The Security of a First Aid Kit

When people hear that we traveled for so long, one of the first questions almost everybody asks is, “What kind of first aid kit did you have?” Having completed the trip, this question almost seems a little absurd. “Really? We went to ten countries in fifteen months, and the first aid kit is what pops to mind?” But before I get all judge-y about it, I think back to the organization of the trip, and remember that the first aid kit loomed large in our mind as the trip neared. What would we need?

Will you be dirty and sick all the time? Sick no. Dirty, well…more than you are used to, that’s for sure.

If you read the Lonely Planet books, and check out their first-aid kit suggestions, you can become easily overwhelmed and confused. Times that by ten countries and you could easily fill one large backpack with supplies for the just-in-case. What if we caught malaria? What if we needed to have a blood transfusion? What if we needed stitches in a remote and dirty clinic somewhere in China or India? What if we broke a bone? Would we be dirty and sick the whole time? So many ifs and maybes. 

Our doctor didn’t help. She gave us prescriptions for everything she could think of: malaria, altitude sickness, a half a dozen different kinds of antibiotics in different spectrums (with instruction about which one to use in which instance), medications for parasites, yeast infections, asthma, the runs, constipation, and a powerful painkiller to help us should we have a toothache. Then came the fake blood, the suture kit (and suture remover, a fairly substantial piece of hardware), the wound cleaning solution and “wound glue.” We had every kind of bandage you can imagine, including an ankle brace.

You get the picture.

We carried this 20 lb weight, halved and stored in both our backpacks to prevent loosing the entire shebang if one of our packs got stolen. This was a considerable weight to carry, considering that we are also carrying a bunch of guide books (to plan our trip) winter and summer clothing, mosquito nets, sleeping bags, any presents or memorabilia we purchased in route, and sundry grooming supplies. In some countries, just carrying the money was another issue all in and of itself (you try cashing in $1000.00 in India before heading off into some remote area of the country, and see what they hand back to you at the bank!)

Of course, we didn’t need the first aid kit. Or much of it anyway.

What did we use?

  • The malaria medication (but if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t take that stuff. It is god-awful, gives you nightmares, and is dangerous for your unborn children.)
  • The suture kit – but not on the trip. We used it on an archaeological dig before we left for India, when someone used a crowbar to remove a stone, but unexpectedly removed his fingertip as well. I sewed it back on after we both took a couple of shots of raki (the local white lightening.)
  • A dose of Ciprofloxin each, when we came down with amoebic dysentery about 2 weeks into the start of our trip. In this case, it was completely necessary. I literally thought I was going to die, and so did my husband.
  • A couple of bandages for minor cuts

We did give some of these things away to other travelers we met who were in need.

We never used the fake blood.

Struck by a dynamite propelled rock, this bruise eventually covered my entire thigh and some of my torso.

We did have medical emergencies while traveling, however. In fact, a couple of them were pretty dramatic. For instance, I got hit in the leg by a flying rock after a dynamite explosion sent it rocketing into me at roughly the speed of sound. (Long story…I will tell it in another blog post.) It left a bruise the size of Texas on my leg that spread from my left knee into my groin and abdomen and took months to dissipate. I still have a dent in my leg where the tissue has never healed properly. Chris got sick numerous times with a cough that lingered, and didn’t really seem to respond to the antibiotics we were given. Assuming it was viral, we just hunkered down in one place for a few weeks and let sleep, walking, good food, and more sleep work its magic. My eardrum burst in southern China while Chris was walking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge for a few days. I felt too crappy to join him, and sure enough blood on my pillow one morning after a miserable night of ear pain told me I had a ruptured eardrum. None of these really were addressed by the first aid kit, consigned to the bottom of the backpack, and rarely removed. Dead weight.

We had, relatively, very few medical needs while traveling. In fact, we needed less medical care than we had needed living in New York City. Chris’ allergies had given him a terrible case of asthma, and my IBS was a constant source of discomfort. Over the ten years we lived in New York, our health problems had become worse and worse, in fact, despite having really wonderful medical care. The surprise was that traveling cured us of disease, or at least made it noticeably better. Our fear of catching some mysterious Asian illness was an illusion, and in fact traveling helped us with the diseases of modern life. Chris stopped needing an inhaler to breathe; a diet of rice, veggies, and meat seemed to agree with my constitution. I didn’t know yet that I had Celiac. We both got stronger and fitter.

In retrospect, the first-aid kit is a symbol. It is the traveler’s need for control in advance, to be able to mitigate what is probably the most scary thing about travel; the fear of helplessness. “What will I do if I get sick and am helpless in a place where no one knows me?” “What if I get malaria?” (Malaria is the bogey-man of all travelers in Africa and Asia.) “I will be vulnerable. I must seek to control and limit this vulnerability. I must be self-sufficient and prepared.” This is the self-talk of the not-very-experienced traveler.

The moxibustion clinic we visited in eastern Tibet

But once home and back to the more familiar turf of life in my hometown, I can recognize that my fears of being vulnerable were met during the trip with the help of strangers and fellow travelers, not by the medicine sitting in the bottom of my bag. If I needed help, I usually got it, sometimes in a form I did not understand at the time. I was given large doses of herbs at a clinic in northern India, moxibustion in Tibet, rice and yogurt delivered to my bed to help with the runs, and a bevvy of homeopathic medications and teas in a hospital in Chengdu, China to help heal my burst eardrum and drain the fluid that lingered in it for weeks. The latter issue was the only time we visited a formal medical establishment in the entire trip; the rest were lay professionals, hotel owners, and concerned travelers we met on buses, trains, and in the places we stayed. When the need arose, help came – not from the bottom of my bag but from others. The lesson of inter-dependence was beginning to make its presence felt in my life.

I have had other reminders of how futile the need for “preparation” is in a life that is impossible to predict. Childbirth, both times, offered me powerful lessons in this regard, especially the lesson of letting go of plans and allowing what I had been most afraid of to happen to me and to then walk through that fear. The fear of illness was my biggest worry about traveling. What if I was badly injured? What if I got really sick? What if I was in pain, cold and afraid, wanting to come home, and not being able to. Well, all of those things happened, and since coming home was not really an option, I had to get through it. I had my husband to depend on, but I also had others – strangers – who reached out and helped as well. This kind of surrender, giving in to what is most scary to us, to move with it, has been one of my most powerful lessons in this life so far.

So, what would I take if I had it to do over again? I wouldn’t take malaria medication, for starters. I would use a mosquito net and wear long-sleeves and pants (even in warm areas) at night. I would take a broad-range antibiotic like Cipro, but truthfully, it is available over the counter in many areas of the world. I would take some band-aids and an antibiotic cream for cuts/scrapes. I would take tweezers and a magnifying glass (preferably tweezers with a magnifying glass) for splinters. All of those things are for convenience, however, not because you can’t get them in other countries. Most importantly, I would pack trust. I would trust the medical traditions of the countries you are visiting: herbs are powerful healers, and many of the locals know what works for ailments like headaches or a flu. I would seek always to travel with friends, either those from home or from fellow travelers. And, I would pack my sense of humor and my smile, sharing it with everyone around me. Building community is what truly makes you less vulnerable. Being someone that people like to help, who has been generous in the past, is what guarantees you help when you need it.

Build community wherever you go.

It may seem paradoxical, the idea of building community while you are traveling in another country. But community exists among travelers, and can be initiated with a smile and polite acceptance in a place where there isn’t a common language between you. People are naturally generous and seeking community, and this is something you don’t plan for on a trip. The knowledge of this, however, is probably your most important tool, and it can’t even be packed. It isn’t found in any guide book either. There is no instruction manual. And it certainly doesn’t fit into a first aid kit.

 

 

 

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The Family in Haridwar (2)

We didn’t take pictures of the family in Haridwar, but little children without any adults around is a every-minute-of-the-day sight in India.

Flash forward two years. We decided to start our family despite the rather unsettled life circumstances of me being in graduate school and not even at the dissertation phase yet, my husband trying to reignite his graphic design business after our extended time away, and the fact that we were renting a house and had no prospects of owning one anytime soon. But I was inching up on 35 – getting old! – and we knew from our time traveling that people had happy families despite not having anything at all as much as we had now. No time like the present.

But it took years. In fact it took two years for me to get pregnant. In that time, I did a lot of reading and talking to my best friend, who was also starting her family. The family in Haridwar had given me the courage to try, even though my own culture said I wasn’t “ready” to have a family. But there were so many choices: childbirth choices, feeding choices, parenting choices, medical choices, schooling choices. It was overwhelming, or at least it felt that way until I learned to center myself on the image of that mom breastfeeding her newborn surrounded by her happy family. What choices had she made? She had no choices, as far as I could surmise. None of these options existed for her; she simply gave birth, parented, cared for her children as she could, and raised them to be able to do the adult tasks around them as the adults in the family did. There was no choice for her. Did I really need to make it all so complicated?

When I finally got pregnant, this idea of “choice” gradually began to become even more simple for me. I simply had instincts, desires, for things that I could not explain but that drove my actions. I could, if I wanted to, override these instincts, but I chose to trust them completely. Not only did I trust my food aversions and cravings in pregnancy (the stereotypical “instinct” talked about in our culture), I began to trust other, deeper instincts.

The idea that I would give myself the opportunity to birth without drugs or medical interference began to sit hard inside me. My best-friend was pregnant and committed to home-birth. I had, frankly, never even heard of it. Everyone I had ever known had their babies inside a hospital. But where had that women beside the river had her babies? I knew that the hospital was not the answer, since those would have cost money that family simply did not have. She would have been attended to by her mother or mother-n-law, a midwife, or another local woman with experience in childbirth. There would have been some risk, but clearly she had six children without problem. Couldn’t I birth in the same way? I had all the same internal organs. I didn’t have any less of a tolerance for pain, although I was told by every woman that I surely didn’t have it in me to birth naturally. No woman did (!) Who did I think I was? This wasn’t a contest! Just use the epidural; it is so much better. But I read up on epidurals and episiotomies, and c-sections. I read up on babies being removed from their mothers right at birth, at the crucial moments of bonding, because of the ease on the nursing staff. I read up on the patronizing attitude of doctors and nurses who know when my body should push, and when it shouldn’t. I really didn’t want any part of it. I wanted to give birth with women around me, and let my body tell me what to do, as women’s bodies have done for eons upon eons of births. The decision to birth with a midwife, at home, however, has been made harder in our culture than I ever thought possible: so many hoops to jump just to have a baby, so much fear around the process.

I knew that breastfeeding felt right as well, even though I had no other role models in my life for breastfeeding babies, other than the women I saw while traveling. They became my role models. I also knew that extended breastfeeding (or allowing the baby to wean naturally) was important as well, although I certainly had NO support for that except from my husband. Even my own family members were embarrassed as I put a baby to the breast, a newborn, and the embarrassment increased with time. I simply had to trust in the research and the examples of women all over the world breast-feeding three year olds that this choice was the optimal one for my baby and for me. And I was grateful to find that there is ample evidence for its benefits to us both and is supported by many medical practitioners world-wide. Anthropological evidence, dear to my archaeological heart, too supports extended breast feeding as normal, natural, and instinctual.

“You need to put that baby down.” How many times did I hear that from my family and friends? I didn’t want to put the baby down. I wanted to hold him and carry him for naps, I wanted to work with him on my back and with him by my side, just like the mother in Haridwar did. I didn’t want to put him in a stroller or even give him over to others to hold. I felt strongly that he needed to be near me night and day. I carried him in a sling or in my arms, and slept with him next to me until my second child was born. This is what felt natural. It seemed ridiculous to “train” babies to sleep, or to put them in cribs in other rooms, when clearly newborns needed their mothers completely and should be held and slept with as they were almost everywhere else in the world. Research on brain development and crying-induced stress have born out my instincts. Letting babies cry at night, alone in their cribs, primes them for depression and anxiety and breaks their natural attachment to their parents, to their mother. But I didn’t know this when I made the choice to hold and sleep with my baby. I just listened to my desire to hold him and be near him. I learned to trust that inner voice to make us both happy. And I watched him grow into a trusting, happy soul deeply bonded to me. It felt right.

I had many internal conversations about what discipline might look like when the children were older, and what education meant to me. After all, I was an academic who was becoming swiftly disillusioned with pedagogy in formal educational systems. What were my instincts here? I was the product of schooling my whole life. I had excelled! Why do anything different? But the idea that our system is not a normal one, not integrated into community, but a clear institutionalization of young people so that the parents can be part of the economic system – so they can work and make money, pay taxes, buy things. This felt wrong. It felt deeply wrong. I thought deeply about the world I would like my kids to be a part of, and the institutionalization of them for hours a day for much of their childhood seemed so unlike what I saw where families were educating their children to be productive within their own cultural setting. Education in many of the places we had visited was being done my missionaries and others bent on spreading our cultural values (which are a miserable failure in so many ways) to people who are doing just fine, thank you. They may not be spending money and increasing their country’s GDP, but generally they had family, culture, belonging, love, and a sense of their place in their community – something that we in the west lack, for all our abilities to read, do calculus, and program computers. Did children need school to be happy? It seemed that the opposite was the answer, so I began investigating the idea of homeschooling even before my first child was born.

And what about the issue of freedom; freedom to roam, freedom to play alone, freedom to explore without adult supervision? Would my children be able to have that kind of freedom, the same freedom I enjoyed on my horses so long ago in rural Georgia. Would I be able to trust the world enough to allow them to play without me, allow them to get hurt and have to solve problems on their own. How would I mitigate my desire to protect with their need to explore and play alone? To this day, with my children entering tween-hood, this is still an on-going struggle for me. My instincts tell me to let them play and explore our little village alone; my mind – filled with the images of missing/murdered children and constant amber alerts – tells me to keep them close.

Parenting was completely transformed for me by my experiences of traveling – not just the family in Haridwar, but by visions glimpsed elsewhere as well (although, admittedly, none as complete). Prior to traveling, I was not self-reflective at all in this area. In fact, I had given children very little thought up to this point, but traveling changed all that. It became immediate and attainable, this idea of bringing life into the world. I knew that I would find love and joy with my children, although until the moment of their birth I did not know the scope of that love. If we had not journeyed in the way we did, I probably would have slept walked through parenting, as I had done through so much of my life. I would have made decisions based on what I knew from my past, rather than active decisions based out what is possible/normal/encouraged in traditional cultures. Traveling allowed me to see the invisible wall that encapsulates so many of us – our culture – and see it for what it is, merely a shadow and nothing more, something we are able to walk outside of, and around in, to mould to our desire and understanding.

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The Family in Haridwar

We were slightly unsure about boarding this bus, to tell you the truth. We had been in Rishikesh for quite a few days; a spiritual Disneyland if there ever was one. Good cafes, though, and that was a solace to us after the hardships we’d encountered further north in the Himalayas. We were ready to return to Delhi, but because of a local festival, buses were hard to come by in the direction we were heading. Our hotel owner procured us two tickets in some mysterious way, and gave us a piece of paper on it with instructions to give to the taxi driver. It was convoluted and a little shady, but in the end, we had two seats on a comfortable bus heading south.

One problem presented itself however. In a country where almost everyone speaks some English, we were on a bus with festival go-ers from farther south who all spoke no English. None. Not a person on the bus, not even the driver. So when we stopped by the Ganges a few hours south, and

The Festival in Rishikesh

everyone disembarked, we had no idea where we were AND where everyone was going (and, the salient question, when the bus would depart again.) We tried, with sign language and other passers-by who spoke English, to get our questions across but nothing worked. Our interpreters told us we were in Haridwar, and that there was an important festival in town. We should go, they said.

Well, the festival explained the stop. In hindsight, we probably should have figured that the bus would not leave for at least a few hours. But we, knowing we had two seats on this bus, didn’t want to loose the seats for anything. The hotels were full, our local interpreter said. We would never be able to find a place to stay. Would we like to go to his brother’s shop?

We opted to stay at the bus. How long could they be gone? We had hours to drive to Delhi, so certainly they would return toot-sweet and we’d be on our way. Chris went down to the river to explore; I sat on the bus listening to music. Soon, we were hungry and sought out some street food and returned to the bus to eat it. And then we began to realize what was happening around us. Outside, next to the river was an encampment. Lots of little kids, ranging from ten to a new born were playing in the river. At least six kids total. There was a mother with her new-born baby, a grandmother, but no father. The grandmother was making bread, the mother cooking with her baby-slung on her back. I had, at that point in my life, never seen a baby in a sling. It seemed like an efficient way to work and care for a small baby. The older kids were naked and swimming, laughing and chasing each other. Some of them swung from a rope tied to the tree that was shading their camp site. It seemed to be an odd place to camp. There was even a garbage dump next to them. Not very scenic, and with all these buses, it made a curious camp site indeed. But clearly, that is what they were doing. There was a make-shift tent that the kids ran in and out of. The fire was fed with cow-dung patties and small sticks that had been neatly piled up next to the tent.

The food preparation preceded apace, and we were spell-bound. The tinted windows of the bus made us invisible to them, but we could watch the activity. It was a welcome insight for us. Their private life was made transparent by the campsite, and we had so far spent about two months in India and had had very little contact with Indian people, other than begging or taxis trips. Women’s and children’s lives had been shielded from our view almost completely. It was fascinating. We ceased to care about when the bus would leave.

Right about the time the food was prepared, the husband returned. He was on a bike with a make-shift trailer attached to the back, not quite a rick-shaw. He was hauling garbage, and had the oldest son with him who was around 12 or 13. They both went to the river to wash their hands and then returned for lunch. All the kids ran up from the river, and hugged their father. He was smiling and jovial with them all, and carried one of his sons back up to the cooking area, which was laid out on a blanket. The father said something to his wife, and they laughed, the mother-n-law laughed too. They sat and ate what looked like a lentil stew, some rice and bread and everyone ate every bit of food they were given. The rice was served on leaves and eaten with hand. The stew was in one dish, and bread was used to mop it up. The mother breastfed her baby. The smallest toddler sat on his dad’s lap. They looked happy. There was no waste and very little clean up. The leaves, once used, were tossed into the bushes along the river.

We didn’t take pictures of the family in Haridwar, but little children without any adults around is a every-minute-of-the-day sight in India.

After the meal, the father and most of the older kids went to the trash pile and pulled out plastic bags from the waste pile. They were singing and laughing while doing their work, even though it didn’t look particularly fun. Trash bag after trash bag after trash bag was taken down to the river, washed thoroughly with soap, and then put on upright sticks all around the camp to dry in the sun. The boys swam some more, wrestling in the water, splashing one of the younger girls. Chris and I watched in fascination as the bags were then folded and neatly bagged, clearly for resale. And this is about the time that we came to the realization that this was not a camp. This was their home. 24-7-365. This was the family “job” – collecting dirty trash bags from the dump, washing them, and then reselling them to stores. They had lots of kids to care for. Lots of mouths to feed. It felt overwhelming and we began to ask ourselves if we could help in some way. Could we leave them money somehow? Could we offer them food? We had apples with us.

We kept watching however. The smaller kids and the baby laid down on the meal-blanket and slept. The mom took this opportunity to wash in the river, still covered in her sari. She washed her hair and sat on the bank to dry talking with her mother. They then began the bread-making and preparation for the evening meal, laughing and joking together as they stoked the fire and mixed the dough with their hands.

The day passed like this, with us watching hidden in our bus. Once, around dinner time, we ventured out to get food of our own, and the grandmother brought us bread, giving us food that could have been used to feed their family. We were also invited to eat with them. We accepted the bread but declined the dinner invitation, feeling sure that someone would go hungry to feed us. I almost cried at this kindness from them.

Dinner passed just like lunch had, with joking and laughing. Kids running back and forth to the river. The husband smiling and touching his wife, and almost unheard of familiarity in public life in India. They clearly loved and enjoyed each other.

Inside the bus, Chris and I began our conversation about this vision we had been given. What was to be learned from this one-sided encounter with the poorest people we had ever seen, but also the happiest? We had only been married a year, and thought we might have children after we finished traveling and once we had established our careers, had a house, and some money saved up. Wasn’t this what you need to have happy families? You need a house, stuff…right? This day in India completely dispelled that notion in our mind, and has never left my consciousness since. You need NOTHING to live happily, except food and perhaps enough arms to hold the children that need you. A river and a place to shelter you when it rains helps.

A mother needs a sling, her breast, her arms, and her mother’s help to be a good mother to her own children. She needs a quick smile and encouraging words for her older children, as well as the expectation of those children to cooperate in the tasks at hand needed to make the household run. A father needs much the same. The parents’ constant physical contact and play with each of the children was beautiful to watch and seemed to infuse the youngsters with radiance. Their dad held the young ones upside down, chased the older ones, held the newborn for the mom at times, swam with the oldest, and he seemed always to have hugs and kisses for each of them throughout the day. The joy he felt in his children, the pride in both his sons and daughters, was palpable.

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It was dusk when the bus group returned to begin our journey south, noisy and festooned in flower necklaces from the festival. The bus roared to life, and we drove south in the dark along busy streets, hours from our destination.

We ended up spending about nine hours watching the family outside. I wanted to give them a gift of some kind before we left, but in the end, both Chris and I felt that there was nothing we could give them that they would accept. In truth, we knew also, that in some mysterious way, our definitions of rich and poor had just been transformed as well as our ideas about parenting, happiness, and “needs.” They were rich in so many ways. And, in contrast to my expectations of poverty in India, they were happy too: happy, bonded, attached, cooperative, loving, playful, and nourished (in every sense of the word.) May we all be so rich in what counts.

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Architecture and the rupture of space

The bulldozers roared to life next door on the first day of summer this year. Everyday we returned home to a changed landscape, never quite sure what we would find feet away from our driveway. The noise was a constant, but what bothered me more was the disharmony created by the invasion of the space by strangers. A year ago, our next door neighbors lived quietly. We knew and cared for them, our kids welcome in their yard and at Halloween for trick-or-treating. He would come and help us with technical chores, like fixing a garage door. He always had the right tool in that garage of his. His wife, a shut-in and in poor health, we rarely saw, but she always had a smile for us.

Forward a year, he had passed. The hole he left in her life begged her to move on, to leave the house she had lived in for fifty years to someplace near her nieces and nephews. The house was sold to the highest bidder, a ¼ acre plot with a falling down teeny-tiny house. We knew it would be developed eventually.

When the development began, the rupture of space was the most apparent problem. The erasure of memories, the removal of friends. The entire lot was swept clean of trees; the ancient magnolia that bloomed over our driveway and dropped pinkish petals in the spring; the apple tree, a remnant of the orchard that once stood on this hill; the tall evergreens that shielded their house from neighbors across the lane and provided a barrier for us as well; the violet field in the spring that erupted from the grass, a continuation of the one in our yard as well, part of its living community. All this and more was removed without a care, without acknowledgement. Except by me, my family, and the neighbors — certainly not the builders.

Houses used to be built differently, and still are in many areas of the world. They are built slowly, with

Houses used to be built differently, and still are in many places in the world. This house is a traditional house in Bhutan, built by the community to house an extended family.

natural materials collected from nearby. They are built with the help of friends and neighbors as a community project by people that know, or at least acknowledge, the landscape. The work is done slowly, and since the houses are quite small (normally), care is given to details: wood carving, painting, rafter-end decorations, intricate roof tiles, apotropaic symbols, nooks and crannies built in for storage and comfort. The houses are people-sized, people-focused, and do not forget those who have come before them. The houses also do not exclude the people who will come to live in them later, but are built within the continuity of life.

House are not built like that now. The house next door employed dozens of people, most of whom were itinerant workers who don’t know or care anything for the landscape. This was just another job. Teams would come in for a day: to dig the deep foundation trench, to pour concrete, to outfit the house with pre-fab walls and roof sections. New teams came in to wire the interior and put in dry-wall. None of them knew the old owners of the place, the neighbors, or even the new owners who would eventually inhabit the space. It was just money. Nothing sacred. Just a job. Meanwhile, for those of us around the place, we felt an intense sense of rupture. Loved ones were gone, cherished trees were gone, memory landscapes removed with disregard. And we, as new neighbors, had no place in creating the new; making new memories, forging new friendships, rising to new challenges. It felt wrong. With the house now built, the summer of never-ending noise behind us, it still feels wrong. Why?

Like in so many things, this rupture of space/time around architecture feels uncomfortable to us, as it does with “fast food” and cheap clothes, cheap furniture, and surface friendships. I would assert that we, as human beings, seek emotional complexity around most of what we do. This emotional complexity builds maps for us, memories, stories…and this is the stuff that we are made of. Simplifying these stories and emotional maps does nothing to help us feel full, and so we seek to fill that emptiness with consumerism and addiction, both things driving the destruction of our planet and our very existence as a species. We are taking down other species with us as we go. All of this because we have lost the emotional connection to place and people, the interior landscape map of connection that we so desperately seek – indeed we are born seeking such attachment to place, people. To nature.

The structure of our economy makes such disruptions “economical” and therefore good, but this is a dying belief system. People are beginning to recognize that they feel awful, deep down, when another McMansion field grows where there once was a forest or a farm. People feel how ugly a prefab house is, both while it is being built and once it is inhabited, despite the bells and whistles of granite countertops and fancy bathrooms. I live in a house that is 250 years old, and invariably when people walk into my living room for the first time, with its 7 ½ foot ceiling height and small spaces heated by a wood stove, they tell me how much they love the coziness, the feeling of home that it imparts in them. “I love these old houses,” they say with a sigh. “They are so warm and cozy.” The space is

Old houses help communities identify themselves and are a marker of local “culture” in much the same way as clothing, jewelry, and language.

human-centered. Its wood and stone invite you to stop, sit, and share something of yourself in a place that has been here awhile, seen generations pass through. You remember that there is a continuity to place, and that you are just one person to have inhabited this room, and that there are more to come. The walls, the ceilings, the floor, the staircase – all tell tales of human work and reconfiguration. Dents in the plaster shows us that a door once led out a wall that now leads to a kitchen, rather than outside. The wide-plank floors sometimes cough up a nail that is hand-made, forged and beaten into its delicate shape with some type of small tool. Real people built this house, lived and died here. It is literally part of the walls of the place.

There is an acknowledgement that we have too many empty, forclosed-upon houses (and, sadly, too many homeless people.) It is a paradox. Why build new? Why disrupt one more neighborhood, one more eco-system? Why not preserve what we have and make do? Living in smaller spaces is beginning to appeal to many. Families are beginning to consider living together as a unit longer, as the economy falters and we all need to make do with less, adjusting our dreams of luxury-home-ownership to something smaller. Elderly parents are moving in with their children and staying independent longer, cared for by the family around them. Really, we need so little space to live. We know this intrinsically. It feels familiar to pare down.

People in all areas of the world are looking to their natural landscapes and thinking about how building can be slowed down, made collaborative, made affordable. Stone structures in rocky landscapes, straw-bale and cob in areas with access to grass and mud (most everywhere!), mud-brick, dugout structures in hillsides, cave living. You name it, there is a re-envisioning of how it might be used to bring back “slow architecture.” Permaculture is teaching us new ways to build within our landscape, new inventive ways to use what we have, to situate the house in space that respects the natural landscape and supports our ability to thrive in that location. Recycling of old homes, and the popularity in historic preservation, is another acknowledgement of having built enough in our landscape and making do with what exists rather than needing to create something new in a destructive way. Urban preservation of buildings, complete with roof gardens and civic spaces, is creating a new way to look at urban life. And then there is the “small house” movement; people everywhere giving up stuff and space to live in small spaces with no debt. These are all the same movements, just with different faces.

Human-scaled villages made with local materials. The very name of the region in Tibet, Sakya, means “grey earth.”

It is interesting, though, to think of these as new “movements” since recycling and building with local materials is embedded in our history and indeed is how many on our planet still build; in harmony with their natural environment, using natural materials. The reuse of older architecture, obviously, is not a new idea. Some buildings in Bhutan and northern India are over 1000 years old, and made with nothing more than mud-brick, wood, and plaster. These have been continually used, cared for, renovated and kept up by their local communities. They represent the totality of collaborative work by

Community built and maintained architecture is a nexus of memories and stories

communities throughout generations, and tie one generation to the next. It is an intense nexus of memory and landscape, a building like this. We have so few buildings like this in the United States, and almost any building of any kind of antiquity is removed from the public sphere and made into an “historic house” or another type of destination. It no longer becomes a landmark in people’s memory because the community aspect of its upkeep and generational reinvention is no longer a part of its life. This leaves us poorer than we’d like to believe. We walk through museums and historic places seeking connection with ancestors, but are left wanting. We can’t touch, experience, become any meaningful part of the place. The experience of connecting with ancestors becomes commodified even. Here’s your ticket.

My journeys offered me a glimpse into another way of connecting to our built landscape, and indeed provided a glimpse into the importance of connecting with it, just as we connect with nature and each other. It is a type of community, this relationship to place. And it, too, has been strip-mined by our extractive and scarcity-focused financial system. We build today solely for profit and have lost much in doing so. It is a loss we all feel. I am heartened, though, that everywhere I look, “slow architecture” is being rediscovered and re-valued. This is surely a step forward toward feeling whole again.

 

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Ski Gatlinburg and Other Misfit Images

There is a place in the Nubra Valley where you can go no further north. It isn’t allowed.

On the dusty road north

The road ends, And somewhere, beyond the next bend, Tibet begins. China claims Tibet as its own, and truthfully, India and China are very touchy about their borders in this neck of the woods. But we felt compelled to at least go there, the place where the road ends.

Gompa clinging to the cliff face

We moved north-west on a rough and dusty road, up the river. There was a monastery hugging a cliff, a vertical face that made me a little queasy, just looking at it from the valley floor. How? How was this building, shoved into the rock face, carved out of solid stone and directly perpendicular to the gardens and forest below? Like all Tibetan temples (aka gompas), it smelled of yak butter and wax, incense and old wood, and it was dark and welcoming; oxymoronic qualities that give gompas that special sense of “other.”  Kids were running circles around us, laughing and pointing to their game of cricket in the courtyard. Old dogs were lying in the corners, while adult monks move quickly finishing up their chores, smiling and folding their hands in welcome as they passed. We sat in the sparklingly bright sun, moved inside to pay our respects and leave an offering, and explored the public areas of the property. In every gompa I ever visited, and we visited over a hundred in our year in the Himalayas, we always felt welcome, without exception.

Sacred texts and ski resorts

Our next gompa, situated a quarter of a mile from the border, was half collapsed and seemingly uninhabited, except for a tiny section of an out-building. Its caretaker, a bent-over old man who made himself understood with hand motions and rapid-fire Tibetan, pulled us into a small bedroom where he clearly lived. He unwrapped a filthy silk scarf from around a long, thick package the size of an elongated shoe box. To our surprised, he opened a Tibetan text, clearly a sacred text by his reverence of it, and showed us the pages of hand-written Tibetan lettering and painted images. It was old, and worn, and clearly extremely valuable. He was showing us, the rare foreigners who had come so far to visit him, his treasure. And in this place, all I could look at was his shirt. “Ski Gatlinburg.” He tried to translate some of the text for us, but his very poor English and our lack of any Tibetan other than ordering food and saying “hello” stymied any attempt on our part of understanding what the text contained.

Sacred sculpture in a crumbling gompa

He gave up, eventually. After wrapping up the text and placing it back on his altar, he moved us down the hill, down the path to a building that was collapsing in under its own weight, the mudbrick — having not been repaired yearly — was dissolving, with wood timbers exposed and the flat roof in danger of caving in. No one was saying prayers in here, although there were hundreds of votives lit illuminating the space. And what we saw took our breath away. Sculpture that reached out and touched you with its living-quality. Delicate and perfect Tibetan paintings of Avalokitishvara, in both positive AND negative space…the black walls filled with delicate images drawn in white – etched into the black paint – and more detailed than any drawing I’ve ever seen. We gasped. This is a treasure, beyond value, and it is sinking slowly into oblivion. It will be gone in a matter of years. We took pictures. We feasted our eyes on the fascinating and haunting beauty of these masterpieces for an hour or more, lighting candles, contemplating the fate of this treasure.

This is the serendipity and discontinuity of travel: Tibetan gompas with their welcoming

Chris was mesmerized by this Avalokitishvara

dim-ness, treasures and precious images in places literally crumbling with every passing year, monks with incongruous sweatshirts. We have become so used to a world that makes complete sense, is ordered and maintained, where very little happens that is truly spontaneous. But travel, anywhere really, but especially in remote areas, tends to bring these tensions to light, making them visible and part of your awareness. They challenge your assumptions, make you second-guess what you think you know, and always present structural cracks in your world-view, some of which do not appear until you have long returned home, long forgotten the thing itself. You just remember that you were challenged and were made uneasy.

 

Sacred sculpture in a crumbling gompa

In the Nubra Valley, the discontinuity that remained with me was the connection to ancestors of the place we were visiting. The crumbling temple looked so like the archaeological sites that I had spent so much time exploring professionally, yet within them were these treasures – books, images of all sorts, still venerated by the people of the valley. Created with care hundreds of years ago, the casing of the building was falling away, in disuse because of the border area just beyond the bridge – the town had up and moved, the community supporting the architecture relocated. But yet the images were still there, awaiting pilgrims for their offerings, watching the seasons pass and the people move in and out, the building decaying around them, year by year, snow by snow. Archaeology in the making. A ruin in an in-between state with the ancestors still visible, their spirit present. You could almost see and hear the people who had created this place several hundreds of years ago. This wasn’t the only ruin on our travel where I felt this kind of discontinuity. Many sites further south in India, Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples in Thailand and Cambodia, at Pagan in Burma, and certainly in many places in Tibet, where the destruction was caused recently at the hands of the Chinese oppressors of that country. In fact, it was a constant theme. I felt deeply connected to the history of the place because so many abandoned cultural sites were open for the visiting…not quite ruins, not archaeological sites, and still emitting a feeling of inhabitation. A continuity in space, but a discontinuity in time, the latter of which became less and less of a barrier as I traveled. It got easier to imagine myself in other times and places, as I became less and less attached to my culture, to my place, to any sense of home.

 

We always felt welcome in the gompas, wherever we traveled.

The “Ski Gatlinburg” sweatshirt, while also serendipitous, connected me to this person, to this remote place, in a way I otherwise would have not been. Most people are put off when they travel to a remote area of the world, and there is some kind of cultural “link” back to the west: clothing like jeans, or a certain food, for instance. I too find it disheartening, and did especially while traveling. The disappointment about this stems, at least in part, from a feeling of entitlement, however. “I have come this far, paid all this money, to escape my culture…how dare this place not be pristine!” I would add that I felt disgust in the power of our culture to move everywhere on the planet as well. People in other cultures hear us complaining about the ubiquity of western cultural paraphenalia in their cultures, but dismiss it as some sort of naïve and entitled attempt by first world people with money to demand that there always be “pure” places, untouched, as travel destinations, like museums or zoos. They see it as a patronizing view, and – after traveling so much – I tend to agree that often this desire for a cultural oasis is the well-spring of that sentiment in many travelers. We have no right to be annoyed that hill-tribes in Thailand have access to jeans, especially since we allow corporations to advertise in those countries and push consumer goods on people to make money. We are complicit by purchasing these goods back home! We can, however, work to limit the ability of major corporations to advertise and promote their goods by not purchasing their products. No coke, no cigarettes, for starters.

Curious little monks come to see check out the strangers. We are all connected.

With some hindsight, however, I try to see these uncomfortable cultural juxtapositions as the serendipitous in travel, pushing me to feel connection with people seemingly so very different from me, but in reality part of me, part of life on this planet. The random in travel, the incongruous, the serendipity seems to have this purpose, upon reflection. It wakes us. It pushes out of the day-to-day routine of feeding ourselves, finding shelter, moving forward to the next place, all so much a part of the cycles of long-term travel. It brightens our mind, and begs us to stop, laugh, take notice of the details and particulars; to simply be present in the moment. In my experience, these kinds of moments are where we find connection with others beings, with life, with nature. That connection is our deepest drive, a very deep instinct that we have all but lost in the west. Our culture demands independence, a belief in one’s ability to live a life of self-sufficiency both emotionally and physically; both are illusions. Connection, attachment, dependence, surrender to life – in other words love – is our essential nature, and whether one recognizes or not, travel pushes us further into that recognition in more ways than just incongruous moments. For instance, being lost, hurt, sick – those moments while traveling help us understand interdependence most starkly, when we depend on others, often strangers, to help us in our time of need. Moments of danger, moments of beauty, these always help us remember the connectedness of our true nature, no matter where they are felt, even somewhere as mundane as in our own hometown. The moments of serendipity are simply unexpected and subtle moments of beauty, and I continue to be deeply thankful for them.

 

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Gifts and Gardens in Unexpected Places (2)

Wild Bactrian camels

Feeling very satisfied, since one of my goals had already been accomplished in the first twenty minutes of being in the Nubra Valley, I happily returned to the car with not-too-great shots of my first sighting of a Bactrian camel. Everything else was gravy.

We pulled into town about an hour later. After miles of dust and desert, camels and scrub vegetation, crappy roads with huge potholes, we drove into one of the most lush, fertile, verdant landscapes I have ever seen. Clear, tumbling brooks made the air loud with the sound of water. The smell of flowers and fruit hung in the air, which seemed completely cleaned of the dust we had been driving through all day. People smiled and waved as we drove past, and I quickly noticed that everyone was walking in this town of narrow lanes and even narrower bridges; we were the only car. We pulled behind a small shed, and I followed our driver through an abundant vegetable garden filled with flowers and late fall produce, and into a mud-brick two-story Tibetan house. We were greeted with tea and apricots, the promise of food and a bed, kind smiles embellished with bowing and བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས། (tashi delek). I followed the eldest woman out of the house and into her garden, and she showed me what we would be eating for dinner.

Ladakhi home with the entire yard as a garden

I took some pictures. I was amazed. Not only was our entire dinner produced from the veggies taken from the yard, our snacks were also drying (and still warm) on the top of the house — apricots, in season and falling off the trees at this point. She picked cabbage, potatoes, greens, edible flowers (and flowers for the table and our bedroom, which she handed to me to place into our little room out back.) Beyond the house were trees used for coppice (basketry and rope making), as well as grains and grasses used to feed the livestock that they would over winter (rather than harvest before winter.) I saw chickens, two goats, in the yard; pigs and cattle outside of it. There were uncountable numbers of fruit trees — apples, pears, peaches, apricots, all fruiting and bursting with food.

A lush fall kitchen garden, providing dinner for all

There was no “yard” in the American sense of the word. Only a garden, a house, and a room used as a hotel (visible in this second picture.) And then, of course, there was the view. The mountains. And the clean, sweet scented air filled with bees, birds, smells and the sound of people walking along the road muttering “Om mani padme hung.” It was the first time I had come in contact with a largely self-sufficient household, producing rather than consuming what its members needed. It was paradise. I felt like I had come home.

 

The edge of the yard

 

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Gifts and gardens in unexpected places (1)

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ShareDescent. That really is the only word to describe what it feels like to leave one of the highest motorable passes in the world (at 17,582 feet) and move slowly over terrible roads to the “valley” that sits at roughly … Continue reading

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Return to Ithaca

Mani stones in Bhutan

Mani stones in Bhutan

 

Ithaca, by Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclops,
… the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Ithaca’s riches. Returning home, changed but not knowing quite how. Cavafy makes Ithaca plural at the end of the poem, and in that, giving us a one bright moment of insight. We come home to many changed landscapes: our families, our friends, our community, our intellectual goals, even our understanding of our place in the world. This long term transformation is whispered about in literature on long term travel, mentioned in passing on blogs and backpacker sites, given the briefest of nods in books dedicated to planning visits to exotic locals. But I have come to realize that it is the most profound part of any trip, this reintegration into our world…a world that seems the same, but is not, not really…adrift in a familiar world that suddenly seems altered. And it is a feeling that never quite fades. The hard work then begins, to re-make a life within the familiar but needing to incorporate experiences almost no one around you can share. You must translate change back into the familiar, with family and friends looking on and asking,”Why that choice?”

This blog, this presentation of memory about travel, is meant to explore how travel changed my interior world and, consequently, how my interior life changed the exterior; the choices I made regarding how I relate to myself and my community, how I am raising my children, and what my vision is for my place on this planet for the short time I’m here.

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