Monday, February 21, 2011

Spiritual Traffic Direction


The Greek gods were constantly intervening in the affairs of humans and causing havoc. The Old Testament God was sending floods and asking for sacrifices, the Catholic God checking on the state of our sinful thoughts and behaviors. Buddha has his back turned to us, meditating for the liberation of all beings. And the Hindu gods? They’re directing traffic.

How else to account for the miraculous absence of constant accidents driving in India? It seems to be illegal, or at least unethical, to stay behind the vehicle in front, no matter how comfortable a speed they’re driving, without passing. Likewise against the law to drive for more than 30 seconds without honking your horn. At the intersection? Why wait for a moment to enter the stream? Just hold your nose, jump in and hope that everyone else will swerve to avoid you. While we in the so-called “first world” countries follow a tightly choreographed pattern—stay in your lane (that’s what those white lines mean), pass only when necessary and then with a turn signal, obey traffic lights and stop signs, honk only in emergency, the driving ethos in India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Java (and realistically, here the Buddhist deities, Jesus and Allah must spend some time directing traffic on top of their other duties) is to enter the dance with your intuition cranked up high, alert, responsive and weaving in and out like a bee circling flowers. One style is like the tightly conceived and executed football play, the other like the free flow of the basketball team looking for the openings. It’s utterly insane and sometimes nerve-wracking and sometimes quite beautiful.

These were my thoughts as I stepped into the auto rickshaw (tuk-tuk) to ride to the airport in Colombo. Some fifty feet down the road, I saw my first minor accident, a bicyclist who had been tapped by a motorcycle and fell to the street (the motorcycle turned around to see how he was). Further down the road, my tuk-tuk driver came one inch away from nicking another bicyclist and stopped one foot short of a pedestrian. The thought crossed my mind that the gods were sleeping today (or perhaps distracted talking on their cell phones?). And at just that moment, as my tuk-tuk passed a bus, we were struck by a car from behind and I lurched forward towards the Jesus Never Fails sign my driver had posted. Not a devastating rear-ender (we were both driving the same direction), more like a too-aggressive bumper-car-in-the-amusement-park jolt.

My driver pulled over, the young woman and her mother got out of the car and they had a little talk. They were all obviously concerned, but it was refreshingly civil, not the shouting match you’d expect in the States. A policeman stopped and started writing things down. No one seemed concerned about me or asked me how I was. But it was enough of a bump that I wondered whether I would wake up the next day with some kind of whiplash. Should I take the driver’s phone number? Hmm.

Finally, my driver hailed another tuk-tuk, split the fare with him and off I went, a strange farewell to Sri Lanka. Definitely a place to return to, especially to go to Kandy to see the Buddhist statues and get a feel for the hills and the mountains. I’m still reeling from the excitement and beauty of that festival from the other day.

And now in Singapore, a place that was already making a conscious effort back when I first visited in 1979 to pull itself up into the First World Way of Being. It was so strange when after five months in India, sometimes buying street food handed to us from the cook forming water-buffalo patties (ie, dried excrement) to feed his fire, to go to an ice cream place with the vendors wearing masks and gloves and handing us a cone with a paper cover. Some of the malls were already in place back then and in one of the more bizarre couplings of the old and new, one featured an Indonesian trance-dance called Kuda Kepang that included dancers tearing coconuts open with their teeth and walking on glass. After it was over, they got dressed in their Western clothes to buy a Coke in the mall.

It was also the place (back in ’79) that had a sign in the post office—“Males with long hair will be served last” and then had specific dimensions as to what constituted long hair. And Singapore must have invented “zero tolerance,” as yesterday the airplane pilot reminded us that bringing drugs into Singapore was cause for capital punishment—ie, death. Well, that message is clear. I was getting worried about my “wellness pills”— would that qualify?

So now back in a Western-style hotel, the York, with more amenities than I need, but a familiar atmosphere of luxury and comfort. A day at The Singapore American School working with the music teachers and one group of kids. Like slipping on an old pair of pants, so familiar and comfortable. Grateful to not be in a hospital, but still worthwhile reminding the gods—wake up!

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