Playing with Fate

Do you believe in fate? I now do, or at least the interception at some points in our lives from forces beyond our control...

I had landed in Jaipur in a haze. My over-night train screeched to a halt at 7 o'clock in the morning and the sun was just coming up over the already-bustling "pink" desert city. I instantly felt sick in the crowd of rickshaw drivers that swamped me for a ride, hoping to rip off the gora during the ride. Feeling ill and annoyed from the rikshaw driver following me, I caved and did something I never would have usually done; I took him up on his offer. "Take me to a cheap hotel, 200 rupees per night, close to station”.

The request was filled, but what I had gained in speedy service, I paid for in the worst 2 days I had in India. The two men, the rik driver and his friend, stalked me. They followed me into the restaurant and ate with me, wanted to drive me places I didn’t necessarily want to go, followed me into establishments, called me incessantly, and, as I found later, were telling anyone who could hear that I was their girlfriend. During those two days, I was taken to establishments where I was overcharged 3X the amount of gifts, slept in a hostel that had me fearing for my life and security each night, and felt trapped the entire time.

During one visit to the Amber Fort, I was asked by two Quebecers to take their photo. I asked of them the same. Chance encounter.

On the way down from the fort, I remembered the Tiger Fort- I needed to go because when else would I have a chance to watch the sunset? I asked the driver to turn around and take me to Tiger Fort. “No, no. Not possible, too far. We go tomorrow?” That’s not how it works in India- you give the directions and money, and they follow, else it’s disrespectful on their part. “I am going up there. If not with you, with someone else. Now.” I had stuck up for myself and was breaking free.

The two Quebecers were at the very top of the fort, overlooking the pink city below, currently bespeckled with pinpoints of light from the windows. Blaring Hindi music cut into the twilight, matched by the drifting laughs of children, singing from a festival, and the pounding of drums. That night was crucial. As my new companions and I sped through the night streets, after I had garnered the courage to tell the matachods to fuck off with no fear of the stalking to follow the next day, I made up my mind. I would cancel tomorrow’s ticket to Jodhpur and stay in Jaipur for a few more days, and commit myself to leave the city feeling good about it, rather than the sinking sour feeling I had at the time.

The following days were perfect. I did exactly what I wanted to do, stayed exactly where I wanted to stay, and felt free once again. I had no idea the coincidental events that were to come.

I met three more Quebecers the following night and they shared the Jodhpur hotel name where they had stayed and had an excellent time. “Make sure you ask for the not strong bang lassies!” were their parting words.

I arrived at Yogi’s guesthouse with no expectations, as per usual in India. I was pleasantly surprised, and found myself drawn to the camel trek that was offered. I wouldn’t have gone at the time, rather traveled to Jaisalmer, if not for the desert wedding incorporated into the trek.

The two Dutch guys and I left on the third day from that desert because of complications in planning and compensation. We arrived late into Jodhpur, couldn’t find a rickshaw (when does that ever happen?) finally managed to grab hold of one, literally, and asked to be taken to a hotel that cost 200 rs or less per night. The rickshaw screeched to a halt and I was out on the street. A guy stood in front of me, “Can I help you? I am a tour guide, practicing my English.” Right, at midnight, you just happen to be out practicing your English. I didn’t know then the special relationship I would have with this guy and his friends, and especially his brother. I was shown my room, I liked it.

After moving all of my belongings into the room, which meant one backpack and a handbag, I was out on the balcony for a smoke and chill before bed. I met a guy named Gucci and clicked instantaneously. I was sweaty, hadn’t bathed for three days, hadn’t washed my hair in god knows how long, and was sucking on a cigarette like an old hag, and this guy looked at me like I was the goddess Aphrodite.

The days that followed contain some of the happiest memories of my life.

If I hadn’t had that awful experience and met two people that encouraged me and put me onto the right path; if I hadn’t decided to stay in Jaipur for that extra few days; if there wasn’t a wedding that tempted me to go camel trekking and if Yogi hadn’t fucked us over, resulting in an early return back to the city; if our rickshaw driver decided to take us to a different hotel; if Sam hadn’t been standing outside of my rickshaw when I emerged…if all of these circumstances didn’t match up, then I would have missed such happiness and experience.

I now reflect on those Jodhpur days as pivotal. I opened up; something that had been reserved and feared by me now emerged with such ease. I learned once again how to love, to trust, but most important of all, I discovered a new wonder for life and an inspiration that I am certain will follow me for the rest of my life.


Ventures into "om"

Mondays are not the most popular day of the week; another 5 days of work, another 5 days of class, more waking up early and less staying up late. But Shambhala Meditation Centre of Toronto offers a way to stop dreading Monday, with one-hour meditation sessions meant to relax and promote “mindfulness-awareness” in your life, or just to get you through the week. The center’s practices are based off of traditional Tibetan Buddhist tradition and belief. After speed-walking down 15 city blocks in the damp heat, I could use something to help me relax.

The hallway leads to an 8 seat “practice” room where I am one-on-one with Helmfried, one of many community members cum volunteers, who eases me into meditation. The room is peaceful enough; unadorned white walls, save for a blown-up image of water, and various elements set up against the side wall, such as a piece of drift wood and sand with a mirror reflecting the entrance (feng shui, anyone?)

Still, after my jaunt to get here and realization that an air-conditioned subway ride would have taken much less time and sweat, I am finding it hard to settle on the square red cushion and ease my legs into a relaxed crossed position. Helmfried asks questions to gain an understanding of why I’m here, he wants to accommodate my visit. I just want some peace of mind and rest from the stress in my life, I explain. Don’t we all.

He explains that I need to focus on my breathing, but not to try and manipulate it. Oh, and to clear my mind. Easier said than done. For the entire 10 minutes of complete silence as Helmfried spaces out, I fidget, fret, adjust my numb left leg, scratch my fingers where my rings have irritated the skin, and think about everything I am here for, all to the jingle of my recently acquired bangles. How was anyone supposed to sit completely still for any allotted period of time and not think about anything?

I know I’m doing the meditation thing wrong, so I ask my guru what he would suggest. “Don’t force anything; it doesn’t have to turn into a battle within yourself if you don’t want it to be.” I wish I could say that I had a revelation and something subconsciously clicked, but all I felt was a bead of sweat pass from my hairline to my eyebrow.

It’s time to move onto the next level and enter into the main meditation area.

The next room is spacious, and air-conditioned, windows open to let in a well-received breeze. Over 20 people sit cross-legged on their own red mats and square red pillows (I later learn that red is an auspicious color in Buddhism), eyes closed or semi-open, staring into nothingness. Joining them, I again feel the frustration I experienced earlier and, as a result, find it increasingly hard to focus on not focusing.

I stare straight ahead at the simple but captivating altar, two flames dance and I find myself slowly entranced in their play. My thoughts lead away from the room and wander to everything that I was just 5 minutes ago taught to subdue; “recognize the thoughts, realize you are thinking them, and then put them away for now”. I remember good times in India, the freedom and joy of traveling solo, the people I had left behind, my new waitressing gig that was slowly eating away at my soul, the bit of weight I had put on recently, my lack of funds, my anxiety that I would never make it as a journalist in this world… and so on. My throat chocked up.

When people think negatively, they often repress the thoughts, unbeknownst or otherwise. We don’t let the thought soak in, but rather let it attack us often and sporadically, chipping away at our confidence and happiness. To distract our minds, the t.v. is turned on or the phone is picked up or the runners are laced up. In that quiet room, surrounded by people and the rain pattering on the hot pavement outside, I began to slow down and question my irrational thoughts. Just like that. It began with a simple question in my own mind ‘why are you close to tears about your own thoughts?’ The process of questioning and understanding began.

My reaction to the session was seemingly different from the other members. “Meditation is more than just closing your eyes and relaxing. It’s learning to deal with discomfort,” explains Paul, one of the volunteer organizers for tonight. I can attest to that, as many newbies would, since the lack of distraction forces you to deal with all the crazy thoughts in that brain. One of the newer members, Kitty, disagrees “for me, it’s a way to relax and to forget about worries.” The only problem she encounters is a physical one, as her lower back often becomes sore during the session. We both want to take our experiences during meditation into everyday life, hopefully approaching future situations with a new “shanty” attitude.

Whether you like trying new things, experiencing something different, or need some help with the stress in your mind, let meditation put a little “om” in your life.

Open meditation sessions every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday 7-8 p.m. free, donation encouraged.

670 Bloor Street West, 3rd Flr.



Predictions as Truth

What do you expect when looking through the "new age" section of your local Chapters bookstore? Surely some books on Gemstone therapy, maybe something on spiritual clairvoyance, or even the tarot. What you wouldn't expect is to find an entire section devoted to the most recent fear-theory "2012", the chosen year for when the world, and everything we hold dear, will become extinct. "Apocalypse 2012: An investigation into Civilization's End", "2012: Crossing the Bridge to the Future", "2012: The War for Souls" are just a few of the positive and enlightened titles.

Why December 21st, 2012? The Mayan civilization used the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, which completes its thirteenth b'ak'tun cycle since the calendar's mythical starting point on that date. They used this date in reference to and to compute other dates from which predictions were foretold. This date also represents a close conjunction of the winter solstice sun with the crossing point of the milky way equator and the path of the sun. Some scientists predict extremely hot sun flares and drought impacting the earth, while astrologers state that it's the ending of the age of Pisces and the start of the age of Aquarius. What this means is slightly more unclear. As for scientific-based evidence, there isn't a unified front available, only theories.

The 2012 prediction sounds too much like the one revolving around the year 2000, when many experts came forward to offer their take on the why, when, what, where, and how of the world's imminent end. Technology was the culprit- the human race had gotten too confident in its gadgets and innovations and would now suffer for a glitch in the system that would cause the launching of bombs and missiles and the shutting down of the widely used and depended upon internet. Valid new sources were predicting the impact on businesses and the world economy. Scientists and engineers emerged to instruct us of how to deal with a nuclear blast and what supplies we needed to survive once this happened.

Last time, the situation accumulated to one thought:"wow, maybe the human race isn't indestructible. We created technology, but maybe it's too advanced, we've dug too far, and now we are the source of our own destruction", or something along those lines. And the end result? Nothing happened. On the stroke of midnight, when the year 1999 became 2000, after every single country had counted down, in their respective time zones, nothing happened.

With this new doomsday theory, the emphasis is clearly on spirituality and belief systems, since the very idea comes from the Mayan calendar, whose beliefs were steeped in myth and lore. The Mayans believed in several gods, and ritually sacrificed blood during major events and changes; it was seen as the ultimate for royalty to sacrifice blood because they were seen as descendants of the gods. Symbology played an important factor in their civilization, since serpents, skulls, and bones were all thought of as links to the next world. Could it be that our society has grown too far from our own souls and the spirit world, and that we need a little scare to encourage our enlightenment?

Free thought and opinion are important, but the unnecessary extortion and peddling of fear is worrying for our society. Why should it be acceptable for any author or self-proclaimed expert to write on a largely unbiased phenomenon that adds absolutely no benefit to the reader's life? On the contrary, it would inject fear and worry into a society.

However, there is a bonding aspect to the idea of everything being destroyed in 4 short years, since all people on earth, regardless of culture, background, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, will be in the same boat. And what a unifying thought that is, that no matter how shitty your day was or what prejudices you have against your neighbor, it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. Because in the big picture, you'll both be left on your own to face whatever evil and destruction 2012 will bring, as predicted by experts.

The lesson learned? Keep an open mind, but don't believe everything you read on this topic. Oh- and you might want to make that visa payment, just in case you're still alive 4 years from now in a world that still believes in interest.


The Worst Day in India

I recently read through a journal I had been keeping in Rajasthan and found this lovely little piece. It was written in the non-ac train on the way to Agra from Jaipur. It was 45 degrees celsius in the mid-day heat of that day, and I hadn't slept for two days, due to a hectic train schedule. Now before you read this, please keep in mind that I love this country much much more than I hate it, even on a bad day...

3:10~ Let's try for a switch-up from the usual positive, shall we?
It's the hottest matachod (motherfucking) day that I've experienced yet in India and I'm bainchod (sisterfucking) hot. I can feel my head and body over-heating because I am not at all used to this outrageous heat. The train is going 150 miles an hour and all I can feel when I open the door is a wall of fire. While I've been here, every new hot day has gained observations on how it was "probably the hottest day I've experienced so far", but this takes the cake. If it was any hotter, I would die. I would bloat, keel over, and die.
It's a bloody sauna. A bloody fucking sauna. Except the difference is that here you can't just make up your mind that you've had enough brain melting and pore-opening for one sitting and get off of your sweaty ass and out of there. Here, can't open a door and find yourself in an air-conditioned, non-polluted, cleaned space, free to shower yourself and don clean clothes. Instead, what you get is a door leading to a cesspool of a toilet where breathing with your mouth only draws more attention and worry to just how many germs and possible disease you are in close proximity to. The next door only holds the countryside, speeding past you, and yet not fast enough to offer a cool and welcoming breeze. If you chance sitting on the rumbling metal floor to view the surroundings, contemplate anything from fate to why it's so bloody damned hot, you find yourself so closely surrounded by a group of men, 2 to 3 deep, that all thought of having some time to yourself is lost. And don't try to ignore them, because a lecture will surely ensue on the dangers of sitting in that particular spot or, more likely, they'll simply stare at uncomfortable proximity and finally, after being challenged by your stink-eye, will present the ubiquitous "country from?" You lose your nerves one snapping tendril at a time.
An apparent phenomenon about Indian trains: when you're perfectly comfortable, the word "chai" and "dosai" brand themselves into your hearing every 5 minutes. As soon as you actually need something desperately, like, say, a bottle of water, there are no beverage wallas to be found. Anywhere.
The next station we get to, I'm jumping out of this compartment straight out of hell and will lach onto the first beverage I see. I might just take an entire supply with me.


Rickshaws are Way Under-rated

What comes to mind when you think of an auto rickshaw? Hot polluted air in lungs, open access to passer-by, death-defying speeds? Yes, it is all of these things- but on my first trip to the India of my heart, it grew to a pivotal life-changing importance. Think I may be deranged? Possibly, but allow me to explain.

What is an auto- rickshaw, or tuk tuk, so synonymous with any discussion on India and her transportation options, or even the city scape? It's a cheap, three-wheeled alternative to a taxi, with the same system in mind of driver and passenger. The driver sits in the front padded seat, behind a motorbike-type steering bar and a pane of glass, adorned with images of his Bollywood flame and stickers of a chosen diety. The passenger sits on a long cushy seat in the back, which can seat three comfortably, surrounded by padded walls and ceiling. There are no doors or windows. The auto rickshaw is open to the street on one side, and on the other, the "wall" comes up to the elbow in height.

The passenger can scarcely hear above the din of the engine roaring to life at the pull of a lever, the constant putter of effort, along with the blast of the horn.

It's almost certain that the driver is unsatisfied with not being able to rip off his newly acquired passenger as much as he had planned, and will cut his losses by weaving and speeding through traffic. To save sanity and nervous sweating, the journey begins to take the form of an amusement park ride. "This is fine. I won't get into an accident. It's perfectly safe. That was not just the wheel of a truck 2 centimeters from my shoulder." The unkempt sporadic roads only lend to the credibility of this 'ride of a lifetime'. Between the bumping, sliding, adjusting, and cursing for yet more haste but care, there isn't much time to think. Except of your life, which periodically flashes before your eyes.

After bargaining skills become refined, uncomfort dealt with on reflex, and experience garnered, the auto rickshaw ride becomes one of contemplation. The rider has time to take in the city and observe its culture, allow sights and scents to waft over them, to feel the soothing cool breeze through oppressing heat outside.

Auto-rickshaw rides marked my stay in India; it was on that initial fertile day in Madras that I wondered how I could possibly handle the city, deal with the language- barrier, find friends, just live. Just then, my eyes landed on a foreign woman in a salwar kameez barking commands to her driver in purposefully broken English. She was confident, savvy and full of anticipatory energy. I took note from the back of what I previously thought was a death machine on wheels.

It was also from a rickshaw, several weeks later, that I became lost at night and learned how to adapt to a potentially dangerous and highly tense situation on the fly. The mantra I found for that night followed me throughout my travels later on.

I learned to bargain hard, picked up hindi words and slang, learned the power of circumstance, tested my charm, solidified friendships, evaded the police, brainstormed articles, and discovered my love for the multi-layered India- all from my seat in the humble tuk-tuk.

Hundreds of stories are recalled at the very word; they swirl, shake, and swerve, just as the machine I once used daily would as it barreled down Mogappair West to N'Bakkam and beyond.

The destination was often unknown to me and sometimes even improvised. 'Where do I feel like going?' became 'How do I feel right now?' Introspective meant the library, creative meant any event location I found on-line, sexy meant N' Bakkam for shopping and coffee, upset and stressed meant anywhere- as long as the ride was long. There was time to think, observe, re-align, mull over a dilemma, sing the fear and pain away along to Amy Winehouse, brainstorm new article ideas, and sometimes meet people along the way. It wasn't just a ride for me, it was an experience.

So you can continue to cuss it, blame it, wonder at it, and hate it all you want. I know I did often and creatively. But this part-time instrument of torture was also the full-time reason for the lasting memories I have cultivated from India.