Letters from the road

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Mindfulness in the Pediatric Ward.

Originally featured on elephant journal Feb. 2, 2017

Being in the hospital gives me PTSD.

Like actual PTSD. My breathing is shallow and fast, I start feeling trapped and claustrophobic. I sweat. The really smelly kind of sweat. My mind fills with a torrent of fear that drowns out all other thoughts.

And to my horror, when I get angry at not being heard, I cry. When the tears burn down my face, I become even angrier that I’m crying and less able to speak up. 

This is why when I told my husband a year ago that we were going to have a baby, I also told him I’d like to have our baby at home. He was already familiar with most of my hospital traumas, including the discovery that I’m allergic to two common medications—after they were pumped into my IV. Twice.

I’ve been rushed into emergency surgery 3,000 miles away from home and I’ve spent a week as a medical test subject. I also have the type of veins phlebotomists dread. It takes three sticks on average for a needle to find a suitable spot. I once sprayed a two foot stream of blood across a wide-eyed nurse. 

After a month or so of petitioning for a home birth, he finally agreed and we found the most extraordinary midwife. We had a healthy pregnancy and a dream birth at home. Six hours of calm in a safe space with no medical intervention and full-on mindful breathing resulted in a healthy, happy, eight pound, 15 ounce bundle of joy.

All of our intentional avoidance of hospitals has now flown right out the window. 

Today is my second day in the pediatric ward hovering over my three month old son as he struggles to breathe. It’s taken me two days, two long exhausting days to wake up. Entering the hospital through the Emergency Room is like being placed on a moving sidewalk. I’m whisked away before I even realized that I was no longer standing still. 

Two days ago when my husband and I first noticed our son seemed to be having a hard time catching his breath, I immediately worried his bad cold had migrated down into his chest. I’ve had pneumonia and both my husband and I have asthma. It seemed remote, and my new mom instincts were a little overreactive as of late.

A month-and-a-half ago we drove to the Emergency Room on a Saturday evening because I was worried our little one had a cold/pneumonia/croup/meningitis/the black lung. With the car parked outside the brightly lit snowy entrance, my husband folded into the backseat next to the carseat while I asked him to check our little one to see if he had any sunken soft spots on his head denoting dehydration. He didn’t. After a tense few moments while I silently debated the pros and cons of going inside, I finally relented and agreed to drive home and play wait and see.

Sometime after we got home I remembered that I may have accidentally sprayed the little one up the nose with breast milk when he unlatched during an exhaustive feeding session during the previous night. Breast feeding can be challenging. The sniffle went away in about a day. 

So when two days ago I said, “We’re going to Urgent Care, now,” my husband somewhat rightly looked a little hesitant. Instead of arguing or rolling his eyes, he acknowledged what I thought were chest retractions while we were bathing our baby, and helped me bundle him up and into the car.

After an RSV diagnosis and being told to immediately go to the ER by the physician assistant at Urgent Care, we found ourselves whisked into glaring fluorescent lights and a cold sterile room. My meditation training, my yogic training, my physical performance training all seemed to go into hibernation the moment I walked through the germ splattered doors of the hospital. Alternating between interminable waits and frenetic activity quickly brought on the PTSD. 

My husband ushered me out of the room the first two times the nurses and phlebotomist tried to put an IV line into our little one. I stood outside the room near the nurses’ station and cried heaving sobs into my hands as I listened to my sweet, normally serene little boy scream in fear and pain. One of the nurses asked if it was my baby and when I nodded without looking up, she sighed sympathetically and said, “It must be your first.” As if it gets easier with subsequent children. 

Although I couldn’t seem to think mindfully myself, each time I gathered my little one into my arms to comfort and calm him, I started with a deep breath. “Let it out sweet boy. Deep breath,” as I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. 

After the fifth IV placement, with an oxygen cannula attached to his face, and vital monitor hanging from his foot, there was hardly a place on our little one’s body that didn’t ache or have a bandage. For the next 48 hours we obsessively checked his oxygen levels in between nebulizer treatments and tried to make him as comfortable as possible in his vast hospital bed. My husband brought a few blankets and stuffed animals from home to lessen the impersonal feel of the room as we watched and waited. 

I’m embarrassed to say for those first two days I hadn’t even thought about my contemplative practice. Neither sitting meditation, movement, nor breathing exercises outside of deep breathing to calm my son even occurred to me. Watching and counting breaths should have triggered 13 years of training. I let the PTSD overwhelm my senses in the blur between hourly nurse rounds, respiratory specialist treatments, and occasional pediatrician visits. The nurse down in the ER was right. I recoiled from my little one’s cries each time he was held down to have his nose suctioned, before preparing to pick him up afterwards and comfort him while swallowing my own tears. 

It took me two days of watching my son wrestling with each breath before I remembered to take a breath of my own. With my husband’s firm encouragement, I ventured out of our room for the first time. Armed with a medical mask to protect our son from the germs of the hospital and the other pediatric patients from his RSV, I shuffled along the linoleum floors in my slippers. I hadn’t realized how stiff I had become. I was hunched over and exhausted from the past two days. I finally breathed. Deep breaths that sucked my yellow mask into my mouth. I watched my slow steps and tried to remember the cues from my walking meditation training. 

When I came back into the room after dousing myself in hand sanitizer, my chest was lighter. My body had unfurled finally and I could stand up straight. My son greeted me with his big smile. The silent giggle one that crinkles his eyes and shows the pink gums where teeth soon will be.

While walking down the hospital hallways, I realized that being here for my son’s sake has alleviated some of my own fears and allowed me to work through my PTSD triggers. He can’t speak up for himself, but I can. When the stress of meeting so many strangers and having so many treatments overwhelms him, I’m here to ground him. To hold him. To love him. To let him know he isn’t alone. 

The pediatrician just stopped by and told us that we get to go home tomorrow.

While I hold my sleeping little one with the whirring and beeping monotonously droning on, I’m thinking about venturing back out into the world. I hope to continue remembering to breathe. It’s easy to try to become a martyr for our little ones. It’s hard to remember the importance of creating the space for our own breaths. Parenting is full of fearful moments, but breathing carries us through.

I’m also starting to wake up and notice that my mindfulness practice isn’t for the easy days. I practice so that when the world is spiraling out of control, I can find refuge. A soft spot to land. My practice might not always look like it had before. For me, becoming a mother has been the most revolutionary way of practicing contemplativeness and beginner’s mind. When I feel exhausted and wrung out, our little one is teaching me to slow down. He currently likes to look at inanimate objects that I’ve never noticed before. I recently followed his gaze and spent a whole minute contemplating our bedroom light fixture. It really does refract the light beautifully.

When we go home tomorrow, I’ll try to remember to breathe. To know that mindfulness will creep in when I need it most. It may not look the way I think it should, but it will remind me to slow down. To sit with my fears. It took long enough, but while counting my son’s breaths in the pediatric ward, I finally found my own again. 

Why Does My Baby Smell Like Tapas? And Other Absurd Questions of Motherhood.

“So how’s being a mother?”

To be fair, I’m guilty of it too. Making small talk is awkward and it seems like a harmless question. I know I’ve asked it without any real idea what I was asking.

It’s really an absurd question. Each time I see someone for the first time since having little one, it’s been close to the first thing out of each person’s lips. I don’t blame them. Maybe it’s me. I never know how to answer. I get a goofy smile on my face and say “I love being his momma!”

Which is completely true. I don’t know how I feel about being a mother in general yet, but I love being my little one’s.

After that, I don’t know what to say. I kind of wrap my arms around myself in an imaginary hug of our son, or if I’m actually holding him when they ask, I look down, smile, and give him a squeeze.

Then I sort of wait. Because how do you explain motherhood in a handful of sentences in the same manner as discussing the weather? Most of the time, I get a smile and a “oh that’s wonderful!” Sometimes I get a quick peek into someone else’s crazy postpartum experience. Raw authentic words that cut quick to the heart of the transition from being Not A Mother to being A Mother. Then the moment is gone and we’re back to discussing the actual weather.

It’s absurd.

It feels like a quick dip into the swift underground river passing under all of our feet. Motherhood. We don’t like to get too deep and be whisked away-just enough to feel the force of the river and then back to solid ground. Now that I know it’s there, it’s hard to ignore.

I’m extremely fortunate. I had the dream labor and birth that we planned. A quick, safe, transformative experience. We have a happy healthy (barring colds-damn you colds) little boy. I haven’t experienced any trauma postpartum or PPD. I know a lot of women do. I’d like to find a better way of honoring their experiences with a better question. And the time to actually hear their answers.

So far, motherhood is full of absurd questions. Like, “is the milk stain surrounding my entire nipple area and half my boob super noticeable?” Or “why doesn’t this outfit come in my size?” Or “did you pee on me again?” Or “why does my baby smell like tapas?”

I found myself saying this last one out loud a few weeks ago. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why little one smelled like a hummus platter. I hadn’t eaten anything nearly so delicious for longer than I could remember. So it wasn’t from breast milk. That also means I couldn’t have accidentally spilt anything on him.

The smell slowly dissipated and I forgot all about it. A few hours later the smell came back while little one was practicing jumps and kicks in my lap. He was warm and I was starting to crave flatbread and small plates.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize what was causing the smell. Little one loves bath time. Sometimes I almost think he purposely has poo explosions to get back in the bath. After each bath, I make a nest of towels and give little one a baby massage. With olive oil.

Each time he was getting warm, the olive oil was too. Mystery solved. Go figure. If it’s good enough to eat, it’s good enough to put on the skin.

I blame the delayed realization on the absurdest question of all:

“Is your baby sleeping through the night?”

Bwahahahahahahahaha.

10 Things to Do Instead of Yelling at the News

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few days huffing and rawring at the news. Crying even. All of my sacred cows are being slaughtered in this new administration. I expected to be incensed, but I thought I’d get at least a few days respite in between each time I need to donate or make a phone call to my Senators or get out and protest. Apparently not.

So in order to stay sane since we are only ten days into the next four years, I’m going to commit to doing these ten things when I. Just. Can’t.

  1. Hug my little one. With the overwhelming despair that comes crashing down on my shoulders each time I open BBC News or the NYT or my Facebook feed–I’m recommitting to spending quality time with our three month old. During the day too often I turn to my phone, or CNN, or my laptop for a distraction. After the first few weeks of breast-feeding a newborn at all hours of the night, I stopped turning to my phone while nursing at night. For one, my googling was diagnosing my new baby with all manner of rare disorders and second, I was having a hard time getting back to sleep in between feedings. When your little one eats every hour and a half at night, those few minutes of sleep are precious. I’m fortunate to be able to stay home with our son. Even when I’m exhausted and my nipples are sore, I have been peed on for the second time in two hours, and my hair is a frazzled halo around my head–I’m trying to stop and remember that these precious moments won’t last. I’m savoring them while I have them. No matter what is going on in the world, taking the time to make my little one giggle is good for both of us.
  2. Eat. As a new mom I’m good at forgetting this one. I was good at forgetting this one when I was working before baby came too. Having a small child just compounds the consequences of not putting something in my mouth. Now. I get hangry. Niall is good at gently suggesting food or even better, putting something in front of me when I get so hungry that I think I’m no longer hungry and I feel weepy because the world is a disaster and everything hurts and I just don’t know what to do. Food. Put. It. In. My. Mouth. It’s simple and I guarantee that when I eat, the sun also comes out. The world is easier to handle on a full stomach. Preferably a slowly made, organic, free-range, in season, artisan meal. Or just a pickle. Really, I practically live off of condiments at the moment. That’s what I have time for. Surefire way of waking a sleeping baby? Make a cup of tea.
  3. Watch comedies. Seriously. I read constantly. I read a lot of depressing things. Niall is quick to point that out when I start telling him about all the things I’ve been reading. For my sanity’s sake I watch funny tv, funny movies, funny news shows.  Top of my list at the moment:@ Midnight, Blackish, Modern Family, Sherlock, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. I also sprinkle in The Daily Show, Top Chef, Project Runway, and lately a healthy dose of turning off the tv. I listen to podcasts too. Mostly Radio Lab, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, and This American Life. Alright, they’re not all comedies, but they do nourish me. Watch, listen, read for nourishment. Laugh. We have to laugh right now. Also, it’s all just filler until the next Outlander season starts.
  4. Surround myself with good people. Sounds obvious right? Spending time with people that bring out the best in me is good for everyone. They can be family, chosen family, even complete strangers in a place you feel welcome. At the Women’s March, I looked around and said “Yes! You are my people.” There were 1000 people marching in our small Palmer and I knew most of the them. It’s a comforting feeling to know that so many of my neighbors share my values. Even the complete strangers were good people. That includes online communities too. Fighting on social media tends to lead to fights in my real life. I take my online frustration out on those nearest my computer or my phone. Laugh with real people in real life. When our little one spit up all over Niall’s face while he was playing “Super baby!” I laughed so I hard I think I added five years to my life. Children are good for laughs. So is The Onion and Waterford Whispers News. 
  5. Make a list of my priorities. I’m not talking about a clean house or groceries or whatnot, I’m talking about my political values. I write them down. I sometimes create a hierarchy when it helps. I also add what I can do about them and organizations I care about to donate my time and money. Also get to know your elected officials so they can enjoy hearing about your priorities. Here are a few of mine:
    1. Reproductive health: Planned Parenthood
    2. Immigration: ACLU
    3. Refugee assistance: RAIS
    4. Community building: Radio Free Palmer
    5. News: NPR
    6. DVSA: Alaska Family Services
    7. Global education: Alaska World Affairs Council
    8. Community gardens: Grow Palmer
  6. Dress up. This is one from my incredibly insightful Momma. When I was sick growing up, her advice (after drinking a glass of water) always included putting something nice on. Something that made me feel good. Because when you look good, surprisingly you feel better. She was unwittingly channeling Chögyam Trungpa and his teachings on personal drala. It’s similar to ‘fake it until you make it’ and I can attest that it works. I always feel better after a shower and putting on an outfit and jewelry that I love. It’s like magic. When I lived alone and I was up in the middle of the night, I’d try on my fanciest clothes just because it felt good to do so. Now, when I can’t possibly drag myself off of the couch and out of my pjs, I put on a cute dress and earrings that hopefully I can a) breast feed in or else I flash whoever else is nearby and b) my baby doesn’t rip out of my ears. Sometimes I can only wear said outfit until the next hungry cry or watery burp, but even those few minutes are enough to shift my mood for the better.
  7. Move. Any kind. When it’s -25 degrees F, I dance around the house with my little one in my arms. Sometimes I ski. Sometimes walking up and down the stairs fifteen times to get another baby outfit or wash another load of baby blankets is enough. When I have a cooperating little one, I practice yoga. With or without the baby sitting on my sternum. I try to get outside as much as possible. Fresh air is almost as important as moving. But not when it’s psycho cold out, that’s what the treadmill is for.
  8. Make something. It can be anything. I excel at approx. 10 rows of stitching. The last thing I knitted to completion was a baby hat two days before our little one was born. The keys to its completion were that I had a pretty fast approaching deadline and that it only took me about an hour. I’m a fan of surrounding myself with pretty things. I like to make journals with old magazines and some cardboard and a lot of blank paper. Sometimes I sketch, mostly I make plans to make something, but when I do–oh the feeling is like a mini victory. Mini because I usually only have time for something small. Sometimes I arrange the magnets on the fridge into a pleasing pattern and that feels like enough.
  9. Clean my ears. This is probably just me, but cleaning my ears with a q-tip is one of my absolute favorite things. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it feels as close to swiping out the cobwebs from my brain as I’d like to get physically. There is something just decadent about cleaning my ears in the middle of the day. I also have to pause and stand still for a moment. I’m not the type to clean on the go. I really savor those few seconds. Especially when I don’t get a whole lot of alone time these days.
  10. Sleep. Haha. This one is a joke. Sleep. Yeah, everyone knows that sleep is necessary/divine/better than sex–elusive. This is wishful thinking on my part. 

I’ll be practicing these ten. They’re good for the soul even without the shadow of the next four years looming.

Gahhhhhhh! I just made the mistake of looking at the news. I’m going to go do #9, #1, and maybe, just maybe #10. Here’s to retaining my sanity and maybe becoming a better person in the process.

 

Whispers

Havelock whiteout

June 2012

In need of a welcome distraction from the heavy law homework I should be completing, I have chosen instead to ruminate on this last year. It has been quite epic. Not an obnoxious exaggeration I’m afraid.

As those who have braved my previous verbose blog entries, or those who have suffered through my long drawn out in-person verbal soliloquies can attest, a lot has happened.

It has been the most simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying year of my nearly quarter of a century.

It began with the serendipitous and charmed introduction of a special someone on a beach in India. A handsome someone. A funny someone. Someone whom I fell madly in love with. After 3 months of heart opening study of Odissi dance, this Irish someone stepped in and captured said heart with ease.

Since this extraordinary moment, we’ve travelled, we’ve laughed, and we’ve cried. We’ve said hello and goodbye too many times to count. We’ve kept track of time zones and schedules, immigration policies and transatlantic flights. We’ve made skype dates and lunch dates. We’ve spent harrowing times apart and blissful moments together. And yet, we keep choosing the efforts of love.

This is despite the interference of immigration and legal authorities. Despite two cancer scares in 6 months and numerous court dates. I have a new constellation of surgical scars scattered across the canvas of my belly and he  sports new grey symbols of a stressful year hidden amongst dark curls.
~

Sometimes the boundaries of the world are deceptively thin. At times I believe I can reach out and touch the confines, beguile the world to reveal her secrets and her charms.

Other days, the world is a positively strange and terrifying place.

Besides the pain or loss of a loved one, my deepest fear is quite simply:

Immigration.

There is nothing more upsetting then being threatened with deportation for multiple hours.

This is after being detained by immigration and threatened with deportation for multiple hours.

So much to write…

Fields of Sunflowers and Morning Spirits Part I

Ok, so I lied. You did have to wait longer for this one. What can I say. Well, a lot as you might imagine.

Much has happened since last I wrote. Of course. Before I get to the new (and oh is there new), I will share my travels to my ancestral homeland in July.

~

Slovakia. Ahh..I love the syllables. Four. I counted. Not the kind of country you can say quickly. You pause. Letting the sounds rest on your tongue. Like savoring a square of deep dark chocolate. Allow it to melt. Contemplate the complexity, appreciate the richness. Finished with a sigh *ahh* on the out breath.

My cousin Roman describes the difference between the Czech and Slovak languages in the way of cadence. Czech is spoken with a continual rise in intonation until the end of a sentence, like climbing to the zenith of a mountain peak, over and over. Slovak is spoken with the cadence of one strolling over the hills and valleys of the Orava region. Picture a sine graph, rising and falling like the gentle sounds of a bubbling brook. In one word, soothing.

Imagine: fields of sunflowers with upturned faces. Rugged mountain peaks. Wide river valleys. Cliff top castles. Alpine cottages. Accordion serenaded garden parties. Central/Eastern European life, post-communism. Roman Catholicism. Slovak. Beautiful family and friends.

Slovaki-wha? Don’t be ashamed if you just looked up Goggle maps to locate this gem of a country. You aren’t the only one.

Niall: “How is Slovenia today?”

Kenni: “You mean Slovakia?”

Niall: “Yeah, that’s what I said, Serbia.”

~

My journey to Slovakia is a complex one, yet fundamentally so simple. A desire to unearth a lost branch of my family.

Last summer (2010) I was conducting family research. Easier said than done when the majority of your family comes from a non-English speaking part of the world. Identity is central to my studies at university (Naropa University, www.naropa.edu). What better place to start than to unravel the multi-colored quilt of my own?

Psenak. Most if not all of you, know how to pronounce my surname. It’s unique (until I found a village of Psenaks in Slovakia, but more on that later). Growing up with an unfamilar surname was a blessing and a burden at times. (Often compounded by being a girl named Kenni. Thanks Mom and Dad. It built character, I’m sure. ) Mispronunciations are common, only to be expected. “Pisshnack?”

But on the brighter side, I can categorically say I am the only Kenni Psenak in the world. I think that’s quite nice, although I was always a little sad when doing name meanings, family crests and such in school.  My teacher would invariably come back with a sympathetic look and “sorry, we can’t find any information on your name.”

But I did.

The next bit is a bit dense. Family trees tend to be that way.

Back to last summer. I had been scouring online for information on my Dad’s family for months when I brought a packet of printed out documents to my Grandfather with information on the birthplace and immigration of his father, John (Jan) Psenak. My Grandfather had always been told that his parents were from Czechoslovakia (Mother) and Austria (Father). After wading through countless ship manifests and naturalization, census and draft records I found my Great Grandfather Psenak. According to the documents, my Great Grandfather Psenak was born in Medzibrogy, Hungary which at the time was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, later found in Czechoslovakia and finally a small village in the Orava region of northern Slovakia. I was elated.

I brought the information to my Grandfather and shared while my cousin was visiting. We began asking my Grandfather more about his elusive Mother’s family, the Pohancenys, the ultimate mystery. All that my Grandfather knew, was that his Mother (Margaret Pohanceny) immigrated to the US with her family from Czechoslovakia. As a teenager in Ohio, she returned home to an empty house and suspected that her father, stepmother, and baby half sister had returned to Czechoslovakia, leaving both her and her younger sister Josephine in Ohio.

My Grandfather also mentioned a cousin Don (son of his Mother’s sister Josephine) that my Great Grandmother briefly raised in Ohio after the death of her beloved sister (Josephine).

Fortified with this new information, my cousin began to search for my Grandfather’s cousin Don (the only one we knew of) somewhere in the US. Serendipitously she found him. Not only did she find Don Sole, she found a newsletter he had written about his search for his mother’s family (my Great Grandmother Margaret Pohanceny’s family). Lo and behold, they were alive and well in the village my Great Grandmother grew up, Medvedzie, Slovakia (once part of Czechoslovakia) a stone’s throw from the village of my Great Grandfather Jan Psenak.

My aunt contacted Don and a whole new family blossomed across the US and Slovakia. My Grandfather’s aunts (including the baby half sister that was born in the US) were recently passed, but the descendants (my Grandfather’s first cousins and children) were living in Slovakia, mostly in or near Medvedzie. Don had been in contact with the family for the past decade, including multiple trips to visit. All that had been missing from Don’s research were the whereabouts of our family, the descendants of Magaret (Margita) Pohanceny (Pohancena). Like the final piece of a jigsaw, the puzzle finally made sense.

I, of course, started to plot.

Not in the sinister evil doer sort of plot (I watched “Despicable Me” for the second time last night), more the “how do I work travelling to Slovakia to visit my family into my studies?” sort of way. As you do. I’m sure everyone has been there.

I found a way.

A year ago, my aunt put me in touch with Don’s family and from there in touch with the family in Slovakia. Specifically, the brilliant Roman. My cousin of the same generation, the sole fluent English speaker of our family in Slovakia. Not only was Roman absolutely indispensable as translator, guide, event coordinator and general wealth of information, we soon found that we had much more in common than mere blood. I could not have asked for a better resource or friend once I reached Slovakia. Thank you Roman.

I spent last fall semester drafting and implementing my master plan:

1) Take Spring 2011 semester to fulfil independent study and Honors Directed Research and Reading credits for my interdisciplinary studies

2)Complete these studies abroad while being enrolled 6 credit hours

3)Spend the semester (Jan-April 2011) studying Odissi Classical Indian and Kalbeliya Gypsy dance in India (independent study of devotional dance and folkloric dance) and Honors Directed Reading of Performance as a Means of Social Change in the Balkans

4)Leave India and follow the Roma migration from India into Eastern Europe conducting research (Honors Directed Research)

5)First stop; Turkey May 2011

6)From Turkey overland into Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and finally Slovakia June 2011

7)Visit family in Slovakia July 2011

8)Return to Boulder Aug 2011

9)Back to Naropa Fall 2011

 

As you might gather from previous posts, steps 6,8 and 9 were a bit compromised by the introduction of a certain tall, dark, handsome Irishman. As he likes to say, “the best laid plans….” (Robert Burns)

Instead of continuing to travel through Turkey and up through the Balkan Peninsula, I found myself in the Channel Islands. Soon to feel unwelcome by the immigration authorities and left with no choice but to leave and resume step 7 of the Master Plan.

Enough background. Feel free to comb through previous posts to fill in any holes. If after that there are still glaring omissions and you are like me and like to know the details……. tough luck.

So there I was, July 6th, 2011 leaving Jersey in the Channel Islands and flying into Bratislava, Slovakia. Completely unprepared. I had been resolute about learning Slovak before reaching Slovakia, yet all I managed to accomplish was the ability to count to 10, say hello and notice the similarities with Russian (which I took a year of). Not even “thank you.” It was a bit pathetic. On top of it all, this was my first venture into continental Europe. I must be in a very select club of North American people whose first taste of Europe is Slovakia.

I was a combustible mixture of terror and elation upon arrival in Slovakia. I felt honored to be the first of my Grandfather Psenak’s family to return. I also felt the weight of that responsibility. In the taxi from the airport to my hotel in down town Bratislava, it was all I could do not to break down into a sobbing basket case in the back seat. Not because I was sad to leave Niall in Jersey (which I was), not because I am scared to travel on my own (which I’m not), not because the driver was playing terrible techno club music (which unfortunately he was) but because I remembered the little girl I had once been. Dreaming of finding family on the other side of the world, about as far away from Palmer, Alaska as you could possibly get.

As I gazed up at the beautiful, rubenesque moon that night, filling the sky above Bratislava with warm lunar light, tears silently escaped the confines of my normally less sentimental tear ducts. Tears for my Great Grandmother Maragret who never knew what became of her parents. Tears for my Grandfather who has never met his family or seen the land of his parents. And tears for the little girl I once naively was. The one who dreamt of one day travelling to the land in her imagination where Psenak is easy to pronounce and family mysteries would be easily revealed. She was soon to discover that she was the one pronouncing Psenak incorrectly and family mysteries only deepen.

As cliche as it sounds, I genuinely could feel the embrace of the land of my ancestors. I knew I was home.

~

I’d like to think it was the spirit of the land and not the familiar stop signs in English. Or cars driving on the right side of the road. Or the friendly hotel clerk looking at my passport in confusion. “You are from Alaska? But you have a Slovak name.”

These were my impressions of Slovakia, night one. I still had another two weeks of exploring Bratislava (attempting to walk to Vienna, not the brightest idea), meeting beautiful family in Orava, eating meat for the first time in over three years (sausage no less), wandering the old church cemetery looking for relatives, drinking whisky at 11 am (quickly followed by being pissed by 3 pm), speaking with gestures and smiles, soaking up the mountains, and learning the essentials of Slovak (pivo, vino, klobasa, dakujem, dobry den: beer, wine, sausage, thank you, and hello respectively sans the appropriate accents. Not necessarily in order of importance).

Well, I’ve written quite a lot without actually saying much. This must mean Part I is finished. In that case, I’ll leave you with a bit of food for thought.

I had a frightening realization while residing at Hotel Kyjev in Bratislava. Although my room was on the 17th floor, I rarely took the elevator. I made a point of taking the stairs. Some would interpret this as a phobia of elevators. If only it was so easy. Unfortunately, it’s a symptom of something much more sinister. *Cue old black and white horror film close up of a woman holding her face and screaming: I am becoming my mother.

I’m beginning to think like her. Don’t take the elevator, take the stairs. It’s good for your butt, she whispers in my ear. Thanks Mom. For those of you who know my Mom, you understand my concern. Just kidding. No really.

Perhaps it was foresight. The next two weeks did consist of large amounts of sausage, beer, gulas (pronounced gulash) and kolace (pronounced kolachies, pastries). I needed all the help I could get to keep those fatty calories off said bum.

But I digress. Next instalment will be sure to cover three very important things:

1) whether Kenni could still fit in her jeans when leaving Slovakia

2) how she lost a new pair of sunglasses the same way as the previous pair in Turkey

3) how absolutely extraordinary it was to finally meet the Pohancenys and the Psenaks

Stay tuned. But don’t hold your breath. Soon, I promise part II will come soon.

Lots of love.

Dovidenia (until we see us again)

The Hazards of Being a Nomad Or Why I Won’t Get Married for a Visa

My gorgeous man

July 19th, 2011

Life as a Bohemian (in the late 19th century Parisian sense as well as being of the land of Bohemia) is not always easy. Exciting, adventurous, soul awakening, and colorful but never easy. Perhaps that’s what draws me to the lifestyle, if I really have a choice in the matter (which I’m beginning to think that I don’t). The ever changing and shifting experiences. Spontaneity. Surprise. I like to think it keeps me sharp. Always ready for what’s next. I get bored easily. I like the challenges. It keeps me alive. It’s also exhausting. Sometimes I wish that I could be content with something easy, normal. Not enough to actually try to live normally, but sometimes it’s a nice thought.

Even my new significant other recognizes the absurdity of my life that I seem to conveniently forget about. After an official Facebook designation of “complicated” in our relationship status, I hesitantly asked him “what exactly do you mean by ‘complicated?’”

He laughed. “Well it is complicated isn’t it? I mean, not how we feel about each other, but we don’t exactly live in the same country, let alone be from the same part of the world. You are travelling as a nomad and I live in one place with a nine-to-five job.”

And my response was “So?”

What I have taken for granted as the continually convoluted ‘of course the universe has a sense of humor’ aspects of my life, such as meeting and falling for a phenomenal man while on an island in India (of course) who just happens to be from another island, Ireland ( of course) but working on yet another small island off of the coast of France (of course) while I am still nomadically travelling (of course) with the intention of heading back to school in Boulder eventually (of course) is not exactly normal as Niall so insightfully pointed out. I won’t let those little hiccups get in the way.

My life is anything but simple. But I am beginning to think I wouldn’t be happy with simple.

Therefore, I won’t get married for a visa.

Yes, I know it’s a bit sensationalist (yet true) and I am missing a great chunk of the narrative. No you have not missed a crucial posting that would explain this new and flabbergasting plunge into the reflections of a Beloved Nomad who obviously abhors the thought of being bullied into a corner by immigration authorities, even nice ones.

This is a brand new chapter of the ever changing plans and journey of my not so simple life.

~

It began during a lightning storm with a gorgeous man on an island in India and it continues in directions and to places that I could never have expected nor dreamed. This is love. It sweeps you up in a great zephyr regardless of what path you had previously been following. It’s exciting. It’s giddy. It’s like being at the top of a rollercoaster when the butterflies decide to come alive in your belly. It’s watching the sky being painted by the rays of the sun rise over the sapphire ocean. It’s dark chilli chocolate after 6 months of Indian milk sweets. It’s a sunset walk on the beach with linked hands. Belly laughs and sore cheeks from face splitting smiles. It’s a field of sunflowers in the countryside of my ancestors. It’s beauty. Laska. Love.

I left India in May in a state of nervous excitement. This new person had made a grand entrance into my already mercurial life. Of course I had plans. I always have plans. I always have a direction. Mostly I know which way I am headed, but I won’t know how I got there until I look back and reflect on the path my feet followed. I let my heart be my guide as much as my head. There must be balance. To follow my impulses while also honouring reason. (I acknowledge my reasoning is probably much different than say, my Dad’s). To me, it all makes sense. Sometimes it takes me a little reflection to make it all make sense for others, but I am genuinely happy with where I have been and where I dream of going.

Back to Niall. Niall. I’m still not quite sure how much I want to share yet. I tend to be a little superstitious. There are some things I refuse to say out loud for fear they will change the outcome of what the future will bring. Knock on wood. Call me old fashioned. Or ridiculous. Please bear with me.

May 2011. I left India for Turkey. While I was still on the beach in Havelock, Niall booked us into a resort in Antalya, Turkey. Five nights in Turkey followed by a long weekend in London. My eyes welled up when he asked if I would want to spend these holidays with him, his treat. I’ve never experienced such generosity. We spent the intermittent month between India and Turkey writing witty (definitely his) emails and making (expensive, again for him) international phone calls. I felt a bit like a love sick teenager.

I was nervous about seeing him again in Turkey. What if he doesn’t feel the same? What if it’s awkward? What if I’m not as attractive as he remembers? What if he’s not as handsome as I remember? What if what if what if?

I arrived at the resort first. Let me just say, wow. I have never stayed in a big resort. I didn’t quite know what to expect. I was definitely overwhelmed and a bit culture shocked from the previous 5 months in India. I am sure I am the only person to show up at this resort with a backpack. A dirty one at that. Probably filled with cockroaches from my last train journey. I sure as hell hoped not, I thought. I remembered the ones crawling out of Vanessa’s backpack in Mumbai and I hoped like crazy I didn’t carry similar stowaways. I would be mortified.

I checked into the resort and headed up to the room. Again wow. Ocean views over a big beautiful jacuzzi and balcony looking down at the pool and water slides! Niall picked this one for the slides. What a great qualifier for a good resort. Water slides. I threw my bags down and danced around the room. I felt a little bit like Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” except for the whole hooker thing of course. Lowly Indian backpacker, to plush resort in Turkey. I don’t know what I did to deserve this.

All of the fears and what ifs dissolved as soon as Niall walked in. Tall, handsome, smiling, golden eyed Niall. If I can speak for the both of us (I’ll be sure to ask him), the weekend was amazing. We lazed by the pool (I burned while he slept), played on the kiddie slides (why not? There’s no age limit and we met the height requirement), ate copious amounts of food, dived in extraordinarily (compared to the Andamans) boring waters, and laughed, talked, had couples massages, and shagged the days away. (It’s true and it’s my blog, so sue me).

On our last day at the resort together we went diving. The owner of the company after watching us giggling and teasing away and taking photos of each other in our wetsuits, came up and asked if we were newlyweds. Embarrassed, we said no. Then he turned to Niall and said “her eyes glow when she looks at you. This is your chance. You are a lucky man. She is in love. Don’t let her go.” Niall was flustered and I felt caught out. Damn, I’m not very good at hiding my feelings, but what can I say, it was true.

Niall left Antalya the day before I did, to head back to work. The inconveniences of having a job. After the resort stay in Turkey, Niall booked me a round trip flight to London and back to Turkey for the weekend so I could continue my travelling (incredibly generous and thoughtful). I was ridiculously excited for London. The last time I had been, I was 15 and on a school trip. Much different experience I would expect.

Again I left the resort with my backpack and a query about the public bus stand (“you want to take a public bus?”) to get to the airport in another city. Breaking stereotypes and assumptions, that’s me.

I left Turkey with a small hesitant (and a bit presumptuous I was later told by Niall haha) thought that it might be a while before I came back. I knew I had a return ticket but a niggling feeling told me there was a possibility that I might not be on the flight. Just a hunch.

London. Unprepared to answer immigration’s questions about where I was staying while here.

“My boyfriend has the reservation. It’s somewhere on Oxford Street.”

“There are a lot of hotels on Oxford Street. Where is your boyfriend?”

“Getting off another plane….”

“Can you call him?”

“My phone doesn’t work here.”

I whipped out the Lonely Planet and picked a likely one. “Piccadilly Backpackers.”

“You’re staying at Piccadilly Backpackers?” Raised eyebrow.

My most innocent cheerful smile. “Ah, yes.”

Stamp. 6 month visitor visa.

After a brief moment of worry that we wouldn’t find each other at the airport, we were back together again. This time in the official boyfriend, girlfriend sort. Still how strange to say. London through the eyes of someone who has lived here in this great big metropolitan city, was great. I forgot how much I missed being able to understand others. Although, granted there are some English accents that are just as hard to decipher as Hindi or Turkish.

It began to feel a little like normal life. No swimsuits or beaches. Still a holiday, but this one had more clothing involved. (He’s just as handsome in street clothes as swimming trunks, lucky me). The movies, the theatre (Wicked!), pubs, museum days, and meeting friends. You can read a lot about a person by seeing how they interact with their friends. I fall for Niall more each time I see him around those that love him. It’s probably the stronger Irish accent that emerges with drink and friendly banter that gets me.

Over the weekend, Niall asked if I would want to come over to Jersey and stay with him for a bit. I told him I thought there had been a chance that he would ask.

“A bit presumptuous are we,” he smiled while my cheeks burned.

“We could do a one week trial run and see how it goes from there. I know you mentioned you needed to find a job before continuing your travels, so why not do it in Jersey? You would have a place to stay and it will be easy to get a work visa.” (Famous last words as it were).

How could I argue with that logic? Of course I said yes. I did need a job. My original plan was to head back to Turkey and find a job teaching English or being a nanny. Why not go to Jersey? Who was I kidding, I wanted to be near him.

We arrived in Jersey and headed straight to the ER. Niall had contracted a terrible chest infection the last night in London, (not doubt attributed to a little flu bug I picked up in India) and due to his already over taxed immune system from an accident and travelling, developed pneumonia. We holed up in the house for the next 10 days and I played nurse and attempted to tackle his bachelor pad. Beer in the veggie crisper, “you’re suppose to put what there?” “Veggies.” “I heard you, I just don’t know what those are…” haha funny how opposites attract.

The first night he handed me a brand new loofah that he said he bought me. “But you haven’t left the house since we arrived?”

“I bought it before I went to London thinking there was a chance you might come over to Jersey…..” with a shy smile.

“A bit presumptuous are we?” With butterflies in my tummy, I smiled.

~

The one week review came and went with “let’s see how it goes for another week.”

~

I find myself on a small island off of the coast of France. Living the quaint English life. Small streets. Pounds. Celsius. Really having to pay attention before I cross a street. Accents. Pubs. Learning to appreciate tennis. And Niall. This beautiful soul that has opened his home to me and invited me into his life. Wow.

The second weekend we flew to Dublin for a party for one of Niall’s college buddies, or mates (see, I’m learning yet another language). More great friends, more fun, more wandering around museums (Frieda Kahlo exhibit!), and more falling in love. He showed my around the small village he use to live while working in Dublin. He brought me into the local Catholic Church (I didn’t burst into flames, thankfully. That would have been embarrassing) and introduced me to good people. While dancing away in a pub to the last set of a DJ friend of Niall’s, another friend came up and whispered in his ear. I watched his face turn red and of course I asked what had been said. He mumbled at first, feigning nonchalance and said he’d tell me later. (It was loud and hard to have a conversation anyway). So of course the next morning I remembered and asked.

“Damn you and your good memory. He said something to the effect that ‘if you two aren’t in love I don’t know what love is.’” Niall said sheepishly. I just responded with a thoughtful “hmmm.”

~

After we returned to Jersey, I decided it was time to look into the logistics of getting a job. I mean, it can’t be that hard, right? Niall had informed me that Jersey wasn’t part of the EU and that everyone has to have a work permit. Simple.

I walked into the social security office with my inquiry. The lady at the desk politely directed me to the customs house. “Oh you’re American (as if I was from Antarctica) you’ll have to see if you qualify over at customs.” Not knowing what that meant, I walked over to the customs building. Again with my inquiry. “Just a moment and someone from immigration will call you in.” Immigration?

I sat patiently, dressed nicely in Western clothes, well maybe one scarf from India, but no one would know that. And I do have my nose pierced, but my septum ring was tucked up. I didn’t look quite the bohemian that I normally am. “Miss Psenak?” I was brought into a little room and sat at a desk across from two friendly looking immigration officers.

“What brings you in here?”

Sweet, innocent, and naively me. “Well, I’m not sure exactly. I’m trying to figure out what I would need to do to work here. I’m over visiting my boyfriend who works here. Do I need a more permanent visa? The lady from social security sent me.”

“Where are you from?”

“The States.” (Mostly I say Alaska, but I figured they would probably want to know what country. No sense in making them guess if Alaska is part of Canada, its own country, or part of the States).

“May we see your passport?”

“Yeah, sure.” I pull it out and hand it over.

At this point I start to get a little worried. They are taking notes. Well one is taking notes and one is just sitting staring at me silently, smiling occasionally when I look in his direction. Is he the wingman? Am I being videoed? Is this going to turn into good cop bad cop? Did I do something wrong? Does Jersey like Turkey and India? Am I going to be quarantined? I can’t be stripped searched for asking about a work visa right? Right?

I’m asked various questions. How much money do you have? Why are you here? Why do you want to work here? Where does your boyfriend work? How long have you been together? What color are your panties? (Well not really that last one, but it was beginning to feel as intimate).

I answer truthfully, because that’s who I am.

“So, can I get a work visa?”

The two officers look at each other and then the one in charge turns to me. “Have you considered getting married?”

My face flushes, my stomach drops, and I start to sweat. What!? I know I just read “Committed” by Elizabeth Gilbert, but really, this doesn’t happen in real life.

“Um, uh, what?” I stammer stupidly.

“If you want to stay, your only option is to get married.”

My heart sinks. No way. I’m living in an alternate reality. This isn’t really happening.

“How old are you?”

“I’ll be 24 in September.”

“Ahh.” He looks at me sadly. “I know it’s a bit of a shock (well yeah, just a bit). But it’s the only way you can get a permanent visa because you’re American.” What does that mean?? I’m not a leper. We speak the same language. Granted, we kicked the British out but you can only be sore about it for so long.

He excuses himself and leaves the room with number 2 in tow. I’m left in the room alone. Sad. Now what?

After a short time, (I’m sure if there is a video camera I looked dejected and pathetic) they return and sit down with grim faces. Uh oh.

“So here is the thing, you came in here with a tourist visa asking about work (yeah…) and you’ve stated you have the intention of staying here to work (I was asking if I can…). Now if you had been here for 5 months you would have more clout (but then I would be working illegally..?.) so what we have is your verbal intention to defy your visa limits (my what?! I had a question, just a question!).

At this point I get a knot in my tummy. A hard, knowing, knot.

“I talked to my superior and we are going to have to shorten your visa. When would be a good time for you to go? You’ll have to leave the UK.” What! I understand leaving Jersey, but the UK? You’re not even the same country technically.

Tears start to well up. Now they are no longer being contained. I’m fully fledged crying in the immigration office. I’m not sure what I did wrong. I very rarely feel like I’m in trouble. I don’t remember the last time. Even as a kid I was abnormally well behaved. This time I was following the rules and I got burned. My love sick heart is worried. What’s going to happen now? Am I going to go back to Turkey? WHAT!? Oh god.

I look up and as soon as I can speak I say “September?” as a question. Just give me the summer, I think, then I’ll figure it out.

They leave the room once again and I cry silently. Eat your heart out hidden video camera. A sickening thought strikes me. What about the wedding Niall and I were going to in Northern Ireland? That’s technically the UK. Will that count? But that’s in July so it shouldn’t be a problem. Hopefully.

When they return yet again, I’ve folded my tissue up into squares and sit tear stained. (I’m disturbed by the question of how many people have cried here, that they would have tissues to offer?)

Officer number 1 looks even grimmer. Now what?

Before he starts, I burst out “We are going to a wedding in Belfast in July. I just remembered. That won’t be a problem right?”

He looks pained at me hopeful face. “It seems we can’t give you three months. We’ve given you a month. I’m sorry.” He pushes my freshly stamped passport across the table. July 12th. One month.

The tears flood down my face. No way. This cannot be happening. I am an upstanding person. Any country would be lucky to have me (I needed the pep talk). Why the hell am I being kicked out?

The officer politely asks if he can phone Niall for me. I mumble that he’s at work (polite me, not wanting to bother him).

“I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. It’s rather important.”

I say thank you yes. I’m told to wait outside and that I’ll have to bring proof, like a plane ticket, before I leave. I nod and leave the room.

It seems like a blink of an eye and Niall is there. He comes striding into the building looking worried and searching for my face. I stand up and he engulfs me in his arms as I sob into his shoulder. “Baby, what’s wrong?” I try to pull myself together as I realize he’s never seen me cry before. It’s all a bit of a shock for him. I had seen him for lunch just an hour or so before I came to the office. I was confident that I was going to figure it out and hopefully soon have a work visa.

I mumble that I’m being kicked out. “What!? What happened?”

I explain in as brief of a version as possible. He’s angry. So am I, under the confusion. Reluctantly I finally mention the married condition. He gallantly responds with what I am sure is righteous indignation “I’ll marry you for a visa.”

“NO!” I’m horrified. There is no way in hell I’m getting married for a visa.

“Well, I guess you could marry my brother then. He owes me a few favors.” He smiles and I know it will be fine. The universe wouldn’t be that cruel. Something will work out. It always does.

Niall takes the rest of the day off and we go home. We make phone calls to embassies and immigration. Irish, British, and American. We look up the laws, the visa requirements, the parameters. Everything. We start to build up a case. Anything. Anything but getting married for a visa.

One of Niall’s work mates calls. Niall turns to me: Do I want to go to the pub? Hell yes I want to go to the pub. I need a drink. A very alcoholic one.

We explain. Everyone is flabbergasted. I’m still trying to grasp the ramifications.

Over the next few days we each do research. It’s bleak. It’s nigh on impossible to get a work visa in the UK as an American and vice versa. I’m still a student and neither an accountant or a doctor which are apparently highly valued jobs here. Essentially I’m screwed. I’ll be lucky to make enough to eat with my degree. Just kidding Dad.

But seriously. How do countries expect people to stay together? You have to prove that you live together for 2 years before you can be domestic partners, but where are you going to live if one or the other can’t get a work visa? The world doesn’t like nomads. We’re hard to keep track of. We follow the whims of the wind and urges of our feet. Mine brought me to a country and place I had never intended. But that’s the beauty. That’s the spontaneity. That’s how I met this amazing new person, who at this moment in time, I really want to spend time with. Cosmopolitanism brought us together, but geo politics won’t let us watch it grow. There is a great line from “Ever After” with Drew Barrymore. She tells Da Vinci “It’s fine for a fish to love a bird, but where will they live?” He responds with “I will just have to make you wings.” Where are my gills? (Niall is definitely the fish. Pisces that he is and scuba instructor to boot) What do I need to do to swim in the same stream?

Life goes on as it tends to do. Even when you think it’s the end of the world. We brainstormed. We fretted. Well I fretted. Niall was still willing to run with the marriage idea. “If you don’t want to marry my brother, we could do a fake one. Something by a tribal priest, you know. Something on paper…..” Ha.

Niall’s mum came over for a weekend after Ascot. I was nervous. First family member introduction and it’s his mom. Thankfully he has a great relationship with his mom. Akin to what I have with mine. I hope I did well. I made dinner the first night. I was nervous. Did I say that already? I must really like him for me to get nervous about meeting his family. We drove around the island stopping at beautiful look outs. Bittersweet. To be on a beautiful island and know soon, days being count down, that I must leave.

Each weekly review came and went with “Let’s see next week.”

Niall bought me a bike. A beautiful bike. A shiny blue one that I named Blue Steel (Niall introduced me to Derek Zoolander). He was worried I was going to get bored and want to leave not being able to do anything in Jersey. My heart is full. He is such a generous person. I don’t know how to handle it. I love my bike. I love that he worries that I will want to leave. I ride around the island. To the light house. To the castle. Up little hills. Around town. Down the beach. There is nothing like riding along the coast with the ocean breeze at your back on a sunny day.

We make a plan. Back to my original intention. I will visit my family in Slovakia when I have to leave Jersey. I contact my cousin Roman who graciously finds me a room for the right dates. We book the flights. It’s set.

The days flow by. One week. Two. Three. Four. One month. One month living together. One month baking bread, rearranging the living room, sunset walks on the beach, afternoon lunches, pub evenings, reading, watching movies, making dinner, shopping for groceries, driving around the island, laughing, doing laundry, talking about everything and anything, playing guitar hero, explaining the benefits of veggies (“it’s vegetable soup babe” “it’s bloody red!”) falling asleep content. Happy. Gloriously happy. That’s what it’s really all about. I am happy. I hope that he is happy too. I have plans. I always have plans. There are places I’ve yet to go and I still plan to, but I also honor the moment. This moment. Here. With a beautiful person who I can’t wait to introduce to my family and friends. A person I respect, I trust, I banter with, I can discuss economics and global politics, and who teases me about vegetables. We laugh. Oh how we laugh. He’s funny. Way funnier than I am. Witty. Intelligent. And incredibly attractive. He kisses me goodbye every morning as he walks out the door in his suit. Me, with a man in a suit. The universe does have a sense of humor. (He looks damn good in one too).

Which brings us to here. One month later. I leave. I fly to Slovakia. Slovakia. For those that don’t know, this has been central to my original travel plans. We found our family in Slovakia last summer. My Grandfather Psenak has cousins in Slovakia, his aunts just recently have passed. No one in my immediate family has been back to Slovakia since both my great grandparents came over to the states. My thesis work at university is on identity. What better one to study than my own? I am terrified. I am exhilarated. I am hopeful. I am excited to go but anxious to leave. We have plans. I will refrain from mentioning them until they come to pass. Superstition let’s say.

I now sit in Bratislava, Slovakia. Two amazing weeks have passed in this country that rightfully feels like home. I leave tomorrow. For where? Just wait for the next chapter. There is so much to divulge about these last two weeks. I had to play a bit of catch up before I can get to this discovery of family. Don’t worry, you won’t have to wait as long for the next instalment. I promise.

Whoa. A long day. I found a lovely cafe that I’ve done my writing in. Sunflowers in the window. On the baby pc that Niall gifted me before I left on this trip. Have I said how amazing he is? His generosity is beyond words. I’ll never know how to properly say thank you. Thank you babe.

After being with family for the last couple of weeks, I am beginning to get a bit home sick. I miss and love you family and friends, scattered over Alaska, Boulder and beyond. Just wanted to say I’ve been thinking of you.

The journey isn’t finished, far from it.  Bohemian that I am, nomad that I am there are bound to be twists and turns and hurdles and streams. I’m ready for them. I have a full heart and the ability to laugh. The world may not like nomads, but I sure as hell love the world.

xxx

 

In London

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.