Circles Spinning

*A piece of nonfiction creative writing about my time in India*

Circles Spinning

Bry Ulrick

A late night, my bags are packed, tomorrow I’ll be gone. Can’t sleep while I think about how we build up time like a dam, yet let it leak- my soul craves movement, and my body is my home. I sit in this tent in the wilderness of Bradley, California, while bass bumps and rocks the rock and dust of desert around me, creating musical pulses that glide through the air, mirages of sound waves. People trek past, following the sound waves as masses of bodies wind like a giant slithering snake around the different paths of the Lightning in a Bottle Music Festival. Catering for music festivals entails sleeping in tents for weeks at a time, taking dark outdoor showers, interacting with production people who are way too full of themselves for most of the day, hating your job because it reduces you to the status of an indentured servant, but also loving it because there is little room to get bored. I am helping the Latitude 45 Catering Company cook for the Do Lab Production Staff who put on the music festival, and I wonder if they are happy. They prance around in “cool”, “West Coast” clothing that is indeed beautiful and expressive, but also in some ways excessive. Who do they stay up all night and day working for? Is it themselves? For the money? For the experience of the festival goers? Although the nomadic lifestyle of a festival caterer gives me the freedom I crave, it also frustrates me knowing that while we have fun in our developed world and romanticize the seemingly peaceful and minimalist lifestyle in countries such as India, most other undeveloped parts of the world do not even have access to basic necessities, and that most people in the developed world are not grounded in the reality of the world itself, or recognize that our carelessness is to blame for most of the world’s social and environmental issues.

Reality is a subjective object: it is dependent on the mindset of an individual, their personal growth and awareness, and the state of their world. I did not think that traveling to India would change me as much as it did- after living in such a different place, the reality of the “normal world” that I came back to was significantly different than when I had left- now being able to do something as small as working at a music festival is a huge privilege to me, which most people do not think about. Although the lessons I learned in India were not academic in the sense of reading books and listening to lectures, they challenged me to question my past, where my passion for life lies, and what it means to be a living being on this Earth- just as significant and sculpted from the same stardust as the plants we eat, the animals we tame, the rocks and mountains we climb and break.

When I decided to go to India for my study abroad experience, the first reaction that I was faced with was, “Why”? Family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, even teachers, had a difficult time understanding why I would want to go to India willingly: a place of difference, a place, in their eyes, to be feared. It is understandable why it is feared by America and and other Western countries: we learn very little in our Western education about India, except of its poverty without acknowledging England’s role in directly causing that. When sitting on the beach with a local I met, he told me that India was the richest country in the world before its colonization by the British. Of course we are not taught about India- it is seen as having no significance any longer since its wealth and social order have been ruined by the Western world, and instead seen as only a dangerous place beyond help. Wanting to visit such a culturally diverse and alien place that is living proof of the destruction from colonialism and imperialism should be celebrated, not feared. Especially in America, our culture is so egocentric that we are often encouraged to think of America as holding more value than much of the world. It is seen in our education system: while we learn one or two languages, most people in other developed countries know at least three, our knowledge of geography is minimized, and sports and entertainment make up the bulk of peoples’ interest.

Even upon our arrival in India, people’s first question was, “Why are you here?” It is understandable that Indians and Americans alike think it strange for an American to want to appreciate a devastated country such as India, torn apart by modernization and westernization, when America stands for the beacon of hope and freedom that people in such impoverished countries want. On many of the billboards in Kerala, there were pictures of American actors and models. We met young men at a beach who worked at a technology company, and when we asked them what their ambition was they told us that all they wanted to do was to come to America; most of the young people that we met were so curious why we wanted to come to India because their dream is to come to the United States for its opportunity. What they don’t know is that the inequality in America can be even greater than that of India, with one percent of the population controlling most of the resources. I wanted to personally experience India’s postcolonial society and its spiritual, less developed lifestyle which has manifested from its exploitation by the West yet also been romanticized by the West in many ways: we take many Hindu gods and goddesses out of context because they look “cool”, and have adopted many types of Indian clothing styles for music festivals and hippie fashion.

Although our trip in India was cut short due to safety concerns within our program, everything happens for a reason, and I learned the ways in which we, in our American culture, have distanced ourselves from nature, each other, and ultimately, ourselves, through our strive for progress and technology. The people of Kerala and many other parts of rural India have been forced to ground themselves in nature due to poverty and limited technology, making it easier and more important to have a relationship-oriented society. Being a part of this society helped me to experience a lifestyle rooted in simplicity and limited materials that can illuminate a more confident, happy, and caring side of humanity than that of developed countries, but also show its own contradictions that make it flawed as well. I was exposed to the way in which all cultures have flaws, enriching my thoughts about the world and helping me to realize that no human is perfect, making the modern world a complication of fixing the social and economic injustice we have caused. My gratitude for the privileges and freedom we have living in one of the richest countries in the world was heightened greatly, as well as my desire for us to adopt a less materialistic and more conscious way of life in developed countries, which would help start the balancing act of making the resources on Earth more balanced. By questioning my culture, I was able to also question someone else’s, which helped me to find myself and gain a deeper understanding with the cosmic universe and the ways in which everything happens for a reason.

Prior to our orientation, I clearly remember meeting Achu, director of the Bioinformatics Department, responsible for coordinating our Ayurveda (“Ayu” meaning “the study of” and “veda” meaning “life”) classes, because of his inspirational speech. He said something to the effect that we are all humans, and share a common humanity, regardless of skin color or origin, which must be exposed for the truth of all life. Throughout our Indian journey, teachers constantly encouraged us to focus on the similarities that we found in their alien land, instead of focusing on the differences which would separate us and make us feel discouraged, isolated, and alone.

As I mentioned, Ayurveda translates as the study of life- it is an ancient form of medicine which is grounded in preventative measures, and treating causes instead of symptoms (the opposite of most Western forms of medicine). Ayurvedic doctors know how and when to pick plants so that they will chemically react with other plants to treat different types of diseases in the body. They believe that everybody is composed of different amounts of the five elements (water, wind, fire, earth, and space) which make up the world, so that everyone in the world experiences disease differently and thus must be treated individually. This ancient way of life is being lost quickly because most Ayurvedic teaching is passed down verbally by shamans and the indigenous people who practice it, whose homes are being destroyed to make way for industrialization and globalization, especially in the Western Ghat mountain range where some of the greatest biodiversity in the world is being jeopardized by Western companies who want to use resources for their own purposes and make huge profits. For example, Coca-Cola’s bottling plant in Kerala has polluted immense amounts of the water supply and prevented local people from growing plants with healing properties, greatly threatening their livelihood and health.

Our Ayurvedic teacher Anu (Anu means the love in me meets the love in you) told us of Lekshmi, a healer woman who uses snake venom to heal people’s bites in her village of indigenous people. After spending weeks in the hospital and being treated with synthetic drugs with no improvement in the condition of their snake bites, many people have come to Lekshmi and felt better in just two days after using the herbal and venom salves that she gives them, meditating, drinking plenty of water, and resting. Her sense of telepathy is keen, and she can tell when she will have a patient who needs her help. One day when Anu picked her up from her house, not five minutes after driving down the road, she told him that he needed to stop and go back. He did, and when they returned there was a man waiting for her who needed to be healed desperately.

In this way, the more primitive healthcare of Kerala seen in Ayurveda and healers such as Lekshmi focuses on treating the causes of pain and disease using natural remedies, which can often fix ailments much more effectively than most synthetic forms of Western treatments, often consisting of having a heavy reliance on drugs with no clear knowledge of their complete side effects on the body. This alignment with nature which focuses on the connection and preservation of the healthy mind, body, and soul increases not just an individual’s health, but also their intuition and connection with nature, others, and themselves. American culture largely views the health of the mind, body, and spirit completely separately from each other, also showing our disconnect between ourselves and the larger whole of nature and the universe around us. Happiness and health go hand in hand, and are not things that one can attain, but instead is found in a state of being in which the totality of an individual is balanced within themselves, and they recognize their connection with nature and the others around them, as well.

I found many instances in which I felt more at home in Kerala than in America, as the celebration of cultural and biological diversity pervaded throughout everyday life. India is a place filled with so much beauty, contradiction, and truth that often coincide with each other, and that is what makes it so unique. Hinduism stresses the importance of human connectedness with nature, but India is one of the most polluted nations in the world. Equality is also a large part of Hinduism, yet the caste system has organized society in Indian for thousands of years by race, and oppressed people solely on the basis of their skin color. Women in Kerala (which is very conservative compared to more urban states and cities in the north of India) are expected to dress beautifully everyday and are idealized in religion, yet they have little social, political, or economic power. Kerala is a land where new sights, smells, languages, and pre and post colonial ideas bounce and mingle on a daily basis; where mosques, temples, and churches are located adjacent to each other and no one bats an eye. America fails to compare to Kerala in its celebration of diversity and spirituality, as well as in focusing on relationships more than individualistic progress.

In Kerala, the largely untainted biodiversity and simplistic, rural agricultural economy connected me more to nature and myself than I have ever been; escape from a life grounded in technological advance and monetary progression. Yes, I am a privileged white person who was able to experience this and say it was better, but I was also able to come back home to where life is easy- where I can walk to the store and buy whatever kind of food I want without any effort, a home where life is so easy. This highlights the contradiction we have in the world and the way in which Westernization and materialism have, in many ways, pushed us backwards and away from nature and ultimately ourselves. Experiencing the landscape of the Western Ghats mountain range and gaining knowledge through yoga, ayurvedic teachings, and interactions with people’s endless hospitality and tranquil mindsets gave me faith in the world and forced me to quiet my mind and open myself to the flaws in the societies and cultures of both Kerala and America. One morning while visiting tea plantations on our orientation through a hilly region known as Munnar, we climbed a mountain to watch the sunrise and came to a small altar of one of the gods of Lord Shiva (God of Destruction and Rebirth). Sunlight bounced and beamed off of the the strings of yellow holy flowers which danced between the poles of the altar, making the small deity smile and welcoming the start of a new day. I felt the weight of many years of depression and guilt lift off my shoulders as I exposed myself to the truth of being connected to every living thing in this universe and vowing to use my energy to bring positivity and light.

On our way back down the mountain, I grabbed one of the yellow flower strings that had fallen on the ground and placed it in my pocket. When we arrived at our Technopark accommodation near the college a week later following our orientation through Kerala, I had strange dreams with dark figures that would creep and crawl around the walls, dark insecurities and demons that danced in the night and wanted to hurt Miranda, Jazzie and I in our room. I hung the yellow flower string on a broken light fixture, giving the room some hope, the dead flowers now holding a pugnant but protective smell, and never again experienced any nightmares.

During our orientation, we also visited the spice and fruit plantations, which made me think about India’s economy, and why it is still considered a “developing” nation. India relies primarily on agriculture, so that it is not as industrially developed as the United States. But although much of India’s business is rooted in agriculture, since there are so many people in India who are available to work, there has a been a great push from Western and European technology companies to establish businesses here and outsource work since they can pay them less money. Technopark, where we stayed, was an outsourcing company for accounting in the United Kingdom. In this way, many people in India have been Westernized by the growing use of technology and adopted some of the technological culture, losing their own and thus thinking it so strange for Americans to want to come to India. By going to Kerala, I was able to witness the ways in which Westernization has killed an Indian culture aligned with nature and promoted instead technological advancement; I was also able to see how much I take for granted all of the opportunities that America has because of how much wealthier it is, and the ways in which India is struggling to adopt Western culture while also retaining some of its own ancient traditions.

When visiting students at an all-women’s college following our orientation, I was reminded of how similar we are as people; at our roots we all just want to interact with each other and teach each other things like how to dance and sing. We were pulled up from our seats in an auditorium, palms sweating from the heat and having to wear clothes that covered almost all of our skin (except for our ankles, oh what a horror to see a girl’s ankles!), faces red as beet, two minutes into two-stepping, bobbing our heads in spiritual affirmation as if we were chickens trying to mimic the beauty of a peacock. Understanding and respect are key in making the world a better place locally, nationally, and globally. Although America has many opportunities for its individuals compared to countries such as India, it is important to recognize its inherent flaws that many people, like many of the Indian students and teachers we met, glaze over completely and don’t realize is an issue. After experiencing India, I have been able to think of the world through many different lenses and look at injustice and suffering not just nationally, but internationally; there will always be injustice and corruption, but this can be overcome by a desire to eliminate ignorance of other cultures and flaws in one’s own culture.

Often in our classes in India, the professors were surprised at our ability to comprehend the caste system and its role in forming social organization in Indian society. The racial tensions and diversity of India are controlled in this manner, whereas in America they are avoided altogether, and people who try to shed light on the disparity between the various ethnicities are shunned as “racist” or “contributing to the problem” by the white majority. This is the equivalent of cutting off someone’s leg, letting them (people of minority races in America) bleed for a while until they are almost dead, treating them minimally, finally giving them the ability to walk with an artificial leg, and expecting them to function as normally as everyone whose legs haven’t been cut off (white people) without apologizing, calling them ridiculous for trying to address the fact that their treatment has been unfair- they have only one working leg while everyone has two, and are judged extremely harshly for having only one leg, seen as lazy and incompetent. One of the wealthiest nations of the world, America, spends much less on education than most other developed countries, (in my Indian Literature class we addressed the fact that a good 60% of postgraduate students in America come from other countries), and the gap between the 1% of the wealthy population controls 95% of the resources, with the other 99% controlling 5% of the resources. When thought about in these terms, it becomes essential to examine the ways in which no nation is perfect, and nationalism can be a roadblock in the way of an ultimate goal: cooperation and understanding between people. There is beauty everywhere, there is corruption everywhere.

Although it was enjoyable to open myself to others, it was also a challenge- I am a distant person; I like to spend time alone in nature, and it takes a long time for me to get to know and trust people. Constantly being surrounded by other people (not just the group of St. Mary’s students who accompanied me, but also such an increase in the population) taught me how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate each other. Even though the eye contact was so intense at times that I just wanted to say, “stop looking- PLEASE”, I much prefer it to now in Los Angeles, where people will look at their phones so that they don’t have to make eye contact, and go to whatever extremes necessary so that they do not have to look at or speak to people they don’t know, especially in public. The importance of hospitality and family is so huge in India- this could be seen in women calling other women (even if they didn’t know them) “chechi”, or “sister”. It is difficult for America to have this kind of unity because of its diverse range of backgrounds and different cultures. Part of Hinduism acknowledges each individual’s dharma- the duty that they must fulfill throughout their life in order to preserve cosmic order. It is in this way poverty is viewed much differently in India, and keeps the poor in their caste; a poor man is simply viewed as someone who is living his life and doing his duty, with no need to be worried about his position, whereas in America homeless and poor people are viewed as the scum of society who have brought their circumstances upon themselves by being lazy, not taking care of themselves, etc.

I remember one specific instance of hospitality when Jazzie and I wanted to attend a music concert that was happening near our accommodation in Technopark, but the guard wouldn’t let us in because we were “outsiders”. However, a nice family saw us struggling and said, “Come with us- there is another entrance by our house”. They took us to another gate that led into the music show, and we were immediately invited close to the stage to dance with lots of Indian teenagers- who at first were confused as to why we were there, but nonetheless grabbed our hands and brought us into their dancing circle. After the music had ended, and we were drenched in delicious sweat that stuck to our skin like rain on a windowpane, we visited the family on our way out, and they invited us to dinner the next day. The next day, we brought all of the students from St. Mary’s (Miranda, Jazzie, Linden, Christina, and I), and got to know this family- they prepared food for us that was the best I have ever tasted; homemade chapatti that tasted like clouds on the tongue, veggie curry that had come straight from a garden and not the GMO supermarket, fresh watermelon that had ripened in the blue, blue sun and been sung Shiva hymns to make it grow beautifully. We were shown family wedding albums and baby dresses, sung songs and told stories, laughing and crying at times. We would have gone back to see them more, had we not been forced to leave.

Seeing so much unity made us realize how fragmented our own family lives are; when they asked us about our parents, we realized that not one of us had grown up in a household with a happy marriage, instead our parents were divorced, or we had lived with a single parent. I truly learned to appreciate people on an entirely different level; we put so much stress on ourselves to do better and work hard for our benefit, but at the end of the day we have such a selfish, materialistic outlook on life here: we must do well for ourselves so that we can make money to please our family, without any regards for loving them genuinely. I need to be more thankful for the family and love I have in my life and give that back to them instead of always thinking of myself first- the same goes for friends at St. Mary’s. At first, I was frustrated by the small community in which everyone knows each other, but I am now so grateful for it because it allows us to open up to each other and create a family away from home (for many, though, St. Mary’s is home).

Our Ayuveda teacher told us a story during one of his lessons: a couple’s baby was born without a rectum, so they visited a doctor in order to help fix its issues. They presented him with all the money they had, and he said that he would give their child a rectum, but with their money could only make a hole in its lungs. In this he stressed the greed of modern medicine, and the importance of teaching ourselves to live as selfless human beings; we become genuine humans by teaching ourselves to be selfless. When we place our own greed above the well-being and happiness of others, we can never truly find happiness, and we will suffer in all aspects of our lives: mentally, physically, and spiritually. .

For most of my life, I have been an extremely selfish person. I have focused on my own career and personal goals in high school and college, sacrificing time that I could have spent building up relationships with friends and family to instead work to make money for things such as college, and getting ahead in school. I knew this before going to India, but was fully slapped in the face with it and forced to reexamine my behavior when witnessing the opposite behavior of Indian people my age. Family is the most important part of your life- it determines who you are, who you will be, who you will marry, and how happy your life will be.Although it is a beautiful support system, it is also very oppressive. So much energy and trust is placed into relationships that if someone has beliefs that disagree with their families’ (say they were homosexual, or supported homosexual behavior, which is considered a crime in India), they are excommunicated. How will they survive? In this way, the oppression of women has been quite simple: if she does not act the way the standards of society and her family want her to, then she will be banished, living the life of a vagabond on the streets until she finds a husband, or becomes a beggar.

Even in the way we had to leave India because of safety concerns, I realized how much more privileged women in America are compared to those in India. In India, victim blaming is common and a given- if a woman is raped, it will always be her fault, and the man will say that he was doing his “duty” because she was “immoral”. The fact that we gained attention from the police at all after Raul, a security guard who worked at the Technopark hotel where we had stayed, broke into our room was because we were foreign, and wouldn’t have happened at all if we were Indian women. Our situation would have been brushed away and justified in Raul’s favor. Indian women must live with this kind of oppression on a daily basis, while we American women complain about the patriarchal forces in our own society that are much less oppressive. Returning home and being able to walk around alone at night, or freely wear clothes exposing skin made me so grateful for the rights that women do have in America.

Not only did I gain insight about the differences in our culture, but also the disorganization of organizations themselves. St. Mary’s, as an institution, should have made sure our contact for the ISSAC program that facilitated the communication between St. Mary’s and the University of Kerala had the best interest of the students at hand in mind, especially being five young foreign women travelling to a remote, isolated area of India with no other foreigners for miles. ISSAC Director Sunny Luke did not have our best interests in mind, and knew that Raul had a previous history of sexual assault while still allowing him to be around us, and we could have been dead in our Technopark room for days had Rahul wanted to hurt us. We had no legitimate academic work, and perhaps St. Mary’s International Education Office Director should have investigated the program more thoroughly or ensured that the program director was responsible and trustworthy.

Nevertheless, we must use our power as individuals in a developed nation to make positive changes for the rest of the world, and control the way in which our capitalist consumer culture abuses much of the resources from other parts of the globe, using funds to help developing parts of the world. The most important way to dispel ignorance is education: we must train people how to reconnect with nature, others, and themselves to create lives of happiness without a need for destruction and greed. I wish to become an environmental lawyer, but before that, continue to educate people on the importance of questioning the validity of their place in the world through my art, music, and writing. I will be going to Thailand to study abroad in the fall, which will help open me to even more new experiences, and I will continue to question and learn more about myself and the world around me.

In Thailand, I hope to continue my quest of self evolution through the entropy which is life. I have a firm belief in cosmic coincidences and that everything happens for a reason because of the many occurrences in India and those surrounding it. On the night that the guard Rahul broke into our room, it was Shivirita, a holiday in which one stays up all night and fasts to honor Lord Shiva of destruction and rebirth, which we had talked about celebrating earlier in the week. Coincidentally, we celebrated Shivirita accidentally since we didn’t sleep or eat the night of the incident, and this night would lead to the destruction of our time in India, with a reconstruction of new ideas and thoughts about our place in the world and America.

Over winter break before I left for India, I visited my girlfriend Afrika in Los Angeles (where she lives), and we decided to go to Malibu to drink with some friends on the beach. After a couple of Four Lokos (why that was ever a good idea, no one will know), we strolled on the beach under the stars, finally away from the glaring city lights but still able to see the hellish glow of LA in the distance. We were next to the water, and suddenly it was too dark; it rushed upon us, she pushed me to get me away from it, I flew over a rock nestled in the sand while she tripped over it and I heard a SNAPPP! Trying to gather ourselves, I held her while she cried. We looked like lost sea nymph dementors washed up on the cold beach, hoods over our heads and mascara running dark trickles under our eyes. She managed to get back to the car with my help, and went to the hospital as soon as she dropped me off at the airport three days later. Broken in three places. The same week I returned unexpectedly early from India, her leg had finally healed and she started school, so she needed a roommate to move back to LA from Riverisde (where she had been staying with her mom). I moved in with her and started catering, making music, and performing spoken word. Life is just a circle within a circle within a circle.

So now, here I sit in my sweat in this tent; I regret the sins of the first world which I commit on a daily basis, the sand beneath my feet and stuck in the crevices of my dry toenails reminds me of a man who I met by the beach on our last night in India, who was entranced by my septum ring which hung by my lips and glinted in the candlelight, who told me of his adventures travelling and writing in Norway, who grabbed my hand and told me he felt the guilt I carried on my back with the weight of the world, that I am so quiet because there is so much on my mind all of the time, that I am caught between many worlds at once and wanting to change them all the time, that his dream is to be liberated and to liberate others. It is a circle- my circle, our circle, as well. The planets spin, the moon and sun and rain and rocks and animals.

 

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