May 26, 2012

Typical Tourist in India

For all my blog bragging (blagging?) about being a seasoned traveller, I still made lotsa of the same silly mistakes as anyone, took the same photos, went on the same tours. There's just some mandatory activities and reactions and feelings that trump any world traveller ego.

1. I got conned at a temple. A holy-looking man in a delicious orange robe silently but insistently motioned me to follow him, as if this was the official protocol. He took me down some passageway, pointed to a big sign saying foreigners have to pay 1,000 rupees, then to a little interior shrine where his fellow con artist did some prayer for me and my family and put the smudge on my forehead. Then demanded an offering. When I coughed up 200, thinking that was better than 1,000, they smiled and put it at Krisna's feet. Then asked for an offering for the next God beside him (there were 3). I said they could share. Then as the tout continued to guide me around the temple and force me to take photos, he asked for a personal gift, so I gave him 100. The whole rest of the time he asked for another 100 to match my earlier donation. It was just so annoying, but he kept being just confusing enough and sacred enough that I was off balance. Then back at the beginning he told me my bus has already started to load and shooed me off, then disappeared. I never did give him more, so the whole thing only cost me $5, but also robbed me of the Peace of mind exploring the ancient temple, and of course wounded my traveller's ego.

2. I stepped in shit. Only once, not every minute like I'd been led to believe. A nice man on the bus pointed it out in time for me to go wipe it off on some rocks and water it down before the bus left. Yuck.

3. I got hit while walking. Swerved just a little to avoid something, and a bicycle hit me from behind. He bounced off me and into an oncoming motorcycle. No-one was hurt, and he re-aligned his handlebars quickly while I apologized then moved along (instinct and training to not hang around an accident scene for fear of blame, extortion, jail - in Africa, we were trained that even if we killed someone with our car, to keep driving to the nearest police station and ask to be locked up for our own protection.) Yes he was cycling the wrong way on a one-way street, but it was still my fault for stepping out of line.

Walking here is a bit of skill but a lot of faith. There are so many people and obstacles and directions and modes of transport (foot, bike, motorbike, car, bus) on the narrow roads that everyone has to rely on the predictability of everyone else. If I want to cross the road I have to do it confidently so that everyone knows what I'm doing, then they can adjust accordingly. If I start to hesitate and dodge, no-one knows how to react, and accidents happen. It's almost the opposite of Canada, where the guiding safety standards are clear rules, external signals, and a cultural expectation of consideration and ceding to others. In India, safety is maintained by each person doing what he needs to do deliberately and clearly, and letting the rest of humanity absorb around him.

It's like a swarm of ants. An ant with a piece of grass pulls it into a busy highway of ants and they all just swarm around and continue together. Or like a small stream joining a river, it all just merges. This whole big society feels somewhat like that. It's just too big and crowded and busy for everyone to be over-concerned with everyone else - consideration here is being smooth and seamless in the flow of the society.

Sometimes that theory works better than others, in my Western perspective. On the train yesterday several people had to sit cross-legged on the floor. Several times people walking through the isle, carefully stepping between them all, got their back foot caught between two particular men sitting a bit closer together than others. Each time, the men just sat there, not moving their legs at all for the person to get unstuck. It happened more than once and each time they continued to sit oblivious and unmoving felt more like the usual negative connotation of "inconsiderate" as opposed to the positive "natural flow" interpretation I've been positing here.

4. People cut in front of me in line-ups. Waiting for the bus, in the Ashram food line-up, at the airport security, pretty much anywhere. I continue to give a bit too much space between me and the person in front of me, trusting in the sanctity of an established queue to preserve my position, but there seems to be no shame among some Indians to just quietly and smoothing slipping in front. Even if I can catch their eye afterward with an indignant Western "shame on you" look, they just smile innocently back with an "I'm an Indian ant being absorbed into the flow of society" smile.

I had more examples in my head, but that's enough to be human again. We travellers learn as much from our own mistakes as from our observations. Testing what annoys us leads to more insight than the signs on the museum walls. I don't have to like or agree with everything that's different here, but I do need to accept the rules (or lack thereof) and prevailing culture and do my best to honour and enjoy and operate within them. Keeping my head up in line-ups and down on the street will get me there faster, safer and, um, cleaner.

May 24, 2012

Temple Tour

To comfort the children before leaving, I told them a bedtime story about how my dad went away one summer to study in France. While he was away, everything was different. Mom gave us a bigger allowance, took us to a motel with a colour tv, and just ran the household fully her way. It was also the summer our dog Spiffy died, and that's when I remember missing him most of all, needing is strength, writing him about it on a big postcard with a picture of a mountie.

Now I'm that professional away dad (albeit with much more internet contact), and living it all over again from the other side. Just as I had hoped, Sarah's enjoying the chance to be The Parent, without the compromise and sharing that any partnership requires. I understand that I'm a particularly strong and involved dad, putting my stamp and energy on much of our family's patterns, from our breakfast routine to afterschool play/chore balance. Not that she's an absentee mother by any stretch of the imagination - she's always beautifully, integrally involved in our family - it's just good for the boys (and her) to hear just her voice clearly without any echoes of Papa bouncing around.

Maybe when I get back I'll even try to listen to it all for a while, see how to slip myself into whatever new form they've created before imposing my PowerPapa energy. Maybe I should do that once in a while anyways, take a step back from parenting to see what each of us brings to the parenting team... what all four of us bring to the family team.

And now I'm the one missing my boys (I assume dad missed me), and even more acutely feeling them miss me. In the middle of a stunted but lovely facebook chat with the boys, describing elephants and temples and food, Zekiah slowly, carefully poked out "I mis u papa." Crying in an Indian internet cafe, suppose I'm not the first.

When dad came back from France, we eagerly gathered the neighbours for the big slide show. Remember those big round carousels that you'd hold your breath hoping the next one would pop in? Dad had about 15 of them ready for us. And almost every picture was a statue. 10-20 of the same statue from different angles. He was so fascinated, and never really understood our laughter. Well, I look through my own photos and see a whole lot of temples, brighly-coloured Krishnas and Shivas, ancient stone carvings, all equally amazing. Many more photos than I'll share here, but here's a taste of the temple tour from yesterday.

This is a 3,500 year old mango tree in the courtyard of a 4,000 year old shrine. In Canada I live in a house that's over 70 years old and think that's cool. Thousands of years, just don't compute.

Why is Western religion so boring? Here's a carving in another extremely old "Temple of 100 Pillars", with great scenes like this, people dancing, gods on each others' shoulders, musicians, whole families in goofy polaroid poses. Paul in Corinthians would NOT approve. Yes Jesus turned water into wine and hung around with concubines, but we tend to gloss over that, not glorify it or even enjoy it. Song of Solomon is turned from a hot piece of poetry into a metaphor. Where are our Greek gods duking it out and wooing young maidens? Just like my posting yesterday about how people are so openly human, the Hindu religion is fun, playful, real (not to take away any of the sacredness).

This temple, over 2 football fields long, was carved out of a single stone. By hand. It's still not done - "no new Kings have come along to take on the project" explained my guide. When my boys become aggressive and artistic teenagers, I think I'll send them down here with a chisel to hammer out their pubescent angst.

This is inside one part of that huge hand-carved temple. Just mind-blowing to think of the work and care that went into this. Not exactly sure if there was an intended real use, or just an over-the-top art installation, but worthy of its World Heritage status.

Just as cool as the ancient monuments are the everyday, every block (it seems) shrines. This one was just along some road close to my hotel. People stop by for a quickie on their way to work or wherever they're going. I've been in also - it's a quick moment of Peace and orientation (for me, won't speak to what it means for them). The care and devotion to these shrines, as well as to their houses, decorations, sidewalk paintings little touches everywhere, just keep this place alive and beautiful.

One last photo from one other temple, just to prove that I'm not simply downloading internet images (thanks mom, for the hot pink camera, lets me be so discreet with my photo work...)
One fun part of the all-day AC bus tour was that it was all Indian tourists and me. When we got to the beach resort for lunch, they went crazy in the water, probably the first time in the ocean for many of them. Splashing each other, shrieking and running back from the waves, getting more and more brave and wet over time. That's a universal language, the first time in the ocean.

May 22, 2012

Surprise Temple

Played my favourite game this morning - chose a destination on the other side of a strange town (Chennai), took one look at the map to get oriented then folded it into my pocket and started meandering that direction. Chose small streets, back alleys, another small doorstep to perch on with a 25 cent breakfast plate. Then on some random street, idly wondering with no attachment if i was still on track, there suddenly was the temple looming up above the world just down the street. I'd walked straight into it. Made it feel like a secret treasure, like i was the only explorer who had ever found it. Made me want to claim it for the queen. If I do the half-day guided bus tour on Friday we'll actually come back, but with a driver on an air-conditioned coach it will lose all of its Indiana Jones charm (though it will still be magnificent.)

Along the way I saw so many people just going about their daily lives - the stuff of life that we hide behind long driveways and curtained windows in Canada. Men in their diaper-like traditional thong-cloths, big bellies and droopy chests unnoticed as they squat on rock piles to brush their teeth or inhale cleansing water up their noses. The usual naked kids being bathed. A women brushing her long beautiful tangled hair on a second-story balcony. One balcony over another half-naked man with 5 ritual strips of white chalk-paint/smudge on his forehead, both nipples, belly-button, and elbow creases. A mother pumping water into bright coloured plastic jugs while her daughter holds down the top pump mechanism, which she had carried from home. Women heating up morning tea and foods in big metal cauldrons in the front entry hallways of their buildings. One older woman calling me over to watch as she bottle-feeds a baby monkey.

There's just no shame in being human here, no running away from any sign of mortality like in our Western culture.

Another thing I'm appreciating is the lack of overwhelming attention I receive. There are curious looks, amused looks, "there's something you don't see everyday" looks. But the world doesn't end when I walk by - even conversations don't end. When I hear people laughing it's usually because they've said something funny to each other, not because a white alien just walked by. Rather than being offered to go to the front of the line, I had to jostle for position like everyone else at the museum. Unlike Africa, where no matter how long I live there I'm still a curio, an amusing animal at the zoo who's even more amusing after learning clever tricks like speaking Swahili or eating local food with my right hand. Here I'm another human being - a foreigner sometimes meriting extra attention, but still a fellow human being. After 4 days I still don't know the Tamil word for White Man - it took me about 4 minutes in Zaire to learn "Mundelli Mundelli Mundelli."

Which brings me to my third and final anthropological observation of the day. In yesterday's post the word "condescending" jumped off my fingertips as I typed, and I wondered about it later. There can be times when my over-friendly, over-inquisitive greetings are just as dehumanizing as the African experience I just described above. "Hello funny little brown man, wearing a funny diaper on your little motorcycle..." I don't greet people in my own community with an amused curiosity, so why should I do it here? I should and hopefully do greet people at home with a genuine warmth and openness to hearing and sharing their journey (or atleast a 2-second snapshot of it), and I should bring that to my interactions with people here too. They're not museum pieces set in place for me to photograph and blog about; they're humans living remarkably similar lives in a remarkably different place, and it's in recognizing both those similarities and those differences that we truly acknowledge our kinship and find a connection.

The human respect I feel from Indians in the street is reinforcing this lesson, but it's not new. Back in high school I joined the "Special Kiwanis Youth" club at school, working with developmentally disabled adults. At first I did it mostly to increase my chances at scholarships and with Dawn Rydeen, but grew to genuinely love the experience and the people, and went on to coach them in the BC Special Olympics long after the scholarships had passed by. One day my girlfriend Dawn (yes, the ploy worked) thanked me for having moved past my initial child-like treatment and learning to meet them as adults in a different place.

A dozen years later, I returned at night to my Tanzanian fishing village after some time away and woke up Barney Mpombo to get my mail from the church office. He shook himself awake and fetched the mail, then as he handed it to me, the always-smiling and accommodating face turned dark and he said, "Don't ever ask me this again." I suddenly, shamefully realized that I had treated this man, 10 years my senior and the #2 most powerful, respected man in the church diocese, like some expendable junior third director who had nothing else going in his life except to indulge my needs (not that I should treat an employee or anyone that way either). This isn't a first-greeting example, but speaks to the same issue of seeing other people in relation to our needs and interests.

Well, I'd love to tell you about the temples, fresh mangos, public bus ride, market shopping, dosas, Bollywood film, dead puppy on the roadside altar, string of 200 fireworks lit on the road to stop traffic and celebrate a young man's arrival after some important life event, historic fort tour, hand-made 25-foot long bamboo ladder strapped to the side of a bicycle, and other amazements that have filled these first 2 days here in Chennai, but you can read all that in the Lonely Planet guides, and hopefully I'll be able to upload photos that will fill those thousand words. Besides, this internet cafe is costing me a whopping 20 rupees (40 cents) per hour, and has become rather cramped and hot, and horns are constantly tooting outside reminding me to get back out and experience some more.

So instead I'll leave you with this sign from the washroom door of the department store so modern and fancy that they had sit-down toilets instead of the usual squat kind.

1. Sit on seat cover and don't climb on seat.
2. Don't wash your feet in the toilet. Don't wet the floor.
3. Flush before and after using the toilet.

May 21, 2012

Indian deja-vu

Oh ya, i remember this! I remember how to find an alternate guest house when the one I booked online has moved, changed names, and won't answer the door at 2am. I remember how to come out of a cold bucket shower at 2:30am and stand under the paddle fan to let evaporative cooling do its thing. I remember how to use bottled water for tooth brushing, and how to use the bucket of water instead of toilet paper for the squat Indian toilet

I remember how to connect naturally and respectfully with people. Friendly but not over-engaged or condescending greetings. Choosing the roadside food stand with the friendliest bunch of men all standing with plates in hand, happily using their fingers to scoop up maandazi and white-paste patties with mystery sauce, and happily teaching me the names of the mystery foods they're indoctrinating me with. Sitting on the roadside near but not too near others, letting them smile and approach me as i drink in the passing scene. Bargaining with the three-wheel-motorized-taxi driver just enough to earn respect but still comfortably overpay.

I remember the universal kid English greetings - How are you, I'm fine thank you, What is your name? And how to say it with the wide open-mouth accent that's more universally understood. And how to communicate without assuming that everyone speaks my language (I'm actually surprised that more people don't speak English, atleast beyond a very basic greeting and directions level - one of many pre-conceived notions I'm quickly shedding.)

I remember how to cut down a quiet side-street, passing women sweeping the dirt in front of their charcoal cookers, kids running barefoot or naked, families quietly emerging from their makeshift shelters to greet the day.

I remember not to be overwhelmed. Mostly I'm surprised that it's not wall-to-wall people, that i can walk fairly safely along the roadside, that the noises and smells are just a gentle chaos of character. I don't have to be afraid of the police, wary of people walking behind, annoyed at constant attention. It aint the Cowichan Valley, but it also aint Kiburu slums in Kenya or crazy Egyptian taxi drivers or packed Kinshasa streets at midnight. It's just a full, alive, but oddly gentle India welcoming me this first morning.

May 19, 2012

Free and Flat

My first ever solo trip - 6 weeks in Europe at age 21 - I was so scared that I couldn't let myself feel any emotion about it. Only on the road to the airport, when an airplane buzzed overhead and my dear friend Mary gave me a huge washroom key ("the key to opportunity", she said) did I suddenly get an excited adrenaline rush.

14 years and over 20 countries later I find myself oddly non-aroused at this latest jaunt. Probably several reasons:

1. I'm so prepared and looking forward to my real destination - a one-month work assignment in Sri Lanka - that this India indulgence feels like a detour. I've treated myself to this, devoted mom's precious birthday money to this, and know it will be a treat - a full week in a new place with nothing to do but drink it in. But I think I just need to arrive and Be in it and let it take me over.

2. Related to #1, I've in general gone past a time when I could really enjoy quick visits to places. I became spoiled with the Joy of living long times in places, making friends, learning language, contributing. It's made normal tourism feel somewhat shallow. Sounds snobbish, I know, and truth is that I did deeply enjoy our 2-week jaunt through Oregon and California and felt no need to settle down and volunteer at every gold-mining ghost town or perfect beach we discovered. As with most things in life, I need to remember to not compare - a week in India is what I've got, and I'll experience a huge mouthful of the long longed-for continent in that short time.

3. I'm still not far enough away from my family and home. I'm dearly missing my children, planting season on the farm, my beautiful wife who so beautifully gifted me with this time away, our community, the end-of-year school stuff, etc. Much more than in past trips - perhaps because I'm that much more involved in my children and community life than in the past, perhaps because I'm that much older and more mortal. I just know that opening myself too much to where I'm going is impossible without opening myself to the gushy tears I feel watching my sad, multiple-tantrum little boy on Skype this morning, acting out so beautifully and purely what all four of us are feeling at some level.

4. Admittedly, and surprisingly, I'm a bit nervous about arriving in India for the first time ever, at midnight, with no direction, itinerary, hotel, transport... Everyone says that no matter how much you've travelled elsewhere, India's still going to be overwhelming. Well, despite all the incredibly difficult travel I've experienced, I guess a little piece of me still buys that story. Not enough to overplan - I still feel confident enough to not even have a Lonely Planet, just trusting that I'll amble through it just fine - but enough to jitter a bit.
A man walks down a street, it's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the third world, and maybe it's his first time around
Doesn't speak the language, he holds no currency
He is a foreign man, he is surrounded by the sound, sound of
Cattle in the marketplace, scatterlings and orphanages..'.

I've spent the last week consciously noticing and appreciating Canada, to heighten the contrast to the India I'm about to discover. Here's just a bit of the Canadiana I've tried to drink in:
- Space. We have so much open, quiet, green, throw-your-arms-out-and-dance-in-circles space
- Pizza, poutine, croissant, organic peanut-butter-chocolate squares...
- Sunshine that (right now) is just perfect to talk in without protection, sweat or exhaustion
- Clean, smooth sidewalks that let me keep my head up

On the other hand, I've also noticed
- Absolute lack of children in downtown Ottawa. 3 days, 2 kids in strollers spotted.
- Lack of people - the same wide space and silence I enjoy is also a lack of music and smiles and people-life that makes other countries so alive
- Canada's 8th-largest carbon footprint per capita - this plane ride sits heavy on my eco-conscience
- Prices - having trouble dropping $10 on felafel for lunch knowing that tomorrow I can eat amazing "real" Indian food for under a dollar
- An overall level of comfort and ease that is lovely (and against which I don't fight nearly so much as when I was a young backpacker - this photo's from 1990 in Zaire) but also isolating and artificial, living in a bubble

So here's to a 20-hour plane ride to a chaotic midnight entry into a new sub-continent. 20 hours to let go of Canada, let go of heaviness and fear and flatness, and open myself wholly to this new mistress who waits patiently to unfold.

May 11, 2012

Two-Sided Simpleton

Smaller aint always simpler. Cheaper aint always simpler. Even less aint always simpler.

I wrote recently about how we've opened ourselves to the idea of moving into our 600 square foot cottage and having another family rent this 1,200 square-foot farmhouse. The perfect opportunity to downsize, cull through the accumulation of Stuff, live with a smaller footprint, focus on what's really important - all standard definitions of simplicity.

After showing many good people both abodes, we've decided to stay in the farmhouse. But not for the reasons many might assume. The idea of living in a smaller space - particularly that beautiful, natural smaller space that we built ourselves - is still mighty appealing. It's the actual move that's in the way. The idea of rooting through all our stuff, uprooting our family and starting over just doesn't feel Simple at all. After 4 years we've established a healthy, happy family dynamic in this space, put our personal touch and family energy into it, made it Home. With a heat pump, fireplace, insulation and (soon) new double-pane windows, the energy costs are probably about the same as the baseboard-heated cottage. And as North American families go, it's still pretty darn uncluttered.

This house works for us. We've invested a lot of life energy and financial resources to make it work, make it an expression of what we believe and how we want to live. Shifting to a new space would require a huge packing/sorting/moving/unpacking process while I'm away, then the months of finding our patterns and ways in that new space. That's a lot of energy and upheaval without any real gain in our goal of lower-impact living or intentional lifestyle. So, in the name is Simple Living, we are staying in the bigger house.

This reminds me of an announcement we made back our Vancouver Quaker meeting (our faith group, in which Simplicity is one of the five or so main cornerstones) - "In the name of simplicity, we have bought a hot tub." Yes it cost $4,000, and yes it uses energy (though its particular design means it only uses about $5/month to keep heated). But at the time Sarah and I were both working such insane hours that were feeling like our only Together Time was side-by-side on the laptops till midnight every night. That hot tub bubbling away on the back porch called us away, out under the stars for 15 minutes every night to just relax, talk, be together, connect, dream. It was out there under those 5 stars, listening to the noises of the shipyards and sirens, watching the spotlight from the gambling casino, that we found our new path out here to WildSide Farm. For $4,000 we bought a daily window of simplicity that has led to a lifestyle in much better alignment with our values.

I'm not saying everyone should rush out an buy a bigger house and a hot tub. I'm just celebrating the rare (for us) realization we've had that we don't always have to take the hardest way. Simple is as much about quality as quantity. It isn't measured so much in dollars and footprints (though those are important components), but ultimately in how we live consciously and intentionally.

May 6, 2012

Sri Lanka or bust

The last time Sarah and I declared a year of No Change, we ended up retiring, selling our house and moving to this farm on Vancouver Island. This time, and just this month, we're considering moving into a 600-square-foot cottage, and I'm doing a solo one-month trip to Asia. As I asked last week, is it a true openness and embracing of change and opportunity, or is it a change-addiction?

It's not easy, leaving the family for a month. Missing both boys' class plays, end of school celebrations, Class 4 camping trip that I could have chaperoned, first exciting week of summer vacation transition, farewell to dear Crystal & Tristan and welcome to new (still-to-be-determined) renters, major garden planting, class 2 visit to the reclusive monastery up the mountainside, parking-lot see-you-next-year hugs and vainly hopeful pledges to get together over the summer. It's truly amazing, and affirming, to realize how many high-value life events and daily Joys can get packed into a month, particularly May 15 to June 23.

That's when I'll be in Sri Lanka, on a contract with the Canadian Cooperative Association to do micro-enterprise development . Working in 3 different coastal areas of the country with local small-business co-operatives that were formed to re-establish livelihoods after the 1994 tsunami. It's an exciting re-entry into international development, building on micro-credit work I've done in Tanzania and Kenya as well as my new investment into the co-operative movement. Beyond just being a fantastic one-month experience and contribution, I'm hopeful that it puts me right back in the flow that will lead to some longer-term (6-month?) position that our whole family could go on - the dream we opened ourselves to back in October. Our boys are 8 and 10 and just a perfect age to drink in a new culture and language and way of being.

To celebrate this first overseas trip since leaving ACCES 4 years ago, I'm gifting myself with a week of backpacking life in India. I booked a layover in Chennai (Madras), before I'd read the Lonely Planet description of it:
Chennai has neither the cosmopolitan, prosperous air of Mumbai (Bombay), the optimistic buzz of Bengaluru (Bangladore) or the historical drama of Delhi. It's muggy, polluted, hot as hell, and difficult to get around. Traditional tourist attractions are few. Even the movie stars are, as one Chennaiker put it, 'not that hot.'
So it sounds like the perfect place to go with no expectations, just walk around and drink in a continent I've never set foot in, enjoy foods and sounds and crowds and trains, maybe a trip down to Auroville - "the first and only internationally endorsed ongoing experiment in human unity and transformation of consciousness, also concerned with - and practically researching into - sustainable living and the future cultural, environmental, social and spiritual needs of mankind."

And just in case you weren't jealous, here's a snippet of the Sri Lanka guidebook:
Available throughout the year are pineapple, papaya (excellent with lime) and banana, of which there are dozens of varieties. The extraordinarily rich jack fruit is also available all year. Seasona fruit include the lusciously sweet mango, the purplish mangosteen, wood-apple, avocado, the spiky foul-smelling durian and hairy red rambutan. In addition to ordinary green coconuts, Sri Lanka has its own variety - the golden king coconut; the milk is particularly sweet and nutritious.
So my dear friends and family, as I sincerely miss the beautiful community season, I will console myself with Bollywood and the sacred Buddhist capital of Kandy and warm water surfing. As you dig into our rich soil to plant our year's food supply, I'll dig into a foul-smelling durian and try to smuggle back a hairy red rambutan for you in my backpack.