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Archive for February, 2009

Preface: I’m going to put my tendency toward hyperbole on hiatus until further notice. I’m going just going to write the following exactly as it happened.

There weren’t many tourists in Jog Falls. With it being one of the ‘must see’ places in my Rough Guide book, I was surprised to find that there were only two other foreigners checked into the local youth hostle. I arrived just as the sky was growing dark, and spent the night talking with the two men from Israel.

Amir and his friend came through the mountains to Jog Falls on a black Royal Ensfield Bullet with a pouncing tiger insignia on the side of it. The tiger was fitting for the old bike; it growled every time Amir started it, and sputtered sometimes when he switched the gears. His friend had to go back to Gokarna to meet people, but Amir stayed and we spent the day riding around on the Bullet.

We were driving along this random country road. Every so often a house and farm would break the line of palm trees on both sides of the pavement. Cows were grazing in a small clearing ahead of us, behind a fence with an opening to the road. This is nothing spectacular—there are cows everywhere in India. But as we passed these cows I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. When I twisted my neck back to see what it was, there was a black bull the size of an SUV with its head to the ground and its hooves pounding after us.

“Amir, go faster!”

An image of the bull head-butting the back of the bike and then trampling the both of us flashed through my mind. The beast drew nearer.

“Amir!” I slapped his back. All of the muscles in my body tensed up. “The bull—it’s chasing us.”

“What?” He was still clueless.

“GO FASTER. Look in your mirror!”

“Shit.” The engine revved and we picked up speed, but the bull was still behind us. The bike gurgled and I was sure that fate would decide for this to be the time for the engine to go out.

But it didn’t. Later Amir said that he’d been going about 50k. However fast he went, it was enough to get us around a bend and out of sight of the beast. Then the road ended. We’d found the dam that had been build upstream of the falls, and there was a gate across the road. We’d lost the bull by this point, but it couldn’t have been far behind us. I watched the bend in the road, waiting for it to come running down. I was ready to hop the fence, but the bull never came.

Two guards came out of a small building near the gate and we chatted with them for a while. We weren’t allowed to go and see the dam because security had been heightened after the Mumbai attacks. But after we said goodbye, Amir took a dirt road to the side of the gate and we saw the dam anyway. When we passed the guards on the way back, they didn’t seem to care.

I wasn’t worried about getting yelled at by some guards. The only way out was the same way that we came in. Amir didn’t seem nervous at all, but maybe that was for my sake. As we drove back up the road to where the bull had to be waiting, an Indian woman waved us down and stopped us. Her face was creased with wrinkles, and she was only slightly taller than the young boy that was with her. She started speaking something in Malayam, and although I couldn’t understand a word of it, I knew what she was saying. I smiled, put my two index fingers up to my temples and pointed down the road. She and the boy nodded.

Her eyebrows were drawn together, deepening the worry lines on her forehead. She pressed her lips and handed me what I had thought was a walking stick. My smile disappeared. I saw that one end of the thick stick had been sharpened into a point. She was handing me a spear.

I swallowed and took it from her, thanking her. In that moment I realized how serious the situation was. She took the pointed end of the spear and put it up to her collar bone, showing me where to aim. Then she moved my hands so that I was holding the spear across my chest, my right hand above my left, ready. Our eyes met and she put her hand up to my cheek. She said one last thing in Malayam, I think she was telling me to be brave. I nodded and thanked her one last time.

“Ok, let’s go,” I said to Amir.

There was no room for fear in my mind when the bike started moving forward again. I was determined and ready. When the bull came at us, I would thrust the spear into its shoulder with all of my strength and I would not fall off of the bike.

There it was. As we passed the gathering of cows, I locked my eyes on the black bull and raised my right hand above my ear, so that the spear was ready to strike. The bull hesitated, and for a moment I thought that it wouldn’t follow us. But then it charged again. It wouldn’t catch us. This time the bull didn’t jump onto the road, but stayed on the other side of the fence. On that uneven terrain it could hardly keep up with us. Amir stopped and told me to drop the spear on the side of the road.

“Right,” I said, and threw it away from me.

I sighed. The moment had passed. For a while I knew what it must have felt like to be a warrior, having to defend myself if I wanted to live. Never would I have thought of spearing a cow. But as its horns were chasing me, no other option entered my mind.

For the moment a warrior, now again a traveler. I’m in Mangalore now, and tonight I’ll be braving a night train again to go South into Kerala, to Kochi. Until then.

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yep, that's the path

yep, that's the path

There were people pressing in all around me. The streets were full of men and women and children who were pushing through the mass, or patiently scuffling along with it. A young girl to my right jumped over the open sewage canal (there was just dried garbage at the bottom of it) to take a few steps along the wall of a shop, jump onto its front steps, and then push her way back into the crowd. She grabbed her mother’s hand and glanced down at the canal, careful not to fall into it. To my left was a long line, roped off by a yellow chord, leading into one of Gokarna’s many temples. People were wrapped around the block waiting in it, like thrill seekers standing in line for a roller coaster.

Yesterday Gokarna was throbbing with an influx of pilgrims who came from all over India to celebrate Shiva’s birthday. I’d left my haven of Om Beach to take the costal path into Gokarna—a three hour hike that was much more than I’d bargained for. There was a fork at the beginning of the path where an Australian man nicely suggested that I take the road because the foot path got ‘a bit rugged’ further ahead. My response was to chuckle, tighten my Tevas, and stick to the coast. To make a long story short, let me just say that never did I think the skills gleaned from climbing the rock wall in Palladium so many times my Freshman year would be so useful. At one point I had to use vines to pull myself up the side of an embankment because the way on the ocean rocks ended with an unclimbable vertical rock face. At another point I lost the path entirely and had to push through picker bushes and picker trees (which I was surprised to see existed) in the woods. I quickly learned to watch where I put my hands as well as my feet. And that when an Australian says ‘rugged’ he really means it.

My main reason for going into town was that I was running low on cash and there aren’t any ATMs out on these beaches, but I also wanted to see what the festival would be like. Tarps and big pieces of fabric were slung across the tops of the buildings to shade the people waiting in line to pay homage to their god. There was another time in my life that I had been in a river of people like this, but it was in the shade of skyscrapers instead of tarps—it was in midtown Manhattan, right around Christmastime. I was still in high school and, being new to the city, I was in awe at the number of people. A lane of the road had been shut to cars to make room for walkers, and I was still pressed up against the person in front of me.

Although these pilgrims in Gokarna were there for worship, and the shoppers in New York were there for good sales, I couldn’t help but see and even feel the similarity. It was a tradition, something to be excited about, something to do with the family. Our traditions just center around a different god- theirs Shiva, and ours the Dollar. But I think this can fall under the category of one of those ‘it doesn’t have to be that way’ things. After all, it’s the excitement of so many people being in one place all for the same reason, and the individual journeys that brought them there that really matters. The question is; why do our traditions tend to center on such a transient thing as money?

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The bus ride

Never did I think I could get a workout from riding on a bus. But after spending four hours yesterday and another five hours today on (and off, considering all the times I was literally thrown into the air) the peeling blue vinyl seat of a public Indian four wheeler, my muscles feel just like they did after the first time I tried yoga. Except now I have neck aches instead of a spiritual breathing high.

I am exaggerating a little. Although I did get flung into the air a few times, there were definitely stretches of relative smooth sailing. And I have to say, the public transportation infrastructure here is something to be envied. I know that I can go to any major city and there will be a bus or train going to wherever I need to get to next. At the most it’ll be a stop away. When I’m on the bus, I see hardly any cars on the road; mostly it’s circus-colored freighter trucks and other buses. I did have a little trouble on the way to Hampi. My overnight 2AC (it has beds with curtains) train reservation didn’t make it off of the waiting list and I had to spend the night—all twelve hours of it—on a wooden bench with my meager general ticket (but that’s another story).

Imagine a train network that ran all across the U.S… If you wanted to go to California, book a sleeper and you’d get there in a few days. New York to Florida? Not a problem. But I can’t even get a train home from New York City to Scranton. The tracks are there, but I’m guessing it probably just wouldn’t be profitable. After all, when everyone has cars that they can chill out in while they’re going their average four miles an hour (I know I’m repeating this, but I just can’t get over it), who needs trains? I’m just saying, maybe cars are great, maybe they’re the worst thing ever invented. But either way, grade A good public transportation is something that we Americans missing out on.

To be honest, I like the long bus rides. India’s landscape changes so quickly that I’m content to stare out the window and watch the vast planes of cotton fields and rosella plantations turn into forested hills that look strangely Pennsylvanian. And yesterday a flock of middle schoolers just happened to get my bus and flock to the back, where I was quickly treated like a glossy magazine pop star. They all wanted to shake my hand- something that happens a lot, and something that’s started to make me feel really uneasy. So instead I taught them the ‘secret hand shake’ shake, grab the thumb side of the hand, and finish it off with a pound. They liked that. As for me.. well, it’s certainly humbling to be the one white face in a bus full of brown ones. And precious time to just sit and think and reflect becomes suddenly plentiful when you don’t have to focus on the road.

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A fallen city

Whenever I do something that I know is bad for the environment- buy a plastic packaged beverage, take an excessively long shower, throw away a piece of paper instead of recycling it- I always get a wave of what I’ve started to call “green guilt.” It’s inescapable. I do my best to live with as little impact as possible, but no one is perfect and I’m far from a stellar model of the sustainable citizen.

By now I’ve accepted that I’ll have to buy copious amounts of bottled water while I’m in India, but this morning my green guilt meter reached a recent high when I decided to rent a motor bike for the day. I could have gotten a bicycle. I love to bike. But the fact was that there was no way I’d be able to see the sprawling capital city of the fallen Vijayanagar Empire on a bicycle. Definitely not without getting sun stroke and since I lack Lance Armstrong quads, probably not at all. This is what I told myself as I watched the shop owner pour a liter of honey-colored fuel out of a water bottle and into the bike’s gas tank.

When I was on that bike, I was completely in control of my life. The wind was whipping my hair into knots and the red orange rocky landscape sliding past me. I could go anywhere, when I wanted to, at my own pace. It felt like the first time I rode my bicycle in the city. It was freedom, but at a cost. There was that edge of fear always hanging around the periphery of my thoughts—I could get hit. I could crash. I could run into a cow. But it was worth it (and, to assuage the nerves of my surely cringing mother, I was only going about 30 mph- without gears the bike couldn’t go much faster).

I often have this realization of the freedom that comes with personal transportation when I go home to Scranton for a while and am sitting alone in my car. I really hate driving. I make my sister do it whenever we go somewhere together. But I do appreciate what it awards to those fortunate enough to be able to afford it. At its core, personal transportation is a good thing. The problem is when driving a car becomes necessary to having a livelihood (as it is in Scranton and most US suburbs). And someone told me yesterday that the average speed in the US is 4mph… just about that of an ox cart.

The ruined city of Vijayanagar. At one time this society had been huge and beautiful and flourishing. I could tell that much from walking through the outlines of what had once been homes with spacious courtyards and tall columns. Even now some buildings remain- I climbed to the top of a guard post with Islamic arched windows wide enough for me to lie down on the window seat and nap while a strong wind cooled my body. Nearly everything is gone now. Only with my imagination could I see the marvels and wonders of this city. With my eyes I saw its ruins. It made me think of the post I wrote yesterday, and of a book I read called The World Without Us. I bet the people of Vijayanagar never thought that some day a white, slightly sunburnt, girl from a place called the U.S.A. would sit in one of their guard towers and stare out at the empty, rock strewn desert where their great city once stood. Great civilizations have fallen before us. So maybe it could be that we will too.

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img_4725

I’m sitting in the arms of an ancient bull statue, in the shade of a rough-cut pillar that seems naked compared to the ornate columns of the other temples.  In front of me, just behind wide-branched, leafy trees is the towering Virupaksha Temple. The black box sky scrapers of Manhattan are children’s toys compared to this cream colored temple of enrobed maidens and sculptured detail.

In my life I’ve never seen boulders as big as the ones that surround this bull and its modest stone housing.  The bull used to be a rock like that- huge, imposing, erratic in its shape.  But somehow, without the help of oil-powered machines or monsterous consturction equiptment, this boulder was changed, no longer an ordinary rock, but now something more.. something sacred.

Probably it was alredy here, and the temple constructed around it.  After all, how could simple men move a boulder three times my height and over five times my width?  But then I glance up at the pyramidal temple towering before me.  Like everything else, it was made before the time of gas and electricity.  When I went inside this morning, I saw that fires had charred the roof and columns so that they looked like smooth onyx .  It still smelt of sulfur.

Today, in the stone arms of the bull, I realized that we are greater than the machines that run our lives.  When oil runs out (which it will in at least the next 50 years)  and the life blood of the industrialized world runs dry, either society will trip to a crumbling halt, crippled without its cars and planes, or by then we’ll have found another way to feed our ever growing hunger for power.  But even if solar panels and wind mills have not spread far enough to catch us in a safety net of dark glass and slowly spinning arms, I know that we’ll be ok.  Maybe we’ll be forced backward to the times of these people who built the temples and lit them with fire.  Maybe we’ll spring forward and generate energy in a way that everyone can have the comforts of an industrialized world without polluting our planet and depending on limited resources.  The thing is, the path humanity takes will be decided now, in this crucial time of growth and development.  Ultimately, the question is whether we’ll fall back or jump ahead.

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Mamallapuram

I haven’t gone too far from Auroville and Pondicherri just yet.  I’m travelling with my friend Eliza and her (now also my) friend Mike, both intrepid wanderers who have graciously taken me under their weathered wings and are teaching me the tricks of the travelling trade.

A two hour, uneventful bus ride brought us to Mamallapuram, a colorful costal town of plentiful hotels and easy to find European cuisine.  I still have a feeling that I have yet to encounter the “real” India.  If there even is such a thing.  The main attractions here are caves that were chiseled out of solid rock, with lion sculptured pillars lining the entrances and Hindu gods carved into friezes on the interior walls.  The ancient carving tradition lives on in the stone trinkets sold in nearly every other shop, but one carver told me that a business man is flying him and ten of his students out to New York to carve sculptures for his garden.  So the craft lives on.

I think the most memorable thing about Mamallapuram for me will not be its stone carvings, but someone that I met.  I was laying on a large boulder under a tree in the park where the stone caves are, hiding from a brutal afternoon sun.  With the large stones and plentiful vegetation, the area reminded me a lot of central park… with monkeys and goats running around.  So there I was, staring up at the patches of sky between the tree above me, daydreaming, when a little girl walks up the little hill to stand next to my rock.

“Where are you from?” she asked me in surprisingly good English, and then launched into conversation.  This ten year old girl wanted to be a scientist when she grew up.   She said it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  She’s already built a speaker from scratch, and had such good English because she went to school for it on Saturday.  As I was talking to her, I couldn’t help but think about all of the times I’d read about India becoming one of the next big super powers of the world.  Yes, there’s garbage everywhere because there are hardly any trash cans (which I’m sure I’ll write about later), and yes the roads are super dangerous and not well paved, and yes many people live in one-room homes that don’t even compare to US suburban duplexes.  But  Indians seem to have an incredible sense of national pride.  They are determined to succeed, and to bring India to success.  They have the fiery passion that’s lacking in much of the US’s youth.  This is a huge generalization, but that’s because at this point it’s only a growing hunch, reaffirmed by the conversation with this ten year old. It’s something that at least deserves some more thought.

Anyway, we’re heading to Chennai tonight to catch an overnight train to Hampi.  It’ll be my first train ride ever, so I’m really excited for it.  Let you know how it goes!

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Another Option

(Leaving Auroville, Part One)

Whenever I talk to someone about ecovillages, whether the person is a self-proclaimed environmentalist or not, at some point the conversation involves the other person getting defensive and insisting that my utopian visions will never become a reality. No one’s going to give up their privacy to live in a community. People are stuck in their ways, and they won’t ever change. You can’t just tear down all of the cities and suburbs that already exist and move people out to a bunch of communes in the middle of nowhere… I used to find this incredibly frustrating. I couldn’t put my finger on it before, but I always felt like I was missing an important part of the puzzle, like there was something that I just wasn’t saying.

Yesterday I went to talk to Priya, the British woman who started a twelve acre organic farm called the Buddha Garden. She settled down there after the Aurovillian sub-community she helped to found ended up being less of a community than she thought it would be. Before that, she’d lived in two other communities, one of them also in Auroville. After Priya told me about the problems she’d faced in her past communities, I asked her if she had any advice for people looking to start their own.

“Start with something you’re passionate about,” she said. “Or find a few other people and do something you’re passionate about together.”

That, and working together (everyone at the Buddha Garden works on the farm from 6am-9am and then eats breakfast together) are what she says are key. For a community in the city, she suggested focusing on recycling, but it could be anything.

It was during this conversation, right around when Priya said, “I knew that I wanted to live in a community, you see,” that I found my missing puzzle piece. Ecovillages are not a New World Order, but another option. Think about it- how often do we narrow down our living choices to city, suburb, or rural? Then we either live with our family, alone, or with a few roommates. But do we really need to settle for such a paltry buffet of lifestyles? That’s what ecovillages, or communities, are for me- a chance to eventually live in the way that I choose, instead of opting for one of the few options presented by society and the common paradigm. Priya touched on the beauty of this idea when she said that passion should be at the center of a newly forming community. Our passions are as varied and unique as I hope our lifestyles to someday be. What’s right for me may not be right for someone else. All I’m saying is, why aren’t we asking whether or not city/suburb/rural is really the best recipe? My argument is not for a world made up of ecovillages, but for a world where each person can figure out their own unique needs and then achieve them. And that brings me to part two.

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