April 4, 2008

Dear Friends and Sponsors,

I am now writing you from Nepal. In recent years, I have written back weekly newsletters of my adventures there, with the first one usually being about the long flights to get there, as these are always adventures in themselves. Previous years’ letters are found at our website www.answer-nepal.org (which is being revised and updated—thanks to Dawid). As the children often write from their perspective which is often limited to schools and festivals, I try to reveal some of the other aspects from an outsider’s point of view. However, as an outsider, some of these aspects (the “injustices”) of mixing poverty, caste, and children even after all these years are still hard for me, and I find the need use this forum to purge myself of emotions and impressions in order to return to sleep at night. This first letter however, is usually a product of jet lag and sleep deprivations, rather than a coping situation. Enjoy!

Karma: Chance Encounters of the Third Kind
I flew out Grand Rapids Saturday March 22 with most of your letters, but ended up leaving them behind in Chicago, as snow had delayed my initial flight to the point that my bags didn’t make the connection in Chicago. I had 5 minutes to sprint down the 2 concourses with two carry-ons + a sack lunch as the PA System broadcasted “Final Boarding for Paris” and “Last Call for Mr. X, please report to Gate Y.” I at last arrived at Gate Y, puffing and panting, with everyone waiting for me, “Are you Mr. X?” “Huh? No, I’m Mr. Canfield.” And then the smiles dropped as two of them went to the computer to look me up (I guess they weren’t interested in economy class flyers). Within a few minutes Mr. X arrived—a young man of 17-19 years with his iPod plugged in to both ears. He had been sitting right in front of the gate desk but couldn’t hear his multiple pages. Everyone was put out, and I chided him with, “I couldn’t have made my flight if you hadn’t been so irresponsible. Thanks!” I then got these confused looks from everyone! It wasn’t until I was at the baggage carousel that I realized that my baggage handlers had let me down.

Whether it was a premonition, a history of bad hits, or my incipient insight into the workings of Karma, I congratulated myself that I had, prophetically and prophelactically, transferred a pair of socks and briefs to my carry-ons at the last minute. So, now I could still carry out a week-long European tour of Paris, Bruges, and Antwerp with my daughter Maya who worked in London and was hitching up with me at Chas De Gaulle airport, just outside customs, waiting dutifully for me to emerge. Having filled out instructions to have the airlines deliver the bags to our hotel in Paris in our absence, we were off to catch a train to Belgium. And so I wore the same pants, shirt, shoes and jacket for a week while washing out my socks and undees in the bathroom sink every evening!

Two days after my arrival in Paris, while we were in Belgium, we placed a phone call to our hotel in Paris and were informed that my check-in luggage had still had not made it to our hotel there! For those of you who have heard my sermon “Karma is a Funny Thing”, you know that I no longer shake my fist at the heavens or pray to console myself over, “Why me, God?” Instead, I have learned to smile inwardly and laugh, “Karma is sending me a reminder that I am way over my head again—Give it up!” It feels good to know that I am mellowing at last and to come to realize and accept how little control we have over anything. With this we come to appreciate how dependent we are on the deeds of others (their karma, too)!”

To put your minds at ease, the suitcases with letters and my clothes had by the end of our journey in the Lowlands found themselves safely to our hotel in Paris when we returned a week later. And so, all the while I felt fortunate that I didn’t have a lot to lug around! Karma is a funny thing.

My father used to have a great quip that he would invariably cite when traveling, “Everywhere I go, people tell me the weather here is unusual.” Yes, indeed, it was snowing on Easter and even though there were tulips in the stores (hothouse variety I am sure), it seldom got above 40, with a fierce wind-chill. Maya generously augmented my scant wardrobe with a warm woolen scarf. And as Karma was watching over me, I didn’t have to worry about sweating up and my unlaundered clothes becoming offensive. Besides, this was Europe! (I couldn’t resist).

I contend that every minute of every day we are pummeled by Karmic coincidences (connections, if you will) that we simply fail to be perceive, like the millions of meteors that burn up in our atmosphere unseen and unknown, unless we look up and pay careful attention. Occasionally one will make it to earth and leave its mark. So, traveling is an opportunity like looking up at the sky at night and search out trails of meteors. If we sit back and focus as we travel, we will see and marvel at the arrays of chance encounters all around us. I am sure you have had these too, now and then, but traveling randomly through time and space and then to meet up with someone you know directly or indirectly (degrees of separation) accentuates the coincidence. Like in The Bridge over San Luis Rey which all of a sudden collapsed and killed several disparate travelers crossing it: Why here? Why them? Why at this time and spot? What were the chances? What’s operating here?

Of course, you are waiting for examples. Last summer I was again visiting my daughter Maya in London, and we decided to tour parts of Scotland. It was the 4th of July and we were in Edinburgh, the beautiful city of J. R. Rowlings (Harry Potter) when Maya and I went into one of dozens of restaurants to grab a bite. The restaurant was packed except for one table, so we sat down and waited to be served. We tried to ignore the throngs of tourists as we talked over the din of their chatter. Then, all of sudden Maya’s ears perked up to some words coming from the table beside us—it was something about the annual fireworks display in East Grand Rapids. (We know it well!) Yes, it was the 4th of July, but more than that the family next to us actually lived only a few blocks away from our home in Grand Rapids! Okay, sure, it is not unusual to find a couple of Americans in a British pub, but this was Edinburgh, not London, and we had the choice of a hundred restaurants, dozens of tables, and beyond that, I am speaking of an itty-bitty, highly inbred, insular suburb in the Midwest, not of New York or Boston! What were the chances, at this moment, at that spot?

Another encounter with even higher odds against it occurred a few years before Scotland while I was checking into my usual Guest House in Katmandu on day 1. I was wearing a t-shirt which mentioned the name of an HMO in Seattle where I used to work. All of a sudden a man in his mid –thirties walked through the lobby, halted and said, “Hey, I almost worked there!” He introduced himself as Dave and turned out to be a surgeon from Grand Rapids…well more than that, a urologist who was partnered with my urologist! Since my father had also been a urologist there long before me, we arranged to sit down and share a beer. Well, Dave had also fallen in love with Nepal, so much so that he took a temporary job at a travel clinic in Katmandu which evolved into a long term commitment. Consequently, each year we get together for dinner and catch up with events in Nepal and Grand Rapids. So, when traveling, be on the alert not just for pickpockets, but karmic events!

Two Days Later in Bruges, Belgium: Another Chance Encounter
Bruges is one of the loveliest, cleanest, old towns I have visited anywhere. Enough to say that it is known as the Venice of Northern Europe because of its canals, its historical focus on trade, and for the wealth of Flemish painters that worked here during the Northern Renaissance, e.g., Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, and a dozen more, to be sure. It is a must see.

Well, this one evening Maya felt like fish and chips…and we had looked all day long for some place that served it. Finally, out on the hunt again, we weren’t having much luck but I asked a friendly looking waiter that if they don’t have Fish and Chips somewhere. Well, he showed it to us on the menu as Sea Bream, salad, and fried potatoes. It was expensive, but everything is in Europe these days, so I resigned myself to buying her dinner in hopes that she will support me in my dotage. This was midweek after Easter, so the waiters were not rushed and gathered ‘round to know more about us. One began with, “You are Americans, no?” Maya, who has lived 5 years abroad, is put off by this line of inquiry because she knows that the next words out will be political interrogation. We had been discussing this issue that morning, and I had told her to simply say that you didn’t vote for Bush. However, Maya feels that she shouldn’t have to defend American policies anymore than a Frenchman, as individuals, should have to defend his government’s policies….she has her point! Hoping to demonstrate my point, However, I immediately disarmed him with, “We are Americans, but like most Americans who travel abroad, we did not vote for Bush. Even though he is our President, he has his good points: he provides our comedians with many jokes!” He smiled and realized he wasn’t going to be able to debate a point with us. He then guessed that Maya was a student and that dad was visiting her. Maya, like her mother, looks younger than her 28 years, so we explained that she worked in London, and I was on my way to Nepal.

“Nepal?” said the waiter as if one of the meteors had just landed, and pointed to one of the waiters, “He is from Nepal.” And so the Karmic forces began to unfold its petals before our eyes. Shalikram is a political refugee from Baglung, near Pokhara. He is only 26 years old (guessing that his e-mail address bespeaks his DOB), but he was younger still when he headed several programs for handicap children for a British Non-Profit Organization (NGO) which ended up getting him in trouble with the Maoists. Shalikram was working in a difficult and dangerous position trying to help children during the worst of times. There was a terribly bloody surprise attack and battle for Baglung between the Maoists and the King’s Army a few years ago, so sentiments between the two camps were extremely tense while he was in charge. No one in Baglung is rich, so he must be extremely resourceful to have saved himself and made it to Bruges, of all places! For him to at last have someone could meaningfully talk to about his former work was as much a joy to him as it was to us. Shalik had also worked with HRDC, the hospital for disabled children where Mary Jane and I initially volunteered. In the end we exchanged emails, and we shall see what Karma (our future deeds) has in store for us, as we have been invited to Baglung by one of its school principals to help educate poor children there.

Our tour continued on to Antwerp with a heavy dose of Ruebens who did alright for himself, to say the least. It is no accident that Antwerp’s Museum of Fine Arts built in 1892 is as prodigious as the size and number of his paintings housed there. Moreover, his colossal beautiful home or Wapper Street (Whopper would be a more appropriates spelling) houses even more of his works! Even so, we discovered a home was even more grandiose than Ruebens with a visit to the Plantin-Moretus House. Plantin was a contemporary and close friend and business associate of Ruebens. Plantin founded a printing business in Antwerp in 1555 ( a century after the Gutneberg’s invention) that continued in the family for 300 years. Ruebens did some of the title page engravings that found their way into books which Plantin printed. The earphone tour is a wonderful history lesson packed with information on the struggle between the Humanist movement and the counter-Reformation of the times. The stately home houses 35 rooms exhibiting a wide assortment of early presses, typesets, rare books and maps, an early 3-volume Gutenberg Bible, original guilt leather wall coverings, paintings …what an amazing step back in to time! You just can’t read history or look at a photo of a painting in an art book and appreciate the event or the work without actually going to The Source and seeing it in its context. This was made all the clearer to me when we spent our last day in Paris at the Louvre. I had only been to Paris once, and didn’t have time to step inside. What a way to end the tour: the Grand Finale, the piece d’resistance. In June, after Mary Jane comes to Nepal in May, the two of us will stop in Paris on the way back, so I will again be able to visit the Louvre again and have all the exhibits indelibly etched into my long term memory. Also, the stele with the Hammurabi Code was on special exhibit, so I missed it, but I can catch it in June when it returns to its rightful position!

Needless to say, we were brain dead that final evening in Europe together, and as Karma would have it the EU was instituting its own Daylights Savings Time that very night, so we were losing an hour. Naturally, I had an early morning flight out of Paris, so by the time I arrived in Nepal via Bahrain, I was amply sleep deprived. Karma must have felt that I had been punished enough and did not intercept my luggage again, for I arrived in Katmandu without a hitch. This doesn’t mean that Karma was totally dormant.

One More Chance Encounter: Bahrain
When one goes to Nepal via Europe, it is easier and cheaper to fly via the Emirate Airlines, such as Gulf Air or Qatar Airlines because they have a direct route to, of all places, Katmandu. (Why is that do you suppose? Hint: outsourced, cheap laborers from Nepal by the Gajillions!). So, everywhere in Bahrain there are Nepalis waiting on tables, behind food service counters, and mopping the floors of the airports. So, can you sense that another karmic event was about to unfold? As I came up the stairs in the Bahrain airport to locate my next gate, I rounded a corner and almost literally ran into our good Nepali friends from Grand Rapids, Jim and Sharmila Suwal taking photos of their toddler Megan who was enthralled with a clever display of some robotic fishermen casting their nets in a fountain.

Apparently we were on the same plane out of Paris but they were upfront on the opposite aisle so I never saw them. Karma is a funny thing— because of our busy lives, we hardly get to see each other when we are all in Grand Rapids, and now we are given 6 hours of quality time together in an Arab Sheikdom. What a blessing! As it turns out Jim’s mother is elderly and had an acute episode and is in the hospital in Katmandu. So, the whole family jumped a plane for Nepal which ended up connecting with my flight in Paris. Jim’s brother Naren is already in Katmandu with his mother, so I will get to see the whole family on their “home turf.” But the real blessing is that Jim’s and Naren’s mother will see her granddaughter Megan for the very first time. So sweet!

This was really good luck because a 6 hour layover all alone seems twice as long! Now with 3.25 of us (counting 2 y.o. Megan), it really was easy for someone to watch over the bags (or Megan) while others went dinner or the bathroom. Later on, with our arrival in Nepal, I made a bee line through immigration and customs to expeditiously collect a pair of baggage carts and start assembling the bags. Finally, after all of us had jumped though all the entry hoops, we came out of the airport together… to find Sharmila’s sister Madhu and husband already there to pick them up and to greet me. You see, Madhu is married to the principal of Albert Einstein Academy, one of our schools. They are a great team and have done so much for the street children we enrolled at AEA. Last year I asked our children if they liked school, and all of them enthusiastically said, “Yes, sir”. But then I asked them to think real hard, “Why do you love school so much?” Again, they all agreed: they liked their teacher who was so nice….Madhu!

So, as it came to pass that Naren by a quirk settled in Grand Rapids twenty years ago. Naren then brought over his brother Jim. Jim married and brought Sharmila to Grand Rapids four years ago. Sharmila referred us to Madhu and her school in Katmandu two years ago. This list of “begats” has one last knot that linked us with Naren initially. It was our next door neighbor Jennifer (yes, right smack dab next door!) who works for the City of Kentwood and mentioned to us that there was a Nepali man named Naren in Grand Rapids who sometimes came by to submit a filing to her office.

For those who say that life is full of coincidences—so, it seems…but that’s a superficial read. I will have to side with Albert Einstein, who didn’t believe in Chance: “God doesn’t throw dice.” There are meteor showers all around us we ignore, and degrees of separation unexplored, and a connectivity that escapes our grasp, but every now and then we do get a glimmer, a chance encounter, an insight, an epiphany that comes out of nowhere that fills us with wonder. From whence it comes, we call God (an actor, an entity, the agent). But we can also refer to it as Karma (actions, events, perpetuating interactions). It seems to me that, be it God or Karma, we are dealing with two sides of the same coin, or perhaps the chicken-egg proposition (which came first?). Perhaps it is just a semanticism that keeps us from equating God ó Karma?

One final thought to push you over the edge: Deductium ad Nauseum. In the West heresies and intolerance were defined by Orthodoxy (Christian or Islamic) evoking the crusades, the counter-reformation, pogroms, stifled liberal learning and understanding, and affected our perception of God. In much the same way, Hindus also used a religious construct Karma to reinforce the socio-political construct of the Caste System. For example, isn’t the Protestant Ethic of rationalizing God rewarding the virtuous with wealth in the West tantamount to Karma assigning one a high station in life based on his deeds in a previous life? So, if KarmaóGod, then which comes first? I submit that Karma, being the sum total of all individual actions (karma) in the universe, could be the determinate behind our own Free Will (that which determines a conscious decisions), as well as God’s Will (where and when a lightning strikes, a chemical bond is formed, or a gene mutates). Even miracles arise from the interaction of actions (Karma). When Karma is taken as the godhead, one of the great Western paradoxes, viz., Free Will vs. God’s Will, dissolves away. How neat is that! The bottom line is our actions matter!—So, be nice to everyone; practice love and compassion.

Well, it should be apparent to all of you by now, that the disruption of biorhythms along with sleep deprivation has had a dramatic effect on my ability to think clearly. But I can’t help but feel that traveling beyond our borders can carry us beyond our normal limitations. Foreign travel provides us with new information whereby we can re-explore the familiar, stimulate us in discovering new ways to visualize and interpret, and to think in ways that we have never done before? In either case, I am exhausted and ready for bed. Thanks.