As a social activist from the 60s, taking a vacation for simple relaxation seems to go against my very grain. It may be because of the essential Puritanical upbringing of post-independence decades in India, when the advocacy of Gandhian self-sufficiency put restraints on every aspect of daily life. Or maybe it is the new immigrant conscience of the 70s that stopped many of us from spending either money or time freely.
The social capital that forges links of friendship and collaboration continues to be one of the reasons why I travel. And I think I have finally found a delightful way to shed the activism of the tumultuous sixties for tranquil waters more suitable to my mature years. Last September found me in Hungary, under the auspices of the International Congress of Poets, promoting peace through rhyme.
I caught the first glimpse of this possibility in Acapulco, Mexico, a couple of years ago, when another happenstance of life introduced me to the World Congress of Poets. The chance to visit Mexico where over two hundred poets had gathered to share their writing was somewhat intimidating. Soon I found out that this annual gala could be a source not only of creative inspiration but also an opportunity to hear and experience other cultures in their own environment. It was a feast for the senses but, even more, an opportunity to travel across different terrains of the world with guides who are an integral part of that milieu.
I heard about the plans for the Hungary conference on the shores of this Mexican resort. Not to be outdone by our Mexican hosts, the Hungarians had come prepared with a video presentation and other paraphenalia that outdid any tourism agency.
We were enticed by the sights of Hungarian cuisine and images of historic and cultural monuments of Budapest played to our poetic fantasies. The thought of holding readings in centuries old buildings and art museums intrigued the audience. Promises to meet again in central Europe were solemnly made.
Clara Bella Ventura, a charismatic poet from Columbia, my new found soul-sister from the other hemisphere, declared she was ready to do the yogic headstand on the floor of the Hungarian parliament as willingly as she had performed one atop the pyramid outside Mexico City. Becoming one with the earth’s vibrations she called it. My Eastern heart was instantly won over.
When we arrived in Budapest the next year our hosts kept their word. The warm hospitality was impeccable. The President of this central European republic herself feted the leading wordsmiths. Even if I was not one of the chosen few, the recognition given to the group reinforced the spirit of respect towards the arts this European capital was renowned for. The articulation of the ancient history of this land of Attila the Hun by the minister of culture and the endearing children’s choir that welcomed us with carefully selected classical pieces was enough to cast a spell.
The reception at the Museum of Literature was a feast for our eyes and ears. The salon in which luminaries like Anise Koltz of Luxembourg, John Deane of Ireland, Pia Tafdrup from Denmark, to name only a few, read their work, held us enthralled. The ornate gilt contrasted with the snow white high ceiling causing our imaginations to soar. I was transported back to the formality of the eighteenth century Europe as for a fleeting moment I cast myself in the role of a visiting maharani.
We were brought back to reality by Istvan Turczi, a prominent name on the contemporary Hungarian poetry scene, who along with his wife, Anna, maintained the functional structure of the Congress with humor and infinite attention to detail. The mellifluous flow of languages from Hungarian to English, with detours to Spanish or Chinese, appeared seamless.
We may not have understood the literal meaning of the foreign tongues that passed through our ears but the cadences and the emotional connection made by each of these world-class craftsmen was a memorable experience. As T.S. Eliot said, it was “peace beyond understanding.” These moments of harmony rang true in the presence of individuals like Ernesto Kahan, the Israeli/Argentine medico/poet whose organization Physicians against Nuclear War had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
The Budapest Congress featured poets and scribes from 28 countries. For the very first time, we were informed, craftsmen from Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan had assembled together under the same roof.
The world was shrinking right under my very eyes. There was an entourage of 10 writers from Mongolia and many others from all over the map. The Indian sub-continent was represented by a Bengali, a Maharashtrian, and a Tamilian, adding diversity linguistically as well as culturally. Along with the assortment of voices came the mix-ups and misunderstandings, ego-altercations and political maneuvering, and diplomatic problem-solving; yet it was all done through exchange of words. It was peacemaking through poetry.
Peace may still be far away from too many corners of the world but the gathering in that historic ballroom made us all a little more hopeful. We were willing to listen to each other even if we did not, could not, understand one another’s languages. We had made a human connection.
Over the next few days we travelled to other notable and culturally significant locations and cities. One of our guides, Balazs Lazar, a Hungarian actor and poet, interpreted the nuances of the towns and villages we walked through.
As we meandered leisurely down the pier towards the statue of Rabindranath Tagore on the serene shores of Lake Balaton, it was Balazs who educated us about the time when the great poet spent a year recuperating at this southern Hungarian health resort. During those months Tagore had become a well known figure in this central European country. Even today the people of Hungary speak with much pride about the time the Nobel Laureate had graced this small village, making it a place of literary pilgrimage on the international scene.
The ambience of under-stated elegance was constantly present, taking us back to years gone by but well provided with modern amenities. As we travelled to Pecs, where Balazs had spent his theatrical internship, we were able to hear firsthand about the stage traditions of this country I knew so little about.
The land of Bella Bartok suddenly took on a life of its own as we made our way around the city of Pecs. Construction crews and machinery were everywhere, as this second largest city in Hungary prepared itself for a role as one of the selected European Cultural Capitals in 2010. Despite the overpowering rubble we caught an intimate glimpse of the intricately placed tiny green-blue tiles that are the hallmark of older Hungarian buildings.
Of course if it had not been for Balazs and Anna Turczi I would have never found the hidden shop in a side alley where I picked up luscious Hungarian marzipan to bring to my children. This is the land of Liszt and Bartok, names that have become familiar thanks to my daughter Abha, a soprano and a flautist, who blends Hindustani and western classical music.
The tour came to an end far too quickly. Even as we were getting ready to bid goodbye many of us were already dreaming of the next meeting in Taiwan. The distance from Budapest to Taipei might be great, from the United States even greater, but the links formed in Acapulco and Budapest seemed strong enough to plan for the coming year.
These social cause-driven trips have taken varied forms over the years but my true creative spirit has found a natural outlet at the International Poetry Congress, to be rejuvenated in different parts of the world again and again. This annual travel affair may have just begun in Mexico and continued in Hungary, but who knows where the rendezvous will take me in the coming years.
The taste of the paprika laced food lingers, followed by traces of some of the most delicious pastry on my tongue. I am already preparing for the exotic flavors of the Far East—this year.
Latika Mangrulkar is an educator, writer, and storyteller.