July 29, 2010

Girl on Fire: The Karma of Prosperity.

We shook our heads and kept driving, fantasizing about cooler weather and kinder people.

Traveling gives a unique perspective into culture, place and time. As an outsider looking in, you’re vulnerable, and in need of guidance: the answer to a question, directions, insight into how things work, mean everything when you’re on the road. Perhaps we are accustomed to these small acts of generosity and take them for granted? We sure noticed when they were withheld on our summer road trip up the west coast in 2008.

We went through hell together, and survived. The summer 2008 was apocalyptic; a freak lightening storm in the middle of a cloudless blue, sunshiny day created over 900 fires in Northern California. While California burned, our road trip plans for camping, hiking, and yoga turned into, get us out of here! We headed north to Vancouver.

Our ride was a 1995 D90 Defender. Land Rovers can crawl up mountains like a goat, with every tire pointing in a different direction. A Landy can fill up with water, and still cross the stream. But on asphalt it has issues. Still, she was a beautiful ride. In parking lots full of Jags and BMWs, she shined. The Landy was the envy of every mechanically inclined male who laid eyes on her and while making a round trip from Vancouver ,Canada to Los Angeles, California, the sexy beast of a vehicle broke down once in every state, both up and down the coast.

From the outside looking in, we were styling. We had the fantasy utility vehicle of every guys’ dreams. But from the inside, it was stressful: She ran out of gas. There were oil leaks. In fact, every fluid leaked. The top was made for a ’97, and she was a ’95. She required constant attention, and during an epically hot summer, she blew heated engine air onto the passenger seat. As we drove up the 101, air leaks from her windows created a roar of sound that drowned out any possibility of music or conversation. And it was not cool air blowing in through these leaks. This was a hellish summer of record breaking, global warming temperatures.

There were days lost as parts were ordered in Los Angeles. LA is where the first fire, the theme of this journey, began. In the neighborhood we were staying, a house caught fire a few blocks away. Up north, California was immolated in flame. Hot car, hot summer, and fires everywhere. Even in cool, foggy, San Francisco where we stayed one night in a downtown hotel, someone’s air conditioner caught fire. It was hanging, smoking, out of a 2nd floor window across the street from our hotel in a nice neighborhood. Fire engines screaming up the street.

San Francisco is where we began noticing a strange lack of generosity. It began with little details, like being overcharged for parking, or told there was wi—fi at a cafe, only to find out, after buying our coffees, there it $20 fee per laptop to use it. It was a vibe, a lack of helpfulness, a sort of anger and annoyance when we asked questions. At first we blew it off. But the Landy kept getting us into trouble, so our journey in California was prolonged. Human beings respond to the smell of smoke with a rush of adrenalin, a flight or fight response, which increases the amount of stress hormone, cortisol, in the body. Even in sleep the smell of smoke triggers responses in the brain, and this is an evolutionary survival mechanism that is built into our hardwiring. So Californians, bless them, were on edge. And we were too. Perhaps this explains the unkind selfish behavior we encountered, not in everyone, but in many people, on our road trip through my birth state.

We kept driving north, through California’s “Green Triangle,” an area named for the massive amounts of marijuana grown in Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendecino counties. During my requested pit stops to relieve my bladder, several gas station attendants would not let me use their facilities. “We don’t have a toilet,” they’d tell me. We shook our heads and kept driving, fantasizing about cooler weather and kinder people.

When I smelled smoke it was after 10 o’clock at night, on a dark, windy road, surrounded by massive redwood trees. It was more of a rubbery smell, than a woody scent, and in the dark, we couldn’t be sure if it was the environment or us.

Although it was dangerous, we pulled over. Sure enough, the Landy had nearly caught fire due to a burst high pressure oil line that was spraying its flammable contents all over the scorching hot manifold and engine block. D90s were built with a “fatal flaw”: the oil cooler line running from the oil pump to the radiator was positioned very close to the exhaust manifold and over time, if the line isn’t replaced with better material, the rubber breaks down and basically explodes, spraying oil all over the place. Here is what it can look like:

Fortunately, a police car pulled over and called the only tow truck in the area to give us a lift into town. We were five miles south of a little place called Garberville. An hour later we were on our way into town, in a huge tow truck listening to the driver, tell us that although Garberville was surrounded by burning mountains, 200 federal agents had swept through a few days before to bust some families who were growing pot on a piece of land. These families had bought the land together as a corporation, so they were breaking more than a few Federal laws. Many of the locals were packing up and heading out.

We were stuck in this charming, paranoid little town for a few days. The car part we needed would take several days to arrive. We resigned ourselves to a new routine. What struck us perhaps the most, as this was around the beginning of July, was the fireworks kiosk in the heart of town that did brisk business. The night sky was orange from the hundreds of fires that surrounded Garberville, the air was acrid with smoke, and people were buying fireworks? To suggest that maybe this was not a great idea, was to be unpatriotic, perhaps you were even a Fed.

It was in Garberville, with it’s hemp clothing, yoga classes and the Wildflower Cafe with magic eight balls on every table, that I encountered the most stunningly mean and petty behavior of our trip. At the first motel we were tethered to our room by a four foot ethernet cable between the two of us. After one night, we checked into a different little motel because, eager to blog, it had wi—fi. I paid the bill at the new place, was given a wi—fi access code, and sat outside on a tiny wood porch with our back packs while the Landy was attended to up the road.

The mechanic came in on his day off, didn’t charge us for his time (we gave him a few bucks anyway) and swapped out the bad hose with a new hose from the local auto parts store, keeping the original fittings and saving us from having to wait for a new replacement!

We asked for and received a refund from the new for the room that we never actually stepped foot in. With permission, I sat on the motel porch waiting for the Landy to pick up me and the luggage. I couldn’t get online.

The motel owner had changed the wi–fi access code. I asked him if I could pay a fee for the new wi–fi code. He said “no”. I asked if there was a bathroom I could use, he said “no”. I asked if I could leave the luggage outside for a moment, while I found a bathroom to use, and was told “yes”, but he gave me stink eye when he said it. I walked over to the Wildflower Café for a pee, and then headed back to the motel to grab our luggage.
When I stepped away, motel staff lit acrid smoky incense, but it wasn’t incense, it was more of a smoke bomb. They also brought over a fan, and positioned the fan and smoke bomb to blow directly onto where I was sitting. We were choking and our eyes were burning as we moved the luggage down the street and into the Landy. We fixed the Land Rover, drove through the fires, hundreds of fires, and made our way up north.

There is a Buddhist teaching that states generosity creates the karma for prosperity, and stinginess creates the karma for poverty. Being generous can be as simple as giving directions, saying thank you, looking someone in the eye, or helping a vulnerable traveler who needs to use the bathroom. And California was shockingly stingy. People were going out of their way to be unhelpful. Again, not everyone, but enough people and situations came up that I said, “California is going to have some serious financial problems.” And a few months later, California went completely bankrupt, and 2 years later, California has 12.3% unemployment, the third highest in the nation.

On a side note, we encountered similar strange unhelpful behavior in Vegas, and a fire on the Vegas freeway too. Vegas is also currently going through a world of pain financially.
This same teaching of generosity creating prosperity is now manifesting with a famous Hollywood actress, Angelina Jolie. Her partner has said about her, “The more money Angie makes, the more she gives away. ” She has built hospitals, started foundations, and donates lots of money to help children all over the world. The more she donates, the more she’s paid, and right now, she is the highest paid actress in Hollywood.
If our actions created our karmas instantly, we would all be angels, all the time, but the seeds we plant take time to sprout and manifest into being. There is a financial meltdown happening all over the world, and some people are getting hit hard by it, while others coast through unscathed, and some people are thriving. It’s a good time to review our own actions, the ways we hold back from being helpful, and the ways we give freely, and are generous. These small actions, especially when done consciously, can build a prosperous world for all of us.

And that sexy beast, the Land Rover Defender, now lives in Hong Kong.

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