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Tuesday
Jun212011

12. Law Camp and Indian Justice

"There's a starman waiting in the sky, he told us not to blow it cause he knows it's all worthwhile." - Starman, David Bowie

Preparation

A week of scrambling and chaos yields a successful event.“My goodness! What does a man like you eat for breakfast?” one of the students asked me. He had arrived a day early and had been watching me furiously clean plastic chairs. After about 50 or so, he offered to help. In the mean time, huts made of brick and grass were being constructed, storage rooms were being converted into sleeping quarters, a makeshift kitchen was being erected out of bamboo and tin sheeting, sheets were being washed, and beds were being made. The grounds of the Eco-Ashram buzzed with laborers like ants in an ant farm.

This student I speak of arrived a day early, thus he was the first to arrive at what was essentially summer camp for environmental law students; a week of lectures from directors of national parks, leading scientists, judges, and lawyers, and including MC—two Goldman Prize winners (The Goldman Prize is considered by many in Europe and America to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalism). The climax of the week was a moot court, trials based on actual cases.

It was Saturday, June 4th, and as I said, for the last several hours I was cleaning chairs that had been in storage for who knows how long. In the room where they had been stored there was a hole in the roof and so the chairs were caked in mud from the previous storms as well as spider webs. I was zoning-out in the rhythm of cleaning the chairs when at one point I felt a bug on my hand and flicked it off. It was only at the last split-second, as my finger was already in the flicking position that I realized it was a baby scorpion. I sent him flying stinger over heels.

MC and Sam, both receivers of the Goldman Prize.It was one of those days where despite being up since 5:30am and operating on very little sleep, I had endless energy - kind of like the first time you run after a long hiatus and you think, I’m not in that bad of shape after all, which of course is just adrenalin. In total I cleaned about 120 chairs. I was told at one point to finish the job the next day, but there was still so much work to be done and in 24 hours, 40 young, rambunctious law students would ascend upon the grounds of the Eco-Ashram.

Since I arrived at the Eco-ashram on May 31st, the place was a flutter with preparation for the 40 law students, several professors, honored guests, and a Swami, who was to lead the dedication of the new Climate Change Center on the first evening. On May 31st, we were a week out, most of the housing was not even nearly complete, and most of the beds were in storage. Plywood and junk seemed to cover everywhere. This was all due to the fact that while I was in Rishikesh, a storm came through and caused massive damage to the grounds, tearing parts of roofs off cottages and collapsing the dining hall.

“You see?” MC said. “These storms are unseasonable. This is nature’s way of saying things are not well.”

I didn’t think it could be done—I didn’t think the place would be ready by the time everyone arrived, but in a week the dining hall was deconstructed and from its remains five thatch-roof huts were created to house an 15 additional students.

When MC would ask me, “What do you think?” I kept my opinion to myself, that being that there was no way in hell this place was going to be ready.

“It’s coming along,” I would say. “It’s really starting to take shape.” And in fact, up until the students went to bed at the end of their first day, we scrambled to add beds and mattresses.

(My favorite part of this long-ish, uncut video is about 1:44 in, where MC is seen running through the background chasing the dogs away with a stick. Can't remember what they were doing but up to no good as usual.)

It doesn’t seem like it should take that much work to create a small hut, but its quite astounding how much effort goes into building one of these shelters properly. The reason why it collapsed in the first place was because the workers were incompetent. I was amazed watching the daily increments of progress as the laborers transformed the land from a weather beaten mess into a campus.

What the student who asked me what does a man like you eat for breakfast did not see was that with the exception of one day, for the previous six days I was sitting around like a sloth, asking for something to do but our managing resources had run too thin. Myriam took point on most projects, but she was one person trying to motivate workers who didn’t really understand what truly cleaning something meant. In most cases we had to redo the work they had done. Some of the workers could be self-directed, but the majority needed someone standing over them, literally showing them exactly what to do. When no one was watching them, productivity dropped off. In the meantime, MC was driving around the district and state trying to find laborers and to replace the ones who said they would show but never did.

The Commander in Chief

The commander-in-chief at the command center.I think it’s impossible not to like MC Mehta, unless of course you are facing him in a court of law. He is full of simple wisdoms that make you pause and think, and then smile. He teaches by his character, that being the fact that his actions are in line with what he fights for. And while he is serious and focused in his will to protect the environment while doing what he can to mitigate climate change, he is always quick to smile, and I bet his laugh could even infect a death row inmate. I can’t really say enough about this man.

Throughout the week it seemed like the place was falling down around him and yet he would just laugh and say in his accent, “What to do?” which is the common Indian way of saying, oh well—what can you do?

This is India,” he would add. “Tis too much. Tis too much,” and laugh it off. But it was not a nervous laugh. It was a genuine laugh at the absurdity of how much was still to be done, how hard it is to get things done in India, and just how far we were from the finish line.

MC is this brilliant man who is scattered and pulled thin by all of his commitments and by all of the people who are vying for his attention and relying on him for action and change. He is the only hope for many people whose livelihoods or land are being threatened by development or polluting industries. When he is not engaged in conversation or preparation, he sits outside the office on a little concrete patio in his chair immersed in deep thought and contemplation, partially slumped, legs crossed, elbow resting on the arm rest, and chin resting on his hands.

I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten to know MC the man before I knew about MC the public figure. The more I get to know about his career, the more humbled I am. His cases read like the best episodes of Law & Order and I was amazed and awed that on the first day students held him in such high regards that they tried to bend down to touch his feet, but MC wouldn’t have it.Group photo on the last day.

“Every landmark environmental case in India that has been brought to the court was filed by Mr. Mehta,” one student said. “Every environmental case we study in law school is MC Mehta vs. the State of India, or MC Mehta vs. some polluting industry. And he’s the only one who has been able to beat the government. The first and the last case you study when entering law school is about Mr. Mehta.” What’s even more remarkable is, as far as I understand, he is not paid in these cases. He has fought more than 100 cases in the Supreme Court of India and never lost. At one point a special court was set up every Friday to hear his cases. 5,000 factories along the Ganges River have been directed to install pollution control devices and 300 factories were closed as a result of his actions. Approximately 250 towns and cities in the Ganges Basin have been ordered to set up sewage treatment plants. He has won additional precedent-setting suits against industries that generate hazardous waste and succeeded in obtaining a court order to make lead-free gasoline available. He has also been working to ban intensive shrimp farming and other damaging activities along India's 7,000-kilometer coast. MC has succeeded in getting new environmental policies initiated and has brought environmental protection into India's constitutional framework. He's almost singlehandedly obtained some 40 landmark judgments and numerous orders from the Supreme Court against polluters, a record unequaled by any other environmental lawyer in the world. Countless corporate and government lawyers are getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to fight him, to outwit him, and yet he is an unbeatable, a one-man legal brigade.

The first thing MC does when he arrives at the ashram every day is stop by the temple to pray. This says mountains about the man and from where her gets his stregnth. He is a man of deep faith and conviction. Many people of his stature and accomplishments would be arrogant and rest on their laurels, thinking themselves to be the god and creator of their own universe, but MC is an incredibly honest and humble man. He rarely talks about the past or his accomplishments unless prompted or unless the conversation dictates. Instead, he is focused on the future and what is yet to be done.

On top of all of this, he is funny—damn funny. Several times during the week we laughed so hard he had me in tears. When I did ask him about his cases, in recounting the details he laughs hysterically and slaps his knee as he describes the surreal details, how he outwitted his “very cunning” opponents, or how he used the press and media to his advantage. It is no wonder he is so greatly respected in India, but he has not always been in the favor of the public. As the press often excels at obfuscating facts or picking and choosing an angle to a story, there have been many times when industries that are the target of his wrath have worked hard to disparage him. At one point in the 90’s, 20,000 workers burned images of him in effigy while protesting the lawsuit he brought against the polluting industries that were pitting and staining yellow the Taj Majal’s marble as a result of acid rain. In ten years these industries did more damage to the national landmark than hundreds of years of war. MC has been offered pay-offs to shut up and disappear and has had death threats against him to the point where he needed security.

At one point he was called to the Prime Minister’s residence for a discussion about the development and plans for damns along the Ganges. The two sat outside to have tea while several peacocks, the national bird, ran around the grounds. Almost nothing had been said to each other when a peacock came towards them. Always looking for the simplest way to drive home a point he said, “Can I kill that peacock?”

The Prime Minister’s (apparently an expressionless man) jaw dropped and he nearly fell out of his chair. “What? What are you talking about? Of course you can’t kill that bird! Are you mad?”

“Then how can you allow these dams to be built and kill the Ganges, our national river?” Point well served. His mind is sharp and agile and is always working at this level. To hear him tell this story is fantastic.

One thing he always does as a lawyer and investigator is visit the environmental sites he is working to protect, several times he has had to do this in disguise. He told me of one case in which he was working to close down an industry that was contaminating drinking water for the surrounding villages. People were getting sick, skins of animals were peeling off, trees withered away, and crops were burning up in the fields. As the courtroom drama played out, opposing lawyers worked furiously to defame him. They spoke for an hour to the court how MC was out for publicity and his own self interests. “How could I be out for my own self interests?” He asks me as he recounts the story. “These people will do anything for a dollar and they are very clever.”

MC waited very patiently and when it was time for him to speak, he pulled out a bottle from his bag.

“What is that, rum?” someone joked.

“This is contaminated drinking water from the site. If any of the opposing lawyers will drink this water, I will withdraw the case right now.”

The opposing lawyers knew they had lost the case. The judge asked what do you want? MC asked for clean drinking water, medical relief, compensation for damages, and the industry to be closed down. These were all granted.

“I do not take a case unless I know I can win it,” he says. “Sometimes I wait a long time until the conditions are favorable on the bench or until I have sufficient evidence,” he says, continuing. “In my view, you are fighting on your principles. If you are speaking the truth, if you are guiding the court properly, respectfully, and presenting the facts, even the hardest judges become soft.”

I think like all great men, he is driven by an inner vision, truth, and an ironclad faith, and like all great men who have left their mark upon history, their legacy is not built on the size of their palaces but on the quality of their thoughts. There is nothing that can compromise his values. He is of the rare breed of men whose actions are truly in union with his words. Professionally speaking, whether I move in a new direction charted by my experiences with him or whether I go back to what I was doing before I left on my travels, personally, MC the man is a true inspiration and a model of the greatness I would lke to aspire to.

“MC is perhaps the most important barrister in India since Ghandi, and no one outside India knows who he is. He’s like a John Adams figure,” said Sam Labudde.

Professor Sam

Sam and I pondering what to ponder.Sam Labuddy, an American biologist and has a vendetta against economists. “Economists are the new lawyers,” he said, “And I hate every last one of them.” Then again, he has a vendetta against a lot of people and industries. If you are looking for an opinion regarding the environment, foundations that negligently hand out grants, or some of the NGOs who are “working” to protect the environment, chances are he has an opinion. When you have done what he has done, including won the Goldman Prize in 1991, I suppose you are entitled to that opinion. He can also tell you anything about the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols which he worked upon, two of the biggest environmental global policies in history, yet his crowning achievement was probably getting onto a Mexican fishing boat as a crewmember in order to expose the great secret of the tuna fishing industry.

At some point after WWII with the creation of hydraulics, someone came up with the idea to make a mile wide fishing net to fish for tuna. The thing is, for some reason that no one understands, while dolphins generally are near the surface, tuna shadow them below, so when these massive nets were being hauled up, millions of dolphins—the most intelligent creature of the sea—were being killed for no reason except they were in the way, then simply just discarded back into the sea like trash.

“A woman would never think to do something like this. Only an idea as stupid as this could come from a man,” Sam told the class. "If we came upon dolphins on another planet, we would probably not disturb them, rather study them for their intelligence."

And so Sam worked for several months on a Mexican fishing vessel because he could not get on an American one. To get on an American tuna fishing vessel, because of the dirty secret no one discuess, you had to sign countless non-disclosure agreements and could not bring any video equipment on board. After capturing the footage he needed on the Mexican fishing vessel, however, he left the fishing boat and brought it to the press, essentially shutting down the illegal dolphin killing practice. He also fought to protect the Tigers and created a boycott of Taiwan for selling Tiger parts with to-the-point ads on the back of the first section of the NY Times. His WMD’s have always been a video camera and the press.

For the first day, everyone was worried about what happened to Sam. It was a 6-hour journey from Delhi to the ashram and he was supposed to be picked up at 6am. He didn’t show up until about 5pm that night, because, as it turns out, MC had sent a car for him and the hotel operator lied to the taxi driver, telling him that Sam had left at 5am with someone else. The hotel operator lied to him so he could get the money for the taxi to drive Sam to the ashram, except the driver the hotel hired had no idea where the Eco-Ashram was.

For having slept only a few hours in a few days, Sam was remarkably and impressively on when he arrived, right as the induction ceremony for the climate change center was getting underway. MC asked him to introduce himself and immediately Sam captivated the students.

In bare feet, Sam walked amongst the students and said, “OK, I want you all to stand up.” And so the students stood up.

“Before I berate you and belittle you over the course of the next several days, I’m going to make the bet that you don’t even know who you are. And I want you to think about that over the course of the next few days.”

“Who you are?” He asked. The students nervously looked at each other, wondering if they were going to be called out. “Who you are is 3 billion years of evolution. You are the crown of creation. Do you know what that makes you?”

They looked around again. “A force of nature. As man has evolved in his technology and conquered survival, do you know what he has lost?”

Again blank stares. “Harmony with nature.”

He continued with his opening statements, and then in barefeet walked out into the rain and went to his room. The courtroom and classroom.

And so every time Sam started a session over the next several days, it began with this exercise, the students standing up and he asking them who they were, what that made them, and what they have lost as a result.

For the first few days, I thought Sam was a professor, because he had the uncanny ability to captivate these kids with a combination of science and irreverence. Two minutes into him speaking on the first day I thought, I would have loved to be in one of his classes. You would have thought that he had spent 25 years in the classroom, but at the age of 54, 25 years ago he was only in his second year of college. Sam had left Indiana at the age of 18 and decided he was going to save the world, but after a decade of traveling from Alaska to South America, he realized he didn’t have the knowledge to save the world, and so he entered college at 28. And might I add he has never been a professor.

His central message throughout the week was, “For so long human survival was about overcoming nature, but our victory is going to be incomplete. The same blind momentum we marched forth with in the conquest of nature, with the same zeal and fervor we now fondle machineguns and nuclear weapons. Human society is all about growth and momentum and we have made great strides as human beings, but if we don’t do something now, all the luxuries we’ve created, such as human rights and woman’s liberation, won’t matter. We are nearing a tipping point and unless we begin acting globally, we are going to do irreversible damage that is going to have catastrophic consequences.”

My favorite thing he said during the week, however, was, “Every time I give a talk somewhere, someone says to me, ‘what can I do as an individual to make a difference?’ I tell them, ‘you know how you can make a difference? Pick one issue that drives you mad and that you can’t live with or without—and own that issue. Learn everything you can about it. In the process you will meet people who think the same way you do, and before you know it you're talking about a movement, and right after that you’re talking about strategy and goals—and that’s when real change happens."Outdoor class with Sam.

Students Take Justice Into Their Own Hands

I found it funny to learn around day 2-3 that the students thought I was the disciplinarian. I should have maintained that facade. The fact of the matter was that when students were arriving, I was in the office, and when I came out I didn’t have the energy to make small talk and introduce myself, so I simply walked past them to my room. I think I was just in my own head, because apparently I barely looked at people and didn’t have a smile on my face—at least this is the way it was recounted to me.

Another reason why perhaps they thought I was a disciplinarian was probably because the only thing I couldn’t stand was when they talked through lectures. While I can agree with them that some of the guest lecturers may not have been the most scintillating speakers, I was hoping they would at least have the respect to be still and listen to some of the best minds of India in their respective fields, but many of the students would just talk the entire time through lectures. I was sitting in the front row most of the time and I would turn around and leer at them. Several times I went so far as to mouth “Shut the f#&k up!” (The inflection in my whisper and emphatic body language warranted the exclamation point in this case.) At one point I held up a session to separate two students. I said class wouldn’t go on until he moved. “Come on big fella,” I said, as he was on the more portly side. “We’re not going until you move up. Come on everyone, cheer him on. Encourage him—tell him he can do it! Yeah!” And I began a clap. He looked around mortified and finally moved up. Regardless, he talked through the afternoon session.

The thing that I don’t get is that Indian students, at least Indian law students, don’t understand how to whisper; they just lower their voice and it carries out over the whole class. I discussed this with MC and what we should do about it, but it’s not his personality to be the disciplinarian. He was simply let down by their laziness, entitlement, arrogance, and apparent lack of caring.

It was clear by day 5 that sadly, a good number of the students could not have cared less about being there. The first day, four students left because the conditions were not to their liking and some students confided in me that they thought they were going to be doing outdoor sports the whole time. On the 3rd or 4th night, I was sitting in the dark behind my cottage, the only place on the property where I can get an Internet signal, and one student came up to me and asked me if I liked to party. I was somewhat caught off guard, not to mention blinded in the darkness by my computer screen, and while I didn’t come outright and say anything, I may have alluded to it. Not really a smart move. This student admitted to me that they had been drinking and smoking cigarettes and other things since the first night. It later made sense to me why several people missed a few sessions that afternoon—they were hungover. As a result of this conversation, I went to bed feeling somewhat let down. I was personally expecting so much from these students, these individuals who I had hopes and dreams for being leaders in a new era of environmental litigation and social justice, but instead they were just at the ashram because having MC Mehta’s name on your resume carries a lot of weight.

MC would ask me how things were going and I would tell him it was like herding animals or very young children with very short attention span. I would tell MC that they were like puppies; you could throw a stick and whatever they were doing their attention would be diverted by that stick and off they were running. I also acted this out, which he seemed to appreciate. I like to get a laugh out of him.

I do not want to cast the lot of them into the fiery pits of hell where most people believe the archetype of lawyers came to form. Some of them were quite impressive, self-disciplined, and driven. I would say all of them had the smarts, just not necessarily the drive.

On Wednesday, in the middle of the week, we all went to Rishikesh on an Indian school bus. Just like most Indian buses, we packed in as many as we could. I grabbed a seat on a bench all the way up front thinking I would have space and that I would have a better view of the landscape. Instead, by the time everyone packed on the bus there was no more room. It was standing room only all the way through the bus, so 3 of 5 guests who were from an NGO and observing the happenings packed onto my bench.

“Well,” I said. “Looks like I’m going to have a real Indian experience after all.” The student to my left leaned in and said, “No sir. If it were a real Indian experience we would have several people on the roof as well.”

I think this speaks for itself, or perhaps the next photo tells more of the story.To my left was a student and to my right, the man from the NGO could have been the Indian version of Rico Sauvé. Because of how tight we were packed onto the bench, one person would be leaning back and the other leaning forward. I was leaning back and Rico was leaning forward. Since there was no where to stabilize himself as the bus made its way through forest roads, his very dark hand was very comfortably—and might I add somewhat intimately—planted on my very white knee the entire 40 minute drive. He was so relaxed and nonchalant about it you would have thought we had been dating for years. I was not aware of it but my friend Priteeka was watching the whole episode and giggling. I told her afterward that I felt dirty, like I was violated, and that I needed a shower. Now this type of behavior would not be suitable on a bus in Seattle or New York City, but I was in India, so I simply put on my headphones, listened to Eyes of the World, by the Grateful Dead and smiled—I was smiling at the absurdity of it all; how I was in the middle of India going on a field trip to Rishikesh with a bunch of Indian law students; how I was working for argueably one of the most important men in India; how I was on a bus that would probably not be considered road-worthy in the U.S.; how I was supposed to be an authoritarian figure; and how a strange man was taking our non-existent relationship to the next level. And I was smiling at how grateful I was for all of it.Jungle love, predicated upon awkward uneasiness. This is another one of those cases of - when in India...

As I have admitted, while I was friendly with the students, I was very critical of them, and they were certainly testing my patience. But on the bus listening to Eyes of the World, the consummate songs of my adolescence, I got to thinking about myself in college and I realized I was expecting too much from essentially kids—kids doing exactly what kids do—and doing exactly what I did. The fact of the matter is I probably did a lot worse things than these kids will ever do. But in India, they go from high school to law school. Law school is part of college so these weren’t even grad students, as I first thought they were. They were 18-23 year-old kids for the most part.

While I think I would have been more reverent and respectful than many of these kids towards the speakers, I thought how I would have been the leader plotting and planning the party that night. I was the one who probably would have had illicit things in my possession. I certainly had an attitude towards authority figures that I did not agree with, specifically my college soccer coach. On this final note, I will admit that while I put a lot of effort into the classes I was interested in during my college years, I also very nearly lost my full soccer scholarship to college for—let’s just say having too much fun. Guilty as charged, and so I let up on my expectations and let it go. And in the process, my friendship with a lot of these kids blossomed and I developed a new found compassion towards them.

On the way to Rishikesh, the bus stopped at a nursery where each student was instructed to buy a plant for the ashram, which I thought was a wonderful idea. When we got to Rishikesh, Sam and I hung out with a few of the students and then the group broke off and it was just four of us. We had a great time cruising around and shopping, and Sam brought three watermelon and several other fruits for the student body.

Of course, several of the people were late getting back to the bus, causing most of us to wait an hour. They showed no guilt or repentance when they got back on the bus and Sam said something to the effect of, “Maybe next time you're late you could let us all know so we don’t have to come on time.” The message fell on deaf ears and was not even acknowledged.

What the program lacked was structure and enforcement of rules, so as the saying goes, you give an inch, they take a mile; or perhaps over here, you give them a centimeter and they take a kilometer. I guess that is India though, and even the instructors were late most of the time. When we all got home that evening, there was no talk of a curfew or anything of the sorts. Sam and I hung out and smoked cigarettes and drank shitty whiskey and cokes until about midnight, during which time he told me the harrowing details of working as a cook on a fishing boat out of Mexico, how sketchy it was filming these sailors, and how several times he was terrified for his life. It’s not too hard to make someone disappear at sea, after all.

When I went to my room, a large gathering of student had accumulated in the courtyard and they were being quite vociferous. I asked them to go to bed. About 20 minutes later I came out because most of the students had gathered and there was a riff between the schools. One girl said, “Sir, this is between schools and we are sorting it out. Please let us be.” And so I did. But it went on and about 25 minutes later around 1am I opened my door, yelled at them, and slammed my door. I thought my tantrum might have an effect but it didn’t.

A little while later, one of the students came to my room to apologize and to alert me as to what was going on.

“Sir,” he said, “I am very sorry and I am embarrassed that this is all happening, but we will take this matter into our own hands.”

***

I will tell you that I learned an important lesson the first time I kept a blog while traveling through Tanzania. The lesson was this—what was simply reporting to me as I looked for colorful language to entertain and describe events, turned out to be really hurtful to someone I liked and whose friendship I valued. I had forgotten that she was following my blog, and what I had said felt to her like I stabbed her in the back. I was completely oblivious to what I wrote until I read it through her eyes and it struck me hard. I’m sure she has completely forgotten about it, but to this day, five years later, I still feel bad about what happened.

And so in writing this entry I have edited out parts, in fact, throughout all of these chapters I have left quite a few details out (you’re probably saying, thank God—he writes too much as it is). Perhaps if I turn it into something some day all the details will be there, but it’s not my intent to disparage anyone when writing or to be a judge of anyone, although I certainly have an opinion about some of the things that have happened. With that said, being that I don’t know all the details from the parties involved in the incident above, I will just say that some of the students took crime and punishment into their own hands that night. I suppose you could call it the street form of Indian justice.

***

Plaintiffs and defendants. I think...The competition between the Indian law students was intense, but apparently this is the way Indian students are. It’s no wonder with all of these overachievers that India is a surging world power, no doubt poised to pass the United States in many arenas, as several expats who live here have said to me.

Fortunately though, as the week wore on, the group became tighter and the competition seemed to lesson somewhat as new friendships were formed. History was made on the final day during a moot court, where for the first time an American clerk (yours truly) and an American judge (Sam) presided over court, with the assistance of a real High Court judge from Delhi who treated the students as professionals—not as students. In the third and final case, a case in which both sides prepared endlessly, the defense pulled out a clause that said if a similar trial is being conducted, the current trial can not be heard until the similar trial is concluded. The court was adjourned in a matter of five minutes and the students from the palntiff side were incredulous. They could not believe that they had put all that work into the moot court, just to have the trail suspended.

“But this isn’t a real court. Please your honor, this is a moot court. Just hear our case.”

“I’m sorry,” the female judge replied. “The law is the law.” It was a lesson the law students will never forget, which is the point of all of it, right?

After each trial, the judge took her job very seriously and dictated her deliberations to me. I tried to get out of the job but she really liked how fast I typed. The problem was, I had serious trouble understanding her accent so I kind of made it up as I went. All eyes were on my as I pounded the keys furiously. It was probably the most stressful job I've ever had. OK, perhaps I am exaggerating.

On the final afternoon, MC gave some insightful parting words and he asked Sam to say a few words followed by what each student learned.Sam doing his best to be a stern judge.

Sam began his speech like every lecture prior. Stand up, who are you, what makes you that, and what are you missing. The students looked at each other proudly as they recited what Sam had taught them. Then he said, “Who told you that bullshit? You gonna believe everything you’re told?”

Sam then proceeded to give what could rival any of the best commencement speeches I have ever heard. His passion, fears for the future, and hope in this generation that we can do something about the accelerated deterioration of the environment eloquently poured forth from him as if the spirit were moving words through his breath. As he spoke of his love for the environment, he had to catch himself several times as tears welled up in his eyes, and everyone in the room was experiencing the same emotion. It was like Robin Williams’ speech at the end of Dead Poet’s Society, except we didn’t have desks to stand up on.

Next we went around the room and each student, at least the ones who bothered to show up (several were missing) told what they learned, and you could very clearly see a shift had taken place in them from the first day they arrived. Even those who were there just to be there had been touched by the week. Each one had a similar story about how when they arrived they were alarmed by the basic facilities and the fact that they could barely get a cell signal, etc., and yet now most of them didn’t want to leave. One could tell that a few of them had had epiphanies, and that—at least in that moment—they pledged they were going to fight for the environment. Those who said they probably would not take up environmental law did say they have a whole new understanding of the environment, and how they will always take this into account in their cases, and how if given the opportunity they would take pro-bono work for the environment.

I had a million thoughts running through my mind and was quite emotional myself when it was my turn to speak. I tried to lead with a joke, telling MC that maybe next time he should start the week with a grade school teacher teaching the kids how to listen, how to whisper, and how to show up on time.

I’ll never use that one again. That one fell flat.

I don’t even remember exactly what I said, but I started out by thanking them for giving me a new understanding of compassion and for the new friendships we had forged. I told them how the experience of spending time with and learning from MC and Sam over the past week was like a tornado or a tsunami moving through my internal landscape. It had rearranged what was. I tried to tell them a little bit about my journey that began a year ago at my mother’s funeral and about some of the events that had brought me to the point where I stood before them. Fortunately one thing I did noticed midway through was that no one was speaking and I had everyone’s attention, because if they were speaking I would have lost what I wanted to say, but after all many of us had become new friends over the course of the week and so they respected me to listen.

I'm not sure how my speech landed. I think in the long run though, it's not the words of speeches that are remembered, but the sincerity and the emotion behind them, and I hope I delivered on at least those aspects. Of course, afterward I thought about all the things I forgot to say when I was sitting in my seat and composing it in my head. There is a reason why I am a writer and not a speaker, after all. I like the controlled environment of the written word. 

What I tried to express though, was my view of life—that we are all our own creators and that the world is first created in our thoughts, brought forth in language, and then constructed in action. And through this point, I tried to hammer home the fact that that reality conforms to the boldness of our thoughts and to push through their fears. I told them that in my experience the most destructive force in the world is fear. On the macro it’s what causes people and countries to raise arms against one another; on the micro it causes banality and complacency, and it is fear that keeps us from living the inspired lives we dream of living.

Derhadun, June 22nd.

 

Thursday
Jun162011

11. The White Monster

"Far, far away from the city lights
That might be shinin' on you tonight..." Far, Far Away - Wilco 

Dehradun, May 18, 2011

I am a white monster. When women see me they turn their eyes, children stare at me in fear and confusion, and grown men size me up as if at any moment I may rape their women and plunder their riches.

Ok, so maybe this is all in my head, but it’s hard not to get a complex when you’re a pasty Irish fella in a city of a one million dark Indians. As you may imagine, you tend to stand out a bit, and Indians have no qualms about staring at you to the point where you feel uncomfortable. I think, or at least would like to think, that in most cases they are staring at me not in a threating way (although sometimes it feels that way), but more out of curiosity. My presence may also be exacerbated by the fact that in a conservatively dressed country, I am generally wearing lightweight Ex-Officio shorts, a t-shirt, sunglasses, New Balance running shoes or flip-flops, and a wide-brimmed REI hat that looks like something the Marines wore in Vietnam.

***

A wild night of Carlsbergs, Oreos, and doing laundry in my hotel room in DerahdunLet me just begin by saying that I think it’s safe to say if you’re a tourist, you can avoid Dehradun. I can’t say I’ve found anything terribly redeeming about it, except for two new friends I have made. It is useful outpost, however, if you’ve been stuck in the middle of nowhere at an Eco-Ashram and you need to get an Internet connection, Oreos, beer, or you just want to hide out in an air-conditioned hotel in for a few days and order room service.

To get to Dehradun from the Eco-Ashram I caught a ride on the back of a motorcycle that took me to a bus stop about two-and-a-half kilometers away. Once on the bus, which was not much more than a metal box on wheels with some uncomfortable benches upon which to sit, I passed through a series of villages only remarkable in their unremarkability. The land we passed through was a scorched tinderbox waiting to ignite and wide riverbeds were as dry as the bones in a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Dehradun, in my opinion, is equally as unremarkable as the towns through which you pass, only it’s a city. It is the capital of the Indian state of Uttarakhand and it’s as dirty as the next big city in India. It is a snaking sprawl of cars, exhaust fumes, motorbikes, cows, and pedestrians, of course no Indian city would be complete without the constant soundtrack of car and motorcycle horns. It’s a wonder that the constant auditory stimulation does not make more people go postal, because I know I have been on the brink once or twice, but I would imagine Indians are completely desensitized to it.   

The luxury of traveling by government buses in India.When I arrived at the parade grounds in Dehradun where the bus dropped me off, I was completely disoriented and had no idea where to go. I started down one road heading south, only to turn around to head north, all the while dodging peddlers and aggressively begging children. The parade ground is a huge expanse of dirt and dust with about 30 buses lined up. I began walking in another direction (yes, I was walking in circles at this point) but the heat very quickly wore me down. I grabbed a Vikram and paid too much to take me to the north end of Raijpur Road in search of a guesthouse that sounded attractive according to The Lonely Planet. Instead of staying at the guesthouse, I wound up paying twice as much for a bit of comfort and air condition, and thus I camped out at Hotel Ajanta Continental for about five days, ordering room service in the morning, going to Café Coffee Day in the afternoons, and across the street to the Good Value Hotel for beers and dinners. This was my daily routine with the exception of one day when I decided to walk in the heat of midday to the Paltan Bazaar about 2.5 kilometers on the other side of town. The hoards of people at the this Bazaar were completely overwhelming, and on my way back to the north side of town, flustered and overheated, I slipped into McDonald’s for a bit of home cooking and air conditioning. I ordered the McChicken, and as it turns out, the McChicken in India is more chicken than I bargained for, so I took one bite, spit it out, and ate my fries and drank my Coke. Should I ever find myself in a McDonald’s in India again, I’ll certainly go with the McPaneer.

One afternoon, much to my chagrin, my Tata Photon, which provides my Internet connection, failed me. Apparently I had used up all my data so I huffed it down to the store to put more money into my account. As usual I was greeted with blank faces and curious eyes. I stood at the reception for quite a bit but was not greeted by the people behind the desk, and in the meantime the rest of the patrons just walked up and cut in front of me, so I decided to sit down and observe the protocol. One couple was staring at me and I gave a forced smile back at them. They kept staring, making me self-conscious to the point where I thought about giving them the evil eye until they said, “Where are you from? Are you from the states?”

“I am actually, yes,” I replied.

“Oh we love it there. We have been up and down the west coast and have been to New York and Washington, D.C. We have just returned from living in New Zealand for 3 years. Nothing in India is easy,” Ranjiv said.

As it turned out, Ranjiv and his wife were staring at me because as a westerner I was more familiar to them than the Indians who inhabited the shop we were in. They had only been back a week and even though they were more or less locals, they were just as overwhelmed as me. We got talking about what I was doing and what Ranjiv was doing, and as it turned out, Ranjiv was a sound engineer and had written a novel about a year or two back, but couldn’t find any interested parties. I told him I would send what literary contacts I had to him and they invited me to lunch the following day.

This was about day 3 in Dehradun, and before I had met them I was beginning to feel a little discouraged and lonely, but meeting them provided me with some relief and a smile returned to my face. The following day they took me out to lunch.

The rest of my time in Dehradun was spent in the comfort of my hotel room, taking warm showers, emailing and Skyping friends, enjoying the luxury of a somewhat quick Internet connection, and catching up on 60 Minutes episodes.

Swastiga Eco-Ashram, May 31, 2011

Lovely neighbors at the ashram. They mostly keep to themselves.If you asked the 18-year ago me (half of my life-ago, mind you) the question, If there are two things you can guarantee you will never do in your life, what will they be? I think I could have answered with certainty, “Two things I can say I honestly will never do will be 1.) Rubbing baby oil all over African children in the middle of Tanzania (as a volunteer at an orphanage, mind you, not as a pedophile), and 2.) Having two Indian men rub me down with oil while basically naked.

I am glad I didn’t make that bet, because I surely would have lost. Lesson learned; never say never.

And this is how my Tuesday started, having two Indian men rub me down. You see part of the Eco-Ashram is an Ayurveda center. Dr. Myrium is an Ayurveda doctor from France, and up until the following day, the ashram was offering massage.

The only other people that currently work at the Eco-Ashram are Doctor Myriam and four Indians from Kerala. They consist of Hari and his wife (who just found out she was pregnant) and Arun and his cousin Pramisha. The four of them, all in their early 20s, studied a very specific type of Ayurveda massage that is unique to South India. As a result of Hari’s wife being pregnant (and probably boredom) they are leaving to go back to Kerala and it was the last day to get a massage, so I said I might as well try it.

I really had no idea what Ayurvedic massage was. When I got into the treatment room I was told to take off my shirt and shorts. I was wearing the good old Ex-Officio briefs and I thought that was that. But they tied a string around my waist and in the front one long strip unrolled down to my knees. They told me take off my underwear and then wrapped this cloth between my legs, up through the behind, and tied it on the waste band behind me. Ladies, I don’t know how you wear g-strings. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate them, and don’t stop wearing them, but I could never do it.

For the next hour plus the two men rubbed oil all over me while simultaneously working both sides of my body. Several times when I had to roll over, my frank and beans would spill out of this poor-man’s faux-g-string. I would try to adjust it without being too obvious, but it was a losing battle. I didn’t want to outright address it because that would have been potentially even more embarrassing for all of us, so I just went on like everything was fine, the better part of me hanging out and all. I’m sure this is not the first time this happened.

I have to say though, as far as massages go, it was probably the best one of my life. The only thing that could have made it better was if two Swedish women were rubbing me down with oil, but then I guess that wouldn’t have qualified as an Ayrvedic massage; that would be a Swedish massage.

***

All-in-all it was a big day on the ranch. Not only did I start my day with what many women and gay men with Indian fetishes fantasize about, but then I got to actually leave the premise and go into town with Myriam to buy some supplies. I spent almost $25 at a roadside store, which is a hell of a lot of money over here. Some of my necessities included; batteries for my flashlight, toilette paper, Lays Sour Cream potato chips (4 bags), Sprite (4), cokes (3), Oreos, Cadbury chocolate, Gauva juice, a can of a cold espresso drink, biscuits, peanut butter, processed cheese cubes, butter, and a few other things. One can only eat so much rice and Dahl before hitting the wall. It was beginning to feel like Ground Hog’s Day so this junk food provided some relief.

After I got back from town, I went about organizing my room. Since I had arrived 3 days prior, my things were just thrown about—on my desk, a coffee table, another bed, and two chairs. Similar to what Timmy Time might consist of at home, I rolled a Drum, put on my iPod, and began losing myself in the process of cleaning, folding, organizing, and sweeping out my room. Incidentally, I much prefer a vacuum than sweeping the floor with a bunch of reeds tied together.

The room was immaculate only three days ago, but due to the elements and the fact that the houses are more or less made with mud, dust and dirt from outside finds its way through the ceiling, doors, and windows, so daily maintenance is a must.

To give you an idea of my cottage, I have a tin roof, a fan, my showers are cold bucket baths, and I share my room with countless spiders, ants, lizards, and the occasional frog who finds its way in my front door—and those are just the things I can see. Although I haven’t seen the varmint yet, I also discovered I have rat as evinced by the rat turd that had fallen from the ceiling on to my shorts. But for the most part, I just tell myself these creatures are doing their thing and I’m doing mine. I just let myself believe that I am safe and secure underneath my mosquito net.

Two nights I came in at sundown and there were swarms of some sort of winged flies buzzing about the light bulbs. They were everywhere. I was not very happy about this the first night it occurred and wasn’t sure how I was going to sleep with them buzzing about, but when I came back two hours later after dinner, they were gone, and all that remained were their little wings on the floor and some very healthy looking lizards. The lizards are my friends. I’ve also been told there’s scorpions lurking about but I don’t think I need to worry too much about them in my room. Nonetheless, I try to make it a practice to shake out my shoes before I put them on.

The author at work in his clean, well-lighted room.The result of my room sweep is a clean and well-lighted place, as Hemingway preferred. I organized my gear, stacked my books, stacked my notebooks in another pile, made my bed, organized my clothes in their cupboard, washed my clothes, and washed the desk and coffee table with a baby-wipe. It’s beginning to feel like a home, although a very foreign and modest one.

***

I’ve entered a new phase of my trip, which is quite different than the first month. I have entered a phase where I am more living than traveling. It’s not quite as exciting and fast paced and I’m definitely not meeting as many people. I could leave what I’m doing at any time and begin traveling, but I do find listening to MC, observing him, and learning about his career quite fascinating. It’s not every day you get to work for someone who has the attention of governments and world leaders. He has a grand vision for creating an International Climate Change Center underneath the umbrella of the Mehta Foundation and I am helping him write some grants. Other things on his radar are plans to attack cancer, climate change, and population control in India, first by creating studies and data, then through litigation. These are the three issues I am working with him on at the moment. The first grant proposal I’ve created is nearly complete and is about the correlation between the rise of development and the rise of cancer in India, which I will post when it’s complete. If you know anyone or any foundations that can help, please pass them on to me or drop me a line.

The gist of the cancer study is that 30-40 years ago, India was an agrarian culture and cancer was all but non-existent. As India moved from a “developing” to a “developed” country, mass migrations of people moved about the country and life spans for men and women were improved. What also happened, however, is that the Indian diet changed drastically and industries began polluting the environment, rivers, and the water table, and essentially the food chain with the introduction of lethal insecticides and pesticides, including Endolsophan and DDT. “We copied a western model that does not work for us,” MC said.

These insecticides and pesticides, which have been proven lethal and cancer causing, are still being used because the laws are antiquated and promote business over protecting the farmer and the consumer. It does not help that I’m learning how corrupt the entire system is in India and how widespread mafia control is.

Why don’t the police or government just come in and put a stop to all of it? I naively asked. Because they are all getting a piece of the pie.

I find it rather interesting the national issues India is wrestling with as they develop. We have countless problems in the West as well, but despite the fact that India is becoming a world power and one of the strongest economies in the world, they are dealing with many issues we take for granted, or at least that we have started to tackle some years back, namely environmental protection and conservation. I’m not a doom and gloom person, but we as a world have a long way to go, and from what I am learning, perhaps not as much time as we think if we don’t get it together and act. The repercussions are going to be serious if we don’t all act collectively and we are going to see some unfortunate things in our lifetime. I don’t want our kids or grandkids to say, “They knew all about these things that were going on. Why didn’t they act?”

Rishikesh, Part II

Garden's at the boss's house. Bad lighting and the picture does not do it justice.I was only supposed to be in Dehradun for 3 days, but since MC was so busy, that turned into 5. On the fifth day, MC picked me up at my hotel and we drove around Dehradun for some time running errands and picking up things for the ashram. We wound up back at his house, which his wife’s parents have had in the family for many years. It is a beautiful 150-year-old house from the British colonial era. They have a small orchard on the property, a few farm animals, and many beautifully manicured gardens. At one time it was surrounded by nothing but orchards, however, ever since the state was split in two and Dehradun was declared the capital of the new state, rapid growth, development, and sprawl—in collaboration with zero city planning—has pushed the sprawl of Dehradun to the Mehta’s back door.

I unexpectedly had a late lunch with MC, his wife, and his 26-year-old daughter. It was interesting to see a subdued MC in this environment. Perhaps he was just running through all the things that he had to do in his mind, or more likely he was just simply exhausted.

His wife was very well educated and informed on the politics and corruption of India, and her artwork adorned the house from the days when she studied art in Paris. Her father was an ambassador to the United Nations, and so she spent her formative years from about 2-16 in New York City. It was fascinating just to hear his wife and daughter speak and debate about Indian politics and the elections that had just taken place, several of which knocked people from the seats of power they occupied for more than 30 years.

After lunch, since MC had to go to Delhi the following day, I elected to go to Rishikesh rather than the Ashram, and so he had his driver take me to the bus where he would wait with me until I got on the bus. As I have stated, I hate the traveling part in India. I like more the being part.

When we got to the bus stop, I said a silent prayer in which I said more or less, God, send me an angel to get me to Rishikesh safely and easily, whether it’s someone sitting next to me who knows what they’re doing or someone who can get me to where I need to go. Not two minutes later, a car pulled up, rolled down the window and said, “Rishikesh?” I got in the car and got a ride to Rishikesh for 50 rupees (a little more than a dollar), which was about 20 or more kilometers away for. Of course when he dropped me off within a stone’s throw of The Divine Ganga Guesthouse, he hit me up for another 50 rupees. He said more or less, “I thought you meant to the center of Rishikesh, not Laxman Jula.” Since I didn’t have any change, and since I was fairly satisfied with the ease of my journey, I gave him the 100 rupees, which is about $2.25. Travel in India is cheap, but it usually comes at a cost. The thing I dislike the most about India so far is that you are quoted one price (whether it’s a taxi, a hotel, etc.) and when you get there, they change their story and up the price. Most of the time you are arguing over dollars, but it’s not the money—it’s the principle and the feeling of being cheated you are left with.My residence, The Divine Ganga Guesthouse, while in Rishikesh.

When I got settled in my room, since I knew Maria was back in town from McLeod Gange, I went and found her. We caught up for a while and then she asked if I would like to join her at a nearby ashram for sadsang, which is morning and nightly prayers and chanting. It was a great welcome-back t o Rishikesh experience and full of joy and good vibes. We sat for about an hour—the men on one side and the woman on the other—meditated on and off, and just enjoyed the positive energy. Afterward we went to dinner and Maria told me that within the complex where we were there was a holy man who is considered a saint. She was meditating outside his room one afternoon when someone brought her inside to meet him, and from him she received a mantra. The man is very old and it is reported that most of his organs don’t even work anymore, so he is bed ridden. She asked me if I wanted to meditate there the next morning and so we agreed to meet up around 7:30am.

The following morning we sat in meditation outside his door. Being but a child in the ways of meditation, my mind drifted, imaging what the old man inside looked like. In that instant, as if a light switch was flicked on, my mind took me down a path I was not planning on going; my mind took me to where I was exactly a year ago.

A year prior I had just returned to Seattle after a visit to New Jersey to say goodbye to my mother. Sitting in meditation, I was an observer and I could see and feel everything I was feeling when I spent those last three visits with my mother. The fact that it was May was not even in my awareness, but it was as if my subconscious wanted me to confront this fact. With my eyes closed, I sat with these images for about 20 minutes as tears of nostalgia and longing streamed down my face; longing for the comfort, security, and companionship of the wonderful mother I knew before Parkinsons and dementia ravaged her body and mind. The experience knocked me off of my center for a bit and I finally brought it up to Maria over breakfast. It was good to get it out of me and share it with someone. Maria also sat with me that evening and watched a slide show I had put together for my mother’s memorial service. As sad as I was, it also felt really good to have her memory and presence so close to me while in the middle of India.

Back to the story. After an hour or so of sitting outside this holy man’s door, devotees began showing up and a small procession was allowed to walk through the his room. The saintly man stared off in the distance as if in paralysis or a trance, and one by one we were allowed to see him. One by one we knelt before him, touched his foot over a blanket, and asked in our hearts for his blessing.

Over the course of the next 2-3 days, Maria and I had a good time swimming and lounging and it was good to reconnect with someone with whom I had already had a connection. The time went by quickly, however, and once again it was time for her to leave. Once again someone was the pinball and I was the bumper.

Random night with three Israeli girls and a little yogi. This was taken with a flash in the pitch black because the power had just gone out.I met various people the next few days. Maria and Deanna were from Columbia and we spent a day and a half together, one of which included rafting down the Ganges. Another night I met 3 Israeli girls at the Little Buddha Café, and we wound up meeting a little yogi with high energy and enthusiasm who invited us into his ashram to have a smoke. It was a large structure and we followed him down into the belly of the beast until we wound up on steps that lead us to the foot of the Ganges. We could barely communicate with him but he was earnest and eager in his gestures and badly-broken English. We sat in his smoke room hanging out until the lights went out. When our time with him was through, we went back to the girl’s guesthouse to listen to music. I was having a good enough time and tried to introduce them to the National and some newer Radiohead, but when they connected their iPod and USB memory stick to play some of their music, that’s when it was lights out for me. “I have to go,” I replied. “I have a Skype conference call with my boss,” which was mostly true. The actual truth of the matter, however, was that I’m a self-admitted musical snob and I couldn’t handle their crappy music!

The in-between days when I had no one to pal around with, I explored the outskirts of Rishikesh and found a nice, secluded beach where I swam, read my book, and napped. It was secluded that is, until a couple of drunken Indian guys from Delhi showed up. One of them had been living in Australia for the last four years.

“Man, we were partying in Delhi and we just said, what the fuck! Let’s go to Rishikesh,” the leader said in his Indian/Australian accent.

Chillen on my not so secret beach.They had driven drunk for six hours from Delhi to continue the party in Rishikesh, which incidentally is a dry town. There are many things to smoke in the town, however, and they were imbibing, but I guess they had also brought liquor from Delhi. The leader of the group proceeded to tell me about how much he loved women and their anatomy, but I will not elaborate on those details for the fact that many fine, young ladies are reading this. The last two or three days I met a girl from Toronto, Canada and we just hung around town, swam, and took walks to Ram Jula (the part of Rishikesh that the locals inhabit). I also showed her some of the sites I had uncovered, such as my semi-private beach, and we drank Lemon-nanas and played Yahtzee.

On the last night I was trying to play a video on my camera but couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. She began fiddling with the buttons and one such button switched the camera from the memory card to the hard disk. It was Saturday of Memorial Day 2011, and the pictures that showed up—pictures that I had no idea were on the camera—were from Hood River, Oregon, on exactly the same day, May 29th a year prior. It was on this day that my friend Chris Brookfield planted the seed in my head of going to McLeod Gange, India.

***

One of two places I have my daily smoke break.I was never a smoker and don’t plan on becoming one, but one of my few routines at the ashram is to sit outside my cottage door at 6pm, roll a cigarette, put on my India Sunset playlist I’ve been creating, and watch the sunset.

The following day I was out at the Ashram listening to my iTunes on random, searching for new songs to add to the playlist when a song I wrote came on. It was with the band I played in back in Seattle some years ago. (I mentioned the song in another entry.) The version of the song was from a practice session and it put a wide smile on my face as fond memories of creating something with some of my best friends washed over me. I went to my computer to find out when the practice was from and lo’and’behold—it was from exactly the same day, May 30th, in 2007. I remembered it because it was the Monday night after Memorial Day weekend.

I’m sure I could write five esoteric pages on these events but I’ll spare you; because chances are they would probably only make sense to me.

When it comes down to it, there’s not much you can about occurrences like this.
It just kinda makes ya’ think,
it just kinda makes ya’ smile,
sometimes it makes ya’ think you’re on the right path,
and sometimes it just kinda reminds ya’ of how far you can travel in a year or four.

Friday June 3, 2011

Saturday
May282011

10. The Prana of the Ganges

“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet. We sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” - Visions of Johanna, Bob Dylan

(This was written in pieces over the period of many days.)

May 10, 2011, 7:14pm

I’m sitting on the banks of the mighty Ganges as dusk settles upon Rishikesh. A haze of heat hangs over the river valley muting the sun's intensity and softening the edges that normally contrast the mountains, the river, and the horizon. The air is heavy and still as if a storm may rain down upon us later in the evening. A cool breeze slithers through the valley, snaking its way between the mountains, and for a moment the oppressive temperature drops a few degrees.
Sunset at the Eco Ashram

It is the hour when Indians gather on the banks of the Ganges. Indian men and woman wash themselves or come to pray, tourists dip their feet in the mighty river, and still others seek the stillness of meditation. Foreign chants of ages old drift across the river from temples on waves of sound, then continue down the valley. Pujas (offerings of flowers, incense, and candles) float down the river and above me upstream, pedestrians, motorcycles, cows, and monkeys move across the narrow, wire-framed Laxman Jula Bridge. As if held in place by the strings of an invisible diorama, a fingernail of a moon hangs directly above the town. In this hour, insects come for a drink of life only to find their own extinguished by feeding fish, and the great Prana of the Ganges inhales and exhales a timeless breath into all who inhabit its shores.

For the first time since I arrived in Rishikesh six days ago I’m truly alone. I’m sure this may get old to you, my dear reader, but not a day has passed where I am not completely amazed that I am living the life I am living. Perhaps it is simply a byproduct of the hyper-awareness that comes with traveling in a land that is so foreign to one’s native country. It’s as if you are so completely engaged in the present moment that you become the present moment, moving beyond the self and into a character in a novel or a part of the landscape in a painting. From the vantage point where I sit by the Ganges this evening, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. It’s as if I have been lead here by some divine GPS system—to India, to this moment, to the people who I have met and who have influenced me, to the experiences I have had.  

***

My time in Rishikesh has been a blur. It just so happened that the crew I was hanging out with were all staying in the Divine Ganga Guesthouse and so it felt very much like college or summer camp as we moved from one dorm room to the next, stopping by just to say hello and to see how each other’s day was going. We would convene at various points throughout the afternoon in someone’s room to make a plan for dinner, which most nights involved the Little Buddha Café, an open-air restaurant with a thatch roof that looks down upon the Ganges.

Three of the six of my crew left yesterday, and tomorrow I will be moving on from Rishikesh. The road calls me onward but I could spend a lot of time here. I did not want to leave McLeod Ganj and here I am in Rishikesh, and now I don’t want to leave here. These places could have been just any old town on a map if it were not for the friendships I’ve forged, which have made McLeod Ganj and Rishikesh not just destinations, but homes for the time I have inhabited them.

To rewind just a bit, I just have to say that the train ride to Rishikesh was miserable. To begin with, I had never ridden on an Indian train. Sleeper Car rang out Amtrak to me, but nothing could have been further from the truth. To add insult to injury, I was under the impression that I had a full sleeping berth all to myself, but in fact, since my ticket was not confirmed (I’m still not sure how to do this), I had to share my sleeping birth with someone else—and her son 8 year-old son.

To get to the train from McLeod was a beautiful, leisurely 3-hour drive through many landscapes I had not yet seen, from jungles to tea farms to scorched earth and dried riverbeds. I took a taxi that Gasha and Palla had arranged through their friend. When I arrived at the Chakki Bank train station in Pathankot, they told me to check the board so as to find out what car and seat I would be in. I was expecting some digital board that you might see in Penn or Grand Central Station, but actually—it was literally a roster nailed to a board, a print out from an old-school printer, perforated edges still intact.

The first train that passed was my first introduction to trains in India. The cars that were not reserved blew my mind as they had as many people as you could possibly fit into a car. It looked like a train full of cows going to slaughter. Indians were hanging out of the entrance and piled on top of each othere. Arms and limbs desperately reached out of windows as if trying to sip the last few drops of oxygen from the bottom of a glass full of air.

Gasha and Palla had instructed me not to eat or drink anything that was offered to me, either while waiting for the train or while on it. “They may slip you something and boom! You wake up and all your possessions are gone.” Sure enough, some slimy looking Indians were eyeing me up and offered to get me something to drink. My driver told me they were drunk, but I just stared at them stoically, doing my best to be a hard-ass. Most likely they are just curious because they don’t see a lot of white people around these parts, but you can’t help but be on the defensive when people are staring at you. I find myself in cities and while traveling in-between places on the defensive and ready to be on the offensive if need be. I’m actually a giant compared to many Indians, not only in height but the broadness of my body, if you can imagine that. I’m hoping, however, that I don’t have to ever use my ninja skills.

It was a mad rush to get on to the train and I got swept up in the panic trying to figure out what car I was in. My driver from McLeod Ganj to Pathankot was a friend of Palla and Gasha and they ordered him to stay with me until I got on the train. He had never ridden on a train before either, however, so he seemed more nervous than me. Several times he asked to see my ticket and disappeared into the crowd to check, double-check, and triple-check the board where my seat and car numbers were posted.

I spent a good part of the time on the train writing chapter 9, and spent the rest of the time fighting with a child for leg room and space, although he didn’t know I was fighting with him because he was sound asleep, sprawled out, legs and dirty feet touching, touching, touching me. Occasionally his mother would notice and wrangle the boy’s legs toward her but it wound up happening again and again that his legs kicked out towards me. And so when she wasn’t looking or had dozed off, I would push his legs into the aisle. Only once did he fall into the isle, but he was so sound asleep and startled when he landed that he had no idea I was the culprit. I could have taken him anyway if it came to fists. (Of course you know I’m joking—well, mostly. I mean, I did have about 100lbs on him and a good 16 inches. I know, I know…but what can you do? In a country of 1.2 billion people where there is no such thing as a line or a que, where many Indians seem to have little self-awareness of those around them, you have to fight for your own space.)

As a result of this all-night donnybrook between a sleeping, lifeless child and myself, I don’t think I slept a wink, and by the time I arrived at the Divine Ganga Guesthouse I had been up for nearly 30 hours. I chose the Divine Ganga Guesthouse because Garfield, my friend who was part of the documentary film crew for the Mt. Madonna School, was staying there with his friend Tom. Garfield saw me right as my taxi pulled up and we devised a lose plan as to where and when to meet up, but first I needed to rest. I hit the pillow at 9:30am and woke up around 4pm.

The rough plan was to meet Garfield at The Little Buddha Café overlooking the Ganges at some point in the afternoon. I figured I missed him so I sat down for a while, ordered some food, and did some writing. I was impressed with Garfield’s prowess because when he did show up, he had two cute girls in tow. As it turned out, the four of us formed the core of a crew who would hang out together for the next six days.

The following morning I had breakfast with Garfield. An Argentinian woman named Maria, who Garfield had previously met, showed up towards the end of our meal and she was absorbed into our conversation. As per usual, I had my own agenda for the day, which included some reading and writing, but when Garfield left us to go to yoga, Maria and I kept talking—and talking and talking and talking.

As it turned out, Maria led expeditions in Patagonia and Antarctica and is the mother of a 14-year-old daughter. Like so many other people who find themselves in India, she had an undeniable and unidentifiable calling that she could not ignore. While some teenagers can be clingy and needy, her daughter supported her in this urging and stayed at home in Patagonia with her ex-husband.

As it happens when you’re traveling, before our lingering breakfast was over, we had covered vast swaths of the territories that our lives have taken us, including the shared experience of having mother’s with Parkinson’s Disease and what that has taught us.

“Just so you know,” she said in her Argentinian accent, eyes twitching from dry contacts, “I don’t usually just tell strangers these things.”

“Well that’s good,” I said. “Because I’m not a stranger anymore.”

I had planned to meet the rest of the crew that afternoon for a walk to the Beatles Ashram, but as the protons and neutrons of Maria and my connection organized themselves, we found ourselves first having lunch together, then meandering through the crowded streets of Rishikesh, and finally on a sandy beach, where under her tutelage I took my first swim in the Ganges. Well, let’s call it more of a dip. As Martin Short said, “I’m not a strong swimmer,” and so I didn’t trust the deceiving current of the Ganges, especially since several people have told me they’ve seen dead bodies floating down the river. You must respect the Ganges; as much as it can give life, it’s currents and whirlpools can also take it very easily.

“The Ganges is supposed to purify you with its waters,” Maria said as we waded knee deep in its waters. “And so when you immerse yourself in its waters, you’re supposed to make an intention of what you want to be rid or purified of.” Each of us thought about it for a moment, closed our eyes, and made an intention. When we were both ready, we held each other’s hands and slipped beneath the surface of the Ganges in the hope and faith that when we emerged, we would be cleansed of things we both felt we no longer needed.

Maria and I went back to the Divine Ganga Guesthouse and sat on her balcony as we watched a storm come over the mountains, the concussion waves of the distant thunder becoming ever closer. We watched as sheets of rain moved through the mountains and towards us, remaining on the balcony as long as we could until we could almost feel the electricity of the lightning. When the storm shifted into high gear, the wind picked up and began blowing rain at us despite being underneath shelter, so we retreated into Maria’s room, fighting the wind to close the door.

“I know this doesn’t look good but don’t worry,” she laughed as I entered the room and she pushed the deadbolt into the locked position.

***

The next few days I spent with Garfield, from Vancouver, British Columbia, Hannah, from Brooklyn, New York, Camilla from Sweden, and Maria, from Patagonia, Argentina. Tom, Garfield’s friend who is also from British Columbia, was at a meditation retreat but joined us the last two days. He did not miss a beat when he joined our group, but I suppose that’s because we had already heard so much about him. For those few days we all spent together, we walked, we ate, we talked, we ate, we swam in the river, ate, swam in the river, and drank many, many Limon-nanas, a refreshing frozen drink made of lemon, ice, and muddled mint.

Meditation huts at the Beatles Ashram. There were perhaps a hundred of these all over the property..One afternoon, since the group didn’t make it previously, we went for a walk to find the Ashram that the Beatles made famous with a visit in 1968. Being the clueless white folk we are, we walked a few kilometers past it on a remote jungle road, the only inhabitants we passed being monkeys. And of course, being clueless white folk, we set out in the height of the day’s heat and failed to bring with us any water. After walking and walking up hills we were each within a few hundred feet of saying “screw it” when a police truck passed us. We flagged them down and luckily they offered to drive us to the Ashram. Now normally I don’t feel too comfortable in the back of a squad car, but as good fortune would have it, I was just a lost tourist and didn’t have the bracelets on me.The artist's rendition. I think it speaks for itself.

The police dropped us off near the ashram and when we finally found it, we had to pay 50 rupees to get in (a little more than a dollar).

At one point, with not much more than dust lining our throats, Garfield said, “You know what would make this place awesome?”

“What’s that?” I replied.

“A Starbucks,” he said.

“I could definitely go for a Frappuccino right now,” I replied. “You know what would be even better?”

“What’s that?”

“If there was a parking lot so we could have driven here.”

***

Exactly one month to the day of arriving in India, I once again met up with M.C. Mehta. I was to meet him at a hotel in the outskirts of Rishikesh, which he instructed me should cost no more than 50 rupees to get from my guesthouse to the hotel. As it so happened, when I went to the Virkam stand (eclectic rickshaws) they asked me to pay 400 rupees. I made a fuss and immediately displayed my dissatisfaction.

“Are you kidding me? The hotel was going to charge me 150 rupees.” To which I expected some sort of negotiation, as is the way in India.

“Then go! Go back to the hotel!” he said aggressively to me. Not how I imagined our exchange would go. Note to self: lose the angry, defensive posture, speak softly, and smile.

I was a sweaty mess at this point and decided these bastards weren’t going to get the best of me, and so in 100+ degree heat, I headed back to my guesthouse, backpack and possession in tow. (In hindsight, this giant pain in my ass was the difference of about $4. It’s the principle though.)

And so I went back to the hotel in a huff to call a Vikram, which as it turned out took 45 minutes to arrive. In the meantime, M.C. was calling and texting to tell me he was there and to inquire as to where I was. I think it was more out of concern than impatience, though his wife was also sick and in the hospital, not to mention he is a man of strong demand. In the past few weeks there have been large protests in Hardiwar to protect the Ganges, a holy city right on the Ganges. MC is a figurehead and leader to these activists and is always asked to speak or lead.

When the Vikram finally arrived, after the hotel attendant called three people because they said they would come in 5 minutes and then never came (such is the way in India), I jumped in the Vikram and we drove past the Virkam stand where I had been rejected. It took every, EVERY ounce of restraint I tell you, not to yell out “F*%K YOU!” But the look of disappoint on their face as I passed—that they challenged me and lost my business—was rewarding enough. I simply smiled at them and gave them a taste of their own medicine; the infamously ambiguous Indian head bobble.

I have to say that the only uncomfortable moments of my travel so far have been when I am actually traveling. My feeling and excitement level each time I move from one place to the next is like that of a rising stock. For instance, the longer I stayed in Rishikesh or McLeod, the higher the stock climbed, but each subsequent time I moved, the stock takes a massive hit. It’s not so much the fact that I have to move on; it’s more of getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and the adjustment period that ensues. I suppose with a little more time and distance, these uncomfortable moments will be fond memories and growth points, but right now they’re more like a pimple inside one’s nose; somewhat painful and hard to get to.

***

Judging from M.C.’s office in Delhi, the Eco Ashram is what I would expect from an environmentalist who has won not one, but two equivalents to the Nobel Prize (The Magsaysay Award in 1997 and the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1996). He also recently had a documentary made about him entitled, “The Man Who Saved the Taj Majal”. The Eco Ashram is low impact, low energy consumption, and bare bones. The first day I arrived, I said to myself—as I usually say when I find myself in a new situation—what have you gotten yourself into this time?

 

This walk is quite long on a moonless night.After getting to know one another over dinner, I retreated to my room on a very dark night. It was only about a 200-yard walk from where we ate and where Myrium’s room and the kitchen were, but in the pitch black it felt like an eternity. It is a wild place where the Ashram is, surrounded by forests and mountains. A while back M.C. had said something about leopards and elephants in the area, and so as I was walking to my room, I was expecting to see gleaming eyes looking back at me. (It’s also noteworthy that the road leading to the ashram goes through a national park and the road is closed at night because elephants have been known to surround cars, pull out the drivers, and use their trunks to kill them by slamming the people into the ground.)

I stayed up that night working on a first draft of the third podcast. No sooner had I put my head on the pillow around 1am than the wind picked up and whipped through my room. I closed the windows as the distant thunder grew ever closer, followed by rain and more wind. The power had gone out and I curled up in a ball underneath a mosquito net—headlamp next to me—watching the flashes of lighting through the outline of my thatched and slate roof. As the storm picked up I began to hear the slate tiles ripping off and so I curled up tighter into a ball and tried to protect my head. At one point, the wind blew open my door bringing the storm into my room and causing me to jump out of bed. It also just so happened that earlier in afternoon, one of the workers had peeled back part of the slate to tie up the mosquito net, and exactly where he did, which was right above me, the roof began to leak—directly onto my forehead. I moved the bed and settled in for the night, half expecting either a Tiger to jump into the room or Thor to kick the door open and split me in two with a lighting bolt. When the storm finally died down around 3:30am, I was wired, so I took a half a xanax and slept until 11am the next morning. No matter. There is not much to do at the Ashram except relax and read.

 

Friday, May 13th, Eco Ashram

Tonight, for the first time since I have been at the Eco Ashram, I ventured out in the darkness of night into the courtyard outside my room—all of 20 feet, mind you. I rolled a Drum and smoked it down while looking out in awe at the monochromatic night; the half moonlit landscape in the foreground, the silhouettes of the foothills in the background, and the sparkling diamonds of the Northern Hemisphere above me. And I feel very peaceful. There is no anxiety within me (at least for tonight), but rather on this evening I am a reflection of the stillness of the night. I am a part of the painting. I have no uneasiness about the future or the past—just the contentment and ease of the present moment. Since I have been in India, I find when my mind wanders to the fictitious place of the future or the written story of the past, I have been able to view it with detachment, like watching a movie. Perhaps that’s an outcome of age, maturity, or a lot of work to control the mind and its wild, unpredictable emotions. When I do become so engrossed in that movie and it takes me too far to one of those places, I try to adjust my inner tuner and bring it back to the present moment. It’s kind of like using an electric tuner to tune your guitar; you make adjustments until the needle comes to the center, letting you know the strings are no longer too flat or too sharp.

As I sit here tonight somewhere in north India beneath a waxing moon, for some reason my thoughts drifted to a spring night in Baltimore when I was a senior in college. There was nothing special about this night, in fact it’s a scene that’s played itself out countless times in my life—and I can’t really tell you why my mind drifted to this particular scene. But I remember standing in front of the mirror for a long time having no idea who the person staring back at me was. I wondered why he was here, now, in this body, born to the parents he was born to, in this particular part of the world, why he had the brother and sisters he had, why the people who were a part of his life were a part of his life. I wondered what life held for this young man whose inner sadness was dense, heavy, physical, and real.

The person staring back in the mirror wanted to take off into his future like a rocket, fueled by an inner thirst for truth—his individual truth and the truth of the singular intelligence that united of all life. He wanted to see the world, drink voraciously from the cup of experience, but the present moment felt like shoes of concrete keeping him firmly rooted to the earth. When I look back on that person, I can see that beyond the trials of having a mind over which he had no control, it was the present moment he feared most.

I don’t know if that inner sadness that accompanied the present moment was something that was born of nature—passed to me through the DNA strands of my ancestors; if it was nurture—an experience a highly sensitive kid internalized; or if it was simply the first moment of self-awareness, when consciousness determines that it is separate from what is. Regardless, I seem to have outgrown that sadness as I have gotten older, shed it as a chrysalis sheds its former self—or perhaps the better word choice is "transforms," because only when the caterpillar wraps itself in a cocoon and looks within can it find the inner strength to transform to a butterfly, and only when it finds that form is it truly free.

All of the questions that haunted me from when I began writing at 17 through my late 20s or early 30s were like memories of a dream from the night before—a series of hazy, nonsensical images that were familiar but distant, arising from the subconscious to give me clues about my life. I think the difference between that younger person and the person I am at this moment in my life is a growing inner strength, the illumination of a light that has always been, and the recognition that my consciousness—the I that is the observer—is not separate but rather an extension of a greater consciousness, and that the world (and all who inhabit it) are part of one living, breathing organism of which each single expansion and contraction of breath may last thousands or millions of years.

***

In the stillness of nights like this, where your mind and being are in communion with nature, there’s no telling where your senses will take you. As the observer of my life tonight, I found myself stretching out my past as if I were viewing a series of stills on an old filmstrip. It made me think of something Paramahansa Yognanda said in The Autobiography of a Yogi;  “One’s values are profoundly changed when he is finally convinced that creation is only a vast motion picture; and that not in it, but beyond it, lies his own reality.” In 1930, Sir James Jeans, an English physicist, astronomer, and mathematician wrote, “The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Perhaps this motion picture we are a part of is but a thought within a dream of the Creator.

If you were the executive producer of the film of your life, how would you edit the motion picture to tell your story? There is a structure and story arch to each of our lives, a rise and fall of action, perhaps a singular climax or multiple ones upon which the story is built. As I think about my story tonight and how much more is to be written, I think about the structure that holds it all together. The structure is the relationships of my life—some that are gone, such as my parents and the people and relationships I have lost along the way—but mostly tonight I’m thinking about my family and friends. Tonight, in the darkness of this Indian night, I can feel all of your light.

***

Light. While I am not a physicist, among the billions of physical laws of the cosmos, perhaps the most mysterious is light. I’m sure my limited knowledge of the universe is outdated, but from what little I know of the physical laws of the cosmos, unlike sound waves, whose transmission requires air or other material upon which to be carried, light waves pass freely through the vacuum of space. At the center of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, he proved mathematically that light, moving at 186,300 miles per hour, is the only constant in a universe of flux. The only other constant I can think of is the mystery of why we’re all here. Marconi, the great inventor said, “The inability of science to solve life is absolute. This fact would be truly frightening if it were not for faith. The mystery of life is certainly the most persistent ever placed before the thought of man.”

As my travels—and the corresponding experiences that are born from the experience of my travel arise, I am falling more deeply into this mystery, and unlike that young man who was so burdened with questions so much larger than himself, who looked in that mirror in Baltimore and had now idea who he was, I’m comfortable with my place in the mystery, for I know I am not separate from the mystery, but a part of it. This is no great secret, and perhaps the ancients were more familiar with it than we are, but somehow along the way we lost the truth. Some things in life can’t be known through science and experience, and that is where the miracle of faith becomes alive. I just read something the other day that said, belief is what man thinks is perhaps truth; faith is what man knows is truth.

***

The innocence of childhood is a beautiful vessel. It’s the law of life and experience that somewhere along the way, that vessel begins to crack, and eventually it shatters and breaks down, and we as adults (or sometimes earlier) are forced to figure out how to put the pieces back together. As I get older, settle into this body and this world, and begin to put the pieces back together to create a new form, I no longer feel the need to figure out the mechanistic structures of creation; instead I am merely engaged in a playful game with a conscious universe that is aware of its own creation, a universe that responds to the creations of Its Creation. As the part of creation that has been given the most highly evolved brain of all species, we have been given the gift of thought, feeling, and emotions, and these intangibles are the foundation of our reality—they are what dictate the strength, creative potential, and ultimately the response of the interactive universe.

When I was a child, my mother used to warn me to guard my thoughts. She said that you can sin simply by thinking impure thoughts. These words came from the worldview of very fearful Catholic woman—and thinking I knew more than she did, I scoffed at her. But in her devote wisdom she was on to something. At its most simple element, our thoughts are part of the law of attraction; like attracts like—what we put out in our thoughts—which is wave energy—is what returns to us. Our thoughts, this internal drama that plays itself out, are the most creative or destructive forces of our life and reality. This is why the ancient masters and the saints of our current age say that to develop the mind and control over the ego should be one of our highest aims. I, by no means, am even close to this ideal, but merely a student in the world’s classroom, sharing what I’m learning along the way. India seems to be a very fruitful class, however.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from Sri Yukteswar, yogi and master to Paramahansa Yognanda. “There is a deeper astrology not dependent on the testimony of calendars and clocks. Each man is part of the Creator, or Cosmic Man; he has a heavenly body as well as one of the earth. The human eye sees the physical form, but the inner eye penetrates more profoundly, even to the universal pattern of which each man is an integral and individual part.”

 

 

Sunday
May152011

Podcast 3: Soundscape of McLeod Ganj featuring Juliana, Gasha, and Palla

Chillen with my boys Gasha and Palla on the steps of their store.I decided to devote the third podcast of Tales of Urban Living to the sounds of McLeod Ganj. If you have ever visited McLeod Ganj, no doubt a few of these sounds and songs will be quite familiar to you as they are constantly played on the streets and in many shops. I hope you enjoy it, as I thoroughly enjoyed creating it and thinking about my time spent there with my new friends.

As you'll find in the three conversations that weave throughout this soundscape, conversations about God and spirituality are something that people speak of quite often in India. These conversations are not reserved for an hour or two on Sunday, such as in the west; they are a part of every day life. Whether you are Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist, a part of your daily life is designated to prayer. Perhaps it is the mystical quality of the land or perhaps it is just engrained in a culture that has produced saints, mystics, and holy men for milleniums.  

Mountains above McLeod Ganj.The first other-worldly sound you will hear after the opening song is the chanting of monks outside His Holiness, The Dalai Lama's Temple, in protest of the Chinese Government. Other things you will hear in this podcast include:

  • Palla's thoughts on the day Osama Bin Laden was killed, as well as on President Obama
  • Juliana, a Brazilian model and actress turned lawyer
  • The Dharamkot waterfall
  • Palla and Gasha discussing hospitality, girls, Kashmir, and Islam
  • A candlelight vigil of monks and Tibetans praying for their fellow people 
  • My 20-year-old friend who is teaching himself guitar
  • Tibetan children's from the Tibetan Children's Village performing traditional songs
  • Street sounds and street music
  • Car horns and traffic, which there are a lot of in McLeod Ganj

Music: Lit Up by The National

 

Monday
May092011

9. On the Train From Pathankot to Rishikesh

“You were sewn together with a tapestry of molecules, a billion baby galaxies and wide-open spaces. Everything you need is here, everything you fear is here and it’s holding you up.” – No One Said It Would Be Easy, Cloud Cult

The Morning
On Monday morning I went to the Green Hotel for breakfast where I broke the news to a guy from South Carolina that in a nighttime raid in Pakistan, the United States Navy Seals got Bin Laden—not far from where we were as the crow flies. Everyone seemed to be pretty happy about this, from the Indians and Tibetans to the Americans.

Since I was out of commission for several days being sick, I felt I hadn’t done enough exploring and so after breakfast I took a long hike to a waterfall about two hours away. It just so happened to take three hours because of a wrong turn, but that’s another story.

After hiking for several hours, I found the Dharamkot waterfall, a dramatic waterfall whose water source began far beyond anything you could see, and which continued to cascade down a valley carved out by a glacier many millenniums ago. Between the two towering mountains the waterfall made its way down the valley, much like one would pour champagne into a pyramid of champagne glasses; the water began at its source, filled small wading pools, overflowed, and continued it’s way down to the next set of glasses.Dharmakot Waterfall - sideways

Instead of just settling for the first pool I came across, I scooted up some boulder fields in search of the perfect wading pool and a flat rock to rest my weary body. When I finally found the spot, I laid out my things to settle in for a few hours of relaxing. No sooner had I gotten into the icy glacial run off—helplessly barefoot and vulnerable in my underwear—than a huge eagle appeared above me. It swooped through the canyon in grand circles, specifically circling me. Then it would catch a breeze and hover above me, leering down at me with the eye of a Predator Drone. Again and again it made giant sweeps of the valley like an airplane in a holding pattern and I was the airport.

I did not want to take my eye off of the small pterodactyl because there was no telling what it might do in its defensive state. We were engaged in a mental battle of wills and I was half expecting him to come down and grab my bag just to mess with me, waiting for the perfect moment when my awareness of its presence lapsed.

The magnificent bird of prey was being aggressive and so I finally got its message that I was in its territory. As I was packing up, the second I let my awareness of it lapse, I felt it’s shadow come over me. He swooped down and in one swift instant of pure, calculated genius, and with the precision of a stealth bomber, dropped a massive turd on my shoulder. “What the f…!?!” I yelled jumping back, unaware of what hit me.

I put my hand to my shoulder and there, dripping down my back and neck, was the impact of the eagle’s cluster bomb. If it was not such a magnificent act of courage, defense, and instinct, I might have been bothered, but in fact I was more freaked out. OK, this bird means business. I’m outta here. As I was leaving, I saw it return to its nest where no doubt it was protecting its lineage.

A magnificent beastI dropped down to another pool of the waterfall and the bird stopped circling. Only once did he come back, which enabled me to get a picture of him. Incidentally, they say getting pooped on by a bird is good luck. The last time it happened to me I was in Saint Peter’s Square, in Rome, and that day went on to be epic, so I wasn’t too hindered or perturbed by some bird shit—or even a lot of it.  

***

When I left the waterfall a few hours later and reached the top of the mountain, I was feeling incredible gratitude and expanding joy. I could literally feel it coming out of my heart. I thought to myself – OK, so many amazing things have happened all ready. Now is the time to surrender even more. I imagined myself falling more deeply into the protective folds of the great mystery so that when the most mundane or the grandest ideas took form, I would be equally amazed and surprised. I suppose to further elaborate, what this means for me is to continue to focus my attention on opening my heart to let more possibility, gratitude, and love seep into my being. It means surrendering any fear that stands between my experience of life and my true nature. What it does not mean is the elimination of desire or want.

It also got me thinking that perhaps I need to start thinking bigger, creating bigger, removing all mental and fearful limitations so as to really put this whole experiment in surrender, creation, and mindfulness to the test. Because that is really what this journey is about for me—a grand, personal experiment in consciousness. I have no idea how it all will turn out and I don’t claim to hold the keys to the kingdom. I am simply relaying my experiences and sharing with you the thoughts of my internal world as I zip through the Indian night on a packed sleeper train from Pathankot to Rishikesh.

The Evening
The sweet light in McLeod GanjAfter a shower and relaxing in my room, I set out in the sweet light to go meet the boys at the shop for tea. There was a candlelight parade of monks and Tibetans marching through the streets and the sun’s angle was setting Tibetan prayer flags and the jagged mountain peaks that loomed over the town ablaze.

After tea, I took a walk with Palla and as per usual, every girl we passed he said, “What about her? You like her? She is nice, right? No?” Since Palla talks throughout the day to almost every girl that passes his shop, he generally already knows her story. “What about her? She is from Brazil. She is very nice. Very beautiful. She come in my shop today. Come on bruther. I introduce her,” and with that, off he went chasing down this strikingly beautiful, statuesque Brazilian woman, myself in tow.

She was nice enough to strike up some street conversation but was eager to keep walking on. A few meters up the street we came upon her again at a jewelry stand where she had met up with a few friends. It happened to be across from the boys’ shop so the next thing I know, Palla invites everyone inside. When Juliana, the Brazilian woman walked out of the shop, Palla said to her friend, “My friend here, he likes your friend very much.” I looked at him with an expression on my face that said, did you just say what I thought you just said? I’m quite sure I turned bright red because I never actually said anything of the likes. It just so happens that Palla feels the need to take my love life into his own hands. When both of the Brazilian women stepped out of the shop for a moment, Palla said, “So how did I do? You like what I do?”

“Well,” I said. “It’s not exactly my style or approach.”

Nonetheless, as fate would have it I found myself having dinner with a group of Brazilian and Portuguese men and women who were in town for two nights on a meditation tour. Now this is not exactly the type of meditation tour that you might imagine many of the hippies and seekers in this town are on. This group was part of an organization called huesa.org. They travel around to different parts of the world and meditate together to raise the vibration of that area.

Someone in Juliana’s group wanted pasta so I suggested Nick’s Italian Kitchen in McLeod Ganj. At first I wondered, what have I gotten myself into? My plan for the evening was to just go home and work and write, and instead I found myself in the middle of a group that was barely speaking English. They did their best to include me, however, and finally brought me into the fold where I learned more about what they were doing.

“We meditate to raise the frequency of places. You know how when you get a certain number of electrons together they just line up? How when something meets critical mass it takes a new form? We are doing the same thing. We are trying to align minds, so that when enough people are awakened, the tide will shift and wake up people all over the world. We have to do this now. The world is in terrible shape.”

They first started explaining to me what they were doing in a very elementary fashion, but soon realized that I too spoke the same language of energy, surrender, and creation—just in a different dialect.

“Do you want some energy work right now?” Juliana asked.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll try it. Let’s do it.” So Juliana and I turned our chairs toward each other in the middle of the restaurant and she said, “I am going to clear any blocks in your chakras, especially in your forehead and crown. Don’t worry. You’re in good hands and you have these wonderful, powerful people supporting you too. So just stare here,” she said, pointing to the place in the middle of her forehead, right above her eyes.

She closed her eyes, folded her hands, and immediately went into a place of deep stillness, while I just stared where I was supposed too. The others were focusing intently on me as well. “Try not to think. Just be open,” the group said to me. And so I did. And for a few moments, I felt the energy in my heart spinning.

(Sidebar: I just saw a rat run through the train.)

After dinner, our group splintered and Juliana and I went back to have a few smokes on my balcony. We started sharing our stories, and as it turned out, she was formerly a model and actress and I was quite familiar with one of the shows she was on. These are the situations that prepubescent dreams are made of, I thought. Only in India would my path have crossed with this woman.

After her modeling and acting career in her early 20s, she went back to school to become an attorney and ever since has been practicing in Brazil, but just recently she passed the bar in Miami. (So if there are any attorneys reading this in Miami, I know someone who is looking for a job.)

I could not have written the script for how the night evolved, from when I was having tea with the boys to sitting on my balcony with Juliana, nor could I have foreseen the places our conversations would take us.

“So many people are sleeping. It’s time for us to awaken and to remember who we are. As human beings, we are much more powerful than how we are living.”

Julian looks at her life, her being, and her purpose as a spiritual experience. “Before man, before the big bang, before everything, there was just God or whatever you want to call Him or Her. There was just pure consciousness,” she said, explaining her worldview allegorically. “God wanted to experience Himself and so He created different things to help him feel and experience his creations. The creation in which he experienced Himself the most was in human beings. Each one of us is a hand of the Great Artist. We are all God, we are all one, we are all part of a greater consciousness, and so I see God in everything.”

She continued, “My job here is to experience, to love, to awaken to the memory of who I am. I am not my mind and I am not my thoughts. I am an observer. I am a soul that is part of the eternal, and I am a part of the greater consciousness and intelligence through which all of life flows.” She then began to laugh. “I love life, I love my life, and this is where I want to be. I imagine that up there, after you die and once again become part of the greater consciousness it gets rather boring. I want to be down here creating and experiencing!”

She took a pull off of her cigarette and continued in her most endearing Brazilian accent. “Ever since I was a little girl, I asked God to let me work in the light, to let me help people here awaken to the light.” I told her how since I began writing at 17, I have asked to be an instrument of peace, and I shared with her the Prayer of Saint Francis, which was the mantra I repeated when I first began to meditate.

“There have been so many serendipitous things happening to me on this trip,” I told her. “People, chance meetings, and events are showing up everywhere in my life—like you tonight, for instance. I know at my deepest level that these meetings are not coincidences. I know they are all connected somehow, but I’m not sure how yet. The beauty of it is I don’t need to know now because I’m just along for the ride. When the time is right I’m sure I’ll see it all with clarity.”

“You know,” she said, “All of the things that are happening to you—you chose this before you came to earth. We all have chosen our paths, from the child who dies at a young age to the older person suffering from cancer. There are lessons to be learned in each of these life events, both for the individual and for those around you who you teach in the way you suffer, endure, and rise above your conditions. Maybe that child has a very short time here on earth, but he or she came to experience what they needed to experience at that part of their evolution and to teach their parents necessary lessons in their evolutions. And so the child comes back in another life to learn something different. This life is a very small thing in the overall picture of the evolution of our souls.”

“One of my favorite quotes is by a French Jesuit philosopher, poet, and paleontologist,” I shared. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

***

This is how I see an awakening occurring, and by awakening I simply mean that I believe that people everywhere are beginning to look within for the answers, as opposed to outside of them. Rinchen Kandho, head of the Tibetan Nuns Project who I will speak of shortly said, “The best thing you can do for the world, the best way you can bring about peace, is to develop yourself.”

Since I began writing at 17, I have written that the next revolution that will occur will be a spiritual revolution. The way I see it there is nowhere else to turn. We have been moving outward in a quest for resources, materialism, status, love—looking for others or something outside of us to make us happy. But in observing the current state of the world, this outward approach seems to be clearly failing us.

Critical mass awakeningIndulge me here as I have this visual in my mind of how the critical mass awakening occurs. Imagine looking at a map from space of any continent when the sun is on the other side of the earth. As night falls and darkness sweeps across the continent, you begin to see the illumination of cities, and these cities are connecting to other cities through suburbs and highways to create light. This visual is what I feel is happening in the world in terms of people tuning in to a new awareness or paradigm, whereby when we awaken to the truth within ourselves, we each become a light not only unto ourselves, but to those around us.

It’s undeniable that the tides are changing in the world at the most accelerated rate in our history. From the individual to the revolutions of the masses that are exploding throughout the Middle East, something new is being created.

The universe, or the quantum field, is an information machine. Science is beginning to merge with spirituality and it’s beginning to tell us that our thoughts actually affect our reality. We are moving from the Newtonian Model of the physics of cause and effect, to a Quantum Model, where in fact our thoughts and energy are the cause—not the effect—that shapes reality.

From our actions to our thoughts, everything vibrates with energy, and when minds and hearts tune in and turn on, it raises the vibration of our collective consciousness. Light in the hearts of men and woman are going on all over the world like cities on a map at night. I can tell you this because I am out here traveling throughout India, and I am meeting like-minded individuals from all over the world who share this sentiment. And whether they already had this point of view or picked it up here, they are taking it back to their countries.

Another image that comes to mind is that of plugging in the tiny bulbs on a Lite-Brite. I am not sure what the picture on the Lite-Brite is yet—but the best part is that I don’t have to and I don’t care. As a writer at this point in my life, I am trying to create what I can with what I have been given. I am trying to share the experience of my internal world because I know I am not special, but rather a reflection of us all. If I were a painter I would do this in images and colors, or a musician—with the vibrations of notes, sounds, and chords. But I am an artist and a writer and so I must convey what I feel through thoughts, words, and images.

I think the highest purpose of art is to bring forth the internal experience of life, to create something relatable that brings us together as human beings or enables us to have a shared experience or understanding of our humanity. We all have an internal world, which for most of us is probably more real than our external world, and yet we don’t give it much attention. Instead it spins out of control, undisciplined, wild like a stallion that has yet to be broken. It runs the show and we believe the mind to be the self. But it’s not; the self is an observer.

It is my hunch that at the core of each of our internal worlds, at the core of our beings, we are all more similar than we are different. We all want the same things; love, peace, prosperity, joy, health, and happiness—for our friends, our families, our communities, and ourselves. But I don’t think we can elevate ourselves to our highest potential as human beings unless we are elevating those around us as well. An Argentinian woman was telling me last night about the former leader of Brazil, Luiz da Silva, who is perhaps the most celebrated politician in the world. He was a truck driver, moved up through the unions, and became the President of Brazil. Brazil will host the next World Cup and the Summer Olympics and is charging forward as an economic power house because da Silva brought 30 million people out of poverty. Can you imagine that? I said to her, “I wish we could do that in the United States.”

She said, “You can not, and this is why; because you lack social consciousness.”

***

What I am trying to do at this moment in my life is to bring awareness to the people who are attempting to bring about positive change in the world, and in turn who are experiencing the same thing in their own internal world. As I surrender more deeply into this process, every day I am continuously more amazed at the beauty and complexity of this Divine Orchestration we call life.

As I said earlier, I don’t claim to have the answers, but I have a hunch the truth comes from mindfulness, slowing down, surrendering, and answering to the call of our own individual truths. In this process of developing our internal world, we recognize that we are not the voice in our heads, that maybe the voice in our head that says I can’t or I never will or I’m too scared was actually our parents voice or someone else we heard along the way, but we never slowed down to recognize that that wasn’t our own voice. Maybe you’re in a career for money or because it’s what’s expected of you, but your truth, the voice you push down that calls you into the direction of the unknown, you can’t hear because you are too busy distracting yourself.

I have a friend who explained jumping into this new shift and trusting in one’s truth like standing under a waterfall; it is uncomfortable at first, but then in the showering down upon you, you find great pleasure and relief. I liken it to experiencing a new favorite piece of music; it plants a seed in your heart the first time you hear it, but with every listen you fall more deeply into the piece. Your ears “awaken” and you begin to hear each individual instrument, you feel the power of the collective movement in the composition, and each time it takes your soul deeper and deeper into a more profound experience of the music. When you begin to fall more deeply into trust and surrender, you begin to have a more profound experience of life.

***

I have always found the great mystery of life to be the ultimate dichotomy. Under the microscope we are made up of atoms, which have organized into matter. The particular organization of this matter has created a thinking organism with the unique attribute of self-analysis. We have labeled this amalgamation of attributes ‘human beings,’ a collection of physical, mental, and emotional experiences sandwiched between two dates in history—our birth and our death.

And yet the great mystery is that we have this spiritual side as well, this connection to the earth, a connection to that from which all of life was brought forth, and from which all that is, is. All of the great minds throughout time have said in their own voice, when you feed this part of the self and nurture it with the right conditions, it blossoms into a garden of abundance. That is why the garden within must always be attended to. No matter how much you nurture this garden, each soul goes through its seasons and sometimes I have spent entire years in the bleak lifelessness of winter. In this moment, however, I am fortunate enough to be living into the metaphorical verdant vitality of spring. I know nothing on this plane last forever though, so I am enjoying it as best I can by living in each and every moment.

Between the dichotomies of the physical and spiritual, I personally feel at my deepest level that our true nature is that of spirit; eternal, immortal, pure consciousness that is connected to all of creation, that is connected to all through which the organizing intelligence of life flows—the intelligence that keeps our cells structured, our blood flowing, and our hearts beating. I feel like this body is merely a costume we wear for a while at the grand masquerade ball of life.

What is the balance or connection between these human and spiritual selves? I don’t believe it is to deny oneself, to turn your back on the earthly pleasures and renounce all that is of the flesh as I was taught as a young Catholic, and as many dogmas of religion preach. Rather, I believe it exists somewhere in the balance of the two. I am coming to the belief that the true path towards joy, which perhaps is one of the highest emotions of spirit, is something that His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama has said; “Let go of your own suffering in the service of others.” Which takes me to what I’ve learned from the impressive people I have been fortunate enough to come in contact with on this journey. 

***

Late in the morning on April 28th, I sat down at my table and looked out in gratitude over His Holiness, the Dalia Lama’s Temple. The first thing I wrote was, “Today I intend and create to meet His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.”

I did not get much beyond that thought because I realized that due to my illness, I had lost track of the days and that I was supposed to meet Ward Malliard the previous day.

Ward is a high school teacher from Santa Cruz, California, who was taking his senior class to interview His Holiness. When I realized the date, I ran to my computer, connected to email through my Tata Photon Plus, and grabbed his contact information. I called him in a panic but the call dropped twice (AT&T has nothing on India’s cell network). I finally got a hold of Ward and as it turned out he and his entourage were staying a few doors down from where I was at, The Kareri Guesthouse.

Ward was gracious enough to invite me to lunch, along with his wife and a photographer from The Santa Cruz Sentinel, Shmuel Thaler. From the get-go, the conversation was philosophical, pedagogical, scholarly, and engaging, and so I put my microphone on the table to capture all he had to say. He reminded me of a high school teacher I had named Ed Powers, who always said, “Confusion is a wonderful thing. Don’t ever be afraid of it.” I never understood the teachings of Ed Powers, or for that matter of fact, many of the dedicated instructors I’ve had in my life until I was much older. I’m sure Ward’s students will only truly understand his teachings and the power of his dedication in the future, that place that gives us the gifts of wisdom and reflection and allows us to see new perspectives on life. I suppose that is the way of the youth, however. But here I was, in McLeod Ganj, India, fortunate enough to be with the archetype of my favorite teachers in my life. Here I was in the presence of a man who is dedicated and integral to molding tomorrow’s minds, and that in itself gives me hope.

You’re probably asking yourself, how the hell did I link up with this guy?
Back in February, I was surfing around the Web and found The Tibetan Nuns Project, located in Dharamsala. After a brief survey of their Web site, I noticed they had an office in Seattle, and so I called them and chatted with a wonderful, accommodating, firecracker-of-a-woman named Susanne Peterson. Susanne asked me what I was looking to get out of my trip and I told her a little bit about what I was attempting to do. She was so accommodating that at the end of our conversation I decided to just throw something at her. “Well Susanne, this is kind of out there but since you seem to be connected, I’d really like to be involved in a documentary or a film crew.”

Photo credit: Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz SentinelSusanne thought about it for a moment, and then said, “You know, I might have something for you. I want you to contact Ward Malliard. He’s going to be taking a group of students to interview his His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and he’s going to have a film crew with him. I’ll send you his email.”

Several months later, while I was a day late for the interview with His Holiness, the following day I found myself in a van on my way up to the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) with Malliard and a group of high school students from Santa Cruz, California. It was the second time I had been to TCV and again I was impressed with the organization, both in scale and in its mission.

Ever since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1957, millions of Tibetan’s have been killed in mass genocide. This is in fact, continuing to happen, and within the past week, the Chinese invaded a monastery of 2,000 monks in Tibet. It is still unclear as to what happened there and if the monks are still alive or not. And why is this not being reported on in the western world? The world should be outraged, but it is so far removed from our daily lives that “Free Tibet” has simply become a brand and a slogan on western t-shirts that college kids and hippies seem to gravitate toward.

In the aftermath of the genocide in 1957, around 100,000 refugees followed His Holiness, the Dalia Lama, into exile in India. Among the war ravaged were thousands of orphans and destitute children suffering the psychological devastation of losing their families, their home, and their countries. His Holiness realized that the future of his people and their culture depended on future generations, so with this in mind, and out of concern for the suffering of so many children, His Holiness proposed that a special center be established for these children.

The good, dedicated, Tibetan people who are acting as foster parents at TCV are fighting to preserve perhaps one of the most important and endangered cultures on the planet. It is a culture of peace, family, mindfulness, and service, and to truly grasp what it is about you need to look no further than their leader, a self professed humble monk, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

It makes me wonder what we as Americans are preserving or pushing out into the world. Like Ward said in my interview with him, I believe that the American people are good people who want to serve, and who want to bring about positive change in the world. But our message and the bright light that once shined is being drowned out by consumerism, false advertisement, greed, divisive politics, and perhaps the greatest disservice to all of us—the media, which has an insatiable 24-hour appetite for skewing facts, creating rumors, highlighting the difference of our politics instead of those things that bring us together, and making money off of war, devastation, and tragedy.

As I was saying, TCV in Dharamsala is home to 2,500 boarders and 500-day students. Not all of these children are orphans, however. Many of the parents of these children have made the ultimate sacrifice to smuggle their children out of Tibet so that they may receive an education, because the Chinese are trying to keep the Tibetans poor, uneducated, and powerless. Across India there are more than 14,000 children in several Tibetan Children’s Villages. The weight of the separation and resulting pain from their divided family is immense, but as any Tibetan will tell you, it’s for the greater cause of Tibet.  (Click here to learn about sponsoring a child at TCV).

For the second time in a week I found myself again on my way to TCV, this time part of a cultural exchange where the senior class of Mount Madonna High School met some of the teenagers from the senior class of TCV. We first watched Tibetan children put on traditional songs and dance for us, and later there were breakout session where the Tibetan students and the American students discussed what it means to be happy and to be of service. After the breakout sessions, each group merged into one circle, where everything that was learned was discussed—something that Ward calls the “conversation of gifts.” It was truly something special to witness.

Afterward a ceremony was performed where each of us received Tibetan prayer shawls, and tea and cookies were served followed by a basketball game. I was wearing flip-flops but I couldn’t just stand by as the Tibetans were racking up points. I can’t help but not get into a game if I’m watching one, and even if I have the intent of taking it easy, my instinct and competitive nature takes over. And so I asked one of the American high school students if I could borrow his dress shoes, which were about two sizes too small. No matter. No Tibetan high school girl or boy was going to get the best of me. Now I don’t mean to toot my own horn here, but I think my addition to the team helped sway the momentum, and the Americans came from behind to pull out the victory, despite gasping for air at an altitude of 7,000 feet.

The following morning we interviewed Rinchen Kandho, the head of the Tibetan Nun’s Project. There are few people that I have met who have such clarity of thinking, poise, grace, centeredness, and hope—hope in the face of a situation that is larger than herself, larger than her culture, and larger than her government. What is at stake is the very existence of her people.

What impressed me most about her was her take not just on her people’s situation, but on the current state of humanity. “We suffer as a people from short sightedness and a lack of moral courage. If you have a voice, you must use it,” she said.

“We have wasted so much time organizing our religions and laying claim to who we are in our religions. You don’t have to call yourself a Buddhist, a Christian, a Jew, or a Hindu. Call yourself a human being,” she said. “We lose so much when we cling to ideas.”

She went on to speak of the beauty of Buddhism and its simple wisdoms, “But to be simple, you need a lot of perseverance and courage,” she said.

“It is just a fact when women are involved in movements, they last longer,” she added.

She left us with, “Choose the right partner not for money, not for fame, not for status, but for values,” which is something my mother used to always say to me.

A New Direction - Rishikesh
Without even realizing it, I had become somewhat antsy in McLeod Ganj—although the thought of leaving had never crossed my mind without having a specific reason beyond the approaching monsoon season. But I met a girl a few nights previous who had to leave India because of her tourist visa and she asked if I would be interested in going to Nepal with her. I initially turned her down and then upon closer investigation thought, why wouldn’t I? I even put it to my Facebook audience and the unanimous decision was to move on.

No sooner had I decided to head to Nepal than I hit refresh on my email and received a message from M.C. Mehta asking if I was still interested in coming to see and work with him at the Eco-Ashram. Much as the Godfather made so many decades ago, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. To be honest I have no idea what I will be doing for him. When I first spoke to him in Delhi, he said he had only told me about 2% of what he does. But to be of service is something I asked for on this journey, to use my skills as a writer for someone, a cause, or an idea, so I must answer the call, or at least explore it.

***

I am grateful for the opportunity to work with M.C., and despite this train ride being less than ideal, what I am most grateful for are the people I have been privileged to either meet or interview. I have met four extraordinary human beings. They are; Ward Malliard, educator and learner, Zoe Magoney, painter and teacher, Rinchen Kandho, head of the Tibetan Nuns Project, and M.C. Mehta, Indian Supreme Court Lawyer and Environmentalist.

These people are inspiring to me. The thing about inspiring people is that their light shines brighter than any of the conditions around them that try to cast darkness upon them, whether it’s a system, conditions we are born into, a government, or going against the way a collective group of people think. Inspiring people always also seem to answer to an inner call and vision, and in the process of finding the source within them that casts this light, they have the uncanny ability to illuminate those upon whom they shine. They also have the uncanny ability to turn the spark within us into a conflagration, and when their passion connects with like-minded people, it’s like they are throwing gasoline on the smoldering fires of those around them. There is a light that shines so brightly in these people that it can’t help but illuminate. Come to think of it, maybe that is the purpose of art—to create light that reflects, magnifies, and illuminates the darkness of this world. Come to think of it, these people are all artists in their own right.

Each one of these individuals have taught me something different; Zoe has taught me the power of initiative and gratitude; Ward has taught me humility and the importance of citizenry; Rinchen Kandho has taught me the power of hope and the strength of character; and M.C. Mehta, although I have only spent about 2 hours with him, has taught me about fortitude, perseverance, and fighting for a cause. At the highest level, there are four things these people share in common; they all radiate joy from within, they all have placed their lives in the service of others, they are all committed to their cause, and they all possess moral courage.

What is moral courage? Because it is a word I heard a lot from Rinchen Kandho and Ward Malliard. Ward said it best when he said, “Education is a practice. Part of the practice of education is learning to have a voice, because there are so many things we need to speak up for in this world; the poor, the underserved, the underprivileged. We have a voice and we have power, and we have to use the power of our voice to speak for those who don’t have power.”

Where can you use your voice? At this, one of the most important moments in history, we need smart, dedicated people to step forward and lead, from the scale of government to our communities.

Rishikesh, India
May 9, 2011

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