A chicken-bus quartet in 5 movements
On board a minibus in Guatemala, from the town of Coban to the village of Uspantan in 2005, I had a wide range of experiences that led to many inspirations. Later I would write a number of essays under the general title “Uspantan (A, B, C…),” the first of which was included in my book “Destination Earth.” Although these short essays are so disparate in their subject matter, I always felt that there was an invisible thread of harmony and rhythm connecting them, like the movements of a quartet. Somehow, the whole is more than its parts. Here it is in all its purity.
On board a mini-bus on my way from Coban to Uspantan traveling through the Guatemalan Highlands – the heart of the modern Mayan Nation. Me and my huge red suitcase, for which I bought an extra ticket so that it could travel as a passenger inside the bus – otherwise the driver would have put it on the roof and my books could have been soaked by a tropical downpour. Me and my books: cramped between legs and boxes and bottles and colorful Mayan blankets and baskets. We are 22 people cramped inside a bus made to carry 12 without luggage. I was wondering why they call them “chicken-buses.” I never saw anybody carrying a chicken on board. Well, now I know: We are the chickens!
What an irony: The national bird of Mexico is the magnificent Aztec-eagle; the national bird of Belize is the exotic toucan; that of Guatemala the otherworldly quetzal; and that of Honduras the scarlet macaw, the most colorful bird on the planet. Yet, all of us in these lands, locals and visitors alike, have been reduced to miserable chickens, cramped and squeezed in old, dirty, smelly, and uncomfortable cages-on-wheels moving from village to village on the donkey-paths they call roads. The eagle has lost its wings, the toucan its playful mood, the macaw its palette of colors, and the quetzal – the sacred bird of the Mayas – its freedom.
I turn back to check if my suitcase is OK. There it is: my enormous Bordeaux-red suitcase standing out among all other objects in the back of the mini-bus. It looks so foreign among the colorful baskets full of food and personal items. Next to the suitcase, between two local Mayan farmers who occasionally push it a little bit to make more room for their crushed legs, sits my other huge black bag with 20 kilos of books.
My books: Aurobindo’s Synthesis of Yoga, Brother David’s The Music of Silence, a teach-yourself-Spanish method, an English dictionary, books about the Aztecs, the Mayas, the conquest of the Americas, travel books. And my most recent proud acquisition, sent from my home country by post to prepare me for my upcoming travels to the South Pacific: an enormous black hardcover book from grandpa’s old library, with the imposing turn-of-the-twentieth century title, The Indigenous Tribes of the World. Buried in those pages is an amazing black and white photograph of a cannibal that gave me goose bumps when I first saw it as a teenager! Books, books, books, feeling each and every pothole, each and every curve of the Guatemalan highlands’ rugged dirt road connecting the isolated Mayan villages.
Will there ever be another time when Sri Aurobindo will be traveling along this route?!
(Maybe I’m funny.)
And then, my music in the digital player: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, the Beatles, Alela, Hadjidakis, … traditional Russian songs with Galina Kovaliova. Me and my odd international company, a huge colorful troupe, invisible to others, moving from village to village as small circuses used to do in Europe not long ago.
(Yes, now I’m absolutely certain: I’m really funny!)
I close my eyes. I imagine being in the digital simulator in Trocadero (an amusement park in London). All the ups and downs I experience are just movements of the simulator-capsule that have been programmed by the expert computer engineer to give me a Guatemalan highlands trip. It is quite convincing, actually.
The smells have been masterfully introduced, while the wind is created by special fans on the side. The sounds are the work of a very imaginative sound engineer, who recorded them in a studio in London. I’m still. Sitting inside the simulator capsule. There is no real world around me through which I move. There is no road, bus, mountains, towns, or people. It is all a well-constructed virtual reality show. I’m in Trocadero. I can leave the capsule any time I wish. I only have to press the red button in front of me. It’s all a grand amusement. A game. The Lila of Hindus. How did I ever think it was real?
I’m the only “pure white” in the bus. In Europe I’m a dark Southern European. Here I’m also tall. In Europe I’m a dwarf next to a Swede or a Dutch. The locals here have to turn their heads up to look at me. What a strange feeling to be tall! Is it possible that what I perceive as their “politeness,” which often borders on downright servility, is nothing but their natural instinctive subservient attitude toward the white Spaniards (with their haciendas), developed and cultivated over the past five centuries? I hate to imagine such a connection and cringe at the thought.
But suddenly Einstein’s Relativity Theory comes to mind to clear things up! Contrary to what most people think, Einstein’s Theory is not about the “relativity of everything.” It is about the absoluteness of the universe. Space and Time are relative because we unnaturally separated them from one another in order to make sense of the world in our everyday lives. But four-dimensional Spacetime is absolute! Wherever you are, at whatever time, once you get the four coordinates of Spacetime they are invariant. Einstein revealed the invariance of Spacetime, its absoluteness.
Back to color. Now everything falls into place. Just as Space and Time are relative in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, skin colors similarly vary and have a relative significance at different places and historical times – White, Brown, Black, and more. However, there’s always a Scale of Color that, like Spacetime, is absolute. Wherever you are, at whatever age and time, someone will always tell you where you belong on that scale. And here, at this place and moment in history, by being the whitest, others position me at the top of the hierarchy of color!
Here I am, in this remote corner of the world, consenting to experience the daily life of the less fortunate of the earth. Of course, the people here do not experience my discomfort while traveling with me in the bus. That’s what they grew up taking for granted. What constitutes my discomfort is probably their greatest fortune – for to be able to travel in a bus here is a kind of privilege; at least it means one has managed to save some money for the journey. Most move on foot or by standing (or hanging!) on the back of pickup trucks.
Comforts. What are comforts? We grow into comforts. We improve upon the known, get used to the new, and consider the older state to be less comfortable. But our improved state is soon taken for granted, and we seek something still more comfortable.
Hard-soft-softer-softest toilet paper. Hard-soft-softer mattress. Synthetic-cotton-silk. There is no end to the grades of comfort we keep redefining and modifying. However, at each and every moment, we become adapted to what we have become accustomed to through our previous adaptations. So, paradoxically, each and every person on this earth is already comfortable with what he has by virtue of accepting it as his normal state of being. For he knows no better. When he comes to know better, then he may make this better his new aspiration. But while striving toward the new, his present state still provides the comfort of the familiar.
In the final analysis, every person alive chooses to go on living, irrespective of his present state. Every person chooses life rather than its cessation. Being alive has an inherent value that very few states can cancel. This “aliveness-value” of life represents, in the end, a kind of absolute comfort. We are “comfortable” with our being alive. With our being-in-the-world. With going-on-being. With our given-at-each-moment state of affairs. Even now, here, seemingly in a state of utter discomfort, I am in reality in a state of comfort, for I have both chosen to experience the normal state of other people and also have consented to go on experiencing it even after I became acquainted with it. So my discomfort is unreal, illusory; at any moment of my choosing, I can stop it. I can jump out of the bus and rent a taxi, or rest and continue the next day, or even stay in any one of these villages for a week!
Furthermore, I have to admit that I have the unique comfort of being able to philosophize – as I do now. Philosophizing presupposes that all the other discomforts that keep the majority of the less-fortunate-than-I in bonds and chains have been dealt with. Philosophizing is, in the final analysis, the ultimate luxury!
Well, I would like to believe that, although truly privileged to belong to the very small percentage of people on our planet blessed with so many comforts including the ultimate one, I still do not lean one-sidedly on the “Universe of Comfort.” For philosophy and its quest for meaning have their own inherent discomforts and even suffering – the mental, the psychological, the spiritual. In the end, all of us, immersed in the default comfort of being-alive, simply move like a pendulum between our constantly shifting comforts, and our relative discomforts.
We were supposed to reach Uspantan an hour ago. Glad we didn’t.