Thursday, September 23, 2010

heart problem, part two

I feel equal parts happy and sad, like water of the same river flowing in opposite directions. I find contentment in much the same things that trigger the movie reel of Meghan, usually leading to despair. I am lonely. Not alone, or even far away feeling, but lonely. I lack companionship in its perfect form. It was stolen along with the last bit of my happy heart.

Watching life slip from a friend's loved one in much the same manner as I have experienced doesn't do much to help stave off those sad memories. They only make
me see how the world is mostly unaffected by all of it. It keeps going, keeps spinning, either out of determination or habit, unaware of my Meghan, my friends father, your sibling or child. It doesn't care. It's all part of the game were forced to play. It's all a part were meant to play with enormous risk and what gain? I'd be lying if I said this didn't make me weigh the outcome of not continuing. It really does seem pointless, God, gods or not.

A close friend's father is dying and it's beyond a mental and emotional complication to be part of that. First, he can't get medical attention because he's an untouchable. Second, me being foreign, means that I'm as good as a doctor to my Indian friends. I had to remove his IV the other day and I've been dispensing what little medical knowledge I have left and right. Third, it's all too familiar. So much of it reminds of watching Meghan slip away. I can barely have a conversation with my friend without having to bight down on some part of the inside of my mouth to keep from crying.

There's so much here I don't understand and am constantly frustrated by. I can't walk through the market without being heckled to buy someones bag, t shirt or tapestry. This place is filthy, I mean filthy. No one has trash cans, they walk to the front door and throw everything into the street. There's cattle and pigs and mange infested dogs everywhere also throwing their waste into the streets and walkways.

Once a week some boys will come by the school with a giant net and round up a some of the stray pigs, which make horrible, murderous noises when being captured, to be slaughtered and fed to the hotel guests. The same pigs that literally sleep and eat in the open sewer gutter. Families will feed the cows cardboard and paper and let them graze in the trash, then at night those families will milk the cows and use that milk in everything they eat... then they complain about disease and birth defects.

What matters is sticking to the customs of your caste...which were invented by the uppermost caste 1000 years ago. Everyone knows it's an arbitrary system and everyone refuses to upset it. Except my friend, who is at the very bottom of this system slowly fighting his way up. Literally fighting. His family dies because of it and he gets acid thrown on him while he's riding his scooter through town.

I think I was coming here expecting to meet some wise old yogi or something that would walk me through all the things I'm dealing with and lead me on the path to mental clarity...and I feel this has only confounded it. I know my friend is having a rough time and trying to keep himself busy and I know he's frustrated that the world won't stop for him to catch his breath. It's awful to watch the hi-light reel of something that's so fresh in my memory.

I guess all this is good because it's all inescapable. I'm forced to face all of this and figure it out for myself, or just deal with it. All of this bad and hard emotional things are tempered with some good. We drive out into the desert often and that's always fascinating. Three nights ago we drove out for an hour and then abruptly took a left off the road into the dirt for another fifteen. It took me a while to figure out where we were going and then I saw these two tiny lights way off in the distance. When we got there I figured out it was his friend's cell phones they were holding up. It's that f'ing dark out there. We had a pretty amazing and surprisingly well lit meal as far from any kind of civilization as I've ever been. The sky separated from a city's light pollution is remarkable. Our only company being the snakes and scorpions and camels. Stuff like that is phenomenal to be a part of, but you're pretty quickly confronted with reality the second you start heading back to town.

There was a motorcycle crash on the one lane road, they left the bikes in the middle of the road all tangled and blood all around. They put up a strange memorial with rocks around almost looked staged. Half the car thought it was a trap. But we got out looking for people to help and one of the guys saw writing on one of the bikes and decided it was ok to leave them, because they were Muslim. Thank God they were a different religion, otherwise we'd be forced to care about them. There weren't any hurt people around, the ambulance had already come, so that point didn't need arguing, but still. Religion does awful things to people.

If my friend's dad dies, they have to shut down the school for 3 days and keep their home open for forty, so the upper caste people can come 'mourn'. It sounds nice, except the upper caste made up his custom as a way to check in on the lower castes and essentially to bankrupt them. They come into the house and snoop around and eat their food. The grieving families have to provide food for everyone that comes. These people take advantage of a horrible situation through theft and the depletion of valuable resources while the family is simply trying to bury its dead.

There's a strange perfection I've realized in all of this chaos. One single perfect note found amidst a horrible and clumsy chord. I was talking with my friend about life and death. He says we are feeling the same things and that I understand what he is dealing with. Death is not ok and never will be. It's a loss in the purest definition of the word. There is something that once made you whole, gone. My friend said that there are something akin to ghosts when people pass on. Not their physical forms or even spirits but their journey or path or life left unfinished that continues on and 'haunts' those left behind. He said that Meghan is happy and passed away peacefully because her path was entrusted to me. She knew I would continue on for her and was comforted and released by that. He kept asking me why not her brother or father or mother? The answer to those are that they didn't need it and I did. They are where they should be and don't need to find their 'key'. He said this path leads to the key, like Ali Babba's search for the key. All of this is true. His father is at peace because my friend has his path (fighting this system from the bottom up.) He knows he has to continue to get to that key. Meghan passed away peacefully. I was there, I watched it. My friend said that at the time of death they are closer to their god than the world and see things differently. They can understand things that we are unable to. Maybe this is true and maybe it isn't. Maybe more synapses are firing, maybe less, maybe different synapses are firing and people close to that time are more capable of experiencing more. Whatever the explanation, Meghan was at peace. I know it in the deepest part of my soul, I know it completely. And I believe my friend is right, she was peaceful because she knew we were all going to eventually be ok because of our paths, our direction and our eventual discovery of that either physical or metaphorical key.

I have heard and read about so many cultures that measure knowledge and wisdom in the number and severity of scars. They are all experiences that we learn from. India so far has been painful and difficult in so many different ways but each of it's tiny inflictions leave a permanent mark that will ultimately heal. These experiences are instantly jarring, but dissected and explained, or looked at from another perspective have much to offer.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Oh, heart problem"

"Oh, heart problem. After you leaving here change, head and heart change."

Last week started with that. The naturally curious kids asked many questions, including "are you married?". It was nice to be able to convey what happened, receive a genuine response and then not have to make the other person feel better about it. That was his response to my being here because of Meghan.

Why do some people so easily get it and not feel like they have to make excuses for terrible things that happen? They're surprisingly direct and understanding. They're empathetic and don't bother with sugar-coating. Sugar-coating makes things worse, as if the other person is dismissing what you're saying or trying to avoid any difficult feelings or conversation.

So, that's how it all began and it didn't necessarily make me feel like life here was going to get easier for me. Between the 10 hour days at the school, constant electrical issues and a general feeling of discomfort and isolation, I was worn out. Also the school runs 6
days a week and if possible, 7. It's also insanely hot, which is physically draining, and being India, none of these 'schedules' are set in stone. You honestly have no idea what you're going to be doing day to day.

For instance, yesterday, I was planning on being at the school at 11 (we needed to start early to get in extra long class time!? On Sunday!? Day 7!?) to teach classes all day. But, after being there for half an hour the power went out and stayed off for another 30 minutes so I decided to get food in town. I found a place that makes half decent veggie burgers that cost the same as any Indian food in town. After my meal I set to wander town and immediately ran into the school director and some out-of-town visitors. They were about to go into the desert to see an abandoned village and the dunes. They invited me along. Hmm, fight with the electricity and ineffectively teach for 8 hours or see things you probably won't ever have the chance to again? I chose teaching.
No, I didn't.

The first stop was a secret desert lake. It was pretty spectacular. It's surrounded by a roughly ten foot circular berm. Which does a fantastic job of hiding the place. The shore is littered with all sorts of fossils and the water was like glass, completely still and reflecting everything around it. Beyond the dirt berm is surprisingly lush farmland that grows millet for roughly half a mile in every direction. Definitely a peaceful way to start the tour.

After the lake we went to the highest point in Jaisalmer district, which has a hindu temple on top. Near the temple is an entrance to a cave with a tunnel that goes all the way back to the city(35 km of tunnel) that the priests used to use and could apparently ride a horse inside. The entrance we saw was maybe two feet high. Maybe. Legends
are fun though right?

From the temple we went to the dunes. I've seen dunes before, both beach and desert, but these are really impressive. They rise almost out of nowhere. We were in the seemingly endless craggy desert, full of huge sandstones, random bushes, dirt and then all of a sudden you're standing on top of a windswept dune staring at infinite sand (which is still oddly the same color as the rest of Jaisalmer). The wind lines are so perfect, almost like millions  of snake-like wood carvings. 

In the distance, I saw a caravan of camels, whose tracks look strangely like a horsehoe crab minus the tail pressed into the sand. The colors perfectly complement each other, puffy white clouds, super rich baby blue sky, dusty green trees and cactii (officially the first time I've been able to write that word into a sentence), and expansive rusty colored sand. If they were clothes, it'd be a pretty solid outfit.

Speaking of clothes, I've been wearing the same ones the entire time I've been here. One pair of pants because shorts are inappropriate for teachers and jeans sound like a pretty awful burden, and two long sleeve shirts, again with the short being sort of inappropriate and the less tattoos I show the easier it is on me. So, I probably smell bad and I'm constantly wet. I've never sweat so much in my life. I drink an astronomical amount of water everyday (close to 7 liters) and I'm constantly sweating. It's so strange. I wonder if the Indian people are equally as affected, they don't seem like it?

Back to the desert. From the dunes we drove to the place I spent my first night for some tea and to drop off supplies. I got to see another sunset in the desert and again with the crazy star show all in less than half an hour.

Now, double-back to the conversation at the beginning of the week. Before I came I didn't really know what to expect in terms of healing or learning but I definitely didn't expect sage advice from the mouths of children. Having an existential conversation with an 11 year old will quickly alter your way of thinking and since the first day I think I
stopped missing the forest for the trees kind of thing. Yes, this place is filthy and hot and smelly and frustrating but when a kid grasps what you're going through and the journey you're on with a limited knowledge of your language, it definitely makes you slow down
and consider what is really happening. 

He's right though, I will be changed, I'm already changed and I have a lot to learn still. I have to remain willing to see beyond the striking contrast to what I'm accustomed to
and really understand or seek out how that can apply to what I'm going through. I do have a heart problem. I have the problem. It's not up to someone else to fix it, it won't magically get fixed or filled up with time. I have to work at it. I have to be here, be present and be open to helping people here and learn from them. I have to let my head and my heart change, not hold on to the grief I've experienced, not be defined by it, but be defined by the lives I've been lucky enough to experience (Meghan's) and what great lessons I've learned from them.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


The train to Jaisalmer started out just like the beginning of Darjeeling Limited. My friend brian and I literally had to run with my bags and hop onto a moving train. The ticket was confusing so I had to guess as to where my seat was. I passed a four bed cabin that was blowing AC out of the open door, hoping that any combination of the letters and numbers on my ticket matched a bed in there, but to no avail. I found bed number 12 which I thought was on my ticket and tried to settle in to that space. The car ran two beds high along one wall the length of the car with rows of two running perpendicular along the other wall. All in all it slept probably 30 people in this section. Not uncomfortable looking but I definitely felt a bit exposed because I couldn't find curtains for the bunks. Oh well. I hadn't eaten in probably 6 hours and was pretty hungry and hoped they would be bringing magical Indian food down the aisles or taking orders or something. Instead, there were a few guys with kettles walking up and down the aisle yelling "domaaatozoooop". I had to ask after the fourth time...tomato soup. Eh. Also kind of scary. You never know how old it is etc etc.
The ticket checker came and told me I was in the wrong car. It was my lucky day, sort of, I was in fact in the AC blower. It was So, so cold in there, quieter and more isolated even though I had to share with 3 others. I had the top left bunk which included access to an outlet and control of a vent.
The only let downs were the lack of buffet cart still(i was getting more and more hungry as time went on) and the bed was hard as rock. Plywood is more comfortable, at least there's some give.  You have to change position every twenty minutes or so because something is constantly falling asleep. Sleep was fitful but I had 18 hours to get enough of it. Man, it was seriously a long train.
I had to jump out of the train at 4 in the morning to grab some quick snacks and jump back on before the train left. You don't have much time at all in the stations. The "coach" sections of the train are pure pandemonium. Before the train is  mostly stopped people are trying to cram into every open door. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is shoving. People climb on top of the train, people hang out the windows. Its crazy. I've never seen anything like it. There's people everywhere. Back on the train I basically slept until we got to jaisalmer.
Jaisalmer is by far the craziest place I've been. Everything from the sand to the roads to the camels to the buildings is the same shade of pinkish rust. It really does feel like the last stop on the train, the end of the line, whatever that entails. It's not scary, but it is a bit unsettling to be mobbed by 20 or so men right outside the station, asking to take you to their brother's hotel, that is far better than the other taxi drivers offering the same thing. It's also hot. It's well over 100 with a touch of humidity to ensure your complete lack of comfort at all times.
The town centers around a massive fort in the center. The city sort of spirals its way down to sea(or sand?) level from the hill that the fort is perched on. The maze(I know, boring metaphor but apt) of hand-built stone walkways are remarkable on their own. Everything is made of stone. Huge stone. And there's all manner of distinct people milling around, dodging the cows eating out of the gutter or whatever it is they do.
It took me about an hour to make it to the school I am to be working at for the next few months. The school is amazing. It's immaculate. The three story building has marble floors throughout and old rugs everywhere. On the walls are old folk instruments, pictures and pottery. The walls are brightly painted. While we (about 10 kids and a music teacher that doubles as the rickshaw driver named Rasul) wait for the school director, Sarwar, to get there, they all treat me to an impromptu concert which all of you at some point should experience.
Everyone trades instruments constantly and sings. They mostly use the tabla (drum), harmonium (accordion like floor mini piano), finger cymbals and castanets. They all know every part of these really intricate songs and it's pretty intense trance-inducing music (don't tell the hippies about this place, they ruin everything.) All of this is incredibly exciting but the whole experience lacks someone to share it with.
I am very aware of how alone I am here. Almost every here experience reiterates my sense of isolation. I miss Meghan a lot and I wish she were here to share this with me. Taking her memory to these far off places isn't enough. I find that she's the only one I want to talk to about everything I'm experiencing and how far off and strange it all is. I'd love to see her reaction to the camels and cows and goats and pigs roaming free in the city.
She wouldn't be able to control herself at the sight of the school rickshaw packed to the brim with the kids from the music school, all completely content in everything they're doing. I think that is one of the first lessons I'm to learn on this portion of the trip. To be content and not always looking for something bigger and better.
There's a line in one of my favorite songs Brian and I were blasting in the back of his car in Delhi the other night, that really stuck a nerve. "if I've come with all I have I've come with all I need." How many of us live like that? I'm don't, yet. I try to, with packing light, but blinking flashing light up gadgets are definitely a weakness and I tend to overdo it. I need to get away from wanting more. I need to be content with what I have and be content with giving what I can offer.  
The kids here constantly want to include me and make me feel like a part of them, there is a constant stream of black chai and instruments being forced into my hands. I know they don't have much, but they'd give beyond what they can just to make me feel comfortable and happy. Meghan is much the same. She always wanted to make people feel taken care of and comfortable. In Korea she would make me food or refill my bus card before it had a chance to run out. She wanted her loved ones to feel loved, taken care of and content.
Had I not come here, I wouldn't have had that conversation about the song or noticed how giving these children are and then related it to Meg. Meghan is slowly, piece by piece putting my heart back together with these tinny realizations of who she is and what she meant to myself and others. In my one backpack, I have more than I need to live and feel content. Get rid of what you don't need and give what you can, the benefits you reap far outweigh the junk you're keeping.  

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I cannot begin to explain how completely excited I am. This all feels so overwhelmingly right and perfect and if ever I felt Meghan's presence, it is here and today. It is hot, sticky, the roads are packed with all manner of motorized transportation and everyone is honking, but it's so right. I walked into the coffee shop and they were playing Queen. Not just any song, but Bohemian Rhapsody. If you don't understand why that's perfect you should stop reading and we shouldn't be friends.

 I wish I could somehow turn text into video or at the very least audio. This is so strangely wonderful.  The trash man, at 7 in the morning sings about picking up your garbage like it's a call to prayer. There's pigeons making that weird cooing noise that normally fosters disgust (and probably still should as I'm sure they're every bit as dirty here, as on the east coast) outside every window.

Speaking of windows, two dudes just climbed out the restaurant window onto the roof. What?! I'm in love with this. So many moustaches and deep boatneck t-shirts. Delhi could easily be the new Williamsburg. (joke, see boat-neck reference.)

Also, my meal just cost $1.20.

I spent the rest of the day walking around Parliament, outside the presidents house and Old Delhi. It was hot. Did I already say that? That it's really, uncomfortable hot. I haven't stopped sweating. I feel like when it rains in Delhi its not actual rain, it's just everyones collective evaporated sweat coming back down. It's just so thick and muggy and kind of gross feeling.

Old Delhi is really intense. It's packed with people and noisy. The streets are noticeably narrower and noticeably dirtier. This is my first encounter with the homeless and the hustlers. A lot of people are trying to sell you something or get you to give them something. There were kids wearing either tops or bottoms, but not both and some wearing nothing. It's startling and filthy but still happy? It's not instrusive so much when they ask for money or offer a ride, I understand why they're doing it. There isn't much else for an illiterate ten year old without a provider to do. You can't help but be affected.

It's hard to imagine or believe sleeping on the ground next to a goat that gets the cot, or under a tarp next to the road amidst the trash and throngs of people.  I need to clarify both trash and throngs. Trash is not cigarette butts or half a newspaper. I mean TRASH. The parking lot literally looks like a dump (side note, the taxi drove down stairs to get there!). It's unpaved and is literally, garbage. Food trash, paper trash, waste trash, rotting and nauseating trash. And throngs; Imagine an Asian subway where people are packed, forcefully, into each car. Imagine that with temperatures in the 90's and nearly 100% humidity, with constant honking and yelling and seemingly no order to the direction or flow or people and traffic.  It feels insane and so very, very alive.

People are generally happy and nice. Kids ask for money and when you say you have none they ask you to take their picture instead. You say no to rickshaw rides at most 3 times and then they pedal off. Well, they pedal forward 3 feet then are stuck again in the traffic. The traffic is mind-blowing and somewhat terrifying. There's lanes and signs which are apparently nothing more than mere suggestions. Two lane roads usually have four cars across. Traffic is composed of motorbikes constantly weaving in and out, the 3 wheeled 'autos' that are like a covered tricycle mopeds, compact cars and vans, huge trucks, cattle carts, buses, and yes, the errant elephant ( I have proof). While all of this is happening, there are also people running out into traffic to cross the road and somehow, there aren't accidents. None. The closest I came to any sort of a bump was when a rickshaw rested it's front wheel on the back of the auto I was in and I felt a slight nudge. Everyone just has this innate sense of how things work I guess and is magically hyper-aware of what everyone else is doing. It's seriously scary to someone accustomed to lights and signals and lanes and mirrors, but after a couple of minutes you get over it, or maybe just give in and see it as entertainment.

After Old Delhi, I went to the arch commemorating the soldiers who fought for the British during the first world war and hung out for an hour or so before heading back to my friends house, for a much needed shower (very, very much needed) and then nap.

Meghan would have, no doubt, felt as overwhelmed as I do. There is so much to process here. In one day so much. I could hear Meghan talking about how cute the little kids in their school outfits were, packed 8 to a rickshaw built for two. Or her suprise at a cattle cart being stuck in traffic alongside cars or the elephant lumbering down the road with motorcycles zooming all around it. And the hissing monkey! She would've lost it! It's sad that I'm doing this alone sometimes. But, I do feel at peace with this leg of my journey. I know why I'm here and I'm excited to learn. Someone asked me yesterday why she wanted to come to India and I didn't know. I don't know. That's why I'm here. I'm trying to figure that out and learn more about her. By coming here and feeling her reaction to the things I'm experiencing, I'll understand.  I know she wouldn't have expected it to be the way that it is. Some things would've shocked and appalled her. I know how much she loved Indian food and how exciting it would've been for her to have the real thing. It's fantastic, really fantastic. I'm so excited about this whole process of learning and experiencing and taking her with me to all of this. She is constantly teaching me and urging me to be better and more through all of this. I can't wait for what's next.
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