0308 – Small Act. Simple Happiness

When I was in Hampi, I ran into a group of middle school students on a field trip. Hampi, India is a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with ruins, temples and rock formations to marvel at.

Our tour of the city brought us to a place called Queen’s Bath. At the entrance, we saw the huge group of kids lined up next to the front gate waiting to go in. I thought to myself, “Uh oh. S.O.S. Chaos to follow.”

Chaos did ensure.

There were 10 of us in Hampi at the time. All foreigners. And if you have been in India before, you know that most locals like to stare at foreigners–out of curiosity. They also like to say hello, shake hands and take pictures. And if they’re kids, they shout and run after you too.

So this place, Queen’s Bath, is literally a place with a giant bath in the middle, like this:

Guess who was in the bath itself when the kids ran it. This guyyyyy.

Oh, shit.

They swarmed in strong and seemed really excited to see us. I was a natural target, being the sole foreigner trapped in the middle of a giant box.

Yup. Right at the middle of that. There's only one way up...

Boy it was mayhem. By the way, I’m saying all this in good fun. I love kids, and I like to see them happy. Foreigners are, quite literally, foreign to them. For some reason, they love seeing us. They wanted to shake our hands, be in pictures with us, or even just to be near us. We felt like superstars, with out little fans following us around. Here are some pictures:

They were just… happy. It was the highlight of my trip. And we really didn’t do anything much. We just spent some time with them and took pictures. That’s all we needed. Small acts, big happiness. It made me happy too. And their teacher was happy that he got photos of us with the kids, and perhaps also because the kids got a chance to see us. Interesting thought.

It really is true that happiness is relative, and it all depends on one’s expectations. This really puts life in perspective. You don’t have to accomplish everything or be the luckiest person in the world to be happy. Sometimes, joy comes when you  least expect it. Sometimes, joy comes from simplicity.

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0303 – My conversation with Dr. Vandana Shiva

I was in New Delhi a couple weeks ago and took the opportunity to meet Dr. Vandana Shiva, truly one of the most inspirational environmental activists in India, if not the world. I first met Dr. Shiva at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in April 2012. She was a speaker in one of the plenary sessions, and I remembered being captivated by her passion and ability to carry the message. You can watch it here.

I really wanted to talk to her because I identify with so many things she said in that session, and also because she’s involved with Bhutan–a country that I just love–in an effort to turn it organic. Sadly, it shouldn’t be just a cool thing that some people do; it should be a common thing. Dr. Shiva also seems to… get it. She seems to have figured it out–what she’s here to do, what her role is, and what life is all about.

After almost an hour of searching and sweating in the 42-degrees heat of India’s capital, I arrived at Dr. Shiva’s humble office in the southern part of Delhi. Dr. Shiva was hard at work when I arrived, gave me a big smile and kindly asked me to wait a few minutes. The 30-minute conversation that transpired afterwards was definitely worth all the wait. She gave me many pointers to ponder. One of the things that stuck with me the most was her take on socialism. I asked her what her thought on socialism is, and here’s what she said (or what I recalled of it):

“If socialism is about equality, then I’m all for equality. If capitalism is all about maximizing our potential, I’m all about capitalism. But if socialism is about more power for fewer people, then I’m against it. Likewise, if capitalism is all about consumerism, I don’t agree with it.”

Dr. Shiva has a way with these things. I was surprised at how at ease she was about our world. She said that her quantum physics background shaped her philosophically as well, which perhaps has helped her to understand uncertainty and the constant flux that we exist in.

But it is her seeming happiness that pleasantly surprised me. Dr. Shiva greeted me with a big, genuine smile. Not one of those ones where you obligatorily force out for guests, but one that made me feel like she’s actually happy to help another soul. It was really nice to see. The world needs more happy people like her.

I kept asking her whether she felt angry or sad or depressed or confused–emotions that I’m feeling–about this whole thing called life. She served as a living example of how one need not feel negative about the mess that we’re in, and small steps can make a difference. With the work that I do, I hope that many generations to come will have a chance to smile, and a chance to be happy–a chance to live.

Soon, I’ll be doing some more soul searching to shift the attitude that has brought me much negativity. Dr. Shiva has shown me that there really is a way to work in a challenging and at times hostile environment and still be truly happy. I encourage you to check out her work. It’s really one of a kind.

0298 – The art of bargaining, and the opening of eyes

So… I’m kinda broke right now. I’ve been spending so much money on all my past and planned travels over the weekends that I’m now out of money. O.o Waiting for my next paycheck to come out in a few days. It’s a strange feeling, this living paycheck to paycheck thing. It’s a rather new sensation for me–fortunately. It’s kind of stressful but also refreshing in a way; to be able to really experience the harsh reality of money’s role in our society. This year’s been rather woeful financially. Lots of unexpected expenses, not that much income. But those unforeseen transactions are bringing me to India, then Bhutan, and then Liberia, so I’d say it’s probably worth it (or so I hope). Nevertheless, it’s really never healthy to have to think about money all the time, so my heart goes out to all the honest souls out there trying to make ends meet. I’m starting to realize that my impending adulthood really won’t be easy.

India also makes me think about inequality. It’s pretty apparent. There’re people struggling every day, and there’re also people who make more than enough. A new state-of-the-art building can be located right next to a run-down settlement.

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Some of them really know how to bargain. Here’s my recollection of an encounter with a beggar in Mumbai:

Beggar approaches the taxi stuck in traffic.

Him: “10 rupees sir.”

Silence.

“20 rupees.”

Silence. I was confused.

“50 rupees, 50 rupees.”

We started to chuckle.

My friend said, “You’re not very good at this, are you?”

At this point, the taxi driver was laughing as well.

He continued.

“100 rupees!”

“1000 rupees!!”

He didn’t get anything from us.

This story, while amusing, also serves as a point of reflection. Beggars are everywhere in India. It’s not that I don’t give, but from what I know about philanthropy and donations, it is much better to give strategically, i.e. give to those who’re working for their living, or give to institutions that enable a change in their livelihood. But it also makes me think about this: how much money do we need to live? How about to be happy?

Daniel Kahneman’s research suggests that beyond a certain income, where we have enough to meet the necessities and simple needs, more money doesn’t really bring happiness (I really simplified that. Full article here.) Anyway, in practical terms, what does this mean? I’ve talked to friends and strangers who say that many people in countries like Laos, Cambodia, and India are happy, because they haven’t seen much of the world and don’t have many different lifestyles to contrast with their own.

Some Indian residents sleeping on the roof of a building outside my friend’s room. (c) Ana Carolina Leal Talarico 2012

My cab driver was happy. I asked him if he’d ever leave Bangalore, and he said no. But he’s happy here. He’s okay with it. He’s working earnestly–and with a smile–to make a living. It’s very respectable. Interesting to think about.

I wonder… is it because as I see more of the world, I see more choices and more variety, and so I become more… picky and persistent about the way I’d like to live? I’m now used to comfort offered in Westernized societies, but I could live without them, especially if I don’t know about them. So then, the question, in my opinion, becomes: What should I do with the life and experiences that have been bestowed upon me? My eyes have certainly been opening a little wider as I see a new place. We’ll see where I go with all this, but in the end, I just wanna find where I belong.

“You sometimes think you want to disappear but all you really want is to be found.” Anonymous

0297 – The Part of Life We Didn’t Choose

I’m writing to you from the backwaters of Alleppey, Kerala, India. And by that, I mean from this:

It was one of the rare opportunities that I had to escape the chaos of the overpopulated, crowded India. Small wooden boats, traditional homes, coconut trees, and the low rumbling sound of the motor undisturbed by the honking and vrooming combine to provide a very very welcome relief. I was writing this post with a pen and a notepad, with pistachio nuts in my other hand. As I transcribe my posts onto here, I’m wondering why I haven’t done this before. It’s kinda nice to disconnect sometimes.

I haven’t been blogging for a while; I was sucked into the chaos of this country. With my internship, planning my weekend trips, the traffic, the wait and whatnot, I barely have time to  breath. And the air that I breath isn’t that particularly pleasant either. I was thinking about titling this post something like “From India with Love,” but I’d be lying if I say that right now. There’s no love yet. I’m still in culture shock mode I guess. I’ve met some really cool people here, but overall, it’s not been fun with the traffic, the honks, and the people trying to rip you off. It’s just… chaotic all the time. I keep thinking that I can’t live here.

You know… you’re born into an environment that shapes your character–kind of without a choice. But perhaps there is a reason for that. Perhaps there’s a reason for it all. The location/environment at which you’re born into is the part of life you did not really choose, but not long thereafter, we choose our life.

Why was I born in Thailand? Why’re so many people born in India? And why am I here to see this place?

India is such a culturally rich and diverse country that I can’t really do it justice with one blog post. I’m going to try to explore as much as I can, but you can’t really see all that India offers in eight weekends. One thing that’s really nice about India is that diversity is generally well-accepted. Well, they kinda have to; there’s so many of everyone everywhere. I was talking to my taxi driver last week, and he was telling me how he was Hindu, but he loved hearing from the Dalai Lama. “Very good man,” he said. You don’t really find that too often, not in the US.

The trajectory of this country will be interesting to see in the coming years. It can become homogenized as it continues to usher in the Western ways, but if it finds a way to retain its identity and cultural diversity, it can be very fascinating to see how globalization affects this giant.

Simplicity.

I wish scenes like this will be captured over and over.

0293 – Should East really meet West?

Being in India, coupled with my friend holding the book Fury by the Indian author Salman Rushdie, I thought about the book East, West (by Rushdie) that I read in high school–and never really understood. In fact, back then I never really understood literature. It’s not until I grew up a little bit that I started to grasp the beauty of words and culture.

Being from Thailand and having experienced Singapore (a prime East meets West) and the US of A, I think about the East-West dichotomy a fair amount. As globalization continues, it seems as if the Western way of life has infiltrated the world.

Today I went to explore the city of Bangalore for the first time. Here’s the few pictures that I took:

It doesn’t tell much, but there weren’t really much to tell. It’s another city, heavily influenced by the influx of technology and Western culture, establishing itself as a popular spot for Westerners in India.

And somehow, this doesn’t seem okay. I didn’t know what I expected coming in, but this just doesn’t feel right. The sights and sounds provoked a profound sorrow within me, sending me into another abyss of existential frustrations.

The East, culturally speaking, seems to be disappearing.

I wanted to see traditional buildings. I wanted to see simplicity. I wanted to see peace. And truthfully, I wanted to see a little less technology. Instead, I was greeted by constant honking (which–in my current state of mind–I have allowed to annoy the * out of me), shops like Lee, Levi’s, Bossini, Sony, and many more.

I feel a little selfish for not wanting the Western influences for anybody, especially since I myself has acclimated and fully embraced the Western lifestyle. I even feel nervous and dread when I know that I have to go to an unfamiliar place. I guess I’ve always thought of India as a country so rich with culture and beauty, and I wanted to see that. Yet, I also know that the social inequality is increasingly apparent in the country. And this is not what I came to see. I want to see the disparity. I want to see the slums. I want to see the different lifestyle, not the similar one. I’ll definitely get to see different angles as I visit different parts of India, but it’s still sad to feel that the local context here has been kicked away by things we’re too familiar with.

There’s a lot of ‘I’s in those two paragraphs. That’s a sign that my ego is flaring. You know… I really haven’t been very happy of late. Even as I spend time to advocate for happiness, I’m not happy. It’s probably time that I address it here on this blog – next post!

0289 – First taste of India

It’s Sunday evening here in India and I am well into my first full day in the 2nd most populated country in the world. It’s been uneventful so far. I came in with a little trepidation, not really knowing what to expect. So I’m not complaining too much that not much has happened.

Few thoughts:

– My luggage took forever to come out. Apparently they didn’t care that my bag has priority baggage tag on it. In general, people here seem to care less about order and more about getting through things quickly. The  taxi driver was waiting for me when I came out though, and I had a good conversation with him during the 1.5 hr car ride. Outside, I was greeted with the night time temperature of 20 C. Not complaining. Not complaining at all. Supposed to be about 30 C during the day. Not too shabby.

– Most of the billboard signs here are in English! The taxi driver told me that there’re a lot of foreigners here. Lots of construction too. Land cost has skyrocketed with the influx of foreigners and IT companies. I’m glad Infy is housing me on their campus!

 

 

 

This is my room: It’s an 18×10 single. I had an 11×15 double at Michigan. So no complaints here. Attached bath too!

 

 

 

 

 

View from the room. Nothing to write home about. Glad to see the green though.

 

 

 

– Security here’s tight. They asked me to declare all my electronics, and took forever before they let me go. For some reason they had an issue with my laptop charger.

– I’m still having a tough time adjusting to their accent. They speak so fast it’s tough for me to follow.

– This is just the first day so I haven’t met any of the other interns. Most of the locals here seem… apathetic to my presence. I was the only non-Indian in the restaurant during lunch today. Good that they’re not staring, but I kinda wish someone would be kind enough to strike up a conversation.

– Just had my first meal. This may not turn out well. haha.

Well, it’s my first day and I’m still trying to find my way. It’s definitely going to be a different experience. I keep thinking about this:

The only journey is the journey within.” – Rainer Maria Rilke.

I’m going to be doing some introspection and meditation here. Trying to find myself away from the rush back home and in the US. Still daunted by it all.

Deep breath, and off I go.

0288 – On Thailand + departure for India

It’s been really hard to get out of bed these days…

I don’t have to!!! Gotta love the summer break.

There’s been a lot to do though. Top of my list is to reunite my tummy with the favorite dishes it had been deprived of for oh so long. I didn’t take pictures this time, but I should’ve. My favorite food comprises of really simple Thai dishes that rarely highlight the best Thailand has to offer, but I’ll give you a glimpse anyway the next time I get back to Thailand.

Every time I get back here, I never know how to feel about the lifestyle change. In Thailand, we have less expectations about things running on time, there aren’t as big a dependency on technology everywhere, and people somehow walk slower here. It’s kinda nice, but also frustrating.

I went on a Thai river taxi for the first time this past weekend (Bangkok has a river running right through the city and many locals use the boat to get from place to place. Here’s a good video of a foreigner’s experience) and snapped this picture on the right. There are quite a few things that trouble me when I took this picture. 1) The Chao Phraya River’s water is really really… not clean. 2) The dichotomy between the out-of-place modern commercial space and the surrounding old-fashioned vicinity. 3) I had no idea where I was. ha. I did find my way at the end.

It’s kinda weird for me to think about how I’ve been switching back and forth between the two lifestyles. Is one better than the other? Or is one lesser of the two evils? The world is so different everywhere. Who knows what awaits me next. When I asked myself which would make me the most comfortable, I’d say  it’s probably the western lifestyle. But when I asked which would make me happy, I really can’t answer that one. But happiness isn’t really about place, is it? I don’t know, but @Eric_Weiner probably has something to say about that. Anyhow, this happiness dilemma is one that I will continue to think about for some time.

Now, I’m going to be adding one more lifestyle this summer. I’m flying off to Bangalore this Saturday to start my internship. All this traveling’s taking a toll on me, but I’m actually pretty excited about the gig I have lined up in India. Stumbled open this interview of Rohan Parikh, the head of Green Initiatives at Infosys (Apparently the nickname’s “Infy.” Sounds like a cartoon character.). Jokes aside, their efforts look pretty impressive on paper. Renewable energy, composting, education programs, green building, biogas, etc. I’m intrigued. We’ll see how my experience turns out. Anyway, I’ve been flipping through my friends’ travel blogs and decided that I really do need to take more pictures and better document my experiences. So I promise I’ll try to update this blog at least weekly.

Back this weekend when I settle down in India!