We haven’t quite forgotten about all of you. Glimpses of your faces appear in strangers’ faces, and the people I meet often, so often, remind me of past friends. I have been dreaming about the most obscure of you all (no offense of course) and have been comforted by your presence in my subconscious. Maybe you’re thinking of me? (Perhaps I flatter myself.) Hm. Really though. The way your head tilts when you laugh heartily, or the way you pass people in the halls, also the way you eat with your hands and the way you fall asleep on public transit– I see your peculiarities through familiar strangers, all the time. In other words, my life has transformed into Facebook’s doppelgänger week.
Passing time in Pokhara has brought this phenomenon to a head as we’ve realized how much of our individuality is imagined. Here, most of these travelers have abandoned their societies in favor of becoming a world nomad of sorts (this is highly idealized, and please allow me this generalization–you may include me as well…). Society-less, they adopt similar styles. Backpacks, hiking sandals, convertible pants, maybe dreadlocks, Pashminas, and in Asia, almost every female dons loose ‘fishermen’ trousers. Seeking individuality, they/we fall into conformity in the practical aspects of traveling. We *need* a few things while we travel but Westerners (again generalization) desire a few things more than we care to admit. More than Spider-pooing outdoors (if you don’t know what this is, pretend I said “amazing vistas”), we prefer clean toilets. More than learning the local language, we prefer signs in English (or our own language). More than trying foreign cuisine, we prefer the bland but familiar, accompanied by filtered water, or coffee (preferably organic). More than interacting with pushy sales people, we prefer (sometimes unintentionally rudely, loudly) price checking by ourselves, and free WiFi. Color me jaded, but walking through the streets of Pokhara is like walking in circles of a fantastical traveler’s paradise. Laundry service, money changing, trekking office, outfitters, Nepali clothing, expensive restaurants boasting European foods, and coffee places repeat themselves exactly with few variations. But this is consumerism; this is capitalism at its finest. The commodities we desire, we find in quantities that astonish us, except that we fail to realize that this place is not foreign any longer. It is a perfect reflection of Western ideals: convenience, novelty, and cheapness. Dear friends of ours, we have gone half the world over and found that even here, the landscape is polluted with commodification of experiences. The outdoors experience is now a profit-making venture by trekking companies; the self-reflective experience (which I anticipate and appreciate most about traveling) is conveniently packaged in the flourishing of coffee shops or expensive meditation retreats; the experience of long-distance communication with friends and family back home now easily achieved by the gimmicky free Wifi available everywhere (however slowly it operates). We are so obviously included in this category. We are sucked into the free WFi, the need to hire a guide to go trekking, the organic coffee, the availability of familiar cuisine (though at least we go for the South Indian foods)…
I guiltily charge myself with a certain elitism, for having inwardly praised my own supposed uniqueness and bravery for leaving home for an uncertain amount of time. Friends, forgive me: I am just like you. Even here, I am not immune to the comforts to which I am accustomed. Just because I pee 9/10 times in an Eastern toilet and dutifully pack out my toilet paper (if I have the luxury of using any) means nothing if I wince and obsess over the cleanliness of the door handles and the communal bar of soap. Curse my Western biases! I want to be comfortable anywhere living the way the majority of the world lives. I say this, but put me in a bus for nine hours with smelly sweaty people pushing and leaning on me and I find it difficult to maintain my egalitarian mindset. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to imagine myself first, filled with white light, with compassion for myself, with love for myself, then extending this white light to everyone in my vision. It is not with great pride that I admit that I lose patience for that meditative interlude quickly under such circumstances.
In any case, goodness gracious. What a deep hole of despair I have typed myself into. I had no idea this was going to emerge from my ruminations on consumerism. I’d like to take this pause to recommend us all to take a deeeeeeep breath and remember our humanity. I am forgiving myself now for whatever ‘failures’ I perceive myself to have committed. This is now a fabulous introduction for another way to view this situation. Although we are all one consumer driven by impulse and convenience, *we are all one.* Oh my goodness, this means so much more than we imagine. This is not a fault of the human race. It is our saving grace!
Ghulam, the incredibly wise and humble man with a smile like gold, with whom we are staying in Pokhara, is a Sufi. Yesterday, he shared with us his views on Sufism. His most important point was that every human, every creature, every living thing on the planet IS god. Instead of saying we are seeing god, praying to god, extending effort to go exterior to ourselves to find god, we should note that god is inside of us. We merely need to look inside to find this unity of spirit, this divine grace radiating within us. Phew. Reflect on this for a long second (or your life–your choice). Yes. We are not doomed. And here’s why my reaction to Pokhara is incomplete. Because relying on superficial perceptions fails to paint a true picture. On the other side of this lens, beneath the (imagined) expanse of capitalistic scum, lies living, breathing, hearts and desires beating with a purity that is incomprehensible from the exterior view.
Staying with Ashiq, Ghulam’s son and our official CS host, Ghulam, and his sweet daughter Sumai, has privileged us in this way. While displaying his incredible handwoven carpets, Gulam told us that it is difficult to find tourists who appreciate the true craftsmanship that is poured into every handicraft in his store. He estimates 70% of all people have no idea what a quality product is. He finds that most people buy things based on costs and go for quantity over quality. He says these things remorsefully because one carpet, 2’x4′, could take him 13 months, of eight-hour-a-day eye-straining work by the loom. He pointed to the intricate patterns which don’t repeat themselves once on the carpet. Each line is unique and must be read in “carpet language.” For a man who cannot read or write, his skill at building painstakingly beautiful carpets which began at age 4, is what provides for his family. His craftsmanship cannot be replicated by a machine. He shared a story of a wealthy man who was buying a carpet and pointed out a flaw the design. One side was a little off from the other side. To him, this validated the carpet’s worth as hand-made. Another trait which is often overlooked is his honesty. He explained to us the difference between the shawls and clothing that he sold. Many stores offer similar products as his but fail to point out the differences so that they can charge higher prices for a poor quality object. His attitude towards customers as long-term friends who will hopefully engage in business and friendship with him for years to come, is something that is clearly lacking in many other stores. But, that doesn’t mean the other stores should be faulted. The people there perhaps have other dreams that aren’t being fulfilled. For Ghulam, creating beautiful carpets and shawls is his craft and he has great pride in his work. He spent hours showing us the fine needlework and quality of the thread in pieces–not because he thought we could buy something, but because he said, he would love to show things to us all day. This humble pride in his work is rarely seen from the surface, (and in general is rare– I don’t remember the last time I wanted to truly share something I created because I was actually *proud* of it.) Anyways, life is more complicated than I could possibly describe. From my still-somewhat jaded perspective, noncommodified experiences like CSing and sitting and listening to Ghulam’s ethics of business and life are what makes traveling feel truly rich.