Tuesday, September 21, 2010

@ B&W: run

The morning mist begins to burn as the day ignites, and everyday silhouettes mature from the thick grey cloak that quiets their intensity. A broken backed being slaps the dirt from his clothes in sync with the falling oars of sunrise voyagers. And finally she is revealed: the Lady Ganga. Yet she only shows her poker face. Her surface renders the clown nose hot air balloon of a sun, but I pine for the illumination of her depths, her core, her soul. Something lurks in the eddies, slides by in the main current, and it evades the fingers of my comprehension. Why does it draw me so? I find myself at the center of the Hindu universe, in Varanasi, abreast the mother of all being, the holy river Ganges. There's something here that I don't understand, regardless of strong, contrary intentions. I am reduced to sitting in wonder. Something is screaming in the air, composed of a pitch unfamiliar, and like a dog whistle, it eludes my senses. Sentience is not mine in regards to this, but these birds are fully conscious, wrestling and thrashing as if possessed by this otherworldly presence.

Varanasi quickly became one of my favorite destinations I have ever Vagabonded in. I stayed on the shore of the Ganges in the old city, a labyrinth of wing-span sized stone streets crammed with the undeniable energy of everyday life. Ghats (public cremation grounds) and temples lined the bank with their ancient loftiness, as boats transformed the surface of the river into a fluid mosaic. The backstreets are another world to get lost in, but the water seduced like a siren, a true vixen. Much of the attraction for me was the foul hypocrisy that literally resides within its flow. There are 16 raw sewage entries into the Ganges from Varanasi alone. Add that to the trash, the soap from washing, and the leftovers from half cremated bodies from the ghats and you've got holes in your reverence for the holy river. Yet many Hindus make a pilgrimage here, and believe that the Ganga water will purify you of your sins; if you die in Varanasi, you will automatically attain 'Moksha,' or release from this life cycle. That you die in Varanasi is actually a quite plausible occurrence, especially if you cleanse yourself in the river, considering that it contains 120 times the official limit of bacteria that is considered safe to bathe in.

Ghats...The ashes flutter down from the sky, but the soul drifts onwards, away from this nonsense up into the infinity of its own. The remnants of an entire life shower down onto me with all their purpose as I sit transfixed on the writhing flames. This is real. This is life, pure, unrefined, unapologetic, unglorified, raw. When I first arrived to India, I immediately dubbed the prevailing stripped down form of existence as being 'on fire.' The scene of ingited flesh in such public setting may irk some, but after experiencing a cremation, the concept snapped right into my brain like a Lego being attached. We all face the same demise, so why hide from our mortality? Why sugar coat the inevitable and cover it with coffins and flowers and our Sunday best to cope and exalt the most basic thing of all? What is life if not for the raging blaze within?

Some of my most surreal India moments were not zany combinations of characters and events, but rather sitting there marinating in the most explicit portrayal of this life cycle, and the somehow dreaded process that actually unites us all as one. I retract that previous statement. India was entirely surreal in that it was the only place I've been where what is real is such a force, that it often bursts through the seams of its fake modern clothing; it cannot be contained, cannot be denied.

First off, Holi crap. Holi is the festival of colors, and after being a part of this polychromatic throw-down, I can say that this city has captured me, no more hide and go seek with my feelings. I awoke to pounding techno - here we go. Hit the early bird streets with go get the worm passion, water gun fully loaded, confidence cocked and ready to inject my paint into the veins of the city via my color syringe. I first ran back to kindergarten for some color-tag with the little ones, my pure white outfit blushing at all the looks it was getting from laughing eyes and happy trigger fingers. Before too many could hit on my getup, I had to double back for more ammo - little did I know I would have needed nothing short of the munitions necessary for a small war in order to contend for king of the color hill crown. I then fell in with a group of fellows who spoke English, which is exactly when that good ol' buddy insanity of mine decided to crash the party as well. Party? More like guerrilla warfare. We walked into the fray, the modern version of NYC's The Warriors - matching painted faces embedded with mad eyes flooded the streets looking for an excuse to come out and play. Each swagger oozed with booze and bhang, which is a thick smoothie which boasts THC as its main element. Substances and confidence met and overflowed as I saw a man's temple get turned holy with the vicious attacking of another (these holy jokes are too easy, forgive me). The oddities bled into less serious areas, namely the archetype of suppressed sexuality that seemed to be hosting this entire shindig. Men running up to me and openly grabbing my piece, along with some pretty blatant attempts at dry-humps, and one could say that things were getting sloppy around the edges that were rapidly closing in. There were massive speakers set up on each corner, obliterating ear drums with goliath beats, and when viewing these playgrounds, one could really see that most fellows were lacking control... or just something in the bedroom. Naturally, I waltzed right into these day lit homo-erotic clubs, and raged face with more than appropriate intensity (needless to say my camera stayed straight at home). Everyone was probably as bad if not worse at dancing, something you probably shouldn't visualize for fear of inducing a migraine. It was a true kaleidoscope of color, and I remember breaking it down beneath a cloud of yellow motes that drifted innocently down into the dementia. At this point I AM tie-dye - a confused, exhausted, highly molested blue alien. And this is just the A.M. sessions. SuperSloppySeconds saw the introduction of women (they can only participate after midday and throw powder color instead of the staining water the men throw in the morning), a man that introduced himself by slapping me in the face and leaving, another fight where a chap was crying and getting his hair pulled out; a gent who made great fun of bashing me repeatedly in the forehead (no way to save face on that one); a Brahmin who had this intoxicated, infallible impression that I was going to get him a visa and we were going to march up together and meet Barack Obama; then a priest who blessed me with good luck marks, garlands, and a bracelet, because he claimed to see something of promise about me. Probably my wallet because that's what he asked for after our little ceremony. 'Nother day in the life.

I took to the otherside, the day finally settling, like a handful of powder gently returning to earth after being lofted into the air, as each event finds its place of rest upon my being. And I am at peace. Some people come to find themselves here, in the craziest place on earth. In order to block out the blaring rickshaw horns and wild music, one must dig into ones own soil, and find the molehole of inner silence where the true self resides, where all of your own colors come out to play, and where all is Holi.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Flirting with Madness is one thing, but what happens when Madness starts flirting back?

A little diddly by the Chili Peppers goes as such: "When I've found my peace of mind, I'm gonna give you some of my good times." I've written a lot of this from Germany, where I have found a slice of that quiet state of being, and although I haven't chowed down on the entire 'peace of mind' pie, I reckon that this piece will have to suffice in providing the requisite fuel for the narration fire. Apologies again for my procrastinations, as I spent two months at home, and found little of the inspiration or tranquility necessary to relate these experiences. But here, on the road again, I connect more with past ventures, and so, even though I am a solid six months removed from India, it's been reawakened from its hibernations.

First a bit of background: I arrested the freewheeling spirit and slapped the 'cuffs on its wrists. Me being the judge, the jury, and the toothless janitor shouting "guilty!" in the back of the courtroom in this situation, I felt that the convict was too high on his own good times, and needed a bit of a humbling experience, something to bring him tumbling back to earth from his otherworldly exosphere. [Booming Judge voice] "You are a traveller no more - I know dub thee..."Volunteer!" He needed to give back, and thus I allotted him three months of volunteerism - one in India and two in Nepal.

Considering the gross amount of unconditional generosity doled onto my plate up to this point; honestly, I doubt if there's a way for me to return what I have received in equal, but I still figured that I could strive to make an impact, to spread a positive vibes into the universe. I can't frankly tell you what made me decide to volunteer in India, that decision was born purely out of intuition, and I felt it would be honorable to "give back" at the time of my enlistment, but in the end it feels as though I made the right decision. So, without further ado (I swear this time), I'm going to try to show you some of my good times...

Sarah and I were confused, and the lack of structure to this whole "volunteering" thing only intensified our sense of discombobulation. We were dumped by a strange man into a small room with bare stucco walls, broken only by a small, barred window. The two wooden structures, presumably beds, were the only items to cover the concrete floor. Somehow we'd found attracted a group of eager little children that spoke no English, and were rummaging through our things like dumpster divers, after generously inviting themselves. Was this the orphanage? And a guardian? An explanation would receive a celebration at this point. And why is this kid using my water bottle to bash in skulls? Come to think of it, the Indian Babe Ruth re-incarnation has a mean stroke... Hitherto, my pattern of travel had me develop quite a habitual craving for movement of any kind, so after a half an hour in a small room, I already felt trapped. Sarah concurred, and a resolution to our agitations was put forth: we should calm ourselves to a grand old game of "shithead," the traveler's card game of choice; I've met nary a wanderer who would deny hopeless addiction. This wish required a jaunt to the local market, where we should enlist a deck for our impending battles. We grabbed one of the youngins as a clueless guide, and bounce timed, naively, into the wild. From that moment forth, a haze engulfed my senses, leaving me sunk and drowned in a punch-drunk trance, enchanted by this world apart. There is literally no way to sketch my reality at this point; proposed methods of correlation develop within the mental womb, yet when it is time for their delivery, they are stillborn at birth.

I'm no stranger to embellishment, after all, a bit of Gonzo journalism never hurt the ratings, but I'm starting to feel a bit like the boy who cried wolf. How can I make you understand the insanity? Part of me wants to forgo any attempt at relating events and characters, not because of the intimidation factor applied by the task, but rather because it seems infeasible to evoke within you the feelings the that I have experienced. What I can relate at this point is that today is February 14th. Cupid has struck this spell home with graceful precision; for me there is only one - India, will you be my Valentine?

I digress. As soon as we turned onto the road, we had taken not but ten paces when confronted with the heavy lipstick, traditional sari, fluttering eyelashes, and ripping hand shake of...a man. I was used to ladyboys in Thailand, but this one guaranteed a good time for only fifty rupees! AND my haggling could be considered reputable at this point. Oh boy, here we go.

No we don't - as I stopped in my tracks. Sarah and I conferred later that this was a bad idea, but the image at hand instantly scorched me to the core; that of a child, at the age where they first learn to walk, its back turned to me, head cocked sideways, and naked from the waist down. It's legs were stricken by something that even grim would cringe at: polka dot red sores the center of festering black doughnut rings, the view of which is intermittent as a virtual cloud of flies orbited the wounds with celestial regularity. The scene was completed by the beseeching eyes of a mother, found low amidst the black contained by a crooked frame, the mouth to a soiled shanty crowned with a flattop of corrugated iron. I've seen plenty of poverty before, but rarely have I felt poverty as I did in this moment. All around, ill conditions of existence were norm. We had paused our movement in order to be part of this moment, and were quickly reprimanded for our ignorance of the remote control of life used in India: there is no pause button. Because if you decelerate, then one of the from the sea of a billion is bound to slam on the gas and cut you off. Hesitation will have you eaten alive. We paused once more to shoot the breeze with a friendly man who inquired about the child bouncing along with us. No, we're not married. No, this isn't our child, were just walking with him, wait, why are we walking with him? Before we could answer, the crowd had congregated. Instead of refracting beams of light from the sun, our skin seemed to emit dollar signs. I liken the scene to an utterly shameless tourist act I committed in Cambodia, where I received a fish massage. You place your feet into a tank and have a hoard of evidently starved Nemo's feast on a buffet of delectable dead skin that you provide. Our presence at the center of this crowd was like that of a homeless man's grungy feet to the surrounding fish. I don't really remember how we got back to the house alive. There was a lot of yelling, grabbing, and one crisp image in my mind of a skinny man with a priceless 60's hairdo straight from a thorough grease bath, a set of eyebrows from last Halloween's costume, and rabbit teeth that extended to greet me at a steep 45 degree angle from his mouth. I was in the midst of stifling an urgent chuckle when I realized that there were more pressing matters at hand: Sarah, and the hands pressing down upon her. Every single man thought himself the hero, with brazen attempts at her hand in marriage; even a simple hello had the recipient jumping about with his ego sail billowing in the winds of victory. Laughing. Shouting. Grabbing. And a nice man who had a cricket bat handy, and used its flat side to give our procession a bit of percussion, drumming with passion upon the sleuth like street children and their proposed investigation of our pockets, a mystery to be solved by the lightning fast dexterity of youth. Yes, the gentlemen with the bat turned out to be quite a topping chap, a real winner in my book. I felt sorry for Sarah, as it's not really fair to be anywhere in India and simply be a woman; the amount of sexist abuse is loathsome, but that's the reality here. I'm leaving loads out, but basically we decided that we'd give "shithead" a rain check in response to the deluge of desirous gazes and actions pelting down upon any venture we might take. It might be a good idea to chill and see if the tempest of weird doesn't calm down a bit. Oh man, we were so, so ignorant of all that is India.

From that first day forth, I kid you not, things got stranger and stranger every single day. It was unreal. I kept telling Harry, "There's NO way that this can get any more odd, that has to be it man, that has to be some type of peak." Then we'd end up making shit paddies with our bare hands. Or getting our ears pierced. Hell, I even managed to attract a stalker. But then there's Ramesh, juggling goat skulls after the previously functioning contents had been slurped out. It goes on and on and on, good God. But I'm getting ahead of myself. By a long shot.

I volunteered with IVHQ (International Volunteer Headquarters); by far the cheapest organization that I could find. You can say "what you get is what you pay for," and I actually trust in that, but if I wasn't such a chintzy bum I wouldn't have been stationed in the greatest place in the world: Faridabad. An industrial sub-sector of the capital city of Delhi, the dingle berry/chuff nut of India is awesome. And it's not for any particular reason either, it's definitely not a place that you want to bring the fam with for a picnic on your weekend off. It's raw, a heavy hitting building block that thumps with a techno heartbeat of the emerging superpower. It's loud. It's dirty. It stinks. And that's coming from a loyal adversary of hygiene. I just remember at one point on our way to the orphanage one day, asking Cucoo (the director of the orphanage) what the people were doing putting rocks into the black pools next to the road, and him answering that the stagnant water had become so acidic with waste that through a certain washing process, one could transform the rocks into coal. Top that, anyone? At any moment a waft of air could pitch such a scent to your nostrils that it would bowl you over harder than a smashed cricket wicket, leaving you nasally abused. And your out. Great place, really. You've probably heard it all before: cows in the middle of the road, trash everywhere, people yelling - it's all pretty standard stuff. You think the place sounds far-out, you should meet the people. And that you shall - here are my story-book friends (albeit a story that I doubt you'd ever want to read to your children before bed).

I'll give basic structure before diving into details, as I'm no Michael Phelps...Host family = Ramesh + Mala...I THINK they had four kids, not really sure since there was always some random youngin bouncing around. Cucoo + his wife live down the street...He's the manager of the orphanage along with Ramesh. "Orphans" : Shankir, Surej, Sittaram, Mohan, Kishan. There's a whole throng of others that I could kick my bucket trying to describe, but I'll stick with the main characters in this play. It's too bad actually, some supporting roles are quite juicy when it comes to outlandish features.

I'll start off soft: Mala. My momma. Is an Indian woman, which entails more than you'd like to know. It's the early AM, and her bottom lip quivers, with a grand decision before it: to fall, crushed beneath the leaden gravity of the demands of her life, a woman's life, or, to remain proud and strong, to fight the science of her existence and bend that lip upwards against the oppressive force of duty. She chose the latter. Everyday. She is filled with a substance tougher than anything the raw elements could provide. In India, the mother does all the cooking/cleaning, while the grandmother raises the children. Ramesh's mother is a toad of a women, if I may say so, but I'd like to erase any negative connotation that comes attached to the word 'toad' - shes really sweet, hilarious, and probably eats my body weight at every meal. And therein lies the problem. She can't really move, which leaves Mala to do both the housework and the parenting at the same time. You'd catch her cooing to a baby in one arm while executing one of the innumerable chores that comes with the commandeering of four children. One day I remember asking her how old she was. Her eyes became distant, zooming past the grotty yellow walls of the room, and into a space unphysical, where the mind of only an orphan can dwell. As if in a trance, she said she thought that she might be in her twenties...
If life were like school, Mala would definitely be the kid that does all the homework and scores well on tests, thus is her work ethic and attitude towards her commandeering of the household. At the same time, she'd be the kid causing a riot, shooting spitballs and jawing jokes at all times of inconvenience. She constantly ribbed us volunteer's for being 'paagle' (crazy), but I think it's the other way around. Mala is full of crazy love, crazy joy, and yeah, a bit of the good old fashioned stuff: pure paagle.

Ramesh: Oh. No. You absolutely MUST watch this video if you intend to read further (considering this could be a freaking book, I'd understand if you turned back now...but you honestly won't regret watching this, even if you decide to stop reading....)

We actually rented a DVD player and Pirates of the Caribbean just to show Ramesh his lesser counterpart in Jack Sparrow. Just to prove that he's on another level entirely, I think that he watched 10 minutes of it... then went off to get high. Either the humor didn't translate, or he's really an Indian pirate more interested in looting the fields surrounding the orphanage of their copious, and naturally growing, ganja plants. I'm not kidding, you take Jack Sparrow's mannerisms and square them, and you might get Ramesh. You can't even imitate him; hopefully that indicates the kingdom of insanity that he rules from a wobbling summit, the clouds swirling around him echoing with mad laughter. I'll give you a run down. 7am. Stumbles into my room. Still drunk from night before. Rolls a spliff. Proceeds to do the inevitable. Leaves the room. Plays with children. CuCoo arrives. Back to my room. Another spliff. Dumps children on us. Downstairs. However many more spliffs you can fit into the time period before we leave for the orphanage. Hopefully your seeing a pattern here. The problem is, at night it gets tricky. You can't really apply the same formula for darkened hours. Ramesh is actually a very religious man, in that he becomes deeply spiritual once the sun goes down. Therefor he must make a special visit to his temple. The liquor shop. Being the devout soul that he is, I never knew him to leave his duties unfulfilled. Role. Model. My. Hero.

If there's an inkling of humaneness within you, you should probably be asking - why and how does this man run an orphanage? Ahh, my young padawan, you have much to learn, especially of the dark forces of the streets of Delhi. This guy sounds like a nut job, and with how I've presented him to this point, I can't really argue. Yet there is so much more than one can see, akin to the ink deep beneath his skin on his arms, things that run beneath the judgemental layer of first impressions. At first I thought it was a joke. This has to be a joke, right? As I got to know Ramesh, I learned that this man is the domestic form of his old self, a lion tamed, yet still carrying the marks of his free spirited days. Ramesh used to be a street kid. I didn't hear all of the stories, as he speaks shaky English, but I got enough to get an image of the man - the myth - the legend.

A 'street kid' is just that, a child that lives in the streets. Objective numero uno: survive. I'll spare you some mind bottling (it would literally put your mind in a bottle harrharr) details and just say that he's been into and around everything that you want your children to never know about. Theft, drugs, murder (I'm convinced that each one of these men has killed someone, and that feeling won't go away), you name it. At one point they were working at the railway station, and were collecting body parts off of the tracks of people who had gotten run over in order to identify them for funerals. They rather enjoyed reminiscing over this... Ramesh showed me the scars on his forearms where police used electrical cords to burn his skin, aiming for his arteries in an interrogation. When you consider the things that he's been addicted to and done, the astronomical amounts of substances that they abuse on a daily basis plummets in comparison. It's not just the history either, it's that Ramesh is a loving father. He cherishes his children, you can see it in the way that he plays with them, and he's sweet with Mala. I can picture them, the street kid and the orphan, the smooth hustler with the hair and moves coupled with the gentle beauty with the soft eyes and laugh. Sounds like a Bollywood

movie to me.

Cucoo... is educated, speaking darn good English, and was thus our source for much of the knowledge (which even feels limited at times) gained about Lakshya Badte Kadam (the orphanage). You can't ever believe anything that anyone tells you in India, but for the most part, I think we got a straight story from the co-director. And if you wondering, yes, Cucoo is kookoo.

Let me backtrack quickly. The orphanage makes money to pay for food, the actual building, and the children's schooling, by making various items from jute cloth, and using recycled fabrics to cover them and sell them at semi-extortionist prices. They can do this because they are an orphanage. But that's hazy as well. There are five children to be considered 'orphans' - only one of them actually is, the other four are brothers who are friends of the directors who are just too poor to raise their own children. There are older boys, or I guess we can call them men as they are in their early 20's, who make the bags. These are 'ex-street children'. Except that they never lived on the streets, rather most of them came from northern India in the mountains, and are here for work, which they found through a goody-goody connection with our oh-so-righteous directors. There is also a 'women empowerment' division of the operation. As you can guess it's not a very empowering program, as women from the local village viciously clamour over one another to get newspapers in order to glue the pieces together to make paper bags, which are actually pretty cool. I tried to make one which resulted in an epic fail, which was only compounded after the woman who showed me finished one in the time it took me to unfold the paper. These are sold for one rupee each. There are 45 rupees to the dollar. If the women work like there's no tomorrow, they can produce around 200 bags a day, earning 200 rupees. I've described this whole enterprise with a bit of western cynicism, as it lacks the structure and regulations that all of you are so familiar with. But once I was involved and actually IN it, I saw how much good it actually does. Yes, it's wishywashy in it's claims, which are geared more toward luring volunteers and donors, but at the end of the day the children get food, shelter, and a decent education, the women have some type of occupation within the home since they can't go out, the mountain men make a living, and Ramesh and Cocoo can support their families as well as their 'religious' obligations. You can call it a hoax, but the bottom line is that everyone is much better off at the end of the day.

Back to Cucoo. He was quick to treat me like a son, always explaining things to me as if I were his apprentice or something, which I guess served as a sorely needed ego stroke. I remember that we were in the paper room, counting paper bags (I'm a good volunteer - helping the corrupt NGO make money by doing work that Ramesh and Cucoo are too lazy or twisted to partake in) when he suddenly got soft on me, opening up and peeling a layer off of that hardcore persona to show a more vulnerable character beneath. An insiders take: Cucoo's father was in military, which he would just brag and brag about because he got to live a lavish lifestyle complete with free booze and all. But it wasn't all glamour as previously presented, as his father used to brutally beat him when he was a child, then sent him off the military school (but not his three other brothers), and told him that some day he would appreciate it. And that actually stuck - Cucoo always admired his father greatly, not just because he provided livlihood, but because of how he disciplined him. And I can see how he wants to be the same father figure for the kids. I never saw him beat them (but I've heard stories that he did when he used to live at the orphanage), but he always displayed a detached form of affection, pretty tough love if you will. He speaks really good english, and could teach them all, but instead he stays hidden in the back paper room, where he remains a mystery, in an attempt to gain respect as the provider and intermittent disciplinarian. He keeps a distance because he wants to be HIS father, the same respected overlord that your going to thank later in your life. I don't know if that's just an excuse to continue the slurred, twisted existence that he's currently engaged in, which if you think about it, is quite on the contrary to his discipline background and apparent devotion to the exalted principle. I do hold a certain amount of respect for the man, which is even more difficult to justify after hearing the chronicles of his mobster era. Same same as Ramesh, but I think Cucoo ended up a bit higher on this strange underground foodchain. At one point he was a male gigalo, and I'd also have to claim that he's probably a homosexual (which had a decent amount of situational evidence behind it), but all this became extremely awkward after Cucoo decided to sneak into our room and read my journal one day. I'm just hoping that he was too high to remember.

Shankir: The oldest of the trouble makers at 14, which seems to be the age when that colossal Indian ego seems to develop within a young man. I caught him playing 'mirror mirror on the wall' a lot, and apparently it wasn't spitting out the right answers, because there was always a brooding raincloud above this kids head, ready to dump down even more grease onto his thoroughly saturated scalp. I started wondering if the ladies here actually like a bit of hair with their grease... I'm pretty sure that John Travolta dancing flick (what was that called again?) was inspired here. Tough love aside, Shankir took the responsibility of his age seriously. I'm tempted to say that he was more of a father figure to the others than the other available role models, as he was always making sure the others were in line. He was quick to discipline when it came to the basics - goofing around instead of studying, getting ready in the morning, and being a bit too innapropriate, which would all earn a hefty pelt on the head or back and rapid scolding. This position held its merits as well as its torments, as he was always the subject of abuse of the older fellows. He wasn't too cool to play with the others, busting out a few dance moves himself when called for, but it was apparent that he was becoming too cool for school when it came to being around younger boys all the time. This manifested itself in his comic attempts to woo Sarah, the only female member of the volunteer gang. He'd scoot suggestively closer to her as he sat next to her, give her those baby eyes, and talk sweet nothings to her, all the while her eyes would get big and she would recoil in awkward disbelief. Hilarious. He used his seniority effectively in that he always had Sarah tutor him when it came down to nighttime studies. He was at the point in his life where you couldn't just play with him all day, he wanted something more, and you could tell. His eyes would glaze over, and he would dissapear to another realm, where the Bollywood dreams developing beneath those lenses were for him to keep. Great kid. Even better hair.

Surej: The only orphan of the gang. I took to this lad the first night, as he sat curled up next to me, trying with all his cognitive might to understand the most basic English. This was a struggle, but his persistent efforts and radiant, catapillar roofed grin with the chipped tooth only solidified the image of his name: Surej means the sun in Hindi. Surej is only a bit younger than Shankir, but didn't have the same forward stance when it came to the chicas, as he would rather wander off in his own world, spinning his little dradle and its infinite tricks that he's developed; a simple dude, and that I very much so dig that about him. Not the brightest in terms of intellectual prowess, but he shone a bit more than your average brainiac.

Sittaram: Fireball. This kid could out 'blue-steel' Ben Stiller. His 'ferrari' is a bit shaky, but I'd give him a couple of years and he'll be running the School for Kids that can't Read Good. That's actually not a joke, as the kid is sharp; he taught me most of the Hindi that I learned and was quick to pick up even more English. He's just a goofball, always radiating noise, busting dance moves, or causing mischief. He gets the 'happy-go-lucky' award since I'm apparently giving out awards now. I just remember this kid stealing my camera (I had a little point and shoot that was great for videos), and when I got it back, there was a two minute sililoquy of this kid singing into the lens like it was some girl that he was desperately trying to win over. I don't know if it was intentional, but he definitely won me over.

Mohan: I hate to do this, but the reality is that this kid is defined by one thing that absolutely no one will let go: he's slow. I get flashbacks of his furrowed brow just inches above the crinkled paper, his eyes so intent on the sloppy letters that you'd think he was trying to decipher some otherworldy code, when he was really just trying to make sense of his own handwriting. I'd oust all my energy into this tyke trying to teach him the basics of english, but give him two minutes and that cursed brain chemistry of his would have unraveled all the knowledge stitched into his mind. Great kid though, and I think the reason why he didn't pick up his lessons was because that might entail him having to drop his dreams. As soon as the camera was out, his eyes would get big for a moment, then he would automatically go into cool mode, trying to act candid even though his little eyes were just imploring you to exercise that trigger finger. "Eck photo me, me me, eck photo" - I took a bit more than just "eck photo" and we both loved every minute of it.

Kishan: Give him a millisecond of your attention, and he's ready to wax Bollywood to you until you p
ass out from motion sickness. I swear this kid was born to dance. It's not even that he's that good, but it's the process, the energy exuded from his flailing arms, crossing legs, and beckoning hands that make his presentations irresistible. And the face. It says it all - he's all business with puckered lips, supercool countenances, and that general demeanor that calmly states, "yeah, you know you want it." He's six, by the way. That number, above all others that I've encountered, sets solid the hunch that age is literally just a number. Those would be virgin eyes and ears have seen and heard far too much for their brief existence. Miniature Buddha here would charge ME, of all people, for acting immature, scolding me for my uncouth language, degenerate state of hygiene, and overall shenanigans. And I think this may have been the reason that I enjoyed playing with Kishan the most out of this group, because when I took his scant frame and twirled it like a baton, when I saw him laughing uncontrollably, it made me feel like this kid was actually experiencing a childhood. To see him immersed and dancing about in the sea of joy that is life was a purely euphoric sensation. So we danced, and danced, and danced one more time.

This brings me to another reason why I fell in love with Lakshya - fun. For the first time in my travels, I was surrounded by people my age in volunteers, and children, and that combination is one with an absolutely enchanting product. I don't want to make it sound as though traveling is serious, it's actually light and freespirited, but I feel as though during such intense introspective and stimulating extrospective experiences I had lost sight of the main goal of my life, which is to have fun. And now I had Harry, an absolute nut job (I almost said nob jockey... mm yeah, I just did) (sidenote: British humor trumps all), Sarah, a gone little chica with soul to share, and Yoshi, who is from planet Japan; not to mention all these other characters and kids. I found myself crying from laughter for the first time in what had seemed like a long while, and it felt like I was tasting my age for the first time after developing a bit of a drinking problem from the wells of adulthood. We were just running around this concrete block of an orphanage, without many props or ability to community through spoken word, and so the place quickly became a hotbed of creativity, mostly in the physical sense. Were throwing kids here, swinging them there, making farting noises, being dirty, playing with the resident cow, and engaging in whatever whimsical nonsense came up in the moment. This environment wasn't programmed to allow moments of loneliness, as there was always a child pressing upon you, a grownup teasing you, heck, even the atmosphere can be considered a player, as it was constantly turning your boogers and loogies black and your throat sore. But this constant excitement had it's downsides as well. I began to feel the gravity of expectations every time I entered or stayed at the orphanage, as if I had to keep up a standard of stimulus. This was uncomfortable for me, especially since I had just been exposed to the positive effects of introversion, and wanted to continue having revelatory personal experiences. At times I felt as though I wasn't doing my job if I didn't constantly have my entertainers hat on, which began to grind on my conscience, especially since I was constantly on a stage in this sense.

I'd like to focus quickly on the language barrier. You'd think that this would have been a massive nuisance, and at times it was frustrating, but I think I might have been better off with it, because the people that I couldn't really communicate with very well, I could observe, and thus learn much more of their true character. You can't trust anything that anyone says here, but I reckon if you watch closely, especially when they aren't aware of your scouting eye, then you can come to trust the reliability of the things that they do.

At a certain point, I started sleeping at the orphanage, which was born partly from the guilt I was feeling from not constantly contributing or being the one to amuse. Sleeping at orphanage is where it all went down, where I truly became to understand this place, and probably lose a bit of my sanity along the way ... When Harry and I got our ears pierced, which was in line with India's health regulations I might add, leading to some narsty infections down the road, it seemed so normal, it brought some regularity to our day. Anytime your letting a gone lunatic shove a dirty needle through your ear to sober you up, well you might want to consider retrieving the marbles that have obviously fled your bad.

Sleeping at Lakshya: Blankets on concrete = "bed." Then things got hard. Mosquitoes kamikazied in fits of reckless passion; I felt like I was the driver of a farm tractor stuck in the middle lane on the autobahn, such was the continual, and sometimes symmetrical, buzz at the porches of my audio intake. Except that these cars wanted a piece of my shiny red paint, and would do terrible, unforgivable things in order to play a bit of bumper cars to swipe it away...Then the rats. First to the right, tearing the schoolbag, then from the above, where there seemed to be a tag-team going on in the loft, the two assailants machine gunning through some plastic - two inglorious bastards in amplified heartlessness. My brain is now this close to popping from its casing, obese with unhealthy thoughts gained through fastfood noise. Then there's Mohan, my blanket sharer. That deserves quotations. Try blanket 'sharer.' The brilliant idea from my team player here is to bake us to death dutch ovens style, as it was difficult to discern which noise was more forthright - the rats or the myriad of fart sequences. The gaseous productions below made it impossible to keep ones head beneath the blankets to escape the mosquitoes. Trapped. It's either permanent brain damage from undercover inhalations, or a facelift from a mosquito surgeon. Pick your poison. Oh yeah, he keeps trying to pick pocket me unconsciously (I hope) throughout the night. Lakshya needs a mother figure sorely, and at night this shows more than ever. All the kids are truly messed up, one can see it in their sleep, via helpless figits, writhings, and grunts, poor rolls and flailed arms - the place is amess with bedmanners wetting themselves. What do you expect from young boys who have been raised by irresponsible men? There's no unconditional love here. Their father figure is a cook whose got more issues than the miscellanea of spices used in that night's sabje; he can't even keep his own loose change in dollar bill form. It's cute and fun during the day, but when the sun goes down, the truth is revealed in candid through ugly snores. The vicious cycle that the boys were experiencing became apparent - they can't sleep at night because there are always drunk men yelling and getting into fights, then they are forced to wake up at 6 am in order to wash with freezing cold, hand pumped water before school. I think it's fair to consider myself an 'early bird' by conventional standards, but this was absolutely brutal. I could barely see the hand crank for the water spicket most mornings because my face was soo swollen from dinosaur mosquitoes, stray elbows, or slanted sleeping spaces, and that ice cold water halting vital flow in my feet? Good morning sunshine.

I think there was a certain point where madness began to flirt back, it began after I had spent a couple of nights at Lakshya, in the form of ex-street boys in their early twenties, the kind with enough suppressed sexuality to their level of physical maturity to rival the pre-pubescent orphans themselves. I know that I've expanded my comfort zones and all, but it was slightly alarming in retrospect to think that I didn't really have a problem with the Indian man with that level sexual maturity tickling me in bed and joking that I was his girlfriend. At one point the topic of marriage lay spread eagle upon the scene for everyone to survey. There were moments when I questioned my sanity, but there were moments when I such real things for these people, things too real to discredit to delusionality. I remember the first thing of significance that I noticed once I got to the orphanage was that everyone called each other 'bhaiya' or 'didi' - brother or sister. Whatever occurred beneath those cracked roofs, I know that these people are my brother's and sister's and that we are all together in this crazy thing they call life.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Public Service Anouncement

Family, friends, elderly people, youngins, chickens, ducks...I'm home.

Rephrase: I'M HOME.

First off, my apologies for the lack of output. There are no excuses from my part, these inconsistencies lay squarely upon my shoulders. I finished my gap-year with a three month stint of volunteering that started in India and ended in Nepal, and am now back in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I've had a gander, wandered a bit of God's earth, and have felt a connection with many a location, but none quite like this. No, I won't live here for the rest of my life, quite the contrary, but the stirring emotion that seems to hover with the bobbing leaves of my deciduous brethren will never depart. I FEEL home.

My term of vagabondation (humor me on that one) may have come to a close, but the kaleidoscope still whirs about at a rate that yields the type of vibrant productions that I have come to love. Even though my re-introduction to society, which deserves its own chapter, has altered this rotation, I believe that I can still reach back to those times where travel was the sole motor of my existence, where the colors given off by worldy gyrations would have your eyes salivating with tonal lust. So let's take it back, memory lane style.

I believe we were about to head to India....

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Deep Within

Strapped by the shackles of inertia and still feeling the afterburn of 'Nam adventures, I guess you could say that I oozed my way into Cambodia, like a heatwave easing it's way off the asphalt with mild, rippling pomp. They say that there ain't no rest for the wicked. Oh man, I wish they were wrong at this point.
I owned a pressing urge to explore Cambodia, as every traveler that I had conferred with up to that point had relayed that the heart of SE Asia was truly fascinating. This hunger became torturous as I was rationed only one week to nibble about, due to the over extensions of a previous engagement. Quite literally, I may add, as my honeymoon with the Baron hung so sweetly, yet so stubbornly in the sky, refusing the aspiring climb of the sun a single rung to grasp onto. The domino effect of this was that I had to take in Cambodia at a Gareth-like pace. For those unaware of my brother's dining habits, this means that I had to literally inhale, instead of taking time to chew, savor, and extract the full culture from each bite. Prior to travel, my only image of Cambodia consisted of a visual provided by the Dave Chappelle in a skit, where he alludes to the 'finest Cambodian breast milk.' High expectations grew strong bones; for all the twisted minds out there, I vow any samplings were of a purely bottle-fed nature. Little did I know that it possessed much more than the healthy dose of calcium that my puckered lips were prepared for. Cambodia instead kissed me with all of its tortured beauty, departing an aftertaste that I have yet to interpret and perceive in full. All I know is that when I think of SE Asia, that taste lingers.

Until my bus ride to the capital, Phnom Penh, from Saigon, I had never even heard of the Khmer Rouge. Rude introductions were in order, as the term decided it didn't want to shake hands. The meeting occurred as I was skimming through the history section of my guide book, and came upon a particular passage, whereupon my stomach did a handstand, and shook, as if a bully were attempting to empty its pockets of any loose change. My first thought was, 'How did this never make it into any of my history lessons?' My second thought consisted of the memory of history class - or complete lack thereof, I should say, which might explain this particular omission. Jokes aside, I was appalled. Straight up disgusted. I questioned humanity for the rest of that bus ride, and for a long time afterward. Let me BRIEFLY explain...

The Khmer Rouge, headed by the infamous Pol Pot, ruled via reign of terror in the 1970's that was responsible for the elimination of roughly two million Cambodians. The extremist's intentions were fundamentally malign: to turn Cambodia into an agrarian peasant society by rooting out all intellectuals, and forcing the rest of the populous to slave away in the isolated fields, thus ensuring their choke hold on power. Those that weren't executed perished at the hands of starvation or disease. The sick thing is that seemingly nobody knew of the heinous deeds, as the countries borders were shut down, and even when the Vietnamese finally erected a stop-sign by force, I still feel that very few people acknowledged the atrocities. Even now, how many are aware of what has been dubbed by many as the "Cambodian Holocaust?" Maybe I'm just ignorant...

* I've already crossed history teacher off of the career list, and highly advise all to head straight to more viable sources for details (I'm leaving bald spots, and there's a full head of hair to be seen here) and
a dose of true knowledge. *

I first visited the S-21 detention center, where some 20,000 prisoners were murdered. All were tortured in ways that force you to spew, and all but 7 souls proved mortal in fatality. Stumbling through room after room occupied by intense photographs of victims faces left me reeling; it was all too surreal - I was sleep walking with ghosts. And that was just the warm up. Next came the actual Killing Fields.

Hatchets. Knives. Hoe's. A tree. The latter used to bash children against until death (women and children were eradicated as well, in order to ensure that there would be no further uprisings - a loudspeaker played music to drown out wailing victims). A tower rose from the center of the grounds, where intact bones were housed on brutally honest display. Walking past mass grave after mass grave was an experience that no anti-depressant pill could ever stand in the ring against. Each sign was a knockout - "350 bodies" here, "250 bodies - women and children" there. It's difficult to relate the scene and ensuing emotions accurately through any form of expression.
Even though this nation has been raped by it's own, the unconditional compassion and reception is astounding. The people's spirited resilience is inspiring, but what's more is that kindness is galore. Dr. Seuss would have felt right at home, as the collective response to foreigners is that of some long lost relative showing up to a family reunion. Granted were all bringing hefty, persuasive bundles of cash to make sure that our status as kinsman is confirmed, but in my few experiences, people were more friendly than one would anticipate given such recent hard knocks. Juxtaposing Vietnamese back-packer trail hospitality (or what I know through word of mouth) and that of
Cambodia is interesting, as Cambodians welcome any outsider, relishing all attention from the outside world.

+ Hands down, the cutest kids in the entire world. No contest there. Unfortunately, most you meet are either mini-merchants or beggars employed by elders, which is truly unfair at base. What's more is the worst poverty in SE Asia, and it's not just the hearstring pluckers out for a dime, but the sincerely crushing look in a paupers eyes of pure helplessness in need.

Bounce time to Siem Riep, the common launching pad for Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. For the second time in Cambodia, words seem like inflated currency when attempting to purchase any type of crisp description. Photographs may provide a visual, but fail in efforts to impart tones intangible, the aura and emotions that seem to rumble from within the senior structures. My only journal entry for day one goes as follows: "I have no clue what to say. I just don't." And I still don't, but here's some BS anyway...

The Ancients have always engrossed me, ever since I was a bug-eyed youngster, slurping up my first tale of Greek mythology at Waldorf, an assailant to the remnant watermelon juice on some paper plate after a family picnic. As intrigue evolved, I grew bold, and eschewed the sloppy seconds of others for the fruit itself, eating up the masterful prose of The Iliad and Odyssey. My suspicions regarding societal regressions only expanded in daring after basking in the presence of such soulful monoliths. I bought a three day pass to the temples, and averted the bee-hive swarm of tuk-tuk touts for a more traditional, and I felt authentic, cycling experience. I burst forth from the honeycomb unstung, cruising in style atop my 1950's bike, the banana yellow frame radiating, but not as much as my pride, the radius of which only extended due to my clanging bell and classy picnic basket. I missed out on lots of tour guide info, but got to go at my own pace, and received a fine coating of candy color paint from the sun. A galaxy of irrevocable beads was strung across my forehead, ever shifting with the constant progressions of time and motion. 'Twas a shame when the handle of the big dipper burned too bright and dropped off. The dynamic duo of Camera and Vagabond is no more, do to managerial failures (on my part) in Saigon. I did acquire a mean little point and shoot in Phnom Penh though, so not all photo ops were left derelict, and I actually think that my experience benefitted by the absence of my original partner in documentarian crime. I found myself wondering how many people (myself included) have actually felt the temples as opposed to seeing them through a lens. It was strange to wander through thick crowds of Japanese and Korean tour buses and notice how many people were attempting to soak in the essence of the structures, not just pose for the uber-tourist pic that they would show all their friends when the got home. Details that the latest lens or highest megapixel count miscarry during transmission are things that you will truly remember. I reckon that bright memories remain vivid in recollection, these moments shine brilliant to no end for those who stare directly into the blinding light offered by the crumbling stone.

-sunrise to sunset.


Celine and I get cheeky.

-favorites = ta prom. bayon. bantey srei.

-highlight was final moment spent mano-y-mano with Angkor, the mother of all temples, as the fading light found itself being swallowed whole by mother natures unseen side, devoured by the faceless creature that is night.

-closing moments of solitude on adjacent lake, mulling over my time spent in SE Asia as gilded reflections drizzled toward me, an agent for reminiscence over golden times past. "Road Trippin'" by the Chili Peppers (who else, let's be real) came to mind, as I melted to the Anthony Kiedis' meditative sounds: "These smiling eyes are just a mirror for..."