Our Nightmare Ride to Delhi on the Shanti Express

Life in India is like a mandala. So many pieces and parts, colorful and blending, fitting together in harmony in an ebb and flow of energy and stamina.

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Nothing reflects that truth like a car ride on an Indian highway. The roads aren’t like the asphalt strips with which you may be familiar. They are ribbons of Earth and holes and dust — sometimes the roads cover miles made of tar. But always there is an abrupt ending, sometimes so sudden you have to screech to a halt to acknowledge them.

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

The road in India is also a place of commerce. A chance to sell toys or food or to beg for money inside the windows of stopped cars.

The gaps in the road are the kind of holes that make give your coccyx a new meaning in life. As the vehicle regretlessly slams your body to the ground without shock absorbers or any type of protection between you and the machine that carries you forth, your tailbone involuntarily stamps a circle in the sand, an ethereal moment of “Yes, I was here.”

We hired a car and driver to make it back to the country’s capital by lunch time.

We awoke to the sound of Sadus’ breath blowing through conch shells, their fingers laced over bells ringing in intervals. The music lured us out onto our balcony for one final look at Pushkar Lake before leaving for Delhi.

The driver greeted us at the hotel entrance in Pushkar. In the pitch black pre-dawn air, we only saw the glint of his eyes.

“Bonjour, ca va?”

We blinked, blinded by the darkness.

“Oui, ca va. Allons-y?”

Numbed by the early hours, we sat in the backseat, clutching our backpacks and wondering how long the ride would take.

The driver, who had introduced himself as Kamal and who had a French girlfriend (thus the greeting), tried to encourage our mood.

“You only need three things when travelling through India: Good brakes, good horn, good luck!”

It was only then that I observed his head periodically spitting brown juice out the window.

My well-travelled love explained:

“He’s chewing a stimulant to stay awake.”

It turns out he had been driving a young married couple since 10pm the night before. It was 5am and he had an eight-hour drive ahead of him.

He hadn’t slept a wink.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired -- and used often.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired — and used often. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

“Don’t worry, my dear,” my love assured me. “There’s so much to do while driving in India that he won’t fall asleep. Ever.”

Somehow I found his statement to be only vaguely reassuring. And I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much either. In fact, I spent most of the eight-hour ride doing this:

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

For the first two hours we drove in the dark, getting to know one another. I figured if we knew each other’s life

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can.

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

stories, perhaps even loosely, it would create a bond that would hold us together – and out of harm’s way – for the duration of our ride to Delhi. We stopped for chai and what passed for coffee at a roadside stop. As dawn broke, we fell into a comfortable silence.

That is until, in the span of sixty seconds somewhere between breakfast and the first thought that my bladder might burst, we witnessed the following amazements:

 

  • a shepherd ushering a herd of cows across the entire six-lane highway crossing both directions;
  • a troop of camels hauling firewood and galumphing their load serenely to our left (on said highway);
  • a young child racing across three lanes to get to the other side;
  • tuk-tuks filled with twenty people that any Western family of four would consider tight for their standards; and
  • always, always, always the plea from trucks’ backsides to blow your horn.

Kamal got us to our hotel safely and in record time. He manoeuvred through potholes, toll booths, animal crossings and blinding sunlight. He is the only one working to support his entire extended family.

As I held on for dear life, I wondered if we were going to make it back in one piece. Occasionally, Kamal would spontaneously break out in song or chant something in Hindi. It sounded like a choral prayer and so I began to silently pray with him to the Shiva on his dashboard, then Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Whoever Else Was Listening. His job is dangerous and he is not able to say “no” to 2 am requests like ours for delivering tourists to their destinations.

“My family is counting on me.”

We thanked Kamal for his courage for getting us to the city in tact.

May the mandala of life continue its endless cycle of flowing energy and endurance.

It was an experience of a lifetime I won’t ever forget.

Alright then...

Alright then… (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time without Meaning

Western understanding of time is that it is a commodity to be exchanged for money. Our entire system, including institutions, commerce, systems for governance and lifestyle, is based on our time-is-money definition. It creates an environment in which clock combat is king. We immerse ourselves in a pressure cooker and wonder why our heads and hearts hurt so badly.

A sign found in Jaipur, India.

A sign found in Jaipur, India.

Our preoccupation with time is further intensified through our alienation from the natural world. Who has time to dally about, reflect or pause? It is too costly, we argue. We can’t afford it.

But Nature and the time we spend with it is as essential as good nutrition. We are natural beings. We need Nature to remember who we are and why we are here. Our communion with the natural world has been forgotten. And yet it is as important as the air we breathe.

For the past few weeks I have been traveling about Nepal and now India, feeling at one with all things and wonder how I could feel so comfortable in a place so foreign to my usual surroundings.

And then, as I strolled through the desert amongst camels and nomads, it suddenly hit me. The people here mill about towns just as casually as the cows and dogs and monkeys that inhabit the places we have seen. The co-mingle, co-exist and co-inhabit with Nature. The food they eat is real food. It is Slow Food that actually doesn’t need capitalization. They don’t eat processed foods geared toward saving time in its preparation because time and nature are the same.

When we return next week, I hope to remember the lessons I have learned here and, to my very best ability, uphold the same understanding I have gained during my travels to these most exquisite places.

I am humbled by the experience. Blessings to you all.

Why I deleted Facebook

Sometimes self-control is not enough. Sometimes you have to carefully position your own roadblocks to force saner living.

With the press of an “x”, I dismissed the vitriol that had become my daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only have I found myself pining for past Republic administrations that now don’t “seem that bad”, I have also started missing those adorable cat videos and those pumped-up versions of themselves that people like to have us believe is true about their fabulous Facebooked lives.

no facebookI miss the tinge of envy I’d feel at pictures of palm trees in places I definitely was not.

I miss the giggles elicited from videos of furry animals, preferably baby ones, tumbling on top of each other.

I miss hoping someone will “like” my post because they like me.

I miss the Facebook I used to know that I’d sometimes playfully call “Fakebook” because we often use it to look better than we are.

But we have entered a new era now. Many of us have become activists, something I truly applaud. And what better way to broadcast sensible causes than the world’s largest online platform?

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to it. Facebook, in my view, has turned into a shouting match, a place of posturing and yes, at times, a platform to share invaluable information. But the more I’ve tried to digest the unfathomable messages, especially from politicians vying for fame and glory, the less I began to trust it as a source for anything real or true or good about this world.

What motivated me to finally hit the delete button on my iPhone app came after reading a post by a Kentucky Senator who mocked the women’s march, calling women “cute” in the most patronizing way possible.

In his eagerness to earn likes and commentary (at any cost, I might add), he has joined the legions of people who will do and say anything to attract attention. It is so sad.

A like is even more short-lived than a soap bubble on a hot July afternoon. It is meaningless if there are only words without positive action behind them.

It broke my heart to see how broken our system truly is.

Fighting against virtual reality is like trying to capture wind in your hands.

What could I possible do then, in the face of such powerlessness, to make a difference?

Then it hit me. I have invested so much time in conversations with people I don’t even know. What if I were to start conversations with the ones I do know? What if I were to reach out to someone in need, right here, right now, in front of my very eyes? What if I were to dedicate all the time I have spent clucking at the injustice online to a cause in my very own town? Not only would I feel better, but that person would too.

So that decides it. Less Facebook. More face time. In real life.

Yes, a new era has dawned and I am ready to take on the challenge. Will you join me?

 

And you thought we weren’t listening

Be pretty. Be smart. Be strong. But please, please, please, won’t you be quiet too?

Hell no.

The slumbering beast has been stirred. In the foggy distance you hear a groan, a lurching movement, a rumbling that draws closer. Ever closer.

Sixty countries. 600 cities. Seven continents. Even Antarctica has stood up for human rights.

We are not alone.

(c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

(c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

This evening I attended my first French demonstration. In the rumbling of our rage, my tenth grade French was awakened. Suddenly, on the slippery wintery steps of Place Kléber in Strasbourg, I understood every word of French that was spoken.

On est là. On est toujours là. Notre diversité est notre force.

And as some people try to temper my anger with their stalwart online glances, I laugh in their faces. No longer pretty. But very smart. And no, no, no, not quiet.

For an hour I cheered with my mom on the phone who, by a force of synchronicity, marched simultaneously and across six time zones, for the very same purpose.

For those of you who are uncomfortable with my rage and for those of you who claim I spew hatred, I will tell you this: I stand for love. For understanding. For dialogue. For truth. I have learned ever so much on this journey. And will continue to do so. Thank you for those who have corrected me when I have been wrong. I appreciate your patience and your desire to make a difference. You have. And so will I.

I would rather risk failing in the name of humanity than grasping for the power you cannot attain. You will never, ever gain strength over me or my brethren. We are stronger than you could ever imagine.

Your money does not impress me. Neither does your attempt to control that which you cannot.

The world is watching. Your influence is shrinking. It might be time to think about Plan B. Which, under the scrutiny of a billion, will B ours.

 

Why I choose to march

It is time to put on those Big Girl pants and act. I have comfortably, and often not so quietly, lashed out at the state of the world. While it may have felt good for the moment, I knew my days as self-important, indignant complainer were numbered.

The moment we lose the will to do something about an issue is the moment we lose our right to complain about it. We need to take action now.

Remarkably, I have come to terms with the fate of our nation, at least for the moment. But that does not mean I have resigned myself to it. Like many of you, I experienced the five stages of grief as I realized how much power we were handing off to a man filled with vitriol, viciousness and vindictiveness. I oscillated between anger and despair, practicing the utmost restraint (and failing miserably) to not be swept up in the online venting we have witnessed since November 8th. Every day we were fed new fodder from well-meaning celebrities or Senators or reporters. It seems to fan the flame of hatred, catapulting so many of us into a new level of confusion.

Not all of my online interactions have been bad. Many of you have helped me see what I can do to make a difference. I have called my senator, signed numerous online petitions, voluntarily watched C-Span (!) and shared information with people far and wide. It may have budged the conversation only a millimeter for a nanosecond, but doing something felt like a better choice than doing nothing at all while saying even less with a ton of empty words.

It seemed, for a while, that if I fed facts to the faltering followers of the PEOTUS, I would gain new ground. I would, in some hapless way, save the world from its self-inflicted insanity.

It may appear arrogant, and perhaps you are right. I see now that I was wrong. We all have our entrenched ways of thinking. Words alone will not do it. For a writer, it is a hard pill to swallow. After all, don’t we shape the world with the words we share?

Talk without action, words without movement, will do little to sway the hearts we so desperately wish to reach.

And so I will march. On January 21, 2017 I will join the marching million on this planet who care deeply about the future of our world. Places as far as Tblisi, Georgia, Calcutta, India and Dublin, Ireland, Lima, Peru and Nairobi, Kenya are joining together to show their support. To show they care.

This is not just an American issue.

The nearest march to me is taking place in France. It seems appropriate — no essential — as an American living in Germany to participate in an act of peaceful demonstration in France to support all that I have said I care about. While it is easy to cackle at the mean memes circulating on Facebook, it will do nothing to solve the issues we face.

And so I will march.

My son, who is a budding photographer, will join me. My love and his kids will too. We will stand on an historic place in Strasbourg that has showcased many a demonstration in the city’s long history. We will unite to show that action can speak louder than words.

And so we will march.

We will build bridges, not walls, dialogue, not diatribe. We will stand up for what we believe in.

And that is saying a lot.

 

The Alignment of Heart and Head

Kindness has a broader reach than hatred, which trickles in the snow like blood, standing frozen, marring beauty, seeping into the deep, but going nowhere.

Kindness has a gentler bounce, a firmer foundation, a more profound penetration. It is like silk to hatred’s dirty rags. Kindness, once rendered, shows up again and again. Hatred leaves frayed edges. It jangles its chains, spewing fumes of funk and fantasy. It settles into exhausted minds, confuses, leads astray.

Sowing seeds of kindness or, as I like to put it, sprinkling fairy dust wherever we go, starts with a single ripple. It is a quieter motion than hatred’s tsunami wave. But it is more sustaining and sustainable. It rocks like a cradle, lulling us into a calming centeredness.

When my children were tiny tots, I would tell them the story of Mr. Heart and Mr. Head. Mr. Head was always wanting to have his way. He demanded chocolate for breakfast, never brushed his teeth and insisted that it was his way or the high way. Mr. Heart would gently ask Mr. Head if he thought it was a good idea to do those things. Mr. Head’s standard response was always the same:

“I want what I want when I want it!”

Then Mr. Head would get or do what he wanted and his remorse was nearly immediate. Mr. Heart would then hug him and say, “And the lesson learned? Don’t eat chocolate for breakfast (or fill in the blank)!”

The stories were meant to acknowledge my children’s rather irrational desires while teaching them that better choices were available to them. Emotion-driven decision making can lead to disaster (and cavities!). But more importantly, an alignment between the heart and the head is important to lead a great life.

What I have witnessed over the past few months is a tsunami of emotion, which can be helpful when balanced with rational thought. It is my plea that we choose kindness over hatred, principles over populism. It means taking a stand for what we believe in, maintaining our standards and using our anger to make the world more just. Pretending that we are not angry is not kind. Being “nice” for the sake of a harmony that is not justified is not kind. It is false. Applying those emotions to create a better space for everyone, based on decisions that have a lasting, positive impact, is the right thing to do.

I think Mr. Heart – and eventually Mr. Head – would agree.

A Message of Peace

It is easy to express words of gratitude, peace and love when you aren’t challenged, when things are going along swimmingly, when the world seems to sparkle in the blessings of the season.

I have seen little of that in the past few weeks. And while I have tried to keep my inner world as peaceful as possible, I have failed there as well.

Be careful what you wish for.

The other day I told my daughter I felt like everything would be alright if only I could spend two full days in bed. My post-November 8th world had taken it out of me. I was tired and needed a break.

Within two days I got my wish! Marvelous isn’t it? Well, not really because…

Boom!

I got the flu. And got to spend those two full days in bed. Because I literally couldn’t do anything else.

Now, sliding toward the side of a somewhat healthier state, I have to laugh at how powerful our subconscious mind really is.

In the era of Orange Boy, it feels like the subconscious collective mind has been given a platform where it gets to shout out to the world like never before. And because of the public’s voracious appetite for scandal and negative news, we listen, curl our lips, puke a little in our mouths and wonder why the world has become so ugly.

This morning I watched a video of a bilingual man and his brother get escorted off a Delta Airlines flight because a woman felt uncomfortable when he spoke Arabic to his mom on the phone. He videotaped it and posted it on Facebook. While I didn’t see what happened before that, I watched as (white) people waved him “good riddance”. He was later interviewed on a radio show where he admitted he cried after having to deplane.

Our lives have come to this. Social media has fueled such negativity when it was meant to be a connector. When I first joined Facebook almost ten years ago, I thought it was a silly little platform where I could send virtual ‘gifts’ to my old college friends. It has turned into the largest stage for shouting and spewing falsehoods. And yet I can’t seem to get away from it, as if by some miracle, everything will look different if I check in just one last time. As if the hatred and the bigotry and the ugliness would end.

I realize that such things have always existed. Social media has simply made it more visible for the entire world to see the injustices that exist. Yet I can’t help but believe that it is feeding a negative impulse that is growing within our global collective mind.

So if my subconscious mind can land me in the bed with the flu for two days, I speak from its source to give a message of peace:

  • If you don’t know first hand about something, question its truth.
  • Never stop asking questions.
  • Treat everyone as you would have them treat you. Would you want to be kicked off a plane for speaking your native tongue such as English?
  • Know that nothing is impossible. If Orange Boy can become President, we know this to be true.
  • Be careful what you wish for.
  • When in doubt, opt for love. Fear feeds fear. Love conquers all.

Wishing you a peaceful, beautiful holiday season, all. May 2017 shine with the glitter and sparkles of love that each and every one of us deserves.

Gettin’ Jiggy with Hygge

According to the World Happiness Report 2016, Denmark is the happiest country on the planet. If you’re thinking it’s because they have great health care, a substantial gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, an overall high life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity and little corruption  — the criteria for happiness in this report — then you are right. They do. But they also have something else that I discovered the other day that is so aligned with the notion of Slow, I simply had to tell you about it.

You see, the Danes, aside from their fabulous butter cookies, have something that a lot of us do not. They have the notion of hygge, which sounds a lot like “hoo-guh”, which, in turn, sounds a lot like a cave man with a slight Irish lilt demanding a hug.

But that isn’t it at all, my friends. Hygge is the idea of going slow in the winter time. It is roughly translated to mean “coziness” (in German: Gemütlichkeit). After all, it gets light late and dark early for five months out of the year in Denmark. Yet they aren’t SAD from all that light deprivation (afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder). They are HAPPY. Thanks to the mental state of hygee.

Hygge says to embrace That Which Is; accept the darkness and leverage it to create a cozy atmosphere. Light candles, slow down, go within, reflect. Celebrate the now. Give yourself what you need – a visit to the sauna, healthy vitamin-rich food, warm meals, a fire in the fireplace, a hot water bottle at night, heat.

My daughter has set up her room such that her bed is in a darker corner of the room so the streetlights from outside aren’t nearly as visible. It is comfortable, warm and relaxing. In my view, it is the perfect hygge design.

Morning rituals in the winter time are different than in the summer time. Slippers and a bathrobe, a hot cup of coffee and warm food create a sense of nurturing to offset the piercing cold.

Warmth is not only a physical state. It’s a mental one too. The Danes figure snow and ice will slow you down so what’s the rush? Get jiggy with hygge. It’s cave time with the tempo to match.

 

Happiness Before You

Some days I will search and search for “misplaced” sunglasses or keys or some such only to find the item right before my very eyes. I call the phenomenon “displacia”, an affliction caused by a crowded mind.

The search for happiness is similar. We think it isn’t “here” so we search and search for it elsewhere only to find (if we’re lucky) that happiness has been right before us all along. In fact, happiness cannot be pursued (although the Founding Fathers in the United States would have us believe it is our right to pursue it). It can only be discovered from within.

Perhaps it is the privilege of getting older, but I find sustained happiness to be easier now that I have found the secret to it. It has nothing to do with material gain or wealth or external adoration. It has everything to do with cherishing our innate joy with which each of us was born.

We receive the ticket to happiness the moment we arrive in this world. For some the road is long, the journey agonizing, the destination just ever so slightly out of reach. For others, who may experience similar things, the road is bumpy, yet instructive, the journey is challenging, but manageable, the destination irrelevant.

Resilience is essential to maintain that joyful equilibrium in the face of anything. Self-care ensures we remain centered in a state of abundance regardless of the circumstances. A sense of curiosity about the world provides a richness that no bank account can fulfill.

Happiness lies before you. Or better said: within you. There is no need to chase after that which you can create in the workshop of the heart.

Declutter the mind and happiness will follow.

Tug of War

It is so very tempting to split the world into us versus them. And if you examine yourself closely, you will recognize that there is a part of you that doesn’t look away when passing the scene of an accident. You might not physically look, but that 2% of yourself that wants to take a peek cranes its neck to look at the horror. So even in your “us”, you are a part of “them”.

Our fascination with the ugliness of life seems to be at an all-time high. We digest the diatribes, shake our weary heads at the injustice of the world, toss our hands heavenwards at the nasty behavior of a Delta Airlines passenger whose rants cost him a lifelong ban to ever fly with Delta again and feel sorry. So sorry. For ourselves and the state of our world.

Admittedly, I too have joined the lurking legions who read blog entries, newspaper articles and opinion pieces of those so deeply infuriated by the results of the US election. I am a part of the none too little fraction that is truly up in arms about the blatant lying and unfounded claims of Orange Boy. As I watch our society split into fractions, I realize that our anger is fueled by something even deeper than fear. It is fueled by hateful revenge on both sides.

You can’t build bridges by pointing fingers toward the other side of the river. You’ve got to make a plan, find common ground, view things from different angles and understand that together we are stronger. Apart we are broken. Apart we build walls. Apart we tear down cities, break hearts and destroy human dignity.

I am in no way condoning injustice or favoring acceptance of that which is utterly unacceptable. I am fighting for a collective spirit that is quickly evading my grasp.

(c) 2010 used with permission, Georg Sander, Flickr

(c) 2010 used with permission, Georg Sander, Flickr

A few years ago a boy in my son’s class was bullying my son. And so I went straight to the bully and said:

“You are far greater than this. What is going on? I mean really going on?”

The boy burst out in tears, saying his parents were separating and he was miserable. I gave him a big hug and told him his pain wouldn’t get any better by passing it on. Instead, it sounded like he needed a friend. And my son? He became that kid’s friend, easing his pain and letting him know he is not alone.

It may be hard to believe, but I truly do think that even that hillbilly on the Delta airlines flight loves his family. And if he does cry, he sheds salty tears like every other human being. His behavior was disruptive, grotesque and positively unacceptable. His outbreak frightened people. He has no right to do that. He should be prosecuted.

But he remains, as we all do, a human being. And we know human beings are capable of both good and bad. In fact, every human being is capable of both. Does a mean act justify an even meaner retaliation? If we lower ourselves to that level, we risk getting caught in a bottomless pit. When Orange Boy makes baseless claims, we retaliate not with meanness, but with cold hard facts.

As we tisk-tisk our way through Facebook, we may be frightened because we see our shadow side, that 2% we try so desperately to hide from the world. If you are human, you are able to build bridges or tear them down.

During these turbulent times, I am reminded of a beautiful Native American story. A grandfather tells his grandson that inside each one of us reside two wolves. One fights for goodness, justice and beauty. The other fights for evil, anger and wrong-doing. They are in a tug of war with one another at all times. When the grandson asked which one wins, the grandfather simply said:

“The one you feed.”

It takes the same amount of time to commit an act of kindness as it does to commit an act of meanness. How will you spend that time today?