The Whisper and the Echo

Here is an offering that comes from Nic Askew, an extraordinary filmmaker, poet, philosopher and observer of life.  It struck a chord with me, especially Nic’s reference to our yearning for something already here.

A man looked for meaning. For his very place in life. He searched high and low. He’d often hear a whisper, calling his name from the other side of what seemed like a door. A door that remained hidden from his ability to see. Frustrated, he’d knock on everything that resembled a door. Turning here, and there. Turning just about anywhere. Then one day, unannounced, it opened. And he realised that he’d been knocking from the inside. And that the whisper had been an echo. The echo of his own soul reminding him that he was already home.

I have opened just such a door, a door to a much expanded sense of my place in the larger scheme of things, and I do mean larger, as in the cosmos…  I have been hearing a whisper over the past few months, or maybe it’s been years, from a place that is much bigger than I have ever imagined, far beyond our little blue dot of a world, even beyond our milky way galaxy, one of about 200 billion in our little universe, which scientists believe is only one of many. Suddenly, I am beginning to feel at home in this expansive space, hearing the echo of life connecting me to the vast unknown.  That’s the macroscopic view. How amazing!  And the microscopic is essentially the inside of that outside – as the song says, “We are a miracle made up of particles.”  When I look within, this same view greets me in miniature as billions of particles and atoms and cells, acting in harmony in the universe of my body.

The same is true of the expanded door of time.  I have been focused on ancestors lately too, dating back far beyond memory.  I was asked recently to choose an ancestral time period, where the top of the page was ‘Now’; at the bottom of the page I wrote ‘The Big Bang’.  This seemed about the right space of time to be inclusive of the evolution of our humanity from where we began, our original home.  We carry those ancestors with us, mineral and vegetable as well as animal.  After all, the trees and rocks have ancestors too.  Sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon with an anthropologist several years ago, he pointed to a narrow band of black schist. “That is the first Grand Canyon.”  And who knows how many other Grand Canyons there have been, or how many other big bangs for that matter.

Wow!  I have to start including much more of what is already here, much more of who and where I am, my ancestry in time and space.  It both gives me a sense of my smallness in the big picture and also creates an urgency to protect this extraordinary experiment in life that I am and we are.  Welcome to this home!

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We are on our way home, tired and full of the wonders of Asia: Japan, India, Nepal and now South Korea, it has been a grand tour and adventure. It did not occur to us when we were making our plans that we were bookending our tour of historical India and Nepal with these two very modern cities. The contrast has been remarkable.

Like Tokyo, Seoul is a huge capital metropolis full of modern skyscraper architecture, an incredible transportation system of subways and trains, and some beautifully preserved history. We are staying in Meongdong, the fashion district, a tightly packed neighbourhood with hundreds of shops, restaurants and department stores, many multi-storied. Seoul is a city of young beautifully turned out people, obviously very interested in the latest fashion and willing to pay for it.

And it seems also interested in tradition, at least the young women. While visiting the Joseon period palace, a huge complex of intricately decorated and designed 18th and 19th century courtyards, temples and rooms, we saw hundreds of young women in colourful traditional Korean dress, each with a small matching purse. There were also a few young men in period garb. At first we thought they were docents but the cameras and Adidas gave them away. We were told they rented the costumes called hanbok to be photographed by their friends with the palaces as a backdrop. The women’s handbags were the perfect size for cell phone cameras!

We were helped by several people who went out of their way to give us directions. One man in a business suit approached us and asked where we were going. We had thought we would walk but he said we must follow him and led us into the subway where he waited while we fumbled with buying a ticket. He then came with us to the transfer point, again assisted us with the tickets and saw us onto our train. He seemed very concerned that we get safely where we were going. We were very appreciative and a little surprised at his interest and generosity.

We also met several people from Vancouver who were returning that day, making us long for home even more. We will soon be back to our routines but with many wonderful memories of our Asian explorations. Some say you travel in order to appreciate home and that is certainly true for me!

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The Five Imperatives

As we began our road trip from Delhi to Agra a month ago, our guide told us drivers in India need five things: good eyes, good brakes, a good horn, good luck, and lots of patience. Now, as I reflect on our time in India, after roughly 100 hours on the road, in city traffic, to and from airports and hotels, I have a deep understanding and appreciation of this adage. We have seen the skillfulness necessary to navigate in this country and it strikes me it applies not only to road travel but to successfully navigating as tourists too.

Good Eyes: India is a feast for all of the senses. For the eyes, it can be almost overwhelming to take it all in and yet you can’t not look – it’s mesmerizing! Whether driving through a city or along the highways, there is a constant bombardment of signage, graphics, billboards, goods of all kinds competing for attention. Add to this backdrop the beautifully pure hues of the women’s saris, the many children and animals populating the roads, the gaudily painted trucks, the swarms of motorbikes attacking like gnats from every direction, and the piles of refuse that signal the poverty that is part of life here. When you come to a green field or stand of trees, it is like a spring rain, a welcome relief from the onslaught.

Good Brakes: It takes tremendous energy to be fully present in India. I found myself becoming exhausted by our pace of travel and learning about the incredibly diverse history and people of this country. I was forced to slow down by a bad cold that allowed me to stop and recoup my strength. Luckily we had built in extra days in several cities. These were a boon where we did laundry, had naps, and refueled for the upcoming adventures. We remarked in several places that we wished we had a few more days to relax, to sink into the culture and atmosphere rather than packing up to move on. It is easy to see why meditation is an important part of life here. It puts the brakes on the chaos.

A Good Horn: Horns in India serve a number of purposes. They let others know you are coming, they encourage others to move along, and they provide a vent for traffic frustrations. Managing on foot in crowds takes some of the same kind of vocals. I have learned how to say a very firm “No thank you” to the street hawkers who accost you around all the monuments. I have learned to use my elbows and a definite “Excuse me” as a way to protect myself from the lack of personal space. And once or twice in my frustration, I have almost shouted “I’m in line here!” as people simply shoved their way past me. India is not for sissies!

Good Luck: We have also been tremendously lucky throughout our trip. We’ve had only one little fender scratch for all the time on the roads. We’ve had six internal flights, all on time, and haven’t lost any luggage. We’ve stayed in beautiful hotels and been pampered by unendingly friendly helpful staff. We’ve tasted the cuisines of all four corners of this varied landscape. We’ve had guides and drivers who not only shared their knowledge and expertise with us but also something of their lives and dreams. We are among the lucky few who have been privileged with this opportunity to explore a vast and ancient land.

Patience: India has served up many gifts on this trip, not least among them some life lessons I’m bringing home. One of these lessons is certainly patience but there is also tolerance, acceptance, humility, appreciation. These values have impressed me numerous times on our journey. It is easy as North American tourists to apply our values to another culture, to see us as further ahead because of our material wealth. I have been reminded how important these basic values are and how much I can learn from them. Thank you India for all the treasures you have shared with us.

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Mystifying Varanasi

It is now two weeks since we were in Varanasi and I’m just feeling able to write about it. I don’t know what I expected. A spiritual revelation? A mystical experience of an ancient ritual? We joined the host of pilgrims setting out just before dawn walking barefoot to the ghat to bathe. There was little conversation, some couples holding hands, groups of women walking together, only a few non-Indian. The Man Mandir Ghat, a series of broad steps leading down to the Ganges, is one of 88 here, most for bathing, a few for cremating. As the sun rose across the river, people begin slipping into the water, women in their saris, men in underwear or a towel. I stepped into the murky brown water up to my ankles and felt the sandy bottom, amid the decomposing flowers, a piece of old clothing, and other unidentifiable flotsam.

Nothing happened; I felt disconnected. Even our boat ride up and down the Ganges, which I had greatly looked forward to, didn’t change my detachment. We passed meditators on the steps, the crowds in the water, the cremation ghat with a low smoking fire and giant piles of wood ready for burning the forty bodies that will be delivered here today. Still I felt no connection to the place or the process.

Mother Ganga plays multiple roles. For Hindus, immersing in the river washes away sins and restores health. Dying here can relieve the faithful from the cycle of rebirth. The Buddha often used the Ganges in his teachings and delivered his first sermon here, establishing Buddhism. The river is also a place for bathing, swimming, boating, doing the hotel laundry, and dumping tons of sewage and vats of ashy remains. The interplay of spiritual belief and practical use was baffling.

When our boat docked a little further up the river, we began a walking tour through the old city lanes. Here my growing dissonance intensified. We picked our way carefully through the filth and debris, garbage strewn everywhere, piles of cow dung, our guide repeatedly saying, “Watch out!” We were there to see the numerous small temples built into the walls of the houses in this original residential area but even they looked unkempt and decaying. We marveled later at how this squalor merited a tour and how, in this holiest city in India, this could not only be acceptable but a point of pride. I have seen signs of poverty all over the world but have never seen anything like this. I am still mystified.

As we departed Varanasi, I was left with deep questions. Perhaps this is the revelation I have been given. That suffering not only exists but is accepted and welcomed as the path to enlightenment. That my reactions are based on my Western values and may not be relevant here. That this most spiritually blessed city is also the most materially challenged. Darkness and light…

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Nagarkot Nepal

As I write, the rain is pounding on the tin roof of the patio outside our hotel room so loudly we can hardly hear each other speak. We have just returned from a thirteen kilometer walk up and down the hills and terraces of this beautiful valley overlooking the Himalayas just east of Kathmandu. Our timing is perfect – we have spent the last four hours in the sunshine and only in the last few minutes did we experience a few drops. Now the sky has opened and the clamor is incredible.

We have spent a couple of days in Kathmandu and arrived here in Nagarkot at what one hotel calls “the end of the universe” to experience the sunsets and sunrises over the mountains and to walk the valley. Last evening the setting sun transformed the sky and mountains an intense pink at the same time a pale moon rose behind the peaks on the opposite side of the sky. We stood on the roof terrace with a dozen other guests snapping pictures and exchanging words of amazement at the spectacle.

We awoke about half past five this morning just as the darkness was beginning to fade. We watched from our patio as dozens of peaks emerged in silhouette on the other side of the valley while down below a heavy cloudbank covered the land and the hills poked through like little floating islands. As the light continued to appear, the birds began to sing, all at once, a symphony of calls to the dawn. Slowly slowly the sky began to glow, a rosy veil bouncing off the far off summits and bringing the valley into detailed focus below us. And as the sun peeked through and began to rise, the whole landscape came alive. What a miracle of nature.

We joined another couple for our walk through the villages nearby, following a rough map provided by the hotel. For the first hour or more we walked downhill overlooking the terraced farms where barley, rapeseed and marigolds painted an abstract of layered curves and colours. In the villages, we were greeted with “Namaste” by young and old alike. Then we began to climb, a slow ascent tracing our way around the outcroppings, a dense rainforest foliage on the shadow sides and tall trees and sun-baked vegetation on the other. We had a lunch of fried rice and beer at a new resort near our hotel, a welcome stop after our morning walk. And now, the rain has stopped, the sky is brightening and I am hoping for another breathtaking sunset tonight.

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The Mumbai Laundry

The only indication this is a laundry are the two dozen or so pairs of jeans laying on tarps on top of the cars along the narrow road. We are in one of the better slum areas of Mumbai scattered throughout the city and home to over half the population of the rich financial centre of India. This laundry is small and community owned, workers of several generations carrying on the family business.

As we enter, we see perhaps half an acre of raised concrete ‘tubs’ with walking paths between them where the clothes and linens are scrubbed by hand in very little water. The water is purchased from the city at a discount but is still the major expense. We walk along the wet concrete slab path past maybe twenty male washers to a hut where we are proudly shown a couple of antique looking automatic machines, new to the laundry and a sign of its prosperity.

Above the washing as far as the eye can see are drying rails for sheets, towels, clothing and sundries, stretched out in the sun. It is very hot and humid here, hard to imagine how these tightly packed lines of wet laundry will ever dry. But they do, and are pressed and folded, again mostly by hand, and delivered to the hotels in the area by late afternoon. It is incredible to hear they virtually never make a mistake in what goes where or to whom, the different bundles of laundry being handled by different families and labeled with small symbols accordingly.

Behind the laundry area we are given a tour of the housing for the families who live and work here. It is a warren of tiny lanes with small raised concrete block rooms on either side, most with a piece of cloth for a door, a few with a tile floor. There are water taps here and there but no sign of toilets or bathing facilities. The single rooms have cooking facilities on the far wall and several rolled up mattresses. One has a television so we know there is electricity. We are told that the city has ceded this very expensive city-centre land to these families and they are free to sell to developers any time. However, they prefer to stay and carry on their traditions even though a move to Navi Mumbai, a suburb across the river, would  mean better living conditions.

I am reminded of the importance of home once again, the safety and intimacy of the known, of family and neighbourhood, of purpose and employment. And yet…

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Rajasthan Road Trip

I have so many pictures in my head of the sights we’ve encountered on our week-long car trip from Agra to Jaipur, Pushkar and Udaipur – the tiny twin temples in vivid pink and purple in the middle of nowhere, the intense rainbow of saris as women work in the fields, the huge multi-coloured flags we assume are for Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. In the palaces and forts we visit, there are curious young boys and shy school girls wanting a photo with me. The countryside is a feast for the senses with an endless variety of roadside shops in small villages, herds of goats, camels, donkeys and cows, incredible numbers of motorbikes and trucks, as well as the low greenery that covers this desert landscape, and of course the sound of horns.

In Delhi there is a law prohibiting cows to roam free but here in Rajasthan we find them eating in the median on the highways or sleeping in one lane of traffic or sauntering across as vehicles honk and brake to avoid them. They also wander the markets in villages leaving generous piles of excrement for people to avoid. Some are so thin their bones protrude dangerously and we wonder who feeds them and whether they are actually able to produce milk.

We have discovered truck art! Most trucks are beautifully decorated with colourful graphics, leaves and flowers, fretwork and sanskrit. There must be a huge business for truck painters! Added to this are the riot of bright pompoms and shiny tinsel tassels sold all along the highway in eye-catching arrays that look like Christmas trees run amok. Then, to top it off, many have vases with plastic bouquets attached to their driver-side windows. I especially liked the one with a single red plastic rose.

We had a bump from one of them in a tollbooth. Our driver, Mr Makesh, got out but the driver of the truck refused to come down. When he finally did, he accused our driver of backing up! Yelling ensued, a crowd gathered and gave opinions and finally the police were called. They arrived quite promptly, heard both arguments given in loud competing voices, and asked us too what we had witnessed. At last, Mr. Makesh got back in the car with a smile, saying he had been paid 1000 rupees for the damage. Justice was done.

This is a desert so there is sand and dust everywhere, the garbage piles up in dumps with nowhere to go, litter abounds, and women are constantly sweeping, sweeping, with their long horsetail brooms, trying for some measure of cleanliness. It is poor but very alive with commerce and community. The people we meet are friendly, eager to help, proud of their heritage.

It has been a wonderful way to experience this historical part of the country.

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