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Friday, July 8, 2016

On people you meet along the way

7-6 The day I talked to people

A few days ago, I was still recovering from Stok. My legs had residue of pain in my shins, and I wanted more than anything else to walk around in flipflops.  To not charge the streets, the stuppas or the markets, but just to wander aimlessly.  I sat and read for a few hours, re-configuring my understanding of ISIS and Al-Queda and their bouts of inner fighting.

I met Yaakov when he asked me to join a 7 day trip to Nubra valley to see the monasteries. He was a mid 60's National Geographic writer who had quit his job for Bezeq - the National communications company in Israel, 14 years ago to travel 8 months a year. He had been to Antarctica and Machu Pichu, to cannibalistic tribes in central China and spent time in monasteries in Papua New Guinea.  And despite 14 years of traveling, he was clueless about the world he was engaging with.  He had bathed elephants near the Gangas river, and had seen black rhinoceri on safaris in Southern Africa, but he couldn't make sense of the world of people.  "All Muslims hate us", he proclaimed several times during our conversation, "they blindly believe whatever they're told, and they're told to hate us." What was crazy was that this proclamation was based on several encounters he had had, in which he would "test them" by claiming to not believe in god (a claim he himself was not sure he actually believed in), and was surprised to find that God-fearing people were offended by his statement.
"But don't get me wrong, I'm a humanist and I love all people.  I'm all about love. So why can't other people just be open-minded like me?"
When the conversation drifted to Israeli politics, he asked me why I thought no leader from the center had arisen to take down Netanyahu, and I asked who he had voted for in the last few elections.  "I vote differently every time", he pompously stipulated his lack of political agenda.
"Don't you think that that may be a reason why no leader has arisen," I responded cautiously, "because you vote differently every time? How can a party build political support if the centrist 'liberal-humanist' constituency votes differently every time?"  But he didn't get it, and once again distracted the conversation with yet another tirade against "The Arabs" who cannot be trusted while being completely unaware of what "The Arabs" in the neighboring countries were fighting about, and how that may or may not be connected to our little conflict in the little Island in the Middle East that he resides in only 4 months a year.  Yaakov, who had traveled for 14 years around the world, was asking me to hindsightedly place his experiences in a geo-political context that would make sense, and then refused to hear my explanations.

Then there was Ayu, the Malaysian girl of Indian descent, and her newly acquainted Thai travel buddies, who had just arrived from the long bus from Manali a few hours ago.  The tables were crowded and they asked to join my table, and I jovially agreed.  "I'm Daniel, from Israel", I introduced myself, "Oh, you're from Malaysia, another country I won't get to visit anytime soon", I said jokingly to Ayu - imposing pressure on the situation and immediately alleviating it by smiling widely and saying that I obviously had no quarrel with her or her countries' politics. "Hey, my prime minister is an asshole too, if that makes you feel any better" I said to her with a wink-like gesture.  She smiled kindly in return, understanding that I don't take these things too seriously.  Thai girl number 1, was a teacher near Bangkok and Thai girl number 2 never even mentioned her profession.  They were all in their early thirties, and had finally found some disposable income to begin traveling in Asia - slowly expanding the radius from Bangkok to Cambodia, Hong Kong, Macau and now North India.  Ayu, a banker of seven years had decided to quit her job a year ago and move to Mumbai to study Indian dance and music.  After 8 months in Mumbai, she realized the she could also move around a bit more, and decided to boldly buy a backpack and begin to travel alone across India.

"You see, I never really got why you guys are fighting with Palestinians, to be honest, why not just give them a state?" Ayu raised the question quite frankly after I mentioned that I'm getting my PhD in Political Science and study that conflict a bit. "And I know that in Malaysia we do tend to get overly pro-Palestinian journalism, but still..." she let the question linger.  "I agree with you" I told her "we probably should do that, but it's also just a little bit more complicated than that"  I explained.  And I began to give my regular "why Israel and Palestine is a fucked up story" shpeil, again keeping it light-hearted but trying to get the main points across.  "Narratives, histories, stories, religion, land, water, these are things that people kinda care about", I explained, "and forgiving and forgetting, while a great idea in theory, is pretty hard in practice.  And coming to a 'fair' solution requires solving these things".  Ayu led the charge of questions - "but what about the settlements, and what about the occupation", while Thai girl number 2 would nod in agreement, Thai girl number 1 seemed more dumbfounded about our little kerfuffle in the Middle East.  So I drew a map, and gave a quick and dirty history lesson.  1948, 1967, Palestine, West Bank, Gaza, rockets and occupation.  Not hiding the brutality of Israel's daily enforced military regime over civilians, but not sparing the complexities of security in a world of fear and mistrust.  It was all there, on the table, on a napkin, lines in green ink.

And as I finished, they just said, "wow, that is kinda complicated". "Yeah, it kinda is," I said, grinning with satisfaction of receptive listening, "so just be sure that whenever anyone makes bold statements about this issue being 'simply' anything, just remember that any solution is gonna fuck with a bunch of people's lives, and sadly it is complicated." They left to organize their luggage before leaving for Pangong lake early in the morning, and thanked me for the history lesson.  I, in response, apologized for having them had to endure it, and tried to recollect why I had begun this endeavor of explaining to Ayu and Thai girls number 1 and 2 the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a German Bakery in Northern India, eating French-ish croissants, while three large Kashimiri men and a South Indian women in a veil spoke Hindi when not eavesdropping onto our conversation.
It's India, I guess, that's why.

Then there was Nicole. The Londoner come-Australian 34 year old who had hopped off her moped with Johaness - the towering, man-bunned German twenty-something year old, after touring the Buddhist monasteries of the area.  I had been sitting at the coffee shop on Changspa road for a while now, staring at the people crossing my path. The diversity of tourism in Leh is stunning: the middle class Indians who had come to see the exotic Ladakh; the India grannies - 60-something-year-old Europeans who came for a touch of reinvigorated enlightenment, usually adorning full India attire and the necessary socks and sandals; the dominating Israeli alpha males, usually from some kibbutz in the south, fidgeting with the motorbike they were eager to sell after two months; the Central European families of four with teenagers, all adorning matching The North Face down jackets except dad who was wearing an Arcteryx hard-shell; the biker crew from The Netherlands, England and Australia who spend their lives in the triangle of Holland, Nepal and Ladakh "buying and selling stuff like gems, garments and whatever other shit people want to buy."
But Nicole seemed eager to share her story, instead of letting me invent it. "I know you from somewhere", she turned her shoulder over to me at some point, "could it be that we ran into each other when you were living in London as a kid?" she asked after the obligatory where-are-you-froms. She was from West Hampstead, and I had lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb - not too far but also a world apart. While Nicole was shopping for jewelery at the adjacent Belgian girl's jewelry stand, Johaness had told me about their trip to the monasteries and how Nicole was in the process of converting to Buddhism.  So when she returned, and Johaness had left, I asked her about her recent conversion.
"I've been on quite a journey these last few weeks", and I smiled because everyone in India seemed to be on a journey, but her's was a Journey - Capital J.

She came to India wanting to learn some more about Buddhism, after quiting her NGO job of 14 years in Melbourne.  A Jew by birth, but a Buddhist by philosophy, she came to see what India could offer her in return. She had traveled to Rishikesh and Dharamsala and Dharamkot - the usual hippie seeker trail, only to find herself drawn to a small town named Beet, a spec on the map as far as everyone was concerned.  But as it happened, a rising Lama who had just emerged from his 7 years of studying, and had reasonable English began to teach at a seminar that same week.  People had been waiting for years for this specific Lama to emerge and begin teaching, and she finagled her way into the course.  While I had no clue as to the name or the stream of Buddhism to which this Lama belonged, her gaping eyes exclaiming excitement at the opportunity to become part of this endeavor meant that this was a big deal. To her at least.

Nicole was a skeptic, but she wanted to believe.  She wanted to interpret events as signs, but then challenged the signs she received and wanted more of them.

The Lama was to see her on the first day, and she was to ask him questions about her practice. "What practice?" she asked, "I don't have a practice. Yet." So instead she asked about the fairness of Karma imposing the life time of another man onto a child.  The esteemed Lama smiled, she told me, and looked her in the eye and said that karma is what you make of it, and that she should focus on creating new good karma instead of dwelling on the old.  Her Dharma sisters, more experienced and well-versed Buddhists, who at first looked down at her for her know-nothingness but  were becoming increasingly appreciative of her, told her that the Lama gave her a "soft answer."  But Nicole preferred the soft answer anyway.
And as she sat through the teachings the practice throughout the week, she still wanted more.  She spoke of feeling things, elongating the first syllable,  like most yoga teachers do, really feeeeling things deep down inside, but when they asked her to declare her faith in front of the three hundred people and fully commit, she hesitated.  She wanted to make sure that this Lama, who would be her mentor and her teacher, would really be there.  She wanted to see him one more time. "No, no no, it's impossible," they told her, "you only get to see the Lama once, sorry".  But then it changed, and the opportunity arose for her to be in the last session available of the week.  She sat down in front of him, knees crossed, his glaring eyes staring into hers "and my soul vibrated a bit," she said doubtingly, "I'm not even really sure what that means, but that's how it feeels." She asked if he would be her teacher, so she could commit to Buddhism and to him, and he in kind simply agreed and asked her to open a center in Melbourne to spread his teachings.  "I guess that's kinda committing, right?" she asked me, still trying to figure out with herself whether she was crazy to be thinking about it.  But she took the leap, at least a first one, and converted.  She was on a new path.

"So are you really gonna do it" I asked her, "are you going to open the center?" But she responded with a shrug.  She still had her skeptic and her believer selves fighting it out. She would wait to get home tomorrow, and see if it still fealt real, or whether it was just the illusion of travel-time that had made her succumb. I said there's nothing quite like being at a junction like that, where you life can diverge fully and you can see two separate and distinct trajectories of life in front of you.
"But the best part is, that no matter which one you choose, they're both good" I told her reassuringly.
She went to pay the bill and pick up the piece of jewelry she had set her heart on earlier across the street.
As we parted she said she was reaally happy to have met me, and I replied in kind.
"Enjoy your choices", I told her, myself enjoying her journey and story percetibly, "whichever one you make".

She got on her moped and drove away, and I sat and continued to watch the people crossing by - English, German, Urdu, Hindi, Nepalese, Ladakhi, Tibeti, Hebrew and Dutch all converging simultaneously on Changspa road.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, fun, funny, should talk to people more, not just intermittently. A lot of meta-cognition.