Friday, December 24, 2010

Dog’s Gifts – A Christmas Tail

One of Pokey’s first memories was of being in a very dark place. It smelled like cardboard. He remembered seeing little points of light shining through the darkness, and the crisp scent of prime pine peeing territory mingling with the smells of paper and boxes. Then, the ground, walls, and roof began to shake and the darkness was torn away with loud shredding noises by a very excited little girl. The puppy looked up at the girl, who squealed as if her tail had just been stepped on.

Pokey looked up from the little girl to the towering fir tree piled around with lots of boxes and paper bits. If the little girl would just let him go, he’d be glad to mark the turf for her.

Many years after the puppy grew into a larger, older, somewhat crankier dog – still with shoe button eyes and far too much personality for his diminutive size – he remembered that day. And, he came to learn its significance. Every year, the little girl (who had grown a few inches up and a few inches out and kept leaving the pack for weeks at a time) and “Mom” recreated the scene. They put up the tree. They put out the boxes. And every year since the year of his birth, they celebrated him.

He appreciated the effort.

Pokey knew that when the tree went up and the boxes went out, it meant that his people would worship him appropriately again.

He was given gifts, which he tore open with his quick little paws and flung into the air. The people tried to grab his toys, but he was always a little too fast for them. His success rate of keeping his toys away from his people made him very proud.

 He was given treats – biscuits, but also bits of cookies, graham crackers, steak and chicken. He wished he could impress upon his people that he would prefer Pizza on his special day, but his people could be very dense sometimes. Usually though, they understood.

When he was taken for walks in the weeks leading up to his special day, his people dressed him in a red and white ceremonial coat, which he did not like. It itched.

This year, Pokey was ready. The tree was up, the boxes were out. And he was sniffing around the tree for his annual offerings. He knew them by the sound of their special crinkly paper and by the scent of fuzz. Sometimes he was thrown off by faux fur trim on people clothes, but his worshipping people didn’t allow him to drag their clothes around. He didn't know why they were so picky. He searched and searched, but couldn’t find the gifts that were due him.

He looked up at the little girl, ears pricked forward, and stared at her, willing her to understand that he wanted his presents NOW. She looked back and said “Nooooo, way wa bill blahbarro.” He understood “no,” but didn’t like it. He turned to “Mom” and sneezed at her, which usually got a reaction. She looked at him and made the same incomprehensible noises. He didn't understand. This was his day. They had celebrated him since he first came into their world in one of those tree boxes. And he wanted his presents.

Pokey was frustrated.

But not to worry. Because if Pokey had a calendar hung at terrier eye-level, he would have realized that the day on which his people celebrated him was tomorrow. It was only Christmas Eve.

Merry Christmas to All, and Remember: Dog is Watching.

If you liked this Christmas tale, take a look at The Story of Yule from last year!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Livescribe Story: Lauren VanMullem, Journalist

A little over a month ago, LiveScribe asked me to be part of a special marketing effort to show people how others use SmartPens. They flew me to Phoenix to interview me on camera - The Journalist! - and here is the end result. Me, on film. No, I'm not gunning for a career in broadcast journalism. I was so nervous I could hardly make my facial muscles smile in front of the camera. But, my many years of theater and classical voice training came through in the end, and goodness knows I am a ham at heart.

A word about my Rita Skeeter magic SmartPen: The thing not only records audio as I write, but it records my actual handwriting on the page and saves it to my computer. If I lose the notebook, it's backed up. If I want to draw something to remember it better, I can do that and see it on my computer screen later. Mostly though, I use the SmartPen for interviews when I want to capture the spirit and spontaneity of the conversation. You can't do that if you need to ask your interviewee to slow down, or repeat the brilliant sentence he or she just said (they never can). The best example of the SmartPen in action is my recent Solvang Brewing Company feature for the Santa Barbara Independent - I never could have caught that last anecdote if I was writing it down by hand.

I also use the pen to record my 94 year old grandfather's family stories, like of how he and my grandmother met, and his years serving in China after WWII. And did I mention that the LiveScribe notebooks come in pink?

Love my LiveScribe pen.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What Happens in Jodhpur, Stays in Jodhpur

We had dinner at the hotel. The hotel staff set up tables, chairs, and a long buffet on the grass in the courtyard by the pool, almost like a wedding reception. Classical Indian musicians in turbans with long curved mustaches played drums and sitars and sang. A group of children looked down at us from one of the second-story balconies and greeted us with waves and smiles. It didn’t take them long to want to come down and see us close up. Their older sister, a sweet beautiful young woman of around 20, brought them down, and she begged us with that irresistibly musical lilting Indian accent (how I envy those women their voices) to join her and her siblings in dancing to the music on the lawn.

We were so tired from climbing all over the fort that it took a lot of convincing. But she was so charming and warm that a few of us capitulated. I felt like an awkward creature trying to dance. My British body doesn’t move well. It just clunks around unless I’m dancing in a strictly European style – I look right at home with the waltz. I’m just saying, don’t ask me to show you any of my Bollywood dance moves when I get home. What happens in Jodhpur, stays in Jodhpur.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Blue City of Jodhpur

October 21st, From Varanasi to Delhi to Jodhpur

The flight back to Delhi from Varanasi was out of a small airport outside of the city. Our bus trundled to a halt about twenty minutes away – we were told that there was a traffic accident ahead.

When accidents happen in India, the driver is blamed. We were told that an angry mob attacked the driver and beat him. As we passed the scene, Marci and I saw men carrying a covered body on a stretcher. We weren’t sure if it was the driver or the victim of the accident.

The Varanasi airport was chaos. Indians would tell Beth directions for where we were supposed to stand, what documents we were supposed to have, what forms we had to fill out – and then they would tell her the opposite of what they had just said. We were ordered to stand in several different places without any apparent reason. They were confused, we were confused, and that’s India for you.

Everyone gets frisked before boarding, and the woman frisking us was completely baffled by under-wires. Beth thinks of me as a very calm, agreeable person, which just goes to show how well I can hide anxiety and rage – both of which were triggered in the airport. I had a fantasy of ripping off my bra and shoving it in the security woman’s face, saying “See, you idiot woman – this is a bra!” But, as always, I kept quiet. My face flushed, blood rushed to my head making it feel tingly, and I felt dizzy, sick, out of control, and really pissed off. I tried to take deep breaths and stop my eyes from tearing up because that would only add embarrassment to the situation. I wanted to be the fearless traveler, and Indiana Jones doesn’t have panic attacks.

Sitting on the plane, I thought of the stories I had heard of Indians sacrificing goats before takeoffs, and my Indian friend’s warnings of air-travel. I prayed for a safe flight, as I always do, and the plane rattled into the sky. Rickety airplanes don’t hold near the terror for me that airports do – I never said I was logical.

We spent the night at the Park hotel in Delhi again. Two of the ladies and I ran out to find an ATM and buy extra luggage to carry our increasing purchases. Luggage is sold on every other street corner in all sizes and styles. Sarah, my shopping fairy-godmother (previously mentioned here), helped me negotiate on a duffel bag big enough to hide a side of beef. She smiled at the seller, talking fast in her high feminine bubbly voice, her blond hair bobbing up and down as she nodded in agreement with herself that the seller really should lower his price, and gave him a list of reasons why. By the time Sarah was done working her magic, she had the price down to 800 rupees ($17.84)*. The luggage seller didn’t know what hit him.
*Yes, Setal, I know that $17.84 is a crap price for a dusty duffel with broken zippers, but for white female tourists it’s pretty good!

The morning of October 21st we were off to the airport again for a domestic flight to Jodhpur. Delhi’s airport is much better than the microcosm of Hell that is the Varanasi airport. The domestic terminal even had free internet kiosks, so I was able to email my mom and boyfriend and tell them that I wasn’t in the train wreck near Agra that happened earlier that morning. They hadn’t even heard of the train wreck, but it was in all of the papers in Delhi.

In Jodhpur we were met by our guide and tour bus outside of the airport. They greeted us with marigold and rose petal leis – and more importantly, bottled water. Jodhpur is a desert on the border of Pakistan, so the air is dry, dusty, and very hot.

We took a large air-conditioned tour bus to Mehrangarh Fort, a fortress on a hill that overlooks the entire “Blue City” of Jodhpur. Half of Jodhpur’s homes are painted bright sky blue. The trend began when the Brahmin cast painted their houses blue, just to let everyone know who lived there. Now, the trend has trickled down to anyone with enough money to buy paint. The other half of the houses are the ginger color of sandstone. Sandstone quarries are just outside the city, so they build everything out of rock; the fort is no exception. Even the lace-like screens covering the women’s floors from view are made of carved sandstone.

Forts were vital, especially in this region bordering Pakistan. Jodhpur was on the camel trade route and was a particularly important piece of real estate. Many forts were built to keep the Rajahs safe. We climbed to the top through gilded rooms of marble, hand painted floors, tapestries and carvings. We saw bejeweled elephant saddles and elaborate cradles for baby rajahs. We saw paintings done during the height of the rajahs rule, showing them hunting on horseback with hawks. In fact he English Jodhpur riding pants came into fashion because one of these Rajahs was an accomplished horseman. He invented the pants and liked them so much that he wore them on his travels.

While the Mehrangarh Fort is the main tourist attraction of Jodhpur, we got the feeling that we were the main attraction. Few westerners come to this part of India, and we got a lot of stares and requests to have our pictures taken with people’s children. They seemed to think that we were really cool – just us being there was exciting to them – and the feeling was completely mutual. With their beautiful saris and gorgeous children, we thought they were really cool too.

From the ruddy stone towers, I could see the whole city and into the dry hills surrounding it. As sunset approached, the Jodhpur practically glowed blue. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ganges at Dawn

October 20th, 2009 - Varanasi Day 2

Our morning began at 5 a.m. so we could reach the Ganges for a sunrise boat ride. We went to the same place as the night before, but the shops that had been so busy at dusk - with people buying bottles to hold the holy river water, and stalls hung with sandalwood prayer beads, scarves and shirts with blessings written in Hindi script – were now only just opening up. The big business this morning was selling “Indian toothbrushes”: thin twigs of Neem wood that they use to clean their teeth. Neem tree oil is supposed to have many health properties for teeth and skin.

The kids were up early and were on the hunt for daft tourists who would buy decades old postcards. They were more persistent than horseflies. If a tourist speaks to one of these kids, the child will follow that tourist for miles, or until the tourist is rescued by her bus. A stern “No” is the only way to handle them.

Veena met us at the boat. The gray and hazy morning fog had not yet lifted, but in the soft light I could see that the opaque Ganges water is muddy brown. As we were rowed in the opposite direction of the previous night, Veena tells us that the locals come for morning and evening prayers (aarti) every day. Aarti are lead by priests, holymen, or religious students. The sunset Aarti is elaborate with seven holy men in orange robes lifting candles, tossing flower petals, chanting and clapping, and waving fans. Every motion has a meaning and purpose. Pilgrims, tourists and locals come at both dawn and dusk to watch.

I saw the sun rise over the far bank of the Ganges. There are no buildings on that side of the river since the ground is silt instead of rock. The mist burned off quickly, bathing the 18th century pilgrim houses in warm light. Men and women bathed side by side, and launderers slapped twisted clothes against the lowest steps.

Daylight robbed the Gangs of the mysticism it had at night, but gave a world of color in return. The air was rose-colored from the cremation fires and the buildings were peach and yellow. Women’s saris stood out like jewels. Vendors in boats filled with stuff to sell rowed out to the boats of tourists – we weren’t the only white people floating out there.

After our boat brought us back to the steps we walked through the Old City, a series of alleyways that were about as wide as three people standing shoulder to shoulder. The kids were on us in seconds and some of the women had unfortunately not yet learned to tune them out.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ganges at Night

Outside the sky turned from peach, to pink, to periwinkle as we made our way to the Ghats for an evening boat ride on the Ganges. We were driven to a main crossroad where we had to get out and walk down the long streets that lead from the city down to the Ghats, and finally down to the river itself. The paved streets were lined with vendors selling saffron-hued “Om” scarves and religious figurines. Varanasi is India’s holiest city and religious souvenirs are a booming trade.

We walked past wallahs, street children and holy men – their half-naked bodies painted white – until we reached the steps to the river. In the marigold-colored lamplight, the white stone took on a golden tinge. Varanasi rose vertically from the water in huge man-made cliffs that tower over the flat murky water. The city has been growing up from the Ganges for hundreds of years. Newer buildings are placed on top of crumbling old ones; gods grace the rooftops of some and look out over the river. Children scamper up and down the steps selling floating candles and flowers for believers to set adrift with their wishes into the holy water.

Once in the boat, floating out into the water, I watched the Ghats and the river stretch as far as I could see in either direction. Mist shrouded the edges where the water and towers faded into gray infinity. Veena told us that sections, or Ghats, are divided along the steps for different purposes. There are bathing Ghats where men in loincloths and women in full saris ritually bathe themselves. There are laundry Ghats, which you can tell by the swaths of bright saris and a few pairs of blue jeans that are laid out to dry across the steps. Some Ghats are for cremation. Cloth-wrapped bodies are laid out on a low step, burned to ash, and swept into the river.

As we drifted down river, we approached one of the cremation Ghats and Veena instructs us not to take pictures. Mourners don’t appreciate cameras. We could see bodies wrapped in gold and orange – the colors for men – laid out. Each body will be dipped in the river for one last bathing, then laid out on wood stretchers for burning. Poorer families sometimes struggle to buy enough wood to burn the bodies completely, which is where stories of half-baked body parts floating down the Ganges come from. My imagination made corpses of everything floating past us.

Our boat turned back and I looked over my shoulder at the three hundred year old buildings: their curvy oriental windows and doors, stone carvings, globed and pointed roofs, and steps leading from the river up through stone archways into narrow alleys, shapes in ghostly shades of white stretching up from black water.

As we drifted near a cluster of boats lined up to watch the evening Aarti (prayer), girls scampered across the tops of the boats, leaping from one to the next, carrying baskets of small candles and matches. Most of us bought candles from the girls who, with Veena’s translations, told us how to use them. I silently wished for success in writing to I can do this – go adventuring – for the rest of my life. I’ve never seen such beauty and felt such grace. It is incredible to me that I’m sitting here on the Ganges at dusk, watching pyres burn and bathe the buildings in orange light.
The dark river sparkled with our tiny flames. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

"A Nice Evening in Varanasi"

Varanasi, October 19th

“A Nice Evening in Varanasi” is the title on the cover of the CD I bought from the musicians we saw that evening. It’s the adjective that gets me – “nice.” The word is so underwhelming, especially when compared with the reality of spending an evening in Varanasi, India’s holiest city.

Veena had set up a performance for us at the home of a troupe of traditional Indian musicians. She lead us like so many ducklings through narrow alleyways and dirt streets, pausing for rickshaws and cars, steering around wallahs and cow turds. We arrived in a back alleyway defined by a twelve-foot brick wall covered with palm-sized patties of dung. To my left, a middle-aged woman squatted in the mud behind a placid steer forming more patties. She glanced up at us and ignored our presence so fiercely that I don’t think anyone dared take a picture.  (Well, I did, but only when I thought she wasn't looking)

Varanasi, India
We stood on a porch in front of a double door made of thick wood with iron knockers. I wrapped my scarf more tightly around my shoulders, more in response to the darkening sky than to any chill, and kept watch for mosquitoes while we waited to enter. The musicians opened the door and greeted us, showing us in and offering us tea as we sat on a short elevated platform covered with carpets and cushions in the large entry room. Two of the men were short and dark; the third man was tall and androgynous with a pronounced lisp in green and gold robes.

The three men were brothers, each specializing in a different instrument: the harmonium, the sitar, and the tabla. The sitar is a classic instrument – when you think of the mysterious east, the soundtrack you hear in your head probably features a sitar. It’s a whiney, discordant sound. But as soon as the tabla player began, my eyes were fixed to his hands which beat like hummingbird wings on the two drums. The tabla drums are a little bigger than young coconuts; every beat sounds different depending on where the drum is hit, and what part of the hand is used to hit it. To learn to play the tabla takes eight to nine hours of practice per day for years, he told us, as he created deep, round metallic sounds, and light percussive tapping sounds for demonstration. The brothers have played all over Europe, traveling with dancers who accompany their music.

The tall androgynous man with the lisp didn’t look at all like his brothers. His skin was lighter, his face and body round, and his entire demeanor captured attention like a Broadway performer. He played instruments too, but his role tonight was to dance the part of Ganesh. A female dancer entered the room to play Lakshimi. They both wore percussive bells on their ankles that allowed them to add their own rhythms to the music. She whirled and the bells sewn into her clothing and clasped around her ankles tinkled and pounded in questions and answers to the tabla drums.

We all bought the CD. 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Likes, Loves, and Mutual Appreciation

I woke up this morning to my mother shouting from the next room "Jerramy Fine Likes you." Of course, I knew this was in the Facebook sense of the word but it took me a minute to figure out why the author of the book I just finished would pay me any attention. Then I remembered - I wrote a post in my personal blog, Chronicles of My Quarterlife Crisis, two days ago in which I informally reviewed her book. Review may be the wrong word - I loved her book.

It's her autobiographical account of her childhood in a small U.S. country town, raised by hippies, and her obsession with finding her English prince. I feel like I know Jerramy Fine, not just because I've read her autobiographical novel, but because her life and mine are eerily alike. Growing up in a small country town among hippies and cowboys is one thing we have in common, but more importantly, we share the feeling of being misplaced at birth. Like the Stork's GPS system failed, and we were really supposed to go to argyle-clad families in thatched English cottages.

We both scooted over to England at the first opportunity, but the difference is - she didn't let anything stop her from staying there. Living in England is a difficult thing to do as an American girl. Immigration authorities are not kind. It's nearly impossible to get a work permit. Finding a British boyfriend... well, nobody tells that story better than she does. The woes and perils of modern dating are heart-breakingly represented. I'd love to pick her brain on "Ben and Xander's Guide to English Dating" which I posted after visiting Oxford last year, since I believe she somehow managed to get scaredy-cat Brits to ask her out on dates (a feat that Ben and Xander declared highly unlikely).

Basically, I'd invite her over for a pot of tea and cucumber sandwiches any time. So getting a shoutout from this kindred spirit on Facebook and Twitter was an incredible Halloween treat.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Brewing Company Hops into Wine-Soaked Solvang!

Normally I am content to subtly link my articles on my Published Writing page, but seeing this Feature article published is cause for celebration! If I hadn’t imbibed all the beer in my fridge already, I would be popping open a bottle, because this was a difficult birth. I initially interviewed the Renfrows in the partially finished Viking Room on June 25th, when the estimated opening date was in August. Then, the opening date was September, then Oktoberfest, and now – finally – the Solvang Brewing Company has opened its doors and my article hit the stands on Wednesday!

I’m always proud when a feature gets published, but I get special warm fuzzy feelings with this one. It’s the community connection that I love writing about, and covering the long-awaited reopening of the Viking Room and historic windmill allowed me to show what a special community Solvang is. The last paragraph captures the heart of the story:

“A few months ago, this gentleman pulled up—he had to be close to 90—all spiffed up in a dress shirt, a bola, and a cowboy hat, heavy Danish accent. He says ‘When ’ja gonna be open?’” recalled Renfrow, who gave the man the planned opening date. “Fantastic; that’s my seat,” replied the man. “I used to sit there with my wife. Can I have that seat opening day?” Renfrow immediately obliged, promising, “We may have to kick someone out, but that seat is yours.”

Where else can you find a 90-year old Danish cowboy in a pickup truck? Only in my home town.

So I would like to send a shout-out to the Renfrows, their partners, their brewmaster and chef for giving me outstanding material to work with and telling me the stories that created this story. Best of luck on your new venture, and I will be there this weekend to raise a glass to you in person.

Solvang Brewing Company
1547 Mission St., Solvang

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Travel Writer Needs Mental Vacation

 It’s only Wednesday, and I already feel like I need a vacation. One that includes sleeping and eating and lots of it. I spent Monday and Tuesday helping my friend at Blackmarket Bakery to create a press release and doing a few things around the store – who knew that there is actually quite a bit of technique involved to sticking labels on brownies? All those sticker-placement skills I learned in Kindergarten were put to use, which amused me to no end. But let me tell you, hanging out at a bakery for two days, smelling the deliciousness of artichoke asiago croissants, cabernet brownies, cherry chocolate chip cookies, and freshly baked tarts and cakes is torture. Very pleasurable torture. I’m still hungry.

And I’m tired. A mix of getting up early every day this week and learning a lot of new things (at the bakery and at fencing class on Tuesday), and writing all day today has me mentally bushed.

I need a little mental vacation. I need a mental cruise in fact. Because cruises are perfect. You get on a boat, eat, sleep, eat more, get out and look around, go back and eat and sleep.

This schedule is precisely why I am normally not a cruise person. I like action, adventure, and lots of walking. But today, I want to be on a cruise. Can’t afford one, so I think I’ll take a day off tomorrow to eat, sleep, eat, go to the gym (or think about going to the gym and watch TV instead), and sleep again. It’s almost the same thing and it will do for now.

(Incidentally, the picture is of an actual Blackmarket Bakery cake - they are really talented)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The City of Learning and Burning

October 19th
Varnasi is “a city of learning and burning,” our guide, Veena, tells us. There are four universities, and the city prides itself on the quality of its classical Indian music. The burning… I’ll get to that.

Like Delhi, Varanasi is crumbling. The dirt seems to be holding the walls up. The buildings are mostly the remnants of British colonial architecture and even though the columns and moldings are discolored, peeling and crumbling, they are still beautiful.

When I look at these white columned buildings, I can see the British colonists dressed in their Victorian whites and khakis, the ladies in their lace dresses, hair pinned in elaborate curls by their Indian maids. I see these ghosts sitting on the verandas sipping tea from bone china while being fanned by dark men in pale kurtas. Their hushed conversations are carried on the breeze.

Varanasi is the holiest place in the Hindu religion and is considered to be the center of earth in Hindu Cosmology. Buddhists and Jains also stake their claims here for holiness. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

What draws people here, and what has drawn them for countless centuries, is the Ganges. Varanasi lifts itself up from the banks of the Ganges, its steps dipping into the water, the water sometimes rising up to the first few floors of the buildings, depending on season. The river provides life and livelihood for the world’s highest density of people. The river is also where they come to die. Leave it to me to reach from the sublime and poetic to a search on Wikipedia, but I think this says it best: In 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote about the Ganges,
The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilization and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of adventures of man.”

We take four air conditioned cars to the Momokshu Bhavan ashram. Midway, one of the ladies wants to switch to a less cramped car and, while we are stopped, an old man comes up to the window opposite of where I’m sitting, carrying a basket with a live cobra swaying up above the open lid. I, of course, think this is the coolest thing ever and without even thinking I point and say “Look! A Cobra!”
The woman sitting at the window turns around to look behind her, her nose inches from the cobra’s (with a glass window closed between them). A shriek and a jump ensue, and the man walks away with his cobra.

The Mumukshu Bhavan ashram is an old tattered building structured around a few shaded courtyards populated by monkeys and elderly residents. The residents mostly stay inside, or maybe that’s just because we were there. The people who stay at the ashram are waiting to die – they are old, feeble, a burden on their impoverished families, and want their bodies cremated on the banks of the holy river. Mumukshu Bhavan is a waiting room for death. To visit there is to feel mortality, an idea that is foreign to me as a 25 year old. Death is a theory to the young. We hear about it, sometimes we see it, but it doesn’t touch us. Still, I’m not entirely insensitive. I don’t whip out my camera to take pictures of the wrinkled men and women peeking out of their cells.

Some of the old residents are very willing to engage lookyloo western tourists and the women are taking pictures of everyone. It makes me uncomfortable. I know they would make great pictures, the kind you see on the cover of National Geographic with pleated folds of skin radiating out from wise timeless eyes. I get it. But I can’t justify what feels like rudeness and exploitation to get the shot. I can’t treat these people as objects to be photographed. I do, however, take pictures of the monkeys. Who doesn’t love a picture of a monkey?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Night Train to Varanasi

October 19th, 2009

I swung the heavy duffel bag over my shoulder, feeling it dig into my skin, and tightened my grip on my big brown stained travel purse, careful not to press my finger down on the rivet that sticks up like a tack on the strap. I found that defect in London a few summers ago and never bothered to file the point down, figuring that any purse-snatcher would have a deservedly unpleasant experience if he tried to take this bag. Now avoiding the sharp bit of metal has become second-nature to me. I think of it as a little joke between me and my bag.

The other women collected their bags from the back of the tour bus in the dirt parking lot of the Delhi train station, waving away would-be helpers eager to haul our luggage for a few rupees. We’re all strong, independent women here, we don’t need help. Even if in order to reach our train we had to climb stairs and ramps, dodging more people than there are at Disneyland on a Saturday in July. Fortunately, we left our heavy luggage at the Park hotel on Connaught Circle, since we’d be returning to Delhi shortly. My roommate lent me her light duffel, made of parachute material the color of tomato-soup, and I had it packed tightly with everything that wouldn’t fit into my now bulging rolling suitcase left back at the hotel.

In early evening, the Delhi sky turns lavender above floating dust that never seems to settle. The dust covers everything and smells like shit, but in a not-unpleasant barnyard way that makes me think of home. Unfortunately, I brought a head-cold with me from Oxford, and the Delhi pollution makes any mild ailment into something potentially serious. But all my concentration was on following our Delhi guide through the crowds and keeping tabs on Nissa – the oldest member of our tour - to make sure she was ok. We wove through people, waited, climbed stairs and ramps, waited, and shuffled down again, finally reaching our train car.

The train to Varanasi is a 12-hour overnight trip. The nicest cars have narrow bunk beds, 4 to a compartment, curtained off from the main hallway. Because of the size of our group and the general inability to make plans in India, we couldn’t all fit in contiguous compartments, and some of the ladies were adamantly against mingling with “the foreigners.” Beth diplomatically handed out seating assignments that were amenable to everybody, asking me if I’d be comfortable in a compartment with an Indian family – only 1 wall and 2 feet away from the other women. She said I seemed to be “adventurous,” a compliment I readily accepted, since I don’t see myself that way. I am a wannabe adventurer – an understandable complex if you knew my friends who fearlessly wander to all parts of the globe.

Before 9 o’clock, everyone on the night train sits on the lower bunks to chat. The other three bunks in my section were occupied by a mother in a sari and bangles; the father, a man with a bright intelligent face; and a very well behaved little boy playing on a hand-held game and asking his mother questions in English and Hindi. I sat down on the lower bunk with my journal, jotting down notes and filling in the blanks of the last two days, when the father asks me where I’m from, what I do, and how far I got in school (I have a feeling that my lack of a masters degree was disappointing). When I replied that I was a writer – I was only just starting to be comfortable with that declaration – he perked up. “My wife is a journalist in Hindi.” The mother joined in the conversation at that point – she is a journalist covering current affairs and health for a Hindi publication, and their son is an anchor-boy for a children’s news program. The father is a Humanities professor at a local university, and Varanasi is their home. What are the odds of sitting next to a female journalist on a train trip in India?

I admired the mother’s bangle - swirls of yellow, red, blue and green with reflective diamond shapes all the way around. She said “I have plenty” and dug around in her purse, pulling out two more. She insisted that I take one, but it quickly became apparent that my giant western monster-hands would not take a delicate bangle. She insisted that it would go on, and over the next three minutes she molded, squeezed, massaged and mangled my left hand until the bangle slid over and landed on my wrist (which is thankfully thin). I was amazed – there is a technique to bangles and this woman was a master. I accepted the fact that the only way the bangle was ever coming off is if it disintegrated of its own accord – I loved it.

The father/professor answered my questions on Varanasi, telling me that it is one of the holiest Hindu cities, full of art and culture. He and his wife also assured me that no one has ever fallen out of the top bunk on a train, and I suggested that I might be the first.

It was a very narrow bunk with no railing and feels very high up off the ground. I pushed my purse and sandals to the wall when it was time to sleep. I wrapped my legs around the bags and covered them and myself with a brown blanket provided by the train. Thieves walk up and down train hallways during the night looking to steal belongings from sleeping passengers, so it’s best to keep everything tucked as far away from the edge of the bunk as possible. I use the duffel as a pillow and covered my head with one of my newly acquired scarves for extra warmth. Only my nose peeped out.

An hour after lights-out, just when I began to doze, an official in military dress pushed aside the curtain and entered the compartment. He was checking assignments, paying special attention to foreign (white) travelers, but the Indian mother didn’t let him get half a sentence out before she started bombarding him with Hindi. If you’ve ever seen birds defend their nest against a crow, you might have an idea of what I was witnessing. For fifteen minutes she argued and berated, it was the auditory equivalent of machine gun fire, but without pauses to reload. Frustrated, the man left to bother the other passengers, and my defender returned to her bunk under mine. I have no idea what that was about, but even though the entire scene was in Hindi, I got the gist. It was about me, and officials who like to push white women travelers around, and that Indian mother was having none of it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Very Own Press Release!

We interrupt the (ir)regularly scheduled India Blogs to bring you this piece of VERY EXCITING NEWS!

One of my regular gigs is writing for the college website,, and I came up with an idea two weeks ago for a series of posts called Major Breakthrough. I am interviewing recent grads about why they chose their majors, and if they have found jobs right after college that use their majors.

I am really excited about this series, and not just because it's mine. I haven't found any other book or article that focuses on recent graduates' opinions of their majors and their job prospects upon graduation. Recent is important because these are the young adults who have gone through the current system and are struggling in this job market. Anyone can find already successful people and ask them what their majors were, but interveiwing early 20-somethings who are just finding out the ramifications of their majors on their post-college lives is unique.

Here is the press release about my project as it is posted on Choosing a Major Made Easy with New Web Series.  

And here are links to the two Major Breakthroughs that have been posted so far - a new one goes up every Monday:

Major Breakthrough: When you Major in Biology, you Major in Life

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pasta Italiano in Delhi

Connaught Circle looks like the British colonial version of a shopping mall that has been bombed out and left to rot. Formerly white pillars hold up peeling stores and the streets are dirt; the inside may be modern but the outside hasn’t seen paint or repairs since the British left. Connaught Circle is one of the main shopping malls in Delhi and our destination for lunch after shopping at Dilli Haat.
The blocks of Connaught Circle are labeled alphabetically, sort of. You might find that M block is next to E block, for instance. It doesn’t help that most anyone you ask for directions will tell you that wherever you’re going is “closed” due to some made-up reason or other, but you should try this other place down the street… Truth is a moving target in India.
We eventually found our lunch place on M block at a restaurant owned by a friend of Sumitra (Beth’s tour partner in India – that’s not a perfectly accurate description of Sumitra’s role but it will have to do). Sumitra’s friend thought we might like food that was easier on western stomachs since we would be spending 12 hours on a train to Varanasi that night. So she had her chefs make us something special, off the menu: Pasta Italiano! With garlic bread and virgin mojitos.

And I have to say, everything was incredibly good. I think Indian and Italian cooking go very well together. It was incredibly sweet and considerate of her to make special Italian food for us, and it was some of the best food we had on the trip (and we had some really good food). I wish I had written down the name of the restaurant because I’d love to give them a shout-out.

After lunch, half of us went searching for FabIndia, also in Connought Place. I had been waiting to get to this store since I landed. Prices are fixed, so no haggling, and everything was reasonable: like $6-$7 for a scarf, maybe a little more for a shirt. I went a little crazy, practically buying a whole wardrobe of long tunics, a skirt, another scarf (please don’t try to keep count, I didn’t). It all came with me on the train to Varanasi because I couldn’t fit all of it into the suitcase I left at the hotel (we’re coming back to the Park Hotel after Varanasi so many ladies opted to leave their larger bags there and bring smaller bags with us for the short trip).
That night, we took the overnight train to Varanasi…

*The picture is not mine. I sadly didn't get a picture of Connaught Circle.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dilli Haat and the Bargaining Dilettant

Sarah is a shopping Goddess – I’m sure she has been added to the Hindu pantheon by now. Just look for the statue of a petite vivacious blonde deity carrying packs of scarves and bangles. I think she single-handedly brought the idea of discounts for buying-in-bulk to the markets of India by grabbing handfuls of figurines, showing them to the merchants and saying through an enormous smile: "I'm getting all of these, so I think you should give me a special price." Sarah is one of the ladies on the trip, the CEO of a non-profit fundraising company where she professionally persuades people to donate their money and feel good about it. She is one of those rare people who can make everyone fall in love with her without trying. These, incidentally, are great skills for bargaining.

I first saw her in action while trying out my own haggling skills at Dilli Haat, an open air market in the middle of Delhi. For my part, I fought hard for my silver bangles, eight scarves, silver cobra arm band (that I fully intend to wear, someday), and two anklets with matching necklaces for my little sisters. However, the fact that I failed to record the price paid in my travel journal suggests that I was too embarrassed to write down the hard numerical truth. I’m sure everyone who leaves Dilli Haat market fancies themselves a good bargainer. After all, the salesmen look so pained if you manage to haggle them down by a few rupees. But, I am pretty certain that we all got fleeced. Except, very possibly, for Sarah.
Sarah had the right perspective on haggling. She knew that she would get the tourist price, but I think she enjoyed the challenge of seeing how far she could whittle it down. In the end, it was all about whether she enjoyed her time and was happy with the price she paid.
Dilli Haat allows for maximum haggling enjoyment. The small entrance fee keeps out beggars and pickpockets, making the place disarmingly deserted. It’s a nice place to walk around; It’s what you picture India will be like before you get there.
Tourists like to test the bargaining waters at Dilli Haat and I saw a number of Europeans wandering around. European and Australian tourists in India all have this dust-covered, unwashed, tan-faced, chic look. They look worldly. They look like Lawrence of Arabia or Lara Croft. They look sexy. I was jealous. It’s enough to make a girl go out and buy khakis and a tight shirt, and then roll in the dirt (that seems to be the dress code).
After scarf number six, I tried to stop buying. But when I was beckoned by a scarf seller who was my age, cute, and spoke fluent English – I stopped trying.
He showed me scarves that were entirely hand-stitched, with stitching so fine that the design looked printed on them from only two feet away. He told me his own grandmother worked on one for eleven months, but they usually take nine months to complete. I also learned that he liked “Obama better than Boosh.” He was so much fun to talk to, and I could tell he was enjoying himself also. I told him where I was from, he told me about his family business making textiles and running the stall. What struck me most was how intelligent, articulate and confident he was, in a totally Westernized way. He reminded me a little of one of my cousins actually, something about his casual-cool.
But, when it was time for bargaining, I got down to business. He asked what I paid for the other scarves I bought, and I happily told him a price that was a few hundred rupees less than I actually paid. I sheepishly told him that I probably paid too much for them, silly tourist that I am. So he offered 300 rupees below the price I quoted. This may seem shady, it may look like lying, but believe me all is fair in haggling. Don’t worry, he still made a profit. It’s like gambling in Vegas: The house always wins, but it’s still a lot of fun.

*I found this excellent article on how to haggle - so if you want to know how to do it, click Here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The flash dance, and being “followed”

October 17th, continued and finally finished

Buildings intended for tourists are built like mini-fortresses. You’d think they were embassies instead of hotels and restaurants. The barriers are necessary however, and getting out of the chaos of the streets is worth the lapse in egalitarianism.
For lunch, we went to a restaurant in the middle of a stone courtyard with benches and white chairs surrounded with tropical large-leafed plants. A walled garden. Our group was led down to a room with chairs set up facing a dance floor and the guide explained that we were being treated to a pre-lunch show of traditional dance. Pictures were Ok.
Three female dancers, young Asian women with beatific smiles, spun and waved their hands in graceful, yet aerobic, motions. Then a petite young man wearing a bright blue and gold costume walked onstage and set up three bicycle wheels and a silver tray. His smile was enormous and proud. He looked at us, smiling and exuding pride in his performance and the sheer joy of doing it. American Idol contestants could learn a lot from him on how to connect with an audience. His lively, dark, almond eyes connected with each of ours as he struck a pose and began spinning the silver tray on one finger. Then he picked up one of the bicycle wheels and began spinning that, resting it – still spinning rapidly – on his chin. He had to tilt his head back for this, and it was the only time during his act that he lost eye-contact with us.

Then it was back to spinning trays and wheels on each upturned palm, now and then on top of his head, and all the time he acted like he was having a blast. He was so in his element that the spinning appeared to take no concentration at all. It was effortless. His attention was on us, and my attention was completely given to him. Even now, I am half in love with him. And that is the effect every great performance should have.
Remember when the guide said “taking pictures is Ok”? In my opinion, using flash photography in a dark room aimed at a guy spinning a wheel on his chin is unappreciative, not to mention potentially dangerous. I can sympathize with the desire to capture the experience on film, but when your eye is stuck in a viewfinder, you can’t really appreciate, or be in, the moment. And performance art is about fully involving yourself in the moment, suspending disbelief and allowing yourself to be wrapped in someone else’s world of magic and amazement. You cannot do that with a camera stuck to your nose!

The cameras did make us laugh though – one woman recorded one of the dances on film and, during a brief break, played it back to make sure it worked. The woman in charge of playing and stopping the music records for the dancers was completely baffled by the sound. The poor woman thought her machine was broken until she saw the camera. I think she shook her head and laughed.
After a few more traditional dances with the three girls and young man in varying combinations, the dancers asked us to come up and try a dance with them, using sticks as percussion instruments. I am generally terrified of audience participation-type shows, and demurred when one of the girls motioned with a stick to come and join. Then the beautiful young man handed me two sticks, and I could deny him nothing.
So we all danced very clumsily next to our graceful hosts, completely embarrassed at first, then warming to the patterns and remembering how to play. We were all kindergartners again, following the leaders. And isn’t it fantastic that grownup women can do that? In a foreign country, aren’t all travelers much like children? Everything is new, exciting and unknown.
The afternoon finished with henna artists drawing swirls and flowers on our hands. The henna artists were dark young women in jewel-tone saris, with feet encrusted in black. They were accomplished artists, swirling and dotting organic designs like vines and flowers so quickly, as if it were nothing. We just had the on-the-go version, but henna designs can be very intricately detailed and are painted all over the palms and backs of the hands.
I’ve never played with henna before, so I was surprised that it comes in a thick dark brown paste squeezed out of a pointed tube. The paste dries to a crust on your hand and you let it flake off on its own. The stain is a light carnelian orange. You can use black tea bags to darken it, and lemon to make it last longer. I liked the effect so much that I asked for a henna kit for Christmas – I still need to try it out for myself; maybe with my two little sisters also. They love activities that involve mess.


Later in the day, between lunch and dinner, Beth (our fearless leader) and I struck out to try to find internet. I still hadn’t been able to contact my anxious mother from India, so I wanted to reassure her that I was alive. With crusty henna still drying on my hands, we walked out the high prickly fence of our hotel-fortress and turned the corner. Beth had heard that there was an internet café nearby that cost a lot less than the ridiculous rates our hotel charged to use their computers (and I mean ridiculous by London standards, much less Delhi).
As we walked, Beth pointed to a man in front of us and said to me in a low voice “that man is following us.” You would think that in order to follow someone, you would have to be behind them. But the street men of Delhi have caught onto that expectation, and they follow in front of you. That way, if you choose to go into a shop, the man will have gotten there first and will happily tell the shopkeeper that he brought the foreigners in and deserves a “finder’s fee.” Beth, being an expert traveler and hailing originally from New Jersey, had no problem asserting herself in this situation. I mention that she is from New Jersey, because in my experience, women who come from NJ and NY are extremely nice, and just as extremely assertive. She yelled at the guy to stop following us and left no doubt that she was on to him. This didn’t deter him in the slightest, but at least he knew that we were aware of what was going on. I never would have noticed him if Beth hadn’t pointed him out. I think in that moment, I took a big stride towards being a better, smarter, more assertive traveler. I always try to be very aware of my surroundings, but this opened up my mind and my eyes to the unexpected. And in India, it’s all unexpected.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Bahá'í Lotus Temple

October 17th 2009 afternoon continued

After the Qutb complex, we dodged the street sellers and filed back into the bus that took us through the weave of Delhi highways to the Bahá'í Lotus Temple. We walked the long brick path to the temple sharing what little we collectively knew about the Bahai faith. I will consult a higher authority on that now: Wikipedia.

In the Bahá'í Faith, religious history is seen to have unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and the capacity of the people. These messengers have included Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and others.

Bahá'í notions of progressive religious revelation result in their accepting the validity of most of the world's religions, whose founders and central figures are seen as Manifestations of God. Religious history is interpreted as a series of dispensations, where each manifestation brings a somewhat broader and more advanced revelation, suited for the time and place in which it was expressed.

Humanity is understood to be in a process of collective evolution, and the need of the present time is for the gradual establishment of peace, justice and unity on a global scale.

I like the idea that the world is collectively evolving and that each religion is a reflection of what populations and civilizations needed in their times. I like that Bahais are accepting of different religions. But what I find very interesting about the Bahai faith is that almost all of its followers are highly educated and are also usually well-off. This has nothing to do with the story, but I thought a little background might be interesting.

Once we reach the steps of the temple in our bare feet, we are instructed in multiple languages to not speak once inside. No cameras, no talking, just peace, prayer and meditation. Everyone is welcome to visit the temple, and sit, pray, meditate, or just absorb the tranquility after the maddening streets of the city.

The temple is built in the shape of a lotus, a reminder that one can rise from humble beginnings. The lotus flower grows out of mud, the stalk rising above the muck to end in a perfect bloom. This is an especially poignant image in India.

As we are driven around Delhi, women, babies and children tap on the bus windows and ask for money. Many make the graceful motions of putting imaginary food to their lips, almost like a dance of hunger. We see people living their lives on streets and under overpasses, but the homeless people here are very different from the ones I’ve seen in the U.S.
The U.S. homeless are almost always insane, mentally handicapped, emotionally disturbed and/or have drug addictions. They are mentally incapable of working. But the women here are young and beautiful. They are just uneducated. Their society, religion and background, everyone they’ve ever met, have told them that this is their lot in life and that’s it. Beth says the caste system, now officially banned but still evident, is largely to blame for that paradigm.
The first thought a westerner might have is “why doesn’t someone just go out and tell them they can do better, find a job, educate themselves, stop having so many children?” Because surely, if these women were told this, they would try to improve their lives. But imagine that someone with all the conviction of a zealot told you that your paradigm was wrong, and that you had no hope of ever changing your life situation. Being an American, or westerner, you would look at that person as if he were crazy, or an idiot. Reaching for success is so ingrained in our culture, particularly the American culture, that this mentality of passive helplessness is inconceivable to us. But, that’s India. Or at least, that is one part of India.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Qutb Complex

October 17th, 2009 afternoon

Everytime we drive around Delhi, it feels like the roadways were planned along the lines of a celtic knot. I think we went in circles nearly every time we left the hotel until the driver eventually found the gap in the loop. The drive from India Gate to the Qutb Complex was like that.
I only just learned the name of these ruins, and I was able to find them (as opposed to the bajillion other ruins around Delhi) because I remembered the pillar.
The pillar has an amazing story, which I will butcher without the help of Wikipedia. So before I start quoting more knowledgeable sources (Wiki), I’ll just say that it might be extraterrestrial. Seriously.
The scholars of Wiki write that the pillar may have been created as early as 912 BCE and stood at the center of a Jain temple complex of 27 temples. Stones from those temples were defaced – literally, faces were scratched out by the Muslim conquerors – and used to build the Qutb complex where the pillar still stands, unmoved. The 7 meter tall, 6 ton pillar is 98% wrought iron and has withstood corrosion for over 1,600 years without shelter. Archaeologists and metallurgists can’t explain it.

And, it was by this pillar that I found out the name of where we went minutes before I put up this post. In my travel journal, it is merely described as “red stone ruins” which do not do it justice. “Indiana Jones level of awesome” is a far better descriptor.

Our tour guide spouts numbers, they all spout numbers. Tour guides may as well be out of work accountants for all the numbers they know. I can’t remember any of them. What I remember are the pillars at the entrance to a large stone courtyard. These stone pillars were built out of stones reused from the Hindu and Jain temples that used to stand at the site before the Muslims came and were offended by depictions of people and foreign gods. They took the temples apart like kids with Lego castles and built their own places of worship and monuments to their own greatness. Maybe it gave them satisfaction to walk halls where conquered gods danced headless around them.

One can’t help but wonder what the carvings looked like when they were new.

The complex is huge with wide open spaces, crumbling walls, and stone steps to grassy lawns that have grown over what used to be there. Families from all over India come to see it. And a few adventurous Europeans. And us: a group of mostly middle-aged white American women. I quickly came to understand that ruins are a dime a dozen, but a bunch of white women – that’s what you want your picture taken next to if you’re a family from rural India.

After being hounded by beggars, taxi wallahs, and pushy salesmen, meeting people who wanted nothing more than a picture was a striking contrast. They were so nice, so entertained to see us. They thought we were great. If you ever want to know what it feels like to be a celebrity, just travel to India where you become the main attraction (no matter what World Heritage Site you’re standing in front of). I’m not saying this to be condescending in any way. It was just strange. And they were so nice about it. Our guide joked that pictures of us would be hanging in every one of their living rooms and they would invite people over to tell them about their new American friends. I still don’t know how to take that.

A funny story about the ruins: There is a giant red tower that reaches far above the highest point of the ruins. It’s called the Qutb Minar. Across a grassy courtyard from the Qutb Minar is a pile of red bricks that used to be a second tower. The story goes that a later conqueror wanted to build a tower taller than the Qutb Minar, right across from it. But when the second tower was almost completed, a massive earthquake leveled it. The Qutb Minar was completely undamaged. India is a humbling experience for everyone.
As our group was leaving, our guide for the past two days offered to take a group picture of us outside the gate to the ruin. He took all of our cameras and just when he was about to shoot the first picture, an Indian family jumped in with their small children, asking without a word of English, if they could take pictures of their kids posing with all of us white women. The mother pressed her baby girl into Susan’s arms (she’s a nurse and loves children). The baby was totally chill with this, like it happened all the time, and they snapped photos of us while our guide snapped photos of us and them. Eventually we all posed together having gained new extended family members. On the street it is easy to forget that a lot of Indian people are genuinely good, kind and not out to take advantage of foreigners. This random family thought it was so cool that we were there, and we thought it was so cool that they were there. So different and enjoying those differences so much.