Not the Typical Indian Guru
I never had a guru or spiritual leader or specific teacher whose message I follow. Instead, many different humans have played that temporary role for me for brief periods of time. This is the story of one of those people… and one of those brief periods of time.
I met Sunny at an outdoor café in Pushkar, India sometime around the turn of the century. He was, perhaps, the wisest man I ever met. I’m not sure if holy is the right word but he had that way about him… a sacred sort of presence. I only knew him for about five days and I only talked with him at the café. But we had several lengthy conversations over tchai and bhang lassis as we watched the crazy corner street traffic from our outdoor tables. Truthfully, at the time, I didn’t put much importance on the conversations because I was distracted by a delightful little romance with a pretty young German woman. But now, 15 years later, I’ve mostly forgotten the romance but I still think frequently about those conversations with Sunny. I wonder why that is?
When I first saw him, it was kind of a mind twister. I’d been traveling for several months around India but had only just arrived in Pushkar in the early morning. As per my usual routine, I dropped my backpack in a cheap room and went looking for a centrally located café. I found one on the corner of the main square and took a seat at an outdoor table. That’s when I noticed two blonde haired backpacker guys sitting at the table across the aisle from me. They were having a very animated discussion with an older local man. The older man had long greasy grey hair, dark skin and shabby Indian clothes; he looked like he belonged in Pushkar. He might even be a Sadhu except a real Sadhu would not be sitting in a café. The strange thing was that the older guy answered the young guys back in their European language (Swedish, Dutch, or German?). Not just a word or two, but full, complete and apparently complex sentences. I remember even now how my brain was slightly confused by the situation because the language coming forth did not match the character speaking.
Later in the afternoon, on that same first day in Pushkar, I return to the centrally located café. The house is packed this time and the server points me to the one empty seat. I’ll be sharing a table with the strange older guy I saw in the morning. He speaks to me in English. It is one of the six languages he speaks. He says his name is Sunny.
“Technically, I’m Swedish,” he says, “because that’s the passport I carry. But I’m not really into the whole nation state thing.”
“You don’t look Swedish,” I say.
“I was born and raised in Chile,” he says, “but I had to leave in 73. The Swedes took me in and gave me a new passport.”
“1973 huh?’ I say, “Pinochet?”
“That’s right,” says Sunny, “I am a political refugee. My country went to hell so I had to leave.”
“That’s interesting,” I tell him, “because I live in the United States. Our government is hell as well so I think about leaving too; all the time. But I can’t seem to bring myself to do it.”
“Is your life in danger?” asks Sunny.
“No,” I say, “Just my soul. The problem for me is that my government commits so many horrid war crimes around the globe that I don’t want anything to do with it anymore. That’s why I think about leaving and never going back. I don’t want to vote for those psychopaths or pay taxes to support their evil secret wars. I want nothing to do with them. So I want to be a political refugee.”
“Then why don’t you become one?” asks Sunny.
“I really want to,” I say, “But I can’t decide where else to go. I like to travel yes. But I like going back to the town where I live in the U.S.. I like my friends and my family. I like my community. I like the work I do and I like the feel of the landscape of the region as well. It’s just the U.S. government and it’s aggressive war machine and the hell that war machine is visiting upon the earth that offends me. I want to leave as a matter of principle but I like being there because it feels like home.”
“You know,” says Sunny, after a sip of tchai. “You don’t necessarily have to leave your country to become a political refugee. You just have to decide to become one.”
“What?” I say.
And that’s when we are interrupted by the pretty girl. “Oh my God, it’s Anna, from Berlin right? We met in Varanassi?”
“Yes, yes,” she says, “And you are Patrick. You gave me directions. You are American. Small world no?”
“Very small world. Here, have a seat, join us. This is my friend Sunny from Sweden.”
Sunny and Anna have a brief exchange in German and Anna sits down to join us. After that, the conversation gets confusing. A short while later; Sunny leaves us to attend his afternoon yoga session and Anna and I decide to go for an afternoon hike in the desert. I think I’m going to like Pushkar.
I see Sunny again the following morning at the same outdoor café. It’s not crowded this time but he invites me to join him and I do. He drinks tchai while I decide to indulge in a bhang lassi (marijuana milkshake). “Yes, yes, I want full power bhang lassi,” I tell the waiter. A few moments later, the strange green yogurt drink is before me and I am listening to Sunny speak.
“A political refugee,” he says, “is always traveling. But that doesn’t mean he can’t go traveling in his own home town.”
“Huh?” I say as I slurp the lassi.
“Freedom is an active mental decision that you can choose. You don’t have to leave home to get it but it does have consequences.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s the same as traveling,” says Sunny. “You are traveling right now in India. Does that mean you are Indian? Does that mean you accept the actions of the Indian government as somehow reflecting or representing you? No; of course not. You are a visitor, a traveler, a tourist. Why not apply the same distinction when you are home in the States? Accept reality my friend. You have no say in the actions of the U.S. government. You are not responsible for what they do. You can, of course, claim responsibility, swear allegiance to its stars and stripes and all of its so called exceptionalism. But you can also choose the opposite. Be a permanent traveler. Reject the American ideal and become a political refugee.”
“But it’s not so easy,” I say, “I have a U.S. passport. If I give up my citizenship, I lose my passport. I need a passport to travel. I can’t give up my U.S. passport unless I can get citizenship and a passport from somewhere else.”
“Passport, smashport,” says Sunny, “Such pieces of paper mean nothing. I once knew a con artist from Italia that had eleven different passports from eleven different countries. There’s a CIA agent right here in Pushkar who has five different passports. I personally have a Swedish passport but that doesn’t make me Swedish. The truth is; I am only Swedish if I decide in my heart and my soul that I want to be Swedish. And the same goes for you. You can be an American if you want to be. Make that choice in your heart and in your head and in your soul. But you can also choose the opposite. You don’t have to pay taxes, vote or otherwise participate in their democratic charade just because you exist within their theoretical geographical boundaries. You can become an outlaw… a political refugee.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I say.
“It’s a metaphor,” says Sunny, “a way to understand things. I might even call it a movement but it’s much more subtle than that. Political refugees are human beings who live unattached to any particular governmental entity. They are not anarchists because they do not disbelieve in the concept of government. They do obey most laws of the places they live because laws affect their existence. Nevertheless, they don’t acknowledge the legitimacy or authenticity of the laws they follow because they do not recognize the issuing authority. You might say that a political refugee is a citizen in search of a fair social contract to sign and agree to. But if no such fair social contract is available in today’s world, the political refugee has no choice but to play the real world game in order to survive.”
“Wow man, that’s deep,” I say, “I get it. I like it. I could be a political refugee and stay in the states.” And that’s about the time the full power of the bhang in the lassi hits me. The universe goes sparkly. I get that tingly feeling and I think for a moment I might spontaneously combust. “Holy shit,” I say, “that’s incredible. But I think I better go lie down.”
Someone told me a few weeks later that the bhang lassis in Pushkar were often spiked with ecstasy. That would explain a lot. The weird electrical energy attraction I had with Anna and the strangely circular and profoundly perplexing conversations I had with Sunny.
I see him again the following day in the exact same outdoor café. We share a table, drink tchai and watch the action in the crazy Pushkar streets. This is the first and only day he ever tells me travel stories. My god does he have travel stories; holy shit kind of travel stories; stories from here and there and everywhere. Thus far, he has visited eighty something countries but he does not keep track and he’s not counting. He just likes to wander around and look at things. His home base is Sweden where he lives and works for four or five months a year. He works in social services; he cares for the elderly. He isn’t a doctor or a nurse or anything like that; he is just an attendant or “helper-outer” as he likes to say to describe his chosen profession. “It’s not rocket science or rock n roll,” he says, “but it’s nice to be useful.”
“I can’t imagine the profession of “helper-outer” pays very well,” I tell him.
“The more you need, the less you have,” he answers, “I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t eat meat, I don’t pay money for prostitutes and I sometimes like to sleep in my tent. I can travel most of the world quite comfortably on five hundred Euros a month. In Stockholm, my base, I can work four or five months in a retirement home and save enough to travel the rest of the year.”
“Wow,” I say, “that is cheap traveling. I probably spend close to twice that. But I do drink alcohol and I do eat meat.”
“Nothing wrong with indulgences,” says Sunny, “life is to be lived. I have had many indulgences in the past and will no doubt have some in the future. But indulgences come with a price and that price is time and energy. These days, at least, I prefer to expend my time and energy exploring the world.”
“I could probably give up the alcohol,” I say, “I don’t drink that much anyway. But some indulgences…. Well…. Some indulgences are hard to resist.”
“Yes,” says Sunny and he laughs. A mischievous twinkle sparkles in his eye. “Some indulgences are hard to resist,” he says, “and it’s very nice to see you again Anna.”
At first I think he is joking; making some reference to Anna being an indulgence. But then I realize he is serious and Anna is standing behind me. We invite her to join us and she does. A short while later, Sunny excuses himself and leaves Anna and I alone. So me and the pretty girl drink us some ecstasy laced bhang lassis and go frolicking in the desert. Damn I love Pushkar.
I only see Sunny one more time after that and it’s few days later. I finally come to the surface from my bhang lassi haze and decide it’s time to go to Jaiselmer for some camel trekking in the desert. Sunny is on his way to Rishikesh for some intense yoga. We say good-bye at the corner café’ over a cup of tchai. We talk about many things in that last conversation and I can’t remember most of it. Actually, it’s kind of a miracle I can remember any of that conversation. I was very washed out on bhang and ecstasy at the time. Even looking at the old hand written notebooks of the India trip, there is no mention of Sunny. I wrote a whole darn poem about the German woman and Pushkar but there is not a single mention of the laid back, smiling political refugee. Is it possible that I imagined him? I certainly never saw him again. Is it possible that I invented this character in my crazy head to teach me lessons I wanted to learn? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. All I know is that for the last fifteen years, I have repeated parts of this conversation to various people at various times.
“Travel like a bum,” says Sunny, “and you will have nothing to fear anywhere in the world.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I say.
“That’s because you are American and the truth is the opposite of what you Americans are taught to believe.”
“It’s very simple,” says Sunny, “95% of all the people on the planet earth are poor. All the world religions and belief systems teach people to respect the poor. If you are a bum, you are one of the 95% and people everywhere will treat you like a friend. If, however, you travel like a tourist… one of the privileged… the locals will treat you like an “other” and target you with their mischievousness and animosity.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I get that. If I pretend to be poor, I won’t get robbed because no one will think I have any money.”
“No,” says Sunny, “not exactly, money poverty and financial wealth has very little to do with it. It’s all about attitude and the way you interact with people. You can’t pretend to be a bum. You have to become one.”
That’s it, more or less; those are the words I have remembered or misremembered for the last 15 years. I never wrote them down so I can’t guarantee accuracy. Indeed, I can’t even guarantee that Sunny existed. But somebody somewhere taught me that I could be a political refugee and still live in my own country. And somebody somewhere taught me about the freedom to be found in low income, anti-materialistic living. I’ll give myself credit for putting the two concepts together and figuring out how they are inter-related. (In a consumer capitalist society, an anti-materialist is by definition a political refugee.) But I give credit to that maybe existing, laid-back, long-haired political refugee I met at a café in Pushkar for pointing me in the right direction. Thanks Sunny. Wherever you are; thank you for being one of my many many gurus.