TRAVELOGUE: Holy Cow, Human Nature, and Other Maddening Contradictions*
(*or How My Recent Trip to India Led to the Metamorphosis Of Nectar)
by Jenny Wonderling
Written October, 2016, India.
This is the story of a furniture and gift shop owner who lost her way.
“Focus on the beauty,” my Indian mother Kumi says, ever evolved. She does not mean this in a superficial way, as in beauty of the body, she could give a rat's ass about that. She is responding to the fact that I am so burdened by humans' negative impact to the earth, as if hoping we can miraculously solve some of the issues together. What Kumi asks is that I turn my attention towards the beauty of her rich culture, to the heart, and towards the timeless, impacting craftsmanship one can find easily in India. Or as Lawrence Rinder describes art in the book Tantra Song: "Let's call them experiences that ground us in the real, images that cut to the quick of what we might be." One could insert "beauty" in place of "images" to better understand Kumi's meaning. In fact, I have travelled halfway around the world to find more of all that.
I personally hand pick furniture and other items for my retail and online shops, loving the hunt for unusual treasures, the exposure to cultural differences. This is not my first trip to India, nor will it be my last. I have been adopted by this crazy and wonderful place, re-found, as much as I have been by Kumi who is not my biological mother. Whether reincarnation is something I’ve ever doubted or not, both India and Kumi and her blood relatives revive parts of me with a palpable familiarity as if I am returning to yet another true home and family. This one happens to reside in New Delhi. I have others in New York, France and elsewhere, biological and assimilated. I have become as much American, as Indian, as all the other incredible and disparate cultures I have travelled to and learned from. In fact, my sense of adventure, curiosity, and responsibility have rendered me an internationalist, sure that borders are a thing of the past when one considers the beautiful worldwide and constant exchange of information, goods, ideas and inspiration. And even more when one considers the global state of emergency humans have collectively caused to our environment and so therefore need to work collectively to repair. Now, Today.
While I am grateful for the paddle-to-the-chest visceral explosion India is, the visual feast, and deep history, my visits are bittersweet. As adopted as I may have been, India is still an extraordinary and infuriating place to me. Even after 8 years of visits I am unhardened, unacclimated to India’s greatest contradiction of all: its religiosity and potent spirituality, and seemingly overt disrespect for the earth and its creatures in a comprehensive way. And yes, India is far from alone in this contradiction; I am not partial to her in my frustrations. America and other "developed" nations have their own version of "consciousness" that smacks up against disrespect for the earth, neighbor against neighbor. But I am focusing my sight on India now because I am here as I write these words and while beauty is all around me to feast on, life is so extreme and obvious about it (rich-poor, sacred-profane, ancient-modern, the exquisite up against the filth, and death-life) that it seems to hold up a magical mirror to any other major culture, all reflections of aspects of the other, impacting one another in myriad ways.
This is what anyone can too often witness in India amid breathtaking beauty, color and chaos: little or no garbage collection (depending on the town, village, city, or state), and even where there are more efficient efforts, like government imposed bans on plastics, or local governments providing bins, collection, and encouraging segregated waste, as Kumi explained, "A lot of people here just mix the trash altogether or don't use the bins at all, and burning is still widespread."
Sadly, what is not burned or ingested, piles up, spreads out, fills waterways, and devastates the view everywhere one turns to gaze. Animals scrounge with little or no grazing land, factories belch black plumes without filters or regulation, and an unprecedented number of kids and their parents sleep and beg on the streets, too often drinking polluted water. (78 million homeless people, including 11 million street children to be exact.) The perception of India's disrespect is exemplified by the flagrant exposure to too many of its workers to poor conditions and chemicals, or the toxicity levels of the earth, animals, air and water here from waste, industrial stacks, and run off from factories. According to the Hindustan Times, “Half of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, said a World Health Organization report, indicating industrial and vehicular exhaust were choking large parts of the country with little oversight or monitoring mechanism.” Aaah, the "benefits" of progress. But it is the “holy cows” that are a perfect symbol of India’s ironies: how can sacred life be protected (as strict laws are intended here) when overpopulation and pollution have taken such a toll on these gentle creatures?
Please take a long, good look at the above photo I snapped a few days ago in Jodhpur, India. This could have been any street here, in any city. In spite of a blooming middle class and incredible wealth, extreme poverty is still rampant. In fact, this occurrence is so commonplace here that cows rooting for food in lots of garbage and have become invisible or at least a normal sight. Children also play in hills of trash, many species of animals “graze” and sleep in it. Yes, even the revered “Holy Cows.”
India Today wrote about the "304 million dairy cows [that] produce about 17% of global milk" and the effects their scrounging for food and especially the rampant consumption of plastic has on their delicate systems and ours:
The first National Survey on Milk Adulteration by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India in 2012 revealed an alarming trend: Most urban Indians drink contaminated milk, with 70 per cent samples containing anything from starch to detergents and bleaching agents to fertilizers....Doctors have witnessed cases where cows had swallowed more than 25 kg of plastic....When plastic is stuck in a cow's stomach for long, the toxicity can contaminate the milk it produces, report doctors, with plastic residues entering the human food chain.
Sadly to bring attention to these facts, many have renamed India’s Holy Cows “Plastic Cows” because they are not quite the embodiment of purity they are esteemed to be.
It was not always this way. Thanks to the advent of plastics, styrofoam and tin and their widespread use and unconscious disposal, India, like all nations, oceans, and waterways simply cannot handle the onslaught. But back to the beautiful, ancient land presently under my feet, a place I truly love and spreads out sullied with the droppings of plastic bottles, candy, tobacco wrappers, and more as I write these words, breathing in the cindering piles of indiscriminate trash in small and larger heaps, sprawling, smoking messes in the neighbor’s yards and on sidewalks. The residues of which will add to my ever-persistent cough I acquired on this trip as I walked, drove and slept through constant exposure more overt, or less. This method of burning garbage used to work just fine here (and elsewhere) and was a necessary way to clear any remaining rubbish and nourish the ground with carbon. But now, the burnt messes laden with melted plastics, send caustic gasses up into the air.
Developing nations are just more obvious about their inability to cope with it all. Previously in a place like this, all the layers of need would gobble up all the layers of waste, various creatures would happily get fed in the process and there would be no lasting trace. Humans carried liquids in vessels made out of clay or wood, food was wrapped in banana leaves and the like, and that was that. In fact, India is a culture that re-uses and recycles naturally, as it has for endless generations. Traditionally, they buy sparingly, and use things until they simply cannot be repaired or turned into yet another thing. Saris become blankets that become pillows or poufs. Cow dung is fuel. They car pool, piling an impossible number of bodies into vehicles and on motor bikes, and share resources generously with family and village members. And family homes/compounds mean less individualistic consumerism and waste. Green and alternative energy initiatives are underway. Still, things are changing fast here as a culture of consumerism is edging closer and the middle class expands, a Western way of life becoming increasingly adopted.
Unfortunately, the excessive modern day packaging of the many new products Indians also suddenly feel they cannot live without have done much more than make the streets and riverbeds filthy. Plastics in particular pose all kinds of issues to all species at this point. And it doesn't help that the US exports much of our plastics and e-waste to India among other developing countries, posing harm to environments and health of citizens and animals, but more on that later.
"There is enough for man’s need but not enough for his greed.” -Gandhi
Since this “foreign” country is now too my home, I am noticing with the fresh eyes of someone who has been away for a long, long while that it’s, well, time to really help and do something about it. This is by far not the first trip that this thought has flung itself at me. My internationalist’s heart has me feeling swells of compassion for India, just as it does every developing nation, as well as every state across America and the lands of our First World brothers and sisters that are also disrespected. I feel the same lament for any polluted waterway, any ocean’s shore, any sullied field where only natural things should grow, for every species of animal and child of every color and nation who is not getting what they need to thrive. I just happen to travel to India at least once a year for work, so a sense of urgency to help is resurrected and amplified here where rampant pollution and garbage problems are so extreme and obvious. This trip, again, I am wanting to reclaim a sense of stewardship, to kickstart some kind of clean up program, find an effective access point to make a real difference but, as many foreigners and Indians have felt as well, I’m not sure how. It feels overwhelming, and as any American could argue, we have plenty of our own issues “in our own backyard.” Still, I have been deeply affected and can’t seem to separate all the cows, children and dogs I see searching through trash here from those within the man-imposed borders of any other country including my “own,” as if they are all just as important as each other. Because they are.
I dreamed last night that I was in India and one of my factory owners offered us a canoe ride on a river here. We arrived at the park where we were meant to launch our canoe, but everywhere I looked there was trash and the “river” was complete heartbreak: a paltry amount of “water” trickled down its pathways and what liquid was there was fetid, grey and scummy. I knew there had been river dolphins there once, it had been teeming with fish, birds, life. I refused to be anywhere near the place so we left, and as we drove I felt absolutely devastated and bewildered by our collective negligence, our selfish human nature, this oxymoronic term which reveals how we have forgotten the inherent connection and respect that should lie therein. Unfortunately my dream was not too far off from the reality of many places here and elsewhere in the world, thanks to “development” and the fallout of rampant, unregulated, and environmentally devastating industries.
In real life, we returned to my family’s home in Delhi to drive with Kumi and her husband Anil to the foothills of the Himalayas. The region is called Dev Bhumi, which means Land of the Gods. Even here where elaborate and moving tales of Yogis and 2000 year old avatars, magical lakes, and spiritual awakenings abound, so also does garbage littering the ground, though not as bad as in the larger cities.
Yesterday we went to visit two sacred lakes. The first and smaller of the two, Sattal, boasts an intricately woven tale about the Hindu gods Ram, Lakshman and Sitta. It is supposed to have been formed by 7 smaller lakes which came together as one. For a place so holy, or at the least of great natural beauty, I couldn’t comprehend the proliferation of shabby restaurants leading down to its banks, the untamed and overgrown paths that made hiking the lake’s perimeter impossible. Where one could walk, garbage was littered unabashedly. Crumbling bright blue railings ran the circumference of the lake along those inaccessible pathways, a useless eyesore.
Bottles and candy packets bobbed in what was once pristine water, and humans paddled and sang loudly on the garish carnival style paddle boats. There was no attempt at a harmony with nature, an invisibility of human presence. It wasn’t nearly as bad as my dream and we did manage to explore the quieter sides of the lake on a kashti, an old wooden canoe style boat and even have fun, but the sadder details sank deeply into my own murky waters, stirring up feelings of helplessness and despair. By the time we had reached the second larger lake, I surrendered to what I could not change. Bhimtal was completely commercialized, towns had cropped up everywhere flanking its edges with bright carts selling chai, fruits, and nuts, and restaurants and shops abound. Our group had chai and peanuts and watched a lovely family below us on the lake, laughing riotously as they tried to spin in a huge inflatable PVC floating tube, sweetly connected, abandoning themselves joyously to silliness, plastic fabrication and each other.
In traditional Chinese Medicine, the lungs are considered the grief center. We often embody our pain there where it settles and expresses itself with subtle persistence so we are reminded that we can safely look at the underlying issue, find its balm both herbally and emotionally, and soon set it free. My lungs here have been activated, forcing me to pay greater attention to what is all around me in a more blatant way than where I have chosen to nestle my sons and I back home in the U.S.: seeped in a bounty of natural beauty, New York’s Hudson Valley. There we hike the mountains often, where it is unusual if we find more than a piece or two of trash to carry out and dispose of. And my sons and I all adhere to the practice of taking out more than we carry in, passed down to me vigilantly by my nature loving father and step-father. We spend our days under an extraordinary mountain range, big colorful and star-filled skies loom above, and animals of all kinds freely flit and scurry. We live in a community of farmers, many of whom tout the benefits of organic gardening, raising animals lovingly and free roaming, a community that effectively shut out fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in our region, and in general seems to genuinely care about our water and earth. Yeah there are people here who use pesticides and the rest, but there are plenty enough with a deep respect for the earth to make a real difference. Not to mention that there are over 40,000 acres of protected land to roam and explore, and a recent and unprecedented grant program to help support and protect local farming.
Frankly though, with our newly elected U.S. officials flagrantly denying the existence of climate change and the impact of pipelines and fossil fuels, I am deeply worried about the near future health of my American family and friends, far-reaching neighbors, our collective soil, air and water. Not to mention the dangerous effects this will also have on the rest of the world. Additionally, though the average American produces, "4.4. pounds of trash every single day, significantly more than the global average of 2.6 pounds," according to www.salon.com. "In a nation of nearly 324 million people, that amounts to more than 700,000 tons of garbage produced daily — enough to fill around 60,000 garbage trucks. The EPA estimates that Americans generated about 254 million tons of garbage in 2013. That is a shocking amount of waste." Especially when one considers that much of our toxic garbage, plastics and e-waste ends up in China and India, along with Ghana, and a few other unfortunate developing countries. This practice of exporting e-waste has been banned in the EU, but it hasn't stopped the States. Sure, some of the purchased waste is profitable, but not only does this out-of-site-out-of-mind practice allow American consumers to forget about the negative impact all our consumerism and wastefulness has on our own culture, but our shortsightedness also has us ignoring what happens in the places it ends up: in developing countries many children and orphans end up doing dangerous work at the dumps, "burning discarded electronics and releasing toxic fumes into the air." According to www.USNews.com "A recent study from Toxics Link – a nongovernmental organization that focuses on struggles with toxic materials, both at the global and local level – reported soil and water contamination in two regions in Delhi, India, that engage in e-recycling. The soil in both Loni and Mandoli contains high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants. Soil samples from both regions contained lead, with the highest level in Loni coming in at almost 147 times the control sample. Drinking water has also been contaminated, the study found, with observable amounts of toxic metals. One sample in each region even contained mercury – 710 times the Indian standard limit in Mandoli, and about 20 times the limit in Loni." Not to mention that, “Children are digging in the ash from the burned plastics,” Puckett said. “They’re breathing in the fumes. Sometimes it happens indoors when they cook the circuit boards – children are breathing all this in.”
In most cities in India you cannot see the sky beyond a brownish grey haze, no matter what the weather. Eyes often burn, lungs ache, and many people have kerchiefs or masks covering their noses and mouths to help manage the intake of exhaust and fumes. That’s normal.
I admit it, I sometimes get temporary amnesia about how shitty humans can be, and how unconscious. Seriously, if I find the rare cigarette butt on my property back home I’m deeply disappointed. I buy organic food for my family because I know that’s a vote against the fuckers making GMOs and trying to control our seeds and food. I would flog any of my family members who felt inclined to burn plastics in our firepit or anywhere else I caught sight of it. And I admit these things too: that I sometimes forget how friggin lucky we are to have clean running water, clean air, and GARBAGE COLLECTION. And I can’t help but ask, Does any child deserve to grow up with anything less than clean water, air, food, and soil or to not learn to respect their bodies-home-community-earth?
By now you may be wondering why the owner of a gift and furniture shop is ranting about the environment. I will try and figure it out for both of us. The truth is yes, I came here under the auspices of sourcing furniture but also to find a lost part of myself. The furniture and tangible goods have always been the illusory part of what Nectar is anyhow, of what it does. In reality, secretly, it has always been a medium for change. Sometimes the change was happening through the sale of goods that support different social programs and cooperatives or environmental initiatives. Or the change could be through an inspiring moment we tried to offer a client who walks through our door. Most often the change was all mine, growing alongside the business, with the relationships that deepen with my staff and clients who have become friends. But I feel I am now at another cross roads, not sure definitively what the next step is for Nectar, the next incarnation. I suspect on this eve of a New Year that there are also other new directions for this business I can’t yet foresee. Whatever path, how can I do it the most thoughtfully, and give back to help make a real difference both near and far? In the meantime, I know intuitively the access point is in laying down the stories, writing it out. Beginning here. With the attempt at each authentic word.
"This entire planet is our home. We are the only species that systematically destroy our own habitat." — Marianne Williamson
What have I come here to do?
I’ve asked myself this question repeatedly on this trip. I’ve asked this question for the goal of this trip, as well as on a broader level as in What will fulfill me for the next 10 years? The next 20 or 30. What medium? I’ve asked this question as in the lofty, What-is-my-true-purpose-for-being-on-this-earth-at-this-particular-juncture kind of hope for an answer.
Kumi tells me that the purpose of life is merely to experience it but secretly I don’t believe her. She reminds me that this is all illusion and all that we hate, witness, love- these are just aspects of ourselves. “Even Hitler,” she says with her deep brown eyes always laughing at the corners, compassion within. “Look at that tree,” she says in her earthy voice, through a wry smile. “Look at the way the light hits its different parts, some bits in shadow, certain leaves browning and falling, others parading their shiny newness. That is just like what I am saying.”
“But the difference between humans and that tree,” I say, “Is that if we were really like that tree, just living, and growing and dying, that would be challenge enough. It is complex enough merely to share the same branch, home, workspace, just moving through life among others who are trying to do the same. Yet humans impose despotic leaders, toxic chemicals, corporate greed, Monsanto. I wish we were more like that tree. But we are something else that breaks my heart.” What I didn’t say is that what we are makes me feel like I’m not doing enough good in the world. That I don’t want to believe that these cancers are reflections of everyone, and worse, parts of me. That the world is in a state of emergency and passivity is not enough. But Kumi wordlessly understands. What I will do with all I am and what I am not is completely up to me. For now, I will keep asking questions, observing with an open heart, and appreciating all the wonderful things India also is and offers up in her unique way: a place of ancient and rich history, of tangible faith and connection to spirit, of exquisite beauty both geographic and man made, and of a crazy authenticity that leaves me wide open to consider who I am and how I can better be of service wherever I am.
This trip to India has also brought me to this: I no longer want imports to be the bulk of Nectar’s identity and inventory, though I will always want to give back to programs that I believe in both in India and elsewhere. From now on we will run this growing small business even more in keeping with our mission Where Design, Sustainability, and Stories Convene. All our furniture has always been sourced from reclaimed/recycled wood and made in a Jain factory, a religion that encourages a path of nonviolence and strict vegetarianism. We have imported affordable items with a rare beauty, well built, and timeless. Things that carry with them an exoticism and handmade workmanship that simply cannot be found or created here with a reasonable price tag. And I have always felt that if we give jobs to people who need them, it doesn’t matter where they live. But frankly, even with all these justifications, importing no longer does enough to meet my team’s commitment when one considers the use of fossil fuels to ship the containers from abroad, the plastic bubble wrap and cardboard which wraps each item for transport, and the pesticides which are used routinely on products brought in from overseas.
Over the next months, we are therefore changing our business model in a big way, focusing with even greater vigilance on eco and Fair Trade products, as well as showcasing much more locally made furniture and gifts. There will be more regular interviews and personal stories on our site and blog, highlighting the many inspiring and courageous individuals and companies who are creating in sustainable ways. We will be liquidating much of our larger physical inventory, condensing into one shop, and focusing even more online which in turn will help propel the other small companies we showcase to keep doing the good work they are in the world. We will be creating a small wholesale line which we are super excited about, co-designed with my team and whose true creativity you have yet to see. And we will give a percentage of these sales to different non-profit programs near and far that we believe in to satisfy our sense of service. Of course I will always travel the world stowing away what I can in my carry-on, but what I cannot carry I will most likely leave behind or ship in small loads via DHL sparingly. I want to lighten, own less, share more. Yes, we will continue to “focus on the beauty” but in a different way.
So maybe one must sometimes get lost to get found. Though this blog was not one of my cheeriest, it does in fact have a happy ending. I shared two extraordinary weeks with my eldest son on this trip. Aidan and I went to the Delhi Gift and Furniture Fair as I mentioned in search of new lines to showcase. We looked at uncountable armoires, consoles, tables, and the like. We selected potential items for a next container that at this point we will not ship. But what we really did was spend incredible, much needed time together. We had honest conversations late into the night and he also connected in his own authentic way with the people here who have become my family, who have now adopted him too. Best of all, I have received the great gift of witnessing my 22-year-old “child” be deeply moved by our time together here, even find humility because of all the poverty and novelty we witnessed. Nothing like meeting people who work hard to make $40 a year to put things into perspective about how much one actually has. Or who are simply living in a completely different way, or who are on overt spiritual paths and have relinquished their attachment to material wealth and seem more content than most. Aidan has reflected deeply here about what kind of man he wants to be going forward, how he wants to be in service and make more positive change.
I also came to this: 11 years ago my friend Anthony went to India for the first time on a spiritual journey and ironically returned with a container of beautiful material things that became the original stock for Nectar. He and I were partners for 4 years and I continued on that trajectory of travel and design, returning here regularly to dip into the spiritual feast that India also is while using the excuse of sourcing inventory. Now, I want to allow Nectar (and myself) to evolve to be something else. Nectar will still be the feast for the senses that it is, a lush dip into beauty where one can find rare gifts to celebrate relationships, or help create home and work sanctuaries with unusual, well made items. But unless we make a commitment to source every item with even less waste, and with even less of a negative impact going forward, we too are only part of the problem. And now more than ever, each and every one of us will have to be vigilant and create the acts of responsible stewardship our governments are not willing to, as they shamelessly choose instead to protect the interests of large corporations over the best interest of our collective future. As the scholar and activist Dr. Jean Houston said recently, “It’s time to elect ourselves.” My wise friend Sibylle took that thought one step further: “Elect yourself to become the person you were called to be. The tasks are great and often leave [us] overwhelmed, confused, and fearful. I am learning to trust that each act in alignment to my higher self, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, has the potential to catalyze or ignite someone else’s intention, purpose, and passion. We are all weaving the web of life towards a tapestry that holds all of our intentions for a world of peace, acceptance, possibility and love.”
And with Nectar’s own small commitment, we will make a transition to be much more than we’ve ever been. With less.