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My travel notes: Anonymity vs Familiarity

 

Last month I went to Hong Kong. Alone. It was not scary, not exciting, not boring, not fun. I explored a new place and I learnt a bit more about myself. That was all. And that was a lot.

I have traveled alone for work before. I have traveled with strangers. I have traveled with distant acquaintances. I would never let go of an opportunity to travel and explore a new place. I would always find company or learn to get along with anybody willing to travel. I had never before planned and visited a new country alone with the explicit purpose of vacation. It almost happened by mistake this time. As always, I grabbed the chance to see a new place, even if it meant spending 4 days with myself alone, lost in a city of people who spoke a different language. I loved the experience.

I liked the vibrancy and colors of Hong Kong… even the crowd. I was a no one in a sea of people… no one significant enough to be judged or even looked at. No one cared. I was a local from day one. I was clearly an odd one out with my very Indian looks and different skin colour, features and clothing style. But no one turned around to look or question ‘who is this stranger amongst us’… a look I got quite often in other countries and even different regions of my own country. Since it’s a big city with good infrastructure and public transport system, it was easy for me to find my way and survive with minimum interaction with people.

There is a certain comfort in anonymity. No one bothers me or considers me a threat basis stereotypes… No one tries to take advantage of the innocent newcomer unfamiliar with the ways of their habitation… No one looks down upon me to mistreat me. I am a no one. I am just another face in the crowd.

In that anonymity, I found surprisingly pleasant moments of being a tiny something in the web of humanity and life. Being a nobody with no past, no name, no achievements, no dreams and no identity is liberating. It is not a blow to the ego. It’s a realization of the insignificance of ego. And in those moments, nothing matters. No failure or success, no pain of a love lost or joy of family and friends, no insults, no honours… No part of one’s social existence has a meaning.

I have traveled alone often in my country. I used to love the process of discovery and being with myself. Sometimes I would stride the streets of an unknown town with a purpose of the task at hand and sometimes just walk around aimlessly. The curiosity of being in a new place and meeting new people kept me excited and gave me joy. Somewhere over the years, I lost it with more trips including pre-planning given the visa requirements or the widespread availability of information through Internet or wrong travel partners.

After a short spell of despondency in my life, I found myself presented with an opportunity to be in Hong Kong alone. I took it up. Once I was in the city, it reminded me of my earlier days of liberation when I had just started traveling often and far. I remembered why I love travel and what I missed in life.

After I came back to India, I made my second solo trip within a week to a small town in Kerala. I confined myself to a 2km area for exploration and relaxation. I realized by evening that everyone in town could remember my face, where I stayed and which shops I visited. I was this tourist who looked unfamiliar and could be helped or scammed into paying more money for worthless touristy products.

There were awkward smiles and hellos. People laughed when I did something ridiculous like expected restaurant to be open half an hour before lunchtime. Some went out of their way to direct me to the right path when I was lost.

I was aware of the concepts of embarrassment, sympathy, respect and suspicion. I was identified, observed and therefore made aware of my presence.

It was a pleasant trip as well but there was a certain discomfort in being aware of my identity. Somehow I liked the feeling of being a nobody where no one questioned me where I am from or what I do… where I could be anything and nothing.

Small towns are warm and beautiful. Big cities are cold and often enough filthy. Small towns hold lessons in love. And big cities teach humility. Small towns make you assert your social identity. Big cities let you melt away in the web of humanity.

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Those little things – babies and memories

One of the side effects of turning 30 is the massive number of babies around you. It’s endearing and annoying in equal parts. Almost all of my friends, acquaintances and colleagues have a child or two. A whole bunch of them were born recently. I have witnessed some of them grow old, heard their stories and seen their numerous pictures and videos. And it’s exhausting. I just can’t seem to share the same amount of excitement about babies and children as their parents do.

There is no denying the fact that babies are cute, with their little hands and feet, big eyes on soft little chubby faces and smiling pink lips. They can be fun when they start growing old. The kids have a pure soul and a beautiful positive energy. But I am not sure if I enjoy their company.

The obsessive parents are more difficult to deal with. Their stories usually just start with ‘my son’ or ‘my daughter’. Gradually, a name is introduced to the conversation. For a brief while, a name is the only connection I would have with the child. In some cases, I don’t even remember the name or the gender. There are so many of them around me that I lost track. With passing time, however, those names begin to take shape into a person with a set of preferences and a distinct character. It feels like I know each of them intimately through the animated stories told by the parents with a joyful spark in their eyes.

The little stories of the little ones follow the same pattern but the colors change as per the personality each baby takes on while growing up. The stories of sleepless nights taking care of the babies turn into the stories of their charming naughty acts and then move to the apparently difficult school management. One fine day I realized I am not indifferent anymore. Most of the stories are still boring and repetitive. But suddenly the main character has a name and a personality. Without actually being there, I saw them grow old. I became a small insignificant part of their story… as a member of the audience. It can get overwhelming. I still have phases of indifference. My interest in babies varies depending on my mood.

The intriguing part of this experience is the reflection on the concept of time and aging. My life hasn’t changed much in the last 12 years or so. I have had my share of fun and adventure. I have had periods of movements and a variety of interesting experiences. But the essence hasn’t changed much. So my sense of time and my own aging has been twisted. But when I see a child who was a little baby three years back, I realize the extent of power three years can have on us and everything around us.

This feeling and sense of time might have been present on some level in my life. But I felt it strongly only last week. I had been shopping for the last two months for two of my dear friends who are expecting babies. I took that long because I don’t really know much about babies or pregnancy and I am not quite sure what would make a good gift for an expecting mother and a baby. But I know my friends well. So the thought of an appropriate gift would often wander to my memories with them. What would she like for her baby? How would she like to decorate the room of her baby? What kind of clothes she would like her baby to wear? What kind of fun activities she would do with her baby? I didn’t make a structured list of such potential questions and answers. But when I was in any shop looking for an appropriate gift, my thoughts would go to the mother as much as to the baby.

I didn’t realize this pattern of thoughts until last week. When I finished buying everything, I sat down to pack my gifts. My work table was overflowing with gift items and sundry packing material. I was admiring my packing skills; feeling elated at the choice of my gifts and wondering how my friends might react to these. In that moment, I realized the time and age we have covered together.

I still remember when we were young girls and I would hear them talk about love. I would occasionally give my views even though I had no experience of a stable relationship. I still don’t have any but that’s another story for another time.

I met one of them at 18 and another one at 23. It feels like a different lifetime. How much we have changed and grown since then! I remember the long morning and evening walks where we discussed love and life; and our opinion of men and relationships. I remember the time when they fell in love and when they decided to get married. Both of them are now expecting a baby. I can’t seem to let go of the image of their younger version. They are still full of life. But now they are also to-be-mothers.

Very often you don’t see your own life pass by. The time becomes real only when you enter a new phase of life. And sometimes you become aware of the passing time when your near and dear ones enter a new phase of life.

I feel an uncanny sense of joy with the very thought of them holding their little ones. The memories of the times to come will be as precious as the memories of the times that went by. Those little things suddenly made me see time and life in a new light.

 

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My travel notes: Providence

I always wanted to see the snow. I don’t know why it fascinated me so. It was a dream that eluded me for almost three decades. I traveled to destinations where snow falls in abundance but the timing was never quite right.

I finally saw it in a small European village right out of a picture postcard. It looks like the place where they shoot pictures for holiday cards. It’s more beautiful than the dreams and the childhood fantasy land.

You can see the whole village from the train station. Our hotel address was only a house number. There was no street name or block number. Information center at the train station gave us a map of the region and pointed us in the direction of the house. There didn’t seem any need for public transportation. We walked.

It was raining which further added to the beauty of the village. Clouds also meant a need for alteration in our plans. We expected to cycle around the nearby villages, sit by the lake in bright sunshine and enjoy the view of the scenic landscape from a viewpoint up in the mountains which can be reached by a cable car.

The hotel owner informed us in a very disappointed voice that we will not be able to see anything from there because of snow. We can only visit the ice caves at the first cable car stop. The second stop is accessible but we can’t walk up to the view point.

To his surprise, I jumped up in excitement because I wanted to see the snow.

We dropped our luggage and immediately left. The ice caves were spectacular. The beauty of frozen ice inside caves was accentuated by the artificial lighting effects. By the time we reached back to the cable car station for our way ahead, our bodies were tired, spirits high and the heart still longing for snow fall. However we were too late. It was around 4:30 pm and the last cable car down from the high point was at 5 pm. The operator refused to take us up there because the view point was about 30 min away on foot and we would be stranded up there. So near yet so far.

We went back to the downhill cable station. While we waited for the cable car, an old man appeared out of nowhere and took the bench next to us. He looked a lot like Santa Claus without the red suit. He greeted us and asked where we are from. My friend replied, ‘India’. He said, ‘you should see the snow up there’. We told him it’s too late now and enquired how long it might take. He said he just came back from there and it took only 4 min. ‘You should go’, he said again.

After a moment’s hesitation, we made an impulse decision to take our chances. We ran back to the uphill station. The operator told us again that ‘you will need to be back by 5 and you won’t be able to go to the viewing point’. We went nevertheless.

It was snowing up there. We stayed near the station exit for about ten min. It was eerily quiet with an occasional noise of a machine being operated nearby. Everything was white. I felt soft light snowflakes falling on my hands and hair. I looked up at the snow falling from nowhere in particular. It was white and misty. A sense of absolute purity, beauty and peace set in. It was mesmerizing.

I finally saw the snowfall… by coincidence… a series of unplanned events… on an unexpected day… in an impulsive moment.

The old man was gone by the time we came back. I can’t help but wonder where did he come from and why in a 5-second conversation, he told us about the snow.

 

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My travel notes: The artist

She is an Austrian artist, currently based in a small touristy town in Eastern Europe. She sits on the sidewalk of a small uphill road running up to a proud fortress from the 11th century. She paints little miniature paintings of the fortress and other popular tourist destinations of the city. She describes her miniature artistic impressions of the fortress in great detail along with the significance of every little ledge protruding from the grey wall. She talks even more passionately about her flower paintings. Every flower she paints has a special significance. The story of each flower and its medicinal properties is even more impressive than the painting. The beauty of some paintings is enhanced further by philosophical little quotes written below in her beautiful artistic handwriting. There is a line from the poem written by her and a few others by famous philosophers from Europe and China. While she tells you about the therapeutic properties of some flowers, she throws in a line about the technique used for making the painting.
She pulls her torn jacket close to her body to protect herself from cold. But her eyes never leave you, except when she tells you about the political conditions of the country and treatment of women and artists. The wisdom of her light blue eyes, partly hidden by old specs, is deeply enhanced by her wrinkled face and warm smile. She can talk about art, history, medicine, yoga, philosophy and social perils with equal flair.

She sits at the steps of a grand ancient fortress in a beautiful European city, painting all day long, hoping to sell her miniature artistic impressions of the city, it’s spirit and her favorite flowers in an attempt to make some money for food and warm clothes, and happy to share her life story with anyone willing to listen to her.

She has great wisdom gathered over many years from books, her mother and her personal life experiences. She has strong political and social views. She is there only for a few more days. Once winter arrives, she has to find another place to sit, paint and sell her paintings. She dreams of writing a book with medicinal properties of flowers which few know of. She plans to migrate to another country, hopefully warmer, to continue her work.

I don’t know if her work is painting, medicine or philosophy. I don’t know if she has any family. She says she lives with a friend. She says the treatment of women artists in her country is unfair. I don’t know what gives her hope and what is the source of life in her.

But her story makes me wonder about the condition of women and poor in a rich country.

Posted in Spirituality, Uncategorized

Don’t seek the halo

Sometimes I wonder if people seek the halo of enlightened being more than the knowledge itself. I often meet people with the ‘desire’ of knowing everything there is to know… not for the quintessential curiosity of a human or the joy of learning but for the tag of ‘wise’, ‘knowledgeable’ and ‘enlightened’. In a pure competitive spirit, they want to be ahead of everyone else on a similar path.

I tried to make sense of this behavior but didn’t quite understand. I also fell for the trap. But I was able to pull back soon enough. I am always in a learning mode. And for one brief interaction with someone, I turned that off and allowed pride to take over.

My yoga teacher once mentioned in a class, ‘don’t seek the halo’. And just like that, many pieces of the puzzle fell in place. Many of us seek the halo… not the knowledge.

Spiritual quest is an equally common phenomenon as the material pursuit. The path follows similar emotional phases… ambition, arrogance, ego, envy, pride. Ironically, an essential requirement to reach the next level of spiritual evolution is to transcend these emotions or negative energy spirals.

Most of us pass through this journey anyway. I don’t have an answer for why the beings on spiritual journey get caught up in the negative emotions or why most of them are not even aware of it or accept it. I don’t have a guide book on how to transcend this pattern. I don’t know if most of us go through all the emotions or some of these. I don’t know how many of us can leave them behind within a few moments and how many take years. I know that not a lot of us are aware of it. I know that one of the earlier stages of learning involves being aware. So my question really is that if you are on the journey of spiritual upliftment and you are apparently more evolved than most others, then how is it that you are not even aware of your emotions and the games your mind is playing with you?

I don’t know answers to any of this. I know that it’s important to be aware. It’s extremely important to be aware of the emotions playing behind your behavior and interactions with others. Only then can you reach a stage where you can transcend it. When you identify you are falling in the trap, try to come out. Inhale the purity of that moment.

Don’t make spiritual wisdom your life’s ambition. Don’t let the arrogance and ego challenge your humility. Don’t let the envy enter in your relationship with guides and friends who can help you grow. Don’t let pride blind you.

 

On your spiritual journey, you will cross milestones where you know more than earlier; where you feel you know more than others; where you feel privileged. And in that moment remember to check the ego. You don’t want the halo. The moment of pride will take you back many steps in your journey towards wisdom.

Don’t seek the halo.

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Beware of the halo

 

Do good and forget it. We grew up listening to the metaphors and stories of selfless acts. We were taught, ’be selfless’ and ‘don’t cash in the act of goodness’. We remember the phrases and idioms but not the lesson. Most of us don’t remember. There are very few evolved beings that are able to practice it with a purity that can’t be defined by language.

We have evolved to be selfish. We are designed to think about self for self-preservation and promotion. There is no judgment here. It’s an important trait that allowed us to survive… that allowed us to reach this evolved state where our brains have the capability to contemplate this and all other abstract things like this.

The problem is when selfless becomes a state of achievement… when selfless becomes a desired label… when goodness is measured, appreciated and rewarded. Selfless is not a natural state for most of us. It probably is for a few evolved beings. But for most of us, either the idea is unnatural, revolting or simply aspirational. Whether or not we accept it in public but being good is not always just about being good. It’s about being acknowledged as good.

We are seeking a halo. We are seeking applause and approval. In that sense we are no different from many others who are a part of the rat race and seek materialistic rewards and strive to stay ahead in a competitive environment. The difference with these set of individuals is that we are standing on a different stage on a different pedestal performing different acts in front of the same audience hoping for more love and higher accolades for being good.

Do good and forget it. Be aware of the sense of pride and arrogance… and kill it as soon as it appears. Beware of the fake halo.

Do good and forget it. When you expect to be acknowledged and appreciated, then you have taken more. You are not a giver anymore. You have turned it into a transaction… the gratitude in return for the positive energy. This is worse than doing good for a favour. Because you are not even aware of your intentions.

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And the money keeps rolling

A dating app sent me a notification recently. ‘Unsingle. You are too old to be single anyway!

I smiled. I thought it was funny. Perhaps that’s what they intended. The next moment, I was irritated. Who gave them a right to judge my life choices? And who gave them an authority to decide a right age for being single or committed? And I smiled again. At least it was smart advertising. They managed to create a sense of urgency for the user to act. But, they also managed to bring down her spirit just before she decides to meet new and interesting men. I couldn’t help but wonder the repercussions of unthoughtful and insensitive advertising messages.

I wonder if this message could have a negative impact on other women. This message could make her feel insecure and embarrassed. She takes an action, signs up in a hurry and decides to go out with a man, any man who would say yes since now she is feeling inadequate. She gets her heart broken subsequently because she is going to a man from a place of insecurity. She comes back to the app to look for another man and another heart break. She gives the app owners a count for their active user base, uses their new features and sees more ads. Life moves on. She remains where she is. And the money keeps rolling.