Thursday, July 27, 2006

The world as it is.

We don't see the world as it is. We see the world as we are. - Anais Nin
There are 10 photos below, all from Srinagar:
(The End)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

An open mind

When colonial India gained independence from Britain in 1947, it was split into Hindu-oriented India and Muslim-oriented Pakistan. Kashmir was overwhelming Muslim, and would have chosen Pakistan, given the choice, but the Hindu maharajah at the time, hoping for independence, chose India at the last minute. Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir, and there's an active insurgency that concentrates their ire on the 'occupying' Indian military force here, currently somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 soldiers. I saw an Indian soldier using his rifle as a club to beat on a truck driver who didn't stop fast enough. It's this kind of daily humiliation, and much worse, that creates so much animosity towards the military here.
I had no plans to come to Kashmir until I read that there were 600,000 tourists here last year, virtually all of them Indian. (If you're going to swim with sharks, it's better to be in a big school of fish.) A couple of weeks ago, though, there were some grenades tossed into Indian tourist buses, which is the first time that tourists were targeted. Several people were killed and it generated massive publicity throughout India. So when I got here, expecting to see lots of other targets, uh, tourists, I was a little surprised. It's hard to pick out Indian tourists, but there are damn few, and I've seen nine Western tourists in the five days I've been here. Now there aren't enough tourists to warrant a grenade attack, so I'm safe all the same.
My first day walking around town there was a strike called in protest of the 'Israel and U.S.' bombing of Lebanon. Two people had suggested I not tell people that I was American, which feels very odd. I tried being Australian for a while, until some kid asked me who our best cricket player was, so I gave that up. Sure I might get blown up or shot, but at least I won't get embarrassed. Most people realized that I don't make foreign policy decisions for the U.S., and they were warm and friendly. But I was playing with a little kid when an old man stepped between us and sort of shooed me down the road. I heard him say something about America, and I have to say that I felt pretty vulnerable at that point.
I spent another day with Younis, and this whole conversion to Islam shtick has gotten a little irritating. I don't think I mind him trying to convert me, I'm just bothered that he's not very good at it. A good salesman is so smooth you don't know you're being sold, but Younis is clubbing me over the head with it. His intentions were good, though.
I have learned quite a bit about Islam, and it appears that Mohammed's teachings have been corrupted by fundamentalists around the world in the same way as Jesus' teachings have been. And like the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, Mohammed talked incessantly about being kind, modest, and attentive to people's feelings. Muslim hospitality is renowned to anyone who's spent time in a Muslim country, though you'd never know it by watching CNN. (I was stunned by the friendliness and hospitality of Syrians when I was there in 1992, after never hearing a single positive sentence about that country growing up.)
Younis looks, quite frankly, like he'd fit in with the Taleban, and I was apprehensive to ask him what he thought of them. I was happy to hear that he doesn't approve of their tactics in the least. He says that Muslims aren't allowed to harm even an earthworm, so the terrorism that we all, unfortunately, associate with Islam just isn't the true teaching of Islam. Interestingly, "jihad" means "struggle," and can refer to the inner struggle to lead a holy life. It doesn't mean Holy War, which has a Christian origin and comes from the Crusades.
But I don't expect that one letter will open anyone's eyes to the peaceful nature of Islam's true teachings. Just like Christianity takes on many forms around the world, so does Islam. You can lump all Muslims together for your convenience, but with 1 billion Muslims on the planet, any generalizations you make are likely to crumble on closer inspection.
Too much love,
Only one photo collage today. How much do I love these kids?! These were all taken at the same place, but look at the variety of faces:

Monday, July 24, 2006

"There is no god but God."

As I wrote in my last newsletter, I had some long days and nights of travel since Kalimpong. Some 40 hours on two trains left me in Jammu, capital of the violence-plagued state of Jammu and Kashmir. I knew things were different when I got off the train late at night and saw rolls of razor-wire leading me to a parking area that was so dark I could hardly see. And since I had no idea where the hotels were, I had to rely on the honesty and goodwill of a taxi driver to sort me out - not an ideal situation. But my driver was sweet and patient, and I ended up with a reasonable room in a skanky part of town. I think maybe the whole town is skanky.
After four hours of sleep I got into a share-jeep for the long ride to Srinagar. I was befriended, and practically adopted, by Younis, a 24 year-old Muslim kid in conservative garb - long, woolly beard, only a hint of a moustache, and a crocheted skullcap on his head. I mentioned the meditation retreats I'd done, and he said, "Are you seeking the truth?" When I said I was, he immediately pegged me as a candidate for conversion to his flavor of Islam, which, not surprisingly, was the only authentic and legitimate form of Islam. Like a true zealot, he was happier talking about the beauty and glory of his religion than listening to anything I might have to say. Still, he was incredibly friendly, and his older brother, who was in the car as well, paid for my lunch and drinks, and shared fruit and snacks with me. It's a very strong tradition in the Muslim religion that a guest has a place of honour, and they can be uncomfortably generous.
I met Younis the next day and he took me around town on his motorbike, my pony tail and his beard flying in the breeze, zigzagging in and out of traffic, and taking comfort in the knowledge that only Allah determines whether we get creamed by a passing car. We took a "shikhara," or little water taxi out on famous Dal Lake. The sides of the boat were about two inches above the water, and I got a little religion every time I stepped into or out of the boat, thinking about my camera equipment. When I commented that among a group of swimmers there were no women, he said sternly, "It's not allowed!" Later we saw women with the full black burqa, covering the top of their heads down to their ankles, and he criticized the one woman whose face was not covered.
It got really interesting in the late evening when we went to a madrasah, a conservative Muslim school where the students, all male, (from quite young to maybe late 20's) were learning, among other things, to recite the entire Koran, word for word. The Muslim "call to prayer" came over the loudspeakers, and Younis asked if I wanted to go into the mosque with them and learn how they pray. Following tradition, we washed our hands, feet and face, and entered into the mosque, with the right foot first. There were maybe 200 men crammed into this small mosque, shoulder to shoulder, all with white skullcaps on, and only about half of them at a time looking at me. Whoa. I tried to follow Younis and do what he did, which almost included scratching my nose until I realized he just had an itch.
Afterwards we went into the room of the local scholar, a soft and genial young-ish man who was instructing a group of older students on the finer points of Islam. Let the conversion begin, I thought. They asked how I felt praying in the mosque (self-conscious, I said) and if I had any questions. One guy told me that although I thought I had come to Kashmir for the physical beauty, if I looked deeply I would see that "this" (meaning Islam) was the real reason I'd come.
What interested me most was the similarities between the teachings of Islam and other religions, but you can't have that conversation very easily with zealots. "There is no other god but God and is his name is Allah" and it's not your God and you're not doing it right, ya infidel. I was also fascinated by the traditions that are based primarily on Mohammad's circumstances that have since been enshrined as saintly. They gave me a short book on Mohammed's habits, so that we can emulate them, and they include the sequence in which he clipped his nails, how he would squat, and the types of food he liked, among other trivialities. They also say that Arabic will be spoken in heaven, since that's what Mohammed spoke. I suspect that the beard favored by Muslims around the world is similarly based on circumstances. If Mohammed had appeared in the U.S. the 1980's, would you see Muslims around the world wearing leisure suits and gold chains?
But I'm being more harsh about Islam than I really feel. The Muslims that I've met here have been warm and kind and gentle, and nothing like the media portrayal of them. I'll have more to report, because Younnis just called me, upset that I hadn't called him for a while. I think there are more stories in the works...
There are 11 photos below:
A man making bread in the jar-shaped tandoori oven.
Sunset along the Jhellum River on my first night in Srinagar.
The famous houseboats of Dal Lake.
Some of the endless waterways on Dal Lake, which include houseboats, shops, and gardens.
A mosque.
A young boy outside the mosque.
Jhellum River, near my hotel
Using shovels to dig silt out of the river.
(The End)

Monday, July 17, 2006

The cost of labor

I heard a tidbit last night that I'm fascinated by. There's a huge privately-held company in India that offers a savings plan, similar to automatic payroll deduction at home. The difference is that here, someone will physically come to your home or business, EVERY day, to collect the agreed-upon savings amount, which can be as little as 20 rupees, or U.S. 50 cents. Every day, seven days a week, all year round. At the end of the year, you can collect the whole amount plus a little interest, or leave it to accrue more interest.

It's amazing what an inexpensive cost of labor lends itself to. Across the street from where I'm sitting is a man who's job it is to repair broken umbrellas. (They're the exact same Chinese-made crap umbrellas we get at home.) So you see old rusty, patched - and functioning - umbrellas here. And people make gravel by hand, and the delicious plate of momos I had for lunch cost 50 cents, as did today's haircut. On mountainous road construction sites you'll see a guy sitting on a car-sized boulder with a hammer and a wedge, manually splitting it into pieces so it can hauled away. I saw a rusty old radio being painstakingly soldered back to life. Back home we're likely to throw away a $100 VCR if it breaks, and just buy a new one. Amazing.


p.s. My "few days" in Kalimpong are coming to an end, a month after arriving. Here's my tiring travel plan, starting tomorrow: Five hours to the Nepal border to renew my Indian visa. Two hours to Siliguri, to get on a 40-hour train ride to Jammu, followed by a 12-hour bus ride to Srinagar. Some days later, a two-day bus trip to Ladakh. I'm tired and thrilled thinking about it.

There are ten photos below. They were taken at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim at the annual Lama Dance festival. Or something. The ceremony and dances were so rich in meaning that none of the tourists understood a damn thing when people tried to explain it to us. Beautiful, though! All the dancers, except maybe the last photo of the acrobat, are monks.

(The End)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Mother Teresa and prayer

This story comes from "One Dharma," by Joseph Goldstein (which I recommend.)

An interviewer asked Mother Teresa what she says to God when she prays. "I don't say anything. I just listen." So the interviewer asked her what God says to her.

"He doesn't say anything, said Mother Teresa. "He just listens." And before the astonished interviewer could press her further, she added, "And if you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you."


There are six photos below from Darjeeling:

This 15 year-old girl appears to have cataracts, but she and her employer (at a hotel) said, "No problem, no problem." There are number of free "eye camps" that run periodically in the area that could easily correct cataracts.

This 16 year-old girl worked at the same hotel. Both the girls were from Nepal. It's common for Nepali's to cross the open border to look for work.

Darjeeling is filled with beautiful old Victorian homes, remnants of the British. Few are as decrepit as this one, which, amazing enough, is currently in use as an office for a non-profit. 

Plucking tea at the Happy Valley tea estate on a misty morning. These workers typically make $1 a day. Only a tiny little shoot from the top of the plant gets plucked.

A tea worker. 

A young woman I saw walking down the road.

(The End)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

True Crimes: "Whom are you calling as a pimp?"

I told you that I love mangled English. All of the sentences below, except for what's in [brackets] were found in the Indian "True Crimes" magazine I bought. I spent an unreasonable amount of time finding the worst offenders and rearranging them into the story below:

[Geeta is neglected by her husband.]

Her husband clipped her ambitions with the instrument of refusal. The pangs of separation from her paramour made her to suffer.

[Vijay, a single man, flirts with married Geeta.]

When he retired to his bed that night, he tried to analyze latent import of her expressions; his body got thrilled.

[Geeta and Vijay, the next day.]

Vijay's friends had cars, in which stereos were fitted and they used to insert cassettes in the decks and then enjoy melody of recorded songs. "Come, let us go to the lake and listen to melodies of songs there."

Geeta smelt a revolting odour in what he spoke. But Vijay was influential and also commanded much muscle power. Although he was in love with another girl called Lucy, a modern and highly fashionable dame, love messages were started exchanging through visual contact. Geeta put a bewitching and killing smile on her lips. Vijay didn't find her unsuitable for an immoral act. "My business pertains to counterfeit currency and alongside I also do swindling. I will indulge in such novel acts of sex that your spirits will blossom and cheer you up and you will not feel sorry."

Geeta: "Would I prepare for celebration?"

Vijay: "Sure, keep really super fine liquor and hot stuffed kabobs. I'll make you drink some from goblet and the rest with my lips."

Geeta: "Don't cut such a joke with me. I have already suffered a lot of misfortune at the hands of my destiny."

After beating about the bush for sometime, Vijay touched the focal point. This is how love got on track once again. Geeta got greatly fancied to Vijay's all such maneuvers. When she got fully charged up, she clung to him.

On reaching inside the room Vijay took Geeta in his arms and started titillating her body so as to ignite every pore of her body with libidinous urge. This was followed by repetition of frenzied sexual antics to which they had got accustomed. Their bodies were already so much charged up with intense libidinous heat, that when they mated their body heat melted like wax. Geeta was trigger happy to have got her body squeezed by a young man.

Even despite best efforts it is not possible to contain exposure of love affair as its wind spreads all around.

[The husband, Pradeep, shows up outside the door unexpectedly!]

He fixed his eyes at the slit of the door. The scene made the eyes of Pradeep to google out of his sockets with surprise. He was stunned to witness Geeta and Vijay were freely flowing and indulging in sex stream without any hassles. He opened the door under utter nervousness.

"I never expected such a demeaning activity from you. Don't you feel ashamed by stealthily intruding into prestige of our family? Are you in your senses?"

Vijay: "Where does the question of infamy arise?"

Pradeep: "If ever I see you from here to Sumerpur, I will make holes in your head and then you will learn how terrible Pradeep Kewit is!"

Seeing spate of tears flowing down Pradeep's eyes, Geeta's mind got emotively moved. Geeta was reeling under mental torture.

[Policemen show up outside the door!]

Members of the police girded up their loins to get Vijay.

Policeman bursts in: "You supposed you would succeed every time in throwing dust into the eyes of law forgetting that the arms of law are very long. Yes, very long! Your game is up!"

Wretched Pradeep lost his senses.

[Happily, The End!]


Monday, July 10, 2006

True Crimes: "Is looses of sexual organs curable?"

I flipped open a "True Crimes" magazine here, filled with sordid details of people who had been "done to death" and others who were "so much feeling horrified by the misdeeds." The real crime was the brutalization of the English language, the mangle-ization of which I happen to love. Still, it was informative. I didn't know, for example, that one of the female sexual disorders was "repeat birth of female children," or that "most of the people ignorantly spoil their semen excessively." Who knew?

I've included some of the most mangled and/or informative bits for your reading pleasure below. The whole magazine wasn't this bad - if it was I would have bought a subscription.

I tried to keep every spelling and punctuation error just as it is in the magazine:

Q: Is looses of sexual organs curable?
A: Use VIGORA High Power can strengthen the flashy part of sexual organs also cure looseness and and weakness. This is a solution to the entire problem.
Q: I am 38. My belly has swelled too much. Any remedy to this infection?
A: Do some exercise. Also use 3 vial course of FATCOM. Which removes unwanted fats from the body.
Q: My husband always looks at other women. Now I have to go to my mother place for one month. Do you have any medicine which can stop his sex?
A: There is no such medicine. He is sexy because he loves you. It is normal for a men to look at other women. Do not worry too much. No woman can capture a man's interest for ever. This is human sexual nature.
Q: My problem is that I don't get any satisfaction during sex with my husband. I am also suffering from discharge and backpain. What should I do?
A: All your problems are because you are not satisfied during intercourse. Your husband is either a premature ejaculator or you are having relationship problem. You can purchase Female Vibrator from us, which can give you orgasmic pleasure.
"We have developed special Breasto massage paste for ladies to improve breatline, beautiful heavy round firm up breasts muscles and improvement in figure health."
May your flashy bits be, uhh, flashy! But not too flashy...


Friday, July 07, 2006

The universal ache

The first time I noticed it was probably driving along the Pacific Coast Highway of California, near Big Sur. I'd come over a hill and seen this absolutely breathtaking view of the coastline, with verdant green grass, impossibly black-blue water, fantastic rocks jutting out into the sea, and crashing waves. It was so beautiful it... hurt. It didn't hurt, exactly, but it wasn't only pleasant - it made me ache. But ache for what? And why an ache? I've never understood it.
I'm bringing it up now because that bitter/sweet ache reminds me of the feelings I have for my Grandmother who just died. In spite of missing her, it's not only unpleasant. It's sweet and warm and tender and vulnerable in the best possible way. It can't be placed on the scale of pleasant or unpleasant - it's on the scale of love. I'm reminded of a fragment of that definition of compassion - "a quivering of the heart." Unlike the song lyric, love doesn't hurt. You may hurt when you dare to love, but it's not the love that's painful; it's the baggage that comes along for the ride. In expansive moments of connection with the "other," whether it's Grams or the ocean, and you feel that ache - it's like love recognising itself.
I've been really moved by all the kind things people wrote in response to my last message. They wrote of memories of their own grandparents, and what it meant for them when they passed. We're really not alone in this. Thank you all for reminding me of that.
Too much love,
p.s. I'm 50 today! But I don't know which part of me is 50. I'm still looking - and I'll let you know.
I don't have a photo of my Grandma with me, so I chose some other beautiful Grandma's to stand in her place. The photo below includes a leper, a tea picker, a Tibetan - and a whole lot of Grandma love.
(The End)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

My Grams

I remember when I was 10 years old listening to another kid say he hated his grandmother. Your grandmother?! How could you hate your Grams? He clearly had a different Grams than I did. I'd always loved mine (both of them, back then), and couldn't imagine it any other way. When my maternal Grams came to visit us in Chicago, I remember sitting in the back seat of the car, racking my brain for things I could tell her. I blurted out, "Grams! Did you notice how the yellow stoplights aren't as long here?" - something I'd heard my Mom say. I was desperate to share what I knew, which wasn't much. (Some things don't change - I'm still desperate to share, which accounts for these newsletters. And I still don't know much.)
We didn't see Grams that often back in those days, living in Venezuela for two years, followed by Chicago for another two. But I knew that she'd always be around, and we could count on her famous fudge and divinity at Christmas. I don't think I really started appreciating my Grams until I was in my late 20's or early 30's, for some reason. Back in the days of expensive phone calls ("Hurry up! It's Long Distance!!") I would call Grams when I was going through the L.A. airports. It started a new type of relationship, and became a pattern for us for the next 20 years. I'd say, "Granma, it's your lovely and loving grandson, Dave."  And she'd say, "Well, hello dear!" We didn't say that much, or need to, but I loved those phone calls.
In 2000 I sort of spontaneously called both my Mom and my Grams from India and told them that the three of us were going on a cruise to Alaska. They had identical responses: "Oh, that sounds fun. We'll have to think about that!" No, we're not thinking about that - we're doing that. Grams was treated like a queen on the ship, and when our waiter wanted to help her cut her steak, she tried to resist, but not very hard. After forty-some years of Grams doing things for me, it was maybe the only thing I ever did for her. At least, it was the only one that cost money.
And I've lost the chance to do anything else for Grams. She died today, at the age of 96. I really love my Grams. This really isn't about me, but who's gonna say "Hello, dear!" to me on the phone now? I'm so happy that she was a part of my life for such a long time. I'm really going to miss her. And I can't adequately express it...
More love:
(The End)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Fifteen minutes in Bhutan

You may have heard that travel to the tiny monarchy of Bhutan is strictly controlled. It's done in a painful way for cheap bastards like me - it costs $200 per day to visit, whether you're climbing a mountain or watching CNN in your hotel. You can imagine how excited Jennifer and I were when we read in our guidebook that you could get a day pass to the Bhutanese town of Phuntsholing, just over the Indian border. So the same day our 21-hour train arrived in the Darjeeling area, we took a 3-1/2 hour bus ride to the grimy Indian border town of Jaigon. It's next to Bhutan! And after that hot bus ride, you could imagine our disappointment when we found out that the one-day free-permit scheme ended two years ago. So we pleaded our case to the very kind border guard inside, get this, the border of Bhutan! I thought we were doing well, until he said, "If I came to your country, I would need a visa, yes?" Oh, that was a brutal shot across the bow. And an effective one - we slunk away, trying to make the best of our grimy Indian border town, clearly not in Bhutan.


There are eight photos below:

A young monk in a monastery.

The security guard at a bank.

I'm afraid a photo doesn't capture this delightful kid's personality. He was a charmer.

Some of the gates in this town literally opened into the Bhutanese town on the other side of the international border. Locals were free to cross back and forth.

Beautiful eyes.

Shy and retiring, Jennifer tries her best to blend in with the locals from the slum. She led the group in a spirited letter-by-letter recitation of the alphabet, which seemed to suit everyone, including the adults in the background.

A self-portrait, but the little rodents insisted on being in MY picture! Jennifer and I had SO much fun with these kids! In spite of moments like these, Jennifer's five months in India had to come to an end and she's back home in the States now.

A lovely young girl at the border town.

(The End)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Community of You

You think you're alone in that body of yours. Oh, but you're not alone, not by a long shot. You've got company. Not just a few guests, you've got a few BILLION guests. And I'm not talking about the few billion people on the planet - I'm talking about the few billion microscopic life forms that inhabit your very body. Do you feel like an independent, do-it-yourself kind of person? Well you may want to revise that idea as well, because the overwhelming majority of these critters are beneficial to your healthy existence, and many are vital. You are not alone.
I was fascinated to read about this in an Indian newspaper. The genesis was a book written in 1969 by Theodor Rosebury, "Life on Man." By the time we reach adulthood we may have an astonishing 50 TRILLION microbes (and 1,000 different species) in and on our body, gleefully inhabiting our darkest and most personal body-bits, where we wouldn't normally consider entertaining a crowd. 
You've probably heard of the earth described as Gaia, as a sort of living organism, and not the individual bits and bobs that we typically think of. I always thought that was a stretch, but look at the parallels to our body and its microbes. Your armpit is a Gaia all of its own, whether you include the rest of your body or the rest of the planet. Up to an incredible 90% of the combined cells of this amalgam we call a body are bacteria. Our vision of our cherished self probably doesn't include this bacteria that make life possible. But shouldn't it? Theodor Rosebury put it, "All life is a single community." And gene experts at Genomic Research claim that we are not entirely human, but "truly symbiotic organisms, relying on one another for life itself."
Where is this "separate self" that we spend most of our lives defending? If we believe in a self, shouldn't we know where it begins and ends? I ate porridge this morning with a mango cut up in it. As of yesterday, I'd never met this mango before. Now, that mango is not separate from me - it is me. Yesterday it was clearly not me, and today it IS me. How does that work?
Too much love,
Below are eight photos:
Hiding behind her sister, she's not so sure about me.
This kid had a really cute and playful personality.
Women with woven baskets walking up the trail, along the Pindari Glacier route.
A Hindu priest.
This man had a wicked and cutting sense of humor. He was hilarious, but you'd want to stay on his good side!
The daughter of two professors from Delhi.
This guy had been painting a utility tower. All the painters were covered in this silver paint.
They look like they're playing, but it's work. I tried pumping the water for a few minutes, and it was really hard. There are a tremendous numbers of houses without running water, and before the monsoon gets going, water outages are frequent in some communities.
(The End)