Thursday, March 25, 2010

Parlez vous...

I'm learning French right now in preparation for when we go to New Caledonia. I know there no one will speak English, and it would be nice to not have to have Jacob translate every single thing I hear.

I'm setting aside an hour a day to practice.
This has been a really great tool to practice French verb conjugation.
This website is a lot of fun. You listen to French songs and try to type in the words as you hear them.

Any other language learning helps that have worked for you?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I love yoga.

I first learned I loved yoga when Jacob bought me a gym membership when we were dating. I didn't really get into anything else at that time, except for yoga.

I noticed when I did it that I felt calmer and more at peace, which was important to me at that time because I was unhappy with my college major. It's the only athletic activity that I've ever done that combined mind and body so seamlessly.

Today I had my first one-on-one lesson with a personal yoga instructor from India. Yoga was invented in India about 2000 years ago.

It was pretty cool.

"Yoga is not about putting your body in difficult positions" he instructed me in his clipped English. "Yoga is therapy--yoga is therapy. You have heard of diabetes, heart disease, depression? These are what they call in my profession psychosomatic illnesses. When they occur, it is a sign that there is something not right in your life, that there is stress. Yoga helps with that stress."

I learned the five parts of yoga.
1. The mind, to be tamed by meditation
2. Breathing (caused to go awry by emotions such as anger) to be tamed by breathing exercises
3. Body, to be tamed by exercise like yoga positions, swimming, etc
4. Knowledge, to be tamed by the shunning of negative thoughts and the acceptance of positive thoughts
5. When all of these four come together, you achieve happiness.

The yoga instructor told me to keep a pleasant smile on my face as I sat with my hands clasped together and my legs folded. He sang in what was probably Hindi as I slowly stretched out each limb of my body.

Inhale deeply...exhale even more deeply.


His voice was a nondescript hum as I concentrated on my breathing and also not to laugh. I wanted to laugh as I lay there with my eyes closed and was instructed to say in my head,
"I am happy...I am happy...I am happy"
"I love myself...I love myself...I love myself"
"I love my surroundings...I love my surroundings...I love my surroundings"

I think everybody should do yoga.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Can someone please explain to me why people are so against healthcare reform? I am annoyed by all the requests on Facebook to have me fight against healthcare reform.

USA healthcare may be the worst thing about our country! (It's either that or the fact that we don't have public transportation and destroy the environment with automobiles) It needs to be fixed. It should be a priority. Even some steps in the wrong direction will be better than stagnation (and consequent price inflation).

It is Wrong how expensive it is to buy simple health needs. The prescription medication companies are secretly making a killing of a profit. Like 500 percent profits on something that is a life or death issue--something that people have to buy or they could die. In India, that's against the law. And in India, I just bought a year's worth of prescription medicine for $3.

If you travel at all you will be astonished at the price differences. People in other countries worry about visiting ours because of the prohibitive costs in the case they needed some kind of care on a visit.

People are fighting against this unknowing that it is the health insurance companies that are feeding them misinformation.

They are fighting against healthcare reform because they have never had a personal problem with it. What they don't know is that at anytime, they could be diagnosed with a chronic illness and face bankruptcy because of the high costs. Or that they could lose their job, lose their health plan concurrently, and then find they are unable to even pay for a doctor's visit.

It could happen to anyone, but as long as they have their health insurance, they think they are safe. It is a false sense of security. What is a truly secure back up plan, and what I plan to do annually at this rate, is you can always travel to another country and take advantage of their cheap health care if you really needed something.

I imagine it is the same in India. People may be saying, "Education is a right!" But the private schools don't want to lose their profits and so they would put up an enormous amount of resistance if India tried to make public school a universal right.

It seems that many disagree but they don't have solutions that they are trying to implement. They are just "anti." Come up with a solution and fight to get it passed like Obama has tried to get his passed instead of just saying "No!"

Just my opinion.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The many sides of India

My view on charitable giving has changed over the last month or two. I used to feel that under no circumstances should America be giving so much foreign aid to other countries, due to the fact that it tends to go to a select corrupt few in the government. Now, I believe that we should give, and a lot, but that to whom we give and for what purpose should be very closely monitored.

Because it is true that Americans simply have too much. Literally. We live in houses the size of small mansions and yet there isn’t enough room for all of our possessions. When Christmastime comes around we are all stuck not knowing what to give each other because we have it all already.

Of course, we have it all already at the cost of being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, but that’s another story…











We got to meet up with Elder Ammon Sarver, from Liberty, Missouri. He and his companion took us to meet with a couple of families in their homes. One family had an apartment of 3-4 children, two parents, and lived in an apartment with one bedroom, one living room and kitchen, and one bathroom. The next family was two parents, one child, living in one room with a curtain separating the bathroom. Wow. We all sat on their bare bed during the lesson.

And these people are happy. Thank God, the people we meet are happy despite their circumstances. Happier, I dare say, than many Americans. Yet it’s hard to help but want to do something to make life a little easier for these good people. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a great introduction for that. Not only will it help them financially, it will help their health (they have to commit to live the Word of Wisdom to get baptized. While surprisingly few people here smoke or drink heavily, there is a lot of tobacco chewing and spitting of something called paan). And it helps people to be able to give service and have a community to rely on. Elder Sarver is doing a good work. We witnessed a baptism in Delhi. It appears the Church in India is growing at a healthy rate.

Here in Kolkata, which is like New York City gone wrong, I have seen for the first time people literally bathing in the streets. There are public fountains, and groups of people are gathered to do laundry and scrub down right in front of everyone.

I say it is like New York City gone wrong because there are billboards and tall buildings and bad traffic like NYC,P1010775

People carry all sorts of things on the back of motorcycles!

but the air is a gray film from pollution and the buildings are spotted black because of it. The traffic is one long, mad honk and the streets are full of children coming up to the windows telling you they have no mother or father and making the universal feed me sign. There are people pulling handcarts (rickshaws) even though it was outlawed in 2006. P1020824And there isn’t really anything beautiful that I’ve seen here in congested, trash-filled, sooty Kolkata. 13 million people, and it feels like they’re all on the streets.P1020484
In Varanasi, the city we were in last week, you light a candle and say a prayer for your loved ones before setting it on the river. Many children sell these on the banks of the Ganges, or the Ganga as they call it. I bought one from one little girl, only to infuriate another, and so she told me “you have bad karma!” and angrily followed me for a stretch of the river. Not a very auspicious way to begin a walk along the holiest place in Hinduism, where they believe the earth was formed, where goddess Parvati lost her earring in its depths, the Ganga…

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This is where the cremations take place. We saw bodies burning up. A priest took us on a tour, then asked for donations to help buy the wood (he called it “ood”) he was rather insulted at our donation of Rp200 (around $4) he wanted Rp 50000, although perhaps that was a marketing ploy. All Hindus want their ashes to be deposited in this holy river. Many people come to Varanasi (also called Benares or Kashi) to wait to die. They wear white to mourn, and you can’t cry while the cremation occurs, or the soul who is now dead will be disturbed.
P1020612 This little boy was irresistibly charming. I bought this postcard from him, which shows the goddess Kali stomping on all-powerful god Shiva. Kali, I was told, is who they pray for when they need protection. She’s the goddess of death and destruction. Dang right. She’s my namesake.


At the ghats (stairsteps) leading to the Ganga


Trying to lead Jacob to their boat to go on a ride P1010929The classified ads are hilarious to read in the newspaper. It’s organized by caste and by families looking for a match for their children.   P1020329
We’ve had two overnight crammed sleeper train rides. Boy the Indians know how to fit a lot of people in not a lot of space. That’s my Sawyer water bottle. Of all my possessions, that one merits the most curiosity. I frequently get asked what it is, how it works, and how much it cost. It is very handy! I use it to filter even water that’s already been filtered for extra peace of mind.


As far as animals go, we’ve seen camels, goats, sheep, dragonflies, birds of all kinds, roosters, chickens, lizards, dogs, cats, monkeys, horses, donkeys, and buffalo on the streets. We have yet to see any elephants, but we’re told they’re around. And of course, the  ubiquitous cow—the “friend of Shiva”.P1020475 P1010836P1020521 

My mind has been spinning trying to think of what this country needs and how Jacob and I can contribute. Because India is simply incredible. The music is feisty (you ought to see Jacob dance like he’s in a Bollywood film) the clothes are unlike anywhere else in beauty and styleP1010926 the people are disarmingly open and honest, some of the most jaw-dropping buildings of the world are located hereP1010853
At the Bahai Temple


At the Agra Fort (the Taj Mahal is in the distance)P1010807

This is the building the Taj Mahal was based on, built by a woman mourning her husband

I can get vegetarian food easily, and abundantly, P1010937the vegetation is tropical and unusualP1020419 and I even am loving the national religion, Hinduism.

The religion is as colorful as the culture. With thousands of gods and stories for each, it is a religion that would take decades to grasp. Essentially though, the idea of karma, or good luck if you do good to others, and not only that, but the idea of getting a better life once you die and are reincarnated if you have lived a good life, seems to influence the people to live good lives. And to accept their lot in this life, with hope that there will be a better life if this one is lived well.P1010741

There are pictures of the Hindu gods on about every autorickshaw, or tuktukP1020360

At the top of a Hindu temple


But any visitor to the country will also struggle with the country’s downsides, such as pollution and poverty. P1010737

Slums in Delhi

There are several major problems that I have observed already:

One, education is not free. This starts the divide between the rich and the poor, and perpetuates itself. Families who cannot afford to pay for their children to go to school simply don’t. Or, they can afford it for a little while, and then the child has to drop out and help raise the children at home. And many times the child is needed to help earn money for the family anyway. And because education is not required, there are a lot of children on the streets trying to make money. 

Two. Health care. There are many obviously lame, ill, or mentally retarded people who live and beg on the streets. Healthcare is so cheap in India and yet so many cannot afford it. 

Three, business. This is the charity of which I am most fond, This allows people in different countries to get a loan with no interest to start a business. As far as I can tell, Kiva has no branches in India, yet the Indians actually seem fairly business-savvy. They do sales well, and they don’t pressure you to buy as much as one might expect, instead they build a good customer relationship.

Four, hunger. People are so skinny here. Even many of those who eat can’t be getting adequate nutrition (this is why Jacob gets so much attention).P1010856

Five, safe water supply. The water here is not potable. Who knows what kind of illnesses are being transmitted this way.


These five things are areas in which I would be interested in donating my time and money to the cause. But it has to be done correctly. You don’t want to fuel the problem, but find the solution…

One last thing, and the only thing that has brought me to tears, is to see row after row of people sleeping on the streets, especially little young boys holding hands as they sleep. Yet, the crime is so low here that sleeping on the streets is actually probably safe. They are with family, and they seem cheerful. Is homelessness really so bad? What is it like to be homeless?

We are surprisingly the only white-colored folks in a sea of brown here. Perhaps this is why we are constantly taking photos with people. We came to be the tourists, but they treat us like a novelty.  A man sat next to me and fired one question after the other. “Do you believe in God? I don’t believe in God. What does your father do?” Someone asked me to hold their baby while they took a picture of me with her. How can you help but love people who admire you so?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Second impressions

We have now spent nearly 2 weeks in India. The reviews are still good. Jacob, especially, is really enjoying himself. The Indians LOVE his size. People are always commenting on it and some even want their picture with him. They tell him, and me about my husband, “You are very beautiful. Very strong man. You look like John Cena.” They all watch WWF here.


They ask him, in all seriousness, sitting him down: “Jacob. How are you so tall? What must I do to get taller?” and then walk off  dejectedly when they learn that they can’t change much.

He has also found a kind of food that they eat in New Caledonia that he loves, called akshardam or something. It’s a strong, lemony, red zest for some of the breakfast food here.

As for me, well, the pollution is really starting to get to me. I think I’ll join the many others I see and cover my face with a scarf when going out in public. 25 percent of people get a respiratory infection upon arriving in India, according to Lonely Planet. I don’t know if that’s me, but it could be. Not to disgust anyone or anything, but your boogers turn black here. I knew India would be dirty…I didn’t realize it would turn your insides dirty too.


And it is a little frustrating to pay quadruple for a somewhat disgusting room based on prices we have paid in the past, and still not have internet. Internet, especially wifi, has not really caught on here yet, so we are splurging and staying at a 5 star hotel in Varanasi where at least we can pay to access it.

The hotel situation in India is like its economic situation as a whole: you can stay in a one-star, hole-in-the-wall hotel with a bathroom that actually makes you feel dirtier after using it instead of cleaner, or you can sit in the lap of luxury in a five-star hotel. You can’t really choose something in between, and India is made of those who have and those who don’t, so it makes sense there isn’t a market for something in-between.

The place we stayed at in Agra, Mandakini Villas, has a really persuasive website that makes it look classy. When it’s not. It’s dirty and buggy and…well, that’s Agra for you.

Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, is an armpit. It is fly-infested, loud, chaotic, uncomfortable, messy, confusing. Jacob says this city has hands down the worst gym he’s ever seen. I mostly have stayed inside our dirty but air-conditioned hotel, only emerging to see the Taj Mahal. And it deserves the prize for most beautiful building in the world. P1020054



We got a guide. He convinced us to use him because he told us he could cut to the front of the line. Which turned out to be unnecessary because the gates didn’t open for 10 minutes anyway. But we were glad we used him, because he took pictures for us and showed us the optical illusions of the Taj, and we learned about the Hindu and Muslim symbolism, etc. It cost 500 rupees. 100 rupees is about 2 dollars. He was Muslim and had two children and two wives.P1020089
The little sparkles come from the sun hitting the flowers, which are made of real jewels. The writing on the wall is Arabic calligraphy—Shah Jahan was Muslim. He had two other wives besides the one he built the mausoleum for, and they got buried on the same plot of land, but not with near the pomp and splendor. This guy clearly showed who his favorite wife was. I asked why she was his favorite, and the guide explained, “She provided him with many children (14). The others did not.”

I decided something about India. I feel disoriented because it’s like I’ve been experiencing life in 2D until I arrived here, and now I know what 3D is like. That sounds dramatic, but when…

on your left you have monkeys swinging in the trees and clambering on buildings, goats and sheep grazing, cats and dogs brawling, and mosquitos swarming, while on your right the worse traffic you can imagine times 100 slams past, swerving to avoid the piles of cows sleeping at the median and the donkeys, horses, camels, and human beings pulling loads behind them, while in front of and behind you are Indian men who look like the guy out of the film Annie and Indian women in bright jeweled decorated saris dressed fancier than girls do at prom…home just sounds like it’s missing a dimension or two.


From our hotel window in Agra

Not to mention daily we are confronted with the fact that our lifestyle is so different from those we see. We are faced with the fact that we choose to stay in a hotel that a week’s stay costs how much the average Indian makes in a year. This is an uncomfortable position. Yet, were we to donate the money instead, how would we choose which of the thousands of poor Indians we encounter to give it to? It is too difficult, so we make the simpler choice: we support our own family instead.

India is not an easy place, but I already know it is a pla ce I could choose to return to again and again over a lifetime.

Thursday, March 4, 2010



It’s unexpected how much I like India already. I went in with incredibly low expectations, however. It’s really necessary to believe you’re going to hate the place you’re going to or else you’ll be in for a nasty surprise about something you imagined it to be.

Never mind that I haven’t dared to eat yet because I’m not quite ready for a flush of my system due to some bacteria that will inevitably come. Never mind that there is no such thing as a clean bathroom here, and never mind that yes, there are children earning a living at age 10 here and sitting in the street in their bare bums, despite these facts, I like it here.

In fact in some ways American life feels almost stale after being here, sterilized, artificial. The colors, tastes, smells here are explosive. Even your average bag of chips is so hot and spicy that you’ve got to drink something while you eat it.

We stayed up all night packing, caught a flight to Chicago, and ate pizza there that rivaled the famous pepperoni pizza from Heiligenhaus. It was spinach, mushroom, and goat’s cheese pizza, made by a man from the Philippines who was very proud of his art. The next time you’re at the Chicago Airport, it’s called Wolfgang Puck Express in K11. All fresh ingredients and a fire oven, yum.P1010558P1010564

The 15 hour plane ride wasn’t so bad. We got to fly business class, and I didn’t know  the seats went all the way down in business as well as first class. Jacob slept the whole way, typically, and just as typically, I didn’t sleep more than 2 hours. I watched 6 episodes of The Office, Gone With the Wind, part of Cabaret before I turned it off in disgust, and part of a Micheal Jackson documentary. I haven’t watched that much TV in a row in my entire life.

P1010604 P1010608
Flying over Norway


People drive on the left side of the road and the right side of the car.

It was surprisingly easy to get our money changed into rupees, pick up our luggage, use the phone to call our hostel, and get picked up. The roads are extremely bumpy here and for a road that leads out of the airport, surprisingly undeveloped. When we arrived at the hostel, we were disappointed to learn that our room had gotten exchanged for one with no shower. Plus, it was out in the middle of nowhere. We went straight to sleep; it was around midnight, but around noon where we had just come from in the US.


On Nirvana Hostel’s room wall. I think it’s Shiva. Blatant religious symbols wherever you are at. At the YMCA, the 10 Commandments are hung on our wall.

P1010627 P1010628

View from the hostel window


Digging holes seems to be the main vocation of everyone here. Women in saris, young children, working men, walk down a street and that is what everyone is concentrating on.

The next day, we decided to change hostels, but not before seeing the Qutb Minar, the first mosque built in India, the tallest stone tower in India, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We took and autorickshaw to get there.

It’s fun to ride on Indian roads. You know, the kind of fun like it’s fun to go skydiving, roller coaster riding, or any other type of thrill-seeking event. There are no lights, no stop signs, and every type of vehicle you can imagine all honking, racing, swerving, and waving at one another. P1010635 P1010642 P1010653 P1010669 P1010674 P1010682 P1010685

This Indian family had our same camera

So we are now at the YMCA, which unfortunately does not have wifi, but it does have a gym. We’ll probably stay through Sunday in order to go to Church, and then go to the Taj Mahal on Monday, or thereabouts. To get a reasonable level of comfort here in India (functionable toilet, hot water, private room, etc) you have to pay more than you would in the US. Our room here is $80, which is the same price we paid in New York City.


This is the little boy who cleans Nirvana Hostel.

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Many people have cloths covering their mouths on the streets here, I believe because it’s so smoggy.

India GateP1010694 P1010698 P1010696

And now a “little nap” has turned into a full night’s rest and my schedule is sure to be mixed up for the next few days. Anyway it’s nice to kind of hide away in here to get away from the absolute madness that is blazing outside.

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