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« 12. Law Camp and Indian Justice | Main | 10. The Prana of the Ganges »
Thursday
Jun162011

11. The White Monster

"Far, far away from those city light, 
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 Timemight 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 forsadsang, 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 wasmostly 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

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