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A thin layer of sweat sheathed my skin, keeping my body perpetually moist. It wasn’t sunny under the thick canopy of creeping vines and jungle trees, but the air was hot and thick, constipated with the monsoon rains that still haven’t come. Much of the forest floor was patched with black spots where guides had set fires so that the crumpling underbrush would burn in small controlled flames instead of one raging wildfire. Ash and spider webs clung to my arm hairs. But despite the smell of burning grass that hung on the air, much of the jungle was still green and thriving. And so were its creatures.

It was just a jungle walk- one of those ‘maybe you’ll see animals, maybe you won’t’ type of things. I was walking casually down a soft sanded Jeep path when my guide made a noise to get our attention. I turned to see him crouched down on his haunches, leaning on his walking stick, and staring between the tree trunks off of the left side of the path.

He looked up at us and whispered, “Rhino.” Then he waved for us to walk backwards quietly and peer through the trees. Tension pulled tightly on the heavy air. Sunscreened hands gripped their SLR cameras, but no one dared to take a picture. At the beginning of the walk, the guide had told us what to do just in case we encountered any aggressive wild creatures. The trick for rhinos is to climb up a tree. They can’t see up.

Rhinos! Photo taken from the safety of an elephant's back

I couldn’t see anything at first. The rhinoceros’s grey hide blended in with the brown trunks and underbrush. As soon as it moved though, it was unmistakable. It walked a few steps backward and then turned toward us. For a heartbeat I stared at the two black eyes and small horned head that crowned the Hummer-sized beast. It took a step toward us, and the guide turned, his index finger to his lips, and motioned for us to go back. The French tourists in our group ran back the way we’d come. I looked around to check the climability of the nearest trees while slowly stepping backward.

I can’t describe what it was like to see such a huge beast in its native habitat. It’s the type of thing that needs to be felt in order to be understood. During an elephant ride later that day, I saw five more rhinos and spotted deer and non-spotted deer and wild boar. Even though I grew up near the woods in Pennsylvania, I’ve never seen so much wildlife in one place before.

The rhinos here were nearly hunted to extinction, but the Nepali government stepped in and created strict rules and strong fines that now protect all of Chitwan’s wildlife. The park is pristine, especially in comparison to the Keralan backwaters- another biological treasure, but one that isn’t protected by government regulation. It would be naïve of me to say that we need to be eternally conscious of the wellbeing of wild animals and precious natural places so that people can always have the chance to enjoy them. Maybe this is a reason for preservation of our natural resources, but so often the argument gets left at that. Even people who will never trek in a jungle are connected to that jungle’s resources. We can’t even begin to imagine the vast interconnectedness of all living things (although science can certainly begin to sketch a vague picture). A single blog post can hardly serve a reasonable explanation. Appreciation of living things and wild animals is a reason to demand their protection, but don’t stop at that- keep thinking about it.

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Paragliders float towards the ground against a backdrop of a dark hill, like a descending flock of colorful, lazy birds. Kayaks and rowboats glide along a lake fringed with pollution, but good for swimming at the middle. Shaded shops stuffed with North Face gear, hiking poles, and hippie clothes line the main street along the lake. Pokhara has all of the marks of a well-visited tourist town, but the muggy pre-monsoon air reflects a truth that’s easier ignored than faced.

Although she’s a Tibetan refugee, Lhopsa has never seen Tibet. Her Tibetan mother died when she was young, and Lhopsa began to wash clothes in a hotel in Phokara. Now she comes into town everyday to sell trinkets to tourists, carrying her business in a backpack that looks like an overachieving middleschooler’s. If she sells something, then she gets to eat. Food is expensive in Pokhara.

There are so many injustices that I would hear about in the news or read about in books. Talking to Lhopsa made them real for me. Although born in Nepal, the refugees are not Nepali citizens, so they don’t have a citizens’ rights. And how can I say that they should be made citizens when there are so many refugees (aka illegal immigrants) in my own country who are only slightly better off? She can’t eat. She doesn’t own the land she lives on. She can’t afford to.

So many times I would argue about the problems of international sustainable development- first world organizations going into developing countries to help them meet their basic needs. I was always against it. The more I learned, the more I saw organizations like the World Bank wrecking people’s lives in an attempt to control their resources, all under the guise of sustainable development. But there was Lhopsa, sitting in front of me in her tourist hand-me-down Victoria’s Secret T-shirt, fully aware that she’d received a low lot in life, telling me about her impossible dreams of coming to America.

I wanted to know what she thought. I explained the idea of a self-sustaining community; that she’d be able to grow her own food and generate her own electricity and clean water, and not have to rely on money from tourists. That she and the other refugees would design the community and make all of the decisions. Her answer?

She chuckled and with a smile, said, “Me, I have no education. I know only a little English. Only a little Nepali. If you want to do that, then you come up and see it. You do that.” I don’t think she believed that it was possible.

And so, as she dreams about marriage to a westerner as a ticket to freedom, Lhopsa will continue to come into Phokara every morning to scratch by a living. Sometimes she’ll eat, sometimes she won’t. Her mother left Tibet because she had no freedom there. Lhopsa, too, is now enslaved.

But what can we do? More than anything, we can look this problem straight in the face. We can recognize that a similar problem is happening in the U.S., only we call it by a different name. Maybe, if done properly and by the right people, sustainable development is the solution. I can’t think of any other ones. And as frustrated and angry as I felt, I knew that at least I could write about this. Even though there’s nothing else I can do right now, at least I can listen to Lhopsa’s story. And share it.

 

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A quick return

So the practice of detachment was important for me and I’ve certainly learned from it. But it’s time to rejoin the infosphere. My absence from posting allowed me to appreciate the joy that I get from it. And more importantly, there’s a story that I have to tell.

But first an update. In the past two weeks I’ve made my way to the mountains of Nepal. I spent an incredible overnight journey with an Indian family in the ladies’ compartment of the Trivandrum – Chennai Express, flew up to Kathmandu and strolled its hectic, winding, colorful streets, climbed over a thousand steps to see a Gurkha palace and catch my first glimpse of the adjectives-can’t-do-them-justice Himalayas, and now I’ve found myself staying at another ashram near the Annapurna mountain range.

And now for that story.

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Intermission

A quick note: I’ve realized that I’m incredibly addicted to information- to staying informed about everything.  So as a practice in detachment, I’m going to stop using the Internet for the remainder of my travels.  This isn’t a prescription from some spiritual guru or anything like that. It’s just something that I fell like I need to do in order to grow as aperson.  So that means no more posts for a while.  To the thirty or so of you who have been checking in regularly- thanks for following along.  To the readers who have commented- thanks for the support and displayed interest.  And to my family and friends (aka almost everyone who would be reading this)- I will tell you in person all of the interesting and exciting things I do and see that won’t make it onto this page.

Until then,

M. Craig

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Let me begin by saying that I have no clue what ashrams are all about.  Before I went to Amritapuri, I’d hardly ever even thought about ashrams.  If someone asked me what an ashram was, I either would have done things the Indian way and made something up, or I would have admitted my ignorance.  SO if there’s anything I write pertaining to ashrams that sounds wrong or just plain silly, then feel free to say so, because I’m definitely in a learning process.

The Sivananda Ashram in Neyar Dam, Kerala, has very little in common with Amma’s ashram.  That’s really all I have to compare it to.  There’s the nightly devotional singing of songs in Sanskrit that makes me think of a concert geared toward  my four year old cousin (except hereI don’t try to hide my clapping-along enjoyment).  There’s the amazing food- here two meals a day with as many seconds as you want.  Considering the amount of thirds most people get, I can tell that I’m not the only one who enjoys the food.  This is a further fodder for my theory that good cooking just needs to be made with love.

But the purpose of the Sivananda Ashram is completely different than that of Amma’s.  People went to Amma’s ashram because they wanted a glimpse of divinity.  There were over a thousand people there at one time, and at least one hundred lived there permanently.  Even the devotees who were just visiting tended to stay for months.  Here, people come for the yoga.  Instead of doing your own thing and finding a way to do personal meditation, practically the entire day is planned out.  This has both its good and bad sides, but here’s what the schedule looks like:

5.20am – wake-up bell

6.00am – satsang (group meditation, chanting, talk)

7.30am – tea time

8.00am – Asana Class

10.00am – vegetarian meal

11.00am – karma yoga

1.30pm – tea time

2.00pm – lecture (usually on how to live in a yogic way)

3.30pm – asana class

6.00pm – vegetarian meal

8.00pm – satsang

10.30pm – lights out

It’s a lot of yoga.  The main attraction here is a month-long teacher training course.  About a third of the people at the ashram now are involved with that (their schedule is much more demanding).  As for me, it’s been over three months since my Yoga to the People days, so I’m a littlesore.  But it’s great to be moving again.  And the breathing exercises are really interesting.  I’ll be here for about a week, so more on Sivananda later.

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It was like a battle.  That was the first thing that came to my mind.  In the middle of the abandoned-dirt-plot turned fairground, people dressed in saris and dhotis and a few camera-handed tourists pressed into a ring.  At its edge, people balanced on their tiptoes and fathers with toddlers on their shoulders lifted up their chins for a better look.  All eyes were fixed on the drummers.  Lined up four men across and four men back, they wore their leg-length drums at their hip, hanging from a sash across their shoulders.  The drumsticks were curved back at the ends from hitting tight animalskin at full muscle force again and again.  You could see it on their faces, and in the sweat that poured down their chests and soaked into their white rib necked vests.  They were warriors.  Their battle was in their beat- aggressive and competitive, but contained and controlled.  Their purpose was in their eyes and in the quick flash of a smile; they were there to have fun.

The elephant festival happens once every year, and the drummers always lead the march before the elephants.  Hardly like a conventional American balustraded parade, the elephant march went through Varkala’s streets with an air of controlled chaos.  When the drummers stopped, people pressed in around them.  When they started marching again, some people randomly joined the parade followed behind them.  This was a religious festival, including a procession of floats with statues of Hindu gods, but it easily could have been Saint Ubaldo in Jessup or the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village.  Regardless of culture or religion or reason, the energy felt the same.

Now this may seem like I’m getting totally off topic here, but stay with me.  I’ve gotten into the habit of reading the Indian newspapers every morning.  Just like the rest of the world, India’s media is focused on covering ‘the Economic Crisis,’ usually in the light of what the U.S. is doing.  Despite an editorial love of Obama, it’s not American citizens who have won recent praise.  It’s the French.  An editorial in The Hindu this morning praised French citizens who took to the streets on March 19th in protest of their government’s shady response to financial woes.  I won’t rehash the details, because I wasn’t there.  It was well covered in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

While the French are being praised for standing up against bad policy, on the next page of The Hindu is an op-ed from The New York Times.  It’s Paul Krugman’s piece about Obama’s Bush-esque, sure to fail (according to him) bank bailout plan.  As the world is looking us with patient expectation, wondering what our new president will do differently, maybe now’s the time for us to make sure that he does it right.  I’m not saying that we should emulate the French, but maybe we can learn from them.  And perhaps a mixing of Indian and French is the way for us to go.  We can tap into that energy that comes from mass gatherings–whether it’s a parade of elephants, Saint Ubaldo, or crazy costumed New Yorkers–and attach a message to it.  Parades and festivals are not foreign to us.  The idea of protesting doesn’t have to be scary.  Read about the issues, get your stance straight, and then figure out what to do next. The point is to do something.  Or at the very least start talking about what we need to do.

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Preface: Ok, well here it is.  For those of you who don’t know why this may seem like a tail-between-the-legs, admitting I was wrong moment, the short story is that while many of my friends joined the election-spurred Obama craze, I chose not to participate.  The long story is linked here, where I wrote a pre-election op ed for NYU’s student newspaper on why I was refusing to vote, as a protest against a flawed voting system.  I do still think our voting system is flawed and I do still think that people have fallen into an ‘Obama will change things’ mindset instead of trying to change things themselves.  That said, now I can get on with it.

“Coming from?”  … I swear I get asked the question at least ten times a day.  At least half of those times, the conversation continues as follows:

“America,” I say with a smile.

“Obaaaaaamaaaaa!” they return with glee.

On the bus from Amma’s Ashram to Varkala, the cliff top beach town where I’m staying for a few days, a man turned to me and we shared this very exchange.  I swear he looked at me with more respect after I told him that I was an American.  He tapped the arm of the man next to him and said something in Malayalam.  The only word I could understand was ‘Obama.’  The other man looked at me with a smile and sang the name.  As the bus churned forward and I stared out at the passing palm trees and rice paddies, “I’m proud to be an American”  very nearly started to play through my head.

Although it does seem that India and the U.S. have had cordial relations for quite a while, and these relations are certainly strengthened by a common enemey in the militant insurgency in Pakistan (I say that from what I’ve gathered from the Indian newspapers I’ve been reading), I have to admit that Barak Obama has lifted the view of Americans in India. It does go beyond that, though.  I run into many European travelers here, and the sentiment is similiar. Hopefully Obama will change things, people say.  Hopefully now that Obama is in office things will get better.

That brings me back to my primary concern with Obamaphila; the tendancy to hope Obama will fix all of the escalating problems we’re facing, and to use that as an excuse not to think how ordinary people can change their communities for the better.  Obama has done this for us- he has made us look better on the world stage.  Perhaps he’s even sparked a new way of thinking and living that promotes civic engagement.  But unless everyone does what they can to push for the promise of  ‘change’ that got Obama elected, then this slowly growing confidence in the U.S. will quickly dissipate.  One man cannot change an entire nation.  But maybe one man can change an entire people, and through them mold a country that reflects that change we are all looking for.

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