Archive for December, 2004

Paying It Forward

Mark & Yoo-Mi
This is for your friend w/ metastatic cancer. Just paying it forward for all that you’ve done for me, directly and indirectly through offering your space for CF service events.
Wish I could help more, but I’m not rich (yet?).

I found this note today, written on the back of a printout of a Yahoo! Maps page indicating the location of 2247 Market St San Francisco, CA 94114-1612, printed on 12/10/04. Wrapped inside the folds of this sheet were 5 brand new $20 bills. The paper packet was left on one of our bookshelves, beside a candle lantern that I had made, like an offering placed on an alter. My eye caught it this afternoon as I was looking around at the little things that needed to be done before Mark and I leave for South India this Friday. I approached it anticipating to find yet another piece of paper left behind (and to be thrown away) after one of the many events we had here two weekends ago. I folded the contents back up, and left it on the kitchen counter, a more prominent place, to show Mark when he got home.

A few minutes later, my friend Allyson, the intended recipient of this anonymous act of generosity, called to ask if we were accepting donations for the victims of the devastating tsunamis in South India.

Whoever left this gift must have been either at the CharityFocus Tiger Team meeting or at the Hear the Homeless Basic Needs event that were held at our space on Saturday and Sunday, December 18 and 19, 2004. The familiar “Smile” card was placed on top of the bills. In writing this post, and reading the message once again, I noticed the distinctive way the paper was folded. A big clue. But I really don’t want to know who.

The Motorcycle Diaries

The open road. Two tracks in the dirt, disappearing into the horizon. A heart, taut with anticipation …

Whether your road is surrounded by the grasses of the Argentinian pampas, the snows of a Himalayan pass, or the flat, barrenness of the Mongolian steppes, the image evokes the discomfiting hyperalertness that makes you see more sharply, feel more deeply, become more a-w-a-r-e …

The constant movement – the going from here to there. Dust-kicking shepherds moving their animals to market. Solitary figures in the bush appearing from nowhere and seemingly going to nowhere. The erect bearing of the flat-lander; the tilting forward of the alpine dweller.


“The Motorcycle Diaries” is a perfect movie – entertaining, beautifully shot, acted, and scored, thought-provoking, heart-breaking, inspiring; a road movie, a buddy movie, a “service” movie; a movie of self-discovery. It chronicles the journey of 23-year old Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna, a medical student, and his friend, Alberto Granado, a biochemist, from Buenos Aires, Argentina (through Chile, Peru and Columbia) to Caracas, Venezuela, on “The Mighty One”, a leaking 1939 Norton motorcycle. Guevara’s “Motorcycle Diaries” is not a travel journal, like Granado’s “Travelling with Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary” (both key documents on which the movie is based), but a memoir, written several years later, of the events that shaped Guevara’s destiny.

I’ll leave you now, with myself, the man I used to be… Ernesto Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries.

“The Motorcycle Diaries” is also the perfect movie to see before you embark on your own journey, as Mark and I are doing this Friday for a two-month trip to Southern India. The movie has made me realize that I need to reframe my expectations for this trip. In the short period of time that we have, it will be difficult for us to be fully engaged as travelers.

“Are you looking for work?” asks an Amerindian woman, traveling with her husband to the Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile to look for work after they have been forced off their land. “No” reply Guevara and Granado. “Then why are you traveling?” she asks. Finally, Guevara replies: “I travel to travel.” The woman and her husband exchange an unbelieving look.

Mark and I are fond of saying: “We are great travelers, but really bad tourists.” What does that mean? To me, to be a traveler means to participate, not merely observe. Everywhere we go in rural India, we see postcard images. Of brightly-saried women carrying pots of water on their heads (we’d prefer them to be copper or clay, thank you very much, not plastic, nevermind that they are heavier). Of women bent over picking tea leaves amidst undulating bushes of green. Of men pushing bicycles laden impossibly high. Beautiful pictures … typical pictures … pictures of poverty. In urban India, the images are starker, grey and black. We look, but not too closely … and we move on.

How do we engage? Not directly with the people, but with the NGOs that serve them. On this trip, we will concentrate on telling their stories.

Let the world change you… and you can change the world – tagline of “The Motorcycle Diaries”.

“Where Are You From?”

Digital story script 12/7/04

Text (white on black): “Where are you from?”

Voice: “New York” (Fade in: Photo of the Statue of Liberty; music: snippet from “I Love New York”)

Text: “No, (come in from right after 1 second), I mean, where are you from?”

Voice: “Well, I grew up in Uganda.” (Photo of me as a child in front of house in Mbale, wearing hot pants; music: snippet from Stephen Kent’s “Yekke” – dijeridou, followed by high-pitched yelps, a la “the natives are restless” in an old “Tarzan” movie)

Text: “Where are you from originally?”

Voice: “My parents are from South Korea.” (Black and white photo of my parents at their engagement; music: snippet of choral version of “Arirang”, a classic Korean folk song)

Text: “Funny, you don’t have an accent.”

Voice: “I grew up speaking the Queen’s English (Photo of me as a child in Trafalgar Square, London, surrounded by pigeons; music: snippet of “God Save the Queen”), but I lost my British accent when my family moved to the Bronx.”

“You know, in Uganda, they called us “Mzungu”, “white” people, and they called the East Indian “Asians.” (Photo?)

Text: “When I was in the Army, I went to Thailand for R&R. The women were so beautiful…so gentle… (Photo of Thai classical dancer)

Voice: “I know what you mean… so graceful…, but I’m from Korea.”

This is the story I did not make during the KQED Digital Storytelling Workshop December 9th. and 11th.

We started out with a 2-hour prep session on Monday, December 6 where we got to meet the instructor and the other participants. We were told we would actually make a 1 1/2 to 3 minute digital story by the end of the day on Saturday. And, that they would all be great. We were to tell a personal story because we already know these stories and have the artifacts to capture the stories (photographs, drawings, perhaps video). To illustrate her point, our instructor, Leslie Rule, showed us several digital stories that had been made by previous workshop participants. (None of us believed that was true – all the stories were too good!) The last thing we did that evening was take a few minutes to write a story on a 5″X7″ card, which we shared with each other. Our homework was to write a draft of a script (no more than 1/2 to 3/4 of a page, double-spaced), gather 10-15 photographs, and find music that we would like to use for the stories.

I wrote this script first, using text in lieu of photographs because I did not have many childhood pictures with me. They were all at my parents’ house, which is now in Florida. Then I wrote a second, very different script. And called my parents to see if they could somehow get the picture to me by Wednesday. I got through to them Tuesday afternoon, EST and decided the best thing to do would be for them to overnight the physical photos to me. If they could get to a courier before 5pm, I figured I would have the photos by noon on Wednesday.

My father called at 4:30pm EST to inform me that all the couriers closed at 2:30pm. They had been a bit late in getting out because it took them longer than anticipated to take the photos out of the albums. The albums were so old that the photos were encrusted onto the albums. Some photos had torn while they were trying to take them out.

I resigned myself to leaving the first day of the two-day workshop at lunch time to get the photos, which would arrive by noon on Thursday if they were mailed first thing Wednesday morning. My mother called that evening to tell me that since they had more time, my father had annotated all the pictures with the date and place. E.g. Trafalgar Square, London, 1969 Europe Tour.

On Thursday, I went to the workshop having never worked on an Apple computer, never used Adobe PhotoShop (that was Mark’s domain), never scanned a photograph, never used voice recording software, and never used a video editing program. Oh, and not knowing which photographs I would have. After many hours on the web and listening to CDs that we had, I had downloaded or copied 11 tracks that I could possibly use.

The morning was spent going over our scripts. I read both my scripts, and was encouraged to make the second one. Two people broke down and cried in reading or talking about their stories; every story elicited an emotional response. By lunch time, I was so tense and emotionally charged that even after leaving KQED to go downtown to pick up my photographs, I could barely eat my lunch. After lunch, we recorded our scripts and took turns digitizing our photographs.

On Saturday, we finished separating our photographs and learned how to use iMovie to create our digital stories. We added photographs, the voice track, and music. We learned how to use the “Ken Burns” effect to create some movement in our still photographs. We learned to put transitions between our photographs; we became very frustrated with iMovie.

Somehow, we all finished by 5pm and got to watch all nine stories. They were all great.

Bollywood Invasion

I don’t know exactly when I went over to the other side. But at some point after I returned from India in February 2003, it was no longer painful for me to listen to a Bollywood song. These days, I am an unfortunate victim of periodic invasions of Bollywood tunes that slip unconsciously into my mind. Yes, we humans can get used to anything.

OK, I’m not so far gone that I can tell you what movie the songs are from, unless the title of the song is also the title of the movie (Saathiya, Kal Ho Naa Ho, etc.). Nor can I tell you who wrote the song (most likely A R Rahman), or sings it (if it is a female voice, it is probably Asha Bhosle). And I don’t read Stardust (like Mark does) to keep up with the latest antics of Bollywood stars. But I’m getting scared. I’m sure that watching Bollywood movies falls into the category of one of those things that makes you more stupid the more you participate. And listening to the soundtrack album – forget about it.

It started out as a cultural study: if we were going to survive 5 months in India, we’d better learn about Bollywood movies and cricket. (As one acquaintance we met in Kolkata told us: “If you ever feel that you are being threatened, just mention Amitabh Bachan or Sachin Tendulkar.”) In mid-September, 2002, Mark and I arrived in North India and jumped right in to the food and popular culture. We got our first lessons in food, Bollywood and cricket from Rakesh, the driver who spent two weeks with us in Rajasthan.

We saw “Devdas”, the most expensive Bollywood movie made to date, at the most famous movie theatre in India – the Raj Mandir in Jaipur – an art deco fantasy that would fit right in on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. A sumptuous visual feast, “Devdas” was the “easy” stuff. Shah Rukh Khan cried too much, but who cared – his costumes were too beautiful. (Mark spent the next few weeks asking any one he could where to get a dhoti like the one Shah Rukh Khan wore in “Devdas”.) Then it got progressively worse. We saw Shakhti in Old Delhi, Saathiya in Pune, and Kaante (a remake of Quentin Tarrintino’s Reservoir Dogs, with singing and dancing!) in Bombay.

After we got home, friends started recommending their favorite movies, which we proceeded to watch on DVD, with subtitles. By then, it was too late. The camp was actually entertaining, and the melodrama actually drew tears. Friends were dedicating songs (Kabhi to Nazar Milao) to Mark at amateur house concerts.

If you grew up on this stuff, you’re excused. As Suketu Mehta writes in Bollywood Confidential: “Why do I love Bollywood movies? To an Indian, that’s like asking why we love our mothers; we don’t have a choice.”

Those of you who’d like to have a clue when your friends are taking about Bollywood movies (and you don’t speak Hindi or Urdu), here’s the trick – watch a couple without subtitles first. If you were to watch a subtitled movie cold, without having been inoculated, you will want to kill yourself about a third of the way through the three plus hour experience. The dialogue is inane, the plot twists make no sense, and the songs are pure camp. Why does it take a whole hour to get to the point of desperation? It takes that long to realize: this is not a joke. (Although these days, there is too much self-reflective spoofing…)

Or, make new friends.

Temples in South India

In looking for an old email message in my CharityFocus archives, I came across the following explanations about temples in South India written by Shuba Swaminathan (Writers – we need a profile on Shuba!) in response to a posting by Yaniv during his last trip to India in early 2003. At the time I received the message to Funbunch, I did not take the time to read it, but did save it (as I do many things… Nipun once told me that my computer would blow up with all the email that I save… and it did, many times…). I reprint Shuba’s explanations here for the benefit of all the people I know who will be in South India this winter.

Thank you Shuba!

Temples in South India

…At the entrance to the temple, you would have seen a “gopuram” – A towering structure with 3,5,7 or 9 (always an odd number, am not sure why) of stories. These towers tend to be broad at the base and taper
towards the top. At the top of these towers, you might have noticed brass pots lined up (again an odd number).

From the main door, you would have noticed that the idol is directly at your eye level.


The average human mind is deeply involved with the mundane. If one considers that the lowest level of spiritual evolution, that is represented by the broad base of the gopuram (temple tower). The assumed goal of human existance according to Hindu scriptures is to rise towards higher spiritual goals. Hence the tapered tower, indicative of the single-pointedness of a mind, that’s left its constant obsession with the mundane atleast partially behind. Different stages of spiritual evolution correspond to different tiers of the gopuram (temple tower).

The brass pots at the top of the tower are filled with water brought from rivers around the country. This is to make an express point using analogies – water by its inherent nature is colorless, shapeless and tasteless. Similarly, the supreme “brahman” (label it god, superior force, whatever you prefer to call it) is formless, shapeless and unbounded. Just like the waters from the rivers merge into the ocean, the soul in the individual self, “atman”, is a part of the “Brahman” (note: not the same as brahman, an upper caste person, or a Boston resident 🙂 This self-realization represents the pinnacle of spiritual evolvement according to Vedanta (Hindu scriptures) and is indicated by the location of the pots on top of the taper.

However, since the average mind is not so evolved, it is presented with the sight of an idol at eye-level, to give the mind a point to focus on, to grasp, if you will, and learn to focus on things outside of itself.

A person entering the temple is expected to first look at the tower to remind himself of the journey he has before him, and then focus on the idol at eyelevel.

The towers are high because they were supposed to be visible from every nook and cranny of the village. Everytime one glimpses the tower, they are supposed to be reminded of their goal of spiritual evolution and
what lies at the end of the journey.

Once you enter the temple, you would have had to traverse multiple courtyards most of the outer ones being uncovered and pretty painful to walk on with your barefeet on a scorching hot day, before you can glimpse the deity in the inner sanctum. You probably also noticed that the inner sanctum is very dark, save for a few oil lamps, and the only way to really get a good glimpse of the deity is when a piece of camphor is lit in front of the idol.


The physical pain you feel when you traverse the courtyard, be it from burning feet or pouring rain, is to remind one of the trials and obstacles one faces going through the motions of day-to-day life. To spiritually evolve, its important that an aspirant not let these trials interfere with his eventual goal and continues to focus on his goal. The idol at the eye level, is to encourage precisely that. For the truly devout, their mind will be on the idol and not on their burning feet. Behavioral training for future aspirations 🙂

The dark sanctum where the deity resides is symbolic of the ignorant human mind/heart, which is so caught up in its day to day existance and easily loses sight of the ultimate goal of spiritual evolution. When the
priest lights the piece of camphor, it casts light on the idol. This issupposed to symbolize the light of knowledge that removes the ignorance that darkens one’s mind/heart. Note however, that the light from the
camphor piece is temporary – quite similar to knowledge, which is easily forgotten if not grasped tightly.

Also significant: camphor is a sublimate compound. Solid camphor on heating vaporizes instantly and does not go through the intermediary phase of liquid. It also has a strong smell associated with it that vanishes when it vaporizes. The sanskrit word for smell is “vasana” and has a double meaning – it also means “natural tendencies”. The symbolic burning of camphor is indicative of a human being giving up his natural tendencies toward anger, jealousy, hate, involvement in the mundane etc. The fact that there is no liquid generated which can solidify is said to indicate that once a person gives up these negative qualities, he gives them up for good.


You might have noticed the devout placing the palm of their hand over the camphor flame and touching it to their closed eyes/forehead. You may or may not have also noticed that there’s a goody bag (prashad) one
gets as they leave the temple.


The touching of the palm to the eyes/forehead is symbolic – with this gesture, one is saying “May the light of knowledge stay in front of my eyes always, may the darkness of ignorance never return”.

The goody bag originally used to comprise of fruits. These fruits represent the fruits of knowledge, the benefit of having burnt one’s negative tendencies and the rewards reaped.


A person who is able to focus his mind without the need for external aids and reminders such as idols and temples, is free to eschew temple visits and concentrate on spiritual progress according to the scriptures.

This is probably more than you ever wanted to know about Hindu temples 🙂 But it is this deeply spiritual symbol (to me, at least) that is being commonly perceived as ritualistic, without an understanding of the what-s and why-s of it.

Shuba S.
February 28, 2003


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