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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

The Awakening

Nothing removes the shutters from our eyes like travel. It is by far the most compelling method for broadening our horizons and relativizing what we think is true about the world. Growth is not measured by the miles we walk, but by the lessons we learn on the path we take.

Travel tills the garden of your soul. It unearths new possibilities and ways of thinking. It deepens appreciation for that which we have and a profound thankfulness for that which we no longer have.

One thing I have learned along the way is that it is irrelevant where you are. You can be anywhere in the world as long as you are at home with yourself. Inner peace provides shelter even in the darkest of storms.

mohammed_essaouira_2016

Tuareg in Essaouira, Morocco. Foto credit: Klaus Polkowski, 2016 (c)

At the end of October I embarked with my love on a most amazing journey. For the first time in my life I went to Africa. As I stood in line at passport control, I could feel the country’s rhythm enter my bloodstream, carried by the distinct smell signaling I was somewhere “else”. The odors intensified as we walked the Souks (market alleys) filled with moped exhaust, animal remains and the piercing fierceness of spices and amber. I was transported by the city’s heartbeat, the eagerness of its people, wishing to share what they had with us. I recognized that their persistence stems from a kind of generosity mixed with vested self-interest that we admire, then purchase, their wares. I observed that acknowledgement went further than our money. Showing respect for their craftsmanship — including the snake charmer — contributed to a richer understanding of one another.

The day after we returned, I attended a professional multimedia presentation by a veteran photographer friend of ours, Dieter Glogowski. The topic? On the surface it was about Nepal. Underneath the message was simple. No matter who you are, love is what counts. The images projected a joy that I strive to discover within myself and I have a distinct feeling that I am getting closer to it. Maybe I will find more of it in Nepal, the next on our list of travels.

It doesn’t really matter whether we step beyond the borders of our own country or not. The awakening, once evoked, continues with every step we take.

 

The Many Pieces of Me

As I inch toward the fifth decade of my life, I have taken pause to reflect on all the places I have been. The list is long. The road has been too.

When people ask about my history, I tell them I left home at 16. My heart took flight to a European country. With no knowledge of the language or culture, I lived amongst the natives for an entire year. At the time it felt like an eternity as my inner self was molded into something new. I began to see the world with their eyes. Or perhaps more accurately, with a blended vision of my own and theirs. My world view was altered forever and I had no idea how enriching that would be. From that point on, I developed an acute ability to consider that all that I had known may not be the absolute truth and that every person on the planet carries their very own interpretation of what that might be. Coming home felt more foreign to me after a year away. In my heart of hearts, I could never return there because my shape had taken on a different form altogether.

I have moved 19 times in my life and with each place I have landed, a tiny piece of myself has been left behind. Whenever I return to those places, I greet that part of myself with a smile — or sometimes a tear. As I recently motored across the A99, I waved to the Allianz Arena, home to several Bavarian soccer teams. A long time ago, I even taught English to the guy responsible for the lighting there. Later I headed up a team of athletes for a show on national television. It was the only time I stood on the playing field, but I will never forget the exhilaration as we paraded onto the green.

Next week I will visit the Northeastern part of myself, first in Boston, then in Northampton for my twenty-fifth college reunion. Thereafter I will fly down to Florida to visit my dad and his wife. I’ll saddle on the Southern, twang with the best of them, and sweat in the steamy heat near Orlando. My children will be there who are indeed the greatest parts of me. And as they grow, leaving pieces of themselves wherever they go, they too will experience the revisiting and the wonder that is this life.

The Mightier Pen

They say the pen is mightier than the sword. In times like these, when airports where my children were supposed to be, blow up thirty-six hours prior to their arrival, I am apt to take pen to paper to make sense of it all. Only it is senseless to try to make sense of something so incredibly violent, deadly, disruptive and hateful. While there is power in Slow, there is something so incredibly powerless about ambush, anger and anxiety. It wraps its grip around our necks, daring us to breathe.

And I dare to breathe.

I dare to claim, even in moments like this one, that 98% of people are good. That 22,000 individuals who have committed themselves to hating others, cannot stop me from loving, living and laughing. They cannot stop me from seeing my family. They cannot stop me from believing in the power of prayer, the Universe and That Which is Good. In everyone.

Terrorists are pawns. They execute orders from others who are kept out of harm’s way. They are driven — in brain-washed insanity – to take their own lives and those of others around them. They truly believe they will be rewarded. Oh, they will be rewarded! With yet another life, coming back this time as perhaps an ant or a microorganism. And they get to come back over and over again. They get to start anew until one day they get it right.

I told my children that if anything ever happened to them as they glide through European borders — or anywhere in this world — that I would hate that person, that forgiveness would not come easy and that I would need a lot of people to raise that threshold of inhibition within me not to lash out in kind. But that the only way our world can get better is — through our own extreme efforts — to fight fire with water.

It is the only way. And so I dare to breathe. I dare to live. I dare to love. Beyond borders. Beyond terrorists. To celebrate the 98%.

 

Of Life, Love and Liberty

Slow doesn’t mean screeching to a halt, but it does require taking a break every now and then. February was a month of taking inventory of things – of life, of relationships, of professional direction. Although I blogged in my head, I couldn’t bring myself to write the things I was thinking about. It took time to sort through the thoughts to ensure they have meaning for you as well.

Blue Waters Inn Hotel_2016

Photo Credit: Klaus Polkowski (c) 2016

The coolest thing happens when you change your behavior. New doors open. New opportunities flood in. New perspectives shimmer through the cobwebs of our minds. I left the country for three weeks, dappling in the cold of New York City, then the heat of Trinidad & Tobago. No matter where we went, the same thought kept persisting.

“We are one.” It doesn’t matter what climate you live in, what job you have, what color your skin is. We all feel things. We all love. We all hate. Spending time in a former British colony was eye-opening. I met many lovely people, and a few not so nice ones. I sensed what oppression does to people. And to me. In the end, I came to the conclusion that we must take time with one another. Time is the ultimate gift you can give another person. I am eternally grateful to my mother, who gave my children so abundantly of her time while I was away. And to so many people in my life who mean the world to me. My partner and I now truly know we can live in a shoebox and come out smiling.

Travel teaches us many things. Perhaps most importantly, it confronts us with our own perceived limitations. We think things should be one way or another, simply because we are accustomed to things being a certain way. But when faced with a completely different value system, it causes us to take stock of what’s truly important to us and what we can let go of. I learned that I can live on very little and still have a fabulous life.

The flame of freedom flickers within. Light its fire and see where it takes you.

Driven to Distraction

Back in my high school days, my pokey Chemistry teacher doubled as our driver’s ed instructor. Clipboard in hand, side hairs carefully placed over his balding orb, he would patiently smile, take a deep breath and invite two students at a time to drive him first around the parking lot, then around town, then on the highway. I’ll never forget his paternal tenor as he gently reminded us to “keep both hands on the wheel.” It never would have occurred to him to say “and both eyes, too.”

But today, instructors everywhere will have to remind their students of much more than the 1o-and-2 rule (left hand at 10 o’clock; right hand at 2). The automobile industry has started placing infotainment centers in the dashboards of their cars so people can remain connected even when they are on the road.

Um. Who thinks being able to Google while clocking 80 on the speedometer is a good idea?

I’d dare say no one.

According to a recent AAA study, people who played around with their in-car infotainment systems were distracted up to 27 seconds – even after they placed their attention back on the road. The study suggests that “just because a driver terminates a call or music selection doesn’t mean they are no longer impaired — impairment lingered up to 27 seconds after a task was completed.” Our cognitive ability is hindered even if we chat hands-free on our mobile devices.

Major automobile companies believe they are giving consumers what they want. In truth, they are. But what we want may not necessarily be good for us. Hyper-connectivity doesn’t lead to safer roads. It leads to distracted driving and ensures that one of the major causes of death in the United States remains automobile accidents.

One day we will have pervasive wireless access on airplanes too. My only hope is the pilot stays offline. With both hands on the wheel and eyes on the sky without a television to info-tain him during long-haul flights.

Are you with me on this one?

 

The No Vacation Nation

Our relationship with time is embedded in our culture. It is never so apparent than in the different ways in which people view vacation. For some, vacation is a luxury; for others, it’s a birthright. One glance at this chart reveals how diverse our perspective is about taking time off. It shows the number of mandatory vacation days per year. France wins – hands down – with 30 days. The United States lands on the opposite end of the spectrum with exactly zero.

vacation days 2015

 

After seeing this chart, I got curious.  John Piana, a veteran of Corporate America with over 20 years of experience and a work-life balance proponent, approached me with some of his ideas as to why Americans don’t view vacation as a necessity. He calls the United States the No Vacation Nation. It is so deeply entrenched in people’s minds that anything other than working is considered “time off” (even hospitalization – I swear I can’t tell you how many of my American friends told me to enjoy my time off and to consider it a mini-vacation when I went in for surgery– are you serious??).

Power of Slow: Do you think Corporate America will ever introduce mandatory paid vacation? 

John: If it does happen, it will be awhile.  In order for a fundamental change like this to take place, it needs momentum.  Right now there’s little to none.  And even when momentum begins to build, it will still have to overcome the powerful business lobbyists who will likely keep legislators from getting behind it.  Until the issue gets to the point of a social uprising, mandatory vacation will just be coffee shop talk.  However, I think a potential wildcard is social media.  I’m amazed at how many times social media has shown the power to turn public opinion almost overnight.  A social media firestorm could quickly transform the mandatory vacation landscape.

PoS: What things can leaders do to stay offline and in life while on vacation?

J: Simple.  Make the choice!  Prioritize it.  Set the expectation and precedent beforehand with your manager and with people reporting to you.  Explain you will not be calling or logging in during vacation.  Or if that is an impossibility (which I don’t buy), begin to take back control by severely limiting the contact and explain to others you will be checking in very infrequently, perhaps even defining the specific times of day you will check messages.  When an employee leaves the company, everyone always finds a way to get things done without that person.  It should be no different when an employee goes on vacation.

PoS: How should employees address the lack of vacation issue?

J: Set boundaries and priorities in advance with your manager and co-workers.  Once they know that vacation is a top priority for you, it becomes your holy grail.  Not only should you get fewer interruptions during vacation, but it also can become a motivational/reward tool to be used by your manager.  As far as simply asking for additional vacation, I think that may work in a small business setting only.  Large and mid-size companies will simply give a corporate-speak answer and say their hands are tied due to company policy.

PoS: Is mandatory vacation truly needed?  Does the government need to get involved to correct this?

J: Neither government nor corporations will solve this issue (see my ‘Work-Life Balance Advice That Makes Sense‘ post).  The US government won’t get behind it for reasons I mention above.  Employers long ago abandoned their long-term commitment to employees.  This is no more evident than seeing defined benefit pension plans being phased out.  Also, employees aren’t sharing in the ‘good times’ like they once did, but definitely feel the pain of the ‘bad times.’  If the company had a great year, that 2% raise becomes a 2.5% raise.  However, if the company had a bad year, there’s a good chance you’ll be shown the door.  Definitely not an equal risk-reward trade-off.  However, in general, I think free markets and, more importantly, the will of the worker should be sufficient to address this issue.  Again, I think social media could be a wildcard.

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Social media has toppled empires. It could topple the belief that vacation isn’t important too. I advocate posting as many palm tree pictures this summer as possible, people. Let us rise up to celebrate our lives — both in and out of the office!

The Journey’s Way

Plans are a wonderful point of orientation, but like any roadmap, they change over time. New roads are added. Old ones turn to dust. Anyone with an outdated navigation system will tell you not all roads lead to Rome. Sometimes they take you down dead ends or endless traffic rotaries. Even if you were intending to go to point A, you sometimes land at point B instead.

The journey is the destination, not the end point on a map. And although we often live as though the most important thing comes at the end of one’s travels, the things that happen during those travels are the essence of our existence.

MoonWhenever I am confronted with life’s challenges, I say a prayer of gratitude for the fruits those lessons will bear — even before I receive or fully understand them. I live with a deep faith that everything happens for a reason – but oh! When that faith is lost! That’s when the turmoil begins. Faith and trust are the foundation for your engine’s happiness — gratitude greases the wheel.

When I was knee-deep in writing The Power of Slow, my sister shared a beautiful mantra with me: “Trust the process.” It is about opening your eyes to what is really in front of you instead of watching the film that is in your head.

We are all owners of our very own head-based movie theater in which our films get played over and over again. We react to the world through the lens of that movie theater camera. Sometimes our films take us to beautiful, exotic places, but most of the time the repeated movie performances lead us down those dead ends to the land of the lost. And when that happens, it’s time to change the film roll to a new one that serves us better.

While many of us pine for a better future with the supposedly comforting saying “One day my ship will come in,” I say why wait for that ship when you’re already on it? If you don’t like the direction it is taking you, steer it in a new direction.

You can weather any storm, my friends. You really can — if you believe.

 

Love in the Land of the Lost


The book pulled me in and kept me there, until last night when I turned the final page. Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho is a haunting story about a young girl from the backwaters of Brazil who seeks love in all the wrong places. She lands in Geneva, Switzerland, a place I know well. My heart broke there — several times; and so did hers. Despite the floral clock and the water and the banks, Geneva was a lonely place for us both.

The protagonist’s search for love is akin to most anyone’s experience. Sustainable love can only come when we reach inside ourselves and realize we are the generators of our own joy. When we love without clamoring, we are set free. She was willing to let her deepest love go because she knew that her attraction to his beauty stemmed in great part from the freedom she felt to leave.

Coelho’s own story fascinates me too. At the tender age of seventeen, his parents put him in a mental institution — twice — claiming he was mad. But his spirit and his creativity were not broken. He followed his path, discovering much later in life that he could indeed find expression for all those thoughts inside.

Coelho reminds me of Sebastião Salgado, another Brazilian artist whose breath-taking photography will leave you hungry for more. Much like Coelho, Salgado found the way to his art form later in life. After moving from Brazil to Europe, he decided to leave his well-paying corporate job in Paris at the age of 30 to do photography instead.

Wim Wenders’ documentary film The Salt of the Earth, which I recently saw with my love at the theater, is an epic narrative about Salgado’s journey as a photographer. He travelled to the farthest reaches of the Earth to document the human condition. When he finally landed in Rwanda during the mid-1990s, he lost all faith in humankind and stepped back from the subject of man. Later he discovered Nature and rekindled his belief in the universal goodness of life.

What struck me most about his life’s work was the support his wife gave him throughout all those years of travel. Raising two children in his absence must have been hard, but she understood his need to do what he did. She, like Coelho’s protagonist, was willing to let him go time and again.

The result is a collection of amazing imagery for which our world would be poorer if Salgado hadn’t followed his calling.

Love is what makes art possible. See for yourself.