50 Stories, Week 13: Yellowstone Summer

In June of 1993, I was pregnant – again. Despite having been on the pill for years and using a diaphragm correctly, this was the third time my body tried to make me a mother before I was ready. I was slated to spend my summer working in Yellowstone National Park and my boyfriend Richard had plans to ride his motorcycle up the west coast. After deciding to have an abortion, a close girlfriend brought me to Planned Parenthood and held my hand tightly. It was rushed – the decision making, the procedure, the healing expectations. Summer had begun and there was no time to mull the loss or feelings of uncertainty. My relationship with Richard was on hold since we were going our separate ways. I was unclear about the future, except that I was embarking on an adventure and it was not the kind that comes with having a baby.

Boarding the Greyhound bus in San Diego that night, I prepped for a 27 hour ride with countless stops and transfers to West Yellowstone. I curled my body up like a snail, knees against the back of the seat in front of me with my sweatshirt bunched up between my shoulder and cheek, and slept for hours. When I woke up, we were pulling into Barstow, and I popped out for a smoke. The layover was a long one, so I decided to use the bathroom inside the station – a luxury after the janky toilet at the back of the bus. When I came back out, I saw a sweet looking guy with shaggy brown hair and glasses, his head buried in a book, laying against a massive backpack. I was looking for a space to stretch my legs out so I sat down next to him. His name was Marc and by the time we boarded the bus, I knew I wouldn’t sleep until we parted ways in Wyoming. Marc was all intelligence and curiosity. He was an environmental studies graduate student, heading somewhere in the Canadian northwest territory on a research grant. We talked about everything – the cold war, religion, philosophy, nature, and of course, love. It was exciting to speak in metaphors and dig deep into my beliefs which, unbeknownst to me, were so malleable at the time. We used every inch of space between our two seats to eventually fold on top of each other – legs on legs and arms intertwined, even spooning while we watched the stunning countryside pass us by. I was elated and calm all at once, because I knew that part of the adventure would be over as quickly as it began. Marc wrote to me later that summer from a stop at Glacier Lake in the Canadian Rockies – saying it reminded him of Yellowstone. “I’ve been thinking about you since you got off the bus. What a ride! I should have married you in Las Vegas when I had the chance. I wonder if you got to sleep when you got to Yellowstone. Seems like I’ve been trying to catch up on my sleep for the past two days and I’m still out of it. But it was worth it. This is what you might call my basic – I really, really, really enjoyed our trip and wanted to make sure you know it. Miss you.” Meeting Marc gave me a feeling of possibility, that if I kept saying yes, I would be provided with what I needed. He reminded me that I was smart, beautiful, and interesting. And that I didn’t need to continue judging myself for my last bad decision. 

I didn’t get much sleep when I finally arrived but it wasn’t simply due to the deprivation brought on by hours of nonstop kissing and conversation with Marc. It was because from the moment I got off the bus to start my summer, so did everyone else. First we were assigned to a location – Grant Village for me. Then we had orientation, assigned our dorm rooms, met our roommates, found out our job assignments, where to eat, how to mail a letter, what to do in an emergency, and so on. My roommate’s names were Shannon and Jill – and our inner door opened to another room with two girls named Dominique and Gena. Across the hall was Kevin, Brian, Bradley, Guy and West. This was our crew for the summer and we became inseparable – from working, eating, and drinking together to hiking, camping, and exploring the surrounding areas. It was a quick initiation. Most of these kids were between 18-21 and from affluent backgrounds – their parents ‘forced’ them to work during the summer before or during college and they figured this was the least amount of effort with the most amount of fun. They were right. I was 23, though – old, relatively speaking – and working to live so I couldn’t call in sick as often as they did. 

I was assigned as a waitress at the Grant Village Dining Room, which overlooked the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Occasionally, I had a breakfast shift, which required showing up at 6am – far too early for most people, and certainly for someone who had been drinking and smoking until approximately three hours beforehand. Yet, I began to look forward to those shifts. A forced entry into the morning air where I would ride my bike on the trail from our dormitories to the restaurant. I was moving too quickly for the mosquitos to land, and when I looked up at the canopy of trees, I felt protected. In those moments of quiet and solitude, I felt fearless, which was not how I was feeling day-to-day. In addition to processing another abortion and my relationship with Richard, I was experiencing an extra level of free floating anxiety.

Choosing to live in a National Park assumes you enjoy hiking and camping. It wouldn’t make much sense to live somewhere that beautiful and not explore. Except my fear was keeping me with one foot in the safety of my dorm room. Though I’d been outdoorsy before, and I felt a strong connection to nature in all its glory, I was terrified to be in the honest to goodness wilderness. Every step I took, I fought the stream of questions running through my head… How much longer was the hike? Would I fall and get a concussion? Would I be bit by a snake or attacked by a bear? Or both? How high did one have to hike before feeling oxygen deprivation? What are the symptoms of heat stroke? What if that boulder on the hill comes loose and crushes me? It was exhausting. So, when I let myself be peer-pressured into getting out, I stuck with the mellower hikes on well-trodden paths. 

Until one day, Gena and Dominique asked me to join them on a backcountry camping trip around Heart Lake. There was strength in numbers, they said, and thought I was funny so could be good company. I remember thinking that these two girls were probably popular in high school. Cool, with an edge of bitchiness. And even at 23, my unfulfilled high school ideals of being fully accepted compelled me to say yes. I felt a bit nervous in my gut but the first day of hiking was easy, mostly downhill and I stayed distracted by chatting away. We set up camp near the lake – back then you didn’t need reservations, we just left a handwritten note at the trailhead and that was good enough. The next day, we were out for a day hike when I started feeling funky. I had an adrenaline rush and felt my guts begin to rumble. I’d had this experience with anxiety before, a rush of needing to let go of my innards. I quickly found a place for me to relieve myself, drank some water, and rejoined the girls. While I was still new to self-awareness, I had a yoga practice by then and I remember checking in with my body and mind. Is this one of my many anxious thoughts, or is something actually wrong? About thirty minutes later, I felt a swift headache. Shortly after, cramps and another bout of diarrhea. I felt clammy and couldn’t figure out what was going on until a lightbulb-slash-question mark went off in my throbbing head. Last week, when our group went swimming at those falls and I filled up my Nalgene bottle, did I remember to use my water filter?

No. 

No, I did not. 

Eventually, dehydration set in. My heart was racing, and my low energy was accompanied by delirium. Thankfully, Gena and Dominique had just the right amount of worry (or irritation that I was putting a damper on their trip) to go find a ranger. I stayed put and after what felt like days later, a nice man on a horse came upon me. The horse seemed enormous, or perhaps the man was tiny. Things got surreal looking up from the ground. Where I’d been afraid hours earlier, I’d reached a state of resolve – as in, I resolved to die out there and that seemed about right. I thought perhaps this was nature’s way of punishing me for the intervention I’d chosen. I remember being picked up and strewn over the back of the horse, then a bumpy ride back to the trailhead where an ambulance was waiting. They hooked me up to an IV and I quickly began to feel better as we headed back to the village. Until the embarrassment set in. Gina and Dominique had to go back to our site, pack everything up including my gear, and hike back out to the car. I felt like a grade A loser for not remembering to filter my water and having a body that couldn’t manage a little foreign bacteria. I thought no amount of self-deprecating humor was going to smooth it over but when I saw them later at dinner, they were genuinely concerned about how I was feeling. And it turned out they had their own adventure to tell about a black bear that crossed their path on the way back. All was forgiven.

At the end of July, there was a talent show in our village. We’d been seeing signs the past few weeks, inviting campers to bust out their kazoos and hone their magic tricks. Bradley and Guy said they wanted to play a couple of songs for the show but needed someone to sing, and asked me to join them. Could I sing? I thought so. My father sang in a barbershop quartet and chorus since before I was born. We sang show tunes together and I loved singing along with the radio. But my sister used to tell me that I had a bad voice, that I was trying too hard to sound like other people, so instead I would end up singing silly and over the top. I knew, deep down, though, that I could carry a tune and since my vulnerability was on full display that summer, I said yes. The guys wanted to do two songs, something fun and something that would allow them to get deep in their jam, whatever that meant. We went with Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz & Sinead O’Connor’s Last Day of Our Acquaintance. When the big night came, I was excited and terrified but in a good way. I got up there, sang my heart out, hit all the notes, felt the levity of Mercedes Benz and the pain of Sinead’s words, and let go completely. And then… we won! Somehow, in that little cafeteria, with people clapping for me, I felt elated. Until we realized that winning meant that we were entered into the park-wide talent show the following week, in front of hundreds of attending campers. I wish I could say that I had a cold or another bout of diarrhea to excuse that performance – but the truth is that we didn’t rehearse once since winning the week before. When the big night came, performing on an actual stage with hundreds of people sitting and watching, we collectively choked. Guy broke a string on his guitar, Bradley’s drumming wasn’t in sync, and I was breathing from so high in my chest that every note sounded as if I was being strangled. Needless to say, we didn’t win that one. It was, however, a stark reminder of how with a little extra effort and less fear, we could have kicked ass.

By the end of the summer, I’d successfully done another backcountry trip, went camping with a group of twenty friends in the Grand Tetons, and whitewater rafted down the Snake River. Fear became my friend, I acknowledged her briefly then told her I was doing it anyway. On the last night of the season, we had a huge bonfire on the lakefront beach. Everyone was there, all of us over the excitement and adrenaline of our daily adventures but still unsure of what our futures held. We sipped our beers quietly and watched a meteor shower stream across the sky.

Out there, under the stars and the big sky, the safety and terror of the forest, the bison and the bears, the cool kids and the misfits… I realized that I had been healed. That I would get another chance to bring life into the world, when the time was right. 

50 Stories, Week 10: Coco, It Was My Privilege

In June of 1992, I embarked on a month-long cross-country trip with a woman I’d met only two weeks earlier. Her name was Coco and she’d been mildly dating my on-again, off-again boyfriend while I was out of town. (Objectively, I see now that the level of sexual intermingling amongst my friends back then wasn’t an acceptable mainstream lifestyle, but at the time it seemed natural.) Coco was striking. She was a dancer and seemed to move effortlessly through the world while I inelegantly stumbled. She was beautiful, funny, provocative, sweet…

and Black. 

I point this out now because at the time, I pretended not to care and instead continued to believe that I was color blind. I accepted all beings. My best friend was Indian. I even had Puerto Rican and Native Indian friends. I was open minded. One love, man.

We didn’t call her Black, though. We called her Mulatto. Someone else gave me this information, of course. I’d never known anyone who had a white parent and a black parent. I thought this was how she wanted to be referred to but I don’t know what she wanted, because I never asked.

Shortly after we met, Coco mentioned she was driving to Colorado for the weekend to her half-sister’s high school graduation and did I want to come with? Oh yes, please. Any reason to escape the romantic entanglement I was in with two young men, one of whom would later become my son’s father. 

While I could share highlights from our journey such as…

  • narrowly missing multiple tornados in the midwest during one of the largest tornado outbreaks in history.
  • being stuck in the car for three hours trying to leave the Grand Canyon while a manhunt ensued for an escaped convict.
  • riding old bikes through back country roads, in utter silence except for the sound of the wheat swaying in the breeze.
  • sweltering nights trying to sleep with windows open at Coco’s aunt’s house, watching the white lace curtains move slowly against the dark night before we explored each other’s bodies.
  • going to clubs in Chicago with her famous jazz drummer Dad.
  • the car finally breaking down outside of Victorville, crashing in a motel then being jostled out of bed by a major earthquake.

… I want to focus on these three moments in particular from a journal I kept during this trip.

Kentucky

At midnight, we arrived and surprised the hell out of her grandmother, her mom’s mom. It’s a very small town here. Mother, daughter and granddaughter live next door to each other (no lie.) On Sunday, we went to the local Baptist church, twice. Everyone here is white (her Dad is black) and it’s odd that she’s the only non-white person. But they love her, clearly. Except the priest kept saying that anyone who is not a Christian is damned to hell. So I started tuning out.

Massachusetts

We went to the quarries – Greg, Coco and I jumped off. What an insane feeling – my stomach in my throat. I swear my heart stopped. It was fantastic. But after, while we were drying off, we heard this argument between this white guy RAMBLING about a “fucking Puerto Rican” – no sooner did 30 hispanics come out of nowhere, picked up rocks and almost killed the guy. He had blood GUSHING from his head. We left shortly after, but we were all twisted from the experience. There I was – with a white boy, a tall Greek, a little Indian and a Mulatto rasta. I realized how fortunate I am that I don’t have ignorant friends and that to me, my friends are just as color blind as I am.

Chicago, IL

Coco and I went shopping with her Dad and stepmom and after looking around, I noticed I was the only white person in both supermarkets and the restaurant we went to. At first, I didn’t notice, but then I noticed them noticing me. Now, I know that no matter what, when we see differences in our world, we notice them. Fine. But why do we see it necessary to make definitions between us? Also, there are bars on the windows in this house, in their home. Why should there have to be? 

I could give many explanations for my thinking back then. This may even be the thinking of many ‘open minded’ people today. Look, I was noticing things! I was upset, even, that the disparity existed. But that was over 30 years ago, and up until recently, I probably would have continued to have the same reaction, given those scenarios. Oh sure, in 2012 when Treyvon Martin was killed, I signed some petitions and expressed my anger on his family’s behalf. But then I went back to my life. And then came Eric Garner and again, I was sad and confused. I wanted justice for his family but didn’t think there was much I could do. Then Tamir Rice. Then Philando Castile. Botham Jean. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. 

The ignorance of youth and miseducation of upbringing can no longer be an excuse for how I behave in the world. Noticing inequity is a great first step but it isn’t enough – we have to address the cause of inequity in the first place. And we have to take brave action that will make others uncomfortable in order to create long lasting change. So I ask myself, what is a little discomfort when I don’t have to worry about the ways I will be deprived of the privileges I’m afforded because I was born into whiteness?

I wish I could say I stayed in touch with Coco but after we got back we went our separate ways. Spending 24/7 with someone can make or break a relationship, as I’m sure many are finding out these last few months. For us, it turned out that we weren’t stronger in the broken parts and that’s ok. I will never forget the indelible mark that she made on me that month, though, and it was my privilege to explore the country with her.

50 Stories, Week 3: Strangers of Sacre Coeur

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I’d dreamt of visiting Paris for as long as I could remember. My grandparents were Canadian and while their French was nothing like the language I would come to know and love, I was smitten with even the idea of it. Growing up, I watched An American in Paris, Funny Face and Casablanca with my father and promptly became a francophile. I took French language courses in high school and college, studied the apparent ease of a French woman’s style, and enjoyed as many buttery flaky baked goods as I could get my hands on. 

After I finally had a job that paid a decent salary, I decided to get myself to France. The timing seemed ideal – I’d recently been through a break-up, and having a three-year-old son reminded me daily that my life was whipping by. I needed to take care of myself, I needed inspiration and adoration – even if it came from strangers in a different country.

So, on my 32nd birthday, I flew from San Francisco to Paris. By the time I checked into my chambre d’hote in Montmartre and not yet having a chance to register that I’d arrived, my jetlagged induced haze turned quickly to sleep. When I awoke, it was already dusk, the last pale pink light starting to descend on the horizon. I stood on my balcony and felt the cool air, soothing my dehydrated skin. I quickly washed my face and put on fresh clothes, determined to catch the last rays of sun from the view at Sacre Coeur. 

I began my ascent up the steps toward the basilica. I didn’t want to wimp out and take the funiculaire, at least not the first time. I felt determined that if I reached the top without stopping, I would somehow be rewarded with a more spectacular view than those around me, stopping between each step to catch their breath. Rookies.

 Even though I was getting closer, Sacre Coeur seemed like it was fading upward, and I couldn’t move fast enough to reach it. Until finally, after a turn of stairs, I found myself on the platform at the base of the church, protected by a hip-height stone ledge, and catching my breath at the view. The pinks and oranges on the horizon were like a delineation between heaven and earth, the subdued lights from buildings mirroring the flickering stars of the early night sky. 

Paris was luminous, just for me.

I didn’t go inside the basilica. I stood on that platform, taking in every person, the way they dressed, their accents and languages, their voices and laughter. Everything seemed possible and plausible. It was the perfect state of mind. 

And then my eye caught a handsome young man, half sitting on the ledge, occasionally scribbling into a notebook. He was around my age, with dark, thick, wavy hair, dark eyes, and a short but scruffy beard. He was wearing a motorcycle jacket and his helmet rested on the ledge behind him. It could have been the breathtaking quality of the light or the crisp early spring air, but whatever it was, I felt fearless. So I walked right up to him.

“Avez-vous un autre caske?,” I asked, nonchalantly.

“Pardon?” He looked up from his notebook, and smiled.

“Avez-vous un autre caske? Shit, am I saying that right?”

“Oui, yes, you are saying it right.” Oh thank god he speaks English. “But I’m confused as to why you’re asking me if I have another helmet.” Oh he speaks English and he’s got a sexy French accent.

“Well, I was actually wondering if you’d take me for a ride. Show me the sights.” I couldn’t believe I’d said that out loud. Apparently, I had left my discretion at the hotel, along with my jetlag. He smiled again. His dark eyes and long lashes were all for me.

“You don’t look like a tourist. Actually, I thought you fit right in here.” Yes. Yes, I do. 

“You could not have given me a nicer compliment.” I nervously pushed my hands deep into my coat pockets, both acknowledging the cool air and trying to keep an air of coyness about me. 

And then he DID give me a nicer compliment.

“Yes, and your French is perfect.” 

Was I about to have a Parisian affair to remember? Would he sweep me off my feet? Would we have a storybook romance? 

“What are you writing?” I asked.

“What, this? Well, it’s a musical.”

Ahhhh. He’s gay. Of course he’s gay, how many handsome, well dressed, lovely men did I know who liked musicals AND wanted to flirt with me? Zero. Though he did also have a starving-artist look about him, so I held out hope. 

“Oh. A musical. How nice.” I began to feel deflated around the same time the sun finally dipped below the horizon.

“Do I detect a note of sarcasm? It’s hard to tell with my limited English.” He smiled. Now who was being coy?

“OK, we both know you speak and understand English perfectly well. Sorry, it wasn’t sarcasm, maybe disappointment, that’s all. Anyhow, what’s the musical about?”

“Disappointment? You had expectations already? My god, we just met! Pfff, American women!”

“What is that supposed to mean, American women?! How many American women approach you and ask, in French no less, if you have another helmet so that you can take her for a ride on your motorcycle? Hmmm?!”

This time he let out a laugh and motioned for me to sit down. His teeth were funny and crooked but something I thought I might come to love. The beauty of that moment was that I was looking at this man, being free in Paris, asking for what I wanted, and receiving it. Like magic.

“The musical is unfinished and I can’t talk about it until it is, but suffice to say it’s about the love of one woman and conflict between brothers and…”

“Sounds like True West. Oh, sorry. That’s a play by…”

“Sam Shepard, yes, I know. I’m writing a musical, it’s a pretty good guess that I’d know a bit about plays, yes?” Again, that smile.

“Yes. Of course.” 

I looked away for a moment, reminding myself that I was actually in Paris. Finally, I’d made it to this place of love and passion and romance and history. The place I’d dreamed of visiting since I was a little girl. I took a slow breath and knew then that I would be hooked forever. 

“What’s your name?,” I asked.

“Guillaume. Et toi?”

“Christine. Je m’appelle Christine.”

Guillaume and I chatted for another few minutes until I could feel the jetlag setting in. He offered to take me for a ride the following evening but the whole thing suddenly felt too good to be true, so I thanked him for the conversation and went back to the hotel.

The following morning, there was an envelope under my door. Inside was a handwritten note (that I still have) from Guillaume.

If you still want to make a stroll in moto, it will be with pleasure. You can find me at the place we met yesterday evening. I’m certainly already there. If I do not see you this evening, I shall return tomorrow morning around noon. – Guillaume.

Oh Guillaume.

We met that evening and he did indeed give me a tour of Paris by motorcycle. He even showed me the secret vineyards near Montmartre. The following night we went to see a bizarre avant-garde play, the plot of which I can’t recall, only that I left feeling slightly morose and inspired at the same time. And the night after that we saw what I remember to be an incredible performance of Romeo et Juliette at the Opera house. It wasn’t a ballet per se, it was a completely new adaptation, very modern. We had drinks after at a small bar inside the Trocadero, where I felt like I was living inside my daydreams.

And then of course, it was over. We said our goodbyes. I think we both knew deep down that our time together was romantic but not intimate. Guillaume was in the middle of something with someone, and I was, too. He ended up marrying a beautiful woman a few years ago and has a little girl now, according to Facebook. Coincidentally, one of our conversations that first night was around advertising and marketing – an industry that we both found ourselves having careers in years later. 

It is strange to think of the people who come in and out of our lives – all of the what-ifs, and the might-have-beens. I saw Guillaume again briefly a year later when I returned to Paris with my son and now-ex in tow. For some reason, the language barrier was more difficult the second time around. Maybe it was because we hadn’t been practicing. Or maybe it was because the first time we met had an air of possibility, as opposed to the second time when I brought my real life along with me. 

Regardless, I’m forever grateful to Guillaume for helping me to see Paris for all that it is, and reminding me how powerful it can be to take a chance on a stranger. I only hope I can give that gift to someone in my lifetime.

50 Stories, Week 2: Costa Rican Independence

Jason CR shoe wash

No one was listening when Vlad told us what to do if it started raining. My fight or flight instinct had kicked in and I ran with an urgency I hadn’t felt since I was a child being chased on the playground. Behind me, I could hear a combination of nervous laughter, cursing, and Vlad yelling instructions in his heavily accented, affable voice.

“You wan be careful in stream now. You don want tha snakes angry, ha!”

Poisonous snakes. In the water that I was running through.

The day before, when Jason had suggested we do a tour during our Costa Rican getaway, I thought it all sounded lame. I didn’t usually opt-in for tours. Our relationship was still new, though, and I didn’t want to seem like a snob, so I agreed.

Jason and I had met five months earlier on a blind date. I’d moved to NYC for a job after 20 years in California, raising my then 13-year-old son. I wanted to shake up my life, to have a fresh start. I hadn’t had a truly intimate relationship in almost ten years and I was ready to be vulnerable again. The challenge was that I’d been on my own for so long that I had a fiercely independent attitude that could come across as, well, prickly.

Jason was not who I imagined I’d fall in love with. Not because of his choice in restaurants on our first date (Dos Caminos) or what he was wearing (an oversized suit with shoulder pads, with a funny briefcase and granddad shoes.) It was the fact that he is a more conservative minded, practicing Catholic and moderate Republican, while I am a tree-hugging, hippie-liberal-spiritual Democrat. Despite those differences, we fell in love quickly and deeply. And after a few months, we were planning our first real getaway.

I was thinking somewhere in South America like Nicaragua. I’d been to Brazil and Mexico, and I wanted to show Jason that I was adventurous. I wanted him to know that I could take care of myself in a potentially crazy situation. Maybe I even wanted him to think that I was cool. Jason, however, was thinking of the well-known confines of tourist-safe Costa Rica. It seemed everyone I knew had already been there, as it was the safest of the Central American countries.

So I read up on Costa Rica and was pleasantly surprised to discover its history. According to my internet searches, Costa Rica developed independently, which resulted in an individualistic, egalitarian society. They decided their own fate. Apparently, there was even a point when the governor tended to his own farm, with his own hands! I felt this was a country I could get behind.

Jason found us a boutique resort on a cliff in Jaco. While there was a part of me that hoped to be roughing it with locals, I decided not to complain when I saw our very own infinity pool overlooking the ocean. I instinctively reached out to try and touch the ocean but was snapped back to reality by a squawking parrot. We were constantly surrounded by movement and noise… the ocean, monkeys, birds, frogs, and other critters I couldn’t identify. Yet amidst the environmental chaos, I felt a sense of calm that I hadn’t known before.

That being said, I was starting to feel a little blue about not experiencing the ‘real’ Costa Rica. We spent our time close to the resort and had all of our meals there.  I think Jason sensed my restlessness and told me about a flyer he’d seen at the concierge desk for a waterfall hike. It was a 30-minute mellow hike through the rainforest to a waterfall that you can jump into from the top. The brochure looked Disney-tame but I went along because Jason was excited to have a little adventure and I didn’t want to push him out of his comfort zone too quickly.

Our fellow tour-mates and resort-goers were four young women from the southeast U.S., sorority sisters a few years out of college, and another American, a big guy who we kindly referred to the whole time as Sad Jim. Not to his face, of course. Although, that was sad, too. Jim wasn’t sad for traveling alone or even for signing up for a tour. Jim was built for sad. We discovered only that he was from the Midwest and was single, but he didn’t say anything else for hours. He was about 6’ and 250 pounds, had short, thinning brown hair, and a few days worth of facial hair growth. What was most distinct about him was the weight of his unhappiness. That guy didn’t crack a smile. Jim’s polar opposite, our guide Vlad, had been born and raised in Costa Rica. He considered college, then began helping a family friend with his hiking/tour company. His love for all things pura vida, toothy grin, and warm personality made him a natural.

On our way to the waterfall, Vlad pulled the old Land Rover off to a dirt road lined with trees and low hanging fruit. We stopped and all hopped out. From a tree, he pulled off a piece of orange fruit that looked like a bell pepper.

 “You know nut? You like nut? E’rybody like nut! You take one.”

We all did as we were told and picked this mysterious nut fruit. Vlad took a big bite out of the fleshy fruit and everyone followed suit. I admit my anxious survival instinct prohibits me from fully embracing these types of scenarios so I only took a small bite. It was sweet and tangy.

 “Now, don touch tha thing dat look like a nut! Shape like a nut, on top. Watch. I do it first.”

He proceeded to rip off the stem of the fruit, rub it on his arm, and then peel it open to expose a cashew that he dropped into his mouth. A few seconds later, we all watched as Vlad’s arm developed a hive the circumference of the fruit itself. 

“Urushiol oil! Madre Naturaleza made cashew fruit like so – poison ‘round nut, grey, no good to eat! Orange flesh, a-ok!”

He calmly walked to the truck and got out some Costa Rican version of calamine lotion, dabbed it on his arm, and hollered at us to “Vamanos!” Jason stared at him like he was crazy, and possibly his new hero.

We drove south another 20 minutes or so on the single-lane paved highway, then pulled off on a bumpy red dirt road. We must have stayed on that, driving through farmland and low jungle, for another 15 minutes until we turned off at a tiny waterfall sign that could easily be missed. A few minutes further down a narrow road, passing a shack here and there, I began to ask Vlad why the dirt was so red. But as soon as he turned off the engine, he hopped out enthusiastically and told us to “Vamanos!” again.

It was a hot, sweaty 30-minute hike. Vlad said we were taking the long way, through farmland and forest, to avoid walking through the streams that ran parallel to us. Didn’t make much sense to me, since the water would have cooled us off, but he was the boss.

Once we arrived, I realized that the brochure did not do this waterfall justice. Jumping off into the pool meant climbing up a 25 foot rocky cliff.

“Oh, when you jump in, swim, kick your feet ‘round because tha fish, dey bite.”

Conveniently, I’d been blessed with my period that morning, so the idea of plunging rapidly into a pool of water with biting fish didn’t sound appealing. I was hot, crampy, and now that we were in the jungle, slightly nervous. 

Jason, however, joined the ladies in climbing to the top. It required hoisting themselves on a branch that acted like a bridge across the pool. Once on the other side, they began the climb by using the roots on the ground as ropes. The options were jump off the waterfall into the pool or slide down a cascade of rocks into the pool. Jason did both with enthusiasm, which left me surprised, and strangely proud of him. So cautious in his day to day, and then, there he was, jumping into a waterfall with a bunch of strangers, while Sad Jim and I took turns standing in the shade.

And then it came. It was violent and sudden and loud. Puddles enveloped my feet in seconds. If I think back now, I recall Vlad saying something about how it felt like it might rain, how we might have to cut our trip short, and then maybe something important about what to do in such a scenario. At the time, however, my instinct was to get out, pronto. 

As soon as I heard Vlad say we needed to move quickly, I was first in line and took off through the jungle, a steady run in the direction of the car. About twenty feet in, I looked down and saw that I had a passenger on my leg – one of the green and blue poisonous frogs we’d read about. I shook my leg like a mad woman and made a mental note not to touch that spot before taking a shower.

I heard Jason behind me, telling me to wait up, but I had a good clip going. My self-preservation was strong. And then I heard what sounded like cracking baseball bats that was actually breaking bamboo falling from the sky. I turned around in time to see a branch land on Jason’s forehead. I felt a wave of conflict within me – do I go back and check on him or keep high-tailing it for the car? I kept thinking of the airline safety videos where they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first. I looked back again and saw that the hollow bamboo only left a small scratch so I felt ok moving on. But I paused long enough to hear Vlad say something about not pissing off the snakes at which point I jumped into the twisted branches running alongside the rising stream.

When we got back to the Rover, we all jumped inside quickly as we were soaked to the bone. When Vlad stepped on the gas, the engine revved but we stood still. Apparently, Costa Rica’s red dirt turns to red clay when it’s raining and the Rover, well, she wasn’t going anywhere.

Vlad instructed us all to get out, gather the ropes in the trunk and help him tie them to a neighboring tree. We’d use the winch to pull while we pushed from behind. Vlad, Jason, the four girls, and I were all ready to push when we realized that Sad Jim hadn’t moved from his seat. We asked him if he was getting out to help and he just looked at us blankly before turning his head and casting his eyes down. The rain poured, a new bucket of water dropping directly on our heads every second. Irritation mounting, I leaned into the back seat next to Jim and asked him what he was doing. He looked at me and I could see that Jim had no intention, no ability to force himself out of his comfort zone. His idea of self-preservation was to stay in the car and let others bring him to safety. He was both motivated and crippled by his own fear. So we shared his weight and began pushing. After a few minutes of getting sprayed by chunks of red mud, the Rover began to move forward and Vlad directed her slightly off-road toward brush. We all hopped back in and kept quiet until Vlad pulled over in front of what looked like someone’s carport. 

“And now, we drink!” 

It was a bar owned by a nice lady named Priscilla, who graciously let us use her hose to spray off our coats of clay. We sat down with our bottles of Imperial and started to recount the day’s events, reimagining bits and pieces for dramatic effect, though the day certainly didn’t need any. Even Jim, who finally felt safe back in civilization, let himself smile at our survival tales.

I have a video from that day of Jason washing off his sneakers, recounting the falling bamboo incident, deliriously happy. He thanked me, then Vlad, then everyone. I decided right then that I would marry him. I didn’t need to prove anything to Jason. He didn’t need me to depend on him, he only wanted to be my witness, my partner, my equal. He wanted to run with me through the jungle, to get unstuck from the mud together. I realized that Jason had seen my independence and my fear, and still said OK, do what you have to do, I’m not going anywhere

And he hasn’t yet.

You feel me?

Before I get into my trip to Italy, I’ve had something else on my mind this past week, this trip, this lifetime.

Being understood.

I read a quote recently that “being loved is great, but being understood is profound.” I heard that and I thought YES! Of course we need love but we also need understanding and these don’t always (or often) go hand in hand. I want to be got. You feel me?

During this month away, I’ve had many moments where I’ve felt like someone just does not ‘get me.’ The language barrier, the cultural taboos, not to mention breaks in wifi or cell service. Travel can be rife with miscommunications and misunderstandings. Usually after a short round of charades or oversimplification of words, our needs can be met, but the feeling that goes along with not being understood leaves one feeling exposed.

Everyone has had these moments. You explain something to a friend or colleague and they look at you like… um, come again? Or a family member that knows you’re expressing something important and they are trying to get it but… no dice. As a writer, it can be crippling to know you’re leaving people confused by what you’re trying to convey. Part of the problem is that we are not taught to be good listeners. We are often crafting our response while the person speaking to us is mid-sentence. We don’t ask enough questions, to get clarity and even help move the conversation forward.

The other part of the problem, though, is that when we’re most in need of being understood, we are at our most vulnerable. And to feel heard, we can be emotional, over complicate, talk in a stream of consciousness, try to get everything out but end up missing the point.

This is where our actual, honest to goodness friends come in. You know the kind – compassionate but clear, loyal but won’t put up with any bullshit. People who will listen, truly listen to your process, and help you get clear on how you feel, what you mean to say. People who can say, “Listen, I love you but you are being a crazy person right now. Stop. Rewind. Start again.”

All of this is to say that while traveling can sometimes leave you raw, reconnecting with loved ones can heal you up. So thank you to the friends and family that have checked in on me during, or become part of, my journey.

And to clarify, in case sharing my experiences here have given anyone the wrong idea (like the anonymous commenter trying to invalidate my observations,) I did not hate India. I can be radically honest here and share my experiences but I can’t control how they are perceived. This was all true, for me. I’d be lying if I said the trip was easy, but I wasn’t looking for easy, I was looking for real. Beautiful, difficult, happy, terrified – it was all the things. As a friend of mine told me – Mother India will take you in, chew you up, and spit you out – hopefully with your soul a little bit cleaner. That’s all I could have asked for.

Truth.

So on to Rome, Modena, Florence… oh my! My sweet friend Jennifer met me in Rome where we had a much needed girls weekend. It felt like a real vacation for both of us. Then we came back to Modena (think chef Massimo Bottura and show Master of None fame,) where she and her man live. We took a quick day trip to Florence yesterday, and on Sunday I’ll head to London to visit my sweet niece and see three inspiring plays.

Some observations this past week:

  1. Food. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about food in Italy? Nothing. Just come here and eat your heart out.
  2. In Rome, we walked up the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica – 551 steps up. And it occurred to me that places like these are not accessible to everyone. I don’t mean the privilege of having the financial means to travel. Even if they got here, many people could not ascend the steps (or cobblestone roads of these ancient towns.) Inside the basilica, there is an elevator that gets you about halfway up but the other 200+ stairs are through narrow walkways. When I say narrow, I mean from the width of my shoulders with maybe an inch or two on each side to spare, with the dome wall curving inward. So, even if you are able bodied, if you are the size of an average American, you couldn’t do it. Maybe sideways. If you’re blind, someone could walk with you. If you’re not able to walk, you could hire people to carry you on their back. But what if you’re a larger human being? Then I thought, are we going to take all of these historical and architectural masterpieces, along with the towns they are in, and change their integrity and accuracy to accommodate absolutely everyone (#inclusivity)? I can’t help but think, though, that there are reasons we keep historical artifacts (and plain old facts) the way they were. That was my inner conflict for the week, when I wasn’t preoccupied thinking about how to change the completely insane shooting epidemic in my own country.
  3. Nobody wears helmets here either! Ok, on motorcycles, yes, but bicycles no. And while it may be a cultural thing and I’m the odd one out here to think people need them, I will never be cycling around without one. Jackson, his Dad, my husband and I have all had bike accidents and wearing helmets did us a world of good. I get it, the culture is different so car drivers don’t have mad road rage for cyclists like many parts of the U.S. But still, why take the chance with your one and only melon? It is very cute, though, to see old ladies and old men peddling around, especially when they throw their grandkids on the back.
  4. Winter comes to Modena, hardcore. It’s currently 35 degrees and snowing as of this moment! Yesterday in Florence it was 40 with whipping wind, but this has actually been good because every tourist attraction was a breeze to visit.
  5. Italy really does have super stylish people everywhere, young and old. Either very sleek wearing black head to toe or completely over the top with shiny sparkly silver or gold shoes and brocades and fur and bright red lipstick. Love.

Photos!

When navigating to find our restaurant one night, we literally walked into the Colosseum. Very cool during the day, yes, but beautiful and eerie even at night.

I found my people…

Typical Roman apartment balcony. Just sweetness and greenery.

Funny story about this photo below at Trevi Fountain. Back when I moved to NYC, a woman I’d briefly known 10 years earlier in SF sent me a Facebook message, asking if I wanted to be connected to her attractive, available brother. I said yes, of course, but the first photo I ever saw of my now-husband was him in front of Trevi Fountain from a recent trip. I remember thinking, damn, she was right, so handsome. Did I mention he’s half Italian? Here I am expressing that I won the jackpot.

Here is the view of Rome from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica dome. Insanely high, yes!

Probably a familiar painting, right? Touching the hand of god and all but you know what? It’s small. And it is one of dozens of other equally impressive ceiling paintings. Technically you’re not allowed to take photos but once I saw a group of Japanese tourists breaking the rule, I didn’t stop myself. Maybe they don’t want people to know how tiny his ‘charm’ is.

This, on the other hand, it huge. It feels even bigger than its 17 feet. It is awe some, beautiful, breathtaking even.

In a cafe in Modena, they have famous people and quotes on the wall, including the inspiration for the name of this blog… “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

Cute girls freezing their tails off in Florence!

A view of Florence from the Uffizi Gallery. Bellissimo!

Jaipur: Are the kids alright?

Much has happened since I arrived in Jaipur, so lemme dig in…

I have been volunteering with an organization that runs a school for street kids in a neighborhood outside of Jaipur. They own the school and a homestay, which are about 7km apart. If you’ve never stayed in a dormitory situation in a developing country, its kind of like camping indoors. I share a basic room and bathroom with two women (from Italy and Sweden.) When I say basic, imagine a linoleum floor, four walls, metal bunk beds, a dense pillow, bottom sheet, and a heavy, dusty blanket. Because its winter here, people! In the common area, there are plastic cushions on the floor to sit for dinner with individual tiny tables about six inches off the floor. Too short to stick my legs under, sadly. A tasty vegetarian lunch and dinner are prepared for us daily and we are responsible for cleaning up after ourselves. This includes a regular wash with soapy water and then heating the kettle to pour boiling water over our dishes. You know, to be safe. No trash bags are provided so we improvise – empty cereal boxes work well. Every morning, we remind the ‘house mom’ to turn on the water so we can do things like flush the toilet (but not with toilet paper, this is thrown in a bag (or cereal box!) This is common in many developing countries without proper sanitation, so I’m used to it. Much like the electricity going out at least once a day.) We wash our clothes in a bucket – after only a day in the dust, the water turns a murky brown – and hang them to dry up on the roof. Where they get nice and dusty again. Circle of life!

When we arrive at the school in the morning, after an auto-rickshaw drive that has become second nature but objectively, is still slightly sketchy and loud, the kids are doing their physical exercises. Then classes separate and my 4-5 kids sit and wait patiently to be taught English.

I lie. There is nothing patient about the 9-11 year olds in my group. They are rowdy. They are also smart enough to regurgitate what they’ve been taught without truly understanding context or meaning. Maybe that is how learning starts, non? We’ve been working on emotions, body parts, and what they want to be when they grow up. This is a little heartbreaking as one of them wants to be a cricket player and he doesn’t seem to be so naturally inclined. But hey, dreams are dreams, right? We practice reading and writing, and then about 5 minutes before the break they start asking “Didi, didi, time? Time!” Didi is like ‘older sister’ but also teacher in this case. They want to know how long before they can go play cricket or badminton, and they never want to come back because math follows break and if you think learning math on its own can be tough, try learning it from a native English speaker when you barely understand English.

What I have found most challenging here is the lack of curriculum. Because this is not a government run or private licensed school, there is no required curriculum or teaching agenda. How can you give a test on Friday when you’re not building off on previous information? Its not connected, its isolated. There is just one full-time teacher, who hopes to take his test soon to become a public school teacher. Some days 10 kids show up, some kids 30. It depends on what is going on in their family’s lives. The resources are limited, all coming in forms of donations. They do not accept financial donations or do any fundraising, because of the complicated status of an NGO working under a for-profit company. Their hands are tied. And while they have the best of intentions, it is difficult to see the potential because real change can only happen in small, incremental steps. Digital learning might go a long way to bridge the gap.

Another challenge is that the kids are often hitting each other. It starts out with nasty, cutting words first. I can’t understand Hindi, but I know what it looks like when someone is talking shit. Then one of them reacts, and the next thing you know, they are yelling and smacking the shit out of each other. No tears, just a lot of anger. When I had my orientation, I was told not to smile at them (and not to smile at any men, but I’d already received that memo.) I’m generally a happy, nice person so it was difficult to pull this off but I get it – we don’t want them to think I’m weak because they won’t listen. The thing is, culturally it seems the teachers here are strict. Forceful even, to the point where they threaten to hit the kids in order to get them to do as asked. So, of course, that is how they react with each other. And I would imagine the scenario could be similar at home. Truly, though, they just want to be held, hugged, and played with like most children.

In other news, I made a friend when I arrived in Jaipur who looks uncannily like my older sister Kathy. We did some traveling together this past weekend, photos of our adventures and the children from school below.

Other observations and things I forgot to previously mention:

  1. I have faced two major fears (among others) so far: When I left Haridwar, it was 5am and no rickshaws were available to take me to the train station. The bell boy offered to drive me so I said yes. And then I saw my ride. A motorcycle! Me, my 40 lb suitcase, backpack, and the driver. And no helmets. But when in India, you gotta do what you gotta do. And I survived! So, I thought, ok, now I can take an inter-India flight. And I survived that, too!
  2. One of the first temple visits in Jaipur, we had a guide who told us that since we arrived just in time to witness the morning arti (blessing,) it was because the gods had brought us here. That there are no accidents, we are together in the moment for the sole reason that the gods divined it. It was karma. I can get behind that.
  3. Something that has been crazy frustrating to me and every other foreign woman I’ve met is dealing with groups of men on the street. Often, they say hello hello and stare but to engage in any way will give them the wrong idea, so we don’t and then they laugh at us. I have heard that in Northern India, particularly, the women are treated more unequally. The south seems to be more progressive, whatever that means. I’m checking out Mumbai this week, so will report back.
  4. One night trying to get back to the homestay, we had to haggle with the rickshaw driver but he wouldn’t give us an actual price. Instead, lots of head wobbles and then conferring in Hindi with the guy at the hotel and another rickshaw driver instead of talking to us ladies. Took five minutes for him to say 300 Rupees.
  5. Walking out of a store a few days ago, a bird shit on my head. Apparently, its good luck! Very auspicious.
  6. Oh and my rash is back, all over my neck and now my face. We think its either a delayed Malarone reaction or I’m just allergic to India. Either one is feasible at this point.

Photos!

These are my students – Komal, Sahil, Raghu, and Rohit.

And these are some other cute nuggets we play with during the breaks.

This is me and Daniela at the Anohki Museum, which is dedicated to the art of hand block printing.

This is Amer Fort. So big. And you can make out the ‘little wall of China’ that surrounds the old city.

These are beautiful elephants that we did not ride. Fortunately, more and more travelers are getting hip to the mistreatment of animals for use by tourists.

Lots of crazy detailed design within the fort, as well as the City Palace, and Hawa Mahal.

Below is the walk toward the Govind Dev Ji temple. It is dedicated to Lord Krishna and devotees pray here seven (7!) times a day.

Funny story. We got in line to get tickets for the temple. The lines are separated by men and women. So, we are waiting patiently. I am admiring all of the bright colors on these women. I smell this awesome sweet buttery smell, and I’m hungry and damn doesn’t that smell good? As we get closer to the window, we find out the line isn’t for tickets, its for food. The temple isn’t open for another half hour and these people needed sustenance. Lesson learned.

I can’t properly describe this and the photo below is shit but hear me out. This place gets up to 5,000 devotees per day. Everyone calmly walks into the temple and sits on the ground. We got there at 12pm for 12:30pm start. There were some small groups of people singing songs and clapping but generally, the mood was very calm and quiet. At 12:28pm, curtains were drawn and exposed were two small puppet-like figurines – of Krishna and his most devoted follower.

AND THE CROWD GOES WILD.

Everyone is up on their feet, praying, singing, filming, moving quickly toward the centerpiece. We are moved along, like in a mosh pit. Daniela and I are pulled along by a woman who insists we get up to the very front to see for ourselves. It becomes slightly claustrophobic but somehow we are spit out of the chaos. We follow the followers, who walk in a circle around Krishna’s stage, where they touch the wall with both hands and rest their foreheads while saying prayers. They touch the locks and chains on the doors surrounding Krishna, and then they are on with the rest of their day.

Just breathe.

I’m currently on a train from Haridwar to Faridabad, where I thought I’d be volunteering this week. Turns out my ‘cold’ was just my body’s reaction to this terrible air pollution. I broke out in a neck rash Thursday and it seems to be here to stay. When I’m not wearing my face mask, I’m coughing and sneezing. As Faridabad is the 2nd most polluted city in the country (next to Delhi,) I decided to change my plans. I’ve felt badly about this and struggled with the decision because a big part of why I came here, or at least what I told myself, is to volunteer. I had such a wonderful experience doing it in Brazil, I was hoping to do more.

However, without my physical health, I won’t be able to keep going on this adventure, so I gotta do what I gotta do. Hours have passed since I started this and now I’m driving to Agra to see the Taj Majal. It was not high on my list but you know, when in Rome. I’ll then do a couple of days at Ranthambore National Park before heading to Jaipur. This is all, of course, dependent on many things out of my control. I’ve always lived knowing that change is constant, but I’m reminded here daily that flexibility and adaptation are the keys to sanity.

“The whole world is inside of us”

The most significant reflection of my time in Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga, is the irony of what’s being communicated. That everything you need is already inside of you, and also please come to India to search for something outside of ourselves.

Why are we constantly forgetting this? I’m not going to blame it on the media or consumerism, and I’m also not saying that its human nature. I think for many, it is not even considered. What does that even mean, right?

Trust me when I tell you that you don’t need to come to India (or Brazil or Kripalu or Burning Man) to realize that everything you need is already inside. You can find it in your home, your garden, your car… wherever you’re able to take five minutes to breathe, and learn how to listen to your intuition. It will tell you everything you need to know. But they call it a practice for a reason! It takes time. There is no fast lane to self-awareness and peace of mind.

The questions that are becoming clearer to me on this trip are: how can I be of service? And what is my vocation, my calling? I’m good at many things but not great at one. The answer here is, as Rilke says, to ‘live the questions now,’

For me, traveling is the best time for me to get still with my thoughts, not be distracted by, oh, all the things, and be present enough to contemplate. In fact, I was saying this to my husband yesterday, here I have no choice to be present. I’m so present every day, its exhausting! Each moment, an opportunity for some new discovery or situation. I do understand how privileged and lucky I am to be able to travel. I’ve been a seeker and a traveler my whole life. I traveled when I had a baby and a job that paid me, um, well shit? My point is that it has always been a priority, so it happened for me. Your priorities may be different, if so great! Wherever you can find the downtime… just breathe.

Recovering in Rishikesh

Hari Om!

I arrived in Rishikesh Monday afternoon and promptly took a five hour nap. This jet lag has been worse than usual. I’m both tired and excited so pushing myself to stay awake and then crashing, hard. I got my first full night’s sleep in a week and then like clockwork, woke up with a cold. I figure there are worse places to heal than along the Ganges, at the foot of the Himalayas, am I right?

So, this place. #hereareallthewhiteladies, mostly 20 years younger and with friends. There is a yoga studio or ashram or hotel on every corner. I admit that I imagined it differently – less populated, more pristine maybe. But that is not the reality, not so far anyway. Don’t misunderstand… seeing the sun rise over the mountain ridge and the gentle movement of the cloudy green river is truly stunning. However, it is juxtaposed with the trash lined banks, throngs of people, and loud animals and vehicles.

India, to be sure.

Tuesday morning, I went for a walk toward the Lakshman Jhula pedestrian suspension bridge. On my way, I overheard a woman asking a man where to find a particular ashram. He said, “Oh, you’re in luck, Baba is going to do a puja at 10am!” So I stopped and said, “Can I come with?” They smiled, we made introductions (I’d made a goal to introduce myself to 1-2 new people every day. So far, so good!) and I walked toward the Sachcha Ashram. There was a young man scrubbing the steps of the meditation hall and I asked if I could help. It felt good to do some manual labor. Seth is about 23 and from Orange County, where my boy’s Dad’s family is from, so we connected quickly. Turns out the guru of this ashram is only in town for the next few weeks and doesn’t usually do a fire puja at the river, so it was very fortunate for me. The ritual was beautiful – chanting mantras, tossing marigold caps into the river, and sprinkling us attendees with Ganga water.

Sometimes you have to be vulnerable and ask to be included. We are often stuck in our own head, that may be our nature. It takes a lot to say “Hey, would you like to join us?” or “Can I come with you?” Even here, in this place of spirituality and openness. I have heard quite a few times this trip that I am ‘brave’ – for coming here and traveling alone for so long. I don’t think that I’m brave. I think we are conditioned to fear the worst in people. Yes, there are those that in their desperation make terrible decisions. For the most part, though, people are the same everywhere, with the same needs and wants for ourselves, our friends and family. I remind myself of this when I feel my anxiety creep in.

Yesterday, I met a lovely Bengali woman in one of my yoga classes and we hung out the rest of the day. She is from Canada, traveling with her Mom to spread the ashes of her Dad in the river. We talked of how many people come here to find something, to escape something, to ascend to something… and all the while, their reality is still at home, waiting for them to return. My daily routine includes a solid 15 minutes of wondering why I’m here. Why now, why India, what am I looking for? The only thing I know for sure is that it felt like the right time, the right place, and I believe all will be revealed. Or not.

A few more highlights:

  1. Every morning at 4am, I am awoken by the sound of clomping donkeys going to work. They are brought down to the river where they have their sacks filled with sand and rocks, and then brought back up the hill to their respective villages.
  2. Last night’s super blue blood moon. Because the hazy clouds rolled in later, it was like we were looking through gauze but still magical…
  3. The weather here has been clear, between 45-70 degrees F, and no mosquitos. Yes, its cold and windy in the morning, but I’m enjoying this while I can seeing as how the following month of my trip will be all about Deet and A/C and pollution mask-wearing.
  4. The manager of the cafe across the street – every morning, he comes up from his sleeping space, takes off his shoes, puts his hands in prayer position and bows twice to the sun rising behind the mountain. A simple ritual of gratitude.

More photos!

There are loads of statues and shrines here, like this massive one of Shiva.

My first view of the Ganges…

This was during the fire/puja I was lucky enough to stumble onto with followers of Sri Prem Baba.

A little alley art/advertising.

There are cows everywhere (and dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys – see the roof?) They don’t care about things like cars and mopeds and pedestrians. And wow, can they moo loudly.

King monkey. We almost got attacked yesterday by a mama monkey because her teeny tiny babies were too cute to go unnoticed and as soon as we got closer, she howled. This guy is just chillin.

Peace.

Reflections of the sky…

Villagers on their way home at dusk…

Sunset on the Ganga…

Delhi days

I arrived in Delhi late Thursday night and after grabbing some water, cash and a SIM card, went to get a taxi. Outside the airport, there were 100 men for every woman. And the women weren’t alone. This whole ‘there are lots of single women traveling alone in India’ thing I read about must be relative, but we’ll get back to that.

I paid for a state sponsored taxi and when I told the driver where I was going – a haveli in Old Delhi – he had to confer with three other drivers who became animated and agitated. When he finally agreed, he told me the area I was going to wasn’t safe because it was full of Muslims. Racism is alive and well in India, folks!

This is no exaggeration: the taxi ride to the hotel was the most terrifying experience of my life. It was foggy and smoggy and dark to start, and the driver kept saying how dangerous it was for him to be driving at all. The highways were full of speeding cars, rickshaws, tut tuts, bicycles, and pedestrians all coming within a centimeter of killing each other, three to four vehicles across a two lane road, incessantly honking like a flock of geese. After a harrowing 45 minutes, he pulled over by a dark alley and told me to get out. He pointed to a sign with the hotel’s name on it and an arrow leading away from the road. I asked how far the walk was and pointed out the groups of young men on the corner. He gave me an ‘I told you so’ look but said he would take my number and call to see if I arrived ok. I pointed out that since I’d just arrived, my SIM card wasn’t activated yet so I had no service. He reluctantly agreed to walk me to the hotel.

A narrow walkway, a stranger and a foreigner struggling with a too-big suitcase, passing by a mangy stray dog sitting vigil in a doorway with a dozen candles burning and an old man frying up chaat in a tiny alcove. When we arrived at my hotel, I felt like we had really accomplished something. I turned to look at him and he held his arms open a bit, shrugged his shoulder and gave a bob of his head to one side. To me, this was an indication that he wanted a hug so I went in. He backed away quickly and said, “No! No no. More rupees, more tip.”

Lesson learned.

The next day I did a tour of Old Delhi (photos below,) and yesterday moved over to New Delhi. Tomorrow I take my first train ride, to Rishikesh for the week.

Today I’m grateful to be able bodied. Despite jet leg, I’m still able to climb the five flights of stairs in the old Haveli on Chandni Chowk to see the rooftops, to see the rose petals drying in the sun, the open courtyard where prayers are being held with mosque attendees. I am able. And I’m grateful.

Below is the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, which can hold 25,000 people. It was the ‘final architectural triumph’ of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (commissioned the Taj Mahal) and finished in 1658. We arrived shortly before prayers so couldn’t stay long but it was a serene place amidst the chaos of Old Delhi. Side note: in the mosque, three different young men asked for their picture to be taken with me. Ego aside, apparently its cool to make up stories about knowing foreigners, especially single white ladies.

This was another calm oasis, a small dead end alley off Chandni Chowk. The story is that all of the apartments on this street are owned by the same family and have been passed down generation to generation. There are two brothers right now, living side by side, who never speak to each other because they have competing food stands. Also, they cannot make modern renovations to the outside of the buildings unless they are historically accurate and no one can afford that luxury.

This is along Chandni Chowk, which was miraculously ’empty’ according to my guide, because of the Republic Day holiday. Empty to him just meant that you weren’t shoulder to shoulder with someone. There were plenty of people, bicycles and tuk tuks! The area is a spice market and these flowers are being sold by the kilo.

Ever wonder where those dried rose petals come from in your potpourri? Here. Drying on a roof in Delhi.

Next we went to this beautiful Sikh temple, although they don’t call it a temple, its a Gurudwara. In this case, Sisganj. The story is harrowing. It’s the martyrdom site of the 9th Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by Aurangzeb, the last Mughal Emperor (who sounds like kind of an asshole. He was not in line for the throne but believed himself to be a better leader, so when his Dad gave the older son the crown, Aurangzeb came back from battle and had his brother trampled by elephants, then dragged his body down the street to show the public he wasn’t messing around,) for refusing to convert to Islam. Inside here, you can see a shrine of sorts – its for a book! They don’t pray to a person or a god, they pray to the book. And there are people there, 24/7, providing music and prayer (except when the book ‘sleeps’ because hello, #tired.)

They also provide meals everyday to about 20,000 people. Everyone is a volunteer, and their religion is heavily based on selfless service to others and equality of all human beings.

This is the view from my hotel, a haveli, where they have classical dance performance on weekends.

And finally, a glimpse of my tuk tuk ride to the metro station yesterday.

Why India?

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight bound for Delhi to spend the next 40 days in India. If you asked me in the last 25 years why I wanted to go, I’d give my shpiel about having a best friend who is Indian since I was 16 or having practiced yoga since I was 20. And while those things are true and absolutely inspired the dream of visiting India, today my reasons are different.

When I started practicing yoga, I had zero understanding about my intentions, my anxiety, my joy, or my limitations. Yoga quite literally saved my life, body and mind. I read the sacred texts (though not sure I understand all of the sutras!) and stories, learned anatomy and did my teacher training. I had friends and acquaintances who made the journey or pilgrimage to the motherland, most of them in their younger days or without little kiddos waiting at home. I’d fantasize about going with my BFF and we’d visit her relatives. I had in my mind that she must have the same desire for travel as I did. But life kept moving along, and I never made it a priority to go. I had a small baby, I was in transition from jobs, I was in debt from college, I was a single parent, I had GI issues (true!) There were endless excuses but the dream never died.

The truth is, I was terrified. Of anywhere I have wanted to visit, India is the one that scares me the most. (Close second is Africa and I’m going to get there, too.) Its not the overwhelming population… or the lack of sanitation… or the waylaid trains.

Its the areas of poverty, the inequality in education, the mistreatment of girls, the old culture that is hanging on to the way things used to be done when the world is changing rapidly around them. I’ve never been much for filtering my thoughts, so I knew I would have to be a much more mature human being to visit these places and be respectful. Now, time has passed. I’ve traveled and volunteered enough now that I can see the gray. My passion for justice is tempered by a willingness to hear both sides of a story. And then to see if I can take action, work within the gray.

Oh I have loads of other fears, too. My anxiety has been on red alert since I decided to go. Malaria, dengue, dysentery, oh my! But I am facing these fears the way I have most of my life. Acknowledge, ask questions, be prepared, and then LET GO. I had a wonderful therapist who used to make me write down my fears on a piece of paper, put them in a box, and put the box in the back of the closet. Over time, I forgot about the box. The brain is bananas powerful, people.

So, I’m off. (Like a prom dress, har!) I’ll get a sim card when I land and share my number here on my next post, if you want to say hi. First few days and nights are in Delhi where I’ll be donning my mask because #smog and getting over jetlag.

Namaste, peeps.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. God Himself is not secure, having given man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” – Helen Keller

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