Saturday, April 2, 2011

west becomes east

In light of my current employment status, self-employed that is, and with a significant lack in projects, I bought tickets for Florida and Guatemala about four days ago; I leave on April 11th. To those who know me well, this spur of the moment decision may not seem odd, but for those who do not let me enlighten you on my typical travel planning schematics. Where the common man gives his boss at least three month's notice of his intent to take a week of vacation to work on his 1950s Ford pickup that has been sitting in the garage the past five years, I buy a ticket for Guatemala intending to leave next weekend and return a month later. Granted, when I was employed by companies, I tended to give them at least a month's advance notice, but this rule no longer seems applicable. I think it would appear quite odd if I walked into my office (Caffee Umbria down the street) and proceeded to turn in a request for vacation to myself and inevitably have to deny the vacation request on grounds of short notice.

In all seriousness though, I only returned home about two weeks ago from a month long trip through India, Sri Lanka, and China and now I am about to embark on another month long foreign assignment; it just appears that I am really bad at sitting still. With that in mind and sitting here watching the Cricket World Cup final while sketching my soon to start kitchen remodel and finalizing tax accounting, I can't help but think back on where my adventurous travel life started.

Earlier today while thumbing through my travel journals and emails to remind me of my experiences, I found a letter from my wife in which she stated "I want you to travel, I love that you do!  It makes me proud, your sense of adventure and curiousity in life is one of the things I love about you." Reading this email recalled emotions of the loneliness and excitement I have experienced in my travels and how one can go through all of the efforts and exercises of travel searching for knowledge, opportunity, enlightenment, and belonging only to come back home empty handed. To preface the sentiments which will be expressed, an understanding of my childhood will provide context.

For the majority of my life, the racial and cultural differences between people have been a significant element of my daily interactions. Born to a family of mixed culture, adaptability to situations came second nature to my brother and I. My first exposure to racial sentiments occurred in Guatemala where the school children often expressed their inherited distaste for 'gringos' or foreigners, especially those from the United States of America. Even though I was clearly of an ethnic background, I was a US citizen, a gringo, according to the school children. As a mild mannered child and desiring friends, I learned to adapt to my situation and absorbed as much Latin culture and attitude as I could seeking to hide my so-called 'American attributes'.

In 1992, my mother, brother and I returned to the US and found a culture shock that only added to the family difficulties taking place at the time. I turned to religion as an escape at that time looking for acceptance and approval, but even there I found a lack of understanding in people. Having suffered the mistreatment and judgement of Guatemalans for being a US citizen, it was a shock to be treated as the opposite upon my return to the country, my technical homeland. I found my only solace in sports and in my Pakistani friend, Moinuddin who found himself in a somewhat similar situation as myself.

But even more dramatic was the next of life's steps, a seven year long temporary relocation to the Gem State, Idaho. I awoke one morning shortly after my 14th birthday in a small residential loop in a town of only 2500 people with the smell of evergreens in the air. In this town of predominately white people, my brother and I faced multiple years of indirect racism and treatment as second class citizens. We were surprised and shocked to learn that we were not truthfully 'Americans' solely because of our skin color. This is not to say that the racism was direct or forceful, but rather, it was clear that people looked at me as an inferior to themselves. A perfect example of this would be the suggestion by a number of high school girls at one point that I should go on a date with the foreign exchange student from Japan, simply because I was also, in their minds at least, from a different culture. It should be noted, I never had a single date throughout my high school time period. Again, I eventually figured out how to adapt and to hide all differences possible except for the color of my skin.

This tactic served me well through my university days in northern Idaho up until the attack on the twin towers in 2001. That year was the first time in my life that I faced direct, violent racial actions against those who were not white. But this is not the time nor the place to dwell on those interactions or the ensuing no-fly lists, four hour interrogations at border controls, nor police and public harassment. The purpose of this is to understand that essentially at no time or place in my life to this point had I felt that I belonged to a city, a state, a country, a people. I used the term citizen of the world as early as the age of 14 to explain to people my origins because I had no home base to call my own. I felt more at home as a nomad then as a stationary fixture in any specific society and found that I was more accepted or perhaps tolerated by societies as a transient figure rather than permanent. With that, back to our story at hand, a first trip to spur the next 7 years of travel.

Photo 1: Group of men surround a street performer in Jaipur.
It was May of 2004 and I had been traveling back and forth between Guatemala and Florida for about a two month's time period trying to keep myself busy until I decided what to do with my life. I had only recently taken a leave of absence from my engineering job in Richland, Washington and was not keen on returning to that lifestyle any time soon. Instead, I bought my first ticket to India, what any college educated young man would deem an intelligent decision considering he had no job, no money, and no employment in the foreseeable future.

But how could I pass on the chance to visit a distant land that gave birth to my forefathers, a country that holds more national and historical monuments than most continents, a name that conjures images of painted elephants and camels maneuvering through streets already crowded with people, cows and rickshaws, and a people I had never really known but whom pulled at the core of my being like a twin separated at birth? I just couldn't pass this opportunity was the answer and lucky for me my wonderful girlfriend fully supported my decision to venture into the unknown. Although, I sometimes think she had premonitions of the man I would become through these travels and the man I could have become had I never left our front door, the typical ABCD (American Born Confused Desi). 

Lacking any substantial knowledge of the culture, the people, the history, the weather patterns, etc.; and with encouragement from my father and girlfriend, I purchased a flight through British Airways during the hottest time of the year destined for the desert landscapes of Rajasthan in search of antiquated works of art and furniture. I still marvel today at the leap of faith my father took in sending his 24 year old, arrogant and inexperienced son off to a distant land to purchase goods for a business he had built himself from the ground up with nothing more than a suitcase of carpets in the early 80s. The nomadic blood appears to pass from generation to generation without fail.

I arrived near midnight, excitement pulsing through my veins and as wide awake as a newborn baby at 3am; quite the feat for having just traveled for 42 hours straight. A young man named Jahangir was waiting for me when I arrived at the Indira Ghandi International Airport in New Delhi, not that I knew which of the 200 Indian men outside the arrivals gate was him. I walked past him twice apparently finally locating a pay phone from which to dial his cell phone number that I had just received by e-mail during my layover in Amsterdam Schiphol. I rang three times before he finally picked up his phone and we attempted to coordinate a meeting point.

I knew little of Jahangir except that he was a Muslim man and supposedly of an age similar to my own; whom I met was a man about 5'-8" wearing a traditional grey kurta and sporting a long coarse beard and a taqiyah (traditional headpiece for Muslim men in India that resembles a doily). I learned much about Jahangir during our six hour journey at speeds ranging from 140 km/hr to 180 km/hr on a single lane road from Delhi to Jaipur in the middle of the night weaving in and out of the brightly painted trucks and jeeps without headlights. We made quick friends, practically brothers until business would damage our personal friendship many years later. Our late night/early morning arrival at his family's home in Jaipur was quickly followed by an exhaustion induced 14 hour coma.
Photo 2: A brightly colored locust foretells the impending monsoon season.
My first true day in India brought with it a sense of calm and peace amid the ruckus. We decided to not commence business for a few days so that I could get myself settled and acquainted with Jaipur. So with Jahangir as my travel guide, we visited a number of sites of interest throughout Jaipur, but I quickly found my attention being drawn more to the people and the streets then the buildings and history. This was my first experience of truly blending into my surroundings. Here, in majestic India, it appeared I had finally found a place where I was exactly like the others, where people did not take sidelong glances at me to judge me on my skin color or appearance, a place where I could seemingly just disappear into the masses. It was a beautiful and relaxing feeling to finally have a glimpse at what most would call 'home'.

Photo 3: My first non-zooified camel.
Photo 4: Women drying cashews at Jaipur's main bazaar.
Photo 5: Jahangir procuring sugar cane juice.

Sadly, by the end of my first week, the novelty of belonging had worn away along with my tolerance for the extreme heat only to be replaced with disgruntlement and a severe case of homesickness. The connection I had felt with this society in my first days was apparently only skin deep. The true intricacies of cultural immersion would not fall into their relevant state until much later in my life such as right this moment as I sit among a group of Indian friends including two of my closest friends whom I consider brothers and my wife.

 As I tried to remain open-minded of cultural differences with the western world I had been raised in, I could not help but find myself at odds with a number of events. In no country I had visited to date would a man walk past a woman and her baby so thoroughly malnourished that it appeared they might die on the street that day without even sneaking a glance at the misery, but that day in Jaipur, I watched the entire throng of commuters do so. I was ashamed to claim a connection with these people and again felt the pang of cultural disconnect. In my mind, I could not seem to balance my desire to connect with my family's blood and country and the severance of what I morally considered humanity.This discourse would become a prevailing element of my three weeks in India leaving me almost unresponsive to the questions by family and friends back home.

As the days continued, I found myself at an impasse with my emotions. One day I would love being in India, seeing all of the beauty involved in family life where grandparents and grandchildren all live under the same roof and eat every meal of the day together. I spent my time outside of the business trying to interlace my life with the society by attending prayers at the mosque with the captivating and meditative state brought from the methodical bowing and raising of oneself repeating " allahu akhbar" over and over, visiting the historical sites of the old city in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, and spawning conversations with young adults having coffee at the first coffee bar opened in Jaipur. Then the following day, my emotions would fall into a dark despair as I again became entrenched in the misery of watching how caste controls the nourishment of people or watch a worker be chastised and demeaned for his inability to finish his carpentry on time for a deadline that doesn't even exist, more so just to remind the worker who is boss.

As I laid in bed sick to the stomach over four days, I had a lot of time to reflect and think on the experiences of my first two weeks in India. The results of all these thoughts combined with my violent stomach sickness left me with an extremely pessimistic view of Indian live and society which slowly eradicated my feeling of connectivity to this culture.

In my short three and half weeks in India, I was able to experience more than I would have imagined. I had effectively purchased a container's fill of antiques and learned how to distinguish between the different varieties of woods used in furniture at different time periods for the regions of India. I visited the world's most profound testament of true love, the Taj Mahal surrounded by the decaying walls of the city of Agra; I ate in some of the grimiest and dirtiest dhabas one can find in central Delhi; and I had a stomach illness so bad that i didn't leave the house for four days, not to mention my introduction to the 'Indian toilet', a truly unique form of handling one's bodily waste that brought months of grimaces from my friends back home upon description. But of all these experiences, I most fondly think of my time spent in the mountain region of Kashmir, which I will talk about in my next post. Until then, please enjoy the photos below of my first trip to Majestic India.

Photo 6: Village boys showcasing captured black bears.
Photo 7: Need a ride, just jump on the back, side, or front of a jeep.
Photo 12: Sitting at a true dhaba, not the currently hyped and popular eateries patroned by Delhi's youth.
Photo 13: The cleaning station at the dhaba.

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