Saturday, August 29, 2015

India, part one: (almost) everything they told you is wrong

kanheri caves, India, Maharashtra province

"I think it's a very bad idea for you to go," the agent frowned. "A woman alone? That place is like nowhere else. It's very unsafe for you." 

"Have you been to India before?"

"Well no, I haven't. But I've heard stories. It's a very dangerous place for women."

That was my conversation while booking my flight, and the travel agent -- a well-meaning young guy -- was strongly urging me not to go. I looked down at my bitten nails. Only yesterday, my partner was trying to convince me to stay home because it was not safe. 

Once I made it obvious that I was planning to go no matter what (and the words felt false, since in my heart I was probably mildly depressed and wanted nothing more than to retreat to rural Canada for a week), the staffer changed his tune and told me I would have a grand adventure which didn't involve gang rape or robbery at knifepoint. 

Booking the trip was messy. The medication, the typhoid shots, everything was done in a furious frenzy, dashing to the train and sprinting for blocks and blocks to arrive at the medical office in time, bruising up my knees in the process. 

I'd been on a lot of trips before, and this one felt the most disorganized and crazy in a long time. My trip to Shanghai/Beijing/Suzhou was almost as messy, with me having to move out of my apartment on the day of departure, cleaning and packing from 9pm through 4am, sleeping on the floor for a few hours, then meeting with the building manager at 8am, then dumping boxes of donated electronics to the neighbourhood store at 9:30am, then grabbing a train and beelining it to the airport with less than 1 hour until departure (not cool for international flights), carrying everything from an extremely heavy box full of pennies to random business books in my giant backpack. 

But at least even then, I'd arranged hostels. I'd booked guides to show me around. In India, I'd done nothing. Everything except my hotel was a pure blank slate. I made a feverish dash to Chapters and bought the only India travel book they had (sad state of bookstores these days), as well as a pocket language dictionary. But this was undoubtedly the worst planned journey I'd ever taken. And it would be one of the most important. 

Probably due to the summer heat, I'd felt exhausted for weeks and felt like running on empty when I shambled into the Vancouver airport. There was no excitement, even--this was the first time I couldn't even get worked up and thrilled about a new place I was visiting. Everything was too much. A strong part of me felt like I shouldn't even be at this airport at all, that I should be back in my bed, trying to catch up on sleep. 

But as I would discover in the next few days, the trip was absolutely worthwhile, and necessary. 

I would learn that just about everything they told me about the place was wrong. 

It was not dangerous for women (not refuting other people's experiences, this was just how it was for me).

I wasn't even catcalled. 

People did not stare at me because I was a foreigner -- my foreignness fascinated exactly no one. 

No one took advantage of me (I was almost "scammed" by a rickshaw driver for the princely sum of 40 cents once). 

Stuff. Was not. Cheap. No shopping for me. 

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport was a million times nicer than the Charles De Gaulle Paris airport and made YVR look primitive by comparison. 

And yet, I learned we are appallingly, almost offensively privileged in Canada and largely unaware of it.

All that and more I'd find out in the upcoming days, which will be roughly chronicled here. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Enchantment around the corner

As per my previous I've never been more aware of other people's presence than when I went traveling this summer. It was painfully obvious when someone wasn't clicking with me, and at the same time, crystal clear when someone's disposition (if I was to be cheesy but accurate about it, the person's aura) is a good fit.

When I went to the Buddhist caves, there was something unassuming and serene about my driver that I didn't find in anyone else. He was a tall, gangly guy with a mustasche and big hands he usually kept clasped behind his back. There were no forced smiles, no strained and obvious attempts at pleasant conversation. One of the things that stunned me about him is that he knew an awful lot about Buddhism, including some of the chants, despite being Hindu. 

I confessed I wasn't much of a serious Buddhist, and had attended temples weekly up to my teens but didn't attend any these days. In fact, I was not very religious at all, which was probably not good in India. To this, he shrugged.

"Religion -- Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist -- this is all from earth," he said, shaking his head in a diagonal swaying motion as was the norm there. "It's not from God. " 

With that simple sentence, he summed up exactly what I'd been feeling about organized religion in a previous post. 

This driver had the most peaceful, humble presence of anyone I'd ever met. We both sweated out buckets while walking up mountains and exploring the ancient caves; when I went for the 10 minute meditation at Global Pagoda, he joined in too, and later asked me curiously what "meditation" was, exactly. He was the least dogmatic, least self-righteous, and in many ways, the most Godly of the people I met, precisely because he put ideals of tolerance and compassion into action. 

Throughout the journey, he talked about wanting to bring his wife this place and that place. His dear wife and mother, his daughter, he talked about his family constantly, and in the most affectionate way. He sent delighted selfies of places we visited over to his wife over the phone. "I have to take my wife here," he said numerous times, already planning when their infant daughter would be old enough to take day trips with them. 

The driver (whose complicated name I neglected to write down, much to my regret) was impressed when I recognized the photo of him, his wife and baby at Marine Drive, and at my willingness to trek out for hours under the sun. Most of the people he drives around, he said, get too exhausted from the heat after a short half-hour and demand to be taken back to the cool, air-conditioned hotel. He talked candidly about politics (which he said he didn't like, because most politicians were self-serving a**holes), about his mother in law's 3hour commute to see their sick daughter. Especially on a woman's solo trip, the casual traveling companion is half the joy of the journey, and I felt I got lucky to be with a kind spirit the whole time. 

I'm not sure why I was so fearful and nerve-wracked about seeing a new world. Even though fear and anxiety overwhelmed me before coming, there was nothing to be afraid of upon realizing there was enchantment around every corner,

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Fearful and anxious

It feels like the older and more experienced I get, the more fearful I am of going to other places, outside of what I know. Last night (partially due to fever), I thought about traveling and fear gripped my heart and seeped into my bones.

My thoughts went something like this:

There will be crowds of people I don't know! I will be terrified! The air will be dirty! The water, too! What if I just stay in the hotel all day and experience nothing? Oh, why, oh why, didn't I just choose to stay home, where everything is safe and familiar and comfortable?

On and on my anxiety went. Me, for whom traveling is among the core parts of my identity. They say you're depressed when you don't enjoy the things you used to love before. Am I depressed, and not aware of it? As with painting, as with creative writing, I am filled with pressure and fear about what outcome this will achieve, if any at all.

There's a strong part of me that thinks, don't force yourself. If staying home is what you're comfortable with, stay home. You may not be happy, you may be very bored, but stick with what you know.

But perhaps this pattern of thinking is precisely why I have to go. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Pardon the hasty sketch, but I drew this of a friend today, who I spoke to for the first time in awhile via Skype. It's hard to overstate the importance of an exchange with this person, who is younger but whose insight, depth of thinking and personal character and life experiences (which are heavier than mine most likely) I admire deeply.

She asked me an important question I'd been asking myself this week--indeed, this whole year--but running away from without answering: "What do you want to do with your life? What makes you happy? What if this was your last day on this earth, what would you do?"

I responded the way I thought. I didn't tell her this, but I'd recently cleaned out my old room from years back and I was floored by how much I wrote in notebooks. Whole stories, detailed accounts of the day, sketches of unique and interesting people. This is what I do; it's my form of meditation, contemplating the world is  my way of prayer.
It had almost brought me to tears how much this was a part of my identity and how much of my other pragmatic self had chipped away at it, to the point that the old me was almost all gone. I make a living and I'm happy, sure, and am very satisfied and content, but I have felt for years like I lost my soul. In Okinawan they call it the mabui -- your soul -- and your mabui can "fall out" after a traumatic experience, or a shock, or surprise. If you don't recover your mabui within the span of a few days, you can die.
 I felt like mine was gently fell into the sand some time ago, either in 2008 or 2010, unnoticed, and never came back.

She encouraged me to go travel to find my happiness and my life again. She said she gave me "permission" to stop being responsible and go find my soul, go travel not looking for answers to fit in a "frame" or even research for my stories, but to just experience and be (the whole convo is written down in depth but I won't post it here). It blows me away how much I needed to hear that from another person's voice.

I may have lost touch with my soul but moments like this I feel like there really is some kind of higher power who arranges certain things to happen at the right time, the right words at the right moment. There was sunshine and wind blowing in the room depicted in my screen, wind blowing. It made the whole conversation feel special.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The sacred spaces

I did something unusual today. I veered from my usual route home, the unwavering path down Hastings on to the SkyTrain, straight b-line home to sit on my butt and work and play on my computer. I got off at an unusual station after noticing a beautiful flower garden form above the ground. I had no business there, but as I entered the community garden and admired the fuzzy blue flowers, the magnificent kale and eggplants, the heavy, drooping yellow sunflowers and heavenly melody of leaves and weeds and grass, it occurred to me that it has been a very long time since I enjoyed a quiet moment like this. 

Totally offline. 

Not buying anything. 

Not comparing products. 

Just sitting on a creaky and paint-stripped old wooden bench, under the blue sky, marvelling at the beauty of an old communal garden, at the tiny yellow-dot bees plunging and disappearing into purple blossoms, at the lazy and blissful warmth of summer afternoon air. 

Tears came into my eyes over how long it's been, how many weeks have passed since I've felt a moment like this. These spaces that used to be so common in my childhood have become such a rarity I'm only two SkyTrains away but may as well have stepped into another universe. 

It occurred to me as I sat there that as children, perhaps life structurally works so that beautiful places and moments are doled out to you constantly without effort. As you enter your late twenties and thirties and forties, your years and years can pass by without you ever noticing that your soul died and capacity to feel joy withered away long ago. 

The adult life bombards you with guilt for passing your time in non-productive locations doing non-productive things. I can't remember how many times I'd hurry out of an art show, a pleasant cafe, out of a concert, out of a garden, or worse, not even be there mentally to begin with, because, oh, I've got to answer that email, I've got to fix that thing at work, I've got to, I've got to, I've got to. Six a.m. to 11 p.m. on a computer, on my butt, only walking involved is from my home to work, my whole life in a three block radius at home and two block radius at work. 

The pleasant thing about getting older is to realize what a mistake it is to live like that. And when you are thirty something, beautiful places and moments don't ever just fall out of the sky - you have to chase it, hunt it down, pursue it with intention. So I did today, to remember I still have an ability to feel awe. And so I'll continue to pursue and own these little moments.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Desires and compromises

I'm wearing around my neck a necklace I'd coveted for three months. I avoided buying it despite falling in love with the thing at Dr. Vigari's because it was on the pricey side ($70) and not a necessity. I don't in principle buy jewelry, but this year has been a difficult one and no longer being able to coast, the wallet has favoured accessories over therapy sessions.

Once I avoided that necklace - the one I truly desired, but felt I couldn't afford - I had to buy something else to quench that desire. I went into another boutique and picked up a necklace for $30: a brass, pretty thing made by a local artist. It satisfied me for a bit, but it wasn't what I had in mind. A month later, I bought another necklace to satisfy the craving - this time, $25. It had to be cheaper to account for the fact that I'd already spent money on a necklace I was unlikely to keep around long-term. This one was even less what I was looking for, and the tarnish of the cheap metal made me feel cheap as well.

In the end, after much resistance, I broke down and bought the thing I'd really wanted, and have worn it every day since. Only today, while touching the sterling chain, I realized this is something of a pattern in my life.

I do it almost routinely: desire something fervently, decide I don't deserve it, settle for lower-hanging-fruit, find it dissatisfying and eventually obtain the thing I wanted in the first place. It's prudent and risk-averse, but a horrible waste of time in the long run. 

I'll desire something strongly, look at the price and decide it's too much, then walk away and weeks down the road, assuage my desire by buying something small and cheap -- a compromise and substitute for the thing I really wanted. Only, it's never an adequate substitute, so I end up hemming and hawwing and moralizing and philosophizing for weeks before breaking down and buying the thing that I should have just bought in the first place. the discoloration of the metal began to bother me. I do this a lot for "big purchases" (which are still in the $200 and under range for me).

Lately, I've wondered a lot about my life. A small part of me recognized that I'd done a lot of substituting for the things I really wanted. My twenties were all about substitution. This year, it feels like the year I'll finally stop putting up with substitutes and replace it with the things I truly desired in the first place.

Unrelated, a drawing of my friend with her baby. I dunno why, I've never been programmed with a maternal instinct, so even though some babies like hers are adorable, I wouldn't be naturally inclined to mother one. But anyway.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Street corner Venus

There's a fragment of a song, 地上の星  with a fragment of a lyric that roughly translates to "Venus on a street corner". The whole song (the "stars on earth") is about Gods and mythical figures (like Pegasus) in everyday settings like blue-collar factories, office buildings. It was for a program about everyday heroes, many of them unsung, who have done incredible work in some field without the Steve Jobs-esque status and recognition.

The implication is that some great beauty, a Venus, could just be a regular lady in blue jeans in a blue-collar neighbourhood, like Joyce-Collingwood for example.

I realize this is very rough but it was done largely without a pencil sketch, so bear with me.

I think it's one of humanity's worst flaws that we have narrow definitions of beauty. The definition changes all the time (thin people, hourglass figures, gamines, vamps, etc.) but the one thing in common is that it's maddeningly narrow. 

Growing up as a child, it was ingrained in me somehow at a very young age that anyone who was brown, black or yellow-skinned was by default unattractive, devoid of desirability. On a rare occasion that someone told me I had pretty hair or a nice face or whatever, my immediate reaction was that they were just trolling me, like telling me the earth was flat.

I quickly changed my views after graduating high school. But even today a lot of people imagine -- by default -- someone with European features when picturing a beautiful person.

One of the things I'm trying to do is to create a fictional character -- an impossibly gorgeous woman world-renowned for her beauty -- who is not European-looking in the slightest. This has proven sort of difficult to do, as I almost have to invent a whole new future world to imagine the media truly embracing a big-boned, full-nosed, brown-skinned lady as the perfect beauty.

Anyway, enough rambling. A quick sketch of a certain Venus.

What keeps me up at night

OK, so super presumptuous title here. It was in the early evening (say 8pm) that I saw this shady black van with tinted windows outside an Asian grocery store. Leaning against the store's wall was the guy I presumed to be the driver, a rather slim, slightly worn-out looking man with tanned skin, sporting a leather jacket and pale blue jeans.

What drew my eye were the green and blue tattoos up his neck. I know there's a tattoo craze, but for Asians of a certain generation (NOT Gen Y), tattoos aren't something you get for purely aesthetic reasons. It basically means you're in a gang.

There's a reason why people with any kind of tattoos are totally banned from most Japanese hot springs, because it signals you're a criminal, and bathing with criminals makes peeps uncomfortable (there's a whole thing from the Edo period about how if you're caught stealing, they tattoo a line across your forehead, and the lines keep adding up with more offences until it spells out "dog" 犬 or some other unflattering word, but whatever, that's an aside).

He was smoking absent-mindedly, and I didn't give it much thought until two kids came running over and swung on a metal bar beside him.

Again, I have no idea what the real situation is -- maybe he's just a straight up guy who happens to love getting neck tattoos -- but I imagined these two little girls were his daughters. And I imagined he was in a gang, trying to provide for his family. I wondered where he came from, how he got to Canada, whether this was how he was envisioning life in this country, whether he wished anything would change. I thought about the girls who might be his daughters, how he must feel about them, whether their future worries him. If it were me, that would keep me up at night.

I wondered whether he had a wife, or if he was a single dad, and what the situation must be like. I think that all human beings, whatever their walk of life, whether they are good parents or crappy ones, at some fundamental level wish they could be part of a functional, loving family. I don't know the context, but I hoped this guy and his kin were going to be okay.