Impressions of India, Nepal and Indonesia
Caregiving is a stressful job, yet a fulfilling one. After caring for my father for two and a half years, while he struggled with cancer, I felt that I needed to get away from home after he died. Watching him go through such a difficult time helped me understand the fleeting nature of life in a way I had not understood before. I had moved back home in order to be available to help. For some time, I considered whether I would ever leave Virginia again. However, the prevailing political climate in Virginia, with its senseless attack on the rights of women, and several intractable, unchanging family situations (over which I had little influence) helped make the decision easier.
So I reoriented myself towards the West Coast again, where I had spent my best years. I visited Santa Cruz for a Buddhist retreat in January 2013, and contemplated becoming a nun at that time. Although it is not a decision to take lightly, the pressure just to “do something” with my life has now waned, thankfully. Despite the obvious benefit of caring for others, including the good that it does for society, it is not appropriately valued in American society. In fact, the role of caregivers is often blatantly denigrated and disregarded. Instead, in place of respect, we get an idealization of motherhood which is facile, unrealistic, and blind to the real life pressures of caregiving and the actual person being idealized. With the increasing conservatism now on display in American society, being idealized is actually preferable to being demonized, but neither of them are considered responses to the genuine challenges of motherhood and caregiving. When will American culture grow up? When will we stop giving respect to “lowest common denominator” behavior? We represent great ideals to many worldwide. How can we live up to those expectations?
Our hotels. Although the accommodations were somewhat different from what we expect here, including occasional power blackouts in and around Nepal, the hotels were comfortable and warm, with delicious buffets offered by friendly staff. Almost every place we stayed was surrounded by lawns with a wall around the perimeter, with gates that closed up in the evening. So even though we were immersed in local culture by day, at night we were safely tucked away in these secured “compounds”. At times, I wished to go out and see what was going on beyond the walls in the evening, but the rigorous schedule meant that we all needed our rest for the next day’s activities!
Tea stalls and samosa carts. One of my favorite parts of the day was when we would stop at a local tea stall or samosa cart in order to have a quick snack. The locals nearby would usually congregate, in order to take in the spectacle of a group of Westerners so far from home! Masala chai, offered in a small plastic cup, became my cherished throat soother, as I carried a respiratory infection in my chest for most of the time I was there. It wasn’t until I got back to the United States that I fully decongested from that. The samosas were fried in a pan right in front of us, usually an open air place on the side of the road.
The countryside. As we rode in the tour bus between historic sites, we were witness to miles and miles of the rural life in Uttar Pradesh. This was the most humbling part of the trip for me. We saw vibrant towns and villages, but also astounding poverty. People washing clothing in rivers and streams, open defecation in fields, disabled beggars on the side of the streets. This is not something to look down on, instead it was heart-wrenching to witness. It filled me with the desire to do something more than just prayers and pujas. I want to use my practical skills gained from a lifetime in the West to benefit those who deserve a better standard of living.
Delhi. My first impression of Delhi was the smog hanging in a cloud outside the Indira Gandhi International airport. I had never seen such a dense chemical cloud in the air before. There were crowds of men waiting outside to give people rides from the airport. Although my traveling companion immediately put on a mask, I did not, and subsequently became hoarse. It didn’t seem to affect the men outside as much. We spent one night there before moving on. We flew to Varanasi the next day, where we met up with the entire group. We spent a few days there recovering from jet lag, then set out on a tour bus for the trip to various pilgrimage sites.
I went with a tour group on a Buddhist pilgrimage, visiting the sites of the Buddha’s life. It was a month long trip, across Uttar Pradesh in Northern India, into Nepal to visit Kathmandu, then off to Yogyakarta, Indonesia to visit several ancient Hindu sites near Mt. Merapi. There were about 25 of us in the group, along with two Western Buddhist nuns and a Nepali tour guide. My fellow pilgrims hailed from New York, California, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Varanasi. I loved being in Varanasi, it was my first real taste of the vibrancy of India. I made a couple new friends there. We visited the ghats at night, taking a tuk-tuk bicycle cart there and back. The ride was exhilarating, the shops and throngs were a blur of activity. I remember seeing a full grown steer running alongside us, blending in with the car and bike traffic, as we made our way to the Ganges banks. Vendors everywhere hawked their wares. I made friends with a silk merchant when I left our hotel for awhile. He helped me pick out a Ganesha tapestry and gave me a scarf to cover my head when needed. His kindness towards me as a Western woman in a new place I will never forget. I loved Varanasi and would be willing to go back anytime.
Lumbini. Lumbini was the first place we stayed in Nepal. The population is less dense there, so the streets were more manageable by one’s self on foot. The level of street begging decreased as well, for which the women in the group were particularly grateful. You can only have so many Buddha statues shoved in your face by well-meaning, yet slightly too aggressive salesmen, until you start ignoring people just in order to get down the street. In Nepal, we felt like we could breathe again, after that onslaught.
Remember, these pilgrimage sites are visited by hundreds of groups each year, and they all come through within the same time period, from January to March. So these vendors get geared up early on in order to sell to the incoming tourists. Some of them make all of their money for the year during pilgrimage season. I was cautioned not to give money in some circumstances. It was hard to resist the natural impulse to help out.
Kathmandu. Kathmandu was by far my favorite place that we visited. I would go there again in a heartbeat, and would consider living there for part of the year as well. With a population of over one million, it has the excitement of a major metropolis along with the ingrained culture of thousands of years of pilgrimage and commerce. Kathmandu was young, vibrant, upbeat, and hopeful.
I visited Children of the Universe while we were there. It is an orphanage for Tibetan and Nepali refugees from the surrounding region. I met Tsering Gyalpo there, he was born in a Tibetan refugee camp and now runs the orphanage, which is home to over 30 kids. He seemed so mature for his age. I agreed to sponsor one child named Purnima who I am still helping with a monthly donation.
Swayambunath in Kathmandu was the most holy place for me on our tour. The stupas there, high on a hill above Kathmandu, just seemed to emanate peace. The mood was hushed, yet relaxed. The ever-present sales people offered their goods from various stoops and shops. There were paintings for sale, along with a shop full of antique relics. We sat on the ground and did our practice right there in the square. I tried my best to maintain good meditation posture for the locals’ sake. When one woman showed curiosity in what we were doing, I underlined the words with my finger as we recited them, so she could follow along. She seemed to want to make sure we were doing things properly, and came away fairly impressed, it seemed.
Yogyakarta. What I remember most about Yogyakarta was the scooters. There were packs of them at each stoplight, usually out ahead of the car traffic. The riders were mainly in their twenties, although occasionally one would see a whole family riding on a bike. The sea of riders, many with Muslim headscarves on along with their riding gear, were an impressive lot. I was surprised to see many young men riding in short sleeves and sandals, seemingly oblivious to the danger surrounding them.
We rented scooters after the retreat for an afternoon, and I can vouch that there were some fairly large tour buses on the road! It was so fun to do after being on a rigorous tour schedule. We mostly took the back roads, taking a tour of the countryside surrounding Borobudur. I became quite enthusiastic about scooters after that. Maybe I will buy one someday!
It was great to get to experience a moderate Muslim country such as Indonesia. The school groups who were touring Borobudur with us seemed genuinely curious about us. They wanted us to stop and take photos with them. I think people around the world are realizing that we have much more in common than our governments would like us to think. People are pretty much the same wherever you go. Some good, some bad, some extreme, some moderate.
Return to the US. Coming back to America, one of the first things I appreciated was the cleaner air and water. The sky was so blue outside the plane! I stopped drinking bottled water, which was required in areas with poor sanitation, and no longer needed to reflexively apply hand sanitizer like mad. I was also glad that I could dress the way I wanted back in the States without worrying about offending anyone. I had covered my head in some places in India, particularly in the more remote Muslim regions near the Nepali border, and so it was a relief to not have to worry about the changing local customs for a change. Although I hate to admit it, I also missed having food that I was more accustomed to at home, including French fries!
The time difference between Indonesia and California meant that my schedule was off for the first few weeks. I would have the urge to nap at random until my body fully adjusted again. What was harder to bear was coming back to an overwhelming sense of depression and cynicism in the populace. People just seemed less happy in America. I tried to avoid it as long as I could, but once I moved into a new housing situation, I too became bogged down with the general sense of malaise. It was as if my trip was something to be jealous of, not to be celebrated. No one seemed to take seriously my actual interest in the teachings, and what we had considered a pilgrimage was seen as a luxury vacation by some. I guess that’s just the way it is.
Although we went to some “exotic locales”, I can assure you it was not a resort style trip, although we were delighted with the pleasant hosts we had and the food was wonderful in itself. The idea that I was told by my landlord in California, of all people, is that I wasn’t being “Buddhist enough” in my actions. People in America often mistake “being Buddhist” with someone being completely pliable and agreeable. We think of Buddhists as happy, smiling, and compliant. In my experience, that is not the case. We have a very simplistic view of the religious beliefs from other parts of the world. It would suit us well in the long run to reform that view. Christianity is just one religion among many which are influential worldwide. I hope to continue to learn more about other cultures.
Why do people in America seem to have no confidence left our country? I was so glad when Narendra Modi came over to visit, including his “rock star” appearance at Madison Square Garden. Finally, the emerging world started coming into plain view for the developed world. The United States aligning with India makes good sense. If all of our software jobs have already gone over there, why shouldn’t we take the next step, and become administrators of the transition from West to East? At least, we need to be able to acknowledge that American businessmen have moved most of our manufacturing industries overseas. It has already happened.
Obviously, not everyone can be an ambassador for the developing world, introducing them to what the West has to offer. But for those of us who are lucky enough, we *can* make a difference, by transforming ourselves into “bridges to the future” for our peers in other countries. Even those who do not choose to travel outside the United States can support our new allies by donating to causes which support the developing world. We are leaders by example as we move into a new century. We can contribute by striving to show the world the best of the democratic ideal.
“A rising tide lifts all boats.” That’s what we are looking for to create a sustainable, non-violent world: a concerted effort to bring all human lives up to a decent living standard, including access to clean water and sanitation. Did you know that more people now have a cell phone than a toilet in the world? This is a situation which cannot stand. We must do better than that. It is possible. We just need to demonstrate the collective willpower.
What I admire the most about Asian culture is its optimism and reserve. Growing up in the rural South, there were polite topics and impolite ones. This changed once I moved to San Francisco, where any topic was up for discussion. Although intellectually exciting, this could also often lead to uncomfortable situations in which someone would make more and more outrageous statements, just for the sake of “winning the argument”. Competition gone awry in some cases. I’m all for freedom of speech, but people also need to learn there are consequences for what you say and do.
The optimism of the younger generation in Asia was wonderful to be around. You can really feel a strong sense of hope for the future there. Countries which previously were mostly rural, such as South Korea, are rapidly developing into modern economic powerhouses. There is a rush to be a part of it which is balanced by the traditional cultural practices. The East will express itself differently than the West, a phenomenon for which I am grateful. They have a stronger sense of oneness with nature, even in an urban setting. They are also less effusive in public. One of the most memorable impressions of Americans which I had upon my return is that we are overly cloying and sentimental in public. We also love to exaggerate and brag. Maybe this is due to the devotional nature of Christianity, in which we are supposed to profess our “undying love’ for Jesus. It could also be rooted in the ideal of courtly love, which was created in order to serve the ruling classes. Since I grew up in a more conservative area of the US, I appreciate having the chance to learn more about the Asian perspective.
What I will never forget about India, Nepal, and Indonesia is the sense of decorum, especially in India, where *every single* village that we drove through had a Shiva, Ganesha, or Krishna temple right at the edge of town, guarding the villagers and beseeching the newcomers. Also, many of the religious sites comfortably hosted a blend of Hindu and Buddhist gods in the same temple. In Nepal in particular, they seem to make no distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism. I loved that. There just isn’t any equivalent in American culture for a thousand-year old living tradition rooted in the native geography and people, except for that of the Native Americans. The European traditions which we brought with us were transplanted onto colonized soil. We are still newcomers here.
I enjoyed the lack of sensationalism, the way that people were obviously skilled in what they did, and yet seemed stoically humble about their situations. The sense of human dignity was strong: people were not yet completely guided by greed there, selling out by using the lowest common denominator to make a buck. That’s what worries me about the development of China, South Korea, and other Southeast Asian countries – the import of materialism and rampant development into ancient cultures which can certainly modernize their own way, without becoming exactly like Western countries. We don’t need to clone the United States.
People prided themselves on being low-key there, in a similar fashion to California, but with a major difference – they weren’t “marketing” or “branding” themselves, they really were mellow, stoic and humble. The culture there supported such openness. I think a big difference is that most of the places I visited still had strong neighborhoods and a sense of community, unlike much of the rapidly developed urban sprawl in the United States. People are alienated and distrustful of each other in America, and it is ruining our country. No one socializes much outside of their immediate families in many areas. The status-driven ethos which emerged during the 1980’s means that people are forced into excessive competition, not creating community. It’s unhealthy for our children’s future.
The farmer’s market and “Farm-to-Table” movement in the US, which considers the sourcing of our food, is an important step, along with the push to know our neighbors, form “Take Back The Night” groups, and so on. What America needs to do is stop feeling sorry for itself, take a hint from developing countries, get on the clue train, and learn how to smile at strangers again. The beaming looks from many of the people we visited were not fake: they were genuinely glad to host us, as we were bringing them revenue for that season. The sense of “gross national happiness” matters in places like Nepal and Bhutan much more so than here, where we tend to focus only on the Gross Domestic Product, or “bottom line”. How can we get back to what is most important in life?
The millennial generation, with the buoyant optimism of youth, is attempting to shake things up with flash mobs and heart hand symbols, Youtube memes and the like. How do we translate that enthusiasm in order to have an influence on the currently prevailing Baby Boomer generation, which has clamped down on issuing credit with an iron fist? Where are the hippies now? Have they all become Yuppies?
How do we encourage Generation X, whose members are now reaching middle age, to persevere in a social climate which does not reward them, but punish them, for wanting to prosper? We cannot blame all of the excesses of the previous generation on those who were children when these changes began. Kissinger and Nixon started to put in place changes which we are now just seeing, with their reliance on racial strife as a way to “divide and conquer”. It will take my lifetime to rid our government of the corrosive influence of Richard Nixon, Dick Cheney and George Bush. Let’s get started clearing out the officials who are not following their mandates.
I don’t have a solution for our society, but a prescription – be kind to one another, let someone in front of you in traffic, give someone the benefit of the doubt, try to trust more, try to avoid conspiracy thinking. America is still important, just like Europe is still important, Africa is important, and Southeast Asia is important. When putting together a jigsaw puzzle, all of the pieces are needed to make a complete picture.
Due to the nuclear arsenals of the United States and other countries, we will remain a world player, even as our country adapts to globalization. Just as we took the reins of world power from Britain after World War II, inevitably we will hand over our role as global economic powerhouse to China by within the next hundred years. The decisions which set that change in motion were made long before Generation X could vote. Do we fight that inevitability, or embrace it? The way we respond as a group will determine the success of future generations.
The environmental stresses we all face globally will force nations to begin cooperating on a level previously unseen. Let’s learn to be better global team players, in order to ensure health and happiness for future generations.