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.

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