So there I was, standing barefoot on the cool marble floor of the Wat Chayamangkalaram temple in the small town of Penang, Malaysia. My supposedly waterproof mascara streaked all over my face, my hair in complete disarray, donning a Flaming Lips t-shirt (my favorite band of all time), my trademark woven bracelets… and to top it all off, a neon orange and blue, elephant patterned sarong. Hardly an ideal start to any day, especially all the way in far east Asia.
The day had started off as expected. My mom and I, labored by both extreme heat and jet lag, just barely managed to make it to our seats on the tour bus on time, and without any caffeine, experienced great difficulty in expressing any sort of excitement towards whatever temple we happened to be visiting that day. We then embarked on a twenty minute drive, through streets with absolutely no traffic direction whatsoever.
No one used their indicators or paid any attention to traffic lights. Cars constantly cut each other off at an impressive range of speeds, and yet there wasn’t an accident in sight. I’ve always been amazed at how chaotic streets like these exist all over the world, and yet somehow people still manage to navigate their way through this organized chaos on a daily basis, retaining both their composure, and sometimes perfectly coiffed hair. Very impressive.
What seemed like hours later, we finally made it off the bus. On this particular day, I recall being pleased as I somehow managed to pull off the newly popular “rocker chic… Joplin meets Kate Moss” look despite the hectic morning I had just experienced. I try to dabble in fashion as often as I can, because I love the way it fuses culture and art into functionality. Anyways, we got off the bus and gathered around our tour guide, Han, who was one of the sweetest women I have ever encountered. She always had a cheery disposition and big smile no matter how stressful the circumstances were. She stood upon a cement bench and began instructing our group. “Halo and welcome to Wat Chayamangkalaram! Home of the 2nd largest reclining bhudda in the world! Please take off your shoes at the entrance and proceed inside and remember, no flash photography!”. Her words were quickly taken in by the group, as they were standard protocol for any temple in the area. We proceeded towards the entrance and thats where it all started.
“HEY! HEYYYY! YOU GIRL IN LEGGINGS! NO ENTER!” A stout guard who I had assumed was sleeping, shrieked in mediocre English from his post. Apparently this particular temple had a strict “no leggings” policy, which seemed ridiculous as other women were strolling by in leg-baring dresses and uncomfortably revealing tops. The entire tour group which had consisted of at least 50 other Pakistani families, with kids my age, all turned to watch as the obese guard hobbled over in all his authoritative glory to grab my arm and rudely and roughly escort me back to the temple entrance. Instantly my mother, both an active feminist and extremely protective matriarch, began to set him straight, angrily threatening to have him arrested for treating a woman with disrespect (a felony in the predominantly Muslim nation), while I desperately tried to explain to the guard, who clearly hadn’t come across any sort of modern fashion paraphernalia that jeggings were not completely leggings, but rather a hybridization of denim into something much comfortable. Never having been put on the spot in such a way, I began to sob with embarrassment… which in retrospect probably didn’t help the situation very much. In no time, Han came running back towards the emotional chaos that surrounded me carrying tissues… and a sarong that looked like it had been resurrected from the closet of a 70’s Malayan beach bum. Completely mortified by the entire situation, I quickly wrapped the hideous garment around my waist and scurried into the temple completely, sniffling, completely uninterested in whatever millionth portrayal of buddha we were about to see.
When I finally brought myself to look up from my feet, what I saw astounded me. There, lying in a pose that would do Sir Hasselhoff proud, was the most immense statue I’ve ever seen. Wearing an expression of knowledge, of sympathy, of peace, this buddha absolutely took my breath away. Amid all the chaos and sympathetic pats on the back, I honestly could not take my eyes off of him. I instantly felt my eyes and my mind clear, as if washed by a cool dewey breeze.
In that temple, in Penang, Malaysia, 9,415 miles away from my old Kentucky home,
there was only myself breathing, the cool marble, the air, and the calm of this deity. His tranquility provided me with a calm that I had never experienced before. At that moment I could have been dressed like a clown and I probably would have paid no attention. All that mattered was this calm, this air, this Earth, and me. I like to think that in all my mortification, Buddha extended an ounce of his clarity to me.
Although what happened to me was far from an ethical dilemma, I took away so much from that moment. There is such massive importance to simply remaining calm. Often in tense situations, people act drastically and dramatically simply because they place their emotions before rational thought. At times these, regrettable decisions are made, a lot of which can never be taken back. Looking back on the situation, I can only laugh and add it to the repertoire of memories I have from that trip. After walking out of the temple, my mother and I took two looks at each other and burst into uncontrollable laughter, and I later posed for lots of goofy pictures in my psychedelic sarong. That day my inner rock star definitely found her nirvana, and there is definitely nothing more chic than that.
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