Monday, September 11, 2006

"Much in his heart remained unsaid"

"These things he said in words. But much in his heart remained unsaid. For he himself could not speak his deeper secret."
      - Kahlil Gibran

A week ago I flew from Leh Airport in Ladakh to Delhi. Airport security was tight and chaotic, and they didn't allow any hand baggage, unless you said you had an expensive camera, like I did. They insisted that batteries be removed, but didn't check that they were. My lip balm crossed a line, though, and was confiscated. You know how when your lips are chapped it's almost impossible to blow up a plane. I was a little grumpy because they took my special chapstick with collagen that makes my lips look like Angelina Jolie's. I sat in the departure lounge, thin-lipped, suffering in silence.

There was a large group of Indian military in the waiting area. Rules of behavior in India are almost the reverse of the norm at home. Men and women rarely touch in public, but men will walk arm-in-arm or holding hands. Two young soldiers sat across from me, almost on top of each other, talking intimately with their faces close, laughing and holding hands. I've seen soldiers act the same way in San Francisco, but it was Halloween and they had their butt-cheeks cut out of their trousers.

Delhi is the usual steamy madhouse that I've come to know and tolerate. Late one night I was walking back to my hotel and ended up on a road that dead-ended at a railway station. I had the misfortune of asking directions of an old guy with white hair and alcohol on his breath. In formal English, he said, "I would be pleased to show you the way out. But you must realize that I do so at my own risk. And as I'm a poor man, perhaps you could then help me with a few rupees." It turns out I was the one taking the risk, because as I said I didn't need to pay for a guide, he mumbled, "Well, I could also do this..." and he grabbed a handful of the family jewels! I was shocked.

"I can't believe you just grabbed my nuts!"

"What happened, sir?"

"You know what happened, you asshole. You just grabbed my nuts! You can't go around doing that to people!!"

"Oh, I'm sorry sir. I'm just tired."

"Well, I'm tired, too, but I didn't just grab your nuts, now did I?!"

I'm making it sound a little more fun that it really was. I threatened to take him to the police, but I didn't mean it. I knew they would just beat the hell out of him and then extort a bribe. But it changed my perspective for a while. Every time I saw a white-haired old man walk close to me I'd think, oh, you better not grab my nuts! That's not a normal, or healthy, response to white haired old men. I don't know what kind of ManMusk I'm exuding these days, but I was approached by men two more times in the next two days. And I don't like it! I'm looking forward to being back in San Francisco where people's gay-dar is more finely tuned.

A few hours ago, I bought an on-line ticket to fly home tomorrow morning, via five days in Paris visiting my niece Courtney. My vacation, if that's what you call it, isn't quite over, but my time in India is.  In the eight months I've been here, I've found myself overwhelmed, happy, despondent, conflicted, agitated, loved and loving. I don't get that same level of stimulation and inspiration at home, but maybe only because I'm not looking hard enough. I met a young American here who dove into the sea of Indian experience and didn't even get wet. All his experiences bounced off his thick insular skull, to be evaluated with it's-right or it's-wrong, it's-good or it's-bad. I'm happy to say that this isn't my problem while I'm here. But though I claim that I'm constantly trying to figure things out, it occurred to me recently that maybe I like not understanding, and it's the confusion that thrills me.

I can't really put it into words what keeps me coming back to India. I'm not being difficult - I just don't know how to express it - not even to myself. Much of my travel motivation this trip had to do with these newsletters. I really feel, right or wrong, that I'm not just traveling for myself. I'm traveling and writing and photographing and sharing for anyone that is moved by these letters. And that inspiration has the same quality as love, in that it doesn't diminish as you give it away. So, for anyone who's been moved or inspired, I'm REALLY happy that you were. I wrote them for you.

Too much love,

There are eight photos below:
This river is cutting across the Zanskar road. The water gets high in the afternoon as the snow melts higher up, and this day it brought down a load of large boulders. The jeep is stuck in the stream, but is sitting in the road, which continues to the right of the photo.
The village of Likir after rain and snow fell the night before.
Young monks at Likir Monastery.
A view of upper Likir, from the monastery.
This man was cutting wheat with rest of his family. The goggles are made of metal and leather, and look like something from World War II.
A woman in Leh wearing a traditional Ladakhi hat.
A view of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Someone who was here 27 years ago said that there wasn't a single tree back then - they've all been planted since then.
(The End)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

"She no love you?"

I usually emphasize the ways that India ties me in knots and confuses me, but I'm sure we Westerners can be just as confusing to Indians. What I know is shocking to them is a non-deformed 50 year-old man who isn't married. They just can't comprehend it, and remind me of it regularly.
Some years ago a man asked how old I was, and then asked, "How many children do you have?" I said I didn't have any; he looked stunned. "Are you married?" I said no, and he squealed, "NOT possible!!"
Last week a young guy asked if I was alone, something else they can't fathom. (It's variously asked as: Alone? One? Just? Only? or just a questioning look with one finger in the air.) I said that yes, I was alone. He then asked if I was married. When I said no, he said, "Ohhh... so you're alone." He made it sound so desolate and barren, which I suppose from his perspective, it is.
On this trip I met a 16 year-old kid who wasn't content with generalities. He wanted to know WHY I wasn't married. I said I was married a long time ago, but it didn't work out.
"Why?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know, it's a little hard to explain."
"She no love you?"
"Yeah, I guess you could say that." He pondered that for a bit, before asking if my ex- is remarried, how many kids they have, what she does for work, and what her husband does for work, of all things. Why is a 16 year-old Indian boy interested in this?
"Why you not remarry?"
"Uh, I don't know, but it's a little hard to find the right person."
"NOT hard. You just find a nice girl, and you marry her." Well, if that's true, it explains a lot. Somehow I always thought it was more involved than that.
As we parted, he said, twice, "Next time I see you, I want to meet your wife. Okay? Okay??"
"Yeah, okay. Maybe."
Too much love,
There are eight photos below:
This beautiful little girl is only about six years old.
A monk from a small monastery in Padum.
A very long glacier near the highest pass on the Zanskar road. You can see the switchbacks of the road in the lower center of the photo. The guidebook describes this glacier as "kilometers long."
Amazing geological formations near Rangdum, on the Zanskar road.
Baby Tenzin in a basket, on Dad's back. I stayed at the guesthouse of this family.
The baby's parents, separating the barley from the chaff. Lamayuru Monastery is on the hill in the left background.
Baby Tenzin, who is 15 months old.
Inside Lamayuru Monastery during a chanting ceremony, called a puja.
(The End)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Remote and isolated.

Before I came to Ladakh, I was amazed that the only way to enter or leave in the winter is by flight. Then I went to Padum, the last "big" town on the dead-end road to the Zanskar region of Ladakh, and discovered that the only road is closed by winter snows for half the year - and there are no flights. Then I walked the two days to Phuktal Monastery, and couldn't really imagine winter there. The main route in and out during the height of winter is walking along the frozen river, which is termed traveling along the chaddar. Chad means "to freeze" and dar means "your ass off." The river doesn't always freeze through evenly, so falling through the ice is a definite risk. And in late winter, when the ice is starting to melt, the high passes are still blocked by snow, so even the relative comfort of walking along an ice-covered river is no longer available. I can't imagine. (And I complain about slow traffic at home. Hah!)
But not surprisingly, these are a hardy people. At Sonam's wedding, her younger brother, Tenzin, said he was walking to Manali in four days; its regularly trekked by tourists in ten days. When I said that sounded hard, he said, "NOT hard! You just walk five hours in the morning, have lunch, then walk five hours in the afternoon. Not hard." There was no bravado in his statement - he just didn't think it was hard.
I witnessed one of the results of the isolation of the area. In a well-touristed, relatively affluent village not far from the monastery, I saw a woman sitting on the ground with her head in her hands, like she was in pain. I asked the shopkeeper, standing beside her, if she was okay. She pointed to a rock, and on the rock I saw a long, bloody molar, freshly pulled, without any painkiller - not even aspirin. (The tooth had a cavity in it about the size of a small pea.) The patient/victim was stoic and silent, even though she was obviously in a lot of pain. The shopkeeper/dentist prepared a natural remedy of cooked barley flour, butter and sugar that the patient spooned into the hole in her jaw.
That seemed adequately intense, but then the shopkeeper/dentist took the dental pliers from her kid, who was playing with them on the ground, wiped them off, and went in to extract a second tooth! (Would we EVER go to the dentist if this is what it was like?) Two attempts and two bits of broken tooth later (the root stayed in) and the shopkeeper/dentist proclaimed "Done." As crude as the sidewalk dentist in Varanasi was, at least he used Novocaine. I asked why she didn't use some painkiller, and she said, "Because sometimes it doesn't work." That's your answer?! That's the sort of bewildering logic that is so common here that I didn't even ask any follow-up questions. It turns out that the shopkeeper did have some sort of government-sponsored nurse training, although I'm not sure it was on display on this day.
In spite of the ancient culture and simple existence of the people in the area, most of the villagers are relatively well off. They have large houses, plenty to eat, and many can afford to send their children to boarding schools, either in Leh (the capital of Ladakh,) or Manali or Jammu. The kids are typically at school for 10 months a year, and only home for two. All the subjects are taught in English (which is true of many schools in India) so the kids are quite fluent in English, and know a fair bit about the world. I wonder, though, how many of these well-educated kids will choose to stay in such a simple and remote village life.
I thought I was writing a letter about monks. But if my Newsletter McNuggets get too long, they won't get read. So the monk stories will have to wait...
p.s. I've left Zanskar, and I'm now in Leh. I'm plotting my (gulp) return to San Francisco for work in about two weeks.
There are six photos below:
I met this man walking on the trail. He was really a gentle soul.
You can just make out the trail on the left side of the photo.
A view from the house where I spent one night on the walk.
A kitchen inside a small tea shop.
Carrying water in a village where I don't believe anyone had running water.
It doesn't take much - hold out your camera, smile, and watch it unfold.
(The End)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More photos from Phuktal

I'm afraid I don't have time to write the stories that I'd like to. But you'll find nine photos below from the Phuktal Monastery. I may be off of e-mail for up to a week. See you soon.
A kid wearing a monk's hat.
A view of the monastery from above.
The valley beyond the monastery.
The kitchen for the monastery, set up against the cave wall.
One of the monks.
Another young monk. Who came up with those hats??
(The End)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Confounding moments

I'm sitting here typing on a very fast satellite internet connection in a town with no phone service of any kind. The back of my hands itch with about 25 bedbug bites from sleeping four nights in a six hundred year old monastery, as I contemplate my imminent return to San Francisco. Last night I met a young Tibetan man who fled Tibet at the age of nine (with the help of an uncle,) walking over a 19,000 foot pass into Nepal, where he had to work as a manual laborer for a year before he had the money to head south to India to get an education. And in a few weeks I'm going to put my pampered white ass on a plane to go home to work and make an unreasonable amount of money, where no callouses will be earned and no sweat will be broken.
It's these confounding moments that make all the grief and hassle of a trip to India worthwhile.
I won't cry as often when I'm home, which is a little unfortunate, because I only cry when I'm happy. And I'm not allowed to say hi to kids in my neighborhood, not because of a court order, but because of the sterilizing paranoia that passes for parental concern at home. I play with kids here on a weekly basis more than I will in a year at home. But I'll also get to practice a different kind of love. Love at arm's length is no match for the challenge of up-close, long-term love, complete with annoying habits that seem designed to aggravate. (No, I don't have any offers at the moment.)
"Love, pure and simple; directed to none, denied to none." What does that look like when I've left exotic goose-bumpy India and I'm back in the oh-so-familiar haunts of home? I guess we'll see.
Much love,
The photos below are from the trek to Phuktal Monastery. I'll send stories later. There are nine photos:
The walk followed several rivers, which are brown at this time of year, and blue-green later in the fall. It rained on us in the morning.
Buddhist stupas are important religious symbols, and are found in almost every village. These are in a village of only two houses.
The central room of a Ladakhi house. Meals are cooked on the dung- and wood-fueled fire in the center, while family and visitors sit on carpets at the edge of the room.
It's really rugged territory.
Phuktal Monastery.
The monastery viewed from across the river, next to a small village of five houses. You can see the monastery to the center-left of the photo. The dark spot is a large cave that houses the primary meditation room. The village can be seen on the lower-right.
(The End)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Please e-mail me some rupees.

This was not one of my finer moments. Since I only intended to come down the Zanskar road for one day, I thought I had plenty of money. That was two weeks ago, and I'm down to about $10 worth of rupees, and there's nowhere to change money here. Oops! There were a few Americans I ran into, including a professor from San Diego who is a nun, wears one of those funny/traditional hats, and speaks Ladakhi. I could have groveled before them, explaining my situation. But did I? No. Because I am really unhappy groveling. It's been a humbling experience to feel so powerless and still be unwilling to fix it.
But my Tibetan hotel-keeper, Lekshe, has come through, and I have $200 of traveler's checks bouncing down the 14 hour road to Kargil, in the pocket of a monk, on the way to Lekshe's wife. (His first wife, not his second wife, who he is also married to. Really.) And Lekshe trusted me enough to advance me enough money that I'm no longer in danger of being a vagrant.
Tomorrow I'm leaving for a one-week or so trek to a famous monastery, with a French anthropologist and her local friends. I'll be back in contact when I return...
There are 10 photos below:
A young monk.
These girls (twins?) are from Jammu, and their father comes here for the summer to repair shoes.
A monk inside the monastery of Tongde.
The village of Padum, where I'm staying, is in the center-right. The air is so crystal clear here that distances are confusing.
(The End)