Saturday, April 28, 2007

Tea Time

Darjeeling is awesome. I am so happy to be out of Kolkata, and so elated to be in this adorable town, I can hardly contain my excitement. Getting out of Kolkata was quite the feat. Like the rest of Kolkata, the railway station was an overwhelming, chaotic, swollen mass of people, beggars, and filth. Luckily, the driver from the organization that I was volunteering with drove me to the station and walked me to the precise spot on the tracks that I needed to be at. A group of young beggar children surrounded me and one kept aggressively tapping my hand and looking up mournfully at me, asking for money and food as his friends watched, edging in closer and closer. They were all dressed in ragged clothing, and had streaks of dirt covering their dusty bodies. Finally, when I continued to say no, they moved on from me and started begging from an Indian tourist who also said no.

The train arrived and the Indian family nearby confirmed for me that I was in the right spot, in front of the right coach. I had purchased a ticket for a sleeper bunk and got on the train expecting to see a roomy coach with a door that I could shut behind me. Ha, ha, ha. Getting on the train I was greeted with a narrow walkway, about a foot and half wide, with blue-curtained, double-decker bunks lining each side of the train. I found my bunk number, number 19, and opened the curtain to find 4 bunks facing one another in an extremely small space. No. 19 was the ground level bunk and I sat down on it, clutching my bags to me, to get my bearings. Not a foot away from me was the next bunk over, with a family of four sitting there staring at me. If I had held out my arm I could have touched the their little daughter's face.

I observed the family closely and did everything they did, including chaining up my bags underneath my bunk, and locating the sheets and blanket and making my bed. The little children kept saying "good morning" to me and smiling. It was 10:15 pm. A few minutes before the train was to take off, another Westerner appeared in the space, toting a back pack and a guitar, and took the bunk above me. His name is PJ and he's from Belgium, and it was also his first experience on a train in India. We became fast friends in about 2 seconds, both of us sharing a mutual delight to be getting the heck out of Kolkata. (Since leaving Kolkata and meeting several more travelers in Darjeeling, it seems to be the unquestioned sentiment that Kolkata is the worst city in India, if not worst city ever. I no longer feel the slightest bit guilty for getting fed up with it, and I actually feel quite proud that I made it 10 days - 10 relatively good days. The consensus is that if you can do Kolkata, you can do anywhere).

Eight hours later, after a fitful sleep punctuated by strange noises coming from the bunks around me and the sound of the train running along the tracks, we arrived at our destination - a large city 3 hours away from Darjeeling. A family friend of one of PJ's colleagues was going to pick him up, and after meeting me, arranged for another friend of his to help transport PJ and I to another city where we could arrange for a jeep to Darjeeling. Get this, in order to get from the train station to the other town PJ and I had to ride on the back of two motorcycles while carrying all of our stuff. I had my big backpack on my back, my little back pack clutched in my left hand, and my right hand holding on to the back of the motor cycle for dear life. I was clenching my stomach and thigh muscles so hard in an effort to stay balanced that I could hardly walk for a few minutes after we arrived at our destination. On the way we passed speed bumps, dump trucks, tuk-tucks, men carrying enormous loads of stuff on their heads, cows, sheep, children, and people on bicycles. I tried really hard to stay perfectly still and not to think about the fact that I don't have health insurance at the moment. (I know, I know, it's awful but relax. I just prayed to Tara, tried to meditate myself into calmness and trusted in the Universe that I would be ok. It worked!).

After that, there was an hour and a half long wait for our jeep to get ready to go, and then a 3 hour trip up the mountains to Darjeeling. The trip into the mountains was fantastic. The terraced hillsides are filled with tea and houses perched precariously over the valleys below. Darjeeling itself is awesome, as a I mentioned. It's an adorable maze of tiny shops, cute places to eat, and lovely people. There's hardly any Westerners, PJ and I weren't accosted by anyone trying to convince us to go to their hotel when we arrived, and I've only seen about two beggars. It's paradise! Within 20 minutes we had found another Westerner, a girl by the name of Polly who's from the U.K. who was in the midst of buying shoelaces from a street vendor when I asked if she knew of any good coffee places. Turns out she did, and she offered to walk us up the mountain to the perfect place. We ambled up the mountain passing row upon row of little stores selling almost anything you could imagine including guitars, bags, clothes, jewelry, statues, etc. PJ bought a guitar string.

Sipping my coffee a few minutes ago I was thinking about my plan for Darjeeling. There's a lot to do and I have until May 2nd when I have to fly to Delhi. Rather than planning, I think I'm just going to go with the flow here and chill out. I realized on the drive up here that I love mountain towns. They're usually laid back and filled with cool people, and so far Darjeeling is turning out to be exactly that. Oh, I didn't even mention the temperature. It's a glorious 12 degrees Celsius here, I think about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. That's almost twenty eight degrees Celsius lower than in Kolkata! It's marvelous. I'm wearing a long sleeved top over my yoga pants. Also, I just realized the people at the other side of the cyber cafe are speaking Swedish! I love it when I hear Swedish. Ooooh, should I try my Swedish out on them? We'll see if I can work up my courage.

I'm headed back to the cafe. I can hear PJ strumming his guitar across the street. His Belgium accent is so cute. Later this evening a bunch of us are meeting up for drinks at a local bar. I'm totally loving this place.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Kolkata To Darjeeling

Street Talk: Walking with my friend, Subi, we passed to Indian girls who were chatting in Bengali.

Subi: Did you see those two girls?
Buttercup: Yes.
Subi: They were saying, “Look at the crazy foreigner who’s come here in this heat. Why would anyone visit Kolkata at this time of year?”
Buttercup: Ummm…that’s interesting. Let me know if anyone else says anything.

Well ok then, apparently I'm a crazy foreigner. So be it.

A Word On Travel Annoyances: Thinking about my TT post from yesterday, I'm afraid I might have steered you all wrong with respect to Kolkata and the time I'm having here. Overall, I have really had a very positive time. My volunteer work, the young girls that I've worked with, and the people in my organization have been absolutely wonderful and I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with them. I've also been inspired to see the great work that they're doing on anti-trafficking. In terms of the city, it's a city like any other. It has it's positives and negatives, and sometimes those negatives can totally grate on one's nerves. But the annoyances that come with experiencing something new and stepping out of one's comfort zone are part of traveling, they're the lows that balance out all the incredible highs and they're part of what makes traveling so interesting and also challenging. They're also the things that will probably make me laugh and smile when thinking back on them from the comfort of my home three weeks from now. So please, when I share my annoyances, know that they are not what's defining my experience. They're just a part of the whole experience.

Happy Cabbie Incident: I was standing on the corner last night trying to hail a cab, having no luck whatsoever. It was raining, there was a lot of traffic, and I was starting to think that I would have to walk back to my hotel in the rain. Suddenly, a woman got my attention and ushered me over to a taxi, saying “Taxi, you need?” She had hailed down a taxi for me! I bent down to tell the taxi where I needed to go. He didn’t immediately understand me, and suddenly there was a shout and the taxi driver sped off. A cop who had been perched a few feet away from me had yelled at the driver for slowing down traffic and had apparently told him to drive off. Thanks Mr. Policeman.

I walked up the street, past the cop (and restrained myself from glaring at him or thinking too negative thoughts), and tried once again to flag down a cab. Finally, after a few more minutes a taxi stopped in front of me! Hallelujah! Miracles of miracles, the driver also understood on the first try exactly where I wanted to go. I hopped into the car with delight and waited for the light to change. Looking out my window, I saw the woman who had tried to help me passing by and told her again, Thank you (Shukriyah). She smiled and said, “not problem,” and then asked if I would mind giving her a lift on the way to wherever I was going. I agreed and she hopped into the front seat.

Her name is Erica and she’s been working for the last two years for a couple – an American woman and her Bengali husband – as their maid. She was so warm and good natured. We dropped her off a little ways up the street and before Erica got out she made sure that the driver knew exactly where I needed to go. How sweet is that?

Next Stop, Darjeeling: I finish up my last day of volunteer work today and then will be catching a night train to Darjeeling, a hill station up in the mountains on the border of Nepal and India, surrounded by 5 of the tallest peaks in India (and maybe the world?). I'm getting star bursts of excitement in my chest thinking about finally getting out onto the road and being free. Volunteering has been GREAT, but it will be thrilling to be 100%, absolutely free. I'm craving that right now. I'm also craving natural beauty, fresh clean air, hikes, and Buddhist temples. I think it will be awesome.

I'll be in Darjeeling for a few days and then will be heading to Delhi around the 3rd of May. The Taj Mahal is just a few days away. But first, the serene mountains, and hopefully the purchase of a hand made Tibetan rug. Wish me luck.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thursday Thirteen # 31


Thirteen Reasons Kolkata Is Not My Most Favorite Place Ever (or Despite the Overall Great Time She's Having, Buttercup Bitches About Kolkata)

1) The Filth - After 9 days, I am sick of the layers of filth everywhere, sick of the heat, sick of the perma-grime on my face, my back, and dusting my clothes.

2) The Cabbies - Every time I need a cab, at least 4 times a day, it's a total crap shoot with respect to whether the cabbie will understand where I want to go, whether he'll decide to go there directly, or whether he'll decide to try to cheat me. Usually it takes multiple attempts to find a cabbie who will at least nod in understanding when I tell him the address I want to go to. At least several times a day, a cabbie tries to get me to pay four times over the actual fare. Granted, it's not a lot of money by US standards, and I could just give in, but I don't like being taken advantage of on principle, not by NY cabbies, and not by the cabbies here. It's annoying.

3) My Knees - They don't like Kolkata. I don't know what the problem is. My theory was that the heat and humidity were responsible for the constant dull and sometimes excruciating pain I've been feeling in my knees for the last 5 days. However, then my mom pointed out that nothing like that happened to me in Cambodia or the Carribean, other hot, humid places that I've visited, so now I'm at a loss. I'm hoping they'll like Darjeeling better.

4) The Incessant Sound of Horns - I swear to God, people honk more horns constantly here than I've ever heard in my life. New York sounds peaceful as a baby's nursery in comparison. The reason seems to be that instead of lines in the road, traffic signs, lights, or symbols, everyone uses their horns to dictate the rules of the road. If you have a really loud horn and if you beep it constantly, people will get out of your way. The system, though chaotic, appears to work. I have yet to see a traffic accident (knock on wood), but it makes for an incessant din that I seriously can't wait to get away from.

5) The Waiters At BBQ Trying To Serve Me - I've been to BBQ, in the Park Street area, twice because they have the best naan and an absolutely delicious paneer pasinda. However, last night I was ready to throttle the waiters because they kept trying to dish out more food onto my plate from the serving dishes on my table. They're trying to be professional but it was making me want to scream at them that ladling food onto someone's plate is Not Necessary and that they should leave their guests alone. A somewhat extreme reaction, I know, and more a result of me feeling grumpy last night then the well-meaning waiters, but still.

6) The Beggar Children - Now this one is just not fair at all (of me to mention). Coming to India I was prepared to see poverty and I was prepared to see children begging. I've actually seen far less of them than I had expected, but each time I'm approached I am overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness and also discomfort. It's so obvious that I have so much and they have so little. I could give every beggar that approached me something and it wouldn't hurt me financially. However, I also know that it's a business and that children are sold and trafficked in order to become beggars. I know that the person who bought them is usually sitting on the street somewhere nearby, watching them, encouraging them to harass any tourist/white person that walks by. If I give them money, I'm putting money into the pockets of the guy watching the children from the wings. I'm contributing to that system. But I can't shake the feeling that I'm being cruel to give nothing, to say firmly "no" and then look pointedly away, because if I don't look away they'll continue to ask thinking there's a chance. According to one of the women I work with, the Indian government does not try to get these children off the street. I don't believe they're any shelters or soup kitchens run by the government, though there are a number of NGOs who are working with street children.

7) You Can't Take Pictures In A Lot of Places - This again is a very touristy, probably Western-centric, complaint but it's really annoying because it's totally nonsensical. For example, at the Victoria Monument, you couldn't take any pictures. The Victoria Monument is a big building with exhibits of pictures in it. Photographing inside the monument would not do any harm, there's no religious reason for it, but it's just not allowed. It's also not allowed at any of the Hindu temples I've visited so far. Is there some prohibition against pictures in Hinduism that I'm unaware of? In Thailand, you could take pictures everywhere, inside of temples, outside of them, even of the Buddhas themselves. Ah... Thailand.

8) A Lack of Thinking Outside of the Box - I get it, I'm in India and they do some things differently than the West, and because I'm here I should just go with the flow and do as they do. I totally embrace that. However, in certain situations, say when an Indian coffeeshop is trying to be Western but it refuses to think outside of the box, it's sort of frustrating. Example: Yesterday I was in a coffee shop for breakfast and all I wanted was a banana. They had a fruit plate but it would not be ready for 25 minutes and I needed to eat quicker than that. The banana was not on the menu but the restaurant had thousands of bananas. I ordered a coffee and a croissant and then asked if pretty please I could also purchase a banana. There was a big commotion but after checking with management my waiter informed me that it was simply not possible for me to purchase a banana. That is not the way you're going to succeed people!

9) The Woman at the Multiplex Cinema Who Told Me That I Had To Take My Battery Out of My Camera And Give It To Her - After purchasing our tickets for the movie "The Namesake" we climbed up a 2 flights of stairs and then had to pass through a metal detector. At that point, one guard told my friend (a Canadian) that she had couldn't bring in her water. Remember, it's about 40 degrees Celsius here (that's ALOT in Fahrenheit). My friend refused and they let her pass. Then the guard told me to remove my camera battery. I told her I wasn't going to do that - hello, I would have never gotten it back and what they hell did she think I was going to do? take a series of pictures of the movie? - and that I would not take any pictures, and she let me pass. Why have inane rules in the first place, and why have inane rules if you're not going to enforce them. Totally absurd.

10) Restaurants Who Don't Have Lassies - One of the things I had counted on in India was the opportunity to have delicious mango lassies with every meal. Every Indian restaurant in America has them, and they are authentically Indian, so naturally I thought I'd be swimming in lassies over here. About half the restaurants I've gone to don't have lassies. It's disappointing, especially since it would be nice to have some yogurt and mango with my daily staple of naan. I'm sure there are thousands of restaurants in Kolkata that are cute and do offer things like lassies, but I haven't found a ton of them, and frankly it's too freakin' hot to go off exploring during most of the daylight hours (and the night time hours are dangerous)... you get the picture.

11) The Heat - Ok, fine, I said it. I'm freakin' tired of the heat. Everyone who told me I was crazy to go to India and that it would be too hot to travel during this time, pat yourselves on the back for telling me so. You win, it's hot. You're so smart. However, despite the heat I would still have come. It's not unbearable, it just wears on you and makes you feel semi-comatose by mid-afternoon. Up in the hill stations it should be a little bit cooler. I can't wait for Darjeeling!

12) My Hotel - I'm staying at this place called Akash Deep in the Park Circle area that my organization (kindly) arranged for me because it's relatively near their office. It's costing me about $30 a night, which is about $20 more than I wanted to pay anywhere in India. The hotel itself is bare bones, though I have greatly appreciated the AC and the TV (especially when jet leg wouldn't let me sleep). It has no character, it's in a part of town that has nothing around it - no cute restaurants, no cute shops, no other travelers or locals hanging out (except for the people sleeping in the street). Honestly, it's kind of lame, and in the 9 days that I've been there no one has cleaned my room once. Good because I don't have to worry about my stuff, but for $30 bucks one would think I could depend on a steady supply of toilet paper. Also, the "white" sheet, that I'm not using, was stained grey, and because I don't trust the red carpet, I haven't even braved one sit-up or push-up. I suppose I could do that if I put the sheet down...

13) The General Chaos and Uncleanliness - I know this is kind of repetitive of a few above, but this basically sums up the worst of Kolkata in my mind. It's been jarring and fairly exhausting to be here. I think I talked in an earlier post about the energy of this place draining you instead of pumping you up. I've found it very difficult to sit still here, both physically and mentally. Part of that has been that I've been running around town with my volunteer work. But when I haven't been volunteering, there's just not a lot of peaceful places to go. For example, this morning, waiting an hour for the train station ticket counter to open, there was literally no place to sit to pass the time except for out on the sidewalk in the midst of all the early morning commotion.

Bonus #1 - The sound of Bengali, during animated discussions, often sounds like the people are angrily shouting at one another. Maybe this is how English sounds to Bengali ears?

Bonus #2 - The computer rage I experience at the super slow cyber cafes. For all of the talk about India's IT capacity, I must say that the internet cafes in Kolkata pale in comparison to those in Thailand. Can you tell I've been thinking fondly of Thailand. It's truly a marvelous place, something I've come to appreciate more during the past week.

Next time I'll do a list of all the things I love about Kolkata, but for now I just needed to get those off of my chest. I'm just done with the city for now and ready for some trees, mountain views, and some time for contemplation and relaxation. Tomorrow I take a night train to Darjeeling, the "quintessential hill station." Tibetan crafts, Buddhist temples, and the Himalayas, here I come!!

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others comments. It's easy, and fun! Be sure to update your Thirteen with links that are left for you, as well! I will link to everyone who participates and leaves a link to their 13 things. Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Wilting, But Happy, Flower

As you may have noticed, I've been having some trouble posting on a daily basis. It's a combination of being really busy each day with my volunteer work, a paucity of internet stations near my hotel, a malfunctioning internet connection at my organization's office, and the fact that I'm super exhausted each day by about 8:00 pm because of this infernal heat. It is freakin' hot in Kolkata people. H-O-T and H-U-M-I-D. By 2:00 pm I feel like a wilted flower. By 4:00 pm, I'm ready to fall down. I've noticed that if I take an afternoon rest and wait to go back outside until about 5:00 pm, then I feel much better. The evenings are nice.

* * *

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for a public service announcement: HOLY CRAP, the fattest, most disgusting looking rat I've ever seen just waddled past the glass wall of this internet cafe, just four feet from my unprotected toes. I feel like vomiting! I looked at it in horror and then caught the eye of the guy monitoring the computers. He grimaced back at me in understanding. That rat could have seriously taken most of the rats that I've seen in the NY city subways. Dang.

* * *

In the last few days I've largely overcome my initial culture shock an I've gotten somewhat used to the stares of the people on the street. I love my volunteer position. The people at my organization could not be more welcoming, warm, or hospitable. They have been generous with their time and knowledge and already I have learned so much from them. My favorite part of this week has been working with the adolescent girls over in one of the red light districts. Some of the girls have mothers whom are prostitutes, and others just come from very poor socio-economic backgrounds. One of the girls, Neine, was rescued recently from a brothel.

The girls are so wonderful!! They're warm, full of energy, and so much fun to spend time with. The other day, I lead a discussion with them about international human rights norms and the reality of their lives. They were so smart, introspective, and insightful. When the issue of prostitution was raised, they talked of the stigma that makes it difficult for women to leave the red light areas and find other work. They talked of disliking the profession but not the women who are in it. Some of them felt that women had a choice as to whether or not to enter prostitution, but others - those with mothers working as prostitutes - felt that they did not. One after another they recounted stories of girl children not getting enough food, not getting an education, of mothers being beaten, of police doing nothing. In between talking, they showed me Bollywood dances, begged m to sing them songs, and tried to teach me snippets of Hindi and Bengali. They quiz me each time they see me. They're amazing. They're yet another example of how just a small amount of attention and care can go so far with a child.

In between the volunteer work, I've seen many sides of Kolkata. I've been to a Bollywood movie, "Namaste London," saw "The Namesake" at a fancy mulitplex cinema in the middle of a typical Western-style glass-encased mall (that gave me reverse culture shock), gone to dinners at some fantastic restaurants, bought some beautiful cloth at a market, and gone to one of my new friend's tailors to have some Indian-style tops made. When in Rome...

A word about the food: It was funny because before leaving for India, my mother, in a moment of worry started telling me about some friends of hers who had gone to India and lost 25 lbs. Apparently the food did not agree with them. I was pretty sure that wasn't going to happen to me because I like Indian food and eat it regularly back home. Since being here, I've been really careful in terms of not eating off the street (except with my Kolkatan friends who know the good vendors), have been avoiding fruits and veggies that might possibly have been washed in bad water, and have been having a ton of absolutely delicious Bengali food. It is so good!! The result of all of this is that I've eaten a lot of paneer butter masala and naan - which I've been enjoying thoroughly - and hardly any healthy things. I have yet (knock on wood) to get any "Delhi Belly" and I think I've gained at least 5 lbs!! And, I've only been here 8 days! I'm going to have to hit the gym hard core when I get back to NYC. The point of all of this (Mom, if you're reading), is that my mom had nothing to worry about with respect to me potentially wasting away. I'm getting downright curvascious.

I'm planning to be in Kolkata through Friday, and am trying to arrange to take a night train (AC 2nd Class) to Darjleeng. After Darjleeng, my rough route is: Dehli, Dharmsala, McLeod Ganj, Shimla... I was planning to pop by Rajasthan but I've heard that it's 50 degree Celsius. As I'm basically wilting here in Kolkata in the 40 degree Celsius temperatures, I'm rethinking that leg of the journey. At some point I hope to wind up in an Ashram but haven't planned that out yet, again because I've been so busy.

I've been reading "Eat, Pray, Love," and so far I love it! I highly recommend it.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Neina's Story

The shelter is a narrow two-story, cement building on a crowded street in the middle of one of Kolkata's red light districts, Khidderpore. The dirt road in front of it is littered with crumpled water bottles, the rotted remains of food, and other garbage. A river of brown water snakes through the dust, pooling in stagnant, foul-smelling puddles on the edge of the road. Men lounge along the sides of buildings dressed in lungis, some of them soiled, while groups of young women stand in the shade, decked out in brightly colored saris. The women on average look to be between the ages of 13 and 20, while the men range in age from young children to old men in their 50s or 60s.

I follow my new friend, a woman who has been doing community outreach to women in the red light district for the past three years, down a narrow alley to the door of the shelter. It's covered with a steel grate and pad locked for good measure. My friend explains that the area is very dangerous, both for the young girls living in the shelter and for the community workers. Threats from pimps and brothel owners against her and her organization are common, but they don't dissuade her from her work. She calls up through the grate to another woman, the field worker who resides in the shelter and cares for the young women staying there. I hear delighted cries from up above and the sound of footsteps tripping down the stairs. The women of the shelter are happy that my friend has come to visit.

Upstairs, I enter a small room, dimly lit by the sunlight filtering through the half-covered, and also barred, windows. A ceiling fan turns lazily in the heat, sending a gentle breeze through the room. The room is furnished simply with a woven carpet that covers about half of the floor space. A pile of cooking pots is set up in a corner, the preparations of the midday meal well underway.

On the carpet sits the young girl my friend has come to visit, a girl recently rescued from a brothel in Bihar, India. She's coloring in a coloring book. Colored pencils and crayons are spread out around her. She's coloring a picture of a family with a mom, dad, and two children. She's made the faces neon yellow, and has stayed within the lines of the picture. She's slight of build with very thin arms and legs, and looks to be abut the age of 12. Her skin is light brown and smooth, her eyes large and beautiful. Two of her front teeth are broken. When we enter the room, she greets us with a huge smile and a barrage of questions about the new "Auntie," me, who has come to visit. She tells me her name is Neina*, and insists that food should be brought for me even though I tell her several times that I'm not hungry or thirsty. Her smile is infectious, she's bubbling with happy energy, and she won't take no for an answer regarding her offer of food. The woman in the shelter obliges her requests, and plates of white rice, egg curry, and dahl are brought for my friend and me.

As my friend and I enjoy our meal, using our fingers to shape the rice into bite-sized balls, the young girl continues a steady stream of animated chatter with my friend. She wants to know where I'm from, whether I'm married, and if I have any sisters and brothers. She's worried the food will be too spicy for me but I assure her that it's delicious. She says repeatedly that I'm beautiful and I tell her that she's the one who is beautiful. Our exchanges are in bits of broken English and Hindi translated by my friend, and peppered with frequent smiles. Naina tells my friend that the other girls staying in the shelter have been talking to some of the neighborhood boys on the phone. She's concerned because she knows what the boys of the red light district can do. She has seen it and she has experienced it first hand. The other girls living in the shelter have also grown up in a red light district, but as Neina explains, they have not yet been forced into prostitution so they do not fully understand the risks. She's tattling on the girls, and my friend says she will place more limits on the phone. My friend says to me, "In addition to everything else, we also have to struggle with these things - the behaviors and needs of teenagers - like parents."

After we've finished our food and talked with Neina for a little while longer, we take our leave. Neina is dissapointed to see us go, but says it's ok. She knows that she will see my friend again soon. She follows us down the steps and says to me in English, "Thank you Auntie for come." I look back and catch a glimpse of her radiant smile through the bars shutting behind us and say in Hindi, "Shukriya," one word of thanks for her hospitality and warmth.

In the taxi ride away from the shelter to my hotel, I hear from my friend the details of Neina's life. Her mother was kidnapped and sold to a brothel at the age of 9, where she worked as a domestic servant for several years. At the age of 12, Neina's mother was forcibly raped by a client who had bought the right to do so. Subsequently, she was forced to have sex with men every day. When she was 15 or 16, she gave birth do Neina. The brothel owners separated mother from daughter, fearing that the mother would make trouble for them and speak up on her daughter's behalf, if she was allowed to stay close to her daughter. Over the course of the next 10 years, Neina's mother was repeatedly tortured and raped while forced to prostitute herself. Finally, no longer being able to stand the torture, and having learned of my friend's organization's efforts to reach out to the women of the red light district, she escaped from the brothel and sought the help of my friend's organization. It took her almost a year to be rehabilitated, so deep were the effects of the trauma that she had been forced to endure. Eventually, she began working for my friend's organization, advocating for the rights of women in the red light district.

Once she had freed herself, she asked my friend's organization if rescue could be arranged for her daughter, Neina. She begged the organization to get Neina out. She said that she did not want Neina to suffer as she had, and said that she would not feel like a mother until she had saved her daughter. It took months of planning to arrange the rescue, most of which was spent convincing the police to assist in the raid. Corruption is a huge problem; brothel owners and pimps pay a lot of money to the police so that they will not interfere in the red light district. The organization pressured the police by bringing the mother before them and forcing them to hear her story, and involving the media to raise awareness about Neina's plight. On the day of the raid, members of the police and my friend's organization, along with a cameraman to document the raid, entered the brothel.

Inside the brothel, they found Neina just where her mother had told them she would be, in a small dark room in the back of the brothel. Two other young girls were in the room with her. Neina's mother pointed her out, but Neina, afraid of the brothel owners refused to recognize her mother. She appeared to be in a state of shock, she was withdrawn, fearful, and did not speak. When tested by medical staff later on, it was found that all three of the girls had traces of drugs in their systems. It wasn't until a week later, once Neina began to realize that she was safe and that the brothel owners would not be able to get to her, that she started speaking, recognized her mother, and admitted that she had been forced to work as a prostitute for the past year.

Neina told her rescuers that while growing up in the brothel, she and other young girls had been forced to watch the brothel owners and pimps brutally beat prostitutes who had refused to have sex. That was how the brothel owners trained the young girls to accept their fate to become prostitutes, by making them understand what the consequences would be if they refused. Neina said that the brothel owners would beat the prostitutes with bamboo rods and steel pipes all over their body. The would beat the women's vaginas until their vaginas bled.

When Neina was 12, the brothel owners drugged her and gave her to a man in his 50s who raped her. Neina struggled and cried out, but she could do nothing to stop it. She felt helpless. During the next year, brothel owners, pimps, and men repeatedly raped and beat her. Neina considered killing herself, but then thought why should she kill herself when she knew that it was not her who had done something wrong. Neina was rescued two months ago, at the age of 14. She was malnourished, sick with tuberculosis, and drugged, and had to spend almost two months in a hospital in order to heal. My friend picked Neina up from the hospital and brought her to the shelter only two days before I first met Neina.

After Neina's rescue the brothel owners filed a court case demanding her return. One of them alleges that Neina is his daughter and that she has been stolen from him. My friend' organization suspects that large sums of money have been given to the police and the judge involved in the case to persuade them to return Neina to the brothel. My friend's organization is currently battling the brothel owners in court. On their side they have the testimony of Neina and her mother, and the video footage of the raid. My friend believes they have a strong case and says allowing Neina to be forced to go back to the brothel is not an option. Instead, they are going to keep Neina safe, provide her with medical treatment, education, and some life and skills training so that she will be able to earn a livelihood outside of the walls of the brothel.

* Name changed to protect her identity.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The British Weren't Movie Stars, And Neither Am I

Did you know that colonial era British people employed upwards of 100 servants while living abroad in India? All Indian of course. There were servants to hold the British people's hookah, servants to fan them, to dress them, wake them, serve them food, carry messages, manage their horses, etc. Pictures of such scenes cover the walls of the museum in the Victoria Memorial, a large colonial era monument in Kolkata.

Walking through the halls, looking at the pictures and reading the accompanying text, I was thinking to myself that if I was India, I would be f-ing pissed off at the British. Yes, it was about 60 years ago when British power in India finally ended, but still. Looking at the pictures, you can see how the British used India as their own personal playground. Just the idea that Britain called all Indians their "subjects" is galling.

As an American, I feel a certain kinship with other countries, such as India, who once suffered under British rule. However, I quite doubt that the majority of the Indian people visiting the monument assumed that I was harboring anti-British sentiments. Instead, I suspect they saw me as a member of the white "other." I started suspecting this when a young Indian man started following me around the Memorial, and then asked me for an autograph. I felt bitchy, but I politely declined. Worse yet, the reason I declined was because I had no idea what his motivations were. People are constantly coming up to you here, pretending to befriend you, giving you directions, offering assistance, only to ask for money in return. I don't begrudge them their attempts to earn some cash. However, because that is so prevalent, you start to become suspicious of everyone's motivations, and you start closing down so as to prevent an awkward situation from developing.

I also felt bizarre about the idea of giving anyone my autograph since the basis of my autographability is the fact that I'm a white American. I don't want to be infamous for that! If I had given that young man my autograph, it would have been almost like buying into racial/class/cultural stereotypes. No one should want my autograph because I'm white or because I'm an American. Both are merely accidents of my birth. The situation reminded me of walking through the streets of Playa del Carmen in Mexico where I heard more than one man say, "Hello, Movie Stars!" A movie star because I'm white and I look more like the models on the American Billboard advertisements and in the American TV shows than they believe that they do. Both scenarios made me feel uncomfortable, because I don't want to be the other.

But, it didn't stop there. Not one but two Indian families approached me shyly and asked me to take a picture with them. At first I thought that the husband wanted me to take a picture of him and his wife, so I agreed. But, no. He wanted to take a picture of his wife and me. The wife, though she did not speak to me in English, seemed very sweet, so I posed for the picture. But, afterward, to even the playing field, I had the husband take a second picture with my camera of his wife and me. Later, a young man wanted his friend to take a picture with me, and again he was really sweet (and I still felt like a Bi-atch for not signing the other boy's paper) so I agreed.

I guess the people who approached me just wanted my autograph or picture because, as a white person in India, I'm something of a novelty. Although there are most definitely many other Western travelers in India, I haven't seen a lot of them. This may be because of the sheer size of India, or it may be because not many travelers come to Kolkata. I'm not sure.

Maybe they don't link me with the British and their colonial past on the basis of my whiteness; maybe that's just coming from me (but I think an understandable conclusion when you're in a museum surrounded by pictures of white people and their Indian servants, and you're the only white person in the museum and almost everyone around you is staring at you as if you're an alien life form). As African-Americans and people of color in the U.S. know, it's disconcerting to be viewed, on the basis of your skin color, as the "other." Nevermind being the "other" because you come from (on of) the richest, most powerful countries in the world, and are assumed to be rich and to support the actions of your moronic President. It causes you to do things like reach out to other people of your same color looking at Lonely Planets in book shops; not because they're white, because they, like you, are also experiencing being the other, and sometimes it's nice to be around people going through the same experience.

Luckily, I don't feel like the "other" at all with the activists that I'm working with. They could not be more welcoming, amazing, and inspiring. Tomorrow, I'm going to spend the day with two of them, going to two temples in the North of the city and then where ever else they feel like showing me around. I'm psyched. They're both super cool, incredibly smart, and very sweet, and I think we're going to have a lot of fun. It's always better to see a place through the eyes of people living in the area. It allows you to ditch the tourist, "other" identity, and just relax into the enjoyment of getting to know new people and experiencing new things. It also guarantees that I won't be ripped off tomorrow! Yay!

Impressions of Kolkata

I'm sitting in a tiny booth with four computers and a small fan, just 20 feet away from Park Road in Kolkata, India. I'm so relieved to be off of the street, away from the incessant honking, smells, dust, putrefying piles of garbage, constant stares, and the frequent heart-wrenching begging. Kolkata is nothing if not intense. I've been here for 2 1/2 days and it's been a constant assault on all of my senses. Frequently, I find myself walking down the street, silently thinking to myself, "Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap..." It's not fear, it's that it doesn't stop. All the time, every where I look, there's something I've never seen before, and it's overwhelming. Neither good nor bad, just overwhelming.

Then there's also the squalor. The buildings are scared by black stains, many of them covered by layers of dirt, dust and grime that look like they've been building up for the last 1,000 years. The streets are lined with gutters, filled with brown, toxic-looking liquid (much of it probably pee) and choked with debris, garbage, and human feces. I've been wearing flip flops, but I'm very careful where I step. There's no where to sit except amidst the dust and the crowds of people. In comparison, New York is a pristine oasis of neatly organized calm. After wandering around the streets of Kolkata, I have a new found appreciating for the glass-covered, urban jungle, and I think I might just have to go kiss the ground in Central Park - in desparate gratitude for its existence - upon my return.

I arrived in Kolkata after a 14 hour flight from JFK to Mumbai (Bombay), a six hour layover (from 12:00 to 6:00 am Mumbai time) in Mumbai Airport, and a two hour flight to Kolkata. From Kolkata airport I took a taxi to the organization for whom I will be volunteering through the end of next week. The cabs here are kind of awesome. They're bright yellow cars in the style of 1920s Rolls Royce's and they're everywhere. There are also tuk-tuks, but I've stuck to the more reliable, quicker, cabs so far.

The people I'll be volunteering with are amazing. From the moment I met them, they greeted me with warmth, excitement, and genuine pleasure to have me here. The organization itself is focused upon stopping another generation of young girls from entering prostitution. To that end, they have reached out to adolescent girls living in the red light districts of Kolkata and in a few other areas in India, and have provided them alternative housing in shelters, education, health care, and skills training - all aimed to give them a viable alternative, other than prostitution, for supporting themselves. Because their mothers are prostitutes, and because they themselves have grown up in the red light districts, they are a high risk group in terms of the likelihood that they will be pressured into prostitution.

A word on the red light districts. Never have I seen such intense poverty. People are living on top of each other, crowded into decaying stone buildings or under lean-tos, with only ragged cloth as a roof covering or door. There's garbage everywhere, as there is in most of the places I've seen so far in Kolkata. Some houses seem to literally rise up out of the garbage, almost as if they are part of the garbage heap upon which they are situated. The girls who live in the red light districts are stigmatized and treated with disdain. Some go to school, but other girls who are not from the red light district are told not to speak with them because they are "bad girls." I'm talking not about the prostitutes, but their children.

I learned a little about some of the children's lives when I met 5 teenage girls yesterday at a shelter, ranging in age from 13-16. They were amazing! Smart, funny, open, and bubbling with questions for me. The girls reside in a shelter run by the organization I'm volunteering with. All of the girls said their mothers support them living outside of the red light district; they don't want their daughters forced into prostitution, they want them to have a different life. During our conversation (in Bengali and Hindi but translated into English for my benefit), the subject turned to violence against women. When I asked whether they had seen violence in their community they described in vivid detail the death of a woman who had been burned a live by her John just a few days earlier. The girls said "husband," because in the red light district that is how the Johns are referred to. It's less shameful then admitting that your mom is a prostitute.

Apparently, her John became angry with her and, after dousing her with alcohol, set her and her sari on fire. Just before dying, she lunged at her attacker, saying that if she died he would go on to do this to other women and that he should die to. She hugged her John and they both ended up being burned alive. The five girls had seen the whole altercation happen inside the cramped quarters where their mothers live. I can't imagine growing up in that reality. I was stunned and inspired by their resilience. They've grown up with abuse and unspeakable horror, such as seeing people burned alive before them, yet they could animatedly discuss their love of dancing, talking to new people, carpentry, and their hopes for their future. One girl wants to be a math teacher, another wants to be a doctor. It's overwhelming to me how many girls there are just like them who deserve so much better than the reality that they were born into.

Speaking of injustice and clashes between worlds, out of necessity, I walk past mothers with children, children alone, the elderly, and the crippled, staring fixedly ahead, ignoring their pleas for money or food. A fellow traveler that I met my first night here, Sarah from Scotland, told me how guilty she feels when she does the same thing and refuses the pleas for help. Having just arrived, I waxed philosophical, and said I didn't feel guilty because supporting begging runs the risk of supporting the trafficking of persons for begging, and suggested that a better route would be donating to a local organization. Ha! That was after only 3 hours in the city.

Two days and many, many poor souls later, of course I feel guilty. I'm sickened by the poverty, not by the people who are poor, and not by their way of life, but by the fact that they have so little. In comparison, I have so much. I come from a world so different, and so filled with privileges it's incomprehensible. Walking on the garbage covered side walk, navigating between skeletal bodies huddled against the sides of the path, many of them without even a piece of cloth to cover them, I feel sick to my stomach at the injustice. But, what can I do? Giving out rupees would accomplish two things: First, it would get me mobbed, and second, it would in fact support the trafficking of people for begging - a practice which results in, among other things, the forced maiming of children for sympathy points. As I don't want either, I'm holding on to my rupees, but, yes, I feel guilty, but mostly I just feel sad. I feel sad that I have so much where they have so little, and guilty for giving them nothing. It feels cruel to walk past them without even a glance. I try to be firm and gentle, and to treat each person I encounter with dignity and respect. But, it's not enough. People should not be living like this. It's horribly sad.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What I Packed For A Month In India

Essentials: Passport, Visa.

8 Tops:
1 long sleeve: Black long sleeved zip-up.
3 short sleeve: White, black, sea-green, grey.
5 sleeveless: White, black, black tube, pink, BBC tank.

3 Pants: Brown linen capri, black capri, lulemon black long yoga/travel pants.

Underclothes:
5 prs socks: 3 pr lightweight wool socks, 2 cotton socks.
1 cotton boxer.
3 bras: black bandeau bra, taupe bra, black sports bra.

Yoga Clothes: Black top, black 3/4 yoga pants, black yoga skort.

Outerwear: Waterproof wind breaker, waterproof pants, micro fleece, floppy hat.

Shoes: Black flip-flops, hiking shoes.

Beachwear: 2 bathing suits, Juicy Couture Terry Tube Dress in Aqua, black beach cover-up skirt, sarong.

Electronics: Ipod, Ipod charger, digital camera, camera charger, camera usb cord for uploading pics, 1 international adapter.

Gear: Gregory Deva Backpack, Mini mag light, pocket knife, compass, waterproof backpack cover, Sigg .6 L water bottle, silk sleeping bag liner, sunglasses.

Toiletries. Too many.

Food: 10 assorted balance/cliff/luna bars.

Medicine: Malaria medicine, Ambien, 30 water purification tablets, basic first aid, etc.

Reading/Writing Material: Journal, Eat, Pray, Love, Lonely Planet India,

Finances: Waist belt, ATM card, Credit Card, Starwood Card.


...and some more stuff but I have to run to the airport! I plan to write at least every few days about my travels so stay tuned! Have a great month!

Another School Shooting

I just saw this horrific news. A gunman shot 22 people to death at Virginia Tech this morning. It's the deadliest school shooting to have happened in the United States. I am deeply saddened on behalf of the students and others killed and their families.

This is not the Revolutionary War and we do not need standing militias to defend ourselves against the English. How many people have to die before we get rid of the guns?

Space Making

I'm down to 31 hours before my plane leaves for Bombay and I'm in the final stretch of trip preparations. I've been busier the past few days packing and buying supplies than I was during my last few weeks of work! I was up until 5 am last night organizing, making to-do lists, and revamping my ipod selections. It's funny how staying up until 5 am for fun things is totally doable, whereas being stuck in the office until a similar time would be torture.

Other than getting soaked to the skin multiple times from the torrential downpours flooding New York, my trip preparations have been going pretty well. I've been downtown to EMS at least three times, first to buy my back pack and hiking shoes, then to return my hiking shoes, then to retrieve the credit card that the girl forgot to return to me at the end of my shoe transaction. At first I was annoyed that I had to go all the way back downtown, especially since I ended up wet, chilly, soaked to the skin, and feeling like a drowned rat. However, it turned out to be a great thing because the whole experience prompted me to invest in rain gear and a micro fleece for my trip. Bravo! If I hadn't forgotten my card I would have been woefully unprepared for the potentially wet, chilly evenings I may experience in the mountains up around Dharmashala.

Things still on my To Do List include:

(1) Get traveler's checks;
(2) Laundry;
(3) Get the last of my immunization shots;
(4) Buy a new journal;
(5) Mail things in the post office;
(6) Go to Duane Reade to pick up my immunization shots, medicine, and a travel alarm clock;
(7) Get legs and bikini wax;
(8) Get a massage and facial (Yay! Thanks Mom for the gift certificate!!);
(9) Finish packing;
(10) Make reservation for airport hotel in Bombay (for 5 hours since I'll be going on to Kolkata in the early morning);
(11) Call everyone I've been meaning to the last few days.

I was going to do a post listing every item I'm bringing with me on my trip, but at this point I'm not sure I'll have enough time to do it. Even though I'm attempting to pack light, there are so many things I'm bringing!! I'm going to try to be all packed by this evening and if I have to jettison some stuff, so be it.

By the way, I've been trying to think of the word "jettison" for the last 5 months, because that's what it has felt like I've been doing, working on jettisoning the jetsam in my life. Or, as my astrologist would say, "pruning" the unwanted elements out of my life. Others would say "letting go." Same concept. Suddenly, yesterday afternoon the word came to me. It is defined as follows: To cast overboard or off: a ship jettisoning wastes; a pilot jettisoning aircraft fuel.
Informal. To discard (something) as unwanted or burdensome.


Focusing on jettisoning the junk has been one half of the theme that has been dominating my life since November. The other half of the theme has been all about being open to receive positivity and love in my life. I know I have mentioned this before, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the changes that have occurred in my life during the last few months. In so many ways I am so different from the girl I was in November, the major difference being that I feel whole. Before, when I had all of those stresses ripping into my stomach, I felt emotionally shredded on a regular basis. To go from that to feeling a sense of well being along with hope, joy, and excitement for the future is awesome.

As I also mentioned, I've been reading a lot about this general theme of achieving personal happiness and/or freedom. The basic concept is all about pursuing what you believe in, making your life into the one that you want, and freeing yourself from negative distractions that get in the way of you fulfilling your destiny, your dream, your personal path, your ability to attain a state of bliss. If anyone is interested in checking out some good books on the subject I would suggest: The Alchemist, The Secret, and The Four Agreements.

I just finished the Four Agreements and felt like the whole book was speaking my present personal truth. A Mayan man named Pablo who teaches scuba diving on Isla Mujeres in Mexico, and who one day bought be a glass of wine while I was watching the sunset, recommended this book. It offered suggestions and perspectives on the very issues that I've been thinking about, and its messages resonated with me. The basic premise of the Four Agreements is that in order to achieve personal freedom, and to let go of the negative distractions that have stood in the way of the attainment of your personal freedom/bliss, you should make the following four agreements with yourself:

(1) Be impeccable with your word. "Being impeccable with your word is not using your word against yourself...[It] is the correct use of your energy; it means to use your energy in the direction of truth and love for yourself [and it will] clean all the emotional poison that exists within you."

I'm still trying to fully understand this lesson. An example of this lesson includes not gossiping (i.e. not spreading emotional poison), but instead using your word to spread positivity and love. The idea being that if you do this, it will bounce back on you as well because you will not be giving any cause to anyone else to have emotional poison against you. I think of myself as a fairly sweet, loving person but it's hard not to spread emotional poison. Sometimes being negative and cynical is highly amusing. For now, what I've taken from this is to try to be honest with myself, and to try to speak and act in accordance with my personal truth. It's a challenge but I think it's a worthy goal.

(2) Don't take anything personally - "Nothing other people do is because of you. It is about themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world."

This is a lesson that first came up in therapy for me. I tend to be sensitive and to take the actions and words of the people close to me personally, especially when my emotional reserves are weakened. I've been working on not taking things personally and this chapter was revelatory to me. It makes perfect sense and it goes along with the idea that the only person you can control is you. If others treat you poorly, you shouldn't take it personally, because it's not about you being bad or deficient in any way, it's about their stuff. Instead of taking it personally and allowing yourself to feel bad about it, see it for what it is - their stuff - and then do what you need to do to remove the negativity.

According to the book, "When we really see people as they are without taking it personally, we can never be hurt by what they say or do...If someone is not treating you with love and respect, it is a gift if they walk away from you." Of course I read this and thought of EXBF, and tried to view his walking away as a gift to me. In my heart I know that it was a gift of sorts because I'm so much happier now than I was in that relationship. However, I still feel twinges of pain now and then. I haven't fully let go of the emotions tied to that relationship, and I haven't fully let go of the hurt I felt as a result of how he treated me. I know that in essence I did take his treatment of me personally, and I was very hurt by him. I've struggled with the idea that no one can make you feel hurt, you allow yourself to feel hurt. Half of me believes it, half of me doesn't. My opinion on this at the moment is that the second, third, and fourth times someone hurts you, you are "allowing them to hurt you," but the first time? I guess if you were totally zenned out and someone did something horrible to you for the first time, you could not take it personally, understand it was all about them and not you, and not feel pain. But, I have a long way to go before I reach that level. I'm working on it though.

(3) Don't make assumptions. "All the sadness and drama you have lived in your life was rooted in making assumptions and taking things personally...The way to keep yourself from making assumptions is to ask questions. Make sure the communication is clear. If you don't understand, ask....The day you stop making assumptions you will communicate cleanly and clearly, free from emotional poison."

This is another great one, and a classic thing that I do that I know I shouldn't do. But it's so hard not to!! It takes courage to ask questions, and I'm trying to do that more, as opposed to jumping to conclusions. It's particularly tricky in the context of dating, because you have to go into it with a level of faith and trust and repress the urge to make assumptions. I consider myself quite smart so it almost seems counter intuitive sometimes to try to force myself to doubt what I believe to be true about someone, based on my experience. However, smart as I may be, I'm not in another person's skin and I appreciate that I can't truly understand someone else unless I ask them and allow them to tell me. I'm working on this too.

(4) Always do your best. Do your best to be impeccable with your word, not to take anything personally, and not to make assumptions. "Just do your best - in any circumstance in your life. It doesn't matter if you are sick or tired, if you always do your best there is no way you can judge yourself. And if you don't judge yourself there is no way you are going to suffer from guilt, blame, and self-punishment."

This is a beautiful lesson because it's all about silencing the inner Judge that we all have inside of us. If you make an agreement with yourself to do your best, the best that you are able to do under any given circumstance, and if you honor that agreement, then there will be nothing to beat yourself up about. I also like this lesson because it recognizes that Agreement 1-3 are very challenging, and it gives you space to not be perfect. As long as you are doing your best to be impeccable with your word, to not take things personally, and to not make assumptions, then you should be proud of yourself.

This was a much longer post than I had intended and my To Do List is calling me. Go out and pick up the Four Agreements and have a wonderful Monday!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Giddyness

Spring flower in the rain first day back in New York.

New York is fantastic. I've been home a day and I'm bubbling over with love for this city. I met up with a bunch of the BBC girls last night at Cowgirl and had a blast. It was so great to see them again!! I find so many of them inspirational in different ways. Several of them, in their mid-30s, are totally rockin' their ages. Strong, confident, sexy, and self-aware. They're awesome.

Speaking of strong, sexy women, that reminds me that I've been meaning to give a shout-out to Dove's Pro-Age campaign. What a phenomenal way to promote the natural beauty of natural women. Thanks Dove!! Finally, a break from our idealized vision of 20-something beauty. Personally, I would never want to be 20 again. Not that 20 wasn't fun, and not that I didn't enjoy it at the time, but I've grown and learned so much in the last decade. Being in my thirties, I feel stronger and sexier and far more open than I ever did in my 20s. Maybe it's just me, but it's a wonderful thing to have the beauty of women of all ages celebrated.

The big excitement of the day was getting my Indian visa. It took a few hours, two trips, and $65, but I finally got it. (Thanks to the girl who came to my aid by lending me a pen not once but twice!). In addition to getting my visa, I stopped by Lululemon and bought another pair of yoga pants (I'm totally addicted) and a long-sleeved black zip-up jacket that I'm going to bring to India to use as a layering piece once I make it to the mountains. It's tricky to plan for this trip because I want to travel light but I'll be going to cities, the beach, and the mountains. And, although it's the hot dry season now, it apparently rains a lot in the mountains.

I'm so excited about my trip I can barely sit still! It has been one of my dreams to travel through India for an extended period of time for at least 10 years. To finally be on the verge of doing it is amazing.

I have to run because I'm meeting Frey and a few friends for dinner in Times Square. God I love being off of work. I'm already way to used to that! Still no new fantabulous name for the blog but I'm letting a few percolate. Keep sending me the suggestions!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Connectivity

Something crazy is going on with the universe. Namely, it's spinning a web around me, bringing me all these people, books, ideas, wonderful synchronicities, coincidences, crazy things that are making me smile and realize how connected I am to everything. It probably started a long time ago but I was preoccupied so couldn't see the messages. Now I can and I feel so happy I feel almost high, like my heart is swelling, wanting to burst out of my chest. This is crazy. It's not just the absence of a destructive job and a destructive relationship. It's experiencing the fruits of months and months of work, of letting things go, of opening up my self, of gaining new insight, of embracing who I am and finding, surprisingly, trust in some kind of greater order.

It happened by accident. I had no intention, during the last few months, of becoming remotely spiritual. I wasn't looking for anything other than me; I was just trying to be still, trying to be present, trying to live in the now. And, all of a sudden I started feeling connected with myself on a deeper level. And, in that connection, I suddenly realized I wasn't alone. I felt connected to the universe, whatever that may be. To me, it's some kind of higher order; a sense of connectedness. Despite "Life of Pi," I'm an agnostic, so it's not exactly a God that I envision pulling the strings, although Tara has captured my imagination. It's more of a sense of connection to all things living. I see me in you and you in me. I know this sounds loopy. I still have a long way to go to figure all of this out, to fully embrace it. But, it feels good to be filled with more positive emotions, to be detached - at least for the moment - from anger, jealousy, and hurt. We have only one life; why fill it up with anything other than something beautiful? Why bring anyone into it unless they enhance your experience?

What is the greater meaning? I don't know yet. I know that ideas of personal enlightenment resonate with me. I'm on a quest - one among many - to explore Buddhist thought more fully. First, because it is a philosophy based on notions of kindness and compassion. It's concerned with personal growth, not conversion. Second, because in the last month I have felt content, happy, and blissful. I now understand that I have the capacity to feel so at peace. I want to pursue that feeling on a more permanent basis. I want to feel free, relaxed, at peace with myself and the world. I want to integrate it into my being, my daily reality. I don't want it limited to a weekly vacation.

I don't know if I can ever be a lawyer again. Where's my Capricornian ambition? My steel? It's been overwhelmed and diffused in these feelings of happiness and joy. Can I be at peace with the world and go for the opposing party's throat? Do I want to? Not really, unless they're anti-feminist. Then I could channel this zen energy and use the power of the universe to crush them under a tide of truth. But, for now, I'm just going to go with the feelings of bliss. I feel so lucky and overwhelmed with gratitude. Life can be filled with such wonder, if you open yourself up to it.

I have to remember this all a month from now.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Comings and Goings

I left Utah this morning after spending a week with my sister, her husband, their new baby, and my mom. I knew it was going to be sad to leave, but I had no idea how sad. On the way to the airport my mom and I sat in the back with the baby's car seat between us. We kept peeking under the blanket shielding him to get yet another glimpse of his adorable face. My mom started to cry and I felt my chest, which had been aching, start to hurt even more, the wet pain expanding and spreading across my chest, up into my throat, causing my eyes to spill over with tears. Thankfully I had grabbed some tissues before we left the house.

I remember when we were younger and we used to visit my grand parents in Sweden for three or four weeks in the summer. At the end of our visit we would have to take a bus to the airport. I distinctly recall my grand mother sobbing, yelling out to us as the bus pulled way, our faces pressed to the windows, "I love you, I love you!" How hard that must have been for her to see her son and her grand children leave each time. To know that we were growing up so far away from her. To know that no matter how much she wanted it, no matter how much she loved us, she would never be a part of our daily life. It made my heart break a little more imagining the pain she must have gone through, which made me even more sad about having to leave my family today. What's the point of having a family that you love if you can't see them more than a few times each year? It seems like a lot of unnecessary sadness.

There were times during the past week when I was frustrated and stressed out from being around my family 24/7. I'll admit it. It happened. We are all very different people and we know how to really aggravate one another, without even trying to. And, yes, I feel slightly guilty about having those feelings of frustration. But, I shouldn't because no amount of frustration or stress could ever take away from how much I love them. The frustration and stress and love all exist together. It's how they are and I am and how we are together, and I wouldn't change them for anything (although I wouldn't stand in their way if they all decided to go to therapy...).

For every moment of stress or frustration there was a moment of love and affection. I loved waking up in the mornings and sitting in my sister's kitchen with her and my mom drinking coffee and hearing about how the night had gone with the baby. Any time my sister asked me for anything (which she really didn't do all that often), I felt so happy that I was there and could actually be of some small help to her. I liked getting her glasses of milk as she sat breast feeding, and I loved holding the baby for her. Those moments of happiness and contentment made everything worthwhile.

For Bean too. When I asked her if we had annoyed her, she said, "Yeah, but of course I wanted you to be here." That's why I love my family. Underneath all of the messiness - the small annoyances, the intense frustrations, the worrying, the judgments, the unintended criticisms - there is fierce, honest, unconditional love. They would do anything for me, and I would do anything for them.

Even though a little piece of my heart broke to leave them this morning, coming back to New York felt good. Good in the way that slipping on a broken in pair of jeans feels. An almost perfect fit, back in my own space, with my bed, my room, my apartment, my food, my stores, my city, my smells, my computer, my things to do, my friends.

"Perfect" would be if my family - and for that matter, all of my close friends who are scattered inconveniently across the United States - lived in New York, or really close by. Until then, or until I finally fall victim to the magnetic pull of the tractor beam aimed at me from Texas, I'm just going to have to invest in a web cam and expand my cell phone plan.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Obsessions Meme

Interstellar Lass tagged me for a meme. Lass told me it would be short, but she had no idea how many obsessions I currently have. Here, in no particular order, are my current obsessions, both positive and negative:

1) The perfection and exquisite sweetness of my nephew's face. I'm totally enraptured. I take at least 50 pictures a day. What will I do when I can't hold his little body and feel the rise and fall of his little chest against mine? And what of his smell? Bean can send me pictures, but she can't send me his baby smell.

2) Mini Eggs - Bean's kitchen is stocked with all manner of candies, cookies, and ice cream, and I, apparently, have absolutely no self-discipline whatsoever. Not a speck of control. When I get back to New York I'm going to meditate on this issue, but for now, pass me another Mini Egg.

3) My Smile and the Way My Face Looks In Pictures - There's something wrong with it, but I can't quite figure out what it is. In pictures I swear I look partially demonic if I smile too much, and despite years of retainers and braces, my teeth, or is it my jaw, are oddly crooked. If I tilt my head either too high or too low, all is lost.

4) Lululemon - I discovered this store in Victoria, Canada and was thrilled when they opened up a branch in New York. It's everything yoga, has awesomely cute work-out clothes, and a great vibe. On Sunday nights they have free yoga classes out of their Lincoln Center Store. Love them!

5) My Eyebrows - I think I over-plucked them and now they're growing in funny. I've even contemplated buying an eyebrow pencil. Ee-gads!

6) Maximizing My Two Months of Freedom - I'm totally obsessed with maximizing my two months off of work. I've stopped worrying about money and have been spending like my brother Frey - on anything that I want, and anything that I need to enable me to fully enjoy this time of blissful unemployment. If it costs a few hundred dollars extra to get to where I want to be faster, than so be it. As my mother always says, "You can't take it with you."

7) Scheduling My India Trip - I leave in about a week and have yet to purchase a ticket because I haven't decided where I should fly back from yet. I'm flying in to Kolkata, but I can't decide whether to fly out of Delhi or Bombay.

8) Packing Light for My India Trip - My goal for this trip, though it sounds insane and totally out of character, is to pack only three changes of clothes for my one-month long trip. It's a little tricky because I'm going up into the mountains as well as the beach, so I've got to pack something warm and at least one set of long pants. If anyone has tips for packing light, or cute, all-purpose travel outfits, send 'em my way. I got a sweet pair of yoga/travel pants from Be Present.

9) Being Present and Mindful in the Moment - I'm obsessed with this concept, but I have yet to implement it successfully. It's hard to sit still in the moment, to have your mind clear of distractions. Especially when the house you're staying in is stocked with mini eggs and filled with your family members. I'm planning to take a Buddhist philosophy/meditation course in Dharamsala, India in May.

10) Creating the Life That I Want For Myself - Let's be frank, the last two years of my life pretty much sucked. I'm not complaining, I'm just stating a fact. To all law students: Don't go to a big law firm in New York, unless it's based elsewhere such as California or the Midwest. It's simply not worth it. Not that there weren't great things among the toxicity, and not that I didn't make the most of every experience. However, I'm done with living my life for something other than me (and by "me" I don't mean anything selfish, I simply mean living my life according to what I believe in and what's important to me). I'm slightly petrified that once I start working again, at my new law firm, I'm going to be sucked back into a toxic way of life. However, this time I'm going to fight it.

11) DVR and All of My Shows - I know this is going to sound crazy, but I actually miss just chilling on my couch watching my shows. I'm at least three weeks behind and have no idea what's been going on on ANTM, Heroes, or Grey's Anatomy. Last night I watched the season premiers of Sopranos and Entourage, which were awesome, and tonight I saw American Idol. I can't believe Sanjaya is still on the show!!! What's the matter with America? Anyway, I'm looking forward to a few solid days of doing nothing but vegging on the couch, with occasional breaks for yoga.

12) Yoga and Pilates - I had such an amazing experience at Bikini Boot Camp, and one of the things I loved the most was being able to do all the yoga and pilates I wanted each day. My mind and body always feel fantastic when I do either, and I'm obsessed with making both a part of my new life once I settle back down in New York after I come back from India.

13) Pruning - I've been pruning a great deal in the last few months, and I want to continue that. When I get back to New York I have plans to throw out all of my old videos, to finally toss all the clothes I never wear anymore, and to basically let a bunch of material weight float down the river. I want to get rid of the unnecessary stuff. I want to streamline.

14) The Notion of the Universe Conspiring Behind Me - Ever since I read the Alchemist I've been thinking about my life path, and the need to pursue my dreams. It goes along with what I said about about creating the life that I want for myself. While walking down the beach in silence in Mexico, I had a moment where I truly felt at one with myself and the universe. I think I might be obsessed with striving to achieve that sense on a more consistent basis.

15) Letting Things Go - Similar to the pruning concept, but a totally mental/emotional endeavor. It's connected to forgiveness, and that's sometimes hard especially when you're not sure what exactly you should forgive someone for, even though you know that they hurt you. Basically, I've just been trying to send all negative thoughts and emotions down the river.

16) Renaming B&B - Bean's busy with being a new mom, so we've decided to make the blog be all things Buttercup both in practice and in name. Don't worry, you'll still hear about Bean from me, and she may grace us with some guest appearances if my nephew doesn't keep her to busy. So now I need to drop the "Bean" of B&B, and come up with a new name focusing on Moi. It's tricky! Ideas?

I'm sure I have other obsessions, but that's all I can come up with at the moment.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Musings from Babyland

By now, it must be fairly obvious that I'm totally smitten with my adorable little nephew. I'm not sure what to call him yet on the blog. Baby Buddha comes to mind based on his usually calm, tranquil demeanor, wise little face, and the fact that he likes to sleep with his arms and legs crossed, as if he's reclining in some meditative pose. Turtle is also a possibility because his little wrinkly neck is turtle-esque in an exquisitely adorable way.

I've been staying at Bean's house now for about 6 days, and everything's going pretty smoothly. It's been me, Bean, her husband, our mom, and Baby Buddha. Usually, I have about a 3-day limit with my family, and then, despite my intense love for them, I've got to get back to my own space. It's just how I am. Little things start to grate on me and slowly drive me crazy. Like, for example, the sound of family members chastising the dogs, yelling at them to "sit," "stop," "get out of there." I don't know why that drives me crazy, but it does. (I do not see myself ever having dogs in my house.) However, this time around, I've already passed the 3-day mark and I'm doing just fine. Apparently, baby holding time boosts my coping skills. How could it not? It's such a gift.

Of course, with a new baby, everyone has an opinion, and I've been trying my hardest not to be an annoying older sister about Bean's new mommyhood status. This has been relatively easy for two reasons. First, Bean's doing an absolutely terrific job. She (and her husband) are wonderful with the baby. Second, as the last baby I took care of was Bean, about 22 years ago, I know pretty much zero about babies, and thus find it relatively easy to stay out of things (especially diaper changing). Even so, there are times when I have mentioned this, that, or the other, and I just hope Bean realizes those comments have come from a place of love, not a desire to annoy the crap out of her. I am truly in awe of the ease with which she has shifted into mommyhood. There have been so many moments that have happened during the last few days that I am going to treasure for probably the rest of my life. I am so happy that I was able to make it here for the baby's birth, and I'm grateful that Bean wanted my Mom and I to come for the week.

On a different note, while in Utah, I've learned, to my intense disappointment, that when faced with a house full of candy, sprinkles, ice cream, and cookies, and a stove that doesn't work (making eggs impossible to make), I have absolutely no discipline whatsoever. Nada. Instead of reaching for snacks of fruit and yogurt, I've been existing mainly on junk food and crackers and cheese. In the last few days, I have single-handedly destroyed almost all of the good work that I did at Bikini Boot Camp in terms of eating healthy and toning up, and am now back to feeling out of shape and like I have a constant stomach ache. I should be disciplined enough to choose carrots over a handful (or 2 or 3) of mini eggs, but, unfortunately, I'm just not that disciplined yet. When I get back to New York, I most certainly am not going to buy mini eggs, but when they're bags of them in front of me, and when it happens to be Easter, and when I'm thinking this will be my last run of unhealthyness before I get totally in gear... it becomes somewhat difficult to rationalize not eating them. I have, however, meditated a few times, and have been writing in my journal, so I have been keeping up at least some of my positive BBC habits. *sigh*

Also, unrelatedly, I randomly came across the following quote the other day: "Love isn't love unless it is expressed; caring isn't caring unless the other person knows; and sharing isn't sharing unless the other person is included." It reminded me of another quote that Pas showed me one time, something to the effect of: "Love isn't a feeling, it's a behavior."

The quote sums up one of the biggest lessons that I learned about relationships during the past year, that people can say they love and care about you until they're blue in the face, but unless they love and care for you in a way that makes you feel loved and cared for, their words are meaningless. The inconsistency between their words and actions will most likely leave you feeling ripped to pieces, and no one needs that. Now that I'm whole again, I know that I am never again going to allow myself to get into a relationship where I feel ripped apart on a weekly basis. I've moved past the stage where I was confused by empty words, and into a place where I'm not going to settle for anything less than consistency between words and actions.

I'm off to go spend some QT with Baby Buddha. Only two more days left to soak up the feel of his little body in my arms, and to revel in the site of his perfectly formed lips and feathery eye lashes. Thank you Universe for him. I get it now why everyone always talks about babies being gifts from God (or whatever spirit or lack thereof that you believe in). They are.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Nap Time

My nephew might just be an infant prodigy. He's only been home from the hospital for three hours and my mom and I just put him down in his crib for a nap. He's not exactly sleeping, his little tiny eyelids keep opening and closing, but he's all swaddled up and lying calmly. He has a cute little thingy over his bed with miniature stuffed animals that spin around slowly to the sound of "Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep little baby." Why is it that that song seems to be a universal calmer of the infant population?

I would show you a picture of the super cute Winnie the Pooh decorated crib except the usb cord on my sony digital camera has inexplicably decided to stop functioning. This means that though I have about 300 precious pictures of my nephew, I can't transfer any of the new ones onto my computer or via email. Can we say digi-rage?

I'm sitting next to the crib writing on the computer, and I keep poking my head up over the edge of the crib to see what he's doing, making sure that the little blanket around him is going up and down. Bean and her husband are attempting to take a much deserved nap.

I remember when Bean was a little baby. I was 8 years old when she was born, and I have vivid memories of helping to put her to sleep. She would only go to bed to the sound of a fairy tale on tape. Something about the voice telling the story and the gentle whirring of the tape recorder always soothed her into sleep. One of us would lie next to her until she faded off into sleep, until we thought it was safe to quietly ease up out of the room. It was a delicate process because at the smallest sound or change in pressure, she would startle awake. This happened all the time when the eject button on the tape recorder would pop up at the end of the story. It got so that we would wait until the story was coming to a close and then very gently press the "pause" button to stop the story and avoid the snap of the eject button.

We constantly checked on her to make sure she was ok. I remember tip-toe-ing into her room, moving slowly across the room and then bending down over her, holding my breath so that I could hear her tiny sounds, watching for the almost imperceptible rise in her chest. Sometimes it would take several minutes to see movement. I would peer down at her, my face just inches from her little body. Once I was assured she was ok, I would tip-toe back out of the room and report to my mom.

Now, my little sister has a baby, and I can already tell that she's a great mommy. It's incredible and wonderful and amazing to me that the little baby I remember has now grown up and delivered her own baby. I feel so much love for both of them that it hurts a little bit.

How do parents and aunties and uncles and grand parents survive the worry of having little ones, and the sadness of not being able to be with them all the time? I already know I'm not going to want to leave on Wednesday. My newest favorite thing is holding my nephew and gazing down at his little face, watching for the slightest changes of expression, marveling at every crinkle that passes across his face. As I told Bean, it's way better than lying in a hammock on the beach in Mexico sipping a pina colada listening to the sound of the ocean. About 8 million times better.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Morning Pages and Mindfullness


View of the mountains and the tiny town below from Bean's deck.

At BBC, we were encouraged to take about 15 minutes, first thing in the morning, to write "Morning Pages." Melissa, the co-founder of BBC, explained that Morning Pages were not a "Dear Diary," a place to record what had happened during the previous day, but were rather intended to be a cleansing exercise through which you could purge your mind of all your thoughts and start the day refreshed. The idea for Morning Pages came from the Artist's Way - a book, incidentally, I've had on my shelf for the last 10 years but have never read. It's now on my to do list.

According to Melissa, focusing for a few minutes each morning to record your thoughts is a way to tap into your creativity and inner wisdom. The idea being that writing first thing in the morning, before the distractions of the day have taken over your mind, allows you to see into your core and uncover your truest and deepest thoughts, desires, dreams, and points of concern. Melissa shared with us how she often doesn't recall what she has written for her Morning Pages, but later, after reviewing them she would see patterns of thought emerging, which enabled her to develop a greater awareness of her self. A theme that continued to emerge for her was her desire to have a child. It kept popping up in her Morning Pages, before other thoughts could take hold, and eventually she realized that's what she really wanted to do, and she did it. She now has an absolutely adorable little boy named Dylan.

For me, in concept and in practice, Morning Pages is about being mindful, something which was an important theme for me throughout my week at BBC, and something which I've known I need to work on for quite some time. Being mindful in the sense of being present in the moment, being aware of my mind and body, being still, and embracing where I am at any given moment.

Being mindful is significant for me because for so long I had not been living mindfully. I had difficulty sitting still with myself. I was often in triage mode. I think now that some of my unmindfullness was self-protective. I knew that I was unhappy, I knew that I had to make changes, but I also knew that I was not yet ready to make changes, so I pushed onwards trying to hold on to the small joys that made the rest of it bearable. Mind you, I have no intention of living unmindfully again; I'm just observing that there are reasons for everything, including perhaps my inability to be mindful of my soul during the last couple of years. I had other things to figure out, other lessons to learn.

Other examples of my lack of mindfullness would be the many, many times I have done things such as leap up to go to the refrigerator 10 times in 15 minutes, playing spider solitaire for hours on end in a state of agitation thinking that each game will be my last but being unable to walk away from the computer, ripping off one nail after another, and eating too much too fast until my stomach hurts and my head aches from a sugar overload.

Just this morning there was another example of this unmindful behavior. Waking up at my sister's house, there was no coffee, I had to hunt through her cupboards for breakfast, and there was some minor family stress. My mom and I couldn't get in touch with Bean and her husband at first (because they were sleeping), my mom was stressed about that which was making me stressed even though I was trying to be zen about things, we didn't have a car so we couldn't take things into our own hands (ah, lack of control, interesting), and I felt as if I was stuck in a caffeine-less limbo world. Really, all I wanted to do was know that at some point in the day I would be able to go to the hospital to see Bean and the baby.

How did I deal with this limbo world, you ask? I wish that I could say that I had a nice glass of cool refreshing water, sat in a corner and meditated for 5 minutes, and then purged all of my thoughts by writing my Morning Pages. But, no, that's not exactly what happened. Instead, I fiddled with the TV, sent my sister a text, told my mom to relax, and tried to make myself relax by.... eating an entire bag of Pepperidge Farm Shortbread Chessman Cookies. Essentially, I self-medicated my anxiety with shortbread. Awesome.

I didn't intend to, I swear! I can hear my BBC personal trainer tsk-tsk-ing away. I found the cookies while searching for a healthy breakfast alternative, ate one, then ate two more to make it an even three, then watched some TV, then felt slightly anxious, then went back to search for coffee, then had three more, then channel surfed, checked my phone, glanced at my mother, had three more, etc. Before I knew it, the package was gone and my head was in a sugar coma.

It's not technically true to say that I didn't know what I was doing. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I kept eating them to savor the pure taste of goodness that they created on my tongue. The reason it wasn't mindful though was because the taste of them in my mouth was just a temporary fix, a distraction from what was really going on. The taste is deceptive. Though they tasted like pure goodness, the cookies are not good or pure. Pure would have been meditating, doing my morning pages, and having some water. The good news is, I was able to identify my lack of mindfullness. Tomorrow morning I will be better to myself.

The other good news is that Bean's husband is on his way to pick up my Mom and me. I'll be spending the afternoon ooh-ing and ah-ing over the gorgeous little creature she brought into this world. I can't wait to hold my nephew for the very first time. Make no mistake about it, I'm going to be fully present in that moment.