Sunday, April 30, 2006

Native Tongue

India is a constant lesson for me. In this case, an English lesson. Americans have no more a monopoly on usage conventions than the English do. Here are some innovations that have recently come to my attention, and a few striking imperatives I thought worth repeating:

Horn Please

Use Dipper at Night

Restaurant has Shifted Down

Say No Plastic Bags

We Like You But Not Your Speed

Punjab Ends

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Answer, On Little Goat Feet

McLeod Ganj

Sunday, April 23, 2006

I’m a very lucky boy. It’s Sunday morning, and I’m on a rooftop restaurant in the little town on the edge of the Himalayas where the Tibetan government hangs out. There are big black birds soaring in the sky above and below me, and town monkeys climbing around on the railing.

McCleod Ganj is a perfect place for me to finish up the novel, (which is now on the gantry for final assembly). The sushi’s not that great, but a shave is fifty cents and a massage is seven fifty. My room at the Om Hotel (really that’s the name) is about seven dollars, so if I don’t go on a run at the billiards hall too often, I can live on twenty bucks a day.

The air is clean and cool and the view from my room, past pine trees and straight out into the valley south, would cost you a couple million if this were California. There are always monks and nuns out and about in their red robes and sensible shoes, plus the usual cast of cows and donkeys, smiling beggars and fingerless lepers, craggy peaks and pine trees; it's a nice mix of Tibet and India.

The Om is down a quiet street without traffic. In the mornings I walk past the “Non-Veg” (an exception) soup guy scraping the hair off a dozen goat feet for that evening’s soup. I guess I’m saying it’s easy to be vegetarian here, but I digress. There are five streets, and perhaps even fewer bars. The town is as quiet at 10:30 at night as it is at 5:00 in the morning.

There is yoga, meditation classes, volunteer opportunities, classes in Buddhism, or just another cup of chai. The cafĂ© lifestyle goes well with the dry weather which could be nice all day or change from brilliant sun to rain a couple of times a day. The atmosphere is especially good for me, because I need places where I can work, and possibly even plug in my laptop – and when I’m finished writing, I need people to hang out and talk with. In the past week I’ve had nice conversations on topics ranging from Australian immigration policy to the Sino-Tibetan railway, with people from Argentina, the Netherlands, Japan, Germany, Northern England, the US, Switzerland, and Tibet, of course.

Incidentally, my Mac Titanium PowerBook G4 is performing like a warrior. I’ve dragged it on and off buses, trains, planes, tuk tuks, swangthaews, bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws and trucks for four months, taking it out almost every day and recharging it on local power grids every damn night, and it’s still connecting me to WiFi networks wherever it finds them, updating my NPR Podcasts, bringing me more news than I need and connecting me with my peeps. Props to the Mac. I’m very impressed. Caveat: The Super DVD drive has gone out. Disclaimer: I dropped the whole thing edge-down from a chair onto a tile floor in Little Poland last summer.

Of course I need a little pop culture now and then. Luckily, they have four cinemas in town. Each is about the size of a greyhound bus, (one of them appears to have the actual seats from a greyhound bus), and they screen bootleg DVD versions of currently running flix on a dim widescreen. In the past week I’ve seen Walk the Line, Ice Age II, Water, Karmapa, and Capote. (Ice Age II was actually better than Karmapa.)

So suffice it to say, I’m doing fine.

Until lately, this blog had been mostly quick snapshots from my journeys with a bit of commentary. I never want to read about other people’s day-to-day routines, so I had a natural aversion to writing about my own. Why I’m doing it here, I don’t know. I suspect it’s an inevitable symptom of blogging.

If this is a blog, then I think it’s about time I indulged in more public display of personal “insight”. But I’ll make it brief; (if you want the details, we can talk).

I and this mountain I’ve be trying to conquer for quite some time seem to have come to an understanding. It’s not like I’ve scaled it, but I’ve come to realize that I’ve pretty much covered it. And guess what, there was no peak. It might have been about climbing, but it wasn’t about summiting.

As I said already, India has been a much more powerful experience than I expected. At first I thought that I should have come here first, straight from New York, all full of energy and good cheer. Now I think that having a few months to find my own ground in Asia was a good preparation. I arrived here already opened up like an oyster, calibrated to a different energy level, more receptive than ever to new input. Not necessarily the way you might want to come here for the first time, but for me, maybe just right.

I pay attention to my dreams, when I can, and my dreams since coming to India have been categorically different. They aren’t really coherent, but they’re not even incoherent in the way they used to be incoherent. Of course, I’m delighted to see my old creaky consciousness being taught new tricks. I haven’t been able to digest them fully yet.

Speaking of digesting, I had another bout of the usual, which this time cost me two semi-delirious nights, one full day in bed and two more days recuperating in my room at the Om. (I look like the ghost of a skeleton with a seven-day beard.) This is germane, by the way, because waking up this morning free of pain probably gave this series of dreams the luster it needed to make me really pay attention.

It’s not a particularly fascinating set of dreams, or anything I can explain very well, but they are helping me to see how to pull together all of these nice pieces of my recent questing and be a happier journeyman in this life.

The long version of the whole process involves Shiva, Kali, several caves, an immense spider, the Mekong, a twisty village path, lots of soft curtains, more goat feet and a dark-skinned woman.

The short version is that there’s nothing I need to find right now, no lesson I need to be taught right now, I have what I need at this point. I’m good.

Great news. Just in time for summer.

So, I feel ready to head homeward. The cloud of anxiety that had been fogging the landing strip has suddenly cleared. I don’t think I’ll be working in any big offices soon, but I might be back in the states before long.

In the meantime, I’m still writing. It feels very good.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Top Ten Lesser-Known Reasons to Travel In India

10-Lose ten pounds in just one month.

9-No one expects your clothes to be spotlessly clean.

8-In travel hotels, you can shower and use the toilet at the same time.

7-Free petting zoo every day, with sheep, goats, donkeys, cows and monkeys.

6-Eat western food guilt-free because it’s the only hygienic option.

5-Fart any time, anywhere. (Even if someone does notice, they’ll assume the smell is coming from the street.)

4-Have a swim in the river, cleanse your soul.

3-Blackouts provide a romantic atmosphere.

2-It’s easy to get up for early morning yoga when the whole town shuts down at ten PM.

1-If you don’t want to finish your dinner, there’s an actual child in India to give it to.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

I'm Rollin'

For twenty years I’ve been hearing stories about India and knowing I must go. But partly because it’s such an important destination for me, the trip got shunted aside. It’s the Everest of hard travel; huge rewards and huge challenges. Among the challenges: heat, filth, poverty, and worst of all, an unending army of drivers, shopkeepers, beggars and lunatics to pester the rich foreigner like flies on a fat cow. Among the rewards: A huge country that is profoundly spiritual, full of friendly and diverse peoples who speak relatively good English (see also in challenges).

I considered myself a pretty hardy traveler, having circumnavigated the Northern Hemisphere on land and then some. I’ve slept in more than my share of squalid excuses for lodging and eaten things any reasonable traveler wouldn’t come near. Still, this place has been kicking my ass.

I was prepared for the crowds and the hassles and the piles of poop in the streets, but for heaven’s sake, where are the clean parts of Delhi? This isn’t even Calcutta.

I was prepared for the smell. Hey, Bangkok isn’t exactly a perfume palace, and Hong Kong made good on the promise of its name, but I had never imagined the depth of the bouquet of stenches that wash down the alleys of Paharganj and the even narrower pathways of Varanasi. Sometimes it’s as though one has taken a wrong turn and walked up the bowels of one of the gentle cows there. (Speaking of bowels, I’ve fully recovered from my bout with what they refer to here as, “loose motion.” I escaped with merely three days of mostly lying in the heat, studying the miraculous ceiling-gripping skills of my bug-eating room mates.)

Of course, the squalor is part of what makes me so glad I’ve come; and if there is a more intensely foul environment of this scale to visit, I want to go there as well. But it raises an issue for me as an artist. I’ve come to consider myself pretty good at unique takes on special places. But here I’m just another overwhelmed visitor to the oldest civilization on this planet. Every observation I make echoes in my mind with the trite tones of a musty British travelogue.

I didn’t realize my self-image as a writer was so tied up in having a distinctive angle on things. I didn’t realize my self-image as a writer was so fragile. Wow, what I’m learning in India is as much about myself as it is about the world! [Cue trite echo chamber of musty British travelogue.]

So I write to you here a humbled traveler, a humbled writer, a humbled soul. This is all good. Humility is a virtue I can always use more of.

(Lest you suspect I’m being distracted from the novel, this is a planned two-week break from it and I’m doing some paid work for the Connecticut Center for the Book.)

Coming back to East Asia twice now has been good, but it’s wonderful to be in a new environment. Though I feel hassled and under siege, I also feel accepted here and welcomed. I’m feeling less alienated and it’s helpful to be able to communicate with more of the locals. One bonus, people here are for the most part delighted to be photographed.

The intensity of the experience feeds my curious side. One evening in Delhi I visited the Jama Masjid mosque and then wandered north of there through markets and alleys until I had very little idea where I was. On a main thoroughfare there was a bustling of people washing their feet and checking their shoes and there was a temple and sign that said something about a martyr who had defended the hindus’ right to exist.

It was made clear to me that I was welcome, so I checked my shoes with the nice women and washed my feet and climbed the marble steps into a polished and fantastic place. There was an altar bigger than my apartment and a chandelier almost as huge. Reaching from the vaulted ceiling for the red carpet floor an inverted forest of fans spun, each at its own speed. There were singers and drummers and a good number of folks sitting and watching while others moved about with purpose.

People were worshiping and making offerings of silk and incense and flowers and food. There were Indians of all walks of life and modes of dress from shiny bright fine gowns to homespun country wraps and a cadre of bearded mountain fighters observing together quietly in the center of it all.

The tall man with the spear allowed me passage through the back to a free kitchen. They were serving Indian food that night, and I peered into an open doorway where a boiling kettle of aloo gobi the size of a hot tub was being stirred by two men with what looked like a canoe paddle.

Next thing I knew I was sitting at an ankle-high stone table covered inches deep in flour and puffs of dough. It wasn’t long before they got me to where I could roll out a decent chapatti in only about twice as much time as the kids next to me, and even faster than the man in the jiffy-pop turban across from me.

It felt good to work and it was nice to be included like this; especially to be treated as slave labor, instead of a pink source of easy money. It gave me time to get some perspective. The day had been full and hectic. Eventually the whole picture resolved itself for me and I laughed at myself sitting there, at the long funny path that had brought me to that spot.

“Where the hell am I?”

“What am I doing here?”

They were rhetorical questions of course, but answers came up nonetheless.

“I am right here.”

“I am rolling chapattis.”

If I can maintain that simple perspective, I’ll have re-learned an important lesson there (in what I later learned was a Sikh temple).

India is taking care of me. The universe is taking care of me. I am right here. This is what I’m doing.