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Archive for April, 2008

Jim Durfey’s fourth article for The Enterprise

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

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Published in the Livingston Enterprise on March 25th, 2008.

Biker receives startling introduction to country on the mend

By Jim Durfey for the Livingston Enterprise

I leapt from my sleeping bag with an exclamation which, a decade earlier, would have sent my mother scrambling for a bar of soap. In my haste to extricate myself from the bag, I tangled myself in my mosquito net and nearly pulled it and my bike down on top of me.

This idyllic camping site, in a fallow field just south of Cambodia’s border with Laos, was not living up to its promise of providing a good night’s sleep. With the pain of the stinger or mandible or fang still throbbing in my leg, I inspected the injured site for swelling while carefully sorting through my sleeping bag, searching for the creature that had proven such an effective alarm clock.

Nearby villagers had brought us firewood and stoked the campfire just before bedtime. We crouched about the fire with them, communicating in gestures and the few words of each other’s language we knew. They made warning gestures at the woods, feigning scared faces. Then they pointed to the fire: salvation! We should keep the fire going all night long.

Later we speculated, would the fire guard against wild animals, thieves, or an angry spirit? As ’sophisticated’ Westerners, we found it hard to accept their trust in fire. With my flesh still stinging, however, I looked towards the smoking fire pit and wondered if their ideas had not been more advanced than I had given them credit for.

As late as the early 1970’s, Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was known as the “Pearl of the Orient”. It was considered the most beautiful of all the South East Asian cities, and Cambodian schools offered bilingual education. While conflict embroiled Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia counted on a peaceful and prosperous future. However, the war in Vietnam soon spilled across the border, and the country suddenly found itself embroiled in conflict with its own communist insurgency, the Khmer Rouge.

When the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, they emptied it, and Cambodia’s status as a nation on its way to development ended. The new regime closed schools and executed monks, teachers, and anyone else with an education. In an attempt to return the economy to an agrarian one, they forced all citizens to evacuate the cities and live on strictly managed communal farms.

Some five years and three million deaths later, the Khmer Rouge no longer controlled Cambodia, but the damage had been done. Into the late 1980’s, political chaos reigned. Still today, Cambodia lags far behind the development potential it showed in the early 60’s.

While biking through northern Cambodia, we saw very few schools. The schools we did see often seemed to inculcate chaos more than provide the structure needed to impart basic knowledge. Students in white shirts and black trousers and skirts wandered aimlessly in perpetual recess. Later we learned that teachers, their salaries pathetically low, often waited until the afternoons to teach, when they held private lessons in their homes and charged additional admission.

My friends and I bike to gain a better understanding of the world. Mere observation aids understanding, but there’s nothing like interaction to bring you face to face with another culture. One of our tools of interaction is music. We haul a few instruments with us in a kiddy trailer we’ve dubbed “The Band Wagon”. Whoever has to pull the trailer for the day sweats more and enjoys the riding less. However, we play whenever possible, mostly to build connections with people through music, but also to justify the extra work involved with the instruments.

We decided stopping at schools we passed and requesting permission from the teacher to play would surely spread good will among the students and give us a better understanding of their lives. That’s how we came to stand one morning in a windowless wooden room that served as a school for some elementary school students in Stueng Treng province. Light filtering in from a doorway dimly illuminated the students, who sat attentively, but abuzz with whispers. The teacher gave them instructions in Khmer, and they were silent but giddy. They applauded after each of the several songs. Though they couldn’t understand most of the English lyrics, we biked away feeling as though we had at least made the day more interesting and perhaps given the students a different perspective on foreigners.

Despite its late start, Cambodia is now quickly rebuilding its infrastructure and social services, with much help from foreign aid. The mere presence of schools and students proves the progress Cambodia has made since the time of the Khmer Rouge. Thanks largely to tourism and new manufacturing jobs, the economy has grown quickly as of late.

So significant is the tourist industry in Cambodia that it is hard to ignore. Across the whole of South East Asia, in fact, I found tourists staring down at me from huge buses and inundating small-town guest houses. I never seemed to see them in temples when I visited, and rarely saw them at local places that offered the cheapest beer. Instead they stuck to the guest houses that play American music and have English menus.

What most foreigners don’t do, however, is sleep on the ground. Perhaps that’s because they’ve already heard about the ants. After I managed to extract the ant that had so rudely roused me, I went back to sleep. Four more times that night a different ant saw fit to protest my sleeping arrangement with a bite, and four more times I found myself leaping to my feet, more awake than I ever wanted to be. Perhaps the ants provided me with the same service our impromptu musical performances provided the students of Cambodia: spicing up a few hours of otherwise dull, but quite necessary time. I suppose I can only hope our aid was more enjoyable to receive and lent itself more to rebuilding than shock.

Festival of Colors: Religion and Imagination

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

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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.

Few internet cafes in NE India, but we’re doing well in Bengal

Friday, April 4th, 2008

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Just a “quick” update since its been a couple weeks.  The availablility of internet seems to have dropped out from under us.  In this good sized market town of Chanchal in West Bengal, some 500km north of Calcutta, both “internet cafes” infact have been computer stores with one computer connected to the world wide web via dialup modem, and the first place’s computer was still running Windows 98 and I couldn’t get anything done in 30min due to slowness.  I had heard that India’s infrastructure was much less developed than China, but I’m somehow still shocked by the reality.  The last two days’ stressful ride on National Highway 34, which is in a state of disrepair and is only 2 lanes wide on par with a back county road in Minnesota, certainly has added to this shock.  Luckily, we found a small road to break of today which has less traffic and is smoother. 

On the otherhand, contrary to some reports from other cyclists, I’ve found the Indians that I’ve met to be quite friendly and very welcoming.  Today was exceptional, with middle school students who are now on holiday eagerly leading us to their Christian school (Christian schools are considered among India’s best) and giving us a tour, obviously proud.  Additionally, the family running the restaurant where we ate this evening took very good care of us and even gave us free desert afterwards.  Meanwhile, while we were eating, they were taking photos of us (as passersby were stepping in and crowding the entrance to look at us and/or shake our hands) and then asked if they could video us, obvious that they were happy to have us.  Even while I’ve been sitting here typing, people occasionally enter this little room and introduce themselves to me, wanting to shake my hand, humbleing me with their honoring.

After a great week with Brian Heilman (SJU ‘05 who has been living there since last August working with an NGO and school) in a small village named Katna, near Kandi town (250km north of Calcutta) in the state of West Bengal, us boys are heading north towards the Himilayas while Nakia has headed south via train to the state of Tamil to also do some volunteering with an NGO (Drew is riding Nakia’s bike since his was stolen and Nakia is not riding now). 

Nakia is still dealing with her passport and the fact that she has no more visa pages left and all the Bahamian consulate offices in Asia can’t do anything.  They can’t “add” pages like American consulates do, they have to issue a whole new passport.  For awhile it seemed the only solution was for her to fly to the Bahamas in person, which would financially end the trip for her.  Now, there may be a possbility via the UK and mailing, but that may not work out either.  To explore the latter option though, she has to be stationed in one spot, hence our spliting.  Once her passport is sorted in 1, 2, or 3? months we will reunite, God willing, with her training or flying ahead to where we are.  We are still hopeful about Pakistan, and especailly Iran as we have a contact in Iran helping us apply for the visas, though both are still very uncertain.  The final decisions will be made in Dehli in 1.5 months.  The good news is that a very nice Turkish girl whom we met in Calcutta told us about a reasonably priced flight from western India (Rajistan) to Istanbul (the gateway to Europe) and invided us to spend time with her in Istanbul upon arrival, thus solidifying our backup plan.  So things look favorable for FBR to really make this trip an inter-continental expedition.

Jim, Drew, and I, will continue pedaling, though since we want to give Nakia some added time to increase the possibilty of her leaving India with us (2 more months).  So, in a meeting in Calcutta, we’ve agreed to Drew’s suggestion to add a northern side swipe through Nepal, since if we went straight to Dehli we’d arrive in 3 weeks, southern India is entering its hottest time of the year at the end of April, and Katmandu is “almost” on the way to Dehli from Calcutta (check your world map!).  Since we originally decided against going through Tibet due to the difficulty of Himilayan riding, and the beautiful Kharakorum highway of northern Pakistan is also not on our route, our dip into Nepal will be our brush up to the “roof top of the world,” which is so close to where we are, how could we miss the opportunity? 

An Indian town famous among tourists, Darjeeling, will be our first stop and view of the Himilayas, including a view of Mount Everest.  Biking north from Calcutta, the terrain has been very flat rice fields, so once we get to the foothills we may change our minds, but right now we’re looking forward to cooler weather and great views that we’ll have to work for.

We’ll update as we can, though it may be weeks between good internet stops.

As spring is arriving, we hope you’re getting your bicycle dusted off & tuned up, getting ready for a new season of riding, hopefully more than last year!  =)