Friday, July 23, 2004

Palm Moon Rises & Spiritual Surfing Experiences... 

Over 20 years of war have distracted the Sri Lankan government from spending much on infrastructure improvements, so to get to Arugam Bay we had to choose between a two and a half day trip on public transportation or a six hour drive in an overpriced cab. I think I should start buying cabs in Sri Lanka. Luckily our excitement about Arugam Bay helped us forget about getting gouged.

The first stop on our six hour "Bounce-a-thon" was the local snack store. No one spoke English, so I just pointed at what looked like plain bread rolls and asked for some Indian Tea. Lesson number one: There is no "Indian" tea in Sri Lanka. It's "Sri Lankan" tea, and calling it anything else is not a good way to make friends. India sent its military over to Sri Lanka in 1987 to try to help resolve the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict and didn't do much other than lose 1,000 soldiers before heading back to India. This, combined with thousands of years of Hindu-Buddhist competition, made my mistake even worse. Luckily our rolls arrived before I could step on any more cultural toes. I was starving and a little over-eager to put bread in my mouth instead of my foot, so by the time my mind registered that the bread role was full of a red-hot chili pepper vegetable mix, it was too late. I started sweating within three seconds and unfortuately all our Sri Lankan hosts had to quench the flames was boiling hot SRI LANKAN tea and ameoba-filled tap water. I've been tearing my rolls in half before eating them ever since.

The drive to Arugam Bay wasn't that bad, even though my spine thought I was on a crappy Kenyan road the whole time. I was too busy gaping out the window to notice. Sri Lanka's climate is quite the anamoly. Look at a map. It's a tiny little island. (Don't worry, I didn't say that to the tea guys) What's crazy is that while it's the wet season on the west side of the island, it's the dry season on the east side. We literally drove from monsoon-soaked rain forests to bone-dry fields of dead grass in less than seven hours. The best part of this story is that the surf is good in Sri Lanka year round. Since it was all chop on the monsoon side, the waves were crystal clear with clean faces on the east side. They were breathtaking.

Several internet sites (Such as http://www.arugambay.com/. I wonder if they're objective?) rank Arugam Bay as the one of the top ten surf spots in the world, yet the war and the beach's isolated location has kept the epic point break relatively uncommericalized. Unfortunately, Paul and I weren't the only travelers who read that little blurb in Lonely Planet. The first couple hostels we checked out were sold out with long term residents from Australia and Israel. They booked the elevated, beach front, straw huts for six months at a time for years in advance. What a life.

After about a half hour, our smiles and explosive laughter landed us a great two story shack across the road from the beach. There's something cool about sleeping on the second floor of a tropical shack. Maybe it's because it's harder for the armies of wild dogs to break in, or maybe it's just Hollywood conditioning, but I felt like I was in a movie while walking through the sand up to our shack with a nine foot long board under my arm.

The wild dog opera put on a stunning performance during our first night, but we were too busy clapping mosquitos to death to even notice. I guess that's the part of those beach paradise movies that gets cut out before the final edit. As Paul and I plopped down on pillow seats next to one foot high Asian tables the next morning, we were greeted by our old Southern California buddy Jack Johnson on the sound system. Wow. How awesome. We enjoyed our first real (Not paper thin and grease-covered) omelette of the trip that morning, but I was too busy smiling and staring at the waves to taste it.

As I paddled out into cleanest water I'd seen since Mozambique, I couldn't get over how easy it was to catch waves on this break. There was no battling moutains of white water, inhaling gallons of saline solution, or bouncing your nose off your board as the waves flip you backwards. All you had to do is walk up the beach to your favorite part of the wave, paddle out, catch a 200 to 300 yard ride, step off your board onto the beach, walk back up, and paddle out again. It was almost like an amusement park ride. My shoulders barely felt the strain of paddling.

Jay Leopold, Eric Cusick, and the rest of my San Diego surf buddies have always described the spiritual nature of surfing with the reverence of Catholic bishops, but after five years of surfing the beaches of San Diego and over four months of surfing the east coast of Africa, I still just saw it as a recreational sport, like basketball, volleyball, or anything else you'd do on a free Saturday. That all changed in Arugam Bay. It felt as if every nerve ending in every part of my body was hyper-sensitive. I could feel every drop of water, sense every change in the breeze, time every wave. I felt connected to something way bigger than myself. As my board slipped down the face of each wave, I felt like I was sliding down the chest of the ocean. Like god was breathing and I was riding her breath. All of a sudden I completely understood how someone could book a beach shack here years in advance. Wow, just writing about it makes me want to go back there tomorrow.

In between sets, Paul and I managed to connect with tons of other travelers. We became quick friends with Chris and Morty, law and medical students from back home in the States. It was a trip to find out Chris and Morty had never heard of "Round the World" tickets, but I guess it's understandable since I didn't know they existed before landing in Johannesburg last year.

After a couple days, as superb as life was in Arugam Bay, for some reason we felt like it was time to move on. It sounds backward, but it's almost as if I started feeling guilty for lounging in such a comfortable tourist destination. Was I too focused on the next destination to enjoy where I was? Does travel have to be hard and crazy to be worthwhile? Ugh, that sounds like my ego talking. Maybe I'm just addicted to learning, and my mind clicks off when it gets too comfortable. No matter what it was, after three days of surfing the best waves of my life, Paul and I were booked a minibus to South Sri Lanka with Chris and Morty. Luckily for us, the massive Friday night beach party just so happened to fall on our last night in Arugam Bay. Imagine a sixty foot ring of flaming torches, a fully stocked bar, mountains of six foot speakers, a LA style DJ, a packed sand dancefloor, waves crashing in the background, the moon rising from behind the palm trees. Epic.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Violent Buddhists & Elephant Music Videos...  

The next morning, after spending a whole $1.50 to stuff both our faces with "Idli" rice pancakes and spicy sauce, we boarded a train that felt like it was riding on pogo sticks instead of wheels. I bounced so high one time my head hit the luggage racks. Five hours later, as we pulled into the central-Sri Lankan town of Kandy, I was two inches shorter and a whole lot more appreciative of the relatively smooth-riding Indian train system.

Sri Dalada Maligawa (AKA: "The Temple of the Tooth") attracts the most visitors to Kandy, especially during the week we were there. The Temple of the Tooth supposedly holds an actual tooth of the Buddha, saved from his funeral pyre by a devout follower. Thousands of Buddhist pilgrims flock to Kandy each year, culminating in a huge ten day "Tooth Parade" called the Kandy Esala Perahera. As much as we would have liked to watch thousands of dancers sharing the stage with over 50 dressed up elephants, the waves of Sri Lanka's east coast were calling our names. Paying fives times the normal room rate for ten days wasn't all that appealing either. We did manage to sneak a peek at the casket holding the Buddha's tooth though. It wasn't half as impressive as the hundreds of devout worshippers chanting all around us, showering the Buddha statue with fresh lotus petals.

I can't claim to be a Buddhist, but there was something magical about sitting on a wooden floor crafted hundreds of years ago, breathing in nose-tingling incense, feeling the vibrations of the massive Buddhist drums, and soaking up the gentle syncronized voices of worshippers repeating a ceremony practiced for over eight centuries. As peaceful as the Buddhist tooth ceremony was, I bumped into a couple contradictions while researching Kandy. The Buddhist ruler who supervised the construction of the lake forming the centerpiece of the town, publicly murdered any chiefs that resisted his lake building project. He also built an island in the middle of the lake to house all his concubines.

History is full of hypocritical leaders, but this one got me thinking. So if you're the leader of a peace loving, violence hating civilization, and you hear that a rival civilization is moving in to enslave or wipe you out, what do you do? What would Ghandi do? Does non-violence only work where civilization and "Rules of engagement" already exist? Is it OK to use violence to protect a non-violent society? I have a feeling I may be bumping into the same logic religious leaders used to justify the crusades. Mmmmm... I don't have this one figured out yet.

On our way out of town we made time to stop by the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage about an hour outside of Kandy. Working elephants are used all over Sri Lanka, but orphans, elephants who can no longer work, and those who can't survive in the game reserves, end up at Pinnewala. I saw plenty of elephants in Africa, and Paul and I even got the chance to ride one the night before, but there was something special about getting to play with a tiny baby elephant and watch a herd of about 75 of the massive beasts play in the river.

Just before we hopped back into our mini-van, about twenty Bollywood film gurus stormed the river. No one really knew was going on at first, but when the prissy pompadore of a leading man strutted on the scene we started to put two and two together. They were filming a scene from some exotic Bollywood movie or music video, and they wanted plenty of elephants and jungle in the background. I haven't laughed that hard in a while. The music was great, but watching the leading man and the leading lady trying to primp and tease their doo's while stumbling around on slippery river rocks in front of a crowd of bored elelphants was too much to take. Just wait until you see the pictures.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Masala Movies & Flying Hunks of Steel  

There's something exciting about flying, and our trip to Sri Lanka did now dissapoint. Just take a look at a jet engine next time you're at the airport. Pure elegant genius. Maybe it's just the engineer in me, but I still get excited about riding through the air inside a big hunk of steel. As cowardly as it sounds, I did think twice about jumping on a plane sponsored by a country that still hasn't figured out how to get reliable power, water, and sewer systems to all it's citizens, but I decided to focus on thinking happy thoughts and just go with it.

The night before our flight, Paul and I squeezed in a THREE HOUR Bollywood movie called "Gayab". The Indians call Bollywood's products "Masala Movies" because they're a mix of just about everything. There's usually two or three guys in love with one girl, tons of dancing, a little comedy, maybe a war scene, a soundtrack worth of songs, and about ten "Almost kisses". Real lip-locking on the big screen is still taboo here, so they tend to get veeeeeeerrrryyy close, and then hug at the last minute. I actually like the G-rated style in India. Maybe it's because my sisters are 14 and 17 and I'd rather have them watching intense hugging in India than soft core porn on Sex in the City.

Anyway, the Bollywood experience is not to be missed. It won't be the same for you without the cell phones going off, people cheering, talking, and taking intermission in the middle, but if you happen to see "Kala Paui", "The Legend of Bhagat Singh", or "Gadar" down at Blockbuster, my Indian buddies say they're awesome.

Paul and I landed in Sri Lanka's capital of Columbo around 11PM, and we didn't make it to the downtown YMCA until arond 1AM. As we shook the guard awake we realized that India isn't the only country full of buildings right out of "12 Monkeys". As we walked past three floors or rotten mattresses, shattered glass, and snoring bodies, I started wondering if we'd been duped by a flashy travel magazine.

During short flight over the Indian Ocean was able to bone up on my Sri Lankan history. The island's 19.8 million inhabitants are 74% Buddhist, but that hasn't stopped them from filling the past century with years of bloodshed. While I was in Africa I remember reading about the President sacking the entire parliment and declaring marshall law due to massive conflicts with the "Tamil Tiger" rebels in the northern half of the island. The rift between the predominantly Hindu Tamil northern population and the predominatly Buddhist Sinhalese southern population runs deep, and the loss of over 25,000 lives hasn't done much besides wear both sides down. The last cease fire was declared in December of 2001, but the last suicide bombing was about three weeks before we showed up, so we were a little on edge as we struggled with the lock in our closet of a room in the YMCA. I guess it wouldn't be much of an adventure if everything was easy.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Holy Elephants and Chuck Wagon BBQ's... 

The next day Paul and I woke up with no hard plans, but a slight inkling about flying to Sri Lanka. A couple weeks earlier we'd crossed paths with two English medical students en route to an internship on the tiny teardrop-shaped island, and visions of tropical beaches had been dancing in our minds ever since. I'm not sure if the recent political drama or my childhood memories of Marco Polo were driving my curiosity, but "Sri Lanka" just sounded cool. About three feet outside of our hotel room door a sly tuk-tuk driver offered to drive us anywhere we wanted to go for free. All we had to do was walk through five different commission-based souvenir shops. The driver claimed that if we spent at least ten minutes in each shop, he would earn enough to buy a new outfit and we would get a personal chauffeur for the rest of the day. Three shops and fifteen pressure-cooker salesmen later, we were ready to go back to bed. "Special price! Good price! Just for you! How much you want to pay? Blah, blah, blah".

In the midst of the chaos, Paul spotted a "Chuck Wagon American BBQ" billboard at a major intersection. American BBQ on the East Coast of India? Nice. As we strolled into the caucasian-dominated four star Sheraton, I think they could smell us on the fourth floor. We never really feel that grungy in the budget dives we sleep in, but in that starched-collared haven of the rich, I felt like I was staining the walls just by looking at them. When we finally made it to the "Chuck Wagon" restaurant, our enthusiasm had waned. The chipper waitresses in TGI Friday's-style outfits tried to distract from the fact that a Denny's style burger and fries would cost us over three times more than the nicest meal we'd had in India to date. It also hit us that we didn’t come all the way to India to choke down a double-cheese burger in the middle of a cow-worshipping culture. Since we managed to resist our urges toward imitation Americana, the world conspired for us and delivered our most amazing South Indian meal to date. The fresh-squeezed Pomegranate juice provided the most unique taste, but the lentil pancakes and curried eggplant came in a close second.

On our way back out to our personal taxi, the pristine poolside lounge seemed to be calling our names. Unfortunately they must have smelled us coming, because the pool guards swooped on us like we were invading street vagrants. "Room number please?" I thought about making something up, but by then most of the beautiful poolside tourists busy laughing and pointing at us, so the risk was no longer worth the reward. South Indian food for lunch...and humble pie for desert.

Two tourist shops and 55 "No thank you's" later, Paul and I found ourselves sitting across from the Sri Lankan Airlines ticket agent. We had no real idea what Sri Lanka had to offer, so after reading a couple travel magazines in the waiting room and grilling the ticket agent, we managed to justify the $180 dollar expenditure. In less than seven hours we'd gone from a slight gut attraction to a confirmed departure date. Sweet.

Before leaving the East Coast for good, Paul and I wanted to squeeze in a night or two in the tiny former French settlement of Pondicherry. As we boarded the local bus for the three hour haul down the coast, I could almost hear my knees moan. The train cars may be a bit cramped, but Indian buses were definitely not designed for 6'6" travelers with 30-pound backpacks. Fortunately the drugged up, drunk Indian next to me kept my mind off my compressed legs by constantly passing out on my shoulder.

While the hundreds of miles of road under construction in India will serve the economy well, they don't do much for safety until they're finished. We passed two freshly smashed buses and three destroyed tanker trucks in less than 150 kilometers. I definitely won't be complaining about stiff train seats any longer.

By the time we pulled into Pondicherry, Paul and I were looking forward to a short vacation from our vacation. Pondicherry came through with flying colors. Whatever the French did with this community, they did it well. Clean roads and buildings surrounded us on all sides and the entire town butts up against a gorgeous seashore. Our third floor hotel room gazed out over massive breakers and the layout of the hotel amplified the ocean sounds to the perfect frequency. Mmmmm...my heart started beating slower just thinking about it. After bicycling through the ancient French neighborhoods, meditating at the Aurobino Ashram, slurping down fresh mangos mixed with vanilla ice cream, and getting blessed by a holy elephant, Paul and were charged up and ready for our Sri Lankan island adventure. Beach breaks here we come...

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Stealth Photos and Public Beatings... 

With a population of 6.4 million, it's own language, and India's second biggest film industry, Chennai is the main hub for commerce on the southeastern coast. Unfortunately, all Paul and I cared about was finding the "Spotless" rooms described in the Lonely Planet and planting our faces in "Spotless" pillows. The insect hordes of Puri must not like the smog, because our room lived up to our high expectations. The sheets were free of black stains and the bathroom wasn't belching sewer gas...it's the little things that matter.

After we soaked up some shuteye, we booked ourselves onto a half-day city tour to efficiently hit Chennai's highlights. Every city seems to have its share of temples, churches, and former colonial buildings, and while it's easy to start thinking they're all the same, they're not. The toughest lesson is to accept that it's impossible to see EVERY cool sight recommended by our new friends or described in Lonely Planet, and still finish this trip in time to see my little sister Shaun graduate from High School next June.

We started the morning with a drive-by of the main fort and a sprint through the Chennai Snake Park. The snakes and crocodiles were impressive, but they wouldn't let us pose with the man-eaters, so the park automatically took a back seat to the croc-park in Zambia. Next stop was the Planetarium, and after our experience in Calcutta, I was looking forward to a nice cool nap. Luckily for my mind, and unluckily for my sleep schedule, the announcer spoke good English and gave an excellent presentation on the history and future of Mars exploration. It's crazy how comfortable we become with events that would have been unbelieveable first page news fifty years ago. How many of you paid close attention to the robots exploring mars over the last year? I'm guessing a lot less than watched man walk on the moon. From television to automobiles to planetariums...I guess everything becomes normal after a while.

Our last stop was the largest Hindu temple in Chennai. The thousands of carvings and vibrant colors etched themselves in my memory, but I couldn't get over the fact that a sacred Hindu ceremony was treated like a tourist attraction. Our guide assured us that all was well as long as we didn't take close up pictures of the holy men performing the ceremonial rites. I felt uncomfortable even being there, but I guess my semi-Christian upbringing has taught me to bow to religious ceremony with solemn respect and reverence. The Hindu religion seems much more relaxed and casual in some ways and more restrictive in others. All I know is that I have a TON more to learn about the religions of the world.

On my way back to the bus, I noticed some local teenagers holding their phones up towards us and laughing. It struck me that they were taking pictures of us with their handy-dandy new digital camera phones. Paul and I have both experienced the "Freak of the week" treatment in many parts of India and it's been funny most of the time. This time I felt myself getting a little fired up at these kids who thought they were pretty sly snapping away unauthorized portraits. I was able to douse my own flames by remembering how many strangers I'd photographed in the last couple weeks, but at least I asked first. Regardless, I appreciated the lesson and I will DEFINITELY keep asking for permission from my amateur models.

On our way back to the hotel, Paul pointed out a billboard with the slogan "Books are lighter than bricks". The message fit the scene considering there were at least three brick buildings under construction on that same block. I'm not sure how much I'd like the ad if I were a mason on my way to work, but the message to the youth of Chennai was clear. Education is your way out. India may have more than its share of the people living in poverty, but I've noticed that it also has more than it's share of unstoppably determined students. Some of them study eighteen hours a day to get into the top Indian universities and then study even more!

During several conversations with college and high school kids from all over India, I've been blown away by their level of focus and discipline. I remember reading about a General that said the best way to motivate an army is to burn the ships after landing on enemy shores. These kids never had a ship to burn. For some of them, it's either success in school or a life on the street. What if you could find a way to develop that kind of drive? What if you could attack life with the attitude of an immigrant? Some of you probably do, but at times I find myself coasting by, just doing enough to compare favorably with my peer group. It all comes back to the overplayed theme of taking what we have for granted, but I've written "Develop the drive of an immigrant" in the front of my journal to remind me of the fire I saw in those kid's eyes.

Later on that evening I left Paul to try and find the fastest Internet connection in town. As I was wading my way down a street congested with around five people per square foot, I saw a woman come sprinting out of a phone shop followed closely by a man in his thirties. I couldn't hear what the woman was saying, but the man was screaming in Tamil, the local language of Chennai. The woman spun to face the man after a couple steps and before she could protect herself he planted his shin into ribs with a vicious roundhouse kick. She screamed as she bounced off the adjacent car and stumbled back up to face her aggressor. At this point the man switched from physical abuse back to verbal abuse, all in full view of over a hundred city dwellers. No one did anything.

At this point I wasn't thinking very clearly. I'm not sure if it's the fact that I have two little sisters or that I was raised primarily by my mother, but I was pulling off my backpack and struggling towards the wifebeater as fast as my legs would carry me. I didn't know what I was going to do, all I knew is that I wanted to put this man in his place. I wanted him to feel the same pain and humiliation he had just inflicted on this woman. I wanted to make him bow down and beg her for forgiveness. Was it ego driving me? Had I watched one too many John Wayne movies? Was my eye for an eye mentality the most "Enlightened" way to handle this situation? At this point I wasn't doing much analysis, I just wanted to turn my inner frustration into action. Just as I got within three steps of the coward and yelled out to him; an older couple grabbed me by the arm and pulled me onto the sidewalk. The businessman whispered urgently in my ear that this was none of my business. The victim was his wife and it was their affair. The old businessman's wife agreed and they both emphasized what a bad person the wifebeater was, how he wasn't the typical Indian, but how under no circumstances should I interfere. They said it would only make it worse for the woman once I left.

At this point the fighting couple had moved back into the phone shop and I was left spinning. What would I really have done anyway? Gotten my butt kicked? Gone to jail? Taught the coward a lesson? You could argue that you can't convince someone to give up violence by inflicting violence on them, but deep down, if I had it to do over again, I don't think I'd let the old couple stop me. Whether I would have gotten involved myself or dragged a police officer to the scene I don't know, but I wouldn't have let him get away with it. Is that culturally self-centered of me? Would I be inflicting my values on someone else when I'm a stranger in a strange land? Probably... but some values should be universal...

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Sexual Hyperactivity and Litter Problems... 

If you happen to look at a map of India this week, take a quick peek at how far Puri is from Chennai. This is something Paul and I should have studied a little harder. We'd heard other traveler’s claim it was a 19-hour train trip, but for some reason that information didn't really sink in. It's a good thing we didn't get our hopes up, since the trip ended up taking TWENTY-FOUR hours! Falling asleep in one town and waking up in the next is one thing, but spending 24 hours of your life sitting on the same vinyl-covered plywood plank tends to lead to mental and physical chafing.

Fortunately, Paul and I managed to pull our co-travelers out of their "Stare at the white person" trances long enough to have a couple good conversations. Mohammed sat next to me and willingly took on the role of my Indian educational instructor. He's well trained for the job considering he's GE's lead Human Resources manager out of Hyderabad. I'd heard plenty about the thousands of 1st world jobs streaming into India, but I had no idea how much outsourcing was saving these companies. Mohammed has an MBA, manages thousands of people, and earns less than $500 per month. Assembly technicians on GE's factory floor average between $200 and $300 per month. Considering the same technician could cost GE as much as $300 PER DAY in the States, you can see why the outsourcing won't be stopping anytime soon.

Our conversation bounced from topic to topic, but one of the more controversial issues we discussed revolved around the apparent obsession with sex in India. Obsession is probably too strong of a word, but I was curious why Mohammed wanted to know how much sex I'd had in India, how much sex I had in the States, whether I'd had sex with all the girls I had in my pictures, how easy it was to have sex with American girls, etc., etc. Mohammed was disappointed to hear I didn't discuss these topics with anyone, much less a stranger I'd known less than fifteen minutes, but his giggling, aggressive, slithery interrogation inspired me to dig right into the issue.

I'll be the first to admit that sex is an obsession around the world, but over the past 1-1/2 months I can't remember an internet cafe that wasn't packed with eager-eyed patrons glued to screens full of hard core porn. Almost every female traveler we’ve met have some story about an Indian man asking them how much sex they have, asking them if they'll take money for sex, making lewd comments, etc. I know this massive generalization doesn't apply to all Indian men, or even most of them. All of my good friends from India are individuals of impeccable class and character. Nevertheless, something still seemed a bit out of place.

Luckily for me, Mohammed didn't take offense at my question at all. He admitted that he hadn't pondered it much, but after some deliberation he concluded that several factors probably contributed to the sexual hyperactivity of the Indian males my traveling friends and I had come across. The easy answers are obviously sexual advertising, provocative movies, erotic videos, etc., but Mohammed also theorized that the relative conservatism of the Hindu and Islamic cultures was also a factor. While pre-marital sex is becoming slightly more common in India, the overwhelming majority of women will not consider intimacy without wedding vows. In most families they risk being disowned for such behavior. This means that all the men and boys who aren't married yet or aren't successful enough to support a wife, are destined to year after year of lonely Saturday nights. Mohammed and I also agreed the combination of Britney Spears videos, "Sex & The City" reruns, and the provocative clothes worn by female travelers (Tank tops) could give an Indian man the wrong impression about American sexuality. There are no big surprises in this analysis, but I was just happy to have a local confirm my suspicion that sex might be more of an obsession, or at least more of a public obsession in India. We have plenty of over-eager white and blue collar porn lovers in America, I'm just not used to seeing them enjoy their material in public or listening to them interrogate strangers about sexual preferences.

Just as Mohammed and I were finishing our conversation, dinner was delivered. Paul and I typically stick to fruit and biscuits on train rides, but 24 hours was too long for me to survive on that piddle. After slugging down my mystery vegetable meal, I looked around for a place to stash my 12" x 20" disposable plastic serving tray. As I stood up to find a trash can, I noticed the three college students across the isle calmly slip their trays out their window and into the adjacent farmlands. A quick glance around the car confirmed that the entire train was doing the same thing. My mouth dropped open and I stared at Mohammed. He just shook his head and told me there wasn't any other system. This was the way things were done.

I'm probably a little more sensitive than most considering my semi-environmentalistic upbringing in Northern California, but the idea of thousands of passengers on hundreds of trains casually tossing their trash onto the tracks, fields, and rivers of India made my stomach turn. Litter is a problem in every city, but this sort of institutionalized, indifferent, environmental damage seemed a bit ridiculous. I know I can't understand the complexities behind any of these issues without walking in the shoes of an Indian politician, but when I see the crap on the beach and the trash on the train, I have trouble quelling the angry questions spinning through my mind. Many more things in India inspire me than frustrate me, so I think that's why these issues catch my attention. There is unending potential in this nation, and I'm definitely looking forward to watching the Indian people build their country into all that it could be.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Squirrel Cage Moped's and Beach Latrines... 

There are some days that I miss the freedom of the Land Cruiser Shannon and I had in Africa, but there is something really relaxing about letting someone else do all the driving. We fell asleep in Calcutta and woke up in Puri. You gotta love the efficiency. Before Paul and I passed out on our favorite plywood plank beds, we had the chance to discuss Indian culture with a great local family. We learned a TON, and they laughed at the fact I was taking notes, but one of my favorite comments was that Indian women are more "Tolerant" than American women. The woman of the family, Shirzo, admitted that she had never been to America, but she emphasized that Indian women go into marriage expecting it to be hard work, not just a paradise of romance. I'm sure there are hundreds of good and bad reasons why India's divorce rate is less than half that of the United States, but it was still interesting to hear Shirzo's argument. She also informed us that arranged marriages are becoming less and less common in the upper classes, but it's still a HUGE deal in the mid to lower classes. Their son is starting graduate school at University of Maryland this fall, and Shirzo claimed that choosing a bride is completely up to him. Paul is staying in touch with the family, so we'll see what happens when their son brings home a tattooed, pierced, dyed, cussing valley girl.

Our 1950's "luxury" liner pulled into Puri station at around 5:00AM, and the touts were already circling like starved sharks. Impressive initiative to say the least. All Paul and I knew about Puri was that Kiki LOVED the hotel she was staying in. The Z hotel used to be one of the Maharaja’s mansions, and the ocean views, clean sheets, and high ceilings impressed us right away. It's pretty funny that we get excited about simple pleasures like clean sheets and fresh towels. Anyway, as soon as we arrived, we beat down Kiki's door for a reunion hug. She was a little sleepy-eyed considering the sun was barely up, but she humored her loud, clumsy, American friends with a smile and a squeeze before heading back to bed. I discussed this in Africa as well, but the constant bombardment of new people and places makes finding a familiar face amazingly satisfying.

After grinding through an impressive breakfast of omelets, pancakes, toast, tea, juice, and water, Paul and I walked about a hundred meters down to the seashore. There were plenty of kids playing in the waves, but we decided to walk through the fisherman's village just north of our hotel to get a feel for local life. About 25 meters later, we realized that we made a poor choice. At first I thought the small brown balls and lumps along the water line were just sticks or dirt, but when I saw a villager squatting on the sand in front of me, it all came together. I'm not sure if it's because there's no sewer system or because no one wants to dig a hole, but the ENTIRE fishing village of at least three thousand people use the seashore as their bathroom. After about ten minutes of walking we couldn't find a place to put our feet and it wasn't safe to walk in the surf either since landmines kept bouncing off our ankles. Ugh.

At this point I could feel myself getting pissed. How hard was it to dig a big hole once a week? I wanted to grab the men crapping all over the beach and shake the hell of them. What were they thinking emptying their bowels five feet from where their children were swimming?! Then I realized how pointless and pretentious it was for me to get fired up. Did I know what it was like to live the life these villagers lead? Was I going to stay here a month to help them find a solution or just whine and complain about it? I’m working pretty hard to keep things in perspective and remove my own cultural bias, but this one was tough to swallow. Paul and I are intense ocean lovers, so even with all the nastiness, we still couldn't resist diving into the waves...after we walked three kilometers upstream of course.

That night I learned that the owner of the Z hotel was a member of the Indian parliament, so we did our best to make sure the decision makers of Puri knew a beach latrine isn't exactly a tourist attraction. We also learned that since Puri is one of four major Hindu religious centers, marijuana can be legally used for spiritual purposes. Paul and I didn't partake in the festivities, but it was a trip to sit back watching a member of the Indian congress selling tourists green bud. They weren't exactly practicing Hinduism, but I guess I can see how watching Fight Club on a massive flat screen with ear-popping surround sound qualifies as a "Spiritual Experience". Over the next couple days we became good friends with two French guys, one Swiss guy (Originally from India), four French girls, and a crazy Spaniard who was originally from Argentina. Toss in Kiki and six motorcycles and you have the ingredients of an excellent beach vacation, landmines or no landmines. My squirrel cage scooter wasn't exactly a "Motorcycle", but as long as we were going downhill I could keep up. I had to rev the engine to get the horn to work and the windshield seemed to attract clouds of insects into my mouth, but at that point nothing could wipe the smile off my face. A couple days of racing through lush countryside, swimming in 78 degree ocean water, waving at squealing children, munching on mystery curry, and gasping at towering stone temples gave our batteries just the re-charge they needed. However, after four days worth of dead insects accumulated on our mosquito net, bed bugs covered our backs with welts, and all our friends headed north, Paul and I decided it was time to move on. I guess all good things must come to an end...

Friday, July 09, 2004

Colonialism and the Indian Bill Gates... 

When we weren't working, Paul and I found plenty of attractions to keep us busy in Calcutta. Kiki left us to travel down the East coast right before we started volunteering, so we filled the co-traveler void with a wide assortment of Australian, French, Spanish, and American volunteers. We've become fairly addicted to stepping out onto the sidewalk with no real plan and just going with whatever comes. Each small decision drastically changes our string of memories for the day, and we LOVE it! "Someone said that park was cool? OK, let's do it." "You feel like just riding a bus until it stops and then trying to find our way back? Nice, I'm in." "Do you smell that? Me too, let's go taste it." We work hard to have no expectations, and as a result, each day is perfect, no matter what happens.

During one of these random explorations, we stumbled upon the Victoria Memorial, one of Calcutta's most famous attractions. The central exhibition hall was full of about ten thousand "Hand fans", and while I enjoy a good hand fan as much as the next guy, I wasn't exactly on the edge of my seat. Apparently the hand fans were pretty expensive, because they were guarded by over thirty soldiers, fully armed with fifty year old bolt action rifles. I think a couple of them had swiped some fans to beat the heat, but I wasn't about to ask them about it.

When I finally found the permanent part of the museum, I realized I could spend three days in the main hall and not finish reading all the displays. I've become more and more fascinated by history over the past two years, so I didn't stop studying until the infantrymen were chasing me out at gunpoint. My favorite section of the museum described colonial life in India. Did you know that the Dutch East India Company, the Danish East India Company, and the Armenians all colonized Calcutta before the British East India Company showed up? I guess people weren't all that into original names back then. I was surprised to learn the Armenians were colonizers. That somehow didn't make it into my 10th grade world history class. Go figure.

At one point I caught myself fantasizing about what it must have been like to set sail from England en route to discover new lands. We have guide books, railroads, and friendly locals. They had hostile kings, star charts, and sail boats. Crazy. Of course, just when I was getting really impressed, I read that one house full of four English officers had over 110 servants. Rough life. It's strange to think that all the colonial domination took place so Europeans could have pretty clothes, spicy food, nice perfumes, and tasty wine. "In their prosperity will be our strength. In their contentment, our security, and in their gratitude our best reward." - Queen Victoria. The Queen made colonialism sound amazingly noble, but the museum made it clear that it was really just about money. Some would argue that everything is still all about money. Now we just have the World Bank and IMF strong-arming former colonies into liberalizing their markets so their former colonizers can continue get rich. Same story, new decade.

I'm obviously not educated enough to pass judgment on international finance, but issues regarding "Foreign Direct Investment" are all over the front page of every Indian newspaper I've read this week. The more India allows foreign companies to expand ownership in certain sectors, the less likely it is that Indian companies will ever become strong enough to compete. That means that eventually foreign companies will sell everything to the massive Indian domestic market, and all the profits will go overseas. Consumers will be happy, foreign investors will be happy, employees of these companies will be happy, but India's GDP will stagnate and there will never be an Indian Bill Gates. Does it matter? What if you lived in America and couldn't ever buy anything made by an American company? Would that bug you? Is it an issue of ego or economics? Am I the only one who likes thinking about this stuff? I hope not. On a different note, when the 4th of July rolled around, Paul and I were FIRED UP to hear that there was supposed to be some big bash hosted by the American Embassy at a super-posh Calcutta hotel. Apparently all we needed was our American passports. Nice! Unfortunately, when Paul, me, and thirty of our closest friends strutted up to the sign in table in our crumpled, sweaty, nasty, stinky volunteer-traveler clothes, the three suit'n'tie security guards called in reinforcements. The fifty military personnel with spotlights out front probably should have tipped us off that this wasn't an open party for every American in the city, but I think the heat was cooking our brains. We battled and kissed their feet for a while, but the frantic anti-terrorist look in the guard's eyes convinced us to leave. I know security is a good thing and we live in a dangerous age, but sometimes safety takes the fun out of everything. (Don't tell my kids I said that.) After volunteering, site-seeing, eating, and spending our way around Calcutta for almost ten days, Paul and I were ready for our next challenge. We considered heading north to the foothills of the Himalayas or east to the massive deltas of Bangladesh, but we finally decided to head south to Puri, a small coastal resort town on the east coast of India. In fifteen minutes, over a hot cup of Indian tea and some banana pancakes, we had completely re-shaped our trip and all the unique memories we will create in the coming months. Life is good...

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Gnarled Hands & The Miracle of Life... 

Nabo Jibon…I know I will never forget that name, or the short six days I spent gaining perspective there. So many thoughts are rushing through my mind. I'm not sure where to start.

Maybe it would be best to begin with a rundown of our typical activities. Our days with Mother Teresa fell into a comfortable routine rather quickly. After mass, breakfast, and bus mania, we were on the job a little before 9AM. It seems a little inappropriate to call what we did a "Job", since the Brothers of Nabo Jibon seem to do all the real work with the children. They never leave, while the volunteers do a drive by once or twice a day. Nevertheless, the Brothers insisted that volunteer participation, the constant stream of fresh faces and energy, forms the lifeblood of the program.

Each of the sixteen kids needs love in a different way. Some need you to hold their hand, while others need you to help them learn to walk on severely deformed legs. Two of the kids had enough motor skills to play stunted games of kickball, and three of them just enjoyed rides around the yard in their wheelchairs. Lunch started around eleven, and at least half the kids managed to feed themselves, even if it was just a process of mashing rice into their mouths with gnarled hands. Since more food ends up on hair and clothes than in stomachs, all the kids head to the showers next. Our last real activity includes helping the Brothers dress the kids and put them to bed for their afternoon nap. As I grabbed shirts and shorts out of a mish-mash pile of used clothes, I couldn't help laugh at how much time people spend trying to look good. These boys were happy to have their rear ends out of the wind, even if it meant they were wearing a pink T-shirt with little unicorns on it. Once all 16 kids are boxed into their bunks, we head upstairs for prayer and hearty, simple meal of rice, sauce, and fruit.

As I looked around the lunchroom at the Brothers, I was humbled by their peaceful, selfless, dedication. There's a good chance that the men and boys they will spend their lives with may never leave the walls of Nabo Jibon. At this point dark thoughts rushed through my mind. Wasn't it hopeless? Most of these kids would never be able to walk, talk, hear, see, or understand what is going on in their world. Shouldn't the Brothers be pouring their sweat and energy into men and boys who have a chance to lead independent lives? It's not the same, but it reminded me of the debate raised by Dr Kevorkian. When is it better to end a life instead of sustaining it? Ugh...I felt evil and heartless to even let those thoughts pass through my mind.

Then the quote I read at the Motherhouse rushed into my consciousness. "See the face of God in everything, everyone, everywhere, and all the time...". Whew...those words changed things for me. I couldn't claim to know the face of God, but I could appreciate the miracle of life in these kids. Their muscles could still form a smile on their faces, their stomachs still pulled nourishment from their food, and their bodies still found a way to grow. Even those who could do none of these things still possess something that mankind cannot artificially recreate...life.

Whenever I find myself torn in an argument like this one, my Mother always asks me "What would a loving person do?" Everything changed for me when I looked into the eyes of those children with love and wonder instead of fear and hopelessness. I started to wonder what they were thinking behind the mask of their body. Were they like the lepers...completely coherent behind their deformities? Their five senses might not function, but what if that forced them to develop new parts of their brain? If humans weren't born with ears, we would have no concept of sound. We wouldn't know what we were missing, and we would probably lock someone up if they started claiming sound existed. What if there's something else for our minds to pick up that we don't have the equipment to recognize yet? What if there is such thing as a sixth sense? Heck, maybe there are over 100 senses! What if the children’s challenges helped them find something we have no concept of? What if they could read my mind? I'll never be able to prove any of this, but after a while I could definitely sense a difference in the way the kids reacted to my presence. Maybe I had become a familiar face, or maybe they could tell I saw something different in their eyes. I can't explain it, but it felt perfect...

On a different note, the last week has given me a new appreciation of life's simple pleasures. It's a happy day at Nabo Jibon when a child is able to take two independent steps or eat an unaided bite of food. What has to happen for you to feel happy? Make a million dollars? Make love? Make someone smile? Do you know? Call me a crazy, but I think we should make it real easy to feel happy. What if just waking up alive made you happy? What if not needing a wheelchair today made you happy? What if reminding yourself how many outstanding people you have in your life made you happy? I've probably stood on the gratitude soapbox one too many times for some of you, but every day I remember to start by counting my blessings, somehow turns into a pretty amazing day. Coincidence?

Another thing that struck me is how fragile we all are. One bump on the head and I could be Nabo Jibon's newest resident. Everyone with the capacity to read this blog is blessed with so many gifts it's ridiculous. Are you using your gifts? As I sat next to those children a sense of obligation seemed to wash over me. As Spiderman would say, "With great power, comes great responsibility". Deep down I think we all know we "Should" be doing more to help those in need. I think that's why we're all so uncomfortable when a sore-covered beggar asks us for spare change. When it comes to volunteering and community service, we seem rationalize away our responsibility in a million ways..."I'm too busy"..."That's why I pay taxes"..."I don't know what to do"...etc, etc. I know the reasons because I’ve used them all. Heck, I don’t even feel worthy to write about Mother Teresa’s, considering I only put in six real work days there. Regardless, I read once that the best place to meet incredibly successful people is to participate in community service activities and attend charity functions. The people who make time to give back are typically those who are able to see past the chains of the "work-produce-consume" cycle to the benefits of contributing to something a little bigger than themselves. After seeing the faith and love in the eyes of the Brothers and Sisters, and meeting over thirty compassionate, intelligent, and successful volunteers, I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Losing Karma & Gaining Perspective... 

Since it was our first day on the job, Paul and I were anxious to be on time. We arrived at the Motherhouse at 5:45AM and took our places in the main hall. All of the volunteers are invited to take mass with the Sisters from 6AM to 7AM before having breakfast together and heading out to one of the six main volunteering facilities. Paul isn't Catholic either, but we both find that sitting in the back and taking in the whole experience is a great way to start the day.

Nabu Jibon is two buses and 45 minutes from the Motherhouse, so we polished off some bread, bananas, and chai before following Phil, a 19 year old volunteer from Iowa, out to the bus stop. When Paul and I first laid eyes on the crumpled heaps of tin foil masquerading as buses, we couldn't imagine ever riding on them. However, after about four hours on the buses of Calcutta, we can't believe we considered missing them! The buses truly look like they're held together with dental floss, but we haven't found a better way to get close to the pulse of the city. The combination of the people, the smiles, the potholes, the horns, the street chaos, and the Hindu shrines on the dashboard, keep us smiling and laughing for the whole ride.

Besides the bus rides, our first two days of volunteering have been full of one new experience after another. Like the leprosy clinic, Nabu Jibon is run by the Brothers, not the Sisters. The facility shows it age, but everything is immaculately maintained. As we walked up to the front gates, Paul and I had no idea what to expect. Neither of us had much experience volunteering, so we weren't sure if we'd be digging ditches or cleaning diapers. Either way, we just knew we wanted to help.

As it turns out, working at Nabu Jibon isn't as physically intense as we expected. Both days they've had us working with the boy's side of the center, and while all sixteen kids are severely disabled, most of our responsibilities center around just trying to keep smiles on their faces. Most of the kids are either deaf, dumb, blind, or all three, so the biggest challenge for us is really mental. I wasn't sure how I would react to dressing, feeding, cleaning, and playing with kids who have almost no control over their bodies, but it's come a lot more naturally and been a lot more rewarding than I ever anticipated. Kids are kids, and we were all there once. After I relaxed and stopped trying to stay busy the whole time, I started really enjoying the experience. Like everyone, these kids just need a little love. Whether that comes through a walk, a hug, a song, or a touch, it doesn't really seem to matter.

When I first sat down to write this entry, I wasn't sure if I would mention this experience at all. As I was standing over the Burning Ghat in Varanasi, an old man told me the best way to erase Karma is to tell people about it. The experience with Nabu Jibon is more about taking what life hands me rather than building up Karma, but I can't hide from the fact that it feels good to say I'm volunteering with one of Mother Teresa's programs. Is that ego based? Maybe. Would I have done it if I was told I had to keep it a secret? Absolutely. They say that true giving is anonymous giving, so maybe I'll move on to "True giving" next. Until then, I still have at least five more days at Nabu Jibon, so I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Leper Colony... 

The next morning we decided to charge the India Museum and dig into the history of the nation we were just beginning to explore. At the gate we were slightly frustrated to learn tourists pay FIFTEEN TIMES as much as locals. I guess it's worth it if it gets more young Indians interested in science and history.

It was probably a mistake to hit the British Museum first since I'm sure the East India Company already snagged the best Indian artifacts for their homeland. Even so, we enjoyed the rooms and rooms full of everything from Irish deer bones to ancient Aryan doorways. The one thing that struck Paul and I was that the curators were drilling mounting screws through the feet of thousand year old statues and leaving them outside to face the harsh Indian humidity unprotected. I will be the first to admit that I'm clueless when it comes to artifact preservation, but it still seemed strange. I guess I can understand why museum funding might be at the bottom of the city's budget when they're still trying to get their water and sewer systems to work. Maybe it isn't such a bad thing that some Indian historic treasures are stored outside the country.

That afternoon we decided to make our way to Mother Teresa's "Motherhouse", to learn more about one of Calcutta's most famous residents. Wow, what an experience. There is nothing gaudy or glamorous about Mother Teresa's tomb, and I'm sure she wouldn't have it any other way. The "Motherhouse" is a functioning orphanage, and the place is bustling with activity. All of the sisters were extremely gracious, and we spent over two hours just reading about Mother Teresa's life.

Even though my father was raised Catholic, I had a very non-religious upbringing. Part of me is bummed because I missed out on a ton of religious education, but at the same time I'm thankful because I've been able to research spirituality from a fairly unbiased point of view. Due to this lack of religious allegiance, I felt a little strange hanging out with Catholic nuns and sitting in on mass, but the sisters assured me that all was as it should be.

In reading about Mother Teresa's life, some of her words truly impacted me. She encouraged her followers to "See the face of god in everything, everyone, everywhere and all the time". Powerful. What if I could learn to see the face of god in all those touts and beggars that swarm around me every time I step foot in public? How would I treat them then? They're just trying to survive right? What if I treated them with love, instead of treating them like a distraction?

It was also surprising to hear Mother Teresa state that "Happy are those who have not seen, and yet believe...". This goes back to the argument that if you could prove the existence of God, there would be reason for faith. Similarly, I've heard that "You don't see, and then have faith...you have faith, and then you see...". My hyper-cognitive, scientifically slanted mind has trouble accepting these arguments, but there are days when I think they make perfect sense. On my way out the door, this caught my eye: "The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace".

One of my biggest regrets from Africa was not finding a way to volunteer. This quote brought that realization back into the front of my mind. So what was I going to do about it? Was I going to take in all of this suffering like a teenager at the movies, or was I going get in the game? Paul and I had discussed the possibility of volunteering at some point on the trip, and this seemed like the perfect place. As soon as I made up my mind, everything quickly fell into place. The next day we went through volunteer orientation, and we told them we would go anywhere and do anything as long as there was a need for us. The lead sister told me that they were always short-handed at Nabu Jabon, the home for severely mentally and physically handicapped men and boys. When I told her to count me in, her response was:"God bless you. They will treat you like a God there". I never realized it before, but there is something inexplicably powerful about having a Catholic nun say "God bless you". It gave me goosebumps.

The next day happened to be the day off for all the volunteers, so the Motherhouse had set up an optional "Field Trip" to the leprosy clinic. It's crazy how things work out. I was pretty ignorant about leprosy, so the thought of heading out to the clinic seized up my stomach with anxiety. Over the past year, whenever my gut starts to do backflips, I know I've stumbled across a growth opportunity.

During the one hour trip out to the leper colony I had plenty of time for my imagination to create all kinds of scary images. As usual, my mental projection was MUCH worse than reality. In 1958, Mother Teresa started her leper colony under a tree. 46 years later, her dream has grown into a complex over two kilometers long. Throughout India and the world, leprosy has a horrible image. According the Brothers that now run the clinic, the fear is based on ignorance and the fact that the symptoms are so visible. Even though untreated cases can require the amputation of the extremities, the brain and spinal cord are unaffected. How horrible would it be to watch your body fall apart while maintaining complete sanity? Couple this with the fact that lepers are typically shunned by their communities and even their families, and you can see why Mother Teresa was compelled to take action.

While we were waiting outside the clinic, I was surprised to hear that leprosy can be spread through the air by sneezing patients. Once it's airborne, the virus can survive outside the body for several hours in humid climates. As my heart began to pound in the +/- 99% humidity of Calcutta, our guide assured us that only a few of the Brothers have caught leprosy from the patients. Nice. Luckily, leprosy can be cured as long as it's caught early enough. Did you know that? I didn't. Unfortunately several cases aren't diagnosed until the disease has progressed too far. The doctor at the clinic typically performs up to 18 surgeries per day when he's on site.

The main focus of the leper colony is to give lepers a place to live out their lives in dignity. The patients weave their own clothes, raise their own livestock, and grow their own crops, both for consumption and for sale. I have to admit that I was listening very carefully for any sneezes, but I couldn't help but get inspired by all the smiling faces and hard working people in the colony. The leper stigma is undeserved, and my experience at the colony gave me even more respect for the legacy Mother Teresa left behind.

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