The Eighth Wonder of the World

26 07 2008

Earlier this month, I was told that I am the eighth wonder of the world. It’s a sentiment with which most of you agree, I’m sure. Many of you probably meant to tell me that years ago.

However, India may be the real eighth wonder of the world. It’s so complicated and layered to me, and I’ve seen but a glimpse.

I’ve gone through a few different transitions with the place. In the beginning, everything was new, exciting, part of the charm. Things like heavy air pollution and cars that literally drove with one hand constantly on the horn were cute. Later, I blocked it all out. I didn’t even hear the sounds, smell the cow dung, or cough on the fumes. I was one with it all. Now, everything is louder than it has ever been. The horns give me a headache and I’m done with dodging water buffalos just to walk down muddy, mosquito-infested, streets.

Despite all this, I’m nostalgic for the country already. It’s the way I feel after most trips: excited for parts of home and confused about why I’m not living abroad.

We’re in Varanasi now, about to head to our final destination: The Taj Mahal. Varanasi is a deeply religious place, and this month is the celebration of Shiva. That means that the city is flooded with men dressed in orange. They have traveled for a month to collect water from the Ganges River. Last night, we watched a Hindu ceremony. I have no idea what it was about, but they floated little tea lights in the river and at the end, everyone got a sweet treat. Pretty great, if you ask me.

As we observed the praying and singing, the ashram chants flooded back (Though, truthfully, I wake up every morning with the chants in my head. Did I get brainwashed?). At the end, Bonnie and I found ourselves surrounded by teenage boys. They didn’t seem to looking for much besides a conversation to practice their English. We began chatting, and our discussion quickly turned philosophical.

One kid starting talking to me about teachers. I asked him about his favorite teacher in school. He answered and then asked, “Who’s your favorite life teacher?”

“Hmmm….probably my mom.” I replied.

“Yeah, me too. Well, maybe it’s God, then my mom, then the world,” he corrected himself. “It’s like one gives me future, one love and one experience.”

Another guy was really struggling with a decision. He told me how he had just received a job offer in Bombay. It was a good job offer, one that paid well, one his family wanted him to take. However, he loves his home in Varanasi. He craves the the peacefulness and the community he finds here. He doesn’t want to go.

We talked through it a bit, me teaching him my method for making decisions, him telling me about competing priorities. He said he would probably go, because family comes first. However, his gut was telling him to stay. “What do you do,” he asked me, “When your life is not what you wanted it to be?”

“There’s a Hindu saying,” he continued. “If something good happens, be happy. If something bad happens, be happy. For whatever happens, it is coming from Krishna and is done for you.”

I don’t know if I agree with the saying. However, it reminded me of India, of all the smiles, celebration, and raw joy I have seen here amidst everything else. People here live that philosophy. I don’t know if I could, but it’s impressive to see in action.

I listened to the conversation some more, remarking to myself how great it was to sit and hear kids being so philosophical. That’s the eighth wonder of my world; getting to know people, especially kids, as they figure themselves and the world out.

“This place is so great.” I thought. “I mean, how often do I get the chance to sit with seventeen year-olds and talk philosophy?”

A mosquito bit me. Slapping it away, I started laughing at myself. I’m predictable. And lucky, I guess.

In two days, I’ll exchange this wonder of the world for the one waiting for me at home. See you all soon, you wonders of the world.


From 0 to 60

22 07 2008

After about four days of ashram life, I chilled out big time. Enough to remember what it feels like to be bored. I think I got in touch with my spiritual self, but it’s possible that my spiritual self is me at age five. In the stretches of time with nothing to do, I got slap happy. Surprising, I know.

Bonnie and I were reduced to making up our own entertainment, which included ridiculous games about our family (Menko Metaphors being a new favorite), and assigning each other spiritual names. Don’t worry; we were respectful and even into many of the ashram activities. There was a night meditation hike to a lake that is probably my favorite night in India. But the lack of food and the array of physical and spiritual activities reduced us to who we really are, and truth be told, we’re more goofy than serious.

When we left, we were uber-relaxed. And then, we hit the ground running. It’s like we have been drenched in everything we were denied for the four days. On our seven hour train ride, we were given oodles of entertainment from our fellow seat mates. We had a troop of boy scouts heading to camp, who didn’t like any of my suggestions for late-night pranks, because “They will punish us!”

And then we had our laughing friend. This woman could not stop laughing. Howling might be more accurate. She laughed and laughed at her own stories, at our stories, and at just about everything. She clasped my hand and brought her face close to mine as she said a few words, usually one of which I understood, and then dissolved in laughter.

She was also shocked to see me writing with my left hand and challenged me to a writing competition. I’m still not sure who won; the rules were unclear. In any case, similar to us at the ashram, she eventually chilled out and rested her hand on my knee as I read my book and she watched the countryside.

When we reached our destination, we went to visit an organization that one of Bonnie’s professors knows. The organization works with children who are former untouchables, and provides after-school tutoring, field trips, and more. We were greeted with a huge ceremony; it began with a personalized powerpoint, continued with several songs and classroom visits, and culminated in a ten act dance performance in our honor. So much for being bored.

The children were amazing and we felt so very celebrated for such unclear reasons. We’ve been told that these kids get  few chances to perform and feel celebrated themselves, so we were happy to sit and receive their talent, gifts, food, flowers and smiles. We hope our clapping and several impromptu speeches (“…you have some words to share? nudge nudge…”)  gave them something to remember; we know we will not forget our evening with them for a very long time.

Now, we’re in Kolkata. We’re here visiting our cousin, and if we ever wanted to go deeper into India, this is the place to do it. The city alone has the noise, smells, tastes and energy that India is known for, and our cousin Glen is the ultimate tour guide. He lives in a very humble neigborhood that is crowded and dirty and wonderful all at the same time. Glen, who is sixty-six, is spending a year volunteering for an organization that reminds me of Partners in Health. It is fascinating to see India from this vantage point, and impresssive to watch Glen in his work, as he tours us through leprosy clinics, TB treatment centers, schools and more. His energy and love for this place is contagious, and we are both thrilled to have a tiny connection to home in the midst of a scene that is indescribable. I have stopped taking pictures here, because I can’t imagine what would be an honest representation of this place.

It’s strange to think back to the ashram, where people spent hours just sitting, and now witness the desperate needs of this country. Today, we were at a clinic that also housed a school. As people lined up to see the doctor, the students began their morning yoga exercises. It felt so incongruous to me to see one group sitting peacefully and individually in the midst of another needing attention and community.  And yet, there is something to be said for a culture that values silence, self, and spirit.

 I am still trying to make sense of it.

Eye Exercises

17 07 2008

In the past few days, we’ve been doing a lot of looking. We started by searching for elephants in a wildlife preserve. We were told we’d be lucky if we found any animals, it being the monsoon season and all. And by the way, someone asked, “Aren’t you scared of leeches?”

The answer was yes. Absolutely. But with some protective leech gear and tobacco powder (incidentally, tobacco repels leeches), we were willing to give it a shot.  As soon as we spotted the first leech on my shoe, our anxiety grew. We spent the next part of the trek looking down. Leech after leech after leech appeared. We were caught between a rock and a hard place: look for animals or fight off the leeches?

Our guide saved us. He rarely talked, but he would freeze in mid-walk, his eyes widening and his ears literally perking up when an animal was near. Then, he would bound toward the animal, causing us to drop all our leech fears in the mud and run behind him. Back and forth, from animal sighting to leech almost-biting, we trekked.   The staff at our hotel called us “very, very lucky,” and they were thrilled to add elephant to their “Animals Seen Today” list. On the other hand, they refused, depite my prompting, to add leeches.

From there it was onto Varkala, a beach town reminiscent of San Francisco in the 1970’s. I can easily imagine it overrun with tourists drumming and drinking mojitos. But now, everything is half-awake; buildings are torn down, restaurants are closed, and there’s not much to buy anywhere. It sort of feels like we are seeing this town at dawn, as it slowly and reluctantly yawns, stretches and joins the day.

There wasn’t much to see, so we sat on the beach and faded into a very ordinary day. Soon, we began to witness a recurrent scene on the beach. It was a funeral procession of sorts. That’s not the right name, but I don’t know what else to call it. It was more like moments.

Four different times, a man carried ashes on his head and threw them into the waves. Immediately, he would jump under the waves himself, and then the others in his group would join, washing their heads with the mixture. In the same breath, the children in the group would begin to jump and laugh and run with the waves to shore. Almost immediately, the same men who performed the ceremony grabbed a child and played in the water. There were tears and there were squeals of delight. I felt like I was glimpsing death through new eyes. It’s a version that holds excitement and newness in the same hand as the sorrow and pain. It was truly a sight to see.

Now, we’re at an Ashram doing yoga eye exercises. I feel funny even admitting that. It’s the same way I feel about writing a blog; it’s trite, self-indulgent and bizarre. I’ve wanted to do a spiritual retreat for awhile, and I’m thrilled about the yoga, but honestly, at times, I am rolling my eyes at myself.

I’m trying to see past it all, trying to do the exercises our teachers teach us, to find what is it I can get from simply stopping for a few days. A rare feat for me. However, after day one, my butt hurts from meditation and I dread the chanting.

On our first day, we were ending with a ceremony, and while all forty people respectfully sang, chanted and prayed, I noticed a cat coming up on stage. It jumped up on stage as a man held a candle and  acknowledged gods or swamis or something. During the holiest piece of the program, the cat began to meow. As we all bowed down to the stage to end with a prayer, the cat literally came to the edge and meowed at us.

I tried to hold back laughter. Why was I the only one laughing? I wondered. How could they all not see this? How could they not tell that we were bowing down to a cat? I didn’t get an answer, but it was clear that all seemed able to look right past the cat and find the spiritual moment they came for.

Guess I need to keep working on my eye exercises.

Salutations to the Son in Jewtown

13 07 2008

How’s that for a title?

Bonnie and I just spent some time in Cochin, which is a fishing town almost at the tip of India. A place where many waters converge. Interestingly, it’s also a place where many religions converge. Today, I heard my first Muslim call to prayer, we visited a section of the city called Jewtown, and we learned Hindu chants and yoga poses while sitting under an altar to Jesus. The fact that such diversity is found in quite possibly the most peaceful place in India, is a real testament to the spirit of this community.

Maybe it’s the yoga. Bonnie and I started taking a class here, but because we’re here during off season, the yoga class turned out to be a private lesson for the two of us. Our teacher is hyper-eager and expressive, and there are times when we both have tried not to laugh as he explains a certain pose or instructs us on what we need to do better. Though we have both been subject to his corrections, during our last round of Salutations to the Sun, he began to reprimand Bonnie in particular.

“You are making one big mistake,” he began, putting his face close to hers, “You are not going slow.”

Bonnie nodded with rightful confusion, as she was doing each pose slower than I was. Still, he continued to instruct her.

“When I say slow, I don’t mean like slow. Some people eat food like this.” He mimicked a person slowly eating with a spoon. “I mean you should go like this. This is medium.” He then sped up his pantomime.

“So,” Bonnie asked cautiously, “You want me to go faster?”

“No, slower! Like this!” Again with the speedy pantomime. Again Bonnie repeated her question. Again with the reprimand.

He seemed troubled by her questioning, so he began another line of reasoning. Bonnie, apparently, was not taking the Salutation to the Sun pose seriously enough. Didn’t she know that the pose encompasses everything? Didn’t she understand that it gives you life, helps you breathe, heals your liver and cures you of asthma, stroke and all possible ills? As the lecture continued, I nodded with him at Bonnie. Come on, Bonnie, we encouraged, let’s take this seriously.

Bonnie agreed to try again, and we did a few more Salutations to the Sun. Bonnie’s were indeed slower, and he beamed at her, exclaiming, “Yes. That is the right kind of slow.”

Our travels in India continue to result in much laughter. My friend James told me I would love India because of the English; it would give me, he explained, many opportunities to interact and joke with people. What he didn’t fully convey is how many Indians would match my desire to laugh. Everyone seems ready and overwhelming willing to join in on the fun.

Yesterday was one of our many exchanges. Bonnie and I were walking down a street, and Bonnie, in her fantastic way, started giggling loudly about something I said. One man, started laughing and laughing with Bonnie, and then he said to me. “I need to know the joke! You have to tell me!”

I tried to say that we were just laughing, because my previous comment wouldn’t translate, but he didn’t believe me.

“Yes. You have a joke! She is laughing! Tell me the joke!” He demanded, grinning.

“I don’t have a joke.” I promised.

“You have no joke.” He looked at me intently. “But you have two eyes.”

“I do have two eyes.” I agreed.

(I’ve gotten this comment several times about my eyes. I’ve also heard my eyes described as “one black, one white”; “one big, one small”; and “Is that what you call hazel?”)

“I need a joke! I need to laugh!” He was so eager that I scrolled through my brain looking for something that might translate. Finally, I landed on this.

“What does the word dressing mean to you?” I asked.

“It is putting on clothes. And when you prepare the chicken to make.”

Close enough, I thought. I’ll give it a shot.

“Okay, what did the chicken say to the oven?” I asked.

“Tell me! Tell me!” His eyes widened at the prospect of laughing.

I delivered the punchline. “Shut the door, I’m dressing!”

He loved it. Not sure if he just wanted to laugh or if he really got it. He bent over laughing, and then exclaimed, “You need to sit! I need to give you girls tea! You need to stay with me!”

We were off to explore Jewtown, so we couldn’t stay too long. But we agreed to stay and laugh a little longer with him. That’s India for me in a nutshell. We walk. We stop. We talk. We laugh. Walk. Stop. Talk. Laugh.

It’s the right kind of slow.

Deja Vu

8 07 2008

I keep feeling like I have been here before. And indeed, I found one or two or maybe three Abderakhmans already. None fully compare, but all are keeping me very happy.

Bonnie and I spent four days in Mysore, a town which is pronounced exactly as you think it is. As it is an incredibly relaxing place, and a center for yoga and massage, I find the name inappropriate.

In any case, Mysore, like Marrakech, is known for its market. On day one, Bonnie and I wandered through the colors. Amidst the piles of vegetables, flowers and fruits, dozens of boys came up to us, trying to get us to buy things, and most often, to go their uncle’s shop to see how they make incense. When I said “no thanks, maybe tomorrow, or I don’t really like incense,” most eventually ran off, but one, who was by far the oldest of the crew, walked and walked with us. The more I said, “No, thanks,” the more he began to whine. It was an actual whine. Finally, after at least twenty minutes of plain old whining, he left.

On day two in the market, he found us again, and immediately, his face became pouty and his whining began. The kid was about nineteen, and his whine was so classic, I had to laugh. I wanted to say to him what my sister says to her three year old: “I can’t hear you when you whine, Maneesh. How do we ask for things?”

On day three, he rounded a corner and caught me talking to a different seller. He sized me up, preparing to make his face, and I burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it. Going up to him, I shook his hand and began to whine. “Can you please come watch me make incense?” I complained.

He broke into a huge grin and responded without missing a beat. “Yes, please! I’ve been wanting to see forever!!! Take me to your shop! Why can’t we go there now!”

Maneesh turned out to be a great one. A giggler and a joker. And quite a good incense maker, I’ll have you know.  

Even better was finding Adil. He is a seller on a quiet strip of stalls, and right when I saw him, I felt like I knew him. With a sweet smile, he began a conversation, and automatically, I reached down to pull up a stool. By the end of a half hour, Bonnie and I had received wonderful recommendations, conversations and respite.

Today, I decided to go visit him again and sit with him for an hour or two. When he saw me, he handed me a seat inside his shop, ordered some chai, and I helped him make sales while we sat and laughed and talked. He wants to write a book on homosexuailty in India, and he answered all my questions about politics, religion and health care in India that I had been storing up from my week of travel.

Adil also recommended a lunch spot for Bonnie and I to go to, but when we arrived, it was ridiculously packed. Further, the system to wait for a table was rather unclear. Our best guess was that when a table opened up, it was a free-for-all to claim it. (As in you best just sit down on top of the people who are still eating if you truly want to secure your spot.) Turns out, we were right. Just before we all but gave up, a sweet Indian family sized up our table-claiming abilities and took pity on us.

“Look,” one daughter began, “We will get this table next. We will have two extra seats. You sit with us.”

Their son, a seventh grader with horny-rimmed glasses and the biggest smile, was thrilled when we accepted the offer. I talked with the son about things like Ferraris and lawn tennis, and he was desperate for us to come stay with him, and see his toys, games and sports club. The invitation is quite tempting.

Truthfully, the people I have met are some of the my all-time favorites. They have sweet, huge smiles, and they give head nods like there is no tomorrow. There is a gentleness here that continues to surprise me. Sort of like we’ve all been friends for years, and for a moment, we’re reunited.

I’ll end with this. We hiked 1,001 steps up to a Hindu temple today. The hike and the temple themselves were amazing, but at the top, there was also a saying. It said something like, “If you think you’re been here before, you were. Your life repeats itself every 5,000 years.”

So, all my feelings of deja vu are merited. And fortunately, I’ll clearly be back to Mysore, at least in 7008. The good news for the rest of you should be obvious: you have been here before and will be again. Let’s hope sooner rather than later.

Whenever you come, enjoy. And please, try the mango juice.

I think that what you are looking for is me…

4 07 2008

Bombay. The city is bizarrely familiar to me. I had heard so much about how different and exotic and crazy India is that I am still slightly surprised to walk around this city and feel, more or less, at home. It reminds me of Morocco in many ways, so much so that I am having twinges of loneliness for my friend Abderakhman in Marrakesh. As we traverse through the city, I keep having flashbacks to the day Abderakman and I met, and I’m half-expecting to run into him again in the same way.

I didn’t really have a choice about meeting Abderakhman. I was completely lost in the medina in Marrakesh, a labryinth of stalls that proved impossible to navigate. My fellow teachers and I had been in Morocco less than a week, and we were not yet comfortable with our French, with the chaos, or with the feeling of not knowing exactly how each day would end.

Enter Abderakhman. As we turned down a narrow passage filled with rug sellers, searching for some sort of exit, he stood up in his stall and waved. “I think,” he began gently, as he walked out to greet us, “that what you are looking for is me.”

The rest was history. He laid down a rug, prepared a tagine, and entertained us for hours that night. We sat in the medina after all the booths had closed down, laughing, eating and reclining on rugs and pillows. I remember thinking that I had found my first home in this very foreign-feeling world, a world I described then “as a place I could never have imagined, even if I had tried.”

As I walk around Bombay, I miss him for the first time in years, and I find myself looking for him inside shops and booths. Or, maybe I’m just looking for that same feeling, for someone or something to say, “I think that what you are looking for is me.”

The first juxtaposition….it’s all familiar and not familiar. People have told me this is the land of opposites. So far, I’ll concur.

Take yesterday, for example. I walked by a sweet Indian dad taking a picture of his family. He was looking at me with that leading eye, the one you use when you are silently asking someone to take a picture for you. I approached him and offered to take his camera, and he nodded emphatically. However, as I reached for it, he backed away quickly, and his family surrounded me on all sides.

“Move in closer,” he demanded. “No, you, get in the middle!” The instructions continued. “Let’s do one more!”

A bait and switch, and the photo shoot began. After that, Indian after Indian lined up to take another picture with Bonnie and me. We managed to shut down the photo-taking business quickly, as it was for everyone’s own good. I mean, come on. You don’t want us in your pictures. We frankly don’t look that good. We’re sweaty, sticky and still jetlagged. Trust us. We are no Bollywood stars.

Or take the Indian buffet we had today. Contrary to the States’ version, we just sat, and a variety of waiters came by and loaded up our plates with dish after dish. Bonnie and I tried our best to keep up, but we were no match for our attendants. They looked fairly disappointed in us when we held up our hands in defeat. One shook his head when passing us the dessert, as if he didn’t think we had yet earned the right to end the meal.

It’s our last day in Bombay. Tomorrow, we’re heading south, off to a world that I cannot yet imagine. I’m not even going to try. But I will let you know when I find my next opposite, or better yet, my next Abderakhman.