Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Great Expectations

Before I left for this trip, I had plans... big plans...like I always do. I was going to turn my blog into a travel blog. I was going to finish that memoir that I have 100 pages of! I was going to consider an MFA, maybe even apply. I was going to read all the books I have on the wish list in my head. Or wait, I was going to take little video clips and make that short documentary. And of course, I was going to stick to a regular exercise plan and maybe even learn, yoga. I was definitely going to meditate. I mean, if I don't do all these things now when I have the time, then I'll never do them, right?

Since I was a kid, I have always lived in between that half lit place of having a secret belief that I am special girl with extraordinary powers destined for great things and that half dark place that believes I am unworthy of any of it, destined to suffer great pains, pains which come with some strange sense of responsibility that I am supposed to do something with them. And I call it "that" place, because I don't think I am the only one living there. I mean, surely I was given some love for words because I am meant to write down these life stories. I am meant to pass them, maybe even help someone else going through something similar. Or am I meant to help myself make sense of all the shit that has happened? Is my interest in writing a memoir because I really feel it is an important story to share? Or because I am still trying to organize trauma? It doesn't help when the only things I've written that have been widely read capture some of those moments. Forget the penny for my thoughts, I'll take 10,000 reads on BlogHer in exchange for the most violating experience in my life. And with a blog, it makes the purpose of the writing all confusing. I think, should I now link that BlogHer post to that sentence? But for what? Do I need one more person to read that? The answer is simple: No, I don't. Do I regret it? Of course not. Am I proud of the writing? Yes. But where I am at a loss is where my stories belong. Do my travels belong on a blog or in a journal? Do they belong in a book or shared across a dinner table with a friend? Do my childhood tales of survival in a single parent home belong in a series of essays or a fictional YA novel? Does the story about how I put my best friend's brother in jail when I was 18 belong in an opinion column or shared at a women's empowerment rally? Maybe in an office with other victims of sexual assault? Or does the sudden loss of my grandparents (whom I was estranged from) three weeks after reuniting with them belong anywhere but in a conversation between my brother and I when we sneak away for coffee in one of our treasured visits? My biggest fear is that maybe they aren't meant to be anywhere. That maybe it has all just been a string of terrible random events. That maybe I am not special, just unlucky sometimes. And after some of the things I witnessed in India, I actually believe that, in fact, I am very, very blessed.

When we started out on this trip, I journaled every day and though I didn't blog very much, I was excited about it when I did. Right now, I am not writing at all. Not in journals or blogs and I'm not sure what that means or why I am writing about this here. I am taking lots of pictures, but the writing is nowhere. Like most of my plans, the motivation has slipped through my fingers and I haven't the interest or the strength to chase them. Have I truly lost interest? Has traveling been too intoxicating to focus? My New York City therapist would stop me at this point and tell me that she doesn't buy that I lost interest but that somewhere in me I might feel I don't deserve it. I don't think I have ever bought her theory and yet at the same time, there is a little piece of me that thinks about it. What is at the bottom of the belly of the beast of self-sabotage? What aids in the slow acid-filled digestion of choking one's self over and over again? Of tying one's shoelaces together time and time again so you can tell the other runners that you totally would have been there if you could have gotten those knots out. Is the writing paralysis because I don't know where my stories belong or because I don't know where I belong? And what's with this word belong that keeps coming up? Or is that word the answer: stop trying to belong and try accepting.

Last summer, while trying out a few yoga poses my friend was teaching me, she told me that yoga was not about pushing yourself, but accepting yourself where you are at in that moment in your practice. Traveling has not revealed new things to me about myself but it has helped immensely with accepting the kind of woman I am becoming. When that bullshit Hindu priest trying to sell me a spiritual package told me my mind was butterflies and that I lacked concentration, I had never heard truer words about myself, and surprisingly they didn't bother me. It was kind of a relief for someone to say that to me, no matter how much of it was a recycled line they feed to a million other tourists. And here is where I get even more confused, I tell myself that it's true, that I do lack concentration. That I never follow through with the millions of ideas that I have and then I'll suddenly come to and find myself on a bus bouncing along through Nepal, and I'll think but I'm in Nepal right now. I may not have that book finished, or figured out what to do with this blog in the future, but here I am, traveling the world just a year and a half after getting some wild thought in my head, that after I got married, this is what I really wanted to do.

This New Years, I don't have any resolutions (except maybe learning how to cook). I know myself to know that what stands in my way is not lack of interest or concentration or time, but navigating myself out of that half dark world that still has a hold on me. Somewhere in that third dimension of not failing and also not succeeding, I have built a comfortable home that keeps me unsatisfied but content, unrealized but unstuck. I have no idea what the future has in store for me, but I know that me "figuring it out" has never worked.

We have been in Nepal now for almost two weeks. The country has regulated black outs so that everyone enjoys a piece of the power grid for certain times of the day. I have gotten really good at fumbling my way through an unfamiliar space in the dark, but most of the time, I just stick my hands out in front of me and pray that I don't stub my toe. Is there anything more to it, that that?
Lumbini, Nepal (Birthplace of Lord Buddha)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ken and One Photo (BlogFestivus Day Five)

Ken came to Lumbini with the expectation of seeing the birthplace of Buddha. What he didn’t expect was to become the main attraction. A local school had decided to take their annual field trip. Most of the students were Hindu, some Buddhist, but all were curious in the scruffy Westerner at Maya Devi Temple.

After circumambulating the tree, the kids swarmed Ken who was adjusting his camera. Cell phones were drawn, nervous requests were pleaded.

One photo?!

Photo, please?!


One photo turned into several photos. A young boy stood on the edge of the pictures, wanting to join the group, but not knowing how to belong. When he tried to talk to Ken, his voice was quickly drowned out.

Later, Ken took the long way to the snack stand and found himself standing next to the quiet boy.


The boy held out his hand and they shook.

As an offer of friendship, Ken bought the young man a juice. He waved goodbye and headed off when he soon felt a tug on his sleeve.

The young boy placed a picture of Buddha in Ken’s hand.

One photo? Ken asked.

The young boy nodded and smiled for the camera.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sandra and The Tigers (BlogFestivus Day Four)

When she came to Bandhavgarh, Sandra promised herself she would only splurge on one safari for Christmas. When she didn’t see tigers, she called it a nice drive through the jungle. 

While in town, she spotted two young men, brothers, Westerners.

They excitedly ran up Sandra, one barefoot, the other smoking.

Hey! We’ve been trying to find someone to split a safari with, but the cost is still high. Any interest in splitting?

Sandra thought about it.

We just got word that there’s a fresh kill, a few of them have gathered at!

This was not part of “the plan.” She could miss her train. It could throw off everything! But weren’t these the kind of experiences she was looking for? Wasn’t she looking to be more trusting in the universe? Less controlling about her future? Spontaneous?

Okay, Sandra agreed.

Within an hour they were deep in the jungle. Suddenly, they heard it: the monkey’s call.

The driver raced to a brush with paw prints leading into tall white grass.

Tiger, he whispered. The three went silent, nothing but the sound of beating hearts as they waited for a tiger, and for one safari, Sandra forgot all about “the plan.” 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lydia and Marcus and The Buddhist Monk (BlogFestivus Day 3)

When Lydia and Marcus set out for their 2013 trip, they didn’t think about the holidays they’d miss. So when they found themselves in a community of Buddhist Tibetan refugees for Christmas, they scoured the town for anything with nutmeg. When alas! A sign:

Pumpkin pie

As they stood in line at the coffee shop, they eyed the last piece of plated pumpkin pie disappear into the hands of the Buddhist monk in front of them.

Our pie, Lydia whimpered.

The monk turned. Come sit!

The weary travelers joined the monk. As they drooled over the pie, the monk spoke in broken English asking them about their travels while sharing his own.

One month it took, he said. But in snow, feels like five! He laughed while recalling his escape from Tibet over the Himalaya into India.

But! He smiled, wiggling his ten fingers.

Marcus understood. You kept all your fingers.

The monk nodded.

And your toes? Lydia asked. Any frostbite on your toes?

He grinned. Yes.

The monk pushed the pie in front of them. But here, I have pie.

Lydia and Marcus took a bite of pie and together the three enjoyed the peace of the present moment. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

BlogFestivus Day Two: Daniel and Mami

Daniel made a third attempt to clear a plate and for the third time, Mami stopped him.

Leave, leave. In our culture, the guest is God. Mami said.

When he set out for a year abroad in Asia, his buddy, Ramdas, had offered him a respite from travel with a stay with his relatives in India whenever he needed it. Daniel had expected all the challenges that come with travel. What he hadn’t anticipated was the loneliness he would feel come Christmas.

I don’t even get this treatment from my own family! He chuckled. Ramdas’s mother laughed before picking up the plate and disappearing into the kitchen again, leaving him once more with Mami.

We are all family. All the same, she said. Roti, Kapda, Makan.

Roti…food? He guessed.

She nodded. Food, Clothing, Shelter - what we are all chasing behind.

He sipped his chai. And family?

It is as it has always been. We have known each other before. That is why you came here to visit. Mami said.

And with that Daniel felt the weight of his isolation lift, disappearing into the full moon night he was sharing with his entire family, past and present, bodies and souls. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Ingrid and The Hindu: BlogFestivus 2013 - Day One!

It's the return of Blogdramedy's annual BlogFestivus! This year's Holiday writing challenge is based on Dickens's classic, A Christmas Carol. Five days, five characters (Scrooge, the Three Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, Future, and Tiny Tim), 200 words each and the stories have to be in 2013. Every year, this writing challenge spreads wonderful and wicked holiday cheer created by several talented bloggers (which you can find here).

(To check out my previous BlogFestivus stories you can find The Twelve Days of Christmas HERE and Nine Reindeer and the Pursuit of Redemption HERE!)

And with that I give you Day One....Ingrid and The Hindu

It had been nine weeks and two rounds of antibiotics since Ingrid had left for India. Her soles were wearing thin, her patience thinner. She had had enough of traveling, enough of haggling, but most of all, she had had enough of saying the words, “thank you” directly following the word “No.” For weeks she had kept her composure with the touts, the shopkeepers, and the rickshaw drivers.

Rickshaw, madam?

No, thank you.

Come look my shop!

No, thank you.


No, thank you.

Hello! Excuse me, miss!

No, thank you!

Her bag was heavy, her heart hard. She counted the days until boarding a flight to Bali: three. If she could just make it two more nights in Deli without exploding-

Hello, ma’am.

NO!!! Ingrid screamed. As she turned around an elderly man with an orange tika and a confused smile shook his head from side to side. He pulled from a paper bag a handful of roasted peanuts and dropped them in her hand.

For a happy Christmas…ma’am.
Ingrid let the heat from the peanuts warm her hand and felt a tiny frog creep into her throat.

And a happy new year to you, she said. Happy 2014.

Friday, November 29, 2013

20 Things I Took For Granted Until Traveling

Delhi Airport, India
1. Being able to wet my toothbrush under the tap water pouring from the faucet

2. Football season and buffalo wings, even the shitty ones (both included)

3. Emails. I hit a point with emails where I got very lazy with them. Where I used to immediately write people back and write long, long notes, I ended up getting lazy, probably because my attention span got shorter. I am not great with responding right away now, mainly because we don't always have a wifi signal. But getting an email now is such a treat and now I try to take my time writing people back. Emails are like old school letters all over again and I realize how amazing an email is. I can send a message to space and have it land in front of you, no matter where you are in the world, in seconds.

4. Exercise. You can't run in hiking boots without destroying your feet. And as much as I have tried to keep up with some lunges, push ups, and planks, it is hard to get down on the ground in places where the ground ain't so clean and when you are constantly on the move. I have lost weight since being on this trip but I have lost muscle mass in a way that feels gross. I look so forward to taking advantage of my old park run and my old YMCA gym membership when I get back.

5. Gingerale - this one is all Mike.
Stray dog, Darjeeling, India

6. America - For as much as democracy is broken in America and my country has embarrassed herself with the recent government shutdown and blah, blah, blah...I appreciate and respect my country more now than ever before. We have clean water, waste management, electricity, and an infrastructure that takes care of those less fortunate if they so seek help.

7. Women's Rights in the Western World. In 2012, over 600 rapes were reported in Delhi and only one resulted in a conviction. I have never felt more uncomfortable, even threatened, and or felt my general "femaleness" as I have in certain parts of India, Morocco, and even Turkey. On several occasions I have read through an Indian newspaper and had my mind blown with stories about the country's refusal to ban child brides, by the still accepted practice of bride burning, and even a complicated manipulative story of a premeditated rape that involved a 16 year old girl's parents delivering her to the man who violated her. While violent crimes against women happen in every town, city, and country, in the US, I won't get killed if I try to do something about it and I can expect a certain level of justice to take place.

8. Fixed prices. Something I learned about myself: I hate haggling.

9. Decent Public restrooms with toilet paper and soap- On this trip I have been faced a couple times with the possibility of either shitting my pants or using a public restroom in certain countries, or hell, even a toilet on the train and I have chosen to risk the former than bear the latter. We both keep a roll of toilet paper on us at all times, because 9 times out of 10, if you do find a place where you absolutely have to go, it will not have toilet paper.

10. Food sanitation laws - Walk through the Fez Medina where on any given day you will see a butchered camel's head hanging next to its testicles hanging next to a skinned goat's carcass covered in flies and you will appreciate all those shiny packaged wrap cutlets and chops you buy in the States, organic or not.
Chicken Feet & Chicken

11. Wifi and Google- When we find a strong wifi signal we both breathe deep sighs of relief and thank the Google gods for their brilliant search engine powers that bring us imperative information no matter where in the world we are...except maybe China...so I'll let you know how that goes.

12. A long hot shower

13. The American dollar - While in NYC, I feel I never have enough of it, when I can buy a three course meal in India for under $2, I feel grateful for my country's "fragile" economy.

14. Peanut butter - When Mike and I find a jar of Skippy Super Chunk, it's like finding the Holy Grail of American comfort food. We have carried a jar on us except for three barren weeks in Morocco and it has gotten us through 12 hour train rides, overnight airport slumber parties, and general stomach bugs when a scoop of peanut butter is just about the only thing that does not go right through us.

15. Spayed & neutered dogs & cats - Mike says that in America we can all thank Bob Barker for this. I've never seen so many strays in my life and some of the dogs I have seen have needed so badly to be put down, you kind of hope they do get hit by a car just to put them out of their insanely inhumane living and obvious misery. The stray dogs have been heartbreaking and even some of the cats (which I generally dislike), I have felt a genuine concern for.

16. Salads

17. Polyester - When you are allergic to wool and freezing your ass off, nothing feel as cozy as layering yourself in as much synthetic fabric as possible.

18. My freedom to wear as little clothes as I want in America - and nothing will make you appreciate this until, as a woman, you have to cover most of your skin, even your head, in 90 degrees weather.

19. Tampons and the Diva Cup - Both impossible to find in certain countries, but thankfully having one or the other has saved me from many an uncomfortable all day bus or train ride.

20. My inherent privilege - a thing I never acknowledged before, but feel everyday I get to spend one more morning in a new place in a different part of the world meeting people from worlds I would otherwise never get to and feeling that gratitude and growth that comes with every moment on this journey.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Darling Darjeeling

Toy Train, Darjeeling, India

Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center, Darjeeling, India
Prayer Wheels at Bhutia Busty Gompa Monastery, Darjeeling
For all those who read my last post, thank you. And, good news…I found an India that I love – Buddhist Himalaya India. We arrived in Darjeeling on an overnight train from Kolkata. I was hacking up a lung and Mike was covered in probably a hundred red swollen bites from the bed bug attack at our last hotel. We took a shared jeep up to Darjeeling, about 3.5 hours and finally got to our hotel, the wonderful Hotel Seven Seventeen. We were warmly greeted and showed a gorgeous room with big windows ushering in rays from a gorgeous sunset and boasting one hell of a view of the mountains surrounding this little hill station town. The bed was big, the room was cozy, and the shower had hot, hot water. We stayed a whole week here trying to take it easy and get well, but the unexpected happened – we were totally exhilarated all over again with that excitement of exploring a new place. We totally immersed ourselves in the town and loved every second of it. We visited a tea estate where we learned about the process of making tea, from the ladies who pluck the leaves to the silk tea bags filled with second flush tea leaves we bought after the factory tour. We visited the Himalayan Zoo where we saw two Bengal tigers, four different kinds of leopards, red pandas and gorgeous birds we would never otherwise see. The zoo is built into the mountain trying to give the animals a piece of their natural habitat. But they also try to breed and reintroduce the animals that are endangered back into the wild, especially the red pandas and the leopards. It was the kind of zoo you felt good about visiting. We went to the Himalayan Mountaineering School and saw the equipment and impressive photos of the men and women who paved the way for trekking Mount Everest. We visited the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center housing Tibetan refugees since the 1950s, providing them a safe place to continue to make a living through traditional Tibetan handcrafts, as well preserving Tibetan culture and educating and caring for their children. We found a local tea house we enjoyed the sunset in most afternoons, and our favorite
Me and Thudken
bakery, and even a pub where we made fast friends with the bartender, Pulan, a fascinating musician and die hard Beatles fan. We met a German and Swiss couple and had a great night swapping travel tips and stories as we each were passing each other onto our next destinations – them further into India and us further North, eventually into Nepal. We rode the toy train along the mountain edge and got lost in the tiny neighborhoods built into the slope of the mountain. We visited monasteries and temples and we met a young Monk, Thudken, who proudly took us through his monastery under construction and invited us to stay for butter tea and biscuits. Our experience in Darjeeling was a complete about face to the chaos we were trying to wade through in the busy city parts of India and it quickly has become one of our favorite places along this entire journey. And the journey continues to get sweeter, the beauty more profound, the experience more rich.

The Golden Temple and Pool of Nectar, Amritsar, India
After Darjeeling, we took a 24 hour day of travel to visit The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India and though we were thrown back into the chaos of busy, rickshaw crazy India, The Golden Temple again became another favorite experience. What’s going on there is indeed very special, and very welcoming. I think the India I was hoping to find was all happening at The Golden Temple and it has become my favorite sight to experience in this country so far. After having made genuine connections with Tibetan Buddhists and Tibetan Indians and travelers in Darjeeling, we had genuine conversations with a few Sikhs at The Golden Temple and continue to make genuine connections on our current stop – McLeod Ganj, where we have found a beautiful melting pot of cultures, religions, and community. Yesterday, we volunteered at an English Conversation Class with Tibetan Refugees and both felt completely rejuvenated. The topic was on discrimination and stereotypes and Mike and both got more out of the conversation than we could have ever imagined. It was uplifting to make new friends, have meaningful conversations, share ideas and laugh! At the end of the class, after 8 students had to stand up and make presentations, they asked the new volunteers –me and Mike –to stand. I think to unite us all in the courage it takes to stand in front of a group, the class leader said that the students love American music and they asked if we could sing something. We immediately both turned beet red but knew we had to do it. We decided on a duet and busted out with Stand By Me…and we rocked it. We sat down to cheers and thank yous, and a compliment by the teacher saying it was the best duet they ever had. I think we were just more shocked that we actually got up and sang in front of a room full of strangers.

Us at Observation Hill, Darjeeling, India
India is teaching me and much like any lesson learned, it’s not always easy. But the layers of this country and her people continue to awe and inspire, frustrate and exhilarate, conflict and uplift at every turn and for that I am both humbled and filled with gratitude.

*If you go to Darjeeling, be sure to visit the following:
Joey’s Pub – opens at 6p.m. and closes at 10p.m. Cozy pub run by a great family. Good music, cards, and the awesome conversation.
Glennary’s – try the banana walnut cake!
The Sunset Lounge at Nathmull’s – nice family run business, great tea, wonderful views, & wifi!

The Happy Valley Tea Estate – go in the morning, but know that the estate shuts down
Mike at Joey's Pub
at the end of November for winter.

The Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center is difficult to find, but worth the adventure.
Go to the zoo around noon. Feeding time is around 1:00 and if your lucky you will see the tigers active and also hear some of their guttural groans as they wait to be fed.

And instead of doing a joy ride on the toy train, just take the passenger steam train to Ghum – it’s the same train and a fraction of the price  - and explore the monasteries at Ghum on your trek back to Darjeeling. It’s a healthy walk back, but totally worth it. 
We can’t recommend Hotel Seven Seventeen highly enough. Very friendly people and we even were invited to tea with the owners who brought us up to their residence at the top of the hotel. They also have a fantastic kitchen – try the veggie momos and wanton soup!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Breaking India

Sunrise over the Ganges
The Residency, Lucknow, India
When I started writing this post it was 3:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday in Jaipur, India. Before we left for India, we had no intentions of seeing anything in Rajasthan, but a couple of bad choices met with sold out trains and we found ourselves making a loop in the center of the country. It’s no surprise I’m now fighting a chest infection and it’s hard to say if it is another stomach bug or just your average traveler’s diarrhea. Mike braved the post office alone leaving me to one of the few moments where I have been all by myself for a considerable amount of time since this trip began. The hum of the neon light above and the fan drying our laundry hanging from a rope that Mike strung up across our small hotel room and me facing a mirror that had been installed crooked, incorrectly…that was what Wednesday, November 13th looked like in Jaipur, India.

The day before, after saying “No thank you” or ignoring every tout and shop owner and rickshaw driver lining the pink city, offering something for sale, a man came up to Mike and asked if he could ask him one question.

“You are American, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mike said.
“How come Americans have such problems with their egos?”

Kandariya-Mahadev and Devi Jagadamba Temples, Khajuraho

High Tea at the Imperial, Delhi
At this point, I could no longer contain myself. Neither one of us could, and we both erupted with anger in our voice to answer such a confrontational question. Since arriving in India, it is as if we stepped into the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland’s world. The Instagram photos catch the highs, but who wants to document the lows or the constant friction between the two? I have been trying to photograph the lows as a sort of a funny reminder when things go south, but usually in those moments we are just trying to get through it. In truth, the traveling in India has been hard, the trains have been booked, the budget travel fraught with all the creepy crawler nightmare stories one might expect, the touts and commission agents aggressively nonstop, and our white faces more exposed than ever and now photographed with more strangers than we ever imagined. (People think Mike and I are brother and sister and want pictures with white people). But the hardest thing of all has been to rectify my complete disillusionment with the idea I had of India. I think like most westerners, I romanticized the great exotic east and expected something of India. I expected her to give me something even under the auspices of possibly volunteering and being of service and being "giving." I know now that I expected something. Maybe a spiritual experience, perhaps some moving confrontation with a world so completely different from mine that I would figure out exactly what it is I want to do with my life and all the cobwebs of my over-privileged, over-democratic, over-choice filled world would magically be swept away and I would finally have some sort of clarity with what my next step is to be. I thought India would give me breathtaking beauty and unparalleled compassion, genuine connections with people different than me, and motivation to make a change. What change I think I need, I’m not even sure. But some sort of improvement. Like maybe I would come back from India and finally like yoga and become a vegetarian again and drink loose leaf tea and meet daily stresses with closing my eyes, taking ten deep breaths, and opening them back up with a smile and a Namaste!
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Our bathroom in Lucknow

As of Wednesday, the only thing India had given me was a chest cold, traveler’s diarrhea, and a hardened edge when walking around the streets here and as of today, Friday, Mike has been thrown a curve ball or sixty. But the reality of our experience here has stripped me of any idealized image I had of this country and on Wednesday it brought me to my knees in a shitty hotel room where the only thing I wanted to do was watch the rest of Breaking Bad and conserve my water bottle so I didn’t have to step outside to get another one and tell the three rickshaw drivers parked outside of the hotel (one that followed us here from the train station) that I am not interested, really, no thank you, please, I’m not going anywhere.
Morning Dip, Ghats, Varanasi, Ganges River
I jokingly told Mike the other day that I felt like everything I had ever been told about India was a lie. And then I realized that they weren’t lies. They were true, just as my experience so far has been true. But what I single-mindedly neglected to see was just how many different Indias there are. Just like the many different Americas there are, India is just as layered. There is Black America, and White America, and Immigrant America, and Women America. There is Manhattan America, and Deep South America, and New Mexico Indian Reservation America, and Chicano Los Angelino America, and Hazlet, New Jersey America. I don’t know what the different Indias are, but I know that I’m experiencing White Woman Budget Travel India and I expected Exotic Spiritually Inspiring Loving India. I am sure there is a crossroads between the two somewhere, but so far, between Jaipur and Varanasi I have not found it. We arrived in Kolkata yesterday and both quickly decided it has been our favorite place so far in India, a big surprise since I expected Kolkata to be the Born Into Brothels Documentary India that I remember so vividly. Instead we have been greeted with a more laid back city, delicious Bengali food, an easier more colorful travel experience complete with visits to one of India's holiest temples, a blessing, a visit to the British imposed Queen Victoria Memorial, markets and music...and just as we got ready for dinner tonight, I noticed a couple bug bites on Mike's arm. He said his shoulder had been itching earlier, an assumption that the damn mosquito that was in the room had got him. But when he took his shirt off, we saw that he was covered in bug bites and my greatest New York City fear came to light: we got bed bugs.

A friend of mine wrote me and said that she had friends who described India as "sharply contrasting spiritual highs and wretched lows all bumping up together in the density of humanity." And indeed, this description is exactly the experience we are in the middle of. Just about to lose my mind on a rickshaw driver we turned down who followed us to our hotel, I walked past a group of potted plants with a sign that read "stay well planted," and I was reminded to be just that and let it go, find compassion. Just when I find myself having a pretty cool experience at a temple where we received a blessing by a priest and Mike and I excitedly talked about our future post-trip, an hour later I found myself sternly telling a young beggar girl carrying a baby who was physically not letting me pass her, "NO!" I felt myself sink with shame just hours after being completely uplifted. My "no" came from complete instinct and also a little knowledge. I have read about the kids in this area (Mother Teresa's house) who make such a killing from begging that they turn down offers to go to school.  But still, she was a kid, probably doing what is asked of her by her family. The density of humanity, indeed. The bumping up, the friction, moment to moment. The swimming in my own skin in a body unfamiliar...

...and yet, if I really look at what I thought India would give me, it kind of has, just not in the lotus-flowered delivery I thought it would, but more in the cockroach infested anxiety provoking bed bug nightmare realized push that I probably needed. As of the last three weeks, I am a vegetarian again, mainly because I realized I kept getting sick whenever I ate meat, but now more from what I am seeing. At the markets, the live chickens are silent in their coups, as chicken feet rest on the tops of their cages. Mike pointed this out to me after reading White Tiger, and the living image is everywhere. The smell of blood, the power of fear, keeping control. When we order dinner, I can't bring myself to order the chicken curry. Because of my stomach issues, I have moved away from coffee, and yup, you guessed it, I’m ordering things like ginger tea and planning a trip to Darjeeling to visit a tea plantation. I've seen breathtaking beauty (The Taj Mahal) and felt compassion (at the Kalighat Temple) and while I have made a few genuine connections with the people here, I have also gained friends, traveler friends, with whom I’ve had fun train rides with and toured the Ganges River with, and laughed through a jeep safari with as we searched for tigers, and most of them happen to be women around my age, a refreshing and sometimes encouraging experience. I have deepened my own sense of gratitude for my upbringing and my family, my friends, my traditions, and my country. I have been forced to reckon that, although I have this tough chip on my shoulder that my single-parent home living in a one-bedroom apartment struggled immensely while trying just to stay afloat while growing up, that still, my life is and always has been a privileged one.  As for the cobwebs, a few of them are clearing a way, but not until I confronted possibly letting go of other dreams that like India, I have idealized and romanticized for far too long. There comes a time, when we can no longer outrun the narrative we promised we would actualize when we were teenagers. There comes a time when we are left with nothing but our own reflection to finally see that the mirror has been installed incorrectly.
Gandhi Smriti, New Delhi
After giving our honest answers on why that Indian man must perceive Americans as being egotistical, he asked us if we would have a cup of Chai tea with him. All of us had been caught off guard by the blunt honesty a question probably meant to lead to a sell, had provoked. We happily agreed to tea, eager to continue the honest conversation with someone from India. We followed him down a side street to a worker man’s area where only men sat around drinking Chai under a blue tarp. Seeing us coming, two Indian men cleared off the only bench left in order for us foreigners to sit down. I stood for the first few minutes and finally took a seat realizing it was rude not to at this point. We talked about our respective countries and he said that India is changing, becoming more modern. I asked him if that was a good thing and he said, “No…India is losing her spirit.” He went on to say though, that in India all things are possible, whereas in America they are not. He believed that Americans were incapable of finding satisfaction, perhaps another way of saying America has lost her spirit. And after asking us why we come to India, perhaps suggesting, that is why Americans come to India – to find spirit.

We never ordered chai, and an associate of his asked him to come with him for a moment. He deserted us and after waiting a couple minutes, we deserted him. An hour later, we found ourselves walking in a parade with marigolds being thrown out of a van to pave the streets before a float carrying a god traversed it. Ornately decorated horses and a regal camel and an elephant draped in red velvet led the parade. Men sang in Hindi and a marching band banged on drums.  A sword spinner dazzled a crowd and not far from there, another man tossed out candy to a gaggle of children jumping to try to reach his hands held high above his head. We stood there taking pictures and waving at children excited to say, “Halloo!” We took pictures of them while they took pictures of us.  Mike and I moved along, opting to walk home instead of another rickshaw. It felt good to use our legs and our instincts in a country that so completely can take them out from under you. When we approached our hotel by foot at the twilight hour, none of the rickshaw drivers said a word.

Now, we are in a new room at or hotel in Kolkata, and tomorrow we will make the overnight train trip up to Darjeeling to see what the north of India has in store. For now, we are trying to take care, me nursing my cough and Mike covered in cortizone cream. We are in another hotel room with our laundry strung above us, a fan gently swaying the room, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation on the television, staying well planted. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Budapest…you mean, BudaBEST!

Rewind back to August...After there was Vienna, there was Budapest. (trying to catch up on posts!) 

Buda Castle, Budapest, Hungary
Budapest has been one of the big surprises on this trip. This was a city on Mike’s list and a city I knew almost nothing about. My love for Budapest was definitely not at first sight. With the remaining hour left on the train from Vienna to Budapest, a young man who appeared to be homeless, sat next to me and nervously wrapped his knuckles on the table in front of both of us. He spoke softly to himself and then would have sudden loud gasps and get up from the seat only to slam his body back down in it, moments later. Being a seasoned subway commuter from Brooklyn to Manhattan twice a day for a few years, I have shared many a seat with men and women just like this, most times worse. Normally I feel empathy rather than fear. But, this one got to me, probably because I felt trapped. If a mentally ill person on the F train is making me nervous, I can remove myself from the situation. But in a train passing between Austria and Hungary with assigned seating and overheated passengers vying for any seat that opens up, I couldn’t just switch cars, but I also couldn’t understand what was making him shake the table in front of us. Despite his appearance, his paranoia seemed legit.  I finally put together that he was anxious about the train conductor. I don't know if the man was homeless, or mentally ill or on drugs, but I do know that he was a train hopper...and he didn't get caught. 

Chillin at the Chain Bridge,
Budapest, Hungary
When we got to Hungary, not the first or last country we would try to navigate via screen shots instead of a SIM card with gps access, we hiked 45 minutes with packs on in the blazing heat to our destination only to find we did not have an actual address. We also didn’t have a phone that worked in Europe and the one payphone we found had the wires cut and I am certain contained the flesh-eating bacteria on its handle. The heat, the hunger, the exhaustion, the intense end to a four hour train ride, all seemed to hit us at once and it happened: Mike and I turned on each other. 

We went into bakeries, restaurants, asked security guards and people who seemed like locals, and no one could tell us anymore about the strange ABSENT address on our itinerary. The zip codes in Budapest our four numbers, while the addresses are two numbers. We had a zip code but no address, a screen shot but no gps, each other but no more fucking patience. I think it was right after we tried to make a collect call on a haphazard payphone that we exploded into the “YOUs” speak. You did this! You didn’t do this! (You know this fight. Every couple does.) An older man with a red bulbous nose and a long white ponytail, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a fedora, passed by and Mike broke away from our argument to ask him for help. His name was Peter, like the Apostle, and at that moment, he was our savior, too. 

View of Pest from Buda
He looked at the phone number we had and whipped out his cell phone. He spoke to our airbnb host in Hungarian and walked us directly across the street. A young kid was waiting for us and had missed us walking up and down the street the last hour. Peter told us he just became a grandfather that day. He asked me if I had any single girlfriends that want to visit Hungary and then he shook our hands and left. We entered our Budapest home and went to our separate corners. We showered in silence, drank water, and finally broke the ice…which led to the giggles…which led to a fresh start. The stay in Budapest could only go up from there, and it did. 
Holocaust Memorial, Budapest

We had seen enough castles and cathedrals by the time we hit Budapest, that we felt no obligation to do anything, which allowed us to slip into the rhythm of the city. We found a great little spot along the river just beneath the Chain Bridge where we took in the view of the Castle. We explored our neighborhood and found the coolest bar I’ve ever been into. We were staying in the old Jewish quarter of Budapest that was abandoned for years after the war until a few years ago, when artists started inhabiting the buildings and turning ruins into bars and a depressed neighborhood into art. The bars in Budapest are not like the bars anywhere else. They aren't so much watering holes as they are a creative and inspired place to meet up with friends and enjoy the artistic space. There is natural sunlight, open roofs, circles of music, funky decorating with old cars for seats and skis as hardwood floors. The neighborhood had wounds but it was full of life and the people were among some of the friendliest in Eastern Europe. We went to the Synagogue and walked outside in the gardens where there is a holocaust memorial. Over 2,000 bodies were buried in a plot of land no bigger than a backyard in an American suburban home. The names, the stones, the roses…there was a profound sadness that radiates when walking through the memorial. Whereas the memorial in Berlin felt fearful, suffocating and imposing, the one in Hungary felt haunting. 

St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest, Hungary
We visited St. Stephen’s Basilica and walked to Buda castle but skipped the tour inside. At night, we stumbled upon a live band performing underneath the Chain Bridge. We took our shoes off and swung our legs over the edge of the wall of the river and enjoyed the view. The next day we spent hours at the thermal baths and took turns shuffling between the pools, the saunas, the outdoor pool, and the thermal pools inside again until we felt relaxed and ready four our 24 hours of travel ahead of us. We picked up our bags and took a subway, a bus, a shuttle, two planes, the craziest bus ride ever, a ferry, and a subway before we landed in Istanbul the next day. But Budapest remains one of the highlights. 
Us, Budapest

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Twenty Travel Observations I Know To Be True...So Far

Me in Erg Chebbi, Morocco

1. Beats By Dre is Everywhere.

(As seen on the streets in the Fez Medina, Istanbul Turkey, and all of Europe)

2. Messi is the most famous athlete in the world.

(As seen by the overwhelming majority of jerseys sporting his name, even in the depths of the Erg Chebbi desert...there is Messi on a ten year old's back.)

3. Pepto Bismol ain't got shit on a Moroccan stomach bug.

(As seen by me and heard by many.)

4. As Americans, we need to stop pointing at people when we talk or to illustrate a point.

(As seen by me watching Mike try to communicate something with a desert nomad by using the Robert DeNiro "I'm watching you, Focker" gesture and judging said nomad's reaction.)

Erin, Jeff & Mike in Kas, Turkey

5. Italian American Jersey hand gestures are not universal.

(See number four.)

6. If you wake up to a sheep bleating outside your hotel window while tied to a short rope on the roof of the riad next door, there's no use in complaining. It will be slaughtered on said roof two days later.

(As seen by Mike and me, today.)

7. Western girls either don't care or don't know about respecting Muslim culture.

(As seen by me, mouth agape, at the number of Western women strolling through the Fez and Marrakech medinas in spaghetti string tank tops and short shorts. I'm just saying, a little more fabric wouldn't hurt.)


8. Outside of America, a handshake is not a pleasantry, but an agreement you are now in business with someone. Dole out with caution.

(As seen by me watching Mike fend off several touts after opening business agreements.)

9. No one will be more interesting dinner companions than two US diplomats who have lived throughout Saudi Arabia, Baghdad, the Ukraine, Southern Sudan, Egypt, Columbia, Russia, Tunisia and Morocco over the past nine years.

(As experienced by Mike and me as we picked up our blown minds from the paper table setting at a street-meat stand in Djeema el-Fna.)

10. The best way to cure a nail biting habit is to go traveling. You will easily suppress the urge to put your fingers anywhere near your mouth.

(As experienced by me leaving tap and bucket squat toilets in Turkey and Morocco.)

11. Meeting up with friends from home while on the road is like ten Christmas mornings wrapped into one.

(As experienced by Mike and me in Germany, Prague, Turkey and Morocco.)

Me, Mike, & Danielle in Berlin

12. Outside of America, everyone speaks at least two languages, sometimes as many as six or eight.

(As experienced by Mike and me in the Erg Chebbi desert when the Berber hotel manager could speak to us in fluent Spanish, but also spoke Berber, Arabic, French, English, a little German, Italian, and Japanese. Did I mention earlier he was a nomad that grew up in the Sahara desert? We have no excuse, Americans.)

13. While posting pictures of European cathedrals, and balloon rides in Turkey, and camel treks in Morocco, a good ol' Instagram pic of a couple friends kicking back in a canoe, your canoe to be exact, soaking in fall colors in Vermont Columbus Day Weekend will still drive you mad with jealousy and make you ache for home, no matter how grateful and cool your experiences of the day are...or are not once you realize that hacking sound outside is an elderly woman cleaving open a sheep's skull.

(As experienced by me in Marrakech.)

14. Going to the post office in a country not your own, can be a totally entertaining and thrilling activity for the day.

(As experienced by Mike and me in Prague, Turkey, Spain, and Morocco.)

15. A smile goes further than a frown and a Maybe Later goes further than a No.

(As experienced by Mike and me in Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain and Morocco, but not put completely into action until Marrakech, Morocco.)

16. The further you travel from home, the more you will appreciate it.

(No brainer, here.)

Artist, Seville, Spain

17. The best food in the world is in Italy. Sorry, France.

(As experienced by Mike and me in Italy. I don't need to try any other food, to prove this. It's just the way it is.)

18. Germans really do make the best cars.

(As proven by Mercedes Benz being the official car of grand taxis that take you through the Rif mountains or barren desert in Morocco.)

19. A bag of laundry detergent and a sink plug are no match for a washing machine.

(As proven by Mike and I trying our best not to be disgusting as we rotate the same outfits every three days.)

20. There is no "best age" to travel, no golden window in life that closes once you hit another one of life's milestones. As Americans, for the most part, the world is an open door and the invitation is always there. The offer never expires. And any amount of time spent traveling is a good way to experience life - the good, the bad, the strange, the beautiful, the fear, the courage, the growth, the gratitude. It all counts, even listening to your neighbor cleave a sheep's skull or bursting into laughter as you hand off the toilet paper to each other while taking turns running to the bathroom or using charades as a way to purchase pro-biotics and deodorant or figuring out another country's more efficient public transportation system or accepting an offer to join strangers for dinner. Every moment counts and most often times the best ones are not found at the landmarks and sights, but in the coffehouses and souqs, the street stalls and off-road tea stands, the barber shop and bathroom, the alleyway soccer game and desert night sky, a card game with friends on holiday and in asking to take a picture of someone rather than just taking it. The beauty is in the exchange, the experience in the push and pull of trusting instincts and trusting the universe, the excitement in never getting to know the outcome.

(As seen by me.)

Mike, Ali (The Desert Nomad) and Me, Erg Chebbi, Morocco


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

You've Been Moroccoed

Riad Idrissy, Fez, Morocco
The Tanneries, Fez, Morocco
A week ago, we said our farewells to Europe and set out for Africa. After Granada and Cordoba, we headed to Seville which was a perfect balance of culture and chores. We went on an awesome walking tour through the Juderia, saw the Cathedral (the world's largest) and ate tortilla de papas. I also got a haircut (Mike got one in Cordoba) and we stocked up on probiotics and dry shampoo from Lush. We took a bus from Seville (Departing Prado de San Sebastián) to Tarifa. Mike and I have been trying different bus seats after accidentally putting ourselves next to a toilet on the bus trip to Granada. For this one, we chose front row seats which ended up also being front row seats to an intimate concert starring our bus driver singing along to his favorite American pop songs from the summer of 2012. Still, it was better than the poop deck seats, and even bad music from home is still comforting.
Fez, Morocco
We ended up in Tarifa around 1:00 and headed to the port to pick up our tickets for the ferry. With time to kill, we parked ourselves in our last little tapas restaurant and ordered fried fish and papas bravas and dos cervezas, before we headed to a dry country. We read up on Morocco, but also knew there was no real preparing oneself for Morocco.                                                                                                                                    We took the 5:00p.m. ferry from Tarifa to Tangier and got our passports stamped on the boat. When we arrived in Tangier, I covered myself up with a scarf (at least the décolletage) and we set out. To be honest, I expected more touts than there were. I expected a flurry of touts! We still got a few very persistent ones and even well outside the port, on the street walking to our hotel, we got a tout who was not only persistent but angry when we said "No Thank You" in Arabic. Everything you read in the guidebooks is true. They will try to ask where you are staying. They will say your hotel is closed. They will tell you that you don't know what "no thank you" means. But you kind of just have to brush it off and keep moving. No handshakes, just a smile and persistent firm, NO.
Butcher, Fez Medina, Morocco
                                                                  We checked in to our hotel in Tangier and I noticed when I asked a question, the answer was directed at Mike. I remembered my friend V telling me about her experience in Morocco, and so I went with it. It has not been like that everywhere, but in the busy cities, I've tried to be more respectful of the way things are here.
Erg Chebbi, Morocco
Fez Medina, Morocco
It didn't take long before we got slightly ripped off. We tried to get a SIM card for our phone which in the guidebooks says is 20dh. We got that SIM card and through French and English and sign language we upped what we thought to be our data plan. But in the end we paid 50dh for a SIM card that can send texts but doesn't get internet. Since we don't have any Moroccan friends, the text messages have largely gone unused but come in handy when contacting hotels.
Tangier left much to be desired. But our hotel staff was very friendly and clearly used to Western tourists breezing through. I kind of felt bad when we asked when the train to Fez was and the hotel manager suggested we take a later morning train otherwise we wouldn't see much in Tangier. We did not make it to the medina in Tangier or where Paul Bowles used to hang. But we left Tangier on a good note with a fun petite taxi driver who took us to the train station after we realized our clocks had not set to the proper time because the day before Morocco decided they were not going to do daylight savings.
At the train station, we caught a train to Fez and enjoyed a nice cabin and met a young Australian couple and later an older American couple. I have so loved meeting people along the way and swapping experiences and tips. There is no best time in life to travel. Every age is a good age to travel.
A few stops from Fez we were joined by a very friendly Arabic man who was very charming. He got the cabin chatting and before long asked where we were staying. Red flags went up and I said we were meeting friends. Sure enough, he ended up trying to see if we would be interested in an official guide, a cousin of his. He could even meet us at our hotel. The older couple and the two of us said we were not interested and we sat in silence until the next stop. This was a perfect introduction to Fez. We had booked a driver to meet us at the train station to take us to our Riad in the medina which has been the smartest thing we have done all trip. The driver took us to the gates of the medina where another man took our bags in a wheelbarrow and we braved the medina maze. We would have never found our Riad which was a true oasis. (Riad Idrissy) We met up with our friends and the next few days were a blast! Our friends had just come from Chefchaouen where they met a grad student abroad here who introduced them to the phrase "You've been Moroccoed." She learned this phrase when buying alcohol for a party (no easy task here) and putting it in the freezer to chill. But everything froze because they water down the alcohol here. That's when she first heard, "You've been Morrocoed."

What the Doctor Ordered
Two days into Fez, my stomach had been Moroccoed, as well as Mike's and eventually one of our friends, even after we parted ways. We spent one whole day hanging out in the Riad playing cards and laughing. But not to worry, we also got out and saw the tanneries, went through the food souqs and saw a camel's head and testicles, were hassled by many touts, and haggled with the best of them. (Well, I cheered on the haggling!) The tanneries were by far the most mind blowing. Here, men and boys take dried hides of leather and soak and stomp on them in vats of dye. The dye is made from dried flowers, saffron, fruit peels and chemicals and the skins are dried using pigeon poo and cow urine for the ammonia and potassium. But the vats have been used since medieval times. Many of the tanners come from a long line of tanners. And despite the health risks, the process continues to this day, the same as it did centuries ago.
Sahara Sand Dunes
Sunset in the Sahara, Africa
On our fourth day in Fez, my stomach cramps got the best of me and with an overnight bus ride ahead of me, I crashed for a few hours. That night we parted ways and Mike and I caught the CTM bus (had to buy tickets ahead of time and traveller's note there is a CTM office right outside of the medina!) to Rissani. At 6:30 in the morning, we met a driver who took us to a little Berber pension outside of Merzouga right across the street from some of the famous Erg Chebbi dunes. Being in the desert has been one of my favorite parts of the trip. There is nothing to do, which is what we needed. We have spent the time resting up and taking care of our stomachs. We have slept, and planned some of the next legs of the trip. We walked around the dunes barefoot and we took a camel ride at sunset. The dunes change color with the sun as the earth moves across it and the sky is some of the prettiest natural colors I've ever seen. Desert pinks and golds and violets backdrop burnt orange dunes with rose colored sand. The other cool thing that has happened is that slowing down has allowed us to chat with Ali, the owner of the pension. He was born a nomad in the desert and lived in the Sahara in Morocco and Algeria and Mali. But when politics closed the borders, finding water wells got harder, so he settled here - a little hotel where he also runs camel treks and camping treks. He took us into town to get our bus tickets to Marrakech and then drove us around the dunes in his 4x4 and eventually out into the desert to meet some of his Berber people, the "nomad people" he calls them. We had tea in a tent and on the way back, took four of the nomads back into town with us along with a goat riding on the top of the car.

Every time I think I have stepped too far out of my comfort zone and it's okay for me to pull back, I surprise myself and see myself stretch just a little bit more. Before Morocco, I could not tell you the difference between Arabic and Berber or most other Arabic or Middle Eastern cultures. And while I believed myself to be pretty open minded, I could feel my discomfort around Arabic culture. Part of it is the aggressiveness. Part of it is a lack of education on such cultures. And part of it is living in post 9/11 America, where enemy number one has been presented as an assault of images, many without context, of people who look a lot like Moroccans. I have felt my own nasty prejudices come through mainly in the form of fear. I then feel myself get frustrated. I want to be open and the desert has certainly allowed that. But I also know, I have to be a bit of a hard ass so not to be a sucker. And so the push and pull to find balance continues. But the more I trust in the greater good of people, the more that natural balance seems to find itself...even if it costs me an extra 30dh now and again.
Erg Chebbi, Morocco (Sahara Desert)