We Are All Immigrants

WE ARE ALL IMMIGRANTS

(PORTRAITS OF) PEOPLE I MET LAST YEAR

Some projects take months of planning. Some projects require conscious effort and execution. And some projects happen almost before the artist even realizes that inspiration has taken hold. I did not intend for ‘The People I Met Last Year’ to become the resonating force that it is now. In fact, I did not intend for it to be anything. And yet, it  manifested itself through my lens as a social study on the complex linked matrix that is the human existence

Over the twelve months that I spent trekking along the Northern Croatian border on the Drava River to the Adriatic Sea photographing sweeping landscapes, historic castles and roads, I discovered the real purpose for my travels. I realized that it wasn’t the setting of the photographs, but rather the people who defined those settings, changed them and influenced them. So, I took the time to simply approached strangers and asked to take their portrait. These impromptu photoshoots occasionally turned into longer conversations, interactions and friendships. More often, though, these encounters came and went with the blink of my camera lens.

My original goal was to put together a strong portrait series. In the end, though, I realized that the project went much deeper than that–it revealed people as incredibly distinct, multilayered individuals who create their own stories and yet live connected by a few degrees. Moving forward, my approach to people as a subject of photography was derived from my fascination by what makes us the same. Personally, the energy I encountered in each person gave me the chance to reflect on his life and understand purpose as an artist.

Perhaps the project suggests that we all are immigrants at one point in our life. We are all outsiders. And yet, every person has dignity in his or her identity as a human. We are, indeed, connected. In the end, everything has been affected by everything else: people, objects, and ideas.

Travel notes from my year in India (2004): Amritsar. Or, on compassion. 16 of 16


"When we hear about compassion, it naturally brings up working with
others, caring for others. The reason we're often not there for others
is that we are not there for ourselves. There are whole parts of
ourselves that are so unwanted that whenever they begin to come up we
run away.
...
Only to the degree that we've gotten to know our personal pain, only to
the degree that we've related with pain at all, will we be fearless
enough, brave enough, and enough of a warrior to be willing to feel the
pain of others. To that degree we will be able to take on the pain of
others because we will have discovered that their pain and our pain are not different.
However, to do this, we need all the help we can get.
"

From "Start Where You Are", by Pema Chodron.

Travel notes from my year in India (2004): McLeod. 15 of 16

It all started with an apparently simple question: 'Who am I?'. Being in India, I could not stop at just my name and country of origin, so it got me thinking a little bit. We perceive reality through our five senses. Certain combination of sensory perceptions are then associated to certain objects or phenomena. Heat and flickering yellow light and a certain odor is something we might want to avoid, a small red round object with a certain smell and taste is something we might eat. Those objects are associated to primordial emotions: fear, or craving. As we grow up we learn to associate conventional labels to those objects: fire, apple. Those labels are passed to us by parents and teachers, which in turn received them from the group or society they belong to. As such, our perception of reality is already 'tainted' by the group we belong to (e.g.: Eskimos having 22 labels for what we call 'snow' in English).

The first level of definition of the self is thus through the senses: what gives me a sensory input is not me, therefore the part that receives the sensation is me. But the interaction with those that have provided us with labels for objects is not limited to pointing at those objects. We also receive information about the characteristics of those objects, required actions, and so on: avoid the fire, eat the apple, or don't eat the apple. Concepts (we can imagine the apple also when it is not in front of us), thoughts.

The second level of definition of the self is through thoughts: YOU are telling ME not to eat the apple. Body and mind. We then create conceptual, abstract thoughts: good and bad, beautiful and ugly, smart and stupid, etc.

If someone tells me that I am stupid, a third level of definition of the self gets offended: the Ego. So why do Buddhists and psychologists and books tell us to reduce or eliminate this Ego?

I think that since the Ego does not really exist (it is a concept, an abstraction), we need to get continuous confirmation from others: I am beautiful, good, smart. So we crave for positive reinforcement more and more to reinforce this perceived sense of identity, which in turn becomes our 'meaning', or the reason for our existence. Similarly, when you told me that I was stupid, you told me that my Ego was of poor quality. As I want it to be good and I cannot deny it, I deny you: I dislike you, I get angry, I avoid you or attack you. Aversions also reinforce the Ego, as they implicitly assume its existence. In a vicious circle, cravings and aversions create our own misery and suffering. We try to avoid something (e.g.: pain), but it comes or happens anyway (e.g.: sickness, accidents, aging, etc.). We try to get something (e.g.: sexual pleasure, nice car) and are unhappy until we get it.

And even when we do get it, it does not last (we loose the erection, the car ages and breaks down). So we try something else: 'love' (someone to tell us we are great all the time), power (many telling us we are great), wealth (we can get more 'things'), success (many telling us we are smart), babies (replicate our own image). But on the long term this does not work either, fleeting like snow melting in our hands.

We identify ourselves and others through our job, sex, religion, age, place, name. But we are none.This is when we need to pull out the 'spiritual' card. Love as the desire for someone else's happiness, compassion, Nirvana, God (or Gods), bliss, separate realities. Things do not get easier: it becomes even harder to have direct experience, and we cannot rely on religions as they have all been tampered, misunderstood, abused. Abraham trying to kill his own son? The original sin to make us feel guilty for our natural sexual instincts? Reincarnation? Jewish killing Muslims? Muslims killing Catholics? Catholics killing Muslims? Gods with elephant heads? Invisible jealous semi-gods? Red devils playing with fire and bearded old men playing with winged babies? Holy cows? Houses of gods covered in gold? The list is endless. Extremists, blind rituals, ignorance, usurpers have clouded my own path with fear, skepticism, disbelieve, disappointment.

Nevertheless, sometimes the fog lifts off for a brief moment and I get glimpses of truth and eternity. So I keep walking. What other choice do I have anyway?

Travel notes from my year in India (2004): the road from Leh to Manali. 12 of 16

After a few weeks of gompa visits on a rented motorcycle, I decide I have had enough nose bleeding and am ready to head to lower pastures. This means a full day sorting through contradicting and misleading information on just what forms of transportation are available to go from Leh to Manali. Eventually it will become clear that a shared Maruti jeep is the only motorized vehicle going down that way.

2 AM start for a planned 16 hours drive. We reach the 2nd highest pass in the world (5,300 m) just before sunrise. It is snowing; it is really cold, especially since our driver insists on keeping his window open all the time! We drive all morning up and down passes, always at about 4,500/5,000 m. In the early afternoon we finally descend to the little village of Darcha, some ¾ of the way. Here, the bridge over the enraged river swollen with over a meter depth of silver/gray water has collapsed.

There are about 50 jeeps and an equal number of trucks on either side of the river. All the drivers sit together, drink chai, smoke, and chat about alternatives. The chatting unfortunately goes on until sunset, so we have to spend the night in the kitchen of the local Tibetan restaurant. At 5 AM next morning I decide to take matters in my own hands, cross the river on the back of a tractor, and catch the local bus on the other side.

Considering that everybody else is stuck, it makes for a very pleasant ride in an empty bus until Keylong. The next bus is a different story, cramped beyond human limits. I am very happy when I reach Manali under pouring rain, some 40 hours after I started my journey.

Travel notes from my year in India (2004): Markha Valley. 11 of 16

A few days ago I was seated on an open terrace, bathing in the warm sun, sipping my chai, as I got approached by John. An American from Portland, in his mid-late fifties, former hippie converted to nature freak. After the customary ritualistic exchange of information (Where from? How long in India? Where to next? Etc.), he offers me to join their group on a ten days trek to the Markha valley. I have heard before how beautiful this place is supposed to be, so I decide to join them, We will be 4 trekkers, 1 guide + cook, 2 horsemen, 5 horses, and 1 dog. On the first day we leave Leh (3,500 m) by taxi to the bottom of the valley (3,000 m), then slowly walk back up to 3,500 m, crossing a desert and climbing a steep narrow and arid valley.

The second day is when the adventure starts. As we continue to climb the same valley, the morning gray weather slowly slips into light rain, full blown rain, and eventually over 4,000 m in an unreal snowstorm. We camp at 4,300 m, lower than planned, but nobody can take it anymore. This means that on the next day we have a much harder climb to reach the pass (4,960 m) and a really long walk down the other side of the mountain. We stop to camp at Skyu, by a little stream, at 3,350 m. That was 660 m up and 1,610 m down in a single day: everybody is exhausted.

During the night the dog decides he has had enough: he disappears (he will be found sleeping in the sun back at the horseman house some days later). The horsemen are depressed; the guide/cook wakes up sick, John can barely move. So we settle for one day of rest. It suits me, I am also quite tired. This way I get to bath in the river, and then spend a good part of the day socializing with two wild white horses. In the late afternoon I climb up to the local gompa, hang my prayer flags, and sit to meditate and admire the sunset. Just then, the one and only cloud in the sky splits into 3 and spells out with unmistakable clarity the letters “CHI”. I have yet to comprehend this omen. Well, to make a long story short, the next morning John and the guide/cook decide they have had enough. The trek is over after another long day of walking. Actually, running, as we needed to reach the little village of Chilling in time to catch the once a week bus back to Leh.

Travel notes from my year in India (2004): the Ladakh Himalayan Region. 10 of 16

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it,
do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations,
do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumoured by many,
do not believe in anything simply because it is written in your religious books,
do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis, when you find something that agrees
with reason and is conductive to the good and benefit of one and all,
then accept it and abide by it.
"

The Buddha, in "The Kalama Sutra"

 

Travel notes from my year in India (2004): Leh. 9 of 16

May 19th, 2004

I have arrived since a few days in Ladakh. This is a region high up in the Himalayas, as far north in India as one can get. It is a desert at 3,500 m of altitude, surrounded by peaks that are all around or over 7,000 m high and are covered in ice, the melting of which produces abundant streams and unusual small islands of green.

The Indus river flows right in front of Leh, where I am currently staying, It is surrounded by fields and trees and flowers in full spring bloom. Then, a few hundred meters away, a desert without even the slightest hint of vegetation.

The temperature swings are extreme: between day (30C now) and night (10C), between sun and shade, between summer (5 to 40C) and winter (-30 to 20C), between one day and the next. Extreme are also the colors that can be seen from the gompas that top almost every peak and hill here: black sky, then blue sky, white snow, then red and yellow deserts, and finally green patches here and there. I am here at the end of the low winter season: all the roads in are still closed, and so are most of the local shops and restaurants. This means that there are almost no tourists, and locals are very eager to interact with the few of us, after so many months of isolation.

That is how I meet some young Tibetans, which invite me to visit their local refugee community and the summer residence of the Dalai Lama. What an interesting experience! First the residence, where my first impression is of surprise at the (very large) number of statues of different Buddhist gods. The surprise continues when my local hosts bow and kiss everything the Dalai Lama might have touched (remember that he is considered to be the material incarnation of the god of compassion). This includes his bed, his chair, his blanket, his shower, and yes his toilet! So long for the original Buddha message of no gods, no rituals, no ceremonies, etc.

Then my new friends invite me over to their house. It is a very modest two room mud building: one room is the bedroom and living room, the oher is the kitchen and storage and study room. Toilet and bathroom are outside, in the garden. But in spite of their harsh living conditions (including having lost their parents, unemployment, interdiction to leave the country, segregation, etc.), they are all very warm, smiling, happy. Except that they spend most of their days watching American movies on TV, and therefore are slowly starting to have a whole new set of dreams and desires.

Funny how in the west we are attracted to Eastern spirituality (Yoga, meditation, Zen centers, Tantra, etc.) because we are slowly realizing that our materialistic and individualistic world-view is incomplete (i.e.: money, wealth and power do not really give us the inner happiness they promised). While in the east they are attracted to Western 'superiority' in terms of personal freedom, individual comfort of life, technological and economical superiority. The excessive focus on spirituality has not brought happiness either, as many are left struggling to satisfy basic needs. It seems to me that one culture has focused too much on the base of Maslow's pyramid, while the other one too much on the peak. Those days I am brought again to seek and question the value of charity and social interaction in a process of personal growth. In other words: is personal growth individualistic and egoistic? And is charity just piety, and social interaction an escape?

Travel notes from my year in India (2004): Dhamma Giri Meditation Center. 8 of 16

It is dark. The air is heavy and stale. It is very hot. It is hard to breath and a bit claustrophobic: the cell I am in is only about 1.5 m long and 1 m wide. I am not in jail, but at the moment I wish I were: so much more freedom there! All my senses are screaming for help. Still, I refuse to move even a single muscle. My mind, with eyes full of panic, looses her last grip and with a dark scream falls into the abyss.

I have pushed her there myself; eager to unload some of the weight that is making higher summits look so unreachable, so distant. Past and future hold hands together. One moment two happy child running down a flower field on a beautiful spring day, the next two old witches shivering in the cold moonless night. In either case they are best friends, taking turns in the old game of craving and aversion. The young girl that used to shower naked on the neighboring roof in Gozo, my hamster falling from the balcony of the 11th floor, me and my brother holding hands under the blankets in fear of the noises of the night, looking at my child playing in the garden. Tears in my eyes and a smile on my mouth.

And pain, more than I ever experienced, sharper than when I got operated in the stomach, when the vicious doctor would punch me on the wound. I am temporarily freed by the bell announcing the 5 o' clock tea break. I want to run away, but they have taken my passport and my belongings. They want to make sure we follow the rules: stay the full 10 days, no reading, no writing, no talking, no cigarettes, no music. Nothing! Males and females separated at all times. Of the 600 people here, only another 4 Westerners. But we cannot even look at each other in the eyes, so it does not really matter. As usual, a glass of milk tea and some peanuts is all we get for 'dinner'.

The schedule here at Dhamma Giri is very strict:
 4:00 AM          Wake-up
 4:30 - 6:30     Meditation
 6:30 - 8:00     Breakfast and shower
 8:00 - 11:00    Meditation
11:00 - 13:00    Lunch and rest
13:00 - 17:00    Meditation
17:00 - 18:00    Tea
18:00 - 19:00    Meditation
19:00 - 20:30    Teacher discourse (on TV)
20:30 - 21:00    Meditation
21:00 - 21:30    Q&A (one on one)
21:30                  Lights off

I have somehow managed through the first 3 days of Samadhi, control of the mind. Slowly, in the absence of any form of distraction or escape, I have slowed down the internal dance, I have gone deeper and further in both directions of time until there was only one place left: the present. But now I am struggling in the real battle. As I attempt not to move from my cross-legged position without backrest for one full hour, pain proves to be a formidable opponent. At first I fight back, to no avail: it only gets worst. Then I try a different approach: ignore my enemy, pass by her as if she was not there. But once again she proves stronger than me. At last, after 3 full days of masochistic torture, I finally understand what the teacher has been telling me all along: equanimity. Treat pain and pleasure in absolutely the same way. At last my enemy is conquered and as quickly as she came, she leaves. It is a temporary victory: every time I fall back into thoughts of craving or aversion, she is back in arms, shining in her horrible armor. Now I understand: pain is in the mind, not in the body. Ruthless Anicha is my ally. No more anger towards the bellman that comes to wake us up in our dorms. I smile as I witness the Chinese monk with shaven head and an extremely slow walk attacks him ferociously. Anicha does not make friends with everybody.

As the 10 days Vipassana meditation retreat comes to an end, it becomes clear to me that this has been the hardest, most dramatic, and most beautiful experience. So many questions answered, so much more light on my path, so much weight taken off my back, so much love given back to me.

 

'Thus in symbols everything called to me: "It is time!" But I did not
hear: until at last my abyss stirred and my thought bit me.'

'It is not the height, it is the abyss that is terrible! The abyss
where the glance plunges downward and the hand grasps upward. There the
hearth grows giddy through its two-fold will
.'

        'Thus Spoke Zarathustra', F. Nietzsche

'I name you three metamorphoses of the spirit: how the spirit shall
become a camel, and the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.
…
What is heavy? Thus asks the weight-bearing spirit, this it kneels down
like the camel and wants to be well laden.
…
to create itself freedom for new creation that the might of the lion
can do.
…
The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a
self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.
'

        'Thus Spoke Zarathustra', F. Nietzsche

 

Travel notes from my year in India (2004): Hampi. 7 of 16

There is an image in my mind of a magical distant world, mysterious and beautiful. A place far away from what I am used to, both in space and time. I had never seen it, just a mental creation after innumerable books and movies and stories. Until last morning, when I woke up to realize that it was here, all around me, real.

A lazy river slowly crawling like a snake through lush green rice fields, in turn surrounded by banana plantations, then palms, and finally the orange desert with immense granite boulders that have been shaped in surreal round figures by 3 billion years of wind. In the middle, the small village of Hampi, former residence of the Vijayanagara empire some 600 years ago. The magnificence of this rich distant time still easy to picture, like an image out of focus, through the hundreds of stone temples that hide throughout the landscape in a desperate attempt to resist the inevitable return of the stone to the earth. Many had to go through the humiliation of losing their former glory and accept new roles as staples, bus stops, schools, and farmer homes. Still better than the rest of their colleagues, which can only claim to be a home for the monkeys.

So here I am, under the shade of a huge mango tree, panting as my little sports watch informs me that it is again 38 degrees Celsius. Impossible to walk around in this heat; all I can do is to lay still and drink liters of water to avoid dehydration while I wait for the sun to become a bit more forgiving. Even the monkeys find it too hot to bother me. Only the local children seem to find the energy to run after empty bicycle tires. Occasionally farmers also walk by with heavy loads of bananas or dry wood. The black buffaloes hide under the trees and stare at the local ferry crossing the river: an over-sized round bamboo basket with up to 15 people inside moving like a merry-go-round that has escaped from her master.
 I smile at the little tourist restaurant that boasts Italian food such as 'spageti con basilica', 'pasta-al-amatucian', and 'lasania with tometo chease'. Not surprisingly the place is pretty empty. The owner looks with a little envy at his competitor across the street that has decided to narrow it down to only Israeli food and therefore is completely full of young kids complaining in Hebrew about how the service is not the same as back at home. I rent an Enfield motorcycle that must date before the British left this place and where everything seems to have been intentionally placed in the 'wrong' place: back brake on the left, first gear up, ignition key under the engine, light switch in the center….

I am heading for the Hannuman (the monkey God) temple. It will not be an easy journey: the bridge across the river is not finished yet and thus I will have to ride down a steep dirt track, cross the river on the big bamboo basket (considering my bike must weight close to 180 Kg., the ferry is VERY close to sinking), then up another hill. The final 'coup de grace' is the 586 steps that lead to the top of a large granite mountain that floats alone in a sea of deep green fields. And it is still 38 C.

Panting, I make it up in time to witness the game of shadows all around me: first those of the palm trees slowly munching the farmers, then the larger ones from the boulders eating entire fields, and finally those from mountains swallowing entire portions of the landscape.

I sit on the highest rock to be the last to be eaten by the shadow of a distant mountain chain. A monkey sits next to me and imitates my leg position.

Past, present, and future are all in front of me. So much so that I do not notice everybody else leaving, or the stars starting to twinkle. I am returned to this earthly dimension by the call of a priest from the temple. He has been observing me and has decided that I shall be their guest for the night. Without a word of English, I am introduced to everybody: the big Yogi, his 'second in command',

8 other disciples, 2 female temple keepers. We smoke together, we laugh at each other and at our own clumsiness, we perform evening prayers, play drums, smoke again, laugh again.

Without hesitation, a large meal is placed in front of me. Then we all head out. The monkeys have left for the night. I am offered a mattress, a blanket, a pillow. We lie in a circle, enjoying the nightly breeze and staring at the moon and stars, slowly falling asleep. I am the last one, and also the first one to get up in the morning, not wanting to miss even a moment of the return of the sun. The sky slipping from black to blue to red to yellow, the birds awakening with loud songs, the monkeys re-appearing. A bit of satisfaction in seeing that they are also panting! One of them decides to ride on my shoulder while I run around taking photos from all angles; she is utterly amused at me.

The priests get up one by one and greet me with a smile of complicity. I enter the temple with the sparkle of joy in my eyes and breakfast is placed silently in my hands.

I am asked to sit next to the Yogi, we converse with our eyes and hands. Slowly, to my surprise, the temple fills with hundreds of villagers. They fall on their knees, kiss the feet of their spiritual leader, and touch my own (better safe than sorry?). Prayer starts, with chanting and drumming. A woman falls in a trance, dancing wildly with both her body and her eyes. Nobody seems to notice. Then we sit and the Yogi starts giving personal advice. A young priest asks me to take some photos of his master as he scolds the village mayor for taking advantage of a poor farmer. I make a mental note not to walk around too much in this village. Only I do not know which village they are from!

As I admire the Yogi's ability to treat everyone the same beyond surface masks of status, sex, skin color, I understand that I have been welcomed for who I am inside, not what I carry with me on the outside. I part with the same simplicity: a hug, a comment on how I will always be welcomed by them, a blessing for my journey.

I return to Hampi and am instinctively drawn to the main temple, where I start chatting with the caretaker of the local elephant: a 16 years old cute female teenager that likes to play with my camera bag. I am invited to join them for the morning bath in the river the next day. Another invitation I cannot refuse, another early rise.  That is how I find myself celebrating my birthday knee-deep in water with a 6 tons cutie that shakes her legs when you brush her under the belly as she lies on her back. And that is when I come to another realization: life gives us only and as much as we are ready to receive.

That is how I know that I shall continue to follow my hearth with confidence that there is a path waiting for me. Even and especially when I cannot see it. I walk blindfolded and confident into the embrace of Gaia, the mother earth. The future is to remain unknown, the past gone, the present shining in all his glory.

Travel notes from my year in India (2004): Go Karna. 6 of 16

February 13

Another full moon is approaching. It is a critical time around here as tension builds up with rumors spreading like wild fire on the location of the next secret rave. After a few days there seems to be converging agreement: three days non-stop party in Go Kharna. Which happens to be some 200 miles south of where I am. It is too far to go by bike on local back-roads. A few beers and a solution is found: five of us will share the exorbitant cost of renting the Jeep of the local farmer (10 USD/day). We all decide to leave on Thursday by lunchtime to do the 3 to 4 hours journey in daylight. Of course with the herculean task of finding a spare T-shirt for each of us we do not seem to be able to be all together in the same place until 7:00 PM, road trip official start time. What really lies ahead of us becomes apparent after:
The Jeep turns out to be a 40 years old Mahindra with a maximum speed of 80 Km/hr. (which we luckily only reached once), windows that do not pull up, doors that do not lock, approximate steering, and noisier than a WWII fighter plane,
It takes us over than two hours to do what is normally an easy 30 minutes ride to Vagator, where the 'highway' starts.

The road that the map proudly presented as a high speed inter-state wonder is really not different at all from any other back-road: wide enough for just one truck, which is scary enough when they come full speed towards us with their headlights on (always) and leave us blindly hoping there will be no lingering signposts when we are forced to pull off the road. Somehow some time in the middle of the night we reach the border to the next state, where obviously the police stop us and with the excuse of an expired pollution control stamp and the usual scarring techniques they wait for some money. Shantanu saves the day storming in with his press card and his father's name. It works, we get through and within a few more hours we reach the village of Go Kharna. Half asleep we attempt to overtake what seems to be a big truck. Only there is another one ahead. And this one is REALLY big, the wheels alone being more that five meters tall. In shock we stop to discover two traditional religious wood chariots: they are over 500 years old, just parked on the side of the road waiting for the procession next week when the entire village will come together to pull them with gigantic ropes. They are both intricately carved and about three stories high.

A brief stop at the beach for sunrise, where once again in wonder we stare at the entire village proceeding in rigorous ranks to bath in the ocean, performing morning prayers, and then disappearing.

We finally reach Om beach, our destination, at midday on Friday. A mere 17 hours after we left. The place is amazing, the beach in the actual shape of an Om sign, isolated and with clear transparent waters. Some 3,000 of us slowly converge here from all directions throughout the day. The gypsy tribe reassembling, coming from all over the world, many sharing the same bit of discomfort when having to describe where they are really from. We grow in number and excitement through the day. By sunset, when the music is supposed to start, there is a definite vibe. Which will have to be harshly transformed a few hours later, when the music does not start (the inexperienced Israeli organizers forgot to pay the local police).

Not surprisingly, this time the trip back only takes us five hours. Uneventful, except for an engine breakdown right at the same border checkpoint. It turns out to be a very simple matter and we are able to kiss the ground of our 'home' in Goa soon after sunset. Our friends await us with a welcoming glass of Rum & Coke and a grim on their faces: the best full moon party turned out to be just next door at 'Buterfly' (yes, it is spelled with only one t), a full 30 seconds walk!

Travel notes from my year in India (2003): Goa. 5 of 16

December 31

Here I am sitting on a beach in Goa looking at the sunset, in this day both meaningless and loaded with expectation. It is windy and the Arabian sea is ruffled. The waves and the reflection give life to a golden snake, continuously swirling towards me in a familiar movement: the same I saw the moon create in Big Sur this summer. The sun rushes ahead, eager to bring this last day to you, the ones I love, so far away. Soon this same sky, now so passionately colored, will become transparent and reveal once again the enormous emptiness and darkness of the universe around us.

What a kind miracle that such terrifying isolation should be hidden from us during our active day by such an elegant blue blanket. The same one that keeps us alive. The same one that also regularly disappears in itself to still remind us of where we stand. The way we have converted sunsets from the panic of the disappearance of life light and color to romantic and reflective is utterly similar to all the other 'conversions' we do unconsciously every day. Fear is intrinsic to our existence. The more we hide it from ourselves, the more we fall down the cave. And do we really want to spend this brief moment of existence in a hole, where all we see are the infamous reflections on the walls? At the same time I ask myself how many more times I will have the strength to intentionally destroy the comfortable cocoon I have had to rebuild so often already. How many times will I have the courage to stand in naked isolation in dark night, knowing full well that every time it will be darker and colder than the previous? Only I need to remember how every sunrise is equally more piercing of true clarity. Is it thus the ego or the fear that I need to chase? So far I have only really acknowledged both the power and the links between the two. I see now the ego driving me around all day, the flirtatious mind desperately active in hiding both the night and the sunrise.  How I wish at times that I could skip a few cycles and jump ahead to the next chapter! It might not be about the destination, but the journey sure is rough at times.

 

January 7
 
What is 'real'? We arbitrarily set reality and imaginary apart in an illusion of control. We choose to believe that the 'real' is scientific, conscious, controllable, and predictable. But of course it is not. So we narrow our focus more and more, sinking deeper and deeper in a dark hole that is more unreal than any reality could ever be.  We negate all that is there to help us: our dream, feelings, visions, fantasies. The moon is just a big rock, a butterfly is only an insect with big wings, and a 'moment' is nothing but a moment.

The unconscious retreats and becomes our own enemy, chasing us with doubts and fears and dissatisfaction. We intellectualize and rationalize even more, hoping in a relief, but to no avail. Some choose to retreat, to hide behind all sorts of distractions.  Most, when confronted with a crack in their 'reality', choose the blue pill: forget all about it and go back to somewhere where the crack cannot be seen. I chose to jump in the dark, eat the red pill, the one with no return path, slipping right through and into the crack. I am piercing through the layers of our collective conditioning, in awe of a fluid space, all of a sudden free of borders and walls. I surrender, and in so doing I am freed. Partly. That is how I find myself in Goa. The full moon rave at the beach, by the temple, under the palms. There is a fully dressed cow dancing to the beat of trance music. Yes, she is truly shaking on all four legs, following the rhythm of the music.

I close my eyes and the music takes forms, in shapes and colors that my body instinctively follows. At sunrise the party moves inland, in a bamboo forest at the bottom of a valley. And goes on until sunset. I meet Lorenzo, American, tanned, tattooed, in his late 40's. He has also been to Esalen and Burning Man (a new community in the making!). And his wife, who's name I did not understand, beautiful, young, delicate. We share a moment in time, deep strong brief. We part as brothers, maybe never to meet again. And it is OK.

 

January 15
 
I have decided to join a Yvengar yoga intensive course and am lucky to find place in one of only 4 Tee-Pee's that are within the complex that sits under the palms, caught between the sea and a river. The location is stunning, in splendid isolation. An island of peace in the craziness of Goa. After a few days I enter for the first time in some of those 'impossible' asanas. A sense of accomplishment: at least the body is responding! That night the moon smiled at me in her reflection from the river, the shadows of the palm trees bowing respectfully.  The class (there is about 30 of us) is a muesli mix of ages, accents, personalities, and life histories. I met Chris, he tells me about the sexual habits of a famous writer. I feel an initial sense of disenchantment, almost betrayal. But after further consideration I realize that I am placing a moralistic and conditioned judgment on his sexual life.

I am caught in the old paradigm that a 'spiritual' person should have a monastic life, that enlightenment only comes through privation, sacrifice, suffering.  I share my thoughts with Chris and in reply he tells me about his latest research on sexual behaviors in the stone age. Apparently the ratio of testicular volume to body mass is a sure indicator if an animal species is monogamous or not. Of course I ask, and it turns out that humans are somewhere in between.

I argue that we are different because of our consciousness. He counter-argues that consciousness gives us the power to love, which is different from our natural sexuality. We end up disagreeing a bit on whether it is possible to love one person but fuck many. But then again... Looking back in history, it is true that monogamy has mostly been driven by need, and that the wealthier members of most communities always seem to have been polygamous.  Also, I have reached some time ago the conclusion that love is not an institution, nor any of the many forms of dependency (father/mother figure, need of affection or security, etc.). But rather the conscious decision by two individuals to follow the same path for a period of time. Together, but still respecting the individual identities. So, if we are truly free of all conditioning and dependencies, can this go as far as been monogamous emotionally but not physically? Most would agree rationally that jealousy is a form of possession, but is a long step to actually not feel the pain at the idea of our loved one being fucked by someone else! In my personal case I feel like monogamy has been a social conditioning, while polygamy has been a parental conditioning. And the path forward is impossible to predict, control, or judge.

January 22
 
Midnight, riding on my motorbike back to my Tee-Pee tent. A long ride back in the complete darkness of Indian back-roads. The sky is full of stars, there is no moon, and the air is warm. All of a sudden I am on the long bridge over the river, the one that took 12 years to build. Orange lights on high poles disappearing in the distance. Nobody else on the road. Two realities mixing together: that one of other such bridges back 'at home', and the one I am supposed to be in. Where such bridges are an abnormality, an exception that is there to catch me off-guard in my perception of space and time. Four cows sleeping in the middle of the road bring me back.

February 03

Surf Club, my local hangout bar here in Arambol since a couple of weeks. Communities and friendships start fast here. It is sunset; I am lying on a hammock. The two local waiters are playing pool in the background. The palm leaves all around us slowly turn into intricate golden patterns with the last sun rays. Time is different here. Well, so is space. What a folly to live in the belief of one singular and linear reality.  Then suddenly everybody leaves for some birthday party. I will follow, later.

Travel notes from my year in India (2003): Mumbai. 3 of 16

December 22

Where do we go when we dream? Where is that imaginary space built with the memories and images of our past? I might have found mine, thousands of miles away, tucked into the late night of the streets in Bombay. Four in the morning, warm and humid, an orange light blending colors into a monochromatic fantasy. Very surreal, reminiscent of a Fellini movie. The line of time gone bye messing up with the one yet to come. Large trees with roots hanging from the branches bring back scenes from childhood readings (Salgari, Kipling). Old black cab cars parked at every corner, with blue and red neon lights inside and the drivers sleeping in the back seats. Memories from a time when cars were not just cars. Old, very old merry-go-rounds beg the night to take them away, to give them the rest they have earned with so many turns. Big swings that are asked to look like ancient roman boats, feeling lonely so far from home. Old colonial houses tired of dressing up for visitors that never seem to notice. A fugitive of the night passes by pushing an electric toy car. Then suddenly someone pulls my shirt from behind: "Would you like to see my trained monkey dance for you?"

Travel notes from my year in India (2003): Rishikesh. 2 of 16

I am at peace with the world today, as I walk the tiny streets of Rishikesh, a small village at the foot of the mountains. The sun is slowly rising and conquering the Ganga river, monkeys are peaking through the glass doors of the 'Cyber Gafe', the owner is singing loudly some Hindi song. How peaceful it all is, after over 2 weeks in Delhi, with all the excitement and noises and activity! And truly exciting it has been: I could not have dreamed of a better host than my friend Shivina! Looking back, I had the opportunity to mingle with fashion top models, chat with the latest Bollywood movie stars, dance with the maharajah's, sit with the VIP's at the Polo finals, discover the secret underbelly of the city, and meet some really wonderful people along the way.

You can probably imagine my thirst for some more introspective silence after such a rush of amazing adventures. That is how I found myself getting up at 5:00 AM (NOT usual for me since the long gone days of corporate life!) to start the long journey: taxi to the train station, train to Haridwar, local bus to Rishikesh, rickshaw to the upper part of town, then long walk across the bridge to find the hotel (well, at least it seemed long with my heavy backpack).

But let's go in order. 


First the train. Interiors all of the same color: seats, walls, ceilings, doors. Lost somewhere between a gray and a light green. The kind of color you still see in old hospitals in Italy and on WWII ships in the US. Vaguely uncomfortable. I sit next to 2 Tibetans, only one speaks (good) English. We talk for a while about the Tibetan cause, people, history. Until he shares that he is part of a militant group, in favor of guerrilla violent actions to reach independence. At which point I feel it is time to kindly disengage and start enjoying the scenery (on the other side...). Funny how familiar seems this landscape escaping in front of me. So very similar to the planes of Piemonte, where I was driving less than a month ago. But then some very Indian reminders. Like men pissing against the walls, everywhere, proudly looking at me. Or the cow dung, dried in neat round tiles and piled up in small towers on the side of the roads.

The bus ride costs me 15 Rs. (about 30 cents US), it lasts about 2 hours. A young Canadian girl sits next to me, scared to travel alone. She has just arrived in India, she has that panic in her eyes... When the bus overtakes other cars at high speed in the middle of a mountain turn, she grasps the seat in front of her, sweat dripping on her chin. While I listen to music and enjoy the ride, I can't help but smile, remembering my own terror on that first rickshaw ride... As time passes, I become so much more aware of colors and smells and feelings and thoughts. Is it true that the real essence of life is savored in wondering, travel, uncertainty, growth? Is Bruce Chatwin right with his analysis of the roots of unrest in our western world? Or is travel one more escape from the self, a feeding of the Ego?

 

December 05

Sitting at a rooftop cafe, I enjoy the scenery bathed in the warm yellow tones of the afternoon sun. It is pleasantly warm. The Ganges, here still clean and white from the glaciers, is very calm. It has been only two days and I start already to recognize the local characters: the old man sitting at the same spot every morning to ready his newspaper, the local Baba still trying to sell me some hashish, the schoolgirls in bordeaux uniforms crossing the pedestrian suspension bridge, the same cow always blocking the way on the bridge, the same 3 monkeys sitting on the cables waiting to steal some food. I am alone, but less and less lonely.

I realize now just how much I have been escaping loneliness up to now. A busy and stressful job, feeding my arrogance (I am changing things, I am smarter, I make money, I can work harder than 'them', I reply to emails at 2:00 AM and on Sunday's, ...). Sports and other activities: snowboarding (everybody goes in winter!), biking, fitness, barbecue's, dinners, bars, fixing the house, dinners in front of the TV, surfing the web. And so on. And on. And on.

So loneliness is being alone and feeling bad about it. While aloneness is being alone and feeling good about it, at peace with myself. Like I feel now. Not that I am quite there yet. I cannot claim enlightenment! I still miss my friends, making love, a juicy steak. I still plan my days. But I can start to have glimpses of inner peace. There is such a powerful beauty in sitting in meditation on a white beach on the riverside of the Ganges. With nowhere to go. And nothing to do. It is just astonishing how we cloud ourselves with goals, ideals, thoughts, worries. We search left and right, when all we have to do is sit!

 

December 09

I rent an old Indian Vespa and head up the mountains, as the sun is still finding his way down the valley. It is cold, but I am so fascinated by the rays piercing through the foliage and glowing in the morning mist, that I do not care (too much). There is only me on the road. And the monkeys, of course. I cross a really big black one, with a white face. Big enough to scare me away.

As the road winds up the mountain, flirting with the Ganges, I get a bit worried of the huge vertical drops. In a few places the road just collapsed down some 200 meters. Which would not be a problem, if it was not for the occasional truck coming down at full speed and not being impressed at all by my little scooter. Which leaves me with less than a meter between the big noisy monster and emptiness. Comfortable enough for the other motorcycle drivers, less for me!

Fortunately I have plenty of road signs to bring a smile back. Green signs in a green world, with magnificent hand writing and warnings like: "Be Soft On Curves" (my favorite, also in the version "Go Soft On Curves"), "Speed Thrills But Kills", "Horn Please" (before every town), "Drive Slower, Live Longer", "Hurry Makes Worry" (I appreciate the universal nature of this one), "If Married Divorce Speed". I squeeze between the ever increasing number of dhobi of the road (there are men sweeping the street!) and some 70 Km. later I reach Devprayag, a small village where two rivers merge and the Ganges officially starts.

As I walk the omnipresent suspension bridge, I start conversing with a sannyasi (monk). Of all that I have crossed in the past weeks, this one really seems to glow from inner peace in his eyes. He decides that I should be blessed by the river, so he brings me to the water and makes me repeat a long prayer in Hindi, followed by offering of flowers and rice. As fascinating as the moment is, it would not be so amazing if it was not for the striking coincidence of my reading just those days of the "Bhagavad Gita".

So I am almost not surprised when I run into a chanting and prayer session by a large group of young children in orange robes, the evening of the same day back in Rishikesh. And it almost feels natural when the day after the lead monk invites me to perform the sunset prayer with him, in front of all his disciples. Once again, none of those events is exceptional per se. It is that they are happening to me now, just as I am plunging into the sacred scriptures. In such rapid succession. I could be cynical and attribute it to my presence in Hindu pilgrimage sites. But I rather sit and meditate on the power of our thoughts in making events happen, situations come together, increasing our awareness.

 

December 13

A blind man in Rishikesh approaches me in a restaurant to ask for help with his email. The next day I spend a few hours typing messages to his friends, then we go for lunch and he tells me his story. When he was 11 he was in a car accident, in which he lost both his parents and his vision. The rest of his family decided he was too much of a burden and closed their doors. So from an early age he had to decide if he wanted to accept the position society was giving him (beggar on the street) or fight an uphill battle. By the time we met he was in his mid forties, well dressed and wealthy, a writer traveling around India and the world. Alone. With a disillusioned but very positive vision of life.

You cannot even start to imagine how hard it is to travel in India alone and blind. The taxi's charging you tenfold (how can you check?) or giving you the wrong change, the porters walking away with your bags, the ashrams (equivalent to our religious convents) refusing you access because you are "bad luck". His stories go on and on. I experience it myself, when we make the trip back to Delhi by bus the day after. Like the bank that did not give him access to his account because he confused his bank statement with another piece of paper of the same size. Or the ashram that only accepted not to charge him double after I (the Westerner) argued against it (he later told me that they most probably will not let him stay there again because of that).

So long for the kind Hindus and the spiritual places we supposedly go to learn from. Even the two German tourists in their 'peace and love' clothes initially refuse to help him get to his hotel when we get off the bus. It is exactly next door to where they are staying, while miles away for me. They probably think it is a scam to rip them of their old and worthless bags. After all, if he is really blind, why is he so well dressed? This man gave me one of the biggest lessons, both when he asked me to leave because he wanted my friendship and not my pity, and through his inner peace and kindness in front of constant abuse.