Tuesday, September 6, 2011

You See, For Me

It is often common sense to follow one rule when you find yourself in the middle of a wedding, or in the middle of a public speech, or in the middle of a crowd of strangers, or in the middle of a dissociative identity disorder attack:

Never say anything bad about the people around you.  You never know who's listening.

That is, of course, if you mention names.  With names come identity, with identity comes blame, and with blame comes unfortunate publicity.  Regardless, I strongly believe that [however little] readers of this blog learn something from my entries, I will attempt to hold back no details from the [mélange of] stories, anecdotes, and transcribed dialogue involving one. other. person.
Except the name, of course.  For simplicity's sake, I'll refer to him as "Tomas."  Enjoy.
-| one |-

I met Tomas under what most people would consider "normal circumstances": another volunteer at Samarthanam, Tomas arrived about month ago to study with the blind sports manager in hopes of managing his own blind sports bar [which, as I recall, sounded suspiciously like a normal sports bar but with headphones so the visually impaired could also enjoy the radios and televisions].  Someone who has ever fallen madly in love, then out of it, however, knows that there are no such things as "normal circumstances."  Interestingly enough, Tomas is also blind, so one would assume that his motivations for coming to India were incredibly high, and the fact that he had spent the previous seven months in Kerala would imply that his tolerance for Indian culture was somewhere between "This is India, get used to it" and "I might as well have been born here."

Speaking with him, I quickly learned that he loved talking about his home country - who didn't? - and that he loved talking about how friends/family/strangers said that his inspirational story should be turned into a movie.  In short, he wrote about the world in first-person.  Nothing out of the ordinary.

-| two |-

Everyone in the house had been stricken with one illness or another; after all, August was monsoon season.  But the blind sports manager and other volunteers should have known something was wrong when Tomas' flu lasted more than four weeks, six trips to six different doctors, and a drastic reduction in the "foreign food" he was eating [at one point, all he ate was store-bought white bread, cheese squares, and 7-up, which he called juice].  On several occasions, I offered to bring him food from the nearby children's home, which always made me feel better, and each offer produced the same response.

"You see, for me, spicy food isn't good for getting over a sickness."

A month had passed, and the farthest Tomas had traveled from his host's house was across the street [with company] to the convenience store to replenish his food store.  Again, I offered to bring back food from the children's home to add some variety in his diet.

"No."  He said flatly, "I don't like it."  I didn't offer again.

-| three |-

Josh [entering the office room]:  Friends!  What's up?
Tomas:  Josh, I was telling Alessio here about my thoughts about marathons.
Josh:  Oh?
Tomas:  I don't like the definition.
Josh:  ... I'm not sure I follow.  Isn't the definition of a marathon so-many-odd number of miles/kilometers, and it's named after the Greek guy Marathon who ran back to his home village after his kingdom won some war?  [History has never been a strong point.  For more on the topic: Marathon]
Tomas:  You see, for me, that's a nice story.  But I don't believe it.
Josh:  What?  The definition of marathon 42.195 kilometers, or 26 miles and 385 yards.  At least, that's what it says on Wikipedia.
Tomas:  I don't trust it.
Josh:  So how would you want to define it?
Tomas:  You see, for me, I would define it as "a long distance run by a person."
Josh:  But a long distance could be different for anyone.  The reason a definition exists is so that you can set a certain bar for everyone, not just so anyone can give their own meaning to it.
Tomas:  So what would you call a race that you ran that's 43 kilometers?  Or 44?  Or 100?
Josh:  A long f*cking distance I would never decide to run.
[Tomas laughs.]
Josh:  Isn't that what an ultra-marathon is called?  Alessio, you're a runner, right?
Alessio [hesitant to enter the debate]:  ... Yes.
Josh:  How long is a marathon?
Alessio:  It's about 42 kilometers.
Tomas:  I don't like it.
Josh:  How can you deny the definition that's given by a [mostly] accurate website and a runner?
Tomas:  I just don't think it's true.
Josh:  But that's like denying the definition of the speed of light.  You can't just generalize it as "very fast."

-| four |-

As an act of friendship and an offering of peace, I regularly lead Tomas to a nearby supermarket.  Everyone has to eat something, after all.  Today, instead of buying water ["I don't trust the bottled water in the house, or the boiled water at the school."], crackers ["I have to be ready for when no one feeds me."], apples ["I need to strengthen my immune system."], and several packs of mentos [no explanation], Tomas wanted toiletries.  I brought him over to the lotion aisle.

"How much is it?"  He asked, and I explained that it depended on the size and brand of the bottle.  We proceeded to spend the next ten minutes opening bottles and smelling the contents inside.  He then asked to go to the mouthwashes.

"How much is it?"  He asked again, and I repeated that the size and brand of the bottle determined the price.  Each of the bottles were sealed in a plastic wrapper, so no smelling was allowed.  At his request, I began to read the brand names and description of each kind.  After choosing a bottle of red "spicy and herbal" mouthwash, he asked to go to the spray deodorants.

"How much is it?"  He asked a third time, and I dug my nails into my palm as I mentioned that size and brand were important factors in a manufacturer's choice in assigning a price to their product.  I noticed and mentioned the "No Testing" label underneath the row of aluminum cans.  Tomas asked which brands were available [about 10 or so], what were the colors of the cans [from red to gold], and what were the names of each smell [anything from 'Suave' to 'Street Sexy' to 'Pirates of the Caribbean'].  After choosing one, he opened the canister and sprayed a bit on his arm.

"No Testing." A store cashier materialized from behind the shampoos, and walked away.  Tomas chose another canister, and sprayed again on his arm.  I mentioned the cashier's warning, and Tomas turned to me and defended his case.

"You see, for me," he began, as usual, "I'm blind.  And I want to know what I'm buying.  So I will spray."  I imagined myself explaining that even visually-abled people couldn't smell the spray through the aluminum.  I decided against it.

-| five |-

Josh [entering the children home's office with an adult]:  Tomas, how long have you been waiting here?
Tomas:  For forty or fifty minutes.  Are you eating dinner now?
Josh:  Um, the children's home started already.  A while ago.  You could've started without me, you should've just asked one of the grown ups here to walk you to the kitchen.
[The adult points at Tomas' feet.]
Josh:  Oh, Tomas, they want you to take off your shoes before you enter the school.
Tomas:  You see, for me, I think I'm coming down with a cold.
Josh [wanting to desperately call Tomas a hypochondriac]:  Oh?
Tomas:  And you see, for me, you get a cold from walking on cold floors.  You absorb the cold.
Josh:  I'm not sure that's how it works...  But no one here wears shoes indoors.  Sorry dude.
Tomas [vocalizing frustration]:  AAAAAARGGGGGHHHH.  They are making it SO HARD to live here.
Josh [mumbling to himself]:  I'm not sure it's them who's making it hard...
[The adult points at Tomas' feet again.]
Josh:  I think they still want you to take off your shoes, Tomas.
Tomas:  But I don't want to.
Josh:  Why not?
Tomas:  My shoes will get stolen.
Josh:  By who?  I leave my shoes at the door all the time.  The other volunteers do too.  And the teachers.  Everyone.
Tomas:  But they're MY shoes.  I don't want them stolen.
Josh:  They won't get stolen, Tomas.  No one's shoes have gotten stolen.  Besides, they're just shoes.
Tomas:  JUST shoes?
Josh:  Yeah, man.
Tomas:  And what happens if my shoes get stolen.
Josh:  Buy some more?  India's kind of the giving tree when it comes to things like shoes...  I don't think they'd cost too much.
Tomas:  But they're MY shoes.
Josh:  I guess you're going to have to choose between not eating and not getting a cold, then.
Tomas releases another grumble of anguish, and removes his shoes.

-| six |-

Tomas had asked a friend of mine to lock the door of the office in which we were sitting.  This would be a problem, since other volunteers were constantly walking in and out of the office.  We pointed out this problem, but Tomas persisted.

"You see, for me, as a blind person, I don't know who will walk into the room and steal my things." Tomas was on the defense again.  We assured him that wouldn't happen, since there would be at least one other intern in the room with him at all times.  Again, he said to lock the door.  We made the mistake of asking why.

"I DON'T TRUST INDIANS."  He said, flatly.

Wrong country to travel to, buddy.

-| seven |-

I should have prefaced this entry with a warning:  I have no intentions on painting the disabled in a negative light.  Contrary to the vignettes listed above, I've actually met several visually-handicapped, hearing-impaired, and club-footed men and women.  Regardless of these hardships, however, they've shown me how they take on the world and challenge the people who question their abilities to accomplish even the most mundane of tasks.  In short, these people are an absolute delight and inspiration to anyone who has the patience to hear their story.  Although I'd love to take the time to write down each and every story I've heard from these men and women [who knows - maybe one day I will], I thought Tomas' was particularly interesting.  I present to you a man who wishes to change how the world - or, at least, his home country - sees the blind, and has the fantastic opportunity learn how to do so in a country that is MILES away from home.  And yet, he refuses to look past his own excuses, insecurities, fears, and prejudices of this land of plenty, resulting in getting himself stuck between a rock and a very dark place.  From what I've learned so far, India will teach you amazing things; some in topics that you hoped for, but mostly in ones you never even considered.  If you merely opened your eyes to it [seriously, no pun], allow it all to become a learning experience, you'll find happiness and wisdom in the most frustrating of deodorant-spray-lined aisles of a supermarket.

In the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to Arjuna about the importance of "The Path of Wisdom."  I thought this particular excerpt was a good way to finish my entry on Tomas:

But the ignorant man, and he who has no faith, and the skeptic are lost.  
Neither in this world nor elsewhere is there any happiness in store for him who always doubts.

Ah, symbolism.


No comments:

Post a Comment