Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Lessons From My Sabbatical

My friends dropped me off at the San Francisco Airport in the middle of the night. I left the car and uttered an explicatory “Oh my god!” and with no plan other than to see and be open, I climbed aboard a plane and took off for Asia, destination India, amongst other places. After 22 years of being confined to the duties of motherhood, audio editing work from the confines of my home recording studio, gardening and struggling with my identity in all of my relationships, I needed a coming of age journey. A kind of vision quest. I sold my house and most of my belongings and took a year long sabbatical. Well sort of. I didn’t mention before that I dragged along a field recording kit and hoped I would find stories there.

And I did find them, but I also found my fear. Despite the fact that everyone in my circle was applauding me for having the moxie to go do such a thing, I felt frozen. Although I recorded and photographed with reckless abandon, I found I could not bring myself to interview anyone. Was I a coward?

No. It seemed I was in the process of shedding a very sticky and unwanted identity. In that place, I did not feel confident to ask others to reveal theirs. I wanted simply to be with the people I found over there. Just be together with our language barrier. And so I did.

But first, I went shopping. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to shop, but the Indian shopkeepers were so insistent. For the obligatory visit to Agra’s famous Taj Majal, I hired a guide. After seeing the Taj and the majestic red fort, he insisted I shop. “The fingers of the workers bleed from the wire used to cut the little stones. They are very poor and if you buy something, it helps them,” said the guide about the marble. The seven shopkeepers followed the tracks of my eyes as I surveyed the showroom floor. When my eyes rested longer than two seconds on any one object, a man would take it off the shelf and put it in front of me, then would begin describing all that was special about it. I did not have a clue how I was going to escape. My privileged American guilt in contrast with the horrific poverty of India made me reach for my credit card.

I walked out of the store with pounds and pounds of marble goods wrapped and ready to fit in my already stuffed suitcase. The Indian shopkeepers in cahoots with the tour guides (who get a hefty commission) have the upper hand on we consumer types. They know exactly where the jugular lies. At the end of the day, after several visits to various handicraft outfits, and subsequent rug purchases, I felt sick and empty. I went to the train station early the next morning and dragged my marble laden suitcase to Jaipur.

That’s when I met Ali, the tuk-tuk driving tout who took me for a ride, but first, heaved my very heavy bags up and over the bridge that spanned the train tracks. Ali, who I never should have talked to according to Lonely Planet, advised me to stay at a hotel of his choice, which, luckily, turned out alright after a little fuss and haggle over price. Complaining bitterly about the weight of the suitcase, Ali asked what was inside, and so I told him of my unfortunate purchases. That's when he bluntly pointed out that, “You are stupid.”

“You should return it.” He advised.

“How can I do that?” I asked, “It’s hours back to Agra, and besides, they wouldn’t take it back!”

“Yes they would,” He assured, “This is India, anything is possible.”

And so I did. With a car and Hindi speaking driver arranged for me by somewhat trusty but clearly mischievous Ali, I set off the next morning into the rising partial eclipse of the sun, clearly viewable with the naked eye due to the deep brown haze that blanketed the horizon.

The return to Agra, and the weekend spent with Ali in Jaipur are very long chapters, and though the stories are many and varied, the ultimate goodness is that my load was lightened and for a time, I lost the urge to shop.

I went on to Jodhpur, and from there to Setrawa Village in the remote Thar Desert for a Durga Jagrata. As I rested after retreating from the festivities of the all night ritual, I felt the many hands of the warrior Goddess take me by the arms and shake me hard. I saw her face in my dream. She appeared as an old Indian woman whose skin was falling off her face, exposing her bones. Her eyes were deep and intense and she was staring right into me.

The heat was intense in Rajasthan, it was March and already over 100 degrees. I met Mama Nigama and all my plans changed. We left the blistering heat and headed up to Sikkim, the land of monasteries and mountains. Traveling with three Swiss German people who spoke very little English, I began the process of shedding my skin.


To be continued…
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