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.