18.02.2013 - 13.03.2013 30 °C
"India really pushes at you," Danielle said. We were walking down the side of a busy road in Ubud after finishing a cooking class focused on Balinese ceremonial (holiday) foods. Danielle and two of her friends from Melbourne were showing us their favorite coffee house in town. Bali pushed at us gently. This trip was the first time in our travels when the very color of our skin broadcast the fact that we were foreigners, and further cues easily underscored the case that we were tourists. "Taxi? Transport? Where you going? From what country, ma'am? Have a look! More sarong? Another batik? Massage? What size? More colors inside! Yes? Yes? Yes?" As we walked down the street, we negotiated a gauntlet of men and women eager for our comerce. "No taxi, thank you," was quickly rejoined with "what about tomorrow? Where you go? What's your program?" They were incredibly persistent and the hotel staff were in on the game. A casual conversation about who we were, and what we' d like to see quickly threatened to become organized for us faster than we could blink. The tiniest crack in our facade would give them a way into our wallets -their personal ATM- spewing money through a stuck-open sphincter. Of course things were delightfully cheap, but the incessant offers and inquiries were maddening. As they pushed gently, how not to push back rudely with irritation?
The saving grace here was that they DID take no for an answer, were happy to give directions, information and help, even for free. After the pattern was realized, we could relax and concentrate instead on the beautiful smiling faces and sweet manners of so many people. Imagine walking down the street in Chicago, Wheaton or Naperville and making smiling eye contact and a soft bow with namaste hands to everyone you pass! Their offers and our repeated refusals became after a few days a private joke we all shared. One taxi driver held a sign in front of his chest, as did many of the men, which read "TAXI." When we said "no thank you," he flipped the sign around and it read "how about tomorrow?" We all three laughed. The Balinese believe that their forthcoming reincarnation is partly dependent on their attitude and reactions to their present circumstances and so they practice smiling inside and out, no matter what. Usually we said "no," sometimes we said "yes", to transport, to an article of clothing, and with neither obsequiousness nor casual off-handedness, they provided what they had offered skillfully, efficiently, and at a comfortably low price. On both sides we expressed sincere gratitude.
At the coffee house in Ubud, Jo, Danielle and Steven shared their stories and we realized that all five of us were at a place in our lives rethinking our priorities. We noted it is the Year of the Snake, a year for shedding old skin. All of us were changing careers or reorganizing the allotments of our time and resources to allow opportunities for the things that truly enrich us. We want to nurture the parts of our lives and relationships that make us vibrant, healthy and creative. The biggest focus of our convesation was letting go of the things that we really don't need, especially the attitude that pemeates our corporate, consumer cultures of constant material and financial increase. Steven reminded us that excessive and uninhibited growth is the mark of cancer. When we focus instead on identifying what is most important, we can separate out the extra trappings that we thought were unavoidable and yet drain the energy of our lives. It was a marvelous, supportive, energizing afternoon. As we broke up our group, we simply wished each other an amazing life!
As I start writing this, I am on a train from Delhi to Agra (and the Taj Mahal)! The first two days in India, as Danielle predicted, have pushed us hard. We are too powerless here to push back rudely, even if we would want to, so our psyches instead pull us inward. Instead of looking out with curiosity and excitement, we are frustrated, tired, nervous. Anticipating even before our arrival the logistical challenges that faced us, we signed up for a 15 day tour with a small group. This is quite uncharacteistic of our do-it-yourself, freedom-in-the-moment mode of travel. After one day in New Delhi we were glad we had. We made abortive attempts to leave our hotel on our own, at first just to wander and get a feel for the neighborhod, and later to visit a prominant site. The map our hotel manager gave us was useless, and in any case pulling it out for a look drew an instant and constantly cycling barage of touts. In every other place I've travelled, the "kindness of strangers" as Blanche DuBois put it, has been something to rely on. Unfortunately those first two days, "the kindness of strangers" in every case was someone telling us that wherever we wanted to go was closed, too far, or not very interesting. Instead, they would be happy to take us to a shop that had a good discount! Every single person who approached to help us had the same scam. Unlike in Bali, we couldn't relax here. Even a private driver arranged by our hotel to show us some sites not on our tour had to be repeatedly and insistently refused the chance to take us shopping.
Knowledge that both historically and contemporaneously our cultures co-create the disparity between us that leads to these behaviors and interactions does nothing to help us cope in the moment. Jim and I started speaking brokenly in French when we were on the street so no one would believe we understood their English. We were advised to absolutely avoid eye contact, or any sign of comprehension or notice whatsoever. How dismaying to travel somewhere and deliberately refuse to engage the local inhabitants just as a survival method! A woman who has come to India three times says she loves it "visually, not personally." Yet traveling in a group, often with private transport, without navigational worries isn't really enough in itself to deliver peace of mind either. For starters, there is the traffic. (For a video of that, go to Jim's facebook page). The congestive assault of motors and horns is both fascinating and brutal to body and soul. As well, the human drama on display in public is disconcerting as often as wonderful.
Nonetheless, India is filled with places of sublime serenity. Pocket after pocket of clean green surrounds ancient structures layered with sacred meaning and the accumulated spiritual treasure of daily reverance. In every way, India has a complexity and density defying rational digestion. This place shifts under our feet and arround my heart, refusing cursory summarization or even description. I recall an old impression of Hindu mythology and folktales which challenge a simple understanding of good and evil, of hero and monster. The stories here are long and convoluted, and it's hard to tell if there is a moral or model to teach at all.
Of course, as Jim noticed, India can be chopped up into beautiful images - into photos cropped in such a way to accent bright colors, exotic clothing, tools and accessories, livestock in charmingly unlikely places, fruit and wares stylistically arranged, smiling women and children, ascetic holy men. But widen the lens and you also see endless piles of trash, waste from human and beast, dust, beggars and touts. The same is true for all the senses. The smell of spices and mouth-watering food intermingles with sewage, urine, brackish water, gasoline and smoke from burning trash. The sound of chanting, of music, of children and birds is drowned out frequently by vehicular horns that shatter the eardrums. We have tried to keep our hands to ourselves and away from bacterial hazards, so I cannot even comment on the textures available to us. Places of serenity, holiness and historical import are surrounded by congestion and stress, or at the vey best by "extreme livliness." Combinations and contrasts of India are delivered like fractals - you know there is reason, a mathematical computation at its core, that there is predictability involved somewhere, but the end result is a display that seems random, ephemeral, perplexing and irresolute.
As I finish writing this piece, we have been in India eight days and Delhi is far behind us. "The real India is in the villages," our guide told us. Certainly our experience in the small towns and villages of Rajasthan has been much more to our liking. We have come back to people whose faces we can look into with curiosity and shared joy. Children wave eagerly as we walk or ride by. They insist we take their photos, and whole families pose for us. We've had the chance to enjoy local temples and sit alongside people during their daily spiritual practice. How easily we slip into the common greeting here of hands pressed together as we say "namaste." Accepting a hot cup of chai from a roadside purveyor has an element of trust difficult to convey. The chai was boiling but how well did his son wash those cups? Absolute strangers in the market offer their hands for us to shake, and it sometimes seems like such a bridge to cross just to take it. We are fanatical about the hand sanitizer, and hope we don't seem offensively fastidious. But what a joy to feel that pressure, that touch from someone who lives in this place so different from mine, and who calls this place home.