This City is in Your Head

It took a wild week in NYC for things to start making sense! At the end of an early morning walk during which night slowly turned to day in the deserted city streets at 5:30 am, after an amazing night of dancing to Balkan and South American sounds in my favourite bar in the world, after deep conversations with new found soul friends, after listening to amazing inspiring presentations for one week of people who did mind-blowing projects in Mexico, Sierra Leone, Palestine and all over North America and Europe, I realized the irrelevant unfocused person that I felt myself to have always been actually is a dynamic immense evolutionary energy that is travelling through the future! When life stops being what it was and suddenly bends and shape shifts around your intentions, you see your reflection in other people’s eyes, you fall in love with life with all its pains and scars and thorns, when you are suddenly consumed by a passion to act, do, make, dance, be …. really be and can’t sleep feeling light surging up and down your body and mind, when you stop seeing beggars and hustlers and cars and smoke and billboards and suddenly find poetry in a cell phone, beauty in death and a reflection of your dreams in the sky, what is next? It doesn’t perhaps matter, “next” has already come and gone. 

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It’s amazing how the same place can bring out such different feelings in one: New York City can be the loneliest place on earth or where amazing people come to share their life’s work with you! I was told once that I smile too much for this city but at the end of the trip I felt it is the city that does not smile enough! Image

My trip to “the city that never sleeps” started with a long bus ride, during most of which I was sleep. Occasionally, I read mad Beat poems with titles like “Poets Hitchking on the Highway” and “I Would not Recommend Love” and would drift back to sleep. An interesting realization was the immense influence Charlie Chaplin has had on this American poetry movement (there is a hilarious letter from Ginsberg and Orlovsky to him from Calcutta). When awakened at the border, I was so sleepy I could barely answer the few questions that granted me entry. After arriving at the residence hall in New York and having some chocolate with its residents, I headed to my favourite bar, “Mehanata” aka “the Bulgarian Bar” in the Lower East Side. I really like the music and crowd here. The live band played an eclectic collection of Middle Eastern and Eastern European songs and the crowd broke into crazy dancing, the DJs who followed were amazing. 

One of the best things about travelling is meeting amazing people and I usually put an intention into finding deep connections. I was very lucky on this trip and met the resident DJ’s wife who knows everybody at the bar and we chatted and danced most of the night. We had amazing talks and shared stories and more importantly a deep connection. She introduced me to many people, including her husband who is an excellent DJ from Peru (incidentally from Arequipa, a city I had visited when I was there last year). As it turned out, I went to the same bar two more nights during my stay.

The next day, I was tipped about an annual Mermaid Parade in the Coney Island. It was an insanely crowded city fair, with a disproportionate mix of “cheese” and creativity but I always wanted to visit Coney Island for nostalgia sake and I got more than my dose! 

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After wandering around the parade for a bit, I walked to an area known as “Little Odessa” at Brighton Beach. This area is populated by Russian and Eastern European immigrants. It was a really interesting experience to be suddenly surrounded by fur jacket shops, Russian pastry (I tried some red cabbage piroushki, yum!) and butchery shops and so on. 

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In the afternoon, I made my way to Harlem which has an amazing energy and is full of incense sellers, preachers and vendors of different things. Many people would bring their lawn chair and an icebox and sit beside the sidewalk watching the people go by. I went to a museum of avant-garde black art called “Harlem Studio Museum” which was very interesting. Image

From there I walked to Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine which is the largest place of worship in the US. I was shocked by some contemporary art work that was at display there, including a series of painfully truthful statements about war and alienation. A particular piece called “9/11” was very powerful.

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I was here for two amazing conferences: PopTech: The City Resilient and IDC13: Interaction Design and Children which I will write about in the next post.

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A Peaceful Warrior

Since coming back to Canada I have decided to take walks. I picked up a copy of “Great Country Walks Around Toronto” by Elliott Katz from the public library and during last week have gone on the following trails: East Don River, High Park, Black Creek, Tommy Thompson Park and Rosedale Ravine. 

On Sunday, after meeting with a friend at the Muhtadi Drum Festival, I went for a long walk along Toronto waterfront going through the Tommy Thompson Park (which is full of wildlife) and ended up at Cherry Beach. I was really tired so before going to the beach party, I lay down and had a power nap. When I woke up, I couldn’t find my phone!

Now, I have to say I usually have the cheapest phone in town but since coming back from Bhutan, I decided to finally break through to the smartphone side and buy a sleek Galaxy 4 phone, justifying the cost partially by planning to experiment with programming in its Android environment.

So, the loss was a shock! But after some deliberation, I was reconciled with myself for being so clumsy and careless and decided to go to the party. The beach party thrown by Promise at cherry beach is a fun event and it was nice connecting with friends there. I stayed until the end (11pm) in the hopes of someone finding the phone and bringing it to the DJ booth. After checking for the last time and not finding the phone I decided to walk back home. The organizers (Dave and Irvine) were awesome as always and told me to contact them the day after in case someone had returned the phone. 

When I got home at 1 am after a long walk and a bus ride, I saw a Facebook message from a friend who said someone had found the phone and told her he will drop it off somewhere in town the next day! I was very happy, I had already given up on finding the phone, but as it turns out there are caring kind people everywhere!

As a small token of appreciation I decided to gift whoever found the phone with a small book that I really like called “Shambhalah: The Sacred Path of the Warrior” by Chogyam Trungpa. I went to the address that I was given and as it turned out the person who had found my phone was John Tench, a well-known actor with more than 122 films! He was a very kind gentleman and said he enjoyed helping people and realized how important phones are in todays world. I was humbled by his kindness and generosity. When he saw the book I gave him, he liked it and said he always felt like a warrior too!

Indeed, he is a warrior for the good!

 

An Encounter

One day during the last days of my stay in Thimphu, I was walking through the market in a light drizzle after meeting with a poet, philosopher, meditator friend of mine (need I say, a lot of people you meet in Bhutan are unique?!). Suddenly, someone called to me “Sir, where are you going?” Anywhere else I might have walked on but I turned and saw a kindly older Indian gentleman standing under the cover of a shop front avoiding the rain and smiling at me. “Just walking!”, my standard response which is true most of the time, including this time: I am walking through life! “Where are you from?” and our conversation continued.

For all the random times I have met people on the street, this time I was blessed with having a conversation with a sensitive, caring, kind man, who shared some stories of his life: how his wife had passed away, how his children are grown up and married in India, how he has decided to devote the rest of his life to children and how the cold weather of Thimphu is a menace for him who has grown up in the warm climate of Kerala! I enjoyed listening to him but even more I enjoyed looking at his kind moist eyes and the sincere quivering in his voice when he talked about an orphanage he visits sometimes and how he loves the children there for whom he sometimes cooks and tells stories.

He said he loved the children in Thimphu where he is a primary school teacher, although the workload is heavy and the pay is not very good. He still enjoyed his time there and smiled and looked in the distance whenever he talked about his students, I believe imagining their inquisitive faces and open mouths as they listen to him tell them stories like this: “Once Socrates was walking down the street in broad day light with a lighted lamp. Someone asked him what are you doing? He said, ‘I am searching for real human beings!'”

He told me he wants to write a book about his life. That would be great but would it capture his kind gentle energy? Would words express his sincerity? Would literary metaphors and images be enough to convey the tenderness in his heart? Perhaps, but it would be a difficult task!

After a short time, we shook hands and moved on. No phone numbers exchanged, no Facebook adds. This was a different kind of encounter: a moment complete in itself, a coming together of souls appreciating the pain and love and beauty that is life!

Rain

I left from Bhutan on the first day of the monsoon. In pouring rain, one of my colleagues kindly drove me to the airport in the wee hours of the morning. Watching the beautiful valleys and fields of Bhutan disappear in the clouds as the plane ascended from the Paro airport, I could not help but also wash my heart in rain. I have travelled to more than 20 countries but none of my departures (other than leaving Iran for Canada) have been filled with such sense of nostalgia.

Words will not describe my feelings. I am looking forward to going back to Canada and seeing my family and friends which I have missed, but leaving Bhutan was like leaving a child that looks at you as you walk out the door, saying goodbye without knowing when and if you can come back, and knowing they will grow and change the next time you see them. The innocence, kindness and imagination of this land is enormous and I have felt it intimately and have to let it go now!

Coming into Kathmandu, I felt tired and without much energy but decided to do my favourite activity: take a long walk! My friend Sonam had recommended visiting Bodhnath, the largest stupa in Asia and a very sacred Buddhist temple which is about 5k from Thamel where I am staying. I started to walk and after dodging a few hustlers was soon in a more quiet area of town.

On the way, I came across the Pashupatinath Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati River and was approached by many panhandlers, “baba”s wanting to pose for pictures and “pandits” trying to convince me to do a 1000 rupee puja. I left, leaving empty. Some places are best not visited, some mountains best not climbed.

As I was walking away suddenly I saw isolated stairs descending to the water, I walked down and suddenly I was beside the sacred river. It was quiet and peaceful. I stayed here for some time and looked at a monkey who like myself was looking at the river and enjoying the silence (I think!). As I turned to leave, I saw an old Sadhu sitting in a building looking at me. I waved at him and he did the same, kindly turning his head in a message that I felt meant “I know”!

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As I walked towards the Temple, the rain intensified. When I got to the temple it was simply pouring, so I decided to wait under a cover for sometime before continuing. Here, I met an old man who told me he was from Tibet and started complaining about health problems and how expensive it is to get medicine here. He said he comes to the temple to pray to get money for the medicine. When I replied saying I will try to help him, his eyes became bright and he started talking about how much money I can give him. I smiled and said, “no, that’s not how I can help, I will pray for you the way I pray for other beings so that their suffering becomes less!” He was not impressed and I walked away!

I have heard (and quoted) the saying that “the thief only sees the saint’s pockets”. I am no saint but on this trip I wanted to ask what does the saint see when he or she looks at the thief? I think a mixture of ignorance and obstructed misplaced love.

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The monsoon is also strong here and walking in the rain I was soon completely soaked. Many people looked at me in surprise but I enjoyed the warm rain on my body with the knowledge of having dry clothes back at the hotel. After all, we are 80% water!

Walking back to Thamel, I was confronted with children sniffing glue and playing with stones next to posh tourist shops. Thamel is full of beautiful things and I had planned to pick up some fun souvenirs from here but seeing this scene combined with many shopkeepers designing their stores only for foreigners who want to buy an cool image killed my appetite for any shopping and I decided to walk back to the modest hotel and read. It’s not that these things do not happen anywhere else (including Bhutan) but my state of mind was too sensitive at this specific moment.

Don’t take me wrong, Nepal is excellent for shopping and all the power to people who have the interest and patience (usually I do too) but this time I just was not in the mood for that at all. Also, the styles I was so attracted to (festival gear, psychedelic patterns, asymmetric outfits) are novel the first few years you discover them and then become more of a uniform than a creative expression of beauty. So I will have to discover new aesthetics for myself this summer.

My time in Nepal was too short: I’ve heard of majestic mountains and quiet beautiful towns that you can reach in a couple of day. Maybe next time I budget a few more days to visit Pokhara, a place I’ve been recommended to go a number of times. As it was, after the deep connections I had made in Bhutan and the way I had become used to its unique untouched fabric, it was hard to adjust immediately to the big city vibe of Kahtmandu.

Black-Necked Crane

When I first found these wings spreading behind me, I was surprised,

Just like the first time you lose yourself when you make love,

new feelings, new sounds, new life!

 

 

Who filled my eyes with dreams, my wings with feathers?

My legs are unsteady when I walk on the ground,

But in the sky I am like the wind: invisible, free, in my element!

At first, I stumbled, clumsily flapping my wings, looking at the trees, desperate to land.

But the trees became smaller, the wind cooler, I flew higher!

 

 

Like the sun, I am completely here when I am here,

But when the time comes,

When the air begins to warm and spring arrives at Phobdjikha valley,

I have to spread my wings again, fly once more over my winter home,

Circle the Chorten three times and fly away North,

Where my invisible wings are determined to take me!

 

 

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Note:

Black-necked crane is a popular bird from Tibet that every winter flies into its winter home in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley. Legend has it that each spring when the birds migrate back to Tibet, they circle the sacred Chortens (Stupas) in the traditional way (clockwise), before moving North.