On Wilderness and Authenticity

I made a cheetah purr the other day. I drank coffee on a boat while watching hippos yell in each other’s mouths. I listened to my Contemplative Playlist as we drove past miles and miles and miles of identical, evenly spaced trees. The trees freaked me out more than petting a cheetah. There was no other plant life growing there, and no animals would risk the openness of the four-by-four space between each tree. The artificial forest covered whole mountains. The trees seemed confused about growing in such sterile conditions. I pitied those trees: they deserved a more natural forest.

I went on a safari the other day. We climbed into massive, open-air jeeps that, had they been human, would have resembled the bully Moe from Calvin and Hobbes. We drove around Makhasa reserve for hours, witnessing pristine African prairie and jungle right next to one another. Impala and nyala were so common we stopped squealing when we saw them, but when one jeep saw a giraffe or some rhino, the ranger would radio the other jeep and everybody would converge on that hapless creature, and we would all take pictures together. As thrilled as I was to be within shouting distance of a giraffe (and as childishly frustrated that I was not permitted to ride one), I felt betrayed by the a wilderness that was careful, controlled and calculated.

Okay, I know, liability and all that. Makhasa reserve couldn’t very well let tourists wanter around getting trampled left and right. And poachers: we saw the anti-poaching unit patrolling the fence on several occasions, bundled up and brandishing rifles at anyone who tried to steal a rhinoceros. But being on that game reserve destroyed my illusions of a truly wild wilderness. I want a safari experience without fences. I don’t want rangers telling me about elephants on birth control and exactly how much it costs to ship in an extra zebra from Mozambique. And it wasn’t just my idea of wilderness that was altered, it was this archetypal, ancient, untouched African wilderness that was lost too. Even after three months on the continent, I still clung to those tired Lion King images that primitivize nation states, towns and cultures alike. No wilderness is untouched. This place has been cultivated for centuries. I already knew that there is no such thing as a pristine natural environment.

I know that concept is appealing to us urban, governable folks because it allows us to “go into the wild” and come home more in touch with our humanity, or whatever. If there is no such thing as authentic wilderness, we have to come to terms with what we sacrifice for urbanity.

On our last night at the game reserve, a couple of us sat around a campfire after everyone else had gone to bed. I could hear hyenas laughing in the distance. I could see the stars, those unfamiliar constellations of the southern hemisphere that disrupted the comfort of the fire. We were all relaxed and vulnerable with one another. The question of the night: “Do you think it’s possible to feel this human in the city?” The consensus was, probably not. But if there is no such thing as authenticity, if there’s no pure wilderness, the intimacy of that campfire was an illusion too. And if nothing is authentic, then, well, everything is.

The Invitation

A poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…

I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.

And if you can source your own life
from its presence.
I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

Tenets of the Postmodern Writer/Traveler

  • Truth is relative.
  • There is no eternal belongingness: static identities based on allegiance to a race or gender or class belie the complexity of a globalized world.
  • Today’s truths exist between contexts, between the false opposites of colonizer/colonized, oppressor/oppressed, Me/Not Me.
  • Culture is anxious, confused, in constant dialogue with itself. There is nothing static enough to romanticize.

So what does this mean for this American, economically privileged writer? When I travel, I occupy an ancient cultural trope: the outward journey into uncharted jungles, the return home with stories of strange people and interesting places. Mine is a classic tale: girl seeks adventure far from home, experiences world, discovers self. Is there any way to write from this place of privilege without replicating the very colonial systems I want to see undone? What do I have to say? Does it make a difference if I announce my position as part of the trope of the writer-as-cultural-explorer? What if I tell stories of the way my own identities shift and become relative, the way my self-understanding is called into question by the navel-gazing culture I temporarily inhabit?

Yesterday we ten American girls attended a lecture on the history of the Cato Manor township, and then we took a tour of it by van. I gazed out the window at the shifting landscape of corrugated tin shacks and government-sponsored cement houses, at my fellow humans hanging clothes and sitting in the shade and doing car-fixing things underneath cars. We got out of the van a few times, but did not talk to anyone. What was this experience supposed to mean? Was I supposed to witness great poverty and feel gratitude for everything I have? Should I have been ruminating on what the South African government’s policies and budget is doing to increase access to social services for the residences of Cato Manor? I did a little of both these things. I did not, however, relinquish any of the power of my position. I did not make myself vulnerable to new ways of being. I sat in my air-conditioned van and wandered circles in the familiar roads in my own head. Therefore, anything I have to say on this experience is, post-modernly speaking, irrelevant.

Or maybe the experience wasn’t supposed to mean anything, and that was the point. Maybe meaning itself is irrelevant in a world where there are no borders strictly delineating anything. After all, at this point, meaninglessness may be the only universal experience. Maybe our true unity lies in our common experience of having nothing in common at all. (This is all inspired by Andrew Smith’s “Migrancy, Hybridity and Postcolonial Literary Studies” in Postconial Literary Studies, edited by Neil Lazarus. 2004, Cambridge University Press.)

Time

I like to be early. Scratch that. I’m obsessive about being early. I keep myself on schedule to be on time for being five minutes early so I can sit there and relax. And then, of course, I spend those five minutes worrying about whatever I’m early for. Do I worry about time to keep myself from worrying about other, realer things? Or is my worry just a distraction from the here and now?

What if I stopped keeping track of time that way? (But then I’d be late.) People are late all the time. (But then people would be disappointed in me.) Or, being on time has nothing to do with my worth. This moment is enough. Everything will get done that needs to get done. Each moment is the event, and I am right on time.

Manifesto for Twenty

Last night I found myself on the roof of the LIU Brooklyn ceramics studio with a twenty-six-year-old woman named Amy. She brought her guitar: the plan was to sing a little, and practice speaking German, one of our common languages. As we searched for linguistic and existential commonalities, it became apparent that we had little in common except for our mutual desire to sing and speak German on a roof. Additionally, wrench in the plan: we literally did not know any of the same songs. Not one. Punk rock? German choir music? Top 40 from the ‘90s? Hipster boopety-boop? (We could have sung Ani DiFranco, but apparently she and Amy graduated from the same music program and Ani was kind of a bitch.)

At a certain point, though, our differences ceased to be about taste in music. It became about age. I was embarrassed about being young. Amy was embarrassed about being old. Obviously we weren’t going to have a jam sesh. Amy put away her guitar, and we turned to politics.

“A lot of people really hate my philosophy,” Amy said. “But I really think that the political is psychological. Like, you can call yourself an Occupier, but then you go home and you can’t keep a job, and you don’t know how to have a stable relationship… that’s not a philosophy that’s going to work.”

“So you’re saying that we have to focus on being our best selves before we can try to fix the world?” I asked.

“Yeah. You can’t change anything if you’re not a good person.”

“I disagree,” I said. “Don’t you think we all deserve to live a dignified life, even if we still have growing to do? I really believe that in most problems, if we could really get every effected party to come to the table openly and honestly, we could all find ways to move forward that meet everyone’s needs. It just means making room for everybody to talk, I feel like.”

“Have you ever made that happen?” Amy asked.

I haven’t. I looked out over the edge of the roof. Lights were coming on. Traffic sounds were becoming more echoey. They were night sounds now. Not too far away, the Brooklyn Bridge snaked over the river, and beyond that, Manhattan’s million tiny lights illuminated the horizon. “No, but I have to believe it can be done.”

Some time later, we rode the train into Manhattan; I knew a pool hall in K-Town. But there were no empty tables, and I hadn’t eaten any dinner, so we got smoothies and took them to a quiet second-floor corner, where we could continue a conversation that had somehow become about genetics, destiny, mental health and performance theory. No matter the topic, Amy’s response was always, “It’s not a big deal that you’re twenty, but there are some things you just don’t understand.”

Finally I confronted her about it.

“Okay, honestly it freaks me out how young you are,” she said. “There were a lot of really stupid things I did when I was your age. I don’t really like who I was then, and hanging out with you reminds me of that. At a certain point you have to figure it all out and grow up.”

Her emotions were evident in her voice and her eyes. I didn’t know what they were, but I knew they were there. I felt the need to comfort her somehow. “At least it seems like your passionate about your work. You don’t seem jaded about music.”

She huffed a laugh. “At a certain point, you get passionate about a paycheck.”
I changed the topic. “Na ja. Wir sollen Deutsch üben. Sagt man “na ja” eben noch? Ist “na ja” noch cool?”
Eventually I went home, and Amy went out to meet some friends.

So today I’ve been thinking about the connection between age and apathy. I refuse to believe that you have to round the hump of twenty-five, or fifty, or seventy-five and lose your passion for whatever you’re passionate about. Yes. There are things I don’t understand about growing up, and I do want to grow up, and I do want to figure out how to live a life I’m proud of. But I don’t want to be jaded. I don’t want to lose my naivety. I want to trust and love and be vulnerable. I want to be passionate about life’s messiness and amazed by its intricacies. I want to know people beyond networking (because even if Amy and I probably aren’t going to be besties, we did have a pretty amazing four hours of conversation). I want my profession to be loving the heck out of the world, and believing wholeheartedly in human goodness.

So that’s my manifesto for twenty.

Singularity

The key to weed whacking is to become one with the weed whacker. This feels rather like drinking seventeen espressos and then clamping both fists onto an electric fence. But let’s start at the beginning: before you can become one with the death-defying ride that is the whacker, you must convince it to start.

Every weed eater is essentially different; it is my educated suspicion that even whackers of the same make and model emerge from the factory as ornery old men, uncooperative, rusty and in need of a great deal of special attention. But by the time these stickbugs make their way into your care, they are especially old, especially dirty and especially hard to love.

In the morning you steel yourself, heft up the garage door and stare down the ugly little row of weed whackers. Part of the ritual is the pre-whacking dodder: find some matching garden gloves, look for some eye protection amid the jumble of hammers and nails on the workbench, scrounge up some earplugs from God-knows-where. When it can be avoided no longer, you have no choice but to turn to the three little demons on the floor. Nobody wants to weed whack. We all have weed whacking thrust upon us.

Weed whackers are essentially long poles with death at each end. At the bottom is the grass-guard, which may protect your shins from grass but does nothing against pebbles, pinecones and glacier-sized boulders. Beneath the grass-guard is the spinning green string of doom: whirling at warp speed, the plastic-coated string becomes a lethal weapon capable of felling anything in its way: weeds, saplings, children under the age of four. At the top, the part closest to your body, is the motor. It would be terrifying enough to have that much potential for combustion only inches from your torso, but the fractures in the plastic casing and the hellish temperatures of the little blob itself make it that much worse.

The first step, of course, is to check the fuel tank, at the top of the stick, and, should it be low, to identify the proper type of fuel for his needs. Some weed whackers take pure oil; some take pure gas; some take a mix of the two. Woe betide she who uses the wrong liquid, and good luck identifying the proper cocktail. The stakes are high, and the house frequently wins.

Once the tank is full, the next step is to pump the bugger for information. Or, more accurately, to pump the fuel-gauge button six to ten times (depending on the grumpiness of the machine on that particular day), move the power switch to whatever position it wasn’t already occupying (or toggle it back and forth until your anxiety settles, as the case may be) and then begin the ceremonial chain-yanking. Be warned, all ye who chain-yank here: this part is stressful. Your time is limited: if you don’t start the machine quickly enough, you must return to the proverbial first square of button-pushing and switch-toggling. Yank for all you’re worth! Yank your elbow all the way back to your ear!

Let’s say you do it. Let’s say you succeed in picking the right fuel, funneling it into the tank, pushing the button enough times, putting the switch in the right place and yanking the chain hard enough in the limited amount of time offered. Let’s say you do all that. Wouldn’t you think you’d be ready for a rest? No, dear one. The work has just begun.

You’re holding a monster now. It’s growling in your hands, revving, eager to devour all the foliage it can. It’s powerful, and it doesn’t want to wait for you. So you heft it in your palms (which may already be sweating) and set it down to grass level.

You move in slow arcs, skimming the ground, your body stiffened against the clippings that fly in all directions. Sometimes your beast of a weed whacker sends flowers shooting yards away, and you harden your heart to the cruelty of the machine in your hands. Weed whacking is not for the faint of heart; few flora escape alive.  You, too, are in danger of being taken by the machine.

Your hands are the first to go. You realize after ten minutes, twenty, that you can no longer uncurl them from the weed eater’s stem. This scares you. Could you stop if you really had to? Has the machine taken over control? Even as you contemplate the loss of your digits, your arms and shoulders are sucked in as well. They vibrate violently. You can feel your tendons stretch, maybe even feel your bones throb as the powerful motor destroys the foliage at your feet. The arms you thought were so strong, the clever phalanges that make you human, they have become part of the monotonous hunger of your weed whacker.

Finally you can take it no longer. It’s one throb too many. You throw the machine to the ground; it chugs along there as you shake out your upper body. The throbbing remains like a specter inside you. Struggling for breath, struggling to evict the ghostly vibrations from under your skin, you wonder if pushing back the wilderness is so very valuable a goal that you must become the machine.

How to Keep Yourself in New York City

1. Be willing to be a beginner every single day. Forgive yourself for being late, for making mistakes, for carrying your whole flawed self into a city that clutches at perfection. Surrender to messy humanity.

2. Do not feel comfortable in business casual. This is not you. When you come home at night with feet sore from fancy shoes that don’t fit, remember how good it feels to go barefoot in the loamy earth. Study your reflection in pajamas. When polite laughter begins to feel normal, remember that you produce wonderful, full-throated, therapeutic laughs too.

3. Believe in the highest integrity in every person you meet, and know wholeheartedly that everyone is just trying their best. Trust implicitly. 

4. When the concrete jungle threatens to swallow you whole, find sanctuary in your running shoes, or in a patch of green. There is always a small patch of green. 

5. Breathe. Be. Play. 

The Questions Place: for people just… not sure

What defines Europe? (Culture, religion, sports, democracy, economic integration, historic integration?) What are the implications of each definition? What makes some nations not quite Europe?

Why does secularism in Turkey feel so much like a religion? Why does Turkey’s ostensibly secular government finance Sunni mosques and only Sunni mosques, and require Sunni Islam to be taught in schools? Is secularism performative? Is secularism a neutral category, or does it have characteristics of its own? Is secularism purely aesthetic? How does American Christian secularism inform our definitions of religion, democracy, the nation-state?

What goes on behind closed doors when Turkish officials sit down with Syrian officials? What about Israeli officials? What is the role of regional politics in the U.N. Security Council? To what extent is Turkish feminism influenced by American/Western European feminism on one hand and Islamic feminism on the other hand?

Is there such a thing as objective good? If Mohammed’s miracle was the Qur’an because the zeitgeist of the time was in literature, what would a modern prophet’s miracle be? What are the implications of returning to a Pristine Islam? Is there a way to retain cultural heritage when the world is constantly evolving and becoming more interconnected? How do our various religious views effect our perception of suffering? Are humans inherently religious? If so, can we explain materialism as filling the void left by loss of religion?

Is it bad to romanticize other cultures? How do I as a traveler manage the expectations and responsibilities placed on me? What do I do with the connections I make while travelling? What happens when cultural sensitivity and personal honesty conflict?

What am I doing with my life? Is Swami Nardinand right, am I on the wrong path? What is all this leading towards? 

Where in the World is Eleanor Rigby?

I am curiously anonymous. Walking around Ankara in my button-up brown coat, my jeans, with my vaguely European features, there is nothing about me that is remarkable in the least. Even my walking speed matches perfectly with the dark-clad, surly city folk around me. Until I open my mouth to say, “Aah, I’m sorry, I don’t speak Turkish,” I am no one at all. I can snuffle up my snot and not have it reflect on my entire culture, or my race; I can be obviously lost and not have it reflect even on myself, because there is nothing noteworthy to reflect on.

My invisibility becomes my project.

In India, I felt too watched to be comfortable going for long walks. Here, though, I find that because I blend I am so unremarkable, I am happy to walk for hours, a part of the crowd, just one more anonymous soul on the sidewalk. But there is more to my comfort. I have never been in a city whose exterior so accurately reflects my interior. Ankara is chilly, distant, plain. Sometimes its noise and drama spills out on the street, but mostly the sidewalk is a non-place, an in-between, where humanity suspends itself for a moment until it picks up again inside some other building. What comes across as unfriendliness is in fact the greatest courtesy: the gift of leaving one another to our solitude. This is a kindness and a joy that I did not know I appreciated.

I am entirely alone in a massive city. I do not speak the language. I do not know how things work. Still, I feel more a part of Ankara after two and a half days than I did after eight months in Heredia. Or perhaps, I feel more a part of Ankara’s not-places. As I slipp in and out of this boutique or that coffee shop, quietly observing the tides of traffic, I think that these betweens seem full of Eleanor Rigby’s. Ankara is more than these anonymous sidewalks. All these people, bustling about, they are more than they appear. I am more than the brown coat, jeans, complexion and walking speed that lend me my invisibility. But the anonymity is comforting. The loneliness, even, is comforting. On Ankara’s sidewalks, we are all alone and invisible together.

American Untouchables

The old woman looked like a monster. She rose painstakingly from where she had been crumpled beside the train tracks, more a bundle of filthy rags than anything else. The first of her skin that I saw was her mouth, lipless, white-skinned open as though it had never been closed. Then I saw her arms, their white skin thick and inflexible, her fingers aged to inflexibility. As she drew herself to a hunched standing position, it became clear that her assortment of rags was not effectively covering any of her at all; her chest and stomach revealed themselves to be of the same papery non-skin.

As slowly as she had stood up, the old woman began to shuffle forward, barefoot, her hands searching the air in front of her. From where we had been sitting on the concrete floor for eight hours waiting for a train, Rachel leaned over to me. “Albinism can lead to eye problems, right?”

“That’s probably it, hunh?” I replied. Unable to look away (not that there was much else to look at in a train station at two in the morning) we watched the hunched figure creep up and down the platform, investigating our luggage. A friend offered her a kurta to cover herself with; the woman touched it, considering it in slow motion then shuffled away.

My friend was left holding the kurta. “I don’t know if I want this anymore.”

As uncomfortable as it was, I identified with what she had said. During the whole encounter, I was just hoping that the woman wouldn’t beg me for money, wouldn’t shuffle her eye-fingers over my luggage. Why? Germs? Come on. I wasn’t actually afraid that I would catch something from her. No. I was afraid of her, disgusted even, and I couldn’t figure out why.

How’s that for untouchability?

Americans, myself included, tend to have a hard time with India’s caste system. How can you rank people like that, make someone of lower status vacate the area, wash off any traces of contamination that do infiltrate the separation? Some Brahmins don’t allow lower-caste people to enter their kitchen or eat off their plates, claiming that their purity will be compromised. Dalits, or untouchables, have been forbidden from village water tanks, from Brahmin temples and from riding rickshaws, all because they upper-caste folk perceive them as unclean.

As Westerners, though, our judgment of untouchability fails to consider that we have always had similar sentiments. We walk past beggars in our cities and pretend they don’t exist. We have a long history of White people subjugating other races, shipping them off to the worst pieces of land, regulating them until they see themselves as their colonizers saw them. We put or crazies and eccentrics into institutions, where we can keep ourselves pure of their insanities.

I keep coming back to the revulsion I felt watching that old woman shuffle closer to my suitcase. In that moment, I could only see her dangling skin, her drooping mouth, the red eyes peered almost-blindly from under a filthy hood. I could not imagine, then, how intelligent she must be to have survived so long in a world that is not kind to exceptions. I was repulsed, I think, because this old woman embodied my fears, fears of failure and of secret monstrosity of my own, fear of being a watched thing.

Is that part of what keeps the caste system alive? Is that why we lock up our crazies? So that we can pretend they don’t exist, and not have to face the fear that we may not actually be so different after all.

Wanderlust Playlist

Sometimes, travel is crazy exciting. Other times, travel is long train rides or bus rides or plane rides or boat rides, during which I often find myself searching for songs to match my traveling mood. And what is the traveling mood exactly? Well, for me at least, it’s curiosity, rebellion, homesickness, excitement and gratitude. I’ve developed a playlist to match the mood.

Zafar – La Vela Puerca
World at Large – Modest Mouse
Woodstock – Alice Smith
Chasing the Sun – The Wanted
Home – The Wealthy West
Float On – Modest Mouse
It’s Time – Imagine Dragons
The Flying Song – Colin Hay
Sweet Spot – Antja Davekot
I Won’t Be Found – The Tallest Man on Earth
Desaparecido – Manu Chao
Are You Sure – Willie Nelson
Homesick – Kings of Convenience
Closer to Fine – Indigo Girls
Drive On – Avalanche City
Hope – Jack Johnson
Animal – Miike Snow
Bring on the Wonder – Susan Enan
Kids on the Run – The Tallest Man on Earth

Goddess Territory

What do you know about Tantra? What have you heard about India’s folk religions? Do you have a feel for the practices that lurk on the borders of what we call Hinduism, in the darkness of India’s past?

It feels a little something like this:

At the gates of Kali’s temple, a man sits folded into a tree. He has painted himself red, and puffed out his cheeks with seeds, and attached a tail to his rear. He is a disciple of Hanuman, the monkey god, and supports his family by sitting there and blessing passersby. He smiles beatifically, and brings his golden rod down on my head.

Inside the temple, drums spatter out dense rhythms and the walls are as red as blood. The pilgrims pour 170-proof alcohol (or milk, other times, or goat or chicken blood) over the idol, and the idol drinks. Ten rupees will buy a blessing; twenty will buy an exorcism. The shrines behind Kali’s temple are older than Kali herself; these little idols were worshipped before the dawn of the earliest forms of Hinduism, and later the goddesses were repurposed to fit a new faith.

Deeper inside Goddess Territory, we meet Bengali Ma. Bengali Ma is a female Aghori, a practitioner of White Tantra, and she tells us of her ten-year initiation into the Aghori faith. She lived those years in a cremation ground, learning that once fear of death is gone, life and death become one. An Aghori must have no attachments. Bengali Ma spends her life blessing and healing pilgrims, and caring for the idol of Mansa Devi, Snake Goddess. She tends the fire, which is a symbol for the cosmos: the only element which turns everything into one thing: ash.

We meet Aghori Baba Dineshji, a practitioner of Black Tantra, until recently (he had to stop because he was attracting a crowd of drug addicts, not disciples). He too tells us of his decade in the cremation grounds. He mentions how other disciples of his guru went mad, or committed suicide, because of the rituals they had to complete. Some Aghoris ingest blood, urine, drugs, ash; they use the negative elements to transform and transcend, to recognize the oneness of the world; then these negative elements become unnecessary. As Baba Dineshji speaks, we are surrounded by the empty eyes of twenty-four human skulls.

This is not India. This doesn’t happen. Even Baba Dineshji says that no one does the rituals he did, not anymore. But up in Goddess Territory, and in a few other places, Kali still drinks blood, and the logs from cremation fires still burn for goddesses that Hinduism forgot.

Thoughts from the Center of the Universe

I have a weird thing about the Truth. It’s very American of me: I get fed up when I’m told that something will take “ten minutes only, madam”, when we all know it’s going to be half an hour. I’m resentful when someone says something is going to be beter than it is: the person who says it just wants me to love India, to be excited about things, but all I focus on is the lie. I’m getting better about it, though: I’m starting to respect the impulse that leads to the fib, and to appreciate the worldview that it comes with. But when it comes to linguistics, I have a ways to go.

Sanskrit is not the Original Language. It is not inherently holy or sacrosanct, and it is not the language from whence all other human tongues evolved. Sanskrit came from Proto-Indo-European, just like Latin and Gaelic and Tocharian B. I’m open to discussion about lots of things, but Proto-Indo-European isn’t one of them.

So when Hardeep Singh, our guide at the Golden Temple and a devout Sikh, went on about how Sanskrit was the First Language, the language of God, I began to view everything else he said from a critical perspective.

Talking about miracles. Talking about putting clothes on the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book, to keep it warm as though it were a person. Crazy religious people. Sikhism may have had a lot going for it (I was excited about its kicky underdog status, its value of women’s equality and strength as fighters, and its rejection of the caste system) but all that nonsense about miracles and Proto-Indo-European just couldn’t be true. Sikhism had to be nonsense, because Hardeep Singh was wrong about Proto-Indo-European.
Now hold on. Am I or am I not in a program called Comparative Religion and Culture? As we walked around the gilded halls of the Golden Temple, and as I stood on the mandala that represents, to Sikhs, the center of the universe from which all energy emanates, I thought through my closemindedness.

Last year, I hung out with the Boruca tribe. They talked about some pretty crazy stuff: seeing diablitos, the mischievious elves that they themselves admitted having added to their pantheon to combat Spanish conquest of spirituality; seeing Cuasran, the chief when the Spanish arrived. They spoke of extinct animals living out in the wilds, protected by Cuasran, the last chief of the Borucas.

And I believed that.

My reasoning was that I couldn’t possibly tell all these kind, welcoming, funny, intelligent people that they were crazy, that Cuasran was dead, that the diablitos were figments of their cultural imagination. I had to accept that these things were real, if only for them, and that it was not contradictory in their concept of reality.

So standing there at the center of the universe in Amritsar, Punjab, I accepted the truth: Sanskrit is, in fact, the Original Language.

As I learned in Boruca, physical reality does not have to be at odds with spiritual reality. Hardeep Singh fervently believed in the sanctity of Sanskrit, and his reality is no less real than mine.

I stepped off the center of the universe.

I asked Hardeepji some questions about the caste system, dharma and the Sikh perspective on the sanctity of the family unit. Sikhism is pretty cool; I just had to get my ego out of the way before I could appreciate it.

Koi Bat Nahin?

Koi Bat Nahin, what a wonderful phrase
Koi Bat Nahin, ain’t no passing craze
It means no worries, for the rest of your days
It’s our problem free philosophy
Koi Bat Nahin

As soon as we arrived in Amritsar, the holiest city for Sikhs, I was proven wrong on one of my basic assumptions about India: there are, actually, soft things to flop onto. Before this, I had only experienced the hardest of sofas, the unyieldiest of beds, the least comfortable futons. But here, oh here was a bed that made me want to curl up and let the aches of previous nights slip away. I was in a triple room with Rachel and Alex, and after a fourteen-hour busride it was all we could do to exchange pleasantries before slipping into our separate wonderful experiences with the best bed in India.
No sooner had we closed our eyes than we heard shouting. Then furniture crashing. Then a woman, sobbing.
I snapped to wakefulness.

In the hotel room directly next to ours, with only a thin wall between, a man was beating his wife. Rachel, Alex and I exchanged glances in the semi-darkness. I don’t know what we thought we were doing, but clad only in our pajamas we hurried into the hallway.

The hotel manager was already there, looking tired and concerned. He eyed us: stay back. He knocked on the door. The man opened it, took one look out and closed it quickly. He was young.

“Koi bat nahin,” said the manager. Then something in Punjabi, which I imagine amounted to, go back to bed.
“Koi bat nahin?” Rachel gasped. “Koi bat nahin?!”

The manager went back downstairs, leaving the three of us to cry in the darkness on the softest bed in India.