Blessings in Disguise

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As the money left my hand it instantly made me feel better about the day. A little old Indian man was feeding fresh fish to a group of alley cats and crows and I couldn’t resist making a contribution. Maybe the fish wasn’t so fresh… & maybe some of the cats scared me a bit… but at that moment it felt like I had never been touched by anything so deeply. I even found myself saying, “May God bless you” to the man. He was unaffected by how dirty or sickly some of them looked. They were important to him, even in all this.  I had taken a break from “trying” to cross the street in Mumbai without getting killed, and being aggressively harassed to purchase scarves while running errands. This man’s simple act of generosity amongst all the chaos marked me. A break from the ever-present hand of cruelty. Hungry people, hungry animals, and a government and upper class that doesn’t seem to care. The ones we’ve forgotten about. Scavenging children and animals surviving only on what is being given up, or thrown away. Existing to keep the waste, insects and rodents somewhat under control. Little savages stealing food from another mouth in an attempt to survive. No rules, no fear. Nothing. What scene would render you speechless?  There’s a naked man asleep on the sidewalk…Unable to process what you just saw? From the balcony of their high rise luxury homes they can see those that lie on the sidewalk in rows and rows… and rows…

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India is a disease that pulls on your heart strings. This beautiful garbage bin comes at you with full force. Open sewers, animal defecation, lost barefoot children, hellish heat and continuous life changing moments in one fell swoop. Faces you will never forget even if they belonged to people who flashed through your life if only for a fleeting moment. Were we on a healing journey or were we just absorbing more pain? I never felt at home in India. I didn’t want to believe at times that somewhere like this was even part of my world at all. Would I go back for more of it? Yes. In a second.

Deliberately burned women, their confidence destroyed for breaking rules in a place where they still weren’t allowed to. Outstretched empty hands all in line.

Some dirty.

Some missing.

Some injured with raw, bloody, open wounds.

Don’t you love it when the world restores your faith in humanity just when you need it the most? A man from Rajasthan asked us if we could write a letter for him in English to “Celia”, the woman he was madly in love with. He wanted to express in a language he couldn’t write, “How he didn’t want to live without her even for one minute.” He signed it with one thousand kisses, and toothlessly kissed my cheek in thanks. I looked up at B. and giggled happily.

Memory. These lessons I struggle not to forget.

F.

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Moksha

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I had been waiting a long time to come back here. Fleeting memories filled with life changing moments hung over me like a pressing storm. History and traditions beyond my capacity to fully understand kept calling out to me.  Its murky water flows east as it has done for thousands of years.  Once the life blood of the entire nation, millions still depend on it.  Millions more worship it with the ancient embrace of generations passed.  The Ganga or River Ganges drifts for several kilometres next to one of my favourite cities in the world.  Said to have been founded by Lord Shiva some 3 thousand years ago, the “Old City” may have been built upon his weapon, the Trishula or Trident.  It is one of the seven holy cities of Hinduism, the birth place of Buddhism (Saranath) and a pilgrimage point for Jainism, the great City of Varanasi strikes all chords.  A melting pot of writers, musicians, painters, and artisans have all called this city home for centuries. Some of the most important written texts and classical music of India were developed in, or partially inspired by, this city and the people who walk its streets.  Varanasi is…

“The oldest living city on earth.”

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A young local man paced back and forth on his cell phone oblivious to the confusion I felt. We stood at the top of a large staircase that descended down to the gnarled edge of the river where he laid.  During the monsoon the whole area is inundated with the run off from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas; washing away the garbage, flower offerings and anything else you could imagine. The rains were still weeks away and the Ganga slithered along at a fraction of its grand self, seemingly weighed down by the countless sins of all the believers who have bathed in its holy water.

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The stench of a rotting dog stuck like napalm to my upper lip, the visceral assault never letting up. Locals pleaded their cases as to why we should take an early morning boat ride with them. Kids played cricket with great excitement even though every at bat meant a trip to get the ball down thirty stairs to the river. Yogis sought out shade, their spiritual presence ready to carry you to a higher realm if you were willing to take the leap.  We had just turned the corner from the famous burning ghat, Manikarnika where Hindu corpses have been cremated for thousands of years, when I saw him in the distance. He was lying somewhat motionless along the side of the river with only a sarong covering his mid-section. He was petting a dog that playfully stood by his side, garbage and debris littered the ground around him. “What was he doing there?” I asked myself.  Even though very little surprised me at this point in the journey, this somehow seemed out of place.  As we approached I saw his stomach bulging towards the heavens. The playful dog wasn’t there to receive affection from a resting passer-by but was in fact feeding off the corpse of a man that floated in from the river.  The dog was tearing chunks of flesh from his hand and forearm, fighting for survival in the harsh and unforgiving environment that animals deal with in this part of the world. His face long picked off by the birds, his black hair tangled into the muddy bank and even though at first glance it was a horrific sight, he laid there in absolute peace. I looked at the young man on the phone for some type of reaction, but he didn’t have one to give.  He was busy living his own life, he already knew. I quickly realized that nothing was wrong. This is where he belonged. The Ganges would take him eventually.  The Ganges would know where to take him.  Life and death intertwined in a beautiful dance along the river bank.

Namaste.

B.

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Torn to Pieces

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The desert. Rajasthan, India.

A woman stumbles onto the scene. She hastily moves around in circles, desperate to find her way. She stops and addresses the audience.

The sound of brutally vicious growls, snarls, and barks entangle me. Survival. How am I going to make it out of this one alive? Thinking I was a threat, they are threatening me in return. Overwhelming thought of the moment, “Holy fuck, WHERE AM I!?”

Her eyes already laced with the first tinge of a lack of confidence, peak out from behind a colorful, embroidered headscarf.

Sunscreen isn’t quite enough to tame this ferocious side of the blazing hot sun. I took a wrong turn and now I’m lost and alone, on some all too quiet dirt road. All too quiet…Fuck. I hate anyone who has ever shared a gruesome story about rape or murder. Why are my nerves so rattled? I’ve been lost and found my way many times before, I can do it again! Their sounds rapidly erase my renewed confidence.

Boom. Boom. Boom. My heart pounds in my throat, manifesting itself into a lump of terror that keeps growing and growing. I can’t swallow or breathe properly, I have lost total control. My body paralysed by fear has a mind of its own, weak and shaken I fight to keep moving with my surroundings spinning an unsettling tornado all around.

“Legs please don’t fail me now!” This empty, dusty dirt road, how quickly can my feet get me away from it? How many of them are there and what will they do to me?

I close my eyes. Sweat droplets and tears mingle and dance all over my face. I see their sharp, pointy teeth and feel their angry breath biting and tearing. Torn. I’m torn to pieces and there’s nothing left. My fear filling their veins like a drug, enticing them, drawing them in, riling them up and making them angrier and more deadly. With each inconspicuous step I try to take, in a feeble attempt to escape them, they inch closer and closer. Their barks signal others to join their pack of hate and my time is running out. If only I could cover myself completely with this headscarf and just disappear.

The woman desperately tries to hide behind the headscarf.

Bang. Bang. Bang. In a flash it’s all over, as a beat up truck pulls up right in the nick of time. Instantly aware of my dilemma the driver had begun to hit his car door in an attempt to frighten the dogs. Without blinking an eye, I jump in the front seat next to him and begin to sob. I can still hear the dogs barking in the distance…as we drive off. Far, far away from this empty, dusty dirt road.

F.

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The Great Awakening

They will come…They haven’t stopped coming…It is here that they might finally find it. A plain and simple golden answer to any question they’ve ever had. Outside this perimeter the world is as ugly as it is everywhere else, but in here, in here you will see even when your eyes are closed. “This,” is where things are as they should be. It all happened right over here, beneath a small part of ME… “Do you believe?” When the wind blows, I scatter my dry leaves & it stops their prayer and meditation. They scurry to catch even just one, believing this will be the way in, bringing them one step closer to what HE accomplished.  Oh the pure bliss that radiates from their hopeful faces! More prayer, more meditation, one more chant and they just might get there…

What beautiful energy surrounds us in this place, what peace. This could be what we’ve all been so desperately searching for. It might be hiding here, somewhere under THIS tree…

F.

Greenback

It’s green. Green like a National Geographic cover photo. A herd of goats play follow the leader over a mound of rubble. A lonely cow stands belly deep in mud surrounded by the most beautiful rice paddies your mind could imagine. Water buffalo chew their cud tethered to a tree I’ve never seen before. A rickshaw spits up dust in the distance, its honk directs two kids covered in purple ink to the side of the dirt road. Rebar tangles lifelessly from the top of every brick building in hope of the future. The sun is winding down, igniting the horizon into an illuminated frenzy. The smells of spices linger out the front door of a shack, Err… house. Yeah, house. Piles of cow patties are stacked proudly along a makeshift fence. Kids in uniforms smile shyly as they pass by. “Photo?” Does any of this look even remotely the same as it did when Prince Siddhārtha Gautama walked these fields? Was he as inspired as I am by its sheer beauty? Is this why he found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree only a short walk away from where I’m standing? There’s something here. I hope I can get out of my own way.

B.

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Rainbow of Smiles

A collection of tiny hands filled with brightly colored powder reached out to me from every direction. They wanted to cover me in it and I was more than happy to oblige. There’s just something about walking around looking like a package of Crayola exploded all over you. A perma-smile is on your face and everyone else’s too. Now what could be more festive than that? It’s the festival of Holi also known as New Year’s here in Bodhgaya, India. Being one of the most rural places we’ve been so far, the celebrating is more subdued than in some of the larger cities. This making the whole thing that much more exciting because you never know where the little color fiends are hiding! Around a corner, on a rooftop, or behind a cow, the possibilities are endless. I adored everything about this festival. One wise restaurant owner attempted to explain what was behind all the celebrating. Many positive expectations and a large number of reasons just to be happy. Spring, renewal and rebirth. “A time when an old man can become young again.” Holidays here don’t have quite the same power to empty your wallet as they do at home. All you need are a couple of Rupees for a plastic water gun and some bags of colored powder and you’re ready to go…

F.

Thunderstruck

I opened my eyes and we were in India. India! Three days in and I am still speechless. B. keeps asking me how I feel, or what I think, and I haven’t been able to put my thoughts and feelings into words yet. Even after all the places we’ve been on this trip and everything we’ve seen, I’m speechless. The first thing I can say is to get through our time in India my skin will have to quickly develop a hard protective outer shell. The poverty alone is enough to cripple you emotionally for the rest of your life. I never thought when my heart broke at the sight of the street kids in Cambodia that there was worse, but here it is. India is everywhere else we’ve been magnified by one thousand. The filth, the garbage, the colors, smells and noise! I keep my eyes peeled wide open when walking down the street. Not doing this would mean getting hit by some form of vehicle, stepping on a child, dog, or adult lying on the sidewalk. Each frame is being sped up, your mind sees, thinks, and feels in fast forward. Full speed ahead, move or get run over. Take it in before it disappears. I don’t have a comfort zone or any idea what my limits are now. The market in Kolkata could be mistaken for Dr. Frankenstein’s cellar, if it had never been cleaned. We had the pleasure to be walking around the market stuck behind a herd of goats on their way to the slaughterhouse. One of the goats, too intelligent not to be aware of his imminent fate, was leaving a trail of diarrhea for us to follow. Great. That’s exactly what this place needs, more gross smells. We’ve been to markets all over Southeast Asia and have seen every dead animal and its body parts as fresh as can be, displayed with a halo of flies encompassing it. I thought nothing could shock me at this point. Wrong. Needless to say I’ve stopped eating meat, again.

Sitting in the train station my nostrils overloaded with the stench of urine. The only other time I can remember smelling piss this strong was when I had gone too long without changing the cat litter. India is an assault on all of your senses, and I’m presently being assaulted. Before I can finish one thought, it’s already time to react to something else. Is there really more, has it not been quite enough for one day? With this many people around nothing ever, STOPS! India feels the furthest away from home out of all the places we’ve been and I’m not talking about distance. Along with the poverty, the other thing tugging at my heart are the dogs. They are a gigantic problem here. It’s unbearable to see them treated like disease infested pests but unfortunately most of the time, that’s what they are. These poor, dirty, hairless babies are almost always homeless and very, very hungry. On our second night here already in shock, we witnessed a man beating a dog with a stick… I did not make a sound for the rest of the night. Silence… I know these things happen at home. I don’t want them to happen anywhere, ever. My silence was a prayer. Please make all of this pain in the world stop! It’s unnecessary, we don’t NEED it anymore.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Threefold peace in body, speech and mind. I close my eyes & meditate, ”Om Shanti” under my mosquito net, first thing in the morning in Kolkata, India.

F.

Back into the Madness

I’ve been here before. 3 months in 04/05 with my bestie from school. I was scared then, I’m even more scared now. This time I’m with F. and I know the journey we are about to embark on is going to change her/us forever. It was still changing me all these years later, right up until the moment the plane landed for the second time.

“So, this is Sudder Street?”

“Ya, Sudder Street.” Bobbling his head yes then no.

“Are you sure?” It looked like a war zone.

“Let me see your paper.” The cabbie reached over and snatched the pre-paid taxi receipt from the airport from my hand. “Ya Sudder Street.” He pointed with annoyance. He immediately started undoing our bags from the rooftop of his famous Kolkata taxi. He didn’t care if we were scared. He drove off with our bags sitting idle in the middle of the street. We were once again alone in the most amazing place on earth.

It didn’t take long before the touts started swarming like angry bees. I was trying to piece my surroundings together through their stinging sales pitches of, “Clean room.” “Very cheap.” “Come with me, I show you.” Over and over again. After a lengthy search through the swarm of touts, we settled upon an over-priced room, smouldering in humidity, paint peeling and grime seeping from every pore. It was the worst room we had stayed in after seven months of travel but the best room we had seen, after looking at six other hotels. I tried my best to be positive about our surroundings, but it didn’t take long before things went from bad to worse. Welcome to India.

“Are those cockroaches?” She said with the innocence of a young child. My heart sank, hoping that whatever she was looking at was not the, “C” word. We had been lucky so far not to have had any run-ins with them up to now. I went over to look at what she was pointing at. I killed it with my flip-flop and said defiantly, “No.”

“What is it then?”

Back into the madness…

Seven countries later and none of them compare to our first day in India. As far as I’m concerned you haven’t been anywhere until you’ve been here. Humanity at its apex. A mad rush to survive. You can’t explain it, the energy, the smells, the noise, all of your senses running full speed, every moment could be a life changing one. Eyes opened wide, life rushing in, your brain trying desperately to keep up to the maddening pace. The next image even more engaging, even more surreal. Where am I? How do I belong in all of this? Truth a step away on either side. Truth. A spiritual melting pot that can take you to the inner depths of yourself in one exhaust filled breath or can take you to the edge of the precipice, tossing your hands up in surrender to the chaotic spiral that is India. Either way, you will be alive in a way you have never been before. No Facebook quote by somebody way smarter than you will help you here. You’re on your own. You either sink or swim and the current will always be way stronger than you thought. You find out very quickly what you are made of, what your ideals are, what you love, what you hate, what you miss, what you can live without, what you can’t and most importantly, once India has stripped all of the bark from your tree, you get to find out who you are. Nothing is sugar coated here. Nothing. Nobody is trying to make you think that life is better than it is, no market tested coffee shops, no fancy malls, nothing is cleaned or polished into tricking you into a false sense of reality. The white picket fence has been burned for survival and just like at home, it doesn’t exist anyway. You will actually have to become the person you so desperately seek and if you want to fight it, India will pin you in a corner and beat you down, showing no mercy. Not because it’s a bully but because the truth hurts sometimes. The amazing thing about India though, is that the pain always manages to turn itself into pleasure. Well, most of the time.

We got back from our first meal in India full of garlic Naan and Dahl. Glorious! As soon as we opened the door to our hotel however F. spotted one of our dear friends from earlier scurrying along the dirty bamboo coffee table next to the bed. She killed it as fast as she saw it and I realised that we in fact had a,”C” word problem. F. asked again if they were cockroaches. I hesitated and said,” Yes.” This time disappointed. F. replied, “Gross.” Like the way you think a girl would. I tried to laugh it off wondering how this room just managed to get worse. I removed all of the unneeded furniture and F. insisted we put one of the dirty sheets from the bed on the floor in case they were crawling in from under the door. I tried to play it off like it was nothing; I kept telling her that they won’t bother us.

“B. GET UP! Where is the light?”

“What’s going on?” Dazed from sleeping, I turned the flashlight on and she had a dead cockroach between her fingers. She woke up with it crawling on her chest. I didn’t say a word. I calmly got up and immediately set the mosquito net up over the bed. F. managed to fall back asleep after her, “C” word ordeal. I know she wasn’t happy, but she took it in stride, I was very proud of her.

End of day one.

B.

Satisfying Singapore

I opened the door from inside our over air conditioned hotel room and she hit me like a Mike Tyson right hook.  “What the fu..?”  I shut the door as fast as I opened it and told myself that I must still be sleeping.  I had spent the last 24 hours in bed, recovering after I was gunned down by an invisible bullet, what we would call a ‘superbug’ back home.  The rumors are true, it in fact does exist and it put me down like an old dog for 3 full days.  I was feeling better now, but not quite 100%.  Was I ready to explore Singapore in this?

Hmm…

Let’s start again.

I opened the door from inside our air conditioned hotel room and Mother Nature smacked me right in the kisser like the end of a ruler in the evil hands of a strict old nun.  40C with 100% humidity @ 11:30am.  Shit.

We locked the door behind us and the sweat started to bead over my upper lip and above my brow and we hadn’t left the front lobby yet.  We got out onto the street,  Singapore map in hand and tried to decipher the quickest route to the “hawker stalls” where our first meal of the day awaited.  We were staying in Little India and as we found our bearings and started to make our way, the smells and colors that make India one of the greatest places in the world jumped all over us.  Little India, Singapore; it couldn’t get much better than this.

“Hawker stalls” are Singapore’s answer to the beloved food court we find in our malls from coast to coast.  Main difference is you won’t find the Golden Arches or some shitty pizza stand or horrible gut erupting Chinese (if you’re lucky).  You will however find some of the best Indian, Malaysian, Korean and Cantonese fare that the world can produce.  The kicker being everything is under $5.

You can find them all over Singapore and some are open 24hrs with over a 100 stalls to choose from.  We ate in them at all hours and you could be sure day or night that there would be a table of 60 something’s usually men, littered in beer bottles, talking, laughing and singing.  The ambiance was always alive, with every conceivable race of people eating together, different languages spilling out into the open air venue talking about their day, enjoying the food, and most importantly enjoying each other.

Did I mention it was 40C?

We finally decided on Chicken Biryani after a 20 minute swirl through the maze of resto’s and cultures.  An overwhelming but quick lesson in the cuisines of Asia and beyond under one roof.  I wiped my face with my, by now, infamous sweat rag, long past soaking wet, and we dove in.  The first bite was magic, every taste bud awakened into a harmonious choir of flavor.  Chicken slowly melting away into the back of my palate, rice dancing energetically with each clasp of my jaw.  Looking up at F. our first real meal in 5 days, we giggled like school kids with a crush, Singapore brought our smiles back.

B.