelligent fun, punctuated by crippling stints of eye, nose and throat infections, worms, amoebas and boils. 
 He consults a corpulent guru, named Lalji, who could advise him on how to change his outlook in life to ensure success in his work. He would visit Lalji a few times during his visits to the country. Finally Lalji confronts him : “I challenge you to create something—one thing, however small, however large!—that does not reflect the fact that you are both completely dissatisfied and highly critical of everything in the world!”

Lalji's insight into the author's life is rejected at first, but then, over a period of several years, reconsidered. It becomes the axis that will control all changes in his life and lead him to a dramatic moment of enlightenment.

"It sounded right, so I said it again—and again—realizing, as I continued to utter those two words, that I had lit on a great secret, had collected a fabulous blessing, entirely by chance. I had discovered my personal holy mantra; the incantation that would save me whenever I felt tempted by the luxury of self-pity, or distracted by the affectation of self-doubt. Not only was it my mantra; it was the ultimate, the highest mantra of all!
With a gentle subtle comment he warned against the water in the country. He showered with his mouth firmly closed. Tried not to breath in the shower to avoid inhaling "even a drop of the deadly local water (I actually knew one woman who showered with a snorkel)"

He watches a little boy and his dad flying a kite in the park, and realized that technology developed in many more forms than the West could ever imagine. Even in the small, mundane things, developed manually, another magical skill was perfected. 

"With their incense and prayer flags, their sacred architecture and tantric rituals, their ability to breathe life into wood, metal and stone, the people of Nepal and Tibet have spent centuries forging two-way bonds between the material and ethereal realms. It may have seemed like paper, sticks and string—but the tiny kite was a conduit for direct communication between heaven and earth"

"Nepal seems so much more vivid than life anywhere else, I would answer with a single word: time. There is a quality to time spent in Nepal that can only be described as inhalant. Back home in the Wild West, time hips by with the relentless and terrible purpose of a strangling vine filmed in fast motion. A week, two months, ten years snap past like amnesia, a continual barrage of workdays, appointments, dinner dates and laundromats, television shows and video cassettes, parking meters, paydays and phone calls.

In Nepal, the phenomenon is reversed. Time is a stick of incense that burns without being consumed. One day can seem like a week; a week, like months. Mornings stretch out and crack their spines with the yogic impassivity of house cats. Afternoons bulge with a succulent ripeness, like fat peaches. There is time enough to do everything—write a letter, eat breakfast, read the paper, visit a shrine or two, listen to the birds, bicycle downtown, change money, buy postcards, shop for Buddhas—and arrive home in time for lunch."
Enough. I made way too many notes! It was a fascinating read. I could go on and on about the prose in the book, the way the story enfolded, and elaborate further on the information provided to enrich the experience, such as the Hindu & Buddhist mythology, the detail of political corruption, horrific human rights abuses, and so much more. It was indeed highly interesting facts and impressions. 

Suffice to say, that this is the kind of travel book I expected to read when I chose it. I expected a subjective travelogue from the perspective of an outsider with compassion for a country, and that is what I got, with a plot and story line thrown in as well. It was an uplifting, informative, adventurous and entertaining read. 

Yes, Shopping For Buddha gets five stars.

The publisher provided this review copy of Travelers' Tales; 25th Anniversary Edition (July 21, 2014) through Edelweiss.

Thank you for the opportunity to read it.


BOOK BLURBJeff Greenwald's classic travelogue follows his quest for the "perfect" Buddha statue. At turns hilarious and moving, his quest features a cast of amazing characters — from a passionate palmist to a flying lama — who provide unforgettable glimpses into the daily life and culture of the former kingdom (including a wild ride on Kathmandu’s very first escalator). Greenwald doesn't shy away from Shangri-la’s darker side. Along with colorful descriptions of Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the book tells of the rampant corruption, art smuggling, assassination attempts and human right abuses that would ignite Nepal’s violent "People Power" Revolution in April 1990.

A new afterword by the author recounts Nepal's tumultuous recent history — including the massacre of the royal family — in vivid detail. And a new preface introduces this 25th anniversary edition with some thoughts about how Nepal, and travel writing, have evolved since the book’s first publication. Shopping for Buddhas remains a must-read for anyone who has visited, or plans to visit, Nepal.

Publisher's Weekly
Waist-high snow, a flying lama and the first escalator in Kathmandu are among the many attractions Greenwald experienced during his stays in Nepal. His often flip tone belies a serious purpose, and his account of shopping for just the right statue of Buddha illuminates various aspects of Nepalese culture. He discusses some of the gods and beliefs of Hinduism and proposes his own list of possible bodhisattvas, whom he describes as people who ``recognize . . . their peculiar function'' in life including Mother Teresa and John Lennon. He learns of the Nepalese concept of perfect art, seeks the advice of a guru who wears Ray-Bans and faces the maneuverings of shopkeepers who cater to foreign buyers. Nor does Greenwald overlook the darker side of this country, now undergoing political upheavals. Nepal has been the site of documented human rights abuses, its royal family exploits the country's resources and may be central to promoting drug trafficking there, foreign aid to this impoverished country is distributed among a small number of people, and valuable works of art from temples are being smuggled out of the country. Greenwald is a contributing editor to SF Magazine



Jeff Greenwald (born in the Bronx, New York on March 6, 1954) is a best-selling author, photographer, and monologist. He now resides in Oakland, CA

On Jeff Greenwald's first trip to Asia in 1979, he designed urban playgrounds for UNICEF and the Nepal Children’s Organization. Arriving several months later in Thailand during the Khmer civil war, he served as a volunteer water engineer at Khao-I-Dang—-the largest of the Cambodian refugee camps. These early travel experiences shaped his career and philosophy about travel. In the Spring of 1983, Greenwald was awarded a journalism fellowship by the Rotary International Foundation, and departed for a second trip to Asia. Over the course of 16 months he lived in Kathmandu, Nepal, and made excursions to the Himalaya, India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Japan, Java, and Bali. His articles about those trips appeared in the magazines GEO and Islands. It was around this time that he began writing "Mr. Raja¹s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal." Four years later, his travels in Nepal and Tibet would inspire "Shopping for Buddhas," first published by Harper and Row in 1990. A later edition, published in the Lonely Planet "Journeys" series, won the Lowell Thomas Gold Award for Best Travel Book of 1996.

As he circled the globe writing The Size of the World in 1993-1994, Greenwald posted dispatches to GNN, the Global Network Navigator, describing his journey. The first was posted on January 6th, 1994, from Oaxaca, Mexico. Nineteen more followed. Consequently, Greenwald is hailed as an internet pioneer for creating the first international blog (before the term was coined).

 In 2003, Jeff Greenwald co-founded the organization Ethical Traveler, of which he serves as the Executive Director. A project of the Earth Island Institute, Ethical Traveler is a global community dedicated to exploring the ambassadorial potential of world travel, as outlined in Greenwald's "Thirteen Tips for the Accidental Ambassador."

Using his many travel adventures as material, Greenwald also developed a one-man show in 2003 called "Strange Travel Suggestions." The show, which premiered at The Marsh in San Francisco, is an improvised monologue whose content is determined by the spin of an on-stage "wheel of fortune".

Thanks to a casting director who was a fan of his writing, Greenwald made a cameo appearance as “Security Guard” on the "Jail" episode of the NBC sitcom News Radio. NewsRadio season 5.

Watch a Google interview with the author

___________________________________________________ BOOK INFORMATION Genres: Travel, Memoir, Nepal, Jeff Greenwald, Nepali culture, Nepali cuisine, Nepali people, Buddhism, Buddhist & Hindu Mythologies, Nepali arts Formats:   Kindle, Paperback Number of pages:  224 Edition language:  English Publishers:  Travelers' Tales; 25th Anniversary Edition edition (July 21, 2014) Publication date: July 21, 2014 Purchase links: Amazon USA | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble ___________________________________________________


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