Thursday, March 17, 2011

Alabama, Crazy Ukranian and Steve the Buddhist Fireman

Travel.  As an experience it can bring out the best and the worst in someone.  It also tends to be defined more by the people around you than the place you're in.  If there's anything that I've learned this trip it's that people matter and can totally change your perception of the world around you.  The locals matter, a surly tout getting in your face can spoil an otherwise nice tourist attraction or a friendly guesthouse owner can make an otherwise ho-hum place feel like home.  Yet for various reasons (language barrier, common culture and experiences, lifestyle) it tends to be the fellow traveler's that you get to know the best when you're backpacking.  Here are three I don't think I'll be forgetting.

Alabama:  I think the name says it all.  He told me his real name at one point but then said to just call him Alabama (pronounced Aaa-la-baaa-meh) like everyone else does.  Usually in phrases like "Alabama, you're drunk" or "Settle down Alabama, you smoke too many drugs".  And drink and smoke he did.  After confirming that I was American his first question was, "So why you come to India?"  I started to talk about an interest in the culture and history from university but he cut me off right there.  "Don't shit around with me, you came for wake and bake and the parties".  Well, there was that too even if India isn't exactly a party nation.

I met this guy at my guest house's rooftop restaurant in Varanasi.  He's been coming to India for 20 years and apparently always stays at that guest house when he's in Varanasi, one of his favorite spots.  He was pleasant and we chatted quite a bit but due to substance abuse he usually forgot everything I told him so we'd have the same conversation the next night as well.  I have no clue how he made his money, he said he was trying to sell machined parts in India but that wasn't going anywhere this year.

Ilia the Crazy Ukranian:  I wrote a note on facebook about this guy.  He's the one I met down by the Ganges in Rishikesh when he was getting water.  He invited me back to meet the sadhu (Indian holy man) he was staying with in their tent/shack compound.  While smoking a few chillums I heard most of his life story as a drug addict before he began getting a little too enthusiastic about chakras and the horrors of the American military.  That's when I made my exit as my tolerance for weirdness was at its limit.

Ilia is from the Ukraine and near as I can figure doesn't come from money.  He got into drugs early and eventually got addicted to heroin.  A few years ago he moved to the Czech Republic illegally to work there and got even deeper into drugs.  Since his living situation was in a shared bedroom with a bunch of alcoholic Ukranians he said he would do uppers all night so he wouldn't need to sleep and then take another set of drugs during the day to keep him going at a more normal pace.  At some point I'm sure the 24/7 drug binge messed with his brain.

That's where India comes in.  Ilia is one of those guys who was "saved" by India.  He first went there with little or no money.  Being addicted to heroin he started getting into the drug game in Goa, India's premiere trance party/drug scene.  As an aside, no Mom I didn't go to Goa and haven't taken up a heroin habit.  Was offered opium a few times but turned it down ;)  Anyways, Ilia said that there he got addicted to street methadone which according to him is way worse than heroin on several levels.  Eventually he got off the stuff and being absolutely broke began living with sadhus in Goa and later Rishikesh.  Every so often the sadhu he's living with kicks him out though, I have a feeling even mystics have a threshold of crazy that they can handle.

Now, in case you weren't aware, sadhus smoke a lot of ganja.  It's a holy herb here in India and a special plant for Lord Shiva.  And to celebrate all that sadhus are pretty much stoned 24/7.  So despite this Ilia guy talking about cleaning up he really just switched his drug of choice.  Granted weed isn't so bad but I'm pretty sure "Move in with Indian ascetic, smoke lots of pot" isn't one of the 12 steps.  But his beliefs in the holiness of the Ganges and its power to cleanse sins were holding him up so more power to him.

Steve:  Now Steve is a Buddhist.  And was a fireman.  And is also the coolest cat I've met in India so far.  He was also staying at Mama's Guest House in Rishikesh.  And since I was there for 3 weeks we got to know each other over late night chai and I learned his story.

Steve was your typical cockney Londoner who grew up learning to drink and fight.  He lived close to Little India as well so he got bit early by a fascination with the culture.  At 16 he joined the Army (you can do that in Britain) and got shipped off to West Germany.  After 5 years of service he'd had enough, moved back and did the wife and career thing as a fireman.  Then many years later a burning house fell on him, broke his leg and ended his career.  He got a decent pension so with too much time on his hands he turned to the drink even more, lost his family, house, etc.

Now Steve took up traveling but mostly of the drink and party variety.  After a bout with malaria in Thailand he lost his stomach for drinking though and has never been able to pick it back up.  He did however find a purpose through Buddhism in his travels and was able to reform his life.  These days Steve will only read books on the practice and philosophy of Buddhism and can speak on it for hours at a time.  And even if he has a narrow focus in life he was pretty fascinating.  His belief in reincarnation, the pursuit of enlightenment to toss of the needs and suffering of the body and iron faith that he can remove himself from the cycle of death and rebirth were all intriguing.  It's so rare to find someone who can speak with conviction about that stuff and not give off weird vibes.

My attempts to capture these three individuals in a few paragraphs has certainly been lacking.  I'm pretty positive none will see this blog but apologies for any inaccuracies contained within and I especially hope Steve wouldn't mind me talking about him.  Out of all the people I've met in India, Steve is the only one I'd say I got to know really well and would call a friend even if chances are we'll never see each other again.  So wishing the best to these three, they've really planted deep impressions in my mind 

No comments:

Post a Comment