Tag Archives: Berlin

Traveling in India: and the Berlin Wall

Twenty years ago today a wall that separated not only a city into east and west but an ideology came down. At that time I was in India, and had been there for about three weeks. I was in the tribal state of Meghalaya, far from the western world in many respects. Luckily the Khasis are fairly affluent and my girlfriend’s mother had a TV. It wasn’t state of the art but they did get several channels. Only a very few houses had fridges or showers/tubs. Most still heated water with an electric coil in a bucket, and sponge baths were the norm.

Yet everyone had flush toilets and most had TVs. So it was that one night I watched the Berlin Wall coming down as they sliced through the concrete in big chunks and bulldozers pushed the wall apart. It was surreal, already being divorced from the everyday world by being on a trip. But I remember we were all very surprised. There’d been no warning. There had been no publicized event of this eventuality. It just…came…down. I’m sure it was different for the people living in Berlin.

After a month in Meghalaya, I went traveling to Nepal and to northern India. Somewhere near southwest Nepal, I think Pokhara, I took a bus toward the Indian border. It turned out to be too expensive for the locals. That meant there was a lot of space, no chickens or goats, and the few people were all tourists. There were three people from Japan, one a Japanese Tibetan. There was a couple from Germany and me. The three from Japan didn’t speak much English and though the Germans did, we didn’t chat a lot.

However, at one point in conversation I mentioned the wall coming down. These Germans were obviously from the democratic side of Germany but I don’t know if they were from West Berlin. However, when I said the wall had come down they said absolutely not. I said, but yes it has come down and they adamantly said no way. But I saw it being cut down on TV.

They had been travelling for a few months and it was inconceivable that this could happen. It was such a quiet affair really, and so sudden. I don’t think these Germans believed me even then. They probably had a bit of culture shock going back to their own country.

Culture shock comes with a change from one’s norm of living. It can hit people traveling or living in foreign lands because it is so different to what they’re used to. I had my own culture shock while in India for those two months. For me it was mostly brought on by the dysentery and exhaustion I experienced, making every change and difference hard to take or understand.

The sicker I got the more I longed for home, wishing I could have a glass of cold water, a crisp salad and a glass of real wine, not the sickly sweet stuff they love in parts of India. I felt the culture differences most in the language barriers (the signs if there were any weren’t in the Roman alphabet so I didn’t have a chance of reading them), the sense of time (the “what to do” attitude in India is partly because of the rampant corruption-baksheesh system, so many don’t try hard; that and the heat of course) and communication (you’ll get directions, possibly five different ones if you ask five people but no one will say I don’t know so you spend all day trying to get someplace).

At times I was in an incomprehensible mire as I tried to figure out the culture enough for travelling. At times I realized how different my world was when I asked a group of men where I was on the map I had for a city (Varanasi I think) and as they discussed it in their own language I realized they had probably never seen a map and had no idea how to read it.

Our cultures are different and sometimes a change, whether sudden or by immersion can toss us into a sea of uncertainty. But in essence we are all dealing with our world though our traditions and the events and elements that shape us. Here’s to the wall coming down in Berlin and may we have more positive moves like this throughout the world of allowing people their freedoms.

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Sports, Politics, Tibet and the Olympic Torch

There has been a great deal of furor over the Olympic torch in recent weeks. Furor for and against the Olympics being hosted by China, by people protesting, by the Chinese, by the Tibetans. I’ve heard various people including athletes and a former torchbearer say that politics shouldn’t be mixed with sports, especially the Olympics.

One person has pointed out that by pitting nations (not individual athletes) against each other, it is in fact politics from that point of view. Some of these arguments say that positive reinforcement, by showing that the world will embrace them, support them (?), will bring the Chinese around to practicing better human rights.

Well, let’s travel back in time to the Olympics of 1936 in Berlin. Sure, Berlin was awarded the event in 1931 (a political move to bring them back into economic stability after the WWI defeat) before Hitler took power. A boycott was discussed and protests held in many countries. Russia never attended but didn’t until 1952 and more countries participated than in previous years. This was in part because of the spreading notoriety of the Olympics. In the end, individuals boycotted, including some Jewish athletes. Jesse Owens, a Afro-American, competed and won four golds, no doubt galling Hitler.

But did the support of the Olympics actually serve in any sort of positive reinforcement and change in Hitler’s attitude? No. He used it as propaganda, in other words, for politics, to spread his message and take note how meek the world was in making any sort of overt stand. He went on to bring about World War II, killing record numbers of Jews, Roma and homosexuals.

There have been some arguments that protests should have been made sooner, not now at the running of the torch. Yet people would not have as great a voice. Here the voice is saying (as it did with Bush’s invasion of Iraq of recent years) that it does not approve, no matter what various countries’ leaders say or do. The people do not approve. Sure some will support it, but it is not as peaceful as the Olympics in Turin was.

Many athletes indignantly argue that the Olympics is no place for politics, that they’ve trained hard to get to this point. Some countries are already barring their athlete from speaking out, some will not make that restriction. Will the 2008 Beijing Olympics be used for politics? It already is.

Let’s not forget the Tianamen Square protests of 1989 and the 200-3,000 killed, depending on whose reports you want to believe. What were those protesters armed with against tanks and machine guns? Let’s not forget China’s unwarranted invasion of a peaceful neighbor, Tibet in 1950. Of course, there is some dispute again as to whether China ever gave up its sovereignty over Tibet.  And even though the Dalai Lama has agreed to Chinese authority as long as he is given autonomy over cultural and spiritual rule, the Chinese still ferociously call him liar and leader of the protests.

Will China use the Olympics for politics? Absolutely. They want the world to think they’re being better to their people whether in Tibet or China. Whether they are; actions speak for themselves. I doubt that they will actually change their ways much to please the world. It is only the economic revolution that they hope to bring about in their country that might do that change but a trade embargo against China is a complex thing.

Still, the most disturbing aspect I see here is that of people, whether athletes or officials stating that their area remain pure and untampered by politics. Let’s break this down into a more simpler framework. If you were being oppressed, beaten, subjugated and not allowed to do the things you found central to your way of being, would you want help? Of course. If someone said, well I guess I see the bruises and cuts and the guy pointing the rifle at you but I’m going to a birthday party and that should not be touched by politics, how would you feel?

If your country was invaded, your friends and family being murdered or disappearing, would you feel so good about the world if the nations said, well yes, we don’t really agree with the abuses this country is perpetrating against you but we want to have a gala party there anyway, how would you feel?

It seems to me this is partially what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany. It wasn’t happening elsewhere so it continued until it got out of hand (not that one life taken is not getting out of hand). People are often happy to turn their backs on wrongs if they don’t affect them. A blind eye does not make one less complicit. If you disapprove of China’s rule of Tibet and the subsequent protests and abuses of the protesters but go and make a statement that’s fine. If you approve of China’s tactics and go, well that’s fine. If you disapprove and you go to the Olympics, then you are a hypocrite, no matter if you compete or not.

There isn’t a country in the world that would stand up to China militarily for that would lead us into WWIII. They’re just too mighty, and they know it. So how do you protest? You object to the Olympics in Beijing, you start a trade embargo (No small thing when everything from food to fabric to toys comes cheaply from China.) I know it’s not so black and white as some aspects I’ve stated here but people really need to put themselves in others’ shoes and say, if this was done to me, would I like how individuals and nations are acting?

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