Saturday, December 27, 2008

Distant But Not Different

One of the primary reasons for my year long wander is to gain an understanding of cultural diversity that two university degrees in Anthropology and Intercultural Youth Development were incapable of conferring. I have studied cultural variability from nearly every academic viewpoint imaginable, but growing up in a rural Midwestern town and attending university in two very homogeneous locations denied me an experiential understanding of cultural diversity.

When I began my trip it was easy and amusing to spot aspects of the local culture that differed from my own. As I moved East these differences became more pronounced and numerous, which made focusing on the differences nearly effortless. It is only now, after more than a month in India, that I am finally beginning to focus on the similarities between the local culture and my own.

Jess and I are spending a few days in Puri, a little beach town that is an overnight train ride away from Kolkata. Since it is so easily accessible to Kolkatans, it is a popular destination for middle-class Indians who want to get out of the city for a few days. As I strolled down the main drag on our first evening in town, I had an almost palpable sense of deja vu; it was as if I had walked down the streets at some point in the past. Of course I had not, but the string of hotels, restaurants, snack vendors and advertisements are strikingly similar to any family vacation destination in America's Midwest. I could have easily been at the Lake of the Ozarks or Branson in Missouri. Casually dressed families leisurely strolling down the road with ice cream, restaurants advertising food to suit every palate, souvenir shops selling knick-knacks - familiar scenes in every US vacation town during the summer. Walking around in Puri is like exploring an altered version of Midwest in which the food is spicier, the people dress brighter and cows roam the street freely.

These superficial similarities did not become totally clear until Jess and I met some of the incredibly friendly and welcoming locals. As foreign (and very pasty) tourists, we have to be cautious and aware of our vulnerability at all times, but we managed to let our guard down enough to get to know some local guys who struck up a conversation on the beach. After a very friendly conversation and promises to meet later and have a bonfire on the beach, I was very suspicious. What is their intention? What do they really want from us? What was the scam that we were walking into? Although these questions simmered in the back of my mind, we went to the beach on our way home from dinner to see if there was actually a fire as promised. Sure enough, our friends were waiting for us and we soon had a warm fire near the ocean on a beautiful night. As we sat under the stars discussing world politics and our life plans, I realized how many opportunities like this I miss every day because I am so guarded and uptight when interacting with local people. The guys around the fire were no different than my friends at home; they simply wanted to get together to enjoy good conversation and music, but I assumed they wanted nothing but my money. Jess and I were able to get to know some of them over the three days we stayed in Puri, all incredible young men and women who are interested in the world and are excited to meet others who are like-minded. In fact, the entire situation was very safe for one simple reason - no one was drinking alcohol. This is one difference between India and the US which I am begging to appreciate. No one was drunk or belligerent and there was no danger of making a foolish decision against one's better judgment. Alcohol just wasn't necessary as a social lubricant because everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves. The sober (dare I say "wholesome") evening allowed us to get to know each other on a less superficial level.

I hope that focusing on the similarities between Indian culture and my own culture will help me to see individual human beings among the billion bodies who inhabit India. The families on holiday in Puri have the same goals as American families who head to the lake on three day weekends; relax away from domestic and career responsibilities, spend time with family, enjoy a beautiful natural place, and eat good food. The responsibilities may be different, the families bigger, the natural place a bit more crowded, and the food spicier, but the motivation is exactly the same - to live the good life. Thanks to the wonderful people, who are much more welcoming and open than myself, in Puri who were able to teach me this lesson that I could not have absorbed from any Anthropology textbook.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

City of Shiva

Varanasi is India in concentrate. More cows, worshipers, historical places, tourists, temples, street vendors, and ceremonies per square inch than I ever imagined possible. Since the city has been a point of pilgrimage for over 4000 years, there is no reason to be surprised. Varanasi is India with impactitude -my new favorite word which I picked up from an Indian newspaper. Luckily I was fully recovered and well rested from my stay in Delhi, so I was prepared for some impactitude.

Varanasi is a city of contrasts. The city clings to the banks of the Ganges River, a wide and tranquil river which is very sacred to Hindus everywhere. The streets leading to the river could not be more different - narrow, crowded and chaotic. The city is a magnet for life of all types from around the world, but it also draws death. Many Hindus believe that dying and being cremated in Varanasi brings instant liberation of the soul, therefore over 300 bodies are burned on the bank of the river everyday. 24/7/365. The only limiting factor in the burning is the cost to import wood and the space necessary to build the pyre. The most intriguing aspect of this tradition is that it takes place in public. Anyone passing by walks within a few feet of burning bodies, bodies waiting to be burned, and the family who have congregated to watch. To my American mind, this seems like the sort of event that begs to be a private family affair, but not in India. My hotel is located only about 50 yards from where the bodies are burned, so when I inevitably get lost in the backstreets I just follow one of the frequent funeral processions and I eventually end up at home. It seems macabre, but life and death are just more visible and harder to ignore here than in America.

The Ganges River is the heart and soul of Varanasi. The river is holy, but it is used in every way possible, both sacred and profane. At any given point on the shore there are people doing abolutions, (like ritual cleansing), offering gifts to the gods, praying, and meditating. At that same point there are also people washing clothes, fishing, swimming, bathing, and gathering water. Of course a large amount of human waste, both in the form of litter and excrement, end up in the river. This does not deter the pious from entering the river and worshiping its power.

The Ganges River flows from the god Shiva's hair according to tradition; this is his favorite city and he is definitely the favored god within the city. Of Hinduism's pantheon of a thousand plus gods, Shiva is one of the most commonly and fervently worshiped. This is why the city is such a popular place for pilgrims from all over India. The worshipers and the city are intense, and this intensity is magnified by bhang, which is sold in restaurants, on the street, and even by government shops in the form of drinks and baked goods. Watching funeral pyres and ancient rituals with a bhang lassi is a quintessential Varanasi experience. While there are quite a few foriegn tourists here, there are not enough to substantially change the character of the city. Most of the people here are tourists of some sort, but most of them are from within India.

In retrospect, I should have spent more time in Varanasi rather than Delhi, but hindsight is 20/20. I am leaving the city this evening on an overnight train to Kolkata where I will meet Jess! We'll spend about 4-5 days in Kolkata before heading to Jaipur to work at Saharia over Christmas and New Year.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Motions and Meditation Don't Mix

I had the unfortunate experience of being forced to leave the meditation course after only four days of sitting cross-legged on the floor so that I could sit upright on a porcelain seat in a hotel; I got a bad case of what Indian's euphemistically refer to as "loose motions". It was inevitable - almost all tourists get some sort of intestinal bacteria during their stay - but I wish it could have come at a better time. Actually, there really is no "better time" to spend two and a half days walking from the bed to the toilet and back. Since I have arrived in India I have not eaten any meat, avoided uncooked fruits and vegetables, and only drank bottled water. At the Vipassana center I became comfortable and I relaxed my rules; on the third morning I ate a plateful of fresh bean sprouts that were undoubtedly washed in regular tap water. Lesson learned.

The meditation course was very intensive and intense. The schedule is EXACTLY as follows:

04:00 - Wake Up
04:30 - 06:30 Meditation
06:30 - 07:00 Breakfast
07:00 - 08:00 Rest
08:00 - 11:00 Meditation
11:00 - 11:30 Lunch
11:30 - 13:00 Rest
13:00 - 17:00 Meditation
17:00 - 17:30 Tea
17:30 - 18:00 Walking
18:00 - 21:00 Meditation
21:00 - 21:30 Questions to the Teacher (optional)
21:30 Lights Out

In case your doing the math, that is 12 hours of meditation per day. The rules, as well as the schedule, are very restrictive; no outside food, no reading or writing materials of any kind, no phones or music devices, and no medicine unless absolutely necessary. Perhaps the most noticeable rule of all is that of "Noble Silence". For the ten day of the meditation retreat you are not to speak to anyone at anytime, with the exception of simple questions to the teacher pertaining to the meditation technique. This rule was actually not difficult to follow or enforce. Since everyone at the center was there for the same purpose, there was little temptation to speak to anyone. It was difficult to follow the meal schedule because the afternoon "tea" was just that, tea with a light snack. You can imagine the growling stomachs in the meditation hall at six in the morning when the last meal was nineteen hours ago.

Meditation is extremely simple - focus your mind to the present moment. Meditation is also the most difficult thing I have ever attempted. In an environment with no distractions or worries, all I had to do was calm my mind, empty it of all thoughts, and focus all mental energy on my natural breath. Those who have tried know that the mind is a wild animal that is not easily tamed. I would relax and use all of my mind to feel the cool air brush against my nostrils and rush into my nasal cavities before pouring out my nostrils again. Vipassana teaches to focus on the breath, because it is natural, sensory, and everyone breathes. The technique makes a great deal of sense, and I love its simplicity and rationality, but that doesn't mean it is easy. Here is a typical excerpt from my mind's inner workings during the course.

One breath in, one breath out . . . two breaths in, two breaths out . . . I wonder how much a visa to Nepal costs . . . it should be warm enough to visit there by May . . . should I work on a farm there or just travel . . . SHIT! I did it again! . . . one breath in, one breath out . . . two breaths in, two breaths out . . . my back is getting sore . . . not as sore as after sorting olives for four hours . . . I wonder if Edouardo is still at the olive farm . . . SHIT! WHY WON'T MY BRAIN SHUT UP?!?!? . . . one breath in, one breath out . . . two breaths in, two breaths out . . .

According to the teacher, this is how all people begin meditation; frustration, failure, and (at least initially) persistence. It is amazing how little control we have over our own minds. We are really good at thinking, but all of our thinking concerns the future and the past, we rarely stop and thinking about what is going on at the present moment. A good example is driving. I remember drives back and forth between Missouri and Montana in which I covered 30 or 40 miles without any awareness. The sensory and motor movement parts of my brain were functioning on autopilot, completely out of my conscious awareness, perfectly able to drive the vehicle on the long straight highway, while all of my consciousness was consumed with memories, analyses, and emotions. We are all on some level of autopilot all the time. There are constantly sensations, sounds, and sights that our senses perceive, but do not enter our awareness. My very nature as a human makes meditation difficult, but my many years of formal education makes it almost impossible. I have spent my entire life being trained to do three things; think analytically, plan strategically, and communicate effectively. In order to meditate, I must stop my mind from engaging in all three.

Emptying the mind of its clutter and being acutely aware of the results in clarity and control. At least that is what I have been told by the teacher, who at least appears to be very calm and very controlled. I don't have to take his word for it, there are numerous scientific studies on the effect of meditation on the mind. Meditation's ability to alter brain activity and chemistry have been empirically verified and neuroscientists often incorporate the phenomenon of meditation in their theories of the mind.

Vipassana is not a religion, it is a technique. Although its roots are obviously Buddhist, Vipassana claims to be universal and compatible with many of the world's religions. There are no pictures of the Buddha, no mantras, rites, or rituals. There is also no hierarchy except that of teacher and student. I felt very comfortable at the center. It is located on a forested hill far away from the noise and pollution of Jaipur -monkeys and wild peacocks provided the only distractions. It is a peaceful and welcoming place, but my bowels did not feel as comfortable as my mind.

I am now fully recovered. I travelled from Jaipur to Delhi and I'm not sure how to spend the next five days before I travel to Varanasi and Kolkata to meet Jessica. I will probably spend a few days in Delhi's parks and museums, of which I have been to none. Although I am fortified by antibiotics, I will pass on any offers of tasty sprouts for the next five months.