Thursday, May 28, 2009

Honesty and Poverty

I had to create this image from some toys in my dining room because I have lost all of the pictures that I have ever taken in the jungle. (That's another story.)

My uncle stroked the elephant and praised it like he would his dogs. He had even come prepared with a few fruity snacks that the little elephant took politely with the tip of its trunk and deposited into its mouth. Elephants look so sad and wise at the same time. I thought I saw a curious appreciation for my uncle's kindness in its long lashed eye.
They had not yet finished building the platform stairs so that we could easily climb into the crate saddled on the elephant's back, so the Mahout commanded the elephant to lie on its belly and cross its hind legs. My uncle, already in his late 60's, climbed up, stepping first on the back of one of the elephant's legs, then the other, and then onto the tail which the Mahout gripped tightly next to the elephants back side to form another step. He grabbed the edge of the crate with one hand and hoisted his body up onto the elephant's back and climbed into the crate. My uncle's legs dangled down over the right front shoulder of the elephant. I climbed up next, and seated myself in the opposite corner of the crate looking to the rear of the elephant. The Mahout nimbly scampered up the front leg of the elephant and swung his legs around the elephant's neck placing his bare feet gently behind its ears so that he could steer the elephant.
The elephant walked slowly down the road and over a bridge to a small village that was surrounded by a fence of prickly cactus. The cactus had been planted to keep the rhinos out, but I was told that a few people had to stay up all night to watch for rogue animals all the same. The village was full of open air shacks with few walls. You could see every detail of the inhabitants' lives. They seemed just as curious about us as we were about them and would smile and press their hands together in greeting as we passed. Some of the children ran along side of the elephant and waved to us. Village cows, chickens, goats and pigs scattered in front of our parade. But the children stayed back as the elephant stepped into the low lying mists of the jungle.

I had ridden on elephants before that were much larger than this one. Usually, the ride was smooth, graceful, and remarkably quiet. I was surprised at the brutal lumpiness of this ride. We lurched forward and back relentlessly with our ribs banging into the wooden bars on the crate. After a while, I tucked my coat down around my ribs to provide some extra padding. Painful as it was, it was still an exhilarating ride through the jungle. There are animals that you can see from an elephant's back that you usually do not see while walking through the jungle. The deer, wild boar, peacocks, monkeys and rhinos all stay around a little longer when an elephant is coming down the path compared to a group of noisy people tramping through. Sitting quietly on the elephant's back, we were able to stand only a few feet from a wild elephant, her baby and a few rhinos.

For about 2 hours we rode up and down jungle paths and created a few of our own paths in grass that was as tall as the elephant's eyes as we looked for a tiger. We saw tiger tracks, but never found a tiger. Few people do. Finally, we returned to our camp. I started searching my coat pockets for my wallet so that I could give the Mahout a tip. As I patted about my pockets, a deep sick feeling welled up in my belly and a cold sweat started to break out on my brow. The wallet was gone. I had done something I never do, I put the wallet with my driver's license, credit cards and all of my cash into my coat pocket. Normally, I have hidden zippered pockets and extra wallets so that I don't lose everything at once. I did still have back up cards and a passport tucked away in a safe place, but there are many places in Nepal where credit cards are useless, so one must carry small bills in Nepalese Rupees.

Immediately, I told the camp manager what had happened and he explained it to the Mahout. The Mahout, 3 men and the elephant went right back into the jungle without even stopping for lunch. I didn't have a lot of hope that they would find the wallet though. Not only had we gone on a long complicated journey, the jungle is not as empty of people as you might imagine. Plenty of people regularly walk up and down the jungle paths.

My uncle and I had a worried lunch after which I retired to my cabin alone to consider from whom I would borrow money so that I could comfortably continue on my journey and how I was going to cancel all of my cards from the remote area where we were staying. I fell asleep. About two hours later, someone called from the jungle. They had found a river of coins gleaming in the sunlight and followed it to my wallet. When they returned, they were smiling triumphantly. My uncle gave the search party about $20 from my wallet, to split 4 ways. I think that I would have given them much more than that, but he said that they all seemed very pleased.

There was the equivalent of $200 US in Nepalese Rupees in my wallet. To give you some perspective about what these men did for me, you need to know that, according to the Wilson Center and the WWF, the average per capita annual income for the country of Nepal is only about $235. In the Terrai region, where I was jungle trekking, the annual per capita income is more like $50. Yes, that is $50 per person per year! That would have been a year's income for each one of them. The next time you go to the jungle in Nepal, let me know and I will happily tell you a very honest group to travel with.

If you look at the pictures of Nepal on my side bar, you can find pictures of tourists riding elephants in the Terrai.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

God in a Cornfield

Very near my home there is a place where, in every direction as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but row after row of corn. No house, no tree, no fence, there is only one flat acre after the next of corn. When we first moved here from DC, my children thought it was really funny that I would yell, "Corn!" when we came to that spot. But in this place I can glimpse the infinite power of the divine, and yelling, "Corn!" is my way of sharing the joy.

The first time that I flew past the Himalayan mountain range, someone asked, "Which peak is Everest?" to which the flight attendant replied, "The tallest one." It was impossible to determine which was the tallest one up there. It seemed as if our plane was a gnat flying among sperm whales. We were not above the mountains looking down, but flying between them. The enormous size and distance between the peaks made no sense to the ordinary scale of my life.

In every country, there is a place so beautiful and divine that it requires pilgrimages. Places like the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls and Ayers Rock. It is in places such as these, that sense of the infinite is unmistakable. There is also such a place in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan. When the traffic light changes there, people pour into the intersection like ants descending on a drop of ice cream. I find it interesting that I feel that same small alone feeling beside an infinite divinity, in that immense crowd, as I do when I float on the ocean and look up at the stars. (Please click on the link, it is amazing.)

It is in these places that I put my ego into perspective and know that I am one with all that exists.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Death Card

Chagrin Falls, Ohio

How embarrassing to be shuffling the pack of Tarot cards and have the death card dribble out of the pack onto the floor. It grimaced up at me like a great dark secret.

"Well, not to worry, that just means change, and we knew that was coming," my friend said.

The river of life is constantly moving and sometimes I would like to stop on an island and hang out for a while, but that never seems to happen for very long. Our little island was the farm, but we can't stay here forever. This summer, we will be moving to Cleveland, Ohio.

New house, new friends, new job... all this newness gets old after a while. But, I am thinking that this is it. Maybe this is the last big move. Not that I will ever be anything less than a Nomad, but even a Nomad likes to come back to certain spots now and again.

Friday, May 15, 2009

World Walk Peace Tour

When I was a teenager, I had a hat that said, "World Walker." It was my inspiration! I have been a lot of places but I have never just picked up and started walking, which is what I have always wanted to do. Now that I have two children and a serious case of plantar faciitis, I probably never will...maybe I'll bike.

These two guys are living my dream. They will be arriving in the US May 17. If you happen to be along their route, come out and say hello!

Welcome to the USA Ferenc and Istavan Ivanics!
(I'm off to Atlanta today. I'll be back in about 4 days. Peace.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

American Low Budget Travel Haiku

A River of Red
Driving up I-95
Bored, I fall asleep
Cheap Roadside Motel
Stale Smoke and airfreshener
Prostitutes knocking
Waffle House coffee
Grits, steak, no pancakes, waffles!
Where is the green food?
Room near the tracks
Thin sheet and a lumpy bed
Car doors slam, locks beep
How may I help you?
Cheeseburger, fries and a coke
Drive to the window
The sunlight wakes me
My body covered in spots
Get the manager!
Lesson from the road
Pay twenty dollars extra,
Get yourself some sleep.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Heavy Footsteps

I woke to the slow, deep, mournful warning of the fog horn from the direction of the coast guard station and Brant Point Light House. A light drizzle tapped softly on the tin roof over the closed in back porch of the guest house where I lived and worked. I knew that no guests would be rising early that day; it was not a beach morning. No laundry would be done, because I could not hang it on the line to dry. I reached for the copy of Moby Dick on the shelf next to my cot.

Moby Dick is a dark horror and a chore to read, but at the same time it is rich with enduring poetry and symbolism. The setting in which I was reading the tale could not have been more perfect. I was on Nantucket, the island where Ishmael and Queequeg signed on with the whaling vessel the Pequod. The main streets of Nantucket are still paved with the same cobble stones that were the ballast for whaling vessels that came in to port two centuries before. Ships were disgorged of the heavy rounded stones and loaded down again with whale oil, candles, and other trades from far off ports. Many of the homes and buildings in the town of Nantucket are original to the whaling community of the early 1800s and are still intact and decorated in much the same style as when they were built. So, it is easy to imagine the ghosts of widows pacing ‘the walk’ and searching the horizon for their sailors out at sea.

I read for about an hour and got up at 7:30 am. By the time that I had my toast and eggs and had finished cleaning all of the rooms in the guest house, the sun had come out and burned off the fog. By 11 am, children, their pails and shovels in hand, were already kicking at the dead carcass of a horse shoe crab and chasing gulls on Children's Beach in front of the guest house. I walked from the beach, up the cobbled Main Street, past the bank that dominates the top of the street and turned left onto a small shady side street.

My second job was both flexible and lucrative. Except for the creepy house that it was in, it would have been the perfect job. The house was built in the late 1700s and I was told that it had been owned by Maria Mitchell’s Quaker parents. Maria Mitchell, born 1818, was one of the first women of note in American science, an award winning astronomer. In the early part of the summer, I was hired to prepare this home for rental. This meant that I would go in, decide what needed to be done, and send a bill for the work. A blank check seems like a great gig except that I couldn't bear being in the house alone. One of the first chores that I tackled was cleaning out the fire place on the first floor. I shoveled out the ash and lemon oiled the cast iron fire dogs, and the swinging hanger that would have held the hanging cooking pots. All of these items were original to the house. The entire time I worked, I could not help looking over my shoulder to see who was watching me. I started to sing loudly to keep myself company. On later visits, I often paid my friends to help clean the house with me, but some of them were more uncomfortable in the home than I was.

Within a few weeks the house was ready and the first vacation renters came to stay. They were a very pleasant family with two young children, and cleaning the home became much easier with other people around. On this day though, the weather had become so warm and beautiful that the family decided to enjoy the afternoon on the beach. They left me in the home alone and asked if I would please make up the rooms on the third floor because they had friends coming in on the ferry that evening.

I hated the third floor. Of all of the rooms in the house the two on the third floor were the most uncomfortable for me. I made the beds, took out the garbage and vacuumed the floors everywhere else in the house first, before I went up with clean sheets to the third floor. Shortly after I entered the room at the top of the stairs, the sky turned black and there was a loud rumble of thunder. Rain began to pour out of the sky. I was concentrating very hard on working as quickly as I could, when I heard the heavy footsteps of a hard soled shoe coming up the stairs to the third floor toward me.

I put on my 'I'm in charge' voice and demanded, "Who's there!" No answer. "Who's out there!"

I boldly threw the door open and stomped out of the room to where I was sure a man should have been standing. No one was there. A heavy steamer trunk that had been shoved against the attic door was pulled out about a foot from the wall and the attic door was ajar. I slammed the door shut and ran down to the second and then the first floor and then right out of the house and into the yard. With amazement, I noted that it was sunny outside but the grass was wet.

I stood outside looking up at the third floor windows for about 10 minutes. I really didn't want the embarrassment of being caught out in the side yard, not working, when the family returned home so I gathered my wits and marched back into the house and up to the third floor again to finish my task saying, "I'm comin' back in and I don't want any trouble from you!" The attic door was still closed when I got back up to the third floor, but I couldn't budge the steamer trunk to push it back against the door. Leaving it there, I went into the room to finish the beds. Just as I put the last pillow in place, I heard the family return from the beach.

Putting on my cheerful voice this time, I called down the stairs to let them know that I was there. Finished with my tasks, I went downstairs and waited until the children were out of the room to tell their parents what had happened while they were at the beach. To my surprise, the parents were absolutely delighted that they might have a ghost in the house. It seems that it just made for a more interesting vacation story, so I told them that if they really liked ghost stories there was a book that had just come out called, The Ghosts of Nantucket: 23 True Accounts by Blue Balliett which they could find in the book store on Main Street.

The next time that I came up to the house, they told me that when they had gone to the bookstore on Main Street to buy the book, they ran into their friends who were buying the very same book. Their friends said that the reason they had come to buy the book was that they were in home of Maria Mitchell’s birthplace on the same afternoon that I was in her parent's making the third floor beds. At the birthplace, a rocking chair was rocking back and forth slowly for several minutes with no one sitting in it.