Digging Pebble’s Grave, part the next.

20 April 2014 § Leave a comment

In a widely-reported move, Rio Tinto, a major player in the development of Alaska’s Pebble Mine – long a threat to the Bristol Bay watershed and its fisheries – gifted its shares in the project to the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and Alaska Community Foundation. The decision was announced after the EPA said it would consider stopping the mine, citing the Clean Water Act. The White House supported the EPA’s announcement. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski suggested that the Obama Administration may have held more sway in the process.

Last September, Anglo American, a mining company which had invested in Pebble Mine from the start, pulled out of the project. Currently, Canadian-based firm Northern Dynasty Minerals retains shares in Pebble Mine.

Alaska’s government, hyperaware of both how much money Pebble Mine would produce for the state and how much it would devastate the region environmentally and economically, has remained steadfast in “letting science decide” the fate of Pebble.

I’m a Bristol Bay fisherman. The threat of Pebble Mine has loomed over every season I’ve fished like a dark banner under which ornery fisherman gather and complain. Movies have been made in protest. For half a decade, nearly every fishing boat, tender, skiff and processor vessel in Bristol Bay has flown the anti-Pebble flag, the corresponding stickers stuck ubiquitously throughout the region (one remained on my car as I sold it last year in Oregon).

No one in the fishery knows, really, what might have happened had Pebble gone through. It still may, though the chances are minimal. Would we have had four years of decent fishing left, or until the spawn of the last uncontaminated fish died off? Should we worry about other problems now, like Fukushima and radioactive fish, or the Fraser River’s anticipated heavy run, which this year may overtake Bristol Bay as the most abundant salmon run in the world, and plummet our price?

On a smaller scale, I’m fishing this year with Heather on her boat, the Silver Kris. We’ll be running it together. Will everything work correctly? Will we catch fish? Will we lose money on the venture to Alaska? We’re to drive to Seattle today to put gear and food on the barge.

It’s that time of the year. I’ve mostly forgotten or repressed what negative memories of last year’s grind on the Okuma remained, and I’m readying for the northern migration again. With worries and confidence and news of this disaster, or that gift.

Pebble Mine is now in the hands of BBNC, who are, by and large, fishermen. Imagine if the protestors in Egypt were handed Mubarak’s power; if Syria’s government forces suddenly handed its arms over to the families of civilians it has murdered; if Occupy Wall Street accomplished something tangible. We’ve won, gotten what we wanted; the protest of Alaska’s rural communities, fueled by environmental and cultural stewardship, worked. What now?

Now, we continue. We buy food and coffee, rain gear, engine parts; save receipts for next year’s taxes. We visit a friend at the airport who’s on layover toward the fishing grounds. We tend to the passing of the seasons, and adjust the anchor lines for the flooding tide.

We go fishing, because that’s what we do.

Truth(s) about Travelers.

14 April 2014 § 5 Comments

Huffington Post recently posted a blog written by Stephanie Dandan addressed to the general public, written vicariously by the mysterious clan known as ‘travelers’ – though, apparently, we’d rather be called nomads, wanderers, modern gypsies. As if we gather under the flag willingly.

The piece romanticized dingy hotel rooms and the novelty of sleeper buses and the long, cold nights “we” sleep under a bridge (personally, those nights are usually quite lonely), as if the stay-on-the-road-at-any-cost maxim is our only compass reading, the only path to the education and evolution she talks about, the thing we as a ‘sect’ do and think about constantly.

As if nothing else could bring us the joy of an overnight train in India, chicken buses in Guatemala, exercising compassion for a bus ticket agent when a tourist gives him a hard time.

In Holy Cow, Sarah Macdonald’s acclaimed travel narrative about two pivotal years in India, she notices, while on a trip to Derradun, two Westerners who look “determined to believe they are the only westerners to have discovered the delights” of the town. To the observant wanderer, this is common fare in the far reaches of the world. Westerners tend to bring our ingrained individualism elsewhere, and project it outward; we insist on our own spatial boundaries and chronemics, often oblivious to local custom.

I’m annoyed not so much as what this woman said as what she presumed in order to say it. A traveler is not a traveler is not a traveler. There are tourists, and there are travelers. There are nomads, and there are gypsies. Different words for different lifestyles. I identify as one or more, less for poeticism than accuracy.

Perhaps I’m sensitive because I’m three days back from a trip, still jet lagged and wake up in the middle of the afternoon because my body thinks it’s tomorrow morning. My bank account is freshly low, a few payments are behind, and I’m grateful to the subletter that we’ve got a place to land post-travel. Feels like a first.

I want to touch on a couple things in response to Stephanie’s enthusiastic writing. Many travelers like to let “normal” people know that letting go of everything to tramp off into the wild blue will change their lives forever. But it isn’t always the best thing. It doesn’t work for, or serve, every potential traveler. Some aren’t ready for it. Some will never be. It’s not always a matter of excuses (i.e., travel is too expensive, dangerous, lonely, etc.) – some people thrive more in the bubbles they’ve created. We’re on on our own paths.

Stephanie is dead-on in that we sacrifice luxury and comfort for experience, that many travelers are able and willing to toss most things aside for the contents of a backpack. Traveling, in my experience, is a spartan lifestyle primarily because trinkets, gifts, souvenirs, and bullshit don’t fit in a backpack. They weigh too much. They’re not useful.

Money’s often tight, and there can be a perpetual, annoying desire to squeeze as little money into as much time as possible, and some travelers index parts of the world by how much one can live on per month: Europe costs $1,000 minimum, India half that; Central America, depends on how one does it. In order to stay longer – if that’s the priority – one might sleep on the beach, eat only the cheapest local food, or stop drinking (alcohol can account for extraordinary amounts of one’s budget). If those are sacrifices, “we” also sacrifice things like community, relationships, a sense of accountability (but to ourselves), and very often, purpose.

One thing that many travelers don’t mention, consider, or share is the part of the journey which begins at the end: re-entry. Integration. Finding home where we left it. Reconciling acceptance and criticism of our mother culture. Taking the lessons from a 6-month sojourn through East Africa, and applying them to West Coast US America. Or wherever. How do lessons from other parts of the world fit at home?

When one arrives in a new country, skin color and economical differences can become points of separation. We spend the beginning, perhaps the entire trip, adapting. Like children, we learn how to communicate verbally, non-verbally; we learn effective reactions to confrontations, beggars, offers, situations we’d not likely experience at home. Perhaps we learn to accept that we do not, and will not ever, fit in amongst the locals.

The process of re-entry often depends on how well we’ve adapted to another culture. How do I, for example, take a developed skill of bargaining with South Asian street merchants to a world of fixed-price capitalism? Is there any crossover? Does the me that learned those lessons deteriorate as I re-learn how to conduct myself in the States? Motorcycling the narrow chaotic streets of India, for example, seem to have seeped into my hatchback-driving habits on the orderly, polite roads of Oregon: they don’t mix well, so one must adapt further. In this we find that the traveler does not stop traveling once he reaches home: he continues the process, re-calibrates to a different currency exchange, ways of buying goods, driving.

Some travelers, the hardcore nomads who actually claim the term ‘world traveler’ from a place of often traumatized clarity, intend to never return home. These adventurers become mythic to those of us who feel like three or six months is a long trip – these nomads are wisps of Himalayan air, leatherbacks at Goan markets, low-profile Westerners who no longer qualify for the so-called White Tax. They’re the ones who go to Antarctica for US$50, burn their passports to avoid the consequences of an overstayed visa, know the classical connotation of the word ‘gypsy’ and want nothing to do with it. These guys and girls are admirable to the point of exhaustion; incomplete, in a forever-spiral, wanting, searching, running forever.

And that is what the road is for. To be away. For some, to facilitate change. Because we do. Not just “we”, but anyone who claims the road as home for any length of time. While we’re journeying, we see how people of other cultures pursue happiness; in the mountains, with no money at all; in city streets, offering copycat goods for exorbitant prices. We gain a sense, perhaps, for what they value, and how or if they accomplish it. Then to ask oneself, is that true for me? In this way, we can distinguish adaptation from appropriation, integration from theft.

There is no right or wrong sort of travel (though one could distinguish responsible from irresponsible), in fact, there are as many ways as there are travelers: our paths, I believe, are determined more by what we’re open to accepting, rather than a specific itinerary or place. But an odyssey is not an odyssey if one never makes it home.

Turning-Point

27 March 2014 § Leave a comment

by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

>>>

The road from intensity to greatness
passes through sacrifice.
—Kassner

For a long time he attained it in looking.
Stars would fall to their knees
beneath his compelling vision.
Or as he looked on, kneeling,
his urgency’s fragrance
tired out a god until
it smiled at him in its sleep.

Towers he would gaze at so
that they were terrified:
building them up again, suddenly, in an instant!
But how often the landscape,
overburdened by day,
came to rest in his silent awareness, at nightfall.

Animals trusted him, stepped
into his open look, grazing,
and the imprisoned lions
stared in as if into an incomprehensible freedom;
birds, as it felt them, flew headlong
through it; and flowers, as enormous
as they are to children, gazed back
into it, on and on.

And the rumor that there was someone
who knew how to look,
stirred those less
visible creatures:
stirred the women.

Looking how long?
For how long now, deeply deprived,
beseeching in the depths of his glance?

When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home—
the hotel’s distracted unnoticing bedroom
moody around him, and in the avoided mirror
once more the room, and later
from the tormenting bed
once more:
then in the air the voices
discussed, beyond comprehension,
his heart, which could still be felt;
debated what through the painfully buried body
could somehow be felt—his heart;
debated and passed their judgment:
that it did not have love.

(And denied him further communions.)

For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.

Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you; for you
overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.
Learn, inner man, to look at your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.

Structured Roots

16 March 2014 § Leave a comment

Tonight, a relatively famous woman who writes riddles on her van asked me, where does the name ‘Structured Roots’ come from?

It was nighttime, and the parking lot was slowly emptying. Through huge, open garage doors, one could see young people scaling the chalk-covered walls of The Circuit. Muffled hip-hop beat down the chatter. Tiffany Hensley let the question hang in the air as she pulled out her smartphone to check the website. I did not seem to lose her attention.

“That’s kind of a story,” I replied, as I do when I don’t know an answer, or to stall for time as I make one up.

“Made you think,” she said. That’s her purpose in life. The reason for the riddles on the van, penned in permanent marker, is “to get more people to think more.” Across the whiteboard of the Sprinter van, in a slew of handwriting styles: a list of Amazing Facts, a chess board, a misquoted riddle from The Hobbit that still begs the right answer.

“Well, it ended up on the back of a notebook about 11 years ago…” I started.

Yeah, what? Tell the story right, Sean.

“When he was 16, my best friend killed himself,” I started again, watching her face. She didn’t respond. “Months later, I was writing in a spiral notebook in the living room of his mother, and sketched the words on the back, in wavy, root-like letters.”

None of this answered her question. In sooth, the words meant nothing to me, the ramblings of a young poet. She perused a beading website called Structured Roots. “Is this your site?”

“I guess I have neither,” I said abruptly.

She looked up. “Oh, is that it?”

I stared past the white fluorescent street lamps, mouth agape, into Portland’s sepia-toned sky. For years the title was just something on the back of a notebook that later entitled a Google Pages site whose link I rarely shared. For lack of something better. Ask my first editor – I was never good at titling anything.

And now, my first day back in Portland, the only place besides Alaska I’ve felt homesick for, friends’ Welcome Home messages unread in my inbox, home no longer a moldy hotel in India but a cozy basement lit warmly by rope lights and Buddha’s calm half-smile, and I realized that my life had neither structure nor roots; in fact, I’d consciously avoided both, tore them up and apart when I detected them, packed up and tramped off when they threatened my nomadism.

Tiffany had just taught a workshop in the climbing gym aimed toward climbers who “want to have stronger minds” - Concentrate and repeat positive thoughts; Mind over Body; What you think directs reality. In the climbing world, which is driven more by ego and physical accomplishment than meditation and strength of will, these ideas seem novel. Simultaneously, it’s Hippietalk 101, the mental art work of yogis, circus performers, festivalers and many people with whom I consort. I said none of this, because although I know some of these typical law-of-attraction tenets as truth, I don’t necessarily integrate or apply them.

As we spoke, one of her students approached Tiffany in the same dreamy, I-want-more-from-you-but-don’t-know-to-say way I have hung around teachers, workshop facilitators, and beautiful women after they said I can definitely change my world – for me, the fanfare represents only partial gratitude. It says loudly, often sans reciprocation, what else can you offer me?

The beauty of having a blog for me is multi-layered: first, it’s not a notebook – there’s less risk of losing what I write, and it does not weigh me down. When I write something, I publish it to the interwebs, and have little control who or what reads it or where it ends up – a constant lesson in letting go. The blog is in itself a structure of expression, where I am my own artist, editor and accountability officer, typist, secretary. Purer, perhaps, that I am not paid, receive little feedback, no deadlines. As for my roots, they are “in the cloud,” as the saying goes, their rightful place, accessible from anywhere and limitless in potential.

The Last Supper

11 March 2014 § 2 Comments

My last supper in India: the upper room of a tattoo studio, King Circle, Mumbai. Fish curry and homemade chapatti – and two new dishes I’ve not heard of, even after two months in this country – a sign of only just landing. A mother’s steel food containers sit on a rolling office chair, three young men hunched over them, eating with our fingers. Yogesh the artist smiles humbly at my excitement.

“You like the food,” he asks, or says. In India, I can rarely detect a tonal difference between statements, demands, questions. The artist intern, I’ve forgotten his name three times and am now embarrassed to ask, leans over me to dip chapatti in the veg. “And the piece?”

I’m radiating happiness. Mumbai has been only good to me, this shop a sweet icing spread by getting lost in a district of colonial manors, technology institutes, and modern apartment buildings carved like Pharaohs’ tombs.  I have no idea where I am, which is at least consistent with the rest of the trip.

And it doesn’t matter. The tattoo was perfect, a realization of a year and a half of touring mediocre or wildly egotistical ink factories when I wanted little more than a good font and an artist who was stoked on it, too.

It figures I’d get my first piece abroad. In India, no less, hours before boarding a plane to Singapore. The next afternoon, Bali.

“No seawater for 15 days,” Yogesh says. This is a definitive statement, I can tell, but argue anyway: But I’m going to Bali!

“Ten days then. You don’t want it infected. Believe me.”

Humility and art illuminate this man’s smile. He’s six months older than I, a motorcycle adventurer and successful business owner. His art style sings graffiti blues, peacock feather filigree and abstract shadows that could be trumpets or a woman’s hands – simple, elegant, as close to the poetic images in my mind as I’ve seen.

I came in on a hunch. Leo Tattoos lives between the humid dinge and grime of Mumbai’s metropolitan sprawl. I was lost, blocks from my last reference point, when I looked through a glass door at the bald head of Moses. Something, perhaps the oppressive heat, told me to go inside.

Moses had one-inch plugs in his ears, a thick black beard, and a head tattoo of an ancient warrior’s bone blade. He was a miniature version of two different men I’ve known, and when I think of the trio, I see uncanny resemblances across bloodlines and nations, native and diaspora. Moses, a kind man set to be married to a Swiss girl, made me a pair of rosewood earrings from scratch – cut the pieces from a ruler-sized slab of Indian rosewood, sat on the floor and filed the wood LEGOs down to smooth plugs.

While he whittled, Yogesh and I talked art. The studio emanated inspiration. A bike wheel, axled to the computer desk, spun nonchalantly as he cruised the web for photos. The black cupboard doors are covered in childish carvings, a cub scout with a pocket knife. On the walls, art within plywood frames; silent bells hang above hand-carved chairs. Vibrations of sandpaper static and tattoo gun buzz and a woman’s voice from the speakers collide mildly in the air-conditioned space. I feel grounded and welcome here. For a while, the four of us explore our respective channels, quiet and gathered, drawing and carving and writing ourselves with wood and ink. In each of our hands, a new self-portrait births every hour. Inspirations comes to procreate here, in search of willing students, mates, mediums of men of art and blood, music, expression the priority. I am honored to create amongst them.

Yogesh doesn’t have many tattoos himself. “I just haven’t found the right artist,” he says. He showed me his work. Everything custom, except for some Americans who want a photocopy of Ganesha on the shoulder. Most of his style comprises lines and shadows with words and eyes and filigree, accentuated with jazz notes, a simple fusion.

“What can you do with a five-letter word?” I ask.

He wrote my word – trust. – complete with the period, on a blank sheet of paper. “It’s a perfect design,” he says, tilting his head to look at it sideways. “What is your definition?”

That, I think, I’ve got a lifetime to figure out.

 

motorfreedom

21 February 2014 § 2 Comments

The other day, I learned to ride a motorcycle from a beautiful woman on LSD.

Another lazy tropical night approached, its inevitable roar beginning. The sun fell through flimsy clouds like a meteor anxious to rest, and the frogs and crickets called in mates for supper. The deteriorated one-and-a-half lane road gave way to buses, rickshaws, motorbikes and the occasional BMW of wealthy Indian families on holiday. There were no rules on these asphalt paths, only unspoken recommendations to drive generally on the left side, and avoid hitting what may stand in the way: cows, water buffalo, stray children. Especially the cows.

“Wait, you don’t know anything about bikes?” Sasha asked.

“Let’s just start from the beginning.”

A Spanish teacher of mine once said she hated to teach intermediate students – they think they know it all because they can order food at a fancy restaurant! I didn’t want to tarnish the lesson because I thought I knew where the clutch and throttle lived.

“Okay,” she began, “This is the clutch!” She squeezed the lever.

“Right. Clutch,” I said.

“But the clutch on the left side.”

“Right.”

Laughter burst from her.

Aaron, Sasha’s boyfriend, left us to study motorcyclically while he ran to the top of the Monkey Temple for sunset. Apparently Hanuman was born up there, on Kishkinda Mountain, a pilgrimage site atop thousands of boulders inexplicably, irrationally stacked, collapsed, erect, broken, beautiful. Reflections of India herself.

Sasha, a 22-year-old German traveler, learned from her father at seven. He owns bikes from every decade since the thirties, including the little 60cc on which his daughter learned to ride. Besides that, I knew that she’d ridden a motorbike through North India for six months, and had been on this trip for one year and a half.

Despite her altered state, Sasha’s CV seemed legit. The basics: Throttle. Kick start. Clutch. Gears. Brake. I delegated tasks per limb. Brake, kickstart? No, clutch, kick, throttle. Throttle, Kick! She laughed and stumbled through the explanation. At one point, a local man from the coconut and soda stand came over.

“Something wrong? What happen?”

First lesson: humility.

“Nothing,” I said. “First time.”

“Okay. Coconut?”

I practiced accelerating in first gear half a dozen times down the driveway before she let me on the road. Ten feet forward, walk it back, start again. Where does the key go? Neutral, Throttle, Kick start. 

Go.

Sasha ran behind me, long white legs and cleavage a silver screen on the Indian sunset landscape: in tourist hubs like Hampi, local men stared more subtly, but still. I might have looked myself, had I not just discovered a new variety of freedom.

I pulled over, and grinned. Got off the bike and jumped up and down, arms in the air. I was a kid who’d just uncovered a great secret, accomplished a far-off dream. Like, OMG happiness squared.

Sasha arrived, breathless. “That was great – you did it!”

Female Approval! The child Sean ran in gleeful circles cheering, hands waving, oblivious to traffic; I smiled.

We stopped again for sunset. The fiery meteor shamed street lamps with purest lavalight, fell farther between a giant V of harmless blue-grey clouds, and settled somewhere else, in a faraway West I didn’t know, but could.

Aaron returned from the monkey temple; Sasha bid me take it out one last time.

The wind was intoxicating. Jungle bugs smashed into my face. No doors, no seatbelt, no cabin walls. No windshield. No anything. Just a little engine, two wheels, me, and the road.

Suddenly it made sense. Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels; the cultish love for motorcycles; special hand signals bikers made to one another below the handlebars; bikers-only bars in the American West; the leather, long hair, and fuck-the-system attitude.

Puzzle pieces I’d been missing pinged on the radar. The point was to let go. To think outside the box was one thing, but to live outside it was entirely another. To travel. To write. To eat. To sense.

>>>

Some moments cause great rifts, shifts, shuffles. Gulfs are created, oceans form. Eventually, it takes great effort to reach the other side, which just a minute ago seemed close, and listening. Sometimes those moments take away that which we thought immovable. How to cope with loss?

The great boulder hills of Hampi appear to me as fistfuls of stone, crushed by a giant and poured from his hand, a great hourglass. The piles of broken rocks built castles of delicately balanced stones, its fissures and cracks not weaknesses but passageways: opportunities for thorny plants to thrive; challenges to climbers, clamberers, scramblers, adventurers of every sort.

Mountains become what we like them to be – sleeping giants, birthplaces of gods, home – yet remain mountains, infinite stillness that morphs and grows and breaks and builds over millennia, and all at once. Likewise, people are simultaneously themselves and the perceptions, ideals, expectations, dreams and loves of others. And, sometimes, we are mountains.

The ocean drained from this place long ago, its massive highway currents (remember Finding Nemo? Imagine if he had a motorcycle!) caused the great piles, most likely: I imagine the psychedelic, alien colors of coral reefs decorating the tropical desert landscape – fish darting between stones, the worn curves in rock that only water over dozens of thousands of years can achieve. I wonder when will the sea return. In an afternoon, a violent tsunami (not rare in this part of the world), or slowly, like a rising tide?

I am free of myself, and lost again. Quiet, but not silent. The little Honda between my legs purrs, a 150cc feline, leans with me, goes where I will it, the risk in our symbiosis ever a reason to straighten my posture, and keep my eyes on the road.

here we are.

8 February 2014 § 2 Comments

Days pass in Udaipur, like beggars indifferent to rejection. The desert winter sun shimmers on Lake Pichola. This morning there is a record three clouds in the sky. Across the street, a blind man stands upon a speed bump, white cane in hand. Dark skin and cataracts. A sign hangs from his neck, half-Hindi, half-Hinglish, painted blue on white, an old traffic sign:

My Eyes Opration.
Please Help Me.

He holds a receipt book in his left hand, a record of those who do not ignore him. It is open to the second page. He’s got a five o’ clock shadow from last Saturday, and wears leather trainers, dirt-ridden and worn like the hands of the motorcycle mechanic who works next to Daiji footbridge.

Does this man know the yellow glow of the gold chain fitted to his neck? Does he remember the eyes of the young artist who walks by silently, a Western woman on his arm, who as a child brought the blind man food from his mother?

Can the man with the sign around his neck hear my steady eyes upon his, or the traces of my guilt for staring into a face of India which cannot, for once, stare back? In my ears, these are raucous, electric hums; my heartbeat amplified like the temple bells ringing in a nearby alley. We both turn our heads toward the clangor.

A group of boys line up at the metal railing outside Café Edelwiess; one, then three, then seven, holding metal bowls like topless kettles. Inside the bowls, sculpted men sit upon beasts, like Shiva Linga, covered in black oil and petals of marigold.

Kana, pani, one ragged boy says, over and over again. Food, water. He can’t be nine years old. He points to his mouth, then to the chocolate on my plate.

“Chapatis, sir, chapatis,” says an older boy, 12 or so, in clothes as dirty, and barefoot. They stand one meter away from our table, behind a chain hung like a velvet rope in a cinema queue line. There are no chapatis on screen; only Westerners and chocolate. My table is on the front line: other Westerners talk and eat behind me, deeper in the cave of the wall-less cafe.

I cannot use the Hindi phrase for sending away touts – nahi chaiye, I do not want. These children offer me nothing, want only my food. “Hello, sir, chapatis.” A hoarse, intimate whisper from the old beggar within the barefoot pre-teen: “Please.”

I’ve seen him squatting near a street fire of burning plastic at night to keep warm. Huddled in circles: community, empathy, and friendship. Things I cannot, and do not, offer him. So I ignore him, all of them and their pleas for kana; hello, please, sir, chapatis. Sir, please. Hello?

My book-wise glare renders me into another deaf Westerner, and they leave. I cannot, will not, eat in front of them, nor can justify teasing them with two sandwiches on my table, heaping with eggs and bacon. I pretend the sandwiches are not there. I write instead, holding the tears back because maybe they’ll think I’ll break, and then they’ll have full stomachs for the day, and return tomorrow – with hope.

I am an awful, selfish voyeur. Another white invader whose economic contributions profit hotels that shun locals as a cultural norm. A hotelier in Bikaner said, any unmarried Indian couple cannot, by Indian law, stay the night in a tourist hotel.

If, by chance, a foreigner befriends a local, the latter is typically not allowed in the foreigner’s hotel. The receptionists and owners of Dream Heaven in Udaipur, in the case of a British woman who invited a local restauranteur to have dinner with her, said the local was “a good Indian man, and is welcome here!” For others, they fear rape, or robbery, or some other sin for which we do not have a word.

After twenty minutes, the boy beggars give up on me, and walk away, determined as when they arrived. Hope is dangerous.

Or is it?

Who am I, exactly, that I would deny a child food, at the word of a rich man who said it would do them no good? How can one who has not known true hunger say such a thing? My friend, American activist Kokayi Nosakhere would be appalled, ashamed, dash our friendship to the dogs. His mission is to end child hunger, and in the past, I have said, with words and action, that I support him.

Do I support him now?

Who am I, again, to deny a request for a photo from a group of Indian men in a park, or from a family on holiday, or a few rupees to a woman in the park? Is it because I wish for a connection based less on currency, or prefer the barter economy of buskers or street artists, a penny for a song? And if these children have not even had the opportunity to learn an instrument, or how to use their voice but to beg to survive the day, or a mother’s callused hand?

What fucking right have I to project expectation or want upon a culture that asks so little of me? How audacious it seems to think, I want this experience to have such and such an impact on me; I need to see this or that; to feel the frustration, which leads me to write this. I harbor hatred for the roles we’re born into, the caste system to whom everyone here – not just locals – is subject to, inserted into a predetermined slot of economic import. I want to wriggle out, run away, and I want these children to know… what? That the grass is greener? That the law of attraction applies here, now?

What can I offer them? Freedom? Opportunity? The strength to climb an impossible ladder?

Oh, that I could offer them anything!

Already I deny the boys that which means virtually nothing to me, and could afford easily to buy each one of them a sandwich of protein and fresh-baked bread. I could likely pay for the eye opration [sic] of the blind man out-of-pocket. Not long ago, I wondered what gulf exists that would keep the “open-hearted” traveler in me from connecting with, interacting with, or relating to the people of my host country?

That gulf is wider than the Pacific Ocean. At the moment, for me, it is an uncrossable, unbearable feat. Airplanes and cargo ships could not bring me closer to the little boy three feet away, who has returned to the far side of the railing, outside this foreigner-owned café. He saw something in me, and came back for it. I fear for us both.

In the western, time-zoned, modernized first world, we live a day behind India’s each passing hour, where the beggars of the future ask help from travelers visiting from the past. How do we reply?

Goodbye, Bikaner

5 February 2014 § Leave a comment

Last Friday saw our bitter leave of the desert city in which I died for the third time in twelve days. Apparently I wasn’t letting my body recover long enough before we booked it out of Pokhara, Lumbini, Varanasi, Agra. Fast, blurry, irresponsible travel. Looking for center on the outside, instead of within. The hotelier in Bikaner, who shall remain anonymous but that he runs the most popular ho(s)tels in town, promised one price as a kind gesture, and, come pay time, charged us twice his word plus an extra night.

The scene was unpleasant: Heather, moon-furious. Me, a half-delerious skeleton between their opposing words, as if I had some final say in the matter, as if the credit card had not already gone through.

Bikaner is somewhat off the tourist path, a northern Rajasthani sibling to the popular camel safari town of Jaisalmer, the famous blue-hued Jodhpur, and laid-back Pushkar. That was the point: take the ten steps required to avoid the crowds, and be granted a break from touts and their targets.

A handful of  American movies and Indian TV recovered me to a skinny, post-zombie-like state, ravenous and sore from too many days in bed, listening to hotelier and beloved client argue over a handshake deal made a week before. My head shook involuntarily with anger. I wanted to thank him for his help with mailing a package home, and slap him across the face for after accepting lunch on our dime that afternoon. I felt both helpless and violent, and expressed with words my dreary fury.

Minutes before our bus was due to arrive, Heather brought me to a tailor. I stood outside as she laughed with the women inside. She’d arranged for a copy to be made of my favorite pants – a fraction the price, comfortable as the original. My anger from the hotel swept into a tearful gratitude. That, after a week of caring for me, tolerating my bad attitude, delirium, total refusal to eat, and explosive bodily fluids, she would bestow upon me the gift of a custom wardrobe!

Seconds later, three local boys on a motorcycle rode by. Over the 150cc motor, one spewed, Oh, I want to fuck you…

Oh, India. Let me count the ways.

I roared at them. Furious, annoyed, helpless. The driver turned around. Anger begets anger. I stood my ground, and they passed us, glaring, and yelling Hindi.

So much face of the animal kingdom is bluff.

The truth is, if they stopped to engage, I’m not sure what might have happened. I may have my head on a stake. Maybe not.

These kinds of moments seem to happen every few months: someone challenges me, threatens Heather, or myself. Mindless, misplaced anger. Usually, I laugh it off, put it down to a repressed childhood or some such context I’ll never have. Other times, something within me clicks, and an obnoxiously masculine, alpha force wants the challenger to know he’s out of line. Often enough in the past, I’ve been the one to cross it, exploring neighborhoods where I didn’t belong, and paid for ignoring the signs. I pay more attention now, and with it comes fear-borne aggression.

It scares me. I sense violence in my throat, limbs and gut. My heart palpitates, rushes blood to my hands, head, feet. If the bald man who jumped out of the claw of Abraxas at Burning Man had taken another step, the nerves in his face pulsing, probably due to the ketamine or cocaine… if these immature teenagers stopped the motorbike and approached us…

The space is unknown to me. I am neither a fighter nor a pacifist – I believe violence can and does accomplish certain goals, even if they’re not particularly useful ones. I possess neither art nor discipline with which to fight – only my body, and the rage stored in its depths.

I would be neither willing nor proud to engage anyone outside of defense of self or loved ones. Even then, I doubt my capacity to justify my violence. Bodies store pain, and I’ve got enough of my own to ever want to create it in another.

Breathe. Calm nerves. Channel chaos into creativity, let it go, release, c’est la vie, this is India: everything is possible; nothing is available. Counting to ten doesn’t work for me, but writing does.

India, for me, has not been so much a holiday than a welcome gauntlet. It tests everything I think I know, and wobbles its head when I ask a clarifying question. I love it as much as I hate it, and, as often as locals ask how much I feel for their country, India seems content either way.

Hello, Varanasi.

21 January 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m trapped chest-deep in a snow drift at the bottom of a roadside ravine. The world, should it continue, shall have to send word via toboggan. My digestive system seems to be on holiday, yet still I eat the Varanasi tourist favorites, clogging the pipes. What little escapes is gas and slime.

Last night whilst returning to our hotel from the main ghat, my muscles and stomach ached to the point of immobilization. Couldn’t walk a hundred feet without a rest. Sick and stoned (I mistakenly thought a “mild” marijuana lassi from a street vendor would help my stomach – three sips of the half-pint drink put me out. Still, for thirty rupees…), I sat on a giant stone step and recalled my twenty-minute-old memory of Manikarnika, the Burning Ghat, cremation place of 200-300 bodies per day. 

We reached the shore well after dark, having lost the path of the pallbearers. They’d walked by the Blue Lassi Shop, where we waited for fruit curd, carrying bamboo stretchers with small corpses wrapped first in white, loose mummies, then oranges, yellows and reds adorned them, gold bangles and decor for the portal to heaven. Flame expectant.

Medieval towers. Darkness and firelight. Monkeys scaled the buildings. Music, from a celebration at  A crowd watched the bonfires, mostly from the stairs above. Some stood between the fire and the blackness of the sacred Ganges, its current slow and strong.

Bodies burned on ghat and rooftop, a quiet city sieged. The scent of burning flesh and sandalwood. Cow dung and masala. Three incandescent lights shone from the building at the top of the ghat. How the smoke must have tasted.

I peered into a face revealed by a lively flame: the white wrap quickly melted away from the head. Sick as I was, these bodies were of humans, small and decrepit elders most, or children. The hotelier Ricky’s words repeated, We Indians are happy to die. When you burn in Varanasi, you go straight to heaven. It’s beautiful.

I would not debate the beauty of the scene. It felt more however that I had stepped into some former century, one of the 3,500-year-old city’s elder days, that I was a traveler from a land where nothing was sacred, one whose people concentrated far more on cleanliness than life or death, and no one, really, was concerned with heaven.

himalaya haiku

12 January 2014 § Leave a comment

ice cold toes
birdsong & laughter
earthquakes’ heartbeat.

himalayan sunrise,
tourist tea & photographs,
abandoned home in shadow.

god left his epitaph
flapping in alpine winds,
now builds sand castles.

gentleman whispers
float from roof: Richard Cory
umbrella in hand.

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