Tuesday, December 4, 2012

a thanksgiving to remember - II

Oh, there was another aspect of our thanksgiving break that I needed to put out because of the lasting impression it had on us. One leg of our journey was by train and although this leg was an afterthought it turned out to be the most serendipitous experience over our ten day break.

There is something grounded and organic about a train journey.The vistas get extended. You get to stretch your legs. If you want to break away from a book, there's always people to chat up with.

We were at the lounge waiting to proceed to our train when a group of Amish folks pulled up right behind us in queue. One had to consciously look away just to avoid objectivizing their difference--wouldn’t you also stare at Amish folks even merely for the sartorial spectacle they present, an unintentional spectacle though! Or, hey,  aren’t they being intentionally different? Half-hiding our curious stare, we proceeded to board out train.

With our train ride settling to a steady rhythm, we decided to get something to eat from the lounge car. Tray in hand we went to the upper lounge, sat in the booth on one side of the aisle, and proceeded to eat.

The woman behind us was audibly exasperated. “How does this thing work? I have read the manual but can’t seem to get it going.”

I turned around to see an elderly woman with a portable DVD player on the table. Although the manual was opened in her hand, she had frustratingly failed to fire up her device.

“Do you know how these things work?” she asked the two men on the adjacent table. These men were two from the Amish folks we had met in the lounge. I kinda smiled because Amish are known to shun anything electronic, even electricity itself.

One of the Amish men answered, “Sure, I could have a look.” It took me by surprise. “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “this is interesting.” But then I spied on his portable Playstation device and thought he might, despite what was common knowledge about the Amish, be quite at home with a DVD player.

I gathered I wouldn’t need to intervene and turned back to eating. I heard the woman thank the Amish men and proceed to watch her movie. It was then that I heard her exclaim in a way that caught me by surprise. “Aha, the FBI is going to fine me $250,000 if I reproduce or distribute this movie!”

Amish men helping a woman with her electronic device, a woman oblivious of the statutory warning prior to any DVD run, while widely-known Luddites palmed an electronic device rather effortlessly…oh the irony!

We were done with our eating and turned around to the Amish men asking if they would like to join us. They seemed more interested to chat with us than our invite was meant to be. Anyway we got talking with, as they introduced themselves, to Elam and his younger brother Eli.

Elam and Eli were travelling to California with their sister who had a severe case of Lupus. A doctor across the Californian border in Mexico was working on a stem-cell and traditional medicine hybrid therapy. Their sister had been there previously and responded well to this hybrid therapy.

Eli looked a lot more advanced than the 15 years he said was his age. His calloused hands revealed more labor than I could ever muster over my lifetime. An already seasoned farm hand at his dairy, he worked on another produce farm through the week. Concerned, I asked if he went to school. He answered that he attended a school which ran only a few hours in a day. “What I need to know, anyway, I learn it on the farm,” he added. And he did. He started throwing out all these names for different strands of corn, their market prices, and how seasonal changes could affect both. I just listened.

Elam butted in. He told us that Amish folks shun four things: television, electricity, telephone, and motorized automobiles. Having spied on his Playstation, I tongue-in-cheek-ed, “What about you, do you shun them too?” Elam smoothly moved into a negotiatory position, “I am in between.” Elam, he told us, was a welder by trade. He used electricity sparingly for his trade. 

With regard to relations with the wider society, Amish folks did business selling organic produce and hand crafted items. Banks however were a no-no; if necessary, they transacted through their own cooperative financial institutions. Life was defined by sustenance not luxury, and communal rather than individual in texture. As Elam and Eli went on about the Amish way of life, I couldn’t help exoticize their world as that idyllic alternative to this hyper-digitized and debt driven world.

I was getting a sense of why Amish folks stay within themselves. Elam explained, “I used to apprentice with someone in the city but all he cared was about profits,” adding that, “he did not care about us workers.” Out of curiosity, I asked to clarify who this man was. Elam replied with a googly, “He was like you people, English!”

In one reflexive sleight of hand, Elam had turned the table on us. I was now English, someone I did not recognize, an Other to myself. Elam and Eli had told us their story, a story that I was interested in because I knew it would be an exotic indulgence, so Other for us modern selves. But in that telling of their story, I realized by instability of the very categories with which I imagined my self.

We exchanged our goodbyes with Elam and Eli. I wanted to invite them to visit us when they were done with their sister’s treatment. But then I realized the only possibility of us meeting would be if I followed their path. My phone number would remain an inconsequent set of numbers scribbled on a piece of paper. 


Anonymous said...

a very interesting and superbly written post. a leisurely train journey passing through the natural landscapes of the usa is in my bucket list - i wonder if it will ever happen. if it does, i hope i get to meet some amish folk as well.
and i love your ending....

Philo said...

What! I thought you had disappeared for good...so your comment popping up comes as a very humbling but pleasant surprise. I really wish for you that train journey!
Talking about Amish folks, there's a new reality show "Amish Mafia" about to air here. Yeah, I was also like what-the-hey!
Thanks for visiting.