At noon on Monday Ronda went into three days of official mourning. A deafening silence descended upon the town hall square where friends and family of the diseased gathered to show their respect while listening to the toll of the church bells – a deep goooong expiring into silence, followed by a slightly more baritone bell, quivering a tad out of tune, as if it too could not believe the tragedy that had struck our town. A dozen cameras from local and national media were directed towards the sombre faces of the large crowd. Like a funeral march, the bells rang at a disturbingly unhurried pace. The affected families embraced, crying inconsolably on each other’s shoulders, as happens when somebody passes on. But this was no normal passing.
A group of thirteen people had left Ronda a week earlier to visit the sites of an NGO they supported in southern India. Instead of a trip of a lifetime, the journey ended abruptly as an oncoming truck hit their minibus, killing the Indian driver and four of the passengers, injuring another nine, and forever affecting the lives of all involved, including those who know and love them.
A tragedy like this does not make sense. It feels utterly unjust that people who chose to go and help others could be so cruelly taken away. Why them? Why now?, we ask ourselves.
Our friend Vicente was one of the Rondeños who died in the crash. A couple of years back him and I went to give a yoga class to a group of LA movie people, him as the yogi, myself as the translator. On the way there, he told me how he had studied graphic design, but how everything had changed when he first time visited India. He became a life long student, a teacher of yoga, Chi Gong, Pilates, and Thai Chi. Fifteen years ago he opened Centro Baba. In our town where most people measure success in whether one owns a bar or has a dozen flamenco dresses, Vicente was truly different, and very much needed. He taught us about mindfulness and gave us lessons of love. Not only did he bring scholars from all over the world to our small Andalucian town, but he also became a catalyst for change for many of its residents.
Vicente had wisdom far beyond his years, and in retrospect, far beyond this life. Most of his holidays were spent bringing groups of likeminded to India, this last trip to visit the hospitals and women’s centres that Centro Baba was supporting there. Though we are relatively recent Ronda residents, he had become a close friend. We had volunteered with him on several occasions and my husband had been giving classes in meditation at Buddhist philosophy in his yoga studio. Actually, the chair I am sitting on writing this was a gift from him. We were at his wedding just a couple of years before we found ourselves back in the very same room commemorating his death. He was one of the kindest, most mindful people Ronda has known and he will be sorely missed.
As our town mourn these tragic and untimely deaths, I ask myself how we can try to make sense of their passing and somehow move beyond the pain of loosing someone near and dear? Is there a reason why they are no longer with us?
The frequency and severity of traffic accidents in India is a well-known fact. My first white-knuckle drive in India, from Delhi to the Himalayas, included two side-swipes with oncoming cars, a lost side mirror, a snowstorm and nearly ploughing into a wedding party. And that was with an allegedly professional driver in a hired car from a company of some repute. Anyone who has ever been to the country knows that it comes with a certain risk. But aside from the dismal accident statistics, are there reasons and workings beyond our empirical knowledge and understanding to explain such tragedies?
One day while biking to work to a film studio in North Vancouver, I was hit by a 10 ton truck. At the time there was neither bike lanes nor sidewalks on the ramp of the bridge crossing to the North Shore. Regardless how tight I tried to stay to the edge, the vehicles blasted by merely inches away. That particular day, a truck came too close and hooked onto my left bike handle. The bike flipped under the endless wall of the vehicle and was instantly pulverized into hundreds of pieces of scrap metal. The same would have happened to me, had my shoulder not hit the side of the truck and shot me some thirty feet away. I remember the utter silence as I sailed through the air. Everything happened very slowly. I was not afraid. I was just surprised.
Imagine ending like this, I thought. I never thought I would die this way…
I landed on my head, without helmet, as I foolishly rode in those days. The truck driver went on without stopping. Who knew if he had even noticed the thud when his 18 or so wheels crushed my bike. Maybe he thought it was just a bump in the road? Miraculously, the bus that came behind him didn’t drive over me either.
I suppose my time hasn’t come yet, I thought.
For Vicente and the others who died in India, I choose to believe believe that their last minutes were equally calm, void of fear, and that everything somehow made sense to them in the last minute of this life. That they simply thought to themselves: Oh, here I go. I suppose my time has come.
But what does it mean, that our time has come? Is it a random lottery or a planned path? I suppose it depends on ones believes and how one sees the so-called after life. Is our life predestined, our cast pre-set, as is our path of reincarnations? Are off to heaven, hell or purgatory? Can we change our karma and create a better birth? Are some of us predestined to great things? Or are we going into a big void of eternal silence and non-being. Regardless of our faith, the knowledge will come to us at the end. And in my humble opinion, we are better off treating our fellow beings kindly while on this earthly path, as after all we are all in this together.
Coming out alive, albeit injured and profoundly affected, from such an accident is bound to leave one with questions. Why did I survive? Why was I given a second chance? If there is a moment when one is fluttering in a state between life and death, one might consciously or not try to plead with some higher force, promising to become a better human should one survive the ordeal. If one comes back to life, it is difficult not to wander what one is supposed to do with the remainder of ones life.
An accident like this will make us intensely aware that we can go at any moment. The couple of times in my life when I have come, shall we call it, back to life, I have promised myself to cherish every breath and every second of every day. Though sad as it is, we humans generally have a very short memory span when it comes to such important promises. I never became a saint, but quickly went back to the old me. I can only hope that the nine survivors of the terrible tragedy in India will do better than myself in this regard, as there is so much they can do and so much they can teach us.
One Christmas, I went to a mass in Vancouver’s Lower East Side. The hall was full of junkies, homeless people and others without much hope. In other words, not an easy crowd to cheer up at the best of times. Yet, the priest said something that day which I will always remember.
We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.
I am pretty sure it wasn’t his original thought. It might have been one of those saying that have been quoted and misquoted time and time again. However, to me that was irrelevant. Suddenly, as if a bulb lit up in my head, everything made sense. With all the joys and pains we have in this life, the body and mind of ours, our vessel for this particular human journey, will age, deteriorate and cease. Yet, there is something that will remain, something that we can sense, but cannot sense. That something which people might become aware of just before they die., that we are not merely human beings, here for the ride, but spiritual beings who have taken up a human journey. There might be other human journeys for us, who knows? But something remains beyond this life. Name it whatever you want.
Vicente, Nieves, Pepa and Paco have ended this particular human journey of theirs. They have gone to another realm, a realm that we will know one day, sooner than we might like. For these four people, their time had come. They have begun a new journey. The accident is a tragedy and a great loss for our little town. We will still cry when we remember them, but we must try to find comfort in that they died in a place where they were doing good. They died helping others, and what better way is there to go, seeing that we all have to go there.
They departed were too young to die, statistically speaking. But as they say, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years. As far as our friend Vicente was concerned, he had filled an incredible amount of life into his half a century. He might have lived past ninety like his parents, both of whom passed on in the last year. But maybe there was another plan for him. Hurtful as it might be to us who remain, maybe his work here was done. Maybe he had taught us what he could, wanted, or saw necessary, knowing we were ready to go on without him? Maybe he was more needed in another place, in another dimension, in another human journey? Vicente dedicated his life to create peace, harmony and love. This is how he spoke about life:
Obviously, we are not going to be here forever, but with the time we have, we can be the best possible. We have been given this marvellous opportunity that we call life, so that we can experiment, so we can experience and so we can enjoy. So we must enjoy. Enjoy with conscience…
So, Vicente, our dear friend, we are grateful to have had the privilege of knowing you. May you not rest in peace, but live on in peace, wherever you are, and may Ronda grow kinder and wiser for having known you.