Pass the fig leaves, Eve

I intend this post to serve as a post script to the post on sharing. Based on that post, I pictured my friends rushing to the phone to call their travel agent and booking their next vacation to India immediately. Who wouldn’t want to go to a place where people are so friendly and welcoming and generous in addition to being a place with a long and fascinating history and culture. I felt it was important to fill in the story a little further.

Since that writing, I have experienced the cities of Mumbai and Delhi. My experience in these cities was very different from the experiences in the countryside where the stories for the Sharing post took place. Now, for the record, I had a great time in both places. In Mumbai, Prashant, a friend of a friend’s friend (if you can follow that) dedicated his entire day to show me around, feed me, get me chai, translate for me, and become a new friend. Susan, from Delhi,  a friend of a friend, provided me invaluable tips for seeing India and although we tried to get together for a meal, we could not make our schedules work. And when I asked strangers for directions, everyone was quick to provide them to me.

The difference I’m referring to is in relation to the general population. Overall, there was a palpable difference in the cities from what I experienced in the countryside. The warmth of the people in the countryside, if measured, would be in the range of 98.6 degrees, the temperature of warm human beings. If I were to put city dwellers on the same fictitious scale, I would say they were about 70-80 degrees, which is about the same as what I experience in New York.  I had no first hand experience of crime whatsoever, but my driver in Delhi advised me not to go out after 11pm because it could be dangerous. Some of the reasons he mentioned in support of his assertion were rape, murder, theft, car theft and gang wars. Needless to say, that was a fairly compelling argument for me. In the countryside, I  experienced an old man who offered to give me his moped. My driver made it sound like, in Delhi, someone was more likely to TAKE MY moped.  In the city, folks are more aloof, less curious, more focused on what they have to do as opposed to what they were doing. More focused on where they need to be rather than where they are. And certainly focused more on making a living than making a life.

This led me to think about what cities, in general, do for us and to us. I’ve heard experts say that there has been a trend over the last century or two of people in the world moving away from the countryside and into the cities. Those experts predict that this trend will pick up speed. Bhutan, where I currently find myself, has created what is essentially a tax for folks who move from the country to the cities in an attempt to stem this migration. I wish them luck, but I’m not sure they will be able to stop it. The draw to cities is just too great. Why? The answer lies largely in economics. For people, there are more and better paying jobs there. For governments, they can provide services to the residents more efficiently due to economies of scale.  I understand, from other experts, that cities also have benefits for global warming. It is supposed to take less energy per capita to run a city than it would otherwise require in the country. The concentration of people in cities usually results in better education, transportation, healthcare, water, electricity and sewer systems. With regard to education, it seems that in the U.S., education is more closely correlated to the wealth of the community than the population density.

So it seems to me that the good news about cities revolves largely around economics. The bad news about cities is that they revolve largely around economics. I don’t know if these downsides for cities are inevitable, but they certainly seem to be the current norm. In particular, I’m thinking about what cities do to our psyches. Seeing the stark contrast from what I experienced in the countryside of India to my experience in the cities made me wonder what happens to our peace of mind, our ability to live in the moment, our ability to appreciate life and its blessings, to our natural spirituality and to our connection to others. The irony is that, in cities, we live closer together, but are further apart.

Cities seem to have a corrosive effect that shifts us from collaborators to competitors, from “us” to “us and them”. It seems that it can be a slippery slope as we slide from treating one another as souls, to people, to objects.

It is a high price to pay. One of the prices we pay is with the crime that was described to me in Delhi and exists in most cities. In the countryside, I experienced a gentleness, even an innocence among the people. In the city, we have been literally and figuratively thrown out of the garden, away from nature, away from God, away from our own true nature.

Henry Thoreau, one of America’s first environmentalists, wrote the following on this topic:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”

Henry, who sat at Walden Pond, in a small house with very few possessions… as I recall, a table, a chair, a few candles and not much else, expressed an aspect of what society’s pressures can do to us. His remedy for that was to return to nature. He described his walks in nature as meditative, restorative, a way to get back in touch with himself. And I think that gets to the crux of the problem. It’s easier to lose yourself in the city. It’s easier to forget who you are and where you came from. It’s easier to forget that we’re all in this together.

I don’t think it has to be this way, but we really have to work at it to push against the forces that drive us toward money and away from each other.

You may have heard that the small country of Bhutan has created a measure called Gross National Happiness. It is their attempt at keeping the Country’s focus on the important things. This measure has been contrasted to the prime national measure in “developed” countries called Gross National Product. The GNP measures the amount of goods a country produces and provides an indication of economic health. Gross National Happiness measures the amount of good a country produces and how the country measures up socially, spiritually, ethically, and environmentally. No country is perfect; there is no such thing in human institutions by definition; but I do think the government of Bhutan is onto something when they communicate to their people that money for individuals and economics for a society are not the only measures of a people’s success.

Just one quick personal story from Delhi. I don’t know how to categorize it except weird. I was repacking for the trip from Delhi to Bhutan and I found the charger to my video camera broken. I couldn’t imagine not capturing the beauty of Bhutan on video so I ran out of the hotel to 3 different stores until I found a replacement charger. (I might add that the guys in the 3rd store could not have been more helpful and charged me only 120 rupees ($2) for the charger)! As I walked back to the hotel, still in a state of euphoria, 3 guys parked in a car called me over to ask where I’m from. I had been getting this a lot in India, so initially I didn’t think anything of it. I learned that one of the guys was coming through New York on his way to Nashville to visit his cousin. He suggested he calls me when he was in town and we could get coffee. This still could be classified under the category of them being super friendly people so I gave him my number. This is where the conversation turned weird though. He then proposed that he stay at my place for a while when he gets to town. (I guess he wasn’t that anxious to see his cousin?) Just in case you’re not following this, I did not know this guy from Adam, he’s sitting in a car drinking with his two friends and he wants to stay at my place when he comes to town next month?! I don’t think so!! These guys crossed a line of reasonableness in my mind and I was going to put a quick end to our very short friendship. Not wanting to insult, but wanting to get the hell out of there, I told them I had to finish packing because I had a travel day coming up. They offered me whatever they were drinking in a plastic cup (another bad sign) and I turned them down. They offered me some of their oranges and I politely declined. They offered me a ride to my hotel, which I also declined. They asked me if I was afraid walking around alone at night. I told them no and they said that I should be. Hmmm…check please! Without missing a beat, I turned on one last bit of diplomacy by responding to them that I had only experienced wonderful people in my first 2 weeks in India and I absolutely loved their country (all true). This seemed to baffle them. They then offered me a spice packet to the dominoes pizza they had eaten! (The scene had now gone from weird to comical!). I accepted the gift from them and bid them adieu, spice packet and charger in hand. Reflecting on this experience, I can’t tell if I was ever in trouble or whether they were just feeling no pain from whatever they were drinking and decided to have a little fun with the tourist. I’ll let you know if he calls.

Anyway, I’ve taken some great video in Bhutan!




5 thoughts on “Pass the fig leaves, Eve”

  1. Wow those three guys were weird. Was the streets deserted at the time? I’d say they were not completely harmless. They were probably assessing your ability to defend yourself that whole time. Any weakness on your part would’ve emboldened them. You should be careful. Trust your instinct.

  2. true that, I think it goes for urban life everywhere. It’s an interesting cycle. People move to the city to make money to buy stuff. Then there are people who at some point realize that what they really want is to be happy and all their stuff does not make them happy, so they get rid of a lot of stuff and maybe even move to the country. My experience has been that connection with nature gets you more happiness then any stuff ever will.
    Your weird Delhi experience was truly that. weird. no telling what actually went on there. I found it very challenging in India to read people due to the extreme cultural differences, which partially contributed to my uncharacteristically cautious behavior. Not saying that was a bad thing. I will add however, that on out last day in Mumbai, back at the Leela, I did venture out by myself with a rickshaw because nobody wanted to join me. It was a brief and safe (relatively, considering the traffic alone) adventure and I’m glad I did it

  3. oh, and…I am curious, by your observation, how is Bhutan making out in terms of their efforts toward Gross National Happiness?

  4. John ,be careful !! You grew up in New York and from your experiences you have got to know that you were extremely lucky to leave your three new “friends” before something ugly happened.
    When you get back and get all your thoughts and pictures together it would make a great book.

  5. I casually mentioned your story about the weird guys offering you food and wanting to stay with you to someone at lunch today. He’s from India and he said the food must have drugs in them. That’s how lots of crimes happen. His take is that they were going to rob you once they get you drugged.

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