Looking Beyond

The waters are calm when looking over the ocean from the battlements of the Fort that guards the entrance of the harbour at Santiago de Cuba. Off to the right over the horizon lies Jamaica in the sun, and to the left is Haiti in its destruction, while down below, in 1898, the Spanish galleons had come out in single file, like innocent sheep, only to be sunk by American warships lying in wait outside the mouth of the harbour. This fort is a vantage point of history, recent and past, representing the beauty and horrors of life. I could not see any of this at street level. “Look beyond,” my wise teachers and mentors had told me, “and you will find vistas never seen before.” I was reminded of their words while sitting up there in those battlements.

I wrote the paragraph above while touring Santiago de Cuba with a group of Canadian writers recently. There were many such set pieces that I captured on paper in this land that seems to be frozen in time, reminding me of what life was like when I was growing up in a tropical island somewhere else in the world, where scarcities had been a fact of life, where the developed world was out there somewhere, a place impossible for us forgotten ones to get to. I remember climbing the giant Jam tree in the front yard of our family home, perching myself in its highest branches and looking out over the paddy fields, watching the planes fly overhead and wondering when it would be my turn to fly away.

Over the years, by a combination of looking beyond, being dissatisfied with the status quo, striving, and luck (isn’t luck the product of hard work?) I seemed to have swapped places with those fat•cat tourists who used to come to my island home and dole out money as if there was no end to the flow. In Cuba, this time around, it was my turn to dish out the pesos, while the locals looked on in anticipation. I wanted to tell them not to be fooled, that there was a finite end to this supply of money; that even in rich countries like Canada, bounty came from hard work, and that jobs could end with a small downslide of the stock market ticker. But what did they know about stock market tickers? All they knew was that they worked hard too, but did not have the money to show for it, so according to them, we must have some other unknown secret. It’s because of freedom and private enterprise, I wanted to say, but being a man following the Middle Way, I did not want to be a poster boy for Capitalism.

I did not know what to tell these islanders, and returned from my trip somewhat frustrated. In retrospect, I should have told them to go to a Fort•like place and look beyond, look to the sunshine and destruction in lands beyond, look at the world with all its possibilities, good and bad, and pick a spot to play, beyond one’s comfort zone. Perhaps that was the only way out beyond scarcity and insularity, the path towards growth, and towards finding breakthrough solutions beyond the “tried and true” that provide only marginal returns and keeps one like the unenlightened frog, forever circling in the slow•boiling cauldron.

Why do the poor always get picked on?

When Haiti was hit by the massive earthquake, I couldn’t help but feel that the poor always get picked on. Why choose an impoverished country that has been reeling from one political and economic disaster to another? Why take them out with an earthquake as well? This happens quite regularly in the developing world: never•ending famines in the Sahara, tsunamis in South Asia, terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, floods in Bangladesh.

I tried to balance that scorecard with reported disasters in the developed world in the last decade: 9/11, drought in Australia, forest fires in California, Katrina in New Orleans, extreme winter in Europe in 2010, near•miss terrorist attacks on Christmas Day over the US. But somehow it does not balance out when the loss of human life is calculated. The “Third World,” as we once used to call these nations, is more fragile and exposed when disaster hits. And while the costs of infrastructure damage in the West may be greater (after all, the West had more infrastructure, that is why they are called “developed”) there are often more dead and homeless in the less affluent countries.

Is this the punishment for past or present sins? If that were so, doesn’t the rich commit as much sin as the poor, or do they get to position it better, or conceal it altogether, even from a divine deity?

I have tried to relate this to karma – the cycle of birth and death that leads to perfection. Are those in affluent countries further up the scale in this cycle and therefore insulated from the worst effects of these disasters, while their poorer cousins are less down in the hierarchy of suffering and death, and are therefore going through boot camp at the moment?

Or is the “big leveller”—the disaster to end all disasters, the end of the Mayan Calendar, 2012, the Rapture, call it what you will—still to come, when all these different levels of suffering will be of no consequence, when rich and poor will be left exposed for who we truly are before an impartial judge who will either reward or punish us for our deeds on earth?

I have no answers, except to say that as much as it hurts me to see tragedy hit our poor cousins, it also gives me a great high to stare at my TV screen, watching frantic rescue workers using their bare hands to move aside rubble to pull out a weak but smiling child from the earthquake’s carnage and then celebrating that puny victory. It tells me that as a species we still choose life, and that we will never be comfortable with and yield to the prospect of death without a fight, and that as long as we feel this way, mankind will continue to grow and live, irrespective of where on this planet we live. Survival is our great unifier.