Nakia has a new blog documenting post-trip matters. Check it out here.
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I used to take it for granted when friends of mine from small or troubled countries like Bosnia or Guatemala would tell me how difficult it was for them to travel. I used to feel helpless to their problem and while I sympathized with them, I often wondered what they expected me to do. But as much as we pride ourselves in being thoughtful and empathetic individuals, the disadvantage of others don’t really hit us until they are at our doorstep.
So now in Europe, the area I was waiting to get to more so than anyone else on the trip (I fell in love wıth Spain once and never got over it), of course I am the one who cannot get in. Irony is a whıte silk scarf. It has the abılıty to tuck you ınto places you dıdnt plan to be ın.
After waıtıng on lınes for two days, then sleepıng on the sıdewalk ın front of the embassy wıth 20 other people (maınly Serbs, Albanians, and Macedonıans transıtıng though Bulgarıa to vısıt theır famılıes) who’d gotten there ahead of me (I arrıved at mıdnıght), and after ınvestıng $345 ınto Bulgarıa’s border securıty (i was refused the fırst tıme) so that they mıght be able to make ıt ınto the Schengen Terrıtory by 2011, I can now get ınto Bulgarıa … at least for 10 days.
Onto Serbia - It took two days. Thanks to the pre-emptıve emaılıng of Peter, Jım, and Drew’s dad Rod Spidahl, along wıth my personal emaıl requestıng a vısa dırectly to the consulates and Foreıgn Mınınstry ın Serbia, we were able to get dırect permıssıon from Belgrade so that when ı showed up at the consulate offıce, they already knew ı was from The Bahamas and ushered me ın ensurıng me that ı would have the vısa ın one day.
So now, we can go as far as Serbia. The rest of Europe ıs questıonable as ı have yet to apply for a Schengen visa. I wıll do all that I can ın order to achıeve thıs so that ı can contınue the trıp.
I hope that vıewers of thıs websıte and followers of thıs trıp can help by sendıng emaıls to those offıcıals they belıeve would be able to assıst. There ıs legıtımacy ın numbers. It ıs easy to dısregard one emaıl, but a lot harder to dısregard 10. I would certaınly apprecıate your support ın anyway.
Nothıng ıs certaın and ı am aware of the dıffıcultıes of securıng a Schengen vısa as a cıtızen of a small country. Europe, like America, is concerned of ıllegal ımmıgrants and ı am applyıng from outsıde of my country of resıdence. I hope that some day, the world can come up with a better, more balanced and comprehensive way of securıng borders and allowıng people of all countries to travel and explore the world we live in more freely.
Here is a list of people I am emailing. I invite you to join and write letters of request and support:
FRENCH CONSULATES SERBIA French Ambassadeur : son exc. M. Jean-François TERRAL Internet : http://www.ambafrance-srb.org Courriel : email@example.com; http://www.ambafrance-srb.org/spip.php?article1229 (you have to post an email directly on the website)
BOSNIA French Consulate Internet : http://www.ambafrance.ba Courriel : firstname.lastname@example.org MIAMI FRENCH CONSULATE Consul général : M. Philippe VINOGRADOFF Courriel : email@example.com Sylvie Sebbane firstname.lastname@example.org
You can contact the FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTRY by e-mail directly, using the below link:
CONSULATE OFFICE Serbia Consul General: János Kollár email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
HUNGARY EMBASSIES Sándor Papp Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary: email@example.com www.mfa.gov.hu/emb/belgrade CONSULAR SECTION Bosnia and Herzegovina Consul: Zoltán Juhás firstname.lastname@example.org www.mfa.gov.hu/emb/sarajevo
Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary: Imre Varga email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org www.mfa.gov.hu/emb/sarajevo FOREIGN MINISTRY Consular Service IN HUNGARY:
Minister Göncz, MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS HUNGARY, receives Members of the Parliament every Thursday from 4 to 5.
Please, inform us about Your intention for private conversation a week before via the following e-mail address: mailto:email@example.com.
BOSNIA CONSULATE BELGRADE
Head of Consular Department Mr. Mitar Pavić, Counsellor
Krunska br. 9, 11000 Beograd, Srbija
+ (381 11) 303 82 04
+ (381 11) 324 10 57
+ (381 11) 324 11 70
+ (381 11) 324 10 95
Ms. Lepa Babić, Minister-Counsellor
Mr. Salih Bukarić, Counsellor
Mr. Jasmin Demir, Counsellor
Miss Kristina Barnjak, First Secretary
Mr. Elzin Gočobija, First Consular Employee
Ms. Ljiljana Stjepanović, Second Consular EmployeeSven Alkalaj
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovinainfo@mvp.gov.ba <firstname.lastname@example.org> +387 (0) 33281-101BOSNIA Federal Ministry of Culture and Sports Obala Maka Dizdara 2, E-mail: email@example.com
For whatever reason, I’ve gained about 16 lbs since I started this bike trip. It’s a good thing that means absolutely nothing to the people of rural India, where the more love handles peeping through the curtains of your sari, the better. Skinny married women are ostracized for staying skinny after having kids. The main priority of my new friends is to feed me.
“You eat breakfast, ma,” they say after wetting my palette with a seasoned cucumber and fresh coconut water, an appetizer to the real meal of coconut poongal (a kind of fried rice cereal) and chutney they sneak in at the end to make me stay. Is it possible for your stomach muscles to get strung out?
When I ask some of my unmarried women coworkers what they do for fun, they say that they go the temple to pray and buy jewels (fake gold earrings, bindis and the likes). Otherwise, not much. Life seems to be an endless cycle of cooking, cleaning, eating, working, drinking tea, eating, drinking coffee, chatting, eating, catching buses. And this is only amongst the women who have jobs. At least they have an outlet.
“You take more, ma,” as they refill my plate with another heap of rice and chutney. I eat so much here – in between meals, when I am not hungry, second breakfasts, second servings – that I wonder if there is any other social pastime.
True, alcohol is reserved for men. There is no similar social tool for women. It seems that friendships stop after marriage when women leave their childhood towns to live with their in-laws. Relatives and next doors neighbors seen in passing replace friends.
Men play cricket while women stay at home. Men go to tea kiosks to read the newspapers and catch up on the latest job opportunities. Women stay at home, where they get news from the neighbor, who is often their sister-in-law. Men migrate to urban areas like Chennai, or international job centers like Dubai or Singapore to earn salaries in higher currencies and escape demeaning farm work. Women stay home and wait for the checks.
My neighbor whose apartment has indoor plumbing and tiled floors, a luxury in this mud hut village, showed me pictures of her husband who’s been in Malaysia for four years. It wasn’t clear if he was making or selling the pottery he was sitting behind. I asked her if she had ever visited. She said of course not. Then served me a deep fried snack with tea (the tea is boiled in milk and strained through a filter).
When I left the fueledbyrice team in Kolkata, I joked that they would have fabulous adventures biking the Himalayas while I got fat down south. This was an omen.
But like I said, it’s a good thing fatness doesn’t matter in rural India. Even if I had the trimmest little body, I would be asked to cover it up in a sari or a salwar kameez or at least a scarf.
Cycling everyday with men for 6 months, I haven’t felt my womanness in a long time. And I like my womanness. I come from the land of consumer feminism where women make enlightened investments in cosmetics and fashion to procure their youth and sexuality so that they feel empowered. A recent Citibank ad in which a woman used her kitchen as a closet pinpoints this new postmodern feminism: I’m too hot to cook.
But after visiting Brian Heilman’s Muslim village in West Bangal, where I caused social havoc by wearing a fitted shirt, a below-the-knee flowing skirt with leggings underneath, AND a scarf, I was sharply reminded that yes, I do indeed have D-cups, and yes, they do cause erections. Men in another village were calling Shabnam’s (Brian’s boss) cell phone complaining of their discomfort.
Things haven’t changed down south, where people are mainly Hindu, more educated, and said to be more socially relaxed. My co-workers gasp whenever I wear Western clothes and they beg me to wear a scarf when the male staff are around.
I am no anarchist. If I want to understand a culture and the reasons behind it, I have to abide by its rules. I have to suspend my disbelief and let it unravel itself to me on its own terms. So I am giving myself time to fumigate my innate annoyance at the irony that men’s owns inability to control themselves is made the responsibility of women. I am waiting for the day that this salwar kameez and scarf feel less like the infernal insides of a camel’s colon and more like a natural more modest extension of my skin.
Maria, Brian’s roommate from New Jersey, said, that after a while, she felt naked without her full dress. I am too starting to feel odd whenever I walk to a kiosk to buy soap or the newspaper without my curves hidden. I don’t know if the cause is modesty or embarrassment or guilt. Sometimes, I don’t know what is right or wrong – a salwar without the scarf? A scarf over the T-shirt? Surely, I can’t wear the same two kameez’s every single day. It’s hard to feel sexy in a shapeless dress. Maybe I am oversexed. Maybe I should pretend I’m a Japanese meiko, and that sexuality is all in the mind.
Maybe I should just stay home and drink tea.
The women elected members of the local governance[i] with whom SCORD, my NGO, works, would shake their heads and yank me by the arm out the door. They are the leaders of self help groups (SHGs) which empower women by giving them a platform to support each other, address their issues with a unified voice, save money and receive loans for group and individual enterprises, train in income generating skills, educate themselves on their rights.
In such a patriarchal society, these women have had to work through that icky feeling of having done something wrong every time they left their homes to attend a meeting.
During the formative stages of SHGs in Tamil Nadu (a leading state for women’s rural development) in 2002, women regularly faced teasing and hissing when they “dressed up” on their way to meetings. Their mother-in-laws refused to take care of their children while they were away and asked blankly, “Who will cook when you are out there organizing?”Their husbands were interested in what, if not money, they were going to get out of it, and didn’t want them to go to another village to attend the meeting as they were often organized by the male directors of grassroots NGOs.
Yet, these women blasted on. Their need to control of thier livelihoods and the future of their children outweighed the odd feeling gurgling inside whenever they did something out of the norm.
It seems that everything about the unofficial marriage system is set for men’s ultimate domination: a woman must pay a dowry (which is illegal but still immensely practiced even in the cities) to the groom, which must be sufficient to avoid the wrath of abusive in-laws, she must move into her in-laws house often in another village and so is cut off from her own family, and a bride is preferred to be at least four years younger than her husband, and less educated.
Even the heavily clothed, ankle length sari seems the Indian equivalent to the impractical Japanese kimono in its symbolism of planting a woman’s feet firmly in the house.
Still, some resourceful women work it by pulling their saris up around their thighs while working in the fields. In the absence of husbands who have died or migrated for work, many women take up farmwork. Economic demands in a newly globalized society, much like industrialism during WWII in the US, are pulling women out of the house and into the workforce. SHGs or sanghas (the rights-oriented term) have become a necessity for these newly employed heads of the household to defend their rights and demand their needs.
Women’s rise to local governance in rural India, the only place in India where women’s leadership is a de facto reality with a 33% reservation fully implemented and taken advantage of (in Nagapattinam, a tsunami hit district, women make up 47% of the local governance), have extended those strides out of the home and into banks and classrooms and the offices of politicians.
Kanika Kaul, the Tamil Nadu state project co-ordinator of The Hunger Project, an international NGO that promotes women’s leadership and a ground up approach versus aid giving to development, said that her organization promotes women because they are the one’s at the basic level of society who would therefore understand society’s most fundamental needs the best.
Her organization has partnered with SCORD for three years to help rebuild the tsunami affected district of Nagapattinam with a stress on strengthening the local Panchayat and women’s leadership in such.
According to Kanika, women will fight for education because women know what its like to be deprived of their education as children. They know what its like to be dependent on their husbands and in-laws because without an education, there are very little jobs they can do. They want their children to have more opportunities. Women will fight for healthcare because they are the ones who have to take their children to get immunized at local public clinics. Women ask for clean water tanks to prevent illness in their families.
At the recent Gram Sabha (monthly Panchayat board meeting) in Nagapattinam, men board members pressed for better infrastructure and electricity to fuel the economy.
At a recent SCORD organized women’s leadership workshop, Panchayat women board members pinned alcoholism as an economic problem. They, the ones who balance the books at home, have done the calculations and deduced that their husbands’ chronic profligacy of 50 Rps at the wine shop, half his daily earnings, is driving their families, the village families, into perpetual poverty.
At this level of development at least, it seems as though men are concerned with the bigger structural problems, while women look at the problems that are more intimate and practical. And in this way, more sustainable. More responsibility is put on the shoulders of the needy rather than victimizing them into a perpetual position of asking for aid. Not that demanding one’s due benefits from the government is wrong, but until people understand what they really need as opposed to what they want, they won’t know where to properly allocate those benefits to procure real development.
Perhaps it is my womanness crying to be let loose from the swaths of cloth I must wear to stay modest in rural India. Maybe it’s the fat rolls. But sitting at this workshop and watching women work in a country where women’s leadership is not to be taken for granted, I suddenly felt a powerful sense of sisterhood. That maybe the womanness I was seeking to emblazon, the take-back-the-stilettos sex-powered feminism, was out of place.
Here, womanness lies in the powerful position of the traditional wife and mother, who understands society at its most basic level, because she lives at its most basic level. She knows how to manage its most basic resources so that they last, so that they benefit women, men, and children.
Here, a woman’s body image lies in its ability to provide for her children.
Both feminisms, and I do dare to call them that – the sex-powered modern and the subservient traditional woman – are valid as they are crafty. They both embrace the man-authored roles that have typically relegated women to subordinates and sexual objects respectively. They’ve willingly donned the aprons and the mini-skirts, but have inverted their roles into a female directed design in which women decide how they will play the cards they are dealt.
Like African Americans have changed the word “nigger” (at least among each other) from degradation to endearment, like GLBT individuals now use the formally degrading “queer” as a cool term to describe sexual ambiguity, women have taken a bad thing and made it good.
Identity inversion. Fat you’re matter doesn’t it. It doesn’t matter if you’re fat. Being fat is phat, yo. Love your curves, they love you.
It’s the exposure, the experience of the opposite, the possibility of an alternative, this widening of scope that gives us perspective on our lives. For the consumer-feminist who invests in diet-crazed beauty magazines to empower her sexuality, it’s sobering to know that real women invest their energy and money in bigger issues than the size of their waists.
[i] Sorry for the annoying usage of this seemingly contrived word. But “governance” is a term specific to Indian village leadership because, being so far removed from the central government decision making, and so reliant on non-governmental structures like grassroots, national, and international NGOs, youth groups, school groups, federations, self help groups, and sanghas (rights oriented SHGs), the term government is actually inaccurate, misleading, and non-inclusive.
Small Villages, Big Imaginations
I am big shit in this tiny farming village in rural South India. I am a foreigner and I have the default status of being knowledgeable in everything from computer programming and how to run a local NGO despite my educational or occupational background. I also have the added advantage of being black among the chocolate hued people of Tamil Nadu.
Holding their forearms up to mine, natives contently comment, “Same color.” They are thrilled that someone from the big big foreign land where everything is more developed, where there are jobs with higher wages, and where everyone is richer and more educated, with bigger houses and nice cars, is the “same color” as them.
In villages this small, imaginations are big. Most women get the news from their neighbors as they fetch water from the street pumps in the morning. Most don’t know where Europe is.
The men are more aware. They read newspapers, watch TV, and talk about the latest strike with their morning tea at the local kiosks.
They often leave their wives and children at home, and move to Malaysia, Singapore, or the Arabian Peninsula to rake in higher wages in the booming market for unskilled and semi-skilled Indian laborers. Daily, I am asked if I would sponsor someone to my country to find a job and work. I am then grilled about the types of jobs, working hours, salaries, and the visa procedures for an Indian coming to my country for work.
This is despite the fact that I currently have no job in India or at home in The Bahamas.
Though 99% of Tamil Nadu’s population has access to education, the tendency to drop out is still high. Teenage boys want to leave asap to start making money. Girls, who often achieve higher test scores and are generally more interested in learning, are often taken out of school because their parents deem their education not a worthy investment since they will just be married off to live with their in-laws. While the West views tertiary education and health as indicators of development, the new wealth made through the emigration process is often apparent only in the size of the house, its fixtures, and the types of vehicles (car? motorcycle?) owned. The men who return build lavish two story concrete mansions across the street from their neighbor’s grass huts, thereby fueling the imagination of the youth to take the chance and go abroad. Life must be better in this distant land.
Even the people working at my NGO seem to get some sort of guilty pleasure out of the popularity they garner from their association with SCORD. My friend Gunar said that everyone knows her and Nadiya (her partner) as the two SCORD field workers always riding their bikes around the area counseling and collecting data. The men like the officiality of sitting behind a desk, writing checks, and managing projects in a village where the main occupation for men is farm labor. They too, are big shit in a small town.
The Exposed Village
I have terrible reactions to people trying to rip me off in the market. I take it personally when someone tries to sell me fruit for twice the normal price. Our experience in Vietnam was almost shattered by the people who would raise prices suddenly in a restaurant or overcharge at a hotel. I called these people greedy. An Indian I met on the train describing Indian investment in Africa called them good businessmen.
The world is globalized. Every dusty pint-size village we rode through in China had internet bars loaded with youngsters playing online games.
People in villages tucked behind the coconut groves that curtain the rice paddies of South India have cell phones. Companies like Airtel and Vodafone have even tapped into the Self Help Group (microfinance and rights focused groups for the marginalized) and NGO market as a way to link village women to banks and networks with clusters and federations.
People who live in thatch houses on stilts leaning against the splintering wind of passing trucks on Laos’ highway 1 have TVs. I sat with about 25 villagers in the living room of such a family who let me sleep on their floor as the sun went down in Laos, and wondered what a shampoo commercial featuring a Laotian woman with white skin and smooth thick hair had to do with the sarong wearing, lice-infested, brown woman with six children, and a coughing husband at whose house I rested.
In villages this small, the internet, TV, and cell phones are magic wands that stir big imagination. It is the same as putting upscale apartments across the street from the projects in New York City, or mansions in Santa Barbera overlooking the slums of Oakland, California: when people see wealth, they want to have some. Even if they’ve sufficed without it for most of their lives, looking at all the jewels the world has to offer gives us more to shoot for, broadens our horizons.
And shouldn’t it? Isn’t this how it’s always been? Haven’t people always tried to achieve more, work harder to give their children what they didn’t have? To strike it rich, haven’t people always moved? Migrants in China move from the rural areas to the cities to find jobs. Indians move to nearby countries with more jobs and better salaries. Mexican migrants have populated rural Minnesota to provide farm labor.
The rags to riches story has spread through the wires of transnational companies and their factories and outsourcing agencies. Schemes to achievement (migration) are as quick as the instant exposure (TV, mobiles, internet) which provides instant gratification in a world of increasingly shorter attention spans.
Perhaps this deserves more research than I am willing to present for this blog, but I tend to look at lavish hip hop videos as manifestations of this romance that the marginalized or traditionally poor have with instant riches. For the young person sitting in the window of an apartment (or trailer park) crowded with dysfunctional family members, no clear way of achieving his or her dreams, a hip hop video with all its profligate scenarios, its hot women, its tight beats, is an escape, much like the 1930s Gone with the Wind and Shirley Temple musicals were Depression era escapist movies.
And like TVs and cell phones, they give people a heightened view of the riches that exist in the world. They put people who resemble target audiences, only prettier, more bejeweled, lighter skinned, and with more lustrous hair, in front of cars or kitchen appliances, and sell an image of self-betterment, which comes arbitrarily with the message in fine print: what you have is not good enough. Get better.
Being black in dark-skinned Tamil Nadu, I suppose I am an image of that very same message. Only, I am real. I can talk and explain things, dispel myths. Reveal to the people at my NGO that even though I do have a college degree, I am in fact less skilled than they are at handling the computer or organizing a grassroots level NGO sensitive to the needs and rights of the people of their own community, people who they’ve gotten to know and respect through countless field visits to counsel and organize.
I can tell the people in my village that I have no idea who the famous West Indies cricket player, Brian Lara is (but where would the fun be in that really?).
I can tell them that not all Caribbean people like to or can dance well. That all black people are not from Nigeria, nor do they run.
I can tell them that contrary to the images taken out of context on the big screen, Western women are in fact not easy. And the fact that we are educated make us less easy, more in control of our sex lives, and not to messed with. That not just because we choose how we dress and we like to feel sexy doesnt mean that we actually want to drop trow right now anyhow anyway.
And I can tell them that though the currency is stronger and the salary is higher in The Bahamas, the cost of living is through the roof, and that there may not be provisions to protect the rights of illegal immigrant workers.
When I first started this bike trip, I had a serious issue with our philosophy and the fact that we even had a philosophy. I mean, who gave us the right to “spread cultural tolerance”? I promote cultural tolerance everyday as a black woman living internationally for the last 9 years. To promote biking as an alternative to cars or planes… in China or India? Such a project, I thought, would be better felt in the US, where people are dependent on cars.
But having seen how people in the West – through media, transnational and international cooperations, and globalized products – are often producers of what people strive to attain in most developing countries (The Bahamas included as a developing country), I now see the point of setting a better example. Here, face-to-face with people who look up to me, I see the power I have to influence, to alert people of the consequences of energy excesses of hyper-industrialism in the West. To give people confidence in their own slow mode of transportation by riding around the world on a bike and loving it. To give people confidence in thier own simple towns and cultural life by riding there in the first place instead of just sticking to the five tourist spots mapped out in the guidebooks.
I have the power to dispel racial myths and fantasies about Western women built up through movie and music images taken out of context. Doing this in India and in China is even more important as these countries’ influences on the global economy and business environment will grow exponentially in years to come.
Spreading a message on a slow-moving bike, without aid of loudspeaker, is the most grassroots way of silent and peaceful protest against the world’s energy excesses and cultural hang ups. And I am more of a small-steps-kind-of-girl than big-shit-in-a-small-town.
She came home and put on her “ordinary sari,” the one she cooks and cleans in. The blue one, with not too much conceit in it, the cloth relaxed enough to exercise in. She suggested I wear it for my morning run.
We slept on the floor of her mud-brick home last night. Three in a row on straw mats with a foot pillow lay at my feet: she, her fifteen year old son, and me on the living room floor. Her husband is a security guard in distant Coimbatore, the big city 300km west.
I really wanted to sleep well to make this night perfect. This was one of those amazing experiences you realize just how amazing in the middle of it and you curse yourself for not having your camera. But I didn’t. No visual proof that I actually slept in a mud hut in a mud hut village in the middle of nowhere in South India. So you, the reader have to suspend your skepticism of what sounds like thwarted logic, but is in fact, the unadulterated, only occasionally sensationalized truth.
And I didn’t sleep well. I tossed and turned beneath the capricious ceiling fan that at first swished and swayed away the revolting heat, then turned villainously cold much like love does overnight. And when the fan was turned off, its villainous spite hung in the aftermath’s vacuum like the drool of a carnivorous ogre, waiting to be picked up like a baton by the mosquito militia who rushed in truculent, shoulders hunched forward, salivary needles aimed to feast on the ocean of new blood lying mangled and weak from sleeplessness.
I am accustomed to sleeping without a bed. Without a roof even, in the cold, in the rain, in the middle of a field armed by farmers lugging AK-47’s like handbags. Still, the spaghetti smell of your own sleeping bag with of your own sweat, a pad, mosquito net and a tent set up in the prime real estate of a harvested rice field behind a hill or in the middle of a bamboo forest trumps the solace of a night in the new environs of a house that is not your own.
The trauma must have been too much, because my body revealed its stress in ruthless revolt: I woke up to clinking pots and scraping grains completely and ludicrously voiceless. The ludicrous part being that when I opened my mouth to speak at any given moment, I only had enough breath to utter: “Vannakam. En peyar Nakia. Unkal peyar enna? (Tamil for Hello. My name is Nakia. What is your name?)” Then all energy would drain synoptically from my voice to the rest of my body – my eyes, head, legs, hips – like blood leaving the heart for more mobile places. Like a daughter leaving home. What a horrible curse!
But this is not about me leaving home. This is about the aforementioned she, Latha Selvaraja, born in the coconut fringed village of Kuvanalangottai 100 km into the flat green plains of Tharangapadi Pillyarkoviluranipuram Taluk in the orange mud district of Kol. She was married at somewhere between 18 and 21 years old to a man 16 years her senior. Her wedding pictures show a properly fed beauty feeding her newly introduced man with cake and a sly smile that betrays her peace with so astronomical an event.
The young Latha Selvaraja likes the sensation of splashed water. She likes to put her hands in a clean pool and watch it swell beneath the surface. She grabs the elusive water in her palms, individual fingers eclipsed by the depth, right before breaking the surface and tossing the water out and onto her feet, onto the grass, darkening the green moss of the backyard, until everything is wet. It is a trait her elder husband has to attribute to the puerile recklessness of his young bride in order to restrain himself from cutting off the water supply to the house.
This night in these pictures, her family packs a van with a virgin, a dowry of clothes and pots and electronic items, and a stranger (who wasn’t actually a stranger but in fact her long lost uncle) to play husband in the epic story of marriage.
“How did you feel?” I pointed to my face, and then screwed my eyes to indicate tears 16 years in the future when she has invited me to her “poor house” to feast on a self-replenishing mound of red chicken biriyani, chicken gravy, and pickles.
“I was afraid. But this is my life! My life is my husband and my son. Without them, I would have no life.”
Scratching my head, I crept back into the past, disguised as one of the sari donning aunties, and tried observed the young confident, elegantly jeweled 18-21 year old Latha Selvaraja.
She wears an ocean blue sari, this one silk and embroidered with gold, adorned by a dazzling cone-shaped bindi in the spot between her eyebrows. From there, the bindi points upward to gold loops that hangs from the crown of her head down over her forehead, orchestrating the bride’s face in an optical atlas that gives the eyes direction to the god within her. When she bows to her husband, the message is clear: the god in me recognizes the god in you.
A thali, or marriage locket, has just been placed around her neck. Neither she nor her husband look at each other as if to contain the laughter that would break out if they were to catch sight of each other’s bashful blushes. They focus instead on the aunties and sisters and cousins attentively putting food into their mouths.
I inch in between the crowd of wedding officials, Brahmin, auntie, sister, and eavesdrop on her inner thoughts:
I hope that your mother is nice. And that you have a good job. I won’t need too many jewels, just a pair of nice gold earings, a nose ring and a silver anklet for each leg. I hope i can have a son.
Luckily for Latha Selvaraja, the van that arrived to transport husband, wife, and dowry only had to turn the block and drive 3km before it came to a sputter, shaking out its hood, fanning out its hind, and rest its laurels at a tiny house across the street from her sister’s. She, having married her uncle, would live in her maternal village, where her father, mother, sister, brother, and extended family would always be around to give her milk to make curd rice and coconut chutney, firewood to cook with, and an ear to voice the concerns of adult life.
But Latha Selvaraja, who had the acumen to know that once you start complaining, life would never be good enough, never turned into a moaner. She woke up at 5am the morning after her wedding, rolled the dough for the parotha, put the wedding clothes in a bucket to soak, swept the painted concrete floor, put the new pots and pans in order, and took a splash bath before her husband awoke for his first cup of chai at 7am. Happy with the swell job of housewifery she was doing, Latha Selvaraja continued the same tasks for 14 years until things got tough and raising a teenager became unsustainable on a landless laborer’s back.
Around that time, news of urban jobs where people wear crisp uniforms and watch as much Bollywood music videos as they wanted came on the backs of cart-pulling cows in the lazy little town of Kuvanalangottai.
When her husband left, Latha Selvaraja continued her private water splashing fantasies, but added a twist: she would splash water over the interior walls of the entire house and scrub it from ceiling to floor as if to shave away the smell of her husband, whom she didn’t want to miss while he was away.
The village Kuvanalangottai is scattered with mud huts, temples to Shiva, god of destruction and his wife Mari Amman. Tea kiosks selling biscuits squat with overweight men and women in moomoo’s chatting to customers. The temples sit next to ponds with marble steps where people sluice themselves before praying. The huts are awned with thatch roofs that flop to the ground like straw hats. They have grown out of the earth like an extra digit. It is hard to know whether the house starts and where the ground ends. Everything is smooth and rounded here like a Gaudi invention: no sharp edges, no straight lines. Only the old women have bent at 90 degree angles from years of planting rice paddies.
Latha Selvaraja’s house is just a rectangle, with every room serving as a corridor for the other, each visible from the street. There is no privacy. Every matter is a village matter. 50 of Latha Selvaraja’s siblings have already come sneaking in through the living room to meet me.
On the morning after I did not sleep, I was visited by Latha Selvaraja’s three mothers, the oldest of which had a pigment discoloration that seemed endemic in Indians as far as West Bengal. Her hair had gone as white as her skin in the shock of age and its battering of the body. Her energy, flushed out like the melanin in her skin, was mollifying. She invited me for my second cup of coffee at 8am on the wooden cot of Latha Selvaraja’s father’s firewood store. Caffeine ravaged my heart as I “took rest”, widening my eyes to show delight at the syrupy coffee, wobbling yes and no answers, waiting for someone to invite me to leave.
In India, the nation of villages, it is absolutely necessary to sit down and take chai before anything occurs. To be hasty is to fight against the treadmill of the universe, which recycles itself, coming back with second rounds of tea, and three rounds of mothers. You will only tire yourself if you fight against it.
The second mother dropped in as if to relieve the responsibility of the 1st. Her hair was also white, but her skin still a supple almond brown. She spoke quickly, first to first mother, then to me, as if to indicate to both of us that she was talking about me, but not expecting an answer.
Then third mother, the haughtiest of them all, hobbled in, back bent at 90 degrees, and hair as white and curly as Punjabi’s beard. She was the type that didn’t let you get away with murder. She gripped my wrist in her slippery shaky hands and pointed at herself then out the door, to indicate that it was her home I had refused to go in for tea the night before when it was raining. I, pretending to be stricken by her grip, bowed at the god in her, and asked forgiveness with my eyes. She wobbled her head: “Ok. We cool,” then sat next to me to me to display the fractured bone jutting out from the side of her knee.
In this land of ludicrously green rice paddies, unpronounceable names and complicated family relations, I am unperturbed by the dearth of language. Communication is as simple as a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Gestures are amplified, and even a mute can communicate. A smile is repaid with an invite to tea. And a hand gesture with a head wobble, yes. My face is undergoing significant exercise as I learn to use it much like I used my voice.
I have learned to sing with it: raising my eyebrows so that they almost touch my hairline, stretching my smile so that my lips touch my ears and nose simultaneously, all the while keeping my eyes flexible so that they can look up and down, slant sideways and swivel much as my voice would hold a high note ripe and maneuverable.
Once, as I sang with my eyes, and Latha Selvaraja, with her helium voice, we hit a note of such symbiotic harmony that it was hard to separate us, and we almost morphed into the same person, my body sucked like pigment into the supple swathes of her blue sari. I felt my skin loosing its color. I saw the hair on Latha Selvaraja’s head begin to sizzle into short steaming kinks. I saw what looked like a white face peeking through the wooden planks of the entrance room separated from the living room by only a curtain.
Then, her son, the amazingly strong shot put champion Boominayagi, sauntered in pushing the world forward with his broad shoulders, and sucked back the energy of his mother. All eyes on him, Latha Selvaraja, shifted back to hostess mode and immediately asked me if I liked parotha. I nodded, and she rolled the dough, slid the twigs of firewood into her clay stove carved from the very mud of the house walls, and fried flattened wheat pancakes on an iron skillet. She reheated the chicken gravy from the previous night, reached into a silver pot and pulled out eight magical rice flour cakes and a bag of coconut chutney. Four for me, four for Boominayagi. Then, when I started preparing my stomach to devour the feast already laid out, she reached into the voluptuous layers of her blue, ordinary, housewife sari, and pulled out an entire white icing cake!
The sly Latha Selvaraja of the marriage pictures has softened into a woman plump with love. She pinches my cheeks then kisses her hands, the Tamil version of a blown kiss. I am weak with love for a woman I’ve known for less than a week. How is it possible? In the distant lands of my birth, it is not uncommon to drag an engagement on for three years, then two more just to be safe, then divorce after three years of realizing you were just not meant to be. Best friends start in primary school and go on through college and old age. Love is slow. Life is fast.
With Latha Selvaraja, it is the absolute opposite. I have just met her and I am now sleeping with her. I have fallen in love overnight. This is a crash course in best friendship. Relationship immersion. Like two people alone on a desert island. Differences minimized. Necessity draws action. Intentional bonding occurs.
Latha Selvaraja’s mothers, the three witches came cooing as Latha Selvaraja took a splash bath in the back yard. Meanwhile, Boominayagi sat on the table watching antediluvian Tamil music videos inches away from the ancient TV. They talked to each other as they circled me like I was a vat, scratching their chins with their scrawny fingers, rolling their erratic R’s beneath their sharpened K’s, as they pulled the kinks out and watched them roll back in like a pig’s tail. They delighted over my mystery.
I sat, voiceless, and concentrating on the mental picture to capture this moment in my head. I enjoyed the commotion and found the fingers titillating. The clinkety clank of thier gold bangles soothed me like water. I could hear the shaking of their old bones as they wiggled in and out of loose sockets.
Latha Selvaraja, dressed in her official sari, salmon with gold fringes, came in singing Tamil pop songs by Chitra. The mothers suddenly intensified their evil finger work, moving down to the muscles in my face, until my non-vocal sounds began to merge with Latha Selvaraja’s voice.
Our melody built as the the notes of a distant sitar wafted through the corridors. Thammátama drums kept a delayed beat that pulled my hips in the opposite direction of my torso until I was swaying like a snake from a basket. The witches began to clap their hands and galumph their anklet bejeweled feet, swirling the tortuous rhythm into a rapture. Latha Selvaraja’s 50 cousins reappeard at the door along with 50 of their sisters and brothers.
This was a festival of colors. Of cultures combined. I was loosing myself in the welcoming arms of Kuvanalangottai. My bicycle tan draining away. My thigh muscles softening beneath the heavy lethargy of South India’s sun. Could it be that this was my destiny? That I rode a bicycle for 6 months across several countries only to arrive quiescent and content in a village that would never leave me, whose sisters and brothers and cousins would always be there for me to borrow pots and deliver freshly squeezed milk?
To be continued…
I used to really really want to be Buddhist. The college milk still wet on my lips, I moved to Japan, Zen capital of the world, hoping to rub shoulders with monks in desolate monasteries tucked away in the nebulous heights of mountains quieted by snow. Perhaps, I would shave my head. Disappear. Reemerge wiser and quieter.
As a child, I was deathly afraid of church. The brown-eyed weeping teens carried away by the rapture into salty seas where they would don white like ghosts leaving evil souls to drown beneath the waves so that they could float float float up to heaven at an early age. The moaning grammies (Bahamian for grannies) whose sour tears dusted the wooden benches with a staccato of guilt as they squawked, “Go on chile!” Grown ups interrogating me unarmed by a Sunday dress and floorshine shoes or a Sunday school pass, not using my god given talent in the church choir. With the scorching silence of their bloodshot eyes, they asked,” When? When are you going to get saved?”
Maybe it was all in my imagination. One could argue that faith is imagination. Believing is seeing. Sunday afternoon beach picnics became submarine missions searching for the ethereal divine, the lost souls of the Baptized. Where did they go when they sink? Sunday became a buzzword for terror.
Enough terror to drive me into an inner realm where I would take an imaginary vow to look for a new religion. After my first year at a Catholic college, my suspicions supported, massaged by an access to information way beyond any I’d received in the stifling Caribbean, my imaginary vow became real.
Intrigued by green activist and poet Gregory Batesons’ ideas about the ecology of the mind and monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas about mindfulness, Zen became the religion that would most inspire curiosity and serenity in me. Buddhism became that greener grass on the other side that seemed so much more attuned to my free-thinking personality than the despotic get-saved-or-burn-in-hell religion I grew up with.
Now in India, the world’s spiritual capital, the place where the Beatles wrote the White Album and George Harrison learned to play the sitar on Norwegian Wood, Buddha’s birthplace, authors of the karma sutra and the Tantric center, vibrant sari-sashed India, my religious imagination has flared up again.
And imagination is a serious thing. It can make a person switch religions. It can make someone say that they are Jesus Christ. It can turn water into wine.
On a morning run in my quiet Tropical town tucked into the coconut folds and incredibly green rice paddy carpets of South India, where I’ve decided to work at an NGO while dealing with the problem of adding visa pages to my passport, I mistake river machinery shrouded in white mesh for a woman kneeling and praying in a sari.
Everything is holy. Even the cow shit smeared on the wicked walls that bend into crooked alleys that make you loose your soul in Varanasi, the most holy site of the Ganges.
I confuse mounds of canvass bags wrinkled onto the street for bald Brahmins mouthing Hindi prayers in zealous religious orgasms that precede the axing of a baby goat’s head at Kalighat temple, the temple that some suppose gave Kolkata its name. But this is India and they have been Hindus for centuries BC, so it’s ok.
We forgive religion in India.
I am seeing things. Burning bushes. Signs. Magic men under Kali’s (goddess of destruction) spell, their foreheads lined with three terrifying stripes, their heads matted, tongues stretched out, threatening curses in exchanged for pictures and cash.
Everything is holy in India.
We were in Kolkata for the Hindu Holi festival where people spend the day throwing colored powders of medicinal herbs and water at each other. I made it 5 minutes outside of my hospital before getting completely smeared with green paint. The rest of the day was filled with similar episodes of people lavishing my palms with the piles of pink and purple dust that I would toss into the sky, filling in any areas of the street that were not already saturated in color. This is a sketchpad. I am an animator.
Everyone is veiled in indigos and scarlets billowing in the wind behind them like breath, hot violet translucent breath like ink dripping into water, watch it diffuse, watch the water become red. Bathe in it.
Carry yourself away in the rapture.
Once, when I was in Varanasi, I saw a black man with dreadlocks, wrapped in white, walking, no, gliding above the crowds as if he was not really there. I remember rolling my eyes thinking, “Everyone tries to find themselves in India.”
Through the red sea of interconnected particles, of cows and man-pulled rickshaws, brown-skinned Brahmins dressed in white, white-skinned tourists dressed in brown rags and canvass rope improvised into jewelry, Pedi cabs, auto rickshaws, beggars, and everyone in between trying to lose themselves in the carnival of color, I have crossed paths with those like me, who have reached a point of no return to their birth religions.
A Croatian woman has lived at a religious community in an obscure region in India for 12 years, where she found irresistible faith and purpose in her life after years of searching for that incredibly greener grass. I met her at the Nirmal Hriday home for the dying and the destitute where she volunteers for three months out of the year, then returns to her spiritual seclusion. Service is a crucial part of guiding the spirit, she said.
A German I met at the Salvation Army Hostel was on his way to a retreat in another one of those isolated spiritualism sanctuaries where he was not to drink alcohol, and where he would meditate for 12 hours a day.
An American from California, on the day I signed up to volunteer at Nirmal Hriday, had just returned from Tamil Nadu in the South, where I am now, where for a month, he lived in a social experiment called Auroville, where people from all over the world would live together in a township without international borders under the guidelines of the Mother, its French founder, whose life devotion was to manifest a mode of consciousness beyond the mind, called the supermind. Dan enjoyed the volunteer aspect of replanting trees and working on sustainable agriculture with local farmers better than the raja yoga meditation classes on offer that proved too rigorous for a beginner, or someone just passing through. Auroville is a place where one could spend decades or weeks, depending on one’s needs.
Two years ago, I met an Israeli man in Varanasi who returns every summer to meditate at the burning ghats where 24-hour crematoriums burn those who’s family can afford to have their corpses charred and dropped into the holiest site of the Ganges.
Another Israeli man, this one young, had just spent months studying Tantric Buddhism under Tibetan masters in Sikkim, the northern most part of West Bengal on the same longitude as Nepal when I met him two weeks ago at the Prem Dam missionaries home. He, a Jew born in Israel, found something he could relate to in the mind/body encompassing absorption of Tantric ritual that is to accelerate enlightenment so that it can be reached in one lifetime.
Rumor has it that last year, the Indian government put a 2 year visa limitation on Israeli tourists because of frequent travel. Those, whose country was created at their historical homeland, are seeking pilgrimage elsewhere, in India’s flat expanse of incredibly green grass. Grass, I remember wanting to jump from the train to roll in. Grass, incredulously green, cartoonlike green, cannot believe my eyes green, along which I rode my bike in Brian Heilman’s* magical mud hut village where the grass grows a foot in one night.
In the West, we have a soft spot for Buddhism. It is the hippie feel good religion that isn’t really a religion – just a guide to live by. We like the detachment of it. The inclusiveness and the individualized nature of it. One can be Buddhist and Christian at the same time. How is this possible? A religion that doesn’t throw its weight around.
After 9-11, when the burkas and purdahs were shown on TVs and the lectures and discussions about the subordination and oppression of women under the Taliban began, Islam became a terrorist religion. And then when the networks realized the importance of building bridges instead of spreading hate by showing Palestinian burning American flags, it became taboo. Now as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fueled by what seems as an endless supply of new fundamentalist recruits, and the deadlines for those wars remain up in the air, there is a general fear of Islam. Few know what to think about it. How to respect it.
The Christian right in the US, and its conservative political views against abortion and gay marriage, coupled with rigorous evangelism among teens coupled with the unfortunate history of crusades and Inquisitions, have made Christianity equally terrifying, equally fundamentalist in the minds of many.
The Palestinian/ Israeli question hangs between the temples of people’s head like a pendulum aggravating guilt and patience over unanswerable questions of national sovereignty and religious nationhood.
In the grip of authoritarian, politicized monotheistic Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the noninterventionist practices of Buddhism or Taoism or Confucianism, those eastern religions that do not call themselves religions but more of practical philosophies and guides by which to live, seem much less abrasive to religiously burned Western folks.
Not to mention it is cool to say that one is experienced in the art of meditation. One has encountered Zen. One is in touch with one’s third eye.
In the Caribbean, teenage boys too rugged for floorshine shoes and choir robes seek refuge in dreadlocks and fish and rereading the pre-St. James version of the Bible to uncover the black man’s account, the coming of Haile Sellasie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, and the heir to a dynasty that traced its roots to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
If they came to India, perhaps they would follow the angry goddess Kali, don black paint all over their bodies, let their dreads hang loose, and sit beneath a tree under a trance.
Steeped in Hinduism, from which Buddhism came, India is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. It is the world’s largest secular and democratic state. The only country whose President is a Hindu woman, Vice President a muslim man, Prime Minister a Sikh man, and leader of its governing party the Indian National Congress, an Italian Roman Catholic, Sonia Gandhi, wife of a late Prime Minister.
Given that Hinduism is a rather comprehensive religion in which there is an infinite number of Gods which one can choose to follow in isolation or in combination with other deities, according to one’s own personality, the template for religious freedom seems to be written into India’s philosophical blueprint. There are multiple paths to God based on character type and the right disciplines for each person: the path of knowledge suits those reflectively bent, emotional people have the path of love, the path of work can work for those who are active, and the experimentally bent meditate in psychophysical exercises.
Still, though there is so much to choose from in a religion that seems to go on forever, that covers every possible method of loving, of sacrifice, of peeling away the self to get to the Infinite being, the presence that Christians call the Holy Spirit and Buddhists call Nirvana, there is still room in the imagination to search for more. For as long as we are human beings we will search. Such is life’s purpose.
The Christian movement is alive in Asia. South Korea is 21% Christian. I’ve seen missionaries hand out Guideon Bibles on the street corner of my office in Japan. Many of our friends in China are recent converts. An Indian I met recently was adamant about telling me he was a Christian, he had the picture of Mary on his phone’s wallpaper. He sung Christian hymns. Christianity in Asia is what Buddhism is in the West: that fluorescent, cartoon-like greener grass.
Attending a Catholic mass in a rural village in South India, I listen to the helium-voiced chanting of hymns in Tamil. The voice belongs to a chocolate-hued woman with a long braid that flows from beneath the white sari she has wrapped around her head so that it frames her face the way Mary, the mother of Jesus, framed hers in tender blue.
This is Catholism Indian style. There is a prayer area filled in with sand and covered by an awning next to the concrete structure that is the church. The same flowers arranged in the market and sold to be taken for prayer at Hindu temples with Ganesh statues enshrined above the gateway are brought and hung around the neck of a pre-adolescent Christ with vanilla skin and soft baby curls. His chubby infant fingers form a peace sign above a miracle of neon rays that cascade down to praying women veiled by their saris.
A veiled woman kneeling and praying. This is the image I have been imagining on my runs. This is déjà vu.
Moving moving running as far away from Christianity as I can get, I have been imagining movement. Imagining escape. Imagining seeing learning more about the world. Asking asking floating floating away into the magical mysteries of intellectual understanding.
Nothing beats imagination like charcoal disillusionment. It disrupts the animated green, smearing it with earthtones. Dusting it with guilt. Forcing us to look at our own religions, our birth religions squarely in the eye, come to terms with their shortcomings, their abuses, people’s abuses and excesses against them, forgive them like spouses, love them all over again even though, and become better at it.
The Ramakrishna movement, a relatively new movement started by a Kali temple Brahmin in the mid-19th century, taught a message of God-consciousness that prevailed over any dogmas. At a time when religion was weakening under the new excesses of materialism and skepticism, Sri Ramakrishna recognized the valuable discoveries of the prophets seeking truth from all faiths. His message was not for people to switch faiths or find a new path to salvation but to become better at what we are: Christians better Christians, Muslims better Muslims, Hindus better Hindus. At the time of his teachings, philosophers, atheists, agnostics, Brahmos, Muslims, and Christians flocked to him for guidance.
Indeed, it is good to know that the path you have chosen is good. From there, one can garner the information, the tools, follow it in the best way you can. In today’s postmodern miss-match world of misfits, more and more people find themselves on the fringes, mixing paths with people from different lifestyles, different countries, different races and religions. It is good to have the confidence to follow ones own way without sermonizing.
For those of us who are hard of hearing, India is a journey into our imaginations, a reintroduction to faith.
*Brian Heilman, one of Jim’s friends whom we visited, is a 2005 SJU grad who’s been on a fellowship working at in NGO in Kuli, a rural village about 250km north of Kolkata. He told us the story about the incredible fast growing rice paddy grass.
There is an army of crows outside. Their constant wretched squawk is cracking holes into this feeble building left over from the East Indian Company. The road leading to it, Sudder St., the tourist street, has fallen in beneath the vigilant sentinel of construction as if to ward off invaders like a wall in reverse. I have to tightrope my bike along two narrow plywood boards to make it across. Men in lungis (a long tube of cotton tied into a knot at the waist) work morning and night and middle of night with chisels and mullets and picks hacking away more and more of the road. We let them lull us to sleep, the last sounds of the city that fades from our consciousness.
India rises up around me in waves of curry. I smell it as I type messages to friends and relatives in the net bar. It’s in my clothes. It calls me like a wicked finger into the streets that are stuffed with particles manifesting themselves into legs and hips and hands linking hand-pulled rickshaw to yellow cab, sari to earth-tone dreadlocked tourist to baggy salwaar rags sagging from tourist’s body to cow to cow pile to sleeping goat to street side excrement to street side urinal to Brahmin priest in white to DDT pesticide nozzles in gutters.
If Zen’s theory of interconnectedness were to manifest itself into literal form, India, which doesn’t acknowledge Buddhism as separate from Hinduism – would be its incarnation. Not an ounce of space is to be spared. At least, the space that does exist tends to connect us rather than separate us.
Walking the streets of Kolkata (the new phonetically accurate spelling change from Calcutta) gives off the sweaty, sticky fumes of being perpetually touched. And human touch, something we despise in favor of personal space and private time in the West, is becoming normal to me. Or perhaps, it was always so. I miss it like it was something I knew before. Like it was a nipple.
I try to apply this new comfort into the care for patients at the Mother Theresa Hriday Nirmal (Kalighat) hospice for the destitute and the dying where I have been volunteering for the last three weeks. One can see from Kalighat’s meager and archaic facilities, that the intent was not to provide state-of-the-art healthcare.
The smell of antiseptics floats from the door through the isles of narrow, aging cots where patients at different levels of emaciation and pain stare at you with worrisome eyes. Volunteers are requested to make patients feel loved whether they are changing bed sheets, feeding the weak, giving a massage, or applying bandages.
On my first day, I stood in the middle of the room shrugging my shoulders feeling the classic volunteer frustration of helplessness. Then someone gave me a ball and told me to help with “exercise”, and I soon learned how a simple act can turn into a lot if done with care and attention. The brown, jaundiced eyes of a small young woman lit up when she started tossing the ball volleyball style to the other women who were stealthily creeping up and raising their hands to catch.
I am not religious, but in this circle of glowing women, I felt like “instrument”. As my eyes fell on dresses coming loose, my hands instantly crept up to re-button the slit at the back. When water spilled, my legs moved to find a cloth to wipe it up. If someone coughed, my eyes searched for a cup and filtered water. I felt the muscles that throbbed beneath my fingers as I caressed. I forgot myself and my need to feel useful. I simply became whatever they needed.
The callouses of growing up and acquiring self-awareness and a knowledge of other people’s comfort levels, mastering that innate sense of self-preservation, and an obsession with my own independence and need to make my own decisions leaves a person scalded and bald. We are not touchy-feely people, and when someone touches us on the sidewalk, a brush of a waiter’s apron on our arms, an accidental elbow jab from someone trying to get out of the subway, an intentional tap on the lap from someone who wants us to lower our voice on our mobile, we question their motives.
In uberconvenient Japan, where Zen influences much of the culture, life is simple. The rules are the rules, and there is very little reason to have a confrontation if everyone follows them. Pay money. Receive good. Take a number, wait, give haiko (personal identification stamp), receive service. A simple exchange of services.
In India, what transpires is an exchange of promises, of good names and head wobbles, chatting, a cup or two of sugary chai, and in the end a symbiotic arrangement.
After my first visit in 2006, I went back to Japan telling people that this country was the absolute opposite to theirs. Here, people are overtly honest. If they don’t like your hair or your shirt, they tell you. If they are in a hurry, they push and shove. They shout fiercely when angry. They stare, even when you stare back. India still rung in my ear when I was sitting on the express train from the Kansai International Airport, shell shocked from the blazing white walls and plastic seats dotted with black business suits and the tops of peoples heads looking down into newspapers and glossy mobiles and laps.
If India’s Zen is on the ground, Japan’s in the head. India bleeds into every scrape and cleft of the old colonial bricks, Japan remains tucked discreetly into a briefcase.
Images and sensations race at me at such a fast pace that it is difficult to write about them extensively. I can only list: the heat, the cough-inspiring vapors of deep-fried samosas and puri (a round dough rolled with spices inside it, then deep-fried into a crispy hollow bread), the smell of soap men use to bathe themselves on tile surfaces next to street side pumps. The eyes lashed in lustrous black stare so deep you forget where you are and what you are doing. My senses are on fire and I come back to my hostel feeling limp.
Southeast Asia is old and far away from my mind though I left it only a month ago. I have no more space for it in my head as India swallows me up whole in its spicy cauldron of haughty women and slippery hands that wiggle in the spaces between where my arm hangs from my body. Hands that lead to little dirty faces pouting professionally, mouthing the word “money”. Ammonium wafts of gutter piss will float on the raven wings of shrieking crows up to the balcony of the Salvation Army Red Shield Guesthouse where I rest for 70 rupees a night.
Sudder Street, the tourist street is criticized for endorsing the worst type of corruption in Kolkata: prostitutes, professional beggar businesses and drug sellers Kolkata. Volunteers are warned by the Sisters of Charity not to give money to these beggars who will just pay their bosses rent to live and “work” on such a profitable street. Yet, I’ve observed a level of organization and community among the street people on Sudder Street. Gossip spreads as if in a mud hut village. When a new tenant arrived a few days ago without bags and two passports, people rallied for help from their tarpaulin sidewalk tents.
The dread built into my memory from Western accounts of Kolkata – the child prostitutes, the brothels, the starving beggars, the slums, Mother Theresa’s house of the dying and the destitute, the grayness of photographs taken of the city under the douse of rain – has not materialized as much as the interconnectedness of Zen: everything is a continuation of everything else. Mind over matter. Despite the slums, people are friendly. I cannot walk around without someone inviting me to chai or lunch, explaining their thoughts about politics and philosophy.
So when the French guy at my guesthouse asked me if I was ok on my second day, I said uneventfully, yes. No frightening stories to tell. Only the anticlimactic admission that I wasn’t that shocked. I sat back into the chair next to him, lulled by the ceiling fan above my head and struck up a conversation, amused by his ideas that sounded more interesting in French English.
He told me of the business classes he teaches teenagers living at Howrah Station in Kolkata. He doubts he’s actually doing anything to help because the street kids know more about the complex kiosk business system based on bureaucracy, borrowing, bargaining, and bribery than he does. What can lectures about supply and demand and time quality management do for street kids in India? He has the familiar volunteer insecurity that comes from zealously wanting to help, but not knowing how. We Westerners like concrete results for our efforts.
Still, not sure what will come out of it, Paul just goes with it. A continuation in the coincident of human relationship.
Most of the people I’ve met staying at the Salvation Army Guesthouse volunteer at the Sisters of Charity Missions. Some volunteer for 9 month stretches. Some for 2 weeks. Others start there, and branch off to join another NGO or to form their own. A friend of mine from Spain, started a school after numerous trips back and forth to the slums of Kolkata. Another friend has involved himself in the community of beggars on the street, and they come to him when something is wrong.
I have my own reservations about volunteer tourism and I have questions about the doings of many NGO’s, yet not enough to invalidate people who, through their need to help or simple curiosity, might learn something about the human spirit – how to love without wanting love back, how to forget self, how to touch. Searching in the dark to fulfill those human needs to be of use to others, we touch hands with the same needs. Others we can help thereby fulfilling our own needs. Others in transition. Others bleeding onto the smeared canvass of human connection.
The fan that blows sleepy air around the five bed dorm room hums me into infantile solace. I remember hot summer nights when I was a child in The Bahamas. My sister and I would lie for hours sweating in our underwear, waiting for the breeze to turn cool and plump, to push itself into the cracks between the planks of our wooden house and through the blades of the whirring fan. It was this sound we heard before we went to bed every night. The white noise webbed across the contours of barking dogs and delinquent boys breaking beer bottles on warm asphalt.
I’ve never felt so little and inconsequential in my whole life. I haven’t been this close to the brink of tears since I left my friends in Japan. I am feeling emotional and not worthy of mention. As ordinary as a cockroach smashed beneath a shoe. I feel as petite as that cockroach’s hairy arm detached and picked up and carried away into the abyss of whirling dust. It is dry season in Cambodia and biking has introduced us to a significant amount of insignificant dust fibers making themselves comfortable in our lungs.
Three weeks ago, we spied on grasshoppers eating flies on Jim’s deflated tent. We backed the predators. Flies are hard to love.
It reminded me an art film exhibited at one of the 798 galleries in Beijing. The camera zoomed in on insects attempting fatally to cross a street amplified by the bullish sounds of traffic. The viewer holds her breath each time a giant car wheel or a motorcycle and bicycle zooms by, and waits to see if the bug is still plump and intact, or has it been squashed into 2D relief on the asphalt road.
I watched a fuzzy beetle crawl right into a giant lizard’s hiding spot on the banister of a porch facing the river in Kampot. The predator, with shiny black eyes bulging from its triangular head was the main attraction. The bug, stupid, trivial. I was drinking red wine and talking about nothing with my neighbor for a week, Bart, the dreadlocked Belgium boatman, advertised in the local English newsletter as such. Everyone knows everyone in this coastal town 148km south of Phnom Penh. It is petite and sleepy, forgotten in the blitz of Angkor Wat tourism, and frankly enjoying it.
The river water is salty in the dry season (from November to June it flows from the ocean in the south, and in the rainy season, July to October, it flows from the mountains in the north). I swim better in it because I am used to the buoyancy of sea water in The Bahamas. Floating on my back, I see the gray clouds hover like a heavy skirt with ruffles. I switch my position to see the mountains to the east. Tigers are there. Sensory camera’s triggered by passing paws snap, capturing the tigers in svelte night prowls.
I have been separated from the boys for a week, and one would think that being on my own would big me up, escalate my size as per decision-making power and influential capacity. I don’t have anyone to answer to. I am not swallowed up by an all-encompassing team. I am me: NAKIA PEARSON. Liberated femme fatale. Individualism never looked so good until it put on a pair of pumps and red rouge and turned its kitchen into a closet.
So speaks the post-Sex and the City generation. Traveling in Asia has made me embrace my female freedoms even more. But since I don’t have the money to go on big shopping sprees or big closets to pack 180 pairs of shoes, neither do I have the girl-entourage to sit down in cafes for chats and woman support, I’ve had to rely on something less tangible than consumerism. I am raw here without the comfort of everything familiar to me to pad me. It is me against an opposite culture of Western men and Eastern society.
I am small. Like an insect. The last niche of the traveling ecosystem. After the tow trucks, the SUVs, the cars, the motorcycles, the tuks tuks, the rickshaws, the bicycles and the pedestrians, comes the insect. The only thing left to connect my inconsequential voice and size to the rest of humanity is willpower. The will to love when one does not feel like it. To love bigger than I am.
On one of the days I volunteered at the ASPECA orphanage in Kampot, I found no adults or older teenagers around. The oldest were fourteen years old. I started organizing games, breaking in between with acapella performances of songs I usually sing with a band. I had their full attention. They loved my voice. I loved my voice. We get up and run around, kick a soccer ball, play some games, sing, play more games, sing, kick a ball, ride a bike, sing, play game.
Then, someone got hurt.
The little one (it is always the little one) with the webbed right hand has fallen completely backwards and knocked the back of his head with a muffled thud on the concrete floor. He is quickly swept up by the children (like dust) and taken inside on one of the straw cots in the girls’ dorm. The oldest girl takes him in her arms and hits him on the thigh when he kicks and screams. She rocks him, applies ointment to his head as the other children surround him and coo him back to his previous lighter mood. I motion that they must wash the scrape on his back, and the oldest girl tells me, “No problem” in English. Little girl. Big, motherly love.
I, small as a bug, realize that they have the situation under control. This little colony of children that spends most of its days without the sentinel of a round-the-clock adult staff is self-sufficient. They don’t need my help. I am mere entertainment. There goes my volunteer erection. There goes my feel good sensation. Bubble burst and blowing itself backwards out of the window, into the dust.
I am afraid of someone else falling, so I decide to sing. But they want to dance. They try to teach me traditional Khmer dance, but it is too difficult. So I try to teach them some African American Sorority steps I learned as a teenagers from the AKA’s. They, much to my dismay, bore easily. They sit me down on the floor, and put on a 30-minute performance of all the traditional Khmer dances they know. Perhaps, I am too romantic. Perhaps I do not have much experience working with people at a societal disadvantage. But suddenly, I want to cry.
These children are amazing. And their greatness has nothing to do with me. They have no parents. Tourists walk in and out of their lives all the time, playing with them for a while, bringing them gifts of crayons and coloring books, taking them on shopping sprees and a nice dinner. They have each other. They are growing up each other. All I have to do sit on the floor and watch them be amazing.
Through our hosts in Phnom Penh, Jean-Francious and Miriam, I got to stay at a mountain and riverfront house on stilts that belonged to Katie and Hallam Goad, British organizers of Epic Arts, a professional artistic company that works with deaf, blind, and disabled performing and visual artists. The two were busy traveling to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh presenting SPOTLIGHT: An Asian Festival of Inclusive Arts, which I got to see on the two last nights upon my return to Phnom Penh.
This time, as well as the time with the children at the orphanage, I was on the verge of tears. I sat and watched real artists putting on an artistic event, not a circus. As a Nepalese woman who’d only one leg, performed a flirtatious Nepalese dance with the vigor of a teenager and the focus of a professional, I felt teeny weeny and helium voiced. Like I had suddenly lost my own legs and grown the limbs of a “verminous bug” (Metamorphasis). Like I was something viable to kill.
In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, the sole breadwinner of his family, wakes up as a cockroach, the most irrationally terrifying of insects. His human selflessness in his desire to send his sister to a conservatory to study the violin is no match for the hideousness of his hairy, skinny, legs flailing from his anthropoidal bulk. His family is repulsed by him as his human ability to express himself give way to his insect needs. Slowly he dies and his family is relieved. They forget to care.
Like Samsa, it’s my human senses that connects me to the world whether it accepts me or not. At the Mother Theresa Sisters of Charity Mission in Kolkata, India, one of their Sunday chants encourages one to seek to comfort rather than to seek comfort. To seek to understand rather than to be understood. The self is directed outward rather than drawing up all strength within. The triviality, the frailty of a bug strips one down to his or her bare elements of character where there are no fashion props or stylish jargon to bulk up our personalities. You are the one hated or the one forgotten. In the humility that this situation instigates, the only thing left is will. Desmond Tutu, one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, believes that love is an act of will.
My last week in Cambodia, I had no electricity, but the use of candles made everything – the distant motorcycles, the dogs barking at midnight, the cocks cuckooing at 5am, the cows mooing at all times, the big-eyed lizards on the wooden beams – more romantic. I sat on the porch drinking wine with Bart, watching bugs die, and wondering how to love bigger than my self.
I woke up this morning in a wooden hut with mammoth legs that stood firm as the giant bulls that cart straw and people around the dirt road that snuggles up to the Mekong. The horses here are small, like the houses. The stilts and the cows are epic. The house in which I wake up this morning, pairing through the green gauze of my treated mosquito net, is bigger than it appears on the outside.
We heard about this road from two other cyclists, Gael and Elena, a French man and Russian woman biking for three years to photograph and document the world’s monuments. We camped with them the night we met them. Traveling this way strips a person of their modesty. Meeting people, especially other cyclists, is like tapping a lifeline, and we hasten to milk then for information.
That night, around a garish campfire reignited by some concerned villagers, they gushed about their travels through Pakistan where they met tribal people who practiced animism in the mountains. We listened like eager children because they told stories like grandmothers, tall tales with colorful characters and narrow escapes – a woman disguised as a man to get into Afghanistan, Americans pretending to be Mexicans biking into northern Pakistan– tales that for all their fantastical flare, we took in gullibly as if they were life lessons. Elena showed us pictures of a heavily wrinkled woman with black liner smoldering her intense gaze into the camera lens. She said that her pictures are to remember the interpersonal exchange of the people she meets, not just the view.
Their journalist friends, whom “it’s great to know because they know everything,” informed them of the Red Mosque riots that occurred on the street paralleled to the one on which they stayed in Islamabad. This is the same street that news networks like CNN and BBC would broadcast worldwide to the cozy living rooms of families gathered around the TV after their evening meal. I saw the same street whose dust shrouded the fistclenching outstretched arms and the caramel skin and the shalwar kamiz, traditional Pakistani long shirt draped over long pants, from the living room of Peter’s Beijing apartment while performing my daily routine of watching the morning news over oatmeal before catching the 7:10am subway to my elementary school in Beijing. Our new friends, who were two streets away, had to be told by journalists as well.
Anxiety, as must be the point of action packed news briefs that repeat themselves around the clock, set in back then. But now, after being invited into that world by people who have experienced it, the anxiety is being replaced by curiosity. Cycling daily next to dumb trucks that darken the air with their black exhaust and unpredictable motorbikes zipping so close to our limbs that we can feel the breeze on our arm hairs, the danger of the road seems much more imminent than the danger of people.
So now we are here on our dirt road that rides along the Mekong because of Gael and Elena and two more Dutch cyclists we met later. They give us more detailed instructions on how to find the road that slides between the long legs of the houses on stilts, trickling from backyard to backyard where cows sleep and munch on grass, up and around banana trees and bamboo cloisters down paths to the river where young men take the cows to bathe, and young husbands drive their motorcycles to wash.
We follow their examples and wash the dry red earth from our sunburned skin that is slowly taking the identity of the dust. Our impression of Cambodia has matured extensively from being on this road. Slowly the perceiving self is merging with the perceived.
Highway 7, the shiny new road that at various points shows signs of being sponsored by the Chinese and at other points the Japanese, kept us at a distance from the villages the way it runs through newly deforested land cut back from the international road. The old trees look white with age as they seethed above their own carbonized flakes and beneath the quivering rays of the sun. We hear that there is a rush on property here by citizens and the government. Sometimes accidental fires happen, and the land is claimed.
Glimpses of orchards among the decapitated barks and branches hint at the possibility of slash and burn clearings for rice fields. But so much of the land is arid, we wonder how sustainable it is to cut old forest for crops planted in non-arable soil. The flavorless apples we ate in Stung Treng city, insipid like the highway we ride on, make us wonder even more.
But this red rock-strewn road for which we have traded the smooth and speedy highway 7, is lush with growing things: lime-green rice paddies that stand up straight like electrified hair, banana groves that hide houses behind their ample leaves like elephants hiding behind their ears, cabbages and tomatoes and pumpkins harvested and sold on the side of the roads. Little children with dirt-smeared cheeks and blond hair perhaps sun-bleached perhaps malnourished, kick up dust clouds behind us as they chase our bikes down the road. Women and men coo “hello” from the hammocks strung between the stilts that loft their houses above water during the monsoon. In this dry season, the heat forces them beneath where they recline against the breeze.
It seems that suddenly we have been sucked into the life of Cambodia. When we stop and wait for our friends to catch up or to ask for directions, people gather. We have a chance to practice our Khmer or our non- verbal gestures. Some days before when we were asking where we could camp, a feisty middle aged woman pointed us to a monastery. We took her advice and biked in nervously, incredulous that we would be able to sleep in such a respected place that, like most Buddhist monasteries in SE Asia, seemed so extravagantly designed with golden Buddha’s and intricately tiled roofs. But it was much easier than we expected. The young monks who were sitting beneath a straw roof hut with a small bamboo bed, ushered us towards the outdoor temple where they do their morning prayer. They told us to put out bikes next to our tents on the platform where we were even afraid to put our shoes.
That night, we played music for them and spoke to their English teacher, a young recent college graduate who had been stationed by the government to teach in this small town. We grill him about life at the monastery, and he in turns grills us about life on a bike. Camping at monasteries has since become another camping option to consider when the sun is close to setting and the smoldering forest discourages us from rummaging through for leveled ground.
The next day, we wake to synopses of Buddha and his monks gathered at the houses of village people to collect their morning meal painted on the ceiling of the monastery. The monks, the real ones who listened to us play the night before, are preparing the platform for their morning meditation. We hurry to pack up our tents and bikes, and play music on our way out at the school that shares a yard with the temple.
By the end of the day, we have found another temple to camp at, but fate does not allow us to exploit this resource. The crowd that watches us play Frisbee close in on a fair skin girl on a motorcycle. We stop our game and she begins speaking English to us. She invites us, rather pressingly, to her house because it is much safer than sleeping outside. Used to this oddity of concern that villagers and policemen we’ve encountered in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia seem to have for foriegners above their own citizens, we shrug, consider it futile fight to pick, and pack up our tents to follow the outspoken teenager to safety, a mere 200m from the temple. We park our bikes in the basement against the log shanks that hide discreetly behind the concrete walls. This feature, the closed in ground floor that covers the stilts is rare in the villages along this road, and it hints of this family’s reasonable well-off status.
A modest living room leads in through heavy wooden doors to the vast belly of the house where there is a bed, a table with stools, a glassware cabinet, and hammocks strung between the logs that climb up from beneath the rectangular house and beyond the ample crossbeams past the wooden rafters to the apex of the roof. The stilts are high and raise the living area high off the ground, protecting the people inside of it from the inevitable rainy season floods and animals, while putting i the path of a lazy breeze that coaxes my head to a sleepy dance.
We are prepared to cook, but they do not let us, taking the meager vegetables we have left, and multiplying them with a quick trip to the market, turning them into a feast of four dishes and a huge pot of rice. They have already eaten so they simply sit in the modestly lit room and watch us chew on the floor.
When we are full, we play music for the other villagers that have slowly crept in from outside to shine flashlights into our faces. We are tired and are excused after we’ve exhausted our favorite tunes. Our visitors seep smoothly out of the room like seasons fade slowly into each other. The perceiver becomes the perceived. We watch them leave and set up our nets, the boys on the living room floor where a carpet has been rolled out, and me on a wooden bed in the big belly of the house. I feel like a princess with the net draped around me on this carefully carved sandalwood bed.
The morning air is fresh and balloons around me like a quilt of feathers, smothering me sweetly, tugging me like a child pulling her parents out of sleep, like a Cambodian village woman, her sleeveless skirt pulled up to her bosom, milking the earth with a bucket dipped into the stygian well, like a village woman pulling out my dreadlocks to examine the kinks, letting them spring back to my roots where they inspect for evidence of natural growth. They are miffed by my hair and how it does not grow like theirs. They coo and make a fuss about it. I used to find this intrusive, like a non-person regarded only for my body, not for my feelings. But now, I find the hands that tug and finger and touch all of my nerve endings cathartic, invigorating. I’ve learned to read through it. Right now as I write, our host sits next to me completely engrossed. I let her have her fun, and let the effects of her curiosity work their magic on my memory, on my creative juices. I let go of the need to be comfortable. Of the need to control destiny.
I am convinced that life changes at little moments of insight. Little moments of touch. A moment is a vision is a possibility. Imagery takes over. It is what I am building on. A reservoir of experience begotten from the experiences of other people like Gael and Elena who have shared. I am greatful for their memories as they are a break in the monotony of my own perspective, my own prejudices. And upon these shameless revelations i build. A curriculum vitae of stories to lead other people along their fateful rocky roads.
Tourist is an ugly we word for us. It evokes images of pink, overweight Caucasians floating above the bony shoulders of spindly brown men wheezing above creaking rickshaws that splinter beneath the weight of exotic, unforgiving suns. These salmon spectacles look unhappy and are sweating. They only communicate with their drivers before when they bargain the price and after when they pay. This is strictly an exchange of services: you give me money, I push you up the hill.
This is simple and just.
Since we’ve left China, our faraway Paradise in fatalistic retrospective tunnels of light, we’ve encountered a bonanza of tourists: small ones, big ones, tanned and sculpted backpacker couples you want to look like, middle-aged drifters disillusioned by the new globalized callousness that tourism has rained down on their precious alcoves, paranoid foreign residents that simply hang out for 13 years telling stories about murdered Japanese tourists and paid off cops, worldly Frenchmen telling tall tales about young women doing yoga in the mountains of the Himalayas as they wave their cigarettes gracefully between middle and index finger, maneuvering the smoke like a curtain.
Our encounters with the locals have minimized since we do not speak the language. We have taken to squeezing ourselves, limbs and instruments, into tiny wooden classrooms to play music and teach impromptu English lessons since high school teachers no longer eavesdrop on our lunch conversations, waiting to kidnap us for an afternoon visit to their schools. The small children fill in windows to see us, but they are shy, and we don’t speak their language, so perhaps we appear the same to them as other foreigners passing through their neighborhoods like specters swept away on bikes.
Or perhaps that we stopped and introduced ourselves and gave them something to listen to, songs that we love playing, some we wrote ourselves, perhaps this may show up in their childhood scrapbooks as another page, a sticker, a highlighter just light enough to become memory, which becomes fact, which begets possibility.
Possibility possibly maybe.
The farther away we move from China, the more desensitized people are to foreigners. In
When we camp near paths in rice fields, people walk right through without stopping and acknowledging the rarity of our presence in their countryside crop. The walk away bargaining tactic evokes but a shrug and a chuckle that slaps us mockinglyon the back. In Cambodia, they greet us hospitably and ask us what is it we would like to buy. We are tourists and there is no way around it.
We are tourists. Like everyone else. But there is something soft-tongued and dimpled that has touched us in traveling this closely against the red earth that yawns and slumps beneath the squawking rays of a demanding sun. Something more intimate than the road out in front of us, the pepper-colored pebbles that roll out like pixels beneath our bikes, the breathing earth that in turn takes our breath as we pump pump blood through our thighs hammering down down whoosh whoosh galloping hills, beating back time, creating surface area beneath the skin of our experiences, that takes our breath away when all the climbing is done and suddenly we are at the top of a mountain with rivers and valleys beneath.
And we can feel the ticks of our hearts pounding time.
Our time on earth is valuable. We know exactly how much energy it takes to move our bodies without the assistance of engines 70km across the earth. We know how much time it takes to find a stone on top of a hill to view the sunset, to follow the arms of tall trees that reach into the sky so black that you can only see its teeth, blinging like gold, to find our notepad and precious pen that is so easily lost in transit and record our minds’ visions lest we forget them as the hours fill with visions of mountains and water buffaloes and encounters with locals selling snails at the market on the dock , to follow a trail into old forests where vines are so old they become lumber themselves.
But in these forests, in
That night, some of our neighbors tiptoed up to our campsite and restacked our campfire with twigs and branches, reviving it into something godlike. They pointed at the flames and put together their palms, trying to convey to us that we should be thankful for something. We were told by other biking tourists that camping in the dark angers the spirits.
Something soft-tongued and dimpled has touched us. We move like ghosts. Sleeping in the woods, we leave behind fruit peels, but take our manmade plastics and our tissues with us. We never stay long enough to leave an impression on the earth. Our footsteps erase. Like our breath. Life is elusive.
But slowness is our mantra. Biking makes us move slowly, see things slowly, village by village, kilometer by kilometer of bamboo forest and red dirt, hut by hut of hyperactive children hollering their “hello’s” and “sabaidee’s” as they run out to the road panting, take in little girls herding water buffaloes across the smooth roads and into the plowed fields. We camp between rest days, awakened by crowing cocks and cow bells that begin their slow daily move to nibble on the fields.
Traveling by bike has taken much of the dazzle out of organized travel for us. When we finally get to a guesthouse on a rest day, we are skeptical of instant boat trips to see “Dolphin on the Mekong” and treks to see tigers in the National Parks, the bungalow stays on the 4000 islands where you can bike around and see waterfalls.
Last week, we sat a lodge in a small village in Laos watching van loads of khaki panted middle aged tourist climb onto the backs of elephants to be taken into the mountains. More interested in sipping coffee and jamming in a music session with the manager, the spectacle seemed more interesting to us than the actual act. The clumsy interaction of European tourists climbing down from air conditioned buses to be led by skinny men in Minnesota sun caps into wild jungles that pull and scratch you if you make the slightest deviation from the path.
The amazing waterfalls and the villagers bathing in the rivers that appear on posters at backpacker hostels are apart of our daily experience on bike. And they usually for free.All but the museums and the cultural heritage sights like Ankor Wat are accessible to us. And if we were to pay money for a tour set up for the benefit of antsy tourists with schedules and tender bellies, we might be let down. We have all the time in the world on bike because we have learnt to appreciate the place we are at when we are there. We cannot rush anywhere on bike. It is impossible without engines. We feel our muscles. We cannot fall asleep, wake up, and suddenly be at our destination. Our destination is here now, on our bikes wherever we may be at lunch, waiting for a situation, an invitation into someone’s conversation, waiting on the whim of strangers.
We are present and reliant on our surroundings and the people around us to give us a good price on food, allow us to camp in their fields, and talk to us when we ourselves are unused to the customs of the place. We must be patient in the market in order to play the cultural game of bargaining.
We could do things quickly: pay the asking price and walk away without any further communication, the way we do in the West, light, efficient unaffected transactions. Exchange of services: I give you money, you make me a fruit shake. We expect success to come in speedy packages. We want what we want when we want it. Now is more preferable than later.
A Norwegian couple I met in Pakse dished out money to a beggar buzzing around their table at breakfast. Easy, cool. Frank. As if there is simply no other thing to do. We are foreigners. The income gap is inexorably large. We can afford to give to these poor people in these poor countries. I shuddered at the sight. Something seemed icky about it, self-righteous, as if it is too easy to make oneself feel justified and charitable by giving out a few notes in a currency that means little to a traveler with powerful euros to burn.
I am not quite sure if I myself have an alternative response to the Third World beggar, but something like an exchange of services say to clean shoes for the dollar one wants, or to share some of your food or to try to communicate to people hoping to get at what it is they need, a meal or clothes, might handle the issue more delicately. Perhaps even this idea of money for service is too Western in thought, perhaps giving to the poor is like giving alms in society. But to know this takes slowness. Thinking of better solutions takes brooding time. Takes interaction, something that Westerners accustomed to the convenience of monetary and service transactions don’t have much time for especially when we have scheduled trains and organized tours.
So we are tourists, as much as we hate the word and the images of fly swatting, barbaric giants. On the ground, underneath the layer of tall tales and fantasies and casual conversations in hostel lobbies, the best we, or any other traveler can do is decide what kind of tourist we want to be. The same way one decides what kind of citizen he or she wants to be, we must decide what kind of tourist we want to be, what we will do with our freedom to take part in a free society.
Cycling has cost us the giddiness of discovering new ways of life on organized day treks and elephant jungle rides, we have gained the intimacy of spontaneity, the deep connection to the weather, the dependence on the hospitality of the people, the erratic pulse of the terrain that rises unforgivingly up 400km stretches or undulates annoyingly like light rain in winter that drills the cold into your bones like a machine gun, instead of just gushing once and stopping.
We give ourselves up completely to the rhythms of the earth and the whims of the people. Waving dollar bills will get you nowhere fast. Building relationships whether through learning the language or making gestures or playing music has replaced the power of the almighty dollar, which we have very little of in the first place.
We crawl off the main arteries of the countries, slipping into the backstreets, sneaking close up views of water buffaloes with birds on their backs, taking brakes in the coolness of caves, waiting for a situation, as Drew would say, to come.