Letters from the road

India 2011

The last chapter of the Indian Odyssey

*Note, I write this on a Turkish keyboard and I cannot fınd the apostrophe and I occasionally use the wrong i (ı). Forgive me.

I float amidst a dream. A new country, a new adventure, and a new friend.

Before I get to all of the new, I would be remiss not to illustrate the whirlwind the last 6 weeks have been. Enough stimulation for 6 months crammed with physics defying force into the space of less than two lunar cycles. How could I expect anything less, it is India.

Last I wrote, I was on the eve of my exodus from Pushkar. I managed to convince a sick Vanessa that she would love to go to Junagadh, Gujarat with me for 12 hours although the journey there and away consisted of two days and three nights on sleeper trains and a couple of mornings sleeping on the train platform. All in the name of nose rings. What can I say, I’m sweetly convincing and she is a terrific friend.

We left Pushkar the morning of Friday April 8th. We arrived in Junagadh the morning of the 9th in a flurry. I had set my alarm with plenty of extra time to gather our belongings before our eta. Apparently we had the wrong eta. I had slept fitfully on my lower side sleeper bad and happened to roll over and gaze out the window to discover at 4:44 am we had arrived in Junagadh rather than 7:30 am. Purely by chance I looked for the station name we had stopped at. I vaulted out of bed with quite a few curses and woke up Vanessa. We threw our scattered things together in a ridiculously fast and terrified manner hoping to god that the train didn’t decide to leave while we shoved, crammed, and practically flew off the train with our backpacks, small bags and my violin. The adrenaline coursing through us as we pratically hyper ventilated in our rush to get off had no where to go once we were on the train platform. We stood with our mammoth backpacks (mainly mine is the mammoth) and descended into hysterical laughter as we sat down in perplexity. A great way to awake. We spent the next few hours cuddling with our bags on the platform, trying to recapture fleeting dreams.
We left our bags in the cloak room at the station so that I could fulfill my nose ring mission. Poor sick Vanessa was dragged all over Junagadh. First the fort and then nose ring shop after nose ring shop until I was satisfied. With time to kill until our evening train and not many options (code: nothing else to do) we went to the zoo. I know I know. The zoo? A sad depressing place at the best of times, I was still excited to see the tigers and the Asiatic lions. In true India fashion, we gathered more attention (and therefore photos) than the animals. Only appropriate to feel like I’m in the zoo at the zoo.

We boarded our train bound for Ahmedabad that evening. Spent another morning cuddling bags on the train platform and boarded our train to Mumbai.

Ah Mumbai. Indias cosmopolitan splash of color. Our opportunity for comfy beds. After 3 months sleeping on the same ridiculously hard bed, I was beyond excited for a change. We spent the first night in luxory. I felt as though I was being hugged by a cloud. A big fluffy cumulous cloud. It was heaven. Oh India, nothing can be simple or straightforward. The hotel with the cloud beds was unavailable for the next two of the three nights we were to stay in Mumbai. So, we spent each day in Mumbai trekking to yet another hotel, with yet another room. It was worth the effort. One night we treated ourselves to luxory with a hotel on Marine Plaza drive. The winning attraction was an infinity pool gazing out over the ocean that had a clear glass floor that allowed the people in the lobby to be entertained by the antics of the swimmers. Vanessa and I provided free entertainment one morning as we played with my underwater camera.

My impression of Mumbai is overrun by hotel moves, but we did manage to eat delicious food, play tourists at Elephanta Island, search for a bikini (more diffıcult than finding a whole food in the average American diet) and run from a stalker. The stalker was by far the most eventful.

I seem to have an uncanny knack for attracting stalkers. Vanessa says its because I am too nice. I think it is because it is difficult to miss the giant glow in the dark freak. Whatever it is, I found myself yet another in Mumbai. We left the Elephanta Island ferry station with our new French Canadienne friend Rachel. We made plans to eat later after Vanessa and I moved our belongings to a new room yet again. An attractive Rajasthani man named Bharat began chatting me up and asked me to coffee. I declined politely but thought he was pretty cute. Cute in the “I am a young Rajastani man and therefore married and unavailable but full of flattery.”

After we met up with Rachel and began combing the Mumbai streets for the restaurant she was determined to find, who do we happen to run into but Bharat and his wingman. I thought it was a crazy coincidence and treated it as such. Bharat was insistent on taking me for icecream (sounds like the 50s). We found our resturant and rather than join us, Bharat said that he would wait outside for me until we finished. In acknowledgement of the coincidence and as a polite way out of joining for icecream, I gave him my email and said goodbye and told him to please not wait. No icecream for me.

As dinner progressed, Rachel began to convince Vanessa and I that Bharat had followed us. That this was all a sinister plot and that who knows what “icecream” really meant. Groups feed hyseteria. By the end of dinner we had convinced ourselves that we were part of a conspiracy. For what, I am still not sure. But being the responsible single girls that we are, we asked the waiter if there was a back door out of the restaurant. Not understanding what we asked, the man at the table behind us explained our situation for us. Looking back I wonder what he told the waiter. “These three are crazy, just humor them.”

We ducked through the restaurant, very covertly like, and were led through the kitchen. No one should be led through an Indian kitchen. Thankfully we had already ate and thankfully it was remarkably clean in comparison. We exited into an abandoned alley and asked the waiter to call us a taxi over. We thanked him and tipped him for aiding in our escape. We slouched down ın the taxi seats as we passed in front of the restuarant and sure enough, there sat Bharat sprawled out on the grass in front of the restaurant. I felt a little bad, but not enough to see where “icecream” led me.

Doing the only sensible thing women escaping a stalker could think of, we had the taxi take us to a pastry shop where we loaded up on truffles which we promptly took back to the suite that Vanessa and I were comped. Thanks for the adventures Mumbai. In the weeks since, Bharat has emailed me without mention of our exit out the backdoor. I dont think it was a conspiracy plot, but it was fun to pretend.

Vanessa and I bid Adieu to Rachel and boarded a 30 hour train to Allepey, Kerala in the south. We splurged yet again and bought 2 AC sleeper tickets. I had never ridden anything but basic sleeper class. We experienced exactly 15 minutes of bliss and then a family with two screaming children, squeeky toys, squeeky shoes, and terrible tempers entered our compartment. I spent the next 28 hours contemplating not very nice things. Mainly including gags and open windows. I wont go into details.

Kerala. Heat. Humidity. Rain. Papers. Painful emails. Amazing boat trip through the backwaters. These are the highlights. The canoe trip through the backwaters was gorgeous. In the end we got caught ın a storm and torrential down pour. Waves threatened to swamp our lıttle canoe (well maybe not swamp, but at least get us wet) the wind picked up, lıghtenıng crackled, and the rain came down ın sheets. We giggled our way back to the guest house soaked to the bone and skipping through puddles. Allepey for me was the first new place of this trip. We stayed in a heritage guest house for four days up until the 19th when we made our way to Chennai to catch our plane to the Andaman Islands.

One last train journey to Chennai and we flew out to the Andaman Islands on Wednesday Aprıl 20th. We spent two days ın Port Blair while I finished my last finals for the semester (procrastinate much?) and emailed family and friends wıth the news that they could expect not to hear from me for the three weeks I was on Havelock Island. Vanessa and I met a new fantastıc friend Joanna from San Fran and we all boarded a ferry bound for Havelock Island on Friday the 22nd. We arrived and I have never felt my body relax and let go as much as I experienced the moment I stood on the white sand beach and gazed out over the turquoıze crystalıne waters.

*Now I come to the new. This is something I do not know how to do. Write about others. I feel free to divulge all of my secrets onto the page, but I do not yet know how to write about new life experiences that involve new people. It is not their fault they wandered into the life of someone who has been sharing hers with others. How do I honor my own experiences, and protect the privacy of people central to my tales? Please forgive my obliqueness or candidness, depending on who you are reading this. 🙂

We stayed at Dive India, not that we had any intention of diving. We fell in love with the energy of the place, the people, the restaurant, and the beach. Essentially the essentials. The three of us shared a tented cabanna and proceeded to commence our fulfıllıngly lazy days playing in the water and reading on the beach.

Durıng our first day on the beach, while playing fetch in the water (literally fetch, we had a stick and everything) a tall dark handsome man waded through the water with a second skin shirt up around his ears and curly dark hair. He imploringly asked (in a lovely Irish lilt)  if one of us would help him to dress. He explained it was because of his broken arm(from an accident that brought him back to Havelock for a little R&R), not a lack of basic motor skills. I being the closest one, helped him pull his shirt down while he introduced himself as Niall from Belfast. Niall from Belfast went on to swim while Vanessa, Joanna and I took a trip to the jetty and the beach on the other side of the island.

The next day, Sunday the 24th was Easter. Again the girls and I find ourselves on the beach. This time Vanessa is in the water, Joanna is reading, and I am building a sand igloo (a giant blob ın actuality; it had dreams of being an Easter egg or a turtle, but the architect ran out of attention). Nıall the Irishman (half Punjabi Indian through his Mom) again joined us on the beach with the endearing lines that he was a racist and needed therapy. (Not necessarily connected). Suffıce to say the comments caught my attention and the conversation blossomed. Into what, I wasnt sure.

We mentioned off hand that we needed chocolate for the holiday and we were going to venture out to find some. We left Niall to his book on the beach and walked to the village. That evening we sat down to dinner and Nıall joined us bearing three bars of chocolate, one for each of us. I was surprised and delighted at the thought. The evening progressed into a thunder and lightening storm.

Thıs is where the obliqueness enters the picture. Maybe at a later time I will go into details, but suffice to say this was the beginning. Niall and I spent the next week together on Havelock.  After leaving the island, he called me at the resort to ask if I wanted to meet him in Turkey. Turkey being my next destination. I said yes.

I spent the last week of my time on Havelock learning how to dive. Niall use to be a dive instructor at Dive India and gifted the opportunity to explore the great blue under to Vanessa and I (Joanna had already left). It was absolutely amazıng. I am now a certified Advanced Open Water diver thanks to his brilliant generosity. Havelock has become a new home. It was difficult to leave. I will be back. It was breathtakingly gorgeous and the most chılled, relaxed three weeks I can ever expect to have. Not to mention the excitement of meeting someone new.

Vanessa left Havelock to fly back to San Fran 4 days before I. I left Havelock and the Andamans wıth a full heart, a little bit of hesitantcy, but a lot of excitement.

I spent my last week in India on my own. I flew from Port Blair to Calcutta where I took an over night AC chair car train to Delhi. I thought I was going to die of discomfort. That was until a lovely Muslım man sitting behind me kicked the guy in the seat next to me out so “the madam can lıe down.” The florescent lights never were turned off and the bollywood phone music began perkily at 4am. Chai a must.

I arrived in Delhi, spent the afternoon in a stupor and stored my giant bag at the train station. I boarded another over night train to Khajuraho to see the Kama Sutra temples for the next two days. The night was hot, dry, and almost unbearable. Open barred blue windows, sand and boulders flying by, and a packed train compartment. People on every available surface. Floor, sharing beds, aisles, and in front of the toılets. I vaulted off the train as soon as I saw a man selling water sometime in the middle of the night. Again thinking I was going to die.

I arrived in Khajuraho with no idea where I was going to stay and the male harrassment at an all time hıgh. I found a quiet tucked away guest house and holed up and slept the morning away. I ventured out ın the afternoon to the onslaught of “very beautiful” “wıll you be my gırlfriend?” “talk to me” *smooch smooch sounds* you name ıt. I have been all over India and nowhere has the harrassment been worse. Motorcycles pulling up next to my bike with “very beautıful” and slobbery kısses sounds. It got old quickly. I ate most meals at a restaurant that at 6pm every evening became the roost of every parrot ın the area. The cacophony of sound was deafening. Green feathers floating down onto the street below.

I wandered the erotic temples wıth giggles and amazement. It is hard to reconcile the differing sides of India sometimes. I never thought I would hear the combination of “here is dancing girls, anal sex, and oh look Ganesha” come out of the mouth of a small distinguished Indian man. I would have rather wandered the temples on my own. There is something intensely personal about witnessing erotic art (including animal participants, horse for sure and I am pretty sure I found an elephant….) that ıs some how diminished by the ramblings of a well intentioned guide.

My fear of being a dirty perv for wanting to see the erotic temples was alleviated by the realization that the majority of the sculptures were dancers. Dancers in poses that I was all to familiar with from Odissi. It was as if the last piece of the puzzle of my trip fell into place.  A very neat poetic closure to an amazing trıp. I wandered the temples in search of more beautiful dancers. See, I came for research.

On my last day I rented a bicycle and rode down the dusty country lanes wıth the sun high over head and the breeze ın my hair. I felt the immense joy of freedom, as though I had escaped from some devious plot to suffocate my spirit. The world expanded in front of me while I pedalled away on my rıdıculously rusty steel frame bıke. I spent a few hours reading Theory of the Unıverse by Stephen Hawking under the shade of a tree in the courtyard of one of the temples. My lıfe is a poetic portrait of beautiful possibilities.

Another overnıght train to Delhı. This time I was rewarded with a cough in the face sometime during the night that I sure enough developed the next day. Thanks India for the parting thoughtfullness. One last day in Delhı. I received a free rickshaw ride from a driver who kept telling me how beautıful I was and then the moment I was getting out of the rıckshaw, one of my haırs flew into his hand and he said this was enough, bıt creepy I know. Multiple doting Punjabi men (seems to be a common theme) in Delhı and then my flıght to Ankara, Turkey was Wednesday May 18th.

Wow. What can I say. Five months in the heartland and my life gets turned upside down. I love India. I love her and I am sad to leave but I know I will be back soon. It never really ıs goodbye.  It is “thank you for the challenges” and “thank you for the new loves and new passions” but never goodbye.

I have spent awkward moments, fulfıllıng moments, terrıfying moments, and joyous moments here. I lose myself, I fınd myself, and I change. I cry, I vent, I laugh, and I smile. Oh how do I smile. I leave here not the person I was, but not really sure who I will now be. This is the beauty of India. The unknown. The hopes, the dreams, the beauty, and the disgust. If you dont leave India being completely, irresistibly shaken up and confused, then you were never really here. This is where the fertility lies. The craziness, the fear, the possibilities. Leaving India I feel exhausted and rejuvinated all in the same confounding watercolor of emotions. I never know what to expect here and I am never let down.

I will leave it here for now. Reflect and dream of the desert and the beaches of Indıa. Of letting go of the old and letting the new flood in.

I am currently in Dalaman, Turkey awaiting a flight to London to see Niall once again. I just spent a phenomenal weekend at a beach resort with him in Antalya,Turkey but this new chapter will have to wait until next time.

Lots of love and blessings.

 


The Madmen Continued….

Friday March 25, 2011

The intermission music has been silenced and a gulf awaiting words to file in and take center stage has begun to expand.

There are times when words, sentences, metaphors, and allegories flow with uninhibited purpose from my fingertips. There are also times when the field of my mind must lie fallow until the next spring of fertility. Aka writer’s block. In short, I’ve been experiencing the latter state recently.

I am also a master of procrastination. With all things, it must come to end sometime, it might as well be now.

My intermittent time has been devoted to 1) dancing 2) attempting to sleep 3) reading 4) attempting to eat things that won’t make me sick 5) writing school papers; in that order.

Now that the Pushkar Odyssey is coming to a close, I am beginning to feel the pressure to tie up lose ends. Beginning first with the case of the Madmen.

It is only appropriate to finish the story of the Madmen with the most recent illustration. The festival of Holi took place on Sunday. Holi is a celebration of the love between Radha and Krishna. There are Odissi dances depicting Radha preparing the colored water and spraying Krishna with a squirt gun. I’m not sure how the Natya Shastra describes the squirt gun in use 2000 years ago….

Here in Pushkar, Holi does not have the sentimental or loving qualities that it embodies in other  (mainly rural) parts of India. It falls on spring equinox and full moon (lunatic anyone?) which cannot be a coincidence. The pent up male adolescent frustrated sexual energy is palpable. Gangs of men young and old alike, stalk the street for unsuspecting foreign women. This is a day when men state “all is ok.” Referring to outright groping, harassment, and molestation of women. No thanks. Vanessa and I watched the mayhem from our balcony. The main event took place in the market square, but overflow streamed into our alleyway. I witnessed women be surrounded by large groups of immature “boys,” have color shoved into their mouths, their clothing being pawed at, sunglasses taken, and general unpleasantness. I already get verbally harassed in the market by obnoxious men, no sense in walking into the jaws of the beast.

Just a bit of contextualization.

Back to the adventure into the desert.

I left off as I flew through the ocher sands on my rented motorcycle. Hair streaming behind like a standard carried by a cavalry soldier charging into battle. Only this battle was with the sun and sands. The day was bit overcast and the temperature bearable. I followed the snaking pavement around mountains and into a valley.

I passed an unassuming road branching off on my right. It was nothing more than a glorified bike path, but it was lined with white and orange km markers, demonstrating that it lead to somewhere worthy of note. For no other reason besides curiosity, I turned off and I began weaving through mustard fields  filled with tall stalks of green topped by yellow flowers. The path continued through small villages with barefoot children playing cricket in the streets.

I came to a point in the road where the pavement ended and what I believed a goat path began through the rocky scruff landscape.

Debating whether to continue on foot and stash my motorcycle or attempt to continue to drive through the sand, a couple of men popped up out of nowhere (which happens often in this country)and gestured down the path saying “Shiva Temple.” When I rented my motorcycle, the man at the shop asked if I was trying to go to the Shiva Temple. I had no idea what he was referring to at the time, but I apparently found it by accident.

Deciding to continue on the motorcycle after being passed on foot by a motorcycle coming up the path with a women riding sidesaddle, I determined the path couldn’t be too difficult. I’ve spent many a summer day riding rough paths to camping or fishing spots on four-wheelers (mostly against my will).

I am in no way familiar with desert landscape, but I was beginning to appreciate the harsh beauty it exudes. A very Kali-like energy. Beautiful and wonderous, thriving against all odds, and prepared to eat you alive if you are not vigilant. There is a passion to the desert that I have never before experienced. Even the barren expanse of rolling sand contains a fervor that is tumultuously held in check.

I followed the flight of large predator birds riding the thermals above my head, the vain displays of peacocks along dried streams, and the elusive erratic zigzag of what I believe were roadrunners. After a conversation with Vanessa the other day and further reflection, I am beginning to believe that my totem animals are birds. I was born on the cusp of an air and earth sign, I feel most comfortable in nature at the top of a mountain or nestled in a tree (demonstrated during rehearsal one day) and I am constantly dreaming of flight. Considering many moments wandering alone outdoors and growing up in Alaska, the only wild animal I have ever come across unsuspecting in the wild was a huge (at least 24″ tall) dark Great Grey owl. He was no further than 10′ from me sitting on the ground. We gazed at one another for a mystical space of time until he launched into the air with a powerful majestic wingspan. The only creatures I witnessed among the cacti and craggy rock outcroppings that day were birds.

I came upon the Shiva temple where I parked my motorcycle in the shade of a tree lining the banks of a small stream. I continued on through the sands on foot. I passed the temple (not of much interest this day) and decided to follow the path as far as it would go. I was joined by three young men, alternating taking turns driving their own motorcycle. The one that spoke the most English informed that they were heading home to their village 3kms away. I thought of all places to go, I might as well wander through a relatively remote village. I had sweater, duppatta, long pants, and kurta on to insure my modesty. I was armed with about 5 Hindi phrases and the ability to count. Sign language is universal.

After 2kms, the talkative guy informed me in broken English that I did not want to come to his village. “It is filled with madmen, no good for you.” This is the first time that someone has not wanted to drag me into their home, feed me, ply me with questions and photos, and promise to become best friends. Not only was it not hospitable, it was a warning. I know enough to heed a warning.

I left the young men and turned off the sandy path and continued along the border of blossoming flower fields. I found a lake surrounded by dried and cracked earth illustrating that in cooler months the pond was demonstrably larger. Hoping to have a moment to eat a snack while perched on a rock, my plan was foiled by a woman emerging from over the crest of a hill carrying gathered sticks like a new mother clutches an infant to her chest. The woman approached me and proceeded to gesture and speak loudly, animatedly, but not unfriendly. All I made out was Pushkar, police, and foreign. Not knowing quite what she was trying to explain, I again I took the hint. As silent and beautiful as the area was, I decided maybe I should move on.

Retracing my steps back down the sandy path along the flower fields, a young woman stepped out from behind her hut and smiled and gestured me in. I paused and on a whim I decided to join her family when “chai” was mentioned with a smile.

I pried off my pink Chacos and entered the dirt floor 10′ by 10′ thatched hut. The family consisted of the robin egg blue clad woman, her equally young husband and their two daughters. One a toddler and one just beginning to walk. The husband prepared chai over a wood fire while I sat upon a burlap sack covering the packed earth. I removed a pack of biscuits (cookies) from my backpack and offered them to my hosts. The husband divided up the biscuits giving one first to me as the guest and then to his daughters and wife. Finally taking one for himself once chai was served. Neither wife nor husband spoke English, but smiled and laughed as their daughters hid behind their mother, afraid of the strange white giant in their midst. The energy was humble, modest, and gentle. Their home consisted of a couple of mats in the back, a small mirror near the door, and apparently a birds nest in the roof. Either that or the small bird that kept gracing us with its presence; flying in over head was helping itself to the readily available twigs found in the walls of the family’s home.

All was going well until what I assume was family that lived near by, came barging into the quiet space. A young boy got hold of my camera and began to document the time, full of photos with mysterious fingers blotting out half of the picture. An obnoxious aggressive older female relative demanded my nose ring, my sweater, my scarf, my jacket, my water bottle, and every other item she found while rummaging through my backpack. The only thing she didn’t want were my feather earrings. She squealed when the wife tossed them in here direction. Each demand I met with “This was from my mother. This was from my good-sister. This is to keep me warm.” It broke my heart to defend my belongings from people who were dirt poor, but I have experienced this many times. Giving a non profit money to send tribal girls to school is more effective than giving a family living without electricity my iPod. The moral dilemma makes me ill every time. I have much and they have nothing in material goods. Each time I am confronted, I politely say “no you cannot have —–.” For no other than my own selfish desire to keep my belonging. I always experience the melancholy that accompanies these exchanges and the futileness of the entire socio-economic structure that manifests these moments.

The young boy in between photo ops, found the samosas I had brought along and began devouring one while my iPod was passed around and I attempted to keep my belongings together. As a distraction from demanding every item I possessed, I showed the assembled pictures of my family and Alaska on my iPhone. (This has happened many times in the last few months. Suffice to say Family, your mugs have been viewed by many Indians and new friends here). Fending off curious hands, I tried to explain that I did not have children or a husband to show pictures of.

As I was gathering my items and stuffing them back into their respective compartments, the obnoxious woman asked if I was hungry. “Sabji?” (vegetables; usually basic curry) and I acquiesced and removed the remaining portion of my pack lunch. A samosa and salad vegetables to offer to my hosts. They procured a tiffin(lunch box container) of sabji and bajra rotis (millet flatbreads). They divided up the remaining samosa amongst everyone and scorned the raw veggies. Indians do not have the same obsession with raw food that people in the West have. The food was simple, basic, and spicy. Rajasthan likes its spice.

After a quiet session of communal munching, I determined it was time to chelo (verb: to go). After a few more photo ops, and a frantic search for my sandals only to find them hanging up on a post that the husband explained was to deter the dogs from carting them off, I said thank you and goodbye.

As I was turning to leave, the wife thrust her youngest daughter at me and said “Pushkar.”

I stared back uncomprehending.

“Take, Puskar” she emphasized with outstretched arms dangling her terrified daughter towards me.

A light bulb flickered on somewhere in between the back of my head and the bit of my stomach. Girls are undesired here. Two daughters is tantamount to a curse. Fathers must provided a young bride with a dowry, pay for a wedding, and lose a farm hand to a future groom and family. After my return to Pushkar that day, I read a newspaper article about a 17 year old girl here in Rajasthan who while walking home from school with a female friend was attacked. Refusing to be raped by two teenage boys, she suffered being bound with rope as her attackers procured an ax and hacked away at her hands, nose, and ears as payment for her resistance. Atrocities such as this are a manifestation of deeply ingrained inequalities between sexes promoted by a dominating patriarchal society. Although mother deities are revered all over India, there are horrific cases of female mutilation, infanticide, and abuse. As horrible as this is, India is not alone in its ineffectual protection of womens’ reproductive rights. A look at rape statistics in the US doesn’t reflect the actual realities. Candid talks with female relatives, friends, and loved ones will reveal a much more sinister portrait of female abuse at the hands of domestic partners as well as strangers.

My heart cinched in a vise grip realizing this family wanted me to take their youngest daughter, guaranteeing a better life for her and them in their eyes. Innocently, I hoped that there was a misunderstanding, but I did not think that a day trip on a motorcycle with a foreign woman was what they had in mind.

Terrified and confronted by realities I have witnessed and read about but not so intimately familiar, I fled. I left past the bleating goats and dancing fields of flowers. My mind and heart heavy under the brilliant blue sky.

I returned to my motorcycle and turned to face the road I arrived on. Cruising along the broken path, past partial pavement, partial sand stretches, I arrived at a section blocked by road construction. I sat on my bike, turned off the engine and prepared to wait. A couple of girls in Rajasthani dresses were hauling gravel from a pile next to a tractor by scooping up the gravel in a large bowl, both helping one girl place the bowl on her head, carry it to the tractor and dump it in. All while a lazy man sat in front of the wheel sucking on paan and lounging. In between scooping up gravel, while I was trying to determine if their was an alternate route, one of the girls came up to me laughing and poking at me. It was neither friendly nor particularly humorous. After demands, I willingly gave her her a tomato that had been given to me by the family I left. By the time she started cackling and pelting small bits of gravel at me I was a little less ready to sit and wait an indeterminate amount of time for the construction to end.

At that moment a man on a motorcycle passed me and drove through the center of the construction. Taking my cue I followed. As I was trying to ascend a small pile of gravel next to another tractor, I was surrounded by a group of women consisting of the construction workers. One woman stepped in front of my bike, slapped me on the shoulder and stuck her hand in my face to shake. I looked at her aghast and exasperated and said “I’m not shaking your hand, you just slapped me.” As she looked like she was about to do it again and other women were beginning to pull at my clothes and hair, I gunned it and left the construction site in the dust.

Winding back through the small villages that were mostly deserted in the afternoon sun, I came upon a 15-20 year old boy. I could see him standing in the middle of the road corralling me to one side. I slowed down as he continued to push me to the side for fear I would either hit him or ride off the road if he moved too fast. Mistake.

As I passed him, he hauled off and slapped me, hard across the left shoulder (same as the construction woman) and upper back. A black rage rose up my spine as I slammed on the breaks, turned off the bike and put out the kick stand in record time. I ran back to the guy in question now joined by a friend who had witnessed the episode, staring dumbly in my direction.

I stood up in his face and yelled “Noooooooo!” (I can’t seem to formulate words when my blood is running fury, I apparently can’t curse either). “No good! What were you thinking???! Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m on a motorcycle?!” My volume escalating and my gestures becoming more erratic. I could have been a mime performing a particularly animated exchange full of face paint. Instead I was in the middle of a street, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of India.

At this point, his quick thinking friend inserted himself between us and apologized on the account of the jackass. I could read the sincere apology in his eyes, but the face of perpetrator in question never registered remorse. I was something inhuman to him. Something that did not adhere to the worldly rules of pain and feelings. I guess I should be flattered by my apparent immortality, but I was pissed and dangerously close to knocking the guy in the face or maybe a kick to the balls,( I’m not above that). It took every bone in my body to practice nonviolence. In my less becoming moments I realize how close I was to getting into a tussle with an immature, teenage, Indian boy.

With barely contained rage, I turned and walked back to my bike. I started the engine and continued on my way, ever vigilant for rocks thrown in my direction and wary of people close to the side of the road.

The return trip was not nearly as enjoyable as the beginning of the afternoon for obvious reasons. Breathing easier and enjoying myself again, I entered Pushkar and skirted the market to return the motorcycle. The men I passed in town all smiled and yelled “Very nice!” in my direction as I cruised along. It was a small vindication to be acknowledged as a woman on a bike.

I pulled up to the shop with a goofy grin as I parked. I bounded up the steps with my arms outstretched confirming I had returned unscathed (maybe not emotionally, but from road rash). Reaffirming to myself and the lazy group of men still lounging in lawn chairs, my success. The man in charge smiled along with me.

Leaving the bus stand area with a proud gait knowing I can ride a bike in a foreign country, on the left side of the road, in utter mayhem (without a horn), and knowing  women here only ride side saddle. If receiving a few smacks is what I get for blowing a few minds and perceptions, so be it. It was worth it.

This ends the day in the desert. Yet not the story of the madmen.

Later that same week, after dinner at one of the restaurants in town and with Vanessa’s assurance, one of the guys working showed us music videos that he had starred in. Suffice to say they were hilarious. The dancing was crazy and the stories in the songs humorous. I don’t think Mickey appreciated my giggles that I attempted to hide in coughs. As we were making our exit, Mickey asked me if I was interested in being in one. I looked at him queerly not really comprehending. “I maybe filming one in Jaipur next month. Would you be interested in being in one?” Not at all serious I said sure while imagining myself in the midst of an absurd staged Indian music video and laughing under my breath. My mistake was soon realized. “I bet you would look very beautiful dressed as an Indian woman. I will contact you when I learn when I am filming.”

Knowing that none of this was going to happen, I smiled and Vanessa and I left the restaurant.

On Valentine’s Day, Vanessa presented me with Cadbury chocolate that she had promised to give to me from Mickey. Apparently he had flagged her down in the street and demanded that she give me my Valentine’s present because I had not walked by. It felt a bit like middle school.

A few days later Mickey’s brother flags me down before rehearsal to tell me that Mickey needs to speak with me. He needs to send my picture to his agent in Mumbai for the music video. Ha. I’m not falling for that one. I pretended ignorance and continued on.

A few days after that, Mickey showed up outside of the temple demanding to know why I had not come to see him. While imploring me to have dinner with him, he told me he had a present for me. Alarm bells. I politely told him no, I was not interested. He told me he had been watching me rehearse at night in the temple from a rooftop restaurant. I had a full fledged stalker. I escaped and made my way home.

The next few days, fellow dancers who ate at the restaurant would send me messages that Mickey wanted to see me. I avoided that area of the market unless I was with a friend for the next couple of weeks. I was really bummed about not being able to go back to the restaurant. They had a really great sandwitch.

Thankfully it tapered off from there. Mickey hasn’t been around. Ironically, it may be because he’s filming the music video he had mentioned. Suffice to say it’s a grateful respite from the unwanted attention.

Here is the throwing babies bit.

At about the same time, in the alleyway on the way to my guest house, there is a shop run by a family with a young son. The father has taken it upon himself to insure his son’s future success by physically tossing the son in my direction every time I walk by. Sometimes I try to stealthily make my way home, only to find the father staking out the alleyway waiting for me to come through. I’ve taken to walking fast and waving with real and imaginary excuses explaining my rush. I hear “Kenni didi(sister)!” multiple times a day. Thankfully, the son, who is more interested in my water bottle than myself is not always around.

Then there are the various men catcalling in the market. The odd whispered “beautiful” or “sexy” or “Shakira” or “very nice” as I walk through fully covered, head to toe and usually dripping with sweat between classes. No makeup and frazzled.The chai man who thinks we are buddies and attempts to drape his arm around my 5″ taller shoulders. The odd, the crazy, the perplexing daily interactions.

There are also beautiful, kind souls. But they usually do not make for humorous, exciting story fodder.

Oh India. How I love thee and how I despise thee. Mostly love. This is what will keep bringing me back. Keep allowing me to be smothered in her over eager bosom of friendliness and hospitality. Squeezing my cherubic cheeks and trying my patience.

One man who most definitely does not fall into the madmen category is my Guruji. It is a tragedy that Shawna and Melea were not able to experience his beautiful spirit. Guruji is brilliant, compassionate, sincere, honorable, funny, and gentle. I have fallen even more in love with Odissi (I did not think it possible) through the devotion in his eyes. Odissi is not just a beautiful art form for him. It is a lifestyle. “A dancer must live classical. Be strong of mind, character, and body. To do good work.”

He’s the real deal. His generosity as a teacher outweighs all of the madness that Pushkar has to offer.

I can handle a little bit of madness in return for the wealth of knowledge imparted by Guruji. Only next time, I’ll be going to the village in Orissa to study. Suspend the madness and enjoy the simple life of garden growing, cow tending, house building, and dancing. Living the classical life.

That’s all for now folks. I know it’s plenty.

Tune in soon for news from cooler sands. Ocean breezes and general relaxing decadence. Or better yet, don’t hold your breath. Everything I’ve read about the Andaman Islands states that the travelers venturing into its pristine beauty become afflicted with a strange desire to do nothing. Writing may prove to be too tiresome with this new affliction. No worries though, I now have a ticket for Turkey in my hot little hands. Or email account. More adventures are guaranteed. I tend to attract odd occurrences.

Ok, ok. Enough of the drivel. Now I let you go on with the rest of your day.

Salutations to the moon. Patron of the loonies and the romantics. Take your pick.

 

 


Poet of Movement

March 3rd, 2011 Pushkar

Intermission music still plays on an unattended gramophone. Pretty soon the needle will run out of record and the silence will signal the eminent return to the story of the Madmen.

~

There are moments in life when the veil thins enough for the conscious mind to perceive the human folly of believing in time. We use axioms such as “time flies,” “I never have enough time,” “where has the time gone?” We allow time to rule our lives. We box ourselves into constraints of time. Micromanaging moments. Watching the sand fall through the hourglass. Hoping to capture the magic and mystery of time. It’s when we turn our back on time, when we deprive it of the power of acknowledgment that we surpass its wantonness and flaky nature. Time will never give you the time of day if you wait for it.

Standing on the dimly deepak (oil candle) lit stage, smelling the perfume of incense and rose petals safely clasped in my hands, gazing at the garland statue of Nataraja presiding over the performance, I turned my back on time. In what mystics from time immemorial describe with inadequate words as transcendental experience or divine communion, whatever you choose for semantics, I watched as the veil was parted before my eyes. Instead of being transported to another place, I was blessed with the awareness of being fully and completely grounded. As the sitar strung a mala of notes through the inner reaches of my ear where I felt the blood pulsing in adrenaline, I experienced a timeless boundless space (not moment, which is an increment of time) where the colors crystallized before me. The vivid white and royal purple purses of delicate petals ringing Nataraja’s neck, the blood red tips of my alta stained fingers raised above my head in offering, the orbs of fertile green fruit hanging suspended in the tree above me. The world as it is. This is why I choose to dance. These are the spaces that feed my soul. This is where one becomes a poet of movement.

After what felt like an eternity of knowing, but realistically resided in the space between two drum beats, I was once again slowly pivoting forward under the branches of the tree I had climbed in childhood abandon the day before during rehearsal. Prepared to face the hundreds of audience members with a secret serene smile gracing my lips. Hours, days, weeks, months had prepared me for this moment. Had taught my feet the steps, my legs the power, my arms the grace, but my smile was all my own. Acacia told me I looked like the Cheshire cat when I smiled. I liked that. I liked the mystery and allure of having a smile just out of reach.

The dance itself was just the same as we had been rehearsing for what seemed like lifetimes. The stage was gorgeously bejeweled in flowers and bright tikka powdered designs. Jaganath looked on from an auspicious corner. My costume was constricting, in a way that brought memories of childhood clothing tantrums just thinking about having to unpin everything when eventually my bladder would realize its neglect. The hours painting (literally painting; with a paint brush) on our performance faces, restraining hair into a dignified graceful bun, pinning into place pleats and errant bits of fabric, only to be told the police were trying to shut down the performance as we hurriedly finished applying alta (red paint) to fingertips and toes.

None of it mattered once we began dancing. Rotating around each other (19 of us) like celestial beings with delicately orchestrated orbits. Remembering the steps, listening for nonexistent cues, keeping feet apart so as not to accidentally get stuck by connecting gungaroo together (I did in rehearsal…). It all miraculously came together. The choreography was created for us in the midst of the week before. We learned it as our teachers created it. We had a total of two days of full un-choreographed rehearsal. There must be something divine about this dance. I cannot imagine this being pulled off in any other dance or on any other stage.

We ended the dance in a pose of supplication. Head down, hands in anjali mudra on the floor. As the lights went down we raised our open hands in a gesture of benevolence with eyes upward. As the sitar’s notes quietly exited stage right like lightning bugs dancing on the breeze, I could hear the breath in my chest attempting to catch up with the rest of my body. Although the lights were dark, I felt like I could light the stage with the lunar glow of my exhilarated, ecstatic, happy face. The face that my teacher Sudansuji looked for before the performance. “Kenni! Kenni! Where is Kenni?” I replied “I’m right here,” with the smile I knew he was searching for. The one that on many occasions inspired him to squeeze my cheeks. The grin that has a mind of its own. The one that scrunches up my cheeks to heights that make it hard to see past. The one that is the truest reflection of the happiness in my heart.

We exited the stage to modest applause and sat in our reserved seats in the front to watch the rest of the show. The items danced by our teachers, the professionals from Orissa, and the last dance drama with all of the above plus Vanessa and Melea specially chosen in supporting roles. The show was beautiful, mesmerizing, and powerful. I was continually moved by the music played by the best of the best Odissi Classical musicians, the expressions of the dancers, and the collective dream that each component came together to weave.

As the show ended and we made our way back to the school to attempt to unpin and escape from the constraints of the beautiful yet clingy costume like an insecure lover afraid to let you our of its sight, I found myself skipping along in the dark with a fellow dancer Whinney. We held our rose and marigold bouquets as we skipped, jumped, and danced a jig of joy on the way back to school. A temple man whistled and giggled along with us in our excitement.

Because it is how the world works, it took no time at all to get undressed and back into street clothes. Gungaroo and temple hair pieces safely stowed under arms as we carried our sacred objects of dance back to our respective rooms. The evening concluded with a dal bhati dinner for the dancers, musicians, photographers, and videographers at Sai Baba (the guest house where I live. I know, very convenient).

I fell into bed the latest I have in months, 1:30am, riding the relief of knowing the performance was done and the bittersweet knowledge that it meant Melea was leaving the next day. After a somewhat restful night’s sleep, in celebration of the end of our grueling schedule, Melea, Vanessa, Thomas, Acacia, and I had breakfast. Vanessa and I shared a Nutella and Mars bar pancake (!) and we said our emotional goodbyes to both teachers Nirodji and Sudasuji (our Guruji is teaching this month solo) as well as the Roeds. Sudansuji squeezed my hand, told me I was a very special beautiful person that he would never forget and Nirodji said “our bodies are leaving, but our souls are staying behind.” I was gifted with a miniature Jaganath statue that emerged from an entire suitcase of Jaganaths, that now rests on a shelf in the room I no longer share with Melea, but a new friend Vanessa.

My goodbyes to Melea, Thomas, and Acacia were thankfully not full of tears, but it was a close call on my part. I am eternally grateful for the time I have been able to share with first Melea and Shawna, then only Melea. I will always cherish this time together. The whirlwind exit by the Roeds also marks my last contact with home for a long while. Unless of course you come to see me in Turkey Mom. Or Dad, I will learn Slovak just for you if you come roam the countryside of your grandparents with me. No matter what, I am always surrounded by the love of friends and memories of home. I am excited to continue this journey as the tortoise. Always carrying my home on my back. Sufficient unto myself.

Speaking of turtles and the tropical places they live, *cough, cough* Vanessa and I just booked plane tickets to the Andaman Islands for three weeks! We do not leave until next month, after the end of our Odissi training, but it will be a perfectly timed celebration of our 3 month dedication to Odissi. Beach, surf, sun, and what I hear is some of the most pristine island beauty in the world. I bounce in my seat a little just thinking about it. I suspect I will be even more excited once I fly into Port Blair. My total beach time past the age of 4 consists of one 5 day stretch in Thailand 3 years ago. I was starting to get jealous of all of my little brother’s photos of the Bay Islands. Hopefully I can turn a not quite so glow in the dark shaded of pale while I’m there. The pale that causes babies to spontaneously be thrown in my direction here in India. More about that with the Madmen story.

This month it’s back to the grindstone. No performance, just good old dancing. I am excited. I am also excited to begin what feels like a new chapter, or maybe paragraph in this story. Dancing for the sake of dancing. Training everyday to become a poet of movement. The only way one becomes better at dancing is to dance. The only way one becomes better at writing is to write (even with the vestiges of red paint staining my fingernails). I desire to let my dancing be poetry and the sentences typed by my fingers to dance in abandon across the page. I don’t think it’s really so much to ask from life. A little beauty. A little slice of magic.

 


My Invisible Husband

Sunday Feb 27, 2011 1:20am

Intermission music still quietly and unobtrusively plays in the background of the story of the Mountains, Motorcycles, and Madmen. I will return to that story soon.

I must take this moment instead to share profound (to me) insights.

On the eve of my first symbolic “marriage” ceremonial dance to Jaganath and after having finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed,” I desire to share the precipice I find myself perched upon. A perch where much contemplation has taken place. Much contemplation about the nature of sacrifice and union.

This morning, bright and early after another exhausting day of rehearsal, I participated in a ceremony that brought the reality of my choices and my sacrifices tumbling to the floor at my feet. Quite literally.

This auspicious day began with our Guruji ceremonially tying on our gungaroo (ankle bells). We stood above and before him as he sat in front of our altar to Jaganath, freshly doused with lovely garlands of flowers and festoons of fruit. The gesture of having an accomplished and celebrated Guru of Odissi sitting at my feet (which were thankfully newly scrubbed and oiled) was both humbling and reflective. I experienced the world slow and time pause as I gazed deep into the reflecting pool of my own soul. Tears came flooding to my eyes as I stood in my best sari finally grasping that I was here.

After the pain, the separations, the frustrations, the worries, the miracles, the stress, the moments of hopelessness, the tears, and the sheer force of will it took to get here. To this moment, to this ritual, this communal acknowledgment of commitment, my symbolic marriage to Lord Jaganath. My gungaroos acting as the marriage bands encapsulating my ankles. Reminding me of the sacrifices I have made and those that my dear loved ones have made on my behalf for me to be here.

The moment I tie on my gungaroos and walk on stage, I enter into this sacred union. This vow of commitment. Not just the commitment of dance for the pleasure of my godly “husband,” but a recognition of my commitment and devotion to myself. As one worthy of exposing her heart on a stage full of love, full of tenderness. Secure in the knowledge that I am dancing a private dance. An intimate dance for my Beloved. My Beloved spirit, witnessed by hundreds of audience members.

I did not come here searching for love, but I found it. I found it in devotion. I found it in being able to trust so completely again. Trust in something eternal. Something that cannot be betrayed. My feet against the Earth and my eyes to the sky. Love for my movement within space. Love for my dance.

I am free. Unfettered by the sacrifices that the women in my family have made for me to be here. Often sacrifices manifested in very real marriages. I will dace this devotional dance as a prayer and a thank you to the three women who have inspired me from the beginning to follow my heart and follow my feet. The women who have shaped the woman I strive to become. The women who may not have chosen to come to India to dance in a temple to an invisible “husband,” who most likely do not understand why I have, but who nonetheless lend me their love, support, and enthusiasm at the opportunities I never seize to reach for.

My Mother, my Mother’s Mother, and my Father’s Mother.

It feels momentous to acknowledge your sacrifice on the eve of my symbolic marriage. Sacrifices as amazingly strong women, mothers, and individuals. You have provided me with the examples of how fearless women stride through life with grace and heads held high. Arms always open and minds of their own. (Much to my Father’s exasperation I might add).

I close my eyes against the tears that threaten to escape as Guruji finished looping the woven bells around my ankles. Giving a last cinching knot and a pat to his satisfaction. I bowed my head and touched the floor at his feet to seal and acknowledge the gift I had been given. This gift that had been set into motion years before. Bequeathed to me through choice and the confidence to know that I could be here. Here in this moment. Here in India. Here in my journey as a young woman with love in her heart, devotion in her blood, and all manner of fanciful ideas in her head. These three women are the ones I dedicate this performance to in humble acknowledgment of what you have each given me. You have given me hope. Hope and a practical will to make my dreams come true.

Thank you Momma, Grandma Judi, and Grandma Mary.

As I stepped onto the stage to rehearse for the fist time with my gungaroos, my heart soared. My dance was infused with love for the intimacy of my devotion to my Beloved. It was the soothing, regenerative balm my heart needed. To fill in the scars and sadness I have carried for far too long.

The moment I untie my gungaroo, remove my physical representation of marriage like the beautifully forgotten Devadassis before me. I step out into the bustling market, the world, as an independent woman. A woman taught well to hold her head high and take life as it comes. A woman both vulnerable and steadfast. A woman who fervently hopes to be worthy of dancing in a sacred union. Worthy, because I understand the nature of sacrifice.

I will part with words of wisdom from an antique shop man named Krishna. (My life is full of beautiful Krishnas this journey. Krishna the chai man in Bundi, Krishna the Hindi teaching godfather outside the temple, of course Jaganath (Jaganath and Krishna are both avatars of Vishnu) and the temple for Krishna I dance within).

“For anything of worth in life, you must sacrifice. Sacrifice your time, your sleep, your money, your body. If you are willing to sacrifice it all, you will gain it back tenfold.”

How right you are my friend.


Mountains, Motorcycles, and Madmen

Pushkar Feb. 16, 2011

Mountains:

Both the literal and the emotional. You would think the name would be obvious, but let’s face it. I grew up in Alaska. These are not mountains. More like glorified hills. Imagine climbing the Butte with steps. Mountain just sounds so much more majestic than hill.

Motorcycles:

The kind with a clutch and gears. No sissy moped for me.

Madmen:

The crazy kind, the angry kind, even the women kind. But we’ll get to that.

“I take the universal and make it personal. The only truly magical and poetic exchanges that occur in this life occur between two people. Sometimes it doesn’t get that far. Often, the true glory of existence is confined to individual consciousness. That’s okay. Let us live for the beauty of our own reality.” Tom Robbins, “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”

Reality is a pretty plastic thing. Perception, insights, emotions, reactions, decisions, and intuition all create facets of reality. Or a reality unto themselves. My reality has been constantly morphing. I naturally grasp at the universal and make it personal. It is all well and good to make sweeping generalizations of humanity’s experience of reality, but sometimes we need the gritty, dirty reality of one person’s experience. Who else can I expect to do that?  Knowing this, here I am. Airing all the nitty, gritty, craziness of reality. I would like to peel away the slippery slopes of my own experiences and share as a way of personal reflection, what the f*** happens here. (I’m not one for swear words….mostly. Sometimes there are no other appropriate words that express quite what the notorious f word seems to).

To begin.

Dancing Odissi has been feeding my heart and soul beyond anything I could imagine. Providing the sweetness of devotion and the heartiness of true nourishment.

Yet, I still have moments when the fluttering in my stomach requires something a little more on the edge. A little more raw. A little more expansive. A jolting change of perception. Like climbing something tall, a mountain perhaps. Giving my eyes an expansive horizon to contemplate. Or renting a motorcycle for the day and flying through the ocher desert sands into a hidden oasis.

To Continue.

Sundays. Oh beloved Sundays. The first or the last day of the week depending on your persuasion. For me, it stands outside of the bounds of time. It is the wild card day of the week. The one day off from class (unless you count volunteer practice). The day that I spend doing laundry, puja, and celebrating my sore body. Mainly reading. As you can see, I’m on a Tom Robbins kick. Often, I come up for air from a thoroughly stimulating page filled with philosophy that obligingly leaps off of the page and into my pocket. I sit up with a *sigh* and “Oh Tom Robbins” with a Cheshire cat grin on my lips, recognizing that I played right into his hand. “You sly devil, you.”

It began on a Sunday. Sunday February 6th to be exact. You wonder what “it” is. The Adventure of course.

The day commenced like any other Sunday. I woke up way to early for a day off (7am) and decided to vent some frustrated energy by climbing the tallest “mountain” temple in the area. I left my room at 7:45am and by 8:45am I was at the top. I climbed the steps in contemplation. The sun was burning off the fog blanketing the rose fields each time I stopped to face the bowl that cradles Pushkar. By the time I reached the top, past wrestling baby monkeys and the “hellos” of the few other similarly possessed foreigners up early on a Sunday for a climb, I was settled in mind.

In place of my weekly trip to the Jaganath Ghat at the lake to make flower puja, I spent a moment in front of the temple shrine to Mataa (Mother deity). I turned off my iPod tunes and pulled out my now well worn “Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior” by Chogyam Trungpa. I randomly opened the beloved pages and read a section on Nowness. A way of merging ancestry and future into the present moment. Exactly what I am attempting to do in this journey. The elegantly jumbled mix of understanding where one comes from and where one is going, in order to understand where one is Now.

I gazed out over Pushkar. My temporary home. Quiet from this distance. No blaring distorted wedding music. My eyes alighted upon the road that led me to the base of the mountain. I realized that it kept winding along the mountainside and through a narrow valley only to disappear behind the next mountain. The road looked essentially deserted following a dried irrigation canal.

My mind sparked. Like the necessary function of a spark plug, allowing a flood of possibilities course through my blood stream.

My pulse quickened with the thought “What if I rented a motorcycle and followed the road into the distance?” (Not so much words but images and emotions flitted across my mind’s eye). A slow smile spread across my face.

I bounded down the steps of the mountain with enough of a bounce that Indian pilgrims beginning the ascent of their own puja, stopped me with grins and “Aap bay houng? Mataa balo.” (You are good? The Mother is good). It was infectious for the elderly women climbing barefoot and stooped. I was grateful to lift their gazes from their feet if only because an odd white woman was cheerfully humming and skipping down the mountain.

When I reached my room and chores called, I decided that I would save the motorcycle adventure for my next Sunday off.

Instead, I awoke on Monday morning after intense unnerving dreams and told Melea I wasn’t emotionally up for class. She asked what I would do instead. A smile started to crawl across my cheeks as I gazed at the mountain temple easily seen from our veranda. I pointed and said “I think I’m going to rent a motorcycle and ride the road behind that mountain for the sake of curiosity to see where it leads.” (I probably didn’t say it quite that eloquently in the moment, but it’s my story to tell).

I undressed from my class clothes, put on something more comfortable yet modest, donned my sunglasses and packed a lunch. I strode down to the dusty bus stand that reminds me of a Western ghost town. Instead of tumbleweeds, biscuit wrappers roll across the path. I walked up to one of the rental shops and stated that I would like to rent a motorcycle.

The lawn chair sprawled group of men stared at me until one finally asked “A moped?”

“No. A motorcycle. One with gears and a clutch” as I mimed shifting with a clutch.

They stared at me as if I grew another head. “You mean a moped.”

“Nooooo. A motorcycle.” I responded with a cheerful grin.

Another man, taking it upon himself to humor me, lead me to a row of motorcycles and asked which I wanted. After test driving a couple I settled on an automatic start, 4 stroke, 99cc. A baby motorcycle, but a motorcycle nonetheless.

I left the shop with the assurance I had enough petrol to ride 40kms.  After an initially wobbly start, and brief “I hope I don’t make a fool of myself,” I left the curious stares of the men behind.

I set out in the general direction of the mountain until I found the road.  I avoided the craziness of the market and instead, chose a more circuitous route through a small village. When I reached the pavement, I cautiously merged onto the road without a single vehicle in sight. I started to open up the throttle and soon enough I was flying along the black weaving path cutting through the rotund shaped pumpkin colored landscape. Once I settled into the realization that I had the road to myself, no honking, no avoiding cows or people, my entire body smiled, expanded, and I let out a full bellied mischievous giggle. Hearty, light, secret, and eternal all at once.

The wind caught my hair and lifted the unbound mass off my back. My feather earrings entwined with my tresses (which after consulting recent photos, is starting to turn reddish!?) and caressed the skin behind my ears. My “designer” Indian sunglasses protected my blue eyes and abnormally large pupils from the blazing desert sun. I was thrilled by the vehicle of freedom I straddled. It was a moment only witnessed by the elements and the earth. And a couple of water buffalo.

Intermission.

This is decidedly not the end of the Adventure, we’ve yet to reach the Madmen. I feel that I must divide up the writing. There is a lot to share in the next chapter.

Oh. And before I leave the metaphor of the Mountain behind, today I overcame a mountain of fear. The only fear I claim. Not spiders or threatening monkeys, I deal with those without a blink of the eye (sometimes with a squeegee).

Singing. Ahhh. I cringe at the mention of the word. Or I usually do. Today I experienced my first singing class. The first in my entire life. I did not do chorus as a kid. I was not an angelic voiced choir girl. I used my voice to deafen people on the basketball court. I am more than willing to get up in front of thousands of people and give a speech on any random topic off the cuff, but to sing in front of one person makes the marrow in my bones run cold.

One of my teachers held a Classical Indian singing class today. Perhaps because Odissi has given me a new found confidence in my self as a whole being, I decided to show up. Lo and behold I was the only one. Great. Worse nightmare confirmed.

I expressed my fear to my teacher and with great compassion we started with matching notes on the harmonium. After the first few minutes he stopped playing, I opened my eyes to find him smiling with his hand out to shake. As I grasped his hand in bewilderment, he said “You’ve found the soul.” I am not sure if this is a lost in translation moment, “soul” being something else entirely, but it was exactly how I felt. I trusted him and I trusted myself with knowing that I could find the notes.

A couple of more students showed up and I continued to experience the most intense happiness and relief. I am not tone deaf. I’m no longer afraid.

Up one mountain, around another, and blasted through a third. A pretty productive week.

Next installment soon to come.

Ram ram


A Day In the Life

February 6th 2011 Pushkar, India

A Day in the Life….of a [dancer] would be the most sensible insert. The following could also be substituted: [tender heart, solo woman, Beloved Nomad]

Everyday could be a complete novel unto itself, but I’ll start with a slice of moments from my life.

7:00am

I awake each day before my alarm clock blares its startling rooster accuracy at 7:16am. I drift out of mostly restless dream filled sleep as the murky light begins to seep in through my colored glass windows. This may surprise some. I have never been known as a “morning person.” It is difficult to stay in bed any longer when you have fallen into it completely exhausted at 9:30pm at the latest the night before.

Enterprising Melea discovered a curd (dai) and milk (dud) shop in the market. We take turns going to retrieve breakfast through the sleepy misty streets of Indian Pushkar. The Pushkar devoid of market hassle and friendly conversations filled with ulterior motives like the Cambodian countryside is rife with landmines.

On my day to venture out, I climb out of my scratchy warm blankets and stumble to the bathroom on sore feet and tweaky knees. Splash water on my face and routinely insert my toothbrush into my desert dry mouth. I don my churidars (leggings worn under a dance sari) and blouse (actually half a blouse also worn under a sari). I pull my hair back put on a long kurta and hoody, wind a scarf around my head, and slip on my dusty sandals. On Melea’s day, I sit for 20mins on the top of my blankets, contemplating the black and white checkered floor of our room while trying to focus on my breath as wisps of the night’s dreams filter through my mind.

I’m greeted by the crisp air and unusual quiet of morning. Sleepy Pushkar is just awakening. I relish in taking part in this morning ritual. I walk the 7 or so mins to the shop, greet the friendly owners with a “Namasteji” a smile and head nod. Some mornings Kisan the orange turbaned milk man arrives at the same time with his fresh milk in copper pots tied to either side of his motorbike. Govinda, also an orange turbaned village man sits to the side of the fire with a newspaper. They invite me to sit on a clean sheet of newspaper with “tola” (small) chai as they ask out of habit “ardha kilo dai and ardha kilo dud?” (1/2 kilo curd and 1/2 kilo milk?) I nod my head with a “ha” yes. I watch a batch of puppies cuddle in a mass of fur near a fire while a bent over street sweeping lady makes her rounds be-speckled with heavy silver clinking anklets. I finish my chai, toss the cup in the gutter, pay for my curd and milk, depart with a ” Donyavad (thank you) Ram, Ram” and of course, smile.

When I return to the room, I,  Melea (and Shawna when her lovely self was here) prepare our morning fruit and curd breakfasts. My fruit selection varies from day to day. Sometimes pineapple, sometimes apples, sometimes guava, oranges, pomegranate, and almost always chikoos. That innocuous small round brown fruit. Melea turned me onto them and it has been love ever since. A taste of dates with the consistency of a perfect kiwi.

I prepare my breakfast of champions and then turn to my sari. My beloved 6 meter long purple piece of rose smelling fabric. Capable of being mistaken for a very long bed sheet or the inspiration for lovely curtains. Hard to fathom a respectable, artistic, beautiful piece of clothing at first sight. *Sigh* On a good day, I approach my sari with excitement. As if by donning it I enter into a secret society where all the members are brilliantly beautiful women with long jet black hair and almond shaped eyes. On a not so good day, I feel like a frumpy pale giant. There is an art to wearing a sari. The first time I folded the soft pleats against my belly, I felt palpitations in my heart space and a sudden “Oh!” of recognition. This was the first day that I grasped the understanding of basic body movement mechanics in Stepping class. It was as if the sari bequeathed me with fundamental secrets of Odissi.

I sit perched on the plaster bench outside our room contemplating the day ahead while I try not to dribble curd or honey onto my dark purple covered self. I surreptitiously watch the grandmother across the street on the neighboring rooftop hang her newly laundered saris up to dry. They take up most of the clothesline space as well as the surrounding low walls. She looks peaceful. Up on the roof on her own. Slowly shuffling in cheap blue plastic chappals (sandals) across the cement to the sounds of chirping birds and the sudden flight of pigeons. I imagine it is the only alone time she has during the day. I wonder what she thinks. Is she worried about the day? About her daughter-in-laws or her grandchildren? What will the family meal for the day be? Maybe she has finally reached the age where these are no longer her concerns. She still wears her bangles on her wrinkled forearms and tikka powder in her greying hair. She retains the status of a respectable married woman.

Meanwhile, Melea heats milk up in our improvised kitchen for her first dose of the day’s caffeine requirement. We jointly bought an electric kettle after Shawna and I anxiously and with morbid curiosity witnessed Melea heat milk with a hand held coil that sparked in the socket and melted the cords right off into the milk. We verbalized our hope that she would not electrocute herself (not that we really thought she would….) The tea kettle was a better choice. It has its own character and disposition like every other inanimate object here in India. The only two electrical sockets in the room are inconveniently located almost on the ceiling in the bathroom or above the foot of my bed next to the door. My bed is the obvious choice. The cord of course is not long enough, so we set up a pink plastic bucket upside down on my bed (where my nice blanket has been removed to the head of the bed) with the kettle on top. The plug is wrapped in electrical tape and we have to loop the cord around a few stubby burnt incense sticks above the socket to perfectly maneuver the plug where the orange light blinks on. On a good day there is no spilling and the milk doesn’t bubble over. Lately Ling Shien has been joining us in the morning with a bag of Kerala Coffee grounds. She and Melea make “cowboy” coffee with honey and sometimes white sugar, in glasses snagged from the kitchen or Melea’s improvised java bowl complete with scarf cozy.

8:55 am

“Chelo, class time.” I call to Melea as the time keeper. Vanessa makes her way over some mornings and we lock the door and walk the three flights of stairs down to the street. “Namaste. Good Morning.” Echos against the marble as we greet Fatouh the guest house owner in his lungi and Super Ganesha shirt, the guest house “boys” who have nicknamed me Aloo Paratha for some strange reason after the second time I ordered it, and Mark Bell enjoying toast near the smokeless fire pit.

8:59am

We arrive at school after a walk through the outer temple (ironically we are not allowed inside the inner temple because we are not Indian, although we are performing an act of puja for the temple everyday in our dance) and up a flight up steps to the green double doors. Most mornings Sudansuji is performing morning puja with incense and kirtan before our offerings to Jaganath, Saraswati, Shiva, and Durga. We deposit our belongings in the inner room, readjust any errant clothing, take a quick sip of water, and position our selves in a semi circle around the altar. We sing our morning prayer invocation to Shiva, Lord of the Dance and I feel the oms vibrate from the marble floor up through the soles of my feet to the base of my spine. A morning mystical musical vibrational cleansing. We finish with Bumi Purnam, a tender beautiful offering to Mother Earth apologizing for our ensuing energetic percussion of feet slapping upon her. I then migrate to the back corner of the class, invariably to be dragged to the front by Sudansuji. *sigh* sometimes it is nice to not have to be an example for others, no matter how much of an honor it is.

9:06am

Exercises commence with vigor (sometimes imagined, sometimes real) and plenty of sweat. I know I have come a long way in one month, but I have a long way to go in my flexibility and strength training.

Nirodji plays the pakawaj (drum) and calls out and directs Sudansu to make corrections throughout class. Most days Colleena stands composed and poised at the head of the class demonstrating as the lead student. We continue from exercises into stepping practice full of jumping, complex fast steps, and graceful arm sweeps. Sometimes I’m able to hold all of it in my mind and begin to focus of subtle eye, neck, and torso movements. Sometimes it is enough to conquer the feet.

10:59am

Class finishes with the respite of “Bumi Purnam” and accompanying arm gesture by Nirodji. We are released until 12:30pm or sometimes 1pm. Most mornings I make my way to the poya rice stand and greet Amit “the rice man” with a friendly “hello” and “how are you today?” 5 rps for a nutritious snack of masala rice sprinkled with red onion, crispy rice noodles, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. I take my fistful of newspaper wrapped rice back to my room with an enthusiastic “good morning!” to the rose water laundry man and “App kaise hay?” (How are you?) to the bulk tea man. Occasionally I stop to chat or shake a baby’s chubby hand.

11:15am

Saris are not lounging clothing, so it keeps me from falling asleep between classes. Sometimes I pull out my violin and practice scales. Sometimes I listen to my Beginner Conversational Slovak tracks. Mostly I read. I started reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series and I devoured them in between classes. (This is possibly why I haven’t seemed to have the time to blog……)

12:25pm

Back to class. Item this time. We spent this past month learning an intermediate level Mangalacharan opening piece because Nirodji decided we were capable of taking on the challenge. We will be performing it at the Temple Dance Festival February 28th. The last week has been rough on my heels. My right heel has been bruised from the sometimes never ending series of jumping and feet slapping. During one class this week, it bothered me so much I must have winced during one of the moves because Sudansuji stepped in front of me with his signature raised eyebrows not unlike my brother Joey, and “Why?” I sat down for a moment only to be called over to Nirodji playing the pakawaj and saying the bole (rhythm; sounds of the drum verbalized) and embarrassingly subjected to what I thought was to be a foot rub in front of the entire class which not necessarily better, turned out to be closer to a foot crunching supplemented by my comedic faces I am told. This is after being told after the morning class that I should be doing “belly exercises” before class. My teachers are honest, hands on, and tenderly brutal at times.

2:05pm

Class is finished and once upon a time full of energy, I continued into the Khalbeliya class with Rahki until 3pm. The last couple of weeks it has been enough to only attend Odissi. I have time to soak up Khalbeliya with Rahki when I build up my endurance.

Back to the room where I invariably find Melea “praying” to the gravity gods sprawled on her bed. Electricity and hot water permitting, we take afternoon showers. Our light bulb in the bathroom went out a few weeks ago, but we haven’t felt it necessary to replace it. Shower by candle light is surprisingly romantic even if it is only a solo affair.

I debark from the bathroom after vigorous foot scrubbing and pumice polishing to the sounds of Aqualung or Coldplay or some other “Kenni” music. Samba Bossa Nova is also a favorite. I tend to play Emma Hill’s music and my Slovak music in the morning when there is time. I slather on coconut oil as moisturizer and swipe a dollop of hair oil through my wet strands. Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on your perspective) my hair is starting to become golden from the desert sun. This may be seen as a natural gift for some, but it is a sad reality for a girl who dreamt of having the long raven black hair that her older half sister was naturally given. As a young girl, I use to fantasize about looking like my older sister  who I knew looked just like Pocahontas. I have never dyed my hair and I’m still not sure I will, but it’s hard to compete with the inky black braids of Indian Odissi dancers.

I don yoga pants and a blue long cotton dress. I roll on a hint of essential oil from our local incense and essential oil man Deepak’s Jaganath Incense shop. I will not reveal my secret scent for all to know. But be satisfied with knowing that as my hair squishes across my back, I imagine tendrils of subtle coy flower scent trails behind me like the whispers of smoke rising above a lit stick of incense.

3:45pm

Melea and I venture out for dinner before Theory class. This is a new thing. We use to eat after class, but class has been getting out later and later. More often then not we choose thali from Papu’s. A friendly family affair of mother, father, young son, daughter. It is a beautiful spread of dal, rice, subji (vegetable curry), chapati, salad, and curd. They know us well enough that they automatically bring us achar (pickle) and we leisurely devour our simple, basic, delicious food. Colleena informed us that dal and rice is basic dancer food, while also adhering to Ayurvedic principles. We have taken this to heart.

4:49pm

We begin to wander our way back down the hectic market street amid the occasional camel, cow, rickshaw, motorbike, pedestrian traffic jam back to school.

4:59pm

We arrive on time only to be greeted by other students also on time. Sometimes surrounded by mildly threatening black faced long tailed monkeys.

5:16pm

Class begins in Indian shanti shanti time. We begin with reciting our 52 mudras like obedient children reciting the capitals of the United States (plus a couple for good measure). Sudansuji and Nirodji teach us the Bole to our choreography and we learn the basics of Indian music theory. I love this part.  The math part of my brain soaks it up. We learn 4 count, 6 count, and 7 count rhythms. We learn the meaning of the slokas (Vedic verses) we dance to. Colleena teaches us about the lost art of temple dance and the lore of the Devadasis (temple dancers; the last one died in 2006). Lately we have been treated with amusing childhood stories from Nirod about his boyhood with Sudansu in Guruji’s school. (Nirod is Guruji’s son; Sudansu is one of his students). We giggle at the theatrics, we sit up straight when we are asked to demonstrate our Bole, and we shyly decline to sing the slokas solo. We answer questions like “What is dance?” “What is the difference between a smile and laughing?”  Last night we shared dance moves from around the world. African by Melea and Vanessa. Polynesian by Sandra from Peru, Chilean folk from Natalia, belly dance from Renee, and I threw in a dance move I have only ever heard called “the crazy knee.” Figure it out for yourself.

7:15pm

The sun has sent on the pink sugar coated delicate temple spires. The Shiva moon peaks above the horizon. It’s time to return to Sai Baba Haveli with a detour at the peanut stall. Fortified with a newspaper bag filled with roasted peanuts and small round rose flavored sesame brittle pieces perfect for a reading snack, we join Mark and Ling Shien Bell at the fire pit. Ling Shien plays flute that usually carries over long after I retire to bed. We practice chokas, tripungis, and the Mangalacharan. We relax. I read. I journal.

9:28pm

I crawl into bed in utter exhaustion. Limbs are sore. Mind is full to capacity. “Dhintar, dhinitaktar, dhinitaktar, dhinitak,  dhin naka dhini” ringing in my ears. Inevitably it becomes the soundtrack to my dreams. I settle. I reflect. I give thanks. I have survived another day. My body has propelled me through the physical training, and my spirit is drifting on the thermals where birds of prey survey the landscape below. I drift to the void of sleep.

1:03am

Parched throat screaming for pani (water).

2:30 am

Dog territorial barking. Drowsy thoughts of not so compassionate or Ahimsa dedicated ways of removing the jet liner decibel sound.

5:34am

Off key chanting from a distorted speaker that seems to be located in my pillow but realistically drifts from the lake 100 feet away.

6:21am

Bells. Ringing bells.

And a day in the life begins again.


The Beginning of the Pushkar Odyssey in Rose Smelling Delicates

Pushkar Jan 4th-14th

My undergarments smell like roses. The sari I am sitting in smells like roses. My pants, my sweaters, my socks all smell like roses.

I did not accidentally fall into a prickly perfumed bush of flowers with soft petals. Rather, an innovative laundry wallah down the alley from my guest house, washes clothes and then presses them with rose water from the roses surrounding Pushkar. How decadent I know. A small luxury in the midst of a 30 hour dance week.

Odissi. Pushkar. A new love and a familiar friend.

How to describe the brimming excitement in my stomach, in my chest, in my throat as I walk into Shakti School of Dance for the first time. Trepidation. Unbridled hope. A healthy dose of adrenaline.

I was met with “Kenni!” and an enthusiastic and warm hug from Rakhi the Kalbeliya teacher. I gratefully returned the hug with a small round ‘o’ of surprise on my lips. I studied briefly with Rakhi the last time I was here, almost 3 years ago. She wasn’t my main Kalbeliya teacher, but she was a friend of my friend Carrie and therefore I automatically became a sister.

It has only continued to get better from there.

On Jan 6th at 9am I attended my first Odissi dance stepping class. I had moments of utter bliss, feeling like this is what my body has been craving for years, and moments of “What the hell have I gotten myself into??!” In developmental psychological terms, I find myself on the edge of the Zone of Proximal Development (delineated by a Czech man with a complicated name consisting of an absurd number of consonants). ZPD is a fancy way of saying that I’m on the edge of my comfort zone, perfectly poised to absorb what I will now be learning. Not quite out of my depth, but close. At the end of that first class I was challenged, I was exhausted, but most of all I was blindingly happy. Happy in a way that puts into perspective how unhappy I have been for a very long time. The sun has burst through the clouds and not even a pair of 200rps fake designer sunglasses can block the rays of penetrating light.

It has only continued to get better from there.

Each day has been physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting and still I fall into bed each day with a smile on my face. (If not in actuality, then most definitely in my mind’s eye). I continually fall in love. Excuse the expression,  ‘I get my ass handed to me each day.’ I am beyond grateful for the years I played competitive sports, because I know physically and mentally my body can take the beating. This is the most grounded, balanced physical, psychic, spiritual training I could ever imagine. After 9 brilliantly intense days I can feel my body getting stronger. I am being shaped for Odissi. My thighs are being chiseled from the choka and tripungi stances. My hands and fingers are becoming more nimble from mudras. My core is becoming strong from targeted exercises. My upper back is becoming sculpted from supporting my arm and chest movements. My brain is being challenged by cross lateral movements. And most of all, my heart is overflowing with love for the dance.

There is so much to share from these first two weeks of training. Sharing the lovingly dubbed “girls dorm” with Melea and Shawna complete with matching bedspreads. Fugitively watching from an internet cafe the Kalbeliya gypsy girls I studied with before as they sat in the market with new babies. Debating whether I was ready to approach them yet. Watching them stride off down the market street with new flint in their gazes which pained my heart. The food. Oh India and your delectable street treats liberally dappling the market streets. The chaotic cacophony of motorcycle horns and “Excuse me Madam. Beautiful things my shop. Come. Only looking.” Our Super Ganesh shirt wearing, illiterate, cow raising, sweatshirt turban wrapped, infectious laughing, campfire stoking, oddly god-fearing landlord. Not enough said. More to come on the hilarious happenings of Sai Baba guesthouse.

There is so much and so few words to paint the landscape of life here in Pushkar. There are things I take for granted. Such as the imperceptible step I take to the left miliseconds before the motorcycle passes me from behind. The obligatory limp handshakes and chai consumption following my reacquaintance with Gita, Raju, and Raihka. The kites in the sky flown by children and adults alike. The sudden flight of thousands of pigeons from the temple just feet over my head as I wait for class to begin on the rooftop. The quiet peace of the holy Pushkar lake on a Sunday morning stroll once past the harassment of pushy Pushkar passport ‘priests.’ The moment when the sun peaks above the horizon and the monkeys on the rooftops pause motionless like energizer bunnies with their batteries removed. The bubbling airy happiness in my heart.

So much to share.

I have two and a half more months to share my Pushkar Odyssey. This is just the first taste. The first whiff of Puskar rose scented laundry. The beginning of a love story.


Brahman Blue and Krishna Chai

Bundi, Rajasthan, India December 31st, 2010- January 4th, 2011

I don’t believe it is possible to welcome a new year with a new journey in a better way then flying across the world, stepping out of comfort zones, and diving head first down the rabbit hole. I am finding “Alice in Wonderland” to be a perennial India comparison. From the chain smoking biddis to the mesmerizing blue snaking pathways through old Mughal architecture and the technicolor vibrancy of life. It is as if I willingly tumbled down the rabbit hole back to an alternate reality.

This universe fills every waking moment and every sense. My nostrils smell the excruciating exhaust from autos and motorcycles, but is still able to detect the wasp of newly fried samosas and the perfume of freshly plucked roses waiting to be placed on an alter, any alter. My face is caressed by the desert sun and the curious tongue of a local cow. I see brilliant yellow saris delicately stepping over piles of steaming cow patties. Monkeys roam the rooftops and worn out female dogs bask in the shade. When I gaze upwards I rest my eyes upon fortresses and palaces that are hollow shades of Mughal glory years. Archways full of sinuous lines and sharp puncturing points. The color blue. The sky, the buildings, my eyes when I catch my reflection in a shard of glass embedded in the palace walls. I am mesmerized.

My second night in Bundi, Shawna and I stopped to listen to the music cascading down the steps to a Shiva temple. Without missing a beat in his playing of the dholak, an older Indian man motioned us up to join with a wobble of his beanie covered head. We looked at each other, shrugged and climbed the steps. We spent the next 45mins or so playing zils/cymbals and enjoying the kirtan. A painting of Shiva, lord of the dance, watching over our music making. We took prasad (blessed sweets, like communion) with the musicians at the conclusion of the evening. It felt like a blessing on our soon to come dance training. Perhaps Shiva is the patron of this dance trip.

Bundi is a relatively small slice of Indian life. Approx. 80,000 people, but the backpacker area feels cozy and it is easy to recognize familiar faces. I wander the market place with Melea and Shawna. Combing through fabric to take to the tailor and eagerly await beautiful flowing salawaar kameezs and Rajasthani dresses. Bangles. Glass bangles that bruise my knuckles as the woman selling them forcefully defies physics and manages to slide them over my hands.

And chai. *sigh* just saying the word gives my body the cue to settle a little bit further down into my seat and warm my belly. Melea and Thomas introduced me to Krishna, of Krishna’s Chai shop. The chai operation is done down in front near the street. Up a couple of steps there are plaster benches to sit and further into the inner sanctuary there is a Shiva shrine bespeckled in roses, marigolds, and red tikka powder. Krishna is a master. His chai is a work of art. A transcendental experience. The wall behind his burner states that he is also capable of making lemon tea and lassis, but why would you ask Da Vinci for a paint by numbers piece? Krishna’s formula is simple: for his winter chai, “ginger for the chest, black pepper for the sinuses, and clove for the mind.” (This explanation was accompanied by the gestures to chest, nose, and forehead). As a right of passage, Krishna taught me how to make his chai. Acacia is a lovely firefly sitting and preparing chai with Krishna every time we come. She shrewdly watches over my ministrations while Krishna takes an order. I boil milk over a single gas burner, squatting on a stone slab behind. I’m instructed to  pour sugar and black tea into the pot. Then to crush black peppercorns and dried cloves on the stone slab with a round flat rock that sits comfortably in my hand. “Full power” is the effort I need to crush into powder. I gather the pulverized spices and toss them into the pot. With a clamp on the rim of the pot, I pick up the soon to be chai and slowly spin the milk around the bowl trying not to spill over the edge. Next is the ginger. Krishna motions  me to cut off a chunk of ginger to pound into pulp. “Shanti, shanti” this time. The ginger is added and now I pick up the pot again to stir the magic potion. Listening to a divine clock, Krishna tells me when the chai is done and I strain it into another container. A couple of pours from cup to container to make it frothy and the chai is finished. Or is it just begun? I’m treated with a face splitting grin, a thumbs up, and a “bole (good) chai” with head wobble. It is delightful chai.

Our second to last day in Bundi, we spent the morning riding old steel frame single speed bicycles through town and out to the rice paddies. I’m in the back of the pack as we snake our way past blue walls, yellow windows, and green doors. Sitting properly upright on English inspired designs. We can’t help but speak in the Queen’s English at first. I was a bit apprehensive at the beginning. The last time I drove in India was a pink moped in Pushkar during my last trip. In comparison a bicycle is slower which is both good and bad. Potential crashes are less severe, but it is also harder to get out of the way of bigger more dominating vehicles. We shared the road with in order of right-away cows, motorcycles, buses, and trucks that liberally rely on their musical horns for echolocation. The ride was oddly peacefully. You seem to become deft to the horns. Dirt roads, potholes, new asphalt, and roadkill (a wild pig that Thomas warned “Don’t look!” for Acacia’s benefit). We sat and had a cold samosa and biscuit (cookie) picnic near a well in the middle of nowhere. I shared the last of my chocolate from my Christmas stocking. After, we returned without mishap and full of fresh air from the countryside.

Bundi was a vortex of Indian “shanti shanti” time. We left Bundi for Pushkar on Jan. 4th in a crammed van driven by two Indian friends who wanted to make a trip to Pushkar themselves. I look forward to returning to Bundi with time to spend.

Next up, the beginning of the Pushkar Odyssey. Filled with sore muscles and soaring heart.

Love to all.

K


Planes, trains, and autorickshaws

When I come to the point in my life when I deem it necessary that I must settle on a vocation, I hope that I can find one that will accurately reflect my skills and accomplishments. Namely my unflappable ability to efficiently take a hot water bucket shower, ride a bike one handed through narrow blue alleyways dodging motorcycles, cows, bikes, people, and dogs while filming with a videocamera (I have the film to prove it), and eat with one hand without making a disaster of my clothes. These are a few of the skills that I am becoming reacquainted with.

As with all journeys in India, my route from Delhi to Bundi to meet friends for New Years was filled with delays, detours, and determination. I found myself at the end of Pharagang, the backpacker oasis of Delhi, staying in the last hotel I stayed in before I left India the last time. The men at the front counter are the same, the room just as dark and dreary but blissfully quiet. I was bound and determined to get out of Delhi asap. My goal was to meet up with Melea and Thomas, their daughter Acacia and Shawna, Jeff, and Kyler. All from home in Alaska. Melea, Shawna, and I are all attending the Odissi intensive in Pushkar together.

Gratefully, I met the end of the protest that resulted in the train and bus halt of Rajasthan. Bus and trains had been canceled for the week before I arrived in India. I made my way down the familiar Pharagang market street to the New Delhi train station. Except for the hiccup of being polite to touts that were trying to tell me that the tourist reservation office was not where I knew it to be, the train booking was uneventful. When the tout was dishonestly explaining the whereabouts of the office, a German man descend on us out of nowhere, grabbed my hand, pointed me in the right direction, and sent me off with a smile and good luck. I smiled back with gratitude. This is the first time I’ve had another traveler intervene for me, I hope I can pass along his kindness.

In the reservation office I heard my first of many “You’re traveling alone?! Is that safe?” from other travelers. My reaction is always a quizzical look and “of course it is.” I’m surprised by the fear many first time India travelers exhibit. I have never felt unsafe here. Traveling alone is brilliant. The biggest downfall is planning bathroom breaks and not having someone to watch my stuff if I’m out and about.

I secured an overnight train ticket out of Delhi the night of the 30th, meaning if the train was running on time I would make it to Bundi at 2am the 31st. Just in time for New Years. I spent at total of 15 hours in Delhi from the time I flew into Delhi and the moment I left on the train. Long enough to sleep for about 4 hours, play tourist and take the high class Delhi metro out to the Qutb Minar, and to eat my first Indian dish, a modest dal makhani and chapati (delicious and triggered a flood of memories).

I made my way to the train station, found my train, stored my bags under the seat and sat waiting for my sleeper compartment to fill up. No one else came. There were about 8 other people in my entire train car and I should have known then that something was up. A samosa wallah came through and I purchased two. The first of many warm flaky moments of delight. I hesitated at first and almost felt ashamed enough to try to hide that I then tossed the plate out the window.

The sleeper compartment was just as I remembered. A two tone blue scheme which had definitely seen better days. The grunge is thick from the exhaust and pollution, but the beds are surprisingly clean. I pulled out my silk sleeping bags, the blanket my dad prophetically purchased for me at the airport in Anchorage (it has been invaluable) and set my alarm for 1:30am. I awoke to see my breath. There are no heaters in these compartments. I put on all of my warmest clothes, few considering I packed for India, and sat and waited for the stop to arrive. At about 2:30am I found an Indian train passenger and asked if he knew when the train would reach Bundi. He disappeared down the car into the mysterious mist of other compartments and returned with the news that we were no longer on the route we left upon. Instead, we were somewhere in northwest Rajasthan. On top of that, we were no longer going to make it to Bundi, but bypass it and head straight for Udaipur. This is ironic because the original plan for New Years was to meet in Udaipur but Melea, Thomas, and Acacia could not leave Bundi to get to Udaipur. Funny universe.

I spent the next 6 hours trying not to freeze or chatter too much as my new found Indian friend taught me Hindi. Vinoth is from Tamil Nadu (the South of India) and works in the oxygen side of a lead factory. I learned a lot about mineral production in India as well as practiced my numbers and verb conjugations.

On a whim, I got off the train at 8am in Ajmer, hoping that I could get a bus to Bundi. Without stopping, I downed a extremely garam (hot) chai to warm up my frozen extremities on the platform and took a rickshaw to the bus station. Forgetting the useful phrase that Vinoth taught me “Which bus goes to Bundi?” I instead wandered through the bus station with my beastly backpack asking “Bundi?” with raised eyebrows and a head tilt. Eventually I was directed to the right bus and we left within 5 mins of my boarding. Five hours, a sore neck, and screaming bladder latter, I arrived in Bundi. I was terrified the bus would leave without me if I got off to use the restroom at one of the few stops. This is one of the moments that traveling alone can be tricky.

Melea had not emailed me back to say where they were staying before I left Delhi. Using my extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, I had a rickshaw drop me off in the hub of the guest houses and I found an internet spot. I quickly read the email Melea sent that morning stating where everyone was staying and I walked the five minutes to Uma Megh Haveli. At last in Bundi, at last with friends. It was a trip to see everyone from home on the other side of the world. My room was beautiful and spacious full of quirky paintings, stained glass windows and a window bench looking out over the lake! (I have wanted a window bench since I was a little girl). It was here I would finally settle and relax into the shanti shanti time of India.

I will leave it at that for now. Adventures from Bundi to come as I write from Pushkar.

Full Power, shanti shanti.


And it begins….

Here I am sitting in the Delhi smog, trying not to breathe too deeply and inhale the fumes of 20 million plus humanity or the guaranteed unpleasant smells. After 40 hours of travel, missed flights, a shower in the Dubai airport without a provided towel, cold AC naps, stimulating conversation with a Sudanese man working as a social worker in Australia, losing things, finding things, contemplating things, I finally, thankfully, with glee made it.

This entire trip feels like a miracle. Coming to the airport in Anchorage with my last minute errands and seeing people I had wished to see before I left that magically appeared before me, I felt as though I was  holding this entire trip together through pure force of will, like a patchwork model airplane that you hope will sure as hell fly after all of the work you put into it. Everything that you could possibly imagine came down to the wire. My loan approval, my camcorder purchase, my packing, my finalization and delegation of hairy official responsibilities, even whether or not I would have a spot on the Anchorage to LA flight. There were delays, miscommunicatations, serendipitous occurences, and hope, lots of hope.

I am beyond grateful for all of the amazing souls that have continued to surprise and support me in this vision. Each one has been a brick placed on the path before me even before I knew where I would take my next step. There is something powerful and unstoppable about this journey. Even in my most terrified spiraling out of control moments, there has been a beacon of light on the horizon.

It is appropriate that I left Delhi 2.5 years ago on my own, I am returning on my own, and I will make this trip my own. I cannot express how liberated I feel in this moment. I am now somewhat refreshened, energized, and ready to eat something savory and delectable, avoid the cows and rickshaws, giggle at the signs that seem to communicate from a collective cultural conscious (“Creative India” on a construction site for example), and bask in the eccentricities that are woven into the fabric of Indian life.

12-30-2010