Part 1 of 3: Goodbye India
I just spent the last 6 months of my life on the other side of our galaxy. During that time, I discovered an alien civilization, uncovered the meaning of life, and had a few conversations with God himself, in person. In fact, He showed me around His home, and over dinner explained to me the truth behind human origins. He was about to explain physics’ holy grail, “The Unified Field Theory”, when my BlackBerry phone interrupted with an e-mail. My work place was responding to a message I had sent a few months ago. In that e-mail, I explained that I had many important discoveries and experiences to share with the human race, and was asking for an extra two weeks to gather more data, and roam the universe before returning home. The response was, “That’s great Jeff. We need you at work, Monday at 9:00 a.m. See you then.” So I hugged God goodbye, explaining that I was a slave to the man back home, and promised Him I would be back. He replied, “I know you will, dawg…I know you will.” I didn’t like His overly sure tone-of-voice, but whatever. He’s cool. I then got on a flying machine of some kind, received some free food and alcohol, and found myself in Los Angeles, California on Aug 11th, 2009; 177 days removed from the moment my “flying fantasy capsule” left home on a rainy day in February.
Saying goodbye to my new friends in India was extremely difficult for me. There will not be any weekend road trips to see how Murali and Sobharam are doing. I will not be catching a quick flight to attend Anil’s met-girl-only-once-arranged-marriage wedding. I won’t be stopping in Vanitha’s office, joking that my body is now a frail skeleton, and that all of my mojo has gone. And with everyone else, no matter how much we all mean it, “keeping in touch” can easily fade with time. If you thought it was difficult remaining friends with people from high school, who live in the same city as you, try keeping in touch with people on the other side of the planet. Earth works against you, as India’s time-zone is 13 hours ahead of the U.S. You are going to sleep in the middle of their day. They are waking up when yours is coming to an end. If you decide to get on a plane, the penalty will be 44 hours of round-trip flight time, and $1,500 USD. Good luck my well-intentioned friends.
These were just some of the unhappy thoughts running through my head, as my last day of work began on a hot, sunny, monsoon-season day in August. And as Anil weaved the car around other moving metal boxes and flatbed trucks, one last time, my thoughts also weaved back to the my first day on the job in India. I remembered feeling exhausted from being on constant visual data overload. I remembered my depression from trying to mentally process the poverty, block out the smell, and my sad thoughts on the countless stray dogs. Through time, however, all of these issues simply vanished for me. The turning point was on the day I decided to stop fighting India, and enjoy a challenging journey to see the Taj Mahal. During those 24 hours, I awakened to the idea that we may just be here to experience a journey, and not so much achieve a particular goal or destination. Regardless, 6 months later, I still care about the goals in my life at an immensely insane, overachieving level. I’ve always been that way, and I know this will never go away for me. However, since Taj-Mahal-weekend, India has forced me to spend significant thought on how to accomplish a loving journey as well. Admittedly, I have a bad habit of not feeling happy until I’ve reached a particular goal or destination. And since India’s “system” is perfectly set up to slap people who think like me around, I assure you I was beaten to a bloody pulp on many days. In southern Asia, detaching from the details of your plan and letting the universe lead the way, is definitely the best way to proceed. In doing so, you may also learn that the universe is, quite possibly, far more creative than you could ever be, and therefore might be happily surprised at the flavor in which your dreams finally do come true. These are all obvious, self-help/spiritual 101 topics I’ve read in many books, a hundred times over. However, it turns out, there is a stunning difference between reading these words, and experiencing them. Go figure.
As Anil drove past the security guards who couldn’t stop a crawling baby if they tried, I thought back to how I used to spend a significant amount of time thinking about the living conditions for many Indians. I pondered solutions and possible required steps to gain substantial economic improvement. The problem must have been too complex for my brain to handle, because that’s when I started thinking about advanced alien civilizations from galaxies far, far away. I wondered what us Californian Westerners look like to their transplanted souls who are forced to peck and poke on our computer keyboards, live in our primitive hotels and homes, and drive in our polluting cars that can’t even fly. Just think, there is probably some alien soul roaming California right now, complaining in a journal how filthy and impoverished this place is. So maybe poverty only exists in the eye of the beholder, I thought. It’s only when I started making myself laugh, that I started noticing all the bright smiles on the wrinkle-free faces in the Indian crowd. I slowly learned that I was the unhappy one; they were the happy people. And while I’m not going to sit here and claim nothing should be done about the 1 million people who live in the Mumbai slum, I chose to not feel sadness and depression about it a long time ago. India’s history lead them to this place for a reason, and who am I to question it? Eventually, India’s economy will evolve to the point where this is no longer a problem, and so I just need to let go, and let the universe lead India on their own collective journey.
By the time the car approached the front doors, I remembered how the smell seemed to, within a few days of arrival, magically disappear. And as I stepped out of the car to the sight of a barking dog, I thought how even the animals without homes became my friend. I love the dogs in India, and am most thankful for the dog I named, Sampson. He greeted me every morning and every night for 6 months outside the hotel. I know it’s simply my strong affection for dogs, but I miss him almost as much as some of the people. Approaching the office elevators, however, I was reminded that my newfound super powers were no match for Indian Elevator Hell. I found myself, once again, pressed into the back corner of a small, tin can, promising myself I will figure out the life-lessons elevators have to offer on my next trip. Thankfully, my thoughts quickly turned nostalgic, as the Elevator-God shot me out like a cheap bottle rocket from a bacteria-filled Coke bottle, straight to my work-desk.
In case you haven’t figured out by now, I am a fairly sensitive person. The smallest things in life sometimes have a very profound impact on me. This personality trait is great during times of happiness and laughter, as it doesn’t take much for me to smile, or crack a sarcastic joke. However, this also means that saying goodbye to people I care about, and may never see again; well, it can be mentally, quite painful. So as the day’s end was rapidly approaching, I started feeling the reality of this road coming to a sudden end. It didn’t help when I started noticing many co-workers gathering together either. I began to suspect, something was being planned for my exit. And when they were all ready, I was indeed called into a room full of thunderous applause and smiling faces. My heart began to race, and my eyes water, as I became extremely nervous, but very humbled as well. They were here to say farewell, give me their love, and hand me the perfect goodbye-gift. They all know how obsessed I am with music composition, how much I love their music, and how much enjoyment I had dancing like a mad-man during a few work parties, Bollywood style. So as they handed me a set of tablas (Indian drums), I fought to keep it together and stay composed. I gave a speech, verbalizing how much I loved them all, and tried to explain the impact India has had on my life. And while I’m sure I didn’t say everything I wanted to say, I know they saw the tears in my eyes, and heard the crack in my voice. The sadness was abruptly interrupted, however, as I found myself suddenly saying hello to the ceiling. Several friends had grabbed me, and raised me into the air. Thankfully, at this point, I had lost over 20 pounds from constantly being sick. Otherwise, this operation may have failed with the ground and I becoming better friends than I really ever want to be. I’ll never forget the feeling of receiving their love, for as long as I’m alive.
The last moments in India were spent at a Saturday night work-party. And I found myself, once again dancing, nearly 4 hours straight, to great Bollywood music. At 3:30 a.m. the party was quite over to say the least. The lights were on, and the room was empty. Still hanging around, my driver, Anil, was actually concerned about my safety when he realized everyone had left the party and hadn’t seen me yet. If you understand Indian culture, and especially understand the servitude and respect these drivers have to their clients, you’d realize what a big deal it was for him to walk into a place he wasn’t invited, and start looking for me. On the way back to the hotel, I thought back to when my plane landed in this country, 6 months ago; all of my initial negativity. If only someone could’ve told me in those moments, months later, I would soon be singing, dancing, and loving; that someone would have to come find me, and tell me, “It’s time to go home, sir.”
177 Days Later
Part 2 of 3: Rome, Italy
With my time in India finally at a close, it was time to do something I had only daydreamed about, more often than I care to admit: get on a human transport device, sit in my Hollywood apartment, order great chinese food from my favorite restaurant, and take the Cleveland Browns to the Superbowl on the John Madden XBox video game. I was tired, and exhausted from the last 6 months, however, out of obligation to being on the other side of the planet, I felt it would be a shame if I didn’t vacation somewhere along the way. With the entire side of the planet available to me as an option, the choice was difficult. However, I eventually found myself in Rome, Italy, staring at some of the most beautiful and historic art ever created by human beings in the western hemisphere. 7 days straight of staring in awe at Michelangelo paintings, Leonardo da Vinci sculptures, epic cathedrals and chapels built for popes, and ancient ruins from an era in which the Roman Empire ruled the planet. The Colisseum, Vatican City, Sistine Chapel, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and countless historic paintings, sculptures, and fountains kept me busy for days. Throw in nonstop fine Italian dining, and plenty of wine; and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Rome is an over-indulgent feast for all five of the human senses.
If human pleasures are not enough, Rome has the spiritual domain covered as well. It’s not an exaggeration to claim that nearly everything built there, was made with a higher power at the center of its inspiration. Walking around Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, left me feeling humbled, and awestruck that humans are capable of creating such beauty. Even if you are not a religious person, or don’t even believe in a spiritual universe, the people that built, sculpted, and painted these miracles did. I found it quite difficult to not be effected by their passion and energy towards God, and this left me with a feeling of profound respect towards their religion. I’ll never be able to prove that God or spiritual dimensions exist to myself or anyone else on this planet. However, trembling in a gigantic cathedral’s beam of light, made me realize that explaining or understanding God doesn’t really matter. The feeling of thinking He just might be around, can be quite good enough.
And if eating great food, contemplating God, and staring at miracle creations doesn’t get you excited enough, for an alternative experience, you can always try getting your pockets picked by the poor women, trolling around this ancient city. Yes, Rome is a big city. And this means it has its fair share of problems. I was warned extensively, by more then a few people, about the dangers of getting my pockets picked, and the petty-theft crime rate in general. Honestly, by the time my plane landed, it really felt like I had a near 100% chance of getting robbed. As I stated in previous writings, however, I don’t live a life based in fear. I exist in reality. The odds of anything happening to me, I knew, were statistically very low. With all that in mind, however, I truly wasn’t ready to walk into a human hand-trap at 8:00 a.m. on a bright, sunshine-filled morning, in one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rome: the Spanish Steps. It was there that I found myself being mobbed by 3 Roman woman beggars. Since I hadn’t even had my morning coffee yet, from a distance, they looked like a harmless woman caring for her cute baby, and her two younger daughters sitting on the steps, relaxing. My uncaffeinated body was about to get all the adrenaline it needed for the day, however, as within seconds they each had a firm grip on my legs and arms. At this point, the woman with the fake, plastic baby strapped to her chest, spun me around a few times, while another shook me pretty violently. The other lady gripped my legs, and didn’t feel like letting go anytime soon. Animal instincts became activated, and my brain gave me two choices of action: fight or flight. Even with my physical 6-month beat-down in India, my body was still strong enough to kick my way out of their grips. After a few very long seconds, I broke free, and chose flight as my option. And by flight, I mean a brisk walk in which I briefly contemplated turning around and confronting them. Somehow I was able to mentally drop the issue, as I decided to be thankful their attempt at robbing me failed. Regardless, I returned to those steps at the same time, every day for the remainder of the trip. At the time, I didn’t understand why I felt compelled to do so; but we know from my time in Egypt, that I do indeed have a certain amount of anger, buried within me. Looking back, however, I believe it was my way of claiming to the universe, “I’m not afraid of your darkness.” They never returned.
With all of the tourist items crossed off my to-do list, I spent the remaining days making the area in and around Piazza Navona my home; day and night. If all you want to do in Rome is visit restaurants, sit in cafes, or just lounge around water fountains and people-watch, you will be more than happy with this choice as well. After a few days of visiting all the possible tourist destinations, I simply ran my Navona time on repeat. No doubt about it. Piazza Navona is the Roman mecca for all things cafe, restaurant, bar, and nightlife. My routine was to spend the morning, reading books, and drinking cappuccinos in bright, sunny cafes. The afternoons were spent eating pizza in nearby restaurants, followed by long walks on cobblestone streets in the surrounding neighborhoods. I absolutely fell in love with the cheese pizza at La Focaccia’s, and only recommend you stop by if you enjoy eating pizza that’s made directly from the Gods of Pizza themselves. Sitting outside, eating great food, drinking beer, and watching the day go by; I enjoyed every moment of this repeating pattern. Unfortunately, the night always arrived on schedule. And so after a walk back to the hotel, jogging up the Spanish Steps along the way, I would get ready to head back to Piazza Navona for great dinner and amazing desert as quickly as possible. I tried a different restaurant every night, however, my favorite for outdoor dining was definitely Santa Lucia’s. Nestled in a quiet corner, away from all of the Roman chaos, it’s the perfect place to take your significant other and have some great conversation. Assuming you don’t end the dinner in a fight of some kind, make sure you stop by Tre Scalini’s in the heart of the Navona square, and have Rome’s famous Tartufo desert as well. It’s not a lie to claim, that if the Jeff-Navona cycle repeated another hundred times or so, I would have been completely ok with that.
When I think back to my days in Rome, I don’t really find myself reflecting on the Colisseum, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican, or any other historic item for that matter. Rather, my thoughts drift to sunny afternoons in cafes, and warm, quiet, summer nights, eating dinner under the stars. My thoughts drift back to the dogs, gleefully bouncing around cobblestone streets with their owners; and to pleasant conversations I had with people about life and the world around us. These memories mean a lot to me because, as we know by now, my Jeff-blog-reading friends, life is about people and our connection with them; not about the buildings they’ve made, or the art they’ve painted. Life is about our connection with other human beings, loving our own personal journey, and…dogs (except for the ones who fiercely attack, and tear out jugular veins in human necks). Even with all of this knowledge at hand, however, I still couldn’t help myself from spending money; from buying the most precious, taylor-made-for-me painting. On my last night in Rome, and therefore on this amazing adventure, I found a painting from a local artist whom I have no doubt, has obviously known me since birth. A painting of a lone man, standing under a street light on a dark, misty night, while playing a violin next to his pet dog. To this day, it hangs in my Los Angeles apartment, and whenever I look at it, I can’t help but think back to relaxing times, good people, and Italian summer nights. And although I paid 90 Euros for something I already felt belonged to my soul, I still feel convinced it was a gift from a spiritual entity who just thought I would like to have it. Thank you my friend, whoever you are. So with India’s chapter already at a close, and Rome’s now coming to an end, it was now truly, “time to go home.”
177 Days Later
Part 3 of 3: Finally Home
As my plane landed on U.S. soil, the feeling was that of American joy, Indian nostalgia, Jeff-style depression, and downright shock. Is there a word for feeling emotions the exact opposite of each other, at the same exact moment in time? If someone were to have crawled inside my head, they would’ve seen a battle similar to the ending of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And this, in fact, explains the headache I quite often had, as those arrows really can, and do, hurt. As the days passed, and the end credits to this adventure scrolled on by, the battle eventually drew to a close. Soon, depression was declared the winner, and it was at this point that life became pretty difficult to function in. Work performance dropped, creative writing felt like a dream from a previous life, and some friendships became awfully strained. Sprinkle in some rarely-sleeping behavior, and you have a pretty useless human being wondering Los Angeles, California. Only after months of being home did I finally find the creative energy to start writing this update, and become accustomed to an old, familiar routine. The best explanation I can offer, is that I was on an amazing adventure, and then all of a sudden, I wasn’t. Thankfully, at the time of this writing, I am doing extremely great, and all is very well.
A few months ago, my idea of a weekend trip was to go scream at a camel jockey in front of the pyramids in Egypt, and listen to Islam’s Call-to-Prayer chant-music over every speaker in Cairo. Now I sometimes walk on the Santa Monica pier, watching tourists eat cotton candy, while listening to some musician’s poor rendition of John Lennon’s, Imagine (the best song ever recorded in U.S. history). Awesome if you’re on vacation from Iowa. Not so awesome if you’ve been here for the last 10 years of your life. Quite often, I catch myself daydreaming. I close my eyes, and see myself crawling inside a pyramid in Egypt, walking across London bridges, staring at the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling in Rome, or playing with a dog on the beaches of India. I also see myself in the Indian office, sitting at Murali’s desk, helping him troubleshoot a lighting problem, or standing in front of a classroom, talking about compositing techniques to the FX department. I see myself watching movies in Hindi, without any English subtitles, just happy to be in a theater, sharing time with work-friends. And as my eyes remain closed, I start laughing at how ridiculous I must have looked as I danced like a lunatic, trying my best to be a male Bollywood dancer (beer helps). It’s when I smile and start laughing, that I always remember the most profound lesson learned during my time away from home: I’m supposed to be enjoying the journey, no matter where I’m standing. In other words, adventure is where the heart is. And my heart is here; now. Since my return home, my personal quest has been to try and find adventure in old, familiar routines; to find God in the details; to even notice the details.
My home is Los Angeles, California, United States of America. 10 million people live in this metropolis of a city. And because we come from nearly every other city and country on the planet, I can have a pleasant conversation with an Indian, born and raised in Mumbai, right here in California. I just need to walk outside, sit in a cafe, and do as I eventually do on the other side of the world: embrace everyone and everything that comes before my eyes.