News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

May 18, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: If you see a bicyclist all in orange, wish him peace and a safe journey

TERRE HAUTE — Dressed from turban to hem in bright orange, the bearded monk sat in a guest chair in my office and began to sing St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of St. Damian.” His voice was soft and his countenance equally gentle.

Listen, little poor ones called by the Lord/ Who have come together from many parts and provinces/ Live always in the truth, that you may die in obedience/ Do not look at life outside/ For that of the Spirit is better.

The monk, Dada Vima, didn’t sing in English. He sang the 800-year-old words in his own native Italian, keeping the tempo with little nods of his head. When he finished a couple of verses, he smiled broadly and waved his hand to indicate that Francis had written a good deal more, but at least I’d been given an idea of the tune, yes?

The song and two-hour visit to the Tribune-Star was just another rest stop on Dada Vima’s latest journey.

To Nicaragua.

By bicycle.

In more than 35 years of newspapering, I have lost count of the number of times the phone on my desk has rung and someone on the other end tells me there is a person downstairs who is walking, running, sailing or bicycling a long distance, alone, for some element of the greater good.

Invariably, my instinct is to avoid the traveler or try to pass him off to a colleague. Too busy, you know. Working on something else. Need to get to lunch or home.

Just as invariably, though, I ask a few questions, begin to take notes, then something in the person’s story grabs me and I surrender with an “OK, OK. Come on up. I’ll try to find a photographer.” Never have I been sorry I surrendered.

Dada Vima got me when he told me how much his bike cost.

Riding from Columbus, Ohio, to Managua, Nicaragua, he needed a pretty sturdy rig, I figured. “What kind of bike do you have?” I asked.

“I bought it for $20 in Columbus,” he said, with the first of many merry giggles. “I think that might tell you something about my bike.”

OK. OK. Come on up.

The reasons people walk, run, sail or bike, alone, over great distances are as different as people themselves. Dada Vima’s aim on his Herculean bicycle journey is to raise consciousness about his spiritual path and the communal nature of humanity, how we’re all in this together and we need to take care of one another.

Dada Vima was born in Torino, Italy, 50 years ago, raised as a Roman Catholic, but became a monk around the age of 30 in the spiritual sect Ananda Marga. The movement was founded in India in 1955 by Shri Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar. According to its lengthy Wikipedia entry and other Internet sites, Ananda Marga now has adherents in 160 countries.

Dada Vima politely declined to tell me his given name, explaining that Ananda Marga monks and nuns essentially sever their relationship with their original family to “embrace the bigger family” of humanity. Otherwise, they could not be free to devote their lives to meditation, to expanding and liberating their minds through suffering and by facing their deepest fears, and to spending their days in service to people and a better world.

The turn for Dada Vima began in 1989 when he was profoundly disturbed by television images from the Tiananmen Square uprising. Somehow, there had to be a peaceful, loving way to counteract such brutality, misunderstanding and oppression. An admired yoga teacher in Florence told him about meditation and the Ananda Marga approach to it. One thing led to another, and “after four years’ time from the decision to materialization,” he became a monk.

His winding path has taken him to many places, geographical, psychological and spiritual. He said his appreciation for Jesus and the Bible has increased exponentially through his Ananda Marga perspective. Personally, he believes in reincarnation, but the notion of a heaven is “irrelevant” to him.

When I asked what is the hardest part of his chosen monk’s path, he smiled and said, “To stay on it.”

Dada Vima has been to Managua before, about five years ago. The Ananda Margas maintain a small school there for poor children. The last time he visited, however, it was not by bicycle, and he carried four late-1990s-era iMacs that had been donated to the school.

“Just like these,” he said, pointing to the old aqua clamshell iMacs most of us work on here at the newspaper. “They were not very easy to get through the Customs.”

With his long salt-and-pepper beard, the turban and ankle-length, skirted monk’s habit, Dada Vima is well-acquainted with Customs and airport security agents.

“I’m used to it,” he said of being pulled from a security line for interview and inspection. “I never oppose what they are doing to me. People who work in security have enough intuition to know soon that I’m a harmless person.”

Rather than resent or fear police, he said, he respects the work they do “trying to keep the peace in society … Whenever I am in trouble, anywhere, I always ask the police for help.”

On his way to Terre Haute along U.S. 40 (in a rainstorm), he said a driver pulled alongside and asked him who he was and where he was going. When he told him, the driver asked if he realized he was near a correctional facility (Putnamville), in which the prisoners wear the same color of orange as Dada Vima wears.

“He said the police might stop me because they think I am a prisoner who escaped,” he said. “I am not worried.”

Dada Vima also is accustomed to being called “Taliban!” by passing drivers or people on the street.

“Whenever that happens, I always ask them for directions to the library,” he said. “That changes them. They see my humanity. They are no longer afraid.”

Even for a monk, Dada Vima is traveling light to Nicaragua. Besides the fat-tired, five-speed, fenderless Huffy bike, he has a spare pair of shoes and a backpack with the following in it: a change of clothes, two changes of underwear, a sparsely stocked dop kit — but with Super Glue, in case his glasses break — a tire repair kit, an Indian towel that he also uses as a meditation rug, granola bars, a cell phone and charger, a list of all the contact information of each host on every stop of his trip, and a cache of CDs of Ananda holy chant music to be given to people along the way.

But for a couple of stops, Dada Vima knows each place he will stay and with whom — people who have confirmed as hosts on the national Web sites, warmshowers.org and couchsurfing.org. Every day, he tries to launder his clothes so he can “remain presentable even though I travel by bike.” Riding no more than 80 miles per day — “I’m not a professional biker” — he expects to make it to Managua by the end of July.

Whatever he is doing for money, I have no idea. Dada Vima didn’t bring up the subject and neither did I. Although he gave me one of the chant CDs, all that he accepted from me was a cup of tea and 20 minutes of privacy so he could meditate on the floor of my office.

Easily the gentlest, happiest soul to whom I’ve ever said, “OK. OK. Come on up,” he and his journey may be followed at dadavima.blogspot.com.



Stephanie Salter can be reached at 9812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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