Monday, May 19, 2014

The Zen of Travel

Hmong girls in Sapa
Traveling is one of those activities most people either love or hate. I don’t mean the kind of travel where you become part of a group of tourists running through the ruins. I’m referring to backpack-type exploration in which you have no set itinerary, just an idea of what you’d like to see and where you might go. The rest is left to fate.

My partner and I travel this way in various third-world countries during her summer vacation from teaching. We have assiduously avoided the first world partly because it tends to be less interesting but mostly because it’s incredibly expensive.

All those years I spent as cubicle fodder, a dedicated wage slave, I thought that travel was a waste of money. Except for a few souvenirs, you wound up with nothing concrete to show for it. But when I was forty, I was diagnosed with cancer and didn’t know whether or not my story was ending. I recovered completely. But when my destiny was uncertain, I made myself two promises. One was to write and try to get my work published.The second was to see the world.  

Travel is a Buddhist experience. Even a somewhat-lapsed Buddhist like me is aware of this. When you descend on a place you’ve never seen before you are completely in the present moment. You arrive knowing not a soul and with no idea of what you will eat or where you will sleep. Chances are you only possess a sketchy idea of the meaning and depth of the culture. You are at the mercy of experience, the full range of potential occurrences.

These are sometimes wonderful beyond belief like dining with an extended Hmong family in Sapa Vietnam, having tea and cookies with Turkish women lace-makers inside their volcanic ash cave home in Cappadocia, going to an earth goddess Pachamama ceremony on a remote Peruvian hillside or simply drinking a mango smoothie in the night market in Chiang-Mai Thailand as dancing girls take the stage.

The experiences sometimes can be not-so-pleasant: like running out of water on a bus on the Raya Pass in Peru at 15,000 feet above sea level because the road running into Cuzco had been blockaded by strikers. Or being detained for six hours and eventually extorted for about 120 dollars each because of a “visa re-entry” problem in Vietnam.

Yes, anything can happen when you venture out into the world. The people you meet will be wonderful or awful just like those at home. But only they can show you how to turn the crystal in a new direction allowing you to see life in a way you could never have previously imagined. The value of that cannot be measured.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

They Should Have Given Us Bavaria!

Holocaust Remembrance Day has just passed and May 14th will be the 66th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel and all that I am able to say about this is how much it saddens me to be a Jew in this world.

When thinking of my grandparents, I could begin with the Russian Czar and the Cossacks. There is nothing left now of the huge Jewish community that flourished there, the Pale of Settlement, the shtetls where rural poverty was a fact of life along with a tribal culture where folks took care of each other. These villages were, for the most part, dirt poor and isolated. They had a daily life that now can only be glimpsed in a few rare photographs and paintings. Shtetl residents were ghettoized from the regional Russian and Polish populations by religion and culture but, most of all, by language.

In Western as well as Eastern Europe, Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi-Jewish people is now dead. In the colonialist state of Israel, the founders and survivors chose to resurrect Hebrew, a long-extinct biblical language whose correct pronunciation and inflection was totally unknown. They improvised and now Hebrew is a living tongue.

When it comes to Europe, the fact is that Hitler did what he set out to do. The results were just not immediate. European, Jewish culture has been obliterated. Not only do American secular and religious Jews no longer have a homeland, we are a dying breed. Folks like me in the USA are dinosaurs. In a couple of generations, like so many Native tribes, we will cease to exist. Specifically, people with two Jewish parents, raised in Jewish neighborhoods, not necessarily by choice but by covenant, will not have a square in our multi-ethnic, American tapestry.

I believe that this is a great loss, for Jews specifically, as well as for Americans in general.

Yes, the religion will continue to flourish as Jews intermarry and assimilate. Some rebellious couples will take up Judaism as a faith but, those who are ethnically identified/identifiable by descent, by cultural style, inflection, humor, introspection and a wide range of neuroses will go the way of so many other endangered species.

And now there is Israel, the most distressing component of the equation. The whole “land without a people for a people without a land,” is so obscene. The forced displacement and collective punishment of the Palestinian people by imperialist expansion, the bulldozing of homes, the checkpoints, the walls…I could go on and on but in this forum I know I don’t have to. I know you know.

It seems so unfair that a people so brutalized by history would now have to be victimized even further by those fighting oppression. But the atrocities of Israel are real. How childish it seems to state that I wish the whole thing never happened, and by that I mean the WHOLE thing starting with the persecution of Jews in all countries of the world.

But given that horrendous genocide transpired, they should have, at least, given us Bavaria!

Did you know that many of the laws used against the Palestinians involved in revolt against the occupiers bear an astounding resemblance to the Nuremberg Laws? To me, that says it all. The child whose parents beat him grows up to beat his own child. There is no excuse for it, but it happens all the time. And it breaks my heart.