19. Stranger

You know when you grow up and people teach you to be weary of strangers? Your first hear that from parents, then you learn in political discourses, then scientist give you the evolutionary reasons that would have selected for us to have an in-group bias…I have been living fighting these generalisations and trying to be more empirical about people and things.  I try as much I can to go to the houses of those of groups we hear are so different than us. Every single time I go I feel over and over again that if you are respectful, if you try your hardest to be respectable… People know. You obviously always screw up, and break rules that are invisible to you because you have not been socialised in that system but I feel that people always know when you are trying and they are always more generous in forgiving strangers for these transgressions than they are to their own. Of course, we are in these situations like children who do not know.  I have never felt so strongly than now that strangers are the kindest people ever. I feel it is not simply a matter of attributing responsibility. What I mean is this: in many places people feel that people cant be responsible for things they do not know. This is surely true but somehow I feel that we are kinder to strangers because it is so easy to be. It is easier to not attribute to them a secret meaning or motivation for a given action or word. In fact, I think it is the people who are close, those we let in our deepest and darker places who are the most dangerous of all. Those can hurt you like nothing else. But yet we must always open ourselves otherwise what kind of life would we live?

I have been in silence for a while. i always am when the stories that are surrounding me are more mine than others. I always feel they are too boring. Too secret.
But when you end up living a public life like I am doing now I get messages who come from all corners of the world when I disappear for too long.  I feel thankful for each one. and i apologise for having been gone for so long.

I am on my way back. After an open hand and knee, a bus accident, hearing a man die, saying many painful goodbyes, hearing many difficult stories, after breaking lots of things inside, after many dangerous roads, many bus rides, rickshaws, bikes, planes, trains, steps, taxis, cars…Through the hands of a total stranger who took care of me when I most needed help I am making my way back. Strangers always surprise me, and even when i loose this enormous faith in the path, through the help and love of once strangers who are now friends I know I have to keep going. People ask me why ? What am I searching for?  And I have no clear answer. I guess I am here to hear and tell stories. The stories of these strangers.

I was rescued by a sweet stranger these days one that has done more than I could have ever asked for. This stranger took me to a doctor, helped me with bureaucratic situations, gave me food and shelter when I most needed. This stranger gave me a feeling of home with mother and brother and sister, and dog and cat. And when finally this stranger dropped me to fly away as if all of that had not been enough he gave me a little gift.

” It is nothing much. But it has a meaning.”

I open my hands and I see a little anchor. I smile.

” You can keep going and when you need you can use an anchor. You will find many anchors on your path. I am one for you.”

And like that with my wounds licked by dogs and cats. Like that with messages of support and love coming from all continents I hoped in the plane to make my way back to the land of smiles. Just like that I flew to the land who is supposedly under water to float again in the Mekong. From the world of Tibetans, Indians, Kashmeres, and Israelis back now to the world of Palestinians and Thais. And I who felt so lonely in the past days feel a glimpse of joy in the Horizon. I was going home. My home in Asia. I was after years coming back to the border of Thailand and Laos.

I look at the stranger who now is a friend. And I say thank you. He tells me I should not thank him. I insist. ” Does it give you a good feeling to say it?” I explain that it does as gratitude is something so beautiful. He smiles and thanks me for giving him the opportunity to be kind, to be better, the opportunity to feel good.

And like this we agreed that whatever it is that it happens people like us will always encounter each other.

As I walk away I remember my yogi friend who dresses up like an angel in a certain week of the year and gives messages and flowers to strangers. Once in the tube in England he gave a flower to an old lady who broke out in tears and told him her son had just died and that she had not left home since then. That morning she asked for a sign to keep going, she asked God for one sign that life was worth living. My friend dressed in angthat day that sign.

Is there any metaphysical reality to that? Who knows? Does it even matter? As I am pondering about it as I walk the airport I remember another thing. When I had just left hospital I joined a yoga camp.  The first thing we did in that camp was to write our names in a piece of paper and pile them in the middle of the room. Then each one of us took a name. It was decided this way that for that week we would be the secret guardian angel of that person. always paying attention whether he/she was ok. In that playful and lyrical way everybody was being taken care of.

While I walk the airport I realise it is not important whether there is any metaphysical reality to it. We just have to keep going and helping strangers along the way. Maybe eventually this way we might even become malleable, compassionate and flexible enough to also be gentle, and kind to those who are so close.

I land in Udon Thani and as I get out of the gate I see an old friend. he screams ” Welcome Back”.  I feel enormous joy. Yes I am back. I drive with his sons, and friend back to Nong Khai. I am coming home. There is a room being set up for me. I realise that I do not even remember how good it is to have one stable place for you. I recognise some Thai old familiar faces. At night I make finally my way back to the Gaia the boat that floats in the Mekong. I see the river pass. How many years had I dreamed of being back? And now I am here. ” julieta, how long are you going stay for? We ask people to stay for at least 3 months when they coming to work. is that ok?”. And inside of me I can say without hesitation that it is ok. That it is great. I finally do not want to run away. I want to learn the inner secrets of a guesthouse that lies in front of the Mekong. I want to learn the stories that are behind Thai and tourist smiles. I want to see the strangers pass in this border town, be their anchors when they need one.  As my new sweet English friend who also works here and I are organising our little house I feel this enormous joy. I know in my whole body that yes I am back.

18.The Inbetweeners, Rajastan

.Natalia my dear friend from the Phd created a blog for us to keep in contact while doing fieldwork. She called it the “Inbetweeners”. Although I quit my PhD and I am not doing field work I can really relate to ” being in between”. There are many of us who usually feel this way nowadays, travelling you are bound to encounter these people all the time. I have written about this before this feeling that crossing borders seems to cause to me. In one side it becomes very evident the humanity that connects us all, on the other it also makes very evident the arbitrariness of systems, beliefs, languages, customs, rituals, practices.

If we were to be trees I imagine the “inbetweeners” to be like mangrove trees. Every now and then the roots become more exposed. You see them so well, and you see other’s and yet they still somehow tie you. They are no longer under the earth, you see the absurdity of some but what can you do? If you cut them all you get somehow lost. But you cant burry them either, soemtimes the mud covers it for a while but you know eventually the water goes away and they are again exposed.

I sat yesterday in a cafe in Pushkar, Rajastan. I was with the sweet 22 year old Michal. One of the Israelis I talked about when I wrote the last mail. Her friend had recommend this cafe to her. This place was one of those that catered for Israelis. So i sat once again watching young boys and girls in large groups smoke hash, eat a lot of  arab/israeli food, speak in Hebrew while listening to Israeli music. The young Indian waiter spoke Hebrew too so they did not even have to change language to order their Hummus.

I usually watch them from afar intrigued. What makes them come all the way here and travel like this? There could def be whole anthropological studies on this. My friend and I were staying somewhere else for her this kind of travelling does not do. When the whole group finally left the waiter who turned out to be the owner came to seat with us.

Khalu is 26 and he is a Brahmin. His father is a very religious man who hates tourists for destroying the traditional way of living. ” He is happy, he does not know. I am trapped in between”. I knew exactly what he was talking about. I had seen my Indian friends who work with tourists in Mc Leod suffer the same fate. Khalu had had an Israeli girlfriend, had gone to Israel for a month to see if he could live there. ” I realised quite soon I dont want that kind of life. You in the west stress too much, want too much, complain too much. Here our life is more difficult but is more shanti. So I am trapped I cant just marry someone i barely know now like traditions tells me to. I have seen it differently, but I cant have it. I am in between worlds and there is no solution for me”.

Khalu was an exceptionally interesting boy. He had opinions about everything. He hated the fact that Israelis invited him for dinner but then asked him 3 questions in English and then spoke Hebrew the rest of the time. It is a common thing in groups i told him and wondered why did he serve them. ” Good business. You do one good dish they tell all of their friends, they seat smoke and eat all day. Europeans eat little and go. Not good for business.” He turns to my friend and says “Michal I am sorry to tell you the truth but most of us don’t like Israelis. When you come we of course don’t say this but we dont like how Israelis behave. there are sellers here who do not even sell to Israelis anymore. They think it is not worth the hassle.  I know you are not like these groups… But this is what they do…. Do you know what we hate the most here in Pushkar? the Bet Habad House!”

Bet Habad Houses are Jewish houses where something like  “missionary Jews” set to help Jews abroad. The are very controversial most of my Israeli friends don’t like them either as they tend to be very segregationist, and as some of my secular friends say ” they benefit from the fact that these boys and girls are so vulnerable after the army to preach religion.

Indians don’t like them for another reason, mainly because they intervene in their business, and are rude to the locals. In Mc Leod Michal was told by some locals that the religious came to a tattoo artist to tell him not to do tattoos to Jews, they also went to a Muslim restaurant owner to enquire why he sold food to Jewish people.

Khalu hated them ” I went for Shabat with an Israeli friend of mine and they did not let me in! Can you possibly imagine what would happen if I went to Israel made an Indian House and did not allow Israelis in? They would kill me!  I organise Shabbat dinners every week here and it is much more popular than theirs. A couple years ago someone wanted to bomb that house. The people in the village beg the gov to make them go away. We never had problem with bombs and now we do bc of the Bet Habad, I am sorry Michal to say this to you my friend.”

As Michal agreed with it all she just repeated ” I feel ashamed of this. I really do”.  I gues like me, like Khalu she is also in between…

At night I met two religious Jewish boys. We talked a lot. They explained to me the feeling of being minority. Most of my friends are secular and one way or the other hate religious intervention and the amount of the taxes they have to pay for the religious. One of these boys was absolutely fascinating. As we had a long conversation I felt i could ask him why he felt like he had to observe so many laws, why did he think God ( if it exists) cared about this particular ones.

” well you are talking about two different things. One is belief in existence of god. The other is whether there is any divinity and connection from this divine being and the laws.” it takes two leaps of faith. There are even many religious people who are atheists. They follow the laws because they believe this laws make life better. “

I was astonished with the clarity of explanation. “So are you very religious?”

” I was raised religious, but I am still deciding”

There was some kind of beauty to it. He was a bright gentle boy. Talking to him and Khalu brought me back to the little village in the border of Pakistan where children and young people where dazzled by what we advertise when we parade in western clothes, taking pictures. It made me remember the look of the old ladies unconvinced, unimpressed who seem to be able to foretell that their way of living was about to be extinct. These boys seemed less concerned about the divinity of the laws than whether it simply led to a better life. Wether our modern, individualist way is if at all healthy.

I ask Khalu whether he thinks his father was right. ” Is traditional life better?” He pauses, thinks about it ” He is happier because he does not know. I guess he is right,  I guess it is better but for me is too late now, I am in between”.

17- Rishikesh and the Hummus Trail

.Rishiskesh lies in the foothills of the Himalayas. Thousand of Pilgrims and tourists come here every year. I had been here a few years ago and it is always so strange to re step ones steps years later. It is like images and places that you never though about seem to be reencountered in your brain. When I crossed the bridge when I arrived looked down at the Ganga river, saw the sun shining the monkeys sliding through the metal bars in the bridge I was brought back. I was arriving from a 20 hours trip with an accident but somehow seeing the Ganga and the monkeys made me feel home.
Everyday I seat by the bridge and see the festival of colours pass by. Women wearing saris in all shades, Babas, Sadus, painted faces, cows, monkeys, tourists who come looking for enlightenment blessings yoga meditation. I seat there and watch the people wash clothes in the Ganga which now also features tourists rafting. Such a strange combination. Green lush mountains surround us. It looks like Brasil in the nature, but another planet in the constructions and in the people you see.

I remember I used to feel overwhelmed when I first came here in another life time. This time I find it all so gentle, so mild. I wonder is it me, or Rishiskesh? We all know it takes time to really arrive in India. Once you do it is all so somehow…”is”. That is what it is kind of feeling. A resignation which is not a feeling of loss. It is more like a feeling of “dasein”. Cant put it into words really. So I watch the people, they always ask to take pictures with me. And I must feature in hundreds of pictures around the country now. Some children when they are 3 are scared… their parents want soooo much this picture to be taken. 6 years old like to be next to a total stranger who smiles and says hello. Women hug me in the pictures… me so boringly dressed next to their colourful and never repeated saris. Men probably bring it home to show their friends. I always say yes. I actually enjoy this little encounters and I also find it that it brings some kind of balance to the amount of pictures I take of them.

Rishikesh is also part of  the “Hummus trail”, so 80% of the  tourists I meet are Israelis. Some of the people who read this tell me “wow how is it that you always end up with Israelis?”. It is truly hard not to. There are so many around. I wrote about them so many times before. Those of you who have been in this list long enough might have read of them in South East Asia and in the middle East. Something strange happened to me here in India. When I left the Middle East I felt somehow defeated, I felt I was privileged to see it all, but that I had no real right to cry in front of the wall as I did. Now I believe I do. That wall belongs to all of us as human beings.

I have been encountering here the most amazing Israelis. I am usually now in the situation where they ask me to tell them about the Palestinians. I have met Israelis who boycott their own state, who have been to Budrus, who knew Juliano Mer. Juliano Mer the Israeli Palestinian who created the Freedom theater in Jenin hoping through art to bring peace. When I encounter these people, who question their own cultural narratives to wonder about the other I always love them. I always cry as I know how hard it is. They want to hear the stories, they cry when I tell about the ordinary encounters I had in Palestine.

Last night I ended up spending hours telling a couple about my Palestinian friends. The girl asked to see my photos. And while we sat by the Ganga this girl went through every single picture I had of the places and the people I ve seen in Palestine. She wanted to hear their stories. She wanted to know more. “it is crazy, they live 20 minutes from me and I have to come all the way to India to really hear about them.” There are of course those who repeat the same old lines ” They dont want peace. Israel is the only democracy in the middle east. The IDF is the most moral army in the world?” But now I seat with Israelis who reply and say ” What does it even mean moral army?”.

As I seat with these people I imagine in my head the encounters of those I met and love in Palestine and them. It would be challenging and beautiful but there are people out there who always in the face of  absurdity can just think of the human. Not so long ago I sat with a girl whose father was saved by a Polish blacksmith who taught him how to behave unjewish, who took care of him… so that he could survive the war. 50 years later this man went back to Poland and re-encountered the daughter of this blacksmith. He brought her to see Israel. I cry so much when I hear these stories. They fill me with hope… there will always be these people. People who in front of it all question the system, question their cultural memories, question the power structures to try to really see the other.

People always ask me “Why do I go to these places? Why do you go stay in the house of Kashmeres, or why do you put yourself in unnecessary risks?.” And I always say I never believe people can be too different. Maybe they are in the surface but we must scratch it. We must fight our brain tendency to essentialize and categorize and be empirical about things. All the stories I heard, all that I have lived allows me to now understand a bit more about the complexity of this all. My Israeli friends are born having to legitimize their existence.  As the pacifist that I am, I am convinced we are so similar. So I will never be able to accept the creation of a wall. Any wall. I look at these thousands of Israelis who pass my way negotiating their thought to support their military state with love. I know fully well that in the end no one can truly believe in this. With some pain I watch them. But now I watch them next to these brave boys and girls, men and women who as pessimistic as they are about their governments they are hopeful about people.

I know my Palestinian friends read this. I know they see the world though me. They have told me. So I write this post to let you know about this people I encounter here. People as gentle as you. People who take care of me to the same extent you did. By the Ganga next to the sweet Israeli who asks me questions about your lives and has her eyes in tears I am convinced walls will always fall. And reality can only be changed by these brave people who do not fight, rather they unite, they question, they take risks to love the unknown. When I was by the wall in Bethelehem my friend Jaafar consoled me. “It is just governments, we the people want peace. One day we will live together”. At the time his hope made me cry even more. Months later I was in Berlin and I saw the wall down. My mom showed me the wall in the map so arbitrarily built. So crazy that someone decides one day to build a wall and people actually agree to it. There was a time where cities where surrounded by walls, there was a time Germany was divided. There was a time apartheid separated people in South Africa. There was a time that slavery was institutionalized and accepted by the vast majority as normality. Now I seat by the Ganga with Germans and Israelis. Now I seat in a Tibetan in exile village with a white South African who gets upset at the white South Africans who complain of racism to them. ” They need to wake up these people. We oppressed 80% of population before. Now it is different and it must be. It is getting better. But the powerful never likes loosing power. It is getting better but it takes time” Now I seat with Chinese who defend the Tibetans. There will always be these people. They are minority in the beginning but eventually walls fall.