Reflections After Ravandur

“India is everything,” says our host. “Here you can find the best of humanity and the absolute worst, often times on the same street.” If Martians were to land on earth and ask for the best representation of human life, I would point to India, for what our host says is true. 

Good and bad exist everywhere, but of all the places I’ve been so far India exhibits the two virtues in closest proximity to each other. Our host tells us there is a word in Hindi that expresses the notion that foreigners should be treated like gods. “If they take the time to come to India, they deserve to be treated like deities” he said. This explains why the British were able to exploit and occupy India for so long. 

And this is what I mean when I talk about the proximity of the good and bad here. The genuine act of human kindness that welcomes and reveres foreigners can be so easily perverted into something wicked. The good here balances upon a sphere, and with only the slightest adjustment topples the good into misery. 

Our host tells us of his neighbor growing up, how his neighbor now works in IT and makes tons of money, and how his neighbor threw such an extravagant wedding, buying his bride a brand new luxury car, but he didn’t invite his own mother, blind and alone at home; he couldn’t be bothered to figure out a way to get her to the venue. Our host now takes care of his neighbor’s mother, the rest of the family being too caught up with sudden wealth and extravagance.

I would tell that Martian to examine India because of stories like these, but there’s more to it than just the close presence of good and evil. I would tell him to investigate here because here he might also see that, despite continually being toppled, the good, like our venerable host, always climbs back up on that sphere. 

Yoga

Like massage, yoga joins the ranks of things I was told are relaxing but are really masochistic. 

Our host is a yoga pro. He has been practicing his entire life and has taught in numerous places around the world. I have no doubts of his skill and compassion in teaching the art of yoga. However, there is only so much gymnastics one can teach a dog. 

I have the same affinity for yoga as the dog has for gymnastics. Sure, I’ve learned the basic poses and breathing exercises, but the positions are only half of yoga. The other arguably more important half is the mind. Our host laments the fact that yoga is seen as merely exercise in the west, for the spiritual half is what the humdrum minds of westerners really need. 

The poses, I’m told, continue to be painful so long as the practitioner does not clear his or her mind and focus on breathing, and, go figure, it’s hard to breath normally while posed like someone who was just told to stand in the most uncomfortable way imaginable. 

Like Buddhism, yoga has attain a substantial following of annoying white people. That’s the only thing I can say about them, though, is that they annoy me. I lack the patience and spirituality to grasp the finer points of yoga and eastern philosophy in general, but if it works for people, all the power to them. 

What annoys me about westerners who praise eastern philosophy as some kind of silver bullet is their insistence that spirituality doesn’t exist in the west. This is of course not true. Having been in eastern countries for a few months now I feel comfortable admitting that here, spirituality is far more public. In the west, our spirituality is hidden in churches and the writings of great thinkers, but mostly it is hidden within our selves.

In the west, spirituality has no business with the public, even though it often times makes ugly appearances in the public sphere. In India, however, spirituality is expected to be present in the everyday. When we begin practice yoga in the morning we must first perform a few sun salutations, which are successive positions that somehow give praise and thanks to the sun. These positions are not just meaningless flailings. They are meant to be practiced with the same sincerity with which one practices evening prayer. 

Part of the work here has been helping to construct a pond, and before even the first stone was laid, we all stood solemnly by as a puja was performed. A puja can be many things I’m told, but most of the time it is a sacrifice in order to ensure good fortune and prosperity. In this case a few bananas and a pomegranate were the unfortunate victims. 

The spirituality is out in the open here, just as it can be out in the open in the west, but these outward displays of faith are typically Christian, and are usually met with skepticism.

Some of this skepticism no doubt stems from the elements of fantasy in the Bible, the promise of salvation through faith being perhaps the hardest pill to swallow. But eastern religions and philosophies have their own versions of salvation, and why these variations should be treated with less skepticism is to me unfathomable.

I originally intended to write about how comical my struggle with yoga is but here we are. This ended up being about a different kind of struggle I suppose.

Diwali

The only familiarity I can claim with the Indian holiday of Diwali is what I learned from that episode of The Office, wherein Michael Scott mistakes it to be the Hindu equivalent of Halloween. 

Now that I have been in India for Diwali I can tell you that it is nothing like Halloween. In fact, I know no western holiday by which to compare it. Diwali has many facets, but I’m told that the most important part is celebrating light overcoming darkness. This victory is not just symbolic, because according to Hindu tradition, Diwali celebrates Krishna’s victory over Narakasura, who was some kind of evil god or demon. 

We have been trying to get to bed early here, but we were unable to ignore the fireworks and parades passing just outside, so we sauntered out to see what all the fuss was about. 

Outside all the households were candles, and with the aid of fireworks and sparklers, the night felt as bright as mid-day. Making its slow way down the street was some kind of beautiful flower arrangement being carried on a stretcher by four men. Leading the whole procession was a troop of at least ten drummers, accompanied by some guys who were playing horns that looked like something out of a fantasy novel. The horns wrapped around the bodies of the players like thin snakes; the bell of the instrument was small and gaped high above the parade.

I asked a guy next to me what the flower arrangement was, but I couldn’t hear his reply over the drums, horns, and fireworks. Whatever it was it moved at a glacial pace. Some poor truck driver got stuck behind it, and judging by his expression when he passed me, his enthusiasm for Diwali was damn near gone. 

It stopped every ten feet or so, and every time it stopped someone would adjust the flowers and pray. It seemed like it would never pass us by, but then there it was, lurching away, leaving me in the kind of stupor I feel after waking from a dream.

The Tuesday Market

Our host took us to a local open-air market that occurs every Tuesday. I thought I might have a sense of what this market would be like, having spent some time in the open air market in Chiang Mai. The market here was much smaller than the one in Chiang Mai, however, and less built up by far. Perhaps twenty to thirty vendors sat on the ground surrounded by their wares, which were typically produce, spices, and dyes. 

Our host is usually hosting at least one foreigner every month, so locals have become used to seeing him with foreigners, but I don’t think they’re fully used to seeing foreigners in general. 

Traveling through Asian countries, we’ve become accustomed to the stares, but here the stare is much more intense, mostly because we are the only foreigners in this village and perhaps the only foreigners for miles. 

The intensity of the stare is also due in part to the feeling of opportunity that comes along with it. Foreigners have money and a sometimes naïve desire to feel like they’re helping, which makes them a great way to earn a few extra rupee. 

This is in no way devious on the part of the locals. Poverty here isn’t just something you see on TV, it directly impacts you and everything you see. Walking into the market, I was acutely aware of the fact that my glasses cost more money than some here see in a year. It’s an uncomfortable situation because never have I seen such actual poverty, but I also see no immediate ways for locals to escape this vicious poverty.

Of course, none of this is really news. You don’t have to visit India to see pictures and videos of what it’s like here in a small village, but it’s one thing to watch and another to actually see first hand. 

My American ingenuity sees this poverty and wonders how to fix it. I know, though, that I can’t fix this. Scores of people have already tried. You have seen them, or at least you have seen their campaigns being run at your local church or YMCA: “Donating just five dollars can feed a family for a week! Donate now and make a difference!” 

A handful will donate, but the rest will remain indifferent. I can’t say what camp I will fall into when I return home after seeing the poverty first hand. I would have more justification for donating than most, but I also would have ample reason for refusing. “I’ve been there,” I would say, “and it’s going to take a lot more than donated dollars to fix the systemic problems.” 

Dollars are a good place to start, people will say. Dollars for what though? Food and water are of course necessary but if the problem really is to be addressed money would have to be spent on education. Good education, for everyone. 

Again, none of this is news. Spending on education is much harder than spending on food and water. I’m not trying to slag off people who donate to these kinds of campaigns, by the way. I’m just pointing out in my own terms the obvious truth, that things are complicated and aren’t resolved by clicking “Donate.” 

The only thing I can say with certainty is this: if you are currently raising a child who is acting like a spoiled little shit bring him or her to the Tuesday market in Ravandur, India. Let your child see how people here get along with so little. Maybe you need to see it too. 

Intro to India

I was reluctant to agree to India. I think Billy has always wanted to visit India, but it’s never really been on my list, so he had to talk me into it. I didn’t take much convincing, however, because even though I never planned on going to India, I knew it was a place that I would never regret saying I visited. 

For all this time that we’ve been traveling India has always been in the back of my mind. Not in a fearful way, just in a mindful awareness. Each day would bring us closer to touching down in India, a place that changes western travelers and possibly gives them diarrhea. On the three plane rides over I began mentally preparing to be shocked. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t bring myself to comprehend what I was about to experience because even my conceptualization of India, as bad or as good as I made it, wouldn’t be enough to prepare me. So with an open mind but fearing the worst we landed in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) at two o’clock in the morning, needing to somehow take public transportation from the airport to the remote village of Ravandur, where our Workaway host is located. 

We were both exhausted at that time, but I remember each step feeling cautious, like at any moment we could walk into the wrong place at the wrong time. The security guards walking around with machine guns didn’t alleviate this feeling, but somehow we found the bus station, paid, and were on our way to Mysuru, where would have to get a taxi to Ravandur. I was so tired that much of this process was a blur. The bus ride was long (four hours) and thankfully I slept through most of it, despite the fact that the bus driver honked the horn practically every five seconds.

A word about honking. Honking culture here is much different from honking culture in the US in that here nobody stops laying on the horn. Billy noted that all this honking makes it lose its meaning. A honk in the US is guaranteed to startle, but here it is so frequent that it is just another part of driving communication. 

I did wake up around five in the morning, just outside of Bangalore, where the bus was going through a toll. Outside hanging around the toll booth were crowds of people, squatting, begging, and doing everything in between. I knew that if I looked more in my exhausted state what I saw would overwhelm me, so in moments I was back asleep. 

It was light outside when I woke again, around seven o’clock, so I again took a look out the window. We were far outside of Bangalore at that point, so everything was rural, and the buildings we passed were in various stages of ruin, yet still people congregated outside of them to eat or just sit around. The country side is green and beautiful, but it is at all times at odds with the filth from humans. Trash is strewn all along the sides of the road, and meandering alongside the garbage are herds of cows. Cows, being sacred here, are everywhere. They have no leash it seems, and are free to just roam wherever. 

The longer I looked, though, the more I realized that nothing I was seeing particularly shocked me. Here, like in Thailand, there are tuk tuks and buildings in disrepair, family-run restaurants and food stalls at frequent intervals. It all became normal so quickly that I was slightly alarmed. I voiced this observation to Billy and he concurred. India, like Japan and Thailand before it, was just another place on the map. We have become so used to traveling and suddenly being outside of our comfort zones that, in a way, we were totally prepared for India. 

Getting a taxi in Mysuru was absurdly easy. We just stepped off the bus and were immediately greeted by a taxi driver who set us up for a ride to Ravandur. I’m sure his price was high by Indian standards, but we didn’t care, we just wanted to get settled in our new place. 

Once we did arrive and meet our generous and friendly host, the realization really sunk in. Somehow, we navigated ourselves from a major city to a rural village in India. There were no tears, complaints, or major complications to speak of. When did we become adjusted to this single backpack life on the road lifestyle? And how come it happened so fast? I thought it would take us much longer to become comfortable bouncing from place to place. This is not to say there still isn’t difficulty involved, but it’s a difficulty we have become acclimated to. 

With all this in mind, I feel prepared for whatever India throws at me. Though it may still challenge me, I know that I’ll get through it before I know it. So I feel prepared, yes, even for the diarrhea, because I have traveler’s diarrhea pills. 

Last Smoothie of the Night: Goodbye Thailand

Billy. Remember landing here in Thailand? Remember being driven to the Airbnb through what looked like dilapidated streets where stray dogs roamed free? 

Elliott. I remember. I remember thinking that we were really in for it.

Billy. Look at us now though: walking down the street at night sipping smoothies, feeling completely at ease. This is such a far cry from my memory of that first night. 

Elliott. Things looked so much worse that first day. But in actuality we spent most of our time wandering the city, or milling about in cafés. 

Billy. Thailand has been nothing like the news portrays it as, that’s for sure. What would our parents have said if we told them we were going to visit Las Vegas. Probably something like, “Don’t blow all your money at the black jack table! And remember, an STD won’t stay in Vegas!” Compare that to what they said when we told them we would be going to Thailand. “Make sure you be safe there. Stay away from big crowds and always walk together late at night. You never know who is out there.” That fear is so far removed from the truth. 

Elliott. It reinforces the notion that you can’t take anybody’s word about a place as gospel. You have to visit the place in question to see for yourself. 

Billy. We have to have a boys trip back here. 

Elliott. Absolutely. What a week that would be. Though, as much as I’ve liked it here, three weeks has really been my limit. I couldn’t live here any longer than that.

Billy. No? 

Elliott. It’s too hot all the time for starters. I need somewhere that gets real weather, somewhere where the seasons actually change. That, and I don’t think I’m spiritual enough to live here.

Billy. What kind of reason is that? What do you mean?

Elliott. I mean there is such an air of spirituality here—what with all the temples and that. You walk down the street and there on the horizon is an unavoidably large statue of the Buddha, next to an elaborate Wat that is difficult to ignore. I don’t need to see the Buddha, temples, or Christian churches for that matter day in and day out. I’m always suspicious of outward displays of spirituality. I feel as though true spirituality is inward, and evaporates as soon as it is exposed to outside air. In other words, you don’t need a temple to practice Buddhism and you don’t need a church to practice Christianity. In my experience  people who attend church punctually forget this notion, and are usually looking to prove something.

Billy. That’s some convenient reasoning. Is that why you can’t remember the last time you went to church back home? Too busy practicing Christianity in your bedroom?

Elliott. You know what I mean.

Billy. I do, and I think you’re right to a certain extent. Yes, believing that going to temple makes you a Buddhist isn’t necessarily correct, but there is still something to be said about the feeling of community temple offers. This community is even more important to Christians I think, right?

Elliott. Well. Shit. Yeah that’s true. The whole “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them” thing. 

Billy. Is that a Bible verse? 

Elliott. It’s Matthew something or other yeah. 

Billy. I’m impressed. Are you practicing Christianity at home on Sundays?

Elliott. Definitely not. The Bible, however, has no shortage of trenchant lines of beautiful poetry. I enjoy those types of lines insofar as I enjoy poetry. In fact one of the first things I ever memorized was the Lord’s Prayer. You know, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

Billy. I don’t know actually.

Elliott. Oh well. It’s in the book of Matthew as well, like the quote I mentioned earlier about God being wherever the community gathers. But the Lord’s Prayer also appears in shorter form in the book of Luke. 

Billy. Uh huh. 

Elliott. How did we get talking about this?

Billy. You were mentioning how aren’t spiritual.

Elliott. Right. All I’m trying to say is that it’s too in your face here, too much for my comfort, anyway.

Billy. I could see myself living here. Not for the rest of my life, but for a few years, sure. Life is well-paced here. It’s not a huge city with over-crowded streets and a sprawling metropolis. Most things are close enough to walk to, and there isn’t an overwhelming variety of things to do, but the things that are here are genuine in that you can do them multiple times and still get something out of the experience. Like Doi Suthep, the temple in the mountains we visited yesterday. I would love to go back there when it isn’t so crowded and just soak up as much detail as possible. I think I could do that many times and not get bored, or at least not for a long time. Plus, these smoothies man, are freakin delicious.

Elliott. The thing is that when I try and make them at home they will be nowhere near as good as they are here. 

Billy. Exactly. That’s why we’ve got to enjoy them while we can.

Clothes

I do laundry here about once a week. I only have a few articles of clothing, so once a week is enough. Mostly we rely on the old smell test to know when we should do a load of laundry. Other than that, clothes haven’t been an issue for either of us, a fact which I voiced on our way to dinner.

Elliott. When we were leaving I had the suspicion that I hadn’t brought enough clothes, but I realize now that not once have I felt like I needed more clothes. 

Billy. Yeah that hasn’t bothered me either.

Elliott. Living out of one backpack makes one realize how little is necessary to get along.

Billy. Well, it also has to do with our current station in life. Sure we only have like three outfits, but people expect that of backpackers. Whereas when we get home it won’t be so accepted for us to just wear the same three outfits all the time, as much as we might want to. 

Elliott. I’m going to be shocked by all the clothes I own when I get home. I won’t know what to do with it all. 

Billy. We’ll get used to all that stuff again I’m sure. 

Elliott. I don’t doubt it, but I think there will definitely be an impulse to cut down, at least for me. Not that I own a lot of stuff anyway, but any amount of stuff is substantial compared to what I’m carrying around in my backpack. 

Billy. Mhm. I’m trying not to think too much about getting home. We’ll be back before we know it. 

Elliott. Yeah we’re leaving for India in four days. How’d that happen? 

Billy. See what I mean?