Friday, May 10, 2013
Guru X - Chapter 1
I remember exactly when it started, this feeling within me, that there was more to life than the way I was living it. It was at the classic cinema house and I was watching a film from the 70s that I can’t recall the name of. In the film, the sunlight danced off the street and out into the theater where I was sitting. It was as if I could finally see the sun, as if it was more real than the sun outside itself.
On my way home, looking around me, the world looked new. I paid greater attention to detail and felt a connection to everything around me. The old woman walking her dog. The little girl watching her mother put on make-up. The street lights, the cars, everything started to move in cinematic slow motion. I started to ask and think why. Why the man walked as he did. What it meant when someone spoke the way they spoke. I understood that the detail was not trivial. That it spoke volumes about people’s personalities and histories.
Film, or art in general, for the first time in my life, became more than just pleasant entertainment or an escape from reality. It put me in greater touch with what was happening around me, my thoughts, feelings and - most importantly - the lives of others. I became interested in the stories of people, and wanted more of it.
After college, when I had more time, and was out of the structure induced on me since kindergarden, I started to question more about how one was supposed to live their life. I started to read voraciously, and watch more films. It started to change me and what I wanted out of my life.
Before my engagement with art, I just desired and did what most successful, academically oriented people did - I got good grades, so I could make a lot of money doing something prestigious - like becoming a doctor, lawyer or an MBA on Wall street.
This desire, upon my newfound relationship to art, crumbled, and I was disoriented. I didn’t know what I could replace it with, though had a vague sense that there was something deeper out there that would be more fulfilling to pursue. During one of my medical school interviews, which I undertook very half heartedly, I met a pretty blonde girl that would change the course of my life forever.
Her eyes sparkled, there was a goodness to her face. Regardless of what they say, you can tell the world from a person’s face. We got to talking, and ended up taking the same bus back to where we were going in the city. She laughed at every one of my jokes. Really thought the world of me. I had never gotten such approval from such a pretty girl before.
Up until then, I was a quasi virgin. Well, I had had passionate sex once, with a german tourist who had an Indian fetish. Thankfully my roommate was away and we made love on the top bunk. Post-coitus, as I lit up my cigarette, I started talking about Hitler. “Hitler would be proud is us, wouldn’t he? You know I am Aryan. North Indians are Aryan.” That didn’t go so well. The next day I scrounged what little money I had and bought her a fat free frozen yogurt cone from Mcdonalds for 99 cents and took her on the Staten Island ferry - the perfect poor student date. She left shortly after, and never got lucky till I met Blondie.
As our bus stop was approaching, I told my new found blonde girl that I wasn’t sure about medical school. And she said she was certainly going to take a year off. She had received a grant to do an HIV/AIDS project in Namibia. She was looking for some researchers..and might I be interested to go to Africa with her?
There are those moments in life when you feel moved by destiny and you know exactly what to do and say, without thought or hesitation. I said yes with conviction. She jumped and smiled and we kissed. And 3 months later, I was flying over the ocean to the mother continent. I was finally living the life I saw in the movies and read in books. I was about to have an adventure Jack Kerouac would have been proud of.
The anticipation of my departure was met by awe and intrigue by my friends and family. I had turned into Mother Theresa without having done a thing. This was 1999, and the humanitarianism and exotic travel that is common now, was rare then. Or less known about, given the nascency of the internet and non-existence of social media.
I took my hero worship with discomfort. I was socially aware enough to know that if I really wanted to just help people, I would go to the south Bronx. Namibia, on the African continent, that was something more; it was about adventure, self-actualization, a quest for the truth and to understand the world better. It wasn’t just about helping people. Though when I told people, the look in their eyes was something to behold. They didn’t see it the way I saw and thought it was self-sacrifice; charity. No matter how much I played it down, they mistook it for false modesty. My adventure, my search for the truth, was slowly transforming into a campaign to end poverty and usher in world peace.
I suppose this tendency is common in human nature. To sanctify. To deify. To believe in the higher nature of man. A man who is selfless and helps others. I am not against this way of thinking. I just found it oppressive and false, that’s all. This happens a lot. The idea of something is far more attractive that the thing itself.
I arrived alone in Namibia, as my companion, said Blonde Girl ( I truly do not mean to objectify her by the color of her hair, but can’t think of any better way to mention her without using her name for which I have no desire to do as you will see why) would meet me soon after. I was to be picked up by a local who worked for the American embassy and would be our local guide, driver and help us settle in as we got our bearings to undertake our project.
Perhaps it is embarrassing to admit this, but I was one of those people, who had very little idea what the continent of Africa was about. I expected a Sally Struthers infomercial of suffering.
Instead I was greeted by my local guide, wearing sunglasses and looking dapper in his finest designer clothing. I expected straw huts, but Windoek is a regular looking city, slightly suburban in character, and we went straight away to a mall to have lunch. As he used, perfectly, a knife and fork to cut his exquisite medium rare steak, I mentioned to my guide, without sounding rude, that I had expected something a bit different.
I still remember this. He took off his sunglasses to really look at me, and said: What did you expect? That you were going to Zaire?
I checked into a local hotel, and waited for Blondie to arrive. There are 2 million people in a country the size of Texas in Namibia. The landscape is dry, and there is not the usual density and squalor one would expect in a poor place, and a place being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic no less. It was quiet and pristine.
Soon enough, I went to pick up Blondie from the airport, and we met with the same exhilaration we had in New York and were eager to work and be together over the upcoming months though I did notice she was a bit agitated and nervous. To be expected, I thought, as we were very far away from home and in Africa.
Her dealings with the locals was slightly forced, awkward and afraid. I told her to relax, and over the passing days, she was a bit more easy going and opened up to the newness of it all but I could still tell she wasn’t entirely comfortable as a minority for the first time in her life. We were a long way from Kansas.
We bought a car - a huge white Land Rover - and took to driving across the country. This helped to relax things a bit. We would often be the only car on the road, and the landscape and the people, it was something out of a storybook. When we arrived in Swakopmund, on the coast, where the sand dunes meet the ocean, we stopped the car and jumped out to revel in the beauty - the purity - of the place. To this day the colors are etched in my mind. The visceral aspect of the place is something to behold.
The people were also kind and open. I was acutely aware of the apartheid past that was all to recent in 1999 and wanted to be as sensitive as I could, though it is never easy as a foreigner. You are kind of damned if you do; damned if you don’t - no simple way to make the human interaction easy given the history.
Up until then my only interactions with black people was through the lens of the African American experience. Very different than the African experience. I had Black friends in school, but it was always charged with difference. What I mean to say, if one can even talk about this without sounding silly, is that it was never a natural relation and when someone asked me if I was attracted to Black girls, before leaving, I said no.
What a completely stupid thing to say, when I think back on it. I wasn’t attracted to Black women because I had little intimate contact with them. I am convinced that if you become aware of another person’s inner life and struggles and thoughts, love follows and so does attraction.
I used to feel that way about the Chinese until I started reading their literature and watching their art films. Perhaps it is silly that one needs art to feel for another race, but that is just how it is. Art sensitizes us. Makes us human and allows us to understand the experiences of others. And so does travel and interacting with people on an equal footing. Ironically, I had to go all the way to Africa to have this; a normal, relaxed conversation with black people as people.
When it came time to get a house, Blondie wanted to be in an all-white enclave on the beach, for safety of course. Our house was a mansion, for 400 dollars a month, we could live absurdly well. I was reluctant, expressed my dismay, and was advised to be practical and not a Marxist.
I wasn’t being a Marxist. I wanted to get to know people, to fall in love with them. I felt moved by people’s lives and concerns, and felt anytime away from this exposure, was time wasted. I could have been anywhere in that all-white enclave. It reminded me of the West. And I wanted to be in Africa all the time. I wanted to be reminded of it in every moment. I also did not want to be reminded of my difference.
Perhaps I would have been okay with this if our work went off well. But it didn’t. Nobody trusted us, or took our work seriously, because we went to local villages in a car, if sold, could probably feed the entire village for years.
When it got dark, we left, and went back to our seclusion. I remember once, the locals insisted we stay and dance at the local disco. Blondie danced for 15 minutes, half heartedly, and then insisted we leave; she felt unsafe. She had this fear, deep down, she confessed to me, of black men. She knew it was irrational. She mentioned in passing how if she was raped, that we should have anti- aids drugs cocktails on hand to reduce the risk of HIV transmissions.
I guess it didn’t help, that I suggested we play out rape fantasies to over come her fears. That perhaps if I pretended to rape her, she could overcome the pain. I was young, insensitive and stupid to suggest such a thing. But I was frustrated by what was happening. Why would a white women afraid of being raped by Black men come to Africa?
I slowly became depressed and cynical. And this led to anger, as if that romantic narrative of my life, who I thought I was and wanted to be, was being sullied. That I was missing my chance at a certain sort of greatness that could only happen if I got Africa within me. I did not want to be comfortable in Africa; I wanted it to change my dreary modern pathetic excuse for a life. I wanted to live with the people, work amongst them, understand them and learn from them. And here I was replicating all the worse stereotypes and missing out on my African Experience.
In the evenings, we would be in our mansion, when it was dark, often we became silent and read. I became so bored I read War and Peace and Brothers Karamazov, in record time. After awhile, I didn’t want to read more. There is only so much escape your mind is capable of. I would take the car out by myself to drive and think. Especially at night, with the moon, and the sound of the ocean, I would drive recklessly on the beach. Cascading the car into the waves. I wanted to kill myself but was too young and full of life to do so. I just needed a way out.
There was one local pub to drink and eat that wasn‘t meant for rich white people and I would go there often to have a drink. I was there one night, and heard a Southern accent. It was distinctive and kind. I looked over and there was this handsome, rugged American young man, surrounded by Namibian teenagers. They were having pizza, and he had an air of a chaperone, a teacher, and that is what he was. He was on a school trip with his English class, for a high school he taught in, in a remote village called Omaruru situated halfway between the coast and the capital city.
I went over to him, immediately introduced myself and poured my heart out. I told him I was at a loss. That I had come to help and now was ensnared in this project and living a life that was most uncomfortable for me. He looked at me, listened carefully, and told me: just leave. Pack your things and come to Omaruru. To come and stay with him, as he lived in the teacher’s housing in the village, and would help me in time find a place to live. He said I could help out in the school or the local clinic. That something would work out.
There was little hesitation in his manner. And he had this calm demeanor, and the teenagers who were with him loved him, you could tell by the way they listened to him. They started to speak to me also, told me to come. I said I would think it over. I said goodbye to them, as they were on their way back early in the morning. I wanted to get his contact info and Zach said “Just show up - everyone knows me, am the only white guy in the village.”
And that was it. I had a point to escape to. I find my mind focuses best when it has a goal, any goal to work towards. And now I had it: Omaruru. But what of Blondie? I felt she would be okay. She controlled the grant money and would be fine. I was the one venturing out into the unknown with nothing. I knew, given her fears, she probably wanted to have me around and then I understood in a way why she wanted me to come with her here in the first place. To protect her, make her feel safe. And here I thought it was about love.
I had to decide between her and Africa, and it was was easy choice.
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