"Our most ancient metaphor says life is a journey. Memoir is travel writing, then, notes taken along the way, telling how things looked and what thoughts occurred. . . .This is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey, taking on mountains, enduring deserts, marveling at the lush green places...as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering." -Patricia Hampl

December 29, 2004

You Can Help Them

Dear friends, family, and students,

All apologies for this sad note on the cusp of our New Year's

Fruitless efforts to contact or hear from some new, dear acquaintances
in Kerala (a coastal state in India), part of which was hit by the
recent natural disasters, have prompted my search for websites with
aid/relief and localized information.

If you, too, are affected by the staggering, saddening death toll, please know that your efforts, however minimal, would be greatly appreciated abroad. Feel free to pass these websites along to those you know who care deeply about our fellow members of the human race. So far, the following sites have proven most helpful in providing ways you and your family can help:


The Red Cross/Red Crescent is also listed online:
http://www.ifrc.org/helpnow/donate/donate_response.asp .

If you'd like information about ways to help, please contact

Wishing each of you a happy, healthy
new year, and thanking you in advance for your generosity!

December 26, 2004

Head First into Wintertime

big pencil
Originally uploaded by animox72.

There's a store in this city called Snow Country. That's not coincedental. Rochesterians know that Winter begins in November (before Thanksgiving) and ends sometime around the Lilac Festival in late May. It is a dominantly gray, bone-chilling, arctic season. The most unpredictable and feared aspect of our winter is referred to as "lake effect" snow, but none of us seem to bear a grudge towards Lake Ontario beaches come summer.

It has been quite a while since I've endured a Rochester winter. While my beloved Boston has twice been snowed under whilst up North we're merely donning an extra sweater, we're due for our share of white-outs. From what I remember, it shows up, flaky wrath in tow, the night before New Year's, defeating any plans we may have had to wear high heels to friends' bashes, and further, making us contemplate just staying in our p.j.'s.

This evening, while waiting for my relatives to arrive for dinner, I noticed, out of my window, a fog had descended about twenty yards away from our house. But it wasn't a gray, misty fog. It was white. It was animated. And it was coming towards me.

Until tonight, I hadn't recalled just how furious the snow can get here. And while my earliest memories of Upstate record "dumpings" are those of someone who was once about 4'5", they sent a vicarious chill down my spine.

I'm not sure which specific year of the '80's it was, but my brother was barely old enough to get himself in and out of a one-piece, fur-hooded snowsuit--the kind you had to lie down in, zip yourself into, and then have someone help you stand up. We went outside to frolic in snow that was higher than the parked cars (snowed in, I suppose) in our driveway. Somehow, we managed our ways on top of the enormous snowbank and proceeded to start digging a hole straight down. We were looking for grass, poor dears! Although he swore it was an accident, my brother mischievously pushed me in, head first.

I don't remember how long I was in that hole. I do recall, though, that my hands were near my ears, I couldn't breathe well, and couldn't kick my way out. I also don't remember how I got out, but that it was my initiation into discovering--and understanding--the delicacy of my own mortality. (I will never, ever, let my own kids play in snow piled higher than their heights.)

When my parents discovered I'd developed a hint of muscle strength, they sent me out with the shovel. Dreaded shovelling--years before the snowblower was common on our block. My daily task, for several years, was to clear the driveway enough to let my father drive from the street into our garage after work. By the time I was twelve I had this down to a science. The formula was simple: armlock my younger brother into doing it with me, or I'd threaten to do nasty things to his pillows. We'd wind up making funky shovel music with each scraaaape!....scraaaaape! of our wintery instruments. At sunset's last stand, sometimes, my mother would open the kitchen door to discover her two kids having mock lightsaber battles, driveway snow untouched.

Perhaps it's this dichotomy--that playing in the snow can be treachery, and that working in the snow can be fun--that brings out our devious child whenever the weather strikes. Even in Boston, on snow days, when no one went to work because our cars had been plowed under, my roomates and I would spend endless hours shovelling ourselves out--tasks that would have taken little time had we not amused and tormented each other with surprise snowball attacks and spontaneous snowman-building contests.

This is how, year after year, I suppose, we come to terms with Winter. We can't stand it, but we make it fun.

Now that nature's had her way with us tonight, a fresh, scintillating blanket rests on everything outside. I'm no longer living with roomates nor my little brother, and so the demonic urge to pelt someone with snowbombs is muted. If it gets really bad this year, I'll just have to head out and make some snow angels.

December 19, 2004

A Substitute for a Job

SUBBING: (sub'ing) v. (lit., "substitute teaching") 1., The act of posing as an absent teacher; 2., Per-diem job, entails being a warm body with half a brain; 3., somewhat brave act of blindly entering a crowded classroom armed with only your patience, sense of humor, creativity, flexibility, and interest in children to muddle through a stranger's lesson plans for one or more days. 4., A good way to earn some income while you're waiting for someone to review one of the several resumes you've sent out for full-time work.

You probably don't have a sub you remember, apart from the torture you tried to impart onto one, in the form of spit balls, empty note-passing, audible whispering, or flat-out taunting. And while my first foray into subbing--seven or so years before becoming a full-time educator in Massachusetts--was nothing short of harrowing and unnerving, over the years I've come to observe and understand what it means to be a good, per-diem sub with a chance of leaving the walls of a middle- or high school unscathed.

Thus, while waiting for full-time employment to come through, I have been awakened at the 5 and 6 o'clock hours, on and off for the better part of a week, by a chipper but tired voice asking if I'll be available "for coverage." In an effort to minimize the rousing of the sleeping occupants of the household, I place the living room cordless phone next to my pillow, on the nightstand, before I turn in. Inevitably, the phone will ring while it's still dark out and before my brain's had a chance to understand what's going on. When I pick up, the sub coordinator will begin speaking before I can even manage a muffled 'hello?'. She will ask if I'm available for the day, and if my growl sounds affirmative, she'll go on to tell me where, and for whom, to report. I often ask her to repeat the information twice before it sticks. It's too dark (and I'm too uncoordinated) at 5:50 a.m. to write it all down.

Subbing, in lieu of a permanent teaching position--or any job, for that matter--is a lucky, enjoyable gig if you have a penchant for the unexpected. For most people--especially those of you who spend the majority of your work day interfacing with a machine--the thought of entering a school has no appeal. I hear the same negative generalities tossed around about "kids these days" as I did when I was, myself, a kid. But for the few archetypal miscreants (who often harbor more need than their fellow students), there are a wealth of good-natured, interested, interesting learners.

On my fast-growing, personal "favorite moments of subbing" list is the ten minutes an 7th-grade girl took to show me how to perform a drum roll (I happened to be subbing for a band teacher). Admittedly, those were ten minutes during which I was probably more focused on my grip on the drumsticks than the room full of kids who were immersed in their own instruments, but with a good group of competitive, mindful youngsters, I had some room to play. While a handful of show-off jazz band saxophonists, notably the longest-haired boys of the class, serenaded the rest of us (against our will) to the tunes of "Mercy, Mercy" and an uncomfortably distonal version of "All of Me," I searched for my ibuprofen, happy knowing that the Winton Marsalises of the future are earnestly squeaking and belting out their c-sharps all the way to the Christmas Concert. Give anyone under 4'10" a big, brassy instrument and he'll look positively adorable no matter what sound emantates thereforth.

The other day I happened to be fortunate enough to sub for an 8th-grade English teacher. Three classes were assigned to read aloud their first-person accounts of what it was like to be in Ford's Theater when President Lincoln was assassinated. I took copious notes while the students read aloud their crafty journal entries. One read her piece, with perfect sentimentality, as Mrs. Lincoln; one writer imaginatively recounted, as actress Laura Keene, being on stage when she heard the shot. In a rarified moment of solemnity and hilarity, a small, enthusiastic youngster read as John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln's assassin--in a perfect Southern accent. The classes, at my beckoning, heralded trivia about the assassination I'd never before heard. It had been too long since I'd enjoyed myself so much in a classroom.

What you'll observe in a school, if it's a functioning, good one, is a community dedicated to the business of fostering well-rounded, informed, and healthy young adults. You'll see cheerful, positive, supportive messages on teacher's doors (e.g., "Congratulate these students who got over 85% on their last test!" and "Good job to the basketball team--we knew you could do it!!"), messages of common sense social import in the halls ("It never hurts to be nice"), and affirmations on posters in classrooms ("Your aim the sky, your goal the stars/Go for it!"). The pillars of good behavior, in any society, are clearly printed on bright pieces of posterboard in any school. Find me a corporate office that inspires such good naturedness.

Sure, I found some spit balls on the aged carpet of some of my turf-for-a-day, and a few benign notes left on desks. Par for the school day. Certainly, more favorite moments are to come, and I'll post them--that is, until a job with benefits falls into my lap. Until then, consider spending a day volunteering at a school in your local district. You might actually learn a thing or two.

December 06, 2004

Exporting Attitude, Revised

(A holiday piece for your holiday peace. Revised. Enjoy.)

I completely missed our autumn this year. The fact that I'd not witnessed the leaves’ actual turning and their falling felt a little like I'd missed the formative years of a dear child. Since I haven’t been around to toughen up my seasonal raking blisters, nor watch the development of simple homes and lawns into spectacular holiday light shows (for I was in India for the most exciting baseball month in history, and in Peru for Thanksgiving), coming home to a Winter Wonderland after traipsing around cultures south of the equator is, as they call it, a shock.

Friends and family are mustering themselves up for the long lines that await them at the cash register. They keep talking about their lists: holiday cards, holiday shopping, holiday bargains to be scrutinized. They are busying themselves with lists; and lately, they don’t have time to talk. “Gotta go!” they screech over the phone. “Only two weekends left to shop!” They have Stuff To Do.

My first night back to America happened to be Halloween. The childhood home I’d known for thirty years was full of packed boxes; my parents were about to move to a more rural suburb of Monroe County. While kids, caked in their mothers’ makeup and makeshift costumes hopped on and off of our front step with their pillowcases agape, I walked around our house, saying goodbye to the rooms in which I’d grown up. Having just left Boston (my home for over a decade) for Rochester, which was my home base for every holiday, I was already despondent with nostalgia when I left for India. And, subsequently having returned from the subcontinent, I unpacked my mosquito repellant and linen shirts and repacked them into plastic storage bins to be moved in early November.

A month in India did more than thin my blood; it more than instilled in me a yearning for three tear-inducing, spicy meals a day. I grew accustomed to walking almost everywhere I could, or hiring a rickshaw when heat, distance, or their combination antagonized me. For a month, I was a passenger; most lingering images of impact in India sped past me, through the frame of a bus window, at fifty rickety miles per hour. I had no control over how I got to where I was going, or how fast I could get there.Now, on the streets of Rochester, it's just me, alone, in my car: following the rules of the road, keeping my fair distance from the other cars, wearing my seatbelt, listening to the local folk radio station. There’s enough space, I often think, between my car and the one next to me for at least three mopeds, two cyclists, and a cow. No longer being a passenger, however, necessitates that I adopt a completely new attitude: towards acceleration, deceleration, stopping, being aware of my fellow drivers. I now am in control of creating the way in which to see my new town, my new home, a Rochester I haven’t known for nearly 15 years.

I taped my very own Stuff To Do list to my dashboard. I played a sensational Bollywood hit soundtrack once, at an unabashed decibel, with my windows rolled down, in an effort to summon me back to my long, hot, dusty drives through the Northern Indian desert with a young driver named Mikki. But it was cold, cloudy, and something wasn't right. (Remarkably, I’d managed to get myself lost on Jefferson Road.) The power chords of Foreigner’s Greatest Hits just seemed more appropriate for the chill in the air. With Stuff To Do of the essence, nothing takes the thrill out of riding through the pastoral Henrietta countryside like spasmodically pressing the brakes in fear that I’d pass right by the small-town post office, as my dad so aptly put it, "right at the bottom of that wheat field over there."

While I zoomed past the intriguingly unfamiliar plots of farm after farm in my new suburb, it struck me: in my very own hometown, I don't know my way around here any better than I did in the streets of Ernakulum, Delhi, and Pushkar. You betta slow down, the boys from Lake Avenue sing. My right foot lay lighter on the gas pedal.

In his honestly introspective essay "India's American Imports," Adam Hochschild discusses the influences of Western, specifically American pop culture on Indian pop culture, politics, and population. Just as I had experienced with watching Dhoom in a movie theater in Rajasthan, Hochschild similarly pontificates on the embedded Indian-ness of what seems to be an otherwise Western-infused movie he had watched in the same theater. He notes, as I also had during my trip, that the things we take for granted (or even abhor) in an American context seem revered in India; that the ephemeral, unexpected sights--such as the barely-clad man who sits in a public telephone shack made out of bamboo thatch, waiting for customers as he talks on a cell phone, that rings to “Jingle Bells”, even in October--are what make India so distinctly its own place. Doubtless, India will continue to Westernize itself, believing that all things Euro or American are "better" (read: more finite--the impression that the most durable item, regardless of the toll its manufacturing and use takes on the environment or people, is distinctly British, says Hochschild). Its major cities, like ours, advertise the latest digital gadgets and cellular advances with fair-skinned, light-eyed models that seem as Western an import, as say, I am. The guilt I associate with my degree of materialism each December stared directly at me from billboards in Mumbai and Delhi.

What have I "exported" from India, back to America? Surely more than a couple of sari, some spices and a soundtrack. Certainly more than a hankering for red chilis first thing in the morning, and more than a longing for the chaos of olfactory overload. In these Yule-Times, this giving season, when the circulars advertise “great gifts mom will love!” and “no payment, no interest!” until the next holiday season rolls around, on which continent have I unpacked and displayed my conscience? Didn’t I just pass, during those hot and dusty drives, hundreds—but hundreds—of people who washed themselves in sewers, who ate from garbage piles, whose hands reached out towards my passenger-side window in the hopes of my expending some rupees their way? Will they be coming with me while I run errands for wrapping paper and Seasons Greetings cards?

My ride through Rochester farmlands without a map was telling. Like a typical American--an East Coast girl at that-- I grew impatient: at myself for missing an elusive left-hand turn; at the driver ahead of me who meandered between lanes without her signals; at not being able to remember the name of a street. I don't know why I felt that I was in a hurry: I had no job to attend to at the moment, nor had any engagement to make on time. Just a to-do list and a desire to accomplish everything on it, immediately.

I was completely frustrated when I was told that my car couldn't be inspected, on the spot--and twice, was sent "just down the street" to the next dealer who could schedule me in. I was flummoxed by the man ahead of me in line at Target, who couldn't decide upon which kind of gum to purchase at the check-out counter, and held us all up for thirty extra seconds. And I grew nearly--but only mildly, and humorously-- irate at the librarian who idiosyncratically, slowly, turned each book and CD I checked out over and over, three times, inspecting each item, then lovingly touching it, as if to bid it farewell until I returned it before its due date. 'C'mon!' I yelled in my head. I'm sure that more than once, I subtly rolled my eyes with the intervention of fate that prevented me from Getting Things Done.

Only weeks ago, I learned how acceptable it is, in India, to be accepting--of the dizzying, evolution-like laws of pedestrian and motorized traffic, of intermittent power outages, of bureaucracy, of poverty. Case in point: I was standing in a line at a train station, in Bombay, when the office suddenly closed. It was 1:00 pm. Time for a break!--and as the vendor's window shut, everyone in line casually, in unison, stepped to the right, and waited patiently for the next ticket vendor to open. Another case: when Mikki's mini-car was rear-ended by an older, drunken man's cargo truck, Mikki appeased the crazy, drunken old hoot--who believed the accident was Mikki's fault—with a blessing, rather than engaging in an argument. More than a few times, when all I wanted was a shower, the water in the hostel had been shut off. Sometimes, the streets were sprayed with a thick, choking pesticide that left us pedestrians immobile and temporarily blinded. I learned what it meant to be accepting. The essence of patience is about control.

I can’t say I accepted, nor got used to, the beggars who softly tapped my car window with their other palms extended. But their gazes, like the gadget models on the Delhi billboards, have stayed with me. I look for them, sometimes, at red lights. I have made a resolution to begin contributing to organizations which assist needy families in India as well as other countries, including my own.

I am going out, again, today, with another list. (It is, after all, the holiday season.) Adam Hochschild is my co-pilot. We're going to drive slowly, attempt to smile at elderly drivers, and to be patient (you’d betta sloooow down!) with indecisive shoppers. I may even pop in that zany soundtrack again--keeping the volume down just enough to concentrate on the street names I'm passing. And when we stop at a red light, I’ll refrain from looking at the digital clock, gazing around, instead, at the faces of my new hometown.

December 02, 2004

Get Lost: Part One

I found myself, on my last day in Peru, without much money--just enough, actually, for two good meals and taxi fare to the airport. I wasn't interested in spending any more than what I had, although the desire to fork over my credit card, one last painful time, for another tour around Arequipa might have proven an interesting adventure. But what I did instead was probably more entertaining.

I didn't get out of bed until well past 8 a.m. (unusual for me, especially when I'm in a new place). I leisurely showered, enjoying the pressurized hot water. I eventually found the lady with the tamales, who had shifted from one street near the Plaza to a different one, for better business. I spent ten minutes to check email before taking my journal and library book off to an out-of-the-way cafe (hoping that I'd find less touristy prices, even for coffee).

Not expecting to do much more with my day than read, write, and walk around, I was content to sit and sip away at my enormous cup of steamed milk (to which I'd added the powdery coffee additive), reading Nafisi's account of teaching forbidden Western novels in Iran. I was engrossed enough to forget where I was, despite that there was a blaring Peruvian salsa radio station blaring near my head. When my waitressed asked (in Spanish, of course) if I wanted anything else, I had to force myself out of the environment of the novel and back into the streets of Arequipa. I paid and left.

Ready to get lost: my favorite daytime, on-foot activity in new cities.

There was really nowhere specifically I wanted to go, other than the river, which I'd been told was nice though nothing of major import. So off I meandered, towards the river. The streets were crowded: it was already noon, and people were on their way to or from lunch, tourists, locals, kids, all vying for foot room on the narrow sidewalks that hugged the busy cobblestone streets. And then it occurred to me. Kids. They were all over the place--in uniforms, bright and two-toned variations of the same dress code. I rounded a corner and found myself at an enormous school, Colegio Republica de Venezuela.

I walked inside the front gates cautiously, reminding myself that a stranger entering a public school in the States is automatically suspicious. I tried to avoid talking to a youngster so that I wouldn't be assumed a nosy, ignorant tourist, but there were no adults in sight. When I meandered over the oldest looking girl (she looked about thirteen or so), she smiled at me before I even spoke. I asked her where I could find a teacher, and she ran excitedly to find one.

When she returned from one of the rooms off of the expansive, sunny courtyard, she had a diminutive, sharp woman in tow. The woman introduced herself as the teacher of athletics. She was wearing a knee-length polyester, button-down, matronly dress, high heels, and earrings.

I explained that I was a fellow teacher, hoping that we could establish a comraderie this way. I wanted to see, I said, how their school works--their classrooms, their materials. The teacher was elated to show me around, but we got no farther than a foot when a swarm of tiny, uniformed, toothy and giggling girls rushed into me. They'd just finished lessons, and there a few hours before the older, secondary schoolgirls arrived for the afternoon lessons. Perfect.

Before I knew it, we were sitting in a circle together, the eight or so girls, the athletics teacher, and myself, on the cement ground of the courtyard. "Where is New York?" one asked quickly. On the heels of the question, another. And then another. The questions came faster than I could answer them. For what was probably our longest topic of consistent conversation, about their birthdays (and hence, what our zodiac signs are), the girls batted out days, months, and years as if in a quasi-girl scout lineup. "10 deciembre mil noveciento noventa y dos!" one said as she held her hand over her heart. "4 octubre mil noveciento noventa y quatro!" alleged another, emphatically. Since I felt a little shameful at not being able to recall all of these birthdays only minutes after we'd switched conversation topics to our favorite colors, I asked the girls to write down their names and the pertinent information in my journal. But what would we do for writing implements? I revealed a tin of watercolor pencils from my pouch. The rainbow of choices thrilled the girls, their hands diving into the tin towards the very colors of choice they'd just mentioned.

As we passed the journal around, and each girl took her careful time writing, neatly, her full name, birthday, and sometimes, her address, more and more questions: do I drink coca-cola? do I like arcade games? am I a stern teacher or a "nice" teacher? are my students nice? would the students in America write to the students in Peru? I asked for the address of the school, which none of the small girls knew; but almost immediately there appeared an elderly man, shuffling along the cement with a small piece of paper in hand.

He pointed at himself and the corresponding words on the small piece of paper he handed me: Jorge Manrique de la Flor, Profesor del Centro. (Underneath his name and title, aptly, was the address of the school.) "Listen, carefully!" He warned the girls, whose braids and pigtails almost seemed to stand at attention with his command. They lifted their eyes without raising their heads to him. "You see this woman here? This teacher?" He lifted his index finger, straight as a ruler. "Yes, we see her," chimed the girls, sensing a punchline. "Well, my pupils, look again at both of us closely--" (he waved the finger about in the air, as if conducting their eyes around the sky) "--for when she and I return to this school in two years from now, we will be married, and you will all be old!" This sent the girls into hysterics. "Ha ha," said the one I came to know as Brigitt. "We won't get old!"

Profesor Jorge, who is 70 this month (he revealed his birthday, too) brought a wooden chair and a long wooden desk, both of which he carried with one arm. He ordered me to sit at the chair. The girls huddled around the desk, their fingers brushing my shirt, my hair, my hands. We talked about snow. American mountains. Christmas. Airplanes.

As parents came for their children, and the girls began to peal themselves away from the desk, and from me. "Ciao!" they'd chirp, giving me a quick but expected peck on the cheek--the proper greeting and parting custom in Peru. (Wouldn't this be a lovely place if everyone here did the same!)

Soon, only Jorge and I remained at the desk. I had not seen the athletic teacher leave, but Jorge remarked that she was preparing music for her afternoon lessons; the older girls were learning a traditional Arequipenan dance for a town celebration. I didn't want to overstay my welcome, so I began to put my colored pencils and journal away. I asked Jorge what, if anything, he believed the school needed. I was prepared to hear him talk about the lack of contemporary lesson books, or lack of pencils, or technology. "Only one thing," he began. He held up his index finger as he had with the girls. "Un grabador."

Finally, a word I didn't understand. I asked him to describe "grabador." "It's a device, a thing, it's this big--" he hands were close together, palms facing each other. "It takes the voices of the girls when they sing, so they can hear them later." Ah! A tape recorder! I told him the words in English. "Yes, that. We very desperately need one. These girls, they think they sound like angels. I don't know who's telling them this. But when they sing--ach! The ears bleed." Apparently, the school is not desperate for other technological instruments, and Jorge would know: he's the computer teacher.

I made to leave the courtyard, and Jorge took my hand in both of his, and kissed it. He made me promise to return, and if I were unable to, then in my place, please, a "ta-hape re-corrrrreder." I walked back into the sunny street with every intention to make good on it.

But oddly, only a few steps away, I sensed that I wasn't alone. And I was right. Three tiny girls, Vanessa, Xiomara, and another coincidentally named Veronica (which was the name of the snow-capped mountain I'd spent four days staring at during the Incan Trial), dragged their tiny suitcases full of books behind them. They looked like miniature stewardesses.

"What are you doing?" I asked them. This, for some reason, sent them into peals of laughter. When they calmed down enough, one mentioned that their parents didn't expect them home for hours, and would I please walk with them? This was a little odd. I had turned down a demonic night of salsa with gals my own age only the night previous, and now I was being summoned to walk around town with a bunch of schoolgirls. Did they just want to hang out with a kooky white girl? By the way they knocked each other away from me (for each wanted to hold my only free hand), I sensed they were just happy to show the new girl around their lovely city.

Our first stop was an arcade. (They hopped up and down until I gave them each a sole for a game.) In a matter of three seconds, they each lost their sole to a demented, machinized game designed to lure hopeful kids into getting the stuffed animal of their choice. But the girls didn't seem to mind much. Off we went. They insisted on taking me to a small shop around the corner for hair odds and ends. "Why?" I asked, wondering if this was yet another ploy to get me to buy them something.

"You need something to keep your hair out of your eyes. We all think so," said Xiomara. I apologized, instantly self-conscious, remarking in a most fumbling way that traveling for two months kept me far away from the salon. I tried to explain that I wasn't so much interested in keeping up appearances when there really wouldn't have been anyone to impress on the hike to Machu Picchu (dare I mention that I didn't really bring anything resembling shampoo?), but to no avail. No sooner had I moved my eyes from one side of the store to the other than they'd picked out a ridiculously bright pink and purple hair band for me. And they insisted I wear it all day.

Finally, I told the girls it was time for us to part ways. I felt too strange walking around with adolescent girls in tow; there was something wrong about it, though the walk had been enjoyable and appropriate. I asked them to take me to a cafe along the Plaza, where we could say goodbye. And when we got there, they lingered, not wanting to reciprocate my "Ciao!" They waved, kissed my cheek one by one, and dejectedly made for the street.

(Continued in Part Two.)

November 28, 2004

A Hot Tamale in Arequipa

The most difficult decision of this entire trip presented itself the other night: leave Allison for Arequipa, or stick around Cuzco with my adorable potato princess, who I may not see again for some time? The answer to this dilemma occurred to me when I realized that Arequipa´s weather reflects it´s desert climate, and Cuzco´s--well, I´d been cold since I´d gotten there.

So, with hugs and kisses, parting ways with Al--who was a tremendous Cuzqueñan hostess, guide, and is an all around cullo-kickin´girl--I made for the 8 hour bus ride to Arequipa. And it´s worth mentioning that though the bus didn´t provide "bed"-like accomodations it had promised with the purchase of my ticket, it was probably the most plush ride I´ve ever had in a developing nation. Not only were our seats comfy, and they did lean back a bit, but we watched Shrek 2 (dubbed in Spanish), were served little snacks of coffee cake, chocolate pieces and candy, and were reminded of our safety precautions. The service assistant, who was all of 22, indulged me in a conversation, entirely in Spanish, I proudly add, about books (he saw that I was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran), politics, and inevitably, presidential profiles. At 2 a.m., I caught some z´s, waking only from the lack of heat on the bus and the eventual sunrise over the desert, pinkish mountains of the Arequipa region.

I´ve secured the nicest room I´ve yet enjoyed in all of Peru. It´s got hot water, and--get this-- a towel and toilet paper. I´m the only gringa staying in the place, which makes it all the more interesting. And it´s all of $10. Since I landed at the hostel at 6 a.m., I took a long nap, a (hooray, hot) shower, and found the golden treasure of breakfast foods waiting for me, for sale down the street. The tamale. With two sweet, hot tamales in my tummy, I was ready for action.

Since this morning, I´ve visited the beautiful, neo-classical (read: peach walls and vaulted ceilings) cathedral in the impressive Plaza de Armas, taken a cafecito in the square to watch the Sunday pro-Peru parade pass by, and visited the gorgeous Siena Santa Catalina Monasterio, through which I took a two-hour meditative self-tour. (The 16-c. monastery is built mainly out of a material called silla, which is white, volcanic rock. The silla walls are painted in natural pigments of burnt sienna, royal blue, and light yellow, and the place is dotted with brilliant begonias and other vivid, verdant, thriving plants, alongside fountains and frescoes. They had some sort of baroque, classical music piping through the place as I walked through, which lent to an incredibly moving and pensive atmosphere. This mellow stroll was only broken when I ran into the barbed wire scourges the nuns used for self-flagellation, proudly on display behind glass. Freaky.)

I´ve signed myself up for a personal salsa dancing class tonight, and am about to go peeking around for some rocotos rellenos (yummy, spicy stuffed peppers--an Arequipa specialty). Loving it here in the sunny, hot streets of Arequipa, and not at all wanting to leave tomorrow for the States! Signing off, at home everywhere in the world, your hot tamale, Monica.

November 27, 2004

Post-Trekking Decomposition, Cuzqueña Style

Aguas Calientes is a town that lives and dies by the tourist seasons. Its claim to fame is its natural hot spring baths, which Mark, Allison, and I had been looking forward to since the moment our quadriceps started quaking on the Incan Trail Trek. After an afternoon of beer-induced decompression, we made for our hotel room, replete with a wooden "floor on the ceiling" (Mark´s observation), bright blue satin bedspreads, and a bathroom door that wouldn´t shut on account of the third bed being in the way. But after three freezing nights of sleeping in as many layers as we´d had available, the whole idea of a cozy bed--even if there were someone else´s hair on the pillows--was comforting.

We enjoyed a nice, long, warm sleep without the threat of being wakened at the crack of dawn for a day of physical extreme. And we enjoyed our "American" breakfasts along the touristy strip, lazily assembling our Peruvian coffees and enjoying the sunny morning. Soon it was time to take ourselves to the natural hot baths.

Except that I didn´t have a bathing suit.

At first, I thought I´d just go a´bathin´in the same soiled (read: expendable) clothes that I´d just spent four days in, but the thought of lugging home a bunch of wet stuff on a long train ride back to Cusco wasn´t appealing.

So I rented one. Yes, I rented a bathing suit. If this doesn´t skeev you out too badly, then read on. Personally, one more day of ick after a few days of camping didn´t bother me at all.

Along the aforementioned touristy thoroughfare to the baths, a number of kiosks--and homes--advertise bathing suit rentals. I procured for myself a faded, stretched-out suit that was probably once red and had little in the way of support. But without a soul to impress, it was fine. I also got a chocolate-yogurt flavored lollypop to enjoy during my soak.

The locals believe that the waters at Aguas Calientes are medicinal; there are brightly colored murals on the concrete wall opposite the baths depicting Pachamama´s (the Incan Mother Nature) contribution to the town in the form of the hot springs. There was a group of mildly handicapped folks from a hospital in Cuzco, holding hands and singing in one of the pools, while their (also handicapped) nurses and fellow patients, who were more severely limited, looked on.

I leaned against a wall, luxuriating in the heat surrounding my muscles, staring at an enormous mountain beyond, watching the clouds settle and roll around it. I even did half an underwater yogic pose to get at the root of the ache in my hips. I breathed deeply, loving the cool breezes that swirled by. I thanked Pachamama.

And then, I noticed something not so right with the water in front of me. In the water, already discolored for it´s elemental composition--which was something like rust-- there floated by a lump of dark hair. And a small piece of tissue. And a blob I couldn´t quite recognize. It was time to get out of the healing waters.

I got dressed, returned to the hot bath and cautiously dipped a leg in, taking up my meditation with the mountain where we´d left off, and sucking on my lolly. After some pleasant conversations with fellow tourists (one of whom convinced me to visit Arequipa, which I will do tonight) and an "American" lunch (during which we three fed an army of biting flies), it was time to catch the train back to Cuzco.

Upon arriving, though, Mark and Al and I weren´t ready to part ways. I was ready to go salsa dancing; Mark and Al were too tired. We settled on a time to meet up for a nightcap. That´s not at all what happened.

For there we were, at a club called Mythology, toasting our Cuba Libres to new friends, shaking our moneymakers and gettin´ jiggy wit it, gettin´down and boogy-oogy-oogy-ing (even visiting another popular hotspot, Mama Afrika), before calling it quits. Who´d have known we´d be bumpin´ behinds to Beyonce, Counting Crows, and the Beastie Boys in this small town in Peru--and after a 28 mile hike, at that? I am somewhere between proud and ashamed to admit that when we left the second club, the sun had risen.

So off I go tonight, an 8 hour, overnight ride to Arequipa. When my legs start getting ancey, I´ll sing a Beastie´s song to myself and hope that muscle memory is more than a myth.

November 25, 2004

Giving Thanks: The Four Day Hike to Machu Picchu

For Thanksgiving, we--Al, a young man named Mark, from Alaska, and myself--chilled out in Aguas Calientes, a town of hot springs, celebrating our surviving the four-day hike on the Inca Trail. In a place of hot springs, one would think that we would rather revel in our success in the confines of a natural whirlpool, soaking our weary muscles and achy joints: but instead, we enjoyed sitting by the local railroad, drinking beer, and watching life go by. Why? Because we couldn't move.

Suffice it to say that the Inca Trail was the most difficult and gorgeous hike I have ever undertaken. Of course, reaching Machu Picchu at the end of it made all the agony worthwhile, but you´ll have to wait for the pictures to see for yourself how incredible the place really is.

Here are the stats:

In a nutshell, we began our hiking at meter 82, which rests at 3300 meters (around 10,000 ft.). We only hiked for five hours on the first day, and it wasn't difficult at all. Day two I shall have to explain below, but technically speaking, we climbed to 4200 meters (almost 12,500 ft.), and only started a descent at the place called Wariwañusca, or "Dead Woman's Pass." On day three, we were up and down for seven hours. Finally, we woke on day four at 4 a.m., and after two more strenuous hours' hike, we reached Machu Picchu.

The following is not an exhaustive list, but these helped me survive and enjoy the Incan Trail:

Being in relatively good physical shape is a major plus. On the dramatic ascent to Dead Woman´s Pass, named so for a woman who died there (no lie), the climb literally became a matter of placing one foot in front of the other and breathing rhythmically in between. At that altitude, my muscles were in sore need of oxegen and burned with every movement. (As I made it up the last ten steps, though, Allison was waving and smiling, and a bunch of Brits cheered me on, which totally made the whole ordeal feel like a total triumph. Kind of like Rocky on the steps of the Philly museum with the kids all over him, but much higher, and in Peru.)

I carried a small pack that consisted mainly of two pairs of pants, some tops, rain gear, unmentionables, and mosquito repellent. Luckily, the medical kit wasn´t necessary since our guide carried one (including an oxegen tank) for us. The sleeping bag I borrowed from a friend in Cuzco and the ridge rest that rested on my pack weighed little and were totally manageable. A macho, gabby young man, the lesser half of a 20-year-old Argentine couple who joined us, tried to carry both his own and his wife´s stuff on his back, and he nearly died. The porters wound up carrying his stuff for him, and I think he was a bit emasculated by it. (His wife was too out of shape to try it herself.)

New insoles in my 11-year-old LLBean hiking boots, which luckily I bothered to waterproof before I came down here. Those insoles absorbed the shock of over 4000 steep, vertical steps downward on heavy, tired feet; had I not replaced them, I´m sure I´d have some sort of numbing foot trauma by now. (The boots, however, may have suffered their last hike, and I´m thinking of having them bronzed.)

A fantastic guide named Maria, who is the cutest, most intelligent Peruvian woman ever. She indulged us in the variety of flora through every different climate we walked though, jungle to near-arctic; she shared with us the secrets of the ruins we encountered both on the hike and at Machu Picchu. She taught me some words in Quechua, the indigenous language of the Incans. She laughed with us well into the night, when, after dinner, we weren´t yet ready to go to bed. She encouraged us up and down mountains. I hope to keep in touch with her.

Amazing porters, of which we had six--some were cooks, others had jobs like tent-readying so that when we arrived at our campsite, too weary to move, not only would our tents be set up, but there´d be a snack and hot coffee, coca tea, and cocoa waiting for us. These guys were amazing: they loaded five times the amount of stuff any of us had on our own backs, and passed us, practically running, on the trail. They made three incredible meals a day, including pancake, omelet, and muesli breakfasts, craftily-assembled chicken and rice dishes for lunch, and amazing three-entree dinners. Lunch and dinner was always preceded by a hot yummy soup, for which we were always thankful.

Sarcasm, humor, and wit. They weigh nothing but come in really handy when trying to stay warm in a tent and it´s something like 40 degrees outside, but thank Panchamamma (the Incan name for Mother Earth) that the funniest gal I know was with me on this trip. We laughed our asses off.


So there we three were, in Aguas Calientes, finally having pulled ourselves away from the beer table and moseyed over to a restaurant for a much-needed dinner. We wound up at a down-home, family-run, tiny restaurant where we ordered enough pizza to choke a small llama. As we ate, we naturally started to talk about what we´d been thankful for on our hike. Soon, a large group of people came in, occupying practically the remaining seats in the place. A woman stood to make a speech, which I couldn´t totally understand, and then, a man stood to speak. In a matter of words, he explained to the group how thankful he was, on his birthday, that while he couldn´t be with his family, the people surrounding him now were like family to him, and he was proud and happy to be with them.

I felt exactly the same way. With Allison and Mark at the table, recalling our fondest and not-so-fondest memories of our four days together, I counted myself among the blessed. Kay ñanmin ima sumac puni teqse muyuntumanta: this was the most beautiful hike in the world.

November 21, 2004

Cuzco, Qusqó, Qusqu

Walking around this town is still a bit of a literal, uphill battle: while I´m just starting to get a hold on the breathing while carrying an item bigger than a water bottle around, going up stairs, hills, and ruins is proving to be something of a trial. And the trial truly begins tomorrow, when we leave for the Inca Trial (its nickname). I am fearing the worst: that I will be wheezing too far behind the group to be counted, and will be left for the wild alpaca to devour me. But I´m also looking forward to being in one of the most geographically spectacular places on earth. I promise to blog if I live to tell about it.

Cuzco weather is crazy. One day it´s cold and rainy, the next it´s hot and sunny--and there´s just no way to tell how the afternoon is going to turn out. I am starting to master the art of layering.

Yesterday was cold and rainy. Chilled to our bones, Al and I tromped around town to visit all sorts of Cuzqueña museums, including a folk art museum, the history museum, and a museum dedicated to the Cuzco School, a group of indigeous painters commissioned (or rather, enslaved) by the Spanish conquistadores to paint their religious iconography. The Incan artists were sly enough to subtle images and shapes into the paintings, and either the Spaniards didn´t notice or didn´t care. It´s kind of a hidden language in the art, and it´s fun to look for.

Our afternoon included a miserable but amusing attempt to make brownies for a Allison´s friend´s birthday party last night. You cannot make brownies in a toaster oven, not even at this elevation. Do not try it. We wound up taking the brownie mix, an egg, and some vegetable oil to her as a sorry gift.

The party was a blast; held at Irene´s host family´s apartment, about fifteen of us salsa-ed, toasted, and laughed until about midnight. That´s when dinner--aji de gallina (a strangely yellow chicken dish), rice, and potatoes--was heaped on to enormous plates and doled out as if we´d just returned from an Incan Trial. After a last toast and some lemon pie, a few of us headed out to a totally authentic Peruvian club.

When I say authentic, I mean that Allison, Irene (who is Dutch) and I were the only non-South-American folks in the joint. Imagine a big dive bar with a stage, disco lights, and wall-to-wall people. While the live band (comprised of two singers, a keyboard, and a leggy, scantily-clad dancer) sang and played, I couldn´t help but notice that every single man in the place was dancing. Amazing! Go to any club in Boston and the white guys are standing around, stealing themselves up with drinks, before daring to ask someone to dance. Before I knew it, I was shaking my shoulders and sashaying my hips to the ritmo with a young man from Brazil (who may be on our hike tomorrow). At 2:30, it was time to go--the wine in our heads had spoken.

Today was sunny and gorgeous. Alli and I woke up late and ventured to Pisaq, home to Inca and Pre-Incan ruins as well as a funky, enormous market. If I thought tromping uphill in Cuzco with a water bottle was tough, the Pisaq ruins were a precursor to tomorrow´s adventure. Every ten feet or so, I had to stop (Al darted along, but I think she´s part mountain goat). But it was worth it: the high stone structures just seem impossible. Up, down, and around the hills we went, finding cool structures with each turn. Andenes (terraces), a sun dial, storage spaces for various grains and the like, people´s homes. What really impressed me was the ancients´ allotment for seismic quakes, which happen with some frequency in Peru. Most of their portals and windows are shaped in trapezoids to allow for weight compensation should the earth decide to move. Amazing. And no pun intended here: totally breathtaking.

Just when I thought my legs had had it, there we were at the end of the trail, and aha! The market. We have shopped ourselves silly, but I can´t tell the difference between woollen and alpaca sweaters. There is, after all, a little language barrier here.

So we just spend three hours getting ready for our trip tomorrow, and we´re too knackered to even eat dinner. (I hope this doesn´t bite us back on the trek.) So adios, amigos, until the next installment, post-hike. Cross your fingers and send your good vibes to the Andes Mountains!

November 20, 2004

Lost Inca Ruins and the Case of Missing O2

In Philip Roth´s Goodbye Columbus, he describes perfectly the feeling of breathlessness: Ï was sucking air,¨he says. Ör rather, it was sucking me.¨ This came right back to me the minute I landed in Cuzco, Peru.

For a few moments, it´s funny. You really cannot breathe. You try through your nose and mouth, and then just your mouth, but it´s really no different.

After a joyous reunion with my Peruvian Potato Princess, Allison, who I hadn´t seen since her departure from Boston in August, we got to our hostel and plunked down. I was puffing like an octogenarian. It didn´t help that I hadn´t yet acclimated, was carrying a pack uphill, and hadn´t gone running in a few weeks.

By nightfall, it wasn´t much better. We found ourselves in an Irish bar, of all places, where I tried a local drink called Pisco (Sour), which is a bit like a Peruvian margarita--and I wasn´t sure if someone was actually pressing the sides of my head together while simultaneously trying to crush my lungs, but that´s what it felt like. And I was nauseated.

So this is what oxegen depletion is like!

Today is much better. we just toured some small towns in the Sacred Valley which house Incan and Pre-Incan ruins, which are amazing. All day, I had trouble believing that humans actually made these geometrically-perfect, complex structures entirely out of six ton rocks. The formations are enormous. And uphill. And in mountainsides. Did I mention the lack of oxegen up here?

Luckily, I´ve been introduced to a kind of tea that aides breathing. Apparently, the leaves have calcium and all kinds of vitamins, too, and calories, so this could be my new best friend.

Tonight, we´re celebrating some birthdays with Allison´s friends from her language school. Sorry to be brief, but I´m still kind of out of it. Will write with more verve, hopefully, in the next blog. Hasta la papa!

November 17, 2004

The Words Are Forgotten By Me

I am standing in Brooks´Bookstore in the Atlanta International Airport when I realize:

I´ve forgotten my Spanish-English dictionary.


Immediately, I´m scouring the travel section, but it´s void of any translation aides. All I´ve got is my Let´s Go Peru, equipped with a quick phrase locator in its index and my education, which halted three college credits shy of a minor in Spanish. Slinking towards my departure gate, my mind teems with elusive Spanish words, the English translations of which I´m not certain. Is enseñar synonymous with aprender, or am I making that up?

Se me olvido las palabras. (Meaning: I have--literally here--forgotten the words. Rather, as the Spanish passive voice indicates, they were forgotten. It just so happens that they were forgotten by me, and are probably collecting dust in a box in the basement of my parents´new house.)

I´m trying to overhear people´s conversations in an attempt to resurrect the language in my head. Maybe something will spark. But all anyone seems to be saying to their impatient children, who are running around the gate, is the universal ¡No! The gate attendant translates her boarding calls, but she´s virtually unintelligable in both languages due to the static over the loudspeaker.

Once aboard the plane, I had the fortune of sitting next to a nice, middle-aged man who assured me that most people will understand my basic-level Spanish. ¨Relaaaax!¨ he says, waving his hand through the air. In a few minutes, I´m conversing with the people next to me, a family sitting behind me, and a few people a couple aisles over. I am affectionately referred to on this flight as ¨Monica de Nueva York.¨ It isn´t long before my head is swimming in Spanish, and phrases like ¨How long have you been living in America?¨flow easily back into my natural oeuvre.

··· ··· ··· ··· ··· ··· ··· ··· ··· ··· ···

We landed at 11:45 p.m. In just over an hour, I was out of customs, out of the airport, and checked into the stunning Spanish-style mansion that is my hostel (there are Italian busts here and there, vaulted ceilings painted in impossible colors, a rooftop restaurant flanked by a garden, the ivy of which curls down a veranda that abutts my room). My driver, Miguel, who coincidentally is another 25-year old (as was my driver in Delhi) asked if I want to walk around the governmental center that is two blocks away. It is lit, guarded by soldiers on every corner, and the city is quiet. Not ready to sleep yet, I conceded.

We walked until 3 a.m. At that point, I was ready to turn in, and turn in I did. In a blink, though, it was 7 a.m.--and the parrots who reside here made sure that I knew it.

So I´ve enjoyed a full day of sightseeing, which began at the Church of San Francisco, around the corner from the hostel. Underneath the sanctuary are catacombs--not for the faint-hearted, let me tell you--into which the bones of hundreds upon hundreds of Franciscan monks have been separated into femurs and skulls, and artfully displayed for centuries to come. Ducking in and out of the caves, I couldn´t help but remember seeing something like this in Italy, when I was 19. The Cappucine monks there had also arranged the skeletons of their predecessors in a way that made me ponder death completely differently. And I´ll never forget the inscription, in Latin, aside the remains: Äs you are now, we once were. as we are now, you once will be.¨ What better reminder to get out and live. I started to get a little claustrophobic, and headed out.

Miguel took me all over Lima today. We went to the beaches, the funky parts of town, and to lunch, where I sampled an interesting beverage called chicha morada, which is made out of corn, and pollo salteado.

More enjoyable than any of this--and Sanjuro will be happy to hear it--I have sampled the local ice cream in a blissful reverie, strolling down a beautiful, bustling pedestrian mall, replete with arcades, restaurants, shops, and kiosks. And the strachiatella is good. Discovering people as new friends, discovering local flavor, and making my world a little smaller.

Tonight´s the big soccer game between Peru and Chile. People have been doing cartwheels in traffic all day, and selling paraphernalia for the game. I´ll be watching from a bar--or hopefully, from the stadium...

I leave for Cuzco tomorrow, where I´ll reunite with Allison. More from there. I am wishing you the best and hoping to hear from you!

November 15, 2004

Four Unnecessary Loads of Delicate Laundry

This is what it means to be between three vastly different countries.

You will begin by unpacking many items which you carried home with you: your clothes, some lightweight pieces newly bought in the madness of post-monsoon heat, some so worn out that they cannot even be donated; a scarf with Hindi writing; a vintage sari you've brought home for a seamstress-friend; ayurvedic pain balm you purchased, without speaking, at a busy roadside, outdoor pharmacy; socks into which the mud from various hikes have seeped permanently into the fabric; mirrored spinning tops and pens, for children, carefully wrapped in the personals section of a foreign newspaper; regionally-specific spices like cardamom and mustard seeds for your brother-in-law; your purple travel toothbrush; the extra plastic bags you never used as a makeshift wetbag because you forgot that you'd packed them; your sleepsack, for particularly uninviting hostel sheets.

All of these will smell faintly, still, of a country you cannot believe you recently visited. That country is very far away. Virtually no bodily evidence of your ever having been in an exotic climate--such as your tan, your bug bites, nor your heat rash--remains.

You smell these items and remember a rare, chilly night in a hilltown, where a pageant was being celebrated with firecrackers and sparklers in the streets. There was no electricity for a few minutes, and only the long bracelet of candles, sparklers, and women's bangles made for a self-imposed path of light, like diamonds, on the other side of the road. You remember eating dosas and a chick pea curry from an outdoor vendor that night. He teased you about your affluence. You went home feeling shameful and ridiculous that you didn't tip him for taking his snapshot.

While you pile your washable items into the washing machine, you must choose: hot, warm, or cold water? Is the load large, medium, or small? Are your items delicate or durable?

There is no question that your choices now must be the most practical, economical--the most utilitarian. In the country you last visited, washing machines are rare. So is hot water, for most people. You remember watching women twist river water out of the clothes they washed, waist-deep in river water themselves, wringing and wringing every sorry drop from the material and then unforgivingly battering the clothes on rocks to slam every last particle of dirt out of them. You are certain that you witnessed a nearby coconut tree bend and shake with the rhythmic pounding of the clothes.

Notice that you've made four distinct piles of dirty laundry on your floor: darks, lights, whites, and towels. Your mother insists that each of these piles deserves their own cleansing treatment in the washing machine. You remember the sound of clothing being pounded on rock slabs.

You make two piles. Dark items and light items. You are guilty in taking pride in this; you are going to save some water.

In go the dark items. Cold wash. The silk sleepsack, unfurled, curls into the washing machine in a fetal position. You know that discovering the scent of fabric softener in the fibers of the silk, a week from now, in the hills of another foreign country, will give you comfort. Delicate cycle.

Meanwhile, your now empty pack awaits its own restuffing. More piles; these are on your bed. You've counted and recounted the gear. You've assembled lists of last minute items: moleskin, band-aids, travel toothpaste. Film. You always leave this off of the list, awaking at 2 or 3 a.m., the night before every trip abroad you've ever taken and add it, in capital letters, to the last-minute list you made only hours ago.

You see two pairs of dark socks and a few more dark items that could've joined their counterparts in the load that just finished washing. You move them from the bed to the floor. New laundry pile.

The wet, dark clothes go immediately into the dryer. The white items--now joined by lightly-colored and often-washed stuff-- follow into the washing machine. Cold cycle. Delicates. Medium load. The paper-thin, linen shirts you bargained for over two tongue-blistering cups of chai (offered to you while the vendor hoped you'd buy more), sink slowly downward into the basin underneath the soapy water.

Back to the bed. Each piece of gear gets rolled (not folded) into the pack for easy access later. You have room to spare.

Whirring noises from the laundry room assures you into thinking that you're doing everything possible in order to ready yourself for your trip.

Where have you put the copies of your passport? Your eye prescription? Your secret waist pouch? You ponder these items while you make your third cup of coffee in two hours.

While looking for an extra pair of contacts, you decide it's best to boil the bacteria off of your favorite (Hello Kitty) contact case. This is another remnant of home whose familiarity will provide you comfort when you are far away, trying to pry the small plastic lenses from your eyes in a dark tent, on a trail where the indigenous people, thousands of years before you--or plastic--came along, slept where you're sleeping. Without eyewear. Without a canvas tent. Without Japanimated characters to force a smile.

You fire up the burner and put the contact case, and why not, your old, purple travel toothbrush (the one of two you didn't drop on the urinated-upon, aluminium floor of the squat-toilet bathroom on your overnight train ride between cities). You consider the toothbrush your token of fortune. It is your talisman for hygenic luck on your next voyage.

The whirring noises come to an end. The third pile of formerly neglected items bounce into the washer. There is no continuity, save for their sentimental value, to this load: a green, polyester scarf with gold-embroidered patterns; the two pairs of black socks you should've washed earlier; the white t-shirt onto which you absentmindedly spilled your vegetable masala in a kind woman's home (you wore that same, stained shirt when you witnessed the bloodied sari of a traffic accident victim); pants, soiled by Deet around the cuffs. Cold wash. Definitely delicate.

As you fold the recently-cleaned items, which now smell as mountainy-fresh and dewy-clean as the labels promise, you find you've washed away the smells that embodied the most formidable and impalpable moments of your time in the country that is so far away now. How will you remember these moments without the smells there to remind you?

There is a fleece pullover on your bed. When you hold it to your nose, the bitter, sharp scent of oil lamps by which you watched a tabla and sithar concert, on straw mats, on a rainy, rainy night, dances back into your skin.

You roll it up, and place it directly into the pack. This, too, will give you relief when, a few days from now, you'll be another place, very, very far away from home.

October 31, 2004

Time to Change: Coming Home

Warning: I'm not sure this blog has any continuity to it whatsoever. There are many things I'm trying to say, but am still jet-lagged, between worlds, unaware of the time. This one's more a rambling--a musing--on a few different kinds of transitions.

I spent my last night in the Subcontinent in a non-touristy area of Mumbai, close enough to the airport to catch my early morning flight with little hassle (or traffic). Not one to spend my evening in a hotel room, I ventured out for a roadside korma and to see what I could see. Typically, vegetable vendors with their enormous carts began emerging as the sun set; the traffic grew more frenzied and it became more difficult to side-step the other pedestrians, bicycles, potholes, puddles, etc.

I was amazed to discover that I was the only white person around. All night: not another tourist in sight. This meant, of course, that there were no tourist attractions, no shops to lure Western spenders, no English-speaking waiters to dole out blanded-down fare to suit the fair patrons.

I walked up and down the main, four-lane road for what must have been three hours. Stopping at a restaurant for some coffee, and to write in my journal, I drew the attention of anyone who cast a glance my way. What would a white girl possibly be doing in this part of town?

Sentiment (and heat) took hold of me, and made me yearn for some refreshing pista ice cream; I ordered some. And I did it in Hindi.

The dish of yum arrived, but engrossed in my journal-writing, I hadn't realized that I wasn't granted pista at all, but something not at all pistacio-tasting. Did I look that gullible? I sent it back with a hint of ire in my visage. No, mango creamsicle wasn't going to cut it. No, thank you, no I don't want vanilla. Just the coffee please. And the bill. The kitchen staff, perched behind water jugs on the half a wall separating us, went into a muted uproar. They'd been betting that I'd just eat the mango creamsicle and pay the bill. One of the kids collected money from his betting counterparts, grinning broadly to himself.

And so even in the heart of non-touristy Bombay, I understood that this is really what it is to be an American in India:

No matter where you go, you are walking dollar signs. You have money, and you are expected to be free with it. (One boy confessed that he'd always thought American women only carried dollar bills in their big American purses.)

Until you get here, you will take for granted: sidewalks--even sidewalks with streetlamps and small ramps between curb and street--that are less than a foot off the ground; sidewalks without gaping holes which beneath them lay the city sewer; garbage collection; paved roads; homeless shelters. You will take for granted that you have a job which you can leave if you wish to, and that you're free to choose which kind of job you'd like to have, or that you can change your entire profession and learn a new trade at a late age; you will take for granted that as a woman, you're entitled to marry late, decide to be a working mother, wear swimsuits to the beach and not get stared at as if you were wearing nothing at all.

You will take for granted how much your society revolves around preserving life, in the form of traffic and safety laws. That we are mandated to drive with our shoes on. That the double yellow line is not a suggestion. That children are, for the most part, told not to speak to strangers, picked up and dropped off from school by safety-inspected vehicles, and prohibited from taking public transportation by themselves.

I sat next to a lovely, young, and newly-married man from Delhi on the flight between Bombay and Newark tonight. We talked at length throughout the course of the 17-hour trip. Often the subject of how Indians, generally, view life surfaced. And so according to Satchin, it's like this (and I noted this in an earlier blog): life is fleeting. It comes and goes, and that's how it is. Accidents happen. You have no control over your fate, and karma--your transmogrification from one life into the next--is irreversible, so why (sic) wear a helmet?

It sounds like a simplification of the overall attitude, but it did resonate with the impression I'd gotten here. Paradoxically, I'd spent a month taking a daily dose of anti-malarial meds, being careful not to rinse my toothbrush under the faucet and drinking only from water bottles, reminding myself to take vitamin c once in a while. I took more care with my eating habits than I ever do in the U.S.; I even had one cause to call my doctor at home. If I karmically return in another life, I will probably come back as an airbag.

As much as I miss India, I must admit that it is a relief to be back in an environment that I can truly now consider "safe." All things being respective, that is.

I returned home to a strong chill in the air, leaves on the ground, the smell of chimney smoke in the air. It was All Hallows Eve. Mom and I took a sentimental last walk around our block; tomorrow, we move to a new home in Henrietta, NY. Seeing our old house nearly empty and our new house totally void of stuff at all, the culture shock finally set in. So much space, and there are only three of us--thirteen families might live in either of these houses in urban India.

I will always think of that. I will keep Mikki's and Mani's homes close at mind. How I wound up--whether I was transmogrified or not--to be born in a 20th century America is probably the most fortunate phenomenon to happen to a human being, and I'm thankful for it.

Looking forward to the next adventure: Peru--in two weeks. Until then, look for the less occassional blog, and please let me know your thoughts on the blogs: animox72@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

October 29, 2004


Dear Mr. Damon,

Or should I just call you Johnny, as I have so many times from behind Pesky's Pole? I have been meaning to write you for ages, but I was preparing to go abroad. Please accept my wholehearted congratulations for the most beautiful and inspiring comeback I have ever, ever witnessed.

I'd also like to say here that your defeat of the Yanks in the playoffs was sweetened by your flagrant, unshaven and anti-establishment beard, which really becomes you. Please keep it for next season so that you can mock and remind those clean-cut suckers that hair growth has so little to do with being a bona-fide ballplayer.

You make a city proud--you've made children everywhere ecstatic. You're going to be partly responsible for the biggest revenue-turning Red Sox paraphernalia profit the Fenway Estate has ever seen.

While you're toting around Beantown on your Hog, I hope you know I'm sending you a most heartfelt THANKS for an exciting season, for bringing the pride back home, and for being an all-around great guy.

Please, please, please marry me.

October 28, 2004

Swimming with the Sadhu; or, a Conversation in Monosyllables

The greying, long-haired, long-limbed, loosely-fitted orange dhoti-diaper-toting sadhu leaned back in his beach chair to adjust the silver chain an intimidated jewelry seller had placed around his vodka-filled belly.

"How?" he demanded of her.
She held up three fingers to imply that the chain would cost him rupees 300.

"Ha! No! No!" he jerked. "No!"
Terrified, she unclasped the chain and placed it back over her forearm with the rest of her wares. As she stepped back into the hot sand from under our palmfrond and bamboo beach hut, he leaned into his wife, who wiped the sweat off of his upper lip. He turned towards me.

Innocently trying to immerse myself in a Parsi novel and tending to some minor heat rash, enjoying my last authentic banana lassi, I could feel his stare.

"Ah!?" he yelped at me. I looked towards him. His dhoti was way too loose, but this was the beach--Kalangole Beach, in Goa-- and immodesty, I suppose, was as common here as white folks looking for the Indian version of Margaritaville.

"Huh?" I asked.
"Yeeeees?" (Not many have guessed my country of origin so readily here. Maybe he was a real sadhu after all?)
"Cigarette! Give!"
"Huh?" I squinted.
"American cigarette!"
"No, I don't have any American cigarettes. Sorry!" Back to my very depressing book.
"Um, no?"
"Ah! Okay."

His wife was glowing with affection for this bizarre piece of work. I couldn't help but wonder where the two had coughed up the money for this kind of vacation--rare for sadhus who usually have to beg for their meals. While sadhu bullied our server for "Vodka! Now!", I casually put my book away and started putting my sarong over my shoulders. I thought I'd take a walk, and wanted to shield the heat rash.

"Ah!" he started again. "AH!"
Sheesh! "What?" I asked. I gave his wife a look that I'd hoped would intimate that my patience was wearing thin.
"Go! GO! GO GO GO!" He pointed towards the water.
"Goa! Yes! I like it here very much!"
He sucked his teeth at me. Then he pointed again to the water.
"Yes, I've already been for a swim today. Twice. Thank you. No."
"Go! Come!" He held out his hand.
"Come!" He slapped his stomach.
"Please! Good!"

Sanjuro started looking really amused, laughing so that his shoulders shook. Dammit. We had an audience now, for the French, Dutch, and vaguely British folks sharing our palmy shelter were all looking to see what would happen next.

"Please! Come!"
Ah, shit.
The sadhu slapped his stomach, pointed again to the sea, and pointed to me.

I got out my waterproof SPF as a mild attempt at skin preservation. The sadhu held out his hand: "Ah!" He demanded. So I gave him a healthy dollop of Banana Boat #8. He washed it into his hair, forehead, and eyes, rubbing vigorously until the hairy rim of his scalp stood on end. Now the madman had a mane.

"No," I tried to explain. "It's going to go right into your eyes and burn them!"
"HA!" said the scary sadhu.
"That's gonna hurt," said Sanjuro, laughing to himself.

"Come!" the sadhu shouted again.
"Life's a beach," I murmured to Sanjuro. I took off my sarong and headed down to the shore. The sadhu followed.

With one hand on my glasses and my other in his grip, we walked into the Arabian Sea. Now there were no words. An imminent, large, and threatening wave loomed before us. It gathered its form as we walked towards it.

"Come!" he said.
As the wave crashed into us, our hands broke apart. I was glad for it, and that my glasses had miraculously survived the tumult was a bonus. Refreshed and hoping the sadhu was sated, I made for my restful spot on the beach. He left me to it.

I sipped my banana lassi in peace. He'd only wanted to help me cool off, I suppose. I closed my eyes for a spell, long enough to reminisce about my month in India. Images of things I've never written down floated through my imagination. I was breathy from combating the waves, walking through heavy, hot sand. The gypsy woman with green eyes and silver that dangled from her temples in Pushkar. (I breathed in and out.) The tiny wooden fishing boat off the coast of Kochi, its navigator gracefully casting his net into the water, his craft only lit by a tiny oil lamp. (Another deep breath.) The smell of ayurvedic oil in my scalp. (Another breath.) Papaya on my breakfast plate. Mustard seeds. The taste of raw cardamom. The lean-to, aluminium homes that line the roads of Mumbai, where the women wash themselves in the sewer. A waterfall at sunset in Munnar, and a carefully-prepared ball of piquant, tiny flowers handed to me by my rickshaw driver. The luminously bright shades of pink of tropical flowers in Kerala. (A breath.) A late-night discussion about happiness and love with a Russian-Israeli man in Kumily. The screech of an eagle. The way goats eat from garbage. How to brace yourself in a rickshaw in a torrential downpour. (Breath.) The pink glow of the air in Rajasthan. Camels enshrouded in colorful harnesses and bells, who seem to make desert music when they walk. The startled eyes of children who laugh when I smile at them.

When I awoke, the sadhu, and all traces of him, had vanished.

October 25, 2004

Danyavardh, Nahnni: A Wedding in Munnar

Take any public or private bus in India, and you're in for a wild ride. Witness: the nail marks in my palms from hanging on tightly, with sweaty palms and white knuckles, to the metallic hand rails; the thick layer of dirt on my face and arms, from the diesel that builds its residue while you wind through city traffic; the smile on my face from the sick thrill of swinging back and forth in my seat while the bus heads, like a bullet, down a steep mountain, hugging the sides of cliffs, in the slick rain, its axles clear off the pavement for moments at a time.

The bus ride to Munnar, while thrilling, was preparation for the climate changes we were about to encounter. Having left the more warm (nay, hot) environs of Cochin and Kumily, the temperature fell as our bus climbed into the picturesque and breathtaking cloud-covered mountains of the countryside. Arriving in Munnar was a respite from sweating--but we were also too happy to be out of Kumily and in this tiny town surrounded by marvellous scenery. Munnar is infamous for its being the home of Tata Tea, the dominant tea manufacturer in South India: we knew our caffeine appetites would be sated here.

Munnar is the closest to rural India I may come on this trip: like Kumily, there's virtually nothing going on past 8:30 p.m.--which means not much light to walk by after dark--and the traffic is far less intimidating than the cities we've stayed in. Still, we are in the state of Kerala, which operates under a communist government. It's common to hear (long before you see) a slowly-moving truck with loudspeakers booming announcements throughout the town about the next meeting, or red flags with the hammer & sickle, or folk depictions of Che Guevara painted on to the back walls of a kiosk. Alcohol is illegal, but is sold, illicitly, under the guise of "Special Tea." What is most interesting about Munnar, though, is that upon being dumped out into the central bus stop, you're surrounded by mountains: at one glance, you'll see an enormous church; turn a quarter, and you'll find a Hindu temple; another slight spin, and you find a mosque.

We had the pleasure of quickly befriending a rickshaw driver named Mani; in very broken English, he explained that the name Munnar derives from aru (river) and munnu (three)--and we thought Three Rivers was just a stadium in Pittsburgh (silly, uninformed tourists!). Mani took us all over the place: after helping us to find a place to stay, he carted us off to the mountains, where we saw nilgiri tarr--a vanishing breed of mountain goats--feed and frolick amidst the beauty of miles upon miles upon miles of visible tea plantations and blue mountains. He made certain that we stop to see the waterfalls on the way, via a somewhat secretive footpath. And just when we thought he couldn't get any nicer, Mani asked us to visit his home for some tea.


As his rickshaw neared the row of blue-painted huts, children seemed to come out of every nook and cranny to wave, laugh, and squeal at us. "Hallo! How are you?" seemed to be the dominant English phrases--but they couldn't really answer my asking how they were, so we enjoyed conversations consisting mainly of "Hallo!" and "Hi!" and much hand-shaking.

Entering Mani's two-room home was another lesson in humility. As they had when I visited Mikki's home in Delhi, the wedding albums came out while Mani's wife prepared the tea. We sat in the very room--which accomodated two beds for a number of people (I couldn't quite count, but I think about six, and two babies)--where the prenuptial celebrations were held. What had they done with the beds, I wondered, but couldn't ask. While we drank tea and talked, it occurred to me that I still hadn't witnessed an Indian wedding--which I'd badly wanted to do--and so I asked Mani if he knew of any wedding taking place while we were to be in Munnar.

Once he understood what I was asking, he and his wife fished out what looked like dozens of old invitations. One after the other, he checked, until he located--aha!!--an invitation for a wedding that would be occurring the next day. What luck! He told us that he'd pick us up at our guesthouse in the morning, and that we'd not only be able to attend the wedding with him, but that we could get some more sightseeing in to boot. Perfect.

Neither Sanjuro nor I had a clue how to act or what to do. After leaving our shoes behind in the rickshaw, we were shooed this way and that. "Come here," Mani said, and lead us around each idol in the temple. We watched while he prayed to each one. Soon, Mani pointed me towards a small house-type building next to the temple. I looked hesitant. "No," he protested. "Go! Now!" In I went.

A crowd of women in the most splendid, gorgeous, and colorful array of saris had descended upon the terrified bride. While she stood, hands folded, women adjusted her turquoise and gold-threaded sari, put jasmine garlands in her hair, placed the ceremonial garlands around her neck and on her head, fixed her makeup, and wiped her tears. She looked absolutely terrified, and a little shocked that a white girl was standing in the middle of it. I felt horribly uncomfortable--after all, this was a huge day in this girl's life, and there was a tourist standing right in the damn middle of it. I took a few steps back.

Then the grandmothers and old aunties got a hold of me. They spoke excitedly at me, grabbing my shoulders and arms, and led me right back to the foreground of the beautifying scene. At last, a lovely woman explained: "They want you to take pictures! So take! And send back!" Well, alright! Of the twelve rolls of film I brought to India, one and a half were taken in a matter of hours.
The actual ceremony in the temple was marvellous: the bride and groom sat on the floor while we threw saffron and rice at them. They were showered with prayers, and then rose to make puja to the gods around the temple. I was whisked away to help them tow a cart, which housed figurines of gods, around the temple itself. Then I was whisked by two young English-speaking boys to their mothers, who chatted me up for some time. We exchanged addresses, and I learned that the woman who'd translated for me earlier is--thank goodness--a teacher. We had what to talk about.

But soon, Mani insisted we leave the wedding for a while and head up to the dams in the mountains, and eventually, we landed at what they call "Top Station"--one of the highest scenic viewing points in Munnar. It was phenomenal, and all we could do was stand there. My pictures will never capture the stillness of that beauty: mountain ranges and lush forestry for miles, the shadows of clouds sweeping across as if the hand of God were passing over it all.

By 2 p.m., we were back in time for the wedding feast. Under a tent, tables were laid out to accomodate the feeding of the guests--men rolled paper over the tables, dished out food onto tin trays off of which the guests ate, and upon their finishing, collected the soiled paper to make way for the next group to sit down. A true feeding frenzy! This was to be my true acculturation test: when we were asked if we wanted spoons, I declined. "You can eat with your hand?" one man asked, astonished. I nodded, but was hesitant--and really, I think I prefer chappatis so much because I don't make as much an ass of myself trying to pick up my curry with these, as opposed to rice, which was our meal. Chicken Biryani. Oh, boy.

Luckily, I managed to carry on an actual conversation while I pressed and packed my rice together with my fingertips and placed them in my mouth. I sat next to Soly, a woman who is also a teacher, and married to a minister (remember that Christianity is big in Kerala); she wrote the Hindi and Malyalam vowel sounds for me in my journal while I dutifully repeated each sound, hoping to memorize them by the meal's end. I don't think I impressed the folks we sat with too much by my vowel repetition, but I did manage to clear my plate with only a few rice grains in my lap.

Language is an amazing tool, and when it isn't shared, makes for some pretty amusing and some profound moments. While Soly taught me the one word I'd repeated all day in English--thank you--in Hindi and Malayalam, Sanjuro asked one of the men around us what the egg on our plates symbolized. The conversation went something like this:

"Excuse me? Does the egg on the plate symbolize something? Like fertility or..." Juro's voice trailed off to leave room for an answer.
"Yes!" the man replied. "Eggs can be poached or scrambled or fried!"
"No, that's not what I mean. Does the egg...mean something? Why are we eating it?"
"Yes, eggs. They are very easy to prepare many of."

After the feast, we said long goodbyes to people who'd been more generous than we ever could have hoped. I truly felt that we were leaving friends; I promised to send them the wedding pictures, and some new pens for their schools, and some American coins for the kids. We saw the (still sad-looking) bride and bridegroom off, and it was time to return to our sightseeing.

Mani took us down the valley, this time to an immense waterfall. We were in time for sunset, and as the moon came up and dusk descended, we couldn't help but ponder how lucky we'd been this day to experience the true beauty of the landscape--but moreso, the people--of Munnar. For all of this, I couldn't help but repeat, in my head, the words I learned earlier that afternoon: danyavardh, in Hindi, and in Malayalam, nahn'ni. Thank you, thank you.

Other highlights in Munnar (of course, they're cuisine-related) include my finally eating off of a banana leaf (yes, with one hand) and enjoying a ginger tea at a tea-shack in the mountains. We also took our dinner--for two consecutive nights--at an outdoor restaurant, where we sort of befriended the old man with paan-masala (some red, some missing) teeth, who flipped sizzling-hot parothas on the oily griddle, while we watched, ate, watched. His only two words in English seemed to be "American!" and "Dollar!", but he acknowledged our faithful patronage by sporting a button-down shirt with American flags on it the second night we dined there. Soon, we were snapping photos together and I even helped him turn over some of the parothas with my own hands--damn, that's a hot job. Greasy yumminess: by the by, while we ate, I saw a man re-light his griddle-burner with a flame on a piece of newspaper that also lit his cigarette, which hung from his lips while he issued out idli from a press onto a steamer. He also hocked some nasty loogies behind him while he cooked. Now that's some hardcore, downhome cooking. (Nick Tahoes, step aside!)

We're back in Cochin now, enjoying the air-conditioned WebWorld, where we're killing time before hopping our 16-hour train ride to Goa, the last official stop on my tour of India. I am looking forward to spending some much-needed beach time, and possibly reuniting with B.C., who I met earlier in Jaipur. Until the next--perhaps last?--India blog, I am keeping you in my thoughts and am hoping to hear from you!

October 24, 2004

Stuck Inside of Kumily with the Munnar Blues Again: read this one first

Dear friends, family, and faithful blog readers,
I am so sorry for the long silence. I am fine. Thank you for your inquisitive emails asking me where the hell I've been, but moreso, for the RED SOX UPDATES!!! (up two games in the Series?!)

When last I posted, I was in Cochin--where I am again now. Since then, Sanjuro and I have ventured to Allepey, where we spent almost 24 hrs. normal_060%20our%20houseboat1on a cozy houseboat through the backwaters of Kerala, and then to Kumily, where our intention was to spend no more than two nights, and visiting the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Within the park, we took an 8-hour hike (three hours of which we paddled a bamboo raft through Periyar lake): we saw wild boar; we hiked through insane jungle grasses taller than any of us; we discovered a herd of elephant feasting; we sampled funky leaves and smelled cinnamon bark; we saw a wild dog nearly attack a sambar deer in the middle of a river while an eagle screeched overhead; we got very telling sunburns and had a great time. normal_104%20trekking%20companionsBut our trekking over with, I was ready to move on. Sanjuro wanted to stay an extra night to parktake in the night hike, so I moved from our digs in the park to a very funky guest house, where I took up residency in a tree house.

Yes, a tree house. Maybe seeing all those monkeys made me a little jealous--after all, up in the trees, you can see paradisical flora and fauna until the jungle gets thick with darkness. I told the proprietor of the inn that I'd be happy living in that treehouse for a long time. It was resplendent with bamboo, flanked by coffee trees, had a mosquito net over the bed, plenty of room for my pack, and two candles to read by. At night, crickets serenaded me to sleep. Broadcasted languid singing from the local Mosque woke me at dawn. Midday, dragonflies twittered above and sometimes landed near my cup of coffee as if to remark on how good it smelled. I could watch water buffalo grazing from my back windows. I was--quite literally--in heaven.

But I couldn't sleep, nor could I barely gulp down my gulab jamun that next day. Game 7 was either about to wrap up or had already--we had no idea--and off we went to seek out an internet cafe.

There are two working internet "cafes" in the town of Kumily. There might be a third, but it doesn't operate before or after 2 p.m. And the remaining services are all dial-up: no DSL in sight. This isn't surprising in a town where there are no sidewalks, no streetlamps, and no stoplight, but we'd hoped to get our information a lot sooner.

It took about five minutes, between sitting in front of our computers and the news popping up on screen, to find out that our beloved Sox had clinched the pennant. We whooped, yelped, and got a little choked up. (I'm sure the man running the cafe thought we were suffering a reaction to spicy food.) It was surreal: not only to find out that my BoSox Boys had beat the antagonizing Yanks, but that the only other person who could totally appreciate the moment in the immediate vicinity was sitting right next to me.

I also found out that I am to be a regular columnist for an online and print magazine out of NYC (it has no title yet, but they're getting back to me on this). And after an extremely long wait for the email to surface, learned that I'll be teaching a playwriting workshop at a rather respectable writing center in my hometown. The Sox's big win, being in print, and landing a job all at once--well, all within an hour of download attempts? My nerves were blown.

It was cause for celebration: we went to dinner, and had an intense korma followed by my new favorite dessert, pistacio ice cream with rosewater flavor.

But here ends the joyous part of the Kumily trip. For the next morning, we awoke to find out that there was a political assassination that mandated a bus strike. Out of things to do and stranded in a small, dial-up town, we became fixtures of the funky courtyard at the inn, reading, writing, and talking to other stranded folks. Soon enough, we were bored out of our skulls. I was totally happy to keep sleeping in my treehouse, and Sanjuro was happy to keep ogling the cute Swedish gals.

The bus strike continued the next day--or rather, it was unclear what was really going on. Needless to say, we were stranded for another day. At the internet cafe, I was unable to get a blog--or even a letter--out, for the power cutting out now and then, the connection getting lost, and the computer being incredibly slow. In an attempt to post a quick, explanatory blog, I wrote this:

I am sitting in a small lounge here in Kumily: it is an internet “café”—though apart from their five computers, there’s not much more service. The power has gone out, and we’re operating on a generator.

I have been trying to write you all back for over an hour. But there is no such thing as DSL or high-speed here, and when I press “compose” or “reply,” the connection falters and my blood pressure goes up a notch.

Briefly: Juro and I are stuck in Kumily. There was a politically-motivated assassination of a labor organizer the other night; since then, we’ve been having trouble getting out of here. What we thought was at first only a bus strike turned out to be a full-fledged labor shut-down, between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., yesterday. Not only were shops forced into closing, but any private bus seen operating, we were told, would have probably encountered some form of mob violence, in the form of stone-throwing.

We have decided to stay put.

Today, it wasn’t quite clear that government buses were running until this afternoon, but our inn’s proprietor tells us that “normal people” take early morning buses out of Kumily—that way, the bus driver can see more clearly the serpentine cliffs around which he weaves his rocket of a vehicle. Fine by me.

I wanted to say a quick thanks to any of you who’ve written—I’ve been able to see that you’ve written, but not the emails themselves. It is the apex of frustration, and I look forward to hearing from you when I arrive—hopefully, soon—in Munnar.

With the end of the labor strike, we were destined for Munnar--where we've just spent a really lovely couple of days. Please see the next blog to read all about it!

October 17, 2004

Soul Food, Where the Shtetl Meets Kerala

One of the most ubiquitous signs that you’re in a Jewish home—no matter where you are in the world—is the presence of a table, laden with hot, yummy, traditional dishes, the woman of the house pinching your shoulder until you’ve sampled from all of them. “Eat, eat!” insist the women from the (Eastern European) Old Country. In the Northeast corridor of the United States, the modern phrasing goes something like this: “Take more—what are you, ashamed to eat?”

So it was no culture shock that upon arriving at the modest home of Yosef (who runs the last remaining Jewish synagogue in Fort Cochin, India, for its 14 remaining congregants and curious tourists like me) and his wife, Yosefa, I was greeted with kisses on the cheek, and an invitation to share their Shabbat dinner. “What are you waiting for?” bellowed Yosef. “You don’t have to take a number to sit! Sit!” There, in Yosef’s and Yosefa’s dimly-lit, makeshift office-dining room, 7300 miles from my own Sabbath table, I felt completely at home, accompanied by a Kiwi couple and an older, Australian woman I hadn’t met but two hours previous.

While Yosef said the common blessings—in Hebrew, with an Indian and Sephardic accent—over the Sabbath candles, wine, and bread, Yosefa was noisily preparing our dinner in the kitchen, punctuating her husbands’ ah’meyn!s by clanging her stirring spoon on a simmering pot every so often.

I couldn’t concentrate on the prayers at all. For one, it was about 90 degrees—outside, at sunset. Inside, Yosef refused to open a single window as a preventative measure against allowing mosquitoes to share the meal (and eat us alive). I don’t know how hot it actually was, but without the Ernakulam, seaside breezes and sitting closely enough to a working stove, I was sweltering. (The Kiwis, the Aussie, and my hosts all seemed to have regulated their temperatures perfectly.) When I asked Yosef for a glass of water, he replied that his mother-in-law had forgotten to boil any, and I should just have some whiskey instead. While the traveler’s mandate “always stay hydrated” floated into my head, the mother-in-law shrugged at me apologetically.

Yosef interrogated me and the Aussie about being single, female, and Jewish (and therefore, available), as would most accommodating hosts with single, available strangers at their tables, as Yosefa proudly set before us dish after dish. I was trying to assert, modestly, that I was having a grand time traveling as a single woman, when the old Jewish standards—chicken, liver and onions, kamput (a fruit stew)—arrived at the table: my grandmother might have made the same feast.

Somewhere between convincing Yosef that a single woman can be happy and his trying to convince me that I wasn’t truly happy yet, Yosefa laid on the table succulent-looking, aromatic plates of. . .things I couldn’t quite identify. Whew! An opportunity to switch topics finally presented itself.

Yosefa explained what each dish was as she heaped spoonful after spoonful onto our plates. Soya palak. Spinach with red chilis and mustard seed. Cucumber salad with tomatoes and fennel. Rice with currants and cardamom. And something she called “spicy fish.” Forget the old standards, I thought. I was ready for my first experience with Southern Indian Soul Food. My adventurous appetite was piqued.

Keralan food is notoriously spicier than Northern Indian cuisine: but when a Southern, Indian, and Jewish woman calls her fish spicy, she’s not fooling around. With a forkful of fish in my mouth, my tongue swelled and my cheeks became flushed. “How’s the taste, Monica?” Yosefa asked, sweetly.

I couldn’t taste the fish, though—all I could taste was burning. A tear floated out of my right eye while I tried to swallow.

“Deelishhh-oush!” I eeked out, trying to regain my composure. Instinctively, I reached for my glass, which Yosef had surreptitiously already filled (filled!) with whiskey. And with the first sip, I could have sworn that the edges of my tongue had turned to a burnt black.

I took two deep, thoughtful breaths before embarking on this culinary exploit: with the first, I prayed that I could get through this meal without passing out. With the second breath, I prayed that packed my antacids towards the top of my rugsack. (It was the Sabbath, after all, and I knew that I was in for a spiritual food experience.)

Baring in mind my 11th grade chemistry class, I tried to pair the more spicy-looking things on my plate with the less daunting dishes. Aha! Rice with currants will cancel out the fish! I earnestly hoped. But with each bite, my pores released a little more sweat. Yosefa watched proudly as I ate, hovering at my side and offering the bowl of fish every couple of minutes. But two minutes in, I ceased talking. My tongue was broken; my gums ached. My throat was useless. All I could do was shrug, smile, nod, sniffle, and continue to wipe the sweat off of my forehead.

By the time I’d miraculously finished the fish and rice, I’d soiled five large napkins and downed two glasses of whiskey (the relief of which was only in becoming more inebriated and thus more immune to the burning).

The airy, cotton salwar-kameez I’d proudly worn to dinner was now soaked through and clinging to my skin, fastening me to my plastic chair. My hair was entirely wet. Yosef and Yosefa, and the mother-in law, watched me mostly in silence, awe, and fear. Yosef tried to fill my glass again, when I put a hand over its top to signal that I’d had enough. Dejectedly, Yosef offered some bread. Bread! This’ll soak up some pain! I nonverbally accepted, holding my plate out for salvation.

Yosefa intervened. “But you haven’t tried tahini yet! You put it on the bread.” Before I could wave my free hand or vigorously shake my head no!, Yosefa had managed to smother my little slice of comfort with her deceptive, sweetly-aromatic black-sesame and green-chili paste. Now that the whiskey had gotten to my reflexes, those were useless too.

While Yosef, Yosefa, and their guests resumed talking politics, geography, and fashion, I took small bites and had visions: purple dots floated before my eyes, and when my vision blurred over completely, the throbbing in my ears most audible, I leaned back and triumphantly pushed the plate away. I had just won my first-ever Iron-Stomach contest (against my own better judgment, digestive system, and major glands)! But I knew that if I were to peek down my salwaar, I’d have seen a heat rash across my heaving chest.

I pretended to drop my sixth, soggy napkin so that I could crouch underneath the table, where I touched my tongue to make sure it was still there. Certain that I’d satisfied my hosts’ gracious meal offerings, I held the cold glass of whisky to my cheek, grateful to have partaken in—and survived--my first Indian Shabbat.