Monday, November 23, 2009

America Present

I think it was fall that woke me up. I love fall. It's my favorite season. It's kind of... spicy and magical. Since my return from India a week ago, I've felt like a ghost, or rather a slightly younger Ebenezer Scrooge being herded from place to place by the Ghost of America Present. This is my third re-entry in the last year and a half, but the triple whammy of jet lag, reverse culture shock, and Stockholm Syndrome hit me several times harder this go 'round. Hard to say why, but the last week found me drifting through the Berkeley hills in an exhaustion-induced stupor, feeling like my psychic insides were stranded somewhere over the Pacific, and the rest of me in utter revolt against my own culture.

Apart from those precious moments nuzzling my nephew and giggling through sun salutations with my neice, I just couldn't quite seem to get back in my body, until the air, crisper than a pressed shirt, and the blazing foliage reeled in that old astral cord. It was tenuous at first, and I felt nervous about boarding yet another flight to head back to the east coast, but here I really am, and feeling more in my bones every day.

I was happy to observe (upon arriving in my body) that I don't appear too much the worse for wear, apart from a few missing pounds and a persistent tendency to do head counts before getting into any motorized vehicle. Indeed, the worst damage I've sustained occured a couple of days ago when, during a 5am yoga practice (jet lag, you are a cruel mistress), I attempted an arm balance before my poor body had time to wake up, and landed squarely on my face with the full weight of my body behind it. Though I'm now getting wierd pains in my left temple, the face plant doesn't seem to have done any lasting harm (or, unfortunately, good), and I am undaunted in my quest to master yoga like someone with arms of normal length.

My recollections of the semester have already begun to sweeten and sift out the less-than-savory moments. I've finally managed to pin down some of that elusive gratitude for the lessons of the last three months, and the students who brought them to my doorstep- beautiful little pissers, all, and well on their way, I think, to a better way of being. Or maybe I should just speak for myself. It will probably be a few years before I figure out why the last year and a half of my life felt like something I absolutely had to do, and no time at all to be sure that I'm done.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Break-Up

They say it takes twice as long to get over a relationship as the time you actually spent in it. This one may take a bit longer.

I had almost a day of “free travel” before the next wave of chaos hit. I had just spent the previous four hours at our first “Art of Living” workshop, doing breathing exercises that made my body temperature plummet and my neck muscles spasm, when I learned that one of the aspiring camel trekkers was stricken with severe flu-like symptoms, and would be staying back with me in Udaipur. The days that followed were a blur of hospital trips, swine flu research, and frantic money wire transfers to cover our escalating medical costs. The gods of good health were once more turning their impervious backs on our beleaguered community, this time including my co-leader Francis in their stricken number. In fact, as I write this from my haze of jet lag and administrative catch up here at our home base in California, Francis is swaddled in his sleeping bag up the hill, still fighting this mystery plague. 104 degree fevers, aches, chills, and cough- as the doctor said, if it’s not swine flu, it looks a whole lot like it.

The train ride back to Delhi was swift and merciful. All I wanted to do was get these people on a plane to somewhere where they can drink from the faucets and swallow a mouthful of water in the shower without losing half their bodyweight in gastro-distress.

The following three days back in Majnu ka Tilla passed in a blur of last minute errands and paperwork. The Tibetan Quarter in Delhi is a warren of dark, narrow alleyways, bordered by the now placid Yamuna on one side, and a busy roadway on the other. There’s really nowhere to go but up to the rooftops, where smog blurs the profiles of Delhi’s crumbling suburbs. Last year, I made a twice daily pilgrimage to the roof terrace for yoga and to drink in my last eyefuls of India. This time, with Francis feverishly enshrouded in his sleeping bag and much to be done, I only made one ascent in three days, just hours before we left for the airport. I sat on a small slab of cardboard and watched the sun settle into the urban horizon. I didn’t feel any of the customary sentimental wistfulness at these last sights and smells. I was tired, and ready to go home. I know I’ll go back to India, though the journey will be entirely my own. After three excruciating hours trying to herd the group through money changing, bag check and baffling security snags (An empty box of matches? A coconut?) at Delhi airport, India finally faded away below the clouds.

Later, in Berkeley
I look back at my entry from Hong Kong airport in September, surveying my newly minted student-explorers as they drifted amongst the duty-free shops, tentatively hopeful and optimistic. That’s when I began creating the story that this semester would be the culmination of all of my hard won lessons, and the peak of my career as an intrepid experiential educator.

Sitting here now, benumbed with jet lag and rocked from the inside out by the events of the last few days, I can let go of the need to believe that this semester would be easier, and that I would make it through unscathed by heartbreaking inconsistencies. It’s taken me a while to get to this last entry, and I’m probably still not quite ready to be writing it, though I’m hoping that in doing so I might put this all behind me. To be brief, the program I am working for seeks to foster integrity and responsibility in young adults, and has very clear guidelines prohibiting the use of tobacco, alcohol, or drugs during the semester. We check in with the students periodically throughout our time together to make sure they are in alignment with these agreements, offering support to those who may be struggling with old patterns and new temptations.

Over the last three days, it was revealed that nine of my thirteen students had broken one or more of these agreements at least once during our ten weeks in India, and eight were sent home for drug and alcohol use. The facility with which they lied to Francis and I throughout the semester chills me still, and the knowledge that these lies traveled with us for ten weeks breaks my heart. The students were repentant and remorseful, and I couldn’t deny them my forgiveness or reassurance. My care for them had been too hard won, and if I can’t still believe in them, then the exhaustion I feel now would be meaningless. It will take me a while to figure out how I could have given so much of myself, and felt so much more grounded in experience, with such baffling results. I’m hoping that there will be an uplifting epilogue to this story, and that in the quieter days to come I will discover some perfection in the course of events, and gratitude for things, and people, being exactly as they are.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Free" Travel

I have this new furrow between my eyebrows, which I am telling myself will disappear once I divest myself of my current responsibilities and bid the arid desert plains of Rajasthan a fond farewell. In the mean time, it helps me put my bindi on straight, which I now wear regularly to protect my prana and advertise my married status. Only married women wear bindis in India, and since I've been sporting mine, I get a lot less "Hello, pretty, I'm taking you on my bike." I also seem to get a good bit less professional courtesy, as many of the sponsors my co-leader and I interact with assume that we are husband and wife, treating him like the Second Coming, and me like a lobotomized human ornament. This proves a valuable exercise in both assertion and acceptance, as I sometimes have to elbow my way into discussions, while respecting cultural norms and remembering compassion for the limited view of women with which they are handicapped.

We've just finished our last (!) official day of the semester, and are now beginning the "free travel" portion of our trip. Our closing activities included a collaborative plastics clean-up and signature campaign for Fateh Sagar (Tiger Lake). We worked with the students of a local business school on the project, who were very enthusiastic about undertaking a project as a team, and much less so about actually picking up slimy flip flops, disintegrating plastic bags, and muck-laden wrappers from along the shoreline. We were each given a surgical glove (plastic, delivered to us wrapped in plastic) to protect our right hands for the task, which quickly filled with stagnant sludge, giving our hands the look of swollen mittens, and resulting in a continuous chorus of "Eeeeew!" The slogan for the day quickly became "Get disgusted. Save the lake!" Yes, it was unpleasant work, but well worth it to me for the immediate reward of seeing the impact of our combined efforts, and actually getting ot give back to a place that has given us so much. I still really struggle with the ways it seems we commodify India by coming here and offering such a smorgasbord of experience, with so little emphasis on sustainability and service.

So now begins the final chapter, and no one is more surprised than I about the plot. Originally, the plan was for all of us to head out to western Rajasthan for an overnight camel trek, before heading to Delhi to give the students a couple of days to do some frantic pre-departure shopping and curriculum catch-up. Now, I have done an overnight camel trek in a desert before, and I feel utterly confident that I have never, in any past life, been a rider of camels. They are the mechanical bulls of the desert, and the nemesis of anyone with a less-than-plush backside. I do love sleeping in the desert, however, and was bracing myself for the inevitable bruises when a few of my students approached me with the idea of a second option. It is a three day yoga/breathing/meditation course offered here in Udaipur. Four hours a day of practice and teachings, and they were practically foaming at the mouth to do it! Turns out, 8 of our 13 students, when given the choice between camel trekking and a meditation workshop, chose meditation. This is not a statistic I would have believed, were I not about to jump into rickshaws with these same 8 students for our first day of rigorous personal transformation.

The course is called "The Art of Living", and was developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as a curriculum to help those who do not wish to renounce the world or meditate in a cave for thirty years to achieve inner peace and balance. The organization actually has special consult status with the UN, as these programs are used with various populations to resolve conflict and build peace around the world. I am so excited for the chance to wrap the semester up with something nourishing and centering, and hope that the students walk away with something they can take into their lives back in the U.S. So Francis will head out with 5 students for a little camel time (12 hour bus ride, overnight trek, 17 hour train ride to Delhi- again, no thanks), and I'll stick it out here with the remaining eight. Techinically, free travel is when the students really take over, and the leaders take the proverbial back seat. I'd be happy for even a lateral move to the passenger side. That, or I'm going to need to resort to the Indian equivalent of a Red Bull and a Twinkie just to keep this thing on the road.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Homegrown Revolution

Jules Dervaes and his three children live on a plot of land that is half house, half food. This would not be utterly remarkable in many parts of the world, were it not for three factors: 1) This plot is snugged into the flank of a major freeway in Pasadena, California, near the Rose Bowl 2) The plot itself is 1/5 of an acre and 3) 1/10 of that acre yields 6,000 pounds of food per year. When Manish, our main contact at Shikshantar (a local initiative to re-create Udaipur as a zero-waste “learning city”), informed me that our group would have the opportunity to meet with a California-based family of activists called “Path to Freedom”, I was curious but cautious. The prospect of yet another alt-minded, smug California hipster contingent intent on proselytizing their irrelevant brand of “Whole Foods” yippie sustainability in impoverished areas did not appeal (we prefer to be the only smug alt-minded California group within a hundred kilometers).

Within minutes of meeting Jules and his salt-of-the-earth brood, it was obvious that they are about as pretentious as homemade pickles. The Dervaes family found themselves in India due to a short film, originally created as an audio visual aid for a talk Jules gave to a group of undergrads at UCLA (opening for Michael Pollan, demigod of food politics). The video found its way onto YouTube, and evolved into a piece that is being selected for film festivals all over the world. People from Torrance to Torino have become inspired by the Dervaes’s story of how they turned their barren SoCal lot into a lush profusion of edible vegetation and renewable energy, aka an “urban homestead“. Every available surface is covered with some form of plant life, and the acreage is now literally on higher ground than its neighbors, due to the fertile topsoil painstakingly nurtured by Jules and his offspring over the last 25 years. They call it the 100 Foot Diet, and judging by the clear-eyed determination and hearty energy of the bunch, it beats the hell out of Atkins.

I cornered Jules to talk about his vision, his methods, and that unbelievable topsoil, and he took up my ill-informed questions with an enthusiasm that he sustained for the next three days of presentations, film viewings, and community gatherings. He believes that growing our one's own food is the most powerful political, social, and environmental action possible to reclaim sovereignty over our bodies, minds, and communities while restoring the earth. He is a farmer-activist-philosopher in the tradition of Wendell Berry, and I think I’d bronze a gym sock if he’d scribbled some words across it.

I sat with him at breakfast this morning- a beautiful traditional Indian spread of fresh fruits, moong dal, crisped flat bread, and spiced puffed grains, discussing how the Western diet is literally changing the shape of the world and the people in it. He shared with me that he recently saw projections of how meat consumption worldwide is steadily increasing, despite environmental and health hazards and a depressed economy. Heavily populated countries such as China are being lured by the preservatives and prosperity of Western fast food culture, demanding more beef and less broccoli. His urban homestead is off that chart entirely. There's just no room for a cow bigger than a shitzu at "Path to Freedom".

Jules gazed across the table at his daughter’s plate, which looked more like a work of art than the packaged and processed food substitutes many people consume for breakfast. “See, someone take a picture of that. That plate just wouldn’t happen in the U.S. Someone would have to take the time to find and prepare that kind of real fruit, to cook those beans… People just don’t do that anymore.” True, the contents of that plate were about as far from a Pop Tart as it’s possible to get. Someone snapped a photo, and I exhaled a silent prayer that it wouldn’t end up in a museum someday.

The closing shot of the Dervaes’s film, which is called “Homegrown Revolution”, is of a clear blue sky, with a hand thrusting a trowel towards the sun. It’s funny, but also deeply stirring, or at least it was to me. Me, who hasn't grown anything more revolutionary than hair in longer than I care to remember. I do take pride in the work I am doing to bring college students into contact with people like Manish and Jules, but what the hell am I doing? In the last year and a half, I’ve acquired a carbon footprint the size of Greenland (I might be the sole reason it’s melting), and due to my aversion to giardia and typhoid, I’ve gone through more plastic drinking water bottles than I can even stand to think about. I don’t cook my own food, never mind grow it. Hell, I don’t even know what I’m eating a lot of the time, except that it’s spicy enough to singe Satan’s eyebrows, and was probably routed through a major distribution center in Delhi.

I don’t belong to a CSA or replenish the soil with my food waste (though sometimes I feed it to cows on the street to keep them from eating plastic bags). I don’t even have a watershed to defend, unless you count all of the places where I have my cardboard boxes stashed while I hop from continent to continent. But I want these things, I do. I want to stand for what I stand on, and I want what I stand on to be higher ground. Observing the ills “traditional education” has perpetrated on the minds and spirits of today’s youth reassures me that I am here, doing this, for some very good reasons. But looking at the way the pendulous squash bows the trellis in the Dervaes’s backyard (as Pasadena City tour buses line up along the curve to witness first-hand the way life could, and probably should be), I feel a desire to go and plant my own revolution.

Genetically modified foods are dismantling the infrastructure of food security all over the world (the world’s first GMO eggplant is about to hit the markets right here in India), and God knows how altered DNA are changing the most basic definitions of what it means to be human. I have learned a lot about my own humanity, frailties, and strengths in the last year and I half spent in service of the next generation, but in doing so my life has become one which does not acknowledge the finite capacities of the natural systems upon which that life depends. Though my traveling days are far from over, my age, my lessons, and my disintegrating backpack are all telling me that it’s time to find a place to plant my roots, to grow some shelter and live the wisdom I’ve been stalking around India as though it hasn‘t always been waiting right underfoot.

Learn more about the Dervaes family and “Path to Freedom” at

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sunrise, Sunset

Each day post-Great Plague (no hospital runs in three days!) tempts with the possibility of blessed routine, as students dabble in internships with artisans, chefs, and designers, and get their first taste of true Rajasthani hospitality in their homestays. My co-leader, Francis, and I dropped in on one internship at a cooperative of traditional healers, who were immersed in making an herbal food supplement for nursing mothers called “batissa”. It’s a crumbly mixture of over thirty herbs, coconut, clarified butter, wheat, and unrefined sugar, and more than a few tastings were urged upon us. It is inadvisable to consume this mixture if the weather is hot (it is), one is eating spicy food (where does one find “bland” in India?), or not in need of generating regular quantities of breast milk for another human being (between Francis and I, I’m not sure who stands further outside this category).

Consequently, we both strolled away from our morning with the radical herbalists (they spoke little English, but rattled off phrases like “No slave to the system” and “Must localize!“ with ferocious ease) light-headed and somnolent from the intensely rich and potent “batisse”. We did both invest in some Chavanprash, a classic ayurvedic remedy that looks like Vegemite, tastes like jam, and is purportedly an elixir of youth and longevity. It did help alleviate my noxious buttery batisse hangover, and the hope that I might win back a few of the years shaved off my life by too many close calls on the subcontinent will keep me sucking this sweet grainy tar off the roof of my mouth for many days to come.

I do need to be attending to my looks, after all, as I have just had my first brush with celluloid stardom in India. As I sat picking through my bowl of papaya, pineapple, and pomegranate at the corner fruit shop, a twenty-something Indian man approached me and asked if I’d like to be in a movie in Ahmedabad. Given the ostentatious flair of the guy’s motorcycle, and the way he kept jutting his chin at passersby and shouting “Maximum cool, heh?!”, my first thought was, of course, “porn“. It’s actually fairly common here for Westerners to be lured into the possibility of a “fun Bollywood cameo” by curbside touts promising an all-expenses paid foray into Indian cinema. Sometimes it’s for real, and sometimes it’s for raunch.

Though there’s clearly a lot I’ll do for below minimum wage (current occupation not excluded), I’ve never considered a career as an adult film star, nor shall I (probably). My new friend assured me that it was a legitimate “action” movie, and when I offered the excuse that I had fourteen other people to consider, his eyes lit up. “Ah, even better! My quota is exactly fifteen! I’ll take the lot of you.” I had to quell a surge of panic that I’d somehow chit-chatted my entire community into indentured pornitude. Wait. Breathe. The kids are safely under the tutelage of their mentors, Francis is trolling the streets for generator-powered internet, and I am merely sitting here, with my fruit, passing the time of day.

But what if… What if I did just sweep everyone off for a crazy once-in-a-lifetime thrill ride through backstage Bollywood? Perhaps Antioch University could be persuaded to award college credit for getting paid ten bucks to munch samosas and look foreign, while pneumatic romantic leads croon and gyrate in the foreground. But probably not. As I watched Mr. Maximum Cool roar off on his ridiculous motorbike, casting me one last imploring look over his be-denimed shoulder, I allowed the sun to set on my unborn Bollywood career. But tomorrow is another day…