25

I woke up late in the haze of a complicated and visceral dream. Conscious of the grey light pouring through the balcony window and of the children playing and calling to each other in Hindi within the alleyway below. The thick silver blanket weighed heavy, and I snuggled into its fuzz, not wanting to get up. Not wanting to face the day with the even heavier knowledge that it had somehow happened. I had turned the big two-five.

My quarter century birthday was a month ago, but the wishes and cake frosting still seem vivid and tangible. I’m all too aware of the Facebook announcements of friends and colleagues my age. Naked to the fact that I’m away living in a foreign land, a world apart from those friends and family, and growing older amidst my dreams.

Thunderclaps pounded against the glass. I lay listening. The rolling sound waves comforted me through their familiarity. They sounded just as they did back at home in the States (which I would later tell my friends over our shawarma, much to their amusement). Rain danced on the dusty streets and muddied the marble outside. I lay listening still. And all I could think, “Amanda, you’re 25. How did you get here? When did 22 become 25?”

Birthday Wishes

Birthday Wishes

Midnight had struck the night into November 16th. An elegant chocolate cake floated onto our table outdoors. I made a wish and blew. Waiters gathered on the edges to look on as the expat girl enjoyed her celebration. The trick candle refused to go out, and through the laughter, I decided to wish again as reggae music lilted our way from inside. In the parking lot later, a friend held my arms back as another shoved a different cake, that circular delight, into my face as per Indian tradition. I saw marked in frosting, “Dallas to Delhi Cowgirl,” before my vision went white. The sweetness on my face was warm against the cold night. Part of me wanted to wear it forever, coated in happiness and custom and hidden from a world back home that would ask, “What now?”

I’ve been reading about Angels recently, thanks to some impulse purchases at a bookstore recently, and their protection, no matter where we happen to have found ourselves on this earth. About love, God’s plan for all of us, and how pursuing the dreams put in our hearts matters more than we would give it credit for. Though it means risking failure, risking taking the wrong turn, risking pain and loss. It means sacrificing comfort and nearness to family and to those who understand us most. But it guarantees growth and being filled with the energy and passion of pursuing something that is every bit a part of our DNA as our height or skin color are, though those things can be superficially changed. Even if that pursuit leads me to turning 25 as I spend my life in India.

Cake in the Face

Cake in the Face

I finally did make it out of bed this morning, dawning a new favorite sweatshirt, and sat down with a book given to me by R, who has left for her home country recently and left me missing my best friend. Again I read the note she inscribed inside the cover, smiling at the trail of kindness people leave behind in their lives. Lighting a candle, I belted out “Have yourself a Merry little Christmas…” as I heated up water for coffee on the flat’s new heating device. The cooking utensils lining the now cleaned cabinets and counter top warmed my insides even before the drink could. As I stirred in leftover sugar taken from a Barista coffee shop (my favorite new haunt), I peered through the curtains at the Delhi day. Quiet peace settled through the empty flat, the candle flickered softly, and the carol’s words sang through my soul, “let your heart be light…from now on our troubles will be miles away…here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore…faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more…through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow…hang a shining star upon the highest bow…and have yourself a Merry little Christmas now.”

Tonight I turn my face up towards the now clear sky, appreciating the shining stars that have been hung by One who understands when I do not. Who knows age is merely a number and that our lives are always the sum of our dreams, no matter how old, no matter where. Through the past 25 years, I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunities and special people in my life that have been placed there, and I’m looking forward with a light heart to this Christmas and being joined with memories, both past and present.

May the next quarter century be even brighter, no matter where, no matter with whom. Despite my age, the Disney princess inside me will always believe in dreams…

Categories: Events, Holidays, Reflection | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thanksgiving with Indians

I stared at the woman behind the desk. “No turkey? What do you mean?”

“Sorry, ma’am. All gone.” I went into shock.

Thanksgiving morning I had woken to the trick of my brain fooling me as to where I was. Eyes still closed, the smell of my mom’s cooking wafted over me and for a moment I believed it was more than a lingering dream. I was home for the holiday, snuggled in my familiar bed, carpet would greet my toes as I went down the stairs, and she would smile up at me. The TV would be on with a parade smiling off the screen. My dad would be outside doing last minute yard work that for some reason couldn’t wait till we got back home from my grandmother’s house, and I would grab some casserole out of the freezer so we could start loading up the high top van that we affectionately call, “The Green Machine.”

Soon my other siblings would wake up, L with disheveled hair and not saying anything before she’d had something to eat and gotten fully dressed. M’s makeup would already be perfect as she grabbed her juice and vitamin with bright eyes. We’d yell up the stairs for the fiftieth time for my brother to get dressed and come down, we were going to be late.

Getting ready for the nearly three hour drive, we’d make sure everything was packed securely in the back, my dad would ask again if anyone remembered seeing the garage door shut. After pulling back around the neighborhood to double check, we’d say a family prayer for safety and be off. My mom would want to read a passage from the Bible, a few verses she felt were fitting. My dad would yell at us to take out our headphones and listen when all we wanted to do was zone and sleep as the green Texas pastures passed by our windows.

My grandmother would be smaller than I remember, living in her home out in the countryside, a few donkeys and longhorn cows to keep her company. My younger cousins would try to provoke and possibly ride the poor donkeys to no avail. The football game would keep the living room company as more people poured into the candle scented house, proferring pie after pie. We’d catch up, all our lives streaming farther and farther apart, and the older cousins would pretend that things would always be the same as when we played as children. The aunts and uncles would try not to notice that fewer of their children showed up due to inlaws and travel plans, but they would find joy in the new grandchildren they themselves now had as well.

Years ago, we would have all sat in a circle outside my grandmother’s old house, each of us picking a pecan out of a basket, telling each other what we were thankful for. Some had harder years than others, there would be tears and quiet companionship as blood sat next to blood and shared in the gratitude of family. Now, we would be a much smaller group; we’d simply stand in a circle to pray, thanking God for the meal, for family, and for all His blessings. I’d eat well beyond bursting, savoring each dish and going back for my favorites. Cutting the turkey would be most likely put on a man, and its perfect flavor would remind us all why we look forward to this day all year.

But I wasn’t home. I couldn’t smell my mother’s cooking. No carpet would greet my feet. I was alone in a flat in New Delhi, India.

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view from the street

The day dawned clear. I made plans to go get coffee and have lunch by myself at a new chicken place everyone was talking about at a mall nearby. I pretended to be fine with this. Soon though, a friend began messaging me links to different Thanksgiving dinners being thrown at different venues that evening. My hope began to sparkle.

We decided to go to one put on by a Marriott hotel in Gurgaon, a sister city to Delhi. I took a walk down the street, sun speaking warmth through the tree branches, and smiled at local school kids walking by and shyly peeking back at me. As I bought bottled water from my grocery store, I yelled, “Happy Thanksgiving!” before running off home.

After picking out what I felt was a fitting Thanksgiving Day dress, I made myself ready for the dinner. Silly as it may seem, I was radiating happiness. My friend picked me up and we drove over, only slightly confused as to the location. We surrendered the car to valet and entered. I don’t know what I was expecting or looking for; perhaps a huddled group of Americans drooling over their feast. Instead, I was greeted by an Indian crowd at a restaurant in the corner of the hotel lobby, though it was very nice. We went to the hostess and she said something to my friend.

“I, uh…they’re out of turkey.” He told me slowly.

“What? That’s not possible.” I asked the woman again, then decided I could deal with it as long as the other delights were offered. I began by listing everything they had written in the event description that I’d read so many times I had it memorized. “Ok, what about gravy?” No. “Cranberry sauce?” No. “Pumpkin pie?” No ma’am, she was very sorry. They still had a buffet of Indian cuisine. “Rolls?” Yes, they had rolls. I swallowed the lump in my throat and decided to plunge forward. He had driven all this way, after all.

I sat down with a plate of rolls, cheese, and fruit, determined to enjoy it. “Wait!” I told him, “we have to pray!” He paused with spoon full and perched next to his mouth. I closed my eyes and thanked God that we even had food to eat, apologizing for wanting more, and asking Him to help us appreciate every blessing in all its forms.

the final platter

the final platter

Ten minutes later, a server walked by and told us that the turkey was on its way. We exchanged glances. “Wait, did he just say turkey?” I jumped up and down in my seat, practically clapping my joy to the restaurant. Turkey. On Thanksgiving in New Delhi, India. Miracles happen! When he brought it out I thanked him a thousands times. My fork almost trembled as I brought slices to my plate. There was even a hint of cranberry glaze topping the meat. I closed my eyes for the first bite.

Mmm. It tasted like home.

And so the image of the morning played itself rapidly again through my mind. No, I wasn’t with them, but we were still connected. Through that bite of turkey, I was again sitting next to my brother and sisters, smiling at my mom from across the table, screaming with my dad at the football game.

My friend took a few bites and shrugged, moving back to the lamb. I laughed as I realized he didn’t recognize the flavor and significance of the treat; he had other tastes that emotionalized his senses. My first Thanksgiving sharing turkey with Indians, and they prefer the mutton. Go figure.

We paid our bill and as we left, I said “Happy Thanksgiving!” to our waiter. He seemed confused, then nodded after a moment with a smile. The frigid Delhi air greeted my face as we waited for the car, yet a warm and happy satisfaction settled through my core. Yes, Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

happy gal

happy gal

Categories: Family, Food, Holidays | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Diwali Beat Disney

Shots of white sparks and whistling debris flew into our open auto. We yelled and huddled together on the side farthest from the firecrackers until they started on the other side as well. Pop pop pop! Our driver muttered to himself in Hindi and attempted to turn around the vehicle amidst what effectively appeared to be a war zone. Survival didn’t necessarily seem guaranteed. I had the urge to get out and run screaming for my friends instead of being stuck, helpless in the holiday craze. What had we gotten ourselves into?

It began almost a week before that Tuesday November 13th. An echoing crack would explode every few hours. I assumed maybe it was construction near the flat we are living in now, but when I asked a friend what that faraway noise was, he replied, “Just wait.” Over the next few days, the sounds increased in frequency and seemed to creep closer and closer. Houses were strung with Christmas lights flickering throughout the city. On Monday fireworks added their color and pizzazz to the mysterious booms of the night. Being the easily amused person that I am, my evening consisted of sitting out on the terrace anticipating the thick poof of a firework going off and trying to find where it would release its presence, clapping every time (yes, I did just turn 25 thank you very much). But still, I had no idea what was coming.

Diwali dawned through the haze of the week long pre-celebration smoke. R and I sat on the terrace listening to the rumbling crackle grow in intensity as the sun began to retreat in order to let the real festivities begin. Orange flower garlands hung from the gate into our building. A few friends came over to enjoy a bit of hookah; they would be eating dinner with their families that night in the same way we would eat with family for Thanksgiving or Christmas in the States. For a moment, I looked at R and wished we had family to share the occasion with, realizing then that she and I are each other’s family here in India.

Another friend arrived to light a Diya at our flat. He poured the slippery oil from a bottle into a round clay pot and stuck a cloth wick on the side. We placed it outside and as we lit the cloth, it warmed into a golden light. My modern friend stood there in his Indian kurta and I laughed as he claimed not to know what to say for the pooja, a blessing. So instead, I prayed a blessing over the place and all who ever stay here. Standing there in my salwar kameez, hands pressed in prayer, I felt transported to an entirely different dimension. I remembered standing for holidays with my family at our old home in Allen, Texas, praying in a circle around the food before meals. Now I was standing on a terrace for a holiday in New Delhi, next to friends, praying still.

a Diwali Diya outside our flat

We left to light more Diyas at the other properties of my friend’s family. Being out on the streets was an entirely new level compared to the terrace. The boom that had been so far away was now next to the car and in the middle of the road and beside me as we walked to buy our own fireworks. I watched as my friends went to buy “a few firecrackers” and came back with an armful of ammunition, swayed by the shopkeeper and not allowed to leave without purchasing it all. We lit several more peaceful Diyas, saying a prayer each time, then it was time for something a little more wild.

My friend set up a white firework called, “Coconut Palm.” I looked up and realized it was directly underneath a power line. Seriously, they let people do this? He moved it when I pointed that out, but I jumped as several other fireworks went off across the street, just as close to the line. I stood back as he lit the fuse using some trash paper to give himself longer to get away. We waited. It lit. Silence. And then WOOSH—it shot up into the air and with a huge BOOM exploded above us. It sizzled and rained fire light. “Yeaaaa!” We all clapped and cheered. A guard at a gate next to us slightly smiled.

As they drove to drop me back home, I stared at the increasing insanity. They kept telling me to “just wait.” I had been waiting for over a week! What could possibly happen beyond what I was seeing all around me? Groups of young men lit spiraling firebirds in the thick of traffic and I tried to stop jumping at all the pops. Arriving back home, I went to R and told her we should probably leave soon . We were going to a rooftop Diwali firework celebration that a large group of our friends were throwing, and I had a growing sense that it may be more dangerous to drive across Delhi in an auto than I had even realized.

As she finished getting ready, I took my spot outside and cheered for every firework. They were constant now, a neverending parade of sparks and light breaking across the sky. The neighbors behind our building seemed to have some especially large ones to display and I worried at how close the remains fell. Before I knew it, billowing red and orange flames lept from the roof connected to ours. I called for R to come and see—this was no controlled rooftop fire. Paper and trash floated above me, still on fire as they drifted away. I ran to the balcony behind our flat to see if anyone was aware; our Indian neighbors simply stood starting at the situation with arms crossed. Angry smoke rose high into the air as I dialed my friend. I nervously told him the situation and he calmly told me just to check with the people next door. I imagined coming home to find our flat and all our belongings in ashes.

R was ready so we went downstairs and I saw someone coming outside from the apartments connected to ours. “Hey,” I called out, “you know the roof is on fire?” The Nigerian young man nodded and told me they were taking care of it. “Ok, Happy Diwali!” I answered as we walked along the dusty path out to the main road. A firetruck passed us and I let out a sigh of relief.

Going along the street, we were followed by fireworks on all sides. I had that hyper sense of space, ready to spring out of the way of any stray bombs. Catching the auto quickly, we stared dumbfounded as every pocket of Delhi we passed had a steady stream of celebratory explosions. From street folks to pent house owners, everyone was participating without ceasing. We didn’t actually remember our friends’ address, so we pointed the driver toward the general area; he had to keep stopping for directions, which is how we ended up in the middle of the war zone. Stuck between sparks and bangs of light.

a firework shooting up past the roof of our friends’ Diwali party

Eventually he got us turned around and immediately upon our arrival, our group of friends were just setting of a huge firecracker line that went down almost their entire street. Every Indian family around was gathered outside on their balconies, huddling in anticipation. It went off and sounded like an army of thousands all shooting their guns in rapid succession. Everyone hollered and clapped, and as we went to greet our friends, the smoke burned our eyes and was so thick I almost couldn’t speak. They set off several more, and with each my heart beat faster and faster. It was an adrenaline like I’ve never known before.

Going up onto the roof, the view was spectacular. I did a slow 360 degree spin and was hit with the feeling that I absolutely must be in a dream. The colors and light took my breath away completely; the sounds thundered through my blood. It was as though my brain couldn’t quite comprehend what my eyes were taking in. The architecture of this gorgeously eclectic city was highlighted in all its glory. Fireworks miles away mixed into the background of the closer explosions to form a collage that captured the word celebration and then put it on steroids. My body was struck with shock and exhilaration as we continued to cheer and yell. I’m struggling trying to find words to explain the intensity of the scene. Honestly, it was such a spectacle it put Disney World to shame—and I take Disney World very seriously.

As the night went on, our friends set off enormous fireworks from the street level that spread their sparks inches from the heads of those on the roof. Eventually they even set up firecracker fountains on the roof as we cowered in the corners to keep from getting burned. I watched an Indian family all dancing together on the roof next to us; the father spun around with his daughter and laughed as the light made their faces glow.

Eventually, into the early morning, the noises started to fade. The constant drum of crackling fireworks receded into darkness. Smoke clouds sat low and still above the city as we made our way home; they seemed to keep Delhi segmented from the rest of the world, keeping our festivities hidden just for us. This New Year’s meets Fourth of July meets Christmas holiday was an experience unlike anything I imagined possible, as dangerous and insane as it may have been. Look out Mickey—you’ve got some serious competition here.

HAPPY DIWALI 2012

rooftop fireworks. oh, Diwali….

firework photo credit: R.S.

 

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Bucket Showers. Enough Said.

The nearly icy air whipped through the open auto as we made our way “home” on Friday night. We had finished the last day in the office and wrapped up a few things at Nehru Place, the tech hub market, so night had already descended on our new neighborhood. Exhausted but still ready to celebrate our new freedom, my roommate and I started to get ready for meeting our friends that evening. Dust coated our clothes and if I bit down, it had the texture of those sandy days at the beach. Time to clean some of the Delhi off of ourselves.

Open faucet. Nothing. Attempt to flush toilet. Not happening.

R and I came out of our respective rooms and stared at each other. No water. We game planned about our options. I had a few gallons in an old container that looked like it was growing sea monkeys. R thankfully had filled a bucket sometime earlier that day, so I suggested we go Indian style and use that to shower. I gathered a smaller bucket and handed it to R so she could go first. When it was my turn, I lugged the half filled pail into my bathroom and eyed it carefully. Challenge accepted.

an example

Using my scrubby gloves (I completely advise buying these—exfoliation and they make the soap go farther! You’re welcome.), I dipped them into the frigid water then lathered up a lovely bar of minty fresh local soap. Shaving was a bit more difficult, but still possible, so I tried to relax the goosebumps raising their fists at the cold. Since the rest of the bucket was mine, I dipped my entire head into it for the shampoo portion of this event. Now the question was: did I have enough water left to completely rinse off? My mind snapped back to my time in Bangladesh when all around I would see men squatting in loin cloths next to public water spouts during the day, vigorously rubbing off the soap with a single small pail’s worth. So, as glacier water poured down my body, I went at it.

When finished, I took a moment to smile to myself. A sense of accomplishment washed over me as I noticed there was even a little left in the bucket. The scene gave way to the ridiculous: for a Westerner, it’s a quaint—if not difficult–experience. For millions, it’s daily life.

Clean and refreshed, we sat together and decided that was certainly a fun adventure in the new place; needless to say, three days later we were at it again. Two plumbers and several visits later, it seems that all is well with the water situation. But let it be heard! Bucket showers may be our world’s best chance at saving water for the future generations. I’m definitely a believer now.

Scrubby Gloves. Use them.

Categories: Harsh Experiences, New Places | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shifting

Like that car crash when you’re sitting there remembering a loud bang, as though it could have been moments or years ago, and your body is still trembling while mentally everything is processing. Where are you? Are you ok? Is everyone around you alright? The world comes into focus again, there’s merely a slight ache in your neck; the pieces float into a coherence that you’re still breathing.

That experience speaks to what my roommate and I muddled through over the past week. We knew that we would have to leave our current apartment only weeks before we were getting ousted. Through the help of some amazing friends, we had a place but it wouldn’t be open until the end of the week. On Wednesday, we spoke to the woman subletting the place we were living in as she informed us someone was already there removing furniture. With a quick explanation to our boss, we dashed out into the street and sprinted the five minutes home. The door was open– our maid was there speaking with an Australian man as they packed up dishes, sheets, and other various items. It got real very fast. I watched my life as I knew it being shuffled out by an assortment of workmen, my cursed AC unit and all.

We spent the next hour shoving our belongings into suitcases, taking brief breaks to game plan on our beloved terrace about where to spend the nights until our next place became available. The hardest part was that the last day in our office positions was Friday. Life seemed to want everything to end and begin again within the same matter of days. A friend sent their driver to us who lugged my over-sized American bags down the four flights of stairs. The light was dipping deeper behind the Delhi dust as I took a final look out at our neighborhood from 48 Kailash Kunj. Would McDonalds be able to find us again?

My friend’s family and their hired help received us sweaty and shocked girls with coffee and sweets. We took showers and got into our Halloween costumes for another friend’s get together. It was so surreal I could’ve invented a new genre from it all. The costumes and over-the-top make up somehow allowed us to hide from the world and pretend a confidence that we were still shakily trying on amidst our new circumstances. At least we had each other, as roommates and as friends, through the raging storm. Being a girl who hasn’t always had the most reliable female friends, I learned during those days the power of having a fellow girlfriend in your life as a woman. Especially when she’s dressed as a zombie.

The next evening, the apartment miraculously was open for us to “shift” into, as they say here. More lugging of my bags up stairs, unpacking yet again, collapsing into cleaning the place as best we could. The next day we grabbed an auto to work for the first and last time. We stopped at a roadside vendor and ordered a type of breakfast burrito to get us through what we were sure would be a stress-infused day. Good call- it was the best breakfast I’ve ever had. Our day was like a mirage, existing somewhere beyond the horizon, almost lost in the sun beating down its sovereignty. The disappointment of a fellow employee. The confusion on some of their faces. The legal logistics and signing of papers.

Then, it was over. The team stood on the rooftop where we’ve eaten lunch together almost every day in the past four months, our boss giving one of his always eloquent speeches, piercing through our walls as R and I cautiously stood by. Indian bakery snacks and Miranda in tall glasses. My eyes sought the two temples that I’d always gazed at while waiting on the roof for someone to finish in the washroom. The thick air almost completely hid them now, as it will for the next few months through winter. They were drawing back that evening into the recesses of the Delhi as we know it, and I sensed a calm farewell; there’s only moving forward now.

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People All Around

A week ago I cruised past a camp of people living on the streets with my bare legs and Ray Ban knockoffs hiding my eyes. Every person wore a rusty and crusted layer of dirt and excrement instead of clothes. The dog barely breathing beside them had festering bald splotches almost all over its body, and they shared some pasty substance from a pan that looked as though it’d never been washed as the children hit each other in a pool of urine.

My only thought, “Hm, yea I should pick up some food, I’m hungry too.”

Not even registering that my hungry is a world apart from their hungry. Not feeling even a twinge that I would not be eating next to a mangy dog while covered in filth; I would be getting five-star service at a restaurant that actually has “Tex-Mex” as a category to choose from.  The disparity has a way of slowly numbing empathy and guilt when it becomes so much a part of routine. As much as I wanted to be angry about the injustices of this scene, I wasn’t– as hard as that is for me personally to admit. If anything, I was happy that it wasn’t me eating from that pan or sleeping on that ripped blanket upon the hard ground only feet away from Delhi city traffic.

A Man in Thought

Leaving work one night, I made my way to Kailash Colony Market to pick up some household items. The smell of human pee and animal fecal matter always surprises me with its strength in this specific area. As I weaved in and out of parked cars and moving motorbikes, two little girls romped up to me. They giggled and danced circles around me as I made my way through; I couldn’t help but smile at them. One had her head shaved and wore a torn shirt and skirt; her eyes had thick smeared black lines around them. The other wore a short dress and her hair was matted with clumps of dried mud so that it stuck up in ways that would look “edgy” if she were walking down a runway during fashion week.

They started speaking fast and breathless Hindi. They were not asking for money, so I actually stopped to try to understand. Suddenly a familiar word was shouted in unison by the girls: “Mo-moes! Mo-moes!” Girls after my own heart (if you’ve haven’t already, read my Mo-Mo Man post). “Oh!” I said to them, “you’re hungry?” The two nodded so hard I thought they would fall over, and they began to continue their chant while pointing and leading me around the corner.

Oh, no, I thought. This is the part where the foreigner is lured to the dark alley by the “Mo-mo” trick and never seen again. My alert was on. But sure enough, there was a nice old man with his Mo-mo stand. I told him I was going to buy the girls some food, and they were jumping up and down excited. We tried to figure out which kind they wanted, and when the man tried to give them only one plate, I stopped him.  “One plate for each of them.” He looked at me like I was crazy and tried to argue with me, but I was insistent. Finally a young man sitting next to him convinced him to listen, and he begrudgingly got another plate ready. I paid him, a little higher priced than my normal Mo-mo man, but it was worth it.

The girls began to intermittently laugh and eat, and I went about my evening, a silly smile on my face. As I continued on my way through the littered market, I thought about how happy that gesture made me. Two girls. In one market of the many in Delhi. One small meal. In the grand scope, it was so insignificant and such a small step towards helping that it almost made me want to cry at the enormity of the issues so ingrained in this neighborhood, in this city, in this culture, in our world.

I want to give my life to doing more, but how? Maybe it is as simple as making a choice to stop and listen to two small girls, and making those choices every time we are presented with them. Maybe it’s educating ourselves on how to give our time, money, and energy in the best ways possible in order to give the world around us a chance at becoming better. The world we need to be about changing is the one around us every day.

I realize I may have gotten a tad dramatic, but sometimes I need to call myself out. Sometimes I need to remember that the men and women I see sleeping on top of stones and benches and pieces of wood next to me at a stoplight are real people living real lives– as I ride around in an air-conditioned vehicle. They exist. And I can’t ignore the harsh circumstances of that existence.

sleeping on the steps

Categories: Market, Reflection | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Purana Qila- finding my past in theirs

My bag hit heavily against my side as we approached the oldest fort in Delhi; it seemed to carry all the weight of my stressful work week inside. Going to a festival at the oldest known structure in all of Delhi for the sake of work research was still better than being inside our airless office until nine that night. I hiked the bag higher and kept walking down the road towards the site. Suddenly I looked to the left—was that a large body of water? In Delhi?

I ran over against the fence to take in a lake next to the old fort, yelling about how much I love being around water (Texas = lakes; Miami = ocean– I miss it, ok?). My coworker explained that you could even take boats out. I was already smitten with this newfound location.  As we turned to walk up a stone ramp through the West Gate and main entrance of the fort, I was struck by the presence it sent forth. I almost looked around to see if I was even allowed to go inside or if ancient guards would stop me with Humayun swords.

We proceeded along a pathway lined with grassy green stretches of land. The space inside the fort was larger than I had anticipated, spotted with archeological structures rising and peeking out through the trees. Time collapsed and swept me back into the period after the Battle of Delhi when people gathered here for the coronation of Hemu. The very ground my feet walked upon contained the same layers of earth the last Hindu emperor of India also strode across. The deep vibrations of this history reverberated off the stone walls and pierced through my skin. This Rajasthani architecture stirred me in a way reminiscent of my experience inside the Gothic cathedrals of Spain.

image

main gate

After gawking for a few more moments, I caught up with the others who were meandering down a grand palm tree guarded lane. It ended in flickering gold, and as we got closer I realized they were hundreds of clay saucers holding yellow flames and hooked to a wall. Two boys climbed up and down a step ladder in order to keep them lit. Behind the firefly flickers rose up the mighty Humayun Gate, or southern ramparts of the fort; it was a powerful vision. I couldn’t help but marvel at the exquisite glow emanating from its depths.  

We found our way to seats directly in front of the middle of the stage that had been set up so that the fort was its backdrop. Few other westerners dotted the white chairs.  A zen music sequence played in a loop that started to hypnotize me in the low lighting and increasing darkness of the warm night. It’s work, I can’t sleep. It’s a nice dance festival event, I can’t sleep. I kept repeating this to myself as I slapped continuously at the painfully pricking mosquitoes. I’ve already had malaria, bring it on buggers.

The Ananya Dance Festival had been going on for several days covering different regional types, and we were attending their Tuesday night performance. This Odissi dance style was performed by the Rudraksh group from Bhubaneswar. After the ceremonial torch was lit and blessed, the live band took their places and the light dimmed completely. A black silhouette floated up against the lit stone wall behind it. Knees bent, hands straight out, I thought for a moment that maybe I had fallen asleep and one of the dance spirits was emerging.  The stage lights flashed and the story began, told through coined anklets, pointed feet, and painted faces.

Each dancer fully submerged themselves into the characters they played.  A cast made up of majority males, their faces were eerily pretty with the makeup and expressions they wore. They spun and leapt across the stage like animals in a far off dream a king might have had. The music from the band was rhythmic and repeated with soothing strength. My entire body was wrapped in the sounds and swirls in front of me. Spinning and beating, the air wrapping me and suffocating softly every other sense so that all my focus was there, the light, the high stone, the flower petals springing from their uplifted palms, a tale of old, a pained smile, a flute piping rebelliously into the night, and—

BANG.

My head hit against my chest. I jumped and looked around for a moment, shaken and surprised. As I turned to my side, my roommate peered at me from the corner of her eyes. “I fell asleep,” I whispered in newly awakened, slurred speech. She nodded and tried not to smile. I cleared my throat and shifted, stuffing five starburst candies into my mouth and waited for the sugar rush to hit. I wanted to tape my eyelids open, I felt such a heavy wave of fatigue wash over me like a salty wave.

And then the dance began. An exquisite sequence about a scorned lover and the man who found a fresh woman to adore. The new lovers moved so slowly I was enthralled and couldn’t look away. Without touching, they first moved as one and let their bodies react to each other’s movements like a piece of living art. We watched as their love grew and their bodies began to touch and float with one another across the stage. The lone woman jumped and ran in desperate motions, believing the man simply lost. It was at once inspiringly romantic and yet had an aching sting. Perhaps I saw myself in both, dancing before my eyes as though I’ve existed always in this story, as though her pain and her exuberant joy were as much mine as theirs.

image

my favorite dance of the night. photo by my roomie.

At the end, the face of the woman when she discovered the new couple froze my heart. As the lights went down on the stage, she collapsed to the ground before looking straight out at us with intense agony. When the show was complete and everyone clapped, the searing emotion still pooled in my chest. The sweet aftertaste of the candy in my mouth mocked the memories fighting to resurface. We found our way back out through the main gate as colored lights played across the sandstone. The noise of the busy Delhi streets rushed to greet us like an over-excited child as we followed the ramp down. Turning the corner so that we could no longer see the calmly dominating fort, I couldn’t help but feel that I wasn’t just leaving behind the history of some far-gone emperor– I was walking away from my own as well.

Categories: New Places, Reflection | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Momo Man

My favorite meal in Delhi comes from a very special man. After work, walking home through the purple evening, my roommate and I brave the journey up some very steep stairs, past a few abnormally large street dogs, and arrive at the Momo Man. His place consists of a freshly painted cart with three options written on all sides: Chicken 30 rs, Paneer 30 rs, Veg 20 rs.

We look at him. He looks at us. We say one word: chicken (or on healthier nights: veg). By now he knows we take them to go, so I watch as he captures the steamed wonton like objects out of a circular silver tray stacked atop three other trays and puts them into a type of insulated recycled bag. He uses tongs to grab one after the other as my stomach begins to grumble. What would happen if I just picked one up myself and popped it into my mouth? 

He puts the closed bag, a small tray, napkins, and a few bags of sauce into a plastic bag—one bag for each of us, though our Indian counterparts share one tray between two to three people. I always grab the orangey red sauce (not to my liking) out and switch it myself for another of the green bags of spicy deliciousness. It reminds me of my grandmother’s and my mother’s homemade Mexican salsa.

The rupees exchange hands– we thank him with loud smiles and walk a few feet down to our water guy. He assumes I will ask for three bottles and that my roommate will get two. On fancy days, we might get a side of chips. Walking happily home, I can feel the warmth against my side and the anticipation grows. With each step, my hunger sings, “mo-moes, mo-moes, mo-moes.” Intense? You bet. 

Finally we make it up to the top floor of our abode—unlock door, turn on fan, change out of sweaty clothes, grab water, and sit. We smile across our two foot table and begin unwrapping the feast. I bite into the sauce bags and squeeze them out onto my tray; only once have I squeezed too hard and ended up with a black dress covered in a variety of spicy ingredients (my reaction was to immediately shower off, fully clothed—not the best idea). The plumpy crescents are usually too hot to hold right away, but we can’t help ourselves. And every time right after that first bite: “Mmmm…mo-moes.”

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momo magic

By the time I’m done with the whole bag, I’m stuffed. Not a McDonald’s meal, oh-why-did-I-do-this-to-my-body?, stuffed. Refreshed. Ready to take on the world—which for a night in Delhi could mean a lot of things, mostly involving Facebook and maybe a battle with whatever creature invasion hits my room that day. And how much did this superhero meal cost us? Depending on chicken or veg, a whopping sixty-five to eighty-five CENTS, including large water.

Yes, we are living the life. All thanks to my neighborhood friend, the Momo Man.

Categories: Food | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Beautiful Arrangement: an Indian Wedding

I took a deep breath. Lights winked from the tree branches behind a fence and pounding music escaped towards us. My friend reversed the car into a grassy parking spot as I fidgeted with my black dress and wedge heels. No sari, no salwar. He moved forward as I told him, “I’m nervous.”

Ever since I can remember I’ve dreamed of going to an Indian wedding. The vibrant colors and smells and sounds seemed too delicious not to experience. And the moment had finally arrived. After passing through a sensuous aroma-filled hallway (remind me to always surround myself with flowers), we entered a banquet hall and immediately four waiters offered us some sort of food. My escort refused, so I did as well and suddenly caught sight of the night’s celebrities. They were seated on a raised stage with bright studio lights in front of them, snapping away in bright flashes. I couldn’t stop staring, even though I was well over six feet in the heels and standing right at the entrance to the room. After five minutes without moving and gaped mouth observation, we moved to the side to wait for the reason we had been able to attend: the sister-in-law.

A few curious relatives watched me swaying slightly to the Bangra and Bollywood music blasting, and I finally realized I was the only non-Indian person in attendance. I directed my attention back to the smiling couple and away from the elderly eyes. She was beautiful. He was handsome. I wondered how they’d met and when they’d decided they were soulmates. Did he whisper it into her ear? Were they lounging in one of Delhi’s parks? Drinking lattes at Café Coffee Day? When I asked, my friend G told me it was arranged.

Arranged? I was shocked, watching them glittering so stunningly on stage, and then I noticed the smiles were always directed outward towards family and cameras, no secret smiles were shared between them. It was as though the glitz fell away and I saw the whole celebration for the reality: two strangers committing to spend the rest of their lives together. A waiter came by and I took a fried ball of something, dipped it into my beloved mint chutney, and thought how different this world is than my own.

The Couple

After watching the older women relatives dancing their hearts away for awhile longer, the sister-in-law came to greet us. G and I were whisked away by this colorful woman into the younger generation’s version of celebration. We perched in a large hotel room, guys on one side and girls on the other, large plates of steaming food being brought in quick succession. Even though it was a vegetarian wedding, I’m almost positive I tasted chicken…

Surrounded by women I didn’t know, I looked to G for help but he was already laughing with his friends. I took a deep breath again and attempted conversation. Within five minutes the sister-in-law was removing her exquisite gold anklets and asking me to wear them. Even though I protested against this spontaneous generosity, another girl grabbed my foot and started putting them on. This aspect of Indian culture I’ve seen before, where upon meeting someone they offer a gift of some sort—and they don’t allow anyone to refuse. It was my first time being the recipient, and I have to admit that it warmed my heart and made me feel a part of the group.

I observed the women around me: decked out in strong colors and wrapped in shining garments. All gorgeous. They had jobs. They were intelligent. They were well-off. All but one were already married, all arranged. As they explained this to me, I nodded as though it was the most normal thing for me to hear, but inside I was screaming, “Why? I understand your reasons, but really I don’t understand the actuality at all!” One girl told me she is getting married in December to a man who lives in London, and she will have to leave all her friends and family without a choice in the matter. The sister-in-law hugged her tightly around the neck. When I looked into her face, I saw hesitation. Uncertainty. But above all, a complete surrender to the situation. What else could she do?

After some time, I was dragged out to the beginning of the ceremony that would end the night. Normally only close family and some friends attend, but somehow the anklets had gained me access into this circle. A four-poled structure covered in garlands and twinkling lights stood next to a small pool of water. The groom sat cross-legged on a chair placed on wooden planks atop gracefully white sheets. At this point, the bride had to relieve herself so we helped her to the nearest washroom as I marveled at how slowly she moved in the heavy clothing and headdress. I imagined it must be similar to a queen marrying her king in history past, greeting so many people in miles of fabric and jewels, wearing a weighty crown, sitting on a throne next to a man she hardly knew.

When we came back out we sat on either side of the queen bride. I watched as a man mumbled in what I assume was Sanskrit mixed with Hindi in a low rumbling rhythm. Another man sat next to the groom, and fire was passed around the circle. Flower petals handed to the groom were tossed into a pan in the middle, falling softly. The groom looked like his mind was elsewhere, and I wondered at its true location. His motions were robotic, most likely due to the length of the night and to the amount of photos, but my heart still pained. The whole image started to haze and swirl like a mirage; the lights and fire reflecting off the water, the fruit  put into a bowl and passed around, the chanting. Turning to the poised bride next to me, I saw that her expression mirrored his.

The Ceremony

At some point the sister-in-law tugged at the slit in my dress so that my leg was covered. It woke me, and I suddenly wanted to go check on my friend; I felt like I stuck out amid the family with my presence and needed anything familiar. I found him still laughing with friends in the same room, so I plopped down with some food on the couch. I was exhausted, but still my veins were full of emotion and energy from everything I had seen. To finish the night, we decided to go out and say goodbye before taking our leave.

The bride and groom now sat side by side, more family members around them. She had her hand cupped on top of his, ready to receive. Their faces were focused forward, expectantly waiting for the chanting man who now held a book. All at once, everything else fell away—the reciting, the others around them, the items strewn about the cloth in front of them, the heavy garlands around their necks—and I saw a man and a woman. Hand in hand. No love now, but I was certain that it would grow, rooted in commitment and tradition and customs. Cared for by companionship and sharing life together. They didn’t deserve my pity, not at all. I smiled at them, though my presence was now undetected. I was simply another flower in the background. And for some reason, though I had been incredulous at the idea of arranged marriage, I felt a brief sting of envy.

 

Categories: Events, Reflection | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

I want to be a monkey

Anyone who has spent significant time traveling knows that there comes a point when your honeymoon with a location is over (until you fall in love again, of course).

Suddenly you realize that you still have that annoying personality trait. The things that made you cry still make you cry. You try to be cool and different but end up doing the same things, if possible, just with a different appearance to them.

When you look in the mirror, you can still find imperfections. You somehow haven’t been able to hide yourself in the new customs, traditions, and scenery surrounding you. Everything new and exciting is now frustrating and foreign. You can’t trust people the way that you want to. The craving for home increases until you find yourself watching buffering episodes of Real Housewives and Say Yes to The Dress on YouTube (…maybe that’s just me).

And the prying voice inside: ok, you’re here. Now what?

If I close my eyes, these questions in my mind echo exactly what I’ve heard inside before, whether living at home with my parents, alone in my dorm room at Bama, or perched in my Miami condo. Every one of those places could be the same place at the same time. I travel over and over to find myself again and again: the same.

So is it our expectations on life? Or is it following a journey that will lead us where we are meant to go so that in the end, we’ll look back and all the questions will be answered? Or is it a sign that I’m still not quite doing what I’m meant to be doing with my life? or with whom I’m supposed to be doing it with?

Yes, this is a blog post airing a bit of dirty laundry. But I have to be honest, and I have to tell you: sometimes I’m lost.

This week at work we had a meeting with our boss, all of us sitting in a circle on our rolling chairs. The fan blew acrid air into our faces. Most avoided eye contact, but I had the pleasure of being directly across from him. As he spoke, out the window I noticed that two monkeys were playing with each other on the rooftop behind him. They jumped from platform to platform and would grab each other in tight hugs, rolling on the cement joined as one then seeming to laugh apart. I tried so hard to stay focused on his face, but I couldn’t stop watching the monkeys. Suddenly everything seemed so silly—the tension in the room, the averted eyes, the words we spoke—and at that moment the only significant mentionable in the world was that two monkeys were entirely at home enjoying each other’s company on the rooftop in front of me.

endless

Maybe it’s that we make writing our stories harder on ourselves. Maybe purpose and changing the world are so simple that God smiles and shakes his head wondering why we take the long way home.

My roommate sent me Steve Jobs’ commencement speech from several years ago; she said at one time in her life, she would read it multiple times a day for inspiration. In it, he mentioned not settling with work; we have to do what we believe is great work, which in turn comes from doing work we love. He also claimed we have to have the courage to follow our heart and intuition– they already know what we truly want to become.

It could be that I’ve been listening to the wrong voice, the one discouraging me and not the one leading me to be who I was created to be. Next time I look in the mirror, I will refuse to see and hear what I did yesterday and the day before. I will tell myself not to settle. I will listen for what I truly want to become.

And someday soon I’ll be a monkey, rolling around and laughing in the sun—completely doing what I love, completely free, and completely one with my partner in crime.

Categories: Reflection | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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