Attending church services in historic cathedrals or places of worship provides something special that is incredibly tangible yet difficult to describe or quantify. The shared religious experience spanning centuries of history and thousands of anonymous, forgotten worshipers from a plethora of ethnic, linguistic and denominational backgrounds stirs something at the core of my being that is rarely awakened. I had the privilege of adding another one of those experiences to my repertoire by attending an Epiphany service in the 18th Century Armenian Church in Old Dhaka last night.
As I stood in the aging Armenian Church singing Epiphany hymns, listening to Epiphany scripture and reading Epiphany prayers, I thought about the hundreds of worshipers who had previously poured their hearts out in fervent prayer and confession at the altar. As I sang Christmas carols, I contemplated the voices from the past that sang hymns that reverberated off the same crumbling walls. I wondered how many other people throughout history felt the same sweetly pungent smell of incense burn their nostrils as they sat quietly in the same creaking wooden chairs.
Thinking about this sort of stuff is always humbling because it sets me firmly into my historical context and forces me to realize the uncomfortable fact that I am finite. My life is “like a morning mist that soon vanishes” as the Bible says and someday, long after the memory of my small, seemingly insignificant life has faded from memory, another twenty something year old sitting in the exact same pew might marvel about the same thoughts I pondered last night. And the cycle goes on.
Anyways…enough of the awkward “grand questions of life” narrative. The Epiphany service had several other notable aspects as well.
Moths. The church service ostensibly began at 5:00pm (This, of course, actually means the service starts at 5:30. This is Bangladesh after all!) and it was soon dark outside. The building was lit by archaic electric lights that looked like they belonged in a WWII bomb shelter rather than a church building and, when combined with the fact that the windows and doors were left wide open, a few large moths began to flutter around, happily swooping down on unsuspecting hymn-singers. I am honestly unsure why this sticks out in my memory. It just does.
Battle of the Religions. As we were singing the first hymn of the service, the call to prayer from the neighboring mosque started blaring from the loudspeakers. The organ and our voices singing “Oh come let us adore him” competed with repetitious chants of “Allahu ahkbar” as the muezzin chanted the ahdan. For some reason, the competition struck me as hilarious and I was glad when the organist played a bit harder as the din conveniently covered up my laughter.
I met briefly Mikhail Hopcef Martirossian, the elderly caretaker of the church, and, although I didn’t realize it until after I traveled home, he has an amazingly interesting story as the last Armenian in Bangladesh. If you’re interested to learn more, check out this archived BBC article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2645617.stm
I had a great time at the Epiphany service. It wasn't my first time visiting this historic church, but it was the first time I attended a service there. I almost didn't go out of laziness (and the fact that, with the ridiculous traffic, it was an approximately two hour journey each way) but I feel fortunate that I got off my butt and avoided the TV trap. Hopefully I'll manage to make it to another one of the (rarely held) services for Easter!
The last time I visited Cambodia was in 2010 with my sister Kayla. My impression at the time was that although the food was great and the intricately carved temples of Ankor Wat were stunning, even more impressive was the genuine warmth and friendliness of the Cambodian people. When we left three years ago, I knew I'd be back.
After spending the last few days in Siem Reap, the second largest city in the country, my first impression remains largely unaltered. The crumbling temples are ridiculously beautiful, the food is delicious and the Khmer people are the friendliest locals I’ve met through our travels in Asia. Khmer friendliness seems authentic as opposed to other Asian countries where people often show interest only when they wish to help part you with your money. After a second visit, Siem Reap remains one of my favorite places on earth.
Dani and I spent three days exploring the weathered, 800-year-old temples via bicycle and tuk-tuk. We strategically explored smaller temples first, working our way up to the larger structures. The first two days we traveled by tuk-tuk, which, in Cambodia, is, just a trailer attached to a motorbike instead of a vehicle of its own right like Thailand. On day three we rented bicycles and slowly pedaled our way through idyllic rice paddies and explored random, un-touristed areas of the archeological park (yes they do exist!). The bikes were amazing except for the fact that the seats were so hard they screamed “HEMEROIDS!” when we sat on them. I’ll have a bike seat imprint on my bum for days!
Another awesome thing about Siem Reap was the food. Amok is the quintessential Cambodian dish and believe me, it is heavenly! Amok is basically a coconut cream steamed with veggies and either fish or chicken and it’s often served in a coconut shell (at least in the tourist places I frequented).
We also stopped at a Cambodian BBQ place where Dani and I ate Squid, Shark, Kangaroo, Crocodile, Frog, Chicken and Beef all in the same meal. I finished it off with a snake kebab for desert. The animal kingdom is delicious. I couldn’t try the fried tarantulas though, my gag reflex still kicks in when I think of them (insert shudder here.)
Dani and I also had a fish massage where you dunk your feet into a fish-tank and the carnivorous fish chow down on all of the callouses and dead skin. It tickles and takes a bit of time to get used to the idea of allowing a school of fish to eat your flesh… but it was awesome! Dani loved it and my feet came out smoother than they've been in a long time.
Cambodia was the undeniable highlight of our trip. We had oodles of fun, ate great food, drank great coffee and saw one of the most impressive archeological sites the world has to offer. Not too shabby!