Monday, June 19, 2006

My Hero

For quite some time now there has been a wasp nest outside my bathroom window. I called the Residential Maintenance folks, who came and knocked down the nest. However, it was not destroyed. Instead, it just bounced and landed on my windowsill. This didn't seem to cause the wasps much concern. They quickly and industriously rebuilt the nest in exactly the same place it had been, only this time it seemed a little larger than before!

The nest kept growing. I started debating calling the maintenance team again and this time asking them to bring some poison or something similar. About a week went by, and the wasps were constantly crawling around and on top of each other as they added more space to their little wasp production factory. Then I noticed that all the little hexagonal holes were being filled with some whitish, cotton candy-like material. The wasps were clearly on their game. It was also about this time that I noticed that - get this - wasps can smile. Well, maybe leer is a better word. Whatever it was, it was chilling. I started asking myself, aren't all creatures good? Could these wasps actually want to hurt little old me?

Araucana filled me in on the true nature of wasps. The answer was yes. Yes, they could and would hurt me. Why? Because wasps are mean! Moreover, they have very poor manners and refuse to stay outside. And once they get inside, well, it's all over. Game to the wasps, and it would be a painful loss, so to speak. They read your paper, eat your jam, drink all your sugar water, and carve your body into a human nest. Not pleasant. I underlined the mental note in my head to call someone or email some department to come take care of my winged, jagged legged enemies.

Unfortunately, the truth is that I often make these kinds of mental notes, but when I go into work I'm buffetted by the sandstorms and hailstorms and people storms of consular work. Everything in my head just vanishes for the next ten to twelve hours.

So the nest grew, and I let it grow. The horror of it all.

You can see where this is heading. I certainly could. One stung Crawdad, lying in bed, head replaced by a red and swollen mass of irritated tissue, wasps laughing and laughing and stinging him again and again. I think it's safe to say noone has ever heard the cruel laugh of the wasp queen and survived, am I right?

Yes, I knew that after their little wasp condos were built they would be bored. And bored wasps do one thing - they kill the nearest human. I think we all know this.

But then it happened!

Just as I was planning a really compelling email that would bring the Wasp Busters team to my doorstep, I noticed that the nest was destroyed! Well, maybe not completely destroyed, but significantly reduced. What had happened? I paused. Perhaps the government, completely for my benefit of course, had chosen me to be a test case in its new mental email application? Just think about an email hard enough and it would be sent? Could that be? I decided that was less than likely. Another option - could the wasps have just moved out? While I was hopeful about this possibility, I was doubtful. Evil doesn't just leave; something must have happened.

But what was it? What had delayed my execution, my death by wasp love? Walking into the bathroom that night, I saw the answer. Straight out of a science fiction novel, the largest gecko I'd ever seen. He seemed afraid of noone - not me, not the wasps certainly. I felt like I was watching some ancient rivalry play out, something like a cross between Mayan folklore and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe. As near as I could tell, the wasps went into defensive formation. They covered the (now diminished) nest with their evil little bodies and threw insults at the gecko. I was terrified, but the gecko just looked at them with a bemused but cold glare. What existential questions were answered for me in just a minute of watching this unfold! Yes! there is good and evil in the world, and yes! there is such a thing as divine intervention. (And apparently blue whales are able to mate with geckos in the wild because that is the only way to explain this massive thing stuck to the side of my exterior bathroom wall.)

Anyway, to make a long story short, this gecko had obviously come, Boddhisatva-like, to my house to maintain the balance between good and evil. Yes, there are forces in this world greater than we are, and they are going through a titanic battle. We may only catch a glimpse or two of this battle in our lifetimes, and I had one of these chances just outside my window. Although this knowledge made me feel a little diminished, in the end I was comforted by my place in the world. I went to sleep calmly, secure in the knowledge that many of my questions about life on this planet were answered and that I had my own guardian gecko. Evil may never go away, but it can sometimes be eaten by hungry geckos. My hero.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Poem #13: The Language of Crows

A crow has discovered a scrap of roadkill on the blacktop and can't resist telling everyone in a loud voice. Immediately another crow arrives on the scene and the fight begins, cawing, flapping, and biting. Suddenly crows come flying in from every direction to enter the battle, skimming low over the treetops, all cawing loudly. Finally one crow (it's impossible to tell which) makes off with the prize and flies a few hundred feet into the trees. But as soon as he stops the others are on him and the melee begins again. This scene is repeated time after time and each time the crows move farther away into the woods until their cawing has grown faint but remains undiminished in intensity. Crows have a limited vocabulary, like someone who swears constantly, and communication seems to be a matter of emphasis and volume.

If you lie quietly in bed in the very early morning, in the half-light before time begins, and listen carefully, the language of crows is easy to understand. "Here I am." That's really all there is to say and we say it again and again.

- Louis Jenkins

Sunday, June 04, 2006

8 million pictures of Ladakh

So, it's been three trips since I updated the blog. Whoops. See the prologue below for more info on that front. Yes, I've had fantastic trips to Sri Lanka, Amritsar, and Ladakh (currently part of Jammu & Kashmir) in the past 2 months. Most recently, Auracana and I went to Ladakh!

There are really two stories to Leh and Ladakh generally. The first one is the story of the society of Ladakhis and what they're going through in terms of trying to preserve their identity, traditions, and environment. Ladakh suffers through extremely severe winters, but it has for centuries had a fairly high standard of living through its tradition of communalism and ecologically smart farming techniques. Somewhat unfortunately, an influx of western goods and a more materialistic vibe generally has invaded Ladakh over the past couple of generations. Of course, freedom to choose one's life and to have options is a good thing, and it's an option that never used to exist here, but the active dismantling of years of tradition seemingly overnight is tough to see.

Luckily, Ladakhis have not just rolled over. Instead, many seem to have quickly ingested some of the disadvantages connected with Western life, and are starting to make savvier valuations of the pros and cons involved in the equation. As this article discusses (perhaps slightly hyperbolically), the fight is on in Ladakh, and what is emerging looks to be an interesting hybrid of tradition and modernity. At least it's not been a TKO decision for Western Culture, as so often seems to have occurred.

The second story here is my (much smaller) story of seeing Ladakh! A and I landed in Leh, which sits at about 11,500 feet above sea level. All the guide books tell you to not do anything for the first couple of days but drink tea in order to acclimate to the altitude. I thought I was in fine shape and basically scoffed at such warnings. Hey, I'd done some hiking at up to 14,500 feet a few times before, I thought. Clearly, these guidebooks are written for much less demigod-like persons than your humble blogger. Hmm, apparently this is not the case. While I was not bed-ridden, man I was huffing and puffing just walking up some easy little hills from our hotel. A good lesson indeed. Apparently flying in from sea level can really sock it to you. Luckily, we had a very pleasant first day exploring Leh and didn't attempt any crazy treks right off the plane. To the left is a shot from our hotel room; it was so wonderful to be in a place where it felt like we were floating in among the mountains, and where it wasn't 110 degrees. At night we gratefully wore fleece jackets and celebrated the cold air with hot minty tea.

Walking around, it was clear Buddhism is very much alive and well in Ladakh. I believe the type practiced here is basically Tibetan Buddhism (derived from Mahayana Buddhism - the "Greater Vehicle"?? - that's a guess from Jim Laine's 1991 Intro to Non-Western Religions class). In any case, pictures of HH the Dalai Lama are everywhere. A wide cross-section of people throughout Leh seem to be quite genuine and devout in their practice. Araucana and I stumbled on a talk being given (in Ladakhi) in this city courtyard. The mood was very inviting and relaxing. We could have stayed for quite a while soaking it all in. It was a feeling we would have over and over again in Ladakh.

We spent the rest of the day walking around Leh, looking at Thangka paintings, drinking tea, and looking up at the Leh Palace, where the old Kings of Ladakh used to live. I've long wanted to have a Thangka painting, ever since I was exposed to them in Dharamsala in 2004 by a good friend who was doing a Vipassana course. Leh is one of the best places in India to get a Thangka painting, and it was amazing to look through the hundreds available, spend some time with the shop owners, drink some tea, and gently negotiate. I was pretty sure I wanted a "wheel of life" motif, just because it's easiest for me to really understand and appreciate, although the mandalas and other thangkas are all very beautiful. But I wanted something that would be a helpful reminder of escaping ego, ignorance, suffering, etc, and the Wheel of Life really does that for me. I wound up purchasing the one to the left, which I think is just fantastic. It's hanging up next to my bed now, and it's kind of wild to see every morning! A good reminder of where visa work fits into the scheme of things....

Over the next couple of days, we hired a car and went out to see the nearby gompas (monasteries) to the east and west of Leh. The first day, we went to Thiksey, Shey, and Hemis. Without retelling the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, suffice to say that these are all working gompas, with Shey also being the former summer palace of the kings of Ladakh. It was simply a pleasure to see the monasteries rising in front of us. They were often near a stream, and they were simultaneously integrated into the surrounding geography and dominating of it. There's something about this kind of architecture that is very appealing and harmonious, while also looking very strong and enduring. All the places we visited seemed to be adding more buildings and patching up existing ones. It looked like it was an attempt at restoration as well as expansion, all done in a precious few summer months.

I am honestly not entirely sure where we saw which enormous Buddha or which piece of artwork, but I do definitely remember (again) the wonderfully peaceful feeling at all of these places. In this shot, it was clear that this was an area for teaching. There were texts lying around, and the monks were going about their business, very friendly but definitely not part of any theme park or cultural reproduction / zoo featurette. The monks generally spoke Hindi, so we were able to talk about living in the monastery, what everyone does in winter, etc., at least to a certain extent.

It was also quite beautiful to see the little touches of artwork everywhere. Again and again, we saw the same types of devotional artwork, including wheels of life, Maitreya buddhas, Tara, guardians, mandalas, etc. The great thing was that sometimes they were 700+ years old, and sometimes they were being painted just then. It put things in perspective, some kind of small statement on our purpose in a disintegrating world.

At perhaps three different gompas, there were very large Buddhas in various states of repose. At the back of this picture, you can see a very small person, which gives some idea of the scale. On this day, it was one of a handful of fairly important holy days, so we were accompanied not only by a few other tourists but also by a cross-section of Ladakhi culture. There were several older men and women in traditional dress, spinning hand-held prayer wheels constantly, as well as younger folks in jeans and t-shirts, also prostrating themselves and circumnambulating.

I believe it was at Shey where in addition to the smaller gompa there was a section of ruin that was unoccupied and crumbling. In defiance of a wee small altitude headache, we scrambled up and through fallen rocks and what looked like soon-to-fall rock walls, up to a wonderful view. I also confess to having a mish-mash of two Tintin books in my mind at this point in time, Tintin in Tibet (naturally) and The Black Island. I happily clambered about the rocks, half-waiting, half-hoping for a yeti or gigantic ape to jump out from behind the next teetering cairn of rocks. No such luck, but the sky was beautiful and the view impressive.

In all the driving around looking at temples, we also a number of pretty incredible signs. We couldn't get all of them, unfortunately, including the several public service announcements about persistent dry coughing potentially being TB. "Check your sputum!" Indeed. However, I asked our driver to stop so I could hop out and add this to the collection of brilliant Indian armed forces marketing images. In addition to this sign, there were many such slogans painted around, both in Hindi and in English. The military presence was everywhere, tho it didn't seem particularly domineering. At the checkpoints, the police and armed forces folks were very friendly, and happy to chat in Hindi for a few minutes. I got the feeling they were posted there, and happy enough, but they wouldn't mind heading back south.

While this sentiment is perhaps not remarkable, it was pretty surprising to happen upon this sign in the middle of (seemingly) nowhere. It's a great public service announcement, but we did also wonder what percentage of the population understood all the english. It's certainly a conversation starter!

Another poster we saw in both the monasteries and in Leh itself was this very sad shot advertising the stolen Panchen Lama. What can one say? "10 Years of Anguished Cry: Where is the Panchen Lama?" To me, it spoke to the desire and ineffectiveness so many of these refugees must feel all the time. I believe the Chinese have their own Panchen Lama that they "found" and are advertising as the "real" one, while trying to tamp down interest in the other Panchen Lama. In the Dalai Lama's books, he never seems to miss a chance to comment on how he meditates on and tries to take on all the bad karma the Chinese are accumulating through their actions.

Last, every couple kilometers on the road were some often brilliant signs exhorting drivers to slow the heck down. This one is not that great, but some were priceless. My favorite was "Better Mr. Late than Late Mr." but there were many really good ones. "He who touches 90 flies to die at 19." "Darling I love your curves, but not so fast." Very few in Hindi though, again I'm not sure why.

Prologue to the 2nd Edition

Ah life. It's about 11am on a Sunday morning, and I am coming to grips with my new lifestyle. All is well, but the plain truth is that I have to work now. I've been in India now for 6 months, and a steady accretion in the amount of responsibilities I handle at the Embassy means that it is harder to escape at 5:30. Instead, the dreaded 55 to 60-hour work week has been regularly raising its ugly head. It's therefore harder to summon up the energy to blog, and now almost two months have vanished!

It's been a few years since I've come home from my work and just wanted to watch TV or read a book, but I often find I am in that situation now. Since I left my job at the PDC, I've been able to coast, travel to Europe and India as a tourist, and have a more "fun" job in Austin, TX. Now, it's time to get down to work.

But hey, life is good! I genuinely enjoy work, although the visa load every day is fairly crushing, both in terms of the time it takes to adjudicate 100+ visas and the amount of time it leaves for longer-term projects. There is a lunch-pail mentality about doing consular work. I often think of military-oriented ways of describing the experience. Among Foreign Service officers, I think we style ourselves the infantry of the Foreign Service, on the ground and on the front lines. We should have Patton playing in the background while we work. Or would that be bad?

Of course, life here really is not that hard. It can be tough to be away from home, and to have to constantly make new friends even as others leave, but there are hundreds of reasons to be happy here. Life is cushy, for one thing. Here's my situation right now -- typing up a blog entry (hey - from India!) while painters transform my downstairs walls and ceiling from white to a combination of "Maya" and "Deep Beige." On my bedstand table lie great books I'm reading, including "Maximum City" (about Bombay), a book on practice by the Dalai Lama (very good), and "From Curzon to Nehru and After" by Durga Das. There's also my dog-eared Hindi textbook, just in case I get the urge. I'm about to export pictures for the blog from recent trips to Ladakh, Sri Lanka, and Amritsar. I played soccer, ultimate frisbee, and tennis in the past 3 days. I went to a Charcoal Steak Night last night that turned into an evening of tall tales. Truly, life is good. And Araucana and I are off to the beaches of Goa next weekend (another important reason it's harder to blog these days!).

Anyway, I hope this is all prologue for another, longer session of tilting at the blogger windmills. While I really should go into work today (and every day - urg), it's important to me to write and record my experiences here. So, off we go!

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