An Indian Christmas of sorts

It was early morning, Christmas day, before the sun came up. Walking in the deserted streets in an unknown city in India I quickly oriented myself. It’s fresh, people wear earmuffs and the buses careen through the streets. I’m alone but I don’t care. I have some hours to kill before I’m not and I welcome the opportunity to explore.

The curtain of darkness surrounding the night sluggishly lifts to reveal the wind-up theatre of the streets as it gains momentum for the coming day. Bus stand after bus stand – are now half empty – by noon will be a hive of activity, busses at a stand still. A flight of stairs leads me down to an underground walkway. Walls are marked with stains, small pools of water appear on the floor and rats scurry under scuffed, bare feet. A lady stands dressed in a sairee on the steps. She’s still there when I pass by 2 hours later. ‘What? Or who is she waiting for?’ I wonder. Beanies, flashing lights, chargers, shirts and speakers – touts, some children, shout to make a buck.

Above ground on the street, closer to the train station rickshaw drivers hiss, with forked tongues, ‘Yeesss, where are you going?’ I keep moving in the sea of people. A hare Krishna restaurant tucked from the street offers a sanctum for reprieve – a coffee buys a seat and time away from tracking eyes. I pick up my book and easily lose myself in the streets of another city in India. It’s not so hard to imagine a scene similar to the one that plays on outside further to the north.

“I’ll meet you at the entrance.” It’s a pretty vague meeting point. The theatre is in full swing as I retrace my steps, doubling back to my starting point. By now the characters’ faces are in full spotlight and audience numbers have multiplied. I’m just a face in the crowd. From the fly-over I look down. The entrance? I see a spot that might look obvious if I was looking for someone. And at street level it feels right. I look around, absorb my surroundings and lower myself to teeter on a broken wall. I look up and missed him as he appeared around the corner – he saw me first – so when I catch his eyes he’s already smiling.

He knows a place, he said. Finding the bus is the same story. It’s a game of Marco-polo, hotter-colder. Each iteration of questioning drawing you closer to the target. But the target moves, changes direction. You have to ask twice, move swiftly. Narrowing down the options we catch a bus presumably heading in the approximate direction. The theatre is unscripted and calls for improvisation.

My backpack is fuller than it was when I arrived in the mountains. For three days I’d packed it with the food I would have eaten had I not decided to fast. Those days the enjoyment of such foods was hypothetical – today a reality. Banana, passion fruit, sappota, a variety of chocolate, tahini and honey. Before we’d enjoyed simplicity – the subtle flavors of lightly spiced teas – and the quiet of a mind fuelled by an empty stomach.

Outside the city and far from ‘civilisation’ laid an oasis; or a mirage. It was difficult to discern if, after 4 days in the mountains and lost in thought, the lush green grass and gardens next to a towering pyramid were real. A golden Ghandi was seated in the middle of a pond, the Buddha was definitively more Indian than what I remembered him in Thailand and speakers filled the outside space with an ambient hypnosis. The grass was cool underfoot and a breeze cooled my skin. I reached my arms high above my head and stretched forward to join the rest of my body with my feet on the ground.

I started to reveal my loot. Placing each item, more excitedly than the last, on the grass in front of me. A small, uniformed old man approached. He held a wooden baton with a deformed left hand. I noticed three of his fingers were missing so he clasped it with his remaining thumb and pinky finger. He shook his free hand with an accompanied head wobble, “No outside food.” He insisted. The mirage started to show its cracks. A bulldozer was digging the ground one hundred meters to our left, a guy in plain clothes slipped a walkie-talkie in his pocket and the grass – at the edges – looked as though it had been freshly unrolled. When the guard wasn’t looking we not-so-discretely slipped chocolates, tasting sweeter in their concealed consumption, while we schemed for the perfect execution of our original plan.

A tall African guy and a small, blonde, white girl – with our backpacks we aren’t exactly discrete. So we circle to the backside of the pyramid to search for a concealed spot that might make our presence forgotten for long enough to cook and enjoy the Christmas feast we’ve been dreaming about for days. And there it was; up an embankment, under the shade of lined coconut trees – off the beaten path and radar of the Indian fuzz.

In a pot I mixed flour with eggs and milk and a little bit of coconut oil for good measure. Usually I put it in my hair but it’s turned out to be quite multipurpose. The flame from my tiny camp-stove was artfully shielded from breeze with a side-turned flip-flop and a folded piece of aluminum foil. Pancakes, on a campstove, under palm trees, next to a pyramid in India wasn’t exactly how I’d imagined Christmas just two months ago.

Spooning the first portion of mixture into the pan I prayed to Vishnu, or Ganesh, or Lakshmi, or Rama.. or whoever it was that would approve of Christmas pancakes to help make this mission a success. Keeping in mind that the first is always a dud I tried not to set my expectations too high and remained hopeful. The 5” pan started to warm up and so did my spirits – the second and third were looking good and from there we had full-scale production down. Tahini and honey; honey and banana; melted chocolate and banana! It was like a camping, food-fuelled science experiment and we were as happy as kids at.. um, Christmas.

After a while we regained real-world consciousness – or as real as you can get in India – and reveled in our full-bellied awesomeness. Looking up the afternoon sun broke the canopy of the palm trees and the west face of the pyramid was now more golden than grey-metallic – as it had been earlier.

As we left – our arsenal secretly stored, now, more in our stomachs than in our backpacks – we passed the old man in blue and smiled politely. A short distance past him we looked at each other and cracked up. With all its rules and not rules and contradictive duality we felt like we’d put a run on the board and flipped India a proverbial bird when it wasn’t looking.

At the gate we briefly considered the long walk back to the main road to start our next game of public transport Marco-polo before trying our luck on hitching a ride. I put my hand out, palm-side down, the way you would if you were signaling for a bus, to indicate the approaching car to stop. The pancakes must have pleased the gods because the old man seated behind the wheel – who looked somewhat like a mole – agreed to take us to the bus stand. We squeezed with our backpacks into the two vacant back seats next to an awkward looking twenty-something-year-old engineering masters student.

The dead-ringer for an Indian Steven Urkel had a lot to say in the ride, which took us – further than anticipated – most of the way back to the city. He was intelligent but his social skills would probably have had him identified as autistic in the West. He spoke of Indian philosophers and Western literature and had an insight into society gained only from isolation from it. He spoke of his passion for balance, a quest to know the mind and the divine. He proposed that all religions hypothesize the same goal and had a rare conception of equality that would have powerful outcomes if only the majority thought the same. He believed that you can learn something from everyone, that experience is the only way to gain knowledge and lowered his head shyly when we thought him wise. He also believed that ‘empty vessels make the most noise’ and that the best wisdom comes from those that don’t. I thought then of something Susan Cain said on introverts, “There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” With that in mind I remind myself to listen most to those who have the least to say.

As we neared the city my eyes became impossibly heavy, the afternoon sun hot on my face and things started to seem more unreal. We passed through a eucalypt forest and stopped in a semi-constructed, or semi-abandoned housing area; the city a stone throw to the horizon. As we neared, the normal city signs started appearing; guys playing cricket in the dusty river beds, goats ate the streets, varieties of afternoon snacks being sold from carts pushed by wiry old men and horns blared around tight, blind corners. The streets became narrower before they finally opened up on to a main road where we had somehow magically reappeared in the city. As we climbed from the car I grasped at my wandering consciousness while trying to simultaneously taken in my sudden surroundings. We thanked our hosts with palms touching at our chests and I made note to take a good look behind the thick black frames perched on the nose of the inquisitive soul we’d shared the last hour-and-a-half with.

They pulled away and I watched the car disappear into the chaos down the street. I quickly recounted the events of the day and shook my head – struggling to imagine back to the days’ start and piece it all together. It was certainly a Christmas never to forget and without a doubt only possible in India.

Dear ants - Where are you going?

I was lying on my stomach, my chin resting on folded hands, not doing too much. Just thinking and watching the ants commute in their two-lane highway across the floor. Where are they going? What are they doing? How far had they come? And why? Why?!

Since the beginning there’s been no shortage of household pests in my apartment. Most go about their own business so we’re happy enough to leave each other in peace. With one exception - I’ve had a particularly challenging relationship with the ants.

I’d made a few rookie errors in the beginning leaving the perfect opportunity for invasion. I probably couldn’t have been annoyed at them coming for the honey and dates but was a little more surprised that they also liked oats. (There was something else inedible that they scouted out which had left me particularly perplexed but I’ve since forgotten what it was) In any case I’ve made a note of being exceptionally diligent when it comes to leaving food vulnerable to assault. Food lives in individual stacked containers. Which results in an added feeling of pleasant contentedness when I stare at my shelves, like I did an outstanding job with that one. I wash my dishes as soon as they’re done – all I had to overcome here really was a little bit of laziness. And sweep my floor with a regularity that would probably be little closer to what would be considered acceptable. There’s still room for improvement.

Alas, the ants kept coming. I’ve had ants everywhere. They’ve found their way into my water dispenser and into my kettle. I discovered this one-day staring for a while down into my cup of tea. I remember thinking, “Hmmm.. that’s inconvenient,” and drinking it anyway. At another point I’m sure there was a nest in my laptop – why else would they be marching from the ventilation slots at the back? But the one that equally entertains as it does not – I’ve even had ants in my pants. With all this I’ve basically accepted that ants, like dodgy plumbing and sleeping on the floor, are a part of my life here.

Until I couldn’t sleep on the floor. I could feel them crawling over me as I slept but decided to ignore them – if I attempted anything they’d bite and I had no better alternatives that night. I don’t know if it was the ants or something else, but under coincidental circumstances I awoke with an unquantifiable amount of bites covering the backs of my legs. What ensued was an extremely uncomfortable few days comforted only by frequent applications of Tiger Balm. So I started sleeping on a hard, green metal cot that you might expect to be the only furniture in a solitary confinement cell. I could still feel them crawling over me in the night although I could no longer tell if they were real ants or phantom ants; a manifestation of my ongoing preoccupation.

One night halfway between the sleeping and waking world a sharp sting just above my left eye yanked me from my semi-conscious state. I yelped. (Because that’s exactly what it was) In my vagueness, when I finally worked out what had happened, all I could think was, “Really?” I calculated what I could possibly do and with no solutions or better options I let myself slip back into sleep. Awaking in the morning I could feel something was up. A haze blurred my mind, and to my surprise, my vision. The mirror revealed someone who looked like they’d been up all night on the booze and had either gotten in a scuffle or fallen headfirst into something on their return home. Knowing my luck it would probably have been the latter.

I desperately wanted to go back to sleeping on the floor. I even more desperately needed an uninterrupted nights sleep. I could feel the accumulating fatigue creep over me and was becoming increasingly annoyed at trivial incidences. The comedy series, which is my ant problem, is well known in the office. “Oh yeah they’re still there,” I reply casually every day when I’m asked how they’re going. I’ve been recommended to use a range of chemicals, to which I have a strong reluctance, and to purchase an ant-eater by a guy who I’d previously not given enough comedic credit – regarding him as unimaginative and boring.

Google thankfully revealed some alternatives (I’ve no idea where I’d find an ant eater – neither did my colleague). Alternative one: petroleum jelly at the source. Simple enough but in my case I’d tracked them every-which-way across the apartment and there really didn’t seem to be a source. Two: create your own ant trap. All right! En principio this one had some appeal. I imagined myself creating some elaborate rat-esque trap and retreating to the corner to watch my brilliance unfold. Further reading revealed that this technique was no more than honey laced with borax – lame. Later on my way home I passed the store armed with a list of items for alternative three: natural remedies.

Vinegar, lemon, turmeric, eggshells, cinnamon sticks and garlic topped the handwritten note titled “ANT REPELLENT!” appended at the bottom of the days’ work to-do items. At my place I left no natural-remedy ritual unperformed. I completed a first sweep, cleaned with lemon and vinegar, created demilitarised zones of turmeric powder and scattered cinnamon sticks and garlic across the heavier worn travel paths. In the madness I felt like a witchdoctor crossed warlord as I executed my counteroffensive. I stood back with hands on hips and nodded – well if this doesn’t work then.. well, I decided I’d cross that bridge when I we got to it.

At first the results were promising. When I returned home from the weekend away there were no visible signs of return. But the ants aren’t gone. They’re still here.

Today I noticed though that they’ve changed their path. No longer do they forge across the middle of the room, instead they cling to the walls and side-skirts. Mercifully my designated sleeping zone is no longer obtruded. At first I thought I was going for extermination – a zero tolerance approach. On reflection this was highly unrealistic. So instead I’ll re-frame my perspective and go for acceptance and happy co-existence. The ants, like dodgy plumbing and sleeping on the floor, will continue to be highlights of my continuing Indian residency.

Lessons learned while traveling

The other night I couldn’t sleep. I had a conversation that left me pondering..

So the meaning of life is englightenment; considered by the Buddhists. It’s referred to time and time again in other cultures and belief and value systems – achieving a fully developed consciousness and self-awareness. It’s a drive toward knowing more and thinking critically. The theory of positive disintegration (TPD) calls it ‘The third factor,’ which expressed broadly is a motivation to become ones self.

I like this theory – I think it puts a lot into perspective about the things I set out (unknowingly) to learn when I packed my backpack, got rid of my laptop, threw out my phone and traveled one-way into Asia. If I can apply the TPD here – then this could be considered a fairly convicted level of disintegration. For so long we live by the ‘first’ and ‘second’ factors that we lose sight of what’s our own. Keeping in mind that each society has it’s own individual factors I was able to challenge, through the continual experience of culture shock and readjustment, what I carried because of my upbringing – peers and family – society and what I could truly call my own.

I also think this theory applies strongly to the story of Alexander Supertramp in Into the Wild. He describes it as a ‘quest to kill the false being’ – noting those characteristics of desire, envy and an attachment to ‘things’ as undesirable characteristics. While many admire the story because of his adventurous spirit – I empathise with his quest to find what lied at his core. People do this through different ways – for him, for me, I did this through travel and a parallel questioning of myself.

But the process is iterative. What may seem like the end of the road turns out to be a bend when you approach it. Sometimes I experience moments of pure calm – when I experience no conflict at all. I’m happy doing nothing, living for the moment and neglecting responsibilities – whether real or self actualized. But there’s always something which drives me forward. At some point I am always drawn back to see if I reflect differently from what I knew before. To bring my learnings and knowledge to a previously familiar context. I wonder how the story of Christopher McCandless would have continued?

Me? After a continual period of readjustment I found an immense calm during my travels. I found a place where I chose to settle for a little longer time. There I found people displaying what Dabrowski calls positive maladjustment. A bunch of misfits – travelers, cavedwellers, musicians and artisans - who conflicted with the status quo of ‘normal’ society. Their views could be categorized as ‘anti-sistema.’ Although here it was seen as a highly positive personality trait. Gaining respect couldn’t be bought and you certainly couldn’t fake it. I found myself surrounded by surprisingly like-minded individuals and comfortably at home. Positively maladjusted individuals congregate – they form communities, protest and work tirelessly to create the world they want to live in – to inspire action and social change.

Although I felt as though all this knowledge was lost unless I could take it with me wherever I went. And had a great feeling of responsibility - a recognition of the fortunate circumstance surrounding my birth and those of my parents - to consider those who weren’t born so lucky. I feel like coming back to Australia was my way of making sure those learnings were consolidated, continue to share what I know and throw myself way outside my comfort zone to continue the journey.

So in times when I’m feeling conflicted I try to make peace with the uncomfort knowing that it’s necessary to ‘disintegrate’ and gain further insights about myself. I know I’m not quite there yet because I’m often conflicted – but it also means I know I’m progressing.

As a favorite spoken word of mine says, ‘In the end the race is long. And it’s only against yourself.’