Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On Leaving

In 13 hours, I fly out of India. I leave India. My god. I have to admit there were times during this trip when I seriously doubted whether or not I would make it to this point. There are so many emotions running around inside of me right now that I'm finding it difficult to formulate any sort of coherent, structured thoughts. I am so excited to return home of course, but at the same time I'm also feeling a bit wierd in leaving. I don't exactly know what it is...nostalgia perhaps? No, that's not it. It's not sadness either, but more like an important chapter of my life is coming to a close, and while I'm relieved on many levels that it's over, I also recognize how valuable an experience this has been and how much this place has taught me. It's almost like, besides myself, the only witness to everything that i've been through these past three months has been India herself. All the anger, frustration, love, bitterness, joy, relief, stress...everything I've felt over the past 11 weeks has been shared between me and India. It's an odd thing. I guess I feel grateful. Grateful to India for giving me this experience, for challenging me, for sharing my experiences and emotions. Grateful to be leaving, to be returning finally to the people I love most in this world, to my comforts, to my home. Grateful to realize how much I have in this world and how much I can do to help others and myself, and grateful to feel loved by so many people that are so far away.
I'm very curious to see how my emotions and attitude change over the next 48 hours regarding India. Will it seem far away? Will I miss it? Perhaps this entire trip will just appear like a small blip in my life that doesn't fit in, or perhaps I'll feel more out of place in the Western world, surrounded by white people. I honestly don't know, but at this moment the idea of seeing people who actually know me and who know who I am and where I come from without needing an explanation...well, it sounds impossible. It sounds great.
As for now, I'm off to spend my last hours in Calcutta reminding myself (again) how much I love evrything I have, and how lucky I am to be who/where I am.
I love you all

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Every day, the first thing I do when we get outside into the frigid, unforgiving mountain cold is whip my head around behind the guest house to see if I can catch a glimpse of the Himalayas. I saw them the first 2 days I was in Dharamsala, right above me, the giant, barren rock monsters that they're famous for being, and of course every 20 minutes I would have to look and make sure I could still them. But since the snow descended in on us, it's all enveloped in endless white snowy sky. But I'm still looking. Dharamsala is great. My favorite place I've been in India so far, without a doubt. Although I've also found it to be the heaviest in terms of emotions as well. This is ironic to most people I talk to seeing as I volunteered in Calcutta for two months, but it's true. You see, I've developed (or uncovered) a huge soft spot in myself for the Tibetan people. I can't explain it, but the people, the culture, the views and traditions are the most beautiful I've seen in any culture of the world. And the fact that they are being entirely wiped off the face of the earth (some give them another 20 years) by the cultural genocide by the Chinese government brings more sadness to me than I've experienced anywhere else in India. Being here, it's almost too much for me to handle.
Yesterday Jodie and I went to a Tibetan cooking class for two hours. It was taught by this lovely Tibetan man, super patient and welcoming with us. While our momos (steamed Tibetan dumplings) were cooking one of the other girls asked him if he was born in Tibet and he got to talking about his story. He was born in Tibet and escaped when he was 23. He couldn't tell his family he was leaving, and so he and one other friend set off with only the clothes on their backs, some butter and dried yak meat and they crossed the mountains and walked for 28 days before reaching Nepal, almost freezing to death twice. When he told us this story, an unexpected lump arose in my throat and I had to excuse myself from the room and entirely broke down. Mostly because this isn't just his story, it's the story of thousands upon thousands of Tibetans living here and elsewhere, most of which still have family in Tibet that they can't contact, or who had family members die on the way over. What the Chinese have done (and are doing to this day) to the Tibetan people enrages me and saddens me so much that I can't express it. Today we went to the Tibetan museum and within 5 minutes I was in tears and had to leave and gather myself after about 20 minutes of non stop crying. It's been a long day. Yet this remains a very peaceful place, thanks to the persevering peaceful nature of the Tibetan culture. Though the heaviness now is unavoidable for me.
Other than crying since I've been here, I've been eating some delicious food (every restaurant here is amazing), going for walks, getting massages, shopping and trying to keep warm. Yesterday Pontus, Jodie and I walked to a nearby town that's literally nestled among rocks and we walked along tiny mud and rock trails and had cake and chai around a fire with some locals. It unfortunately didn't do much to get my mind off thinking about sitting by the fire at home, which I've been thinking about nonstop since the cold moved in.
I am so happy to be here, ending my time in India in such a beautiful place, but I won't lie - coming home is all that's on my mind right now. Being away from my people and my place for so long has made me realize how much a part of me my home is. And also how much I value every relationship I have in my life. I can't wait to tell you all how much I love you.
But in a week I'll be in Paris, and in two I will be home. I'm looking forward to a wonderful last week in India, and a wonderful (though painfully expensive) Christmas week in Paris with the Mays!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Buddha Boot Camp

Great news everyone: I'M ENLIGHTENED!!!!!!! 10 days of silence and strict meditation, and here I am, the next Buddha! (Now isn;t that a frightening thought?) I departed from my beloved Vipassana center this morning with rays of golden light eminating from my brow and my right hand permanently frozen in that upright, holy, enlightened, Jesus/Buddha/other religious figures stance. Ha. I wish. So let's just say honestly, all joking aside, for those of you who have never an enema of any kind (and I hope that's most of you, sorry Austin) let me tell you they are not pretty things. I don't care what type of enema you're talking about, but in my case the past 10 days have been one giant brain enema. And not a pretty one. First of all, there is far too much to say about what I have experienced over the past 10 days of my life, and I look forward to being able to talking with you all about it face to face when I get home.This is merely a summary- an overview perhaps. In all, my feelings at this very moment are of shock in having been reintroduced to the "real world" outside of my silent bubble, relief to be done with my retreat, excitement at the thought of coming home so soon, and also of deep gratitude for what I have experienced over the past week and a half. I am so deeply appreciative that I got to have that experience and that such an amazing techniqu has been introduced to me. While it was some of the hardest 10 days I've ever had, it was also one of the more potent and worthwhile things I've done, and I literally recommend it to everyone. Everyone should have the opportunity (or rather take the opportunity) to get a good look inside their mind, no matter how ugly or difficult it may be. And let me tell you, it is much of both. It is painful. Everyday arising at 4 am, speaking not one word to a single person, meditating for 11 hours a day always inside your own mind...it it not easy. Every single day was like riding the largest emotional roller coaster I've ever been on. I would wake up resistantly, but feel peaceful and glad to be in silence, I would be able to concentrate on the technique, on my actions, and then every day about 1 pm I would become so overwhelmingly depressed with everything around me I could barely stand it. There were days when I would just cry for an hour, and days when I would be too overwhelmed with sadness to cry. And then I would bounce back up, elated with the beauty and peace in the world and entertained by my own madness. But my god, the things my brain came up with! When you stop all movement in your life, even just for 10 days, and just watch yourself, some amazing and hiden things come out that you didn't even know were there. Old complexes, old fears and problems left unresolved, insecurities, images, fantasies. Lord, I can't even describe the things that I have created in my own mind over the past 10 days. I thought about grocery stores and cooking and cereal for about 7 days straight. I thought about home nonstop, I distracted myself, I forced myself to concentrate, I had nightmares that I haven't had in years, had frightening images during mediations, had fantasies of my cabin nonstop, felt immense feelings of peace and happiness and gratitude...I felt it all. And of course, 10 days of this is only the beginning. Vipassana has been around for 2500 years, so 10 days is just the very tip of the iceburg. Although through all of that I did walk out with a sense that I have changed, that something in me has started shifting, and that I can see myself and things around me quite a bit clearer. But I also know that it will take lots of continued practice for me to feel immense reults, and I plan to continue to work on it. I know I'm leaving tons out, and most of you don't even know what the technique is or what it's aims are, but I'm too lazy and haven't heard the voices of my family or boyfriend for 10 days and need to make some calls. In all, if you are at all interested, look into Vipassana. It changes something in everyone for the better, I swear it. I also will be overjoyed to talk to each of you about it and about my experience when I return home, for I feel that will be a much better way of telling you about it. For now I'm heading up to Dharamsala today to meet Jodie and I think actually Tibetan New Year is not Decmeber 10th...oops...but she says it's beautiful and calm, so that sounds great to me!
Love to all and happy winter, I'll see you all so soon!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Japanese Eat Lots of Rice

Well I'm happy to say that as creepy as that doctor in Bodhgaya was, whatever medications he gave me seem to have done the trick. I'm happy to report that my bowel movements and body temperature have been returned to their normal states, and I'm no longer wandering around in a dehydration-induced daze of frusteration and homesickness. Although I wouldn't say the homesickness has entirely left my side; he seems to be a constant companion throughout my entire journey here. Anyway, by the time we got to Varanasi I felt considerably better and we found a cheap yet clean guesthouse. We spent our time there wandering around mostly, watching the thousands of people bathing in the Ganga everyday. I must say for being one of the holiest rivers in the world, it's fucking nasty. I was amazed (though not really because after you've been in India for 2 months very little amazes you) as I watched people throw their trash into the river, piss and shit next to it, and then hop on in and "spiritually cleanse" themselves (which includes taking the water into their mouths, swishing it about and spitting it back in). As far as I can tell the only they're cleansing themselves of is any hope whatsoever of possessing a healthy immune system. While it did make for some first-rate people watching, I felt a little bit wierd watching people bathe themselves in the river and couldn;t help but deny the voyeristic attraction to the ghats. But honestly, if they can stare at me like a freak as I walk down the street, I'm entitled to some quality stare-time. On our last morning we got up at 5:30 and went for a 3 hour boat ride along the ghats, watching hundreds of thousands of people bathe on the steps and it was pretty cool. Although I tend to have a problem with gently moving vehicles early in the morning and halfway through decided I had seen enough and curled up for a nap on the bottom of the boat. It was also quite pleasant.
Another highlight of Varanasi was visiting a psychic and getting our fortunes told. Which really means we paid a large half-naked Indian man loads of money to tell us about ourselves and our fate. I actually really enjoyed it, and he told me a few things about myself and my family that no one had ever told me, and which are apparently true. It's odd to think, but I entirely believed the things he told me. I guess I'll just have to wait and find out. Anyway, I enjoyed the experience and feel that it was worth it to me. It was odd to hear about what will happen in my lifetime, and how long I will live - things like that. One of his five rules is that his words are for me only and I'm not to share them, but I have yet to decide if my fate is my decision to share with others if I please. We'll see, I'm still mulling it all over.
So from Varanasi Jodie and I split ways, and I got on my train to Delhi, a little nervous at setting off on my own for the first time in India. But my train to Delhi was an uneventful 14 hours, and I arrived in Delhi at 9:00 am and was on my bus to Dehra Dun (thanks to the help of a local) by 10. I arrived in Dehra Dun last night to find myself literally the only white person in the entire town (or at least as far as I can tell) and feeling really quite lonely. But I found a nice hotel, and after failing to find an internet cafe and getting yelled at a ton, I called Austin at 4 in the morning his time to blubber about being alone in the middle of India. After being reminded that I only have 30 days until I'm home, I felt much better, got some dinner, read my book and slept for 11 hours. Today I've packed my things, found the Vipassana office (I was afraid it was actually the center) and am scheduled to show up there in 40 minutes when I will be driven to the center for my 10-day silent retreat. I'm sure you are all skeptical that me of all people will be shutting her mouth for 10 days, and you should be. I just hope I don't break out in spontaneous laughter halfway through one of the meditation sessions, cause that's totally something I would do. Seeing as I'm not allowed to read, write, speak, send e-mails, etc, this will be my last blog until December 7th or 8th when I can get to a computer and blab like I've never spoken before. Lord, what will I do without the constant mumble of my own voice, without the incessant singing and talking that I fill my time with that annoys the people of my life so extremely? I'm sure I'll make up for it as soon as I'm set free. I can just see myself bursting out of the Vipassana Center on the last day, singing whatever obnoxious showtune pops into my head first. Oh Christ (or Buddha more appropriately) spare us if that happens, cause I know it'll be Guys and Dolls. And I'll just have to sing "Good Ole Nathan Detroit" at the tops of my un-tuned lungs until I get to Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama asks me to excuse myself from his teachings and calm myself down. What, he no fan of Guys and Dolls? I know he'll love it when he hears my version. Who wouldn't?
Wish me silence,

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ok, fine. It's been 11 days since I last blogged, I'll blog. But let me tell you, if intestinal parasitic infections don't get in the way of me blogging every step of my trip, then I don't know what does. Cause they're really effective at fucking up most plans I have.
Anyway, I suppose I should finish up my time in Calcutta...my last week was nice actually. I spent it lazing about, getting things I needed for my trip, hanging out with new friends and eating delicious (and apparently contaminated) street food. Last Thursday morning Jodie and Pontus and I decided to check out the "Hoo Hoo Haa Haa Laughing Club of Calcutta" that takes place every morning at 6:00 am at one of the lakes in town. So of course jolly Swedish Pontus rowsed Jodie and I out of our beds at 5:15 am and we made our way down to the lakes where we were greated by a huge group of old Indian people doing yogic stretches and sychronized forced laughter where they would all start bent over at the waist and laugh louder and louder as they moved upright until they threw their heads back to the sky and their hands up in the air and were all cackling like fools. At one point I couldn't stop laughing and one of the women grabbed me and said "Ok you stop stop laughing now". Apparently this was a very controlled laughing environment. Only in India...
So we concluded our laughing club and were walking around the lake when I spotted the Calcutta Rowing Club boat house. Of course, I thought I had finally freed myself of the slave-like bonds of rowing, but alas, I had to go in. So while Pontus worried that I might be intruding and that I should ask someone if I could go in first, I marched right in, looked at their boats and introduced myself to the head coach. Hearing that I was a rower in the US, he invited me to come down and row with his women the following morning at 6:30 am. So of course I dragged my ass out of bed for a second morning at 5:15 and went down to the boathouse. I was pretty much conviced that I had entirely forgotten how to row and that I was going to kill myself, but the only real issue I encountered was the fact that the coxswain spoke not a word of english. It was great. Resulted in a lot of me turning around to the one girl who speak speak some english and saying "WHAT DID HE JUST SAY? DOES THAT MEAN STOP OR START?" but after some confusion it was all good. And they gave me a shirt, so of course it was worth it.
I'm sorry to say that after that things have pretty much gone down hill. I picked up some sort of intestinal virus in Calcutta before we left and have been plagued by fevers and diarreah and dehydration since we got to Bodhgaya. Plus Bodhgaya is thoroughly disappointing as well. For being one of the most the sacred and holy places on this earth, it's a shit hole. It's the same pollution, the same beggars, the same people shitting and pissing everywhere, the same men yelling at you on the street, the same piles of burning trash every 50 feet. It's really a shame, because there are some great temples and sights here that would be so great if they weren't tainted by the Indian population trying to make a buck off all the tourists. So I've pretty much spent my time here trying to get better, sleeping, drinking water, and going to a creepy ayurvedic/allopathic doctor who Jodie and I think is trying to convice me to be his wife. Or just seduce me. Today I went in to get some vitamins and he proceeded to pull out a minty ointment which he rubbed my chest with, and then moved straight on to my boobs (at which point I didn't really know what to do) and then took down my name and address and number (all of which I made up for him) and made me promise him to come back and stay with him, and then he hugged me for a while and nuzzled his head into my neck while mumbling something I couldn't and probably wouldn't want to understand. Lord I'm so sick of creepy men.
That's it for now, as I have to go catch a train to Varanasi where it will be undoubtedly more crowded and crazy and dirty than anywhere else. I miss you all and home like nothing else (which is especially hard now that I'm sick) and I hope you're all having wonderful food and family-filled Thanksgivings. And know that what I am thankful for is that I have all of you, and that I get to come home to you soon.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Fruit Salads!

Coincidentally, after I wrote that last blog entry I walked back to the guesthouse to find my friend Jodie (another GVN volunteer staying at BMS) reaching the same breaking point I was at with Calcutta. So of course we sat and ate chocolate and cried for a bit, and then I looked at my calendar and said "Well then, let's go. Fuck Calcutta." So, long story short, two chocolate bars and lots of tissues later we decided to cut our time in the city short by about a week and leave on the 17th of November. We bought our tickets to Gaya today, and we train out on Friday night.
The problem with this blog is that I simply don't know how much of it you can understand. I wonder how you view my decisions and emotions from so far away; from such different and distant places. I know there is only so much of this you can understand, and only so much I can explain, but my decision to leave Calcutta (and my volunteer work) early is something that I feel like is probably miscommunicated. I don't know. Part of me feels like a failure, like I chickened out, like I left my job unfinished. Perhaps this frame of mind is the result of things like crew and school, where I have forced myself to finish what I started because I know (or am told) that it will be worth it. Or perhaps it's a result of my entire culture's frame of mind - you know, the "finish what you started. Serve your time" kind of thing. But honestly, it gets to a point where it's just not worth it. It's not worth putting myself through this kind of physical and emotional stress just to say that I "finished the job". What the fuck even is the job? What is my job here? My job is to experience, to learn, to grow, to feel. But also to take care of myself. That is always our first and foremost job in our lives - to make sure we are ok. I believe that it's only after we feel ok that we can help others to feel ok.
If someone told me today that I would be here in Calcutta for the next year, I could do it. I would physically survive it, but why the hell would I want to? While it's good to experience these environments, and to know they are here, I don't want to live in them. I don't want to be in a place like this if I don't have to, and I shouldn't feel bad for that.
So, I'm off to Bhodgaya, which right now sounds like the perfect place to recover from Calcutta. It's the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the world and home to the descendant of the original Bodhi tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment (or so the story goes). Sounds pretty damn chill to me.
Love and momos

Monday, November 5, 2007

Malnourished Minds

Today I fully accepted the fact that I just don't like Calcutta. It is not a place for me. I've been fighting this fact since my first day here, plagued by a sour feeling in my stomach and head that I have been attributing to indigestion and food poisoning. However, I think it's more than that.

Today I kind of sat down and came to terms with the fact that I just don't fit here, and in more ways than one. I have had a really hard time finding redeeming qualities about this city, (although I may have said otherwise) and feel that I just don't do well in a place where life is such an everyday struggle, where perfect health is an unattainable goal, and where I don't feel nourished by anything around me. I still even hesitate in saying this, and I'm not sure why. I guess I feel like I need to like Calcutta, like I'm supposed to love it, but I just don't. Aren't I allowed to just not like it here? I think I am, and I wonder why that's so hard for me to accept.

I've also been beating myself up for thinking about home so much, and for missing my comfort items, but what I realized today is that what I miss is the nourishment those items provide me with. I miss feeling physically nourished by good food and clean air and physical contact, I miss feeling emotionally nourished by the people around me, I miss feeling accepted, welcomed and loved. I miss being in places where life thrives; I miss feeling whole. The irony with Calcutta is that while there are 24 million people living here, it is simply not a place that supports life. As far as I can tell the only life form that thrives here is bacteria, and it's apparent everywhere.

Today the director of the school I'm teaching at was talking about Calcutta and she said: "Life is an everyday struggle here, for everyone. It is not easy and everyone is tired all the time".That's when I realized that I simply cannot be whole in a place that wears at the mind and body so thoroughly. No human is designed to be able to take this kind of life-style, and especially not one who has been as spoiled by Portland as I have.

My feelings about Calcutta don't mean that I don't realize what an amazing experience this is and has been, or how much I am learning here, but I am so thankful for the fact that this is not my life and that my time here in the city is coming to an end. I mean, for the 24 million people living here, this is all there is. This is their entire lives, and they feel grateful for the fact that they woke up this morning, got one meal today, and will probably wake up tomorrow and do the same thing over again. But for me, this is just an experiment. I get to show up, experience it for a bit, and then retreat back to my healthy, happy, nourishing community on the other side of the world. And man, let me tell you, I feel so immensely grateful for that fact. I hope I never forget that.

I wonder where this leaves me. I have established that I don't like it here, that this isn't an environment that I like or that I want to be in, but I'm not done here. I hope that I can live my last three weeks here being present, and trying to tune in to my surroundings, but if I've learned one thing since I've been here it's that everything in Calcutta is harder than it seems.
Anyway, those are my thoughts for now. I hope you are all feeling good and putting intention towards nourishing your bodies and minds simply because you can.
Love and fresh air

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Hello Dalai, Well Helllooo Dalai...

I won't lie, I literally spent about 5 minutes privately chuckling to myself after I wrote in the title of this entry. Then I spent another 5 minutes dying of explosive laughter after I invisioned the re-make of "Hello Dolly" that I plan to create called "Hello Dalai", where everything is exactly the same as the original, except instead of Barbara Streisand it's staring His Holiness. I really think he would do well in so much sequin. I just can't wait to pitch it to him.
Anyway, the real point of my entry.....are my new and improved plans! Man I'm excited!
So I was parusing my Lonely Planet India the other day, and looking at towns up North that I might like to get to after I leave Calcutta, and was looking into Dharamsala - where the Dalai Lama lives when he's not travelling around the world. It mentioned that Tibetan New Year is Decmber 10th, and that in Dharamsala (which is also where most Tibetan refugees live) there are huge celebrations and week long teachings by His Holiness for the public. Dharamsala is pretty far North, close by the Himalayas and is apparently as kind a place as Darjeeling. So, Ima go see Dalai! Currently I'm enrolled in a 10-day silent meditation course in a near-by town called Dehra Dun until the 7th of December, and then I'll head over to Dharamsala for my last week before heading back to Cal to fly out. Yeeehaw. And yes, I did say 10-day silent meditation retreat. Yes, I know I have a hard time not talking for all of 10 minutes, let alone 10 days. That's why I'm doing it. Oh and I have to get up at 4 am and meditate for 1 hours per day and can;'t have solid food past noon. Yes, I may go crazy. I just can't wait.
In other news, I volunteered at Mother House this morning, which is one of the infinite instiutions in Calcutta set up by and dedicated to Mother Teresa. It was great. I played with retarded kids all day, held a couple of kids down while they tried to bang their heads against walls, fed some, bathed some. It's just great to see that these kids actually have someplace to be in this city, because if they're not in a volunteer house they're either abandoned by their parents and left on the streets or out begging for money.
I start teaching english classes on Monday at the school for street kids, so I suppose I should go polish my almost-fluent Hindi and learn how to not swear every other word. Oh, and also how to teach English to a bunch of street kids who would rather throw crayons and large metal objects at me than listen to whatever I have to say. Shit. There goes that plan.
Be well,

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Holy SOUP!

Today I spent a good 2 and a half hours just thinking about soup. Thick, squash soup. And whole wheat bread. With butter. And also a good pear and arugula salad with blue cheese. And maybe a pumpkin pie....
Ok so here I am in India surrounded by beautiful and surprising things and all I want is a bowl of soup. Really I just want to be able to be able to enjoy that bowl of soup, because eating hot soup in 95 degree weather and 85 percent humidity just isn't enjoyable. I think I would end up passed out next to a bowl of half soup half sweat. Ok, sorry, I'm done. It's just that I've begun day dreaming all about the food I miss so much. I can't let myself get too hungry or I start feeling really desperate for salads and Mcmenamins burgers and acorn squash, and rice and dal just don't satisfy anymore. I'll most likely come home from Paris looking like a zeppelin made of prosciutto/camembert/croissant crumbs, so don't be startled. Just pretend I look normal and set me on a treadmill.
Last weekend 6 of us decided to pay the outrageously expensive (for India at least) 750 rupees in order to enjoy an all-you-can-eat buffet at a five-star hotel in town. That translates to about 20 ish American dollars for those of you not following the daily rupee/dollar exchange rates. So we went to the hotel at about 12:30 and were instantly reminded about the wonders of the first world that we had nearly forgotten about. Quiet corners, clean floors, food that even looks safe to eat, nice bathrooms, calm music and respectful, welcoming waitstaff. I just about did my victory dance in the middle of the restaurant floor. Basically my fellow friends decided they were too painfully full to go on at about 2:30 and I kept going until around 3:15. I literally ate everything. I had salad and chicken soup, rolls with butter, smoked salmon, mushrooms, a plate of greek olives and capers, steak with grilled onions and green beans, mushrooms in philo dough, fruit salad, about 40 desserts...oh man. The list goes on. I know that to all of you this may seem like ordinary food that you can hop up and go buy whenever you feel like it, but to me this is the most amazing display of all the things I have given up for three months. It was amazing, and now more than ever the sight of cabbage and canned vegetables at dinner makes me want to blow chunks.
Tomorrow I have been informed that there is a planned full strike of all transportation workers. What does this mean? Basically that the entire city goes crazy, people get beaten and robbed, busses get set on fire and no one goes to work. I've also been told that as a woman I'm better off just staying at home. Ah! How funny it is that that advice perfectly resonates with the entire attitude of Indian culture towards women! Now that's just such a coincidence. So I may be spending my tomorrow hanging around the guesthouse with my fellow missionaries making paper crosses and begging forgiveness for mocking Christianity on a public blog. So it goes.
Speaking of Christianity I met more Americans today who were absolutely floored when they found out that I'm not volunteering with my church, or in order to serve our one and only lord, Sir Jesus Christ.
"Oh that's so great that you're volunteering here, and what church are you with?" One of the two Kathys from Florida I had just met asked me,
"I actually don't belong to a church, I'm here with a volunteer organization called-"
"You're not with a church?" she interrupted me. "Oh. Well that's interesting" She looked immensely confused, as if I has just managed to turn my head around 360 degrees and started speaking Arabic to her. I tried explaining about the organization, and that I in fact am not doing my service for the Lord, that I'm just doing it for these people and for me, but it was like she had turned her brain off and was staring right through me, perhaps silently praying for me to be saved.
It's amazing to me how much of this exact conversation I get here in Calcutta. And to be quite frank it's starting to piss me off. People just do not understand that I am not volunteering for God. It's like they almost want to say "You're not doing this for God? Well then why the hell are you doing it?" and anything I say won't make it clear to them why I am here and what my goal is. It's uncomfortable and occasionally makes me want to hit some people. But I've pretty much ruled that out as a possible solution.
In other news, I'm switching organizations. My last day at Love Calcutta Arts is supposed to be tomorrow, but seeing as the strike is planned and I have a vagina, I'll probably be killed in the mobs if I leave the house. I'm switching to a place called Charisma House, which is a schoolfor street kids. I'll be teaching, playing, being a goof...doing things I'm pretty good at. I visited a few days ago and the kids are amazing. I think it's going to be a much more rewarding experience than glueing books together, and I'm really excited to start.
If I don't get murdered tomorrow I hope to talk to you all soon.
Love, and please eat some soup for me

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Jai Durga

Last weekend, as I'm sure few of you know, was Durga Puja here in West Bengal. Durga Puja basically means "praise Durga", Durga being one of the many idols in Hinduism. For this holiday, literally the entire city of Calcutta goes crazy (or crazier than usual if that's possible) with preparations for the 5-10 day festival. Technically I think Puja lasts 3 days, but if there's one thing I've learned here in India, it's that Indians (or Bengalis) have little sense of exact time. If something is planned, it will probably happen sometime in the future. But it also might not so don't count on it. So although Durga Puja is technically a 3 day celebration, it goes on for 5-10 days depending on who and where you are. Basically the 2 weeks before Puja the entire city is filled with people building ginormous bamboo structures the size of large ballrooms on every other street corner, which eventually become homes to the Durga Puja scene (I described it as a Hindu nativity scene, is that un-PC of me? Probably...). This scene includes a giant Durga, stabbing a demon while flanked by her children Ganesh, Lakshmi, and two others that I can't remember. And then everything's covered in massive amounts of gold paint and glitter and pink powder and every other colorful substance you could imagine. These giant structures are called "Pandals" and for about 4 days everyone in the city takes to the streets to admire the hundreds of pandals in Calcutta. I've heard that some neighborhoods put up to 35 thousand American dollars into building their pandal. Really? And half the people in your city sleep on the sidewalk? Interesting. Anyway, the best way I could think of to describe Puja to someone who's never seen it is that it's a mix of Christmas, Carnivale, and Mardi Gras. Only in India. Basically it's fucking insane.
The only interesting Puja story that I have took place a week ago - on Sunday night, or the "last" night of Puja. Oh, I also forgot to mention that when Puja is over the people take the idols (the nativity scene) out of each pandal, drive them in huge trucks accompanied by a troupe of drummers and dancers down to the bathing ghats where they put them all in the river and let them float down to the Bay of Bengal. This is also really helpful in improving the toxicity of the river that runs through Calcutt, as it happens to be one of the most polluted rivers in the entire world. Way to go, Cal.
SO, last Sunday night a group of us had just finished dinner and were looking for a bar, wandering around with our new friend, "Adam from New York" when two of the trucks with the idols heading for the river turned down our street. They were preceded by about 4 male drummers and 30 men dancing with eachother in the street. Adam from New York pretty much grabbed the four of us girls and dragged us into the middle of the drum-cum-dance party where we danced for a bit, and then decided to just hop on one of the trucks. We just so happened to pick the truck filled with 14 to 18-year-old girls and they snatched us up and immediately doused us in pink powder and forced us to dance. It was so surreal. The girls were so excited to have the one truck in Calcutta with foreigners in it, they taught us their chants in Hindi, sang us songs, taught us Bollywood dance moves (which I am totally the master of now) and were so eager to talk with us. So we spent the next 2 hours in the back of a truck, our sweaty backs pressed against giant glittery idols, our faces covered in pink powder, screaming hindi victory chants until we we laughing too hard to go on. The best though might have been when the girls begged us to sing them an American song and we belted "Sugar Sugar" at the top of our lungs while driving down the busiest city in Calcutta. They definitely got a kick out of that.
We got to the river and were told that women aren;t allowed to watch the idols being put in the river because of what one girl described to me as "Eve teasing" and turned out to be an astounding amount of gang rapes and murders that did indeed make the papers last Monday morning. So we were herded into another truck with the girls, given balloons, and were all driven back to their apartment complex at about 50 km over the speed limit. Upon arrival at the apartment complex the girls begged us to stay, to dance with them, and to stay the night. We agreed to stay for a while, but made it clear that staying the night was not an option. So, we had a dance party. In the middle of their courtyard, with every person who lived in that complex outside, either drumming or dancing like mad. It was so beautiful. And so pink. When it was time to go, everyone gathered around us in a giant half-circle and asked us questions about where we were from and what we were doing in Calcutta. Then they gave us a ride home in their cop car, with 5 of the girls piled on top of our laps, begging us to be back next year for Puja. It was such a refreshing experience to meet people so eager to get to know us, and so willing to share their traditions with us. It was much needed after feeling the alienation that I do every day on the streets. And of course, I didn't have my camera with me. But luckily my scalp is still dyed pink, so I won't be forgetting that night anytime soon.
Jai Durga

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Wes....(numero dos)

Where were we? Oh, right, on top of a mountain waiting for some other mountains. Man that was so long ago...ok. Blah blah blah, so we waited in the cold. The sun came up and was fantastic, and while everyone was staring into the orange and purple sky that was kindly illuminating the sea of cloud below us, I noticed a giant mass of something appearing in the distance. They really appeared like ghosts. Like the biggest, most infamous ghosts in the world, looming only a couple hundred miles away from my face (which let me tell you, considering they are the largest mountains in the world, 200 miles feels like nothing). All I could do was mutter incoherently to myself, and stare. I couldn't form thoughts, or react to people around me, my eyes were just glued to those mountains as they appeared out of the darkness. When the sunlight hit them from the East I just about lost it. I had never truely understood the expression "I didn't believe my eyes" until that moment. The scene in front of me was so incredibly beautiful, so magnificently natural, that I could not grasp the fact that I was seeing it, and that it was real. I just about fell in love with nature all over again. How could something so amazing, so powerful, just have sprung up on it's own? It really was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And I have to say, the second I layed eyes on them, I knew I would be back. I knew that in some future time, I would go to them - feel them , know them. And I will. Lordy, it felt like I had come home to a place I'd never been.
Basically I took about 8 gazillion photos, and after a while my friends convinced me that we really did have to go, and that I couldn't just stay here all day. On our way down the mountain, my face was literally smashed against the window the entire time, looking at them through the trees as we wound down the road. I would shoot over to whatever side of the car they appeared on, any smash my face against the glass. If there was a clear view of them I would scream "STOPPPP!!!!!" with such a tone of desperation that the driver would slam on the brakes and look back in urgency to see what apendage I had slammed in the door. Of course, I just wanted to take yet another picture. By the end of the ride my three friends were crammed in the back row to avoid my rocketing from side to side, all the windows were smeared with my hand and face prints, and the driver was enormously thankful to get away from my screeching voice and apparent obbsession with a distant land mass. But it was so great. I floated around the rest of the day, and watched those mountains until they disappeared from my view. I was kind of possessed.
We had a lovely taxi ride out of Darjeeling during which we wound through tea plantations and tiny hill-side villages, and I gawked at the largest bamboo shoots I've ever seen (literally the size of a full-grown Doug Fir). I also saw a TAZO TEA billboard in the middle of the forest on the way down from Darjeeling. I had to scream about that too, but only cause it's from Portland. After the awe-induced stupor I had been wandering around in all day, it was almost too exciting to handle.
Our train ride back was fairly uneventful, except for the gaggle of Japenese teenagers who couldn't figure out how to set the bunks up so decided that it would be a great idea to sit up all night long singing their all time favorite church tunes. And let me tell you, church tunes are way more interesting with a Japanese accent thrown in. Thank the good lord for melatonin.
Ok, dinner time again. Next entry will have to be a Durga Puja update. And if you don't know what Durga Puja is please look it up -- explaining Hindu holidays as a non-Hindu is like trying to explain to an Indian taxi driver that you're not trying to die in his cab today. They just don't get it.
Love and dal

Friday, October 19, 2007

Wes, We Need To Chat (Part I)

I was pretty bummed I couldn't go see Wes Anderson's new film, "The Darjeeling Limited" last Friday night. Unfortunately none of the theaters here in Calcutta were playing it, so I decided that if I couldn't see the movie, I would just go to Darjeeling to console myself over my poor luck and lack of opportunity. And I just have to say, the train to Darjeeling is called the Darjeeling Mail, not the Darjeeling Limited...so if someone could let Mr. Anderson know, I would really appreciate it. Anyway, I spent last weekend (including Friday night) sulking in my hotel room in Darjeeling because everyone in the U.S. got to see the film and I had to sit and actually stare at the Himalayas while all my friends at home got to pay as much as I do for a week of food to sit in a movie theater and watch it on a screen. I was so heart broken. And I often forget that sarcasm is poorly communicated via on-line communication, which is probably the reason I generally avoid it.
So just so we're clear, I think it's pretty cool that I missed The Darjeeling Limited because I was in Darjeeling the day it came out. Not to mention the fact that Darjeeling pretty much made me crap my pants, and not on account of any intestinal difficulties thankyouverymuch.
After a cab ride that literally made me believe I was at the end of my life, (and seemed more like a blind kid playing Tetris than someone consciously driving) we caught the night train from Calcutta to Darjeeling at 10:30pm on Thursday. One could dedicate an entire blog to the experiences of Indian train rides...or any form of Indian transportation for that matter...but I will be fairly brief: I miraculously slept (and managed to avoid the "foreign-pirates-will-steal-all-my-possessions-and-passport" dreams that plague my father to such an extent when travelling in third world countries that he is driven to stealthily shove his money, credit cards and passport into his socks during transportation in hopes of having something left after the pirates steal all of our things) and woke up in New Jalpaiguri with all of my possessions including body parts. From NJP we took a three hour jeep ride (shoved into the trunk area of course!) up pot-holed dirt roads into deep leafy green forested hills. I just pushed my little snout out the window and let my nostrils do all the sight seeing. The air was incredible...after being in one the most polluted cities in the world in which my lungs will not allow me to take a full breath, the air in that forest was perfect. So we got to Darjeeling, and found our guest house pretty quickly. As far as we could tell, we had landed in a tiny town in the middle of the clouds, where the fog pressed in on you so persistently that you could only half guess at the scenery around you. We were surrounded by a landscape that we could only smell, and occasionally catch a glimpse of through a hole in the clouds, but then it would be gone as quickly as it had appeared. It was almost like it was teasing me. I knew the hills and the forest and the Himalayas were there, but trying to look for them was like looking for an image on a blank sheet of white paper -- after a while your eyes start playing tricks on you. Our first day we bummed around, amazed at how the air felt in our lungs and amazed at the people surrounding us. That's another thing worth mentioning - the people of Darjeeling. They are by far the most beautiful, welcoming, kind people I have met in India. There were no stares. Literally, if someone was staring it was to say good morning or to smile. We spent 3 hours just looking at people in the face and not feeling threatened. Just looking, saying hi, introducing ourselves. Being people. It was great. I spent a great amount of time just walking around the Buddhist monastery, weaving in and out of the temples, lighting incense, and being silent and alone. Shit, silence and solitude - two things that I have all but lost here in Calcutta. Two friends that I miss almost as bad as I miss flush toilets. Whew. Anyway, it was glorious. We were attacked by monkeys, we were blessed by monks, we rang prayer bells. Then we slid into an English pub, ate egg sandwiches and drank beer, and put ourselves to sleep back at our guest house. The next morning I got up at 6 and clambered up to the roof-top terrace of our guest house and sat and looked at more cloud-draped hills. And it was silent and cold and peaceful and everything I thought it would be. We spent that day parusing the multiple Nepalese shops and eating chinese food. I walked alone a lot and reveled in not seeing another human being for 25 minutes. But it was still so cloudy and foggy, I pretty much prayed for clear weather for the next morning when we would get up at 3:45 am and take a half hour drive to the top of a hill with hopes of watching the sun rise over the Himalayas. I did everything I could think of to ask for clear skies. And apparently it was enough.
At this point in my writing I feel the need to insert a few lesser-known facts about myself, so that I feel I can continue. Please excuse the following: When I was about 8 years old I bought a book at my school book fair that was an auto-biography of a 16-year-old boy who climbed Mt. Everest. After reading that book about 4 times, I decided that I was officially obsessed with the Himalayan mountains, and Mt. Everest in particular. The root cause of this obsession is unknown to me even now, but it has persisted. I decided at age 8 that I wanted to climb Mt. Everst when I was 16, though for some odd reason that plan fell through so I made it one of my goals to get to the Himalayas in some form or another and get to at least Everest base camp by the time I die. The end.
Ok, so seeing as that same enamoration (word or not word..i don't care) with the Himalayas has plagued me since about age 8, perhaps you can understand how I felt thinking that I might have a chance to glimpse them. At 3:45am on Sunday, my alarm went off. I literally opened my eyes and knew that I would see them. I just knew it. We put on every single article of clothing we brought and were greeted with perfect star-studded skies outside. It took us 45 minutes to get up to Tiger Hill and my face was pressed to the window the entire time, with nothing to see but endless stars and black, black hills. When we got out of the car at the viewing area, there were about 80 other tourists gathered around one railing, facing the lighter skies where the sun was getting close to coming up. I saw the big dipper and made a bee-line for the railing facing it. I knew the Himalayas had to be North, and was not going to move if someone payed me. My friends were concerned that we were in the wrong place because no one else was facing our way, but I told them if they moved from our spot, they'd be sorry. So we stood, cold and quiet against the railing, and we waited.
And now I have to go to dinner....so I will continue...LATER! bahahahaha i feel like im writing a trashy romance novel......TO BE CONTINUED!!!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Shoulder to Shoulder

If only...if only I could explain this! There are no words, no pictures, no anything to describe to you what I am seeing everyday. And it is so frusterating. I wish I could grab you all and hold you in my pocket as I walk down the streets everyday. As I step over the limbless people sleeping on the sidewalks, as I skirt around the mangy dogs who have effectively chewed off all of their skin, as I raise my arms to avoid the street kids clambering onto me and grabbing my bag. It is so hard for me to want to share with all of you what I experience and what I feel here, but it's virtually impossible. I'm stuck in that place right now of not knowing if I'm caring too little or feeling too little, or if that is simply what I must do to survive. Because you have to turn the other cheek here. You have to pretend you don't see, or you will not survive. There is too much wrong, too much bad, too much to fix. So I walk down the street and I step over those limbless people and those mangy dogs. I ignore those kids. I keep walking, because that is how I survive. And I mostly feel ok. But somewhere something in me doesn't feel ok (of course, I'm from Portland - I'm a softy.) I have done well so far turning my cheek, reminding myself that this is how life is here, and that these people aren't unhappy. Because the truth is, they're not. They have families (however broken they may be) and most of them have food (however contaminated it may be), and they have life, so they are happy. But, I must ask myself, am I just telling myself that so that I can keep walking down those streets? So that I can keep living my life and keep waking up in the morning? So that I can do my job and get from point A to point B? I don't know. I don't know.
Today Kathryn and I went to get tickets for Darjeeling this weekend, and it was a mostly successful adventure. We got there after only having to ask about 50 people for directions(hey, in a city of 23 million, that's not bad) and got the tickets with little hassle thanks to the two old adorable men working at the counter. The way back we decided to take a taxi because we didn't really know where we were, which is a remarkably common occurance in this city. So we tried flagging one down, and of course, realized that the taxis are on strike. Meaning that they have turned off their meters and are demanding around 400 Rupees (around 10 dollars) for a taxi ride that sould be around 30 Rupees (around 75 cents). So we said: "Fuck that, we're smart, capable women, we will find our own way home." And guess what. We did! About 3 hours later. Basically we ended up lost out of our minds and in the middle of the busiest streets I have seen in Calcutta. Let me put that into terms you might understand: that means, literally throngs of people, shoulder to shoulder, trying to all walk different directions and shop and beg and get your attention at the same time. Food vendors lining the sidewalks, kerosene stoves pumping out more heat than there is already, someone trying to grab your bag, and horns blaring nonstop from the streets. Busses rumbling by, dodging honking rickshaws and taxis and mangey dogs. And there we were in the dead middle of this all: two white girls with absolutely no idea where they were going and very little knowledge of the Bengali language. I literally couldn't breath. But, long story shorter, we found our way home after walking for about 3 hours. No better way to get to know a city than being helplessly lost.
Lord I can't wait for Darjeeling. We leave Thursday on the night train and return Monday morning. For those of you who don't know what Darjeeling is, it's a small town at the base of the Himalayas (Kanchenjunga is the closest mountain, though Everest is visible) and was built by the British Raj as an escape from the summer heat. It is cold, is it silent, the air is some of the best in the world, and it faces the greatest mountains in the world. And produces some of the best tea in the world. I can't describe to you how amazing that sounds to me right now. It's somewhat hard to reflect on this whole lifestyle when I can't get 2 seconds of silence, so it will be much needed.
Anyway, I love you all and hope you all have roofs to sleep under and clean water to drink. Don't take it for granted. Please.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Call Me Auntie.

So I feel I should fill you all in on a few things that have become serious factors of my daily life here in Calcutta, so that you (assuming you are as caucasian as I am) can somewhat know what to expect when you come here. Although after reading this blog, I don't know that any of you will want to come here. Well, you should. All of you.
First off, the Indian people apparently have a deep curiosity of Westerners (i.e White People). It's supposedly not a threatening or hostile curiosity, although occasionally it may seem so. The first and most obvious manifestation of this curiosity is the staring. And this isn't like seeing a really attractive person on the street and staring as they walk by wondering what they would do if you approached them or asked them to take you home with them...this is like...well...ok. Here: this staring is like what people would do upon seeing a 10 foot tall half naked transexual riding in the back of a little red wagon being pulled by a dwarf. Singing showtunes. In Mandarin. In the Pearl District...let's say...10th and Johnson. Do you get my point? I'll assume you get where I'm headed with this (brilliant) analogy. So yes, walking down the streets of Calcutta, no matter where I am, who I'm with or what I'm wearing, I feel like that giant. That naked, transsexual giant (and yes I'm still a woman. It's an analogy. Some slack please.). Granted I am at least 6 inches taller than everybody, but still. I mean jaw-on-the-ground druel-on-the-lip drop-everything-and-watch-this-whitey-walk-by staring. And it freaks me out. If I see eyeballs, I know theyre on me or someone I'm with. Í feel like a circus act. And the men are the worst (but aren't they always?). The women generally avert their gaze when I look at them, but the men just hold eye contact as you walk by. I'm sure it's not meant to be menacing, but the way they stare, it's...well, it's menacing. Like they're hunting. I know this is not their intention, but it feel that way. It's amusing sometimes, but usually it's just bothersome. Of course my first nature is to stare back and make some standoffish (if not slightly witty) comment at them, but I just don't think that would go well here. So I have yet to try it. I just have to be gawked at whenever I'm in public. So much for blending in.
Ok, article two. Indian people that don't speak English fluently love to shout at you in English. Or at least whatever they consider to be English. This basically means that as soon as they see you, you will hear a chorus of "HELLO MADAM GOOD MORNING MADAM HOW MAY I HEP YOU AUNTIE AUNTIE VERY GOOD YES PLEASE!". It's like they're alerting everyone within earshot that there's a Westerner on this street and she's headed your way! So get ready to stare. Thanks for blowing my cover, guys. Appreciated.
The best line I've gotten so far was yesterday when another (very white) girl and I were walking home from the market and we passed a small hole-in-the-wall shop with about 4 men inside of it and as we passed one of them yelled: ''ARE YOU A FAMILY MEMBER?!!"
I was super impressed. And laughed like an idiot all the way home. Yes my dear friend, I am a member of a family. But not yours I'm sad to say. Kind of.
Oh and they call every white woman ''Auntie''. I'll be expecting that from all of you when I return home.
Ok, the next topic of importance while living in Calcutta is your personal hygiene. Forget everything you know about cleaning yourself. Being clean in Calcutta is a very different thing than being clean in Portland, or most anywhere else in the world for that matter. First of all, you will smell. All the time. As soon as you can accept that fact your time here will be much more pleasureable. I know mine has been. So yes, basically if you can imagine the smell of one of the largest, poorest and dirtiest cities on this planet and then translate that to your own body, you have some idea of what living here is like. The streets smell like urine, you smell like urine. The streets smell like diesel, you smell like diesel. Simple! The streets smell like human feces, rotting food, rotting flesh, cooking food, cooking flesh, heat, oil, B.O, engine, camphor, and curry and you do too! It's quite the medley. I can't remember not smelling all the time. And I shower on average 3 times a day. Lord. I can smell myself now. Brings a tear to my eye. In a very pungent way. But really, smelling like ass isn't so bad, because everyone smells like ass, so you're never really sure if it's you or the 95 year old beggar woman lying on the sidewalk you just walked by. I give myself the benefit of the doubt.
The only other hygienic issue is the sweat (that's such a lie but whatever). Also forget everything you ever learned about sweating being in any way related to physical activity. You sweat when you sleep, when you breathe, when you take a piss. You sweat when you're cold. You just sweat. All the time. I swear to god my fingernails sweat hear. Fucking ridiculous.
Those are pretty much the top things I feel I should tell you about when coming to Calcutta. And that's it's awesome in a very dirty, loud, impoverished, 3rd world, stinking-like-shit sort of way. It is fascinating.
What's more, I started working this week. I actually am more like a factory worker than an overseeer. I work for a handicrafts company and sit in a tiny room with 8 former prostitutes and bind books and pretend to speak Bengali while I sing David Bowie songs in my head. I really can feel my hard work drawing this country out of it's impoverished state. Ha. It's pretty fun actually. If any of you has seen the documentary film "Born Into Brothels", that's where I work. In the red light district of Calcutta. I work about a block away from where it was filmed I think. So that's cool. And I'm learning to bind books.
A group of us are hoping to get to Darjeeling soon, and I'm currently thinking about trying to drop out of the program a week early to do a bit more travelling in December. I've decided I have to get to Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the universe. And to Bhodgaya, where the Bodhi tree that Buddha sat under is. Did I mention I'm a goddamned hippy? Just so we're clear.
Love to all,
Auntie Kate

Monday, October 1, 2007

Thanks Mary!

So, I've undergone somewhat of a mini revelation sionce I last wrote (what, yesterday?). Partially due to some very wise words from a very wise sibling of mine (one of many, I assure you...) I'm feeling much more comfortable knowing how long it will be before I return home, and am loving India more and more. Basically I stopped trying to resist all of my sad or hesitant emotions,and just feel them. Let them feel me. And know that my comfortable life will be waiting for me when I get home. I was also inspired by thinking of my favorite poem: When Death Comes by Mary Oliver. It contains probably my favorite line I've ever read, which is:
"All my life I want to be a bride married to amazement."
It's so simple, but so powerful to me because it reminds me that I do want to be married to amazement, and by god, that's exactly what I am right now! I am so lucky to be out of comfortable, safe, clean home and be able to experience this amazement. Of course this also makes me realize how lucky I am to live where I live, to know the people I know, but it also makes me feel so lucky to be full up with amazement. I mean, of course it does. It's India for god's sake.
So right now I'm feeling level and excited about my time here. I;m sure once a rhythm gets going time will fly by.
I've also found out where I'm working. I'm going to be a quality control type person at a factory where women make handicrafts and sell them. I basically tell them to keep working, talk to them and help decide what will sell and what will not. Sounds like something I can do. I'm also very excited because a group of us are planning on going to Darjeeling within the nest couple of weeks, and I think I might crap my pants when I see the Himalayas. I'll drink some tea for you all.
Have to go in order to make it in time for dinner...love you all...

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Oh Holy Krishna

And here I am. In India. Lordy. I suppose the proper thing to do will be complete writing about our time in Greece. It's so hard to think about now...seems so far aay.
So, after another couple of days in Hania Austin and I decided that we couldn;t stay there for our last week. We needed a dang beach. So we bussed to a small southern beach town called Paleochora, about 40 kilometers south of Hania. It was a great little peninsula about 2 miles wide with a beach on either side. We quickly were absconded by another hotel owner who insisted we look at his small, family run hotel. We did so, and we very impressed with the somewhat spacious and incredibly clean studio. It was complete with a kitchen and a REAL SHOWER -- which, let me tell you, was an incredible relief seeing as almost all the rooms we had stayed in up to that point had some sad excuses for showers. Very disappointing. So we stayed in Paleochora for 4 nights and saved a ton of money by making our own food in our kitchen (and might I say, we even mastered making our own Greek salad) and being on the beach all day long. It was the perfect way to end our time together. From Paleochora we bussed to Hania, had a last couple backgammon games at Konstantinople cafe (though caught no sight of Sylvester) and caught the night ferry to Athens. One piece on night ferries in Greece: GET A SLEEPER CABIN. Just do it. Please. We spent too many hours sitting in our uncomfortable seats being unable to sleep due to the Greek soap operas that played all night long. Really not something I ever want to experience, let alone while trying to sleep. However, we arrived in Athens at about 6 am, and found our hotel partially due to a very helpful stray dog who, when I asked him if he could lead us to our hotel took us almost all the way before we realized we were following a stray dog and diverged from his path only to find out later that he was in fact taking us in the right direction. We spent the day in our extremely nice hotel room, with our extremely nice shower. Really just layed in bed drinking wine and watching BBC world news....splendid. Had our last Greek salad, moussaka and dolmades together and walked around the city a bit. We both agreed that Athens was much more likeable the second time. Now, I'm going to fast-forward through some of the next part because it still hurts to think about it too much. Basically, we got up the next morning, went to the airport, and said goodbye. And I only wish it were as simple as it sounds. Leaving your companion is never fun. I forced myself on the airplane and my eyes didn't stop leaking until I landed in Calcutta. I don't know that I've ever done anything as hard as walking away from Austin at the Athens airport. Ok, have to stop recounting it now. It's too soon. My entire flight was just filled with my mind going crazy. All I could think was: "What have I gotten myself into? What the hell am I doing? Why aren't I with Austin, heading home? What have I done?". I was convinced that something that hurt that bad couldn't have been the right decision. But I think I'm changing my mind. Slowly but surely.
I connected with a girl who is volunteering with me at the Frankfurt airport (we were on the same flight), which was very nice. Just to have someone to talk to. Upon landing in Calcutta we got our bags and were met by the program director, Vishal. He was very welcoming, and brought us to our taxi. The heat here is amazing. It simply never cools down. It consumes you, and you just have to get used to being slightly sweaty all the time. Daniela (the other volunteer) and I got to the guesthouse around 12:30 pm, and went straight to sleep upon our arrival. The guest house, by the way, is really amazing. I wouldn't be surprised if it is the nicest place for volunteers to stay in this country. It's very old, with really high ceilings, tall doorways and western bathrooms (thank god). And it's incredibly clean.
The other people staying there are amazing also. Many of them have been here for months, so it's great to have people around who know what they're doing, and have been through the hard stuff before.
Yesterday was my first full day, and it was pretty intense. The worst part really was just being in our room, alone with my thoughts, thinking about what I'm missing. Or rather, who I'm missing. But walking aroundthe city is great. It's huge (24 million people) and loud and bustling and dirty. There's shit on the sidewalks, people sleeping in the streets, entire families making meals over small charcoal fires as you walk by-- pretty much the definition of poverty. But it's amazing. It makes me quite sad that I can;t describe to all of you the smells of the streets. It's an incredible mix of incense, feces, wood smoke, Indian food, gasoline and raw heat. I was pretty surprised at how opk I felt walking around. I expected to feel completely threatened and entirely victimized, but it's not that bad. Granted, people stare, infact everyone stares, but they rarely really do anything. Although the children hanging off of you as they walk by you is pretty sad. Yesterday when I wouldn't give a little girl money and had dragged her along with my arm for two blocks, she let go of me finally and punched me in the ass. Not too bad. The grabbing is the only annoying thing. It'd odd to me how unaffected I am by the poverty so far. Perhaps because I've seen it before, because right now my mind is elsewhere, or because I'm protecting myself. But all I can think right now is how long it's going to be before I'm home. But it's getting much better. I hope I can start taking pictures soon (I'm definitely not comfortable yet) as the street scenes are breathtaking. I saw lots of great stuff yesterday that I wanted to capture, but didn't even feel comfortable staring for more than a couple seconds. At one point we passed two old men squatting on the sidewalk of one of the largest streets in the city, one shaving the other one's beard. I really liked that. I also really liked seeing the men with giant bundles of full dried tobacco leaves balanced on top of their heads, though the smell reminded me Austin a little too much. Maybe the reason I like the streets so much is because they distract me. God I hope my writing gets much more coherent while I'm here. I'm just trying to summarize I suppose.
In all, India is difficult thusfar. Wise words are always appreciated...and I thank those of you who have given them to me.
One last thing that I found interesting yesterday. We were talking with one of the women who's part of the program and oversees the guesthouse, and upon learning that I'm here for 10 weeks, she said: "You can't take India seriously. You must come to India with a sense of humor and lots of patience. Remember that." This stuck in my head all day and actually helped me a lot. I can do that. But how interesting, to not take India seriously...I'm still thinking about it...
Alright, well I love you all incredibly and think of home everyday. I hope to talk to you all soon.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why Is This Site All In Greek? Oh Right...

Oh yes, I have been staring at this blog site for all of 8 minutes just trying to figure out how to write a new entry. No, I didn't remember from last time, ok? And no, I don't speak Greek, ok? Yet that is! I have 8 days left and I'm positive that I will master the language just in time for...India? Right, screw Greek, I'm moving on to Hindu/Urdu/Bengali. Oh Lord. Remind me why I didn't plan my trip in 2 countries that speak somewhat the same language? Oh well, no regrets thus far...
So from Matala we bussed to Hania, a larger (and much older) town on the North coast, which is where we are now. It is by far my favorite place we've been in Greece. Perhaps in Europe? Oh, I don't know about that. I've only been here one day. We arrived yesterday and wound through more tiny cobblestone streets until a cocky Greek hotel owner in tight Euro-trash jeans absconded us on the street and made us look at a room. Small, clean, orange, high ceilings, and a view of an ancient, crumbling stone wall with a garden behind it. For 30 euro a night, I was not willing to argue. I had also just hiked my hugenormous backpack up 2 flights of stairs and was feeling a hemorrhage coming on. When Austin asked if 25 euro a night was possible, the man grimaced and assured us that it was merely impossible to find rooms that cheap here. I mean, there was just no way that was going to happen. Fine, buddy. If it'll help you digest your cheese pies and baked cheese and fried cheese and flaming cheese and jesuschristeverythinginthiscountryisbuiltoncheese!....then yes, I will pay 30 euro a night. But promise me you'll buy new jeans.
Anyway, so after settling in we set out to explore. Hania is, in a word, awesome. Everywhere is old Turkish architecture, crumbling Mediterranean buildings, courtyard gardens and beautiful restaurants serving beautiful food to ugly people (sorry, I'm a little disappointed with the Greek looks...you'd be surprised how many stereotypes go unfulfilled in this country. Not to mention the Germans that seem to be more popular here than the goddamned cheeses). The city is built all along an old port, and you can spend hours wandering from restaurant to art show to cafe. For dinner we found Gyros (really, we're trying to cut down, I swear) and then came across a little turkish cafe called Konstantinople Cafe, which I believe to be my favorite cafe in the entire world. I no joking. No joke. We walked up to the low, heavy wooden tables set up outside under sheets and scarves draped overhead and seated ourselves on the cushiony chairs. A group of people (some of whom appeared to run the cafe) were sitting outside drinking, and one of them (a large one with about 4 teeth) was playing his guitar and singing. We ended up playing backgammon, drinking wine and smoking a hookah for about four hours. All the while being serenaded by a greek toothless giant playing Simon and Garfunkel, the Byrds, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, and Greek folk songs on his guitar. I'll tell you now, what the Greeks lack in physical attractiveness they make up for tenfold in musical talent. They are really amazing. We also happened to befriend a very large and very drunk Greek Native American named Sylvester. I kid you not. He was friends with the people who owned the cafe and was sent to talk to us after all the other patrons had left and we were still giggling and wobbling on our cushions, heading into our 3rd backgammon game and second hookah coal of the night. So we made a friend. Sylvester ("Dontchu call me no Stalone! No Stalone guys!" as he says...) the Native American (or First Person as they say now?) Greek man who interjects "I don't know" and "guys" into his heavily accented English like any practiced American teenager.
"Oh man guys, I'm peesed, you know? I don't know. I on weekend, guys. That's why I peesed. Drink too much. I don't know, guys." And he pulls his tobacco pouch out of the fanny pack strapped across his chest to roll yet another cigarette. We have a date with Sylvester for lunch tomorrow. He's going to show us a traditional Greek lunch. I just can't wait.
I think we're going to spend the rest of our time here in Hania. Probably at our Turkish cafe. Playing backgammon like old men. When I grow up I want to be an old Greek man.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Yannos and the Gyros

I can't believe this internet cafe charges 4 euro for one hour of internet usage. I mean, that's just ridiculous. But then, I guess that realization sums up a large part of my trip to Greece so far...why do people feel the need to charge me 5 euro for a sandwich? I don't know. Don't I get student discounts here? No? Oh right...I'm no longer a student! In fact, that realization sums up far more of my time here. What I'm trying to say is that to all of you reading this who are in school, surfing the internet while you should be slaving away at your homework, wondering what you did in class today because you were so bored...I just want to let you know that not going to school (even if only for a year) is turning out to be the best decision I have ever made. While I do miss Portland, and my people there (and the dollar...fucking euro...) I am having an amazing time and do not wish for a second that I was sitting in a desk in Corvallis (shudder) in a Freshman literature class. In fact that sounds somewhat horrific right now! But perhaps that's only because I'm sitting in an internet cafe in a beach town in Crete, having just finished eating fresh fruit and yogurt on my balcony overlooking the beach with me manfriend. But, maybe that's not why...it could just be Corvallis...
I suppose I'll start from the beginning...read at your own risk though -- you know me...(at least I hope you do or you should stop reading this blog and never log on again you creep)
Th beginning: After a few slices of pizza with my parents at the Portland airport and brief hugs and kisses (and a sense of shock at how well my mother was keeping herself together), I shoved myself through security, into an airplane and shortly thereafter found myself 36,000 feet off the ground with a feeling in my stomach like I had just jumped off a cliff. Which, mind you, isn't neccesarily a bad feeling, just one of sheer adventure (and slight terror). Actually, it felt much more comparable to jumping off of a cliff into water. Basically I felt a mix of a few things: a) What the hell have I gotten myself into? b) there's no going back now so I might as well enjoy every moment of it c) the only way to do it is to just do it and d) ohmygod what the hell have I gotten myself into?. But after stifling a few minor breakdowns, I landed in Frankfurt, was shoved onto another aircraft and soon found myself hurrying through the Athens airport eager to meet Austin. The relief I felt upon meeting him there is somewhat indescribable. While I had almost convinced myself that I was going to be alone for the next 4 months, suddenly I remembered that I had another 3 weeks to spend indulging myself with my boyfriend in the Greek isles. Which, I'll tell you now, is a very nice feeling. A very nice feeling indeed.
We found our hotel in Athens without trouble, payed the 70 (!) euro for our one night in the very small but clean room and headed out to find food. That night we bounced around Athens, thrilled to be in Greece (and together) but also generally unimpressed with Athens. Really just like every other large european city only not as good. So we drank wine (maybe a little too much on my part), slept, and awoke the next morning to go get on the ferry to our first island. Which we did...it was a big blur...but we found ourselves depositted in the port of Syros, our first island in the Cyclades. Syros was, in my mind, the perfect place to start. Virtually untouristy, and incredibly Greek. Exactly what one imagines the Greek islands being like. Tall white-washed houses everywhere covered in green and pink bouganvilliea with cobblestone streets that wind so extensively around the city that not getting lost is a chore. We found a perfect small hotel for 30 euro a night complete with a roof top balcony that overlooked the entire port and the surrounding mountains. Really breathtaking. We dropped our stuff in our room (which for me by the way consists of a MASSIVE backpacking backpack that I estimate to weigh around 430 lbs, and a shoulder bag filled with random useless shit) and hopped up to our roof top balcony to survey the sight. There we encountered our first fellow traveling friends: Ricardo and Carry, two 55 year old men from the Bay area eager to force feed us olives, cheese and Ouzo. We chatted with them for a long while, and I painfully sipped a glass of Ouzo. I must say, it's the only Ouzo I've had so far and I'm not a huge fan. Although, as Austin points out, how can you return from Greece with no Ouzo stories? (I believe my father can attest to this statement) So, I'll keep you posted. They were great to talk with as Ricardo had lived in Greece and had some great vacation tips, and Carry, upon hearing that we were from Portland, informed us that there's very little good marijuana in the islands, but that we wouldn't miss it. Gotta love west-coasters. After consuming about half of their food (at their insistence) Carry looked down at Austins shoes (which are basically brown suede walking shoes that happen to be Keens though they don't look it) and upon learning that they were Keens, exclaimed "Shut up!" about 4 different times with that same "Mean Girls" enthusiasm. I really liked Carry at that point.
So we hung around Syros for a few days, swam in the Agean Sea every day (which by the way I LOVE if only for the fact that you can float on top of the water for hours with no effort required), bought fresh produce everyday and ate gyros and greek salad.
I feel I should mention our diets here. Literally all we eat is greek salad, orange juice and gyros. And the gyros here are not what you are probaby thinking of. They're some of the best things in the entire world. Here, they're actually called "pita gyros" and they consist of a piece of toasted pita bread wrapped around fresh lamb or pork cut straight off the rotissery with tatziki, tomatoes and french fries. And they pretty much make me cry every time i eat one. I think Austin and I have probably averaged 2 a day since we've been here. And, they cost about a euro fifty each which is also a goddamn miracle. I mean really, skrew olives and fresh cheese and souvlaki and baked feta pies and stuffed vine leaves and the best tomatoes in the world. Gyros are where it's at. I just had to put that in here.
From Syros we went to Naxos, which was definitely more touristy, but not bad. I can't imagine travelling these islands in July or August though. They must get so packed with tourists. We hung out on Naxos, ate more delicious food, found a great bakery where we bought bread from an old greek man with an abnormally large head and abnormally good cream filled pastries, treked around, saw some old stone shit, and rented a scooter on our last day. Which was a blast. At least, it was a blast after I stopped squeezing Austin so tight he thought he was going to throw up. We zoomed to a beach and layed there for a while, watching the proud naked European men walk up and down the beach showing off their tan genetalia. Which, by the way, is a very odd thing to see indeed. I mean, besides the fact that it's old European men walking very slowly up and down the beach to make sure you don't miss a thing, I'm of the belief that genetalia shouldn't be tan. I mean, it's just wierd. Put it away, if only so it remains the color it should be: pale. Also so that I don't have to look at it. Well whatever, good for them. We need more people proud of their bodies anyway I suppose. So we zoomed up into the mountains for about 5 hours, past olive groves and hillsides carved into marble quarries (Naxos is that island where almost all of the marble in the world comes from -- including the Venus de Milo) and Tuscan like trees. Everywhere you look there are ancient stone walls outlining forgotten properties, so embedded into the landscape it's like they were born straight out of the earth, as natural as the fig and olive trees that surround them. Really one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.
We got back into town with just enough time to run to a Scandanavian bar and watch the Greece vs. Norway football game. I must say, Scandanavians may have some of the worst food in Europe (second only to England of course) but damn do they know how to drink. So we drank beers and yelled with the Norweigans and then wandered along the port looking for more Norweigans to yell with. It was a wonderfully rowdy time. By the way, if anyone actually knows who won that game you should inform me, because I managed to miss that little detail...
The only other important event that happened on Naxos was that Austin bought his blue Reebok speedo. I think he really felt left out of all the other men here. But it's awesome. I'll try to get a picture up , because I know you all want to see that.
From Naxos? Santorini. Everyone we talked to said "Oh, you have to go to Santorini, just to see it. It's so amazing." Well, my advice to anyone coming to the Greek islands: if you like fat tourists, no beaches, shopping, fat tourists, Americans, shopping, drinking, and tourists....Santorini is your island. We were entirely unimpressed by it. To say the least. And even the Gyros were mostly disappointing. Though the view off the cliffs was nice, it was generally obstructed but clothing shops and more fat tourists. We stayed for one night, spent about 2 hours sitting on a bench just watching tour groups go by and lamenting the loss of our other, Greeker, beachier, better islands. Although, I can't say we didn't have any fun. Because of course, what should one look for when they're not enjoying themselves? An Irish pub! So, after finding that little haven and spending an obnoxious amount of money on "beverages", we ended up talking to an Australian couple for a long time and meeting a couple girls from Bellevue, WA. Which, at the time we all found incredibly cool. And is pretty coincidental actually. Basically we stayed in that bar for far too long which we realized when I found myself not drinking at the bar, but rather dancing on top of it. That's all I will say. And that clothing stayed on. And that if my parents tell my Grandmother that, I think our family might fall apart. Or just tell her I was possessed. Well, when in Santorini I suppose...
So we got out of Santorini as fast as possible and caught a ferry to Crete which is where we are currently. We arrived in Iraklion (Crete's capital) 3 nights ago and, not having made any prior arrangements, found ourselves in dorm-style hostel beds. Which is precisely where we met Yannos. (Note: Minda, I think it's your destiny to write a story about this man ala the style of Rebart...). If you've ever stayed in dorm-style hostel beds in a European country, you know that in EVERY ROOM there is an obese, older man who is travelling alone, is possibly mentally disabled and who snores like a godddamned train the entire night. This man is Yannos. And that is what Yannos did. But mind you, that is not all that Yannos did. Yannos also awoke with the Taiwanese couple staying in the room (who apparently he felt very close to although they had no idea who he was) and demanded to see the womans mirror to look at his "tooth hurt" as he put it. We guess he was Romanian, and although I have met very few Romanians in my day, apparently cultural sensitivity is low on their priority lists. So Yannos made as much noise as he possiby could rustling his plastic bags and walking around in his jeans-with-suspenders-and-no-shirt outfit. Not a good look for an older obese Romanian man (or woman for that matter as Austin points out)...
Once the Taiwanese couple finally freed themselves of Yannos' "friendship" (and his very loud "Goodbye Ito! Goodbye Ito! Remember lock door Ito! Goodbye! Lock Door!") Austin and I found ourselves alone in the room with Yannos and one other young Finnish man who was equally appauled by our Romanian friend. I made the mistake of letting Yannos see that I was awake, and upon seeing my eyes open he got a very excited look on his face and turn around to rummage for something in his fanny pack. Oh shit. He returned with a small radio that he turned on to some local Greek station, turned up obnoxiously loud and placed next to austin and I's bed. I had to hide my face while he asked us "Is good, right? Is good? Yes." And returned to "packing", which for Yannos consisted of folding and refolding his clothing and shoving it into plastic bags, and then picking up what I figured to be lint off of the bed and cramming it into his fanny pack. He stayed in the room for at least another twenty minutes, at some point asking if the music "too loud?" at which point Austin informed him that yes, in was in fact too loud, and that "music off" would be fantastic. I think he was too stupid to take offense. Finally Yannos waved a loud goodbye and left the room. And I don't think a day has gone by that I haven't thought of him. Then again, it's been all of two days...
I forgot to mention how I first met Yannos! I was awakened when his persistant snoring stopped in the morning and opened my eyes to find a very large and very naked Yannos sitting on the edge of his bed rubbing his eyes. Legs open. Facing me. Welcome to Crete! Thankyou Yannos, I will never be the same and have had nightmares for the past two nights without fail.
Iraklio was fun though, and although we spent little time there, we discovered the best gyros yet (which is saying a lot). If you ever go to Iraklio, go to Izmir Kabob and get a pita gyro. You will discover divinity. Screw religion, take up the Gyro. Trust me, it is the way.
My god, I can't imagine who would sit down and read this entire entry (let alone even start it)...so here's the end: right now we are in Matala, a small hippy beach town on the South coast of Crete. It's absolutely lovely. Lots of old hippies, very laid back with apparently one of the best beaches on Crete. We have about 10 more days in Greece together and can't wait to find out what more is in store for us.
Love and gyros