Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"A Teardrop on the Face of Eternity"

The Taj Mahal
I am ecstatic to report that the beauty of the Taj Mahal has not been exaggerated in the least. The first site of the white onion-shaped dome sets a shiver of excitement running up your spine and, as you pass through the red stone arch of the southern gate, this heightens to giddiness.

At first you just see white marble through the gateway, but as you progress forward the entryway seems to open like an aperture, allowing more and more of the magnificent structure to fill your view. As you pass the lintel, so to speak, you take a deep breath and stop in your tracks, overwhelmed by the beauty of the massive dome, its marble pedestal ensuring a backdrop of blue sky and its needle-like corner towers leaning slightly outward to prevent them from savaging the shrine in the event of an earthquake.

As you walk up the garden paths towards the perfectly symmetrical wonder, flanked on the east and west by two identical red stone masterpieces in their own right - a mosque and a twin that housed visitors, it looms larger and larger in your sight. What seemed like subtle patterning resolves into beautiful Muslim script, quoting verses from the Koran and adding in an imperceptible manner to the overall beauty.

"It is so beautiful," you whisper repreatedly as a mantra meant for noone's ears in particular.

The thing about the Taj, as you clamber onto the pedestal and stand dwarfed in its presence, is that it retains a subtlety and an elegance even in its gargangtuan proportinos. It has a quiet dignity that I have rarely if ever seen matched save perhaps in nature. I spent several hours in the thrall of the mighty edifice , and was touched greatly by the experience.

India - A Few Quick Notes
Fear: In a prior post I wrote of my long standing fear of traveling in India, and I must say that I am pleasantly surprised - perhaps because I expected the worst. So many people along the road fed my fear and told me horror stories about Varanasi and Agra, both of which have turned out to be good experiences. The touts and wallahs here are the most aggressive and most desperate I have every experienced, but either they are willing to accept a firm "no", or I have practiced my "no" enough that it carries a weight of sincerity.

The Land is Choking: The beauty of the Taj finds its opposite in every other part of India (and Nepal) I have seen so far. The government here has seemingly made no efforts to educate the populace on environmental protection. There is trash EVERYWHERE. If someone opens a small bag of chewing tobacco or pulls the plastic off a large package, the refuse is automatically dumped on the street - several times Indians have laughed at me putting my garbage in my bag for later disposal, pantomiming the gesture of throwing the article out the bus window in order to educate me. Sacred rivers are clogged, street sides are littered, and eroding earthen banks often show layer upon layer of trash from years or decades past in a strange archeology of environmental abuse.

I know that India is poor, but the government could do such a service to its people and its land by educating the populace about the inconvenient truth of environmental decay and even the economic potential to collect, sort and recycle the scraps of the masses.

Poverty: On the note of poverty, I must say that I have never seen poverty like this before in my travels. It hurts to think about people with no choice but to live in squalor in the piles of garbage, plumes of heavy black exhaust and din of constantly blaring horns from passing trucks - and to have no power to do anything. And more painfully, to have to refuse person after person the little bit of help I could give, because I could give all I had and still the need would be like an ocean around me.

Children that should be in school beg on the streets, because the concept of an investment in the future is outweighed by the possibility of a few rupees today.

Nepal is a poorer nation than India, but I did not see the level of poverty there that I see here every day. I can only guess that: 1) Nepal's more conservative and traditional culture means that age-old social structures serve as an adhoc safety net for the most disadvantaged; and 2) India's more rigid caste system prevents the fundamental changes necessary, as those most in need are likely considered undeserving or unqualified to receive betterment.

Life - A Few Quick Notes
I love traveling by train in the company of good people, as conversation flows freely and widely over life histories in broad strokes, and philosophies of life in depth that seems proportionate to the length of the journey.

The other night, during the 14 hours between Varanasi and Agra, my German, Canadian and American companions discussed these topics in great depth, and one mentioned how in her life she has felt the greatest happiness and contentment when she is busy and pressed for time. I had heard this before, and can identify with it readily - idle time allows thought to focus inward, which reveals fears and doubts that we would rather keep hidden under the patterns of daily life.

But in the context of this trip I heard this comment in a new way, not as a call to focus on my job or to find a hobby as a way to increase my quotient of happiness. This time I heard it as a call to face the quiet moments and accept the silence. This time I heard it and resolved to face the demons that arise in the pristine stillness of an unoccupied mind.

I don't have the tools or knowledge yet, but I have to agree that depending on a hobby, depending on a partner or depending on a routine leaves us vulnerable, as all of these things can be taken away - leaving us with nothing but the ideas and emotions hidden and ignored within.

Many of you know that this is one of my reasons for traveling in this region, and I will not and cannot report any "progress" facing myself. I am just going one day at a time...

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