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preciouscargoA lot has been happening lately. With so little time, we managed to get extraordinary participation from about 4000 students in Ahmedabad – most of whom stopped all of their activities to make the cards on the spot. Going into the classrooms and talking to all the kids about peace and love has been priceless. The most dramatic contribution came from the H.B. Kapadia New High School which delivered us an ENORMOUS box about 10 minutes before departure. How we would ever manage to carry this with us would be a serious challenge, but right now, I am writing from Delhi, so we’ve managed to lug it – and all the other letters – this far.

Flipping through the letters is magical. Every child has expressed their feelings in so many different ways. It’s hard not to be deeply moved. Some are in English, some in Hindi, and some in Gujarati, but they are almost all accompanied with the most amazing illustrations! They are filled with wishes of hope, questions about common interests, and tons of invitations to come visit. Here is a poem from Sumer, from Swastik’s Sattva Vikas School, which I just plucked out from the collection:

If I got a little chance,
I would ask for friendship between India and Pakistan.

From the center of my heart it say,
Let’s unite together & stay.

We haven’t opened the box from the Kapadia school yet, but when we do, Muktak Kapadia, their managing trustee, guarantees that we will call him from Pakistan.  From peeking at this Times of India photo, I have a feeling we’re not going to be let down.  He has requested that we show it to timesofindiapic_1both Prime Minister Singh and President Musharaf. We’ve also received letters from the communal harmony theatrical group, Ekta, as well as from a group of living Gandhian freedom fighters. Many have requested that their letters also reach the heads of state.

Before we left, a small whirlwind of media covered the story, so we’re not exactly sure what kind of effect we’ve left behind or are carrying with us. What we do know is that we are custodians for some seriously precious cargo. It’s hard to believe that these letters won’t have a tremendous impact wherever they finally end up. The last few days have been a pretty fun ride, but chances are the adventure is only beginning.

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indianvisaThe time had finally arrived. This week, Mark and I were gearing up for one of our first major public activities. There was much to do and the timing was going to be very tight. We discussed for a while whether or not we thought we could pull it off. We felt like we could do it, but we would have to use our time extraordinarily well.

I remembered that our Indian visas required that we leave the country within 6 months of arrival. Originally, we thought we would have to just leave and come back, but were told that it was pretty easy to register with the police and have the visa extended. All the Indicorps volunteers did this. With just over a week left until the deadline, I thought it would be smart to take care of this, having a few spare days just in case we encountered any obstacles. When we got to the police commissioners, we found out that what we had been told was not accurate. We indeed had to leave the country, and had only a week or so to do it.

Even worse, we would need a visa to enter another country, which would require an added trip to Bombay or Delhi. Of course Mark’s passport had also been stolen, which would require even more time there…

slitedetrSo much for our big plans!

Clearly, this is one of those ridiculous things. We are here in India giving all that we can, and doing so out of our own savings accounts.  Logic alone would say: let these guys stay and continue spending their money and giving of themselves here in India. But in a legal bureaucracy, pure logic does not always call the shots. Instead, we have to take a hit – both financially and in the loss of time – just to make a silly trip out of and back into the country.

We discussed our options: Pakistan… hmmm, Nepal… not exactly Shangri La these days, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh? Everything sounded like an expensive distraction.  If only we could bring some kind of meaning to this detour…

prayingwoman

by John Silliphant, 25 July 2005

When the late June/early July 2005 floods hit Gujarat, I was in Haryana, but soon got word that Manav Sadhna had already begun doing relief work, and had adopted a village. As soon as I returned, I hoped to help out in some way. On Saturday, July 9th, I headed out along with a truck filled with relief supplies, and two jeeps filled with 25 eager volunteers.

Read the rest of this entry »

A few weeks back, we had an exciting day going around town and treating dogs in bad condition. The other day we went to visit the three puppies from the slum. Two of the puppies looked good, but the one who was in the worst condition – who was hours away from death when we first saw her – was again hanging on by a thread. Loveleen pulled off ticks from her and we dripped water in her mouth, that she was able to take in. It was clear that she was again on the verge of death and would have to be treated immediately. We called Dr. Chaudhari again, and he said he could only make it in the evening. We knew she had been sick for a long time and figured she could hang on. We left as we had a day packed with activities. Later, we found out that Dr. Chaudhari would not be able to make it. We called Rahul Seghal, head of Animal Help Foundation, and they couldn’t come until the morning. That night we had dinner plans with a Gandhian freedom fighter – an important piece in our puzzle – and so we crossed our fingers and hoped she would be OK.

When we came in the morning with Animal Help Foundation, we found her dead. We both had the feeling that after so much suffering, dying must have come as a relief. We also felt good that she received love and attention in her final hours. Still, I know in my heart the many things we could have done differently that would have saved her.

aura__6I’m beginning to see India and the US as the same.  Of course they are vastly different, but those differences are ultimately insignificant because at the center of each story I find myself, and because all the characters and challenges on either side seem to be pretty universal.

I don’t always know what to blog.  Sometimes there is inspiring work around me that I just don’t feel compelled to mention.  Sometimes I have adventures of my own that it just feels false to write about.  There are times when I feel this whole trip was a mistake.  There are other times, where I feel that we’re about to rock the world.  Between these two extremes is the magic of the moment where it all really doesn’t matter one way or another.

From moment to moment, the stream of life’s changing face challenges us as we respond with genuineness and phonyness, possessiveness and generosity.  Too often, our own state of being is at the mercy of the situations and characters that we encounter.  My friend Karmeshwar once said that life is a journey of only three feet.  It’s not where we go or what we encounter that is ultimately our journey; it is the sphere of our own being that we must persistently face, and come to eventually master.

So here I am… India, US… sure there is a difference, but ultimately what difference does it make?

pindnanajiLoveleen spent her childhood, until the age of 13,  growing up in India. She lived mostly in a small town in the state of Punjab called Mansa, near Bathinda. But when she talks about her childhood, it’s another place that captures her heart. She calls this place Pind – the home of her mother’s family in a small farming village in the state of Haryana, near Kaithal.

The word pind is a Punjabi term for village and I’m sure it has many special meanings for many different people. It’s no secret what makes Loveleen come alive – it’s when she recollects about her magical days spent in Pind.

Sometimes it’s the way the rain used to fall outside at night, and how she always slept by the window so she could feel the drops blow her way. Sometimes it’s the tree in the courtyard, or walking to the farm to pick guavas and pomegranates. When Loveleen talks about how everyone used to sleep on the roof together on manjas and tell stories, or about how they used to play, or take baths under the water pump on the farm, or all the little details of the ornate brick work, it’s clear that she is tapping into a slice of Heaven that she experienced in childhood that may forever be impossible to top.

pindauntie1Several days ago, we arrived again in Pind. This is my third time here and though much has changed since she was a child, it’s not hard to imagine what her childhood must have been like. Being here comes with it a happy, nurturing feeling of belonging and love and connection.

Her family embodies hospitality in a way that is pretty unmatchable. They will not, under any circumstances, let us help with anything, which is sweet and very unfair at the same time. Their lives in many ways are ideal. They eat the purest and freshest of farm grown foods. They have their own buffalos and with the milk make curd and butter and lassi and ghee.  Both their electricity and stove run off biogas made from the buffalos’ waste. pindnavpreetLife is close to a complete circle here. The work has always been very hard, but perhaps now that they have had a taste of life’s possibilities, the weight of the work and its simplicity are beginning to lose their appeal. Now they dream of life in America.

I think it’s in our natures to always want more and I can’t blame them for wanting to give this up. Perhaps, along with the mad rush for more comes the risk of losing site of one of life’s precious secrets – the closer we’re connected to the circle, the more magical and priceless our lives are bound to be.

mcleodganjThese streets tell it all. Situated in the Himalayan foothills, McLeod Ganj is the converging together of vastly different cultures. Streams of monks in their maroon and saffron robes pass by streams of Western tourists. This place is filled with some of the wisest people on Earth, some in robes and others not. It is also filled with everyday people, some in robes and some not. The local Indian population, Indian tourists, beggars, and a community of Tibetans all add to this unusual tapestry.

The Tibetan monks are my peeps. I’ve been seeing the color red and red triangles all over the place (more on that later). The maroon and saffron speak a language that I understand fluently and it is nice to be able to finally witness it. True or not, I have no idea, but I get the strongest feeling that the Tibetans are somehow linked to the Native Americans ancestrally. At least in spirit, I feel a similar depth and brand of wisdom.

What happened in Tibet is one of the greatest tragedies the world has ever seen – like what happened to the Native Americans. These foreign cultural influences are strong and it will be a real challenge for the highly evolved Tibetan Buddhism to hold together in such a cosmopolitan space. If the Dalai Lama is any indication, however, everything will be just fine.

Loveleen and I have made a short getaway in the direction of Punjab and Haryana to visit family. Since it’s quite a distance from Ahmedabad, we thought it would make sense to combine the visits with a little something else. There are so many enticing places to visit in that general vicinity.

Loveleen has taken a tough road in choosing to be with me. I would so much love to show her the world. There are so many fun things I’d like to do with her. We’ve had many special adventures, but more often than not, I spend most my time working around the clock, usually doing unpaid service work. Because of this, we’re almost always on a short leash and on a tight budget. We manage to love our lives a lot, but there are real sacrifices. This time as well, I’m not here on vacation, but this excursion seemed like a great opportunity to squeeze in just a little extra something.

We decided to go to McLeod Ganj, near Dharamsala, the home of the Tibetan government in exile. This is a place we’ve both always wanted to see and the Dalai Lama is in town, giving some talks.

Since we began focusing our attention in Ahmedabad, Mark and I have talked about our various choices on many occasions. At the moment, life has granted us some incredible freedom and rare opportunities. We could be exploring the Mediterranean, hammocking on Bora Bora, or even traversing the great Himalayas, where our spirits could soar and the water and air are still relatively pure. Heck, we could even be walking it in the countryside with Guri and Nipun. As special as it is and as well as it has treated us, we can think of thousands of places we would probably rather be than in the hot, polluted city of Ahmedabad. Why we have committed ourselves to working there is an interesting topic, but we have.

indiapollutionThe Gandhi Ashram is a symbolic place because it represents many of the best hopes for India and the world that Gandhiji embodied. If you go to the Gandhi Ashram today, behind it, you will find the Sabarmati River, now famed to be one of the most polluted rivers in all of India; in front of it, you will see the Ramapir No Tekra, which is known to be the largest slum in Gujarat; and if you take a deep breath there, you will inhale the worst air pollution in all of India. The riots that took place in this city recently also make it one of the most politically volatile areas of India. Simply put, this is a highly symbolic and appropriate place to set up shop.

It’s also a place in transition with great possibilities. Right within the Gandhi Ashram, Manav Sadhna runs a beautiful-spirited nonprofit, working mostly with the children and women of the slums. And to its right, is the Environmental Sanitation Institute, offering low-cost solutions to the sanitation problems in India and other developing regions. Ahmedabad is full of heroes and forward thinking people working to make a difference.

Ever since we’ve been there, Mark and I have been battling the pollution. Being vegan can be one of the healthiest of decision, but here, we’ve had a hard time finding the healthy foods and dietary alternatives to stay strong and vital. We’ve both lost a lot of weight and struggle daily to stay well. I think it’s very likely that the pollution will continue to take a lasting toll on our health, likely removing real time off of both of our lives.

So why exactly are we staying?

tekra01_1We are there precisely because of the pollution and poverty, and because of the various other areas calling out for attention. We could ignore them and go away to our cushy homes or to Bora Bora, or we can take it as a challenge to rise up and try to find the Bora Bora within and present it as an offering. Whether or not we have much of an effect will remain to be seen, but this is an intentional exercise in developing our own capacities to play with the world around us.

Ultimately, we are here to give. In the end, service is a choice that one makes because it is more gratifying to give of oneself than it is to be seeking and taking. As pleasant in comparison as Bora Bora might sound, that choice for us lacks depth and would ultimately come up short, failing to answer a deeper call within – to address the cries of the world and give in a way that matters.

I am truly grateful to have this opportunity to serve, and I’m also grateful for a little breather. Mark knows himself well enough and decided not to come with us, largely because he knows that once he leaves and gets a taste of what else is out there, there is no way he will come back. I know I can drag myself back at will and will likely return a bit stronger having ventured away for perspective, better food, and for some slightly cleaner air. But just slightly.

rajvir_1In a poorer section of town by our home, in full flow mode, I motioned to Mark in silence that a pile of broken bricks lay waiting by the side of the road and that we could begin constructing. He jumped in and we went to work. I’m not sure if either of us really had much of an idea of what we were building, but it started to take form. Crowds began to gather around us and some teenage boys asked if they could help. They joined in, passing us bricks, pipes, colored light bulbs, tires and all kinds of weird stuff. We worked in full silence and it was uncanny how, even though we were engaged in something so entirely spontaneous and non-sensical, that everyone present seemed to fully get it. As people passed us articles, our structure got more and more elaborate and weird. It got to the point that every time we found a place for a new object, the whole crowd erupted into cheerful applause. The last tire was placed atop a six-foot vertical pipe… and it was complete. We immediately sprinted off, leaving very little to grasp logically, but that seemed to be perfectly OK.

markdipika_1On our trip to the village near Kabirwad in early March, Mark befriended a girl named Dipika. We made priceless connections with lots of the kids there, but Dipika was the first kid to join in picking up trash. She showed a strong natural intelligence and had an unmistakable sparkle in her eyes.

There was a school across the river that she was able to go to, but we found out that she had stopped going because she had missed so much and was no longer at her grade level. She would have to be in classes with kids much younger than her and this was an embarrassment, so she stopped altogether.

Mark mentioned the possibility of her coming to Ahmedabad, living with and being educated by Manav Sadhna. Jayeshbhai and Anarbhen from Manav Sadhna both said that this was an option and much discussion took place. It was a scary thought for Dipika, leaving her family for greater opportunities, but she was ready. It was left that we would come back in June to pick her up, right before the new school year began.

fourinrickshaw_1And so Mark, Loveleen, our poor friend Rahul who was sick the whole time, and myself, got on a bus and headed back south to the village.

As we made our way to cross the river, we found several opportunities to help – unloading large bags of grain from trucks and unloading heavy, heavy bags of mangos from the boat and up a way too long stairway.

As we approached the village, we quickly came to find out that so much of the service efforts we had put into this community had unraveled as quickly as they came. For instance, on our first trip, there was a town drunkard. Jayesh-bhai had sat down with him, trying hard to reach him. As we drove up this time, he was one of the first people we saw – in full drunken force – trying to start a fight with someone.

Entering the village, we recognized some familiar faces, but much had changed. Mark and I looked for the tire swing we had lovingly installed and there was no trace. Apparently it had been cut down the day after we had left and the rope was untwined and used in the fields. We quickly got word that the frisbees and balls we had left at one house as a local lending library for the village were not being shared with the others in the village because they weren’t being returned. The trash we had picked up had gathered up again, and the pit we had dug as an alternative to burning the plastic was still there, but filled only with ashes.

As disappointing as this all was, none of it came as much of a surprise. Our mission now was to pick up Dipika, and so we made our way to her home. We were told that she was nearby at Kabirwad, working at a stall with her older sister, and so we made our way over there. We walked a ways through banana orchards to Kabirwad, filled with banyan trees, massive bats, and crazy monkeys going up and down playground slides like kids. And there she was, with a big smile on her face and bright, sparkly eyes.

Dipika said that she was ready to go and her sister was ready as well. No one would feel the loss as much as her sister, who got all kinds of help from Dipika raising her own children and with her business selling lemon water, but she expressed a loss at not being able to go to school herself and wanted better for her sister.

oldvillagecoupleWe helped a bunch of men grunt large concrete benches over a stretch and onto a truck and then caught a ride back to the village with Dipika and her sister.

The only catch left was that her parents hadn’t been told. They lived several hours away, and a phone call would have to be made. We were able to call them, and within less than a minute over the phone, we got a clear and definitive “yes.” It would be OK for Dipika to come study at Manav Sadhna. We would leave in the morning!

We ate dinner, fell asleep under the stars, and woke up to find that once again, everything had unraveled. Likely it was a combination of her sister’s husband not wanting to lose a worker and possibly the hope that greater opportunities for the family could be scammed off of this opportunity, but we all got the impression that her sister’s husband was sabotaging the whole affair.

After talking in private with him, Dipika’s parents quickly changed their minds, saying they didn’t believe girls should be educated past the fifth grade. Dipika herself told her parents through teary eyes that she did not want to go. Why people were being manipulated, we will never fully know, but with as much persuasion as we could offer, their answer had suddenly changed, and we were left with little choice but to go back empty handed.

Life in the village has its clear limitations but is not so bad. Whether the personal growth and opportunities she would have gained would outweigh her simple life in the village, no one really knows for sure. The choice was given to her and the choice was taken away from her. We all feel sad about it. The possibility of hiring and sending a teacher to the village is still an option on the plate.

johncalf_1For me, the highlight of the trip was getting to bond with a male calf and gaining his trust. Although his owners said they will keep him, I suppose it is likely that he too will be killed not long after we depart. I guess the greatest lesson that this all teaches is that things blossom where your attention is placed. As we look away, things often go as they may. Perhaps the best that we can ever really do is love what is in front of us as fully as we can and do our best to allow it take root.

In the end, the Serenity Prayer, used often by Mother Theresa, perhaps sums it up best:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Mark-Dipika pic taken by Guri.

jung_color_vertI realize I haven’t been telling many stories of our adventures lately. I think a large reason is because I feel very similarly to Jung and how he mentions in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections that even an external life marked with some of the most interesting events and meetings with extraordinary personalities just doesn’t compare to a rich internal life. For me, it’s the external stories that coincide with the internal growth that are of the only real interest in telling.

However, since this is all about sharing stories, I’ll work harder to keep them rolling. :)

My friend, Mark Jacobs, travels fairly often, and whenever he goes some place particularly interesting, I am sure to request something silly of him in the spirit of our original experiment. The last request was for him to hug a Japanese person when he and Yoo-Mi were in Japan, and of course he did it specifically for this purpose, which is why it is fun to ask him. :)

This time, it was his turn and he asked me to kiss a cow. I decided that I wanted to take a ‘snap’ of the event for him, which made the task many-fold more difficult. First of all, I hardly ever have a camera with me, so when I see a good opportunity, or a particularly attractive cow, I am not able to take full advantage of the moment. And when I do have a camera and see a good candidate, I am generally in a city and – this being India – there are almost always tons of people around. I’m sure I love cows as much as or more than your average Indian, and I think I’d be down with just going for it even with crowds around, but somehow I’m just not sure how well this particular assignment would be publicly received in the land of the Holy Cow.

The other day, however, it all finally came together as a very fine looking cow was walking by. My friend happened to have her camera. We were in the city, but there seemed to be a rare moment of calm. I puckered up. She puckered up. Anjali snapped the pic. And this, Mark, is all for you. :)

kissingcows

Not sure exactly why, but lately I’ve been feeling downright Marm Positive – probably it’s because Loveleen is here. :)

marmpositive2

dgiriLots to report, but little time. I am headed off to a 10-day Vipassana course today in Igatpuri, the location where the first Vipassana center was established outside of Burma by Goenkaji.

Paras, our good friend from CharityFocus, known internally as “God,” has been staying with us for the last couple of days.

He has gotten a taste of some of the guerilla service work we are up to.

For instance, one night, at about 11:30 pm or so, we all jumped atop a truck with two men shoveling out sand. We took control of the shovels and found another and unloaded the whole truck. Was tough physical work and we were all sweating buckets by midnight. Unfortunately, God threw up his mango juice. :-(

ludiyabigshotsThe following day, we went to a village where Manav Sadhna was receiving an award for their groundbreaking work they did in Ludiya, reconstructing a ‘model village’ after the earthquake. Somehow, fearing the long-winded program soon to come, we allowed ourselves to get carried off by the kids to the heart of the village where women were making bricks under the hot midday sun. We all three went at it, loading sun-dried bricks on top of a big bed of hay, where they would be fired in an unusual kiln. The work was hot and hard and we recruited some of the kids to create assembly lines. Once again, as we were supposed to head back to the ceremony with some of Gujarat’s most powerful figures in attendance, we were dripping with sweat and instead hung out with the village women for a bit.

pithbricWe took a couple bricks home which we might use to inaugurate construction of the community center in the Tekra (slums across from Gandhi Ashram). This project is incredible and very exciting (more later).

Lots of good stuff happening. Many things in development still to share. But now I’m off to Vipassana for a little soul recalibration. Love to all.

abadphoto1_2We were confident that we could hit the streets cleaning and would generate all kinds of excitement and good will, but at the same time, there existed the question of how much of a contribution would we really be making. Sure, the excitement would be fun and might inspire some people. Who really knows the effect it might have? But perhaps also this wave of excitement would soon die down and leave things more or less back the way they were beforehand.

We wondered what we could do specifically that might help to bring change that was more lasting in nature. For instance, picking up trash off the streets is good and sends a message to people that littering the streets may not be the way to go, but with an absence of garbage bins, people really have no other choice. Therefore, to install garbage bins at the same time as picking up trash might generate the awareness while also modeling a lasting habit.

We thought about what some of these changes may be, and the more we thought and the more we researched, we found that indeed Ahmedabad had plenty of issues, that the people of Ahmedabad shared many common dreams for their city, and that most of the concerns had solutions in sight – solutions that seemed attainable.

We originally planned on spending only two weeks out on the street, but when we found that Ahmedabad was divided into 43 wards, our challenge multiplied many-fold as we decided to spend one day and night in each ward.

We spoke with many of the leaders and thinkers of Ahmedabad, and were receiving good feedback.

  • Ishwar Patel, founder of the Environmental Sanitation Intitute and a respected leader in low-cost sanitation solutions, suggested we take a slow and methodical approach, researching everything thoroughly for many months before starting.
  • Yatin Pandya, a world renowned architect from Ahmedabad, thought that our efforts would be better spent focusing on a single project or area and not moving about. He later offered us a solution toward the dust problems of Ahmedabad as well.
  • The student volunteer group NSS offered us 500 volunteers a day, but only starting in late July.
  • A government official in charge of 600 schools in Ahmedabad (I never caught his name) was moved by our proposal to clean public toilets and said that he was going to initiate a program in all 600 schools where the teachers and the students would clean the bathrooms and engage in an educational program about sanitation. He himself, a powerful man, vowed to also get in there and clean as well. Already we were having some effects and hadn’t even started.
  • As we debated how we would get to and from the wards to our home to clean up during the afternoons, we concluded that a CNG rickshaw would be ideal as it would bring attention to a pollution solution, and we fantasized about getting one donated, painted like the Indian flag. And we were actually able to secure this.

lightbulbideaThe more we looked into the issues, the more we found. What about community harmony after the riots that had taken place here? What about street school for all the kids who weren’t able to attend school? What about planting trees and creating parks? What about street litter bins, trash collection, and city composting?

And the more we looked at these problem areas, the more solutions we found in sight. It seemed as if so much was possible. We didn’t think it was feasible for us to solve them all, but we were hoping to at least tap into these issues during our days by engaging in activities that would at least bring attention to the issues and solutions, and if we were able to work with local NGOs, we could help generate energy, support and volunteers for their causes, and they could continue on after we left.

As our projected start date became closer, we started to wonder if we were really ready. The potential was so extraordinary, but our infrastructure was nonexistent. For instance, after several weeks of looking, we still hadn’t found a map of the wards. It looked like we would be going out and not effectively being able to tap into any of these issues.

Based on the fact that we were about to head out during the hottest time of the year when:

  1. People would be least likely to join us,
  2. Schools were closed – (a great opportunity for outreach)
  3. People’s tempers were at their shortest
  4. Sickness was at its highest (I had been really sick and the risk of sickness shutting us down seemed almost 100%)
  5. We weren’t going to be able to use the NSS volunteers
  6. Many people would be away on vacation
  7. We weren’t ready on most fronts

It just seemed like we were about to make a mistake by starting now. The decision to pull back and wait was a really difficult one. It made a lot of sense, but the amount of focus and determination we had channeled into this would all have to be derailed. The risk of having this all turn into a nice fantasy instead of an incredible adventure would skyrocket. Should we or shouldn’t we? It was a hard choice, but we opted to wait, for better or worse.

The biggest problem in waiting was that the monsoon would come and how long would we have to wait until it became feasible to begin? Perhaps until September. Now we would have plenty of time to plan, but would our motivation and clarity still remain as strong? Time alone would tell.

During this time, I reflected on my own nature and recognized that in my life I have had some of the most spectacular dreams and visions ever imagined – plans that had been worked out into the minutest of detail – ideas realistic and revolutionary – ideas that could bring radical change to the world. Great blueprints were developed over and over and over. Occasionally a plan or two might manifest as reality, but more often than not they remained as dreams, with the challenge of not-enough-self-to-go-around too often winning the day.

gandhi_1Was I again repeating the same mistake? Perhaps. But just like the name of this blog, “to be true,” whether or not these dreams manifest, the dreaming itself has been the greatest gift that I was able to give at the time. The mapping out of beautiful plans has been an expression of full engagement in the world, to the best of my abilities, and this time included, I am doing my best to give all that I can.

For some time now, it has been clear to me that the difference in success and failure is largely due the circumstances and the times. Had Gandhi walked in a slightly different time, perhaps he would have just been a highly ethical lawyer. Had Bill Gates been born in a period of physical might, perhaps he would have amounted to very little. Had a homeless woman been born into a spiritual climate, perhaps she would have become an extraordinary yogini.

Our effects are not always ours to choose, but perhaps it is in being true to ourselves, come rich or come poor, where we will find the most genuine measure of our own success. Within this space of self-honesty, both tragedy and joy are just equal sense adventures to be witnessed and experienced. No matter the ups and downs, the common element – being true – by its very nature, is in harmony with the highest and is therefore a constant source of well-being.

This next adventure is just like being in an actual, real-life ‘foreign film’, where the story is simple and sweet and that is enough. I mean it’s uncannily like living in such a film.

mithhouseWhen we moved in, we observed the view from Rish’s family’s apartment – a lot with two abandoned buildings on a property filled with litter. Mark and I both liked the design of one of the buildings and fantasized about fixing it up and living in it. The other building is nice also. With its many rooms in a row all sharing a common exterior porch, it’s somehow reminiscent of an ashram.

We asked some neighbors about the building once and we were told that the owners live in America and that the building has a ghost living in it.

I guess this spooky story didn’t deter us much, as the next day we decided to jump the fence and start picking up the litter on the property. It’s hard to imagine the kind of immediate uproar this created as we started cleaning up.

First of all, most of the people in our building are always home, or at least it sure seems that way. Secondly, the families are generally pretty large, with cousins and friends and all kinds of people often hanging out. Half of the building shares our view of this property, and like us, they look out through a large window covered in bars.

Picking up trash from ‘the other side,’ we got a glimpse into our own building, and in the process of causing a scene, this view became quite spectacular. Imagine a big cage that might be filled with monkeys or something, now filled with 7 or 8 human beings –men, women, and children – all standing up in full view, looking out at you while holding onto the bars. Now imagine a building with a grid of about 15 of these such cages, all filled with people holding the bars and all looking out at you.

mithwindowNow imagine every one of them all yelling at you simultaneously. I wished I had a camera at that moment.

They pleaded for us to stop cleaning. They told us that they would continue to throw trash out the windows and that there was no point. Sometimes we answered their protests by saying that we wanted to improve our view and the views for everyone else, and that even if it became littered tomorrow, at least it would be nice for today.

But most of the time, we just ignored their mad protests and kept picking up trash.

The second day was more or less the same. On this day, however, a man came by after we had jumped the fence. We were standing in and he was standing out. The door was locked and he informed us that he was the owner. He said that he was bothered how everyone from our building threw their trash onto his property and told us that they needed to be “brainwashed.” In slightly different terms, we comforted him by saying that through our selfless act of cleaning it, people would necessarily have a different relationship to this property than before.

He asked us to join him and others in a neighborhood cleanliness/awareness program, and encouraged us to keep cleaning up his property. We asked if he could lend us a rake and he went away. It was a very odd exchange, but nevertheless, we were able to continue cleaning on.

By the third day, people started to get used to the idea that we are unusual and this is what we do. Just like on previous days, we were offered caps and bags and other things to help out, but on this day, people started making requests. Could I move this pile of broken concrete to the street, with other broken concrete? Could we clean the elevator shaft?

They weren’t exactly joining us, but at least their focus on the possibilities began to develop.

The fourth day – or was it the fifth? – was the breakthrough day. After playing with the kids, Mark told them that he was going to clean the back property again. The kids (there are a ton of kids in this building), weighed their choices and decided that cleaning happened to be the most entertaining of their options. They all jumped the fence and for the first time, all the kids started helping move stones, sweep dirt, and joining in the movement. This project was no longer a nonsensical play to watch starring us two bizarre foreigners. It had now become a collective project.

We don’t exactly know where we are going with this, but it’s just crazy enough to keep going and it seems to be shifting mindsets and opening unexpected doors. I suppose for now we’ll just keep clocking in a little time here and there and enjoy this most amusing story as it progresses. One thing that is perfectly clear to me is that far greater than the greatest of cinema is to observe and relish your own living story for the beauty that it is.

garba3Yesterday, our friend, Raju, from Manav Sadhna invited everyone to a Garba (traditional Gujarati dance) celebration in his village. From the Gandhi Ashram, 30 full-sized people all crammed into 2 jeeps (literally) and drove for an hour and a half to the village.

After we arrived, we shook off the cramps, and sat down on the manjas, or wood-framed beds woven together with thick string, that help to define an Indian village. As I was sitting there, something unexpected happened to me. I began to

relax.

Being in the city surrounded by so many people and traffic and noises creates a lot of tension that we are not usually aware of. Here, the village quiet quickly infiltrated my being and I began to

breathe.

We walked to the farm and watched the beautiful sunset. The evening air was warm, with a luscious breeze, as the wheat crops magically danced along. The soil was soft and the cosmos were aligned and I could feel myself beginning to

heal.

With only 10 minutes until dinner, everyone started walking back, but a few of us stayed in place on the farm to meditate and drink in this rare moment. I savored all of the 10 minutes, and when it was time to go, I didn’t.

moon3_1Behind me, rose a perfectly round, perfectly golden moonrise. The sky flickered with unexplained sparkles of lightening. What could possibly compare to the simplicity and perfection of this healing place? And how can we collectively find our way back here?

The occasion for the garba, it turned out, was to celebrate this auspicious full moon evening. For the rest of the night, there was dinner, and dancing, and conversation, and joy, and though it was all very special, the silver rays of the moonlight were all that I longed for. I craved the way the moonbeams entered straight into my being, healing all, and I did all that I could to steal away and indulge.

The dancing lasted late into the night, but eventually I got my break, settling on a quiet rooftop, drifting off into a bathing sleep under this heavenly sky now brought ablaze by the silvery moon.


>>Here is a poem on a related experience: Download tug_of_war.pdf

After our journey through the villages, we came back to Ahmedabad. I had a pretty clear idea of what we could embark upon, but didn’t really have a plan as to exactly when and where.

nipungrrrOur friends, Nipun and Guri, decided not to waste a moment and to start walking immediately to “find the good” in people, particularly in inspirational people. Their plan was to walk and travel lightly and to chart their course as they progressed, based on information they would gather. As they met with inspirational figures, they would document their stories and offer a helping hand wherever possible.

Even though this plan involved a lot of walking and some unknowns and some helping, for me, personally, it felt almost too pleasant and unchallenging. Knowing that the world around was filled with pain and problems and knowing that there was relief and solutions on hand, I felt compelled to at least try to throw myself into the drama of life and offer what I could.

Based on their spontaneous decision to leave, I was left with the feeling that they were engaging in a plan of action and I was left in a space of planning or dreaming. I didn’t like this feeling and decided that, for my own sense of comfort, action had to come quickly.

A few insights immediately shot up to the surface. For one, why not start in Ahmedabad? We were here. Why go anywhere else? One could argue, why go to India at all, but many factors –mostly intuitive ones – brought us all to India. For whatever reasons, here we were, and to engage in all-out cleaning and kindness campaign in the middle of a city would no doubt send immediate shock waves.

I also decided that we should go without money, to greatly reduce any barriers of separation that would inevitably result through possessing and guarding ‘what is mine’. We knew we would be taken care of. The one concern, of course, is that the water we would be offered would make us sick. I told Mark to start drinking the local water immediately in hopes of adjusting as quickly as possible. I would too (coincidentally, this is about where the month of sickness began.) :)

So the plan was to hit the streets for a couple weeks, and stir up all the love and dust we could, push a cart filled beyond capacity with collected plastic and garbage, sleep out on the streets, and then eventually deliver the cart somewhere, to at least symbolically raise the issue about plastic.

Our group was about 7 people at the time and there was a long period of uncertainty and one difficult night when it seemed like I was on my own. At the time when the US was nearing an attack on Iraq, I had engaged in a campaign that stretched me to my limits and so I was very aware that the limits existed. I’m a shy guy. I think in bold ways and I often step into my fears because I care to effect bold change (plus, I like a life of color), but ever since childhood, I’ve been terrified of being the center of attention.

Without Mark by my side on this, I felt my limits would consume me. I figured that this may very well be the end to a trip that carried just so much promise. I offered myself to the universe, and whatever was meant to be would happen. The following day, Mark made the decision to join me. This journey would continue.

Just when everyone thought they had me pegged as “Mr. Plastic,” I had resolved the plastic issue in my mind and it quickly began to shrink into one element of a much broader, all-encompassing vision.

Why not do all kinds of crazy acts of kindness and service along the way and just use picking up trash as our default plan of action? We could still gather the plastic up and deliver it to The Man if that seemed like the best strategy.

During this time, Mark and I were serving food every meal to all the people staying at Nareshwar. There were quite a few colorful characters staying there. One man stood out in particular. He was a small, elderly man with a crooked back. His appetite for food was extraordinary. We fed him and fed him and fed him more and
he consumed and consumed and consumed. Time went by and he kept eating, and wanted more even as the hall was closing down. His appetite just seemed unearthly.

gollum_1Mark and I both felt intuitively as if he were placed there in the dream as a character for us to process. We had no idea what this really meant or what, if anything, would come of it, but we both just had suspicions.

Sure enough, the following day, we were outside the ashram and ran into him. He came up to us and asked us for money to get back to his home. We found out that it wasn’t too far and offered to give him a ride. He wasn’t at all interested. All he wanted was money.

One concept I had been working with since before we left on this trip was the simple one that there is just so much people-power in India and so
many people looking for work. Likewise, there is just so much work to do. The cost of labor is also extremely cheap. It would simply be foolish to not just create jobs and fix up the country.

For us, this was always an option.  We could simply create jobs at will and pay people to do them. If someone asked us for money, we could say “If you clean the street from this tree to this one, we will pay you 10 rupees.” They get money; they get esteem; the world is beautified; everyone is happy.

So we wondered how to deal with this man and decided to offer him a job cleaning the bus stand where we were sitting. It was pretty gross, so we volunteered to help him (as we usually did anyway). Coincidentally, we found some brooms and a basket, but he wasn’t willing to do any work. He just wanted money. We figured that we had played the dream well and could do no more, so we were content leaving.

Finally, he agreed, but let us know that our idealistic notions were useless and that he just wanted money. So we all started cleaning. After a short while, he insisted on a tea break. I bought him a cup of tea and some biscuits. I shared the rest of the pack with everyone else sitting around. He sat down and indulged in his tea and biscuits and television as we waited… and waited… and waited… until we eventually realized that he was going to keep us waiting indefinitely. He got far more than he put out and was on the winning side of the equation.

manavsadhna1We decided to clean it up ourselves. If he didn’t come back, the job would be gone. Some kids brought us some better brooms and even started to help us. We did a pretty thorough job and eventually the crew from Manav Sadhna came out to get drinks or something and saw us stirring up all kinds of dust in the middle of the street. True to their natural style of service, they quickly joined in and we not only cleaned up that bus stand, but the one next to it and the whole side of the street. Mark and I looked like heroes, but it was totally orchestrated by this dream figure.

Meanwhile, he sat unaware, or pretending to be, of the whole drama unfolding behind him.

On this day, I was given such an extraordinary lesson about the ability to just start sweeping and cleaning on the streets in the middle of the day. Clearly, this could be part of our walk. To this, I owed this ‘Gollum’ everything. Just as it seemed that we had been taken advantage of, I realized what an amazing gift he had given to me personally and I went over and paid him for the job. Everyone was shocked that I actually paid him, but I walked away happier than anyone, knowing that he was worth every rupee. He got his money which, like he said, was all that was ever really required of him.

Afterwards, I was left with the strong feeling like I had met this creepy man before – like perhaps he was the same angel in disguise that allowed Loveleen and I to meet.

The morning after we arrived at Kabirwad, Jayesh-bhai suggested that we all go to the beachfront to pick up trash along the Holy Narmada river. Being fully attuned to the trash scene, I saw no real distinction between the side of the river and the land leading up to it, so I continued picking up trash everywhere. To me, all the Earth is holy. There is no place that is not.

Collectively, we all gathered quite a bit and now the question of what to do with it arose. Everyone gathered it in a big pile on the beach to burn it. I was aghast. I was no expert on the subject, but had learned as a child that burning plastic is a no-no. What else could be done with it? After all, we were out in a remote part of the world where there is no trash collection. We had to deal with it ourselves. The other option was to bury it. This too seemed like a blight on our beloved Earth – just knowing that there was a big pile of offensive plastic taking space in some location underground seemed impure.

Those were our options though and burying it seemed somewhat less toxic to the atmosphere. It was difficult digging a hole big enough, but we did it and then buried it. It’s not something I felt very good about.

village_1After Kabirwad, we walked to a nearby village to meet the people there and to offer ourselves in service. We were offered a place to stay and quickly went to work landscaping, cleaning, picking up trash, playing with kids, etc. We quickly earned the villagers trust.

Again, what to do with the trash we were gathering immediately came up. We decided to dig a pit in the village and found an acceptable location. It took hours of strenuous labor to dig a large pit, but we hoped it would hold our trash and could be used by the villagers for a longer period of time – perhaps offering them an alternative to burning it, which was the norm.

We had gathered a large pile of plastic which we were going to move into our new pit, but someone had lit it on fire and I was amazed to see the very people from our group who had been helping dig the pit throwing more plastic on top of this burning pile.

johnaxefamOur stay in the village was extraordinary. We met with so many special kids and people. We met with so many beautiful water buffalos, goats, cows, and other animals. I stayed with the outcasts of the village who were there to chop down trees (another silly story of non-sustainability). I helped the axe-man arrange all the wood that he had cut and did whatever I could to help in the spirit of connection. Mark joined in as well and we brought food and ate with the family. I suggested to Mark that it would be cool to create a swing for the kids. Not only would it be fun, but it would attract other kids from the village and help integrate this family more. Mark loved the idea and suggested we make it a tire swing.

We hunted down a rope and a used tire and created an awesome tire swing. Leaving that behind was one of the highlights of the whole experience because we knew that it would be a living part of their lives for some time to come.

Lesson Learned – it is invaluable simply to connect with and inspire people. These memories ripple out and have positive repercussions for some time. When structural changes like playgrounds, new schools, wells, etc. are introduced, these offer an additional kind of value that cannot be underestimated.

After several days in the village, many from our group left and were replaced by a new crew. Formerly, most of the people from our group would just walk and not bother to pick up any trash with us. To me, this was just silly because it was so easy to do and if we all did it together, we could make a great difference wherever we went. But this is the habit that had formed.

When we hit the beach, I began to pick up trash as I was now addicted. The new group had come and was psyched up to join us in this experiment in service. They were looking for direction and when they saw me picking up trash, they immediately joined in as they assumed this must be one of the ways in which we were helping.

Lesson Learned – it is good to always have a new flow of people coming in because they are fresh, eager, and open, and haven’t yet settled in patterns of apathy. It would be wise to incorporate this ever-fresh flow into the model itself.

Our group began our walk to the next location, Nareshwar, the ashram started by Shri Ranga Avadhoot Guru Maharaj.

Along the way, the trash collection vision began to evolve into a more political one. Before I was thinking it would be great to create a movement thoroughly gathering trash, leaving behind a trail of purity. This new vision remained the same, however, this time all the gathered trash would eventually be delivered to the government or whoever had the power to legislate the use of plastic.

First, we would have to research the environmental impacts of trash, and explore any bio-friendly alternatives. If we came up with any recommended solutions, we could then make a suggestion to the government regarding what changes could be made. It’s likely that they would ignore these suggestions, at which point, the campaign would begin as a way to gather public awareness and support for the recommended changes.

Call me crazy and naïve, but it just feels like these kinds of changes seem possible in India much more so than in the U.S.

When we reached Nareshwar, we again got to work landscaping, painting, picking up trash, etc. Here again, we dug another trash pit, but when we gathered trash along the holy Narmada, this time, people from our group just burned the piles without much thought. It’s just thousands of times easier to burn it than to bury it.

Afterwards, everyone was feeling self-satisfied having cleaned up the beach. We sat down in a prayer circle as we did often, now amidst the thick fumes of burning plastic.  I covered my face both to shelter myself from the toxic fumes and also to protest a solution that was just not acceptable.

We did, with a little challenge, end up putting a permanent painted barrel on the beach for trash collection, and as a group, we did inspire all the local merchants to dedicate themselves to keeping their areas picked up.

Still, my enthusiasm for picking up trash was quickly vanishing. The end result of our efforts was always disheartening. The only way for me to continue on this path would be to expand the vision until it became complete and holistic.

Photos courtesy of Guri!

sickPain and sickness are two things that are really hard to fully understand unless you are experiencing them. This morning I woke up sick. For the majority of the last month, I’ve been sick. The sickness seems to morph from form to form – from diarrhea to vomiting to colds and flues, not to mention injuries and infection – the symptoms seem to constantly be changing form, but the raw sickness seems to be ever-present.

Back home, I rarely ever get sick. I can often feel it close by, but can generally hold it at bay. Here, it doesn’t bother knocking on the door. Just like its Indian hosts, it prances right in and makes itself at home.

Being sick is also bad because as much as that time could be used productively – to read or to write – too often the motivation to do anything beyond just survive dries up. I am writing this now, but just barely. Up until now, I have just been surviving.

It is during these times that I realize how critical it is that we avoid sickness during our trek. As ideal as it sounds – waking up sick, brushing it off and getting to work on the brutal summer days cleaning public toilets from the pit of Hell – it’s just not going to happen. Sickness has an agenda of its own. To ignore the call of the frail body to stop and mend is to set oneself up for serious degradation and even death.

Mark and I want to be purists. We’d like to drink the water we are given, eat the food we are offered – to be one with the people. But if we don’t stay well during this, we are going to be in deep trouble or it is going to come to a stop. Staying well, will likely require creating some kind of safe bubble from which to eat and drink. As much as I don’t want any bubbles, after a constant month of lessons, it is foolish not to acknowledge and respect my limitations.

I’m certain that its true beginning occurred as we consciously began playing within the dream, but for me, there was a definitive moment where a different type of clarity began to emerge. Our group headed out on a two-week “yatra,” or walking journey through rural Gujarati villages. Our intention was to enter these villages and do whatever we could to connect with the people and offer ourselves in service. This mission, though limited to two weeks, was clearly an introduction to a set of possibilities that could lie ahead for us.

jayeshbhaitextWe were being led by Jayesh-bhai and Viren-bhai (bhai means brother) – two of the founders of Manav Sadhna, who have extensive experience working with villages and forming priceless connections. These were probably two of the greatest guides in the world, and we were going primarily to learn what they had to teach us.

Throughout the journey, our group had shifting members, but was generally about a dozen or more at any one time. Before going, I was determined to give it all that I had. The first day I spent in silence. On that day, we departed from the Gandhi Ashram and took a bus to our starting point – a 15 km walk to Kabirwad. This location was selected for the symbolic way in which the Banyan virenbhaitext_1tree’s branches fall to the ground and enter it, actually becoming tree trunks themselves, later forming branches of their own, which fall to the ground, becoming trees, until a forest of unknown beginnings soon emerges. Kabirwad’s legend is that the first branch started growing after a blessed visited by the mystic and poet Kabir.

This symbolic location was chosen by Jayesh-bhai – perhaps efforts like ours could be replicated and begin spreading on their own, much like the banyan.

On the way there, our bus stopped at a restaurant. I got out of the bus, saw trash all around, saw a broken box, and realized that this was a good time to enter the dream. I looked around and saw Jayesh-bhai, Viren-bhai, Mark, and Nipun. I was afraid of looking like a fool, but I had no choice. I was here to step it up – even if I was to be embarrassed in the process. I folded the bottom of the box together and began to pick up trash. Mark saw me and quickly joined in. Soon Jayesh-bhai, Viren-bhai and others joined in as well. It wasn’t long before a large group of us were picking up trash all over the parking lot. It was a grand success. For me it defined what our group was about – we were here to serve – not just upon arrival at Kabirwad., but in life… here… now… wherever… whenever…

After this exercise, I noticed even more astutely all the litter strewn across the Indian countryside. After our bus arrived at its destination, we all entered a small restaurant for lunch. It was here that the idea first emerged in all its simplicity. We were planning on walking long distances, so we would be walking rapidly. Clearly, we could pick up trash as we went, but it wouldn’t be very thorough. What if we were to slow it way down and pick it all up as we walked, leaving a trail of purity behind us.  This was the kind of process that resonated most closely with me. Rather than just walking from point to point, ignoring all the in-betweens, why not make every step an act of service and purification. If others were to join in, it would become quicker and easier and who knows where it could lead. Since I was silent, I wrote the idea down on a piece of paper and showed it to Mark, who was also silent. He asked how we would collect the trash, and I suggested that we could use small plastic bags that we found along the way.

metrash_1We left the restaurant, hit the road, and began the experiment. We quickly discovered the laws that govern guerilla roadside trash collection. Indeed, there were enough small bags to be found to be used as containers. These bags, though unappreciated by most, were golden, because in order to keep going, one really depended on these bags. Most of our group walked rapidly without joining us, which forced Mark and I to operate at double speed – keeping up with the group, while freeing the roadsides of debris.

We quickly learned that the greatest offender was plastic. Hands down. There were chip bags, an occasional water bottle, some plastic bags, but by far the King Offender of them all was the little shiny chewing tobacco pouches that were everywhere.

tobaccoFor years, India has been an extraordinary model in natural recycling. Street snacks were served in used newspapers, tea and juices were served out of glasses that were quickly washed and reused, meals were served on leaves, sodas were consumed and the glass bottles left immediately behind for recycling. Sure, for long it has been a culture where garbage was tossed aside, but this presented little problems as it was all bio-degradable and combed through for value by cows and dogs and goats and people…

Only recently has plastic been introduced and it is quickly taking over. Its negative attributes are many. Here are just a few to start:

  1. When scattered as litter, it looks ugly
  2. Because it is non-biodegradable, this ugliness remains
  3. Most of it is not really recyclable
  4. Cows and other animals eat it, clogging up their intestines

What’s clear to me is that plastic is just now starting to take over in India.  America lost its way a long time ago. There is still hope for India though. Is it possible to stop this contagion before it’s too late?

We continued our efforts on the streets, observing the effects as we went. People everywhere would watch us and wonder why; others would thank us. We were able to flag down trucks and throw the garbage in the backs. Inspired, others even joined in with us. Still, one question remained… what to do with it all once it was collected?

For now, we put it at the ends of driveways in hopes that home owners would better be able to do something with it. Afterall, we had to leave it somewhere in order to keep gathering.

What to do with all the trash?

I’ve been fortunate to travel to many places in my life. I’ve been to many areas where it seems likely I was the first white person ever to be seen. Although India is now very familiar with us white folk, in general, we are still a rarity around here and still a main attraction. Whenever we are seen, it is the norm for someone to call out and say hi, ask us our names, where we are from, and want to shake our hands.

India is also a land where generosity to guests is extraordinary. “The guest is God” is a saying that is not just a concept but is deeply woven into the very fabric of the culture. Because we are so clearly different, we are perceived as guests everywhere, and hearts and hands are extended wherever we go. It would be simple for us to walk around the country without carrying any money. We would be fed and housed generously wherever we went, with people quarreling over who gets to extend their hospitality. The Indian people are simply overflowing with love and abundance for their guests.

Over the years, from this I have learned so much, and have so far still to travel to arrive at such a place of giving.

Being white, we are also very well-received wherever we go. There is a certain cultural hierarchy that views the white person with great respect. I understand that these prejudices that are favorable to me are the same prejudices that cause deep suffering for others who fall on the less fortunate side of the equation.

Though it’s clearly not fair, things are as they are. We are here. We are white. We are well-respected. We are treated with tremendous generosity. We are in the spotlight. In essence, we have it super-duper easy. To play with the dream under these conditions couldn’t be much simpler.

Not only can we get away with so much that might be inexcusable to someone other than us, but we also have doors open to us that would likely not be opened for others.

beatles_1We acknowledge that our circumstances are favorable and ripe, and wish to use these conditions to help inspire others and work to make the world a more beautiful place to live. George Harrison once said, “If we knew we were going to be ‘THE BEATLES’, we would have tried harder.” The key for us might be to stay aware of our blessings and to work hard to make the most of them.

So as I mentioned in the Pre-Rickshaw story, I told Mark that I was off go get a rickshaw donated for 43 days. Ahmedabad is the most polluted city in India, which is hardly a record to be proud of. Naturally, or should I say unnaturally, one of the primary causes of this pollution comes from vehicular exhaust. I remember my last trip to Delhi in 2000, I caught instant bronchitis from the wretched pollution. Since then all rickshaws and buses in Delhi have been converted to CNG (compressed natural gas) and supposedly the air pollution has gone down dramatically.

As part of our walk, Mark and I have decided to spend the nights sleeping on the streets in the various wards. In order to bathe and rest and blog and eat healthier, etc, we have decided we will come home in the afternoons. Did I mention that our 43 day ‘Tour d’Ahmedabad’ takes place in the absolute hottest part of the year in India (Ouch!)

iitrickshawparkedsm_21So the question came up – how are we planning on getting home? We could bike – this is natural and healthy (if you can ignore the pollution factor) – something we would like to endorse, but the distances we would have to ride there and back to our home are very long and would take place in the hottest hours. It would take away from our street efforts and we would arrive back on the streets bathed in sweat. We didn’t really want to rickshaw or motorbike just because we didn’t want to be part of the pollution problem. We figured that a CNG rickshaw would be ideal because it was an endorsement of a needed solution.

Since they are rare, it would have to be pre-arranged. We thought the most fun solution would be if we had our own rickshaw that we could paint the colors of the Indian flag, and could embellish in many other kinds of ways.

In Ahmedabad, there is a Western-style grocery store chain called Adani’s. Adani’s also has a couple CNG stations popping up. Since a rickshaw is a rather expensive item for us to purchase, we thought about how we might possibly get one donated to our cause. Since we didn’t really know where to start asking and since we knew that as a business, Adani’s had the capital and could gain not only invaluable public exposure for supporting an effort like ours, but also increased business as we helped create a strong push toward CNG, they were a logical place to start.

So I headed out the door on a mission to get a rickshaw donated to us – ideally one that could be painted the colors of the Indian flag, and ideally with a driver included.

I had no phone, so I simply walked down the street into a large Adani’s store, several blocks away. One might think this is a foolish way to proceed, but this is India. That’s how things work around here – at least in my experience.

For instance, just the day before, I had walked into the Crossword bookstore (a large, emerging Western style bookstore chain), and asked to see if they might be interested in selling the Gujarati version of Here Come the Tickle bugs! Within five minutes, I had quickly passed further and further up the chain of command, until I had the owner of the store on the phone, who quickly agreed to sell the book. Simple as that.

Now, I walked into a general Adani’s store, seemingly quite unrelated to the Adani’s CNG division. Within three minutes, I talked to the first store employee I saw, who connected me to the manager who sent me to the building two doors down. A couple minutes later, I was on the ninth floor, next to the CEO of Adani’s office (just found out the following day, our neighbor who I burned to write this blog entry happens to be his cousin).

Apparently, Adani’s is an enormous corporation. From the pictures on the wall, it’s clear they are involved in so many areas of big industry – from piping gases, CNG, shipping, storage, moving equipment, etc., etc. They are major league players (stock tip).

So there I was, getting off the elevator, surrounded by well-dressed, Indian executives, with my backpack, t-shirt, and dirty jeans, and I simply went in and asked to talk to someone about CNG gas. What’s amazing is that they took me seriously.

I met with one man, and I showed him an article about Mark and I in the Times of India from the previous day. He took the time to read the whole article, and then I told him about our plans. He was delighted, but informed me that he was the wrong person to talk to. He gave me the names of the Vice-President and the head of marketing in the next building over and I was on my way. Within just a short period, I was in the office of the Vice President.

I made my pitch to him and then to the marketing director and they said that they would cover the expenses of renting a rickshaw for the full time, hire a driver, and paint it as desired. Phenomenal.

With this vehicle, our potential to raise awareness and support for CNG as well as to do all kinds of crazy, cool stuff is there for the taking. The limit to our imagination is really our only limit, it seems).

So from there, I walked over to the Indicorps office to tell Anand that his dream was about to partially come true (to understand this, you’ll have to wait for the history of this trip). For the first time, I saw Anand with a great big smile.

I was told that there was a major meeting happening in 10 minutes, at a location 10 minutes away, that I had to go to. It was with P.U. Asnani, the head of waste management in Ahmedabad and a world authority on the subject, working in 27 separate countries. He was delighted to know about our plans and felt strongly that our efforts could be extraordinarily useful in helping to shape public opinion about household garbage and recycling efforts throughout Ahmedabad.

Oh yeah, this is another one of those areas of substance we are pushing for.

The universe again demonstrated an uncanny ability to make extraordinary events unfold effortlessly. If it was a film or TV show, it would hardly seem believable. But in the dream world – especially for us here in India, life just sometimes seems to work like this.

The amount of extraordinary stories I have failed to capture in writing are in the hundreds. Since they appear to keep flowing whether I am caught up or not, I may as well just catch them as I can. Good luck trying to make sense out the randomness. :)

I told Mark I was heading out to go get us a rickshaw for the full 43 days.

43 days? You mean I’m telling you the rickshaw story now and I haven’t even introduced the idea? How will I ever catch up?

Just to sum it up, Mark and I are planning to soon hit the streets of Ahmedabad to give everything that we can for 43 days. The reason for 43 is that Ahmedabad is divided into 43 wards, or sections. By spending one day in each ward, we are able to give of ourselves to the city as a whole – to the rich to the poor, to all – to convey the message that our efforts are aimed at everyone in Ahmedabad. There are no exceptions. If you are in A’bad, this is about YOU.

mainhoonna_4And what are we planning to do? We’re planning to give in every way we can. Since trash is pretty much everywhere, picking up trash will be our default activity. We can also sweep the streets indefinitely. From there, we would like to branch out, cleaning public toilets, teaching and playing with kids, clipping finger nails, carrying bricks, shelling peas, you name it. Our message is simple: “Main Hoon Na,” which translates into a comforting “I am here, no?” Its meaning is twofold. First, it conveys a care and comfort. Secondly, it conveys the idea that we are all here right now. Each of us can take action in the present moment. Plus, it was the name of a popular film, so the phrase is widely recognized.

Through this journey, we intend to exercise our own ability to give selflessly and will hopefully be able to encourage others to also join us in this experiment.

Because we have experienced the effects we have on people as Westerners in a largely tourist-free area, we know that our actions will be magnified beyond any reasonable proportion. We will likely get a lot of press attention and therefore will have a voice. We can easily be just a passing phenomenon – a sensational news story (perhaps even one that does some good) that comes and goes, but we also have the opportunity to strive to offer something of greater substance. We have developed several such ideas for how we can do this, and this rickshaw story is the basis of one of them.

Before I continue though, I have to interject with another story that just happened in real-time as I was writing this. We have recently moved into a new apartment – owned by the family of Rish, a former fellow of Indicorps. We have been here only a week. In taking the time to write this entry, I have had four people come to the door and walk right in. The first was a man who has been very helpful to us in exploring our internet possibilities. The next two were kids who wanted me to come play. And finally a young man, who just wanted to talk. They all just wanted to spend some time. The reason I haven’t kept up with my blog entries is precisely because of this. In order to keep writing, I had to let them all know that I was busy. In saying this, a door was closed. In better greeting their welcomes, I would have been more generous with my presence. At this moment, it feels like I am choosing the closed, self-contained lifestyle that I and so many Westerners have developed as the norm. But it’s tough. If you are getting anything out of reading this, then that too has real value.

And that is the decision I’ve faced at nearly every moment of this trip – to withdraw from the present to capture the stories, or to live and let them go. For the benefit of sharing these stories with others, I am trying to write more, but there is a clear and definite price.

Anyway, you’re waiting for the rickshaw story. Aw, forget it. This has been too long. You’ll never read the rickshaw story now. Let me start again, then you’ll read it…

On February 8th, we left on our journey to India.

The history of how this trip came to be, and the changes it has taken, is interesting and complex. At some point, I may attempt to describe this evolution.

Our first stop was in Singapore, where we were hosted by the good folks running Annalakshmi. My friend Lalitha arranged everything and our stay was extraordinary.

After that, we came to Bombay, and then up to Ahmedabad. In Bombay, we were hosted by Kokila, Shilpa, and Balakrishna – relatives of my friend Nipun’s. After that we came up to Ahmedabad where we have been hosted by our friends at Manav Sadhana and Indicorps.

Within the above lines are hundreds of stories yet to be told. It is likely, I will try to capture some, but for now, a sampling of the stories can be found on friends’ blogs: Nipun’s, Guri’s, and Mark’s.

Throughout this adventure, two dominant concepts have emerged for me:

  1. This is a dream. My travel partner, Mark, and I began to realize this early on. There are many reasons that this has become so apparent. For one, in traveling to less familiar cultures, things naturally appear unfamiliar and dreamlike. When painted animals walk in the streets and bizarre elements can be found almost everywhere, it is easy to believe that everything is a fantasy.  The second reason this can be seen so clearly is because our circumstances have been so extraordinarily ideal. We have met with such impossible kindness and have been in the company of such legendary figures. From our plane ride forward, we have been carried along effortlessly from one extraordinary moment to the next and it is almost difficult not to see it as a dream.

But this realization does not depend simply on advantageous circumstances. The more we have studied it, the more we are convinced that life actually is just a dream. The possibilities that life offers at every moment are abundant and endless. It is our own capped mindsets that have “learned” that life is a known and limited phenomenon. When we learn to see the limitless choices we are always surrounded with, we are then given the ability to play with the dream – to live our lives as experiments and as adventures.

And throughout this trip, we have been playing with this dream, exercising our capacities to enter it and own it.

  1. Building a Tool Kit. The second concept that I have been playing with is that we can equip ourselves with “tool kits” which provide us with ways of dealing with various situations. In India, for instance, there are many children begging for rupees on the streets. From what I’ve heard, oftentimes the money they collect goes to a local “don” who basically uses these kids like prostitutes, and when we give them money, it almost encourages the perpetuation of this limited life-pattern. As we walked on the streets with Jayesh-bhai from Manav Sadhna, we were able to see how he reaches out to each of these kids, telling them that begging is a dead-end. He cuts their fingernails, combs their hair, and gives them a candy. Afterwards, they are left with the feeling that someone has reached out to them with love, which is purely soul-satisfying – something that spare change could never give them.

From observing Jayesh-bhai, we now know several techniques for how to handle a situation when a child asks us for a rupee. We can add this to our toolkit. Before this, we had no tools for handling these circumstances. In accumulating more and more tools, we are able to master more and more situations with love and benevolence. Although it would be nice if good intention was enough, like in speaking a language, there are just many inherent limitations that come when the words are not there to express complex ideas.

Though our toolboxes are still fairly sparse, we have accumulated several ideas so far along the way and will hopefully keep increasing them as we go.

For me, the other main element to this trip has been the unfolding of a vision itself…

I brought along only a handful of copies of Here Come the Tickle Bugs! to India to give away.  When we met Jayesh-bhai and the incredible work that was being done for kids at Manav Sadhana, I knew immediately that I had to give him one of the copies.  There were only 3 left, but I was convinced that I would find no better place to leave them than with Jayesh-bhai, so I gave him all 4.  I had none left.

covergujarati_1That could have been the end of the story, but Jayesh-bhai is a miracle man extraordinaire and quickly crafted the idea of publishing Here Come the Tickle Bugs! in Gujarati.  He called up his publisher friend and we met.  Hammesh Modi from Rannade Prakashan agreed to publish 2000 books at a cost of Rs. 1 crore (over $2300 US).  This is A LOT of money in India and he made the decision to do it without question – simply out of his faith in Jayesh-bhai.  I offered to give all royalties from the book to fund free books for underprivileged kids.

I hustled to turn the book Gujarati, complete with a topi, or Islamic cap, for Bobo, and bindis, or ‘third-eye’ dots, for Summer and Classy… and Rannade hustled to print the books in time for our walk through the villages.  The book is out now — and it looks terrific!

Can’t wait to hear all the local kids giggling in Gujarati!!! :)

An article I wrote on Annalakshmi, recently published in SF Weekly:

annalakshmiImagine walking into an upscale Indian restaurant and peering at its menu with delectable choices like “Malabar Avocado and Coconut Soup” made with plain yogurt, cumin, and lemon juice and served with fresh cilantro chutney and whole wheat chapattis, or eyeing drinks like the “Saffron Sandalwood Fizz,” made with lime juice and pure water, and cooled overnight by the light of the moon. Now imagine sitting down with some friends at this elegant restaurant and enjoying a delicious, Ayurvedic vegetarian meal, served with a smile. Going a little deeper into this fantasy, now imagine you have just finished your meal, feeling fully satisfied, and signal for the bill, but there is none! You see, this, my friends, is not merely a fantasy. At Annalakshmi, it is in your hands to decide what you would like to order and how much you would like to pay.

Annalakshmi is a evolutionary business model based on a service or gift economy. Inspired by Swami Shantanand, a Hindu monk from Rishikesh, India who came to South East Asia in the early 1970s, Annalakshmi operates with an uncommon trust in humanity – trust that people will pay what is fair because we are inherently good and it is in all of our own best karmic interest to give. Although this concept may sound way too idealistic to stand a chance, Annalakshmi has been in business now for 19 years and has thriving restaurants built on this model in Singapore,Malaysia, Australia, and India.

Possibly the coolest thing of all is that we in San Francisco are about to be graced with our very own. Along Mason Street by West Crissy Field in the Presidio stands a string of buildings once used by the military. What’s striking about this location is its exceptional views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts and for the natural, scenic strolls along the shorefront. When The Presidio Trust recently decided to open these dilapidated buildings up for commercial use, they were flooded with proposals. When Annalakshmi, who have been looking for the perfect home in San Francisco, heard about this space, they quickly put together a proposal of their own. The Presidio Trust is currently reviewing the proposals and is expected to make a decision within a few months. In the meanwhile, Annalakshmi continues to look for other suitable locations in the city.

Behind the scenes is a 35-year old woman named Lalitha Vaidyanathan,
who quit her job to pursue this full time. “I always felt like Annalakshmi has so much to offer people beyond just food. It really provides a whole new way of seeing the world and its possibilities. I felt that San Francisco would be a perfect place to open one. Why not? I figure if it’s meant to happen it will.  I have complete trust in whatever’s meant to be.”

Whether it’s because of this uncommon trust, because of some unseen grace, or simply due to the power of selflessness, things just seemed to click as Lalitha began moving forward. She was introduced to Aaron Porter of the design firm Studio GS in Berkeley, who was quick to recognize the enormous value such a restaurant would bring to San Francisco. “As soon as I heard about it, I was hooked. I instantly felt compelled to get involved. It just seemed so bold and revolutionary in all the right ways. It’s something I really wanted to see happen in the Bay Area.”

Mr. Porter wasn’t the only person to lend his skills. Designers Ed Soos and Sunny Grewal of Studio GS jumped in as well, enthusiastically putting countless hours into developing Annalakshmi’s vision for the space on Mason Street.

Soon after came Bill Cain, a consulting engineer of W. J. Cain Consulting as well as Dennis and Connie McCullah, Berkeley contractors and prinicples of Odin’s Hammer, a business dedicated to green building. Both were enthusiastic to get involved in such an unusual project. “I was really fascinated by the whole notion of an upscale restaurant built on trust. It just seemed so improbable, but yet it seemed to be working,” said Dennis. “It sounded like the perfect kind of mind shift to complement green building.”

“Everything just seemed to be coming together,” says Lalitha. “We all want to be part of something pure, something that makes the world a little better. I think the reason that so many people are interested and willing to help make Annalakshmi possible is because they recognize its purity.”

In fact, one of the reasons Annalakshmi has succeeded in various locations is because it is run mostly by volunteers in the spirit of service. Here, the volunteers are also called Annalakshmis, the name for the Hindu concept of abundance. “People naturally want to volunteer because it allows them to tap into something Divine within themselves,” says Lalitha. “The human heart and its inherent generosity is the secret force behind Annalakshmi,” says Lalitha. “There is nothing wrong with making money, but it’s also nice to give in a way that does not seek returns. Volunteers for Annalakshmi understand this and our customers understand this. When we receive our food as a gift and pay what makes us feel content inside, we participate in a system that is in true accordance with our hearts and with our greater selves.”

Annalakshmi is actually part of a larger organization called the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA) International, and one of its main sources of revenue. TFA was also inspired by Swami Shantanand and also exists to provide a variety of services, all meant to better humanity. TFA offers programs such as dance and music that will not turn away a student for lack of financial means, medical clinics offering free services to the community, and art galleries and handicrafts, where proceeds go directly to the artisans, bypassing any middlemen. TFA’s most recent event was an Indian cultural performance at Lincoln Center, in New York City, put on without admission tickets, as their philosophy is that art should be available to all.

So how do they do it? Seriously. One might think this overemphasis on giving would be impossible to sustain. Wouldn’t there be too many people taking advantage of such a trust?  On a recent trip through Singapore with a friend, we decided to stop by and see for ourselves.

The restaurant in Singapore is ornate and beautiful, surrounded by exquisite handicrafts. Nearby is their gallery, medical clinic, and performing arts center. The Singapore Annalakshmi also has several smaller “to-go” outlets as well as a thriving catering business delivering lunches to businesses.

Meeting with Ganesh Krishnan , I tried to get the low-down. Ganesh said that “In any business, the goal is to have satisfied customers. That is our goal as well. When you have satisfied customers, they will return. That is the reason Annalakshmi is always full. Some people will pay less and some will pay more. The important thing is that they pay what they feel is right for them. In the end, it all balances out.”

When asked what happens if people take advantage of the system, Ganesh seemed to imply that it’s just not much of an issue. One customer, he said, came in and paid only a dime to test the system. The next night he came in and paid only a dime again. The third night, just the same. When he realized that there was no gimmick, he became a regular customer and increased his payments. For Ganesh, personal growth is part of the whole equation. This is not a system built on money, but one built on humanity, and it just works out.

According to Sri Vathsan of the Singapore Annalakshmi, “Everyone involved is at a different place developmentally and each person is involved for different reasons, but ultimately everyone knows that there is something special about the place and that it brings an invaluable contentment to be involved with an effort such as this.”

Catching a regular customer, Padmeeni, as she sits down to eat at a “to-go” location, we ask her why she chose to eat there instead of somewhere else. “I like to eat at Annalakshmi because the food is excellent and I feel good about where my money is going, through the various causes they support.” When asked how much she pays, she says that she pays the going rate if not a little more, as it gives her a clear conscience.

The visit to Singapore showed that the heart, generosity, and trust that goes into their restaurant runs deep. Behind Annalakshmi is a tight community of families and individuals drawn together in a genuine commitment to serving others. As we volunteered in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, it quickly became apparent that running a restaurant is no easy endeavor and to do it full time in an ongoing way is an enormous undertaking for a largely volunteer enterprise.

In exploring the phenomenon of Annalakshmi, it’s clear that we are in for a treat. Indeed, something wicked this way comes – wickedly wonderful, that is. Beyond just another great Indian restaurant, the arrival of Annalakshmi to the Bay Area is the arrival of the seed of a paradigm shift to perhaps a better way of living altogether.  What may stem from it, nobody knows, but I for one will be in the kitchen from time to time supporting a worldview built on abundance.

Annalakshmi currently operates in the following international locations:

  1. Australia – Jetty #4, Barracks Square, Perth
  2. Singapore – Excelsior Hotel, 5 Coleman Street
  3. Malaysia – Mid Valley Megamall, Kuala Lampur
  4. India – 804 Mount Rd., Chennai  and 106 Race Course Rd., Coimbature

Following are links to other TFA activities:

  1. ShivaShanta free medical clinics
  2. ShivaShakthi economic development program for women
  3. TFA’s inaugural show at the Lincoln Center
  4. Templeof Fine Arts School of Dance and Music in Singapore

For all of you who have asked me to post blog entries and tell them what has been going on, this is for you.

More coming soon…

Love, John

:)

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