Nosh and Nostalgia — Last Days in India

Cycling Stats
Panjiim to Povorim 7 km
Panjiim to Vasco De Gama 25 km
Day trips around Goa beaches 25 km
Train Station to Hotel in Bangalore 5 km

As planned, we haven’t done much cycling since we put our bikes on the roof rack of the big white taxi. And that’s ok – we needed to spend some non-road time in India and did not want to do a lot more beach time.

We found the solution in Panjiim (capital of Goa) where we stayed for ten days at two separate guesthouses broken up by a week at Angel’s Resort, in Povarim (only 5 or so km from Panjiim). Panjiim was a great way to get a city fix, where we walked around in the old section (the latin quarter) looking at the old Portuguese architecture. We took in a city-wide street photography exhibit and rejoiced in finding a pedestrian friendly (relatively speaking) Indian city with lots of restaurants (Goan, Indian and western) and ate back any possible weight loss. With gusto — as we usually do (oh sigh).

We took the overnight train (15 hours) from Panjiim to Bangalore the night before last and we’re now getting bike boxes, packing up and arranging transport to Chennai.

The last few days of a trip are always marked with nostalgia for me, largely I think because we travel for so long our time away becomes large episodes in our lives. This morning Ian and I braved the Bangalore traffic to walk to a bike store for our bike boxes and as we negotiated our way home through the cows, goats and auto rickshaws I felt a huge affection for Ian as I recalled other similar walks, struggling to walk with the empty bike box, in many cities around the world. I feel grateful that we are both so happy to be going home to France and our friends there.

Today that nostalgic feeling is particularly poignant because last night I met up with Anu, the documentation manager that displaced me and the Vancouver-based technical writers I managed for Pivotal back in 2003. During that tumultuous time, Anu spent three month in Vancouver and then I spent three weeks in Bangalore, setting up the ‘remote office’ which eventually, unknown to Anu and I at the time, was to displace the Vancouver office entirely. (There was an astonishing lack of integrity happening at the executive/board level where Vancouver employees were given endless assurances so they would keep working while in reality the board’s only concern was ensuring that the company was well positioned for sale so that majority shareholders could maintain their places in the 1% — (people who earn over 300,000 a year) at the expense of the entire Vancouver team.)

I can’t say I am not bitter about the experience, but I never blamed the Indian team or Anu. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about seeing her again, but having worked that closely with her, I had gotten to know her very well and liked her. I’m happy to say that it was wonderful to meet up with her last night — she lived up to my memories of her. She was the same Anu I had remembered: smart, kind, highly ethical. Her integrity particularly struck me last night as it is in such contrast to the people who were pulling our puppet strings behind the scenes back in the day.

So last night she met Ian for the first time and then took us on a Bangalore romp to a favourite store of mine that specializes in Indian fabric (a favourite from my stay here so many years ago) and to a wonderful fast food Indian stall with terrific coffee and dosas, a favourite neighborhood market of hers, and then to a brew pub for some real beer. We talked about how crazy Bangalore had become in the last decade, her mixed feelings about it – on the one hand there is great opportunity for her daughter here – on the other – it has become expensive and is now a rat race for her and her husband as they work to pay off the mortgage. Now that India has become more expensive for outsourcing, the high tech sector here is no longer immune to the swings in the global economy and most middle managers can now add being laid off at some point to their career experience.

And we joked and reminisced and walked away vowing to keep in touch.

Yep, it is such a small world.

In Panjiim, we headed out of our guesthouse which was situated in the ‘latin quarter,’ a whole neighborhood of old Portuguese houses, many of which have been renovated, and ran into Ulrike, a woman Ian knew back in Vancouver. She was about to deliver a talk on cycling in Goa at a near-by venue and invited us to join her. We spent a fun-filled hour listening to Ulrike talk about her cycling experiences around the world, to an audience of Indian women who were intrigued by the cycling and I think especially, the freedom of her lifestyle (no marriage, no children, lots of travel). We then headed out for a night on the town, cycling to a couple of bars and restaurants. We had a great sharing of stories about cycling trips around the world as well as learning about Ulrike’s most recent project, editing the memoirs of her Goan uncle. Her uncle is from a Goan family that moved to Burma to work for the colonials before World War ll and this is where her father was born. Ulrike is housesitting for her uncle (who lives in Bombay) and having been in Goa for a number of months was a great bike tour guide, taking us a long a number of beach roads so we could get the flavor of Goan beaches.

And so it all comes to an end the day after tomorrow when we hunker down in the car for 8 hours to get to Chennai. Then its 12 hours on Saudi Airlines to Paris (with a stop in Jeddah) and then an 8 hour drive to Lauzun. A bit of a marathon….

In the end, I can’t say India is my favourite place although I think that may be the result of our having bitten off more than we could comfortably chew in terms of roughing it for as long as we did. Despite taking cars a few times, we did end up cycling 1000 kilometres and there is a great feeling of accomplishment around that. We also enjoyed cycling the back roads in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and I am grateful that we ran into Ulrike who gave us a chance to experience that again in Goa, giving us some nice cycling experience at the end of our trip. We also enjoyed Goa, the beaches and backwaters of Kerala and our short time here in Bangalore. We have seen huge slices of Indian life most tourists never see and when I see a map of India in the future I will feel intimately acquainted with the whole southern coast.

The trip has also given me a lot of time to think about globalization and how it has been a big force in my life in the last decade. I’m feeling inspired to take on a writing project with globalization as a central theme and have some ideas about how to redesign this blog and the French blog I have been writing – expansions and new directions. When I come home from a trip that has inspired any writing or other creative project I feel its been time well spent and so I’m happy to say this is the case with India despite the ups and downs along the way.

And so, I guess that would be a wrap (or a maybe a dosa ):-).

If you smile at me…

If you smile at me I will understand…cause that’s something everybody everywhere does in the same language…. (Crosby, Stills and Nash – Wooden Ships)

This post is dedicated to the World Kindness Movement

Cycling Stats since Kumbakonan
Kumbakonan to Managurdi 40 km
Managurdi to Pattukkotai 34 km
Pattukkotai to Mimisal 68 km
Mimisal to Thondi (26 km in car)
Thondi to Ramanathapuram 49 km
Ramanathapurm to Kanyakamuri (270 km car)
Kanyakamuri to Colachel 38 km
Colachel to Kovalam 58 km
Kovalam to Verkala 61 km

One of the joys of cycling touring is the perfect speed of it. It is much faster than walking so you get the thrill of moving from town to town in the space of a day. Yet, unlike being in car, it is slow enough that you can interact with the people you meet along the way.

In India, that means kids waving at you from school buses and guys on motorcycles slowing down to chat with you as you both move along. It means passing women carrying water jugs on their heads and stopping for goat herders moving their goats across the road. At the end of a day of cycling here, I feel like I have been witness to a kaleidoscope of images in slow motion: villages with arches covered in bright colored paper celebrating a wedding, the hub bub of a market, a small lake with boys jumping gleefully into the water.

And flashing throughout this movie are a lot of smiling faces.

When we do get off our bikes and get to meet with people, our conversation is often limited because we don’t speak the local language and although English is the language of commerce here, there are a lot of people, especially poorer people, who don’t speak it. Yet, I am amazed at the richness of our communication.

After cycling in many developing countries where we know that the average wage of the people we are meeting is much lower than ours, we find that, despite the disparity between us, and especially in rural areas, we are met with nothing but smiles and kindness.

On our first evening at our guesthouse in Varkala (Kerala, India), we met Nawar another guest at our homestay. Nawar, has been in India for three weeks now, having fled Syria, his birthplace. He had asked what our experience was like cycling and we talked about how people who haven’t travelled to India had warned me about it being dangerous. I explained that this was not our experience and related this story: One afternoon we had been cycling through a small village when I braked too hard on a patch of gravel and took a tumble. I wasn’t moving very fast and the injuries were minor: a scraped knee, a bruised toe. I was immediately surrounded – two men picked up my bike and took it across the street to where my husband was standing. Three women escorted me to a seat in a nearby bus shelter. The first poured one of my water bottles over the wound. The other made me drink water. The third offered me food and all three of them fussed over the bandaging of my tiny scrape as though I were an injured child. There was little English spoken but we were made to understand that they were worried about me and offered us a place to stay if need be. When we convinced them I was ok, they gave us candy and waved us off.

I told Nawar that our experience — thanks to cycling in so many remote areas — was that most people in the world are good and kind. He smiled and said, I agree – in fact I run an organization that promotes kindness – the World Kindness Movement (UAE). And then Nawar related his story.

Although he was born in Syria, he grew up in Dubai and became a businessman, eventually forming a partnership and running 14 companies. He enjoyed running the business, but there came a point where he wanted something else and a change in lifestyle. He resigned and became the founder of the World Kindness Movement for the United Emirates in Dubai.

(according to Wikipedia): The World Kindness Movement is an organization with no religious or political affiliation. The WKM’s chief object shall be to foster goodwill among the broad community – local, national and international – by way of kindness and in so doing, create greater understanding and co-operation between all people and all nations throughout the world.

The World Kindness Movement of the UAE developed, political change began in Syria, ultimately developing into the war we are all familiar with. A few years ago Nawar returned to Syria to try and do what he could to help. Since then, the conflict has grown steadily worse and in the end Nawar was forced to leave and is now displaced. He is spending some time in India to think about the next phase of his life, and trying to keep the organization in Dubai running remotely.

Despite the seriousness of his situation, he is positive and committed to the values of the kindness movement. One of the core values is respect for other people’s beliefs and despite his experience in Syria – war obviously being the antithesis of that — this is a theme that filters up in many of our conversations.

It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming to listen to Nawar’s stories. I admire his ability to maintain his optimism after experiencing difficulty most of us in the west can only imagine and I’m inspired by his commitment to such positive values.

Check out the world kindness movement here…
http://www.theworldkindnessmovement.org/member_nation/the-kindness-movement-of-the-uae/

Note on the photos – these are some of Ian’s Indian portraits.

Magical Thinking

Lakshmi Villas to Kumbakonam 61 km

We had a great ride into Kumbakonam (home to no less than 188 temples). We were happy to be on quiet roads (relatively speaking) and the rural landscape of rice fields and coconut palms was nicely broken up by some large villages where we bought oranges and other snacks (Indian peanut brittle and what I think were deep fried plantain chips with chilies).

As I rode along I couldn’t get Neil Young’s “When you Dance” out of my head. I think it was all the reading I’ve been doing about Shiva, one of Hinduism’s principal deities and a favourite of mine back in the day when I spent a year learning about Vedanta philosophy, meditating and playing Neil Young. Shiva, like all Hindu deities, manifests in many forms. One of the common ones is Shiva as Nataraja, where he is depicted as a dancer performing the cosmic victory dance (our Lonely Planet guide says in this dance Shiva is pacing out the creation and destruction of the cosmos).

I always liked Shiva because of his message that out of every ending there is a beginning. This idea has given me courage when it was time to leave a situation, and consolation when grieving an ending.

In earlier days I was smitten with things Indian, the chanting I heard at sat sang at the ashram I attended in Ottawa when I was 18, the taste of chai with cardamom, purple silk saris with silver threads and the smell of sandalwood incense. Learning that there was more than one way to understand God (I was an atheist by the time I was 12 or 13) was also liberating and heady. There I was at 18, wandering around in Indian cotton skirts, wearing bangles and bells and as I finished my last year of high school (at night as I’d left home), I pulled off 100% in my final economics exam and to this day I know it was partly due to the focus I’d achieved meditating. I stomped around in my small studio apartment doing a victory dance, and there was Neil all raunchy guitar and revolution, exhilarating. “When you dance, do your senses tingle and take a chance…when you dance, I can really love.”

After that I became disillusioned and a little afraid of the ashram as I watched people getting drawn deeper and deeper into a situation that felt cult-like. I talked to a psychologist at the time who warned me that westerners often have a hard time putting eastern religion into context.

His sentiment still rings true decades later. There is something so compelling about India for some of us westerners – there’s such a big romance about it. This is especially true for anyone with a religious yearning who has been left flat by Christianity. The yoga I studied through the ashram was a kind of intellectual practice with the goal of transcending your ego through practicing non-attachment and ultimately becoming enlightened, living in a state free of anxiety. This was so attractive after years of Catholicism where I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to believe in. Literal heaven or symbolic heaven? Literal resurrection or resurrection myth? But then the swami (head of the ashram) turned out to be sleeping with the devotees and on one hell of a big ego trip. So much for transcendence, sexy Sadie. And so I learned all power corrupts and there is a lot of confusion for westerners about how Vedanta philosophy is to be practiced and interpreted outside of Indian culture.

They mystery remains as I visit these wonderful temples. Today we walked through the Nageshwara Temple, the oldest temple in Kumbakonam, founded by the Cholas (an Indian dynasty) in 886. The priest followed us around discreetly blessing everything – I don’t know if we were auspicious or somehow polluting. I watched people making offerings and meditating in front of the statues of various deities. We were the only foreigners there (in fact I haven’t seen a foreigner since we left Lakshmi Villa three days ago). I wondered what people were praying for…enlightenment or perhaps a new pair of shoes.

I am a big fan of Karen Armstrong, the ex-Catholic nun who is a religious scholar, writer and winner of a TED award. In her “Case for God” she talks about how pre-modern people did not take their religious mythologies literally. The myths were understood in a manner similar to the way we (if we are lucky – my thought) understand art. Art is transformative – we learn important things about what it means to be human through metaphor that touches us emotionally, whether it be music, poetry, or visual art. Our religious myths are not meant to be taken literally.

To believe we are going to achieve a permanently altered state of consciousness – some blissed out trance-like devotional state of mind as we flit about in saris sniffing incense – is to engage in magical thinking. A more grown-up and romantic version of the magical thinking that allowed us to believe in Santa Claus, and certainly a lot more fun than the magical thinking that has us believing that we will be resurrected in physical form on Judgement Day.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any magic. There are magical moments, transformative experiences when we are struck dumb by a piece of music, or cry when we read a poem.

Or dance to Neil Young wearing bangles. Rock on :-0

(p.s. Paul – even if I have to learn bar chords I think I should learn how to play this song…)