Hello everyone. July 3rd is the one-year anniversary of our mother's death, and we're (finally) having a memorial service in her honor. You're all invited, but no one should feel obligated to come. It's short notice and at the height of summer vacation season. I hope you're able to come if you want to. The details are below:
Greetings! Lots of stories, so this letter is a little longer than usual. Print it out if you're keen or just delete it. And good luck when I get back and quiz you on the contents.
My traveling partner, Nani, and I just returned from three and a half weeks of trekking, if you can call it that, in the Himalayan mountains. If you were hard-core, which we're not, you could do the same amount of walking in less than half the time. The walk starts around 4,600 feet elevation (1,400 meters) and reaches 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) at the highest point, just in front of the Pindari Glacier. The scenery was spectacular, the highlight of which is probably the 23,000 feet peak (7,000 meters) towering overhead. That height isn't particularly impressive in this region, even though you can't find a peak that high anywhere in the world outside of Asia. We discovered that sitting on our butts in meditation isn't very good training for trekking, and it was a little tough going at first. I think back to my muy macho power marches around the Himalayas back in the day, and pretend that it's my new mellow outlook that slows me down, rather than a bum knee and advancing years. We got stronger as we went, though, and acclimatized to the altitude.
In the first town, at the end of the road, we heard HUGE explosions, and were told that a new road was being built into the valley. A local said they were using "bombs" to build the road - dynamite is the technical term. The road crew was just above our guest house, and a couple of times we heard an explosion and saw big boulders flying through the air. I thought it would be interesting to see how they blow up rock to build roads, since I've never seen it - in the West it's considered too dangerous to let bystanders mill around. In India, they have a different standard. As we walked toward the site, Nani said, "In my view of the world, you walk away from dynamite blasts, not towards them!" We came around a corner and saw a 16 year-old kid tamping down the dynamite into a drilled hole in the rock. I wondered how hard you can hit dynamite with a steel rod before it explodes. Walking away seemed prudent at that point. There was a 200 or 300 meter slide of rock and dirt that the explosions and a backhoe created, and at one point we had to walk across the tail of it, timing our crossing to avoid the car-sized boulders that were periodically rolling down the hill. The equivalent of a flagman was a young Indian kid way at the top of the slide keeping an eye out and casually shooing us away when our timing was bad.
Almost half of the time we were gone we were based in the little village of Kathi, which has 60 houses and about 450 rather rough-looking residents. The peculiar particulars of that village turned out to be at least as interesting as the hiking, and its mysteries unfolded slowly over the days. What's apparent to virtually anyone that travels in India is how much time Indian men sit on their butts drinking chai and talking, while their wives are busy doing about 90% of the combined work. The men of Kathi, though, should win some kind of award. What you'll see in my photos is reflective of daily life - the men hang out and chat, mostly, while the women work in the fields, tend the water buffaloes and cows, gather firewood, do the laundry by hand, and cook. Men generally work only during planting and harvest. You think that's bad, but you haven't heard the next part: it's part of Hindu scripture that menstrual blood is "unclean," so for the five or so days that a woman is on her period, she's required to sleep in the first floor of the house, where the water buffalo is kept. She cleans out a little spot and can't come up to the house during that time. I mentioned this to some affluent and educated Indian tourists, and they said that the equivalent happens all over India - though many wouldn't have animal's quarters to banish Mom to. But this young man told me that he and his father always cooked meals during that time of the month. Women also aren't allowed into Hindu temples while they're on their period.
So, I thought that was shocking, then I heard this Kathi custom: because the blood is considered unclean, women are required to give birth in the same animals quarters, and they deliver the baby by themselves, with only the verbal counsel of other women. The other women aren't allowed to physically help, if you can imagine that. (I can't - I was skeptical when I first heard this because it's so incredible, but I confirmed it from several sources.) Almost as a side note, the mother uses a special ceremonial knife to cut the umbilical cord, which is usually rusty. As a result, the baby that was born while we were there developed a nasty infection - and the nearest doctor is a long day's walk plus a three hour drive. After the glorious birth, in the cowshed, Mom and baby are required to stay downstairs for 11 days before they can come up to the living quarters of the house. (It reminds me of Kaiser Permanente's motto: "Only the strong survive.") On the 11th day, a Hindu priest from another village comes for a "puja" or religious ceremony, and the priest actually chooses the name for the baby, without input from the parents. Wow.
Big changes are underway in Kathi. The road will bring buses and jeeps, along with doctors and teachers and hopefully more tourists into the village. It was remarkable to not hear a car horn for close to a month, and I, for one, have misgivings about a road. But I don't get or deserve a vote. There will be real benefits (and real costs, no doubt) for the progress this brings. When I was on the same trek three years ago I saw a pregnant woman being carried by a group of young men, sitting in a chair that had long poles strapped to either arm of the chair. For hundreds of years this has been the only way, other than a horse, to get someone who can't walk to a doctor. In fact, it's the large population of mule drivers who may be affected the most negatively, as their job just goes away. Kathi doesn't have electricity yet, though a delightful Australian couple who have spent a lot of time there in the last few years just installed simple solar systems in each of the 60 homes, all donated by a charity. Electricity is rumored to be on the horizon, too, which will be convenient for the eight homes that already have televisions. They have to run them on generators, powered by kerosene that's been brought in the backs of mules. And just 10 days before we arrived, a cell phone company installed a phone with some kind of repeater that allows it to work in the valley. Within two weeks, there were a total of eight phones installed.
Kathi is said to be relative well-off, but the economy is a little hard to figure out. There are big fields planted, but all the crops are for animal feed. The water buffalo, though, are of such low quality, or so they say, that they don't give enough milk to sell. Most houses use Nestle milk powder for their chai, which is pretty much heresy in chai-centric India. The older folks almost all have some sort of government job, and sometimes they even have to show up at work. The younger generation mostly want to be guides for tourists, even though there were so few tourists in the valley that we always knew not only who they were but where they were and when they were likely to come back from the glacier. One day we heard lots of arguing in the town and found out that it was about a mountain herb that is gathered to sell to traders for the Chinese market for, what else, "make strong like bull," if you get my drift. Since it sells for a whopping $5,000 per kilo ($2,300 per pound) it's worth getting upset about, when typical daily wages are $3 or $4.. (Two years ago it was sold for $20,000 per kilo.) Only certain people have the government-issued permit to gather the product, and tensions were high. A few days before the season officially opened, we saw several young men heading into the forest, "going for a walk" - when a Kathi man has never gone for a recreational walk in his life. They were out scouting for the herb, the bastards. There is also a frog that's found in the ponds near glaciers that sells for $4,000 each.
There was a lot of talk about leopards, because they'd killed something like six or eight head of livestock in the previous two weeks. We saw a desiccated water buffalo that had been killed by a leopard the previous year. There was discussion of whether it could have been tigers, but that was unlikely since they had become rare in the area. But you know what, when a kid from a neighboring village gets killed by a leopard, the story makes the rounds. Suffice to say that we had leopards on the brain when we went for a day hike, and after hearing a noise, Nani was sure we were looking at one far down the hill below us. It was an odd critter, but I thought it was about the size of a big squirrel. Nani swears it was more the size of a well-fed poodle. We were trying to figure out what it was, and I asked Nani to move across the ridge a bit to get a different angle, as we peered down the steep hill. A minute later I looked over at Nani, and she's facing the opposite direction. "Dave! There's a leopard in those bushes! I'm serious! I can see it's tail!" I took a step towards it to get a picture and she thought that was about as smart as walking towards dynamite. She said she was scared and I said, seriously, "Just use your walking stick if it comes at you." (I think the altitude might have affected my judgment.) Anyway, a big langur monkey, much larger than a poodle but less aggressive, and with an impressive tail, jumped out of the bush and into a nearby tree. We found out later that people from Kathi live their entire lives without ever seeing a leopard, so we felt lucky to have almost seen two in five minutes.
Nani and I have train tickets for tomorrow night to head towards Spiti Valley, just south of the Ladakh area, and similarly dry and out of the monsoon belt. It's not supposed to be monsoon yet, but it's raining hard daily, and there have been some spectacular thunderstorms. One of the teachers from the last retreat is coming into this small village of Kasardevi (just near Almora,) so we're considering changing our plan. Either way, I'll keep you posted. Thanks for hanging in on this long letter!
Hello again. After an Internet hiatus, I'm back on-line, briefly, before heading further into to the mountains. Ten days ago a group of 60 of us completed a 17-day silent meditation retreat. Technically, I was silent between the times I was talking - but I guess that's true of you, too. (I'm also sugar-free between donuts) My German traveling partner, Juliane, (nicknamed Nani,) and I went on some nice hikes and engaged in some rule-breaking social intercourse. The retreat center is in a beautiful area, hilly and surrounded by lakes and pine trees. It could be in California except for the monkeys, and there were reports of leopards, unseen but imagined on some very dark late-night walks back to my room.
The monkeys can be really funny when they're not baring their teeth and threatening you or stealing your food. The little ones are playful like children, and the mothers just put up with them and keep them out of trouble. But when Dad shows up, with an expression like a grumpy old man, the playing stops. Dad needs to lighten up and have some fun. And when a group of the smaller monkeys are scavenging for some food scraps, they all scatter when Dad shows up. There's no doubt about who's the boss. (It's so 1950's!)
One of the walks I took on my own was to the hilltop temple occupied by the local Hindu swami nicknamed "Alu Baba." He got the name by always offering visitors curried potatoes ("alu" in Hindi) as prasad, a spiritual offering in Hinduism. As a young man he'd spent many years meditating in the caves of the Himalayas, and he described to me in some detail having seen Yetis - the Abominable Snowman. I'm inclined to believe him because his description matches all the comic book versions I've seen. I could dismiss it, but then where would I be? My latest philosophy: "Maybe!"
The other day Nani said to herself, but out loud, "What's that guy's name? Hans something..." That's all she said, with no context, and I had no idea who she was talking about. But I said, in my wonderful faux German accent, "Hans Gruber!" because it sounded German. It turns out - it was Hans Gruber she was thinking of. And I've never even heard the name before. Someone explain that one to me. (And I'll say, "Maybe!") Now whenever something coincidental happens, we say, "Now that's a Hans Gruber if I ever heard of one!"
The retreat was pleasant and peaceful for me. That's not the case for lots of people. When you turn off the distractions of talking, TV, radio, books, writing, and music, it's not uncommon for unpleasant memories and patterns to pop to the surface, and you don't have the usual methods to force them back into their dark hole. At home it's easier: Feel unhappy - make a sandwich! Or have a drink, or go shopping. Of course, it's totally ineffective at making us truly happy, but that doesn't normally stop us. It's a lot of work to get to the bottom of our patterns and look deeply into life, and besides being scary, many people question the value of it. I'm no longer one of those people.
You know how when you really, really want something, and you feel like you'll be so happy if you get it? Can you remember that thing that you got that one time that was so great and fulfilling that it stopped you from wanting anything else? Yeah, me neither. Like the cowboy with shit in his mustache, we're looking for love in all the wrong places. It doesn't take that much investigation to see that there's no lasting satisfaction in the "stuff" of our lives - possessions, status, fame, even accomplishments - but mostly we don't know what else to do, so we keep up the same crazy schemes, hoping for a different outcome, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Not a single person in the history of the world has been made truly happy and satisfied based on that "stuff" - but we all still plug along, hoping we'll be the exception. I heard a teacher once say that if you saw a group of people banging their heads against a wall to become happy, and not one had been successful in the last few thousand years - would you join them in banging YOUR head against the wall?
Nani and I are leaving today for a hike into the mountains, up to Pindari Glacier, where I went three years ago on my last trip here. It's a beautiful area, with kind people and relatively comfortable lodging in government rest houses. We may be gone for two or three weeks, so I'll write again when we're back.
I remember as a kid reading about religions that believed in multiple Gods and thinking how silly, almost barbaric, that was. Everyone knows there's only one God. Hello! Then I would laugh sardonically, even though I didn't know then, and don't know now, what sardonically meant. I'm seeing a pattern! I knew nothing about one God or multiple, but it didn't stop me from judging. I never learned a thing about Hinduism growing up, but the paltry number of Gods in the Greek and Roman mythologies that I did study pale in comparison. Hinduism is said to have 330 million Gods. You can buy books that are filled with nothing but the various names of God. I could think of worse books to read..
A young boy here blithely commented that "God is one, but he has many faces." Of the many faces that are worshipped faithfully here, Shiva is the probably the big dog, and Varanasi is his city. So when the annual festival of Shivaratri comes ("ratri" means night - Shivaratri, then, is the night of Shiva,) it's a Big Deal. Religious celebrations in India are ear-splitting affairs, and Shivaratri is probably the ear-splittingest that I've lost hearing in. There is a giant parade of children dressed as Gods, monstrous elephants, and rolling discos that will make your ears bleed. I wonder sometimes what India must have been like only 100 years ago, when the loudest sound you could make would be ringing that huge bell or clearing your throat like that guy on the bus the other day. It's considered "good merit," basically good karma, to crank the volume when worshipping. So priests will broadcast their off-key singing to the entire neighborhood, even though it's four in the morning. We innocent tourists can't understand why we're the only ones who even notice how loud it is, or think it should be quieter. The locals never seem to mind.
On Shivaratri, it's considered a religious sacrament to drink "bhang lassi," a yogurt drink mixed with powerful marijuana. On that night ashrams are pouring them out of huge vats and giving them to everyone, including families with young children. I didn't see any young people who looked out of it, but I saw more than my share of young men, gyrating wildly to the disco soundsystems. Look at the photos - you'll see a few.
This rambling story has come to an end, because I have to catch a train tonight. A group of us are taking an eight-hour night train, then a two-hour jeep ride, to a Christian ashram, of all places, for a 17-day silent meditation retreat. I'll be back on e-mail in about three weeks time - around April 7th or so.
I hope all is well with you, and that your heart is open is these difficult times. It's a practice, you know. We can try....
I have sort of a love/dread relationship with Varanasi. Since I got involved with the lepers when I was here in 2001, the place has always stretched me in uncomfortable and unexpected ways. Some of you will remember that when I was here last time I tried to help a little girl, Poonita, who had burned her arm very badly. It had been healing for a month when I first saw her, and she was not allowing her arm to bend even a little. I thought that her arm would freeze in that position and never improve without therapy. So on a chance, I paid for a month's worth of physical therapy (for $20!) that I was pretty sure would be a waste of time. If you want to read the original story and photos from three years ago, it's at this link.
The good news is that I saw Poonita, and her arm is as good as new. The strange thing is that although I didn't recognize her, she kept saying to me, "I'm Poonita. Poonita/Sunita. You remember?" I mistook her for some other street kids that I knew, but she kept up and I finally figured it out. She was only four (or so) when I took her to the hospital, so I'm amazed that she remembered me. Her living situation is perhaps just as desperate as it was last time I saw her. Her mother, who was also happy to see me, now has six kids, and all the kids are wild and caked with dirt. I asked around about paying for the kids to go to school, but it's so difficult. There's no structure to get money to a family like theirs, or to know that they're using the money like they should. And as soon as money gets involved, the relationships change and get complicated. I ended up spending time with Poonita and her sweet and beautiful sister Sunita - and I never gave them anything except my attention and love. That counts for something, for sure, but when there's such need it's hard to know what should be done.
One day I was saying hello to some of my leper friends and an Indian man asked me to go look at someone who "has been hit by a truck or something. I don't know. You see. Maybe you help." Yes, boss, but I'm not a doctor - I just play one when I'm on vacation. "You just see. Maybe you help." It was like deja vu from working on the ghats - walking up to where this man was, laying on the street next to other beggars, not knowing what we'd see. He had one missing foot from and injury years back, but had apparently recently.broken the femur of his other leg, so he couldn't move at all. As we're standing in the baking sun, wondering if there's something we could do, an Indian man who I've known for years (and who I don't really trust) started translating. He said he's just a beggar, and not to get involved. We said, yeah, but he can't even move. He said "Of course he can! He's here now - he wasn't here yesterday!" Geesh. We slinked off, not getting involved mostly because no course of action seemed reasonable for tourists. That didn't feel so good. But just to torment myself, I walked by him the next two days, and he was still laying there in the sun. And he still gave us a palms-joined namaste greeting, in spite of our inaction. This place - I'm tellin' ya.
The same Indian guy who I don't trust so much looked at me when we first met and looked surprised. He got a puzzled look on his face, and said, "What happened? Something's wrong - you look different. You look like you lost some family or something." I told him I'd lost both parents in the last few months. He said, "Oh, well, that explains it. It happens to all of us once." He wasn't surprised at all that he "guessed" correctly. But I'm still surprised. This place...
I've been in Varanasi, India, for just two weeks today, and for 10 of those days I've been fairly sick. Nothing dramatic, but not all that pleasant, either. I started out with a stomach bug, followed by flu and cold symptoms, which turned into a chest infection, which was followed by another round of stomach problems. After an antibiotic, now I just have a lingering cough. Is this even worth writing?
I have some stories backing up that need more attention than I can muster right now, so I'll fill you in on them later. I've been reunited with so many friends here, some of whom are neither lepers nor prostitutes, that it takes time to walk down the lanes to get a meal. The children are as beautiful and dirty as ever, and my heart breaks, or breaks open, with a wonderful regularity while spending time here.
It's easy enough, and tempting, to close down to the poverty and despair that is the foundation for so many lives of the poor. It's really only painful if you care. But open those doors of compassion, and watch out. It's just too much to take in some times. I was sitting with my friend Julianne at a chai stand on the stone steps (called ghats) next to the Ganges river, when a woman in her late-thirties came and stood in front of us. You get used to beggars here, and they range from the truly destitute to the needy-without-alternatives to mafia-managed professional beggars with their rented babies. You can never really be sure who is who, though it's tempting to think otherwise. But this woman stood in front of us as still as a pool of water. She wasn't dirty, like many of the beggars, and she hardly indicated that she was begging. But she had an expression like she wasn't used to this, and if there was any other path she could possibly take, she would. She seemed vulnerable, too, in a way that was unsettling when you're used to the faux drama that most beggars employee.
We didn't give her anything, but the chai vendor gave her tea and a biscuit. A very sweet young guy approached us about renting a boat, and we asked him to talk to the woman about her situation. It turns out that she'd recently lost both her husband and her child, and she'd come to Varanasi four days earlier because she didn't have family and didn't know where to go to or what to do. She started really crying hard, and it confirmed all our suspicions about her vulnerability and insecurity. I asked Deepu, the boat man, some questions for him to translate, and he said he didn't want to ask her, because she was crying too much. He said, "Before, she not thinking about her husband. Then I ask, and now she crying. Better I should not ask more. This woman, she's like my mother." Deepu told her where he keeps his boat, and offered to watch out for her. We gave her a pathetic $2 donation, which is almost too much to just hand someone on the ghats - 5 cents to 20 cents is more typical. But after Deepu's care and our obvious interest and attention, she smiled in a way that showed that she dared to hope that things might improve. We saw Deepu the next day and he'd given her a blanket, since she's sleeping outside. I thought for sure she'd come at sunrise again to see if we'd give her more money, but we haven't seen her yet. Hopefullly we will tomorrow.
What's an appropriate response is the face of such despair? I have no idea. I'm happy that I still open myself to these kind of experiences, and I also hope that I'm not "collecting" them for the sake of story-telling. Would it be better or worse if I didn't write about them? Boy, there are so many things I don't know.
The stories will come later, I guess. (An example - a local woman was set on fire a few days ago by her husband of four months, with the help of his parents. Unimaginable.) For now, I'm sharing photos of some lovely people of Sarnath, including some fellow retreatants and their beautiful kids.