killer whales surfacing from the subconcious

That was the caption of my dream two nights ago.

Yesterday, encouraged by my partner, some of the bigger ideas of my subconscious, like in my dream, began to surface.

I don’t know, yet, what they mean. Even in my dream, it was too bright. And I shielded my vision with my hand, gifted only with a glimpse. A silhouette. Of something big.

But this morning I woke up early, ventured into the tiny, closed-off,  one-windowed room in the garage, and scouted out the direction of the sun and the corners of a room, that might better womb some creative writing and whim chasing.

This week I captioned some images and wrote a few paragraphs for the purpose of entry into a photography contest. You’ve seen these images before. But not the captions….

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India, Nepal, Tibet: borders and names, created and defined, only by the intruders that needed them.

Hindu. Himalayan. Buddhism. Hindustani; dimensionless cultures boxed into, and under, the convenient labels of Religions & Regions; paragraph entries into encyclopedias that finally fit into the narrow minds of the Western explores that claimed their discoveries. Names, filtered through the deaf ears of ego, clumsily wearing the clothes of the Western alphabet, pronounced and spelled, to this day, incorrectly.

Masala means, “mixture of spices.”  Curry is an British-invented word for a pre- mixed and packaged power of the spices the invader could never quite sort the individual ingredients out of, or back into. Correctly, anyway. Those three mystery ingredients are: Coriander, Cumin, Tumeric.

India, Nepal, Tibet.

Can we let it simply be.

A way of life.

And a masala of people?

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As I was asking for permission from a family to photograph some young children playing within a bicycle school bus, these three boys pulled me and my camera deeper into the tent town (located near the Ganga river in Varanasi, U.P.) Inside this concrete section, they proudly presented their community gym; a tiny room full of heavy weights and furious fans to combat the equally furious Indian heat. The posters of Hindu gods, flexing their multiple sets of arms, alongside American WWF champs in strikingly similar costume, charmed me to no end. I returned later and handed out the photos. The next day, as a cycle school bus whipped around a corner, a known smile and muscled arm waved me onto the bus for a complimentary ride home. It was the highlight of my week.

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Varanasi’s Ghat’s, or steps of stairs leading into the sacred Ganga-ji (often mispronounced, “Ganges”) is the one place in India where I can begin to comprehend the number 1.1 billion (the population of the country). However what astonishes me most about the staggering turn out to these regular river festivals, is the amazing fluidity and organization of what, in any other country or culture, would constitute utter chaos.

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Westerns love to say, “thank you”; To which I often get the response, in South Asia, “but why? It is, of course, my duty.” In the shadows of the pictured homestay, I finally stepped out of my American shoes, and leaned that “content”; is hardly a bad, but blessed word. That to do, “one’s duty” is an honor, that needs no added expression of worth or appreciation outside of its simple doing. In the Dolpa of rural Nepal, on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, at 15,500 feet, I found simple crops, simple structures, simple landscape, simple doing, simple being and simple understanding of what comprises simple beauty. And learned that just as essential as exploring, is breaking it down.

Image: Young Tibetan woman in the Dolpa of rural Nepal, grinding barley (the staple food) grown in the fields outside the clay house. Barley powder is often eaten dry. When sitting down to lunch in the fields, each person pulls our her own bag. Before taking a handful of the dry power to your mouth, however, it is custom that every person in the circle first eat a handful of your food. And so all bags are rotated, handfuls taken, a few playfully straying onto the faces of others, till your bag finally returns to your lap, before heading around the circle again.

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Travel. Words. Images. Story.

In that order, I picked up the elements that have come to define my way of life, my personal culture if you will; or at least that which was left, as the common denominator, in the absence of any other society- or country-based.

Travel. Well that now, is too easy for me; my brier patch. Drop me off in Mumbai, but please not Manhattan. Let me homestay in a rural village where I know not a word of the language, but don’t make me navigate the foreign language of an extended family reunion. The path of the pilgrim graduates to elevated levels of challenge, and back home, congruently. No one promised it would be the same. Or that I would. It took me 7 years of of movement to teach me the profound beauty in the words “compromise” and “contentment,” which are only found in stillness.

Words. I’ve promised myself that I will write a book by the age of 52, the age of enlightenment by the Mayan calendar; the only age at which you are finally allowed to teach and speak as if you actually know something. In the meantime, I promise to practice. To practice stringing words together in ways that glimmer at truth. To compose sentences with notes of harmony. To pick up my pen as would an oil painter his brush. Thank god I am far from 52. For I have, only, so much more practicing to do.

Images. A later addition to my backpack, as evidenced by my work. I have something. But I need help. I’ve learned to photograph purely by experiential education. By trial and error. By tried and trusted intuition. By a few moments of bravery. But I have lost all my greatest shots. I don’t shoot a face unless I know his or her first name. I am afraid. I am afraid to shoot the shot without the story. Yes. To some degree this helps my angle. But I think by many degrees it also hides it. By my nature as a writer, I am an introvert. I hate hearing my voice. To express myself, I listen, then contemplate, compose and create a reflection of that which I truly feel is not adequate for the spoken word. Pictures, for me, are poetry. But in neither subject have I ever had any training. None. Blindly I both babble and search through my images for something that speaks better than I do. I know I’ve got it in me somewhere, warming, nesting, waiting for the necessary tension to build up, and crack.

Story. Oh story. And subject of the sentence that is my life mission statement. Even if my pictures are poor, I bet you can still feel it; my connection to, and profound love for, the story of my subject. The Buddhists have it right on Compassion; which, for me, is nothing less that the spark of recognition of you in me, me in you. Story is that link; the mirror that holds up the reflection. The more stories that can been narrated and seen through the first person, the more lifetimes we can live within this one, and the more momentum our species will have towards its highest evolution.

If I am one for whom travel is easy, connecting is fluid, stories feel safe to unravel, and compositions come together, well then I have found my “vocation,” where the term is defined (by Frederick Buechner) as, “the place where your great gladness and the world’s needs meet.” It only took me 7 or 8 years to gather the ingredients. Now, how to put them together….

divine chaos

Why India?

I find the inquiry funny for the fact that the question is, for others, as obscurely obvious as the answer, for me.

But I was asked this question three times this week and, only just, woke to the idea that perhaps it was not a rhetorical question; nor a bluff or joke to which my response of laughing made any sense or left the question less hanging.

So now I muster my grin and giggle and tap my lips with my fingers and wonder how to answer the question.

My first response is defensive: That’s like answering, “Describe that upon which you base your faith.” or “How do you commune with God?”; the answer is so personal and intuitively understood that it is actually a shame, and certainly poetic insult, to even try to nail of box of words around it.

My second response is personal: I’m not a particularly courageous or brave or strong person. Perhaps exactly the opposite. For when an idea or intuition enters my head, as soon as it exists, and I know on all subconscious levels that it’s right – then everything in my being that is not in alignment with that idea, begins to die. A seed of anti-dream cancer is sown and slowly begins to spread through my body, and I, being a particularly sensitive creature to anti-dream cancer and finely attuned to the slow wilt of my soul, am left with no other option. So that’s one of my secrets: that I am less brave than I am afraid of my own slow suicide. Making such a huge life decision (such as to stay in India) was a simple act of self-preservation.

My third response will appeal to the practical people as much as a person like me can. It’s a two-fold answer with an accordion of like unknowns that I imagine will be revealed as we stretch out the intestine of time and see what lies hidden within my future. But right now, on my fifth trip to India in a three-year span, the two words that sum up my awe of this country are, “divine chaos.” Yes. It’s the same two words that I worked into a quote that somehow found its way onto a greeting card. And everyone should know that I found those words, and understood those words, and borrowed those words, from no where else in the world, but India. I can promise you that any person who has been to India, be they a detester or lover (usually the two predominant categories) will smile at the charm and recognize exactly those features, in the face of India.

And what is divine chaos? It’s an arranged marriage. It’s a train ride in a sleeper car. It’s the colors of a sari. It’s a haggle in the market. It’s a Bollywood movie. It’s the most polluted and sacred river in the world; Ganga-ji, and the fresh-water dolphins and flesh-eating turtles that swim within it. Divine chaos is the interaction between beggers and givers in the streets. It’s the making of a samosa. It’s Kali; the goddess of both destruction and birth. It’s the mantra chanting of a fire puja. It’s the construction of a road. It’s a sacred cow chewing up plastic bags. It’s a yogi standing on his head. It’s a Muslim and Hindu living next door to each other. It’s the process of silencing the mind. Divine chaos is both the flavor of a steaming chai and the swirls that are left in the cup at the bottom of it.

Divine chaos is not the choice between right and wrong, black and white, as some have wrongly interpreted the greeting card quote. Divine chaos is exactly the opposite. It’s the non-dualistic notion that opposites do not oppose, but complement, and by simply refocusing perspectives to either micro or macro or stepping into the shoes of the other, it will be shown that there is always a pattern, always an order, always an organization of such intricate conception that it could only be divinely inspired. But divine chaos is not the process of constantly refocusing the lens and testing those formulas and outcomes of science, but the bliss of bearing witness to, and having faith in, the pattern itself and marveling the magic and enchantment from which such experiments always befall.

I choose India because I saw a thousand of these experiments in my sunrise walk down the market street this morning. And I choose India because she fosters the diversity, respect for faith, and undefended love that are the necessary elements for such experiments to ripen with exponential abundance.

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*sol bows her “namaste” and gratitude to World Nomads Travel Insurance, ThinkHost and Merc for their ever-supporting roles in the realization of her dream.

mysteriously sustained

Every vision, every interaction, every conversation, every person – in Senegal – is a composition. Like a shaken bottle of champagne, I feel myself about to explode in explanation of what I would easily label, one of the finest, in the cellar of my travel experiences. But those stories will have to be shelved for now as I have neither the time nor Internet access to sit down and share here yet.

So let these two video clips for now suffice, as I pick up my pack and head to the far South Eastern corner of Senegal (Kedougou), and to what I’ve been told is, “the REAL bush.” (To think I thought I was already there.)

A quick journal excerpt while I wait for the videos to upload…

…………….

Small dust storms take to spin and wiry bushes reach out to scrape the sides of our vehicle as we wind our way through what I see is appropriately called, “the bush.” Technically there is no road; just some dusty tracks left from the last car that passed that we assume to be the path.

“Could there really be a village out here?”

As I search the horizon, the contorted trunks of the cartoon-like Balboa trees answer my question by standing testament to the fact that everything is unexpected and anything is possible here. Small squatting shadows start to spot the horizon and as these shapes assume postures human, I reason that we are approaching our destination. I see now that it is fields that give our road its new definition, and squinting into the sun, I am surprised to recognize the very symbol that defined my own childhood summers…

“Are those….watermelons?!”

My friend and wise instructor of Islam, smiles and answers, “Amazing, isn’t it? We are now in the dry season, and though there is no water in sight, and it won’t rain a single day for months to come, we have plentiful crops of watermelon.”

The sand kicks up from the wheels of our car, lofts into the air and forms a thick cloud that stays suspiciously suspended, perhaps feeling lazy in its own fatigue of the extreme afternoon heat. I grow quiet as my thoughts continuing wandering over the fields and the mysteriously sustained fruit…

“Babacar. The people of Senegal, from what I’ve seen, are just like these watermelon. Despite a harsh, dry and ever-challenging environment, you somehow manage to pull – from no obvious source – upon a deep well of culture-sustaining power. Against all the elements, you bear not just any fruit, but the most vibrant, grandiose and replenishing of all.”

Babacar, the son and study of great Sufi mystic, smiles and responds, “The Qur’an says that Nature IS the ultimate book of wisdom and that we should read and take our lessons from it. It’s a very Sufi observation you have made; perhaps we have in you a mystic at the end of your path?” he finishes with a smirk equivalent to a wink.

And I smile and laugh back.

……….

I could only get one video uploaded, but let me introduce you to Babacar:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IErtLZtYA4]

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*sol bows her “namaste” and gratitude to World Nomads Travel Insurance, ThinkHost and Merc for their ever-supporting roles in the realization of her dream.

tackle & tangle

“No more satisfying work than work with no purpose.” – Rumi

To build a sandcastle right in the face of an oncoming tide. To climb a tree that I must eventually come down. To write with rhyme but without reason. To walk without a destination. To let my imagination wander through realities undefined. Isn’t the sentence that ends in a question mark ever more interesting than that which ends in a period?

Someone wrote me recently and asked, “But what are you looking for?”

I answered; “I just like the way magic and mystery unravel when I’m chasing the yarn ball of life.”

He didn’t like my answer; told me that I either do not know, or am refusing to share, my real objective. Ironically enough, I thought my response was about as close to brilliance as I’ve ever gotten.

To my mind comes the image of a cat, flickering its tail, watching the ball out of the corner of its eye, waiting, in time-ignorant anticipation, for the perfect moment to pounce. The ball itself is lifeless on its own, but innately full of potential and animated by only the enthusiastic will of the cat to bring it to life. This is my life. I tackle it. And in return, we engage in exhilarating and exciting play.

Is there an objective in my life? Yes. I think there is. And I bet it’s a very important objective. Do I know what that objective is? Hell no. Do I know better than to try and plan a route to an unidentified goal?

A long time ago, I had a life plan. I had a timeline plotted with little dots and slashes slotting space for my courtship, engagement, marriage, first and second child, work, and retirement. The only thing I forgot to put at the end of that little line — was death. And then one day, thanks to some armed men in the jungle of Guatemala, I had a near death experience. Near death experiences, by the way, have gotten a very undeserving bad rap. In defense of the indicted, I would just like to say that my encounter with Death was my best date yet (and not just because I got lucky). On that day, two parallel worlds crossed; one where I escaped and one where I didn’t. I may have been graced with an opening along the safe path, but I carry that parallel world in my pocket, which is where I want always to carry Death; rubbing right up against the skin of my vitality.

On that day, I took my timeline, looked at it curiously for a long time, marked “death” with a small dark dot at the end, turned the graph upside down, erased everything that followed it and reviewed the new representation with content. I don’t think life is a sentence that ends with the exclamation point, question mark or period of Death. Rather, I think it drops off with a dot, dot, seed. Like a sapling sprouting from the decomposition of its predecessor, I believe that our potential springs from our very rot. (I bite my lip on the potential for a perfect political metaphor referring to our government’s current state as a piling heap of…) From funk to fertilizer; now isn’t that a nice equation? Sure makes life easier when I remember that for every inch I fall, I’m given an extra inch to grow. This is why, to the hushing and discouragement of many around me, I always say, “Do whatever you want with your life.” If you need to cheat and steal to learn about Truth, then take to the mall with your dirty five-finger discount. The thing about life is that its laws are universal and its lessons indiscriminate. Newton made it his third law. Buddha called it karma. Bruce Willis calls it revenge. The Bible says we reap of it what we sow. Sol says, “play with a ball of string and you very well might get tied up, but half the fun is in getting knotted up, and the other half is in straightening it out.” My point is simple; Instead of walking the line, I think it’s time to tackle and get entangled in life — no matter how messy it gets.

(And mine, at the minute, is messy.)

But this leads me to the other more daring, dangerous and rousing half of Rumi’s rhyme…

“No better love than love with no object.”

I’m still rolling around on this one so I’ll save my rambling ponder on it for next week.

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*sol bows her “namaste” and gratitude to World Nomads Travel Insurance, ThinkHost and MercuryFrog for their ever-supporting roles in the realization of her dream.

melted clocks

T = (F + PT) * 0 + (APM ^)

Where:

T = Time
F = Future
PT = Past
0 = Constant that negates the existence of the future and past
A = Awareness
PM = Present Moment

(Where the future and past do not exist, time equals awareness of the present moment to the power of an undefined infinite degree.)

*****

On the path of every traveller is a shared minute-liberating moment when s/he scavenges the basement of a backpack for the estranged watch that no longer leashes wrist and mind to a defined conception of time…

“It’s Friday right?”
“No, um…I’m pretty sure it’s Tuesday ‘cause church bells woke us up a few days ago.”
“Was that really only two days ago? Okay…so Tuesday the what?”
“I have no idea. Wait, my watch has the date on it. Hold on a minute. It’s down here somewhere…”

This conversation is usually followed by a moment of dazed bliss, mild hysteria, or a laughing-fit; for the machine-less tumble in time (via a tunnel painted by Salvador Dali), with hands thrown in the air and mental fingers sticky with melting clock, can be quite an exhilarating experience.

And how egotistical was I before to think that Time actually cared about me? Imagining myself being gently nudged from behind and buffered from the front, prodded and poked in order to keep my proper place walking down an imaginary life timeline?

Who knew that Time was all the while laughing, waiting for exactly the moment where I lost balance, slipped, fell down the “reality” rabbit hole and landed on my (capital-A) Ass before it sardonically whispered to me its secret…

“Lose track of me, and I’ll lose track of you.”

And now here I am, years (measured not in days, but smiles, sighs and sunsets) later, with a staggering statistical measuring unit from the old abandoned lifeline that has somehow managed to limp a way back into my life. Now be careful, for the following five words have been known to arouse adverse reactions:

10-Year High School Reunion

Oh did you feel it? Because I did! I don’t know where you went, but I’ll tell you where I did: For a single moment, I reverted straight back to my 14-year old self; first month of my freshman year at a new school, lunch bell screaming in my ear, pulling a brown bag from a cold, beaten metal locker and silently begging (“please God”) that today I might find another soul as lonely as I with whom I could share an empty hour eating sandwiches.

Not a memory I like to live long in, so quick, bring me back and let me catch my breath on the fresh air of the present moment.

I wonder how I would have experienced high school differently if I knew then what I do now. In that parallel world, I think I’d join the drama club, run for class president, experiment with a lot more drugs, hang out with all the foreign exchange students, spend Friday nights reading, stand up and face off with arrogant teachers, skip a lot more class to go the beach, do my book reports on Gandhi and reincarnation, start a “Recovering Catholics” and a “Salsa Dancing” club, initiate all my dates, cram my schedule with art and photography classes, and eat lunch outside, barefooted, joyfully alone, every single day.

Well since by my equation the past no longer exists, I don’t have four years of high school to relive (which is sigh worthy). But I do have one day to newly experience old memories in a body, mind and spirit I’ve comfortably and finally grown into.

So a 10-year high school reunion that happens to be taking place during one of five months in the last ten years that I happen to actually be in town?

Awkward. Nerve-wrecking. Identity-challenging. Scary. Unnecessary. Reality re-defining. Interesting. Unpredictable. Strange. Uncomfortable. And yes, downright freaky.

And for exactly all those reasons; Let’s go!

Of course all that logic came quickly into question as soon as I entered the room full of vaguely familiar faces grimacing under the terrible tune of C & C Music Factory, which (come on DJ!) really should be restrained (by order if necessary) to the 90’s.

Yes, there was a slightly painful and scripted prance through the entrance catwalk. Lucky for me, I had at my side one of my best friends in the world who happens also to be the exact same soul “lonely as I” that “God” sent to my side freshman year in high school and who has held my hand through the ups, downs and ins and outs of life every single day since.

Soon enough smiles were recognized and so warmly remembered. Laughs I hadn’t heard for years brought back sweet memories so worthy of fond recall. Surprised hugs and forgotten friendships renewed relationships and inspired dates for further investigation. An hour and a half into the crowd and I hadn’t even made it to the bar (a good sign). Of course there were still awkward and even embarrassing situations (and specifically two pretty blush-worthy ones for me which are not worth the details). But one of the advantages of not being 18 any more was being able to address the awkwardness with, “So, is this uncomfortable or what?” “Um. Yes.” and the heightened consciousness it takes to call out and/or laugh anything off with the indifferency that discomfort deserves.

Adding a unique twist to my own personal experience was the existence of this weblog. It’s one thing to post your most intimate thoughts, experiences and opinions for an anonymous online audience, but it’s an entirely different thing to imagine your old high school classmates reading your personal diary. Most of the friends I make while travelling go for months without knowing about this website. Some don’t find out until they randomly find the site themselves years later. So I was shocked, humbled and self-conscious when it became evident that people other than my mother were reading my ridiculous run-on word rants. But really, what can I do but shrug, surrender to the inner-self exposure, and laugh it off with the indifferency that my discomfort deserves?

So I have an aversion to numbers in general as they seem to me limiting in their expression of many things that I consider constituted of unit-less essence. But after this weekend’s reunion, I’m gonna break from my normal annoying vague jargon, and say that 28 looks pretty damn good on people; perhaps because experience and confidence also look good on people. And I’m seeing an exponential trend as well; that with each time period passed, there is an equal and uprising unit of respect, appreciation and individual advancement. So despite the physiological advantages, there’s no amount of pickled mango (I’m currently missing India) that would ever make me trade 18 for 28. After all, 1-27 got me where I am, and “here” is my favorite place to be. And I guess that would be the APM^part of the equation.

As for my 14-year old self, I travel through time (because, I’m pretty sure that if travel is indeed timeless, then I can somehow *with a little more imagination* deduce that we are also able to time travel) and shout down to her the one message that I also hammer into the heads of all the 18-year olds I work with; “Fall in love or fall in hate. Get inspired or be depressed. Get confused or be straight. Flunk a class or ace a test. Become a slut or be reborn a virgin. Get fit or get fat. Make babies or make art. Speak the truth or lie and cheat. Live happily ever after or get divorced. Dance on tables or sit in the c
orner and be shy. Let me (scream or whisper) a secret to you: It’s doesn’t matter. Nobody’s actually watching. Life is divine chaos. Embrace it. Forgive yourself. Breathe. And enjoy the ride.”

*****

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charm of the divine plan

(I’m currently in Bangkok, Thailand, meeting my new Dragon leader team, preparing our course curriculum and planning A, B, and C itineraries in consideration of recent developments in Nepal. We’ll meet our students and land in Calcutta in a few days. I’m loaded with prep-work right now, but thought I’d drop a link to my Thailand photo album from 2002 and post an entry from my India journal of 2004.)

*****

Journal Entry
February 2004
Varanasi, India

“A kilo of oranges! Why did I ever buy so many?”

I’m wondering this as the bag tears and I struggle to juggle them all. One orange escapes from the tattered bag and I quickly reach out and catch it. As I do so, another hand slowly reaches out from a dark corner along the wall. I look from my hand to the other, make the connection, approach the wall and drop the orange into the outstretched hand. More arms emerge from tattered robes and so I make my way down the line, dropping an orange into each hand with a greeting of respect.

When I reach the end of the wall my bundle is manageable and I am left with exactly the amount of oranges I initially wanted.

I look up to the night sky, smile, wink back at the stars and wonder, “Why do I ever bother asking why?”
*****

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