Saturday, August 1, 2009

Being a Half-Danish Canadian in Copenhagen

With only a day and a half before the beginning of the national PROUT convention at a large farmhouse about 45 minutes outside of the city, we found ourselves with little time to explore Copenhagen. In moments such as these my tactic is simply to let others hash out the itinerary and just go along with the ride, remaining wide-eyed and alert for the subtler experiences often missed by typical tourist with their faces pressed against their fold out maps. My ambitions only had one easily granted condition: go everywhere by bike! After spending months suffocating in the bus and metro traffic of Caracas, where it is virtually suicide to attempt to ride a bike around at any time of day, Copenhagen was like a surreal bike-rider's fantasyland. Broad, well marked and divided bike lanes on nearly every main street, bike parkades, bike-friendly traffic and best of all, bike theft is basically unheard of! It was almost too easy and by the end of the day I wanted more freedom and challenge, daydreaming of being back in Vancouver, whizzing through the streets with less conformity, less regulations and social expectations to guide and restrict my path and speed through the city. More dangerous yes, but more like real life, more like an ongoing compromise between everybody sharing the road instead of having prissy young vixens clad in the new, more absurd "fashions" out of Europe (stuffing jeans into socks...really?) incesstantly ringing their little bells at me from behind, signaling me to pick up the pace when I slowed down for photos. My response: Jesus woman, learn how to move outside the lines a little, there's no one else around us. It might not have been Vancouver, but I eased into the flow and lapped it up. Our collectively decided upon destinations were as diverse as they were spread out throughout the core of the city: the little mermaid statue by the sea, the canals, and Christiana, an old hippy community where the rules and norms of the EU don't apply. The mermaid was obviously a bore. I sat there more interested in the throngs of tourists arriving by the busload to snap a quick shot, buy a trinket and get back on board for the next thralling destination. I took many pictures of people taking pictures...and yes, a picture of the mermaid. You gotta love it. It's the double standard that never really sinks in enough to radically change our behavior and desire to see what all the fuss is about. So I asked the local girl selling ice cream. She told me that the mermaid once had her beautiful head cut off and it went missing for a number of months. The investigation and metalurgery that ensued to bring her back to life comprise the genesis of her fame. It could have been a lie, she did look extremely bored. The canals were exactly what you have in your mind: a narrow waterway lined with old wooden sailboats, nice arching pedestrian bridges, row upon row of colorful 6 story houses with white-framed windows, street-level cafes and restaurants with their patios spilling out onto the carless, cobblestone streets. It was pretty.

The surprise and height of the day's adventure came with Christiana. Tucked away on the central outskirts of downtown Copenhagen, the carless hippy haven has escaped the tidal wave of modernization that swept through the rest of the area probably some decades ago. After asking around a few times we finally rounded a corner and spotted a narrow entrance into what we knew was unmistakably the corridor to another world. The outside wall of a large wooden building was graced with the most enchanting mural of fairies, mushrooms and other typical fantasyland characters. Immediately a part of me knew it was home and in my head I knew exactly where the day was leading. Entering Christiana was like stumbling into a bastion of soft social anarchy and escapism. Long past its heyday, the hippies of old were nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by wandering youth with screaming, overbearing styles and university students smoking hash with their morning coffees. It still had its own charm, yes, but the imaginings of what it once was were what captivated me more. What must have once been a bustling nursery and growing centre lay in the middle of the sprawling neighborhood, its compost bins nearly empty and in harsh neglect, wheel barrows with no wheels lay rusted in front of them. Passing under the large wooden ark at the main entrance entails two commitments. One, that you will not take photos inside Christiana. The astounding artwork found on nearly every square each of the wooden buildings inside are not to be exploited by outsiders. It isn't merely graffiti, it isn't merely captivating artwork on some walls, it really exudes history, with the paint, the light colored wooden panels have been permeated with a fingerprint of a unique microculture, telling stories that very few people were actually around to fully understand. They remain as cultural anchors, reminding us that the desire to carve a new path, to break free from social norms and oppresive systems is an innate force that dwells deep within us all. The second commitment is to open yourself up, live freely and unchained from the legal vices of the European Union that lurks beyond it's invisible borders. The aromas of the main street brought back memories of Morocco, where I first really fell in love with hash. It took about an hour or so until I gave in and slyly suggested to the others how much a little smoke would nicely complement an already wonderful day. Through a little path into a wooded area just off the main dirt road we found a nice clearing, complete with sitting logs, a firepit and a carved and painted wooden wide-screen tv with nothing on. As a group we got "lost" a countless number of times en route back to the house where we were staying. They would stop, ask directions, and fumble with the map in a fluster. I never felt lost once the entire time, I was just where I wanted to be and riding around on a bike in Copenhagen after a nice smoke was just about as close to heaven as I could have got at that moment in my life. Once the others were safely back home I got back on the bike and went out again until the sun went down.

I really loved Copenhagen. It was probably a bit of homesickness that made me feel the city was like a blend of Montreal and Vancouver, one of the European source cities for our Canadian glories. But dig a bit deeper and the most obvious initial observations quickly fade and morph into something new. I received an email from my mom around the day that I arrived in Copenhagen. Turns out my grandfather (her father) was born in the very same city. "Returning to your roots", she said. It would have been neat to find the house where he lived, to see if it was still there, or better, meet up with a distant relative, but it seems the connection to the motherland has already been forever severed. So it was through my solo encounters with the people and the city that helped fill in to some extent the nagging black holes where answers to the question: what is Canadian culture? have never been quick to leave my lips when probed in other parts of the world. Naive, yes, to think that I was even remotely on the verge of shedding some light on the question, however, I thought that I was starting to figure it out a little, that Copenhagen, everything about it, afforded me a deeper understanding of what drives the European Canadians in their pursuit of identity. Like looking into a cultural mirror I probed deeper: the design of the city told of what they cherish, clean air, quiet streets, orderly and easy flow of people, safety, and a relaxed pace to life; the quality of services spoke of high earnings, advanced economy and progressive social programs...all very much desired by "many" in Vancouver, not "as many" to make it even remotely comparable in scale or effort, but that could be changing. Where I was really thrown off was the predominant expressions of the collective human face of the citizens: somewhat passive, sulken and usually hidden behind a beer bottle or a cigarrette. Copenhagen has the highest per capita income in the world, but I'd be willing to bet that it hasn't translated into an equally impressive rate of general happiness. My experience at a coffee shop helps sum it up a little. The scene unfolded as follows:

I enter and order a coffee then bring it over to a table in the corner near the window. It was a quiet afternoon and there were few other people in the cafe. One was a woman around my age sitting at the table just across the narrow little floor space between us. I glanced over at her a few times, nothing threatening or intrusive. When we briefly made eye contact I simply asked "How's your book?". Thus ensued what was actually some very dull chitchat that resisted my efforts to inject it with a little slice of life. I got bored, she left shortly after. When the waitress came over to clear my table she offered some advice:

- "You know, you probably shouldn't talk to people like that?"
* "Like what?"
- "Like how you were talking."
* "How was I talking?"
- "I mean to just aren't suppose to talk to people that you don't know. I'm from Sweden. There it is worse. If you were to do that, people would think that you were a crazy person."
* "Hmm, alright. So how on earth do you meet new people?"
- "I don't know."

Yes, "I don't know"! Leave it to an outlying Scandinavian city to bring new appreciation for Caracas, an aggressive and crude city that took months to finally win my heart. For all its faults (and believe me, they aren't so hard to point out) the Caraquenos are at least living daily some very important qualities, like openness, friendliness and the unspoken understanding that sharing the same space is like sharing the same mind, I just wish this could be said to extend between those with political differences. A year in Latin America has certainly redefined my social needs and never will a society so reserved and conformist as Copenhagen ever be able to win over my heart...but then again, I swore to despise Caracas forever only 8 months ago and now I am truly dreading the day I will leave. Copenhagen, your true essence will remain a mystery to me yet. Thanks for being you and thanks for sharing!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ayahuasca, Part 2

In that moment of terror, I began remembering some words of wisdom from Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian sorcerer. Make death your friend, he said. It is always at your left, right there, at arms length. In times of confusion and sorrow, death is often the only thing that can renew our perspective and temper our spirit. I stretched out my left arm and gazed just beyond my fingertips, ready to see a wisp in the shadows or feel coolness against my skin. Nothing. It was not my time. It was not death creeping up on me, but something else that wore death as a mask. I spoke in thoughts, trying to make contact with the beings around me: where do you come from and why are you here? What do you have to teach me? No answer. It was quiet now. The haunting sounds of suffering had disappeared. It became clear that I was being offered this silence as a way to go deeper, to become an unmolested spectator to my own madness.

The serpentine felines seemed to stay just outside a small circle I had drawn in the grass around my body moments before plunging into this shadow world of what I now know to be my life. There they lurked, just beyond arms reach, never arriving, but perpetually searching, their senses keenly alert for fear, for attention. Something from above gently ripped through the silence. I would have thought they were merely bats if it wasn’t for the terrifying sounds that trailed their course through the sky. A feeling appeared instantaneously with my first glimpse: demons. Just above the treetops these massive winged creatures made criss-crossing patterns through the sky, producing the sound of a thousand centipedes scurrying across a pane of glass. What in God’s name is going on and what world have I left behind, I thought to myself. I probed the demons as I had the beasts on the ground, but still no answers. Easing into acceptance, my terror gradually became fascination, curiosity and awe, which only blunted more the sharpness of the shadow world around me. Just then, from a distance that seemed planets away, the gentle notes of a wooden flute drifted into my circle from the other side of the terrain, leaving faint trails of light to linger amidst the trees in the grayness of early dawn.

Then a voice spoke from inside of me: you are in the darkness now, come into the light. I was instantly on my feet, moving confidently toward the source of the music, heaving in the air like a man who had forgotten how to breathe. My path led through the trees to a gravel trail that continued on between two structures. One was a grey house, looking empty and abandoned, the other, an open-aired room with a knee-high brick wall on three sides and a wooden roof. The side facing me as I approached had a bamboo covering from top to bottom, concealing who or what was inside. There was smoke hovering low in the air from a campfire quietly crackling on a small mound between the structures. It was very soothing, its energy felt pure. My eyes winced as I approached. I broke through the cloud of smoke and saw clearly the expanse of wilderness that was stretched out beyond the terrain. Just beyond the fire the earth dropped off into a wide, open, tree-covered valley, which unfolded gently from the bottom towards the horizon. I stood still momentarily, arms at my side, taking in this foreign land around me. As if by instinct I moved in close to the fire and crouched down before it, noticing for the first time that I was not alone. A shirtless man was knelt down on the ash-covered ground in front of the fire. He was surrounded by a circle, carved out of the earth an inch deep and with a small rock he was tracing over all kinds of symbols on the ground in front of him. His actions were hurried and intense and I saw his inner suffering as equal to my plight with the tiger snakes and the demons from the mango hillside. My suffering was his and his was mine. We were one. I wondered if he could hear the music, now cascading out from behind the bamboo wall. If he doesn’t now, he will soon enough. With each passing moment the energy multiplied, peeling back the layers of darkness one soul at a time. I turned back to the fire, gazing intently at its pulsing crimson heartbeat. I was one with the shimmering coals within that lay firmly on the same earth that also held my body tightly in place. And there we were, momentarily, so close to dust. The fire was a spirit, I realized, existing between worlds, like a bridge of light passing through multiple curtains of perception. I greeted it, stretching my arms towards the flames, my palms open to receive the heat. My eyes closed. On the heals of breath I brought light into my being, to scour through my body, gathering all the darkness from within, no longer concealed by shadow, but illuminated, exposed and conquered. I offered it to the fire, feeling it leave my body and return to the source as smoke and ash slowly dissolving into the sky of early dawn. The time had come. I opened my eyes and rose to my feet, stepping away from the fire and into a world of light beyond words and a depth beyond imagination. I walked lightly towards the music, feeling resurrected, each step a return to a primordial essence lost long ago. A crowd of people had gathered around, soaking in the bath of light. I took a seat on the small brick enclosure, shoulder to shoulder with others, merging with the collective. The music was pure magic and took form in the air around us. The words were mantras and spoke to us in piercing rays of rainbow light. I offered myself wholly to this power, opening to the infinite. Bliss was the blending of my energy with the rhythm of the music, the divine essence of the moment. Spanish guitar, wooden drums and flute all merged in perfect harmony with the enchanting voice of the shaman, standing in the center of the space, projecting a wisdom far older and more sacred than words. His lyrical mantras clutched at the heart, you could see it clearly in the bodies and faces of the people who were so transfixed by this man’s presence. Each gesture, each pluck of a string, each whistle through the wood, each smile, each tear, each breath was a culminating brushstroke on a masterpiece of the divine. It was God incarnate in the raw essence of humanity and it was the most beautiful moment of my life.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ayahuasca, Part 1

I knew that I would not be able to sleep, but I was dragged down to the ground nonetheless, my tired body slipping heavily between the tall grass around me. My breath carried the tremble of fear, so I closed my eyes to focus my mind and center myself in this body. Deeply in and out, the midnight air soothed my nerves. I was open and attentive, while trying not to let an over-productive imagination flood my senses and drown out whatever truth the night might bring. Time passed. I sat up and opened my eyes to engage once again with my surroundings, struggling to see through the darkness of the moonless night. A figure moved in front of me. It was a woman. She was crawling around beneath one of the mango trees that were scattered across the terrain. On her hands and knees now, she started to weep. They were the unmistakable sobs of desperation. She moved a hand to the trunk of the tree for support and began to vomit uncontrollably, expelling the toxins from inside, cleansing her mental anguish one heave at a time. The sobbing continued between the purges. Others in the distance were now letting go as well, as if prompted by her release. I couldn’t make sense of what was happening, all the crying, all the vomiting, all the screaming. I thought that I must have been in Hell, or some hopeless, awful wasteland along the way. I laid back down and closed my eyes once again to try and shut it all out. My salvation is within me, I thought, as I started to retreat inside myself, searching for something pure to hold onto. Just breathe. Seek the quiet inside yourself and just breathe. A falling mango from the branches above me shattered the rhythm of my breath and assaulted the calmness of my heartbeat. I laughed quietly out loud and reassured myself that all these latent fears were just as silly as being afraid of falling fruit. I tucked my pants into my socks to prevent more fire ants from crawling up my legs and feasting on the backs of my calves. Relaxing back into the grass I mentally brought some light into my body, into every finger, into every pore, letting the time pass. It wasn’t quite fear that seized me when I opened my eyes again. For me, fear brings with it a sense of helplessness. This was abject terror. The curious, paralyzed shock of the unimaginable. But I never became disconnected from a faint calmness deep in the background of my mind, the intuitive realization that everything was as it should be, that all was one, that I would be okay. I let it come, and with renewed conviction in my process, begged the darkness forward. The grass had grown tenfold and had moved in to surround my body like a cocoon. It was jet black in color. All around me it swayed gently in windless space, like living blades of shimmering darkness. My eyes were peeled open, sweating, and I took it all in: the terror, the bewilderment and the confusion, ready to die for whatever lurked within or beyond this grassy, mango covered hill. I took in a slow, deep breath and let it out quietly, knowing full well that noise mattered little, my presence had already been felt, I could be screaming and it wouldn’t change a thing. I sensed movement in the black, knee-high forest around me. Glimpses of what was out there, caught from the corner of each eye, hurled my vision skyward and my imagination crystallized the panorama of my plight. Lurking in the grass all around me were snake-like cats, monstrous in size, pressed low to the ground, concealed in shadow, slowly zoning in on my body with a sinister, slithering crawl.