From India to Italy

I know.

I’m a walking Eat, Pray, Love cliché.

Turns out, three weeks of India was it for me. I don’t know what exactly was the turning point, but when you know its time to go, its time to go. I struggled with the shame of not completing what I’d set out to do – “five weeks in India!” – but once I let it go, damn it felt good. Guilt, fear, shame… these are generally such useless emotions. Took me about 15 minutes to decide to come visit a friend in Italy.

(Sidebar – I don’t have friends where I live. I mean, obvs my husband is my friend, and my bestie lives a quick five hour drive away but otherwise all of my friends are on the west coast. When I accepted a job in NYC in 2011 and decided to leave my son in SF with his Dad, I realized the gravity of my decision and what it might do to my relationship with my son. That was foremost in my mind. What I couldn’t realize then was how important, vital even, my friendships were. Moving away is a really quick way to see who your friends are. Yes, I get it, people are busy, not everyone calls or emails or texts or is on social media, and frankly – I was the conduit of my friends hanging out together. I loved having parties or going away for girls weekends, and making these connections. But shortly after moving to NYC, I met my now husband, and the last six years have really been about building that relationship.

So! When my lovely neighbor (whose friendship with I hope continues to blossom) I was introduced to a very sweet woman, a fellow writer, and inexplicably going through a similar situation where her son was living with her ex on the west coast, I was grateful. Fast forward a few years, Jennifer and I have become friends, and then she picks up and moves to Italy to be with her man. And now, hooray I have someone to visit in Italy!)

Final observations of India:

  1. Mumbai traffic wins for being the worst. By this I mean time spent in traffic. Oddly, the driving itself was more civilized than any other city I’d been in. I actually walked (!) places a couple of times, but taking one hour to drive ten miles is not ok. Period.
  2. There are loads of mopeds and motorcycles on the roads here, and very few cities have helmet laws. What’s common is to see men wearing helmets but not women. My guess is that they can only afford one for the driver, which is of course primarily a man, but not for the women or children. Yes, there are babies and little ones on the backs of motorcycles, being held by one hand of the mama, whipping down the road at anywhere from 30-50mph.
  3. A few more interesting cultural differences – people cutting in queue all the time, side to side head wobble meaning multiple things, and men peeing on the side of the road, everywhere.

Namaste and ciao for now!

Random photos…

I finally met Pritha, a colleague at my last agency, at a cute tea house. So sweet, all around.

This is random but hey, did you know yesterday, we celebrated Chinese New Year? And its the year of the dog, which is my year! Gung Hay Fat Choy! I ate at an excellent Chinese restaurant in Mumbai and toasted to peace and prosperity. (Dining alone was getting super old, though.)

So a friend of mine has a client who has a sister who is married to this guy that I had lunch with. The best thing about this restaurant (the Jamjar) was the salted caramel popcorn brownie sundae. I hadn’t had any sugar or dairy in almost three weeks at that point and while it was amazeballs, it also put me in a food coma about 20 minutes later.

You’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, right? If you haven’t, go watch it now – both the film and the soundtrack are spot on. This is the famed CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) train station where the massive dance scene takes place. It is so large, I couldn’t get the whole thing in one shot.

So, Mumbai is very cosmopolitan compared with other cities in India, and seems to have more diversity of belief systems. I was staying in a predominately Catholic neighborhood and this – Mount Mary Church – is the most popular in the city. I’d show you a photo of the outside, but you know, seen one church, seen ’em all. But I took a shot of the inside to highlight both the baby blue walls and also the pink chandeliers up front. You can’t see but they are actually pink POLKA DOT chandeliers. God bless India, in all its colorful splendor.

I visited Mani Bhavan, which is where Gandhi spent 17+ years, including when he launched satyagraha (truth force or insistence on the truth) and civil disobedience. I like what he had to say about Democracy…

And finally, the Arabian Sea. This stretch is where people come to do their laundry and leave their trash, sadly. There are signs everywhere – ‘Green Mumbai, Clean Mumbai’ – but again, like many initiatives in India, it is a massive cultural shift that will take legislation, repercussions, and time to change.

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 kids – Komal, Sahil, Raghu, and Rohit.

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

They like to run after the rickshaw when we are heading home.

And this is where they live…

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.

So far, India is everything.

Guess who spent 48 hours with Delhi belly?! That’s right. This girl. Because India is trying to kick my ass.

I don’t think the internet explanation does Delhi belly justice, so let me give you a quick reality check. It is not like, when you had some spicy food at dinner and have a loose bowel movement later that night. It is more like when you have can’t-get-to-the-toilet-fast-enough shooting hot liquid diarrhea every hour, on the hour, for straight two days, accompanied by a high fever, chills, a special round of vomiting, and please put me out of my misery general malaise.

Who doesn’t love that word? Malaise. I love that word.

Anyhow, if you’re still reading after tmi, I can tell you I’ve survived. A round of Ceruroxime from a doctor here has done the trick and I made it to Jaipur to start my volunteering with street kids. Sadly, it was cloudy the whole time I was in Agra so I didn’t even end up seeing the Taj Mahal up close. #bestlaidplans

Part of me wishes I’d planned a simpler trip, maybe a couple of weeks in Goa and Kerala, but that would have felt like a vacation. The pressure to make this something else has been significant. Probably self-imposed, but when you tell people you’re going to spend a month in India, you hear “It’s a pilgrimage!”, “Its like your Eat, Pray, Love!”, “Its your mid-life crisis journey!”, “You’re going to come back a changed woman!”, “This is going to be EPIC.” (Actual things said to me.)

No pressure, right?

I know, poor me, I get to spend a month in India. I’m so privileged, stop!

Facing fears all the time and trying not to be overwhelmed and distracted by the multitude of people and stimuli here… it can be tiring. And paralyzing. This is all discovery and pilgrimage.

Reading travel blogs and books, there is also pressure to get ‘off the beaten path’ to see the ‘real’ India. But the people who live here or are from here, want to make sure I see the absolute ‘best’ of India, stay in five star hotels and see the pretty sights. So which is it? Please come and please stay and please tell everyone it was amazing.

Despite the current political landscape and other issues we have as a country, we have less pressure to do this in America. It’s more of a see-for-yourself kind of place. No one needs convincing that New York City is one of the best cities in the world. Or that California has more natural beauty than it knows what to do with. Or hello, the Grand Canyon. But India gets a bad rap for, well, exactly what I’ve seen and experienced the last two weeks. Yes, what you read is true about the choking smog, about the way most women outside of major cities are seen as unequal, about the ubiquitous poverty, and inefficient, dysfunctional government services. It is also true that the newish Prime Minister, despite having had some previously unpopular opinions about Muslims, has brought a progressive agenda to help move India forward, quickly. Investments in infrastructure and cultural shifts are being implemented but it will take time because minds are not always easy to change.

So I don’t need to go to a remote village to see the real India. I’m being shown what I need to see, being given the experiences I need to have. I guess my point is that India isn’t good or bad. Its both. Its everything. And I’m grateful to have seen it, no matter.

You feel me?

A few more observations:

  1. Instead of donkeys clomping, my 4am wake up in Agra was the sound of metal scaffolding being tossed into a wagon. Its the breakdown from the previous day’s weddings – sometimes two a day – that took place right outside my window in the wedding garden. At about 6am, the drummers started practicing for the day’s later celebration. People got married on Monday and Tuesday afternoons. I mean, that’s love.
  2. At breakfast at the hotel restaurant the morning I leave Agra. Its a big tourist hotel, so a clean, well lit place, and there is this older Indian woman sitting across from me with her family, dressed beautifully. She may have been there for one of the weddings as she’s dressed in traditional sari, hennaed hands, nails done, and jewelry galore. And every third or fourth bite, she turns her head and spits on the floor. Over, and over again. I kind of loved the shamelessness about it. She looked at me once, like “WTF are you looking at?!” It is apparently a cultural thing here, the spitting. I had seen signs at the train station about ‘no spitting’ but I hadn’t yet seen it up close and personal. So close that if I hadn’t already been sick, I would have blamed her for sure.
  3. Driving by Jain women, dressed in all white flowing fabric, mouths covered with purple plastic masks as their belief of ahimsa (non-violence) is so serious they don’t want to accidentally inhale a fly. For real.
  4. Watching a puppy get run over by a car on the highway to Jaipur. With the sheer amount of animals roaming here alongside fast cars, I’m surprised I haven’t seen it more. I have, however, seen plenty of dead cows having their carcasses eaten by stray dogs. Savage.
  5. More people telling me I’m brave for traveling through India alone. Being a lady and all. It is true, I’ve had a moment every day that I have to remind myself I am a white woman in a sea of mostly darker skinned boys and men. (I know, where are all the ladies at?!) So when they start yelling at me and coming up to me and wanting to take photos… this is simply because of the color of my skin and my gender. Pretty weird, right? Lemme answer that for you, YES, yes, it is. But I’m starting to think people don’t mean brave, they mean stupid. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

p.s. #1 lesson learned about blogging: Do not post the same day as a major sports event, like, say, the Super Bowl

I call this photo montage “In A Blur” because this is how I felt when I lost those days to illness.

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.