Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Unfinished business with India

Out of the destinations of my upcoming 13-week adventure (primary stops being India, Thailand, Singapore… more details later), I’m most excited about the Indian portion.  I don't know if I have a favorite place but India left the biggest impression on me.  My first trip there in May 2011 wasn't easy or even a very productive.   I barely could do any sightseeing because even the natives didn’t want to go out in the record breaking heat, I got sent home early with shingles without having the chance to buy any souvenirs or see the Taj Mahal which was one of my primary goals of the visit.  For my research, I was supposed to interview female students and professors about their interests in science.  I conducted many of these informally and learned a ton but it took a week to get access to a digital voice recorder with moldy batteries and multiple attempts to secure working batteries of the proper size repeatedly failed so I never got to document any of the interviews.  But even when my mom picked me up at the airport, when I was barely alive and really out of it, I told her I had to go back.   Partially because India and I have unfinished business.  But I went to meditation this morning, and the reflection beforehand helped me articulate why I’m so drawn to this crazy country.
            The teacher was talking about a New York Times article that her husband forwarded, where they interviewed a scientist who fabricated data and who was relatively open about his motivations after getting caught.  I can’t find the article she was talking about but supposedly, he said his first experiments were so messy and unpredictable that lying about his data was his way of clinging to the belief that the world should be logical and orderly. 
Although this doesn’t excuse his actions, as a scientist, I can relate to his struggle of striving for order in an unpredictable world.    The neat ability of Newtonian mechanics to predict how fast something would be going at the bottom of the hill or how high a projectile would rise was one of the main things that first attracted me to physics.  It’s definitely comforting to be able to predict aspects of how nature is going to behave.  So I was happy with that.  And then I learned about quantum mechanics and it blew my mind.  There are inherent, unavoidable limits to what we can know and often, the best we can do is discuss probabilities of things happening.  Fortunately, much smarter people than I have struggled to come to grips with its implications.  Richard Feyman said, “I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics.  Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will get ‘down the drain’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped.  Nobody knows how it can be like that”.   So quantum mechanics shocked me and depending on the day, I either love or hate that nothing can be known for certain.  On a good day, this vision of the world resonates with my experience with the world- sometimes life just seems so arbitrary and random.
But living in the US, where life is pretty good, most things proceed in a logical manner and I usually feel surrounded by a superficial semblance of order.   And I keep fighting a battle that I’ll inevitably lose to make things make sense.   But in India is a country of ironies when nothing makes sense and you just need to deal with it.  For example, I’ll be teaching at the largest corporate training center in the world that specializes in Information Technology but they told us we couldn’t expect computer access for our students.  In 2011, the entire staff got detained from leaving the country because they didn’t check in with the foreign visitor’s office because their 6-month work visa fell on the wrong side of the 180-day limit.  For better or worse, life there is governed by a fairly arbitrary bureaucracy. 
Living there, I had to rely on others to help me secure clean water and safe food, stay safe when walking around and I definitely felt fairly powerless.  But there was also something incredibly liberating to exist anonymously in the chaos (as anonymously as a blonde with a squeaky voice can exist in a country full of brown people).  What you see is what you get in India.  They are making strides to develop the country and I saw some gorgeous shopping centers, a really nice airport but two feet away, you see beggars lying on the streets surrounded by trash and dogs and it’s not obvious whether any of them are alive.  Everything can’t be good for everyone all the time and it’s kind of refreshing how brutally honest India is about revealing the good, bad and the ugly.  Even their gods and goddess aren't pretty.  
I guess the take-away message from meditation this morning and my rambles here, is that the truth isn’t always logical or pretty but there’s something freeing about surrendering control to the chaos and seeing what is real instead of what you think should be there.   Traveling helps reveal what's actually there because it is easier to pay attention when you’re in an unfamiliar place and looking at life from another angle.  I think the truth's easier to find in these third world countries who don't have as much of an established reputation and are muddling through the mess, trying to find their place in the world.  
So in closing, I know India is going to drive me crazy sometimes.  And I'm going to love it sometimes, because I've met amazingly generous and inspiring people (see this video on "Indians in 90 seconds" if you don't know any Indians personally).  It's going to be a mixed bag and that's a good thing. Mark Jenkins described it better than I ever could:
“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.”