Friday, December 10, 2010

back to patching

I'm spending the next couple months freelancing for Patch, where I worked before my world-wide romp. Here are some of the hyperlocal tidbits I've filed lately:

Avon Revives Unified Sports Program for Pre-kindergarten through Sixth Grade

Two stories for yet-to-launch East Haddam-Haddam

One story for yet-to-launch East Hampton-Portland

West Hartford
Bed Bugs Hide Beneath Their Stigma
Conard Gets OK to Build 'Green Power Display Lab'

Wilton Youth Council Needed and In Need

Regional (Fairfield County)
911 in 2010: The Year in Crime, Accidents

I will also be doing some work for other publications...more to come next week!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

a beirut evening

Beirut is a fascinating and fun city. I'm not going to purport to know nearly as much about it as I should considering I just dedicated five days roving around in it. But I can share a few observations.

Decades of civil war left the city holed and ruined, and parts, such as downtown, were completely rebuilt to look like they did before the war. All neighborhoods are full of barricades, tanks, and soldiers. Despite the grim past and its present reminders, the city feels vibrant and spirited, and its inhabitants party hard and late in a variety of bars, clubs and cafes that make it easy to understand why its known as the Paris of the Middle East. It feels even Frenchier because French is just as much the second western language in this area as English, and there are a lot of linguistic bits of French in Lebanese Arabic.

Yesterday, Eman and I stepped out in the afternoon and (after a couple apparel store detours) enjoyed a late lunch in a Hamra Cafe near American University of Beirut whose vibe was reminiscent of the Hungarian Pastry Shoppe, down to the fact that Cafe Younes' staff leaves patrons to suss out the chosen ordering method for themselves. After a long stroll around Hamra in search of a gift for Eman's fiance (she found one, but no spoilers here!), we settled into another cafe, Buttermint, which was playing Feist and had an outdoor patio garden that made the crazy streets, just yards away, feel distant.

Finally, we decided to return to the bar in the Gemayze neighborhood, Godot, where we'd had a blast the prior night; cue overkill of 'going to find Godot' punnery. We set out on the 20 minute walk and hadn't gone far when Eman tripped on a bit of metal popping from the sidewalk and got a nasty cut on her toe that was basically a more intense twin of the toe wound I got in the Dead Sea. Now with twin bandages, we drank mojitos at the bar--the Middle East uses fresh mint better than anywhere else--and sang along to the bar's American soundtrack.

Leaving at a barely respectable 11:30, mostly because I couldn't stand the cigarette smoke that floats thick in the air of Lebanese nightlife, we hopped into the nearest cab and found ourself being driven by a drunken cabbie. Half thinking we wouldn't survive the ride and half enjoying his seat dancing, poem reciting, radio station surfing spirit, we endured what turned out to be the most bizarrely entertaining moments of the evening, which ended with a gallant kiss on Eman's hand and a hug for me, because 'anything from the land of Obama is OK with me.'

Thursday, November 18, 2010

blog list: things I now know should be packed for a trip through developing countries

*A flashlight

*portable clothesline

*real sneakers


*sunglasses (though buying them in Dubai was great)

*a water bottle holder so as not to always carry it by hand

*outlet converters

*Lonely Planet guides

i want... write some overarching, eloquent, what-have-I-learned-on-my-travels type posts, and plan to do it. But right now, I'm having too much fun running around Amman and Beirut to do much more than peruse the internet when a connection is available.

So, cheers for the moment!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

a croc tale

Life advice: if going for a water hike in a flowing river--one that involves pulling yourself up slick rocks with rickety ropes while being distracted by the majestic rock canyons rising on either side--don't go in Crocs. I got a pair in Goa (don't judge; they looked like ballet flats). And I figured they'd be perfect for a water hike at Al-Mujib, a Jordanian nature reserve abutting the Dead Sea. They're supportive and lightweight. They dry quickly.

And indeed, the first half of the hike against the current proved me right. I didn't slip or feel weighted by the dreaded soggy sneakers. However, the moment we turned back (after reaching a canyon waterfall that toppled in from a bunch of high-up crevices in the reddish rock to form a forceful flow by its base) and the current was propelling us forward, one of my Crocs flew off. A moment later, so did the other. Did I mention the entire hike was over stones and pebbles and I was suddenly barefoot at the point furthest from the beginning?

I was able to retrieve one Croc, but the second one disappeared, leaving me to limp back half unshod, negotiating my way down all the rope-assisted steep rock faces we'd scrambled up. Eman said, "Only in Jordan would they let people do this kind of stuff without a guide."

I made it back, slowly, to the entrance and slipped on a lone left flip flop lying on the bank to wear on the walk across the street to the rustic chalet where we slept. (It and the reserve are run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, where Eman's sister works. The views here are unparalleled, but the flies are vicious.)

"Why must I always learn things the hard way?" I sighed to Eman. "I'll have to add 'don't wear Crocs on water hikes' to my list of things to keep in mind."

"You should also add, 'when Eman tells me I should wear sneakers, do it,'" she replied.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

dubai bullet points of interest

*Clothing items in a discount store: a women's t-shirt made out of a lewd Angelina Jolie photo collage; a pink, rhinestone-studded men's t-shirt with a Scarface decal; neon strappy sandals

*Thanks to censorship, everyone here thinks the lyrics to that song are "I want to be a billionaire so freakin' bad."

*Some women use Islamic clothing as more of a style statement than a means toward modesty.

*We spent a good hour chatting with an Iranian antique art dealer who sells statues of prawns made in China from bull horns.

*Indian sweets are better than Middle Eastern ones. This is probably a good thing from the perspective of my thighs.
*It's kind of embarrassing to be examining souvenir bobble heads that are caricatures of folks in Islamic dress as a woman in a hijab walks by.

india left me unprepared for the automatic toilet flushers in dubai's airport, for starters

Since arriving in the UAE since Nov. 4, I've spent a lot of time in Dubai's malls. A lot of those superlative accomplishments that define the emirate abroad--indoor ski slope, largest musical fountain, tallest building--are either in or adjacent to large, shiny luxury brand-filled malls peopled with the most diverse array of folks I've ever seen. You can reach the malls on the metro, whose maps are misleading because only one of the lines have been built though both are represented. The trains (and there's one car that's women-only) are so sparkling clean that I would eat food that's been prepared on them.

That stream of consciousness description contains all my first impressions of Dubai: it's shiny, under construction, over the top and there are too many rules. And Dubai (not so much the other emirates, which I was driven through yesterday and were more normal places) is chock full of foreigners. Yet, food aside, there are no indicators that there is diversity in the city. I saw mosques but no churches or Hindu temples, and foreigners and locals seem to occupy the same space without actually acknowledging one anothers' presence.  Everything is clean and beautiful, but it remains so thanks to laborers from developing countries who stay in perpetual debt to their employers and because there are a million and one rules about everything that make me think twice before blinking.

Rules govern everything from daily life to quotidian economic policy to personal behavior. Unmarried foreigners aren't allowed to share apartments. No public displays of affection. No public dancing. No eating on the metro. No photographing locals. If you speed on the roads, the surveillance cameras will catch you, though the creepier feeling of being watched comes from billboard-sized portraits of the emirati rulers that proliferate on the roadsides. Truthfully, I'm probably not supposed to be writing this.

There are also a lot of building project shells that began before the financial crisis. We passed the exterior wall of an amusement park which had no inside. Its outside decoration was still perfectly lit up, a Potemkin amusement park, for whatever that's worth. But a lot of things -- like the metro system, and that tallest building ever -- have been or are well on their way toward completion, and Dubai residents are proud of the way a world-class (though rather start-of-a-dystopian-novel-before-the-underbelly's-revealed) city has sprung up from the desert in the past decade or so.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

new location, new album link

I've started a new Facebook album for the new phase of my travels, in Dubai and its environs. Enjoy here.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

how to make an indian cappuccino

Credit: Facebook
Here is how the espresso drinks chain Cafe Coffee Day made me a pre-flight cappuccino (order: capp with an extra shot) in Mumbai's domestic airport this morning:

After some confusion on the part of multiple customers about the fact that we couldn't order at the drink counter, only the register (there was nobody manning the register), I waited my turn, announced and paid for my drink. Register man called it out to his colleague, Starbucks style.

I walked over to the counter to wait. A moment later, drink man looked at me and asked, in Hindi, "What was your order?" I told him. Register man continued to shout drink orders that he wasn't paying attention to. He took a cup full of pre-drawn espresso and splashed some of it haphazardly into my cup. Then he steamed some milk for about five seconds and dumped it foamlessly on top. Voila!

And yet the drink tasted fine--hot and strong, like I wanted. India may be half assed (see Obama preparations in previous post), but it somehow gets the job done nonetheless.

i was there first

Obama--or as a cabbie described him, the prime minister of America--comes to Mumbai two days after I leave, and across the city there are all sorts of frenzied preparations underway, with Indian and American security personnel rushing to spiff up the place and to secure it..

I saw some of it first-hand today when I tagged along as a local journalist reported a visit-related story. (Nope, not specifying, but I will tweet a link once it's published)

Obama is stopping at a local university on Saturday or Sunday. We were there today, easily passing a long line of police guarding the entrance and wandering around as a bunch of laborers built wooden bleachers from scratch in the courtyard. (Only in India would things be built from scratch from raw materials at the last minute; I saw a couple doors, complete with latches, being used as sidewalk construction covers in Bangalore, and building scaffolding is sticks of bamboo that look haphazardly knotted together. Also: only here is there always a slew of security personnel that don't actually seem to be securing anything.)

In the midst of the bleacher building, a mix of white folks and Indians sauntered around with clipboards looking overwhelmed. Two visitors' bald spots reinforced my observation that Indian men generally keep their silky manes much longer than men do in the west. As we walked out, a bag inspector was being wheeled in for installation.

That's it for now; no thematic conclusion or what have you. I leave the country tomorrow, and I'm going to enjoy my final hours here. Kulfi, here I come! 

Monday, November 01, 2010

notes from a blackberry scribe: mumbai

As he drove me to Dabolim Airport on Friday, the owner of my guest house in Goa told me I'd take one look at the city as the plane was landing and then turn right 'round again. Prati said she hated Mumbai. The guy who took me to dinner in Goa said he'd lived in Mumbai for a couple years, and it sucked.

I haven't seen the infamous slums yet, but the place doesn't seem all that bad. Like the rest of the country, traffic congestion is horrible and drivers are insane. The cityscape is full of gaudy Diwali season light displays at night. There is street shopping, nice shopping, seemingly reliable electricity and a brilliant array of diversity coexisting. There is a slew of last-minute cosmetic work being done in advance of Obama's visit in a couple days and a new toll bridge allowing drivers to avoid much of the traffic when changing neighborhoods.

And like in the rest of the country, I bet I'm mostly getting a favorable impression because there are a multitude of Indias and I am living in the affluent one. Yes, I spent a day visiting grimy tourist sites and got swindled by some street vendors. But, staying with a couple different people these last few days, I've also had exquisite international cuisine, been to a comedy club and lounged at a members-only swimming facility beside the sea whose pool is India shaped. Last night, my hostess got Diet Coke delivered to her apartment because she knew I liked it.

I also spent a day with a family I knew back in New York. We went to a fancy mall (the one that has the comedy club on an upper floor), and their 10 year old and I had a blast being silly in the fancy stores. She would enter, amass an armful of the store's ugliest, clashingest clothing and then dress up in them and pose for photos. Then we went back home to play with their westie. Everyone has been so kind to me in Mumbai, from cabbies on up.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Little blogging recently, because I no longer have a guaranteed internet connection bigger than a Blackberry, life got hectic and Goa is fun.

After two months, I am Prati-less. She left to resume real life Monday evening. I spent one more night in our hotel by party central Baga Beach, planning to fly to Hyderabad the following afternoon.

I awoke the next morning for a private yoga class with crazy Osho yoga guy to an e-mail from Prati's friend in Hyderabad, my planned host, saying he had a cold and could I delay my arrival until weekend?

I got angry and panicked simultaneously and called Prati at 6 a.m., waking her up.

"Figure it out," she said, voice groggy with sleep, as my panic morphed into guilt. "There's nothing I can do at 6 in the morning."

I decided not to go to Hyderabad and be dependent on somebody who confirms and then flakes on expensive travel plans a few hours later. To arrange a longer stay in Goa, which is beach paradise full of kind, helpful people and fresh fruit, a fellow American who moved to Goa a few months back lent me his Indian cell phone. (I'd met him the previous day over our last shared morning chai; he walks daily from Candolim Beach to Baga and then stops at the restaurant by our hotel to drink a morning beer.) He offered to show me Candolim, where he lives. so we hopped on a local bus (wall sign: "No standing, no spiting (sic)"; Hindi music blaring) and departed.

Candolim is less of a party scene then Baga; there are fewer beach-front restaurant shacks open, but the whole vibe is calmer without feeling as old as the South Goa crowd. My American buddy introduced me to his pals, who own a guest house steps from the beach and offered me a decent rate. I moved in and planned to spend more than what I'd saved to do a few days of yoga at Rolf Naujokat's Candolim studio. He wrote one of the chapters in the Guruji book I read just before departing for India.

I checked out the shala location last night, since their directions read to the effect of "turn right on the dirt road by the pink wall."

"He's German, but he's been here so long we call him Narayan," said the jovial neighbor who helped show me the way.

I walked there for a 6:30 a.m. practice this morning. It was still dark when I arrived, and it was impossible to see what was going on inside. There were just one or two people there and nobody in sight behind me. Then, as if by magic, westerners began appearing out of the murk, from all directions, and filed one by one into the shala.

Since it was so early--and, I learned a bit later, I was that day's only new arrival--nobody bothered to explain where to go until I asked, despite deploying my clueless face. (People were super friendly once I did open my mouth.)

I settled in and observed my fellow students. Nobody spoke, but there was plenty of noise as people rushed to surround themselves with all forms of mosquito repellent, lighting sticks on the floor around them and slathering on creams and sprays. Then, a few advanced students began to practice and everybody else sat and waited. The gate squeaked, a male throat cleared, and then the teacher stalked in, said good morning and began the Ashtanga opening chant.

"Is anyone new?" he boomed as everyone began to practice. I raised my hand. He came over, figured out I was the chick coming for three meager days, and asked me to pay up in advance. "Why are you here for so little time?" he asked me.

"Because I figured three days is better than no days," I told him. He looked me in the eye, placed his hands in anjali mudra and bowed his head as though to say, 'you've got a point there, kid.'

Sunday, October 24, 2010

the meditation thief

The yoga teacher lived up a couple flights of stairs in an alley by Baga Beach, Goa, in a spare apartment with a serious flat screen in one corner and a poster-sized photo of Osho framed on the opposite wall.

Prati had met him on her last trip to the area and described him as a deceptively fat man who led excruciating asana practices. I expected a bumbling ancient along the lines of the Indonesian holy man in "Eat Pray Love" (now playing in Indian theaters). The man that greeted us was on the younger side with a head full of unruly curls and fun gleaming in his eyes.

He embraced Prati, served us some cinnamon tea and told the following story about leading a meditation retreat on the bank of the Ganges:

Every day, the little group would go to the river around 4 a.m., enter meditation on rocks dotting its edge and remain still until the rising sun's warmth snapped them to awareness a couple hours later.

"You naturally expand just sitting beside the river," he told us, cross-legged on the cot beneath Osho.

They meditated each morning, but something "freaky" began happening: every day, one member of the group would awaken to discover something missing. A scarf disappeared, and a flashlight. Nobody could figure out why items vanished.

The teacher investigated, and a local informed him that, every morning before sunrise, one wild elephant ambled down the hill to drink from the Ganges right where they meditated. It appeared he was departing with the yogis' belongings. The teacher decided not to tell his students that their mystery thief was not an astral body or a God playing tricks, but a thirsty, potentially dangerous elephant. If they knew, their proximity to such a massive wild creature would make meditation impossible.

On the retreat's final day, instead of trekking down the hill to the river's edge, he told his students they would watch sunrise from the top of the hill, and that with it would come Ganesh, the Hindu God who takes an elephantine form. The students watched, and soon the elephant appeared for its morning drink.
They never recovered their goods, but the elephant never hurt or bothered the crew, leaving that morning, once again, in peace after its thirst was satisfied.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

melange 2010

We and our hosts went to a concert at Bangalore's Chowdiah Hall last night, a concert venue shaped like a violin! It was a concert in its second year called Melange 2010, an east-west fusion with six performers from all over the globe. There was a sitar, drums, electric bass, guitar, violin and keyboard. The percussionist was a well-known Indian musician who, when soloing, put Dick van Dyke to shame.

The concert was amazing; musicians from very different traditions completely in sync and enjoying the challenge of creating a musical stew that sounded like classical Indian and American jazz simultaneously. The jazz guitarist played a Gershwin tune; the drummer played a raga. The violinist played a haunting piece that involved singing and playing. The sitar and guitarists had some dueling banjo moments.

I love cities.

yoga yoga

Credit: Lou Gaccione
Before I embarked on my trip to India, I was nervous about ending the consistent yoga routine I'd established, which left me feeling centered, thankful and physically strong. I sat down with my teacher, and she told me to try, every day, to do two surya namaskar A, two B and  final seated breathing poses from the Ashtanga sequence. Look at any additional poses that happen as a gift, she said.

I have done my yoga some days. But more often than not, I haven't, sometimes because I haven't had time or space, sometimes because I'm lazy. I definitely feel different without a steady, dedicated practice--more fragmented and more prone to back and neck pain. I've also uncharacteristically gained some weight in the past month and a half with so much amazing Indian food around and no consistent exercise, a change that makes me way uncomfortable.

But I've been thinking about yoga all the time, both because in India, it's hard not to and because Prati is preparing to enter a two-month yoga teacher training near Bangalore. This means she's been talking about yoga a lot--what it is, what it isn't, and how it should be. I find myself getting defensive of my practice when I disagree with her, and then I feel ashamed of that reaction, since shouldn't yoga be all about encompassing everything rather than creating divisions? I've been trying to think through my take on yoga and explore why I'm not currently as open to hearing about the great big world outside the Ashtanga tradition as I feel I (or anyone who presumes to call herself a yogi) should be.

I did have a little bit of a practice, though not a philosophical, background when a friend who is also a yoga teacher first introduced me to the Ashtanga series. I started to go with another friend to a studio in Rhode Island. Then, when I moved across the state, I happened to move minutes from what was then the only studio in Connecticut, as far as I know. Slowly, I turned into someone who was there so often that a teacher there mistook me for an instructor. The thing with Ashtanga is that it  introduces asanas first, and everything else follows. That worked for me better than any other approaches I'd encountered. I started doing yoga as physical exercise. Now, I'm slowly learning about the practice's philosophies, reading its classic texts. This urge to learn stemmed from my physical practice, feeling like a natural next step.

Lots of people will say, though, that asanas are the least important part of what yoga is--that brain comes before body. This makes me cringe, because asana practice worked so perfectly for me as an entry point for all else, but I don't feel like I have a strong enough philosophical grounding to argue that I disagree, especially since what works for me is not necessarily what works for everyone else. And I could make the "Pattabhi Jois just based the system on tradition and the sutras so it's a solid approach" argument, but the truth is that Ashtanga is also supposedly based on a long-lost book that may or may not have been discovered, once, hidden away in Calcutta with crucial pages missing. And I may love the practice, but that doesn't mean I can completely overcome my natural skepticism (it doesn't matter to me where it all came from, just that it works, but that's often no basis for debate).

So this past week when Prati took private lessons from our Bangalore hostess' teacher, I didn't join her. I said I was just too lazy, but the truth is more that I didn't feel that I could be fully open to accepting other perspectives while feeling like I'd have to defend what I feel passionate about in my head. That sentiment may be my immaturity or lack of yogic growth talking, but I'm OK with that.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

random quick hits list

Credit: zz77 via Flickr
Things I love about India:

Rajasthan mustaches
Bollywood films' irrational choreographed dance numbers

Fresh idly, masala chai, fruit juice and almond halva

Udaipur's rooftop lake views

Heritage hotels

Eyeliner on babies

The motley crush of camels, cows, mopeds, auto rickshaws, cars and trucks in the streets

Sikkim's lush greenery

Things I could do without:

Cow poop land mines

Lack of road rules and roads full of potholes

Sharing of bed sheets and towels

Constantly feeling like folks are trying to swindle me

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I feel like my stomach is betraying me, and I feel old.

Since about four years ago--when I first recovered enough from an eating disorder to feel like my body was my friend instead of something to destroy and that eating could be a delicious, social thing instead of a terror--I've been gleeful about the fact that I have a fast metabolism, a stomach that always rises to the occasion (though I'm always bested by Emma's Doritos-and-salsa stomach, which is a monarch among abdomens).

My first day in Bangalore today, I ate breakfast at a local institution and a thali lunch at a fancy hotel, laughing as Prati's friend refused to buy her chai on the street, calling the delicious beverage we've been consuming in mass quantities for the past month and a half "dirty chai."

I've had an upset stomach all afternoon.

This, on the heels of overeating Prati's mom's delicious food in Beawar, which left me full and lethargic and food-bellied enough to have to think about curtailing my consumption for the first time in my life instead of struggling to eat or eating whatever I felt like. Yes, my pants all still fit and yes, I still have my now-underused yoga muscles. But I feel like my stomach's non-compliance with my desire to try as many different foods as possible by refusing to be bottomless and refusing to digest within hours may be the first step toward a shift from scoffing at women constantly monitoring their figures to joining them. The possibility of needing to exercise self control in my eating when I feel like I fought so hard to enjoy it scares me more than traveling by moped and more than my go-to fear, nocturnal animals.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

blackberry prose in udaipur

Udaipur is my favorite city in India thus far. Its classic Indian architecture wraps around two lakes that give the whole place a serene atmosphere. At night, the lake glimmers with lights from the adorned window frames and music echoes from various destinations, creating a jumbled hum somewhere in the middle of the water. The area is touristy enough that most people speak English (and there is coffee and diet coke!) But it's still full of uniformed children walking to and from school, small temples tucked among the vendors and locals riding recklessly on mopeds through the narrow roads.

That last bit of consistency gave us a scare yesterday when we exited an auto rickshaw right across from our hotel. Prati's four-year-old nephew darted into the street and was struck and thrown by a motorbike rushing down the hill. He was only scraped but he was quite frightened, and the incident cast a pall over the evening, which ended with Prati and me getting buzzed at a fancypants heritage hotel, the first time since arriving in India I had alcohol that wasn't nasty beer. Exorbitant Indian prices are still cheap in dollars.

We walked back to our hotel, giggling, after 11, and stopped in the lobby to speak with its kindly owner. I ended up telling him, in unnecessary detail, about the afternoon I was wrestled by a lady in Beawar on a mission to hand-feed me a second bite of food after I made the mistake of politely deeming the first bite "very good." American manners are a liability when navigating Indian culture, more often than not.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

baking in beawar

The saddest cake ever?
The smell of banana cake permeated the house in Beawar.

"Wow," Prati said, twirling into the kitchen where her sister and I were cleaning up, her eyes alight with sarcastic mischief. "How amazing!" She mimicked the cadence of a video in Cayden's "distract him so he'll sit still" repertoire. "Overcoming obstacles in Beawar to bake a cake -- no proper mixing bowls or anything!"

Dunkin Donuts muffin. Photo Credit: graciepoo via Flicker
Last year when we stayed with her sister, Priti, in Delhi, she made a big show of wanting to buy me a muffin. But the goods she so proudly displayed were packaged, puny, heavy things, not the mammoth Dunkin' Donuts monstrosities that are a guilty pleasure at home. So I decided that, this year, I would bake her a moist, fluffy, American-style cake coated with glistening icing. And I decided that I wanted to do it in Beawar, in a house without a fork or oven, much less an electric mixer. (In high school, my friend and I baked chocolate chip cookies in China. We had to go down the street with our cookie sheets and persuade a local baker to let us use his oven. These things can be done.)

I found a basic yellow cake recipe on Epicurious and convinced the sisters that they were going to help me make it happen. The following morning, Priti set to work, sending her family servant to find the ingredients that weren't in the house. We borrowed a hand mixer from across the street. Before I knew what was happening, Priti had a whole setup on the kitchen floor and I had lost control of my project. She started measuring and adding ingredients into a pan in a way that looked disconcertingly haphazard.

"If this doesn't work, it's your fault," I told her.

"Ah," she said, "but it's your recipe."

But it wasn't, really. We couldn't use eggs in their mom's vegetarian kitchen, so we substituted bananas, turning yellow cake into banana cake from the get go. And, I was told, there was no buttermilk available, so they were substituting yogurt. There was no vanilla either, though there was a spice freshly ground in the mortar.

"This we will substitute," Priti said. "It's a spice you use in America a lot, no?"

I took a whiff: cinnamon. Which is not at all vanilla extract. OK then. My grand cake-making plan found me relegated to sifting, onto newspaper on the floor, the dry stuff that somebody else selected and measured.

(Priti wanted to conserve water by having fewer bowls to wash. Just once in more than a month, I'd selfishly wanted to reclaim my sense of American abundance, not worrying about every scrap in a grander project. In India, people reuse newspaper to wrap parcels, and the conservation, which I admit is a good thing, goes from there. But I'd hit a wall in the previous few days, with a head cold, too many people around all the time and a strong desire to curl up in a silent New England living room drinking alternating sips of coffee and wine and understanding every damn thing the people around me said. Oh, and there'd be no cows, nobody staring at the Western apparition among them and I wouldn't have to worry about being cheated or whether my clothes appropriately cover my boobs in a country where every other woman has a bare midriff. But India doesn't suddenly become the tri-state area just because a visitor needs a breather; as if to hammer home that point, when we went out last night to buy baking powder, Beawar's market was overtaken by a raucus religious parade, complete with an elephant, a camel, dancing men on floats and yet more people staring at me.)

Anyway, the ingredients got combined and put into an "oven" that sat atop the burner. And in the end, we ended up with a slightly burned, sad-looking little cake that didn't fill its pan. But it felt like cake and tasted like cinnamon and bananas. And I guess, when attempting to kick a hint of homesickness by baking a cake, ending up with one suffices.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

in which our heroine, dear reader, arrives in pushkar

Friend: What's that old adage - that there's nothing a good Diet Coke can't fix?
me: yes, that sounds right, but i can't for the life of me remember who said it.
Friend: some Cokehead
Our little crew -- Prati, baby Cayden, Prati's mom and I -- arrived in Pushkar this evening, a small, old lakeside town and Hindu holy site in Rajasthan that is a big foreign tourist draw. For the first time in about a week, I'm not the only foreign face about town, fruitlessly searching for toilet paper and weathering endless language and culture barriers and street-side staring. (The experience wasn't nearly all bad; though as a guest, I've been spoiled without respite, with Prati's mom even indulging my fondness for Beawar's fresh milk though she thinks it makes me a five year old, I started to feel a sense of cultural immersion.)

In Pushkar, things are different. The area is so popular with Israeli tourists that many of the signs in the market area are in Hindi, English and Hebrew. The place is full of pale-skinnned wanderers in abominable street-stall harem pants. The first language I overheard as I sated a Diet Coke craving in giant gulps and Prati replenished our toilet roll stash was crisp Castilian Spanish.

But instead of feeling more at home, I feel like I left "real" India for a tourist-geared version. The stores are all filled with trinket souvenirs instead of the stuff of quotidian existence. And while I've been wearing kurtas in Beawar because I stand out less if I cover a little more skin with Indian-looking clothing, when I arrived in Pushkar (wearing a kurta made by a Beawar tailor) I instantly felt like a westerner trying too hard to go native, a step removed from those awful pants, uncomfortable in the same garment that acted as security blanket a few hours prior.

Monday, October 04, 2010

one other little note about chandawal

There is a lower standard of medical care in much of India than we're used to in the west; Prati's mom is the same age as my grandfather's girlfriend, but the mom looks a good two to three decades older. Accordingly, many of the folks I met in Chandawal (and in Beawar, for that matter) were missing teeth, limping and clearly coping with all sorts of pain and illness.

Americans tend to emphasize appearances, going beyond fit and healthy in favor of beauty aids like Spanx and cosmetic surgeries. I know I've been guilty of judging others for "letting themselves go." But when things we take for granted, like keeping your own teeth, are unfeasible, they cease to matter, and I was struck by the impression that people approach others as the human beings that they are, not the outer bodies.


Jaya stands at her kitchen doorway in her home in Chandawal.
We visited Chandawal, a tiny village an hour's train ride from Beawar, because it's where Prati's father grew up, and he donated a lot of money there throughout his life. In Beawar, I can't speak much to anyone other than Prati, and I was apprehensive about spending a day in an even smaller place which, when we jumped from the train, looked like a couple dirt roads traversed by toothless old folks.
But I ended up loving the visit, because there were at least three residents who spoke fluent English, and I didn't have to guess at the meaning of vague hand motions and Hindi repeated as though, the fourth time, maybe I'll suddenly understand it.

One of those three residents was Jaya, our hostess for the afternoon, a 43-year-old mother of two who had been raised and schooled in Mumbai. I was drawn to a woman I could talk to and she was curious about her foreign visitor, and we instantly connected and began an easy, joshing cameraderie, though I was distracted by her deferential habit of draping her sari over her head every time a man older than her husband entered her view. How, I asked her as she crushed ginger and cardamom pods with a pestle in her darkened kitchen, did she end up living a traditional life, with its saris and mannerisms, in Chandawal, a 14-hour drive from her childhood home and a million miles from its urban cosmopolitanism?

Jaya looked into my eyes with what I read as sadness and sketched a line across her forehead with an index finger, just above her eyebrows. I nodded as though that cleared things up, though I hadn't a clue what she meant. Prati later clarified; the gesture means kismet. Destiny.

Kismet was at work for her that day, because Prati accidentally left her cell phone in the village. Jaya traveled to Beawar to return it to her the following afternoon and lingered here, running errands with us at the market and eating roadside panipuri. She stayed long enough that it grew dark, and her husband told her to stay overnight.

I used the bonus time with Jaya to try and further understand a life so far removed from mine. She is unhappy living in a teensy village, telling me that she wears western clothing when she visits her parents and doesn't take good care of herself because she wants to die as soon as possible. If my American self ended up in Jaya's life, I wouldn't think twice before divorcing and starting my own life. Where I come from, women are independent and we have the resources and the options to make our own decisions. But for Jaya, who has never left India (I told her about how the leaves change color during New England's autumn, and I'm not sure she believed me) tradition dictates that marriage is forever, and she has no idea how she would survive without her husband acting as family breadwinner, just as it would never occur to her to keep her head uncovered before an elder man.

She said she rebels within her limits, not covering her face as she drapes her head, despite her husband wishing she would. And Prati noted that Jaya's cholis, the shirts worn beneath a sari, have cheekily skimpy backs on them. Still, as we chatted about trivial things--Tom and Jerry, winter weather--I could intellectually understand that people do what they can with what they have, know and believe. But emotionally, I wanted to shake her until she understood that living a life outside of tradition's strictures is an option.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

home as a village

I've been trying all day to start a post about the culture shock I feel in Beawar, how the differences in outlook on hygiene are strange, how looking out the window and seeing cows remains bizarre, how it veers between frustrating and relaxing to understand so little of what people around me say, how it pains me to see young boys working and girls pulled from school after 10th grade to prepare for domesticity. But I haven't had the time to organize my thoughts, because this house is endlessly chaotic. It has a central courtyard square open to the elements via a grate overhead that also forms part of the roof, and there are rooms around the periphery, some of which are occupied by Prati's mother and others which are rented. The square, the roof, the bathrooms and sinks are shared, and visitors and  maids traipse in throughout the day.

For most of today, one tenant's two children and three or four of their friends have been playing with the computer, watching downloaded videos and playing games. Most of them have probably never seen computers before. At this moment, three of them are sitting beside me on the bed I share with Prati and Cayden playing with Cayden's toys even though the boys are  older, perhaps 10. It's always necessary to keep an eye on Cayden, I was taught to (and failed to) make battis, dough balls local to the area, a friend of Prati's mother oiled my hair (and tried to braid it before Prati intervened), and the mom called me over to watch one of her prayers. Since I began the previous run on, Prati came over with kheer and began a conversation. I understand, now, why Prati has zero sense of privacy; this house is more village than independent structure, with everyone in everyone else's space and business.

This makes reflection difficult to us westerners used to living and being in spaces with individualized purposes. Asanas are practiced at yoga studios; breakfast is eaten in the kitchen; and there are no lizards lurking on bedroom walls or hairless baby mice mewing in living rooms where I grew up. Here, I do my quick yoga practice (yes yes, yoga is a constant practice; I mean poses and concentrated focus on my breath) while Cayden naps, cows moo just beyond the wall, children play on the ledge outside the window and I wonder whether the woman who cleans the floors will enter mid-downward dog to shoo me out of the room. If I can learn to focus here, everything else will be cake.

photo psa

I add new photos to my India Facebook album every few days. The link that should allow everyone (with or without Facebook accounts) to view the pics is here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

two wheels in beawar

When Prati and I both lived in New London a few years back, we had a nice symbiosis in our relationship: she fed me and I drove her places. She didn't learn how to drive until adulthood, whereas there were already many, many years between me and those times I drove into the garage door frame and over my brother's heel. Plus, agreeing to drive Prati to the supermarket most always worked in my favor.

The only time she drove us, she was visibly pregnant with Cayden as she non-nonchalantly ran a red light by the mall in Waterford. When the police pulled us over, she explained that the light turned yellow quickly and she was not willing to stop short and risk the seat belt impact harming the baby. The officer let us go.

Fast forward to this week. We're staying in her mom's house in Beawar, Rajasthan, full of cows, water filtered in clay pots and trash tossed out windows. At her mom's, everyone eats and prepares food on the floor, hand-washes clothes and doesn't blink when the power flickers at random intervals. And when we want to go out, to drink hot milk warmed for hours in fire-heated cauldrons or bring Cayden to a daycare, we travel there the local way, on Prati's late father's moped, she driving, me in back, and Cayden sandwiched in the middle.

It's terrifying, trusting one's welfare to a rickety bike and a friend with a... questionable... driving record on roads that are often unpaved and lack discernible rules. (In India, people honk to alert pedestrians they're about to be run over, to express impatience, to navigate blind curves and to create impromptu passing lanes.) Further, in this out-of-the-way locale, two tall women--one white and both dressed in Western clothes--create a stir wherever we go; ratchet that up every time we put in an appearance on the moped, dodging cows, auto rickshaws and men hauling carts full of produce.

More on Beawar ASAP, I hope; for now, we're off for lassis!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

nothing, or everything, sacred

We toured various Hindu and Buddhist temples on our last day in Gangtok (where I also ran into a guy who'd been working at a newspaper there but was leaving the following day to start a local editor job at Patch in Missouri). I've always felt out of place in eastern houses of worship; they're formidably adorned and beautiful, vast spaces with ritual objects, protocols and rules I don't know. I do know visitors are supposed to remove their shoes, remain silent, put away cameras and generally express reverence, which isn't difficult for adults in spaces where the deities are huge and shimmering.

Toddlers, however, are another story. Cayden is boisterous, enthusiastic and curious, and the sight of a room full of novel objects spurs him to explore. In the first temple we visited, a Hindu space dedicated to Ganesh with a shrine at the top of some white marble stairs, Cayden instantly approached the gate separating the shrine and tested it to see if it would let him at the "elephant." Any adult acting like that would elicit a glare, but Cayden is adorable, and people flock to hold him and give him high fives everywhere we go. So in this case, as other visitors watched, the man minding the temple reached over the gate and handed Cayden a prasad, or ritual offering (in this case a sweet, grainy laddu), and a banana from Ganesh's offering plate.

"He's taking food from the gods now?" I asked, as the temple's fellow visitors chuckled. (I didn't know that prasad's are later eaten and said to contain the god's blessing.) Prati continued to chat with the man and I fed Cayden the sweet, spilling its orange grains all over the pristine marble floor. Everyone was unfazed by the ruckus, and the man reached over and took laddus and bananas for Prati, Blonde Kim and me before we left. We came in, disrupted the temple's tranquility and left blessed by the gods.

Our next stop was a the Lingdum Monastery, a large, colorful complex that was quiet and vacant in the afternoon rain. Our quartet climbed the steps to the plaza outside the main temple. We heard drumming and chanting in the distance and followed the sound to a small side room where a young monk sat, pouring over a prayer book, marking his progress in one hand and keeping the other free to beat a drum or ring a bell. Kim sat to meditate, I sat beside her to observe the room, and Cayden toddled up to the man and began banging on the drum, not quite in proper cadence with the chanting. The oasis of chanting was overlaid with a clanging, thumping, screeching chaos, and I looked apprehensively at the monk, hoping we wouldn't follow our Hindu blessing by being booted by Buddha.

But the monk thought the whole thing was funny. Every time Cayden beat the drum with his tiny, plump hand, he gave himself a quick round of applause and exclaimed "yay!" while standing in front of the young chanter, who grinned without breaking stride.

When we walked around to the main temple, there was a sign requesting silence. But we were the only ones there, and talking to a toddler is quieter than not paying attention to a tadpole who sometimes screams when he's bored. So we showed him the Buddha and the wall adornments, letting him run through the aisles. A monk came in when he picked up a bell and scolded him. Then Prati asked him a question about the temple's statues, and he stopped mid-explanation to take a call on his cell phone, never returning to impart the  rest of the information. Meanwhile, Cayden was loud and squirmy, but he was also entranced by the golden Buddha, and fully enjoyed the space, albeit it as a new playground to explore as opposed to a house of worship. And (sorry to be making the point with so much cheese, but said baby is cranky and we need to turn the laptop into a Sesame Street machine) the fact he brings so much joy to all the people he encounters is arguably just as holy as maintaining silence for a deity that probably couldn't help but smile himself.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

happy valley

The five-second lady
Our final full day in Darjeeling fell on Biswakarma Puja, a Hindu holiday dedicated to the god of machines and tools. we toured around, passing makeshift temples with incense and music blaring, to see some monasteries and watched the Toy Train stop at a war memorial. Then, Prati and Cayden returned to the hotel and Blonde Kim and I headed out through the rain to visit Happy Valley Tea Estate, one of about 84 tea plantations in Darjeeling (the touristy one). The sign at the entrance says that the tea harvested there exclusively goes to Harrod's, though a quick website perusal is inconclusive.

The driver inched up a lonely dirt road toward Happy Valley. It was rainy and dusk, and nobody else was there. Kim and I descended the stairs, following signs to the office, which was made into another celebratory temple with loud music and a few drunk employees dancing in the small room.

One of them came out to greet us. He told us the factory wasn't running that day because of the puja but that he liked me, so he would show us around. He led us into two fragrant, silent warehouses where tea  leaves are normally being processed and swept his hand in an arc that encompassed the whole thing.

"This machine is from Belfast," he said between hiccups. The supervisor, whose permission we would normally need to tour the facilities, barely glanced in our direction, indicating to our guide that he was going home. He packed his things and closed the metal guard door to the entrance halfway.

The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in a dark room in a remote place with one innocent abroad and a drunk man leering in my direction, so we backed out, only getting back up the stairs after the man, grasping my hand too hard for me to pull away, kissed it multiple times, told me he liked me and asked if we wanted to join their celebration.

We were searching for the driver when a short, elderly lady with light hair and a gemstone bindi walked out of a small cafe on the hill above the factory and hailed us.

"Want to do a tea tasting?" she asked, after we told her about the partiers downstairs. Kim and I followed her into the cafe's cozy back room whose walls were edged with built-in benches with a table in the center filled with a platter full of tea leaves.There was a lone guy lounging back there already as she ushered us in, bustling around in the kitchen in front to boil some water. We chatted with the guy while we waited to see what was happening; he was from Japan and had gone to college in the U.S. and was at the tail-end of a year-long, 'round-the-world voyage.

When our hostess, Kusum Rai, returned, she picked up a tea plant clipping, explained its different parts and then challenged us to guess which tea leaves on the platter came from which part of the plant. I had some trouble understanding her accent and waited gamely for the quizzing to end and the drinking to begin. She gave us tea made from the young part of the plant which, as she demonstrated, only takes five seconds to brew. The "five-second lady" is world famous, she assured us, adding that the tea sold in the cafe was brewed from leaves picked by the workers beyond their quota, so the little man got any profits.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

diff'rent rates for diff'rent folks

Is it discriminatory or looking after their own when Indians charge exponentially higher prices for foreigners than for residents to enter tourist destinations?

That's the question that Donnie, Blonde Kim and I debated with Prati and her sister, Priti, late into the night in Delhi after we returned from our whirlwind Taj Mahal trip (coming to you now from Darjeeling, by the by, which involved a cross-country flight and a car ride up a steep, treacherous and lushly beautiful road above the cloud line).

It cost 40 Rupees (less than $1) for Indians to enter the Taj Mahal, while foreigners each pay 750 Rs. (more than $15). Coming from the states, Donnie, Kim and I felt it discriminatory that different people are charged different amounts. In the U.S., we argued, we may have different rates for children, seniors and veterans, but it doesn't matter how rich or poor or what color folks are--any old person speaking any language and hailing from anyplace will pay the senior rate to enter a given attraction.

Prati and her sister argued that India is so dependent on tourism and its own population is so poor that it depends on foreign cash to bolster its economy, that tourists make so much more money than the average Indian per month that it's really no burden to pay more and that, even if it is morally wrong as we three Americans were claiming, it's how the system works.

I don't dispute the fact that Indian citizens are much poorer than people of many other nations, especially with the Rupee-dollar exchange rate working against them. But I maintain that it's logically flawed to say that all Americans (we focused on what we knew in our argument for why foreigners shouldn't be charged more) are wealthy. I'm not wealthy. My dollars go far here, but my return to the U.S. will mean a return to paying  U.S. rates for everything. I'm just lucky. Most "poor" Americans would never get to come here at all with a variety of socioeconomic factors working against them. And the "Indians are poor" reasoning is a valid argument for instituting government-funded assistance programs or the like, but viewing cultural sites like the Taj Mahal is in no way necessary for existence. Tourists--Indian and foreign--make the effort to travel here to see and learn and, yes, to spend some money. And we should all be treated the same when we do.

I'm open to other viewpoints (Hi, Prati!) in the comments.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

takeaway from traveling to agra and back in a day via two endless road trips through gridlock with cows

Apparently, it's a thing to pose for photos making it look like the subject is touching the tip of the Taj Mahal. Seeing a whole row of people doing this and photo takers crouching at odd angles to catch the perspective didn't look absurdly amusing to me at all. Not a bit. (Facebook pals, see more Taj Mahal pics in the first 20 photos of this album.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

welcome to india (courtesy of le' blackberry)

We woke up this morning in our rented rooms in the Delhi suburb Gurgaon, drank three cups of chai like the Americans that we are (we're used to such big beverages that a "normal" drink here feels like a sip, something that became a running joke last summer), watched Cayden enraptured by "All the Single Ladies" and then headed out to Cafe Coffee Day for a "thank goodness we're in a metropolitan area" caffeine fix. I asked Prati to get me an iced coffee. Their first attempt was a Frappuccino equivalent; Prati's husband Donnie pointed out that, generally, if it's not on the menu here, it's a puzzlement.

Then we were set to head back--leaving Donnie to get a much-sought pedicure :)--when the skies opened. The infrastructure in Delhi, while it's constantly being expanded and improved, is mostly sketchy, and a downpour floods the roads' potholes and indentations with an amount of water that, in the U.S., would close the road. We had walked to buy coffee, on roads that were now lakes, and the baby was getting tired and cranky. So Blonde Kim stayed to get a pedi too and Prati hailed a bike rickshaw for her, Cayden and me. Those things feel unsteady on a good day. Today, the driver couldn't see the submerged potholes and speed bumps, and I was sure we'd end up tipping over and swimming. I gripped the side with one hand and my purse on the other. We made it, of course, but shakily, passing a few roaming pigs. Kim, meanwhile, thought the salon guys didn't like her nail polish selections, since in India they indicate assent with the sideways head tilt we use to mean "meh."

Fast forward a few hours: like every other time we've spent together, Prati decided I needed a haircut. Last year, I had my hair done at the air force base where her sister lives. This time, we went to Prati's favorite hair magician, a beefy, fabulous transvestite named Sylvie with a couple little sparkles attached to her front teeth. In about five minutes, Sylvie managed to give me the cutest haircut of my life and smack my ass, this in a country where queerness is not part of the mainstream narrative.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

goodbye to all that


Today at Rosh Hashanah dinner, I must have been asked 20 times where in India I'm going and what I'm going to do there for two months. The response remains: I don't know. I'm India-bound tomorrow (!!) because I miss my pretend older sister and my godson, and it's a fascinating country that's so different from everything here. It's fun to let Prati do most of the choosing, because she knows what's there, what I enjoy and how to combine them. Not knowing exactly what's going to happen doesn't bother me. Unlike that family trip to San Francisco where it was necessary to book tickets to Alcatraz months in advance, in India the most basic things are so different—monkeys instead of squirrels! Saris instead of jeans!—that just taking a stroll feels interesting and new.

That said, the follow-up question to explaining away worried puzzlement that I mostly don't know where I'll be in the next couple months is, "Are you excited?"

Surprisingly, no, not yet. I hate going through customs and sitting still for the amount of time it takes to get from New York to Delhi. And I still miss Ridgefield a heck of a lot more than I ever thought I would. What 25-year-old former city dweller on a reporter salary falls for an affluent bedroom community full of older folks and young families? This one does, it turns out. A friend recapped earlier:

 Friend: you can live many places
 me: sweetheart so can anybody
Friend: nope
me: ok then explain in more words
 Friend: nope
 me: people our age who have lived in ny are not supposed to like suburbia
  full of old people
 Friend: yes. but you are good at finding people and making them feed you
 me: yes, because otherwise i'm hungry
Friend: doesn't matter why
 me: is that not a normal skill?
 Friend: nope
 me: i actually didn't realize that. people are so willing to feed me
so now i know: i need a cute baby, a good yoga studio and a few friends around with a job i like and i'm good
  so that shouldn't be too hard
 Friend: nope
 me: oh—and a coffee shop
Friend: yes yes
 me: but contrary to recent practice, my yoga teacher doesn't actually have to be married to its proprietor. that was just an added bonus

I miss said yoga teacher and her studio's atmosphere. Even though I've carved out time for practice these past few days, and I now have the same necklace she and one other yogi regularly wear as a reminder of the person I want to be and the practice I want to be devoted to, I already feel disconnected, untethered. (The necklace says "truth" in Sanskrit, which I'm hoping doesn't make me one of those wannabe Indian westerners if I continue to wear it during my trip.) There's no getting around the fact that my moving out ends my consistent study there. I miss, too, my yoga pal and his wife—both entertaining, quirky, smart and kind—and their two amazing children. I miss a friendship that grew just before I left. I miss living two seconds from an organic farm's roadside stand, open seven days a week.

My job was untenable, and I didn't have the time to do anything as well as I'm able, and I leaped because I want to try and build a future closer to the one in my dreams (Hi Harper's and New Yorker and Wall Street Journal, I love you!). But I'm friends with and respect my former Fairfield County coworkers, I believe in the importance of what the journalism folks at Patch are trying to do, and I unexpectedly grew ever so fond of my adopted town. I chose to leave, but it's turned out to be the hardest choice I've ever made.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

a life in (other people's) letters

Is this a dorky, incongruous compendium of a life or what?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

so lucky

Grandpa George: There's plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket—There are only five of them in the whole world, and that's all there's ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?
-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the film)
Yesterday—funemployment, day one—I felt like my job had slapped me with a burlap sack full of bricks on my way out the door. After 10 months identifying as "the Patch lady" 24-7, just being me was disorienting and a little off-putting. My work is such a large part of my identity. I stayed up until 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning to write my final story.

Also, work's absence allowed all the other stuff I have very little time to accomplish to rush in and demand mind space: sell furniture, realize the landlord and I had a misunderstanding and I might pay for all of September even though I won't be living here, pack my apartment, pack for India, change addresses, work out billing... all those common-sense lifey things I hate.

I woke up this morning (funemployment, day two) feeling about the same. It's a good thing I live alone; I hopped from bed with the urge to create a shiv with a glass-shard flourish and then stick it to an unsuspecting passerby. I reached for my Blackberry, and there was a message from Ridgefield's State Representative playing the inside joke card on my Facebook wall.

Then I confirmed a meeting with someone I love and haven't seen in many months and opened an e-mail from the parent of a former babysitting charge, who said her daughter woke up this morning in Manhattan asking about me, though I haven't seen them in many months either. I'm headed to yoga as soon as I stop this babbling, and I'm meeting an old journalism pal who lives near my parents next week. My sense of being overwhelmed and angry was pushed out by a sense that my heart, well, overfloweth. (This is where you turn, get the gagging noises out of your system and then accept the cheese factor and move on.)

Maybe this is just life and happens to everybody, but I have a tendency to amass a contingent of beloveds as I move from place to place. What's half a month's rent when I get to reconnect with some of them and then travel across the globe to see others? Pattabhi Jois famously repeated, "Do your practice and all is coming." One way I interpret the nugget is in the karmic sense that the universe returns what you give, and I am so lucky to get this reminder—that my giving may not be perfect, but the love and intention are there—at a moment I needed it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

last day of work

Screen shot
It's all about to be real.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

hear ye, hear ye

This blog will have a new and specific mission for the foreseeable future. Instead of being a closely-held little source for occasional rants and rambles, I plan to use this space to document my travels and adventures in upcoming months.

I'm leaving early in September for an almost-three-month trip to India, Dubai and Jordan. (Refrain from Eat, Pray, Love comparisons, please; I didn't quit steady employment to scour the globe searching for myself; I already know that, wherever you go, there you are. Also, speculate in my general direction about emerging adulthood at your peril.)

I hope to write full-fledged posts before and during my trip regularly, but I make no guarantees. So this space will also feature my most recent tweets, since that will be another quick-study communication method I plan to use in the countries that haven't banned Blackberries by the time I arrive. You can also subscribe to get e-mails whenever I publish new musings.

I'm visiting Dubai/Jordan with one of my best friends from college, who works in one place and hails from the other. For background on why I'm going to India (again), click here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

happy 88th birthday, poppy!!

You're the absolute best.

eat, pray, love: overscripted, under-messaged

credit: Facebook

I took myself to see "Eat, Pray, Love" last night, following the cinema's directions through the back roads of Redding into Bethel. The roads were long, tree-bordered tunnels with few street signs and no lights, and I had a moment of something like panic when I realized I had no idea how I'd find my way home in the dark.

"We'll jump off that bridge when we come to it," I thought—the best bit of received wisdom come my way since "people who kill themselves never get to find out what happens next."

I read "Eat, Pray, Love" a few summers ago, at the height of its popularity, when my grandfather finished his copy. I remember wanting to be one of those sophisticated folks who dismissed the whole thing as hokey and contrived and bourgeois. But Liz Gilbert has an intelligent, engaging, honest writing voice, and if memory serves she spent some time in parts of Connecticut I know well, and we could all use a little wish fulfillment reading now and then. So I did like the book, though I probably never brought it with me in public.

The film adaptation was a disappointment. It did have some of the things I hoped for: Italian food porn, a few moments in India that rang true to my experience, a diverse cast (standouts included Hadi Subiyanto as an adorable Balinese medicine man and the young Indian girl forced into marriage), a radiant Julia Roberts. But the whole thing felt forced and far too long.

The dialogue was full of melodramatic, faux-spiritual cliches. It was as though the actors were not playing three-dimensional characters interacting in a meaningful way, just types with scripted bits to get across before their chess piece was knocked off the board. Roberts' Liz wafted around the globe with seemingly bottomless money and an inability to get over herself. Americans work too hard, she was told. Forgive yourself. Empty your mind and "the universe will rush in." I'm sorry, but these aren't epiphanies.

Granted, my impressions could have been colored by the fact that I kept flashing back to a recent pre-practice tidbit from my yoga teacher. She's reading Guruji, a new book by students of the late K. Pattabhi Jois. In the chapter by David Swenson (whom I took a workshop with in Westerly!!), she said he recounts grappling with disillusionment by joining an extreme monastic sect that lived apart, practiced celibacy, etc. All he found there was that the same pettiness, angst and hierarchies replicated themselves in that environment. Removing yourself from life to seek enlightenment, she said, is not better or easier, just different. Put another way, the Sutras say something like "it's not the world, it's how you're looking at it."

That said, on my way home I took the plunge into the darkness, attempting to retrace my route through the woods. Turns out I was paying close enough attention on the way that I was able to find my way back and even appreciate the drama created by the illusion that the tree-bordered roads were infinite. Oh, the profundity.

Friday, July 30, 2010

goodness gracious

Having a day where I didn't think about work (as much as usual) felt so luxurious. It's almost been worth it to have been working 24/7 for about 10 months, to feel such relief. The "almost" is because, although it's true and deep that overcoming obstacles makes the sweeter parts of life even sweeter, that doesn't mean it's not legitimate to feel happy a much larger proportion of the time.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

in defense of ashtanga

With a couple new books out about the history of yoga in America and this year's yoga/music Wanderlust festival pending, the discipline once again has been making its rounds through the media.

And in most of that coverage, this Ashtanga aficionado has been sad to see what looks like a uniform dismissal of the discipline, one that I've found to be the most centering and spiritual practice I've tried.

Slate and The New York Times, both of whom group the books The Subtle Body and The Great Oom into joint reviews, respectively describe Ashtanga as for devotees who seek a "profound intensity" and as a "demand(ing,) grueling regimen that their upper- and middle-class adherents were only too relieved to surrender to." A profile of Anusara yoga founder John Friend in this week's Times Mag describes Ashtanga as a "demanding flow" akin to "boot camp" while Anusara is a "classical ballet lesson." (Disclosure: a former teacher was an Anusara teacher in training, and all the talk of heart opening and radiance felt like new-agey hokum to me.)

The judgers do have one thing right: Ashtanga, the eight-limbed system of practice pioneered by K. Pattabhi Jois, does include a rigorous asana practice, one that flows without pause (David Swenson begins series by saying "the train is leaving the station"). It's given me arm muscles, and I'm damned proud of them.

But the asanas are just one component of a broader physical, mental and spiritual blueprint for reaching samadhi, or spiritual enlightenment. Physical postures are traditionally practiced to cleanse the body and prepare it for the experience of sitting in meditation. Jois' book, Yoga Mala, demystifies what looks like a graceful, stationary dance by explaining which postures wring out which digestive organs and the like.

But at the studio where I've been practicing—which, granted, is mostly populated by normal-shaped middle aged folk who can't expect to achieve the ideal form of most of the postures (with the exception of one normal-shaped, middle aged woman who is a total rock star)—the focus isn't on sweating as much as possible or toning the abs. The focus is on each practitioner learning the postures and the philosophies at whatever pace works for each. People whose practice inspire me are those who are there every day and who practice with faith and focus, not those who can do the second-series headstands. My own practice, most days, is more about teaching my mind to empty and focus—and to accept it on days when it won't—while the physical benefits are an added perk.

The practice is different things on different days; sometimes, in stereotypical, type-A American fashion, all I want is some stress relief. But there are days when bumper-sticker phrases: "live in the moment," "today is a gift, that's why it's called the present," become real ways of existing, and I really can look at all things as they are and then move onto the next thing when the moment passes. (Doesn't mean I'll be investing in bumper stickers anytime soon.) I'm learning that, while getting mired in minutiae is painful, having faith is simple, and it's a starting place to which I continually return, currently realized in my almost-daily return to the yoga studio, where a community of like-minded people practice on their mats, give their neighbors heart-melting smiles and then disappear into their own lives, bringing that practice of faith with them even as they left a little bit to share.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

echo chamber

This blog is only active when I'm unhappy. Since a year ago, I went to India, moved across the state to start a new job, a boyfriend has come and gone, my godson has visited and left again, and I spent a whole bunch of days at a time since leaving my former job feeling happy.

Well, hi there again, world. I still mostly like my job, but friend and baby just left after a three week stay, and my life suddenly feels empty enough to echo. And I'm not sure I agree with the philosophical direction my employer is taking. I want so much to believe in what I'm doing. Am I endlessly naive?