Sunday, April 22, 2018

"Regrets?"

I want to
Well at least I want to want to
Feel again the way you feel
The way you Believe
Passionate
Pure

Finding Shelter in the Texts
Connected
Collected
Reliving the same stories
Tradition.

Like chicken soup for the weary soul
It wakes you with purpose
Drives you with conviction
Puts you to sleep with protection.

But even if I should
I wonder if I could

I don't know
Is it better to be a saint
in a world made of sin,
or rather just to be
in a world
       indifferent?

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Freedom from Religion


For those of you who are expecting/anticipating another long-winded story about my travels and tribulations, I am going to have to disappoint you this time. The truth is, I am currently finishing up a project, and are spending most of my days hunched over my laptop drinking a brown-ish sludge that the café owner has, with creative license, labeled coffee.
Rather, I want to tell you about a friendship that was formed and a new un-orthodox appreciation to Pesach (Passover) that emerged as a result.

Preface:
Though I have never openly shared this before, I have never hidden the fact that I am no longer religious (in the Orthodox definition of the word). There have been consequences to this decision, and I have lost and sacrificed much, but all-in-all the decision was freely mine to make. Add on the fact that I was blessed with accepting and loving parents, the transition out has been relatively smooth. Until recently, I never realized the magnitude of my fortune. That was, until I met A (obviously A isn’t her real name).

A is an ex-Muslim living in Malaysia, who, due to the strict Sharia Law enforced in Malaysia, must keep the ‘ex’ part secret. Not only to the government, but to the people she meets, and even to her family. The punishment for being an atheist depends on the state, but ranges from rehabilitation to the death penalty. In Malaysia, your religion is written on your ID (only if your Muslim), and therefore you can never escape it.
Traveling through Malaysia for an indefinite amount of time, A graciously offered to host me. But a one-night stay turned into ten days. Right from the get go we became friends, fascinated by each other’s backgrounds and traditions. I introduced her to Niggunim, Yossele Rosenblatt, and my general disdain for elephant pants. She taught me about Quranists, the differences between the Hadith and the Qu’ran, and the proper way to order teh tarik. One of the more conspicuous elements of our friendship was the similarity of our ideologies. We both loved and appreciated the cultures that we came from, invested the time and effort to truly know the beliefs we were taught, and ultimately decided to stray from normalcy on our personal pursuits of Truth.

Her story is my story, except she can never find cathartic release. Unlike Judaism which is also an ethnicity, Islam is only a religion. And yet to A, it is no longer a religion, but a caste. Forever forced to hide her beliefs. The most obvious universal freedom, the freedom to be yourself, wasn’t obvious and wasn’t universal. 

This past Friday night, Jews around the world celebrated the first night of Pesach. My initial plans to be in Nepal fell through, and I found myself in a small colonial town called Pondicherry for the Seder Night (the first night of Pesach). With no Chabad house for hundreds of miles, let alone Matzah (Im making due with Chapati), there weren’t many options. I ended up at a bar with a Jewish girl from France and her boyfriend. The bar didn’t even sell wine. As her boyfriend wasn’t Jewish, I took the opportunity to at least fulfill, “Ve’Higaditu L’vincho – Retelling the story of Pesach”. Surprisingly, there was more discussion about the Pesach story and its ramification to us today in that “seder” then most other seders that I’ve been a part of.
Point being, since leaving Orthodoxy, I’ve been trying to find a balance of tradition and progressivism that works for me. Until recently, I was focused on where this exploration would lead me. This year, I found a new appreciation of just being to take this journey.
Freedom used to mean Freedom to believe. And yet this Pesach, I celebrate my Freedom from belief.
The Freedom to find my own Promised Land.

India - Day One

My first day in India - more of a ramble than anything else:
Inspired by Bill Bryson and overly-exhausted by such a long day, I am going to attempt to share what my first day in India was like, sans the typical philosophy and analysis. Just what happened, and the thoughts that transpired during.
2:45 am – After barely an hour of sleep, I get back up, and call my Grab Taxi to the airport. I arrive at the airport at around 4:45 am, and with my flight being at 6:30, I feel comfortable and without rush. That was my first mistake. As my turn comes to the counter, the woman asks for my Visa to India. I pull out my phone to show her the email that I got, and she explains to me that I won’t be let into the country without a written visa. After a few failed attempts (the stores she recommended were closed), she tells me that I get access to a printer at a lounge the floor below, but I have to be back by her within 10 minutes, or else it will be too late to check in any luggage. With literally not even a minute to spare, I return to her, visa in-hand, and get the boarding pass.
Before I go any further, I should explain to you how I thought my day would go.
8am – Arrive in Chennai, India
9am – At airport, buy sim card and find a nice internet cafe
9:30am – Get a taxi to an said café and get work done
1:00pm – Walk a bit around the city and get some lunch
3:30pm – Get a shared ride to Pondicherry with a guy I found on blablacar.com
6:00pm – Arrive in Pondicherry and go to my CouchSurfing hosts house.
And then chill, explore a bit of town, and go to sleep early.
This is what actually happened:
I approach the customs official very certain the whole matter should be a matter of minutes. I have a printed-out visa, my passport has been issued for more than 6 months, and neither of my parents are from Pakistan (apparently that makes a difference). He starts asking me all the usual questions: how long I play to stay, the purpose of my travels, but then he asked me for my return flight. Return flight? I usually book one-way tickets, the day before. “How do you expect me to let you into our country without you having a return ticket?” he asks, as if I was the first person to ever try such shenanigans. After speaking to his supervisor, making me wait a good half hour on the side to reflect over my sins, they finally agree to let me in. I get out of the airport and start looking for a place to get a mobile phone. All I found were taxi drivers. I had a similar situation in Bali, there is a 4:1 ratio of taxi drivers to people arriving, so they will all fight for you. Once one of the pack has caught a prey, the flaunts you around and then others know to back off. Being exhausted and just wanting to sit down to get some work done, I decided to just pick one driver, get him to take me to get a sim-card, and then a café
The guy brings me to his tuk-tuk and starts an interrogation:
“So where are you sleeping tonight”
“Oh, in Pondicherry”
“So I drive you to Pondicherry?”
“No no, I have a ride there, I just need to get to Chennai”
“So I drive you around Chennai and then I take you to Pondicherry’
“No no, just to Chennai”
“Ok, Ok – so where do you want to go in Chennai”
“Just somewhere central, where I can get a sim card and maybe walk to a café”
“Ahh, ok, Ill drive you around Chennai, all the spots”
“No no, please sir, just take me to a get a sim card, anywhere”
This continues for another 5 minutes until he agrees to just take me to a mall in the city. On the way, he asks me if I have any USD, and tries haggling me to give him dollars. Now he is a professional haggler, because he never offered anything in return. He finally drops me off at a random spot, charges me an exorbitant price, and asks if Im happy. I was not happy. I was tired, and hungry, and really just wanted a coffee.
Its now around 9:30 and I expect to be able to finally get a phone plan and something to eat. But apparently most stores don’t open until 10:30-11:00. So even though I got a small breakfast, I have to just wait an hour until the stores would open up. Waiting is one thing I was getting good at.
10:30 comes around and a local store owner sees me, takes pity, and decides he was going to help me out. He shows me the phone store in the mall, but alas, they don’t have the necessary equipment (a scanner) to make a new account for a foreigner. I would need to go uniquely to a phone store.
So I go outside to find a tuk tuk to take me to a nearby phone store, and the driver informs me that due to it being a holiday today, most stores are closed. But he knows of one that is open, but it is further away and will cost more to get there. Of course it will. But without a way to check any of his claims, I agree. We get to the phone store, and it is packed. I take a number, and realize it will take at least an hour to get my turn and do all the necessary work. My driver says he’ll wait. I try to convince him out of it, but he just bobbles his head, pulls out a newspaper, and starts reading. When it is my turn, they start showing me the phone plans. 1GB a day for two months – 500 Ruppes (around $8). I thought there must be a mistake, maybe 500 rupees a day, but no that was the price. Excitedly I bought the plan, knowing that not only would I have internet, I would never have to worry about internet again.
Just as I was about to leave the store, the clerk informs me, “Oh, it will take around 4 hours until the sim card works.” Great! So I have my sim card, but I am still internetless.
At the mercy of my taxi driver, I ask him to take me to an internet café. He nods in approval, and I get excited. He knows what I want. I can just sit back with a coffee and a/c and just get work done.
He leads me through back-alleys and eventually to a tiny store, about the size of a Starbucks bathroom (trying to find a universal measurement). Apparently this is his wife’s store, and they have internet. So I agree to sit there for a few hours, just to be able to get a little work done and more importantly, figure out exactly how I am getting to Pondicherry. My BlaBla driver backed out on me, and I eventually wanted to use Indian transportation, but also I just wanted to be in a bed. I bring up the point he made earlier that it was a Holiday, and he says that there is a big event at a certain Temple. I ask him to take me after I finish my work. At around 3pm, I finish a little, and we go together to this Temple. I forgot the name of it (they are really hard to pronounce and there are a lot of them), but apparently this is a big one in Chennai. It’s a four day long holiday, but today was the biggest. Everyone comes to the temple, and it is a day of giving. Everywhere around the streets, people were handing out Briyani, Fruits, coffee, etc. We get to the temple and it is packed for any normal scale. Everywhere that I can see if packed with people. “A small crowd”, my taxi driver responds. “It is slowly getting bigger, by 6, you can barely move.”
Alas, I had to get to Pondicherry. On the way back, being desperate, I finally decide to just take a local bus. Its only for two hours, what could go wrong. On the way, my taxi driver asks if we can go to a local store to buy some clothes. Actually, if we can go to a local store so I can buy some clothes. Apparently he gets a new shirt for every 10 people he brings into the store, whether they buy something or not. I was lucky number 10. Sure, I thought. Go in, mumble some words, go “hmmmmm” while I stroke my beard, and then GTFO. I get to the store, and like a pack of lions when they spot prey, they all perk up. I start walking around, and I get approached, “What are you looking for, my good sir?” He brings me to the clothes area, and instead of just point to a design, he takes it out to show it to me. But not just one, 10-15 of every variety. Before I could even get a word in, the entire store is covered with shirts and shawls of every color and quality. I didn’t know how to explain to him that I wasn’t here to buy anything, just to get my taxi driver a new shirt. I thank him for his time, but say that this trip I am just looking, next time I am buying.
I get back to the taxi, and the driver says we will go to one more shop and then to the bus station. I fought back and told him that I am done – that I just want to get to the bus station. He finally lets up, and drives me to the bus station.
I get on the local bus, and it doesn’t seem so bad. Not so many people on the bus, decent leg room, after everything else today, another two hours couldn’t be so bad. And my phone just started worked. Hallelujah – things are looking up. Well the spacious bus turned crowded. The leg room became minimal. And the two hours became 5. And my phone battery was nearing it’s end. I did become friends with the locals sitting next to me, how could they not? Their heads were semi-lodged in my armpit. At around 10pm, we finally get to Pondicherry, and with 3% battery left, I find my way to my hosts house.
I take a quick shower, lie down in bed, and think about what the next two months will bring.