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.

50 Stories, Week 1

Today is my 50th birthday. Many people reach this age and start thinking about their bucket-list. A sense of urgency creeps in with the realization that there are only so many vacations left, books to read, friendships to make, and adventures to have before it’s all over.

I’ve decided to share my reverse bucket-list, or things I’ve done. I’ll do so by way of stories but also a few ramblings. Maybe I’ll also write a poem or sing a song, who knows? Some will be polished and some will be off the cuff. I hope you forgive the format and enjoy the content. 

Every Sunday, for the next fifty (50) weeks, I’ll do my best and aim to get better as I go along.

My first story, A Fistful, goes like this…

When I was 12 years old, my father taught me how to throw a punch with a roll of quarters. We were living in suburban southern New Hampshire, on a cul-de-sac with a dozen families. The neighborhood kids all played together – games of hide-and-go-seek and tag, ice skating on the small creek behind the houses, riding bikes up and down the street all summer long, and also: football. While I played the game every weekend on my next-door neighbor’s lawn, the only thing I have ever known about football is that you want your team to have the ball, and you want to run as fast as you can to the other side of the field. Period. This wasn’t the NFL, it was basic neighborhood tackle football.

One Sunday afternoon, I’m heading out to play and I see all the boys already in a huddle. I run over to get in but they’re tight and laughing while one of them is telling a story. Turns out Tommy Nicholson heard from Eddie Sullivan* that I was ‘easy.’ For a brief moment, I thought this had something to do with the game but then he went on to say that Eddie had ‘felt me up’ and that I was ‘looking for it’ so any of the boys could ‘do it’ with me. My cheeks started to flush and I felt a weird pit in my stomach. I didn’t understand what this all meant but clearly, they must have, because they kept laughing when they turned and saw me there. I ran home with shameful tears and told my Dad what happened. He didn’t say a word but immediately put out his cigarette, put his shoes on, and walked out the front door. I realized too late that he was going to have a word with the boys, so I stood by the living room window and watched, holding my breath and feeling the urge to pee. When he came back inside, he walked toward his bedroom and yelled for me to meet him on the back porch. I thought he was angry at me because I wasn’t always an easy kid. I was super curious and that generally meant trouble. But when he came out with a roll of quarters in his hand, I was just confused. 

“Ok, pretend to hit me,” he said.

“Um, why?” I asked.

“Just throw a punch at me!”

So I did. He caught my fist mid-air and said “Good, now try it with this,” and handed me the quarters. My hand wasn’t big enough to conceal the full roll but I knew instinctively that I could deliver more hurt with this in my swing. 

“You have to protect yourself now. Understand?” 

I nodded. 

“Ok, try again.”

The added weight gave me confidence and I swung hard. He stepped back to miss me but my knuckles skimmed his beer belly and he let out a yelp. (This wasn’t the first time I’d accidentally hurt my Dad – when I was about four years old, I jumped up to kiss him goodnight and broke his nose. But that’s a story for another day.) Then he smiled and left me to go inside and light up a cigarette. 

The real problem with Eddie Sullivan spreading rumors about me was that my mother was friends with Eddie’s mom. She was a real scary lady who was in a perpetual state of sweating, and carried a tall glass of iced tea everywhere she went. They lived across the street from my best friend Laura, and Eddie was a few years older than us. While I thought it was cool that my Dad taught me that secret punch, I knew that I wasn’t going to be carrying around a roll of quarters all the time. So, later that week, when my friend Laura and I were sitting on her front lawn and Eddie was in his driveway greasing his bicycle chain, we had an idea.

“Hey Eddie,” we yelled. “Wanna see something?” We giggled and lifted up our shirts, just past our belly buttons. He looked at us with that pubescent boy face – awkward and excited – and put down his WD-40. 

“Lemme see again!” he hollered. So I took the bottom of my t-shirt and twisted it up to tuck between my non-existent breasts. Laura and I stood up and did a little dance. 

“Why don’t you come a little closer, Eddie?” I asked, more quietly. He crossed the street and approached us. Laura whispered in my ear, then disappeared inside. 

We stood there for a moment, Eddie and I. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, blond, kind of freckly.

“Come on, you gonna show me some more?” he asked while taking a step closer. 

“Maybe…” I put my hands on his shoulders. 

Then with all the might of a 12-year-old girl done wrong, I kneed him in the balls. He fell over instantly, crying and writhing. I’d never intentionally inflicted pain on someone and I felt awful, of course, but oddly satisfied at the same time. I wish Eddie was the last guy who ever said or did an unkind thing to me, but he was just the beginning. So I’m grateful my Dad taught me to protect myself, because no one else could – even if he wanted to.

After Eddie crawled his way home, his mother called my mother and there were words. I’m not sure what they consisted of but you can bet your ass I kept playing football after that (until I got boobs and then it was all over.) 

*names have been changed to protect the ego

 

So, I shaved my head.

Head ShavedIt’s not alopecia (but good for you, Ricki Lake!)

I’m not having a breakdown (remember Britney’s bald moment?)

 I’m not ill (fingers crossed, though cancer may get us all eventually.) 

And I’m not trying to make a political or power statement. 

What I am is a 49 year old woman working in the advertising industry in NYC. I am a woman who started dying my roots before I had gray hair and had no idea what my ‘real’ hair looked like. I am a woman who spends thousands of dollars each year to look younger, better, and different than I am. 

A few years ago, I started to see and feel the real signs of aging – sagging neck and jowls, constant dry skin, waking up in the middle of the night feeling like someone turned the oven on, and an inability to power through even the slightest hangover or exercise injury. But still people would say, “I can’t believe you’re 40+ years old! I can’t believe you have a son in college!” And my little ego would perk up and it would validate the work I was putting into looking young. 

My industry, like many, is not kind to aging women, in particular. And in our society, you’re forgotten, dismissed, literally not paid attention to once you are no longer aspiring to be a beautiful young thing with tits up to here and an ass you can bounce a quarter on. Though, to be fair, I do still have a fine ass. (Thanks yoga and genetics!) So I get it – we work hard to stay relevant, or at least look like we’re trying to. Not to mention all the work we do to our faces to stay ‘youthful’! But there’s a difference between a nice hydrated dewy face and spending thousands to literally keep your chin up.

Listen, I fully support anyone who dyes and decorates their hair, wears wigs, cuts it all sorts of ways. I just hope they’re doing it because they want to – not because they think they need to. 

For me, though, I’m tired. And curious. What would it look like if I was just myself for a while? If I came to love the extra five pounds I’ve been carrying around my gut? If I accepted my graying hair and loss of collagen in my neck? What could I do with the energy spent trying to be someone else?

I know it can be difficult to live a life where people question your decisions, when the things you know are right for you aren’t right for most. Especially for the people who love you. But I’ve been doing this since I was a child. The decisions that feel right in my gut, in my soul, have rarely been traditional. I’m not saying they’re interesting. They’re just different. 

And I don’t want an ordinary life. I don’t want to look like or be like anyone else. And for maybe the first time in my life, I give zero fucks (ok, maybe I give a little fuck, but I am pushing that voice down,) about what others think. Of course I care about what my husband and son think but all I can do is hope they love me, as I am.

This act feels rebellious, yes, but it also feels natural. Right. For now. For me. I can see my gray! I can see my misshapen head. I can feel my scalp. And my curiosity is satiated, for now. When I look at the mass of hair in my trash bin, I don’t know that person any more. That isn’t me. 

This is me.

Or maybe I’m just bored.

Writing life

Wow, it’s been a while. Much has happened in my life since I returned from my last big trip to India (and Italy and London,) but most important news is that I’ve doubled down on writing. I’m working on a tv script, a short film script, and then maybe a book of essays (or a memoir… haven’t figured it out yet.) Ooh and I’m back to daily meditation and yoga, and even some regular exercise. Doctor says 150 minutes a week so I’m getting at it! (Ugh, grunt, woe is me and my flabby arms.)

I’m not sure why it took me this long to commit to this level of consistency all around. I’m not jinxing myself by saying it, I know that life comes in waves, but I am glad to be here, at this point in my life. I think taking a trip to see some of the worst poverty in the world (hello, India) combined with having a birthday just shy of 50 has made me realize there is nothing else I’d rather be doing than this. I realize how privileged that makes me, and I am grateful.

I can’t say ‘I love writing!’ because that would be a bold faced lie. What I can say is that I know it is the work I need to be doing, right now. Stories to be told, truths to be unearthed, imagination running wild. That part I love.

One part I don’t love is trying to ignore everything I read or have read about breaking into writing as a profession. For example:

You will never sell your first pilot (script, novel, essay.)

If you don’t do x, you won’t have y.

No one ever starts their script with z.

The television industry will tear you apart. You will not survive!

You see where I’m going. I was discussing this rhetoric recently with another writer. We concluded that it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and anyone who takes all of that to heart and leaves the craft wasn’t meant for it in the first place. It IS difficult to separate oneself from the work, but a necessary exercise to let go and move on.

So, the silence in this space is unintentional. It’s not personal. I love the blog format, especially when traveling. But right now, I am focusing on the hard work of getting shit done. On doing what’s important vs. doing what’s urgent. And on not giving up.

Ever.

IMG_1821

 

Friendship, blendship

If you’re ever in a jam, here I am
If you’re ever in a mess, S.O.S.
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship

Perhaps its part of a midlife reflection but these last few months, my thoughts keep coming back to the topic of friendship.

During my trip to India, my BFF and I got on the phone and did a temperature check on our 30+ year friendship. We met back when we were 16, living in suburban New Hampshire, smoking cigarettes and being as punk as we could muster. On more than one occasion, she pulled me out of the depths of heartbreak and provided a judgement-free ear to listen and shoulder to cry on. During a senior year trip to Montreal, she saved us from a potentially hairy situation with the Mounties. When I moved 3,000 miles away, she wrote me funny, sappy cards for my birthday, and made time for me when I came back to visit. She was the best woman at my wedding. And still through the decades, I have moments when I doubt the strength and validity of our friendship. So what’s that all about?

Over time, we have all sorts of relationships and its inevitable that if you’re a seeker like me, you might occasionally reflect, compare or contrast. You may start to wonder – is it ok to have a consistent back and forth with one friend or family member, but with another, years can pass without speaking? Maybe. Is there enough give and take, sharing (aka being vulnerable) and listening (aka shutting up)? I don’t know. Is it ok to be the one primarily reaching out or asking to make plans? And if not, what can be done about it at this stage/age? I’ve had to be honest with myself about what kind of friend, wife, daughter, sister I’ve been in the past. It has been a bumpy evolution of stepping up, determining what I want from those around me, finding a willingness to ask, and then letting go. I might have another good 30-40 years here and I’ve been thinking about where I want to be spending my energy.

So, what’s a girl to do?

1. Find the why. I happen to enjoy my own company so I’d be perplexed if people were agreeing to spend time with me who didn’t feel the same. But people do! We feel guilty, or maybe we like the burden of having to tend to that one friend or family member (I mean, how many times can someone listen to ex-boyfriend or shitty work drama?) because we can pat ourselves on the back later for being a good person. Maybe we simply feel an obligation, especially when it comes to family. But trust, no one likes to be the center of a pity party. It does nothing to move the relationship forward, so if you’re guilty of doing this – or being on the receiving end – take a beat and reflect on your intention. Why continue? What are you getting out of it and giving into it?

2. Radical honesty. This is something my husband and I try to practice as often as is feasible, and something I’ve been acutely aware of most of my life as I have a poor filter between my brain and mouth. But my husband had a mini-panic attack when I said there was a kerfluffle between me and my bestie. “Do not rock the boat,” was basically his advice, because he loves me and her and us. I couldn’t just apologize for my poor behavior, though (I was passive aggressive in a text exchange,) and not address my fear about where our relationship stood. Our conversation was not fun or easy, but it was necessary to gather information and move forward.

3. Step up. I’ve taken some action lately – or more accurately, not taken any action – to set myself up for more successful relationships. After being brutally honest with a family member last month, I feel a weight has been lifted. I no longer feel the need to put energy into a relationship that isn’t rewarding. (I mean, unless I need a kidney or something and then I’ll be eating crow, as they say.) On the flip side, if I’m made aware that I haven’t been showing up and letting my loved ones know they are loved, I can decide to do more if it feels right. At the end of the day, most of us just want to be considered.

4. Know when to say no (more.) Despite our best intentions, through love and honesty and work, some relationships end. Lives split in different directions and we realize we cannot get our needs met. I had a girlfriend for many years whom I thought would be part of my life forever. We were as close as I thought we could be, and then one day in 2005, she wrote me a break-up letter. At the time, I was dumbfounded – I thought I’d been a good friend. It turns out though, that she wanted something more or different (but hadn’t let me know what, exactly, during the previous fifteen years,) so she dumped me. With love, of course. Now that I have perspective, I am grateful for the letter, that she had the courage to explain her actions – even if I was the source of her disappointment. It’s better than being ghosted.

I’m not a perfect person but I am a good person, capable of growth and change where desired. I am still learning how to be the best version of myself, and right now that means investigating my relationships – starting new ones, working on present ones, or ending those that aren’t serving me any longer.

To healthy relationships all around!

Sidenote: pity parties are, in fact, ok with me but only if I’m home alone, in my most comfy jammy bottoms, favorite tank top, massive soft wool cardigan, hours and hours of Lost and Alias episodes, and mini-peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s. THAT is an acceptable pity party.

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.