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A Trek and A Thought

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.

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.

In the arms of a bull

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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.

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!

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.

Finding Your Way

(Leaving Auroville, Part Two)

The three weeks I’ve spent at Auroville are hardly sufficient for me to claim to be an expert on this ‘universal township’.  What I can say, though,  is that Auroville is certainly different than anywhere I’ve ever been to in my life.  It’s complex and nuianced and constantly in flux.  I hope to come back here some day to figure out what really makes this place tick. 

I’m siting at the town hall cafe now, occasionally glancing up at the huge golden golfball called the Matrimandir, only partially visible behind thickly leaved tree branches.  In this moment know that leaving is the right thing to do, but not because I don’t like Auroville or because it wasn’t as much of a community as I thought it would be.  What I’ve learned here is that we each need to find our own way in this world.  We need to do what is right for ourselves before we can ever do anything good for others. 

And so the search for the answers to community living comes to a pause.  But the adventure continues.  I don’t know where I’ll go or what I’ll see, but that’s the beauty of it.  I am an environmentalist– I believe that the natural world influences and affects everything that we do, that we should live our lives in a way that is in balance with the world around us.  So my posts will most likely continue to be environmentally focused.  But just as I don’t know where my feet will take me in the coming months, nor do I know what my fingers will type.  My accesss to the internet will be limited, but I will keep posting, and sharing everything I see and experience (and I hope that you keep reading!).

Until next time.